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You Don’t Have to Be Afraid, But There’s Just One Catch

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/27/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 John 4:7-21. 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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God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Beautiful, right? Beautiful.

But also potentially meaningless. An empty little inspirational quote to be mounted on our refrigerator, maybe. If we don’t know what John means by “love.”

What is love?

Is the love of God the same kind of love that I mean when I say, “I love green tea,” or “I love my friends from college,” or, “I love my mom”? What kind of love are we talking about here?

We mean a lot of things when we use the word “love.” It’s confusing. John knew that, so in our reading this morning, he gets specific. He says:

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Wow. So this is the kind of love John is talking about. Not our love, but the love of God who chose to love us, even when we were his enemies. The love of God who sent his only son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 

This love of God isn’t about a warm and fuzzy feeling. It isn’t about liking someone because of a characteristic they have, or because they are useful to us. It’s not about being attracted to someone else for anything they are or have done.

The love of God is love for enemies. It’s love for the very people who hate us and are prepared to kill us.

The love of God is a choice, not a feeling. 

From Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, we learn that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is true in physical science, and it is often true in human relationships, too. If I push you, you push me back. If you love me, I love you in return. That’s natural.

The love of God is nothing like that. God is the unmoved mover. His love is objective. It simply is; it’s not a reaction to anything. God’s love is a choice, completely independent of anything we have ever thought, felt, or done. 

God’s love is sovereign. Just as God created the cosmos through the word of his mouth, he has also shown his love to us by the word in his son, Jesus of Nazareth.

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t earn this. But somehow, God loves us. He chooses us. He calls us. He redeems us from this mess we’re in. That is what it means that God is love.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

We’ve received this love from God, and if we stand in it, if we allow it to live in us, God will abide in us. God is alive in us when we choose to love.

For those of you who are Star Wars geeks like me, you may remember the scene from the Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker meets the Emperor. And the Emperor is taunting Luke, trying to convert him to evil. And he says to Luke. “Let the hate flow through you. … Your hate has made you powerful.”

God is the exact opposite of the Emperor. God says to us, “Reject all hatred. Instead, abide in my love. Let my love flow through you. My love will make you powerful, even though it looks like weakness to the world. Jesus suffered and died for love, yet I vindicated him through the resurrection. Let my love flow through you, and I will vindicate you.”

Dwelling in Jesus’ resurrection, death has no mastery over us. We have “boldness on the day of judgment, because as [Jesus] is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”

We have boldness on the day of judgment, because love is the judgment. Love is the judge. Love is the measure of all things, and we have seen and known the character of God’s love in the face of his son Jesus Christ.

Perfect love casts out all fear. 

If we dwell in love. If we ground our lives in the love that raised Jesus from the dead. If we add our contingent ‘yes’ to the sovereign ‘yes’ of God. Perfect love casts out all fear. 

It frees us to see the world as it really is, and to love it as God does.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God’s love is not a feeling. It’s not subjective. It is bedrock reality. God’s love is how things really are.

God’s love – the love we see in Jesus laying down his life for us – this love is the truth. This is how God interacts with the world. It is the force that binds the cosmos together. The love of Jesus is how God’s creation exists. Everything else is an illusion.

You were conceived in love. So were Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. So was the person you most despise in the world. We were all conceived in love. That is how God sees us. 

God. So. Loves. The world. 

He loves us like a mom and dad love their little toddler who has fallen asleep in their car seat after a really nasty roadtrip tantrum. He loves us because he chose us. He loves us because love is who he is.

God calls us to love like that, too. Not because it’s who we are. Not because we love others by nature, much less our enemies. But we are called and empowered to love one another because God first loved us. John says:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sister also.

We can’t love God without loving one another. We can’t love God without loving our enemies. Just like Jesus loved us when we were busy nailing him to the cross. 

We have to love those who hate us. We have to love those who are threatening our friends and family, and destroying our world. We have to love them, because God first loved us.

Is that hard for you? It is for me.

Even in the best of times, we live in a rough and complicated world. Humans fight over control and status and resources. We hurt one another. We band together in our little tribes and cliques for protection. 

So it’s easy to hate other people. It’s totally natural. And when there are people who threaten us and those we care about, this hate is even reasonable.

These days, it feels like there are more people to be afraid of than usual. Our world is literally on fire, and at any given moment it can feel like at least half the country is our enemy.

This isn’t an accident. We are being intentionally primed to hate one another. By pundits on the news. Ads and posts on social media. Government leaders and celebrities. Neighbors who don’t wear their masks (Or maybe, you know, do that nose-sticking-out thing – don’t you hate that?). Even friends and family members are easy to hate when we disagree with them on important issues.

In this context, John has news for us.

First, here’s the bad news: 

If we hate other people, we can’t possibly love God.

But there is good news, too: 

Because of what God has done for us in Jesus, we have the power to be conduits for God’s love. 

We can choose to love each and every person who crosses our path. Not because we are so spiritually attuned or loving or generous, but because God first loved us while we still hated him. Living in his resurrection life, we can find the boldness to love even those who are hurting us, our country, and our planet.

What would it feel like to dwell in faith, hope, and love, and to feel the hatred and fear fall away?

How would this love transform our lives? How might our world change – what impossible things would become possible – if we loved one another?

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

The Bread is Enough

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/13/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 8:14-21. 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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These past few weeks I’ve been reading and re-reading the gospel of Mark in my Life Transformation Group with Robbie and Chuck. Each time I read through any passage of scripture – in this case the gospel of Mark – I always encounter something new and different in the text. It’s always fresh; God is always speaking to us through scripture in new ways. 

This last time reading through the Gospel of Mark, I noticed a critical moment in the story. A key scene where the world turns.

You could argue that many different parts of Mark are sort of the critical moment, the fulcrum that the whole text hinges on. Maybe you’d argue that it’s the part in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying and disciples keep falling asleep. You could argue that a pivotal moment in Mark is Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the healing of Bartimaeus. Maybe it’s Jesus’ healing of the man with a withered hand in the synagogue in chapter three, when the Pharisees turn totally against Jesus and decide to destroy him.

The transfiguration is a pivotal moment in the scripture. And so of course is the crucifixion and the empty tomb. But reading through the story this time, I realized that, for Mark and for Jesus, one of the most important moments in this story is one that I – to be honest – have always sort of skimmed over and not paid a lot of attention to. It’s a story that hasn’t quite fit into my worldview. Maybe it hasn’t fit into yours, either.

It turns out that for Jesus, one of the key moments of revelation – one of the key ways to understand what Jesus is about – is when he feeds the five thousand and the four thousand. When he multiplies the loaves and fishes and provides for people who were out in the wilderness and had nothing to eat.

In our reading this morning, we hear about Jesus and his disciples immediately after Jesus had fed the four thousand. They’re in the boat. And as they’re traveling along on the water, the disciples start worrying. Because they realize that on their way into the boat they didn’t think to stop and get any bread. So they’re talking amongst themselves saying, “Oh gosh! We didn’t stop by the grocery store before we left. What are we gonna eat on this boat voyage across the sea of Galilee? We’re gonna be hungry.” 

But there’s something more important than hunger, even. Because you know, Jesus’ disciples being disciples, they probably knew how to fast. They probably knew how to go without food for a day or two. So even more important than “what are we gonna eat” is: “Isn’t Jesus gonna be disappointed in us for not thinking to pick up bread, to pick up food from the supermarket before we left town?” 

And so Jesus, well, it’s a small boat. I don’t think it’s a big boat. So Jesus notices that the disciples are whispering to one another and discussing things in low tones. And it’s a little bit tense.

And so Jesus asked them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Why are you worried about this?” He says, “Do you not still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear? Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember when I broke the bread for the five thousand? When I did that we had five loaves and we fed five thousand people! And how much did we have in leftovers?”

“Twelve baskets,” the disciples said. 

“And when we broke seven loaves for four thousand people just a couple days ago, how many basketfuls of leftovers were there?” 

The disciples answered, “Seven.” 

And Jesus said, “Do you still not understand? Do you still not see what I’m about? Do you still not see that the God who is here present with you is the same God who fed your fathers and your mothers in the desert of Sinai? Who fed you in the wilderness with manna from heaven? Who gave you so much meat when you asked for it that it came out of your noses and you got sick of it!”

“Do you still not perceive, do you still not understand what you’re dealing with here? You don’t need to be worrying about bread.”

“You don’t need to be worrying about how we’re gonna get by. The God you serve – my father – is the God of manna. He is the God who provides for his children.”

So you’re worried about bread. We’re worried about bread. I’m worried about bread. I’m worried about how we’re gonna get by. Maybe not in terms of the bare necessities. Many of us are lucky enough to not be worrying about where our next meal is coming from. But we’re nervous, too. We’re nervous that there’s not gonna be enough.

We’re worried that this country that we live in, that our communities are not going to have what they need. That this church maybe isn’t going to make it. We’re afraid that, “Well, maybe we won’t grow. Maybe the church is going to have to close someday. Maybe we’re not going to make it. Maybe our society has become so secular that it doesn’t have any use for the gospel anymore.”

Maybe, maybe we’re done for. Maybe we forgot the bread.

Where are we going to get that bread of life from?

It’s interesting, because Jesus is actually the one who starts the conversation. The disciples hadn’t even remembered that they forgot and the bread, right? They didn’t even realize they didn’t have bread until Jesus said something to them – until Jesus used a bread metaphor. He said, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” Right? 

Because right before they got on the boat, Jesus had been debating with the Pharisees. The Pharisees had been demanding that Jesus give them a sign from heaven, to prove that he was indeed the Messiah. That he was the one who God had sent to lead Israel. And Jesus, when the Pharisees asked him for a sign, for a demonstration of power and wonder, Jesus said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” And that’s when Jesus left and got on the boat. And the disciples forgot the bread. 

And it’s interesting. Because, Jesus had just performed an enormous sign, right? He just fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread, and had seven baskets of leftovers afterwards. So Jesus had just performed an enormous sign that modern people like us find hard to believe nowadays. Hard to believe that this could even have happened. 

Now there are different theories about how it might have happened according to the laws of physics, including that Jesus sharing what he had, and the disciples sharing what they had, encouraged everyone else to share and that’s why there was enough. Maybe. It’s this miraculous thing that, even today, we have a tough time making sense of.

And yet when the Pharisees come to him and say, “Give us a sign, rabbi! We want to believe you’re the Messiah, if you just show us some thunder and lightning. Show us some fire and smoke. In the Torah it says that God showed our forefathers and foremothers a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to guide us through wilderness. Can you just show us a pillar of fire please? We want to know that it’s really you.”

And Jesus says: “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly, I tell you no sign will be given to it.” 

He shut them down.

And this is a consistent theme. Throughout the Gospels – and specifically in the Gospel of Mark – when people come to Jesus to test him, when people come to Jesus asking for a sign, he turns them down. He will not perform for them.

And yet Jesus is performing miracles all the time. He’s healing people. He’s feeding people. He’s changing people’s lives. He’s casting out demons. He’s changing hearts and minds. He’s turning people towards God.

So why would this be? Why would Jesus be so full of miracles and yet refuse to perform signs for those who questioned him, who want to test him?

“Do you still not understand?”

“Why are you talking about having no bread? Are your heart’s hardened?”

When Jesus performs miracles in the gospel of Mark, it’s consistent that a necessary requisite for these miracles – for these signs of healing and presence and power from God – a necessary requisite is faith. It says that when Jesus went back to his hometown in Nazareth, people took offense at him, because he was just one of the old boys from town. He had grown up there. Everybody knew his parents. They knew his mom and his brothers and sisters. And they were like, “Who is this guy that he is doing all these mighty works of power?”

“Who does he think he is?”

And it says that Jesus was not able to perform many miracles there. It says offhandedly – “yeah, you know, he just, he healed a few people. But nothing too big, you know.” Which, for me, if I saw someone heal a few people, to me that would be pretty big. But for Jesus, he just healed a few people – just a few – because their unbelief was so great. Because there was such a distrust of him. A desire to test him and desire to judge him.

Mark says he was unable to perform many wonders there. It doesn’t say he chose not to; it says he couldn’t perform many great works there. Just a few healings. Because of their unbelief.

And then you look at the places where people are healed. Where miracles do occur. You look at the crowds who had been with him for days out in the wilderness and they had nothing to eat. They believed in him, they trusted him, they were following him, they wanted to be with Jesus.

And so when the disciples say, “Look Jesus, we’re out in the middle of nowhere, you should send these people home or to the surrounding villages to get some food.” Jesus says, “Look, it’s far away. People are gonna faint. People aren’t gonna make it to the surrounding villages. You give them something to eat.”

You give them something to eat. We are gonna provide for these folks. 

“Well all we have is a few loaves.”

Do you not yet understand? The loaves are enough. The loaves are enough for those who trust in Jesus. For those who trust in God.

The loaves are enough. For the man with a withered hand. Who Jesus met in the synagogue that day and healed him even though it was the Sabbath. 

The loaves are enough. For the woman with chronic bleeding that excluded her from religious life and made her a pariah. Who touched Jesus, trusting that if she could just touch him, if she could just touch the hem of his garment, she would be healed from the bleeding that had kept her on the outside. Kept her isolated and alone and impoverished for twelve years.

The bread was enough.

So as we are gathered here as disciples of Jesus. As friends of Jesus. As his people. As we’re gathered together in this time of global and national crisis. Of economic and political and health uncertainty. The bread is enough.

We have Jesus here in the boat with us. Jesus is the bread of life.

He’s broken for us. He’s multiplied for us.

If we will believe. If we will trust him.

If we will stop. Worrying. About how bad things look. And remember how big God is. How much bigger God is than our circumstance. How much more loving and beautiful God is than our fearful imagination.

The bread is enough.

Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember? What God has already done for you? For us? Don’t you remember the ways that God has already brought you through?

I need to be reminded. I need to remember how many times I felt like I couldn’t go any farther. I felt like I was hopeless. And there was no way to get where I wanted to go or to be the person I wanted to be.

But the bread was enough. Jesus was enough. Trusting him was enough. 

More than enough. There were baskets and baskets of leftovers. There was enough for me and plenty to share. There was grace and life and resources overflowing.

When we’re scared. When we’re angry. And when we trust ourselves and our own wisdom more than God. It’s tempting to want to test God. In our hearts, in our minds, to say to God: “Send me a sign, Lord. I don’t really trust you. So if you’re going to convince me, I need you to send me a sign. I need you to make it clear. I need you to make it unambiguous. I need you to prove it to me.”

And to those frightened, self-assured, apparently wise people who challenged Jesus in this way. Jesus said, “No. I’m not giving you a sign. I’m not proving anything to you.”

Have you ever experienced that? Have you ever been praying and asking God to prove it to you? Have you ever said, “God just do this thing for me! Just show me and I’ll believe.”

And it feels like heaven is empty. And faith is a lie.

But the bread is enough.

If rather than seeking to test Jesus. Seeking to prove God. To remove ambiguity. To reassure ourselves and feel safe and secure and smart.

If we’ll trust Jesus.

Without surefire proof. Without mathematical certainty. If we’ll trust him. If we’ll love him. If we’ll humble ourselves and be his friends. If we’ll let go of our worry, and know that we follow the God who fed the people of Israel in the desert. The God who raised Jesus from the dead. The God who created the whole universe. We’ll know that the bread is enough. 

And we will be healed. We will be fed. In all the ways that are important. And there will be basketfuls of leftovers for us to share with the hungry. Those who are still seeking. Those who are still thirsty. We will have leftovers to lay before them. 

Joy. Peace. An abundant life. A testimony of how God has worked in our lives. And a willingness to work for others.

So watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod. The puffed up pride that says, “God, why don’t you prove it to me?”

Because Jesus has exposed that that kind of pride – it masquerades as strength, but it’s weakness.

It’s weakness. It’s fear. It’s smallness. It’s ignorance.

It’s a refusal to let go and to trust the only one who is worthy of absolute trust.

As we know from the ending of the story. The ending of the gospels, the story of the book of Acts. The story of our Quaker ancestors. We know that though God will take care of us and the bread is enough, it doesn’t always mean that things will go the way we want them to.

It doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. It doesn’t mean we won’t die.

But it does mean that we get to participate in the resurrection.

We get to participate in a life beyond these present troubles. And it’s that life that empowers us. To live fully – and joyfully – even in the midst of this situation.

The bread is enough.

Even In Our Grief, The Kingdom of God is Here

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/28/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Revelation 4, 12:7-12. 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

The week after George Floyd was murdered, I heard a lot of people saying things like, “this week has been a long month.” This resonated with me. That week was a long month, and this year has been a long decade – and we’re only half way through!

Remember January? That world we lived in seems like another time and place. Back then, we could go to work and school, and go to the grocery store without wearing a mask. We could go to playgrounds and parks. We could travel. We could go to church in person, at the meeting house, and eat delicious snacks together at fellowship hour.

Back then, we could imagine, we could hope that our political process might bring us some economic justice. We could dream that the status quo might be able to maneuver to address the civilization-ending threat of the ecological crisis. Back then, many of us white people could comfort ourselves with illusions about the state of racism, criminal justice, and policing in our country. We could tell ourselves that the problem was Trump, and that once he left office America could go back to being a pluralistic, post-racist society. Just like we wanted to imagine it was under the Obama administration.

This year has been a long decade. It’s been a season of plagues – immunological, economic, ecological, and cultural. In the last four months, we here in the United States have watched our already very fragile civil society shattering. We here in California have become part of the Western States Pact – a grouping of US states that have been coordinating a response to the pandemic in the absence of any meaningful federal leadership.

We’ve seen armed men take to statehouses. We’ve seen nationwide protests, and a police response that is nothing short of criminal gangsterism. We’ve seen our national institutions stretched to the breaking point, and – in the case of the police – losing their moral authority altogether.

This year, this decade, this century, has shattered so many of our illusions. We wanted to believe we were good people. We wanted to believe that we belonged to a society that – despite having problems and room to grow – was fundamentally just.

But war broke out in heaven.

War broke out in heaven. In the realm of the spirit, in the realm of how-things-really-are, we have entered into struggle. The dragon, that ancient serpent, the deceiver of the whole world, has been thrown down. He has been defeated, and his angels have been thrown down with him. There is no longer any place for them in the heavenly realms.

We are in a spiritual warfare now. We can see this war. We see it in our streets and in the halls of power. Sometimes we even see it in our families and our friendships. It feels like the world is being ripped apart by this war that started in the heavenlies and has spilled out into our lives on earth.

The writer of the Book of Revelation knew this struggle intimately. The apostle John lived in a world dominated by violence and brutality, an empire in which the followers of Jesus were routinely threatened, mistreated, and even murdered. He lived in an empire that nailed Jesus to the cross, and did not hesitate to do the same to his disciples.

John wrote his Apocalypse in the midst of this struggle. John was incarcerated and exiled on the island of Patmos for his faith. And he was one of the lucky ones – for as far as we know he was probably the only one of the twelve apostles to die from old age, rather than as a martyr. Still, John was having a hard time. Not only was he being persecuted, he had lost all his best friends, and was being forced to watch the continued suffering of his precious brothers and sisters in Christ.

Yet in the midst of all this pain – even as John watched the community of Jesus followers being brutalized by authorities throughout the Roman Empire – he wrote the Book of Revelation as a message of hope. It’s a message of reassurance, that – in the words of George Fox – “the power of the Lord is over all.”

The Book of Revelation has a pretty bad reputation these days. It’s known by many as a book of wild-eyed prophecies about the “end times,” and how God will cause cataclysm across the whole world before he brings history to an end. It’s been used by fanatics and cultists to justify all kinds of horror. And in recent decades, mainstream charlatans and false prophets like the authors of the Left Behind series, have used John’s Apocalypse as a basis to deny the goodness of the world God created, and sell Christians around the world on a vision of heaven that involves the destruction of the earth.

This anti-earth vision is exactly the opposite of the truth. The truth is that “God so loves the world [that is, the created order, the whole cosmos] that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God created this world we live in. God loves it. And God is determined to redeem it. This is God’s will, and he has the power to accomplish it.

This is the underlying message of the whole Book of Revelation. No matter what you’ve heard about it. No matter what some obnoxious Christian or some angry skeptic has told you, the Book of Revelation is about God’s unstoppable love. It’s a message that we need to hear today, as we face an empire even greater than Rome – as we face a social, economic, and ecological threat that is even more global than the one seen by John’s generation.

In the fourth chapter of his Apocalypse, John describes a vision of what God looks like. Enthroned in heaven. Surrounded by elders who praise him and strange beasts who sing his glory. This is the God of the burning bush and the tent of meeting. This is the God of Elijah and Jesus. This is God almighty, the everlasting and unshakable. He is worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because he created all things. Everything that exists has come into existence through his will.

And yet, things aren’t right. Everything’s all messed up right now. We humans have lost our way, and we’ve brought down the whole creation with us. How could this have happened? How did we fall so far? How did we go from being God’s image-bearers, to becoming the violators and destroyers of God’s good creation?

John tells us that we got here through the war that broke out in heaven. The war that the dragon and his angels fought against God. They sought to break everything that God had made. To destroy all authority, goodness, humility, and love. They fought against God and his angels, and so they were thrown down to the earth.

That’s where our struggle is taking place. Here on earth.

Just to be clear, this is all metaphor, and the apostle John surely understood it as such. The Book of Revelation belongs to the genre of apocalyptic literature, which uses wild imagery – beasts and dragons, bowls and vials, strange creatures and angels – all of which symbolize deeper spiritual reality. We have to take these texts seriously, but they were never intended to be taken literally.

To understand John’s Apocalypse, you have to know something about how people in the first-century Roman Empire viewed the world. The ancient worldview was rooted in a view of the cosmos that was essentially three-layered – you had the heavenly realms, the earth where we live, and the underworld, where dead things went.

The heavenlies was where the real action was. It was the really-real, the behind-the-scenes look into what is truly occurring in our world. If any of you ever studied Plato in school, you’ll remember that he taught that everything in our world is essentially an imperfect copy of the perfect forms found in the heavenly realms. The ancient world thought in these terms, and the Book of Revelation takes this worldview as a starting point.

So when John takes us on this tour of what is happening in heaven, he’s not necessarily doing a literal and systematic cosmology. Rather, he’s using powerful imagery, coming from the world of forms – the heavenlies – to show us what is really happening in our world of flesh and blood.

It’s in this light, as an expression of the really-real, that we should hear the words of the loud voice from heaven in the fourth chapter of Revelation. That voice says this:

Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”

Now has come the salvation and the power. Now has come the kingdom of our God. Now has come the authority of his Messiah. It’s all happening now. Despite all the confusion and suffering and death, despite all the claims of the rulers of this world, who want us to believe that they are in charge. Now has come the kingdom of our God.

The enemy of our souls – that old serpent – the corrupter of the just society that we long for – he has been thrown down. Defeated. The power of evil, hatred, and death has been conquered in the heavenlies, in the world of the forms, the truest of the true. This is what’s real.

The battle still rages here on earth. But through our faith in God, we know how this story ends. Still, we’re going to have to go through the full process of redemption before we can claim the ultimate victory that Jesus won through his life, death, and resurrection.

As things stood for the early church, and as they stand now, we are seeing the consequences of the war that has taken place in the heavenly realms. It’s bad. “The devil has come down to [us] with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short.” People are hurting. Dying. It’s right for us to ask where God is in all this.

John has a response to our shared cry of grief. His message to us is that God is on his throne. That now has come the salvation and the power, the authority of God’s Messiah.

John calls us to remember and trust that God is utterly powerful, supremely in control. As followers of Jesus, we can see what the people of this world cannot perceive: that the battle in the heavenlies – in the realm of the really real – is already won. The struggle that we face here on earth is just an echo of what has already taken place through God’s action in Jesus Christ. We have already conquered through the blood of the Lamb who was slain.

This is the perspective that the author of the Book of Revelation wants to ground us in. John’s Apocalypse is all about seeing through a world that is falling to pieces. It’s about seeing through this time of crisis, destruction, and horror, to perceive the spiritual reality that lies underneath. It’s about recognizing the role we have to play, as peaceable and fearless followers of the Lamb, in consummating this final struggle for the liberation of the whole cosmos.

John reminds us that our role in this struggle will necessarily involve suffering. The war against the dragon and his angels is playing out on earth now, and he loves violence. But our ancient enemy can’t stand against the blood of God’s suffering servants. The spiritual forces of darkness are defeated by our willingness to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and to die for our friends.

This is the good news: That despite all the horror, violence, and hatred we see around us. Despite all the chaos, God is in control. He always has been. His victory was never in question. But as followers of Jesus, we have a part to play in bringing God’s vision of mercy and justice to fullness on earth.

God loves us. He is beautiful. He is the truth. And he sits unshakeable on his emerald-rainbow throne. “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

God’s love is all-powerful. Nothing can separate us from it. God’s creativity is unstoppable, and we can participate in it. Trusting in God’s utter faithfulness and power, we can find the courage to walk in the vulnerable way of Jesus. Not fearing. Not living in denial or whistling in the dark. But carrying a candle lit by the Spirit, buoyed up by the confidence that our Father is the Light.

The Way Forward Has Always Been Hidden In Plain Sight

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/10/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 14:1-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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Our reading this morning is one of the most famous parts of the Bible. It’s a passage that carries a lot of historical and cultural baggage, on a lot of different levels.

A big part of this has to do with the way this text has been spiritualized and weaponized. It’s been turned into a discourse on heaven and hell – and who’s going where. It’s been used by preachers who wanted to coerce us into agreeing to certain statements of belief, to define the terms of who belongs to the club, and who doesn’t.

This text has often been used to serve the interests of those who wanted to point us to some transcendent, immaterial, other-worldly afterlife – rather than the flesh-and-blood battles that we are facing in our own life. It’s been used to bamboozle us.

It’s a dangerous passage. It’s dangerous, because it’s been weaponized. But above all, it’s dangerous because we think we already know what it’s about. We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve stopped listening.

This morning, I want to invite us to encounter this text again with our full attention, leaving behind what we think we know.

Because in this passage Jesus tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

In the age of Covid. In the age of falling empires and rising oligarchies, I want to know, why on earth shouldn’t I be worried? What does Jesus know that I don’t?

Jesus says we don’t have to be afraid, because he is preparing a place for us.

“In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places.”

“I go to prepare a place for you.”

“I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

This is wedding language. In Jesus’ time, it was common for extended families to live together in a single compound. And so when a man wanted to marry a woman, he would go back to his father’s house to build an extension onto the compound, so that he and his fiancée would have a place to live. Then, he would go and bring her back to live with him as his wife.

So Jesus says we don’t need to be troubled, because he loves us like a young man loves his bride. He is preparing a place for us in God’s extended family. He has promised himself to us. To you. To me. He has promised to make us part of God’s household.

Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in him. God dwells in Jesus and works through him. Jesus is the way – he lives God’s life by walking it. He is the truth, and you can see it in his whole being. He is the life – abundant, joyous, and unafraid even in the face of terrible threats.

Jesus is going to make a place for us. A place to stand in, as part of his Father’s household. Jesus dwells in the Father, and the Father lives in him. We can see God’s action through the acts of Jesus.

And here’s the kicker: We will do greater things.

Let me repeat that, because so much of the Bible sounds like wild heresy when you just read it: We will do greater things than Jesus. That’s what Jesus himself has promised us.

We will do greater works than these, because Jesus is going to the Father. Jesus will do whatever we ask in his name – in his way, truth, and life – so that God can be glorified in his children.

That’s why Jesus says, even in times like these, do not let your hearts be troubled. He has made us brothers and sisters, siblings of Jesus and children of God. He has sent us the Comforter who will lead us into all truth – to do even greater things. To manifest the kingdom. To live lives that demonstrate the presence of God on earth.

This world says, “Show us God. Prove that God exists!” They say, “We want to see signs and wonders. We want to see miracles.” But here’s what Jesus says: We are the miracle. We are the body of Christ. By the grace of God, by his undeserved love and mercy, that is what we are.

Are we in the Father and the Father in us? Do we dwell in his love, his power, his presence? Then whoever has seen us has seen the Father.

We are here, not to convince with words, but to make the character and presence of God visible in our daily lives.

By God’s grace, we are here to say to this world, “Do you still not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

Have you experienced this? Have you encountered God in the life and actions of another person?

I remember one time, years ago, when I was traveling and had a long layover in a Texas airport. My flight had been delayed. You probably know how that feels. I just wanted to be home, and I was worn out and in a bad mood.

And so as I’m waiting around, for hours, in this airport, I go to get some coffee from a Starbucks there in the terminal. And the man who hands me my coffee utterly surprises me.

I felt seen by this man. It’s hard to describe. I was operating in this robot space – take order, pay money, wait for coffee – and he just broke through it with a living presence.

My heart was closed up and my eyes were dead, but the barista saw me. He encountered me as a human personality, a fellow life, more than just another order to be filled. I had entered into the moment prepared for a transaction, and somehow he made it a relationship.

Even now, I have a tough time describing what this felt like. But I was so taken aback by it, that after I got my coffee I retreated to the edge of the shop and just watched the barista for maybe ten minutes. I watched him serving other customers and interacting with them in the same way he had with me.

I could feel the life radiating off of him. He was full of life, and it was overflowing onto those he served. He was fully present, filled with love, and giving complete attention to the people in front of him. For anyone who has ever spent much time in an airport, you can imagine how strange this felt.

I have no idea who this man was. I don’t know if he considered himself a Christian. But when I looked at him, I could see the Father. I could see the Way.

This is what Jesus teaches us here, in our reading this morning: Don’t pretend that God is some abstract, distant being, totally uninvolved in this world. Look at Jesus, and you will know who God is. The children of light reflect the light of God. Like Jesus, we dwell in the Father, and the Father dwells in us. We do the works of God. And that is proof enough.

In the words of George Fox, our calling is to:

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.

The witness of God in me blessed the barista at the airport Starbucks. Can you remember a time when the witness of God in you answered the presence of God in another person?

The great revelation of the Quaker tradition, and that of original Christianity, is this: The keys of the kingdom are hidden in plain sight. God has come to earth and dwells among people. The new Jerusalem is descending, and we are the walls, and the gates, and the streets. We are drinking from the river. We are being healed with the leaves from the Tree of Life. We are bathing in the light of God, never to walk in darkness again.

That sounds pretty good to me. I want to get there. What do I need to do to experience that kind of life and power?

Here’s what Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Not ideas about him. Not rules to be adhered to. Not a tradition to be cherished. Not an identity to be built around him. But Jesus himself. He is the way. Dwelling in him, as he dwells in the Father. Doing the works of the Father – and even greater works – as he leads us.

The religions of this world – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, scientism, capitalism, Marxism – all the religions of this world want to sell us on a way. An ism. An abstract set of principles and rules and answers that will get us where we want to go. The religions of this world are about providing us with a human-constructed way for us to walk. And we eat it up, because ideological systems make us feel safe.

But Jesus doesn’t offer us a system. He doesn’t offer us a new set of commandments carved into stone. He offers us himself in marriage. Covenantal union with Jesus.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s me. Know me. Love me. Follow me. Stay with me. Imitate me. Dwell in me, as I dwell in the Father.

Jesus is the way. Relationship with him, marriage to Jesus and adoption into the family of God – that’s our religion. Not rules. Not rituals. Not reason. Not money. Not being nice people. Him. It’s him.

All we need is you, Lord. All we need is you.

Stay with me. Remain here with me. Watch and pray.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. … I go to prepare a place for you.”

Celebrating Easter in the Shadow of Death

A lantern next to a tombstone

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 20:1-18 and Romans 6:3-5. 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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Quakers have historically been skeptical of the liturgical calendar. The early Quaker movement made a point of throwing off as many of the dead forms of the liturgical state church as they could.

This made sense at the time. The establishment church used the outward form of godliness to justify violence and economic injustice. It propped up an oppressive monarchy. It stole from the poor via tithes. It oversaw the progressive concentration of land and wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

So Quakers ditched the trappings of the Church of England. That included the bread and wine that the priests used to spiritually dominate and materially exploit the people. It included a water baptism that was used as a gate-keeping device – rituals used to threaten dissenters with damnation if they did not obey their earthly masters.

In the context of 1650s England, I think the early Quakers mostly got it right. The mainstream church had abandoned the clear teachings of Jesus. Even worse, they stood at the door, preventing others from entering into the kingdom. They denied the presence and power of the resurrection, pointing people to the dead letter and a landed institution rather than to the living presence and lordship of Jesus.

A lot has changed in the last 370 years. We no longer live under a monarchy. Our nation has no state church, and the power of formal religious hierarchies is at the lowest ebb in all of Western history. There is no tithe that we must pay or face a visit from the police. Every individual is radically free to worship – or not – however they choose.

As individual autonomy has expanded and the power of the institutional church has waned, Quakers have changed dramatically, including in our relationship to the liturgical calendar.

For most of our history, Quakers did not celebrate any holidays at all, including Christmas. Now, practically everyone does. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been developing for generations. For the last one hundred and fifty years or so, those of us in the orthodox Quaker tradition have become increasingly comfortable with many parts of the liturgical church heritage.

Today, Berkeley Friends Church celebrates Easter. We join with the rest of the global Christian family in remembering and celebrating the action that God has taken in Jesus. We testify together, in the words of the apostle Peter, that: “[Jesus was] crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”

Jesus is risen from the dead. He sits at the right hand of the Father. He reigns forever and ever. He is here with us now, in his resurrection power.

This is the good news of the gospel. It is the good news of the Quaker tradition. This is the reality that men and women have struggled and died to proclaim over the last two thousand years. It is a gospel worth dying for, and a truth worth living into.

This Jesus whom we crucified, God has raised up. And all of us are witnesses. He is pouring out his Holy Spirit. He is literally, immediately, tangibly present with us. He calls us by name.

This is why we celebrate Easter.

But I have to admit, I’m resonating this morning with the traditional Quaker skepticism of set days and times and seasons. Because despite the fact that the day called Easter falls on this date in the year 2020, I’m having a tough time feeling it.

The last forty days (not counting Sundays) has been the season of Lent. Lent is a time of reflection, repentance, fasting, and preparation as we look towards Easter. It’s a time to renounce all the distractions and fixations that have accumulated in our lives, and to return to a simple, sober awareness of God and his love – and the enormous need that the world has for that love.

This has been the darkest season of Lent I’ve ever experienced. A global pandemic is tearing through our human community. A series of primary elections and political battles have left me feeling drained, demoralized, and hopeless. The shattering of our country – politically, culturally, economically, and spiritually – feels almost total.

So this Friday, on the day we remember the death and burial of Jesus, it made sense. Remembering Jesus’ suffering on the cross felt alive and relevant to me. It feels like the whole world is in the shadow of the cross right now.

Easter is harder for me.

Today we celebrate the most essential witness of the Christian faith, the truth that brings us all together and defines our community: Jesus is alive. God has raised him from the dead. In an act of definitive liberation and healing, God has vindicated Jesus and given him a new life, a new body, a new way of being present in the world.

The resurrection is the gospel. It is God’s victory announcement over the powers of this world – over the sin and death that until now seemed inescapable, unconquerable. In Jesus, God has the victory, forever and ever.

But getting to the resurrection is a process. Because death is still a reality. We still live in a fallen world. If we had any doubt about that, Coronavirus, rising authoritarianism, abuses of men, women, and children at our nation’s border, and so many other desolations confirm it: We are not out of the woods yet.

And so simply jumping to Easter – simply saying, “Yay! Jesus is alive! Everything is OK! Hallelujah!” – there’s a falseness in that. A premature jump to Easter can be a form of denial, a form of emotional suppression, pushing down all the blackness and horror, rather than giving ourselves the space to grieve and process. This isn’t just psychologically unhealthy – it’s also not consistent with what we read in the scriptures.

I like the gospel of John, and I think that John’s account is at its best in its telling of the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And one of the strengths of John’s account is that he does not rush through the resurrection. He tells the story of disciples working through their devastation, their disappointment, their grief. He tells the very human story of how Jesus’ friends have to engage with Good Friday and Holy Saturday before they can get to Easter Sunday.

For John, the Easter story begins “while it was still dark.” It begins with the distraught disciple, Mary Magdalene, discovering that the tomb is empty. It begins with two of the men disciples rushing to the grave and finding only burial cloths. It begins with the confusion and tears of Mary, as she waits beside the tomb, even after the other disciples have given up in confusion and gone back home.

This Easter, I’m having an easier time relating to the early morning disciples. The disciples who still didn’t know about the resurrection. The disciples who had lost everything, and couldn’t stop weeping.

I’m feeling close to Mary, who had lost her best friend. All she had left was Jesus’ body, and now even that had been taken from her. There was nothing left but weeping and pleading.

Mary is really the heart of this story. She’s the original apostle, the one who brought the good news to the Twelve. The other disciples ran off, but she stayed. She was present with her anguish. She didn’t try to escape.

And what’s especially interesting to me this morning is that Mary doesn’t immediately recognize the resurrection when she sees it. John says that she bent over into the tomb – she puts herself halfway into the grave – and she sees the angels sitting inside. But she’s so distraught, tears blurring her vision, that she doesn’t realize that the beings inside the tomb are angels.

Then she turns around and Jesus is standing there. But she’s so upset, and Jesus must look different than she expected, so she doesn’t realize who she’s seeing. She thinks he’s the gardener! And she begs him to give her Jesus’ body so that she can take it away.

“Woman, why are you weeping?”

Why are you weeping?

Why am I weeping? What is the body that I am clinging to? What is the corpse that I desperately want possession of? What is the attachment so great that it gets in the way of seeing Jesus in his resurrection?

When Jesus says Mary’s name, she knows instantly who is standing in front of her: Teacher!

And again, Mary wants to take hold of Jesus. But Jesus won’t let her touch him. “Don’t hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

It seems cruel, doesn’t it? Just moments ago, Mary would have been content just to have Jesus’ dead body, and now the living Jesus won’t even hug her.

“Don’t hold on to me. Go back and preach the message. Because everything has changed. I am ascending to the Father.”

This is not the resurrection of Hallmark cards and opiate religion. This is not a feel-good moment. Even in the joy and glory of the resurrection, there is pain. There is loss. Things have changed. Jesus is alive, but he’s alive in a new way.

I want to be like Mary. I want to be a disciple who stays behind and remains present with the suffering. I want to be someone who doesn’t flee from the pain. I want to be a disciple who waits at the foot of the cross and holds vigil at the tomb. Because that’s what love looks like. And that’s where transformation happens.

But I’m also seeing that even a faithful friend like Mary can be confused. And it makes me wonder what I’m confused about right now. What am I not seeing? Who are the angels that I don’t recognize? Where is Christ in this horrible situation? Will I recognize him when he says my name?

It’s important for me to remember that Easter began while it was still dark. I don’t have to feel good. I don’t have to have worked through my grief. I don’t need to believe that things are going to be OK to wait beside the tomb. To wait on Jesus, even in the darkness. I’m discovering that mourning is a necessary part of Easter.

Because Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me. I haven’t ascended yet.” Jesus tells us that things have fundamentally changed. We can’t go back to the way things were before. And that’s hard. Because part of me wants to go back. To the familiar. To the comfortable. Even if it wasn’t that great.

The new is scary, and that means the resurrection is scary, too.

Paul confirms this in his letter to the Romans. All of us who have immersed into Christ Jesus have been immersed into his death. We have been buried with him by immersion into death, so that just as Jesus is raised by God from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life.

Like Mary, we have to bend down into the tomb if we want to see the angels. We have to wait and weep beside the grave if we want to see Jesus. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

In the words of William Penn: “No cross, no crown.” And as Francis’ favorite book – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – says: “Uh-oh! A cave! A narrow gloomy cave. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve got to go through it!” We’ve got to go through the darkness before we can see the light. We have to experience the desolation and grief before we can be healed. There’s no shortcut.

So let’s be like Mary. Let’s be fully present with the heartache of our broken world. Because there are angels watching over us in this predawn darkness.

And the dawn is coming. God has vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. He sits at the right hand of the Father forever and ever. He is pouring out his Holy Spirit. He is doing a new thing. He has become a new thing. And he will make us a new thing. A new creation. A new Jerusalem. An earth restored.

That is the promise. And the angels are already here. We may not recognize them yet, but the first fruits of the kingdom are already present in this dark time. The Comforter has come – the Holy Ghost from heaven, the Father’s promise given. So spread the tidings round, wherever we are found – the Comforter has come!

Jesus Christ is risen indeed!

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/12/20, 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.”