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Feeling Scattered? God is Ready to Gather Us.

Bicycle speeding away

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what about us? Are we gathered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

That time is probably past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sounds pretty good.

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

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

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

“The end has come upon my people Israel;

I will never again pass them by.

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

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,    

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

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

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

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

The Day of the Lord is coming.

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

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

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,

when I will send a famine on the land;

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

but of hearing the words of the Lord.

They shall wander from sea to sea,     

and from north to east;

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

but they shall not find it.

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

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

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

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

The end has come upon my people [America];     

I will never again pass them by.

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

says the Lord God;

“the dead bodies shall be many,     

cast out in every place. Be silent!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to Mary and Martha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,     

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Does It Mean For Us To Love One Another?

What Does It Mean For Us To Love One Another?

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I that I could hinder God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we must obey his commandments. Love one another.

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

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All That Does Not Gather With Him Will Be Swept Away

All That Does Not Gather With Him Will Be Swept Away

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejoice, O daughter Jerusalem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus has set his face like flint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It breaks his heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/24/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

It had been decades since Moses fled the land of Egypt. He made his way out to Midian, out beyond the Red Sea. Moses had been an Egyptian noble, but that was a long time ago. He was a shepherd now. A keeper of goats and cattle. Husband to Zipporah. Father to Gershom. A man of few words, accustomed to the deep silences of the desert wilderness.

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

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

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

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

And Moses says, “Here I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, that’s a lot. Let’s unpack that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is the Gospel Good News for Everyone?

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13. 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

I’ve always loved this story of Jesus, going out into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Here it is. Jesus and the Devil. Mano a mano in a battle royale for the fate of the cosmos. Let me get my popcorn!

I mean, it’s such a great story. Even if I didn’t believe a word of it, I would want to watch the movie.

But the fact is, I do believe this story. And I believe it’s just as epic, just as consequential as the gospel writers portrayed it to be. It’s God’s story; and it’s the human story, too. It’s the story of two kingdoms. Two rulers. Two power structures and worldviews vying for our allegiance. It’s the story of Israel and the church, and what it means to be children of God.

It is written, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” It says that he was there for forty days, eating nothing and being tempted by the Devil.

Forty. Days. Can I see a show of hands – who here has fasted for one day? One day is a more significant challenge than you might think. Not eating, even for a day, opens something up inside of a person. It promotes awareness of all the things that we’re addicted to, dependent on. Forty days. I can’t even imagine what fasting for that long would be like. Jesus must have been fully awake.

He also must have been very weak. The contest that we see between Jesus and the Devil comes just at the moment when Jesus had reached the lowest valley of energy. Bear that in mind, because Satan doesn’t play fair.

And the Devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Jesus is starving. Literally. All around him are rocks and shrubs. No food anywhere. If he’s the son of God, now would be a good time to use some of that cosmic power. John the Baptist just got done saying that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Why shouldn’t Jesus raise up loaves of bread to feed himself?

But despite his gnawing hunger and fatigue, Jesus recognizes this as a test, a temptation. And what is Jesus’ response to temptation, to testing? He returns to the words of Scripture. He goes back to the text. He quotes the Bible. The Hebrew scriptures. The book of Deuteronomy. Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

The written words that Jesus is referencing here are these, from Deuteronomy 8 (verses 2-3):

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

These are the words of Moses to the people of Israel, as they were getting ready to enter the promised land. The good land, flowing with milk and honey, that God had promised them for generations. For forty years, God led them in the wilderness. For forty years, the people had fasted from the settled life of empire. They gave themselves over to God’s care. God fed them with manna from the sky. They drank water from a rock. They came to understand that all life and sustenance springs from God. None of us are self-made people. We are utterly dependent on God’s word, life, and power.

Power. That sounds pretty good, thought the Devil. Let’s try power.

It is written: “Then the Devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the Devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

In an instant. All the kingdoms of the world. “If you will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Now, again – this is God’s promise, right? God has promised to inaugurate the kingdom of God, the reign of God over all the earth. But here goes the Devil, twisting it around, just like he did with Adam and Eve in the Garden. “Oh, you want to be like God? You want to be in control? You want to understand how this world works? Disobey. Put God to the test. Seize the reigns and take charge. You won’t surely die.”

How does Jesus – the new Adam – respond to this line of attack?

Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Here, Jesus is once again remembering the words of Moses from Deuteronomy. This time Deuteronomy 6 (verses 12-15), where it says:

[After you enter the promised land,] take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

Again, the word of the Lord to Jesus. The word of the Lord from Jesus in rebuking the Devil. The word of the Lord to us gathered here today: Remember.

Do not forget the Lord who brought us up out of Egypt. Do not forget the God who guided us through the wilderness. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around you. The gods of wealth, of power, of survival. Do not follow any of these, but worship the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery. Him alone shall you serve.

“Hmmm,” thinks the Devil. “This isn’t going well.” Jesus keeps countering every word of the evil one with the words of God. Maybe it’s time to try fighting fire with fire.

It says that the Devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, and placed him on the highest point of the Temple. And the Devil taunted him, “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written…”

And then the Devil proceeds to quote scripture at Jesus. Psalm 91, to be precise. The Devil quotes snippets. Here’s a longer portion – Psalm 91:11-16 – which Jesus surely had memorized:

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

Oh, my, my. Sweet temptation. Beautiful temptation. Holy temptation. The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it. God will protect you, Jesus! God promised prosperity and protection to David, his chosen king. How much more so will he bless you Jesus? How much more will he protect you from any evil that might befall you.

“Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them.” Don’t worry Jesus – you’re bulletproof. No one can touch you!

“If you are the son of God, throw yourself down from here…” Those words, and the words of Psalm 91, must have been burning in Jesus’ ears as he hung from the cross three years later. When the soldiers who crucified him, mocked him, saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”

I used to think that the temptation to seize power was the greatest of the three. But now I’m starting to think that it was this one. God has promised to stand with us. He has told us he loves us, that he will never forsake us, never abandon us. How can he allow us to face the cross? How can there be so much suffering, so much pain, so much injustice? How long, Lord? How long until you deliver us like you said you would?

But in his moment of greatest temptation, greatest testing – as Jesus hung upon the cross, he would say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” An obedient son to the end. Trusting in the power of God to deliver, even if he couldn’t see how. Even if it looked like defeat and death in the eyes of the world, the Devil and his kingdom. “Into your hands I commit my spirit!” Though all seems lost, I will trust you.

And so Jesus answered the Devil: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, he references Deuteronomy 6 – the strong words of scripture, rooted in the experience of the desert. The experience of the manna and the water from the rock. The experience of loss and suffering, and of God’s presence in the midst. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” For he is with you.

He is with us. You want a psalm, Satan? “Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for God is with us.” Amen? God is with us.

Even when it’s dark. Even when we’re been in the desert for forty years and we can’t remember what real food tastes like. Even in the moment – especially in that moment just before the dawn breaks, when it seems like the darkness goes on forever.

Even when all hell is breaking loose, remember the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 6, Remember the words that Jesus remembered when he was doing desert battle with that old tempter, Satan:

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.

Remember.

“The word is near to you, on your lips and in your heart,” says the apostle Paul. Oh, yeah. He was quoting Deuteronomy, too.

As Moses says:

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

We just have to remember. It’s so easy to forget. It’s so easy to follow other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around us. It’s easy to bow down to the Devil when he speaks to us with holy words. Or offers us power to change the world through coercion and violence. Or promises to save us from pain, hunger, weakness.

If we are friends of Jesus, then we are in the desert with Jesus. And we must remember. This is a time of testing. We must stay awake. This is a time of opportunity, because God is with us. With us in the desert. Present in this tent of meeting. Speaking to our hearts. Witnessed to in scripture.

We must remember who we are, and who we belong to. We are not sons and daughters of this world. We are not sons and daughters of Silicon Valley or Wall Street. We are not the children of border walls and drones. We are not citizens of an empire that survives by dividing and stratifying people, so that everyone knows their place.

We must remember. Because we belong to a different empire, a different kingdom. The reign of Jesus. Our teacher. Our Christ. Our king, who conquered the world on the cross. He lives today in the bodies of the hungry, the powerless, the unprotected.

It matters that Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert. Moses did the same thing as he wrote down God’s words, the words of the covenant. He fasted and waited and prayed.

It matters that the children of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years, guided by God. They endured. Taught to be awake and obedient.

It matters. Because transformation takes a long time. Because we must remember, and remembering doesn’t come cheap.

We must be changed. Our minds, our lives, our whole worldview has to shift. We must become a people who remember. We must know who we are. A people who live by the word of God. Who dwell in the word of God. Who soak in the spirit of Jesus. Who live in the desert, even in the midst of this world’s empire.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do this by ourselves. We are a community. And at our center is the risen Jesus. He is our word. He is present with us just as surely as God traveled with the Hebrews in the wilderness. A pillar of smoke by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Jesus is here in our midst, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Word of God is here.

We have the living Word of God, Jesus. We have the written words of scripture. We don’t have to go looking for it. We just have to remember. “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Is the Gospel Good News for Everyone?

Quakers Don’t Baptize with Water – Should We?

Is the Gospel Good News for Everyone?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 6:1-13; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; & Luke 5:1-11. 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

If Isaiah were with us today, we might think he was a little nuts. This is a man who at one point walked barefoot and naked through the streets of Jerusalem for three years as a sign against Egypt and Ethiopia. He used his own children as prophetic signs, naming his three sons: “A remnant shall return,” “God is with us,” and “Spoil quickly, plunder speedily.” Can you imagine the teasing in middle school?

For all his apparently crazy behavior, Isaiah was not a fringe character. He was a major figure – a sort of celebrity –  in the kingdom of Judah for decades. He outlived several kings, and had criticisms for all of them. He had audacity, social standing, and a total lack of a self-preservation instinct that allowed him to pick public fights with the top leadership of Judah.

He had one other thing. The most critical thing. This was the alpha and omega of his ministry: Isaiah had an experience of God. A living relationship with the creator of the cosmos.

That sounds lovely, right? What a beautiful thing – a personal relationship with God. That’s what we all want, right? That’s what every Christian church in town is offering, isn’t it? A personal relationship with God.

Well, it’s not so warm and fuzzy for Isaiah. Isaiah doesn’t have his heart strangely warmed. He doesn’t feel an ineffable sense of oneness with the cosmos or the warm embrace of comforting love.

The beginning of Isaiah’s ministry is a moment of terror. It’s an encounter with the unknown and unknowable God – the Holy One of Israel. This is a God that is so different from us that no one can see him and live. A God who is so terrifyingly awesome that his presence can’t be contained in any building, any nation, any ideology. This is the God that Isaiah meets in 742 BC – the year that king Uzziah died.

In our reading from Isaiah 6 this morning, he writes:

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:  ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;  the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

We don’t even know what these creatures really looked like. I think a lot of people imagine that the seraphim look like conventional statuary angels – you know, buff, beautiful men with big white wings, who look like they spend all their time in heaven lifting weights. But most of the imagery we have in the Bible about heavenly beings is far more alien, far more frightening. 

The commentaries I’ve read suggest that it’s likely that these seraphim were snake-like, maybe an amalgam of several different kinds of animal. The word “seraph” means “one who burns.” Maybe the angels were on fire. Whatever they were, these heavenly creatures were just as fearsome, just as utterly different from human beings as the God who created them. 

In Isaiah’s vision, the boundary between heaven and earth had been utterly shattered, and all the scary things that human beings should never see were pouring into his reality. It says that the whole building shook with the power of the heavenly creatures’ voices. The hem of God’s robe filled the temple, and the house was filled with smoke. It’s like a rock concert from hell – oh wait, heaven!

Heaven and hell are both within the human heart. They can coexist in one moment. In this startling, mind-blowing vision, Isaiah comes face to face with that which is totally other and transcendent. The utterly unknowable. The Holy One of Israel.

How would you respond to this? What would your reaction be? What are we to do in the face of the unspeakable holiness, power, and majesty of God?

Well we know what Isaiah did. He nearly fell into despair. Here he was, standing in the light of God, and all he could see was darkness. The smoke of God’s glory covered him. It was choking him.

Standing in the presence of God, Isaiah became aware of his own distance from God. His wickedness. His rebellion against the love and power of God.

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah had an encounter with the glory of God, and all he could see was the way that he and his fellow countrymen fell short of that glory. What a horrifying thing to see. Especially because of who Isaiah was, an upstanding member of Jerusalem’s priestly elite. Even at twenty years old, Isaiah was already in many ways a holy man. A holy man among the holy people of the holy city of David.

But when he came into the presence of God, all that human pretense fell away. Awareness of his own sin, and the sin of his holy people, overwhelmed him.

But before Isaiah could become totally lost in the despair of his own darkness, one of the seraphim took a live coal from the altar. Holding it with a pair of tongs, it flew over to Isaiah and touched the burning coal to his lips.

Ouch!

And the seraph said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Isaiah was free. Free from sin. Free from the desolate darkness that he had experienced upon entering into the presence of God. He was clean. Holy. Welcomed into the presence of a mystery and power so awesome that he could barely stand to be in the presence of the hem of his garment.

This freedom is an unconditional gift. Isaiah cries out in his distress, and God sends the seraph to cleanse and heal him. To liberate him from his sin. To make him the kind of person who can stand in the presence of the heavenly beings and speak the words of God to his people.

And then Isaiah hears the voice of God call out, from beyond the temple, somewhere up in the heavenly realm, speaking to the great council of heavenly beings: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”

And immediately, Isaiah cries out again from the floor of the temple: “Here I am! Send me!”

Such boldness. Such reckless readiness to be the emissary of the Most High. This was unthinkable just moments before. But now the seraph has touched the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips. His guilt has departed and his sin is blotted out. He is ready to be a servant of God. A prophet. A man who speaks the words of God to his people.

What are those words? What is the message?

Turns out, it’s not good.

Go and say to this people:  
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; 
keep looking, but do not understand.’  
Make the mind of this people dull, 
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,  
so that they may not look with their eyes, 
and listen with their ears,  
and comprehend with their minds, 
and turn and be healed.

Isaiah thought he was out of the woods, but now he’s back in the darkness. He’s passed through God’s purifying fire. But the recipients of his prophetic message have not experienced that transformation. Isaiah has changed, but his people haven’t.

“How long, O Lord?” Isaiah cries out. How long until all the people of Jerusalem will see with the same eyes and hear with listening ears? How long until God sends a hot coal for every set of lips?

“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,  
and houses without people, 
and the land is utterly desolate;  
until the Lord sends everyone far away, 
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.  
Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again,  
like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”

Whoa. This sounds really, really bad. There’s a purification coming, and it’s going to make that hot coal from the seraph taste like nice cup of cocoa. God says the land of Judah is going to be smashed – laid waste, until not even a tenth of the people are left. 

And Isaiah says, “The holy seed is its stump.” There will be a remnant. Out of all this horror and destruction, there will be a purified community that will emerge, ready to speak the truth and live God’s mercy and justice. But this transformation will only come about through a horrifying process of national purgation.

That’s so intense. Right? I mean, what do you even say to that? Your people will be saved, but only after they’re mostly annihilated. You will see the glory of the Lord, but Jerusalem will be burned to the ground first. The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple – but not one stone will be left on stone.

Which brings us to Jesus. Jesus was engaged in ministry during a time that was, in some ways, quite similar to that of Isaiah. Both Isaiah’s and Jesus’ ministry began in a period of relative peace and prosperity. A time when the people of Israel imagined that things were just going to keep getting better. More freedom, greater wealth, and independence were on the way!

But what the people didn’t know, didn’t want to know or understand, was that God was not pleased with the status quo. God didn’t approve of the selfish, faithless rulers of Isaiah’s time, or the self-serving hypocrites who reigned in the Jerusalem of Jesus. A time of purification was coming. The temple would be overthrown. Foreign powers would conquer Jerusalem. All of this had happened before, and would happen again.

This is the context for Jesus’ first encounter with Peter, James, and John, on the Sea of Galilee. The old order is falling away. They don’t know it yet, but God has pronounced judgment over the corrupt rulers and authorities in Jerusalem. Terrible purification is coming, but a remnant will be saved.

Now it says that Jesus is teaching by the sea, and the crowds are so intense that he asks a fisherman named Simon to let him jump in his boat and preach from there. Simon agrees, and so there Jesus is, preaching from this fishing boat, sitting out in the water. I mean, I can relate to this. Sometimes I have to go to great lengths to avoid being mobbed by crowds when I’m preaching.

Anyway. When Jesus is done with his teaching, he says, “Hey, Simon – why don’t you put out into the deep water and let your nets down to catch some fish?”

Simon and his crew had just got done pulling an all-nighter. In fact, when Jesus got into their boat, they had been cleaning off their nets and preparing to put them away. They spent the whole night looking for fish, but didn’t catch anything. And here was Jesus, saying, “hey, guys, why don’t you try to catch some fish?”

Now, if I were Simon in this situation, I can imagine feeling a little upset. I’ve already done this Jesus guy a favor by letting him preach from my boat. I’m tired. I’ve been up all night. I still haven’t finished cleaning my nets, and all I want to do is go home and get some sleep. 

But even though Simon might be justified at getting upset with Jesus, he doesn’t. He says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

You’ll never guess what happens next! Oh, well, I guess you will, since we just read the scripture earlier. They pull in so much fish that the nets are starting to break. They catch so much fish, that they have to call over to the other boat in their little flotilla, to get their help in pulling in their catch. They land so much fish, that the two boats are completely full, to the point that there is some concern that both boats might go under due to the weight!

This is when Simon has his Isaiah moment. Simon is standing in the temple, and the hem of the Lord’s robe is filling the space. The room is full of smoke. The seraphim are flying and crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” The whole earth is proclaiming the glory of God. The sea and its fish declare the presence of the Holy One of Israel.

And Simon has the same response that Isaiah did. It says that he fell down at Jesus’ feet and cried out: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

In the presence of Jesus, Simon saw his darkness more clearly than ever. In the presence of glory, Simon could not escape his unworthiness. In the presence of divine mystery and power, Simon fell to his knees in awe and fear.

But Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be fishing for people.”

And it says that they brought their boats to shore. They left everything. They followed him.

Jesus came with good news. Before this passage we read this morning, Jesus was healing the sick, casting out demons, teaching the people, and transforming lives. After this encounter with Simon and his friends, Jesus keeps healing and teaching and proclaiming the reign of God.

Jesus came with good news, but it’s not good news for everyone. It’s not good news for those who are rich. For those who are in the center of power. For those who think they are in control. It’s not good news for the people of Jerusalem who will rise up in rebellion against Rome, and who will be crushed when the Roman legions arrive. The good news of God’s empire is a terror to those who lean on the world’s vision of success – governments, and armies, and central banks, and power politics.

But for those who are being saved, the gospel is the power of God. It is the hot coal touching the lips. The gospel cleanses from sin and transforms blindness into true sight. It’s a grace that upends lives and gathers community around the love and power of God.

In their encounters with God, both Isaiah and Simon first had to face the darkness. In the light of God’s presence, they saw their own darkness – all the ways in which they had turned away from the source of life to worship their own wills, their own judgments. 

Yet both Simon and Isaiah also discovered that sin is not just an individual problem. In the words of Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Righteousness and sinfulness are not merely questions of personal morality. We live in a social reality that shapes our sense of right and wrong, that governs our imagination and sense of the possible. To a great degree, we are sick because we are part of a sickened humanity. We are blind as part of a society that has forgotten how to see. We hate what we’ve been taught to hate, and fear what we’ve been taught to fear.

Isaiah and Simon knew that sin is not an individual problem. And yet they chose to take personal responsibility for it. They accepted an invitation to become vessels of God’s word in the world – to become prophets of the living God, the Holy One of Israel.

Sin is not an individual problem, but the prophets choose to take personal responsibility. The prophets act as a bridge between the irrevocable holiness and set-apartness of God, and the lost state of the human family. The prophets take responsibility, not only for their own sin, but for the sin of their brothers and sisters. The prophets surrender themselves to God, and God gives them the strength to live as part of a truly counter-cultural community. A community that lives in the reign of God, now, even in the midst of a society that is actively in rebellion against God.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be such a community – a prophetic community. We are called to stand in the presence of the seraphim, to have our lips cleansed with the burning coal. We are called to hear from God the hard truths about our society, and to speak this message to a world that does not want to hear it.

Like the first disciples of Jesus, we are called to gather together into community that embodies the way of God in a world that rejects him. This may mean that we look a little weird. If we’re like Isaiah and are called to walk naked and barefoot for three years as a sign, we might look really weird!

But whatever the call, wherever this road ultimately takes us, we are invited into the prophetic ministry of Isaiah and Simon, of John and Jesus. We are invited into a path in which God makes us fearless. Fearing God, we can have no fear of any human being. No ruler or authority can intimidate those who have stood in the presence of the Almighty and received absolution from the seraphim. Standing in the presence of Jesus, we are called to be indomitable in the face of men.

Let’s stand in that presence, together. Let’s fall to our knees before Jesus. Let’s kiss the coal as it touches our lips. And dedicate our lives to speaking the truth boldly, loving our neighbors fully, and offering up our lives for the formation of the remnant community that God is gathering together even now.

Related Posts:

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