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Why Do We Even Believe This Stuff?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/10/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:7-12, 21:23-27. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Why do we believe any of this stuff?

Really. A God who created the whole cosmos in splendid order out of chaos. A God who parted the Red Sea and spoke to Moses through the burning bush.

A God who chose the children of Abraham, the Hebrew people, to be his holy experiment, a nation that would embody and catalyze his plan to redeem humanity from our confusion and sin.

A God who spoke through the prophets and led his people with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. A God who made his presence known in the tabernacle and in the temple, and in these latter days has made himself known in the flesh and blood of his only-begotten Son, Jesus.

On what possible basis could we claim that any of these things are true? We can’t prove any of it. It’s impossible to convince a skeptic, through reason alone, that any of these stories are real. Or even that our own personal experiences of God’s presence in our life is anything more than the peculiarity of our brain chemistry.

We live in an age and a culture that denies anything beyond the material, anything we can’t measure with repeatable experiments, according to the scientific method. We live in a time thoroughly hostile to the living God of the Hebrew people, of Jesus and the early Church.

So why bother? Why not go with the flow? Why not accept the spirit of our age, and assume that the stories of our faith are at best interesting myths, but ones which we must now abandon in favor of the new mythology of a supposedly objective, data driven worldview?

In the days before Jesus entered into his ministry, there was a man named John. John was preaching in the wilderness, wearing strange clothing that associated him with the prophet Elijah – the great prophet who the Jewish people expected would pave the way for the coming of the anointed one, the Christ.

John was teaching in the wilderness. In the desert. Down by the Jordan river, on the boundary of Israel. The place where the Hebrews entered the Promised Land so many generations ago. He stood there, inviting anyone who wanted to join him on the edge, the new holy frontier. Anyone who wanted to come and prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom.

John practiced a ritual of immersion in water – baptism – which most of the Christian church practices as an initiation rite today. The purpose of this ritual was to invite and symbolize repentance. A turning towards God and his kingdom, away from the corrupt and blinded ways of this world. Baptism was about dying to sin and confusion, and entering a new life immersed in God’s power and authority.

John didn’t make this stuff up. John didn’t invent the cleansing ritual of baptism. We know that the Essenes, and other Jewish groups were practicing similar rites as part of their communities. John didn’t invent the proclamation of repentance and preparation for God’s kingdom. He stood in a long line of prophets who were making straight the way of the Lord, calling the people of Israel away from injustice and idolatry and towards the kingdom of God.

None of this was new. The people knew what it meant that John dressed like Elijah. They understood the symbolism when he offered them immersion in the Jordan. They knew what it meant when John preached a fiery message of repentance and preparation for the coming judgment of God. They knew this was their story, from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Samuel and Elijah and all the prophets – there was a consistency, and a building – a growing in truth that God had been affecting in the people of Israel for a thousand years. They knew this story.

So it wasn’t really a question of whether they believed these things on a theoretical, intellectual level. It was a matter of whether they were ready to materially change their lives and embrace the immanence of the coming kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”

A lot of people came out to see John in the wilderness of the Jordan Valley. People came out for different reasons. Some folks were drawn out of curiosity. Others out of fear, sensing that the Day of the Lord was at hand. Others were there because they wanted to see a renewal of Israel, and a new monarchy established. Still others must have come because of their own awareness of their sin and need for God’s mercy.

And then there were, it seems, some folks who came as spiritual tourists.

That’s clearly how John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out for baptism. When John saw them coming, he didn’t welcome them with open arms like he did the common people who came seeking forgiveness and life transformation. No, he basically cusses them out! If John were speaking today, I imagine him saying, “You bunch of water logged rats! Did somebody tell you the ship was sinking and you thought you could just jump into my lifeboat?”

This is when it becomes clear what John’s baptism is really about. It’s not just another “religious experience” to be sampled by the elite religious people coming down from Jerusalem. John’s baptism wasn’t a spiritual elixir to be consumed by just anyone. This baptism was a sign of radical life change and preparation for the kingdom. John would not allow it to be divorced from its real meaning and purpose.

John had no time for these high society religious tourists, slumming it at the tent revival. He tells them, “You came here looking for a show, but God is demanding a show from you – a show of repentance, a show of a renewed life, a show of justice! And if you can’t manage that, if you’re too self-centered and spiritually dead to respond to God’s call, even being children of Abraham can’t save you.”

Because these holy rollers, they thought that God’s favor was their birthright. They thought that, simply because of who they were and where they were born, that God had wonderful plans for their life. But John is saying, “God is not a hostage to your pedigree. Remember how God almost started over with Moses in the desert?  If this generation continues with its corruption and idolatry, God can raise up new children to Abraham.”

So why do we believe this stuff? Why are we Christians? It’s a lot of crazy ideas, isn’t it, when you really step back and look at it?

Well, it matters not only that we believe, but how we believe it. Because, like the religious leaders in John’s day, we can believe all the stories and the rules and rituals. That’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. But what we need is the baptism. We need immersion into God’s story. It has to transform us, so that we can truly participate in it, and not merely “believe” in a shallow intellectual sense – or even worse, wear our religion as a cultural identity that makes us feel superior to others.

Believing is a full-body experience. When we truly believe the gospel, we bear fruit worthy of repentance. When we find ourselves willingly brought under God’s authority, we become true children of Abraham.

It’s about authority. That’s why we believe all this stuff. Stuff we can’t prove. Things that don’t make any sense when taken out of the context of our faith and our long, long, long walk with God from the days of Abraham forward. We walk in the way of Jesus because we have become convinced that the story is true. In the words of Han Solo in Episode VII: “It’s true. All of it.”

We discover that authority in the baptism, in the immersion into Christ’s life, teaching, and death. We discover the authority by walking it. We find ourselves caught up in the authority of God when the same Spirit breathes in us who breathed in John, saying “prepare the way of the Lord!”

In our culture, we don’t talk about authority very much. In some circles it’s almost a taboo subject, because we really don’t like the idea that anyone can tell us what to do. That’s what freedom is, right? That deep knowing, down in your gall bladder, that no one is steering your life except for you?

We tend to shy away from talking about authority. But in the culture that Jesus inhabited, in the culture of the near-Eastern ancient world, authority was a very important concept. For the ancients, the whole cosmos was very explicitly hierarchical, and what you could do was based on where you stood in the great chain of being, and what authority had been delegated to you from above. Slaves could act because their lords commanded. Free men operated under the direction of their superiors. Rulers responded to other, more powerful rulers, and ultimately to the gods.

For Jesus and his contemporary Jews, of course, the ultimate authority was the God of Abraham, the God who once spoke through the bush, then in the tabernacle, and now resided in the Temple at Jerusalem.

And so when Jesus arrived in the Temple, disrupting the commerce that was going on there, the chief priests and elders of the people immediately questioned Jesus’ authority. “Who gave you permission to do this?” they demanded. “What gives you the right to come in and cause this uproar? Who are you to challenge the priests and elders of Israel? Our authority comes from God through Abraham and Moses!”

And Jesus answers them in a very interesting, very rabbinical way: He asks a counter-question. He says, “I’ll tell you what, gentlemen. I’ll tell you by what authority I’m doing all these things. But first, riddle me this: What was the source of John’s authority? Was his baptism from heaven, or of human origin?”

Now, as we heard this morning, the religious leaders didn’t want to engage Jesus on this, because either way they answered they ended up losing the argument. So this was a really brilliant response on Jesus’ part. But it wasn’t a mere rhetorical dodge. Jesus’ question was also an answer. With his question, Jesus identifies his ministry as an outgrowth of John’s. Jesus’ authority comes from the same source as John’s. John’s baptism came from God, and so does Jesus’ ministry.

This is something about the Christian religion that never ceases to blow my mind: Even Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, fully inhabited the story. He didn’t take any short cuts. Jesus was baptized into the narrative of Israel. He was swimming in the stream of the prophets. He was living in the authority of the Spirit, specifically as expressed through Moses and Elijah. He submitted himself to baptism by John in the river Jordan. He entered into the story completely.

Jesus brought the law and the prophets to completion, but he also stood within their authority. And now, we receive all those riches through Jesus, through the apostles, through the church down through the ages. Because we are walking in the path and authority of this story.

I want to invite us to sit with this question of authority. This query of the chief priests and the elders, I want to pose it to us as a community in the risen Jesus:

“By what authority are we doing these things, and who gave us this authority?”

What is the power that we stand in? What is the story that we inhabit? Whose people are we?

It’s only through this story, this power, this living authority of God in our lives that we can enter the kingdom. It is only through the authority of Moses, the authority of the prophets, and Jesus the ultimate prophet, that we can embrace the life of repentance and transformation that John the Baptist calls us to.

We didn’t make this stuff up. We stand in a line of authority, coming down from Jesus through his church – the prophets, shepherds, and saints who have paved the way for our own participation in the faith.

We didn’t make this stuff up, and that’s why we can trust it. Because the gospel is not wish fulfillment. It is not the will to power. It’s not a human fantasy. It is the heart of God. It is the truth that relativizes all our delusions and brings us to the end of ourselves.

We didn’t make this stuff up, because our authority is the same as John’s and Jesus’. Our authority is the power of God.

This morning, we stand together in the story. We stand together under God’s authority. We proclaim the gospel, together with Jesus and John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The Real Meaning of Christmas: We Can Be Like Jesus

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/27/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Galatians 3:23-4:7. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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We’re celebrating this morning that Jesus Christ was born. We’re celebrating the Word made flesh. We’re celebrating the eternal, uncreated Word of God, who existed from the beginning and is God. We’re celebrating that the one through whom all things in the universe were made became flesh and dwelt among us. The creator of the universe, the most powerful, majestic entity we can’t possibly imagine, became a little baby boy.

God has become one of us. It’s not a metaphor, it’s not a Hallmark card – it’s a revolution: The Word has become flesh, in the ultimate act of love and solidarity with humankind. 

So this morning, we are celebrating his presence with us. His incarnation as a little baby, who grew into a boy, then a young man, and finally our teacher, healer, prophet, and crucified king. The savior of the world.

This season of Christmas is a special invitation for us to pay attention. To remember that God has in fact shown up, definitively – not only in our hearts, but in human history. The life of Jesus is the definitive in-breaking of God’s life and power into our world.

In our scripture reading this morning, the apostle Paul speaks to us about what a massive breakthrough the incarnation is. He compares it to children coming of age and becoming adults. Before the advent of Jesus, Paul says, “we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” 

We were like minor children, who were not ready to think for ourselves, or take any real responsibility. We were babes in the woods, and to keep us safe and on track, God gave us the law.

Paul describes the law as a “disciplinarian” – we might say a “babysitter” – who bound and guarded us as children until we were grown enough to come into our inheritance.

Jesus is that inheritance. As Paul says:

…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

The fullness of time has come, and now we are children of God. Children of God. What makes us think we can dare to claim that relationship with God? Who are we to think that we can participate in divine sonship with Jesus? It is because, as Paul writes, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!”

This grace does not come from us. It’s not a matter of our own righteousness. It’s not any goodness inherent to us, or anything we have accomplished by ourselves. It is the presence of the Spirit of Jesus. It is his incarnation, the Word made flesh, who has opened the door for us to become sons and daughters of God. 

In the shocking words of the early church theologian Athanasius, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”

Can you believe that? Can you even wrap your head around that? Let me know if you can, because it is really hard for me!

Jesus is the only begotten son of God. He is the Alpha and the Omega. He was in the beginning, and there was no time that he was not alive and participating in the life of God. And this son, this Word of God, this man Jesus who gives us life from the Father and shows us who God is: We can be like him?

That’s what Paul says. That’s the witness of scripture and the teaching of the pre-Nicene doctors of the Church. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ: In this world, we are like Jesus.

As Paul says, now that Christ has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the disciplinarian. There’s no babysitter anymore. We are no longer under the law, because Christ has brought us to maturity. We have become grown men and women in Christ Jesus, and we share in the sonship and daughtership. As Paul writes, “You are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir through God.”

What kind of ridiculous love is this? It doesn’t make any sense. Who are we that God should stoop down to lift us up in this way?

This is big stuff. Honestly, it’s scary. I’m not surprised that most Christians shy away from the full implications of this message. The message that Jesus has opened the way for us to become sons and daughters, heirs to the promises of God. Participating in the divine nature. Made one with God, brothers and sisters with Jesus, standing together with him in the glory of his Father.

It’s a lot to digest. And it raises the question: Are we walking worthy of the grace that has been extended to us? Is it true that, in the words of the apostle John, “in this world, we are like Jesus”?

In this world, are we like Jesus? Do we bear his stamp and imprint? Does his life flow through us, and touch others as he touches the world? 

I guess I understand why most of us Christians would prefer the babysitter. We would prefer to be unaccountable minor children in our father’s household rather than sons and daughters. Because unaccountable children, children who are told what to do, and where to go, and how to learn – that seems about right-sized to me. Stepping out onto the same playing field as Jesus? That feels way above my pay grade.

But the fact is, God has called us to be heirs. He has given us the power to be co-heirs with Jesus, sons and daughters of the promise. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” 

Through Jesus, God has become our Father, too.

So where does that leave us?

Some of you may know that Robbie, Chuck, and I are in a Life Transformation Group together. And as a part of that group, we answer a set of accountability questions each week. The first of these questions is this: “Have you been a testimony this week to the greatness of Jesus Christ with both your words and actions?”

And pretty much every week, we say, “no.” That seems too big for us. It seems like too big of a stretch to say, “Yes, I lived up to the character of Jesus this week.”

And on the one hand, this is just being realistic. This is humility. This is realizing that each of us has fallen short this week, and Jesus never will. So saying, “Oh yeah, I was totally a reflection of Christ’s face this week,” feels a little ridiculous.

But the truth is, we are called to the ridiculous. The cloud of witnesses that we trust call us to something much more radiant and powerful than what Paul calls the “elemental spirits of the world” – the ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are commonplace in this world, but which are alienated from God. We are called to the ridiculous, improbable life of holiness and participation in the divine nature.

Paul says that we are heirs along with Jesus. The apostle John says that “in this world, we are like Jesus.” And Athanasius, along with similar statements by many other early church teachers, says that “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”

So we have got to live in that tension, as friends of Jesus and children of God: 

On the one hand, we are not worthy. We mess up. We can’t live up to God’s intention for us on our own. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness and transformation. 

And yet at the same time, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God” and “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

We are living in this tension of our own utter inability to live up to the calling of the law and the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus, and the witness of the early church. We just can’t do it. We’re not strong enough.

Yet God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts. God has given us the power to become sons and daughters of God, according to the promise.

What does it look like for us to receive this promise, to receive the power and presence of Jesus to transform our lives – not because we are able, but because he is?

When I was a kid, it was a really common taunt to say, “that’s not a threat, it’s a promise.” And this morning I have been thinking about that taunt, and how it sounds coming from the mouth of God.

Because for so many of us, the Christian story has often sounded like a threat. It’s been a story of ridiculous, unfair expectations – a story of a God who sets us up to fail and then punishes us severely when we do. It’s a story where we have to pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps, and become the holy people that God calls us to. We have to do all the right things, or else.

But the gospel isn’t a threat, it’s a promise. 

The kingdom of God is not a meritocracy. It’s not about redeeming ourselves through our own effort. The gospel is not something that is done by us, but rather it is what God has promised to do in us and through us.

The promise of God is that we are being given the Spirit of Jesus, who cries, “Abba! Father!” Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. If we abide in him, we can bear the fruit of God’s love. In the face of all the threats that this world throws at us, God has promised us victory and transformation – a new and bottomless life as his sons and daughters.

“For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Clothe yourself with him. Invite his spirit to fill and surround you. And we will discover that:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The Kingdom of God Was Never on the Ballot

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/8/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 110 and Mark 12:35-37. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I’m feeling relieved today. It’s been a long week of election uncertainty. A lot of tension in our house on Tuesday, not knowing which way things might go. I imagine that a lot of you have felt the same. 

It’s been a lot to bear. We’ve been living under a growing atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty for the last months, years, decades. Our country has descended into what feels like a spiritual cold war, a clash between several different visions of what the United States of America should be. Tensions have risen so high that it hasn’t seemed that far fetched to imagine a hot war, real organized violence in our streets.

We as a country passed an important test this week. Despite immense pressures and temptations, we managed to hold free and fair elections, without the acts of violence and intimidation that many had feared. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the people who worked the polls and monitored the process to ensure that every vote was counted.

In the face of what felt like overwhelming darkness, we have been granted a reprieve. 

I’ve been seeing a lot of celebration on my Facebook feed. And that’s natural. It feels like we just dodged a bullet, and it’s OK to rejoice in that. 

But our scripture this morning comes as a reminder that Jesus does not join us in our partisan celebration. The kingdom of God does not come through force. It does not come through elections. It does not come through political parties and ideologies. In Jesus, we encounter the power of God in weakness. His triumph is born in the midst of despair. His resurrection is one that comes after – not before – death and burial.

One of the titles of the Messiah that the Jewish people were waiting on was “son of David.” We learn from the gospels of Matthew and Luke that Jesus is a descendent of King David through his father Joseph. He belongs to the Davidic line through adoption, through Joseph’s faithfulness to the word of God through the angel who spoke to him.

Joseph was a righteous man, who stood by Mary, the mother of Jesus, even though he knew that the child she carried had not come from him. Joseph believed the most absurd thing, that Mary’s child had come not from another man, but from God. Like his ancestor Abraham, Joseph trusted God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Jesus was a descendent of David by adoption, to fulfill the prophecy about the Messiah. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the City of David, to fulfill what was said by the prophet Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” 

Jesus was this long-awaited king of Israel that Micah foretold, the one who would restore Israel and bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God.

Matthew and Luke both embrace Jesus’ identity as the son of David without any further questions. But Mark’s gospel account provides us with another angle on the question. According to Mark, during Jesus’ teaching in the Temple, he actively rejected the title “son of David.” Jesus justifies this by an appeal to the words of Psalm 110, traditionally understood to be written by King David himself, which begins with, “The Lord says to my lord.”

Jesus tells the crowds, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? … David himself calls the Messiah his lord in the psalms. If he calls the Messiah lord, how can the Messiah be his son?”

If you’re just doing a casual read through Mark, and don’t have a lot of background, this seems like a really weird passage. Why is Jesus making such a big deal about whether he’s David’s son or not? Matthew and Luke say he is, and the prophecy about the Messiah says he should be. So why, in Mark’s version of the story, is Jesus going out of his way to question the Messiah’s lineage?

Theologian and commentator Ched Myers really opened this passage up for me. In his ground-breaking commentary on Mark, Binding the Strong Man, he observes that Jesus’ rejection of the title “son of David” was not about genealogy; it was about ideology. Jesus was, in fact, the son of David through adoption by his earthly father Joseph. Jesus was born in Bethlehem according to the word of the prophets. Jesus had all the credentials of the messiah that the people of Israel were expecting.

But in the substance of his message and mission, Jesus was nothing like the messianic son of David that the Israelites hoped for. The scribes and religious leaders assumed that the coming anointed one of God would be a military leader, a “man of blood,” a victorious warlord like King David. The Messiah would be a man of arms. He would lead a triumphant rebellion against the hated Roman occupation and establish God’s kingdom on earth through force. He would build an empire to last a thousand years.

Based on what we know now about Jesus and the way of the cross, it might seem silly that practically everyone thought the Messiah was going to be a warlord. But it’s really not strange at all that the scribes expected this. It would have been in keeping with a certain pattern we can observe in scripture: God anointed Joshua to do the violent work of clearing a homeland for the Hebrews. God appointed judges – petty warlords, guided by the Holy Spirit – to guide the people of Israel. And finally, God anointed kings – first Saul, then David and Solomon and so on.

The kingship was not something that God wanted. God’s desire was to rule his people directly, but people were too afraid of what it would mean to live face to face with God. So God appointed mediators – first Moses, and later other leaders, to mediate between God and his people. This wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was a baby step towards where God wanted to take Israel – and eventually, the whole of humanity.

The kingdom of God is not a new human empire, no matter how admirable and aligned with our politics. The kingdom of God is the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in his people. It is a creation restored and transformed. It is Jesus Christ, come to teach his people himself.

The scribes didn’t get this. Neither did the zealots, or the Saduccees, or any other group that had any real following. Not even Jesus’ disciples understood at first. Everybody thought that the pinnacle of God’s plan would be to establish a really, really good version of David. A wonder-king, a messiah-king – a warlord who would govern justly. A strongman who would beat all our enemies into powder and give us peace and freedom, finally.

That’s what they wanted from Jesus, and that is why Jesus was so utterly offensive to them. Because he was not the son of David. He was not the inheritor of the violent, domination-based kingdom system that God allowed to be established as a concession to our hardness of heart. 

Jesus offered the world something entirely different: a way of self-emptying love. King Jesus is not seated on a throne; he hangs from a cross. Our messiah doesn’t wear a crown of gold, but rather a twist of thorns. He does not receive the praises and adulation of worldly victory, but the jeers and beatings of the mob. He comes to us bearing, not the sword of Caesar, but the staff of a humble shepherd, tending the flock.

“How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’”

The way of Jesus is not the way of David. It is not the way of Caesar. It is a gentle, humble way, that waits for God himself to make all things subject to himself. It is a path of peace, that trusts in God to be the ruler. It is a way of love, that lays aside all vengeance, all ideology, all hope of success, to make itself available for the healing of the nations.

I am reminded of the famous last words of the early Quaker prophet James Nayler, who, as he lay dying from a severe beating that he received while attempting to return to his home in the north of England, said: 

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty… 

If it be betrayed it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it or can own its life. It’s conceived in sorrow and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression; it never rejoiceth but through sufferings, for with the world’s joy it is murdered. 

I found it alone, being forsaken; I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

James Nayler was not a son of David. We as followers of Jesus cannot be sons of David. We must be sons and daughters of that Spirit that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. We are called to dwell in a life and joy that is suffocated by the false celebrations of this world. We are invited to live with no lord but Jesus; no earthly empire of red states, blue states, and electoral colleges – only the kingdom of God.

As followers of Jesus, we can never be sons and daughters of Biden or Trump, or Obama, or Bernie, or any other political leader on whom we might be tempted to project messianic expectations. We are not children of this world. We are born again into the life of Christ’s kingdom. We are children of the light, and called to walk in the light as Jesus walks in the light.

We are the light of the world, regardless of who is in power. We are given the spirit of the prophets, to speak the word of God to our elected princes. We are given the joy and burden of the cross, to carry it through the streets of our own Jerusalem. We are to serve not Pilate, not Caesar, not Herod, not David – but the one true God and father of us all.

So go ahead and celebrate the election results, if that’s what you have in your heart. And keep working for justice in our nation. But don’t forget whose children we are, and whose kingdom we dwell in.

Our allegiance is not to the rulers and parties and causes of this age. We are the sons and daughters of God. We are brothers and sisters by adoption to our precious, crucified savior, Jesus. Our calling and mission is to do the works that Jesus did, as he empowers us by the Holy Spirit: Heal the sick, raise the dead, liberate the captive, and speak good news to the poor.

Now is the time, regardless of who is president.

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

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/27/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 John 4:7-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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

Beautiful, right? Beautiful.

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

What is love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect love casts out all fear. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

God. So. Loves. The world. 

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

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

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

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

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

Is that hard for you? It is for me.

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

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

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

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

In this context, John has news for us.

First, here’s the bad news: 

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

But there is good news, too: 

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

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

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

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

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

The Bread is Enough

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/13/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 8:14-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

These past few weeks I’ve been reading and re-reading the gospel of Mark in my Life Transformation Group with Robbie and Chuck. Each time I read through any passage of scripture – in this case the gospel of Mark – I always encounter something new and different in the text. It’s always fresh; God is always speaking to us through scripture in new ways. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twelve baskets,” the disciples said. 

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

The disciples answered, “Seven.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shut them down.

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

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

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

“Do you still not understand?”

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

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

“Who does he think he is?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well all we have is a few loaves.”

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

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

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

The bread was enough.

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

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

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

If we will believe. If we will trust him.

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

The bread is enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the bread is enough.

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

If we’ll trust Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bread is enough.

Even In Our Grief, The Kingdom of God is Here

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/28/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Revelation 4, 12:7-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

But war broke out in heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward Has Always Been Hidden In Plain Sight

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I go to prepare a place for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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