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We Don’t Need Miracles – We Need the Life and Power of the Resurrection

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/28/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text – and the first minute or so of the sermon is not recorded.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Jesus is risen! Hallelujah! Jesus – the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth – he’s alive. He has taken his seat at the right hand of God.

Jesus who loves us, who has freed us from our sins by his blood.

Jesus, who made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father. He is risen and present this morning. To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen?

Jesus has emerged from the realm of the dead. He has freed the prisoners from the grave. He has overcome the power of death and triumphed over the works of the devil.

They nailed him to a cross. They pierced his feet, hands, and side. They laid him in a tomb, like seed being sown in the ground. But on Easter morning, the body was gone. It had sprouted. As Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, the body of Jesus was sown as something perishable, but it was raised imperishable.

His life was sown in weakness, but now he is raised in power. He was sown in dishonor, but now his he raised in glory.

As the old hymn says:

Up from the grave he arose;
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Jesus is risen! Hallelujah!

And we are witnesses. We are gathered here today because – along with the first apostle, Mary, and the other disciples of that first generation – we have seen the Lord.

We are here to declare, as John declared, “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” That life is revealed in Jesus. “We have seen it and testify to it.” We have seen the Lord.

We have seen the Lord. But of course, not all of us have seen. Jesus has shown up in miraculous ways for some of us. He’s given us a strong sense of his presence. We have seen him, felt him, sensed him. We’ve heard his voice calling us. For those who have had this experience, it is an amazing blessing.

But God speaks to each of us differently, in the particular details and circumstances of our lives. Jesus speaks to us in loud ways and quiet ways. In ways obvious and subtle. The Holy Spirit ministers to our hearts. God meets us where we are at.

This morning we read one of John’s stories about how Jesus appeared to the disciples in the days immediately following the resurrection. And here’s what John says about his stories. He says, “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

John says that Jesus did a lot of things that John didn’t write down. John says that, “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” This makes sense. Jesus can’t be contained in a book. Jesus is seated in power at the right hand of the Father. Jesus is the eternal Word of God, through whom everything that exists was made.

Jesus is present to us in all of creation. In the morning breeze and birdsong. In the blades of grass and swaying trees. Jesus appears in all sorts of ways, at many times, to various individuals and communities. Jesus doesn’t have to perform miraculous signs and wonders to be present to us. Sometimes he is like an old friend, who doesn’t need to say or do anything. He’s just here.

So some of us might feel like we haven’t seen the Lord. We might feel like nothing out of the ordinary has happened in our lives. Nothing that can prove the existence of God or Jesus. And yet, we believe.

We believe because we have been told. We believe because we have heard the story and it resonates with what our deepest heart knows to be true. We believe because, in spite of all the darkness and horror of this world, we have seen the light that John tells us about. We have seen the reality of love at work in the world. We have seen it in the lives of the saints, the people sitting in this room, who have chosen to follow Jesus. Even when we’re not certain. Even when we doubt. Even when we have no proof to back up our faith.

Because let’s be real – we can’t prove any of this stuff we’re talking about. You can’t prove that life has meaning. That children are miraculous. That each human being is a unique and precious soul, worthy of love and respect. We can’t prove these things. They’re not scientifically demonstrable.

Yet we know they are true. We know love is real. This is “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have any doubt. We’re limited human beings living in a broken world. Of course we have doubt. We need to be reminded of the truth that our hearts declare. That’s why we have this community. To help us remember. To stay rooted in the things we know, but can’t prove. To ground ourselves in the things that really matter. To grow in the resurrection and become like Jesus.

And yet sometimes, sometimes God shows up in ways that truly are miraculous. And it’s one of these miraculous appearances that we read about today. It’s an encounter that John witnessed on the evening of that first Easter Sunday. The day that Jesus rose from the dead.

John says that the disciples are gathered together in a house, and they are afraid. And I mean, that makes sense. Let’s think about what has happened in the last 72 hours: Their friend and teacher was taken into police custody while all of them ran away and abandoned him. Jesus was put on trial by the chief priests and religious leaders. They found him guilty of blasphemy for claiming to be the messiah.

The religious leaders took Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor, and convinced him to put Jesus to death as a threat to the Roman state. Jesus was beaten, tortured, and executed in the most painful and humiliating way.

So it’s not surprising the disciples were hiding out in their mom’s basement. They didn’t want to end up nailed to a tree like Jesus! But then, that morning, things got even crazier. When the women disciples went to anoint Jesus’ body, they found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. The body was gone, and two angels in white robes were sitting in the tomb where Jesus’ body should have been!

The women disciples went to tell the men disciples. And the men disciples show up, look around, and then run back home. And then Mary sees Jesus. Jesus shows up and tells Mary, “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Jesus sends Mary as an apostle to the men who would be called the Twelve Apostles.

It’s not totally clear from the text, but it seems to me that the men didn’t believe Mary. Because John writes that later that evening, after she had announced the good news of the resurrection to her male companions, they are still cowering behind locked doors. They’re scared of the authorities. They don’t understand what’s going on, or why Jesus’ body has disappeared, but they know they don’t dare to go outside, because someone. Might. See. Them.

So these guys are living in fear. The resurrection just happened. Mary told them what she saw. And still, they’re hiding behind locked doors.

Jesus saw this coming. He knew the twelve disciples better than anyone, and he must have known that they would react this way. So Jesus sends Mary, but he knows that he’ll need to make a personal visit to help the men get the picture.

And so it says that Jesus comes and stands among the disciples. The doors are locked, but Jesus just appears in their midst, saying, “peace be with you.”

Can you imagine? I wonder if they jumped. I mean, this must have been freaky. But once they get over their fear, the disciples are going crazy with joy. Here he is! Jesus is alive!

And John says that, at this point, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples and says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus gives the disciples power and authority. He appoints them to continue his mission to the world.

What an amazing experience this must have been. All that fear and doubt – gone. Suddenly, the disciples aren’t worried about what the authorities might do to them. They aren’t scared of the cross. They see the resurrection power of Jesus. They hear his voice. They are given power to live as apostles, “sent ones” – children of light in a world of darkness.

But there’s a little wrinkle in this story. Because you see, not everyone is there when Jesus shows up. Thomas Didymus – the twin – is out picking up pizza or something – so he misses Jesus’ visit. And when he gets back from the store, he finds all the other disciples going wild, talking about how they just saw Jesus.

It’s hard to know what Thomas is actually feeling at this point. The text doesn’t tell us. But I imagine he’s angry. I mean, I would be. How could it be that everyone else got to see Jesus, and I just happened not to be there? Maybe they’re telling the truth. Maybe they’re making it all up. But I’m not believing it either way. Because to believe it would mean accepting that all my friends were chosen to see Jesus, but I wasn’t important enough. And maybe that means Jesus doesn’t love me. At least not as much as the other disciples.

So maybe Thomas is angry. Maybe something else is going on. But his response to his friends’ story is adamant: There’s no way I’m believing this. I’m not just taking your word for something this huge. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so it was that, about a week later, Jesus shows up again. This time Thomas is around. And again, Jesus says to the disciples, “Peace be with you.”

Then Jesus turns to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus is fully present for Thomas, in just the way Thomas demanded. Jesus is ready to let Thomas touch the wounds in his hands and side. Jesus is really there – not a ghost, but a resurrected man, full of grace and truth.

All of Thomas’ resistance breaks down immediately. There’s nothing he can do but cry out, “My Lord and my God!” Seeing really is believing for Thomas.

And Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Is that you? Have you not seen Jesus, and yet have come to believe? Or are you more like Thomas, demanding that personal experience of the resurrection, and not budging until you get it?

Either way you’re blessed. You have experienced the power of Christ in you, the hope of glory. Whether it’s the miraculous appearance of the risen savior in your life, or whether you’ve received the power to believe without seeing – that’s Jesus. He’s present. Risen from the dead and living in you. You are blessed.

It’s this blessing that filled the apostles with life and power. It’s this blessing that transformed them from scaredy cats hiding behind locked doors, into bold preachers who stood in public and faced jail time for their ministry.

It’s this blessing that can transform us here, today, from timid pew-sitters into mighty women and men of God – saints, set apart by God for a special purpose. Apostles, sent by God just like Mary, Peter, James, and John.

This is the blessing that conquers the world – our faith. When we come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.

We don’t need proof, we need life. We don’t need miracles, we need power. We don’t need to touch the wounded hands and pierced side of Jesus. We need Jesus living within us, so that we can touch the wounded hands and side of a world that is aching for God’s love.

But if you need to see, if you need to touch, if you need to hear Jesus’ voice – ask him. He is faithful. He will show up. He hears you.

But blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Related Posts:

All That Does Not Gather With Him Will Be Swept Away

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

Is the Gospel Good News for Everyone?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 6:1-13; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; & Luke 5:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are those words? What is the message?

Turns out, it’s not good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

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Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

God Will Judge Those Who Put Children in Cages

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Does it Mean for Me to Believe in the Resurrection?

The Sabbath of God is Within You

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/3/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Deuteronomy 5:12-15, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6. 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

When I first moved to DC, and Faith and I started thinking about doing ministry here, I did a lot of reflection on the spiritual condition of our city. Over the course of my first few years here, I became convinced that busyness, over-work, and high stress were some of our most important challenges. I hoped that Faith and I could minister to those who are overwhelmed by the intensity of life in our city, the many demands that are put on us by our work. This stress and busyness has the potential to choke out the seed of God in our lives.

I’m sad to say that, in the time I’ve lived here, this city has probably changed me more than I’ve impacted it. Over the last nine years, Faith and I have had two children. We’ve been employed at increasingly demanding and time-intensive jobs. At this point, I wouldn’t say that our level of busyness and stress is much different from most other people in our life stage and social class.

That’s not great. I know that my life isn’t exactly the way God intends it to be. I know that my busyness and burden often distract me and pull me away from the life of presence and freedom that Jesus invites me into. I know that I need to be called back to wholeness, right relationship with my family, friends, work, and God.

So I was really grateful to see that our passages for this morning focus on sabbath, both its foundations in the Old Testament, and Jesus’ teaching on it in the New. I’m thankful, because I need to hear the wisdom of the sabbath. I need to be invited into the rest and peace of God. Maybe this speaks to your condition, too.

The sabbath is about as ancient a concept as you can get. God celebrated the first sabbath on the seventh day of creation. After creating the heavens and the earth, the plants and the animals, men and women, God rested for a day from all his labors. Following this model of good work followed by true rest, God taught his people, Israel, to observe a sabbath day of their own. This special, holy day each week would be a period of rest.

The sabbath wasn’t just a reduction of work. It wasn’t like what a lot of us Christians experience today, where maybe we take a few hours off to go to church, maybe go out to lunch with friends, and then get right back into the productivity and busyness of our lives. For God’s people in the Old Testament, and for Jews today, God’s sabbath was a cessation of all work.

Why would God command us to refrain from all work for a whole day every week? It’s easy to imagine God as some kind of random rule-maker in the sky, handing out weird instructions that we’re supposed to follow, because, you know, God. But the sabbath is not random or capricious. As we read together in the Torah, we find that the origin of a religious sabbath comes about in a very specific context. That context tells us a lot about what the sabbath can mean for our lives as children of the God of Abraham and followers of Jesus.

So what was the situation when God instituted the sabbath? It came as part of the law that God set out immediately after liberating the Hebrews from slavery, four hundred years of forced labor in the land of Egypt. The sabbath is a mark of freedom, of health, of social harmony and economic justice. The sabbath is for all people – even the male and female slaves, even the animals!, have a right to a total cessation of work on the sabbath.

The sabbath is a call to humility. To remember, as it says in our reading from Deuteronomy, that “you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” The sabbath has the power to bring justice because it puts all human effort into perspective. Our lives are but a breath. God doesn’t need our help any more than a parent needs assistance from a young child. God’s effort is decisive; human effort can be, at best, a token expression of our love for the Father. (Paul expresses this thought in his second letter to the Corinthians, “this extraordinary power [of the gospel] belongs to God and does not come from us.”) By honoring the sabbath, we honor the God who through his power created the universe – and then rested.

We could all benefit from honoring the sabbath today. We need rest. We’re tired, and we work too much. We need space to breathe. To worship God, setting aside all our temporal preoccupations. To remember who we are, and whose we are. We need the sabbath to teach us how to love again. Love ourselves. Love God. Love neighbor.

Our whole culture is feeling the loss of the sabbath. We’re noticing the impact of a society that no longer reserves even one day of rest each week. Sunday shopping comes at a price. Our weekends are crowded with activity. Many employers expect us to be on and available, 24/7. There’s very little space to listen.

The sabbath acts as a check on our human tendency to over-extend ourselves. It sets a hard limit on our time, energy, and planning. It’s an opportunity to yield ourselves to reality and our own limitations, rather than being forced to do so by sheer exhaustion and burnout.

The Jewish religious authorities of Jesus’ day had 99 problems, but keeping the sabbath wasn’t one of them. They kept it religiously. The Pharisees were sort of the good “churchgoing” Ned Flanders of the ancient world. They were scrupulous in their observance of the law of Moses. Among the hundreds of other regulations that they followed, they were almost ridiculously careful not to do anything resembling labor between sundown on Friday and dusk on Saturday.

And yet, for all their piety, the Pharisees were missing the point. They embraced the sabbath, and all the law of Moses, but they had forgotten that they were liberated slaves. They had become the authority in their society, and the interpretation and enforcement of the Torah became a powerful lever for them to exercise that authority. The law often loomed larger than the God who established it. Just as the priestly Sadducees loved the Temple more than they loved the uncontrollable God of the Tent, the Pharisees loved the letter more than the Spirit.

Jesus saw this. He was harder on the Pharisees than on anyone else. Because they knew so much about the kingdom of heaven. They knew so much about God. And yet their attitudes prevented them from experiencing the real life, power, and purpose of God’s reign. Not only that: In their zeal to convert others to their misguided focus on rules and ritual, they blocked the door for others to enter into the kingdom of God.

God made the sabbath for people. God’s creation exists to bless us; it allows us to experience wholeness and holiness. The sabbath is made for people, not people for the sabbath.

Jesus came into conflict with the religious authorities on this point. He was busy moving throughout Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and gathering his disciples. Jesus was drawing bigger and bigger crowds, and the Pharisees were curious to see what this new teacher was all about. They hoped he would be one of them. A lot of his teachings sounded familiar to the Pharisees. Jesus definitely wasn’t siding with the priestly elite in Jerusalem. Maybe they could form an alliance.

But when the Pharisees actually met Jesus, what they found disturbed them. Rather than a teacher who was first and foremost concerned with observing every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law, they saw that Jesus tolerated his disciples breaking all sorts of rules. Everyone knew that Jews weren’t supposed to do anything resembling work on the sabbath – that included food preparation. Yet Jesus didn’t say a word when he and his disciples were passing through grain fields on the sabbath, and the disciples started plucking and eating grain.

The Pharisees saw this and they got really upset. They appealed to Jesus to reign in his followers. “Look, why are your disciples doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Check your boys, Jesus; they’re running wild.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees in a very particular way. He didn’t agree with them. In fact, he flat out contradicted the Pharisees. But he didn’t do so by denying the importance of the sabbath. He didn’t reject the law of Moses and God’s commandments in scripture. Instead, he reframed the conversation in terms of the broader story of God’s people. It’s not enough to simply say, “the Bible says this,” or “the Bible says that.” The Bible says a lot of things. What truly matters is what God is saying, and how God is revealing himself throughout the scriptures – and in our very lives.

So Jesus responds, not with a rejection of scriptural authority, but with an expansion of it. “Haven’t you ever heard what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”

When David and his crew was hungry, they ate the food that was available. The daily bread that God offered them. In that moment, God’s power to bless and provide for David overrode the static, non-contextual rules laid down in the laws of Moses. In general, only the priests were supposed to eat the consecrated bread in the Temple. But in that particular time and place, that holy bread was God’s way of caring for David and his men – providing them with rest, comfort, and sustenance.

Jesus sums it up this way: “The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

The sabbath is made for people. The law was written for us. The word of God is not a harsh rule laid upon us as a burden; it is the caring hand of God guiding us, providing us with what we need. It is a gift of God, to be received in context – in particular time and circumstances, according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

People like the Pharisees – both back then and today – have a tough time wrapping their heads around this. For so many of us, the purpose of religion is to provide a clear and unambiguous set of rules to live by. Do this; don’t do that. Don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t handle! Follow the rules and you will be safe. Follow the rules, and God will love you.

But God does love you. God does love you. He gives us the law precisely because he loves us. God doesn’t give the law as a set of terms and conditions we must follow to receive his love. Love comes first. Love is the first motion. Love is the ground and source of the law. And love must reign over the law if we are to receive it as God intended.

The law is made for people, not people for the law.

But most religious people just can’t understand this. Especially religious people with power. And have no doubt about it, that’s what all this is about. Our rules and regulations are about power. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, we use the law to shape the society that we live in. We create a set of expectations that must be followed. Those who step out of line are subject to peer pressure, ridicule, shame – and even violence. To challenge the rules that govern our culture is a dangerous act.

It’s not too long into Jesus’ ministry before he performs such an act – one so dangerous, so threatening to the Pharisee’s cultural and religious system, that they have no choice but to respond. One way or another. They can join Jesus or they can reject him; but they can’t assimilate him. They can’t pretend that Jesus is a good old Pharisee who they can integrate into their social order. Jesus won’t play ball.

This moment of revelation happens not out in the field, but in the heart of the Pharisee’s social and religious life – the synagogue. Jesus comes to the house of prayer on the sabbath. Jesus is an emerging local celebrity at this point, so maybe they invited him to lead worship and interpret scripture for them. Or maybe he just showed up for prayer. Whatever the reason, Jesus came to this particular synagogue on the sabbath, and the religious leaders knew he was coming. They were watching to see what he would do.

Because there was this guy in the synagogue that everyone knew. A man with a withered hand. People had heard that Jesus frequently healed the sick, and they wanted to know: Would Jesus break the Pharisees’ sabbath prohibitions to heal this man?

The people in the synagogue were watching Jesus. And he was watching them back. They wanted to see whether he would heal on the sabbath. Jesus wanted to know whether their hearts were so lost to the love of God that they would condemn compassion.

Jesus calls the man with the withered hand forward, up to the front of the synagogue where Jesus was seated.

Silence. Jesus looks at the people of the synagogue. The best and brightest in the town. The religious leaders. Everyone who is anyone.

Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Silence. Nobody moves. They just watch Jesus. Will he do it? Will he break the rules? Will he defy the authority of the teachers of the law? In the synagogue?

And it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger.” He was “grieved at their hardness of heart.” How could these folks be so sensitive to the commandments of God in the past and so completely miss the motion of God’s spirit in the present? How could the Pharisees know so much about God, yet fail to recognize God in their own lives? What did it mean that God’s people were living in a temple of scripture and yet failed to receive the sacrament of compassion?

The sabbath was made for people. Hungry people. Thirsty people. People with withered up hands, who because of their physical deformity were excluded from full participation in religious life. The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.

In this moment, Jesus resolves to live into the full meaning of the sabbath. He demonstrates what the sabbath looks like in flesh and bone and sinew. He heals the man standing before him, re-enacting God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He frees this man from physical bondage, and invites everyone present in the synagogue to be freed from the spiritual bondage of rules-lawyering religion without pity, without mercy, without love.

“Stretch out your hand.”

I want you to stretch out your hands with me. Stretch out your hands, and remember everything that God has done for you.

Stretch out your hands, and remember how he has brought you up out of slavery. Slavery to materialism. To selfishness. To addiction. To death.

Stretch out your hands, and be healed.

The sabbath of God is within us. And we so desperately need it. We can’t live without the sabbath, without God’s rest, abundance, and liberation.

The sabbath is life. The sabbath is rest and freedom from slavery. The sabbath is a gift given by the Holy Spirit, and one which we must accept if we are to experience the peace and blessing of God’s kingdom.

What does it mean for you to embrace the sabbath in your life? What needs to change? How does your heart need to open, your mind be renewed, your habits shift?

Stretch out your hands. Let us promise together that we will be a people of sabbath in this city. Let our lives open up a space sabbath rest, sabbath grace, and sabbath justice. Because the sabbath was made for people.

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How Can I Know When I’ve Seen A Real Miracle?

How Can I Know When I’ve Seen A Real Miracle?

How Can I Know When I've Seen A Miracle?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/6/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, & John 15:9-17. 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

One of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. When it first came out, I was a kid, so of course I wasn’t allowed to see it. My parents watched it, and they told me that they thought it was terrible. Way too violent!

Well, like all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Pulp Fiction has no lack of violence and gore. But, more than any other of his films, I found it deeply compelling on a variety of levels. The characters are vivid and memorable. The scenes are colorful and imaginative, managing to be both dark, tense, and hilarious at the same time.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction a number of times over the years, and it’s entered into my own personal canon. It’s among the pieces of literature, art, and film that I come back to repeatedly for reflection and inspiration. It’s the kind of movie that grows with you. When I was a teenager, it was just fun and entertaining. But each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found a new angle to consider.

Pulp Fiction is a movie that has many storylines, many threads to follow. But I would argue that the core storyline, the key thread, is the one that follows a pair of gangsters named Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta).

Jules and Vincent are thugs. They’re hit men, hired muscle for the crime boss Marcellus Wallace. And early in the movie, they pay a visit to a lower-level criminal who has attempted to defraud Mr. Wallace. We find out pretty quickly that the penalty for this betrayal is death. Vince and Jules summarily execute the unfaithful criminal in front of his gang.

What they don’t know is that one of these guys is hiding in the bathroom with a large revolver. The door opens, this man bursts into the room, and fires all six rounds into Vince and Jules.

And nothing happens.

The two of them stand there for a minute, processing it. Bullet holes cover the wall behind them, just barely visible on either side of their heads. The bullets must have passed within an inch of them. But they are completely unharmed.

From this point on, Pulp Fiction becomes a movie that is, at least in part, an extended theological reflection.

Vince is ready to shrug off the whole incident as a fluke. “Things like this happen.” But Jules is convinced that the two of them have just witnessed the hand of God. “This wasn’t luck. This was divine intervention.”

Vincent clearly doesn’t buy it, but with police on their way after this firefight, he placates Jules and they make their way quickly from the scene of the crime.

Fast forward to another scene towards end of the movie. Vince and Jules are sitting together, having breakfast at a diner, and they take up their theological reflection once again. Rather than describe this scene, I think it would be best if we watched it together. (Just as a warning, there’s some profanity in this clip, but I hope you’ll bear with me!)

“God got involved.”

Vince and Jules could argue and theorize about whether God had intervened in history to move the bullets and spare their lives. What happened to them may or may not have been a miracle in that sense. But for Jules, who felt the presence of God in that moment, it was a miracle regardless of the physical details. It’s not what happened; it’s the Spirit that was present in what happened. God got involved.

In our scripture readings this morning, we hear about someone else who God has called to wander the earth, Kung Fu-style, meeting people and getting into adventures. We hear the story of Peter and his journey to visit the household of Cornelius. Peter was up on a roof top praying before lunch, when a vision from God appeared to him. Something like a large sheet came down from the sky and in it were all sorts of unclean animals, that the law of Moses commanded should never be eaten. Then Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

At first, Peter resisted. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice persisted, telling him three times that he was to get up, kill, and eat these creatures that up until now had been forbidden by God. The voice from heaven said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Just then, as Peter was trying to make sense of this confusing vision, men came from the household of Cornelius, inviting Peter to come visit him. Cornelius was a faithful, God-fearing man. He was also a pagan, a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman legion. He was unclean and uncircumcised, outside of the household of faith. A good Jew like Peter should have nothing to do with a man like Cornelius, no matter how good his reputation and how charitable his actions.

But God had determined that the time for these barriers between peoples had come to an end. The distinction between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free were to be abolished. Despite his the fact that Cornelius lay outside the bounds of the Jewish nation, God was pleased with him. Though Peter could not see it yet, Cornelius was part of the household of faith, the church invisible, the body of Christ.

Because of God’s love for Cornelius and his family, angels came to speak with him. They told him to seek out Peter and invite him to Cornelius’ home. God got involved, setting in motion a series of events that would bring reconciliation between peoples long divided by tribal divisions and animosity.

This wasn’t easy for Peter. Peter was a good Jew. He knew the rules. He knew what to expect, how life was supposed to be lived. His worldview provided him a sense of order and predictability. Yet here, suddenly, was this experience of God’s intervention, changing the whole picture. Externally, nothing had changed. To any outside observer, Peter was just sitting on a rooftop during the heat of the day. But God got involved. The Spirit was at work. Inside Peter, something changed.

That’s how Peter ended up in the house of Cornelius, an unclean place that the Jewish law taught him he should never set foot. Peter had travelled to Cornelius’ house out of obedience to the unseen Spirit of God, the hidden power that breaks down barriers and redefines life in ways we can’t possibly see coming. This life, this Spirit touched his heart so that he knew: God was breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, Jew and Greek, male and female.

God got involved. You know, that was the only way this was ever going to happen. Everything in Peter and Cornelius’ life argued against this apostolic visit. For Peter to step into the household of Cornelius was a transgression against everything that Peter believed that it meant to be a righteous person. To be a son of Abraham was to be separate, set apart, holy. This leading of the Spirit to visit Cornelius seemed to contradict everything that Peter knew about leading a faithful life. But he felt the touch of God, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

Cornelius felt it, too. He knew that this whole encounter was a miracle. Only God could have brought Peter to visit his house. After years of prayer and devotion, God was doing something he had never expected. Cornelius was so overwhelmed by Peter’s arrival that he fell down at his feet and began to worship him! Peter had to tell Cornelius to get up – “Cut it out! I’m just a man like you.”

That’s kinda awkward, huh? I hate it when people fall down and start worshipping me when I visit them in their homes. Don’t you?

The truth is, this whole meeting was really uncomfortable for everyone involved. Both Cornelius and Peter knew that God had commanded them to come together, but they had no idea for what purpose. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, they know that God has gotten a hold of them, but they don’t know where he is leading yet.

When Peter arrives, he’s basically like, “Hey… So, uh, yeah – I got your message, and God told me to come and visit you. So what did you need?” Cornelius doesn’t really know anything more. All he can say is, “Well, yeah. Very glad to have you here. You come highly recommended by the angels. So, um… Why don’t you just go ahead and tell us whatever you have on your mind? We’re interested to hear it!”

With this invitation to speak, Peter proceeds to lay out the gospel for Cornelius and the members of his household. He tells them about Jesus, about how he healed people and liberated them from demonic oppression. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death on the cross but now has been raised from the dead and reigns in a new community of God. In very simple, straightforward terms, Peter lays out the basic facts about Jesus.

And God gets involved. As Peter is speaking, everyone present notices something changing. The Holy Spirit is present with them, touching every heart. God gets involved, touching the hearts and minds of everyone present. It’s an experience that goes beyond the gospel story that Peter is sharing with them; now it’s not just the words Peter is speaking. God gets involved. They feel the presence of the Holy Spirit together. It’s a miracle.

And it says that “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” And then Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter orders them “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” And they stay together for several days.

God got involved. Peter and Cornelius couldn’t have been more different from Vince and Jules from Pulp Fiction. But they have at least one thing in common: They each experienced an event that broke them free from the life and worldview that they had been traveling along. God worked a miracle in their lives. A hidden power breathed into their hearts, allowing them to change course entirely, to make a new life and find a new community. To wander the earth until God put them where he wanted them to be.

John – in his gospel and his letters – speaks to us of this experience. He writes of the hidden power of God, the Spirit that touches our hearts and makes change and transformation possible. He tells us about how God gets involved – how he got so involved in this world that he loves, that he sent his only begotten son to live among us, to become one of us. He tells us about the living Spirit of Jesus that is present to guide and teach us right now. This life, this power gets involved.

How can we recognize God’s power and presence when he gets involved in our lives? John is very clear about this: We know the Spirit of God when we act in love. We know that God is involved when we are filled with compassionate joy. This is the kind of joy that moves us to bless others and free them from brokenness and confusion. It’s the kind of joy that called Jules out of a life of murder and crime and into a path of trust – wandering the earth until God places him where he ought to be.

This is the power that pulled Peter out of his safe and comfortable religious existence, so that he could discover just how big God’s love is for the world – all the people of the world, not just Peter’s tribe. It’s this love that calls us together into community, despite all our differences and all the factors that threaten to pull us apart. This is the love that conquers the world.

The Spirit of God challenges us so deeply, and yet it’s not burdensome. The love that comes from God disrupts our lives in ways that we can’t ever predict. We’re often tempted to ignore it, because we want to be in control. But the love of God conquers the world. It’s not burdensome. It doesn’t force us to be something we’re not. Instead, it frees us to be truly ourselves for the first time – the lively, unpredictable, joy-filled men and women that God created us to be.

This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith. God gets involved. Whether or not God stops the bullets, turns Coke into Pepsi, or finds our car keys – we can’t judge these things on merit. When we feel the touch of God, our lives must change.

When we abide in the love of the Spirit, we will be transformed. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

That our joy may be complete. Like Peter and Cornelius, we are finding a new and unexpected family in the Spirit. Like Jules from Pulp Fiction, we are being pulled out of the predictable track we’ve been following, the life that we have settled for. God gets involved, and we’re shaken out of our complacency.

That our joy may be complete, God calls us into a new way, an unpredictable path. It’s a path of love, making us brothers and sisters to people that we may never have gotten involved with previously. It’s a love that casts out all fear. It gives us a fresh start, and the boldness we need to live in ways that seemed impossible before.

This is the victory that conquers the world: God gets involved. He shows us the love that is in Jesus. He transforms our hearts. He breaks us out of determinism and teaches us how to love.

We’ve experienced this love, life, and power. God got involved. Now things have to change. We can’t go back to sleep.

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Nobody’s Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/15/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, & Luke 24:36b-48. 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

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are the children of God.

I know that for a lot of us today, this phrase, “children of God,” has been cheapened. It’s been universalized to refer to practically everyone. It’s become a way of saying that every person is worthy of respect, dignity, and fair treatment.

And I agree with that way of looking at the world. Every single human being has inherent value. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love everyone – especially our enemies, the people that the world has taught us to hate.

But when the author of John’s first epistle writes that we are the children of God, he’s talking about something distinct. For John, sonship and daughtership in the kingdom of God is not a matter of universal human dignity. It is not inherent to us that we are the children of God. For John, it is a very particular, contingent, and radical claim.

When we read John’s gospel and John’s letter, it’s clear that he’s not writing out of a community that sees the world as a benign, loving, and healthy place. John’s community is one that has has seen the evil of the world – the imperial rulers, the religious authorities and false teachers, and the everyday selfishness of ordinary people. They’ve seen the darkness of the world.

But they’ve also seen the light.

The Johannine community has seen the light of God in the face of Jesus. It is a community that testifies to the resurrection – not just with words, but with transformed lives. This is a community that can say, “we have seen Jesus, and we know him. Because of him we have moved from death into life. Because we are his friends, we have been called out of this world of darkness and hate. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. We are becoming like Jesus.”

John and his community knew from personal experience that sonship and daughtership is not our natural state. The original followers of Jesus failed miserably. They abandoned Jesus when he came to his time of trial. The disciples – especially the men disciples – ran and hid while Jesus was being tortured and tried as a criminal. Peter – who at that time was apparently the bravest of the Twelve and followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest – denied Jesus three times before dawn. The early Christian community knew what darkness looked like, because they themselves had been moral failures.

The resurrection changed all that. The return of Jesus on the third day, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the continuing presence of the risen Jesus throughout the months and years that followed – this guidance and power allowed the weak and fallible disciples to become the children of God.

John’s community knew Jesus. They had seen him and touched him with their hands. They experienced the resurrection, the living body of Jesus in their everyday life. And God gave them authority: To live in life, power, and boldness. To share the good news of the kingdom, inviting others to become children of God. And to speak into the darkness and confusion of this present world, even when doing so made them sound crazy.

The early church was not afraid to call out evil. They were not afraid to name the fact that we are not, by default, children of God. Living as we do in this fallen, rebellious, and confused world, only the grace of our Lord Jesus can rescue us, can transform us from being children of hate, violence, greed, and self-centeredness. Because of the resurrection, because of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we can become the children of God. We can become like Jesus.

A lot of people misunderstand this. A lot of Christians miss the point here. So often we’re taught to imagine that the gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we don’t have to face the consequences of our sin – our greed, our aggression, our brokenness. According to this version of the gospel, Jesus conquered darkness so that we don’t have to. Thanks to his sacrifice, all we have to do is believe certain doctrines about Jesus and we will be saved. In heaven, after we die.

But that sad gospel is a pale imitation of the truth. It’s a Wonder Bread parody of the whole wheat gospel that John and his early Christian community knew. This fallen world, and its version of Christianity, teaches that our faith is about damage control. Christianity becomes about avoiding punishment for our misdeeds rather than being reborn for justice.

But the real gospel is radical – it gets to the root of things. The true gospel message is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It promises us – not through words, but through hope in action, that we can be transformed. Our lives can change.

We can become the children of God, the children of the light – sons and daughters, reborn in the image of Jesus. All of the old dividing lines are broken down – between men and women, citizen and foreigner, rich and poor, black and white. Even between God and us. The radical, incredible, scandalous message of the gospel is that we can become like Jesus. Through the power of the resurrection, we can become sons and daughters of God.

So what does that mean? Concretely, what does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God – brothers and sisters to Jesus? Well, right here in 1 John 3, he tells us how we can distinguish between the children of this world and the children of the light.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

Have you experienced the resurrection presence of Jesus? Is he teaching you? Have you surrendered yourself, to be brought out of rebellion and lawlessness, hatred and fear? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to draw you into a new life, one where you do the deeds of righteousness and become holy, just as our brother Jesus is holy?

There’s some hesitation here. I know I have some hesitation. Holy? Me?

On the one hand, we’re right to hesitate. Who am I to think so highly of myself? Sure, the writers of the New Testament refers to all the believers as “the saints” – the holy ones – but it feels like a big leap to apply that to myself. I know how far short I fall on a daily basis. I’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get there. It seems a little premature to start saying I’ve made it. Who here can say they are like Jesus? I know I can’t.

The earliest Christians must have known this experience, too. The first generation of disciples knew so much failure – even after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The saints made mistakes. They fought with one another and a level of church drama that makes our modern-day disagreements look like softball. The early church was a hot mess.

But they were also the children of God. The brothers and sisters of Jesus. The saints.

For John and his community, the line between the children of God and the children of this world was clear. The children of this world live in darkness and rebellion. The children of God follow Jesus and do what is right.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Who here is righteous? Let me see some hands!

OK, that’s fair. In one sense, none of us should raise our hands. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

That’s one way of looking at it. And it’s true. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

But there’s another way of looking at sin and righteousness. The first way – the Paul’s letter to the Romans way – looks at our nature in terms of our past failures. But John’s way is to look at the saving power of Jesus, the resurrection that transforms us into a new creation. Rather than looking down at our sin, John says, “look up at the holiness of Jesus. He is present to heal you, transform you. He is your salvation.”

Little children, children of the light, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. And through the resurrection, through Jesus with us, we have received power and authority to do what is right.

This isn’t about perfectionism in the world’s sense of perfection. We don’t have to be the world’s greatest student, or worker, or parent, or anything else. We don’t have to always be cheerful or be an inspiration to those around us. We just need to do what is right.

Do you do what is right? Do you follow the light of God in your heart? When God shows you that something is wrong, do you stop doing it? When he calls you into action, do you follow? Do you love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Do you do what is right? Not perfectly, not with superhuman powers – but humbly and simply, even if no one notices?

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. We are children of the light. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are salt and light in this dark and flavorless world. We are righteous when we do what is right. It’s a high bar, but with Jesus as our present teacher, guide, and friend, we can be faithful. We can do what is right, we can follow as God leads us.

In Jesus, God became like us. He became a human being. He had a mother. He wept for friends who had died. He suffered humiliation and death. And God vindicated Jesus. God proclaimed him righteous by raising Jesus from the dead, and now we can become righteous like he is. Simply, humbly, following in the footsteps of our brother and our Lord.

Little children, we are the sons and daughters of God. We are salt and light. We are the saints, the righteous ones that God has called out of the darkness to bless and heal the world.

Jesus asks the disciples, and he asks us: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look at his hands and his feet. Look at Jesus. See that he is here with us.

We are the children of the light, the sons and daughters of God. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”

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What Does It Mean For Me To Believe in the Resurrection?

What is the Faith that Makes Resurrection Possible?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/25/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; & Mark 8:31-38. 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

When I first read through the scripture readings for this Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how our gospel reading relates to the passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah seems to be all about God bestowing unconditional blessing and abundance on two old people who had no hope at all for the future of their family.

The story of how God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations is one that, at first glance, seems very human and not supernatural at all. All of us want to leave a legacy. No one wants to see their name die out, to be forgotten by future generations. On its face, the story of Abraham and Sarah seems like a case of divine wish-fulfillment – a very human story with very human motivations. I can relate to it instantly.

On the other hand, there’s this story about Jesus and his hard-core insistence on embracing torture and death. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples. He says Peter’s mind is set on human things, rather than on the things of God. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his suggestion that Jesus should avoid the cross.

Peter and the other disciples didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in the path of self-emptying and dying to ego that Jesus was teaching them. Such things are incomprehensible to the human mind. Every one of us can understand a story about God granting new life, vitality, and progeny to an old man and his wife. Is it miraculous for an old woman to bear a child? Absolutely. Does it challenge our conception of the good life? Of who God is and should be? Probably not.

We want a God who guarantees our own survival and prosperity. We want a God who makes us fathers and mothers of many nations. Successful careers, happy families, public acclaim, and personal prosperity. We want the God of the good life, a God who promises joy, not suffering. We want the triumphant and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, not the whipped and crucified God that Jesus introduces us to.

But there is only one God. The God of the promise is the same God who endures the cross and invites us to walk in his way of self-abandonment. The God who provides us with a hope and a future is the same one who asks us to suffer for truth.

What is the relationship between these two faces of God? How do we reconcile the apocalyptic, bone-shaking God of Golgotha with the reassuring, sustaining God of the Promised Land?

For the apostle Paul, the answer is clear: It’s the resurrection. In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, Paul draws a clear line between the promise that God gave to Abraham and God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead.

Believe it or not, I find it easy to forget about the resurrection. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m a little more captivated by the fire and brimstone. When Jesus issues his challenge to the disciples, warning them about the suffering and persecution that he and his followers will face, that challenge seems like everything to me.

But the cross is not the end of Jesus’ story. The end of all the challenges that we face as friends of Jesus is not the grave, but victory. The message of Jesus one of life, truth, peace, and joy. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the very word “gospel” comes from the Greek term for a victory announcement. It is very good news.

From Genesis to Revelation, we discover a God who heals, guides, and protects us. God’s character doesn’t change. God was not first generous to Abraham and then hard-hearted towards Jesus. God demands the same thing from each one of us. He calls us into a kind of faith that brings us into conflict with the world as it is. And this same faith promises unconditional joy, growth, and wholeness as we choose to follow Jesus.

In our passage from Romans this morning, Paul teaches that God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t based on following a legal code. It wasn’t based on genetics, either. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations – not just his own biological descendants, but all those who share in his faith. It is Abraham’s faith made this promise from God possible. It is the righteous living that comes from faith that allows those who live in the spirit of Abraham to inherit the world.

I said that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget the resurrection in the midst of Jesus’ suffering. In the same way, I tend to ignore how much challenge and suffering Abraham and Sarah endured to receive God’s promise and blessing. Abraham and Sarah left home and family, wandering to an unknown land in the west. They did this on nothing more than a promise from God, that Abraham would be made into a great nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah took an enormous risk based on a promise from a still, small voice that whispered in the night. Abraham and Sarah ventured out into the unknown. They took a leap of faith.

It all could have gone so badly. But God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. Even when times were hard and they were on the run – even when Abraham got scared and did things like try to pass Sarah off as his sister! – God didn’t waver in preserving their lives and their marriage.

God was just as faithful to Jesus and his friends. Jesus suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death on a cross – but on the third day, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, this faith has the power to birth children from the barren elderly and to raise the dead to life.

Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples simply couldn’t fathom how powerful this kind of trust could be. They couldn’t imagine how the path of pain and darkness could ever lead into the light. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with boldness, joy, and power. The apostles, who before the resurrection had been so clueless and frightened, found courage to share the good news throughout the world. They accepted the many challenges and hardships that came with this ministry. All but one is believed to have been murdered for their faithful witness.

In a world without the resurrection, this would seem a great tragedy. Why throw your life away when you could lead a safe and comfortable existence? But the faith of Abraham and Jesus teaches us a new way of living. Through the resurrection, we are rooted in the power of God, who is not constrained – even by death – in the ways that he blesses us.

We all have access to this resurrection power. Those of us gathered here this morning have been touched by his salvation. In large ways and small, we have experienced many spiritual baptisms into his death. We know darkness and suffering, the kind that requires trust to endure. We know the power of Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, which can raise us into new life.

We experience God’s call to yield ourselves, to embrace the challenges of righteous living. It’s a kind of life that draws us out from the mainstream culture and into the vibrant and risky counter-culture that is the kingdom of God. We know from experience and from the testimony of scripture that God calls us to take great risks. Through his resurrection power, God can overcome any adversity.

The world doesn’t understand this. Our own human minds can’t comprehend it. That is why Jesus rebuked Peter. He just couldn’t believe that Jesus was serious about submitting himself to death on the cross rather than leading a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Peter was only able to conceive of victory in the world’s terms. But in Jesus, God has revealed another way of conquering the world: with love, restoring wholeness and peace to the creation.

Most days, we’re just like Peter. We’re not capable of understanding God’s way of conquering love until we receive the faith of Abraham. We have to set our mind on the things of God, not on the human fears that hold us back from faithfulness.

There’s good reason for our fear. It’s rational to be afraid. Because God is calling us to a way of life that seems to threaten our very existence. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our wealth, our comfort, even our lives, to bless our neighbors and show love to our enemies. As the Lord Jesus tells us in our reading this morning:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus asks us, What does it profit you to gain the whole world – of comfort, wealth, status, and acceptance by worldly authorities? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life?

Only the God of Abraham, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, holds that kind of power. The power of life. Our God will defend you and bless you in the presence of enemies. He will walk with you through the pain and darkness. He will give you victory through the cross of Jesus.

Through faith, Abraham was able to see this. Now, through the resurrection, we can, too. God is the master of life and death. We can trust him, even when his word is totally out of sync with the wisdom of the world around us.

What are the areas of your life where God is inviting you to embrace the faith of Abraham? What are the challenges that seem insurmountable? What is the death that you’re afraid of? What does it mean for you to live in the power of the resurrection?

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