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

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?

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.

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Think You Know Jesus? Don’t Be So Sure

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/27/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, & Luke 4:14-21. 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

Wow, Jesus. They really wanted to kill you. I mean, really – these were the people who knew you as a little kid. These should be the folks inclined to think the best of you. They should like, you Jesus! Yet by the end of your first sermon in their synagogue, they’re ready to run you off a cliff.

How did it get to this point? How does a community go from loving and admiring this young man, to wanting to tear him apart with their bare hands? How does a congregation go from being impressed with Jesus’ sermon to being so enraged they can’t contain themselves? What did you do, Jesus?

When Jesus showed back up in his hometown, Nazareth, he already had quite a reputation. He’d been gone a long time. He’d been out exploring. Learning. Growing. Getting baptized in the river Jordan. Living out in the wilderness with the wild animals. Doing battle with the Devil and being attended to by the angels. Jesus had seen some things.

And now the world was seeing some things from Jesus. It says that Jesus returned to his homeland of Nazareth, after his sojourn with John the Baptist and his experience in the desert. It says he was “filled with the power of the Spirit.” Word had spread about Jesus. This man was on fire. You just had to hear him.

And so they did. Throughout Galilee, Jesus visited his people in their synagogues. He taught them, fed them, healed them. He brought them the good news of God’s empire – the reign of peace, justice, and love that would overcome the empires of this world. And people were just lapping it up. The scripture says that he was “praised by everyone.”

Praised by everyone. That’s always nice, isn’t it? I like it when I’m praised by everyone.

So Jesus has been in Galilee a while. News has spread, and some folks in his hometown are probably even getting a bit frustrated. “Hey, Jesus. You grew up here, man. When are you going to come visit? You’ve been everywhere else. We heard what you did in Capernaum – a city full of gentiles. When are you gonna come and give some love to your own people, the folks who raised you?”

Jesus does eventually make it to Nazareth. Apparently not his first stop, but he gets around to it eventually. And it makes me wonder: Was there some hesitation on Jesus’ part? Did he stay away from Nazareth for a reason? What was holding him back?

We’re about to find out, aren’t we?

When Jesus gets to Nazareth, it says he does the same thing he always does when he’s in a new town. He sees the sights. He checks out the local cuisine. Maybe goes to a party or two. And he most definitely makes it to synagogue on the Sabbath.

So there he is. It’s Saturday morning. Jesus walks into the synagogue, and everyone is waiting to hear him preach. There’s no TV, no radio, and it’s like a young Michael Jackson just showed up in Nazareth. Except, you know, imagine that Michael is your nephew.

They give Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he reads from it:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And with that, Jesus rolls up the scroll, passes it back to the attendant, and sits down.

Now, I’d assume that Jesus was done at that point. Because for me, culturally, sitting down in a big gathering like that means that you’re ceding the floor. You’re fading back into the woodwork. Someone else is going to talk now. But that’s not how things worked in the synagogue in Jesus’ day. When you were reading, you stood up. But when you were preaching, you sat down.

And so Jesus began to preach. He says:

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Boom. Jesus reads from Isaiah, from a passage announcing the coming of God’s anointed. He reads about a leader who will bring good news to the poor. Release for the captives. Sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. He tells the people gathered in the synagogue that day, “You’ve been waiting for a liberator. You’ve been waiting for a savior. Don’t wait anymore. He’s sitting right in front of you.”

Just let that sink in for a moment. How radical that must have been. How politically charged that statement must have felt. How much emotion those words must have inspired. What a huge claim Jesus was making. Here was the neighborhood kid, back from his study abroad program, and he was claiming to be the King of Israel, the anointed one of God.

I guess I’d only expect two kinds of reactions to this message. Either ecstatic joy, or total rejection. I mean, what else is there? You either believe he’s God’s anointed, or you don’t. You either are ready to follow him and face the slings and arrows of the Roman occupation – or you’re not. It’s gut check time.

And it says that, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”

“Is not this Joseph’s son?”

So they liked him – they really liked him! Jesus was a very impressive man, and he won the people of Nazareth right over. Here was their Messiah! He’s our guy! He’s the son of Joseph. This Jesus is our very own, home-grown Messiah. Hallelujah!

Can you imagine the civic pride? I mean, I don’t know how things are here in California, but back in Kansas where I grew up, small towns will put information about notable locals on their welcome signs. Like, “Welcome to Abilene, Kansas – home of Dwight D. Eisenhower!”

Oh yes, the elders of Nazareth could see it now. “Nazareth, home of God’s anointed!” Our boy Jesus is going to be large and in charge. Life is gonna be pretty good!

But that’s not the kind of messiah God had anointed Jesus to be. Jesus knew where his identity came from. He knew who his daddy was. It wasn’t Joseph, and it most certainly wasn’t the Greater Nazareth Chamber of Commerce. Jesus didn’t come to make the comfortable feel even better about themselves. He didn’t come to privilege his clan over the others. He didn’t even come to bless the Jews rather than the gentiles.

The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus; a spirit that dwells with the humble, the lost, the marginalized, the weak. It’s a spirit that finds its home among those who have been broken. This spirit doesn’t care about your genealogy or your resume.

This is where Jesus’ sermon takes a sharp turn. It’s like a Jesus is rolling down the highway, doing ninety in his dodge minivan, and all of a sudden he just rips hard to the left. He crosses the median and all four lanes of traffic – right out into the desert.

[Jesus] said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

The people of Nazareth still hadn’t understood who Jesus was. They still thought he was Joseph’s son. They thought they could own Jesus, appropriate him as a member of their clan. And Jesus knew that they would demand signs of him.

Jesus has come to Nazareth with a big message of redemption. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and Jesus is inaugurating it. Jesus is the doctor, and he’s been healing all sorts of people throughout Galilee. He’s healed Jews aplenty, and there’s word that he’s even healed people in Capernaum, a gentile enclave.

So for Jesus – the doctor – to cure “himself”, that meant to heal his own people in Nazareth. If he was able to do signs and wonders among the gentiles, surely he could do the same or better among his Jewish relatives.

The Nazarenes would “believe in him”, alright. They would acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah – but only so long as he was the right kind of messiah. A messiah who performed miracles for them. A messiah who bolstered their own sense of exceptionalism. A messiah who told them that they were the center of the universe. That God was for them and not for others.

But that’s not the kind of messiah Jesus is. Jesus is a servant of the unknown God. The God of the tent, who can’t be tied down by human demands. Jesus is the Messiah of the wilderness, who rejects the call for signs and wonders. He is the prophetic voice who brings liberation for those who are the margins, and who restores the sight of those who know they are blind. For those who place themselves at the center, for those who believe that they already see just fine, he has nothing to offer.

And so Jesus tells them this. He reminds them of the actions of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Both of them performed great miracles for people who were beyond the bounds of Israel. The pagan widow at Zarapeth, the gentile warlord Naaman. People who were indifferent to the Jews at best, enemies of Israel at worst. Jesus tells his people that being blood relatives of the Messiah won’t earn them God’s favor. The healing power of God will pass them over as good news is preached to the poor, the marginalized, the outsider.

Basically, Jesus says to his aunts and uncles, cousins and nephews, “I have nothing for you. You never knew me. And you definitely don’t know what God is up to. Repent. The empire of God has come near.” In the words of John the Baptist from the previous chapter of Luke:

Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Don’t wait for signs and wonders. Bear fruit. Don’t place yourselves at the center and expect blessings to come. Bear fruit. The ax is lying at the foot of the tree, and the woodsman is coming. Bear fruit.

We can see now that Jesus is walking in the path that John made straight. That path is the way of the prophets.

Jesus’ relatives in the Nazareth synagogue see it, too. And they’re not happy. They’re enraged, as a matter of fact. They’re so furious that it says everyone stood up and chased Jesus out of the synagogue.

They wanted to kill him. They would have killed him. They would have thrown him off a cliff. But it wasn’t Jesus time yet, and so it says that, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” On to greener pastures. On to minister to those who were ready to hear his words, to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

In our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear about how the church is the Body of Christ. All of us – gathered together in this room, much like Jesus’ synagogue two thousand years ago – we are the body of Christ. Just as the body is one and has many members, so it is with Christ’s body. As Paul says, “In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

The body of Christ isn’t about our biological parentage. It isn’t about how important we are in the world around us. In fact, all those factors might get in the way of discovering who we really are in the Holy Spirit. Whose children we truly are.

We are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. God has given us roles to perform and gifts to share. Apostles, prophets, teachers, deeds of power, healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. God gives gifts and calls us to ministry as members of the body. These treasures are given through the individual for the community. And, because we are the body of Jesus the crucified one, our community is given up to death for the salvation of the whole world.

What would Jesus find if he came to preach in our churches today? Would he encounter a people prepared? A people of inner strength and humility? A people given up to death and aware of our amazing responsibility as his body?

How would we react if Jesus came to us with the same message he had for his own home synagogue? What if Jesus told us, “Don’t ask for signs from me. Don’t ask for miracles. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Serve the poor and needy. Live among the marginalized and oppressed. Make common cause with the despised and imprisoned. Don’t expect signs and wonders from me. You must become the signs and wonders.”

Are we ready to become the signs and wonders? Are we prepared to grapple with the reality of what it means to be the body of Christ in this world? Are we ready to bear fruit worthy of repentance, and to face the cross like Jesus has? Are we ready to move beyond ourselves, to become the body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for our neighbors and for the whole creation?

Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” But we have become one with the Doctor. We have been baptized into his life and spirit. We are his body, and individually members of it. It is we who are called to heal. To liberate. To give sight to the blind and proclaim good news to the poor. It is we who are to become vessels of the miraculous.

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

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

How much longer are we supposed to wait?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve been waiting for so long.

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve been waiting for so long.

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom of God Can Be Yours - All It Will Cost You Is Everything
The early church was marked by intensity. Men and women filled with power and conviction that came down from the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost; their unity was remarkable. They had become family in every important sense. The first believers, thousands of them, laid aside everything that they had possessed before, holding all things in common. They become one people, one body, in the kingdom of God.

The demands of the gospel experienced by the early church were total. This was not a Sunday-morning activity. It was not an add-on. The life of the early Christians was not a mere sub-culture or “identity” that served as flavor for the rest of their life as residents of imperial Roman society. For these women, men, and children, Jesus Christ had become the core and center of a new shared life. Together, they experienced and followed the inward Rabbi, the resurrected Lord who guided them through the Holy Spirit.

So much of what passes for Christianity today is a pale reflection of that fellowship. The church has become a club, a tradition, a tribe – just one more identity thrown into the melting pot of the imperial cosmopolis. I’m Quaker. You’re Brethren. She’s Catholic. He’s Orthodox. What difference does it make? Caesar still reigns supreme. Our loyalty is divided. We have failed to become family.

The gospel of Jesus is more than personal improvement, social engagement, and friendly potlucks. The good news of the kingdom is a direct challenge to imperial culture. As citizens of the kingdom of God, we are called out of the centrifuge of individual achievement and consumerism that transforms us into loyal imperial subjects. Jesus calls us to de-center the wealth, power, and violent glory of America and all other empires.

We cannot enter the kingdom of God alone. Only by shedding our success, our wealth, our security and privilege can we pass through the eye of the needle and become part of a new society. True freedom is only possible when we surrender everything to follow Jesus.

What is holding you back from surrendering all? What keeps you clinging to the false promises of empire? What are the people, places, things, and ideas that you still haven’t surrendered to God? When will you finally enter through the narrow gate, becoming a brother or sister of Jesus?

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Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?

Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/21/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 53:4-12, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

A beginning is a very delicate time. At the start of a long journey, it seems like any route is possible. In a story’s introduction, the reader can imagine any outcome. But as we walk further down the road we begin to discover what the journey really looks like. Slowly but surely, our story becomes less about what we imagined it would be, and more about what is actually happening.

Jesus’ first disciples were very young. Quite possibly teenagers, or at most in their early twenties. Jesus, the man they looked to as teacher, lord, and future king, was just barely in his thirties. The Jesus movement was a young people’s movement. A movement quite literally fresh off the boat. A movement of people with very little past and an enormous horizon for a future.

It is a wondrous and fearful thing to be a young adult. Just out of school. In that first job. Or out on the road. Exploring the world. It seems like anything is possible. Young people have no idea what’s coming, but the world of their imagination fills in the gaps. The future is so wide-open, anything is possible.

The disciples were ready for anything. They were primed for adventure, to become the heroes that Israel so desperately needed. To break the yoke of Roman occupation and restore the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. To make Israel great again.

The disciples didn’t have much in the way of personal history or life experience, but they had tradition. They had a cultural context to draw on. They had the shared story of the Hebrew people. And this story told them that they should expect a new king, a messiah, a strong man like David to emerge and to restore Israel to its former glory.

They believed that they had found this man, this new king, in Jesus. These young disciples gave up everything they had – walking away from family, friends, and jobs – to follow Jesus wherever he went. In retrospect, this seems very brave and self-sacrificial. But at the time, it was probably a whole lot more self-interested. They believed that Jesus was the messiah sent by God to restore the fortunes of Zion. Jesus was going to be the big man in charge, and the disciples were going to be his inner circle.

It’s kind of like joining an early stage startup, if you can imagine that. Sure, you’re expected to work long hours for low pay. But you’ve got equity. You own a part of the company. And if the company takes off, you get rich. All that hard work will be worth it, because you invested your life into the shared project.

For these early disciples – who we see from today’s text were really quite ambitious people – the Jesus movement was a lot like that. It was a startup, and the disciples were basically equity partners. Sure, Jesus didn’t look like much yet. Just another Rabbi wandering through the Judean countryside. But when he became king of Israel – oh, boy! Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the others were going to be sitting pretty. They’d get to command armies, serve as top officials, and generally be very important people. That initial public offering was going to be huge.

In this morning’s gospel reading, we see that the disciples really have the wrong idea about how this startup is really going to work. They’re still at the beginning of the road, and imagine it can lead exactly where they want to go. They’re still reading the novel’s prologue, imagining the happy ending that must lie at the end of the story.

They don’t understand yet. They don’t realize what it means that they’ve been given equity in the Mustard Seed Startup. They can’t wrap their heads around how this story really ends. They still think they’re going to be lords of the earth alongside their king Jesus.

They’re all thinking it. All of the disciples have their youthful ambitions and imaginations, pushing them forward into a glorious destiny. And as with any group of ambitious people, there’s a fair amount of tension within the community as the internal pecking order gets established.

All of this unspoken jostling for preeminence comes to a head in the tenth chapter of Mark. Most of the chapter is about Jesus trying to get the disciples to understand what this movement is really about. The empire of God isn’t what they expected. It’s nothing like the empires of this world, based in relationships of domination and submission, the rule of the strong over the weak.

Jesus teaches the disciples that only those who become like little children will enter the empire of God. He reveals that it is almost impossible for the rich to enter the empire of God; only by surrendering everything can they hope to enter it. These two teachings, one right after another, upended all the common wisdom about who was good, important, and worthy to rule.

Even more so than today, children had virtually no rights in the ancient world. They were at the bottom of the pyramid – better seen and not heard. The vision that we get from Isaiah, that “a little child shall lead them” was almost too ridiculous to be believed. Leadership was for the strong, not for the weak.

The rich, on the other hand, were supposed to be blessed by God. In the ancient world – including in the house of Israel – there was always a strong strain of prosperity gospel teaching. The idea that if someone was rich, it was a confirmation that God was on their side. Those who are on top of society are there because they deserve it somehow.

Today’s society has pretty much the same idea, even if we use different words. Maybe we’d say that the rich worked hard, made good choices, and were really smart – so maybe that means that one percent of the world’s population deserves to own half of the earth’s wealth. In ancient society, it was common wisdom that the wealthy were rich because of God’s favor. The world is as it should be, and rejecting the rule of the strong, the rich, the powerful, was fighting against the divine order.

In just a few short lines in the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-lenders at the heart of establishment religion. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” It says that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. So he repeated it, to make sure they understood. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This isn’t what the disciples signed up for. They joined up with the Jesus movement in order to be part of the new Judean 1% in the empire of God. They were ready to be rich, powerful – people blessed by God.

So even when Jesus told them all these things directly, the disciples were having a really hard time hearing it. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Perhaps even more importantly, it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their hopes, dreams, and worldview depend on them not understanding it. The disciples were so full of their ideas about how the story should end – about the triumph and glory that should be theirs as charter members of the Jesus movement – that they just couldn’t wrap their heads around what Jesus was actually saying to them. So Jesus tried again. Mark says:

Again [Jesus] took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

And it’s right after this – after Jesus has told them to be like children. After he’s told them that it’s the bottom rung in society, not the top, that will enter the empire of God. It’s after he’s tried to shatter the disciples’ startup mentality and wake them to the trials and suffering that are coming, that James and John approach Jesus to ask for a bigger share of the company.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“And what’s that?” asks Jesus.

“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I can just see Jesus face-palming at this point. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

You don’t know what you’re asking, because you still think that this path is about glory. You still imagine that the road of discipleship ends at power, honor, and prestige in the eyes of the world. You still don’t understand suffering. You don’t know what it means to give up everything to follow me. You haven’t surrendered your naive ambitions and lust for control.

James and John think they do understand. “We’re ready,” they say. “We can be baptized with your baptism and drink the cup you’re going to drink.”

And then Jesus says what are probably some of the most ironic words in the whole Bible: “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

The disciples came to Jesus asking for the best seats in the house, but Jesus knows what it means to sit at his right and his left. Those aren’t seats. They’re certainly not thrones. They’re crosses. Those who will sit at Jesus’ right and left are those who will be crucified on either side of him. The disciples still can’t imagine it, but the inauguration of the empire of God is Jesus’ execution. His throne is the cross. His crown, of thorns. Jesus reigns from a throne that is completely opposite and diametrically opposed to the throne of Caesar. The king of Israel reigns from the cross.

In our reading this morning, Jesus calls us out of our youthful foolishness, out of our enthusiasm and imagination of what grand deeds we can accomplish, what heights we can ascend. The gospel invites us to join Jesus in the Desert of the Real. We discover victory in surrender, redemption in suffering, glory in submission and service to others – including our enemies.

This is not the path any of us signed up for. Just like the disciples, we haven’t been ready to hear it. But Jesus is telling us now, clearly. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to embrace the savior that Isaiah talks about, whose life was made an offering for sin – whose sacrifice wipes away our transgressions.

This same Jesus, this crucified king is inviting us to join him. To become like him. To allow our lives to become a sacrifice that, together with Jesus, redeem the world and usher in the empire of God.

This is good news. The simplistic, selfish minds of our youth may reject it, but the way of Jesus is one of hope, liberation, and joy. The gospel of the cross requires us to experience two seemingly contradictory realities at the same time:

First: The way of God is marked by suffering and loss.

Second: The way of God is one of triumph and peace.

These are both true. And we can’t have one without the other. No cross, no crown. No loss, no victory. No suffering, no peace. The prophet Isaiah describes this double reality so beautifully:

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to surrender our will to power – our insatiable desire to be the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most honored. Becoming like Jesus, we are invited to bear the sins of many, to make intercession for the transgressors, to become priests of the new covenant – cleansing the world through the life blood of Jesus.

As we enter into a time of waiting worship, let’s ask God to uncover all the ways that we use our religion as a mask for our own unexamined ambitions. Holy Spirit, come be in our midst. Show us our hidden darkness and bring us into the light. Make us people who are like your son Jesus – able to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism. Make us people who bless the world through our obedience, sacrifice, and love.

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Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/30/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29, James 5:13-20, & Mark 9:38-50. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I never knew how attached I was to the United States of America until I saw it being destroyed.

I’ve always been critical of this and all empires. Every empire of this world stand under God’s judgment, and as the most powerful empire the world has ever known, the United States of America most certainly stands judged by God.

America has a lot of blood on its hands. The rulers of this land have done what empires always do. The United States is founded on exploitation, slavery, and genocide. It is a society built on patriarchy, racism, and economic injustice. Like all empires, the United States is a social and political order founded on fear and violence.

But that’s not all the United States of America is. This country is a continent. A society that contains multitudes – every kind of diversity you can imagine. It’s a nation of more than 300 million women, children, and men. People of all ages, ethnicities, national origins, and languages. America is our home. It’s where we live. Where we raise our children. Care for our neighbors. Worship our God.

For those of us gathered in this building this morning, America is where we are called to be the church – a community of disciples that reflects the character and will of God on earth. The life and struggles of this American empire is the context in which we are given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. To share his love.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be aliens and sojourners in this and every human empire. This world is not our home. We are to be a colony of heaven in the midst of an evil and violent age. This demands a certain degree of separation from the mindset and logic of empire.

Yet this call to separation and distinctiveness is not borne out of a sense of self-righteousness. Like every calling that comes from God, this one is rooted in deep love for the world. It is because God truly loves the people of the United States of America that we are called to come out of this empire, to be separate, to turn around and think and live differently.

As the people of God, we are called to be salt and light in the midst of this flavorless darkness. We are called to seek the good of the city and nation in which we have been placed by God. We are to be patterns and examples. A new society – the empire of heaven – being birthed in the midst of the old, dying ways of this world. Like Abraham, we are called to come out of all that is familiar and comfortable so that we can be a blessing. We are to be a blessing to the world, even when that world hates and slanders and abuses us.

There’s a lot of hatred, slander, and abuse these days. There always has been, of course – but now more than ever, it’s out in the open. It’s impossible to ignore any longer. All the ugly things about the American empire – the racism, the greed, the violence, the misogyny – it’s all gushing to the surface now. The veneer of order and civility – the norms and expectations that we once took for granted – are being swept away.

We live in the age of late capitalism, an age of growing barbarism. It’s an age that our grandparents or great-grandparents would have recognized from their youth in the 1930s. We live in an age of fear and twilight. The sun is setting on the social order that we knew, and all the night creatures are slithering out of their burrows.

We are living in times that demand a savior. These are days that preachers like me have been warning us about for generations. Days when our faith will be put to the test. Days when all the deeds of darkness will be brought out into the light. Days when we will have no alternative but to make a choice – clearly and definitively – between the empires of this world and the empire of our God.

These are days when people who seemed good and respectable will reveal themselves to be moral cowards, accomplices to evil, and violent tormenters. And then there will be others, some who we never paid much attention to before, who will be revealed as the fearless and loving children of God.

In days like these, we may be surprised by which group it is we ourselves fall into. These are days of testing for those of us who would be saints. These are days that call for patient endurance. We must wake up, and stay awake.

In these days, we should expect and welcome miracles. That which is hidden will at last be revealed.

The false church – the church of empire, the church of greed, misogyny, racism, and domination – is already revealed. This is the false prophet that we read about in the Book of Revelation. The fake religion that sells its soul for a seat at Empire’s table. We know all about this kind of religion – prosperity gospel and cheap grace that has bankrupted the church’s moral influence and put a stumbling block before millions who might otherwise turn to Jesus and be healed. Jesus says in our reading this morning that it would be better for false teachers like these to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the ocean.

But we know the darkness. I want to talk you this morning about miracles. Miracles of hope.

The greatest miracle of all will be the revealing of the true church of Jesus Christ in the midst of this empire.

It won’t be who most of us expect. This moral and spiritual revival won’t find its epicenter in echoing cathedrals or mega-church stadiums. It will come from the margins. It will come from those who have been crushed and humbled. It will come from those who have been abandoned and neglected by this empire, and by those who choose to turn away from our privilege and align ourselves with God’s poor.

It our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is clear with us that we don’t get to choose who God uses for his miracles. The Holy Spirit is wholly sovereign. She moves where she will. She chooses who she will. She breathes life into the body of Christ; all we can do is open our mouths and pray to receive this breath and new birth.

In these times of darkness and violence, we don’t get to choose who our friends are. There are no human rulers in the kingdom of God – only King Jesus and the spirit of love and wisdom that he sends us. This spirit is raising up a new generation of disciples. Young and old, male and female, poor – and yes, perhaps even rich. The Spirit of God is gathering a people to endure and bring light in these dark times. Will we be part of this people?

It is time for the disciples of Jesus to be revealed. It is time for the elders to prophesy in the camp. Whether or not you showed up for the meeting, you’ve been called. The Spirit will find you.

What God tells us in the dark, we must say it in the light. What you hear in whispers, proclaim it from the rooftops! In the words of the Amos, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”

It’s a time for prophecy – yes, indeed. But it’s not a time for grand-standing. It’s not a time for pious and exciting words that make us feel better about ourselves but which fail to heal the sick, bind up the wounded, and liberate the oppressed. It is time for us to become prophets of love – demonstrating in our own lives what the empire of heaven looks like – a world beyond domination, hatred, and fear.

To be this kind of prophet may mean that some of us will get quieter. I know I’ve been getting quieter. I’ve been saying less. Writing less. Making less of my own thoughts and seeking to open myself more to God’s thoughts. In times like these, maybe talkers like me need to focus on speaking less and loving more. Practical deeds of mercy and justice.

That’s what we get out of our reading from James this morning: A vision of the church as a place of healing, reconciliation, and transformation.

Are any among us suffering? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. Are some sick? Let the elders of the church anoint them with oil so that we may be healed. Confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another. God will bring healing.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Are we becoming people of prayer? Are we willing to slow down, to take time for all the people and situations that call for prayer? As this dying society moves faster and faster, are we choosing to live in God’s eternal now?

The miraculous church of Jesus Christ is marked by the acts of care and accountability that James talks about. Now, more than ever, we must have the courage to watch over one another. Because many of us are wandering from the truth. Many of us are losing our relationship with Jesus and his spirit as we are sucked into the vortex of the news cycle. Many of us need a friend’s hand on our shoulder, calling us back. That’s what the church of Jesus looks like according to James.

The church of James, the church of Jesus, the empire of God is a place of healing and reconciliation. It is a community where real courage and sacrifice become possible precisely because we know that we can count on the friends of God to act like friends to one another.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us in the most graphic terms possible that we will have to give up everything to follow him. If your eye is causing you to lose sight of what is real, tear it out. If your hand or foot is causing you to side with the empire of this world rather than the empire of God, cut it off! Better to enter into the empire of God blind or lame than to stick around and go down with this sinking ship!

This sounds impossible to the ears of those who do not know the true church of Jesus Christ. Without the fellowship of disciples that James describes, who in their right mind would follow a man who tells us to chop off hands, eyes, and feet?

But the church of Jesus is a place of healing and reconciliation. It’s a place where wounds are bound up and made whole. It’s a place where we don’t have to be afraid to be blind or lame – because ours is a God who makes the wounded whole and restores sight to the blind. The empire of God is a community where real healing is possible, where the supposed “wholeness” that is offered to us by this world looks like a cruel joke.

As friends of Jesus, we die to be resurrected. We are defeated, only to discover that death is swallowed up in victory.

Hear this:

Be not afraid.

Remember this:

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the empire. He has promised us everything! No matter what it may cost us, God is faithful, and his way is worth it.

Only, have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.

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