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Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

Lift Up Your Heads - Our Redemption is Drawing Near
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/2/18, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, & Luke 21:25-36. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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The weather has been strange this year. Out where we live in Washington, DC, last winter was much warmer than normal. This summer was extremely hot, and fall has been unusually warm and wet.

In the mid-Atlantic, trees normally start to change colors in October, and by this time of years they are usually bare of leaves as we approach wintertime. That’s not how things are this time around. It’s the beginning of December, and most trees still have their leaves. Some have begun to change colors, but others are still green. The weather has turned cold now – we’re getting lows in the 20s some nights – but the trees haven’t caught up to the reality of the season we’re in.

I don’t think the trees are alone. These are strange times we’re living in. The weather is all wrong. Our social, political, and cultural environment is changing in unpredictable ways. And, for many of us, our leaves haven’t changed to fit the season. We’re still green, even as winter is coming on fast.

Jesus spoke a lot about trees – fig trees, in particular. He used them to teach his disciples at various points in his ministry. Earlier on in the gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells us a parable involving a fig tree that failed to bear fruit. Thanks to the intervention of the gardener, this tree got one last chance – one more year – to bear fruit. But if it didn’t, it would be cut down to make way for trees that would bear fruit.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus points to the way that trees are a sign to us. They tell us what season we are in. When trees sprout green leaves, we know that it will soon be summertime. When the leaves begin to change colors and fall to the ground, it is time to prepare for winter.

The kingdom of God is like this. Just as we know that summer is near when the trees put forth their leaves, there are changes in the season that alert us to the arrival of God’s reign.

In Luke 21, Jesus has warned the disciples that a big change in seasons is coming. The reign of God is has come near. “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” The temple is going to be destroyed and a whole new order is about to be established.

Understandably, the disciples want more details about what’s going to happen and how to prepare. According to Jesus, their entire society is about to be thrown into chaos. The temple is the center of everything – the holiest place in the holiest land – for it to be destroyed is almost inconceivable. How could anyone see this sort of thing coming?

The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Jesus warns the disciples not to get overly excited or afraid. With the great changes coming, there will be those who will claim to have quick fixes to get us out of this mess. Jesus says: Don’t believe them. There is no easy way out, no painless revolution. The way forward is going to be hard, so don’t try to flee it.

Jesus speaks about the tumult that is to come. Nations rising against nation and wars on the horizon. Earthquakes, famines, plagues, and “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” – maybe even including fires that destroy vast areas and cover the nation in smoke.

But before all that happens, the struggle is going to get personal. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be arrested and persecuted. “You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name,” Jesus says. But, as scary as this process will be, it’s a good thing. It will provide an opportunity to bear witness. Jesus promises the disciples that he will provide them with “words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Out of the chaos, truth will shine.

Still, it’s going to be hard. Some of them are going to die in the process. Yet in spite of all of the persecutions and betrayals that the disciples will experience, Jesus calls on them to hold fast to their faith – to trust in God as sovereign of the universe. God is in control, and even death can be redeemed.

The faith that Jesus talks about isn’t a matter of merely believing certain statements about who God is. Real faith is a matter of visceral trust, placing our lives in the hands of God – trusting that he loves us and will deliver us from evil – even when it seems that evil has the upper hand and God is nowhere to be found.

This kind of faith isn’t easy. In fact, it’s impossible. It’s impossible to practice this kind of trust in God as long as we are enmeshed in the kingdoms of this world. Jesus warns that those who are enmeshed in the System’s ways of thinking and operating will be utterly rocked and dismayed by the changes that are coming.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

We’ve talked about trees this morning, and how their leafy activities help us to track the seasons. But, of course, the real source of the seasons is found in the heavens. The best way to track what season we are in is to watch the celestial bodies – sun, moon, and stars. As their positions change over the course of the year, we know exactly what time it is.

People have known this for a very long time. For the ancients of the Greco-Roman world, the heavenly realms were a symbol of order, power, and authority. The gods of the ancient world represented these reliable, unshakable heavenly powers.

And yet, Jesus says that when the reign of God arrives, the “powers of the heavens will be shaken.” What kind of power can shake the heavenly realm? Only the one who created them in the first place.

This language of “heavenly powers” isn’t merely a poetic flourish; it’s pointing to something tangible and real. It’s language that Jesus uses to describe a tectonic shift in power dynamics and social relationships. Cities overthrown and empires toppled. A dramatic change in human civilization.

For people living in the kingdoms of this world – the Matrix, the System, the Market, whatever you want to call it – the powers of the heavens represent everything that allow us to make sense of reality. The temple was a power of the heavens. The throne of Caesar and the imperial legions were powers of the heavens. The White House and Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and Wall Street, NPR and TED Talks are powers of the heavens.

These “powers” are the touchstones of our society’s power structure that we can’t imagine living without. They’re givens, a stable point of reference that we can steer our ships by. They tell us the season that we are in. And they’ve become a substitute for God.

“When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Jesus tells his disciples to expect the whole system to fall apart. This is part of the game plan. This is the season that we have entered into. For those who are enmeshed in the kingdoms of this world, this process will be terrifying. When the powers of the heavens are shaken, those who have placed these powers at the center of their lives will be completely disoriented. The roar of the waves will overwhelm them.

For those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, there will be a different experience. For those of us who have done the hard work of de-centering the powers of the heavens, this time of disruption and tumult will come not as a shock but as a cry of relief. For those of us who have grounded our life in the words of Jesus and the living presence of God’s spirit, the world’s days of grief will be our days of joy.

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Stand up. Raise your heads. Your redemption is drawing near. Because we “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

As followers of Jesus, we are people of peace. Like our Lord Jesus, we are called to die rather than kill. Yet it is also true that we are in a spiritual battle. We’re called to fight with the spiritual weapons of love against the powers of hatred, confusion, and fear.

So when Jesus says, “stand up, raise your heads,” I can’t help but thinking of the French resistance, or any other resistance movement, coming up from underground. When the Pentagon and Wall Street were in control, it was hard to raise our heads. It was scary to stand up. We were in enemy-controlled territory, and we had to be careful. But with the arrival of God’s kingdom, we can lift up our heads and show ourselves. The Allies have arrived. We can take the fight to the enemy. That enemy is selfishness, hatred, death, and fear.

We don’t have to be afraid anymore. Because the powers of the heavens have been shaken. The new life of the kingdom has come near.

For a Christian, for a follower of Jesus, the world’s time of crisis is our moment of greatest hope. We see the Human One coming in a cloud with power and great glory. We can stand up and raise our voices, pointing the world to the truth. We have been blinded for so long by the powers of the heavens, but now we can see again. The kingdom of God has drawn near, and we can become its citizens. The age of love and peace has arrived; we can lay down our arms, take up our plowshares, and study war no more. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but [Jesus’] words will not pass away.”

The powers of the heavens are being shaken. It’s happening right before our eyes. Recognize the season. The fig tree is putting forth its leaves, and soon summer will be here. Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Our redemptions is near. But we can still miss it. We can get so caught up in the stress and worry of our daily lives that we don’t pay attention to the signs of the times. We can fail to notice the changing of the leaves. We can be so blinded by the powers of the heavens that we are astonished and terrified along with the rest of the world when they are shaken.

Jesus warns us against this pitfall. He says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.”

Are you weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness? Do you retreat into distraction, entertainment, despair? Is the living presence of God the center of your whole life? When you make decisions, do you look to Jesus and wait on the Holy Spirit to direct you? Are your job, your family, your money, your political commitments, closer to the center of your life than Jesus is?

Wake up! See things as they really are, not as you wish they were. See things as Jesus sees them, as he will reveal them to you. “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Because we can stand. We don’t have to be afraid. We can lift our heads. We don’t have to be bowed down by the weight of our anxiety and disappointments. We don’t have to carry the world on our shoulders. That’s God’s job.

We know that God has shaken the powers of heavens. God’s kingdom has drawn near. The world is about to turn, yet again, and we can be part of it. Even though it’s scary. Even though many around us will be horrified and disoriented. We can be salt and light in the midst of confusion and darkness. We can be a force for healing in the midst of so much pain. We can invite others into the way of Jesus, so that they too can lift their heads and see that the powers are shaken – and that our redemption is drawing near.

Related Posts:

If Jesus is King, Why is the World Such a Mess?

In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

If Jesus is King, Why is the World Such a Mess?

If Jesus is King, Why is the World Such a Mess?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/25/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 & Revelation 1:4b-8 & John 18:33-37. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

We need this grace this morning. We need the peace that comes from Jesus. We need the light of the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead – Jesus, the ruler of the kings of the earth.

Ruler of the kings of the earth. Presidents and prime ministers. Generals and department chairs. Princes and popes. Jesus is sovereign over all of them. God has given him “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He is king of kings and lord of lords. Can I get an ‘amen’?

It can be hard to tell, though, can’t it? It’s hard to blame us if we have a tough time believing that Jesus is master and commander of the world we live in. I mean, look at it! Wars and threats of violence. The rising tide of climate change – drought and smoke and hurricanes. Refugees by the millions. We live in a world where grinding poverty is the norm, while those at the top wallow in luxury and self-deception.

Something is wrong. Where are you, king Jesus? Where is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead? Where is the sovereign power that God has promised us for so long, the throne that will crush the might of the Beast and establish a society of peace and justice? I don’t see it. Do you?

How much longer are we supposed to wait?

That’s what the disciples wanted to know. Jesus’ first disciples, who followed him from Galilee all the way to Jerusalem. They knew their teacher was the future king of Israel. The messiah. He was going to be large and in charge, just you wait and see!

We’re still waiting. Just like Peter, James, John, and all the others, we modern-day disciples of Jesus are hungry to see “all peoples, nations, and languages [serving him.]” We long for the “everlasting dominion that shall not pass away,” the age of wholeness, healing, and truth that God’s messiah promises us.

We’ve been waiting a long time. For most of the two thousand years since the resurrection, the posture of the church has been one of expectant waiting. Living in the tension of “now, but not yet” – with an emphasis on the “not yet.” Grappling with the reality that things still aren’t the way they’re supposed to be – the way that God created us to live.
Despite the reality of the resurrection, everywhere we look, we find our world still in a fallen state. Sins and sorrows still grow. Thorns infest the ground. When will Jesus come to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found?

Joy to the world! That’s what we want to see. “Joy to world, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.”

That’s the joy we seek. We saw it in the light of the resurrection. We saw it in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We’ve seen it again, and again, throughout successive movements of the Holy Spirit throughout history. Jesus keeps coming. Keeps teaching. Keeps reigning in our hearts, minds, spirits, and lives as communities. He is risen!

So why hasn’t he come to reign? I mean openly, outwardly, permanently? Why hasn’t Jesus conquered the world, banished sin and suffering forever? Why hasn’t God finally put an end to humanity’s madness and destroyed those who are destroying the earth? When will Jesus come to rule, not just in our hearts, not just in our personal lives, but in our life as a civilization? When will it finally be that every knee will bend, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord? When will we be changed, transformed once and for all?

That’s the promise, after all. That’s the end game. The Day of the Lord.

The prophets have been telling us about this day for thousands of years. The day when God will have the final victory. The earth will be restored. Justice will be done, and he will wipe away every tear. To use the imagery of the prophet Daniel, the court will sit in judgement and the books will be opened.

When will Jesus’ court finally be in session? When will he come to judge the nations and save us from ourselves? When will Jesus reign as king?

In our gospel reading this morning, John tells us about Jesus’ encounter with Pontius Pilate, the governor of Roman Palestine. Pilate is not a king, but he is a powerful man. He is the civil authority, appointed by the emperor to oversee the occupation of Judea. His job is to administer justice – to mete out rewards and punishments – in the kingdom of Caesar.

It says in our text that Pilate “entered his headquarters again” to talk with Jesus. “Again,” because he had just been outside talking with the Jewish religious authorities. Pilate suggests that the Jews should try Jesus according to Jewish law. But the priests ask Pilate to try the case, because only Rome is allowed to execute people.

That’s always been one of the major marks of sovereignty: A monopoly on violence. As imperial sovereign in the region, Rome reserves certain rights to itself. Especially the right to kill.

So Pilate re-enters his headquarters to conduct a cross-examination. Who is this Jesus? Is he a revolutionary, someone worthy of being broken on a Roman cross? Or is he just some local heretic, a danger to the priestly establishment perhaps, but no threat to Rome?

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”

Now something that I find interesting here is that according to John’s gospel the Jewish authorities don’t accuse Jesus of claiming to be king. But Pilate wants to know. For Pilate, probably the only crime worth his time and attention is insurrection. So is Jesus an insurrectionist? Does he challenge the lordship of Caesar? Is he a king?

Something I love about Jesus is that he never answers questions directly if they’re asked in bad faith. So when Pilate asks him whether he’s a king, Jesus replies in this way: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Jesus has come to testify to the A and the Z, the beginning and the end. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Everyone who hears the word of God – and does it – is his mother, sister, and brother. Jesus has been given an everlasting dominion that shall never pass away, because the truth will never pass away. When we hear the truth and obey it, Jesus becomes our king.

And that’s great. But it’s also a little bit vague, isn’t it? Pilate obviously thinks so. His response to Jesus’ words: “What is truth?”

What is truth? It’s a fair question. Because it’s hard to tell sometimes. The rulers of this world all have their own version of ‘truth.’ There’s the truth of the marketplace, the truth of Wall Street. There’s the truth of endless technological progress and innovation, the truth of Silicon Valley. There’s the truth of might-makes-right, the truth of the Pentagon. There are so many truths, and so many powers vying for our allegiance. These kingdoms of money and violence and progress are so seductive, because they have demonstrated their power again and again. We know the pleasure they can provide and the terror they can inflict.

But what is the truth Jesus speaks of? What kind of kingdom is this? What does it mean to listen to his voice amidst the roar of empires?

The reign of Jesus is unlike anything we have ever experienced before, ever could experience within the intellectual and emotional confines of human empire. Jesus tries to explain this to Pilate. He says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

My kingdom is not from here. Not from this world.

Well, what world is it then? What is this world where truth is alive and Jesus is king? When will we see this world outside our windows, in the workplace, and in our public policy? When will the kingdom finally come, as we have been promised throughout scripture, with visible power and glory? “One like a human being, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

We’ve been waiting for so long.

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come … and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

We need this grace. We need this truth. We need the reality of his resurrection in our own bodies. We need his love – for ourselves, and to share with the broken world around us.

Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world – this present social order, economic system, and spiritual state that we’re in. His kingdom can’t be held back or denied by all the lies that this world calls “truth.” It can’t be snuffed out by the darkness of evil, cowardice, and indifference. This light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

We need this light. We need the presence “of him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” That’s our calling. That’s our destiny. That’s our kingdom, even in the midst of all this grief and loss. To be freed from all the weights and confusions that hold us back from love.

We are called into a new social reality as his followers, disciples who belong to the truth and listen to his voice. We are, each and every one of us, called to be priests serving the God and father of our Lord Jesus. Belonging to the truth, we listen to his voice.

We’ve been waiting for so long.

The kingdom of God is coming, and it’s here. It’s like a mustard seed, growing before our eyes. Growing right back up even when the evil of this world takes a lawnmower to it. The darkness cannot overcome it. It cannot overcome us. It cannot defeat us as we hear the truth and listen to Jesus’ voice.

In spite of our weariness and doubt and waiting, we say with the early church:

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

Related Posts:

The Kingdom of God Can Be Yours – All It Will Cost You Is Everything

In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/11/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Hebrews 9:24-28, & Mark 12:38-44. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

It can be hard to believe, in times like these. Hard to believe in a God that allows a world of migrant caravans, smoke-filled skies, climate-fueled natural disasters, and a rising movement of authoritarian nationalism. It can be hard to believe in a Christianity that so often sides with the wealthy, the powerful, the violent and the arrogant. Based on what we see on the national and world stage, it can be a challenge to believe that human beings are capable of anything beyond self-interest, self-preservation, and self-deception.

There’s this spiritual weight that has fallen over us as a people. We feel the temptation to despair. Despair tells us, “things won’t get better – they’ll always get worse. People don’t change, what’s the point in trying?” As human beings, we don’t lose hope because life is hard; we lose hope because life seems to have lost all sense of possibility, all long-term meaning and legacy.

It was this kind of lurking despair that Elijah found when he encountered the widow in Zarephath. The land was dying. The food was almost gone. No one and nothing could save her or her child. It hadn’t rained in the whole region for years. The famine was severe. What more could be done? Maybe it was just time to give up and die.

When Elijah showed up a the gates of Zarephath, he found this widow doing the only thing she could do: gathering sticks to start a fire, to prepare a last meal for herself and her son. And as she stands there, gathering kindling to prepare the last of the food available to her family, a stranger appears. Begging for food. “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”

I don’t know what the widow thought when Elijah approached her, asking for bread. I don’t know, because it doesn’t say in the text. But I know what I would be thinking if I were in her place. “Bring you a morsel of bread? Bring you a morsel of bread? My family is getting ready to starve to death, and you want me to give you food, stranger? Go sell crazy somewhere else – we’re all stocked up here!”

The widow is kinder than I might have been. Maybe because she’s afraid. She says, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.” That sounds familiar. Have you ever done that? I’m ashamed to admit it, but I know I have. “Sorry, man – I don’t have any cash on me.” Technically true, but really a polite way of saying, “I don’t want to help.”

And why should she, right? Why should she want to help? Generosity flows out of hope, and hope seems in very short supply these days. The widow tells the stranger, “I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare [the remaining food] for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

“That we may eat it, and die.” Things are getting real in Zarephath.

But then Elijah makes a promise – an outrageous promise: Give me some food, and God will take care of you and your son. He says:

“Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

Can you believe this guy? “Don’t worry lady – go make me some food right away. If you do, God is going to make your handful of grain and final drops of oil last for years!” Would you believe a stranger telling you this kind of stuff?

The text is very sparse on details. It doesn’t give us much insight into the widow’s emotional reactions to this whole conversation. It just says that she did what Elijah asked, and that God made good on Elijah’s promise. The prophet stayed with them for many days, and the three of them had enough to eat. The jar of meal never ran out, and the jug of oil never ran dry.

The widow at Zarephath trusted in Elijah and his God, and that leap of faith – that leap of utter desperation – paid off. Elijah truly was a holy man, and God was faithful.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus talks about some other “holy men.” In Mark 12, the important holy men of Jerusalem are demanding to know by what authority Jesus has disrupted the holy precincts of the temple by chasing out the money changers. In response, Jesus tells a parable, comparing the religious leaders to murderous thieves. They try to trip him up with questions about paying taxes, and the nature of the resurrection, and debates about the identity of the messiah.

At the end of all this, Jesus warns his listeners to watch out for these self-serving religious leaders, who live at the center of power in Jerusalem:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Elijah ate what a widow had to offer, receiving her food as an offering to God. And as a sign of God’s favor, God miraculously multiplied the meal and oil, saving the lives of the widow and her son. We see echoes of this story in Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. When we offer up what we have to God, there is enough to go around.

The religion of the temple in Jesus’ time was of an entirely different character from the prophetic faith of Elijah. The widow’s gift to Elijah was a leap of faith, but tithes to the temple were a tax imposed by a wealthy elite. Elijah lived on the margins, fleeing the wrath of a corrupt king; the temple was the very seat of power.

In the traditional Jewish cosmology, the temple was the holiest place in the holiest land on earth. The story of Elijah and the widow takes place in the least holy place possible – among the gentiles in Sidon. The temple was home to the best and brightest; Zarephath was full of unclean outsiders who had nothing left and were preparing to die. The rulers of the temple demand religious devotion and economic sacrifice, but Elijah comes begging and offering good news to the poor.

The second part of our reading from Mark is the famous “widow’s mite” story. It says that Jesus sat down opposite the temple treasury and watched people putting money in. Lots of rich people came by and donated large sums. And then finally a poor widow came and put in a couple of copper coins – practically nothing. And Jesus says to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

The most common reading of this passage is to interpret Jesus as praising the widow for her faith. While the other, wealthy, donors all gave out of their abundance, the widow gave in a self-sacrificial way. Through her willingness to surrender everything for her faith in the temple, she demonstrates the kind of risk-taking that Jesus wants to see in his disciples.

There’s a beauty in this interpretation, and I think it can be a legitimate way of thinking about the text on a certain level. But when we look at the context of this passage in the Gospel of Mark, when we look at Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and all the struggles and debates that this action unleashed, the story of the widow’s offering starts looking less like a model of faithfulness and more like an example of economic oppression.

Superficially, it would seem that the widow’s gift at the temple has a lot in common with the widow’s gift to Elijah at Zarephath. In both cases, a marginalized, impoverished woman living on the edge gives everything that she has to live on. They both give it to holy men who claim to have a higher purpose for asking for the resources they need to live. But the holy men of the temple do not possess the same character as Elijah.

The widow at Zarephath took a leap of faith to feed a prophet on the run, a prophet being hunted by an abusive and unfaithful king in Israel. The widow at Jerusalem gave away everything she had to live on to satisfy the demands of an abusive and unfaithful temple system – men who “devour widows’ houses, and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” The faith of Elijah relieves poverty and famine, but the temple’s tithing system exacerbates it.

Where do we find ourselves in these scriptures? Do we live in the faith of Elijah? The faith of the margins? The prophetic faith that stands with the poor, the widow, the hungry? Or have we been seduced by the spectacle and violence of the temple?

The religion of the temple is still very much alive in our world today. It is the faith of Wall Street, the faith of the Pentagon. The faith of Silicon Valley. It’s the prosperity gospel that tells us we all get what we have earned – that the rich deserve to run the show, and the poor deserve to eat their last meal and die. This kind of religion centers the people and institutions that already have a lot, and says they should be given more. This is the kind of faith that devours widow’s homes and for the sake of appearances says long prayers.

Jesus and Elijah offer us an alternative this way of empire. They stand in the prophetic tradition. The way of the wilderness, the revelation of the burning bush. Theirs is the way of utter dependence on God, the way of the cross. It’s a way of liberation. To walk with Jesus is to hear the voice of God calling to us on the tattered edge of empire, commanding us to say to Pharaoh, “let my people go!” The prophetic faith of Jesus turns its back on the center, the holy, the important, the wise, in order to embrace those who are rejected and despised by the world.

In days like these, when the skies are filled with smoke and refugees stream northward seeking refuge and safety – in times when political power seems bankrupt of moral authority – we are tempted to despair, to gather sticks so that we can cook our food and die.

In our hunger for a faith that can speak to our distress, Jesus and Elijah present us with two different paths we can choose. Will we put our faith in the God of Moses – who challenges oppressive structures and liberates his people from slavery? Will we walk in the faith of Jesus, who surrendered everything – his life, honor, and dignity – to open the door to healing and reconciliation?

Or will we pick the way of the temple? Will we be like the scribes, riding high on our own sense of moral authority? Will we place burdens on the poor and the marginalized that they cannot bear? Will we side with the economic and political system that is choking our planet and tearing families apart? Will we allow our hopelessness to congeal into cynicism? Will we seek personal advantage in a time of societal breakdown?

As followers of Jesus, we don’t have to guess about which path we are called to. Our God is the holy one of the wilderness. He stands with the widow and orphan, the poor and oppressed, the migrant caravans and the child laborers who make our clothing and electronics.

Our God dwells with those who our economic system is crushing. On the cross, Jesus bears the suffering of the weeping parents and hungry children. In his resurrection power, he invites us into the ministry of reconciliation, turning away from the glitz and glamor of celebrity and power and toward the daily needs of those who have been cast away by our society.

Will we heed this call? Will we become like the prophet Elijah, approaching the widow at Zarephath for food, offering good news to the poor?

The prophet does not command obedience through their own wealth and power. Elijah did not come to Zarephath as someone superior and worthy of respect. He came as a homeless beggar. Like Jesus and the early disciples, he carried nothing with him but the clothes on his back and the good news of God’s salvation. Liberation for the poor, and justice for the oppressed.

In these times of darkness, when we are tempted to despair, Jesus and Elijah offer us a way forward. A way of life and peace. A way of releasing our fear and embracing trust in God. By serving those most in need – by embracing our place as humble beggars in the house of God – we can find our way through this time of drought and famine. Together with the unexpected friends that God will reveal to us, we might even find hope.

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God Doesn’t Need Your Religion – Love Is All That Matters

God Doesn't Need Your Religion - Just Love
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/4/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Ruth 1:1-18, Hebrews 9:11-14 & Mark 12:28-34. 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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“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Jesus spent all of his ministry preaching the arrival of the reign of God. All of his words and actions revealed the presence of God’s power, love, and justice. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom of God has drawn near.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus says this to one of the scribes. One of the Pharisees. A member of a group that Jesus criticizes a lot. The scribes and Pharisees, middle-class people who could read the Torah and write dense legal theories about how to follow it correctly.

Jesus fought so often with the scribes and the Pharisees not because he was so different, but because he had so much in common. In fact, if you were going to categorize Jesus in terms of the ideological camps of his day, you could be forgiven for numbering him among the Pharisees.

Just like the Pharisees, Jesus had an extremely high regard for scripture. In fact, just before our gospel reading this morning, Jesus had been publicly debating with the Sadducees – a highly conservative, priestly party that denied the resurrection of the dead. When Jesus rebukes them, he does so on the basis of two things: the Torah – the written testimony about God – and the power of God himself.

He says to the Sadducees, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?”

Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus didn’t accuse the Pharisees of being ignorant of the Bible. Jesus was with the Pharisees in his respect for the scriptures. They had that in common. Where Jesus parted ways with the Pharisees was their lack of responsiveness to the power of God. The God who inspired the scriptures is far beyond, far greater than the scriptures. God won’t be held hostage to human legal theories derived from the Bible. Just as Jesus is lord of the sabbath, the Holy Spirit is lord of scripture.

This is really important. We get lost whenever we forget this. Because, if history has taught us anything, it’s that our sacred texts are almost infinitely malleable. European Christians have used the Bible to justify the crusades, manifest destiny, and slavery. We’ve also used it to build the theological basis of the civil rights movement, anti-slavery societies, and nonviolent action for peace.

This may sound scandalous to some, but there is no “clear meaning of scripture.” Our fallen natural minds simply can’t comprehend the love of God, regardless of what is written down in a book. We’re not qualified interpreters. We’ll twist those holy words to justify our worst impulses. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

The scriptures, of themselves, can’t save us. Without the Holy Spirit to guide us in our reading, we are utterly blind and lost. In fact, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, in the absence of the Spirit, the words of scripture can become death to us. Without the power of God, the scriptures can be used as a dangerous weapon. The good news is that, guided by God’s love and wisdom, the scriptures can be a force for healing and liberation.

So when Jesus rails against the Pharisees he’s not railing against their respect for scripture, or the intense study they devote to understanding it. When Jesus gets into his Epic Rap Battles of History with the Pharisees, it’s not about the letter – it’s about the Spirit. It’s about the power of God to move mountains, change the rules, and scandalize us by valuing mercy more than correct religious practice.

Our scripture readings this morning are all about this dynamic power of God to change structures, relationships, and all the moralistic rules that hold us back from being truly moral beings. From Jesus’ dynamic and radical teaching from the Torah, the wisdom of the Book of Hebrews, and in the story of Ruth and Naomi, we hear of how God transcends and upsets all our expectations about what holiness should look like.

In these stories, we discover a God who cares more about love than about rules, more about justice than correctness. We encounter a God who we can trust, because he doesn’t think in the same categories we do. God won’t be boxed in by our limited minds and legalistic straight jackets. And if we’re willing to listen and pay attention, he will free us from our slavery to rules and forms. He’ll bring us into the real life and substance of the gospel.

This gospel of liberation is available in the most unlikely times and places; it emerges in the lives of the most unlikely of people. Ruth was a person like that. A person who lived on the margins in every way. She was a widow in an age where, for a woman, who your husband was determined everything. She was childless in a time when childbearing was the measure of a woman. And from the perspective of the Jewish people, she was an outsider. A Moabite. A descendent of Lot’s incestuous affair with his daughters. As a Moabite, Ruth was unclean and unfit to enter the congregation of Israel.

And let’s be realistic. Even if Ruth were a Jew, she’s married into the most marginal family she could have picked. Naomi and her boys fled famine in Bethlehem, selling their land and abandoning their heritage in Hebrew society. These were not fancy people. These were people living on the edge.

As if things couldn’t get any worse for this family, Naomi’s husband dies, leaving her alone with her two young sons – who are apparently both very unhealthy, probably from living as poorly-fed refugees for most of their lives. Somehow, these two manage to take wives from the local Moabite people – Orpah and Ruth. Despite this bit of good luck, things don’t end well for Mahlon and Chilion. Not too long after they get married, they both die, leaving Naomi alone with her two widowed daughters-in-law.

Naomi had lost everything. She was probably in her forties – too old to expect to find a new husband, as her childbearing years were soon to be behind her. The only shred of hope she had left was to head back to her homeland of Israel and see if she could beg for food there. Word on the street was that the famine had ended and there was enough grain to go around. For Naomi, it was time to go home.

As she began to make her way back to Bethlehem (which was maybe 50 or 60 miles from Moab), Naomi released her two daughters-in-law from any responsibility they might feel towards her. Naomi knew that she was headed back into a very hard situation in the land of Israel – poverty and begging. As an older, childless woman, she didn’t have much hope of integrating back into Hebrew society. Orpah and Ruth, at least, had their youth. Naomi urged them to stay in their homeland – to return to their mothers’ houses and seek out husbands who could provide for them economically and give them the chance to bear children.

Orpah weeps at the thought of leaving Naomi to face their cold and dangerous world all by herself. But she sees the wisdom in Naomi’s decision. After a tearful farewell, Orpah returns to her mother’s house and to her people.

Ruth is a different story. Ruth stubbornly refuses to leave Naomi’s side, no matter how much Naomi tries to convince her. “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth isn’t interested. She says,

Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!

This is a remarkable scene. One of the most beautiful and memorable passages in all of scripture. These words could be wedding vows, couldn’t they? But they’re not. They’re the words of a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. People who have probably only known each other for a couple of years at most. Ruth is ready to sacrifice everything to stand with Naomi, to abandon her people, land, and gods, and to adopt Naomi as her true family and the Lord of Israel as her true God. All of this, even as Naomi’s situation looks impossible. This commitment may very well cost Ruth her future.

This is unnatural – supernatural – love. This is love that breaks the rules. This is covenantal love that defies the divisions between people, that flies in the face of danger, poverty, and death, to show solidarity and commitment to another. This is love that breaks the written rules of Hebrew tradition in order to demonstrate the life, power, and spirit of the God of Israel.

The love and courage of Ruth is remarkable in every way. As a poor, widowed, foreign woman, she reveals the character of God in her commitment to Naomi. And as we will eventually see by the end of the story, she becomes the great-grandmother of King David, and an ancestor to Jesus himself. From the story of Ruth, we learn that God uses the stone that is rejected – the widow, the orphan, the poor, the foreigner – as the cornerstone of the kingdom of God.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

We human beings like to make things complicated. With all our texts and translations. Our rituals and rules. Our notions of who’s in and who’s out. We like to feel in control.

But that’s not what the gospel is about. The good news of Jesus – the good news from A to Z, from creation to the Red Sea to the cross to the end of time – that good news is very simple, and utterly challenging. When the scribe asks Jesus “which commandment is the first of all,” here’s what Jesus says:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love God. Love him with everything that is within you. Love him with your whole body, your whole mind, all the passion that is within you – love him. And love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

OK, got it!

We like to make things complicated, so that we can make them easy. But reality is simple, and much, much harder. Love God with everything we are, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Our immigrant neighbor. Our gay neighbor. Our Muslim, atheist, Republican neighbor. Love them as we love ourselves. Love God, and love even our enemies, with everything we’ve got. There is no command greater than this.

Religion tends to be about how to follow the rules correctly. How to feel justified, and know that we are on the right path. That’s the kind of religion that Israel had in the Temple. Through their sacrifices and burnt offerings, they sought to be at peace with God. But how did the scribe respond to Jesus?

“You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

God doesn’t need our sacrifices. God has already provided us with the ultimate sacrifice – his son Jesus. And as the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus himself is present forever as our high priest, offering intercession for us in the heavenly realms. It is written, “[Jesus] entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”

That is our sacrifice: Love. The Love who was nailed to a cross for our sakes. The Love who intercedes for us and offers us peace – with God, with one another, even with our enemies.

Love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love neighbor as much as we love ourselves. There is no greater commandment than this.

Let us walk in the footsteps of Ruth, who risked everything to become a living expression of the love of God. Let us demonstrate the faith and courage of the scribe, who – despite all his religious and scholarly training – was open to the radical truth of the gospel – beyond rules and rituals. Let the Spirit of love, life, and power enter into us, so that our God-loving, enemy-blessing lives may become the fulfillment of the law.

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Without the Spirit, The Body of Christ Is Just a Corpse!

Without the Spirit, The Body of Christ Is Just a Corpse!
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/26/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43, Ephesians 6:10-20, & John 6:56-69. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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“The flesh is useless.” In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” This is what the en-fleshed Word of God says to us. “The flesh is useless.”

At first glance, it’s hard for me to make sense of this. After all, Jesus is the Word become flesh. Jesus is the one through whom we know just how much God loves this world of flesh and bone. By Jesus’ presence, we know that God embraces the whole creation – humans, plants, animals – so much that he is willing to become part of us.

Jesus says that the flesh is useless – but clearly God loves this created world very much! Earlier in John’s Gospel, it says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. He’s also a human being, just like any of us. He was born. He grew from a tiny baby to a full-grown man. He had friends and enemies. He experienced joy and suffering. In his life on earth, Jesus didn’t know everything all from the start. He learned and grew, just like we do. (If you don’t believe me, check out the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.)

Jesus is fully human, even as he is fully divine. That’s a basic statement of faith that we receive from the early church, but it’s still so profound that I have a tough time wrapping my head around it. Jesus is man and God. He is spirit and flesh. He is life itself, and yet he experienced death.

In our passage from John this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that “the flesh is useless.” And yet at the same time, what is his command to the disciples? What does he tell them is the way to encounter the Spirit? “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus says that this is the true manna from heaven. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” This is the way to life.

So, clearly Jesus’ flesh is not useless. On the contrary, his flesh and blood are the key that opens up everything, that makes the Spirit’s work in the world possible. So why does Jesus say that the flesh is useless, when his flesh and blood are clearly so useful?

It seems like Jesus is talking about two distinct things: there’s the kind of flesh that is useless, and then there’s his flesh which brings life and connection to the Spirit of God.

And this makes sense. Because, though I’ve been saying this whole time that Jesus is a man just like us, he’s also a little different. He’s different, because he came into this world with an open heart. All the rest of us, when we’re born into this world, are immediately sucked into the confusion and brokenness of our society. From the very beginning, we’re baptized into the patterns of alienation that define fallen human society. We are children of Adam and Eve, children of the fall, children of the serpent who has deceived us.

Jesus’ life is different, because he has always been a child of God. He was never a child of the fall, a child of the serpent. Jesus never rejected his Father’s love. He never gave into fear and hatred. Jesus is God’s answer to the fall. He is the good flesh that God created in the beginning. In Jesus, the created order is redeemed. The Spirit is present and moves unimpeded. The curse of the fall is broken. The fissure between earth and heaven is healed.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Gattaca. It’s a dystopian movie about a near future in which everyone who can afford it genetically modifies their children to be smarter, stronger, healthier. Of course, not everyone is super excited about this, and some decide to have children the old fashioned way. So there’s a scene where a doctor is convincing some parents to have their child produced through genetic enhancement. He tells the couple, “your child will still be you, only the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never achieve such a result.”

Now this is a dystopian movie, so I admit that the comparison is rather strange, but I think that Jesus is kind of like this. He’s still us. He’s a real human being, with all our hopes, fears, and limitations. But he’s the best of us. He’s what we look like when we have been enhanced by God’s love – freed from the crippling disease of sin, that has plagued our human family for so long.

When Jesus says that “the flesh is useless,” he’s not saying that the creation is bad. He’s saying that the creation is broken and needs to be healed. Jesus is pointing to the fact that the body is meaningless when cut off from the spirit.

This past week, a good family friend died. His name was Dan Patterson, and he was like an adoptive uncle to me. I remember how he encouraged my love of reading, buying my brother and me the best books throughout our childhood. I remember traveling as a family with him to New York City. I remember his love of Opera and theater. I remember his fierce cynicism about our fallen human nature and his passionate critique of injustice wherever he saw it.

And now, he’s gone. That is to say, all that’s left is flesh. A dead body. The breath is gone, and all that’s left is a corpse. And when I think about all that we’ve lost, I want to say with Jesus, “the flesh is useless!” Without the spirit, the life, the presence of my friend Dan, what’s left? “It’s the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” I want my friend back.

The message of Jesus to us this morning, is that real life is only possible when we are filled with the breath and spirit of God. The spirit, the breath, gives life. I can’t just be a body. I’ve got to breathe. I’ve got to be filled with the breath of God, the spirit. I can’t just go through the motions. Without the presence and love of the spirit, all that exists is death and decay. I’m just a corpse, breaking down.

This is what Paul was talking about in our reading this morning from Ephesians. He tells us, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” If we’re going to be more than just a corpse, we have to be clothed by the Spirit.

King Solomon understood this, too. For everything that he did wrong, God gave Solomon wisdom to understand what a vital and amazing thing was the presence of God in the midst of Israel. When the Spirit of God descended on the Temple, it says that God filled the sanctuary like a cloud. The power of his presence was so intense that the priests couldn’t even stand to minister there. The power was so heavy, all they could do was bow in awe and worship. “For the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”

The house of the Lord. The dwelling place of God on earth. Solomon understood how crazy this entire concept was. How could the creator of the entire cosmos, a being who is deeper and wider than anything the human mind can comprehend – how could God come to dwell in a house made with human hands? Solomon was bowed down in awe and astonishment together with the priests, and he said, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

The Temple in Israel was an important teaching tool for God. Like the desert tabernacle before it, it was a place where the flesh of this world could be touched and redeemed. A place where the Spirit breathed and gave life. In the old covenant, this was the place where the effects of the fall were overcome. Reconciliation between people and God was possible where the Spirit breathed into flesh.

In the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, we no longer need a building to serve as God’s dwelling place. The church itself – the people of God gathered here, and in hundreds of thousands of other places this morning – is the temple of God. Our bodies are the dwelling place of the most high. Our lungs are filled by his Spirit. The spirit gives life. Together we feed on the body and blood of Jesus, and our own flesh is transformed.

Without the spirit, we’re just a corpse. We’re no good for anything but burial. But we don’t have to worry about that, because the Spirit is present here with us, ready to breathe into our lives. This temple, this gathering of Jesus followers, is ready to be filled by the glory of the Lord.

Are we ready to be filled? Are we ready to truly come alive? Are we ready to become the redeemed flesh and blood of Jesus in the world? Are we ready to become children of God, together with Jesus?

I would like to invite us into a time of open worship, in which we wait on the Spirit of God to come and fill us, inspire us, guide us into greater truth and faithfulness. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Father God. Breathe life into this body that longs to live in you.

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In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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God Will Judge Those Who Put Children in Cages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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