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It Was Wind And Fire, Like A Tornado Hitting The House

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/9/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 2:1-24, 32-33, 37-47. 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

Today is Pentecost Sunday. The birthday of the church. Today we remember the explosive arrival of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the first generation of friends of Jesus. This was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to be present with us always, even to the end of the age. He’s here with us, now, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And now we are empowered to do even greater things.

On the day of Pentecost, we return to the beginning. We remember the words of John the Baptist, whose preaching paved the way for Jesus’ ministry. We remember his words to those who traveled out to see John beyond the river Jordan, hoping that he might be the one to deliver them from darkness. But John was clear: He wasn’t the messiah. Luke says that,

John answered all of them by saying, “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.”

On that day of Pentecost almost two thousand years ago, Jesus fulfilled John’s prophetic promise. He baptized Peter and the Eleven. He baptized the one hundred and twenty followers of Jesus who were gathered together in one place to celebrate the festival. He baptized them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

It was quite a scene. It says that, when the day of Pentecost had come, they were gathered together in one place. And suddenly there was a sound, like the rush of a violent wind. It filled the whole house like the sound of a tornado. And tongues of fire appeared and touched the head of each person gathered. And it says that all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.

This was wild. So wild, in fact, that the neighbors couldn’t help but notice. Jerusalem was overflowing with visitors at that time. Devout Jews from across the ancient world who had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost in the holy city. And in these close quarters, it’s hard not to notice these hundred and twenty people having a really loud prayer meeting early in the morning.

But the noise isn’t the crazy part. What’s really surprising is the words that are coming out of the disciples mouths. The people around them hear them speak in their own native languages. Again, these folks are from everywhere – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – they heard the disciples speaking in their own languages about God’s deeds of power. It says that everyone in the neighborhood was amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Some people thought the friends of Jesus were a bunch of drunken revelers. But Peter addressed the crowd, to tell them what was really going on.

But before I get to what Peter said, let me tell you just a little bit about the day of Pentecost in the Jewish tradition.

Pentecost is also known as the Festival of Weeks, because in Leviticus Moses commanded the people to count seven weeks from the day after Passover. After the seven weeks were up, the people were commanded to present an offering of new grain to the Lord. So, everyone was coming to Jerusalem for the festival – to celebrate the new harvest and present grain offerings at the temple, as the law of Moses commanded.

So when Peter emerges to speak to the crowds gathered outside, he announces that the ultimate harvest has finally arrived – not one of grain, but of God’s power. The harvest is here, says Peter – the day of the Lord. It’s just like the prophet Joel foretold. God will pour out the Holy Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even slaves – both men and women – will have the Spirit poured out upon them.

The heavenly powers will be shaken as God’s promised kingdom finally arrives in power and glory. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The Day of the Lord is upon us. This day of divine justice and power is coming through Jesus, the crucified savior. Peter says:

Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

God raised Jesus up. We are witnesses to this. Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God, and he’s received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who has poured out this Spirit on us – the Spirit whose power you now see at work in us.

And it says that, when the crowds heard Peter’s words, “they were cut to the heart.” They cried out to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Here’s Peter’s answer: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you into the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

We’ve come full circle. In Jesus, the ministry of John the Baptist is made complete. Jesus is baptizing his people with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” This is the final message of Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Come out of her, my people. Reject the ways of human empire and human religion. Surrender yourselves to the spirit, power, and baptism that Jesus now offers you. Embrace the Day of the Lord. It’s the only real thing. The empires of this world are about to be swept away.

It says that those who welcomed this message were baptized – about three thousand people that day accepted the good news and became followers of Jesus. Their lives were transformed immediately. They turned away from the life of empire and found themselves suddenly a part of a new community, an organic fellowship, under the reign of God. It says:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

OK, that’s a lot. So let’s take a second to recap here. The first generation of the church:

  • Devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
  • Lived in a state of awe and experienced miracles.
  • Were together and had all things in common.
  • Sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to everyone according to their needs.
  • Met regularly in the Temple for worship and broke bread “from house to house.”
  • Ate their food with glad and generous hearts.
  • Had the good will of all the people.
  • And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Does that sound familiar? When’s the last time you were part of a community like that? When’s the last time your life bore even half of the marks of the early church? Heck, when’s the last time you met Christians living in this way?

Why is our modern experience of church so dramatically different from what we find described in the Book of Acts?

And it’s not just the Book of Acts. The movement that we see happening in Acts 2 is the fruit of seeds planted by Jesus during his three years of ministry with the Twelve and his other early disciples. The day of Pentecost was a moment of transformation, not in character but in scale, clarity, and power.

The day of Pentecost was the moment when the church leveled up. It scaled. Rather than depending on Jesus to be physically present to teach and lead a small group of core disciples, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh. This Spirit made Jesus’ presence available to everyone. Thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ – no longer bounded by human limitations – is present to teach his people himself – all of us.

And so, we see that the whole story of God is of one piece. The life of joy, justice, mercy, and power experienced by the early church was not a radical departure from the community that Jesus formed before the resurrection. When Jesus was gathering his disciples and doing ministry in Galilee, they bore the same marks of God’s presence.

What are these marks? What do we look like when we’re being gathered by the presence of Jesus? Looking at the testimony of scripture – especially the gospels and Acts, the community of Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit, has certain characteristics. When we are fully integrated into the family of God, we are…

  • Being taught by the Holy Spirit, by scripture, and by those in the community whom the Holy Spirit has given gifting and authority to teach.
  • Breaking bread together – sharing our lives organically, on a daily basis.
  • Practicing radical hospitality, sharing, and economic justice – giving up everything to follow Jesus and redistributing our wealth to meet the needs of everyone.
  • Speaking the words and message of God to the people around us – even when it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient.
  • Inviting others into a life of discipleship to Jesus. Offering healing, life, and power from the Holy Spirit.
  • Expecting God to show up in the everyday. Trusting God to be miraculous. Standing in awe and witnessing beauty.

Does that sound like us? Do we bear these marks of the church?

The Bible, the New Testament, the Gospels and the Book of Acts. These are challenging documents. Our story challenges us to move beyond the respectable religion that remains within the limits of the status quo. The presence of the Holy Spirit within us and among us is calling. Inviting. Yearning. Will we respond?

Will we be like those who heard Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem. Will we allow ourselves to be “cut to the heart” by this message of salvation and transformation? Will we humble ourselves to ask, “sisters and brothers – what should we do?”

What should we do?

Will we repent, and be baptized, every one of us, into the name of Jesus Christ, so that our sins may be forgiven? Will we save ourselves from this corrupt generation – choosing to serve love rather than self-interest?

Will we choose to follow Jesus rather than clinging to coercive power? 

Will we invest our treasure in heaven – giving to those who have needs right now – rather than hoarding our wealth in the financial systems of this world? 

Will we welcome the message, devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and the breaking of bread?

Will we become a living community in Jesus – a fellowship where day by day the Lord adds to our numbers those who are being saved?

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What Does It Mean For Us To Love One Another?

We Don’t Need Miracles – We Need the Life and Power of the Resurrection

All That Does Not Gather With Him Will Be Swept Away

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/14/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Isaiah 50:4-9a and Luke 19:28-40. 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

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

Jesus is the king of Israel. The king that Zechariah foretold when he said:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus arrives at the outskirts of Jerusalem. Just to the east of the city, near Bethphage and Bethany. After a long journey of preaching, teaching, healing, and struggle, Jesus stands at the edge of the holy city. The city of David. The house of the Lord, the temple.

Jesus has come to the heart of all political and religious power in Israel. He has come to challenge the rulers and powers directly. He’s announcing a new kingdom, the reign of God on earth foretold by the prophets and promised by God.

Jesus announces his arrival in the holy city with a prophetic sign. He instructs his disciples to fetch him a young colt, the foal of a donkey. And on this colt that has never been ridden, Jesus makes his way over the Mount of Olives, into the city.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

There was a large crowd traveling with Jesus. Not just the twelve disciples, but hundreds of people. Maybe thousands, it doesn’t say.

This crowd is on fire. They’re rejoicing, just like Zechariah said they should. Luke says that “the whole multitude began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” They all say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Rejoice, O daughter Jerusalem.

As usual, it says that the Pharisees object. They demand that Jesus rebuke his disciples. “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” Stop rejoicing. Stop saying, “king Jesus.” Stop declaring the glory of God in his messiah, the prince of peace.

But it’s far too late for that. This revolution that has been brewing for three years is finally coming to a head. Jesus is on the move. His followers are taking off their coats and throwing them on the ground in front of him, so that his donkey doesn’t have to touch the dirt. Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.

No, Pharisees. No, Jesus tells these nay-sayers, “You just go ahead and try to calm this crowd down. There’s no shutting them up. We’re past the point of no return now. We’ve got to follow this thing through to the end. The kingdom of God has drawn near. The king has returned to claim his throne. To establish his reign. To reward his faithful servants and judge those who are in rebellion against God.

This crowd can’t settle down. If they were silent, the rocks and trees and birds and fish would cry out and say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

So the crowds are rejoicing. They’re going wild. They’re so ready for the revolution. They’re chomping at the bit for the changes that the son of David is going to bring. The disciples can’t wait.

Jesus isn’t going wild, though. It’s hard to say exactly what Jesus is thinking or feeling. The text doesn’t provide a lot of detail. But I can’t help imagining him as a calm and pensive. Maybe even a little grim.

Jesus is the eye of the storm. He is the center around which this whole drama is swirling. The future is racing towards him, and Jesus knows what is coming. Confrontation with the powers-that-be. Betrayal. Imprisonment. Public shaming, torture, and death. Jesus hasn’t even entered Jerusalem yet, but he can already see the cross waiting for him.

Earlier in Luke, back in chapter nine, it says that “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He set his face to go to Jerusalem.

In our reading from Isaiah this morning, the servant-messiah says, “I have set my face like flint.” In preparing for this sermon, I’ve thought a lot about what this phrase means. It feels critically important. “I have set my face like flint.”

What is flint like? Flint is hard. Flint is resolute. Flint sparks fire. Flint is immovable, and yet has a sense of direction. Flint is the will of God, unwavering in the face of human cruelty. Flint is the patient endurance of the saints. Flint is the face of Jesus, riding on that donkey, in the midst of shouting, singing, jubilant disciples. Flint is seeing a wild party all around you, and knowing that you’re marching straight towards the cross.

Jesus has set his face like flint.

Imagine Jesus, riding that colt down the dusty road toward Jerusalem. Imagine him cresting the Mount of Olives. Imagine as he takes in the majesty of the holy city, the splendor of the Temple Mount. Imagine as he sets his face like flint, preparing himself for the struggle he is about to endure.

Imagine the words of the prophet Isaiah in the heart of Jesus:

The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.

The one who vindicates Jesus is near. The king has returned. He’s at the gates of the city. He is coming with power.

But Jesus already knows that the people won’t be able to see it. We don’t expect a king like him, a king of peace. We don’t know what to make of a king who is triumphant and victorious, but who is also humble and comes riding on a donkey. A king who created the cosmos with a word, and yet was born as a helpless human baby.

The crowds don’t understand a king like Jesus, but the wealthy and powerful are actively antagonistic to him. They know a threat when they see one. They know that this Jesus is here to upend their entire economic, political, and religious system. For the rich and powerful, stability and order is the name of the game. Always. For the priests and kings and Roman governors, Jesus and his movement represent only chaos.

Jesus knows this, but he moves forward anyway. He has set his face like flint. He is bound and determined. He will not back down. He has seen the evil of the city, and it breaks his heart.

It breaks his heart.

It says that when Jesus crests the hill, when he finally sees the city of Jerusalem in all its beauty, Jesus breaks down and weeps. And through his tears, Jesus says to the holy city below, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

The king of peace has arrived, but the city of David has rejected God’s anointed. It has rejected the reign of justice, mercy, and love. It has rejected the humility that makes for peace. On this day of visitation, the words of the prophet Malachi are fulfilled:

…the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when Jesus arrives on the edge of the city? Who can stand when he comes proclaiming the kingdom? Can we?

Jesus loves the city. Jesus weeps for Jerusalem. Yet this doesn’t keep him from speaking the truth about the city, and the judgment that has come upon it. Jesus has set his face like flint toward Jerusalem. He has set his face against the lies and the abuse of power. He has set his face against the economic injustice – the plundering of widows and orphans – that has become normal in the city of David.

Jesus loves us. He loves our city, and all the people, plants, and animals in it. Jesus weeps for us. But he will not hold back in telling the truth about God’s justice. God’s judgment on unrighteousness. The consequences of selfishness and economic injustice, the worship of money and addiction to power. The kingdom of God is at hand, and who can endure the day of its coming? Who can stand when the Lord whom we seek suddenly comes to his temple?

Do we recognize the day of our own visitation? Do we hear Jesus, standing on the Berkeley Hills, overlooking our city? Can we hear him weeping?

He has set his face like flint. Against the greed. Against the evictions. Against the poverty and squalor. Against the worship of wealth and technique. Jesus has set his face against an economic, cultural, and political order that crucifies him again, every day, in the bodies of the poor, the homeless, the migrant, and the countless families who are barely making it month to month.

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

As friends of Jesus, we join our voices with those of the first disciples who walked with him into Jerusalem. Glory!

But like those first disciples, perhaps we don’t yet fully understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship. Perhaps we are still the swirling of the storm around him. We’re not always steady. We’re not always firmly established on the rock.

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Rejoice, O daughter Zion! Behold, your king comes to you.

He’s a king of peace. He’s a king who loves us, who wants the best for each one of us. And he weeps over us, what we’ve done to this world and to one another. He weeps over what will become of us if we continue in our blindness and rebellion.

Jesus is the rock. He is the cornerstone, a firm foundation. And he is a king of justice. All that does not gather with him is swept away.

Are we gathering with him? Are we taking refuge under the shadow of his wing? Are we embracing his reign of peace? Do we weep with him? Do we embrace his cross?

Our answer to these questions is time-sensitive. Our day of visitation will not last forever. Will we join with Jesus in the way of the cross? Will we align our lives with the needs of the poor and marginalized? Will we recognize today the things that make for peace? Will we choose to walk with Jesus, building our lives on the rock – or will we be swept away in the storm?

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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.

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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.)

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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?

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.)

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“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 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

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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