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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)

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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

The Kingdom Is Yours – Are You Too Afraid to Receive It?

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/9/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 2:1-24, 32-33, 37-47. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should we do?

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

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

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

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

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

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What Does It Mean For Us To Love One Another?

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?

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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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