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God is Doing a New Thing. What Can You Say?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/12/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:13-17. 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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John the Baptist was a wild man. He was a prophet – a person who spoke the words of God. He was living in the wilderness and baptizing people in the river Jordan. They were immersed in water as a sign of their desire to follow God and love other people.

Jesus came to John, to be baptized with water.

And John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. Because John recognized Jesus as the promised messiah. God’s chosen one. The one who would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. It didn’t seem appropriate. He knew that he wasn’t even worthy to tie up Jesus’ shoe laces. He said, “You don’t need this water, Jesus. I need you to baptize me. Give me that baptism of spirit and fire.”

And Jesus agrees with John. He is the promised savior. He’s the one who will baptize with the spirit and fire. But Jesus still wants John to dip him in the Jordan river. “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

I’ve been thinking about what that means. What is it about being immersed in water by John – participating in the ritual of his community – what is it about that action that “fulfills all righteousness”?

John the Baptist is a very important guy. The gospel of Matthew keeps circling back to him. In Matthew 11, Jesus says explicitly that John is Elijah. John is the prophet who is to come. Just like Moses represents the whole Jewish law, Elijah represents the prophetic tradition. And John is Elijah.

So this community John’s got going is the embodiment of the prophetic tradition. And Jesus, by receiving John’s water baptism, identifies himself with this community. He submits himself to it. He embraces it as his own.

This is confusing for John. He knows who Jesus is. He says to Jesus, “Who am I to baptize you? You should be baptizing me!” But Jesus says, “I want you to baptize me, because God is validating your message. You are a faithful servant of God, and you have prepared the way for my ministry. I embrace you, just as your work has created space for what God is doing in me.”

So they do it. John and Jesus go down into the river Jordan. John dips Jesus into the cold waters. And when Jesus comes back up and takes a breath, he’s breathing more than air. He’s breathing in the Spirit of God. They see the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove, and lands on Jesus. They hear a voice that says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now, based on what just happened here, what would you assume comes next?

Me personally, I would assume that the next chapter of this story would be Jesus joining John’s community. Maybe taking it over, as John steps out of the way and Jesus becomes the head honcho. Maybe Jesus baptizes John, and then takes up the prophetic mantle out in the wilderness. I’d figure that John would become a disciple of Jesus.

But that’s not what happens. John doesn’t become one of the Twelve Apostles, and Jesus doesn’t join John’s community. John has his own separate ministry and disciples up until his death.

Jesus doesn’t stay with John by the Jordan. Instead, he goes out into the wilderness on his own, and then heads back to Galilee – the region where he grew up. He starts his own ministry, gathers his own disciples, stakes out his own geographical territory.

Jesus clearly loves and respects John. But he leaves and does something different. Why?

In Matthew 9, John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask him. They say, “Why are you doing things differently from John? We know we’re on the same side here, so why don’t you follow the same rules we follow and conduct your ministry in the same way that John does?”

Jesus’ answer to this is: “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins. If you do, the old wineskins will burst and you’ll lose both the skins and the wine. New wine has to be put into fresh wine skins.”

That’s why Jesus had to leave. That’s why Jesus didn’t simply join John’s community and take over John’s ministry. John was the greatest prophet of the old order, but God was doing something new.

The whole prophetic tradition and community pointed to Jesus. John’s ministry paved the way for the Messiah. But now that he had arrived on the scene, Jesus had been called by the Holy Spirit to do something new.

In spite of all the love and respect he had for John – in spite of the fact that his own ministry would have been impossible without John’s faithfulness – God was doing a new thing in Jesus. He couldn’t be boxed in by the past.

Is God doing a new thing now?

What does it mean that the Spirit has been poured out on each and every one of us? What does it mean that we are being baptized into the same Spirit that Jesus encountered during his baptism in the Jordan? Is God doing a new thing?

The early Quakers thought so. George Fox, speaking to a church like ours in 1652, asked:

You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?

Is God doing a new thing? Is the Spirit descending again today? Is the new wine being poured out into our hearts?

We say, the Bible says this, and Quakers say that – but what can we say? Are we children of light? Are we walking in the light? And what we say, does it come inwardly from God?

What does it look like to love our tradition, to respect our spiritual ancestors, to submit ourselves to the church that has taught us so much – and yet to have the freedom to do a new thing when God calls us?

What is the new thing? Are you a child of light? Do you walk in the light? What you speak, is it inwardly from God? Have you received the new baptism, that comes from Jesus?

Is God doing a new thing in you?

Can You Separate the Wheat from the Chaff?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/8/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:1-12. 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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We’re in the time now that the world calls Christmas. This whole stretch between Thanksgiving and the 25th of December, this is what secular, Western European consumer culture thinks of as “the Christmas season” – or, if you like, “the holiday season.”

And that’s all fine and good for playing jingle bells and selling us more stuff on Black Friday and Cyber Monday and “I-Ate-Too-Much Tuesday,” or whatever other retail-oriented holy day they try to lay on us next. This “holiday season” is just fine and dandy for a culture that has turned our father’s house into a den of thieves.

But for us as the church, we are nowhere near Christmastime yet. We have not arrived at the birth of the Christ-child. Instead, we’ve now entered into the season of Advent. Advent is a time when we are waiting. We’re in anticipation. Expectation. It’s a time of reflection and repentance, a time to examine ourselves as individuals and as a community. It’s a time to be called deeper into a life of discipleship, a life that more fully reflects God’s love and justice.

In short, this is the season of John. John the Baptist, the wild man who left a life of privilege in Jerusalem and dedicated himself to prayer, fasting, and prophetic teaching in the wilderness of Judea.

We are in the season of baptism. Immersion. A time of cleansing from our old ways of thinking – a radical reorientation into the path of Jesus. It’s a time to confess our sin, change our attitudes, and prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child, the light of God within us.

In those days, before Jesus had left his family and his work as a carpenter to become an itinerant preacher, John’s ministry was already in full-swing. People were coming out to him from across Judea and Jerusalem, to hear his fiery message of repentance and redemption. To hear the message about the coming messiah. To prepare themselves for the reckoning that was coming upon Israel, and indeed the whole world.

The people who came out to hear John were receiving the message with joy. They were being baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. They were preparing themselves for the one who would come to redeem Israel.

Now it’s interesting, because it seems like just about everybody was coming out to hear John preach. Rich and poor, young and old, socially conscious and socially awkward. Everybody wanted a piece of this guy.

But John wasn’t happy to see everybody. Some of the people who came out, John questioned their motivations and intentions. Just like Jesus, John had some very harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadduccees who came out to visit him beside the Jordan.

“You snakes in the grass! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John could see that the uptown religious people – the Pharisees – weren’t there to change their lives in the radical way required by the kingdom of heaven. Maybe they thought they could come and practice one more ritual that would make them even more holy. Maybe they heard John was a lively and entertaining preacher. They were there for incremental self-help, not for the full-bodied transformation that God offers.

And the Sadducees – why were they there at all? Their place was in the Temple, with the important people and all the money. The Sadducees, the ultimate hedge fund managers of their day – maybe they were curious about what John was up to. After all, he used to be one of them. 

John came from luxury and power, the top of the Temple hierarchy. His father was a high priest, a son of Aaron. John could have had everything, but he threw it all away to go preach along dusty roads to the poor and unclean. The Sadducees as a class represented everything John rejected – form without substance, wealth without conscience, and spiritual adultery with violent political power.

What did John have to say to these spiritual tourists and gawkers? “Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Do not presume 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.”

The Pharisees thought that they could fulfill the law of God by following every jot and tittle of the law, keeping themselves clean and pure. The Sadducees thought that they owned the law. They were gatekeepers of the Temple, the performers of animal sacrifice. They saw themselves as the custodians of God’s dwelling place on earth. Who could be more important?

Both groups saw themselves as children of Abraham. Heirs of the promise, God’s promise to bless and prosper forever.

But John’s message to all of them is: “Don’t think your ancestry will save you. Don’t think your spiritual lineage will justify you. Don’t think your religious observances will spare you from the wrath that is coming on Jerusalem and Judea. This story doesn’t depend on you.”

Because the insider religious crowd and people will lots of wealth and political power – we like to think that we’re doing things for God. “Isn’t God just so lucky to have us? What would he do without us?”

John tells us exactly what he will do. He’ll raise up children to Abraham from these stones.

If we think that we’re doing things for God, we’ve got it all wrong. God does not depend on us. God does not need us. He loves us, he longs for us, but he does not need us in any pragmatic or instrumental sense. God’s plans do not hinge on our action or inaction.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying our actions don’t matter. But they matter a whole lot more to us than they do to God. God’s gonna figure it out. God’s got the whole world in his hands. This is the God who created the entire universe out of nothing. He’s got it on lock, don’t trip.

What’s at stake here is not God’s kingdom. God’s making it happen. Period.

What is at stake is the part we’re going to play in this whole unfolding drama of history. Are we going to join up, go to basic training, and do what it takes to become trustworthy soldiers in the Lamb’s War? Or will we keep on serving ourselves, mistreating our neighbors, and bowing to the power of money and Empire?

We already know how this story ends. We know that the kingdom of God has come near and will be fulfilled. We know that love wins.

But when this victory comes, when God reigns triumphant and all things are made new – will we be a part of that story? Will we be part of that newness? Will we hear our master’s voice saying to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”?

That was the question, that was the message that John had for everyone who came out to see him: Now is the time. Time to make a choice. Time to decide what our life is going to be about.

It’s time to prepare ourselves, because the baptism of spirit and fire is coming. Jesus is going to sort things out. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary. But he’ll burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.

You know, I’ll admit that I had to look up what a winnowing fork is. Because this is not something I run into in my daily life as a 21st-century city-dweller. But it turns out that a winnowing fork is sort of like a rake, and you use it by throwing whole heads of grain up into the air. 

And the idea is that when the wheat goes up in the air, the inner part of the wheat – the heavy grain – will fall to the ground, where it can be collected. The light, chaffy parts – all that stuff that surrounded and protected the wheat, but which is now dead and useless – all that stuff will just blow away. No need to even bother with it anymore.

Where is the chaff in us? What are the parts of our lives that seemed important, that felt like they lent us protection but are in fact holding us back from following God and loving our neighbors with our whole hearts? Where are all the dead places that are ready to be blown away by the breath of God?

Where is the wheat in us? Here in this community. In your heart. Where’s the wheat? What does it look like for that wheat to be gathered? To be planted, watered, and nurtured? To grow and bear fruit worthy of repentance? What does it look to live our lives as true children of Abraham, children of the promise?

God doesn’t need us, but he will plant us so that we can bear fruit. God doesn’t rely on us, but he loves us and desires to welcome us into his kingdom. That kingdom has come near. Now is the time to prepare ourselves to receive it.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

The Bible Says Jesus Is King – But What If We Don’t Want One?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/24/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 23:33-43 and Jeremiah 23:1-6. 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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Jesus is king. He’s the messiah. He’s the rightful heir to the throne of David. He’s the fulfillment of the promise. He is the king of Israel, the king of all the nations, the king of the universe.

Jesus is king. He is sovereign. He answers to no human authority. All things are subject to him. In him, all things hang together. He is Lord.

Does this make you uncomfortable? Does all of this hierarchical, patriarchal language make you cringe a little bit? Does all this talk of kingship run against your modern American sensibilities? After all, this country fought a revolution so that we wouldn’t have to bow down to kings anymore!

In a country where we say we believe in democracy and equal rights for all, what do we do with this talk of kings and lords and power and sovereignty? We’ve seen all the ways that unaccountable power can run amok. Why on earth would we want to think of God in terms of being the ultimate, absolute monarch?

Jeremiah would agree. He had seen quite enough of the kings and lords and rulers of Israel. Men who abused their position for their own selfish interest. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” Through Jeremiah, God denounces the kings of this world. The way the lords of this world live as parasites off of the people they claim to shepherd.

To these false shepherds, these petty kings, God says: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” The day is coming.

Jesus stood in the tradition of Jeremiah in his analysis of power. He saw the same abuse of power, the vampiric sucking of the rich elites who consume the lives of working people. His friends. His family. The desperate thousands who came to him for relief.

Jesus lived in a land ruled by an illegitimate petty dictator. A strongman propped up by the violent domination of the Roman Empire. Jesus knew what a false shepherd was. He saw Herod murder his friend and mentor, John the Baptist. He watched as the Temple elite sought to kill him, and finally delivered him up to the Roman authorities for execution. Jesus knew what the false shepherds, the petty kings of this world, are capable of when their power is threatened.

Jesus was so threatening to these false shepherds, that they nailed him to a cross. Crucifixion, a dread punishment reserved for insurrectionists. Once they had nailed him to the cross, the soldiers mocked him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

Jesus knew the evil that the false shepherds were capable of. Jesus knew the horror that kings bring. Jesus knew that his father never wanted Israel to have a human king in the first place.

Jesus remembered the days of Samuel, before Israel had a king. God was king. The people were ruled directly by him, guided by the prophets who spoke the words of God. God’s plan for Israel was that he would rule them directly. No strong men; no presidents, princes, or billionaires. God wanted to teach Israel a totally different way of living as a society. A way without human domination and top-down hierarchies.

But the people demanded a king. They wanted to be “strong,” like the peoples around them. They wanted a warlord to go before them and fight their battles. They wanted empire. They wanted to be mighty, not the vulnerable people of the God of the Tent. And so God gave them a king: Saul, who would begin a long line of greed, violence, vanity, and imperial ambitions. A lineage of horror that would ultimately culminate in the Babylonian captivity. When given the option, that’s what we picked.

God is the good shepherd, but we didn’t want that. We couldn’t wrap our minds around the great mystery and power that is God. We preferred to shrink our rulers down to size. We chose to abandon God’s rule and to submit ourselves to the false shepherds that feed off of us to fuel their own ambitions.

So if this talk of kings and lords makes you uncomfortable, you’re right. There are a lot of good reasons to be skeptical of kings. Not just back then. Not just in ancient Israel, or even in the days of Rome, but today. We have good reason to be skeptical of top-down, hierarchical leadership. Right? We’ve seen the results.

In Syria and Yemen. Burma and Western China. In Flint, Michigan and along the route of the disastrous Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota. We’ve seen what the princes of this world – presidents and princes, senators and billionaires – are capable of.

Most tragically, we’ve seen the results of the Christian church chasing after violent, coercive, hierarchical power. We’ve seen how the church, just like Israel, has often chosen human kings to lead us rather than submitting ourselves to God’s presence and power.

The church’s prostitution to power started, some would argue, when we picked cooperation with the Emperor Constantine rather than continuing to be a suffering church of outsiders. Things got worse as we moved into the middle ages. The church became fully fused with state power. Popes shepherded the kings of Europe and launched so-called holy wars of aggression against Muslims, Jews, and even fellow Christians.

The crusades never really stopped. Even today, most Christians support endless war in the Middle East, and around the globe – anywhere that the kings of this world choose to send us. Much of the Christian community has put its faith in the power of empires and armies, presidents and premiers – in the kingdoms of this world rather than in the direct leadership of Jesus Christ.

The truth is, we don’t want Jesus to be our king. We don’t want him, because Jesus doesn’t offer us the violence and domination that we’ve come to expect from our rulers. He doesn’t beat up the bad guys. He doesn’t save us from suffering. In fact, he calls us to join him in the path of the cross. He calls us to love our enemies. He shows us a way of surrender, loss of control, and downward mobility.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is king. This is good news precisely because Jesus is nothing like the kings of this world.

They promise us glory, he is revealed in failure. They promise us security, his throne is the cross. The kings of this world – presidents and congressmen and billionaires – they promise us a boot stomping on the face of our enemies, forever. Jesus calls us into an endless life of love that encompasses even those who hate us.

What does it mean for us to live in the kingdom of Jesus? What does it mean for us to join the failed insurrectionist hanging on the cross by Jesus’ side – because that is, of course what we are: failed insurrectionists who chose to follow the false rulers of this world rather than our faithful Lord Jesus. Will we join the failed insurrectionist nailed to the cross beside Jesus? Will we say together with him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom?”

God foretold the coming of Jesus through the prophet Jeremiah:

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

Jesus is king. He is the righteous branch of David that Jeremiah foretold. He is a king for all the nations, a ruler who will execute justice and righteousness. A king who is close to us, present with us, not unfamiliar with our struggle and suffering. A king who has endured everything to show his love for us, and who invites us into his mission of love and cosmic redemption.

Jesus is king. Praise him. Honor him. Obey him. Recognize that he is here in our midst. Open your eyes to see that he is still being crucified by the false shepherds. The spirit of Herod and Pilate and Caesar is alive, and crushing the life of our people.

But the spirit of Jesus is more powerful, more enduring, more life-filled. He is the ocean of light and love that flows over this ocean of darkness. He is our peace. He is our hope – the only ruler worth obeying.

Jesus is alive and present in his resurrection power. Jesus has triumphed over the powers of darkness, hatred, and death. Jesus is our present and living king.

Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

Hate Your Boss? There’s An Alternative

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and Acts 16:11-40. 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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There’s a saying that I’ve heard many times, and it’s true: People don’t quit a job, they quit a boss. There’s nothing worse than a lousy manager. Well, maybe there’s one thing that’s worse than a bad manager: Multiple bad managers.

Have you ever been in that situation? Where in a work situation you were answering to multiple people? Each one of them with their own priorities and perspectives. Their own ideas about how you should best do your job. Maybe even conflicting with one another in the instructions they give you?

It reminds me of that scene from Office Space, the classic movie from the late 90s. The main character is being interviewed by consultants, and he tells them: “I have eight different bosses right now. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation – is not to be hassled – that and not being fired. But you know, Bob, that’ll only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

Sound familiar?

Well the good news of the kingdom of God is that we have just one boss. That’s what freedom means. It means being free to serve only one boss, one Lord. It means not being tossed to and fro by the opinions, objections, and hangups of all the many people in our lives who’d like to tell us what to do. It means submitting ourselves to God, accepting the judgment of God, and being liberated from the judgment of everyone else.

We see that in our reading this morning, when Paul writes to the Corinthians and says, “I’m free with respect to all.” Nobody tells Paul what to do. Nobody but the Holy Spirit. Because he is a slave of God, he is freed from all human masters.

That’s what the gospel is. It’s freedom. It’s peace. It’s knowing where we belong and who we need to obey. It’s having a perfect boss, better than any human leader, who guides us not out of a desire for control or domination, but out of love. We worship a God who leads us from a place of knowledge, compassion, and creativity. This is a leader we can trust.

So the children are free. We’re free to follow God and disregard the vain fashions of this world. We’re liberated from the domination of money. We’re released from this world’s addiction to coercive power. We’re free when we dwell in the abundance and life-giving power of Jesus.

Our readings this morning are helpful. They’re clarifying. And when we think about freedom, we need some clarification. We need some clarification, because America has a very different conception of freedom from the liberty that we find in the gospel. The freedom of the American Dream is wholly distinct from the freedom that we find in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection. The liberty of the kingdom of God is rooted in love, using our freedom to build up the lives of others and share the blessings of God’s abundance.

That’s what we read in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. He says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” He says, I became what the Jews needed me to be, so that they could hear and accept the message. And when I spoke to Gentiles, I adapted myself to their way of life. I changed. I humbled myself so that I could speak and demonstrate the gospel in ways that would touch their hearts and enliven their minds.

To the hipsters I became like a hipster. To the parents with small children, I became like a dad. To the surfers, I learned how to shred. To the tech bros, I learned jargon. To the Quakers I spoke calmly and slowly. “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

From the Christian perspective, freedom is not an end unto itself. It is a means. Our freedom is a tool, a privilege to be spent in the service of others. We have only one boss, one leader, one Lord, and this gives us enormous freedom. We were given this freedom for a reason. Not for self-indulgence, but to comfort and heal, to convict and proclaim the good news of God’s love. God is healing our wounds so that we can become healers.

For the world around us, for those who are pursuing the American Dream, freedom is about “me.” Freedom is about what I want, when I want it, as much as I want. Freedom is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. It’s about having things on my terms, and not letting anyone tell me what to do. It’s about becoming an army of one. Answerable to no one.

The freedom of the gospel is the opposite of this self-centered fantasy. The good news is Jesus, the crucified, homeless messiah. It’s a story that centers “the least of these” – the people that our society doesn’t value, doesn’t want to see, and often tries to dispose of.

Those are the people that Jesus went to, when he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. These are the folks that Paul was reaching out to when he met Lydia, a non-Jewish worshiper of God, who was gathered with other women at a prayer meeting outside the city gate. Women. Unorthodox, Gentile believers in God. The unclean. The enemy. That’s who God loves.

It’s this kind of enemy-love that Paul and Silas showed when they stayed put in their jail cells after the earthquake. They could have run. Maybe we think they should have run – after all, they were clearly being freed by God through a miraculous earthquake, a very strange earthquake that not only opened up all the doors of the jail, but even released them from their chains!

But Paul and Silas were free men. They were free citizens of the kingdom of God. They were free from the reflexive self-preservation that enslaves most of us. They saw past their own need to get out of that jail cell, realizing that the Holy Spirit had opened a bridge into the heart of their jailer. A man who would be killed if he let his prisoners escape. Paul and Silas were free enough to say, “Wait, jailer! Don’t kill yourself! We are still here!”

In this situation, most of us would probably say that the “least of these” in this situation were Paul and Silas. They’re the ones locked up for doing nothing wrong. In this story, we would see the apostles as the oppressed and the prison guard as the oppressor.

But Paul and Silas had been given eyes to see that it was the jailer who was truly in chains. The prison worker was trapped in a life of servitude to the rulers of this world. So when the earthquake came, it was a prophetic earthquake. It revealed that which was already true. Paul and Silas were free after all, and it was the jailer who was on the knife’s edge.

And they truly were free! It turns out that Paul and Silas didn’t even have to be in jail in the first place. They were Roman citizens. They were not subject to the beating and imprisonment without trial that they were being subjected to. You’d think that they would have mentioned their status when they first got in trouble. But for some reason they didn’t. Perhaps it was a prophetic silence, just like that of Jesus when he stood before Pontius Pilate. Perhaps they could sense that, though they were free to avoid persecution, God was going to do something important with their suffering. As Paul would write to the Corinthian church – they became weak so that they might win the weak.

The kingdom of God is a life of victory. It’s a life of power. It’s a life of connection and community. Because we have one boss, one God, one father. There’s only one voice we answer to. It’s the voice of love.

The voice of love calls us to surrender the freedom that this world offers. The freedom to be separate. The freedom to avoid discomfort. The freedom to stay safe while others suffer.

Are we living in the freedom of Jesus? Are we living in the liberty that Paul and Silas experienced? Do we have just one boss – the powerful spirit of love who liberates us from the fear of this world?

Are we living in the freedom of the kingdom? Power that allows us to become weak. Strength that permits us to become vulnerable. Compassion that draws us to the margins. Vision to see that our enemies need God’s love more than our revenge. Do we live in that kingdom?

Are we ready to fire our bosses? All the rules and systems that this world lays on us, to keep us in line as compliant producers and consumers? Are we ready to fire our eight bosses and submit ourselves to one Lord, our holy center, the living presence of God? Do we want to be liberated from what this world calls freedom – the selfish rat-race of consumerism and domination? Will we embrace the cross of Jesus, finding as he did that true freedom lies in being poured out as an offering for others?

Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear – And Fills Us With Boldness

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/22/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 4:23-35. 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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Perfect love casts out all fear. There is no fear in love.

That’s what it means for the Holy Spirit to be present with us. We are freed from our self-consciousness, the awareness of our own nakedness that we picked up after the Fall. We’re liberated from the need to hide from ourselves, from others, from God.

The presence of the Holy Spirit drives out all fear of people. Fear of our bosses at work. Fear of what our friends, family, and co-workers think of us. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of giving up our sense of control over our own lives: Money. Career. Religion. Identity.

The Holy Spirit liberates us from all these things. Perfect love casts out all fear.

And that’s a good thing. It’s a critical thing. Because the life that God is calling us to is terrifying as long as we are living in the mindset of this world. Middle class consumerism. The endless quest for security and status. The desire to be a real adult. Affluent. Self-sufficient. Autonomous.

It’s a good thing that the Holy Spirit frees us from all fear. Because the kingdom of God has no space for successful, autonomous adults. When the disciples asked Jesus, “Who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Little children are special, because they haven’t learned to be truly afraid yet. They haven’t developed the kind of ego that comes with growing up. They haven’t absorbed the lesson that this world teaches us: that we have to be self-supporting, independent, in control. Little kids know they aren’t in control, even if they hate it sometimes. They rely on us adults for everything.

That’s what it means for the Holy Spirit to be with us. It means we can rely on our heavenly Father. We can trust God to be a mother to us. We can let go of our fear, because our God is the “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them.” Despite all appearances. Despite the threats, and shaming, and violence that our society shows to those who refuse to conform, we know that our God is the lord and sovereign of history. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we know in our bones that “he’s got the whole world in his hands.”

In our reading from Luke this morning, we get a window into what life was like in the first days of the Christian community in Jerusalem. This is in the days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. After the gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were busy preaching the word of God to a growing community of disciples.

It says that the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit filled them with love and cast out their fear. They preached the good news of Jesus and his kingdom in public – on the streets, and even in the Temple itself. They performed miracles. They healed the sick and cast out unclean spirits, just like Jesus did.

It says that the apostles drew so much attention to themselves that the authorities started going after them in the same way they went after Jesus. They hauled the apostles in front of religious tribunals. The religious leaders demanded that they cease speaking, healing, and teaching in the name of Jesus.

Most people would have been afraid. I mean, you saw what they did to the last guy that talked this way: They handed him over to the Romans to be nailed to a cross! But the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they weren’t afraid of human authorities, no matter how dangerous.

So when the high priest and the religious leaders demanded that the disciples keep quiet about Jesus, Peter and John answered this way: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Despite their defiance, the religious leaders were afraid of the crowds. The crowds had seen the signs and wonders that the apostles were performing, and believed. So they let them go.

And when all the brothers and sisters heard what had happened. When they heard that Peter and John had stood up to the authorities and walked away with their lives, they praised God. They said, “Look at this, y’all: We live in a city where we’ve got guys like Herod and Pilate, who were quite happy to murder Jesus. We see their threats. But thanks to you, God, we’re not afraid of them. We know who is really in control of history. We trust you, no matter what happens.”

They were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had filled them with love and power. The Spirit cast out all fear. All that the disciples asked God for was boldness. To preach the good news of Jesus. To share the victory announcement of God’s kingdom. To heal the sick, raise the dead, set the oppressed free, and proclaim good news to the poor. “Grant us to speak your word with all boldness, God.”

And it says that when the brothers and sisters had finished praying together, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”

Freed from fear by the Holy Spirit, they spoke the word of God with boldness. And the very earth was shaken.

Other things were shaken. Social structures. Hierarchies between men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Greek. All the old assumptions were rattled. Everything they thought they knew was leveled in the light of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit broke down the feeling of separateness among the disciples. They truly became one body, a spiritual unity in Jesus. They had become something greater than merely a collection of the individuals. They had become the church, the family of God.

This had radical economic implications. When you’re a family, the strictness of private property breaks down. We think less about what’s mine and what’s yours. We think more about what each of us can give, and how to meet the needs of each person.

With this outpouring of boldness from the Holy Spirit, we see the emergence of this spiritual family among the believers in Jerusalem. It says that all of the believers, “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions. … Everything they owned was held in common.”

In the early days of the church, there were no poor Christians. That’s because there were no rich Christians, either. Everyone who had possessions brought what they had and shared with everyone else, as they had need.

The first disciples in Jerusalem could do this, because they had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Their fear had been cast out. They were filled with boldness, not only to share the good news of the kingdom, but to dwell in it. They had become citizens of the kingdom of God. Whenever that citizenship conflicted with their loyalty to biological family, to religious identity, to governments – whenever those institutions told them that they had to live in fear, they chose instead to live in the kingdom of God. They chose to walk in the fearless way of Jesus.

Do we want that? Do we want to experience the love and boldness and power of the apostles?

Just before his famous vision on Pendle Hill in the 1650s, early Quaker minister George Fox writes in his Journal,

“The Lord had said unto me that if but one man or woman were raised by His power to stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the Scriptures, that man or woman would shake all the country in their profession for ten miles around.”

George Fox had read the Book of Acts a few times. He knew that the presence of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by power. By boldness. By a conviction that transforms lives. He saw that if even one person is fully gripped by that life and power, it has the potential to transform the lives of thousands – to shake all the country for ten miles around.

Do we want that? Do we want to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Do we want to be so audacious, so full of the Holy Spirit and fire, that we shake the whole East Bay?

Do we want to be so overwhelmed by the love and fearless power of God that our neighbors, our co-workers, and our government can’t help but take notice? Are we ready to have our fear cast out? Are we prepared to become a family in Jesus, to surrender control and truly become one body in him?

Do we want to be set ablaze with the fire of God? Do we aspire to become more like the apostolic church that we read about in the Book of Acts and in the writings of early Friends? Or is our spiritual condition better described by this poem from Wilbur Rees:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Do we want three dollars worth of God, or do we want the kingdom?

And if we do, how do we need to change – both as individuals and as a church community? What do we need to let go, so that our hands are free and ready to heal? Where do we need to be so that our lives can be vessels for the signs and wonders of God’s kingdom?

God showed George Fox that if even one man or woman were raised up in the same power that the prophets and apostles were in, their presence would shake the countryside for ten miles around. Are you ready to be that one? Are we ready to be those ones? 

Are we ready to claim our citizenship in the kingdom of God? To preach the word with boldness? To live as God’s little children – without fear, without shame, and without regret?

Are You Thirsty? Come to the Fountain

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/1/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; and Luke 14:1, 7-14. 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

I’m an ambitious person. I love the feeling of accomplishing big tasks. I like my work to be impressive. And I like getting things done fast.

I want to feel strong. Self-sufficient. I want to feel like I control my own life. I want to make my own choices, and not have anyone telling me what to do.
So our scripture readings this morning speak to me. They speak to my condition. They challenge me, in my ambition, my independence, my pride.

In all of these passages – The words of God through Jeremiah. The instructions from the last chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. The words of Jesus passed along to us from the apostle Luke – In all of these passages, I hear God saying to us, his people: Stop trying so hard. Stop trying to get ahead. Don’t depend on your own efforts. Surrender, and acknowledge that I am God. I am in control.

It turns out that the good news of Jesus – the good news of the God of the Old Testament and the New – is not that we are going to be successful. It’s that God’s power is unlimited.

It’s not that we’re going to do great things for God, it’s that God can do great things in us.

The gospel of the kingdom is not that we ourselves will be strong, but that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. In the quotidian. The daily. The unnoticed. In the patient endurance of ordinary men and women, who make the daily decision to walk in the way of God’s love and justice.

This is the message that God is trying to get across to his people through the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke God’s words to Israel in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity. God’s message through Jeremiah is, “Why have you abandoned me and gone off to chase after your own way? How can you imagine that all these false gods – all your projects, all your designs, all the things you worship instead of me – what made you think that they would fulfill you?”

By abandoning God, by rejecting his leadership, by going their own way and seeking to be independent, the people of Israel were destroying the good things that God had done for them. God says,

I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.

The people of Israel have abandoned the kingdom of God. They’ve chosen injustice and empire. They’ve chosen to worship false gods and exploit the poor and vulnerable. And on top of all this, they’re discovering that they’re more desperate and out-of-control than ever. They never seem to stop eating, but they’re always hungry.

All the ways that Israel has sought to impose its own system of control. The foreign alliances and trade deals. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The exaltation of the king in Jerusalem. The running after foreign gods who seemed more exotic and powerful than the God of Exodus – none of these things have satisfied. The people of Israel are thirstier than ever before.

God says:

But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

The people of Israel thought they were trading up. Getting more power, more wealth, more control. They thought they would do better for themselves than God ever could. They would guarantee their own prosperity.

But that’s not how it turned out. The wages of self-will are ruin. Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. The people of Israel got ambitious. They got independent-minded. They got arrogant. And all it got them was Jerusalem laid waste, the temple destroyed, and seventy years in captivity far from home.

Fast forward six hundred years to the ministry of Jesus. Luke tells us about a time that Jesus was eating in the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the sabbath. And after breaking the rules by healing a man on the day of rest, Jesus tells a parable about a dinner party.

If you’re invited to a wedding, and it comes time to eat dinner, Jesus advises against rushing to sit down at the head table. Because it might happen that the bride and groom have a close friend who they want to be seated in the place of honor. How embarrassing would it be to have your hosts ask – in front of everybody – you to move to another table, so that someone more important can take your place!

Instead, Jesus says, you’ll do better to sit way in the back, far from the action. Take the least important seat. Because if you do that, maybe you’ll have to squint to see the bride and groom. But if you’re really someone so important, your hosts will come and find you. They’ll invite you to move to a place of greater prominence. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

But what if you’re the one throwing the party? What if you’re the bride or the groom? Jesus has some words about that, too. Again, don’t be so full of yourselves!

The normal thing to do when you’re throwing a party is to invite all your friends. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can invite people who you don’t know super well, but who are important in one way or another. They’re well-connected, or rich, or charming, or have some other outstanding trait that makes them worth inviting. These are people who can pay you back in the future.

Jesus’ advice for throwing a party is the total opposite. He says:
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

I don’t know about you, but I want to do big things and go places. I want to run in important circles and be recognized. But Jesus says, spend your time with those who can’t do anything for you, and you will be blessed. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Recognize that God is in control. Drop your attempts to control other people. Stop trying to provide your own status and security. In the kingdom of God, real security comes through total dependence on God.

I love the Letter to the Hebrews. I love how ferverous the preacher is. He gets so into it. I mean, just listen to these lines from chapter 12, the part of the letter that comes right before the section we read aloud this morning:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!

Does that get to you? Can you hear the preacher getting so intense, speaking to us about the ineffable glory of God – his power, his majesty, his righteousness? The author of Hebrews invites us to imagine ourselves as we truly are when we assemble in the name of Jesus – we are come to Mount Zion… to innumerable angels in festal gathering. Wow!

The author of Hebrews is all about the big picture. He’s all about the glory and power that has been unleashed in the heavenly realms thanks to the ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus. There are parts of Hebrews that are riotous in their exuberance and passion. The preacher invites us to ascend into the heavenlies and walk into the holy-of-holies with Jesus.

So I think it’s so important that before the letter ends, Hebrews brings us back to earth and calls us to practical application. We have seen the majesty and the glory. We’ve seen the innumerable angels in festal gathering – so what does that mean for us, mere mortals that we are?

Here’s some of the advice we get:

Keep loving one another.

  • Show hospitality to strangers.
  • Visit those in prison, and those who are being tortured. (And we know lots of people are in prison and being tortured right now.)
  • Honor marriage and practice your sexuality in ways that glorify God and bring honor to Jesus.
  • Keep your lives free of the love of money. Be content with what you have, because God will always care for you.
  • Respect and imitate your leaders, those who have taught you in the way of Jesus.
  • Praise God. Honor him with your words and your actions.
  • Share with others. This is the sacrifice that most pleases God.

This is challenging advice. These aren’t easy things to do, especially not consistently, as a community. But these aren’t wild instructions, either. The author of Hebrews doesn’t tell us to solve climate change – though undoubtedly we need to be part of that struggle. He doesn’t tell us to restore good governance to our nation – though that’s so important. The letter to the Hebrews doesn’t conclude by giving us any grand mission.

Instead, it sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? Love one another. Help those who are in trouble and need a place to stay. Don’t be ruled by money or sex or jealousy, but honor God with your lives.

These aren’t instructions that ambitious, independent people like me want to hear. It’s not about instant gratification or quick success. It’s not about victory at all – not in the way the world understands it. It’s about what the apostle John calls “the patient endurance of the saints.”

It’s a faith like that crabgrass you can’t get rid of, even with roundup. The grass that keeps coming back until the concrete of the sidewalk breaks down. It’s that daily faithfulness that often goes unnoticed. Not flashy, but over the course of years, and decades, and centuries, it has the power to break down empires.

“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”

Not big things. Nothing spectacular. But faithfulness. Little by little. Every day. Becoming channels of God’s love for those around us. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

Let go of those broken cisterns that you’ve built for yourselves. All the ways that you seek to be in control, independent of God and other people. Surrender. Acknowledge your own need of God, your daily dependence on his life, power, and spirit. Come to the fountain of living water.

Related Posts:

The Sabbath Isn’t About Religion – It’s About Liberation

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When the Angels Come to America, Will They Find Ten Righteous People?

Header image of people walking in the city

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/28/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 18:20-32, Colossians 2:6-19, Luke 11:1-13. You can listen to the audio (beginning with the scripture readings; the sermon begins at 6:30). Or, keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

As Jesus was praying in a certain place, his disciples approached him, and asked him: Lord, teach to pray, just like John taught his disciples. Jesus’ response, according to Luke, was extremely simple and straightforward. It started like this:

Father, hallowed be your name.

God is so far beyond anything we know or can understand. The God of Jesus, the God of Moses, the God of Abraham. The God of the desert. The God who said, “let there be light!” and the Big Bang happened. The God who hovered over the waters at the beginning of time. Let his name be holy.

Let his name be holy. His face, his character, his inward being – God is holy, set apart. God is different from us, unique. God is different from us in kind, not merely degree. God is not like the gods of the ancient world. He is not Zeus or Baal or Hera or Asherah. The God of Jesus is not a bigger, stronger, wiser human being. This is the God of the Big Bang and the garden, the God of Mount Sinai and the Tent of Meeting – this God is wholly and utterly other.

Let his name be holy. Let him be set apart, one-of-a-kind. Let us recognize that we are creatures and he is creator. Let us appreciate the profound difference between us and him. And let us realize that this difference is not a source of alienation, but rather a source of joy. Give thanks that God is not like us.

God is set apart, holy, different from us. Our creator is not blinded with our ways of seeing the world. He is not ensnared in our selfishness. And that’s why he can liberate us from the darkness we find ourselves in.

Your kingdom come.

That liberation, Jesus calls a kingdom. An empire. A reign, a rule, a tangible relationship of obedience that knits our lives together in the most holy, awesome, and powerful love of God.

Jesus says: This is my father’s world, and his reign is coming. Pray for it to come, and soon. Pray for the joy, justice, and liberty that the kingdom of God will bring. Pray for the transformation of our world to look like God intends. Pray for peace. Pray for love. 

Pray for the kingdom of God, that it would quickly overcome the counterfeit kingdoms of this world. Human hierarchies and economies. Petty personal ambitions and towering corporations. Nuclear armed nation-states and oppressive religious authorities.

Your kingdom come, Father God. Your kingdom come, humble Lord Jesus. Your kingdom come, Spirit of God, descending on the world as in the beginning.

Give us each day our daily bread

We. Are. Helpless. We breathe because God gives us breath. We see because God said, “let there be light!” We eat because the Spirit hovered over the waters and called forth all the living things in the sea, on the earth, and in the air.

Just like every living thing, we depend on God for the basic nutrients we need to get through a single day. Those of us who live in this agricultural, industrial, and high-technological civilization easily fool ourselves into imagining that we are in control. We believe that we make our own way in this cosmos. That we are lords of the earth. But we are wrong. We are like hungry, half-blind, infant children crying out for mother’s milk.

Give us each day our daily bread, God. Feed us. We’re helpless without your love.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Whoa now. Whoa now. “Forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us.” I don’t know about you, but I was a lot more comfortable with this prayer Jesus is teaching us, back when I could limit it to the ways I should be thinking about God and relating to God. But what’s this about people? What’s this about forgiving everyone who owes me? 

That’s not how our economy works! I can’t just go around forgiving everyone’s debts. I need to get paid! I need to eat! My family needs to eat! How are we going to get by without demanding that our debtors pay what they owe us?

Give us each day our daily bread.

Oh right. God provides. God is the source. He is the giver of every gift. He is powerful, and loving, and in control. But we have to surrender. Because we’re not in charge.

Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Your kingdom come

This is the only way, the only way this is going to happen. God’s kingdom has to come. His way has to be lived out here, now, right here in late capitalist North America. Because I can’t do this otherwise. I can’t forgive those who are indebted to me if the kingdom isn’t going to come. I can’t surrender my security and safety in the money economy, if I don’t know that there’s another economy I can take part in. I need God’s kingdom. I need this kingdom to come if I’m going to pray this way.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

That’s what this all sounds like. Trial. Testing. Challenge. Renouncing the world that is right in front of our eyes, in favor of a new world being born. A world of waving trees, moving with the breath of God. A world of teeming oceans and flying birds. A world of clean water flowing from the city of God. A world of economies powered by love, neighborhoods filled with peace, and streets flowing with justice.

It feels like a time of trial now. It feels like we’ve come to a time of trial. A time when we will be tested. And, if I’m honest with myself, most days I feel like I’m failing the exam. I’m not living up to the measure of the character of Jesus.

So I pray: Don’t bring me to the time of trial, God. I’m not ready. Have mercy on me, I’m not like Jesus yet. Help me to get there, Lord. But don’t bring me to the time of trial. I’m not sure I’ll survive it.

In our reading this morning from the Book of Genesis, we hear about God’s visit to Abraham. It says that Abraham “saw three men standing near him,” and he knew it was the Lord.

And so the visitors ate with Abraham and Sarah. They accepted the couple’s hospitality, and they delivered some very unexpected news. Then the three visitors got up to leave. But before they took off, God decided to share with Abraham what he was about to do, and where the angels were headed. 

God was going to destroy the city of Sodom and its sister city of Gomorrah – two allied cities situated on the Jordan River plain. God was on his way to check Sodom out for himself, and if it was really as bad as he had heard, he was going to level the place.

Sodom and Gomorrah were full of greed and injustice, arrogance and violence. God said to Abraham, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”

So it’s the time of trial for Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s time to put these cities to the test and find out if they’re really as wicked as everyone in the region says they are. 

But then an interesting thing happens. Abraham intervenes with God, pleading for leniency with these cities. It says that Abraham came near to God and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous in the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?”

Fair enough, says God. If I can find fifty righteous people, I will spare the city for their sake.

Presumably God is about to take off at this point, but Abraham keeps it up. “What about forty-five, Lord? Surely you wouldn’t destroy the city just because five righteous people were missing.”

And God’s like, “OK, sure. Forty five it is.”

“But God…”

“What, Abraham?”

“How about forty?”

“Oh for… OK, fine. Forty.”

“Can I get thirty?”

“Thirty.”

“Twenty?”

“Twenty.”

At this point Abraham is really pushing his luck, but he risks annoying God, for the sake of the few righteous people that might be in Sodom and Gomorrah. “Oh, God, don’t be angry at me for this, but… What about ten? Would you spare the city for ten righteous people?”

And it says that God answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And then the Lord went on his way.

Wild, right? What a negotiator! Abraham haggled God all the way down to ten people. There would just have to be ten decent, upright folks in all of Sodom, and they would pass the test.

Lord, do not bring us to the time of trial.

As I suspect that y’all know already, Sodom did not pass the test. When the heavenly visitors showed up in town, they accepted the hospitality of apparently the only righteous man in all of Sodom – Lot. But in the middle of the night, all the other men of the city came and demanded that the guests be surrendered, to be publicly humiliated, abused, and sexually assaulted. Only through the divine powers of the guests were Lot and his family able to escape. And once they did, the whole plain went up in flames. Sodom and Gomorrah had failed the test.

Lord, do not bring us to the time of trial.

Sodom and Gomorrah are legendary for their wickedness, and for their failure to meet the time of trial. And it’s tempting to imagine that these cities were a special case, an amazingly wicked group of people, very different from you and me. Very different from our city, our nation.

But are we? Are we a people of justice? Are we a city of righteousness? Are we a place where God’s kingdom is felt and experienced, where the hungry are fed, the lonely loved, and the stranger welcomed? Who are the righteous men and women of our society? Are there enough of them to deliver us from the time of trial?

Let’s review the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples:

Father, hallowed be your name.

You are different and special, God.

Your kingdom come.

We need you to change us, God. Make us like Jesus.

Give us each day our daily bread.

We depend on you, Holy Spirit, every day. Feed us and guide us.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Liberate us from our selfishness and addiction to the money economy, God. Teach us to love others like you love us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul writes, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Do not bring us to the time of trial.

Root us in you, God. Grow us into maturity. Make us like Jesus. Create in us clean hearts, oh God, and renew a right spirit within us.

Make us salt and light. Make us the righteous ones that ward off the time of trial from our city, our nation, our planet.

For, as Paul writes:

…when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave all of our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

Your kingdom come.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit. Transform our lives. Forgive our sins. Use us as a catalyst of liberation, to free those around us from debt, accusation, and fear. Do not bring us to the time of trial, and in your mercy use us to turn away the time of trial for the city where we live.

Sometimes it seems impossible. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we could make any difference at all in this world so filled with darkness right now. So I leave you with the words of Jesus, who has faced all this darkness and more, and who lives and reigns forever and ever:

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

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