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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/12/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:13-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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John the Baptist was a wild man. He was a prophet – a person who spoke the words of God. He was living in the wilderness and baptizing people in the river Jordan. They were immersed in water as a sign of their desire to follow God and love other people.

Jesus came to John, to be baptized with water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is God doing a new thing now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is God doing a new thing in you?

Christmas Isn’t a ‘Hallmark Moment’ – It’s a Revolution

Image of A Forest Road from Above

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/23/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 1:18-25. 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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It’s been a really crazy week or two. This time, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s intense. Like a lot of us, I’ve been rushing to wrap up things at work before things shut down. Faith and I both have been trying to get all our ducks in a row before the baby comes, too.

The light is getting dimmer and shorter. It affects my mood. It’s been hard to get out of bed sometimes. I just want to hibernate. And to top it all off, our whole family has been sick with this cough. 

I’ve felt really out of control. Scattered. Walking through a haze of fever and coughing, trying to accomplish all my tasks, I’ve felt helpless. Like, “please, just let this year end. Let me get some sleep and I’ll come back and clean up all these messes in the New Year.”

I hate feeling like this. I hate the way all these external factors – the time of year, the light, illness – how all these things seem to govern my life just as much, or more, than my own choices.

I like to think that my choices matter. I like to feel like my decisions are the decisive factor in my life. I want to believe that if I make good choices, if I act wisely, then things will turn out the way I planned.

But that’s not the truth. That’s not the way life is. I’m not in charge. I’m not – in the words of the poet William Ernest Henley – I’m not “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” I’m not the protagonist of this story.

It’s the week of Christmas. It’s a time when we remember the birth of Jesus – God’s definitive and ultimate act of being present in love, grace, and judgment. It’s the moment when God intervenes in human history so urgently, so personally, that he becomes one of us. The Word becomes flesh and pitches his tent among us. 

In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

God-With-Us.

In our scripture reading this morning, for some reason I can’t stop thinking about Joseph. The text leaves no doubt that he was a good man. A kind man. A righteous man. But he was a man, and I have to suspect that he liked to feel in control, just like I do.

He must have feared the feeling of being cut loose, unmoored, having all illusion torn from his hands. He must have been horrified to be shown how utterly powerless he was to direct the course of events of his life.

It says that Joseph was engaged to Mary. They were arranged to be married. But before the time arrives for them to come together, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. Now, it says in the scripture that Mary was “with child from the Holy Spirit.” But Joseph doesn’t know this off the bat.

What’s Joseph to think? Engaged to a girl. Not married to the girl. And the girl is pregnant!

There’s a lot that could be said here, but Matthew doesn’t go into too much detail. He just says that Joseph is a righteous man. He’s unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. Joseph plans to dismiss her privately. 

In other words, it’s over. Joseph is a good guy and all, but he’s not marrying this girl who obviously cheated on him and has the baby to prove it. 

And let’s be real, Joseph was probably really upset. We don’t know what his relationship was like with Mary when they were engaged, but it must have been totally humiliating to find out his fiancée was pregnant, and definitely not by him!

So Joseph’s life is shattered, basically. Everything he thought he knew just went out the window. But after an ugly cry or two, he eventually falls asleep, and he has a dream. He sees an angel, who tells him that the baby Mary is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. This is God’s will! She didn’t cheat on Joseph at all! The angel says, “Go ahead and marry her, Joe – this is God’s child we’re dealing with. Mary is going to give birth to the messiah!”

And so Joseph does as the angel instructs him. He’s a righteous man. He goes ahead and takes Mary as his wife, knowing that she’s going to give birth to a child he had nothing to do with.

I don’t like feeling out of control. How much more out-of-control does it get than to see a vision of an angel telling you that your fiancée’s unborn child is from the Holy Spirit and will be the promised messiah who will save the nation?

Joseph was a human being. He had hopes and dreams. He had expectations. And I’m sure not a one of them involved playing step-dad to the son of God.

And yet here he was. God was short-circuiting his life, and he had to respond. He had to surrender the future that he had imagined for himself and for Mary. For his family. 

Joseph made the choice to welcome the unexpected. He made room for the potentially disastrous action of God in his life. And we know it cost him a lot.

Choosing to become step-father to Jesus, Joseph suffered humiliation. We don’t know what ended up happening to Joseph, he’s not mentioned again after Jesus turns twelve. But we do know that by the time Jesus is doing his ministry, people are referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary.” Not the son of Joseph. Just Mary.

That’s a tough one. I wonder if Joseph felt like he was surrendering his legacy, his future, his family, to make room for God. 

Do you think Joseph ever got angry at God? Did he ever wish things had been different? That his life had turned out the way he had imagined? Did he bear any resentment?

God gave Joseph a hard path. Joseph’s service to God was one that echoed many of the main themes of Jesus’ own ministry – sacrifice of self for the sake of loving others; obedience to the will of God rather than self-will; public humiliation; and being misunderstood and rejected, even by those closest to him.

Joseph was a strong man. He was a brave man. He was a fitting match for Mary, who would endure so much for the sake of the truth. Together as a family, they bore the burden of Jesus’ ministry. They raised Jesus, cared for him. And ultimately they had to stand by as Jesus turned away and pursued his own obedience to God.

The way of the cross is death to the self-will. It’s the end of the beautiful future we imagine for ourselves and our families. The way of Jesus, the way of Joseph, the way of the prophets is one of self-emptying, releasing control, and pouring out our lives for others. The way of the cross is surrendering our dreams so that the dream of God has room to manifest.

What does it look like for us to imitate Joseph? What are the ways you are being called to lay aside your need for control? Where are the scary places God is asking you to go? Who are the unexpected people that God is asking you to care for and love?

When we see that little baby Jesus lying in a manger, it’s beautiful. The precious little baby God incarnate. We’re tempted to become sentimental. To turn Christmas into a Hallmark moment. But Joseph is there to remind us that even here, even at the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, sacrifice is already present. 

The Word has become flesh and dwells among us. But if we are to hear him, we must become silent. If we are to make space for him, we have to get out of the way. 

We must become like Joseph, who overcame his own desire for control, legacy, a future of his own making. We must become like Mary, who made space within herself for God to dwell. We must become like Jesus, who completely surrendered himself to the movement of the Holy Spirit, saying “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”

Feeling Scattered? God is Ready to Gather Us.

Bicycle speeding away

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 13:14-16 and Acts 11:19-30. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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The last time I preached, it was on Acts chapter four. We heard about how the apostles faced persecution at the hands of the religious authorities, but instead of being cowed and terrified, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were filled with boldness. They preached the word of God without fear.

We heard about how the newborn church in Jerusalem abandoned the strict “mine” and “thine” of private property. They held all things in common. People who had lands and possessions, they sold them and shared. People who had nothing received what they needed. We heard about a man named Barnabas – whose name means “son of encouragement.” He was one of the first to sell a field that he owned and hand over the proceeds to the church, so that no one would go hungry.

In our reading this morning, Barnabas shows up again. And once again, we hear about violent persecution. We hear the struggle of the church, and its mission to preach the word of God with boldness.

A lot has happened between chapter four and chapter eleven. Miracles of all kinds. And perhaps the greatest miracle of all – Peter has a series of encounters with the Holy Spirit and with a Roman soldier named Cornelius. These experiences convince him that the kingdom of God is for all people – Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female – all are one in Christ Jesus.

Now after Stephen was killed, a great persecution broke out that scattered the church throughout Judea and Samaria, but it didn’t stop there. The scattered friends of Jesus made their way all the way up to Phoenicia, which is what we think of today as Lebanon. And from there some of the disciples traveled to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean sea. And from there, others went to Antioch, in the southern part of modern-day Turkey. And wherever they went, they preached the word of God and the good news about Jesus, and new communities of disciples formed in these places.

But in Phoenicia and Cyprus, it says that the disciples only spoke to their fellow Jews. They went to the synagogues and preached the word of the kingdom, but they didn’t mix with the uncircumcised Gentiles. They were Jews, and they kept to their own kind.

Something changed in Antioch. As the disciples went along, the Holy Spirit raised up new believers, to carry on the missionary outreach. It was Jews from Jerusalem who took the word of God to Phoenicia and Cyprus. But by the time the disciples got to Antioch, at least some of the them were from Cyprus and Cyrene. These disciples were not interested in limiting the gospel to Jews. “They began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. [And] the Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”

When the church in Jerusalem heard about the great outpouring of God’s spirit taking place up in Antioch, it confirmed everything that God had been showing them through Peter and Philip and others – God had opened the kingdom to those who had formerly been excluded.

So the church in Jerusalem sent good old, trustworthy Barnabas up to Antioch to get a grip on the situation. And when Barnabas arrived, he did what a son of encouragement does – it says “he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” And it says that “a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”

Now Barnabas gets excited, and he runs off to Tarsus to get Saul. And he and Saul spend a whole year together in Antioch, preaching and teaching – encouraging the new church that is emerging in this great city of the north.

And after Saul and Barnabas had been laboring there for about a year, some prophets came down from Jerusalem. One of them predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. And so the believers in Antioch took up a collection. They pooled their resources so that they could send relief to the church in Jerusalem, who the prophet foretold would bear the brunt of this coming famine.

This must have taken a lot of guts. Because the prophet didn’t say “there will be a severe famine in Jerusalem.” He said “the whole world.” That means there’s a famine coming to Antioch, too. Is this really the best time to be sending your money out to people you’ve never even met?

But this is the transformation that has taken place in the lives of the brothers and sisters, this new family of God that is emerging in the months and years following Jesus’ resurrection. Before, these people would have been disconnected – perhaps even enemies, because some were Jews and others were Greeks. But now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they have become more than friends – they have become one flesh, one body, one family. They support one another because the distinction between “us” and “them” has broken down. There’s no longer any separation.

They’re a body. Just like my stomach doesn’t withhold calories from my arms and legs, the church in Antioch doesn’t withhold their wealth from the poor and persecuted church in Jerusalem. They’ve become a family. In a family you don’t keep separate accounts; you hold everything in common. And that’s how the church is. They’re in it together. Profoundly. They’ve abandoned private wealth and security in favor of what Jesus called “treasure in heaven” and a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit. Perfect love has cast out fear, and the selfish human nature has been overcome by the resurrection.

All of this is possible because of the way God gathers his people. On the day of Pentecost. At the home of Cornelius, the Roman soldier. In the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit falls on us as in the beginning, gathering us into a new body, a new people, a new creation.

When Jesus was arrested and crucified, the disciples were scattered. But through the resurrection, God gathered them in Jerusalem. And the church was born, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thousands come to faith.

Then the disciples were scattered again, by the violent persecution that comes as a result of the church’s bold and faithful preaching in the streets of Jerusalem. Things got rough. Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy. And it says that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” It was a bad time to be a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem.

This is a pattern throughout the book of Acts: The action of the Holy Spirit draws people together to become a body in Christ Jesus. This new life as God’s family results in boldness and non-conformity to the evil ways of the world around them. And this boldness causes a violent reaction from the people who are in charge, scattering God’s people to take the message even further.

The scattering part isn’t fun or glamorous. I doubt that any of the brothers and sisters at that time were saying to themselves, “look at the good thing God is doing by scattering us out of Jerusalem!” And yet, even though perhaps they couldn’t see it, God was turning the horror of their circumstances into the seeds of a new movement.

Gathered in Jerusalem, scattered to Samaria. Gathered in Samaria, scattered to Phoenicia. Gathered in Phoenicia, scattered to Cyprus. Gathered in Cyprus, scattered to Antioch. And on, and on, and on, in a network of relationships that we can’t even track.

Gathered at Firbank Fell, the Quaker movement was scattered like wildfire throughout the north of England, and quickly to the south. Scattered by persecution, the movement was spread to the Americas and the continent of Europe. God scattered them across the world – to preach the word of God to the Pope in Rome and the Sultan in Turkey. Scattered to listen to the inward voice of Jesus together with the Native Americans. The movement was scattered, and God gathered.

So what about us? Are we gathered?

Our community has been scattered. Our presence here in Berkeley, California is the result of many scatterings: Westward migrations. A series of Quaker schisms. And countless personal journeys that circled this meetinghouse on a map for each one of us.

Berkeley Friends Church is scattered. We’re an isolated congregation with our nearest sister churches hundreds of miles away. We’re a community scattered among the nations, a people seeking to follow Jesus in the midst of one of the most secular cities in the United States.

We were scattered for a purpose. We are here for a reason. Why? What is that reason?

When the first disciples were scattered to Samaria and Cyprus and Antioch, they were faithful in sharing the good news of Jesus. God used them to gather communities in the Holy Spirit, to make the kingdom of heaven a reality on earth.

When early Quaker ministers like James Nayler, Francis Howgill, and Edward Burrough, were scattered to London, they preached and taught. They held public meetings where they directed thousands to the voice of their inward teacher, Jesus. When they obeyed the voice of this teacher, they found brothers and sisters they never knew they had. They found themselves part of a new creation, the body of Christ. They were gathered by the Holy Spirit.

And us? When we were scattered to the East Bay, when you and I were called here, to gather as the church in Berkeley in the early 21st century… We what? What will be our story?

Why has God scattered us here? Who are the women, men, and children who need to hear the word of God here in our time and place? Who are the brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers that we will discover? When will we be filled by the Holy Spirit and released from the fear that holds us back from complete obedience?

You are here for a reason. God has scattered us here for a purpose. What is it? And what price must we pay to receive it?

As we enter a time of waiting worship, I’d like to invite us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, that we might be filled. That we might be gathered. That all fear would be stripped away. That we would be left with nothing but love and knowledge of God’s will for us, and the power to carry it out.

It May Already Be Too Late To Avert Climate Disaster. Where is God?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/23/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Amos 8:1-12, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42. You can listen to the audio (beginning with the scripture readings; the sermon begins at 7:08). Or, keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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These past few weeks, there have been some realities that I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind. Unpleasant things that I wish weren’t true, that maybe I don’t even want to know about. But they’re real, and I bear some responsibility for them.

Recently, I’ve been painfully aware of the reality of the advanced stage that the climate crisis has arrived to. I’ve been grappling with a growing realization that we as a civilization have almost certainly already careened over the edge of the cliff that we have been speeding towards since before I was born.

There was a time when it was still possible to avert the consequences of global warming, to undo the damage that had been done and chart a better course. There was a time when we could turn it all around and make better choices as a species.

That time is probably past.

I’m not suggesting that there’s nothing we can do to address the climate crisis that we find ourselves living in. I’m not preaching despair – quite the opposite. But in the past few weeks I’ve allowed myself to acknowledge that we are no longer living in the period of time where the climate crisis can be avoided. It’s already here. And it’s going to get worse.

There’s just no getting around that. No matter how much responsibility we take in the present moment. No matter how heroic our efforts, we as a civilization have already set in motion a chain reaction that is wrecking havoc on the planetary community of life – humans, plants, and animals together.

It’s not clear how bad things have to get. It’s not certain how much of a difference we can make by changing our way of life as a species. But things are already, today, in 2019, very bad for the uncountable species that are being driven out of existence. The situation is already dire for millions of people who have been reduced to desperation and death by the consequences of our actions and inaction. This crisis is happening now. As a society, we have sailed off the cliff, and it’s not clear how far we will fall and where we will land.

So I have been processing this. I’ve been sitting with it. The end of our planet as we know it. The extinction of uncountable plants and animals species. The destruction of ecosystems and the transformation of our beautiful planet into a place that may be practically unrecognizable.

I’ve been sitting with this unfolding reality, and my sense of loss is immense. Rather than denying the reality of the situation, I’m allowing myself to grieve. Death is traumatic, and the world we’ve known is dying.

So I’ve been seeing this. Just seeing it. Not trying to run from it, or even rush to fix it. I’ve just been witnessing this unfolding tragedy. The reality of all this loss – loss that we’ve already experienced, and loss that is to come.

And in this process of bearing witness – as I’m just letting the reality of our situation sink in – I’m seeing the transformation of my country in a new light. I’m seeing the construction of concentration camps on the US/Mexico border. I’m seeing the large-scale detention of men, women, and children in conditions that are almost unimaginable. I’m seeing the suffering of families fleeing poverty, violence, and corruption in their countries of origin, only to fall into the hands of a regime who is prepared to torture them to send a message.

And it just hits me. This is all of one piece. These are climate refugees. The waves of immigration to Europe we’ve seen in the last decade. The caravans from Honduras. The desperate situation on our southern border and the willingness of our government to treat our brothers and sisters – little children – as if they were animals. We’re already seeing the birth pangs of the societal breakdown that’s coming.

It’s coming. The Day of the Lord is at hand.

As far as we can tell, the prophet Amos was the guy who invented that phrase. The Day of the Lord. And since the time of Amos, other prophets like Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Joel, and many others, have picked up on this theme.

Throughout the prophetic tradition, “the Day of the Lord” is a multivalent phrase. It’s not simple. You can take it a number of different ways. Depending on your perspective, the Day of the Lord might be something you look forward to. It might be good news. A time when God pours out blessings on his people. It’s the moment when God sets everything right and finally establishes his kingdom of peace, justice, and love.

That sounds pretty good.

But there’s another side to the Day of the Lord. And it’s this other side that Amos focuses on – spends almost his entire book talking about it.

Amos has an extremely gloomy view of the Day of the Lord. For Amos, the Day of the Lord is not good news for Israel. Because Israel has broken the covenant. Israel has chased after the false gods of wealth, nationalism, and state power. Israel has broken the covenant, and so in the prophecy of Amos, the Day of the Lord is a day of reckoning for Israel.

We all think we want justice. But God help us if we truly get it. Do we really want justice? Do we really want to be repaid according to our deeds? Israel of the 700s BC might think they do. They might think they’re doing grand, and God loves them very much. But Amos is here to deliver some very bad news. He says:

“The end has come upon my people Israel;

I will never again pass them by.

The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,    

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

Whoa. Why is God so angry? Why would God abandon his people to slaughter like this?  How could God forsake the temple in Jerusalem, where his name dwells?

The reason for Israel’s destruction according to Amos is pretty straightforward: Economic injustice. The Day of the Lord is coming for those who “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” It’s coming for the rich, who “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” – for wealth profiteers who game the market to their advantage while the poor can barely eat.

The Day of the Lord is coming for a society that enjoys wealth the likes of which the world has never known, but which concentrates almost all of that wealth at the top. A society in which three men possess more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans. A nation in which little children are locked in cages, babies are taken from their parents, and hundreds of people are kept for days in standing-room-only cells – all for the “crime” of seeking refuge in the land of the Statue of Liberty.

The Day of the Lord is coming.

One thing that Amos says about that Day really stands out. Because it’s a little different from what we hear from some of the other prophets. Take Joel for example. For Joel, the Day of the Lord, in addition to being a day of great fury and judgment by God, will also be a day when the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh. A day when God is fully present to all his children.

The Day of the Lord according to Amos – according to the prophet who coined the term, “Day of the Lord” – is a lot darker. Here’s what he says that day is going to be like for the people of Israel:

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,

when I will send a famine on the land;

not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,     

but of hearing the words of the Lord.

They shall wander from sea to sea,     

and from north to east;

they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,     

but they shall not find it.

Wow. So, really, it’s the opposite of Joel’s vision, isn’t it? For Amos, probably the greatest terror of the Day of the Lord is the fact that the presence of God will depart entirely from Israel. God will hide his face. No amount of begging or pleading can change the consequences that are on the way. The verdict has come down.

So, like I said, I’ve been sitting with the high probability that the verdict has already come down for our nation. That God has issued judgment over us for the way we have desecrated the earth and trampled the lives of the poor. For the seas choked with plastic and the homeless encampments scattered throughout a city filled with millionaires and billionaires.

God is not blind to the torture of mothers and babies and fathers and teens and old people at the border. God does not turn his face away from the cries of our southern brothers and sisters seeking refuge from violence and poverty. Jesus wept for Lazarus, and you can be sure he’s weeping for those dying of thirst in the Sonoran desert. The Day of the Lord is coming.

And I have to ask: Has God turned his face away from us? Is our nation so irredeemably lost that God has given up on us, and committed to our destruction? Does God say to us, like he said to Amos:

The end has come upon my people [America];     

I will never again pass them by.

The songs of the [churches] shall become wailings in that day,”

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,     

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

God forbid! Lord, have mercy. Holy Spirit, don’t turn your face away from us. We need you more than ever.

Still, we have to consider the damage that has already been done, and the damage that we continue to participate in as citizens and consumers in this death machine. Given our behavior, we should not presume that God owes us anything.

I’m glad that Amos is not the only voice we’re hearing this morning. We have two other readings, and I think they help round out the reality of our situation as the church in the new Rome in the midst of the climate crisis. The first reading is from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. The second is a very memorable episode from the gospel of Luke, when Jesus is in the home of Mary and Martha.

Let’s start with Colossians. I want to look for a moment at Paul’s description of who Jesus is – because it’s beautiful. In this passage, Paul says that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The word “image” here is the Greek eikon, where we get the English word “icon.” An icon isn’t just a picture of something, it’s a manifestation. Jesus is a complete and faithful manifestation of God. If we know Jesus, we know God. Jesus lacks nothing; “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

Not only is Jesus a complete and faithful manifestation of God, he’s also the source of the entire creation. Through Jesus, God created everything. There’s not a single thing – whether in the heavenly realms or in the material world – that wasn’t created through Jesus and for Jesus. Everything that exists hangs together – coheres – in him. He is the A to the Z, the beginning, the middle, and the end.

As if that weren’t enough, Jesus wasn’t only central to the creation of the cosmos. He is also the key player in redeeming the cosmos from the effects of sin. “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

So, as Christians, we’ve been reconciled in Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus is not merely a past-tense savior who died on a cross so that we could live. He is risen. He is alive. He is present within us when we gather in his name. He is ready to guide us and lead us.

Because he is here with us, within us, among us, we can become full participants in his ministry of reconciliation. This is the mystery that Paul proclaims to the Colossians, and it is the mystery that lies at the heart of the gospel that we preach here in this community: Christ in you, the hope of glory.

So that’s the flip side. That might be the flip side to the words of the prophet Amos. The Day of the Lord will be darkness, gloom, and death. It is a day of judgment and dread, when all the hidden things are laid bare and exposed. But it is also a day of light, a day in which the presence of Jesus Christ is uncovered and he comes to teach us himself. Amidst the horror, there is hope. Amidst the judgment, there is the ministry of reconciliation, the presence of infinite love in the face of our friend and teacher Jesus.

Which brings us to Mary and Martha.

Probably most of us have heard this story a few times. This is one of those sort of “preacher’s pet” passages that has probably done way more than its fair share of sermon duty over the centuries. And that makes sense, because it’s such a good story.

Jesus goes to the house of Martha, and she welcomes Jesus and his compatriots in. And while Jesus is there, Martha is running around the house, providing hospitality, making sure there’s plenty of wine, and hummus, and whatever else the disciples need while during their stay.

Meanwhile, Martha has a sister, Mary. And Mary is not helping out. Martha has the (reasonable) expectation that her sister will help her with all of the hospitality work that goes into providing for Jesus and his entourage. But instead, Mary just plops down in front of Jesus and starts acting like one of the disciples. She sits there, listening to Jesus as he teaches, while Martha does all the hard work of making the trains run on time.

And so Martha complains to Jesus. She says, “do you see the way my sister is just sitting there, while I’m doing all the work to keep this party going? Tell her to get up and lend a hand!”

Jesus’ response is as simple as it is challenging. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

So, when Amos was preaching to Israel about how God was going to bring about their utter ruin and destruction, you might imagine that he was speaking to people who didn’t take religion very seriously. Probably too busy exploiting the poor and speculating on wheat futures to spend much time at the temple.

But what we see from Amos’ writings seems to point to exactly the opposite. The people of Israel in this time were extremely religious. At one point, God speaks through Amos, saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”

Imagine that. God saying, “I hate all your worship and hymn-singing. I hate your prayers and your Bible studies. I hate your after-worship potlucks, and your committee meetings.”

Why? Because all these things are meaningless without the practice of justice. No amount of service to the Lord can make up for a failure to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,     

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The people of ancient Israel thought they were doing what was expected of them. They performed the feasts commanded by the law, and they carried out the sacrifices that were required of them in the temple. But the testimony of Amos is that no amount of worship will make up for a life of injustice. And the testimony of Jesus to Mary and Martha is that no amount of busyness and productivity – not even in the service of good, important things – can make up for the life of listening and obedience.

It’s easy to get so busy doing things for God that we fail to listen and be taught by the living presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s so easy to worship an idea that we have about Jesus while failing to submit our lives to him and follow him as disciples.

No wonder that, when the Day of the Lord comes, Amos says that we’ll search in vain for the words of God. Many of us have spent so much time assuming we know what God wants, even in a time of extreme crisis we may fail to hear what the Spirit is saying to us.

The Day of the Lord is near. The climate crisis is happening. Our government is building concentration camps for the refugees. We stand potentially on the brink of war with Iran. Our future is very uncertain.

The Day of the Lord is near. Are we awake? Are we listening? Are we seated at the feet of Jesus, learning from him and obeying his voice? Or are we scurrying around the kitchen, trying to keep things orderly and under control?

In times like these, part of the good news of Jesus is that we don’t have to give into despair. Because we’re not in charge of solving the world’s problems.

In Jesus, God has already won the victory over sin, fear, and death. Through his resurrection, Jesus is present to guide us into the action we need to take. Not our own efforts, but Christ in us, the hope of glory.

That’s the gospel we proclaim. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, we don’t have to be afraid to face the world as it really is – no matter how dark our situation might be. Because we are not alone. In Jesus all things in heaven and on earth hold together. He is our peace. He is our leader. He is the Day of the Lord, and we can trust him.

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What Does It Mean For Us To Love One Another?

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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All That Does Not Gather With Him Will Be Swept Away

All That Does Not Gather With Him Will Be Swept Away

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/14/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Isaiah 50:4-9a and Luke 19:28-40. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejoice, O daughter Jerusalem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus has set his face like flint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It breaks his heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Even the Devil Can Quote Scripture – We Need the Word of God

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.)

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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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