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Is the Gospel Good News for Everyone?

Is the Gospel Good News for Everyone?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 6:1-13; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; & Luke 5:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

If Isaiah were with us today, we might think he was a little nuts. This is a man who at one point walked barefoot and naked through the streets of Jerusalem for three years as a sign against Egypt and Ethiopia. He used his own children as prophetic signs, naming his three sons: “A remnant shall return,” “God is with us,” and “Spoil quickly, plunder speedily.” Can you imagine the teasing in middle school?

For all his apparently crazy behavior, Isaiah was not a fringe character. He was a major figure – a sort of celebrity –  in the kingdom of Judah for decades. He outlived several kings, and had criticisms for all of them. He had audacity, social standing, and a total lack of a self-preservation instinct that allowed him to pick public fights with the top leadership of Judah.

He had one other thing. The most critical thing. This was the alpha and omega of his ministry: Isaiah had an experience of God. A living relationship with the creator of the cosmos.

That sounds lovely, right? What a beautiful thing – a personal relationship with God. That’s what we all want, right? That’s what every Christian church in town is offering, isn’t it? A personal relationship with God.

Well, it’s not so warm and fuzzy for Isaiah. Isaiah doesn’t have his heart strangely warmed. He doesn’t feel an ineffable sense of oneness with the cosmos or the warm embrace of comforting love.

The beginning of Isaiah’s ministry is a moment of terror. It’s an encounter with the unknown and unknowable God – the Holy One of Israel. This is a God that is so different from us that no one can see him and live. A God who is so terrifyingly awesome that his presence can’t be contained in any building, any nation, any ideology. This is the God that Isaiah meets in 742 BC – the year that king Uzziah died.

In our reading from Isaiah 6 this morning, he writes:

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:  ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;  the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

We don’t even know what these creatures really looked like. I think a lot of people imagine that the seraphim look like conventional statuary angels – you know, buff, beautiful men with big white wings, who look like they spend all their time in heaven lifting weights. But most of the imagery we have in the Bible about heavenly beings is far more alien, far more frightening. 

The commentaries I’ve read suggest that it’s likely that these seraphim were snake-like, maybe an amalgam of several different kinds of animal. The word “seraph” means “one who burns.” Maybe the angels were on fire. Whatever they were, these heavenly creatures were just as fearsome, just as utterly different from human beings as the God who created them. 

In Isaiah’s vision, the boundary between heaven and earth had been utterly shattered, and all the scary things that human beings should never see were pouring into his reality. It says that the whole building shook with the power of the heavenly creatures’ voices. The hem of God’s robe filled the temple, and the house was filled with smoke. It’s like a rock concert from hell – oh wait, heaven!

Heaven and hell are both within the human heart. They can coexist in one moment. In this startling, mind-blowing vision, Isaiah comes face to face with that which is totally other and transcendent. The utterly unknowable. The Holy One of Israel.

How would you respond to this? What would your reaction be? What are we to do in the face of the unspeakable holiness, power, and majesty of God?

Well we know what Isaiah did. He nearly fell into despair. Here he was, standing in the light of God, and all he could see was darkness. The smoke of God’s glory covered him. It was choking him.

Standing in the presence of God, Isaiah became aware of his own distance from God. His wickedness. His rebellion against the love and power of God.

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah had an encounter with the glory of God, and all he could see was the way that he and his fellow countrymen fell short of that glory. What a horrifying thing to see. Especially because of who Isaiah was, an upstanding member of Jerusalem’s priestly elite. Even at twenty years old, Isaiah was already in many ways a holy man. A holy man among the holy people of the holy city of David.

But when he came into the presence of God, all that human pretense fell away. Awareness of his own sin, and the sin of his holy people, overwhelmed him.

But before Isaiah could become totally lost in the despair of his own darkness, one of the seraphim took a live coal from the altar. Holding it with a pair of tongs, it flew over to Isaiah and touched the burning coal to his lips.

Ouch!

And the seraph said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Isaiah was free. Free from sin. Free from the desolate darkness that he had experienced upon entering into the presence of God. He was clean. Holy. Welcomed into the presence of a mystery and power so awesome that he could barely stand to be in the presence of the hem of his garment.

This freedom is an unconditional gift. Isaiah cries out in his distress, and God sends the seraph to cleanse and heal him. To liberate him from his sin. To make him the kind of person who can stand in the presence of the heavenly beings and speak the words of God to his people.

And then Isaiah hears the voice of God call out, from beyond the temple, somewhere up in the heavenly realm, speaking to the great council of heavenly beings: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”

And immediately, Isaiah cries out again from the floor of the temple: “Here I am! Send me!”

Such boldness. Such reckless readiness to be the emissary of the Most High. This was unthinkable just moments before. But now the seraph has touched the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips. His guilt has departed and his sin is blotted out. He is ready to be a servant of God. A prophet. A man who speaks the words of God to his people.

What are those words? What is the message?

Turns out, it’s not good.

Go and say to this people:  
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; 
keep looking, but do not understand.’  
Make the mind of this people dull, 
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,  
so that they may not look with their eyes, 
and listen with their ears,  
and comprehend with their minds, 
and turn and be healed.

Isaiah thought he was out of the woods, but now he’s back in the darkness. He’s passed through God’s purifying fire. But the recipients of his prophetic message have not experienced that transformation. Isaiah has changed, but his people haven’t.

“How long, O Lord?” Isaiah cries out. How long until all the people of Jerusalem will see with the same eyes and hear with listening ears? How long until God sends a hot coal for every set of lips?

“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,  
and houses without people, 
and the land is utterly desolate;  
until the Lord sends everyone far away, 
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.  
Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again,  
like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”

Whoa. This sounds really, really bad. There’s a purification coming, and it’s going to make that hot coal from the seraph taste like nice cup of cocoa. God says the land of Judah is going to be smashed – laid waste, until not even a tenth of the people are left. 

And Isaiah says, “The holy seed is its stump.” There will be a remnant. Out of all this horror and destruction, there will be a purified community that will emerge, ready to speak the truth and live God’s mercy and justice. But this transformation will only come about through a horrifying process of national purgation.

That’s so intense. Right? I mean, what do you even say to that? Your people will be saved, but only after they’re mostly annihilated. You will see the glory of the Lord, but Jerusalem will be burned to the ground first. The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple – but not one stone will be left on stone.

Which brings us to Jesus. Jesus was engaged in ministry during a time that was, in some ways, quite similar to that of Isaiah. Both Isaiah’s and Jesus’ ministry began in a period of relative peace and prosperity. A time when the people of Israel imagined that things were just going to keep getting better. More freedom, greater wealth, and independence were on the way!

But what the people didn’t know, didn’t want to know or understand, was that God was not pleased with the status quo. God didn’t approve of the selfish, faithless rulers of Isaiah’s time, or the self-serving hypocrites who reigned in the Jerusalem of Jesus. A time of purification was coming. The temple would be overthrown. Foreign powers would conquer Jerusalem. All of this had happened before, and would happen again.

This is the context for Jesus’ first encounter with Peter, James, and John, on the Sea of Galilee. The old order is falling away. They don’t know it yet, but God has pronounced judgment over the corrupt rulers and authorities in Jerusalem. Terrible purification is coming, but a remnant will be saved.

Now it says that Jesus is teaching by the sea, and the crowds are so intense that he asks a fisherman named Simon to let him jump in his boat and preach from there. Simon agrees, and so there Jesus is, preaching from this fishing boat, sitting out in the water. I mean, I can relate to this. Sometimes I have to go to great lengths to avoid being mobbed by crowds when I’m preaching.

Anyway. When Jesus is done with his teaching, he says, “Hey, Simon – why don’t you put out into the deep water and let your nets down to catch some fish?”

Simon and his crew had just got done pulling an all-nighter. In fact, when Jesus got into their boat, they had been cleaning off their nets and preparing to put them away. They spent the whole night looking for fish, but didn’t catch anything. And here was Jesus, saying, “hey, guys, why don’t you try to catch some fish?”

Now, if I were Simon in this situation, I can imagine feeling a little upset. I’ve already done this Jesus guy a favor by letting him preach from my boat. I’m tired. I’ve been up all night. I still haven’t finished cleaning my nets, and all I want to do is go home and get some sleep. 

But even though Simon might be justified at getting upset with Jesus, he doesn’t. He says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

You’ll never guess what happens next! Oh, well, I guess you will, since we just read the scripture earlier. They pull in so much fish that the nets are starting to break. They catch so much fish, that they have to call over to the other boat in their little flotilla, to get their help in pulling in their catch. They land so much fish, that the two boats are completely full, to the point that there is some concern that both boats might go under due to the weight!

This is when Simon has his Isaiah moment. Simon is standing in the temple, and the hem of the Lord’s robe is filling the space. The room is full of smoke. The seraphim are flying and crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” The whole earth is proclaiming the glory of God. The sea and its fish declare the presence of the Holy One of Israel.

And Simon has the same response that Isaiah did. It says that he fell down at Jesus’ feet and cried out: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

In the presence of Jesus, Simon saw his darkness more clearly than ever. In the presence of glory, Simon could not escape his unworthiness. In the presence of divine mystery and power, Simon fell to his knees in awe and fear.

But Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be fishing for people.”

And it says that they brought their boats to shore. They left everything. They followed him.

Jesus came with good news. Before this passage we read this morning, Jesus was healing the sick, casting out demons, teaching the people, and transforming lives. After this encounter with Simon and his friends, Jesus keeps healing and teaching and proclaiming the reign of God.

Jesus came with good news, but it’s not good news for everyone. It’s not good news for those who are rich. For those who are in the center of power. For those who think they are in control. It’s not good news for the people of Jerusalem who will rise up in rebellion against Rome, and who will be crushed when the Roman legions arrive. The good news of God’s empire is a terror to those who lean on the world’s vision of success – governments, and armies, and central banks, and power politics.

But for those who are being saved, the gospel is the power of God. It is the hot coal touching the lips. The gospel cleanses from sin and transforms blindness into true sight. It’s a grace that upends lives and gathers community around the love and power of God.

In their encounters with God, both Isaiah and Simon first had to face the darkness. In the light of God’s presence, they saw their own darkness – all the ways in which they had turned away from the source of life to worship their own wills, their own judgments. 

Yet both Simon and Isaiah also discovered that sin is not just an individual problem. In the words of Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Righteousness and sinfulness are not merely questions of personal morality. We live in a social reality that shapes our sense of right and wrong, that governs our imagination and sense of the possible. To a great degree, we are sick because we are part of a sickened humanity. We are blind as part of a society that has forgotten how to see. We hate what we’ve been taught to hate, and fear what we’ve been taught to fear.

Isaiah and Simon knew that sin is not an individual problem. And yet they chose to take personal responsibility for it. They accepted an invitation to become vessels of God’s word in the world – to become prophets of the living God, the Holy One of Israel.

Sin is not an individual problem, but the prophets choose to take personal responsibility. The prophets act as a bridge between the irrevocable holiness and set-apartness of God, and the lost state of the human family. The prophets take responsibility, not only for their own sin, but for the sin of their brothers and sisters. The prophets surrender themselves to God, and God gives them the strength to live as part of a truly counter-cultural community. A community that lives in the reign of God, now, even in the midst of a society that is actively in rebellion against God.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be such a community – a prophetic community. We are called to stand in the presence of the seraphim, to have our lips cleansed with the burning coal. We are called to hear from God the hard truths about our society, and to speak this message to a world that does not want to hear it.

Like the first disciples of Jesus, we are called to gather together into community that embodies the way of God in a world that rejects him. This may mean that we look a little weird. If we’re like Isaiah and are called to walk naked and barefoot for three years as a sign, we might look really weird!

But whatever the call, wherever this road ultimately takes us, we are invited into the prophetic ministry of Isaiah and Simon, of John and Jesus. We are invited into a path in which God makes us fearless. Fearing God, we can have no fear of any human being. No ruler or authority can intimidate those who have stood in the presence of the Almighty and received absolution from the seraphim. Standing in the presence of Jesus, we are called to be indomitable in the face of men.

Let’s stand in that presence, together. Let’s fall to our knees before Jesus. Let’s kiss the coal as it touches our lips. And dedicate our lives to speaking the truth boldly, loving our neighbors fully, and offering up our lives for the formation of the remnant community that God is gathering together even now.

Related Posts:

Think You Know Jesus? Don’t Be So Sure

Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

Think You Know Jesus? Don’t Be So Sure

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/27/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, & Luke 4:14-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Wow, Jesus. They really wanted to kill you. I mean, really – these were the people who knew you as a little kid. These should be the folks inclined to think the best of you. They should like, you Jesus! Yet by the end of your first sermon in their synagogue, they’re ready to run you off a cliff.

How did it get to this point? How does a community go from loving and admiring this young man, to wanting to tear him apart with their bare hands? How does a congregation go from being impressed with Jesus’ sermon to being so enraged they can’t contain themselves? What did you do, Jesus?

When Jesus showed back up in his hometown, Nazareth, he already had quite a reputation. He’d been gone a long time. He’d been out exploring. Learning. Growing. Getting baptized in the river Jordan. Living out in the wilderness with the wild animals. Doing battle with the Devil and being attended to by the angels. Jesus had seen some things.

And now the world was seeing some things from Jesus. It says that Jesus returned to his homeland of Nazareth, after his sojourn with John the Baptist and his experience in the desert. It says he was “filled with the power of the Spirit.” Word had spread about Jesus. This man was on fire. You just had to hear him.

And so they did. Throughout Galilee, Jesus visited his people in their synagogues. He taught them, fed them, healed them. He brought them the good news of God’s empire – the reign of peace, justice, and love that would overcome the empires of this world. And people were just lapping it up. The scripture says that he was “praised by everyone.”

Praised by everyone. That’s always nice, isn’t it? I like it when I’m praised by everyone.

So Jesus has been in Galilee a while. News has spread, and some folks in his hometown are probably even getting a bit frustrated. “Hey, Jesus. You grew up here, man. When are you going to come visit? You’ve been everywhere else. We heard what you did in Capernaum – a city full of gentiles. When are you gonna come and give some love to your own people, the folks who raised you?”

Jesus does eventually make it to Nazareth. Apparently not his first stop, but he gets around to it eventually. And it makes me wonder: Was there some hesitation on Jesus’ part? Did he stay away from Nazareth for a reason? What was holding him back?

We’re about to find out, aren’t we?

When Jesus gets to Nazareth, it says he does the same thing he always does when he’s in a new town. He sees the sights. He checks out the local cuisine. Maybe goes to a party or two. And he most definitely makes it to synagogue on the Sabbath.

So there he is. It’s Saturday morning. Jesus walks into the synagogue, and everyone is waiting to hear him preach. There’s no TV, no radio, and it’s like a young Michael Jackson just showed up in Nazareth. Except, you know, imagine that Michael is your nephew.

They give Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he reads from it:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And with that, Jesus rolls up the scroll, passes it back to the attendant, and sits down.

Now, I’d assume that Jesus was done at that point. Because for me, culturally, sitting down in a big gathering like that means that you’re ceding the floor. You’re fading back into the woodwork. Someone else is going to talk now. But that’s not how things worked in the synagogue in Jesus’ day. When you were reading, you stood up. But when you were preaching, you sat down.

And so Jesus began to preach. He says:

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Boom. Jesus reads from Isaiah, from a passage announcing the coming of God’s anointed. He reads about a leader who will bring good news to the poor. Release for the captives. Sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. He tells the people gathered in the synagogue that day, “You’ve been waiting for a liberator. You’ve been waiting for a savior. Don’t wait anymore. He’s sitting right in front of you.”

Just let that sink in for a moment. How radical that must have been. How politically charged that statement must have felt. How much emotion those words must have inspired. What a huge claim Jesus was making. Here was the neighborhood kid, back from his study abroad program, and he was claiming to be the King of Israel, the anointed one of God.

I guess I’d only expect two kinds of reactions to this message. Either ecstatic joy, or total rejection. I mean, what else is there? You either believe he’s God’s anointed, or you don’t. You either are ready to follow him and face the slings and arrows of the Roman occupation – or you’re not. It’s gut check time.

And it says that, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”

“Is not this Joseph’s son?”

So they liked him – they really liked him! Jesus was a very impressive man, and he won the people of Nazareth right over. Here was their Messiah! He’s our guy! He’s the son of Joseph. This Jesus is our very own, home-grown Messiah. Hallelujah!

Can you imagine the civic pride? I mean, I don’t know how things are here in California, but back in Kansas where I grew up, small towns will put information about notable locals on their welcome signs. Like, “Welcome to Abilene, Kansas – home of Dwight D. Eisenhower!”

Oh yes, the elders of Nazareth could see it now. “Nazareth, home of God’s anointed!” Our boy Jesus is going to be large and in charge. Life is gonna be pretty good!

But that’s not the kind of messiah God had anointed Jesus to be. Jesus knew where his identity came from. He knew who his daddy was. It wasn’t Joseph, and it most certainly wasn’t the Greater Nazareth Chamber of Commerce. Jesus didn’t come to make the comfortable feel even better about themselves. He didn’t come to privilege his clan over the others. He didn’t even come to bless the Jews rather than the gentiles.

The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus; a spirit that dwells with the humble, the lost, the marginalized, the weak. It’s a spirit that finds its home among those who have been broken. This spirit doesn’t care about your genealogy or your resume.

This is where Jesus’ sermon takes a sharp turn. It’s like a Jesus is rolling down the highway, doing ninety in his dodge minivan, and all of a sudden he just rips hard to the left. He crosses the median and all four lanes of traffic – right out into the desert.

[Jesus] said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

The people of Nazareth still hadn’t understood who Jesus was. They still thought he was Joseph’s son. They thought they could own Jesus, appropriate him as a member of their clan. And Jesus knew that they would demand signs of him.

Jesus has come to Nazareth with a big message of redemption. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and Jesus is inaugurating it. Jesus is the doctor, and he’s been healing all sorts of people throughout Galilee. He’s healed Jews aplenty, and there’s word that he’s even healed people in Capernaum, a gentile enclave.

So for Jesus – the doctor – to cure “himself”, that meant to heal his own people in Nazareth. If he was able to do signs and wonders among the gentiles, surely he could do the same or better among his Jewish relatives.

The Nazarenes would “believe in him”, alright. They would acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah – but only so long as he was the right kind of messiah. A messiah who performed miracles for them. A messiah who bolstered their own sense of exceptionalism. A messiah who told them that they were the center of the universe. That God was for them and not for others.

But that’s not the kind of messiah Jesus is. Jesus is a servant of the unknown God. The God of the tent, who can’t be tied down by human demands. Jesus is the Messiah of the wilderness, who rejects the call for signs and wonders. He is the prophetic voice who brings liberation for those who are the margins, and who restores the sight of those who know they are blind. For those who place themselves at the center, for those who believe that they already see just fine, he has nothing to offer.

And so Jesus tells them this. He reminds them of the actions of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Both of them performed great miracles for people who were beyond the bounds of Israel. The pagan widow at Zarapeth, the gentile warlord Naaman. People who were indifferent to the Jews at best, enemies of Israel at worst. Jesus tells his people that being blood relatives of the Messiah won’t earn them God’s favor. The healing power of God will pass them over as good news is preached to the poor, the marginalized, the outsider.

Basically, Jesus says to his aunts and uncles, cousins and nephews, “I have nothing for you. You never knew me. And you definitely don’t know what God is up to. Repent. The empire of God has come near.” In the words of John the Baptist from the previous chapter of Luke:

Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Don’t wait for signs and wonders. Bear fruit. Don’t place yourselves at the center and expect blessings to come. Bear fruit. The ax is lying at the foot of the tree, and the woodsman is coming. Bear fruit.

We can see now that Jesus is walking in the path that John made straight. That path is the way of the prophets.

Jesus’ relatives in the Nazareth synagogue see it, too. And they’re not happy. They’re enraged, as a matter of fact. They’re so furious that it says everyone stood up and chased Jesus out of the synagogue.

They wanted to kill him. They would have killed him. They would have thrown him off a cliff. But it wasn’t Jesus time yet, and so it says that, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” On to greener pastures. On to minister to those who were ready to hear his words, to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

In our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear about how the church is the Body of Christ. All of us – gathered together in this room, much like Jesus’ synagogue two thousand years ago – we are the body of Christ. Just as the body is one and has many members, so it is with Christ’s body. As Paul says, “In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

The body of Christ isn’t about our biological parentage. It isn’t about how important we are in the world around us. In fact, all those factors might get in the way of discovering who we really are in the Holy Spirit. Whose children we truly are.

We are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. God has given us roles to perform and gifts to share. Apostles, prophets, teachers, deeds of power, healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. God gives gifts and calls us to ministry as members of the body. These treasures are given through the individual for the community. And, because we are the body of Jesus the crucified one, our community is given up to death for the salvation of the whole world.

What would Jesus find if he came to preach in our churches today? Would he encounter a people prepared? A people of inner strength and humility? A people given up to death and aware of our amazing responsibility as his body?

How would we react if Jesus came to us with the same message he had for his own home synagogue? What if Jesus told us, “Don’t ask for signs from me. Don’t ask for miracles. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Serve the poor and needy. Live among the marginalized and oppressed. Make common cause with the despised and imprisoned. Don’t expect signs and wonders from me. You must become the signs and wonders.”

Are we ready to become the signs and wonders? Are we prepared to grapple with the reality of what it means to be the body of Christ in this world? Are we ready to bear fruit worthy of repentance, and to face the cross like Jesus has? Are we ready to move beyond ourselves, to become the body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for our neighbors and for the whole creation?

Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” But we have become one with the Doctor. We have been baptized into his life and spirit. We are his body, and individually members of it. It is we who are called to heal. To liberate. To give sight to the blind and proclaim good news to the poor. It is we who are to become vessels of the miraculous.

Related Posts:

Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

Quakers Don’t Baptize with Water – Should We?

Quakers Don't Baptize with Water - Should We?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Who here has been baptized with water? Sprinkled, dunked, infant or adult – it doesn’t matter. Can I see a show of hands?

It’s interesting. I think a lot of us have been immersed in water as a part of a Christian ceremony. A demonstration of faith, of our intention to follow Jesus as part of the Christian community.

I say it’s interesting, because the Quaker tradition takes a pretty low view of water baptism. For most of Christian history – and certainly in the time of the early Quakers, back in 1650s England – water baptism had been weaponized. The government-sponsored churches claimed that being sprinkled with water – usually as an infant – was required for salvation. If you hadn’t been sprinkled, you weren’t right with God. It was a power play, a way to enforce the power of the government church’s hierarchy. The early Quakers saw right through it.

Quakers were unique in that they completely abandoned water baptism. There were a lot of really radical movements in England and on the continent of Europe, and they fought endlessly about when and how baptism should be practiced. I mean, people were killed over this stuff! But practically nobody did away with the practice of water baptism entirely.

The Puritans were ferocious in their critique of the liturgy and structure of the state church of England, but they upheld the establishment church’s view on infant baptism. Baptists and Anabaptists went further, rejecting infant baptism. Different groups had different styles of baptism they preferred, but they agreed on one thing: Only adults could make a conscious decision to follow Jesus, and so only adults could meaningfully make a public commitment through baptism.

The Baptists and Anabaptists were considered extremists, and were often persecuted for their faith. But starting in the 1650s, Quakers took things even further. The basic problem for Quakers wasn’t the way baptism was being practiced – it was that it was being practiced at all. For the early Friends, it was self-evident that John’s baptism – a ritual baptism with water – is superseded by the baptism of Jesus. The baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.

The Quaker movement holds up the centrality of spiritual baptism as the “one baptism” mentioned in chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism – and that baptism is the spiritual transformation that Jesus pours out onto us, enabling us to follow him and become children of light.

It’s easy to look for other baptisms – other ways to feel assured that we are in right relationship with God. We humans are really good at this. Circumcision, water baptism, nazarite vows, holy pilgrimages – we have endless ways to express our desire to come closer to God. But ultimately, all of these rituals are means to an end, a pointer to what is truly essential. We kneel, we bow, we sit in silence in order to invite the Holy Spirit to descend on us. We engage in ritual as a gesture of surrender and invitation. It’s a way to welcome the living Jesus, asking him to come and show us how to be disciples.

Our tendency to look for ways to welcome God is natural, and often beneficial. I think it’s a good thing that we’re gathered here this morning to practice the ritual of Sunday worship. This practice helps draw us together and strengthen us as a community in Jesus.

Unfortunately, our rituals can easily become the focus, the center – an end, rather than the means. It’s easy to get fixated on certain ways of welcoming God, while neglecting others. For example, when is the last time you were anointed with oil? There are many biblical references to recommend anointing with oil – and this is still considered a sacrament in many churches. But most Christians have never been anointed with oil. It’s certainly not seen as a requirement.

For some reason, baptism with water became one of the mandatory Christian rituals. It’s the initiation rite. Like circumcision. The thing you’ve just got to do if you want to be considered part of the club. For thousands of years, the institutional church has used water baptism as a gatekeeper device. Do this ritual. Do it in the way we tell you to do it. Do it under our authority. Or you’re going to hell.

I’ve been baptized with water. I was twelve years old, and beginning to hit the emotional hurricane of adolescence. As a young child, I had had a deep faith in God. But now as I reached the “age of reason,” I felt increasingly angsty. I had attended some Evangelical church summer camps, and they put the fear of God into me. I remember that they told me that the Devil ruled the world, and so I asked my camp counselor, “Do you think he controls the moon, too – or does that still belong to God?”

Anyway, I was very afraid of going to hell. I had no sense of assurance, no way to know if I was right with God. And so, in my fear, I asked my mom to baptize me in the pool in our pool in the back yard. I still remember going down into the water. I remember coming up. And I remember feeling so disappointed. I felt nothing. Nothing had changed. The heavens didn’t open. And I was still afraid.

It wasn’t until years later that I experienced true baptism – the “one baptism” that the letter to the Ephesians tells us about. When the baptism of the Holy Spirit came, I received it without ritual, without witnesses, and without explanation. There was no earthquake, wind, or fire. Just a still, small voice. The living presence of God.

So I can relate to the Samaritan Christians that we read about in Acts. It says that the apostles in Jerusalem had heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, and so they sent Peter and John down to visit them. And on their visit, Peter and John prayed for the community of Jesus followers in Samaria, and they laid hands on them. And it says that then they received the Holy Spirit.

Now, this is important. It says that then, when Peter and John laid hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit. It also says that they had already been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. These folks had already received water baptism, but they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet. They knew about God. They wanted to be friends of Jesus. They longed for him. But the Spirit hadn’t come to them yet, hadn’t filled them yet.

I know what that’s like. I know what it’s like to go for years, longing to really know Jesus. Not just words about Jesus. Not just an ideology about Jesus, not just a religion. But to be intimately connected with him. To be one with him, and with his father. To be united with him in love and joy.

That was John’s whole life, his whole ministry. It was a ministry of expectation and preparation. It wasn’t about the water baptism. That was just a familiar ritual to help people focus. The ministry of John wasn’t about baptizing with water – it was about preparing to the people to receive the Messiah.

John himself says:

I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will immerse you into his life, presence, and awesome power. He will fill you with his joy and cover you with his forgiveness. This is the one baptism of our Messiah Jesus. This is the true baptism that John pointed to. This is the substance; everything else is just a shadow.

John’s ministry was a prophetic ministry. A ministry that pointed toward the kingdom of God, toward the dawn that was about to break on the horizon. Jesus is the day star, and the Holy Spirit is the sunrise.

This is the daybreak that Jesus encountered when he came up from the waters of the Jordan. When he saw the sky ripped open, and the dove descending. This was the fulfillment of John’s ministry, the end of John’s baptism, when Jesus heard those words: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well-pleased.”

Sometimes we Quakers are a little too good at being against things. We’re against war. Against slavery. Against injustice of all kinds. But this is what we are for: The light shining in the darkness. The healing Spirit hovering over the troubled waters of our soul and our society. The crucified Jesus whose life judges the blindness and hatred of this world.

At our best, Quakers aren’t against water baptism. We don’t need to be. It’s just a form that has fallen away. It served its purpose, but now the real baptism is here. If pouring water over your head makes you feel closer to God – go ahead. Or ask a friend to anoint you with oil. Or perhaps we could lay hands on you and pray, that you might receive the Holy Spirit. God wants us to reach out to him, no matter what form we choose.

But don’t yield to fear. Don’t let anyone tell you that a ritual is required for your relationship with God. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re going to hell because you didn’t check a liturgical box. Fear doesn’t come from God; and neither does water baptism that functions as fire insurance.

Remember the criminal who was crucified beside Jesus. A man who was condemned as a murderer. A man who had no water for baptism. A man who became a friend of Jesus, to whom Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The heart of the Christian faith is the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that presence is one that drives out all fear. Our inheritance is not ritual as a ticket to heaven, but the unearned grace of God. This grace is the baptism that fills us with power, assurance, and a strength to live boldly as children of light in a world that is often very dark. As the prophet Isaiah writes, this is God’s promise to us:

Thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

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Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

Lift Up Your Heads - Our Redemption is Drawing Near
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/2/18, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, & Luke 21:25-36. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

The weather has been strange this year. Out where we live in Washington, DC, last winter was much warmer than normal. This summer was extremely hot, and fall has been unusually warm and wet.

In the mid-Atlantic, trees normally start to change colors in October, and by this time of years they are usually bare of leaves as we approach wintertime. That’s not how things are this time around. It’s the beginning of December, and most trees still have their leaves. Some have begun to change colors, but others are still green. The weather has turned cold now – we’re getting lows in the 20s some nights – but the trees haven’t caught up to the reality of the season we’re in.

I don’t think the trees are alone. These are strange times we’re living in. The weather is all wrong. Our social, political, and cultural environment is changing in unpredictable ways. And, for many of us, our leaves haven’t changed to fit the season. We’re still green, even as winter is coming on fast.

Jesus spoke a lot about trees – fig trees, in particular. He used them to teach his disciples at various points in his ministry. Earlier on in the gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells us a parable involving a fig tree that failed to bear fruit. Thanks to the intervention of the gardener, this tree got one last chance – one more year – to bear fruit. But if it didn’t, it would be cut down to make way for trees that would bear fruit.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus points to the way that trees are a sign to us. They tell us what season we are in. When trees sprout green leaves, we know that it will soon be summertime. When the leaves begin to change colors and fall to the ground, it is time to prepare for winter.

The kingdom of God is like this. Just as we know that summer is near when the trees put forth their leaves, there are changes in the season that alert us to the arrival of God’s reign.

In Luke 21, Jesus has warned the disciples that a big change in seasons is coming. The reign of God is has come near. “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” The temple is going to be destroyed and a whole new order is about to be established.

Understandably, the disciples want more details about what’s going to happen and how to prepare. According to Jesus, their entire society is about to be thrown into chaos. The temple is the center of everything – the holiest place in the holiest land – for it to be destroyed is almost inconceivable. How could anyone see this sort of thing coming?

The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Jesus warns the disciples not to get overly excited or afraid. With the great changes coming, there will be those who will claim to have quick fixes to get us out of this mess. Jesus says: Don’t believe them. There is no easy way out, no painless revolution. The way forward is going to be hard, so don’t try to flee it.

Jesus speaks about the tumult that is to come. Nations rising against nation and wars on the horizon. Earthquakes, famines, plagues, and “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” – maybe even including fires that destroy vast areas and cover the nation in smoke.

But before all that happens, the struggle is going to get personal. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be arrested and persecuted. “You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name,” Jesus says. But, as scary as this process will be, it’s a good thing. It will provide an opportunity to bear witness. Jesus promises the disciples that he will provide them with “words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Out of the chaos, truth will shine.

Still, it’s going to be hard. Some of them are going to die in the process. Yet in spite of all of the persecutions and betrayals that the disciples will experience, Jesus calls on them to hold fast to their faith – to trust in God as sovereign of the universe. God is in control, and even death can be redeemed.

The faith that Jesus talks about isn’t a matter of merely believing certain statements about who God is. Real faith is a matter of visceral trust, placing our lives in the hands of God – trusting that he loves us and will deliver us from evil – even when it seems that evil has the upper hand and God is nowhere to be found.

This kind of faith isn’t easy. In fact, it’s impossible. It’s impossible to practice this kind of trust in God as long as we are enmeshed in the kingdoms of this world. Jesus warns that those who are enmeshed in the System’s ways of thinking and operating will be utterly rocked and dismayed by the changes that are coming.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

We’ve talked about trees this morning, and how their leafy activities help us to track the seasons. But, of course, the real source of the seasons is found in the heavens. The best way to track what season we are in is to watch the celestial bodies – sun, moon, and stars. As their positions change over the course of the year, we know exactly what time it is.

People have known this for a very long time. For the ancients of the Greco-Roman world, the heavenly realms were a symbol of order, power, and authority. The gods of the ancient world represented these reliable, unshakable heavenly powers.

And yet, Jesus says that when the reign of God arrives, the “powers of the heavens will be shaken.” What kind of power can shake the heavenly realm? Only the one who created them in the first place.

This language of “heavenly powers” isn’t merely a poetic flourish; it’s pointing to something tangible and real. It’s language that Jesus uses to describe a tectonic shift in power dynamics and social relationships. Cities overthrown and empires toppled. A dramatic change in human civilization.

For people living in the kingdoms of this world – the Matrix, the System, the Market, whatever you want to call it – the powers of the heavens represent everything that allow us to make sense of reality. The temple was a power of the heavens. The throne of Caesar and the imperial legions were powers of the heavens. The White House and Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and Wall Street, NPR and TED Talks are powers of the heavens.

These “powers” are the touchstones of our society’s power structure that we can’t imagine living without. They’re givens, a stable point of reference that we can steer our ships by. They tell us the season that we are in. And they’ve become a substitute for God.

“When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Jesus tells his disciples to expect the whole system to fall apart. This is part of the game plan. This is the season that we have entered into. For those who are enmeshed in the kingdoms of this world, this process will be terrifying. When the powers of the heavens are shaken, those who have placed these powers at the center of their lives will be completely disoriented. The roar of the waves will overwhelm them.

For those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, there will be a different experience. For those of us who have done the hard work of de-centering the powers of the heavens, this time of disruption and tumult will come not as a shock but as a cry of relief. For those of us who have grounded our life in the words of Jesus and the living presence of God’s spirit, the world’s days of grief will be our days of joy.

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Stand up. Raise your heads. Your redemption is drawing near. Because we “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

As followers of Jesus, we are people of peace. Like our Lord Jesus, we are called to die rather than kill. Yet it is also true that we are in a spiritual battle. We’re called to fight with the spiritual weapons of love against the powers of hatred, confusion, and fear.

So when Jesus says, “stand up, raise your heads,” I can’t help but thinking of the French resistance, or any other resistance movement, coming up from underground. When the Pentagon and Wall Street were in control, it was hard to raise our heads. It was scary to stand up. We were in enemy-controlled territory, and we had to be careful. But with the arrival of God’s kingdom, we can lift up our heads and show ourselves. The Allies have arrived. We can take the fight to the enemy. That enemy is selfishness, hatred, death, and fear.

We don’t have to be afraid anymore. Because the powers of the heavens have been shaken. The new life of the kingdom has come near.

For a Christian, for a follower of Jesus, the world’s time of crisis is our moment of greatest hope. We see the Human One coming in a cloud with power and great glory. We can stand up and raise our voices, pointing the world to the truth. We have been blinded for so long by the powers of the heavens, but now we can see again. The kingdom of God has drawn near, and we can become its citizens. The age of love and peace has arrived; we can lay down our arms, take up our plowshares, and study war no more. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but [Jesus’] words will not pass away.”

The powers of the heavens are being shaken. It’s happening right before our eyes. Recognize the season. The fig tree is putting forth its leaves, and soon summer will be here. Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Our redemptions is near. But we can still miss it. We can get so caught up in the stress and worry of our daily lives that we don’t pay attention to the signs of the times. We can fail to notice the changing of the leaves. We can be so blinded by the powers of the heavens that we are astonished and terrified along with the rest of the world when they are shaken.

Jesus warns us against this pitfall. He says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”

Are you weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness? Do you retreat into distraction, entertainment, despair? Is the living presence of God the center of your whole life? When you make decisions, do you look to Jesus and wait on the Holy Spirit to direct you? Are your job, your family, your money, your political commitments, closer to the center of your life than Jesus is?

Wake up! See things as they really are, not as you wish they were. See things as Jesus sees them, as he will reveal them to you. “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Because we can stand. We don’t have to be afraid. We can lift our heads. We don’t have to be bowed down by the weight of our anxiety and disappointments. We don’t have to carry the world on our shoulders. That’s God’s job.

We know that God has shaken the powers of heavens. God’s kingdom has drawn near. The world is about to turn, yet again, and we can be part of it. Even though it’s scary. Even though many around us will be horrified and disoriented. We can be salt and light in the midst of confusion and darkness. We can be a force for healing in the midst of so much pain. We can invite others into the way of Jesus, so that they too can lift their heads and see that the powers are shaken – and that our redemption is drawing near.

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If Jesus is King, Why is the World Such a Mess?

If Jesus is King, Why is the World Such a Mess?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/25/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 & Revelation 1:4b-8 & John 18:33-37. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

We need this grace this morning. We need the peace that comes from Jesus. We need the light of the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead – Jesus, the ruler of the kings of the earth.

Ruler of the kings of the earth. Presidents and prime ministers. Generals and department chairs. Princes and popes. Jesus is sovereign over all of them. God has given him “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He is king of kings and lord of lords. Can I get an ‘amen’?

It can be hard to tell, though, can’t it? It’s hard to blame us if we have a tough time believing that Jesus is master and commander of the world we live in. I mean, look at it! Wars and threats of violence. The rising tide of climate change – drought and smoke and hurricanes. Refugees by the millions. We live in a world where grinding poverty is the norm, while those at the top wallow in luxury and self-deception.

Something is wrong. Where are you, king Jesus? Where is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead? Where is the sovereign power that God has promised us for so long, the throne that will crush the might of the Beast and establish a society of peace and justice? I don’t see it. Do you?

How much longer are we supposed to wait?

That’s what the disciples wanted to know. Jesus’ first disciples, who followed him from Galilee all the way to Jerusalem. They knew their teacher was the future king of Israel. The messiah. He was going to be large and in charge, just you wait and see!

We’re still waiting. Just like Peter, James, John, and all the others, we modern-day disciples of Jesus are hungry to see “all peoples, nations, and languages [serving him.]” We long for the “everlasting dominion that shall not pass away,” the age of wholeness, healing, and truth that God’s messiah promises us.

We’ve been waiting a long time. For most of the two thousand years since the resurrection, the posture of the church has been one of expectant waiting. Living in the tension of “now, but not yet” – with an emphasis on the “not yet.” Grappling with the reality that things still aren’t the way they’re supposed to be – the way that God created us to live.
Despite the reality of the resurrection, everywhere we look, we find our world still in a fallen state. Sins and sorrows still grow. Thorns infest the ground. When will Jesus come to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found?

Joy to the world! That’s what we want to see. “Joy to world, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.”

That’s the joy we seek. We saw it in the light of the resurrection. We saw it in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We’ve seen it again, and again, throughout successive movements of the Holy Spirit throughout history. Jesus keeps coming. Keeps teaching. Keeps reigning in our hearts, minds, spirits, and lives as communities. He is risen!

So why hasn’t he come to reign? I mean openly, outwardly, permanently? Why hasn’t Jesus conquered the world, banished sin and suffering forever? Why hasn’t God finally put an end to humanity’s madness and destroyed those who are destroying the earth? When will Jesus come to rule, not just in our hearts, not just in our personal lives, but in our life as a civilization? When will it finally be that every knee will bend, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord? When will we be changed, transformed once and for all?

That’s the promise, after all. That’s the end game. The Day of the Lord.

The prophets have been telling us about this day for thousands of years. The day when God will have the final victory. The earth will be restored. Justice will be done, and he will wipe away every tear. To use the imagery of the prophet Daniel, the court will sit in judgement and the books will be opened.

When will Jesus’ court finally be in session? When will he come to judge the nations and save us from ourselves? When will Jesus reign as king?

In our gospel reading this morning, John tells us about Jesus’ encounter with Pontius Pilate, the governor of Roman Palestine. Pilate is not a king, but he is a powerful man. He is the civil authority, appointed by the emperor to oversee the occupation of Judea. His job is to administer justice – to mete out rewards and punishments – in the kingdom of Caesar.

It says in our text that Pilate “entered his headquarters again” to talk with Jesus. “Again,” because he had just been outside talking with the Jewish religious authorities. Pilate suggests that the Jews should try Jesus according to Jewish law. But the priests ask Pilate to try the case, because only Rome is allowed to execute people.

That’s always been one of the major marks of sovereignty: A monopoly on violence. As imperial sovereign in the region, Rome reserves certain rights to itself. Especially the right to kill.

So Pilate re-enters his headquarters to conduct a cross-examination. Who is this Jesus? Is he a revolutionary, someone worthy of being broken on a Roman cross? Or is he just some local heretic, a danger to the priestly establishment perhaps, but no threat to Rome?

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”

Now something that I find interesting here is that according to John’s gospel the Jewish authorities don’t accuse Jesus of claiming to be king. But Pilate wants to know. For Pilate, probably the only crime worth his time and attention is insurrection. So is Jesus an insurrectionist? Does he challenge the lordship of Caesar? Is he a king?

Something I love about Jesus is that he never answers questions directly if they’re asked in bad faith. So when Pilate asks him whether he’s a king, Jesus replies in this way: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Jesus has come to testify to the A and the Z, the beginning and the end. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Everyone who hears the word of God – and does it – is his mother, sister, and brother. Jesus has been given an everlasting dominion that shall never pass away, because the truth will never pass away. When we hear the truth and obey it, Jesus becomes our king.

And that’s great. But it’s also a little bit vague, isn’t it? Pilate obviously thinks so. His response to Jesus’ words: “What is truth?”

What is truth? It’s a fair question. Because it’s hard to tell sometimes. The rulers of this world all have their own version of ‘truth.’ There’s the truth of the marketplace, the truth of Wall Street. There’s the truth of endless technological progress and innovation, the truth of Silicon Valley. There’s the truth of might-makes-right, the truth of the Pentagon. There are so many truths, and so many powers vying for our allegiance. These kingdoms of money and violence and progress are so seductive, because they have demonstrated their power again and again. We know the pleasure they can provide and the terror they can inflict.

But what is the truth Jesus speaks of? What kind of kingdom is this? What does it mean to listen to his voice amidst the roar of empires?

The reign of Jesus is unlike anything we have ever experienced before, ever could experience within the intellectual and emotional confines of human empire. Jesus tries to explain this to Pilate. He says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

My kingdom is not from here. Not from this world.

Well, what world is it then? What is this world where truth is alive and Jesus is king? When will we see this world outside our windows, in the workplace, and in our public policy? When will the kingdom finally come, as we have been promised throughout scripture, with visible power and glory? “One like a human being, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

We’ve been waiting for so long.

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come … and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

We need this grace. We need this truth. We need the reality of his resurrection in our own bodies. We need his love – for ourselves, and to share with the broken world around us.

Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world – this present social order, economic system, and spiritual state that we’re in. His kingdom can’t be held back or denied by all the lies that this world calls “truth.” It can’t be snuffed out by the darkness of evil, cowardice, and indifference. This light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

We need this light. We need the presence “of him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” That’s our calling. That’s our destiny. That’s our kingdom, even in the midst of all this grief and loss. To be freed from all the weights and confusions that hold us back from love.

We are called into a new social reality as his followers, disciples who belong to the truth and listen to his voice. We are, each and every one of us, called to be priests serving the God and father of our Lord Jesus. Belonging to the truth, we listen to his voice.

We’ve been waiting for so long.

The kingdom of God is coming, and it’s here. It’s like a mustard seed, growing before our eyes. Growing right back up even when the evil of this world takes a lawnmower to it. The darkness cannot overcome it. It cannot overcome us. It cannot defeat us as we hear the truth and listen to Jesus’ voice.

In spite of our weariness and doubt and waiting, we say with the early church:

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

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The Kingdom of God Can Be Yours – All It Will Cost You Is Everything

The Kingdom of God Can Be Yours - All It Will Cost You Is Everything
The early church was marked by intensity. Men and women filled with power and conviction that came down from the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost; their unity was remarkable. They had become family in every important sense. The first believers, thousands of them, laid aside everything that they had possessed before, holding all things in common. They become one people, one body, in the kingdom of God.

The demands of the gospel experienced by the early church were total. This was not a Sunday-morning activity. It was not an add-on. The life of the early Christians was not a mere sub-culture or “identity” that served as flavor for the rest of their life as residents of imperial Roman society. For these women, men, and children, Jesus Christ had become the core and center of a new shared life. Together, they experienced and followed the inward Rabbi, the resurrected Lord who guided them through the Holy Spirit.

So much of what passes for Christianity today is a pale reflection of that fellowship. The church has become a club, a tradition, a tribe – just one more identity thrown into the melting pot of the imperial cosmopolis. I’m Quaker. You’re Brethren. She’s Catholic. He’s Orthodox. What difference does it make? Caesar still reigns supreme. Our loyalty is divided. We have failed to become family.

The gospel of Jesus is more than personal improvement, social engagement, and friendly potlucks. The good news of the kingdom is a direct challenge to imperial culture. As citizens of the kingdom of God, we are called out of the centrifuge of individual achievement and consumerism that transforms us into loyal imperial subjects. Jesus calls us to de-center the wealth, power, and violent glory of America and all other empires.

We cannot enter the kingdom of God alone. Only by shedding our success, our wealth, our security and privilege can we pass through the eye of the needle and become part of a new society. True freedom is only possible when we surrender everything to follow Jesus.

What is holding you back from surrendering all? What keeps you clinging to the false promises of empire? What are the people, places, things, and ideas that you still haven’t surrendered to God? When will you finally enter through the narrow gate, becoming a brother or sister of Jesus?

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In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/11/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Hebrews 9:24-28, & Mark 12:38-44. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

It can be hard to believe, in times like these. Hard to believe in a God that allows a world of migrant caravans, smoke-filled skies, climate-fueled natural disasters, and a rising movement of authoritarian nationalism. It can be hard to believe in a Christianity that so often sides with the wealthy, the powerful, the violent and the arrogant. Based on what we see on the national and world stage, it can be a challenge to believe that human beings are capable of anything beyond self-interest, self-preservation, and self-deception.

There’s this spiritual weight that has fallen over us as a people. We feel the temptation to despair. Despair tells us, “things won’t get better – they’ll always get worse. People don’t change, what’s the point in trying?” As human beings, we don’t lose hope because life is hard; we lose hope because life seems to have lost all sense of possibility, all long-term meaning and legacy.

It was this kind of lurking despair that Elijah found when he encountered the widow in Zarephath. The land was dying. The food was almost gone. No one and nothing could save her or her child. It hadn’t rained in the whole region for years. The famine was severe. What more could be done? Maybe it was just time to give up and die.

When Elijah showed up a the gates of Zarephath, he found this widow doing the only thing she could do: gathering sticks to start a fire, to prepare a last meal for herself and her son. And as she stands there, gathering kindling to prepare the last of the food available to her family, a stranger appears. Begging for food. “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”

I don’t know what the widow thought when Elijah approached her, asking for bread. I don’t know, because it doesn’t say in the text. But I know what I would be thinking if I were in her place. “Bring you a morsel of bread? Bring you a morsel of bread? My family is getting ready to starve to death, and you want me to give you food, stranger? Go sell crazy somewhere else – we’re all stocked up here!”

The widow is kinder than I might have been. Maybe because she’s afraid. She says, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.” That sounds familiar. Have you ever done that? I’m ashamed to admit it, but I know I have. “Sorry, man – I don’t have any cash on me.” Technically true, but really a polite way of saying, “I don’t want to help.”

And why should she, right? Why should she want to help? Generosity flows out of hope, and hope seems in very short supply these days. The widow tells the stranger, “I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare [the remaining food] for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

“That we may eat it, and die.” Things are getting real in Zarephath.

But then Elijah makes a promise – an outrageous promise: Give me some food, and God will take care of you and your son. He says:

“Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

Can you believe this guy? “Don’t worry lady – go make me some food right away. If you do, God is going to make your handful of grain and final drops of oil last for years!” Would you believe a stranger telling you this kind of stuff?

The text is very sparse on details. It doesn’t give us much insight into the widow’s emotional reactions to this whole conversation. It just says that she did what Elijah asked, and that God made good on Elijah’s promise. The prophet stayed with them for many days, and the three of them had enough to eat. The jar of meal never ran out, and the jug of oil never ran dry.

The widow at Zarephath trusted in Elijah and his God, and that leap of faith – that leap of utter desperation – paid off. Elijah truly was a holy man, and God was faithful.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus talks about some other “holy men.” In Mark 12, the important holy men of Jerusalem are demanding to know by what authority Jesus has disrupted the holy precincts of the temple by chasing out the money changers. In response, Jesus tells a parable, comparing the religious leaders to murderous thieves. They try to trip him up with questions about paying taxes, and the nature of the resurrection, and debates about the identity of the messiah.

At the end of all this, Jesus warns his listeners to watch out for these self-serving religious leaders, who live at the center of power in Jerusalem:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Elijah ate what a widow had to offer, receiving her food as an offering to God. And as a sign of God’s favor, God miraculously multiplied the meal and oil, saving the lives of the widow and her son. We see echoes of this story in Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. When we offer up what we have to God, there is enough to go around.

The religion of the temple in Jesus’ time was of an entirely different character from the prophetic faith of Elijah. The widow’s gift to Elijah was a leap of faith, but tithes to the temple were a tax imposed by a wealthy elite. Elijah lived on the margins, fleeing the wrath of a corrupt king; the temple was the very seat of power.

In the traditional Jewish cosmology, the temple was the holiest place in the holiest land on earth. The story of Elijah and the widow takes place in the least holy place possible – among the gentiles in Sidon. The temple was home to the best and brightest; Zarephath was full of unclean outsiders who had nothing left and were preparing to die. The rulers of the temple demand religious devotion and economic sacrifice, but Elijah comes begging and offering good news to the poor.

The second part of our reading from Mark is the famous “widow’s mite” story. It says that Jesus sat down opposite the temple treasury and watched people putting money in. Lots of rich people came by and donated large sums. And then finally a poor widow came and put in a couple of copper coins – practically nothing. And Jesus says to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

The most common reading of this passage is to interpret Jesus as praising the widow for her faith. While the other, wealthy, donors all gave out of their abundance, the widow gave in a self-sacrificial way. Through her willingness to surrender everything for her faith in the temple, she demonstrates the kind of risk-taking that Jesus wants to see in his disciples.

There’s a beauty in this interpretation, and I think it can be a legitimate way of thinking about the text on a certain level. But when we look at the context of this passage in the Gospel of Mark, when we look at Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and all the struggles and debates that this action unleashed, the story of the widow’s offering starts looking less like a model of faithfulness and more like an example of economic oppression.

Superficially, it would seem that the widow’s gift at the temple has a lot in common with the widow’s gift to Elijah at Zarephath. In both cases, a marginalized, impoverished woman living on the edge gives everything that she has to live on. They both give it to holy men who claim to have a higher purpose for asking for the resources they need to live. But the holy men of the temple do not possess the same character as Elijah.

The widow at Zarephath took a leap of faith to feed a prophet on the run, a prophet being hunted by an abusive and unfaithful king in Israel. The widow at Jerusalem gave away everything she had to live on to satisfy the demands of an abusive and unfaithful temple system – men who “devour widows’ houses, and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” The faith of Elijah relieves poverty and famine, but the temple’s tithing system exacerbates it.

Where do we find ourselves in these scriptures? Do we live in the faith of Elijah? The faith of the margins? The prophetic faith that stands with the poor, the widow, the hungry? Or have we been seduced by the spectacle and violence of the temple?

The religion of the temple is still very much alive in our world today. It is the faith of Wall Street, the faith of the Pentagon. The faith of Silicon Valley. It’s the prosperity gospel that tells us we all get what we have earned – that the rich deserve to run the show, and the poor deserve to eat their last meal and die. This kind of religion centers the people and institutions that already have a lot, and says they should be given more. This is the kind of faith that devours widow’s homes and for the sake of appearances says long prayers.

Jesus and Elijah offer us an alternative this way of empire. They stand in the prophetic tradition. The way of the wilderness, the revelation of the burning bush. Theirs is the way of utter dependence on God, the way of the cross. It’s a way of liberation. To walk with Jesus is to hear the voice of God calling to us on the tattered edge of empire, commanding us to say to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” The prophetic faith of Jesus turns its back on the center, the holy, the important, the wise, in order to embrace those who are rejected and despised by the world.

In days like these, when the skies are filled with smoke and refugees stream northward seeking refuge and safety – in times when political power seems bankrupt of moral authority – we are tempted to despair, to gather sticks so that we can cook our food and die.

In our hunger for a faith that can speak to our distress, Jesus and Elijah present us with two different paths we can choose. Will we put our faith in the God of Moses – who challenges oppressive structures and liberates his people from slavery? Will we walk in the faith of Jesus, who surrendered everything – his life, honor, and dignity – to open the door to healing and reconciliation?

Or will we pick the way of the temple? Will we be like the scribes, riding high on our own sense of moral authority? Will we place burdens on the poor and the marginalized that they cannot bear? Will we side with the economic and political system that is choking our planet and tearing families apart? Will we allow our hopelessness to congeal into cynicism? Will we seek personal advantage in a time of societal breakdown?

As followers of Jesus, we don’t have to guess about which path we are called to. Our God is the holy one of the wilderness. He stands with the widow and orphan, the poor and oppressed, the migrant caravans and the child laborers who make our clothing and electronics.

Our God dwells with those who our economic system is crushing. On the cross, Jesus bears the suffering of the weeping parents and hungry children. In his resurrection power, he invites us into the ministry of reconciliation, turning away from the glitz and glamor of celebrity and power and toward the daily needs of those who have been cast away by our society.

Will we heed this call? Will we become like the prophet Elijah, approaching the widow at Zarephath for food, offering good news to the poor?

The prophet does not command obedience through their own wealth and power. Elijah did not come to Zarephath as someone superior and worthy of respect. He came as a homeless beggar. Like Jesus and the early disciples, he carried nothing with him but the clothes on his back and the good news of God’s salvation. Liberation for the poor, and justice for the oppressed.

In these times of darkness, when we are tempted to despair, Jesus and Elijah offer us a way forward. A way of life and peace. A way of releasing our fear and embracing trust in God. By serving those most in need – by embracing our place as humble beggars in the house of God – we can find our way through this time of drought and famine. Together with the unexpected friends that God will reveal to us, we might even find hope.

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