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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?

Related Posts:

What Does It Mean For Us To Love One Another?

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

What Does It Mean For Us To Love One Another?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/19/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text – and the first minute or so of the sermon is not recorded.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus says to his disciples over the Passover meal:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.

What does it mean for us to love one another? How can we love one another with the same love that Jesus loves us? A love that is bestowed, gifted, given freely and not earned. A love so powerful that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, while we still hated him and everything he stands for.

What does it mean to demonstrate that kind of love to one another?

In our reading from John this morning, Jesus says, “love one another.” He’s specifically telling the disciples how to treat each other – their fellow friends and followers of Jesus. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The love of Jesus is expressed in a special way among his disciples. It’s expressed in a special way among those who commit themselves to walking together in the way of his kingdom. It’s that communion love. It’s the love poured out in the Passover wine. It’s the body of faith, broken in the unleavened bread of the covenant.

It’s through this love, through this communion shared by the followers of Jesus, that those outside the fellowship will know that Jesus is here in our midst. A lot of people think that communion consists of performing certain rituals or consuming a special kind of food. But the communion of Jesus is the love of brothers and sisters in the empire of God.

His love is the wine that we drink as we sit across the table from one another. It’s the bread we break as we commit our lives to serving one another – the brothers and sisters that Jesus died for. It’s the water that washes the feet and leaves the whole body clean.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is how Jesus is glorified in the world. This is how human beings can know God. When they see how we love one another. When they see through our loving kindness for each other that Jesus Christ is risen indeed.

There’s this idea present in John, the idea of the redemptive community. It’s through the love of the Jesus fellowship, the church, that God’s kingdom can be known and experienced in the world. The church is a sort of new Israel. The kingdom of Israel existed as a nation of people following God in the ancient world. Now, in Jesus, the community of God – the church – has become the site of God’s saving work in the world.

It’s from this holy relationship, the communion of the saints, the love of the disciples, that God’s presence in the world is known. In Jesus, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we as the church have become the tabernacle of God. The place where God’s presence dwells in the world.

Just as the world saw the holiness of God in the set-apartness and peculiar obedience of of Israel, God is now showing his face through this community. Jesus becomes visible – he’s glorified as we love one another and obey Jesus’ call. The world sees him when we do his work of righteousness, peace, and justice in the world.

But who is this new Israel? Who counts as a member of this community of believers, this assembly, this church? Who are the people that Jesus calls us to live in communion with? Who are the friends of Jesus, the body of Christ in the world, the new tabernacle of God?

In the early years of the Jesus movement, it seems like pretty much everyone assumed that only Jews were qualified to be part of this new thing God is doing. After all, Jesus was a Jew. All of the early disciples were Jews. As far as we know, everyone who experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost were Jews.

The Jews were God’s holy people, everybody knew that. The disciples assumed that Jesus was specifically the Jewish Messiah. That didn’t necessarily apply to the rest of the world. This helps explain why, in the Book of Acts, we read that in the very first days of the church, the Jesus movement was mostly limited to the Jewish community. It says in Acts 2 that the Christians in Jerusalem met in small groups in homes, and also worshipped at the Temple. That’s Jewish worship, with Jesus as the Messiah.

But even in these early days, the script begins to strain a little bit. There’s some doubt as to whether the good news of Jesus is just for the Jews, or whether others might be welcomed into the fellowship. As the church in Jerusalem begins to grow and gain a foothold, it comes under intense persecution by the local religious authorities. Some Christians, like Stephen, are even killed for their faith.

This persecution causes the church to be scattered out from Jerusalem, into neighboring regions. And Acts tells us that Philip “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them.” The people in Samaria were really digging this whole Jesus movement, so after a while a couple of the apostles – Peter and John – came down to see what was going on. And after doing an evangelistic preaching tour in Samaria, they returned to Jerusalem to let everyone there know what had happened.

So as we know, the Samaritans weren’t proper Jews. According to mainstream Jews, they were theologically deviant and had a really problematic history. Mainline Jews looked down on them and viewed them as unclean. We hear a lot about this in the gospels when Jesus encounters Samaritans and even tells a story about a good Samaritan.

So anyway, it’s a little weird, but it turns out that these heretics out in the boonies of Samaria are receiving the word of God with great eagerness. This is quite unexpected. And, depending on who you talked to, maybe a little scandalous.

In that same chapter of Acts, we also get the story of how Philip – who apparently was an amazingly gifted evangelist – has an encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Now, this is a person who is doubly rejected under the terms of the old Mosaic law. Because not only is he an uncircumcised Gentile, he’s a eunuch. He’s got no testicles. He’s ritually unclean and could never worship God properly according to an orthodox interpretation of the Torah.

And yet, just as in Samaria, Philip finds in this person a hunger, a readiness to receive the word of God. And the Holy Spirit is present, blessing and welcoming this brother into the fellowship, into the communion of the saints.

So even before our reading from Acts today, we’re already getting hints that maybe the kingdom of God is something more expansive, more universal, than the early disciples had ever imagined. Maybe circumcised Jews aren’t the only ones who can find healing, love, and power in Jesus. Maybe the circle of communion love is wider than the bounds of orthodoxy that the religious establishment has always assumed is essential.

This question, this challenge, this controversy, continues to the present day. As Christians, as human beings, we are always confronted with the question of “who is in and who is out?” Who really counts? Who are my friends? Who is my neighbor?

On the one hand, for those of us who have studied the Bible, these questions are relatively easy to answer. We might simply say, “everyone!” Every person is loved and valued by God. All people are worthy of respect, care, and love.

This is the truth. It’s what Jesus teaches us, and the Holy Spirit confirms it.

But the kind of belonging that our passages this morning are talking about are a little different from this generalized love of God. It’s a little different from the fact that all human beings are made in the image of God, and worthy of respect and compassion.

I believe I am called to love all people as Jesus first loved me. But I love my wife in a particular way. I am called to respect people of all faiths and no faith, but I have a special responsibility to the brothers and sisters at Berkeley Friends Church. God loved the whole world, but he formed a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants.

There is a kind of love that is unique and targeted. There is a love that is personal and direct. It is this kind of love that God showed for Israel, choosing them from among all the nations to be his special possession. It is through this very particular love for Israel that God fulfilled his promise to bless the whole world.

In the same way, Jesus chose particular men and women to be his followers. He chose the Twelve. He chose the one hundred and twenty. He chose Mary. He chose Paul. There is a love that is general, but God also shows us a love that is utterly specific and personal.

This is the love that Jesus shows us in the church. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It is this personal, particular, covenantal love of God for the church, of the church for Jesus, and of each of us for one another, that glorifies Jesus and transmits his blessing to the world.

It is this fellowship – believe it or not, it is us, the very people gathered in this space today – who are the tabernacle of God. We are God’s tent. The Holy Spirit lives in us. God chose us specifically! Isn’t that amazing?

And by this everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples: if we have love for one another.

This is the way God’s love becomes visible in the world. This is the pillar of smoke and fire that will guide this broken, aching world through the wilderness and into the promised land of God.

That’s enormous. The work that God is doing in us can’t be understated. This little fellowship here, along with countless other bands of Jesus followers throughout the world – we are the locus of God’s action in the world. We are salt and light. We are the catalyst. We are the body in which the Holy Spirit breathes.

In our reading from Acts this morning, Peter recounts to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem what he saw in Joppa. How he had a vision from God, declaring the unclean things to be clean. How the centurion Cornelius – an uncircumcised Gentile and all his household – received the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jewish believers did.

And Peter’s first instinct was to question it. To say, “no, no, no, Holy Spirit! You can’t do this. These people are unclean Gentiles. You can’t come to live in them. That’s against the Bible!”

But then Peter remembers a source of authority even more important than the Bible – the Lord Jesus himself. He says, “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Who am I that I could hinder God?

The people of God are the living tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. The people of God are the yeast that leavens the whole loaf. The people of God are the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, filling the earth with the light of God’s glory. When we love one another, just as Jesus first loved us.

There’s a tendency – always present among humans – to exclude some types of people. We create our organizations, our movements, our churches, by defining an in-group and an out-group. We decide, based on our own criteria, who belongs.

But the amazing thing that we see throughout the Bible – and throughout the history of God’s dealings with humanity – is that we don’t get to pick who is in and who is out. God is in control. Peter didn’t admit Cornelius and the Gentile believers into the family of Jesus – the Holy Spirit did that! The Holy Spirit was the one who touched the hearts of the people of Samaria, causing many of them to become followers of the Way. The Holy Spirit intervened in the life of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, bringing salvation to a person who – according to the letter of the law – must always be an outcast.

The story of the church is not one of keeping people out – it is one of God letting the most unexpected of people in. Jesus picked some very unlikely people to be his first disciples. Jesus picked Saul, who was a notorious persecutor of the church, to be one of his chief apostles to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit chose the Roman soldier Cornelius, and the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit chose you and me, unworthy as we are.

Jesus speaks to us the words he spoke to the leper in the first chapter of Mark, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Be made clean. Be my friend. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. Love one another.

The tough thing about religion, is that we tend to be obsessed with what has already happened. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in God’s past actions that we fail to see what God is doing right in front of us.

But as we hear in our reading from John’s Apocalypse, God says, “See, I am making all things new.” God is doing something unique and creative. The Holy Spirit is choosing people that we never expected. Jesus is standing at a door knocking, and anyone who answers his call, he will come in and eat with them. Hear the word of the Lord to us this morning:

It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

It is done. The holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem is descending. The tabernacle of God is among mortals! He will dwell with us, and we will be his people.

But we must obey his commandments. Love one another.

Just as Jesus has loved us, we should also love one another. Eat the bread and drink the wine at a table with all sorts of people you never thought you’d love. Break bread with those you were taught to hate. Wash the feet of those you were taught were unworthy to join the fellowship. Because the Holy Spirit has chosen them. And who are we to hinder God?

Related Posts:

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

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/28/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text – and the first minute or so of the sermon is not recorded.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Jesus is risen! Hallelujah! Jesus – the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth – he’s alive. He has taken his seat at the right hand of God.

Jesus who loves us, who has freed us from our sins by his blood.

Jesus, who made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father. He is risen and present this morning. To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen?

Jesus has emerged from the realm of the dead. He has freed the prisoners from the grave. He has overcome the power of death and triumphed over the works of the devil.

They nailed him to a cross. They pierced his feet, hands, and side. They laid him in a tomb, like seed being sown in the ground. But on Easter morning, the body was gone. It had sprouted. As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, the body of Jesus was sown as something perishable, but it was raised imperishable.

His life was sown in weakness, but now he is raised in power. He was sown in dishonor, but now his he raised in glory.

As the old hymn says:

Up from the grave he arose;
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Jesus is risen! Hallelujah!

And we are witnesses. We are gathered here today because – along with the first apostle, Mary, and the other disciples of that first generation – we have seen the Lord.

We are here to declare, as John declared, “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” That life is revealed in Jesus. “We have seen it and testify to it.” We have seen the Lord.

We have seen the Lord. But of course, not all of us have seen. Jesus has shown up in miraculous ways for some of us. He’s given us a strong sense of his presence. We have seen him, felt him, sensed him. We’ve heard his voice calling us. For those who have had this experience, it is an amazing blessing.

But God speaks to each of us differently, in the particular details and circumstances of our lives. Jesus speaks to us in loud ways and quiet ways. In ways obvious and subtle. The Holy Spirit ministers to our hearts. God meets us where we are at.

This morning we read one of John’s stories about how Jesus appeared to the disciples in the days immediately following the resurrection. And here’s what John says about his stories. He says, “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

John says that Jesus did a lot of things that John didn’t write down. John says that, “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” This makes sense. Jesus can’t be contained in a book. Jesus is seated in power at the right hand of the Father. Jesus is the eternal Word of God, through whom everything that exists was made.

Jesus is present to us in all of creation. In the morning breeze and birdsong. In the blades of grass and swaying trees. Jesus appears in all sorts of ways, at many times, to various individuals and communities. Jesus doesn’t have to perform miraculous signs and wonders to be present to us. Sometimes he is like an old friend, who doesn’t need to say or do anything. He’s just here.

So some of us might feel like we haven’t seen the Lord. We might feel like nothing out of the ordinary has happened in our lives. Nothing that can prove the existence of God or Jesus. And yet, we believe.

We believe because we have been told. We believe because we have heard the story and it resonates with what our deepest heart knows to be true. We believe because, in spite of all the darkness and horror of this world, we have seen the light that John tells us about. We have seen the reality of love at work in the world. We have seen it in the lives of the saints, the people sitting in this room, who have chosen to follow Jesus. Even when we’re not certain. Even when we doubt. Even when we have no proof to back up our faith.

Because let’s be real – we can’t prove any of this stuff we’re talking about. You can’t prove that life has meaning. That children are miraculous. That each human being is a unique and precious soul, worthy of love and respect. We can’t prove these things. They’re not scientifically demonstrable.

Yet we know they are true. We know love is real. This is “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have any doubt. We’re limited human beings living in a broken world. Of course we have doubt. We need to be reminded of the truth that our hearts declare. That’s why we have this community. To help us remember. To stay rooted in the things we know, but can’t prove. To ground ourselves in the things that really matter. To grow in the resurrection and become like Jesus.

And yet sometimes, sometimes God shows up in ways that truly are miraculous. And it’s one of these miraculous appearances that we read about today. It’s an encounter that John witnessed on the evening of that first Easter Sunday. The day that Jesus rose from the dead.

John says that the disciples are gathered together in a house, and they are afraid. And I mean, that makes sense. Let’s think about what has happened in the last 72 hours: Their friend and teacher was taken into police custody while all of them ran away and abandoned him. Jesus was put on trial by the chief priests and religious leaders. They found him guilty of blasphemy for claiming to be the messiah.

The religious leaders took Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor, and convinced him to put Jesus to death as a threat to the Roman state. Jesus was beaten, tortured, and executed in the most painful and humiliating way.

So it’s not surprising the disciples were hiding out in their mom’s basement. They didn’t want to end up nailed to a tree like Jesus! But then, that morning, things got even crazier. When the women disciples went to anoint Jesus’ body, they found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. The body was gone, and two angels in white robes were sitting in the tomb where Jesus’ body should have been!

The women disciples went to tell the men disciples. And the men disciples show up, look around, and then run back home. And then Mary sees Jesus. Jesus shows up and tells Mary, “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Jesus sends Mary as an apostle to the men who would be called the Twelve Apostles.

It’s not totally clear from the text, but it seems to me that the men didn’t believe Mary. Because John writes that later that evening, after she had announced the good news of the resurrection to her male companions, they are still cowering behind locked doors. They’re scared of the authorities. They don’t understand what’s going on, or why Jesus’ body has disappeared, but they know they don’t dare to go outside, because someone. Might. See. Them.

So these guys are living in fear. The resurrection just happened. Mary told them what she saw. And still, they’re hiding behind locked doors.

Jesus saw this coming. He knew the twelve disciples better than anyone, and he must have known that they would react this way. So Jesus sends Mary, but he knows that he’ll need to make a personal visit to help the men get the picture.

And so it says that Jesus comes and stands among the disciples. The doors are locked, but Jesus just appears in their midst, saying, “peace be with you.”

Can you imagine? I wonder if they jumped. I mean, this must have been freaky. But once they get over their fear, the disciples are going crazy with joy. Here he is! Jesus is alive!

And John says that, at this point, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples and says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus gives the disciples power and authority. He appoints them to continue his mission to the world.

What an amazing experience this must have been. All that fear and doubt – gone. Suddenly, the disciples aren’t worried about what the authorities might do to them. They aren’t scared of the cross. They see the resurrection power of Jesus. They hear his voice. They are given power to live as apostles, “sent ones” – children of light in a world of darkness.

But there’s a little wrinkle in this story. Because you see, not everyone is there when Jesus shows up. Thomas Didymus – the twin – is out picking up pizza or something – so he misses Jesus’ visit. And when he gets back from the store, he finds all the other disciples going wild, talking about how they just saw Jesus.

It’s hard to know what Thomas is actually feeling at this point. The text doesn’t tell us. But I imagine he’s angry. I mean, I would be. How could it be that everyone else got to see Jesus, and I just happened not to be there? Maybe they’re telling the truth. Maybe they’re making it all up. But I’m not believing it either way. Because to believe it would mean accepting that all my friends were chosen to see Jesus, but I wasn’t important enough. And maybe that means Jesus doesn’t love me. At least not as much as the other disciples.

So maybe Thomas is angry. Maybe something else is going on. But his response to his friends’ story is adamant: There’s no way I’m believing this. I’m not just taking your word for something this huge. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so it was that, about a week later, Jesus shows up again. This time Thomas is around. And again, Jesus says to the disciples, “Peace be with you.”

Then Jesus turns to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus is fully present for Thomas, in just the way Thomas demanded. Jesus is ready to let Thomas touch the wounds in his hands and side. Jesus is really there – not a ghost, but a resurrected man, full of grace and truth.

All of Thomas’ resistance breaks down immediately. There’s nothing he can do but cry out, “My Lord and my God!” Seeing really is believing for Thomas.

And Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Is that you? Have you not seen Jesus, and yet have come to believe? Or are you more like Thomas, demanding that personal experience of the resurrection, and not budging until you get it?

Either way you’re blessed. You have experienced the power of Christ in you, the hope of glory. Whether it’s the miraculous appearance of the risen savior in your life, or whether you’ve received the power to believe without seeing – that’s Jesus. He’s present. Risen from the dead and living in you. You are blessed.

It’s this blessing that filled the apostles with life and power. It’s this blessing that transformed them from scaredy cats hiding behind locked doors, into bold preachers who stood in public and faced jail time for their ministry.

It’s this blessing that can transform us here, today, from timid pew-sitters into mighty women and men of God – saints, set apart by God for a special purpose. Apostles, sent by God just like Mary, Peter, James, and John.

This is the blessing that conquers the world – our faith. When we come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.

We don’t need proof, we need life. We don’t need miracles, we need power. We don’t need to touch the wounded hands and pierced side of Jesus. We need Jesus living within us, so that we can touch the wounded hands and side of a world that is aching for God’s love.

But if you need to see, if you need to touch, if you need to hear Jesus’ voice – ask him. He is faithful. He will show up. He hears you.

But blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

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The God of the Burning Bush is the God who Redeems Failure

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/24/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9. 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 had been decades since Moses fled the land of Egypt. He made his way out to Midian, out beyond the Red Sea. Moses had been an Egyptian noble, but that was a long time ago. He was a shepherd now. A keeper of goats and cattle. Husband to Zipporah. Father to Gershom. A man of few words, accustomed to the deep silences of the desert wilderness.

Moses was an old man when he led his father-in-law’s flock near Horeb, the mountain of God. It’s here that the angel appears to Moses in the form of a bush, blazing with fire. The bush was burning, but it was not consumed.

I think we’ve all heard of the burning bush that Moses saw. It’s such a famous story that I suspect we often miss the full impact of it. But think about this for a moment. Moses has been moving through the empty expanse of the desert, alone with his flocks for days. He’s been surrounded by the majestic desolation of the Sinai – mountains, rocks, dirt. And then he sees this fire. A bush is on fire for no apparently reason. Weird enough, right? Maybe a lightening strike. But this burning bush is even stranger than it seems at first. First of all, where’s the smoke? There probably isn’t any, because the bush isn’t being consumed. It’s just covered in a plume of fire.

So Moses is curious. Wouldn’t you be? He turns aside from the path where he was leading his flock, and approaches this flaming desert plant.

And it says, “When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’”

And Moses says, “Here I am.”

Is this sounding familiar yet? Sounds a lot like the calling of a prophet, doesn’t it? Sounds like the calling of Isaiah the prophet, which we heard about recently. “Here I am, Lord. Send me!”

So God has Moses’ attention. And now that Moses is listening, God tells him not to come any closer to the burning bush. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

God introduces himself to Moses. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

And it says that Moses covered his face and looked away, because he was afraid to look at God. It is said that no one can see the face of God and live.

At this point, God explains why he is appearing to Moses in this manner. God says:

I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.

OK, that’s a lot. Let’s unpack that.

First of all, God says he has heard the cry of his people – the Israelites, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God knows their sufferings, and he has come down to deliver them from the Egyptians. God has heard his people’s cry. He knows their sufferings. He’s going to deliver them.

Deliverance. That’s important. We’ll come back to that.

Number two: Not only is God going to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, he has a plan to take them somewhere. The voice from the burning bush says that he will bring the children of Israel up from Egypt and into a good, broad land. The promised land. A land of milk and honey. Other peoples live there now – the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, and others – but God will make space for them. God will create a new homeland for the children of Jacob, just as he promised Abraham.

Finally, here’s how it’s going to happen. Here’s how God’s deliverance is going to play out in practical terms: God is going to send Moses to Pharaoh. God will send Moses as a messenger, to tell old Pharaoh to let his people go.

Everything was good until that last part. I’m sure Moses was nodding right along until that last part. “Amen, burning bush! Our people have been suffering. Oh, yes, Lord – take us to that promised land. Absolutely, Lord, send me to tell Pharaoh… Wait a minute. Me? Why me, Lord?”

It’s written that Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

God’s response? “I will be with you.” Trust me. It’s going to be alright. And when we’re all done and I’ve brought my people up out of Egypt, you’ll know I was with you, because you’re going to come and bring them to this very mountain. You’ll worship me, right here on the mountain of God.

I will be with you, God says. You can’t do this yourself. Liberating your people from bondage, that’s beyond you. But you don’t have to be scared. Because I will be with you. I will do it. I’m sending you as my messenger.

Moses is still scared, though, despite all this reassurance from the voice in the burning bush. God really wants him to go and tell Pharaoh what to do. Pharaoh. The god-king, who wields power of life and death over all the people of Egypt. And that’s not all. Ordering Pharaoh to release the captives is step two. Step one will be convincing his own people – who he ran away from decades ago – to stand with God in this struggle.

Moses says to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

What’s your name, God? Who are you, really? Reveal yourself to me, so that I can feel safe. Tell me your identity, so I can bound you and feel in control again.

God’s answer to Moses is: “I AM who I AM – I will be who I will be.” Don’t worry about my name, Moses. Go tell your fellow Israelites that “I AM” sent you.

I AM who I AM – I will be who I will be. “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

I feel for Moses here. I understand why he wants to run away, why he really doesn’t want to go toe-to-toe with the Egyptians. I understand why he doesn’t want to go back to his fellow Israelites in the land of Goshen, in Egypt. I wouldn’t want to go back there either. Because common sense tells Moses that he can’t beat Pharaoh in a straight up fight. And experience tells Moses that he can’t trust his fellow Israelites to back him up when push comes to shove.

This story of the burning bush comes from chapter three of Exodus. But the story of Moses starts in chapter two. And in chapter two of the book of Exodus, just a few paragraphs before our reading for this morning, Moses gets himself into a lot of trouble by sticking his neck out to help his fellow Israelites.

Moses has a really unusual background. He is a Hebrew, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s household. Adopted in infancy by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was raised in the royal household. He’s culturally Egyptian. His youth was one of privilege and luxury. He didn’t have to see what was going on out in the fields of Goshen. He didn’t have to witness his people’s slavery.

So when Moses finally does see the conditions his people are living in, it comes as a shock. It is written that, “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor.” He had spent his whole youth in Pharaoh’s court, blissfully unaware of the full brutality of the system. The violence and degradation of it. The power of the state that sought to destroy his people, to keep them only as instruments of economic benefit for the wealthy elite.

But then, one day, Moses took a field trip. And his life changed forever.

And it says that Moses “saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk.” So Moses looked one way, then the other, and seeing that no one was around to observe what he was about to do, Moses attacked and killed the Egyptian who was beating his fellow Israelite.

Moses saw an act of grave injustice. He saw the powerful mistreating the enslaved. He saw an Egyptian attacking a Hebrew. And Moses took it upon himself to enforce justice. He struck out with the lethal force that came so naturally to a grandson of Pharaoh.

Moses assumed that he was born to lead. Pharaoh’s system had taught Moses that his own might and violence could bring about justice. Furthermore, Moses thought his people would back him up when push came to shove.

But the very next day, when he tried to break up another fight – this time between two Hebrews – one of them said to him: “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

Bad news. Very, very bad news. “Surely the thing is known.” Word had gotten out about Moses’ act of revolutionary violence. His own people let word slip. And soon Pharaoh was ready to kill Moses.

That’s how Moses – a member of Pharaoh’s household – ended up as a nomadic goat herder in the first place. He fled to the land of Midian. He made friends with the locals by making a name for himself as a fighter. He provided protection to flocks, and married into the family of Jethro, the Midianite priest.

Moses was a failed freedom fighter. Moses fought the law, and the law won.

Moses saw the cost of sticking his neck out for his Israelite brethren. He knew what challenging Pharaoh could mean. He had failed to spark a revolution in his youth, and now here he was in his old age, with God talking to him out of a burning bush! Calling him to lead the exodus of Israel from slavery. Calling him to challenge Pharaoh directly. No more hiding.

“I will be with you,” God says. It’s different this time. Because this time, it’s not about Moses at all. Moses isn’t the tough guy. He’s not a guerrilla warrior, taking the fight to the Egyptian oppressors. He’s old man, a goat herder with a stutter. This time it’s different, because this time Moses is an instrument of God’s power rather than a slave to his own rage and vanity.

When Moses was a young man, he anointed himself to mete out violent justice to the Egyptian ruling class. Now in his old age, God is sending Moses to speak his word to Pharaoh.

I think if I were Moses, I’d be feeling pretty upset at this point. Maybe I even think the Hebrews deserve to be in slavery. Look at how they mistreated me! They sold me out, left me hanging when I put my life on the line for them! Why should I help them now? Why not just keep herding goats?

But God is speaking out of the burning bush. God is saying to Moses, “I will be with you. I am sending you. I will deliver my people and lead them out of Egypt. I will be who I will be. And you will speak my words to Pharaoh.”

I find it easy to relate to Moses. Because I’m a failure, too. I wanted so badly to see the world change. I wanted to be the change maker. I wanted to make it happen. But I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t wise enough. I wasn’t God.

I need God to be with me. I need the burning bush to redirect me. I need the pillar of fire and smoke to guide me. I need God’s presence and power in my life.

I can’t make the kingdom of God through sheer force of will. I can’t bring about God’s justice through my own violence. There’s no amount of my own bravado and cleverness that can set the world right.

“I will be who I will be.” This is the name of God forever. It is his title for all generations. He will not be contained. He will not be used for our convenience. God will not be moved, she will always be the mover.

But we can be moved. You and I can take off our sandals and wait before the burning bush. This is holy ground. The Spirit of God is present in this place, and we can hear God’s voice.

What we hear in the silence my surprise us. It may frighten us. We may be called into service that feels too big to us. God may call us into work where we feel like failures. But when God calls us, he also walks with us. We can trust him to lead us.

The apostle Paul writes, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

God is faithful. God is present. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. And just like Moses, God can use us to succeed where our own efforts have failed.

Let’s stand together in the presence of our burning bush, our living word, the risen Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus, and teach us. Be who you will be. Send us where you want us to go.

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Now is the Summer of Love

Like a lot of folks in my city, I lead a very busy life. Challenging work during the day. Taking care of the kids in the evening. Church, family, friends, and chores on the weekends. It seems like I’m always swamped.

I live with a lot of anxiety. I want to be the best at what I do. I want to excel in my work. To be a great husband and father. To earn the respect of my community. Ironically, I often let my desires for a joyous future crowd out those things that are most important now.

This summer, the Holy Spirit has been opening my eyes to just how important this present moment is. Life is here. Love. Everything I ever needed, beyond my wildest dreams. Right now. Reality is surprising, and God is faithful. Even when I don’t get my way.

Amid the transitions and stress of a fully engaged life, I’m hearing the call of the Spirit to abide. Abide in God’s love. Abide in this present moment that is fleeting. Abide in the truth: that most of the things I stress and strain about aren’t of lasting importance. Dwell in the reality that the day and hour of my death is known to God, and will someday be known to me.

Among the many teachings of Jesus is this incredible command: Do not be anxious. Do not worry about tomorrow. “”Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

This is good news for us. This is the gospel. As impossible as it sounds, there is rest for the weary. There is peace for the brokenhearted. There is hope for those who mourn.

This summer, hear the invitation: Christ’s call to slow down, to abide in the Spirit, to rest in God’s love. Give your full presence to this moment, and be taught how to love.

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In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/15/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, & Mark 6:14-29. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Who are the prophets? The prophets are those on whom God has sent his Holy Spirit.

This is the same Spirit that hovered over creation. The Spirit that breathed life into the first man and woman, creating us in the image of God. This is the Spirit that came upon Moses, giving him power to speak the word of the Lord to Pharaoh and to guide the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The Holy Spirit fell on the seventy elders, whom God appointed to assist Moses, and they prophesied.

They prophesied. What does it mean to prophesy? Prophecy means speaking the words of God, just like Moses did. It means revealing that which is hidden, pointing people to the truth that the brokenness of this world has hidden from us. The truth that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus is a God of love and a God of justice. And that neither his love nor his justice will sleep forever.

Wherever the Holy Spirit moves, there is prophecy. This is the characteristic mark of the Spirit’s presence in the world: When we experience the presence of God in our heart, minds, and spirits.

When the Spirit shows up, we feel the love that God has for each of us, and the anger that God has at those things which hurt and destroy his beloved children. The Spirit comes to teach us who God is, and to inspire us to speak the message and demonstrate the character of our loving, righteous God.

This is Holy Ghost experience has always been the formative experience of the prophets. From Moses and his seventy elders, to Elijah and Elisha. From John the Baptist to Jesus. From George Fox and Alexander Mack to Martin Luther King, Jr and William Barber II. The Holy Spirit raises up men and women to speak the words our world needs to hear. Words that speak the very will of God. Whether or not the world is ready to listen.

As we see in our gospel reading for today, the world often isn’t willing to hear. It’s not an accident that John the Baptist ends up dead – beheaded by Herod at the request of his wife and daughter. It’s not an accident when terrible things happen those who speak the words of God, because fallen humanity is always killing the prophets.

Why would anyone want to be a prophet? Most of the prophets don’t. We see throughout the pages of the Bible, and throughout the history of the church, that prophets usually question their calling. Because being a prophet is often a death sentence. Friendship with God means enmity with the world. Speaking the truth means exposing the comfortable lies that this world cloaks itself in. Declaring God’s love for the needy, the outsider, the foreigner, the poor, means bumping up against the interests of the powerful insiders who are well-positioned to use violence to maintain the status quo.

In our gospel reading this morning, the story of Herod and John the Baptist is a quintessential telling of the relationship between God’s prophets and the powerful people who would prefer not to have the system disrupted by prophetic speech and action.

John the Baptist was acknowledged by everyone as a prophet. Even Herod knew that John was a “righteous and holy man.” So, despite all the reasons that he might want to permanently silence John by killing him, Herod held off. He locked John away in prison, but he hesitated to raise his hand against God’s prophet.

Herod’s hesitation might have been the result of simple political calculation – after all, John was a very popular man, and killing him might be more trouble than it was worth. Who wants to create a martyr? But the Mark gives us reasons to believe that Herod’s hesitation to murder John went deeper than mere political expediency.

The truth is powerful. It has an effect, even over those who are very wicked like Herod was. And John was a holy man, a prophet of God – clothed in righteousness and speaking the truth with the easy sincerity and fearlessness of a God-surrendered man. John was probably the only person that Herod encountered on a regular basis who wasn’t afraid.

Herod had the power of life and death over his subjects, and so most people were scurrying around, trying to please Herod. John wasn’t impressed. John lived in the life and power of the Spirit of God. He knew the truth, and the truth had set him free. John wasn’t afraid of Herod, because he had a life in God that transcended the threat of death that Herod could hold over him.

John and Herod had this really weird relationship. Herod had John locked up in prison. And you’d think that Herod would simply want John to disappear. To stop saying disruptive things about the immoral way that Herod was conducting himself. Yet Herod couldn’t get enough of John. He kept telling the jailers to bring John up out of the prison. Herod met with John regularly. Mark says, “he liked to listen to him,” even though when John spoke, Herod “was greatly perplexed.”

Herod could hear the truth in the words of the prophet. He could sense the presence of the Spirit in John’s life. Part of him wanted to silence this prophetic voice forever, but another part couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He knew the truth when he heard it, even if he didn’t have the moral courage to surrender himself to the love and justice of God.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Herod was a weak man, and a foolish man. He couldn’t quite bring himself to kill John, despite the fact that his wife Herodias was demanding that he put John to death. But in our reading this morning, he’s thoughtless enough to make an oath, in front of many guests, that he will give his daughter anything she asks for.

When she comes back and asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Herod is shocked. He didn’t even consider that the girl might consult with her mother and come back with such a request. But because he’s so afraid to lose face in front of his guests, he agrees. Herod dispatches guards to the prison, and they slaughter John, this holy man of God. They butcher the presence of the Holy Spirit in Israel. They desecrate the sanctuary of God to satisfy the whims of an insecure dictator and his family. Herod knows what’s happening. He knows who John is. But he goes ahead anyway. He fears men more than God.

The way of the prophets often leads to death. Jesus himself stood squarely in the prophetic tradition. He identified himself with the mantle of Elijah and Elisha. He stood in that Holy Ghost tradition. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to proclaim good news to the poor. The Spirit sent Jesus to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus stood in the tradition of the prophets. And like the prophets of old, like his cousin John the Baptist, he faced terrible repression and violence. Like John, he ultimately surrendered his life speaking truth to power, pouring out his life as an offering to God in love.

We live in a time of great darkness. It occurred to me as I was preparing this sermon that Herod doesn’t seem so unusual anymore. I used to consider Herod to be particularly monstrous, a truly evil character. And he was. He was an evil man. Yet today in our own national politics and throughout the world, we see men and women who are selling their souls for power built on falsehood, hatred, violence, and oppression. Today we witness evil that makes Herod look almost sympathetic. After all, Herod felt bad when he slaughtered John the Baptist. He regretted it.

But the Herod I know isn’t the one who cringed over his own murder of John. The Herod I’m more familiar with is Herod the Great – the father of the king Herod we read about in today’s scripture. King Herod the Great is the one who slaughtered the boy children in the vicinity of Nazareth. That’s the Herod I know, the one I’m seeing coming to power in the world today. He’s the one who doesn’t hesitate to destroy families for political gain. The one who forces the family of Jesus to flee and become refugees in a foreign land. The one who is praised by the religious authorities for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, even as he assaults the very word of God in the streets of Bethlehem.

This is the world of Jesus and John. A world where prophets are nailed to the cross and beheaded. A world where children are stolen from their parents and locked in prisons. A world where those in power prefer lies to any truth that threatens their dominance and control.

We live in a time of darkness, domination, and violence. Just like John and Jesus under Herod and Pilate. Just like Moses under Pharaoh. Just like the early church, whom God blessed and covered with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Living in our own time of darkness, we’ve been visited by this same Spirit.

As Paul says in our reading from Ephesians this morning, we have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be God’s prophets in this time and place. In this present darkness that can feel as palpable as a clinging fog. God has marked and sealed us with the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the dangerous truth of God’s love and justice. The truth that the creator of this world stands with the immigrant, the poor, the marginalized.

Today is the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, and so maybe we need reminding. At Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to each and every one of us who has decided to follow Jesus. Along with Jesus, we have been called and anointed to be prophets of the living God, the creator of the cosmos. We have been filled by the Holy Spirit, to speak the very words of God into a world that is so hungry for the truth and love that only God can provide.

We live in a time of darkness. And in times like these we are often tempted to despair. Yet it is in times such as these that the witness of the prophets is most needed. This is our time. This is our season. This is the moment that God calls us into active service, to speak his word of truth and love. To the powerful, as a rebuke and a challenge. To the powerless as a message of comfort and through tangible acts of solidarity. God has called us to be as prophets, even if we have to walk the path of suffering, just as John and Jesus did. This is what is means to be friends of Jesus. We walk in his footsteps, and accept his mission of love, justice, and reconciliation.

I would like to invite us to enter into a time of open worship, in which we can invite the Holy Spirit to be especially present with us. Spirit of God, we need your guidance. We are blind and lost without you. We need your love. We need your truth. And most of all, Lord, we need you to show us how to be faithful servants in sharing this love and truth with the world around us.

We live in dark times. But Jesus Christ has given us the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We are the light of the world. Holy Spirit, come and show us how to shine, and how much we must endure for the precious name of Jesus.

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God Will Judge Those Who Put Children in Cages

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/24/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, & Mark 4:35-41. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“The Lord will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in time of trouble. Those who know your name will put their trust in you, for you never forsake those who seek you, O Lord.”

We give thanks this morning, that we worship a God who cares for his children. A God who stands up for the weak, the poor, the oppressed.

We give thanks, because we need this liberating God of the oppressed. We know that we live in a country that is full of oppression. We can no longer close our eyes to the violence being done to black and brown lives every day in our streets. Nor can we ignore the outrageous violence, torture, and cruelty being done to our brothers and sisters at the border. Men, women, and children locked in cages. Parents shackled to walls. Children stolen from their parents in the middle of the night as a form of punishment. Punishment for seeking asylum. Punishment for fleeing poverty and violence in their native lands.

We give thanks this morning to the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who knows what it is to suffer. Who knows what it means to lose a child. Our God is no stranger to violence, torture, and state-sanctioned oppression.

So we give God praise this morning, for the way he cares for us. He loves those whom the world hates. And he sees what is being done to his children.

We are thankful this morning, because we know that the God we worship is not a weakling. Our God is not a God of sentimentality. He is a God of action. His love is powerful, able to change time and circumstances. He proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He liberates the oppressed. He is able to do these things, because he created us and called us “good”, and he is determined that the world will be made good once again. Through his love and power, God has promised to bind up our wounds and heal this broken earth.

“The Lord is known by his acts of justice.” That’s who God is. It is true to say “God is love.” It is equally true to say, “God is justice.” It is in this knowledge that the psalmist cries out, “Rise up, O Lord, let not the ungodly have the upper hand; let them be judged before you. Put fear upon them, O Lord; let the ungodly know they are but mortal.”

Let not the ungodly have the upper hand, O Lord. Let them be judged before you. Let them know they are but mortal.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power. Our God does not stand idly by while cruelty and sadism reign. God judges the wicked. The avenger of blood will remember the children locked in cages. He will remember the infants ripped from their mothers’ breasts. God will remember the government officials who implement obscene border policies and then lie to the world about why these injustices are happening. God will not forget those who grow rich off the prison industrial complex that has spread like a cancer across this land – even to the border.

“The wicked shall be given over to the grave, and also all the peoples that forget God. For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish for ever.”

What does it mean for us to be the people of God in the midst of this wicked and violent generation? For those of us with the privilege of citizenship, what does it mean to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are oppressed for their lack of legal status? For those of us who are white, how does God call us to submit ourselves to our black and brown sisters and brothers in Christ who are bearing the weight of entrenched racism and state violence? What does it mean for us to be made in the image of the God who stands with the outsider, the foreigner, the poor?

Our God is not a weakling. He hears the cry of the oppressed. He calls us into action, to participate in the ministry of reconciliation, healing, and justice. God’s love changes things – it comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable. The light of Christ is a balm to those who are suffering for righteousness, but it is a burning flame to those who hate God and neighbor.

Our scripture readings this morning encourage us to hear and act on God’s call to justice and reconciliation. They remind us that we aren’t in this struggle alone. God’s love is powerful, and we are called to become agents and ambassadors of this love in the world.

This means we don’t have to be afraid. As hard as it may be to believe, despite all the horror that we see around us, God is ultimately in control of this world he created. And his justice will not sleep forever.

This is something that Jesus’ disciples learned during a nighttime voyage across the sea of Galilee.

Jesus and a little fleet of fishing boats were moving across the water, when a huge windstorm came out of nowhere and the disciples’ sailboat was being swamped. It looked like the ship might go down.

Meanwhile, Jesus was in the back of the boat, asleep on a cushion. So here are the disciples, running around and struggling to keep the boat above the waves, and Jesus is somehow sleeping through the whole thing! Finally, the disciples wake him up. I imagine them shouting over this freight train of a storm, “Wake up, Jesus! How can you sleep through this chaos? We’re all gonna drown and you’re taking a nap!?”

And it says that Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind. “Peace! Be still!” The storm stopped immediately, and there was dead calm. After the noise and tumult of the storm, the silence must have been deafening – and probably a little creepy. It says that the disciples were filled with “great awe” and said to one another, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In times of darkness and fear, we’re all like the disciples. We cry out to God for help. We’re upset, because God seems to be asleep in the back of the boat while all hell is breaking loose. We need help, and we need it now. Families are being ripped apart. People are dying. Where are you, God?

I don’t know what the disciples thought Jesus was going to do when he woke up. Maybe they thought he would lend a hand in bailing out water from the boat. They surely didn’t expect that he could speak a word and silence the storm. The disciples were frustrated that Jesus was sleeping through the storm, but they couldn’t foresee what Jesus would do to deliver them.

Like most of us, the disciples didn’t really believe in miracles. They had seen Jesus heal people and change lives in unexpected ways, but still they couldn’t wrap their heads around a God who intervenes in history, making the impossible possible. Despite everything Jesus had shown them, they weren’t expecting a miracle. They were relying on their own strength to ride out the storm and keep their little sailboat afloat. And the ship was going down.

Until it wasn’t. Jesus woke up. He rebuked the wind, and the storm stopped immediately.

Whoa.

In some ways, Jesus’ act of deliverance must have been even more terrifying than the storm he delivered them from. The disciples all thought they wanted to see Jesus display his power. They wanted to see their big, bad messiah in action. Preferably in battle. But when Jesus actually does perform a miracle, the disciples are often confused or even terrified.

You know, we all want to see a miracle. But we want a certain kind of miracle. We want miracles that we can contain and control, miracles that we can understand on our own terms. We want miracles that make things go our way, that fulfill our wishes for how the world ought to be.

Real miracles aren’t like that. True miracles challenge what we know about the world, ourselves, and God. When God’s power and deliverance shows up, it breaks down our whole sense of order and control. The presence of God humbles us, because it’s not something we ever could have anticipated.

So, when we cry out for justice, we have to ask ourselves: Are we truly ready for God to act? Are we prepared for something totally unexpected? Do we really believe that God can rebuke the wind and silence the storm? Do we have faith that, despite all appearances, there is a life and power at work behind the scenes – a boundless love that can deliver us from evil and transform our society?

Do we believe that God will judge the world? All the things being done in darkness will be brought to light. Everything done in secret will be revealed. God will judge the wicked and lift up the oppressed. Are we ready for the power of God to break us down so that we can be remade in Christ’s image?

Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation! This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! God is not asleep as some suppose. He is here to judge the world – to bind up the wounds of the broken and stay the hand of tyrants. As the apostle John writes, The son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil. We share in this ministry with him.

Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation. God will judge those who put children in cages. God will destroy the works of the devil. The spirit of Jesus will restore our world. He will reunite families, heal the sick, and abolish borders. The Holy Spirit is alive and moving in this place. The light of Jesus shines to convict us of our sin – all the ways we have turned away from God – and gives us power to turn our lives back towards God.

Will we accept this invitation? Will we become followers of Jesus in both word and deed? Will we embrace the miracle that disrupts our lives, allowing the love and justice of God to take full control?

I would like to invite you to join me in a time of open worship. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Father God. Come, living Jesus. Move in our midst. Work on our hearts. Show us how to be your children, living in your truth, mercy, and righteousness.

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