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In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/15/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, & Mark 6:14-29. 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

Who are the prophets? The prophets are those on whom God has sent his Holy Spirit.

This is the same Spirit that hovered over creation. The Spirit that breathed life into the first man and woman, creating us in the image of God. This is the Spirit that came upon Moses, giving him power to speak the word of the Lord to Pharaoh and to guide the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The Holy Spirit fell on the seventy elders, whom God appointed to assist Moses, and they prophesied.

They prophesied. What does it mean to prophesy? Prophecy means speaking the words of God, just like Moses did. It means revealing that which is hidden, pointing people to the truth that the brokenness of this world has hidden from us. The truth that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus is a God of love and a God of justice. And that neither his love nor his justice will sleep forever.

Wherever the Holy Spirit moves, there is prophecy. This is the characteristic mark of the Spirit’s presence in the world: When we experience the presence of God in our heart, minds, and spirits.

When the Spirit shows up, we feel the love that God has for each of us, and the anger that God has at those things which hurt and destroy his beloved children. The Spirit comes to teach us who God is, and to inspire us to speak the message and demonstrate the character of our loving, righteous God.

This is Holy Ghost experience has always been the formative experience of the prophets. From Moses and his seventy elders, to Elijah and Elisha. From John the Baptist to Jesus. From George Fox and Alexander Mack to Martin Luther King, Jr and William Barber II. The Holy Spirit raises up men and women to speak the words our world needs to hear. Words that speak the very will of God. Whether or not the world is ready to listen.

As we see in our gospel reading for today, the world often isn’t willing to hear. It’s not an accident that John the Baptist ends up dead – beheaded by Herod at the request of his wife and daughter. It’s not an accident when terrible things happen those who speak the words of God, because fallen humanity is always killing the prophets.

Why would anyone want to be a prophet? Most of the prophets don’t. We see throughout the pages of the Bible, and throughout the history of the church, that prophets usually question their calling. Because being a prophet is often a death sentence. Friendship with God means enmity with the world. Speaking the truth means exposing the comfortable lies that this world cloaks itself in. Declaring God’s love for the needy, the outsider, the foreigner, the poor, means bumping up against the interests of the powerful insiders who are well-positioned to use violence to maintain the status quo.

In our gospel reading this morning, the story of Herod and John the Baptist is a quintessential telling of the relationship between God’s prophets and the powerful people who would prefer not to have the system disrupted by prophetic speech and action.

John the Baptist was acknowledged by everyone as a prophet. Even Herod knew that John was a “righteous and holy man.” So, despite all the reasons that he might want to permanently silence John by killing him, Herod held off. He locked John away in prison, but he hesitated to raise his hand against God’s prophet.

Herod’s hesitation might have been the result of simple political calculation – after all, John was a very popular man, and killing him might be more trouble than it was worth. Who wants to create a martyr? But the Mark gives us reasons to believe that Herod’s hesitation to murder John went deeper than mere political expediency.

The truth is powerful. It has an effect, even over those who are very wicked like Herod was. And John was a holy man, a prophet of God – clothed in righteousness and speaking the truth with the easy sincerity and fearlessness of a God-surrendered man. John was probably the only person that Herod encountered on a regular basis who wasn’t afraid.

Herod had the power of life and death over his subjects, and so most people were scurrying around, trying to please Herod. John wasn’t impressed. John lived in the life and power of the Spirit of God. He knew the truth, and the truth had set him free. John wasn’t afraid of Herod, because he had a life in God that transcended the threat of death that Herod could hold over him.

John and Herod had this really weird relationship. Herod had John locked up in prison. And you’d think that Herod would simply want John to disappear. To stop saying disruptive things about the immoral way that Herod was conducting himself. Yet Herod couldn’t get enough of John. He kept telling the jailers to bring John up out of the prison. Herod met with John regularly. Mark says, “he liked to listen to him,” even though when John spoke, Herod “was greatly perplexed.”

Herod could hear the truth in the words of the prophet. He could sense the presence of the Spirit in John’s life. Part of him wanted to silence this prophetic voice forever, but another part couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He knew the truth when he heard it, even if he didn’t have the moral courage to surrender himself to the love and justice of God.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Herod was a weak man, and a foolish man. He couldn’t quite bring himself to kill John, despite the fact that his wife Herodias was demanding that he put John to death. But in our reading this morning, he’s thoughtless enough to make an oath, in front of many guests, that he will give his daughter anything she asks for.

When she comes back and asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Herod is shocked. He didn’t even consider that the girl might consult with her mother and come back with such a request. But because he’s so afraid to lose face in front of his guests, he agrees. Herod dispatches guards to the prison, and they slaughter John, this holy man of God. They butcher the presence of the Holy Spirit in Israel. They desecrate the sanctuary of God to satisfy the whims of an insecure dictator and his family. Herod knows what’s happening. He knows who John is. But he goes ahead anyway. He fears men more than God.

The way of the prophets often leads to death. Jesus himself stood squarely in the prophetic tradition. He identified himself with the mantle of Elijah and Elisha. He stood in that Holy Ghost tradition. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to proclaim good news to the poor. The Spirit sent Jesus to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus stood in the tradition of the prophets. And like the prophets of old, like his cousin John the Baptist, he faced terrible repression and violence. Like John, he ultimately surrendered his life speaking truth to power, pouring out his life as an offering to God in love.

We live in a time of great darkness. It occurred to me as I was preparing this sermon that Herod doesn’t seem so unusual anymore. I used to consider Herod to be particularly monstrous, a truly evil character. And he was. He was an evil man. Yet today in our own national politics and throughout the world, we see men and women who are selling their souls for power built on falsehood, hatred, violence, and oppression. Today we witness evil that makes Herod look almost sympathetic. After all, Herod felt bad when he slaughtered John the Baptist. He regretted it.

But the Herod I know isn’t the one who cringed over his own murder of John. The Herod I’m more familiar with is Herod the Great – the father of the king Herod we read about in today’s scripture. King Herod the Great is the one who slaughtered the boy children in the vicinity of Nazareth. That’s the Herod I know, the one I’m seeing coming to power in the world today. He’s the one who doesn’t hesitate to destroy families for political gain. The one who forces the family of Jesus to flee and become refugees in a foreign land. The one who is praised by the religious authorities for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, even as he assaults the very word of God in the streets of Bethlehem.

This is the world of Jesus and John. A world where prophets are nailed to the cross and beheaded. A world where children are stolen from their parents and locked in prisons. A world where those in power prefer lies to any truth that threatens their dominance and control.

We live in a time of darkness, domination, and violence. Just like John and Jesus under Herod and Pilate. Just like Moses under Pharaoh. Just like the early church, whom God blessed and covered with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Living in our own time of darkness, we’ve been visited by this same Spirit.

As Paul says in our reading from Ephesians this morning, we have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be God’s prophets in this time and place. In this present darkness that can feel as palpable as a clinging fog. God has marked and sealed us with the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the dangerous truth of God’s love and justice. The truth that the creator of this world stands with the immigrant, the poor, the marginalized.

Today is the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, and so maybe we need reminding. At Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to each and every one of us who has decided to follow Jesus. Along with Jesus, we have been called and anointed to be prophets of the living God, the creator of the cosmos. We have been filled by the Holy Spirit, to speak the very words of God into a world that is so hungry for the truth and love that only God can provide.

We live in a time of darkness. And in times like these we are often tempted to despair. Yet it is in times such as these that the witness of the prophets is most needed. This is our time. This is our season. This is the moment that God calls us into active service, to speak his word of truth and love. To the powerful, as a rebuke and a challenge. To the powerless as a message of comfort and through tangible acts of solidarity. God has called us to be as prophets, even if we have to walk the path of suffering, just as John and Jesus did. This is what is means to be friends of Jesus. We walk in his footsteps, and accept his mission of love, justice, and reconciliation.

I would like to invite us to enter into a time of open worship, in which we can invite the Holy Spirit to be especially present with us. Spirit of God, we need your guidance. We are blind and lost without you. We need your love. We need your truth. And most of all, Lord, we need you to show us how to be faithful servants in sharing this love and truth with the world around us.

We live in dark times. But Jesus Christ has given us the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We are the light of the world. Holy Spirit, come and show us how to shine, and how much we must endure for the precious name of Jesus.

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How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.

How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.
We’ve seen horrifying things this weekend. Nazi banners, shamelessly unfurled just a short drive from the nation’s capital. Armed gangs of white nationalists in the streets of an American college town. Unchecked violence. Murder in the name of radical hate. All this comes as a reminder that white supremacy is one of the founding doctrines of the United States. Our nation remains captured by the demonic influence of systemic, generational oppression of non-white – and especially black – people.

It should go without saying: White supremacist ideology is not merely mistaken. It is evil. It is anti-Christian. White supremacy is a blasphemy against the image of God in humanity. It is impossible to embrace white supremacy and to be a follower of Jesus, the crucified Jewish Messiah.

American racists often hide behind a veneer of Christian piety, but white supremacy is utterly incompatible with the way of Jesus. The Nazis understood this. In Nazi Germany, and in many other countries where other versions of fascism emerged, Christianity was actively corrupted, subverted, and opposed where it dared to challenge the authority of the fascist state. Adolf Hitler’s inner circle of rogues and radicals were generally atheist or pagan, preferring the false gods of their imagination to the humble Jew who died on a cross.

The the quasi-fascist Donald Trump regime is similarly anti-Christian in its convictions. It’s impossible to love God while hating others. No follower of Jesus can incite racial hatred, threaten nuclear war, and spread lies and fear in the way this administration has done. We see Nazis parading through American streets. White nationalists dictate policy in the White House. GOP leadership in Congress either does not have the courage to confront this evil, or is actively encouraging a politics of hate, violence, and fear.

How are we to respond? As friends and followers of Jesus, how will we challenge white supremacy? 

There’s not one answer for each of us. Our family is expecting a newborn baby any day now, so I probably won’t be joining protesters in the streets anytime soon. Others of us are already being called to be physically present in the streets where many of these struggles are taking place. There is both room and necessity for a diversity of gifts, actions, and tactics as we seek to be faithful in these times of hatred and fear.

In this diversity, though, there is an unmistakable unity. While we all have particular parts to play, the character of Jesus does not change. He sends us into the world according to the spirit of love, not according to the fearful spirit of the world. Each one of us has different roles to perform, but all of us are called to walk, and speak, and act in the spirit of Jesus.

What are the marks of a Christ-like response to evil? How can our communities identify the way of Jesus, and encourage one another to walk in it?

The way of Jesus is always marked by love. Love for neighbor. Love for enemies. Love in the face of violence and persecution. The love of Jesus isn’t intimidated or overcome by fear. It doesn’t give in to slogans or posturing. It rejoices in the truth. The love of Jesus seeks healing and reconciliation for everyone, even the people who nail him to the cross.

Many of us – myself included – are tempted by the myth of redemptive violence. The idea that we can destroy evil by attacking the evildoers is a powerful one. Especially for men in our society, there is an expectation that we prove our strength and care for others though our willingness to inflict violence on people who threaten our loved ones.

Jesus was the strongest man the world has ever known. His life, death, and resurrection repudiate the false narrative of redemptive violence. Through his courage, God has shown us that true love is cruciform. His love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

So must we. If you and I wish to follow in the way of Jesus, we must rid ourselves of the illusion that our violence can transform the world. We may be called to die for love, but never to kill. Jesus calls us to be light in the midst of the darkness of white supremacy and Nazi ideology. As friends of Jesus, we have an obligation to stand in solidarity with those who are being directly impacted by personal and structural racism. All followers of Christ must stand against violent ideologies and powers.

The tools of our resistance cannot be different from those that Jesus himself has given us. He has commanded us to heal the sick, raise the dead, and preach the good news of God’s kingdom to the poor. Through his faithfulness on the cross, he has shown us how far we must go to seek the healing of others, even those who despise us. Being willing to die for our friends is challenging enough; Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for our enemies, too.

No one who is paying attention can deny that we have enemies. Those who promote race hatred and fascist violence – whether in the streets or in the White House – are enemies of God and his people. Yet our response, as maddening and unnatural as it is, must be to seek healing and transformation even for those who seek to destroy us. Not because we would choose this for ourselves. Not because we are sure it will “work” as a strategy. But because Jesus himself has borne the cross of genocidal oppression. He has shown us the way from death into life, and it comes through love of enemy. 

This is a truth that most professing Christians have failed to embrace. The way of Jesus is one of good news for the poor and oppressed. Sight to the blind, liberation for the captive, resurrection from the dead. We obtain this resurrection through indiscriminate love.

What does it look like to love a Nazi who is pepper spraying you, beating you, running you over with a car? What does it mean to be the face of Jesus to a soul that is twisted by the evil of white supremacy? These are hard questions, and I don’t pretend to have easy answers.

Rather than trying to provide a pre-packaged solution, I urge all the friends of Jesus to turn ourselves over to the wisdom, compassion, and power of the Holy Spirit. She alone has the ability to transform us from frightened children, lashing out at every threat, to mature imitators of Christ’s joy, compassion, and power. We need her now more than ever.

Holy Spirit, come. Transform our hearts. Inspire our response to the evils that afflict our nation. Make our lives good news to the poor and oppressed. Teach us how to love the world so much that we are willing to lay down our lives and privilege, in imitation of our friend and savior, Jesus.

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How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?

How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?
The good news of Jesus isn’t just that Jesus loves me. Of course that’s part of it, but the rabbit hole of God’s love goes way deeper than that. The really radical gospel message is this: God loves my enemies. To be like Jesus, I have to love my enemies, too.

I often don’t let this sink in enough: the incomprehensible nature of God’s love. The message that Jesus loves me, that he loves those whom I love – that’s nothing special. Any God, any religious system is going to provide that. In any human religion, the center of the moral universe is always me and mine. But Jesus points completely beyond me. His message removes me as the center of the moral universe. God himself becomes the center.

The God that Jesus points to doesn’t belong to me. He doesn’t belong to those whom I deem good people. He’s the God of all people, all creatures, all creation. God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

God loves my enemies as much as he loves me. Even when they’re hurting me. God loved the enemies of Jesus, even as they were nailing him to the cross. Jesus loved his enemies so much, he was willing to lay down his life and to suffer a shameful death.

To me, that’s still incomprehensible. I have to admit, I don’t get it. To write these words is one thing; digesting their truth is another.

What it will take for me to truly believe and embrace that God loves my enemies? Jesus died for his enemies. If I’m going to be like Jesus, I have to be willing to die for my enemies.

I must be prepared to lay down my life. Not because I have to, and not because I feel guilt. Certainly not because I feel righteous. I must be ready to give up everything out of love for those who hurt, betray, and steal from me. If I am to be like Jesus, I must love those who threaten me.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. It doesn’t just feel superhuman and supernatural, but inhuman and unnatural. Nothing in my genetic makeup encourages me to love my enemies, and to pray for those who persecute me. There’s no natural instinct to risk myself for the sake of those who hate me.

And yet that’s exactly what God calls us to do. What seems natural to us, what has become natural in this fallen world, is in fact unnatural. God created the universe good, in unity with itself and with the Creator. But we live in a broken version of the love and symbiosis that God built into the creation.

The fallenness of our present reality manifests itself in how we respond to enemies. In this broken nature, forgiveness is impossible. Violence and hate are easy. It’s hard to act on what we know is right.

I need God’s guidance to respond to this world with love. I need the Spirit’s help to be able to tell the difference between justice and vengeance. I need God’s grace to see the face of Jesus in those who disappoint me, make me uncomfortable, and threaten my life.

For me, this will mean baby steps. I want to embrace Jesus’ courage on the cross, to ask God’s forgiveness for those who want to attack and kill me. But I should probably start by forgiving those who stole my lawnmower.

I need to be faithful in small things if I want to be prepared for big challenges.

Most of all, I need others to be Christ to me. I need people in my life who forgive me when I’ve done them wrong. People who show kindness to me when I’ve intended evil to them. My salvation is linked to those who show the love of Jesus when I’m only filled with hate.

I thank God for the way that he reaches out to me through others. I’m grateful for those who shine God’s light on both the righteous and unrighteous. Even when the unrighteous person is me.

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What if my Religion is just Self Help?

What if my Religion is just Self Help?
I came to religion for selfish reasons. I was often depressed. I felt empty. I couldn’t find meaning in life. I explored faith because I wanted to receive, not to give. I was looking for a spiritual solution to my lack of direction and purpose. I wanted a faith that would make me feel good.

I did a lot of religious exploration before I became a Christian. I engaged with philosophical movements like existentialism. I went deep with political ideologies like democratic socialism and anarchism. I even explored Buddhism, Islam, and other non-western faiths.

My motivations were very human and self-centered. I wanted a faith that would fix me, that would make me happy and fulfilled. I wanted a system that could give me the right answers and make my life easier.

If I’m honest with myself, most of my faith journey has been a path of self help. My religion was like those books that promise rapid weight loss, financial prosperity, or success in love. Everything was about what I needed, wanted, and craved.
What if my Religion is just Self Help?
Even my experience of God was a product to be sought after. Buddhist books written for westerners promised me inner peace and clarity. Quakerism offered me ecstatic, mystical experiences that took place in meetings for worship. That sense of presence and power made me feel special, purposeful, and loved. I wanted more of that.

I felt like these religious experiences were making me better. Throughout my twenties I would say, “every day is better than the last.” And it was true. The more I got into spiritual practices and religious devotion – meditation, Bible reading, worship, prayer – the more mature and grounded I felt. Other people seemed to think so, too. I had objective evidence that religion was making me a better person!

My faith was fun and gratifying. It was fantastic to feel successful. My life was filled with meaning and purpose in a way that I had never experienced before. I still had periods of darkness and struggle, but I came out of each one feeling more triumphant than before.

Until I didn’t.

My thirties have been a hard decade. I had my whole sense of mission and purpose called into question. The ministry that I’d been focusing my whole life on fell apart. It was hard to know what to do. I felt so clear about what God had called me to do. And then there was nothing left. Where was God in all this?

At the same time, my life turned upside down. After years of ministry, I started working full-time in non-church-related jobs. We also had our first child, which changed my life and outlook in ways that I never imagined. Life got busy. Full with comings and goings, work and responsibilities. I didn’t feel able to be present to God in the way I used to. I felt that emptiness again.

This new dry season is very different from the one I experienced in my teens and early twenties. This time, I’ve already committed to a religious path. I know that I want to follow Jesus. I’ve met him. I’ve seen that he is the Messiah. For me, he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And yet I’m so burned out on religion. I’m so exhausted by church, theology, and all the human stuff that goes with being in faith community. Religion doesn’t feed me in the way it used to.

As hard as this is, I’m wondering whether this might be a good sign.

What if I’ve been mis-using religion this whole time? What if my relationship with God isn’t about making me a better person? What if it’s not about giving me purpose, identity, or comfort? What if my faith in Jesus isn’t about me at all?

Maybe these questions seem obvious to you. “Of course, Micah. What, you thought it was all about you?” In truth, I’d have to answer in the affirmative. That’s the whole narrative I’ve received about faith. It’s about self-improvement. Growing in maturity. Becoming a better man, able to help and teach others because I’ve got it together. That’s what I thought “sanctification” was all about.

But now I’m thinking there might be a different story. To put it in Paul’s language, what if I’ve been a baby drinking milk this whole time? What if God gave me what I needed in my very immature state, but it’s not the main course? What if the meat and potatoes of discipleship is less about improving myself and more about forgetting myself? Could it be that, by seeking life improvement – even by desiring to be “a better person” – I’m avoiding the real journey that Jesus wants to take me on?

What is that journey?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think it has to do with looking at Jesus rather than myself. I suspect it’s about learning to focus on the needs of those around me rather than my own dreams and desires. Even good dreams and desires. It might be that the kingdom of God isn’t about what I experience. It’s not focused on how I grow, or what I do. Instead, it’s unlocked when I lose track of myself. When I become yielded to the light of Christ. Even when that light feels like darkness.

This is a scary path. It’s frightening because I have no idea where it leads. To walk down it is to surrender my ability to steer. This is what it means to get past “self-help religion.” When I get into the strong meat of faith, the overwhelming sensation is that of being out of control.

Yet there is also the hope here. Hope that, in the midst of it all, I am loved and guided. There is a presence and power beyond my narrow understanding and selfish desires. She will direct me.

I want to trust this Spirit. I want to trust that this path will lead me through green pastures and beside still waters. Even if I’m thirsty most of the time.

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Do You Think You’ll Age Like Wine?

Do You Think You'll Age Like Wine?
Christianity is a wine-soaked religion. My teetotalling Quaker ancestors did their level best to rid the world of alcohol. Still, the pages of the Bible are full of references to the drink.

Jesus’ ministry began and concluded with celebration. He kept a wedding party going strong into the night when he transformed water into wine. And when his time on earth was almost up, Jesus enjoyed a simple passover meal with his disciples. He offered them bread as his body, and wine as his blood.

The Hebrew scriptures say that the life of a creature is its blood. What is wine, that Jesus would offer it to us as his life?

Wine is a mysterious drink. It breathes, ages, and develops over time. Even before Jesus made it a centerpiece of the Christian faith, wine has always held a religious significance. It has a life of its own.

One very interesting thing about wine is the unpredictable way it ages. It is well known that good red wine can improve dramatically over the course of several years in a cellar. What’s less commonly known is that this improvement is not always linear.

A young, bold, and aggressive wine can mellow into a refined, coordinated vintage. But open it too late, and it may have turned to vinegar. Open it too early, and it may not have the qualities you expected at all.

In the midst of all this change, there is often a “mute” period. Between the boldness of youth and the sophistication of age, the wine falls silent. If you happened to sample it during this time, you would certainly be disappointed. But wait a little longer, and you may experience a masterpiece.

Jesus himself is like wine. We experience the boldness of his teaching, healing, and rebuke to hypocritical leaders. We witness the glory of his resurrection, the power of his triumph over sin and death. And Jesus also passes through a mute period. Between the last supper and the resurrection, Jesus falls silent.

As he stood before the High Priest, he said almost nothing. Only enough for the religious tribunal to condemn him. Then he was taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who was astounded at how little Jesus had to say. It was as if Jesus’ fierce boldness and righteous anger had slipped away.

As he hung dying on the cross, the silence was deafening. There was no dynamic action. No sermons or healings. Angel armies did not come to the rescue. Instead, Jesus turned inward and directed himself to the God who felt so absent right then. He showed love to a fellow condemned prisoner. He consoled his disciples and his mother.

Jesus’ whole life was churning in the vortex of this “mute” time. Jesus had been faithful, and something amazing was about to happen. But as Jesus drank the muted wine of that moment, all he could taste was gall and vinegar.

In both wine and human life, this muted space is awful, mysterious, and necessary. Wine must lose what it once was in order to become what it is meant to be. Our lives must pass through brokenness and surrender. The loss and emptiness of the cross is the only path to a resurrected life.

You may be living through a muted moment in your life right now. You feel empty, shorn of the enthusiasm and excitement that once propelled you. There’s a gentle brokenness in you. It invites silence. Grounded humility comes unbidden as you repent in dust and ashes. There is peace here.

Now is a time to wait. There’s no need to open that bottle before it’s ready. Like any good wine, your life is breathing, opening. You are an unfolding mystery.

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Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?

Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (12/18/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 1:18-25 & Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18.

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

As an American, I have a stereotyped vision of what Christmas ought to look like. It’s a cold, dark, wintry time. We’re bundled up, rushing from our warm houses to gathering places like this one, and back to our warm homes. It’s a time for gathering with family and friends. It’s a time of reassurance. That though we are experiencing some of the longest nights of the year, the light of friendship, community, and faith still shines. We are together. We are loved. God is providing.

I like this vision of Christmas. I think it’s an authentic view into how God calls us to be a faithful, caring community to one another. It includes Jesus’ command to love one another. It captures the hope that he promises us through the resurrection – that no matter how long the night, there is a bright morning coming.

The baby Jesus is that bright morning. Amid the cold and dark of winter, he comes to us as the light of Christmas. He is born to a pair of righteous Jews – a carpenter and his young financée. This couple is living in a very dark, very cold night. They – their whole family, their whole nation – is living under a brutal military occupation by a foreign power. They’re living in empire that maintains its rule through total military dominance. An empire that puts down rebellions by annihilating entire cities and selling whole nations into slavery.

Along with the entire Jewish nation, Mary and Joseph are waiting, longing, praying for salvation. The salvation they’re looking for is very tangible. They’re hoping for a great military leader. Someone in the mold of King David, who will throw the Romans out of Judea once and for all. Mary and Joseph are waiting for God’s anointed one, who will finally establish the kingdom that God promised David – a reign of justice and peace that never ends.

Still, I can only imagine how shocked both Mary and Joseph must have been when they learned the role that God was giving them to play in this deliverance. Mary was just a young girl – probably little more than a child herself. Yet God spoke to her. He chose Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. The mother of the promised deliverer. The mother of the son of God.

It would be an understatement to say that this turned Mary’s life upside down. Nothing could ever be the same as before. Her entire life would be defined by this birth, this child, this relationship with Jesus. Despite all that, Mary said “yes” to God’s call. It would have been less surprising if she had said “no.” But she said “yes.” She was ready for this mission. She knew how great her people’s oppression was. She knew how badly they needed a savior. So she said “yes.”

I think that sometimes we forget about Joseph’s role in this story, or maybe gloss over the courage and faithfulness that he showed in his response to God’s plan. But Joseph’s response was almost as miraculous as the virgin birth. How many men would accept their fiancée’s claim that their pregnancy was the result of an action of the Holy Spirit?

If you’ll remember from our reading a few weeks ago, the High Priest Zechariah had a tough time believing it when the angel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. Surely they were far too old for that! Because of his inability to believe the word of God, Zechariah spent the next nine months mute, unable to speak about the message he had received.

Joseph, on the other hand, was able to overcome his doubt at an even more miraculous occurrence. Somehow, he was able to work through his doubts and fears that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He also had the strength of character to withstand the shame that certainly came on him when others suspected that he might not be Jesus’ father. He had the courage to raise Jesus as his own, trusting that God’s word to him was true.

I believe that Joseph was able to muster this kind of courage precisely because he understood what the stakes were. God instructed Joseph to name his son Jesus – Yeshua. Yeshua is a Hebrew word meaning “God saves.” Joseph understood that God was intervening decisively in history. God was acting to save Israel from its enemies, the terrible oppression of the Romans and their client dictator, Herod. God was finally fulfilling his promise, given throughout the Old Testament, that he would raise up a ruler to sit on David’s throne, to govern God’s people and administer justice forever.

Both Mary and Joseph understood that this was the great calling of their lives. They would be parents to the Messiah. They would raise the one who saved Israel.

Whatever other hopes, dreams, and ambitions Mary and Joseph had for their lives, they were willing to sacrifice those in order to be responsive to God’s call.

This could be because they were just amazingly faithful saints, with powers of discernment and compassion that exceed that of ordinary people like you and me. That’s possible. But I tend to think that there was something more profound at play here.

I believe that any of us can take selfless, heroic, terrifying action given the right circumstances. We just have to be desperate enough. Think about the stories you’ve heard of regular folks lifting up cars to save a loved one. Yesterday I watched a news clip of a young woman who found her dad trapped underneath a one and a half ton automobile. Without thinking about it, she knelt down, pulled up, and flipped the car over and off of her dad’s body. He lived.

That kind of amazing strength and power is possible for all of us when we are truly desperate. When the full force of our lives is channeled in one direction, the miraculous can occur. That’s what happens when a daughter sees her father being crushed under a car. It’s what happened when Mary and Joseph watched their people being crushed under the jackboot of Roman occupation. They had become desperate enough to take miraculous action. Their need for salvation had become so great that they were ready to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. To do things that would be unthinkable otherwise.

For Mary and Joseph, and for the whole Jewish people at that time, salvation was not a “spiritual” concept. It was not primarily about going to heaven when they died. It wasn’t about some kind of transcendental, spiritual escape in this life. For the thousands of Jews who were praying for the arrival of the Messiah, salvation was profoundly concrete. It was political. It was material. It was about saving the lives of their children. They prayed for a future where the Romans no longer insulted their faith and desecrated the holy city. No longer dominated and exploited their economy. No longer crucified their sons and husbands along the highway.

God’s salvation isn’t just a nice idea. It’s air to someone struggling to breathe. It’s water to a person wandering in the desert. It’s food to a mother whose children are starving to death. For that kind of salvation, ordinary people like you and me can do miraculous things.

As we remember the birth of the baby Jesus, as we celebrate the coming of God’s messiah, it is time to ask ourselves: Are we hungry for salvation? Do we thirst for it above all else? Are we prepared to see our lives disrupted in order to seek salvation out?

In a certain way, we’re at a disadvantage to Mary and Joseph. Compared to them, our lives are pretty comfortable. I can tell you for sure, George was not born in a cow stall. We had access to wonderful midwives who guided us through the birth, and there was emergency medical staff on call in case anything went wrong. We were so blessed.

For those of us who have spent our entire lives in the United States, we have known relative peace and stability. Even in recent years, as our country has begun to slip more deeply into hatred and violence, the insanity and slaughter has still been the exception rather than the rule. I grew up in a country where I and most people I knew felt that we were citizens in a democracy. Not subjects of an occupation. Not sheep to be sheared and slaughtered at the whims of a dictator. I’ve lived a truly blessed life.

So I have to ask myself: Do I really want to be saved? Do I truly hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do I really want the upheaval that comes with salvation? Or would I prefer to remain in a comfortable hell?

Our nation is entering into a time of great testing, and it remains to be seen whether which path we will choose. Will we embrace the baby Jesus, with all the disruption and trouble he brings? Will we carry this pregnancy to term? Or will we tell God, “No. I won’t have this child. No, I won’t claim him as my own. Find someone else, God. I don’t need that kind of disturbance in my life.”

In the 12 Steps addiction recovery program, they have a concept of “hitting rock bottom” For alcoholics and drug addicts, hitting rock bottoms is when the pain of using becomes greater than the pain of not using.

For God to send Jesus into the world, Mary and Joseph had to be at rock bottom. They had to know that the pain of receiving Jesus is less than the pain of accepting one more day of economic injustice, moral outrage, and spiritual darkness. To receive Jesus, the Jewish people had to know that choosing the way of cross is ultimately less painful than continuing to participate in the endless cycle of hatred, violence, and oppression.

Christmas is an opportunity to ask ourselves: Are we there yet? Have we hit rock bottom? Is the pain of living in a world of hatred, willful ignorance, and greed greater for us now than the pain that comes from following Jesus?

If we are, God will perform the miraculous in us. Like Joseph, we will become agents of his protection and healing. Like Mary, God will use us to bear Jesus into the brokenness of this world. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel – God with us.” Amen.

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

Jesus Is Lord. Trump Is Not.

Jesus Is Lord. Trump Is Not.
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (11/20/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 1:67-80.

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I was raised in the Quaker community, so I didn’t grow up with liturgical seasons. My church growing up was actually more “high church” than most Quaker meetings, if you can believe it. We actually did observe the Advent season to some extent. I remember as a kid we had five candles up front in the sanctuary, and during worship we’d light one for each week of advent. We finally lit the fifth one at our Christmas Eve service. That’s about as intense as our liturgical calendar ever got.

Since I became a Christian as an adult, I’ve really come to appreciate what I would call the “basic” liturgical calendar – all the big holidays that fall between Advent and Pentecost. Observing Lent, Good Friday, Easter – these have all become a meaningful part of my life. They help shape the spiritual rhythm of my year.

Lately I’ve been preaching more frequently here at Washington City Church of the Brethren, and I’ve found the lectionary to be a sort of gateway drug for what I’d call the “advanced” liturgical calendar. The broader church recognizes all sorts of special days and festivals, way beyond what I ever imagined. There’s a special focus, theme, saint, or event to commemorate practically every day of the year. Growing up Quaker, I thought that there were maybe half a dozen Christian holidays. Turns out, there are hundreds!

So, today is a holiday, too. It’s one that I’d never heard of before I looked at the lectionary for this Sunday. This morning, we’re gathered together on the feast day of Christ the King.

But check this out, this is cool. Ordinarily, today is referred to as the feast of Christ the King. But the official name for today is: The Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

Pretty cool, right?

Today is the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. Advent is all about preparing ourselves for the arrival of the baby Jesus, the infant King of kings. We’re getting ready to welcome the Word made flesh, who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability yet is the power through whom everything came into being – from the sun in the sky to your breakfast this morning. He came in weakness, but his power is limitless. Though he was willing to die for us, God has raised him up to live and reign forever. This morning, we declare that Jesus is the one true God and sovereign of the universe.

He is our commander and chief. He is our president. He is the reference point for all our thoughts and actions. He is the rightful recipient of our prayers, our hopes, our dreams, and our devotion.

He is powerful leader.

This morning, our scripture reading talks about the huge difference between the leadership of human beings, and this fierce, loving reign of justice that we find in Jesus.

This reading is really well-timed. The limits and pitfalls of human government are about as clear as they’ve ever been in living memory. Our country has been struggling for a long time. And in the last year we’ve watched our society straining under the weight of political divisions, violence committed against black and brown bodies, hatred poured out on immigrants, women, and the LGBT community, and a stubborn refusal to respond to the very real ecological crisis that threatens our future as a people.

There’s never been a time in history when we’ve been in greater need of the kingship of Jesus. There’s never been an Advent season when we should be more ready to hear the good news that Christ is here to govern us in truth, compassion, justice, and wholeness.

On this morning, more than most mornings, we dream of an earth restored. We hear the creation crying out for redemption. We hear the voices of the poor, the oppressed, those who are shoved aside in our society. We hear the reality of our own pain and hopelessness in the face of so much evil. In the face of national leadership that for so many years has shown itself to be blind to the destruction of the creation, and deaf to the cry of the poor.

We need a savior. We need a leader. We need our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

In our scripture reading this morning, we hear that God is angry at the oppression of his people. Through Jeremiah the prophet, God calls out the ruling classes of Israel, who have posed as shepherds but who in fact are only interested in shearing the sheep and eating their flesh. God is speaking to the evil rulers of ancient Israel, and he is speaking just as clearly to those who rule over us today: The politicians and officials, the celebrities and pundits – an entire system of governance through fear, confusion, and consumerist seduction. God condemns this system, and he promises that he will judge it, upend it, and replace it with the long-awaited reign of God.

Here’s what God says through Jeremiah: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock… I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer…”

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

We are in the midst of a national crisis. White supremacy has captured the White House. The constitutional order that has sustained American democracy for centuries is under threat. The very fabric of our society is being called into question.

But we’re not the first ones to experience this kind of upheaval. And we don’t stand alone in the face of these challenges. God has promised to accompany us in these dark days. He has assured us that he will intervene in history to thwart the selfishness and evil of our human leaders. He has promised to raise up a righteous Branch (his name is Jesus).

God has declared that he will be with us, and that he will send us a righteous ruler to govern us, to heal our people and our land. But we can’t just sit back and wait for that to happen. It’s not an accident that we receive this word of encouragement through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah. There can’t be a kings without prophets. As part of God’s plan to reign in our society, we are called to be his prophets in this generation.

That’s what our second reading this morning is about. Early on in the gospel of Luke, we get introduced to John the Baptist. Actually, we first get introduced to his parents. John’s dad was Zechariah, Israel’s high priest. His mom was named Elizabeth. They were both very old, and had never been able to have children.

Well, one day when Zechariah is ministering before God in the Temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him and tells him that his wife Elizabeth is going to have a son. Zechariah is astonished at this news. Understandably, he expresses a little bit of uncertainty about the idea that he and his elderly wife could possibly bear children. In response to his skepticism, Gabriel tells Zechariah that until his son is born, he will not be able to speak. And so it is. Zechariah comes out of the Temple speechless, and he stays that way for the next nine months.

When the baby is born, there is some discussion about what his name should be. Elizabeth wants to name him John, but all the men of the family think he should be named Zechariah, after his father. When Elizabeth insists on the name John, the men go to Zechariah – who’s still mute – and ask him what name he wants to give the child. Zechariah asks for a writing tablet, and spells it out for them, “His name is John.”

Now the scripture says that after he writes these words, “Immediately his mouth was open and his tongue freed and he began to speak, praising God.” Zechariah must have been really noisy, because it also says that all the neighbors heard it and were frightened. “What then will this child become?” they asked one another. “For indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”

It’s at this point that Zechariah gives the prophecy that we heard this morning. This birth was a miraculous sign that the reign of God is breaking into history. “He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.” John would be a prophet of this new order:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people, by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

We’re sitting in darkness right now. We’re in the shadow of death. We need the dawn to break on us. We need a prophet to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Well, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is, God “has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.” Jesus is here with us. He’s ready to lead us if we’ll open ourselves to his kingship. If we’ll take on the very real risks that come with being his friends. In times like these, that’s encouraging to me.

Here’s the bad news. If we want to walk in the kingdom of God, the riskiness of discipleship isn’t going to stay theoretical for very long. This journey is going to cost us, just like it cost John.

Most of us know what happened to John. He had an amazing ministry. He touched the lives of thousands. And, just as Zechariah predicted, he was instrumental in preparing a way for the ministry of Jesus, who conquers the world and all its darkness.

John was a prophet. John spoke the word of God. Unabridged and uncut. He didn’t win popularity contests with the rulers. It’s not an accident that he spent his ministry living out in the wilderness beyond the reach of polite society. He was one of the most powerful voices in all of Israel, and yet he lived his life as an outcast.

John was also imprisoned for his witness. He ultimately died for it, when Herod ordered him beheaded. John was a prophet of God, and like so many other prophets before and after him, he paid the ultimate price for his faithful obedience.

The good news is that the reign of God is coming. It’s the power of invincible love that can’t be destroyed. But, as Jesus demonstrated for us, that unstoppable power is revealed in weakness, suffering, and even death. John died in Herod’s dungeon. Jesus was put to death on a Roman cross. The cost of discipleship is real, and each one of us has to consider whether we are ready to face the consequences of following Jesus.

We can’t delay our choice any longer. The false shepherds are devouring our people. The wolves are loose in the fold. God has promised us deliverance, a savior. Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe stands with us and sees all the way to the end of war, violence, intimidation, and discrimination.

But that eschatological reality doesn’t exempt us from the challenge of discipleship. On the contrary, it is precisely because Jesus has conquered the world through the blood of his cross that we must be willing to carry our own, in this time and place.

When we as Christians say that “Jesus is Lord,” we are by necessity saying that Caesar is not. The United States government is not lord. Donald Trump is not lord. The white supremacist regime that is currently preparing to take power is not lord. Just as John spoke the truth to the tyrant Herod, we must preach the word in this dangerous season.

Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind. He let the oppressed go free. He proclaimed the jubilee year of debt forgiveness. He endured torture and death at the hands of empire. He preached the good news all the way to the depths of hell. What will he ask us to do? Are we ready?

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It is a solemnity. It’s a solemnity because love is powerful. Love doesn’t play games with the truth. It doesn’t back down before hatred and fear. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Empires come and go, but love never ends. We have to ground ourselves in that.

These are heavy times, and this is a heavy sermon. But I hope that you feel encouraged, too. Because we are incredibly privileged to be the friends of the light in these days of darkness. John the Baptist knew that it was a joy and an honor to serve as a prophet of the living God. So will we. Through the pain, the doubt, and the uncertainty, we are being invited into the most joyful path that there is, the way of Jesus – our brother, our friend, our king.

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