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Why is the Cross a Symbol of Christianity? It Didn’t Used to Be!

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/28/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 8:31-9:1. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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The early Christian church didn’t use the cross as a religious symbol. The cross didn’t appear in the Christian art and artifacts that we have from before the reign of Emperor Constantine in the 300s AD. For the first three hundred years of the church, Christians used the image of fishes and shepherds, doves, and even boat anchors – but never the cross. The cross didn’t become a logo for Christianity until after the Roman Empire began to be Christianized and crucifixion was banned as a form of execution.

So why not? Given how central Jesus’ death on the cross is to the Christian faith, why wasn’t the cross a cherished symbol from the very beginning?

Maybe we ought to ask Peter. In the text of Mark that comes just before our reading this morning, the soon-to-be-apostle Peter has just confessed the identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Jewish messiah. This is the correct answer, and Jesus doesn’t deny it. But Jesus silences Peter and orders the disciples not to tell anyone.

That’s weird enough. But what comes next is even more unexpected.

The Jewish messiah is supposed to be the person that sets the world right, kicks out the foreign invaders, and re-establishes the kingdom of David in Jerusalem – this time forever!

But immediately after Peter confesses Jesus as that very messiah, Jesus launches into a frank discussion with the disciples. He tells them, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, that he is not the droid they are looking for. He is the messiah, but this messiah is not the conquering king that the disciples expected. He is the suffering servant that Isaiah prophesied, saying about him:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

    crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

    and by his bruises we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

    we have all turned to our own way,

and the Lord has laid on him

    the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:5-6)

Mark says that Jesus, “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Now, Peter thought that Jesus was going to lead him and the other disciples to victory. He thought that they were going to be doing the killing! They were going to be ruling in a kingdom of justice and peace, like the reign of Solomon, but even better. What was this craziness about being killed?

So Peter says, “Hey, Jesus, lemme talk to you for a minute.” And he speaks to him privately. I imagine it went something like this: “Come on, teacher. I know you must not mean what you are saying – you’re always talking in parables after all. But just in case I misunderstood – you know that you can’t be going up to Jerusalem to die, right? We are going up to conquer

When we get to the holy city, we are going to set all those priests and rulers straight. We’re going to get God’s house in order. And then we’re going to kick those wicked Romans out once and for all. Maybe crucify a few of them for once! Am I right, or am I right?”

Peter thought he was giving Jesus a private pep talk, but Jesus isn’t having it. He turns away from Peter and faces all of the disciples, and he says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

“Get behind me, Satan.” Wow. Can you imagine how crushing it would be to have Jesus say that to you? And not just in private, but in front of everybody? I feel sorry for Peter.

But for all his good intentions, Peter was the mouthpiece of the evil one in that moment. The Tempter was speaking through him, just like in Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. The devil said to him, “If you will only bow down and worship me, all the kingdoms of the world can be yours.”

And so Jesus calls everybody together. Peter, the disciples, the crowds – everyone. And he tells them: “If you want to follow me, deny yourself and take up the cross. Embrace shame and execution. Accept death. Because that’s the only way to truly live. If you are not ashamed of me, you will walk with me in this path of the cross. But if you are ashamed of me, I will be ashamed of you when I come into my kingdom.”

So ask Peter about the cross. Ask him why it wasn’t a religious symbol for the early church. Because it was a stumbling block to him. It was a scandal to everyone who heard Jesus’ words that day. 

The Roman cross was a horrifying evil, and for centuries the Christian church did not center it as a symbol. It took the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the ending of crucifixion as a punishment for the church to begin to see the cross as anything other than unalloyed horror.

That’s how we should view the cross, too. That’s the key to understanding Jesus’ words to us in the gospel of Mark. Because Jesus wasn’t using the image of “taking up your cross” as a pious metaphor. He was being literal. He was talking about the shocking, excruciating, public execution that he and many others would endure for their faith.

It’s easy to lose sight of that today, seventeen hundred years after crucifixion was consigned to the dustbin of history. It might be easier for us to hear Jesus telling us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and get strapped into the electric chair.” Or, “those who want to be my followers have to be ready for the gas chamber.” 

To be a disciple of Jesus is to face the firing squad. It is to be counted as a mortal enemy of this world. It is to face the wrath of society. It is to become a scapegoat. It is to become that suffering servant with Jesus, just like Isaiah foretold, one who “makes many righteous” and “bears their iniquities.”

We can’t step back from this message. As friends and followers of Jesus, we can’t look away from the cross, as truly horrible as it is. We can’t pretty it up, and make it just about some pious, private, “spiritual” reality. To walk with Jesus is a public and literal act. It means embracing his path of downward mobility and suffering for the love of those around us – especially those who hate us.

The early church was right. The cross isn’t a symbol of glory; it is a signet of suffering. It is what Christ suffered in order to give us life, to show God’s love to us when we hated him.

Jesus is saying to us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his life. We are each offered the same bargain. But Jesus reminds us that the devil is a liar, and his bargain is a scam: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

What Jesus offers us is life and truth. “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” but in the way of the cross, “those who lose their life for [his] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Will we be ashamed of Jesus and his words? Will we cling to the life that we have? Will we scratch and claw and kill to defend it? 

Or will we embrace the way of our crucified messiah, the suffering servant, who has promised us that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power”?

Still Waiting for the Kingdom of God? Time’s Up.

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/24/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 1:14-20 & 1 Corinthians 7:29-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is Jesus’ announcement as he begins his ministry, a ministry that becomes public and active after the arrest of John the Baptizer.

The time is fulfilled. John has been carried away by Herod’s soldiers and locked in a dungeon. The greatest prophet of them all, the one in whom the spirit of Elijah lives again, has been removed from the field. The Way Preparer has completed his ministry; he must decrease as Christ increases. The time is fulfilled.

The kingdom of God has come near. John, and Elijah, and Moses, and all the prophets of God have prepared the way, calling us out of the shadows. And now the Light is arriving. The reign of God has come near to us.

Repent, and believe in the good news. Repentance was John’s message. Turn back from your evil ways. Turn away from all the compromises you have made with the spirit of this age and the kingdoms of this world. Repent! Experience a full life change. Prepare yourself for the coming presence and reign of God.

The ministry of John has been fulfilled. The time is fulfilled, and now it is time not only for preparation, but full participation. It is time to believe in the gospel – the victory announcement of God, proclaimed to us by Jesus in his three years of ministry, coronated on the cross, and vindicated through the power of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Believe in the gospel. Believe the news that we have received from Jesus – that God has triumphed over the power of sin and death. The battle has been won. The spiritual armies of the King of Kings will soon be arriving to judge, and heal, and reconcile all things. We must prepare ourselves.

The battle has been won. God is already victorious. The spiritual forces that have kept us in bondage have been thrown down. And the messengers of God, his prophets, his apostles, and even his own son Jesus, have raced to us as messengers. They say to us: “Don’t be fooled by the continued operation of this city you live in, that still follows the rules of the old regime! Their armies have been smashed in battle, and the true King is returning to settle accounts! Rejoice, o daughter of Zion. Behold, your king comes to you! For the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ!”

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand – even at the very gates. Repent, therefore, and believe in the victory announcement that we have proclaimed to you.

This was Jesus’ announcement to the very first disciples – Simon and Andrew, James and John. This was the victory announcement, the good news of God’s victory and coming kingdom. He said to these wide-eyed fishermen, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

These were humble men, for sure. But they had something to lose. Following Jesus meant leaving their family business behind, abandoning everything – livelihood, parents, everything that provided them with a sense of place and identity. They gave everything up to follow Jesus.

They believed the victory announcement. They believed in the gospel. They believed that the armies of God were on the march, and that the king would be returning very soon.

The early church operated under this same sense of urgency. This morning we read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he urges his fellow disciples to regard the present age as the type of order that exists in a conquered city only as a sort of inertia. The former rulers have been defeated in battle; but for a period of time, amidst the confusion, the local officials and police continue to enforce the old laws.

As followers of Jesus, as people who have believed in the gospel of God, we know that – as Paul puts it – “the present form of this world is passing away.”

We have heard and believed the victory announcement, and what a different perspective this gives us! For those who believe in the gospel, we are practically living in a different universe from the vast majority who take the present ordering of society for granted. For Paul’s hearers, this order was the Roman Empire. The power of the legions and the might of the imperial economy. The culture of honor and shame, of rulers and enslaved.

Today, we hear the victory announcement in the context of a waning American empire. We inhabit in a world that depends on the might of NATO and the World Bank, the strength of the dollar, the extractive, fossil-fuel-driven global economy. We live in a city that goes about its normal operations, unable or unwilling to see that God’s triumph has changed everything. Unwilling to repent and believe in the victory announcement.

This past month, I had some health issues that were serious enough that I went into the doctor to get checked out. I really don’t like going to the doctor, so for me to go in meant that I was pretty concerned.

This gave me an opportunity to think quite a bit about my own mortality. About the fact that, one way or another, for me, the present form of this world is most certainly passing away. Whether I live for another fifty years or another five minutes, this life doesn’t go on forever.

It got me thinking. Thinking about what really matters. Got me thinking about how much I love my children, and how I want to be here for them. How I want to raise them to be friends and followers of Jesus. 

I’ve been thinking about the work I do as a servant of the gospel here at Berkeley Friends Church. About my life’s legacy. The legacy that all of us in Berkeley Friends Church might have, when we invite our friends and neighbors to discover the good news of Jesus Christ in these days of great shaking and revealing. I’m thinking about what it looks like for us to be fishers of people.

When I consider my inevitable death, there is so little that truly matters. So much of what occupies my conscious thought melts away as transient silliness. How much money do I have? Am I successful and rewarded at my job? What will the stock market do? Does this or that person like me? How long do I get to live? None of this really matters in the light of eternity. The present form of this world is passing away.

And this is the advice Paul gives us. He says, to quote Princess Elsa from Frozen: “Let it go.”

Are you married? Don’t worry about it. Are you mourning? Don’t get too caught up in it. Are you happy? Don’t let that distract you either. Is business up or down? Don’t get too attached to it. These are not the things that really matter.

Because we live in a city that has just received the victory announcement from the true king. We have learned that the present order has been stripped of all authority. Sure, the city may continue in the status quo for a little while longer, while we wait for the king and his army to arrive from the battlefield. But anything we do in the meantime, anything we build or come to rely on in this old order, is going to be swept away. A new order is coming. It is the only thing worth investing in.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

If this present order were to come to an end this year, if the kingdom of God came with full force, would you be ready? Is your life built on the things that are eternal, or do you have a sandy foundation? 

Are your energies focused on caring for others – tending the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the broken-hearted? Is your life dedicated to sharing the victory announcement, so that everyone has the opportunity to know life – real life – as it truly is, and not missing it chasing this twilight empire that is is crumbling around us?

The early Quakers shared this sense of demanding urgency with the first disciples and the early church. George Fox wrote to his mother and father, warning them not to get lost in the froth and confusion of the present age, but to pay attention to the voice of Christ within them to lead them. He wrote to them these words, which I will sing for you:

Ye have no time, but this present time: therefore prize your time for your souls’ sake.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

We have no time but this present time. There are so many whose hearts are thirsting for the good news of Jesus. Pray that God will tender our hearts to embrace repentance, so that we will become fishers of people.

As followers of Jesus, we are co-bearers of the victory announcement. But ours is not merely the task of announcing the gospel; we are co-heirs with Jesus in enacting it. We are to become fishers of people, drawing others into the same life and power and immediacy that we have discovered. We are not merely to live in freedom from this present age that is passing away; we are to actively participate, now, in the new order that is coming. Our job is to invite others into that new age.

Because the victory is already won. Our king is already triumphant. Jesus Christ is Lord, and the kingdom of God has come near.

The church often seems very comfortable with the idea that the kingdom of God was present for three years during Jesus’ ministry, and then for the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. But after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, it seems like many of us imagine that we have returned to a world that is fundamentally unchanged – still under the administration of the same powers that nailed Jesus to the cross.

But that’s not the truth. The powers have been defeated on the battlefield of Calvary, and we await the arrival of the king.

Are we as the church of Jesus Christ waiting for another victory announcement? Are we waiting for the second coming to start living in the life, power, and kingdom of God?

That’s not what the early church taught in the streets of Jerusalem and the highways of the Roman Empire. That’s not what Paul taught the communities he founded across the ancient world. That’s not the message of the early Quakers, or any other movement of the Holy Spirit that we can point to.

Jesus’ message to us two thousand years ago is still his message to us today: 

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

It’s time to get clear on what really matters. It’s time to re-dedicate our lives to the good news of Jesus Christ. It is time to reorient – to repent – so that we can be effective fishers of people, expanding the circle of God’s love, and teaching others to follow Jesus and become fishers themselves.

We have no time but this present time. The present form of this world is passing away.

Jesus is calling – and maybe not so softly and tenderly this time – Jesus is calling us: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Why Do We Even Believe This Stuff?

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

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Why do we believe any of this stuff?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Meaning of Christmas: We Can Be Like Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is that inheritance. As Paul says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through Jesus, God has become our Father, too.

So where does that leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Love Our Greatest Enemy: Death

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/25/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 12:22-34, and 1 Corinthians 7:25-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I remember back in March, when the pandemic was first getting serious here in California and we all began to lock down. Started working remotely. No more in-person gatherings at church. Trips to the grocery store became a major excursion and involved a lot of waiting in line. Lots of us were wondering if supply chains would break down. We stored up food, just in case.

For me, this was a moment of reflection. On life. On death. On how easily things could all fall apart. I couldn’t take anything for granted. There was a disease out there that could kill me or anyone I loved, any time. Death felt very close. Life was fragile.

As the pandemic has worn on, we’ve adapted. Life goes on. We wear our masks to the grocery store. Remote work becomes the norm for some of us, and others of us learn to take precautions at our in-person workplaces. And as this sense of normality returns, the raw urgency of the moment begins to fade. The routine returns.

For me, that routine has meant that it’s harder, once again, to feel the cold breath of death on my shoulder. It’s easier to pretend that this life stretches on forever, that this day exists as a means to an end: to be rushed through, optimized, leveraged for maximum profit. It’s easy to forget myself, to lose track of the reality that this moment is all we have. Death could come at any time.

Death is always close. And death is no respecter of persons. Babies can die. Children can die. Young people can die. The healthy can die. We are all just one heartbeat away from eternity. Whatever that looks like. We don’t know what it means yet, but we’ll be finding out soon.

Death gets a bad rap in the Christian tradition. In the Hebrew scriptures we learn that death came into the world through the Fall, the first sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. Death is a natural outgrowth of sin – our choice to turn away from God and become our own masters. From this perspective, death and hardship are not natural; they are of human making.

The heart of the gospel is that Christ has come to liberate us from both sin and death. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

So in the view of the Christian church, death is an enemy. Death is the result of sin, and will be abolished when sin is put away. Death is not something to be welcomed, it is an evil to be defeated.

And in many ways, this is true. Death is an evil, because death brings the destruction of life, the destruction of the human personality. Death is the extinguishing of God’s creation, which God meant to be unending and overflowing, full of abundant life, just like God is.

Death came about because of our choice to turn away from God, to seek our own wisdom, and attempt to become little gods ourselves. Death exists because we insisted on having it all, regardless of the consequences, regardless of reality! Death is the consequence. It’s the imposition of reality on our delusions of grandeur and self-worship. Death is an evil that we are forced to endure, but wish we didn’t have to.

And yet, in the context of our own experience of being lost and sinful creatures, death presents itself as a strange sort of friend. Death is an enemy, yes – but perhaps just the sort of enemy we needed. God knew we needed an enemy like death, if we were ever to come home; if we were ever to see the foolishness of our ways and turn back to God.

Death is an enemy who can instruct us, if we will listen.

In CS Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, he paints a picture of the afterlife, both heaven and hell, but he spends a lot of his time describing hell. And rightfully so, because unfortunately hell is something that we can understand a lot better than heaven. We’ve spent the greater part of our lives experiencing it.

CS Lewis describes hell as a place without boundaries, without limits. In hell, if you want a brand new mansion with eighteen bedrooms, a golf course, and an olympic swimming pool, you just have to wish for it. The world of hell is infinite, and you can go anywhere and have anything. Hell is a realm of ultimate wish fulfillment. 

Not what you expected, huh?

At first glance, this sounds nothing like hell. It sounds more like heaven. To have anything we want, whenever we want, however we want it, forever? Wouldn’t that be great? CS Lewis aims to convince us that it would not.

According to Lewis, hell is a place of ultimate suburban sprawl. Hell expands infinitely. Because, since everyone has everything they could ever want or imagine, no one needs anyone else. Every time a person has a disagreement with someone else, or some aspect of their life isn’t “just so,” they can immediately escape. They imagine a new house, a thousand miles away – and poof, they’re gone.

Hell is a place without limits. It’s a place where we are God. And becoming gods, we find that we are demons, fit only to torture ourselves and others. And especially ourselves.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus gives one of his greatest and most challenging commandments: “Do not worry!” Everyone is running around, concerned about making sure they have enough to eat, and drink, and wear. But we easily forget about the most important thing: the kingdom of God, the power and presence of Jesus in his resurrection. 

We forget that this very moment, right now, is bathed in the radiance of eternity. We forget that this is a sacred time, a holy place – not just a means to an end. We imagine that we are waiting for a better day to arrive, a better moment, a better place – but this is all that there is, and it is enough!

Jesus says to us:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Do not be afraid, little flock of Berkeley Friends Church. Give it all away. Feel the cold breath of death on your shoulder. The angel of death is coming to take away everything that seems so important. You can’t take any of it with you. 

The kingdom of God is not a light at the end of the tunnel, far in the future. It is not a commonwealth to build or a paradise to inherit some day. This moment is everything. In the midst of all the stress, struggle, and evil of this present time, this day is shot through with rays of glory. God’s presence dwells with you now. Let tomorrow worry about itself. 

We’ve got no guarantees. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. But we know that God loves us, and that we need one another. As long as we are living in the kingdom of God, and not CS Lewis’ vision of hell, we need one another. We need God’s presence. And that is enough.

This is the appointed time. This is the hour of Christ’s coming.

I do not mean this metaphorically. Jesus is here, resurrected. Jesus is present to teach and guide us. Now is the time to take hold of that resurrection, to come together as friends of Jesus. Because God knows what tomorrow brings. 

As the apostle Paul writes in our scripture reading this morning:

“…brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. Elections and plagues and causes and heartbreak, they are passing away. Death is passing away, too. Because God loves us so much that he sent Jesus, not only to die for us, but to live for us. He is here. He is speaking. Listen to him!

One of the things that Jesus is teaching us is that we have to love our enemies. We have to love those who are destroying our planet and harming the innocent. Jesus calls us to be like God, sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Loving unconditionally. 

And if we have to love those folks, maybe that means we have to love death, too. After all, death is our enemy. Death is the horror that has haunted us as long as people have been people, ever since we chose to turn away from God and follow our own will. We have to love our enemies. 

We have to love everyone, especially our enemies, because we can only see the world clearly when we look at it through the eyes of love. And we need to see this enemy. Death has a lot to teach us about the moment we live in. Death provides clues about how we are to live in this present world, and what it might mean to be participants in the reign of God.

It’s like Jesus says: Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies of the field. They live without fear, provided for by God. They live in love, and they don’t fear death. We can be like them. We don’t have to be afraid.

Death dominates our lives when we seek to avoid it. We deny death psychologically, refusing to remain conscious of our own finitude. We deny death with our actions, doing everything we can to protect ourselves. For our ancestors in the garden, that first took the form of covering their nakedness. 

These days, we seek to protect ourselves in much more sophisticated ways. Health insurance, 401ks, standing armies, and nuclear arsenals. The kingdoms of this world are built on fear and rooted in denial of death.

Jesus invites us out of this hell world. Jesus reassures us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

As the apostle Paul reminds us, the appointed time has grown short. The kingdom of God has drawn near. Now is the time to live without reference to this fearful society we inhabit. He urges us to practice non-attachment to the ways and priorities of this human empire we live in, because “the present form of this world is passing away.”

Perfect love casts out all fear, and total dependence on God makes us utterly free with regard to the rules and anxieties of this world. 

Berkeley Friends Church – little flock – let go of your fear. Let your light shine on friends and enemies alike, even death! It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

A Quaker Testimony Against Netflix?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/11/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Exodus 32:1-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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We are living in a golden age of TV. I’m old enough to remember back when you actually had to turn the television on at a particular time if you wanted to catch your favorite show. And if you missed it, you’d have to wait until it was on reruns.

Now, everything is at your fingertips. Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Disney+ – everything streaming, on-demand, immediate.

And it’s so good. Let’s be real. There’s more good TV coming out every year or two right now than came out in whole decades in the age of traditional TV.

We are living in a golden age of TV, and I’m loving it. Especially during this pandemic. I’m probably spending an average of an hour or two a night streaming a show or a movie. After work is done and the kids are off to bed, it’s such a relief to just turn my mind off, lay back on the couch and watch some of the best entertainment the world has ever seen.

Entertainment is the name of the game. It’s not just TV and movies. Social media, of course, is an extremely potent and addictive form of entertainment. How many of us have found ourselves scrolling through your social media feed, liking and sharing things, flitting from post to post, only to wake up an hour later, astonished at the time that has just disappeared?

Entertainment. That’s where it’s at. Video games. When I was a kid in the mid to late nineties, the best video games were things like Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo and Sim City 2000 on PC. Those games were amazing, and consumed countless hours of my childhood. But they look like digital chicken scratch by comparison with the depth and quality and sheer number of digital titles we have access to today.

Video games today are deeply immersive. Some of them feel like being inside a movie. Others are social, and become like a second job for many of the players. It’s easy to spend twenty hours a week in the game world, and many of us spend far, far more than that. Especially now, in an age of economic desperation, chronic unemployment and under-employment, millions of people are getting their sense of place, their sense of accomplishment and status, from massive multiplayer online video games.

Entertainment. It’s amazing. It’s so good. We love it, right? Who doesn’t have their favorite delivery system? Who among us can live without the sweet release of digital entertainment?

Certainly not me.

Have any of you read the book or watched the movie Ready Player One? It’s set in the near-future, in 2045, where the earth is a sprawling wasteland of ecological destruction and growing poverty, while the super-rich gate themselves away in fortified enclaves.

In this world of climate destruction, massive income inequality, and loss of any meaningful government beyond profit motives of corporations, most regular people spend their lives plugged into virtual reality. The real world is a total nightmare, so billions of people – everyone who can possibly afford to – escapes to a better world, inside a digital fantasy land called the OASIS.

I remember when I first read the book shortly after it came out, back in 2011, the author’s vision seemed a little far-fetched. Certainly on the wacky side of the possible.

Doesn’t sound too implausible now, does it? Sounds downright prophetic to me.

Our society is falling apart – politically, economically, ecologically – and billions of us spend our leisure time plugged into various modes of electronic entertainment, engaged with ersatz worlds that are easier, more beautiful, and more satisfying than the real world we inhabit.

When was the last time you felt sustained boredom? Not just for a minute, but for hours, or even days?

I remember boredom. I remember it vividly. It was one of the primary experiences of my childhood. I was bored all the time. I was constantly looking for some outlet, some way to engage my frustrated imagination and express myself. To discover, to explore the world around me. To make sense of it all and gain a sense of mastery over my environment.

I read tons of fiction and non-fiction. I sketched. I made music. I wrote poetry. I tried to write a novel at the age of 12. (It was awful.) I got politically engaged and worked to get a socialist candidate for president on the ballot in Kansas. I yearned. It hurt.

I haven’t been bored in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I endured boredom for an entire hour, much less a day. Always at my fingertips are streaming entertainment, social media, an endless series of pithy articles to read, immersive video games to play.

The moment the itch of boredom sets in on me, I can reach for my phone. My laptop. The TV remote. The OASIS is at my beck and call. I don’t have to endure this world we live in, with its slow progress and frustrations. Out here, I am so weak and small, but in the OASIS, in the digital world, I can be whoever I want. I don’t have to feel bad. I don’t have to ask permission. I don’t have to wait. I can have it all now.

When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet with God, he was gone for forty days and forty nights. That is to say, he was away for a really long time.

Moses was the leader of the Hebrews. He was their prophet. He was the messenger from God who told them what they needed to do and where they should go. It was Moses who spoke on their behalf to Pharaoh. It was Moses who led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness of Sinai.

But now Moses was gone. Not just for a day or two, but for a long time – more than a month. People started getting nervous. People’s minds started to wander. People got bored.

So they went to Aaron, the man that Moses had left in charge while he was away. And they said to Aaron:

“Hey, Aaron: Moses has been away for a really long time. We’re not sure where he’s off to, but that storm has been raging on top of the mountain since before he left. Maybe he fell off a cliff. Maybe God struck him with lightning Zeus-style. Maybe he ran away. We don’t know. But bottom line is, we’ve got to do something.

We’re aimless. We don’t have a sense of direction anymore. We’re bored. So we’ve got an idea. Since we don’t have Moses to follow anymore, why don’t we make some images of gods to lead us forward. They can show us the way, just like Moses did. If Moses can mediate God to us, maybe some beautiful images can do the same.

We know the Caananites have Baal, the bull god. That seems to be working out pretty well for them. Maybe you can make us a bull, too. Bulls are a sign of strength, and we need some strength right now, if we are going to make it through the wilderness.

So make us some gods, Aaron, to show us how to follow the LORD. Moses is gone, and we’re bored. Give us something to do!”

Now, you would expect Aaron, as Mose’s right-hand man, to put up some sort of objection. But to our surprise, he immediately goes along with the demands of the people. He tells them to gather up all their valuables made out of gold, all the petty wealth they had brought with them out of Egypt. Aaron fashions it into a golden calf. A bull. A sign of power and strength.

And Aaron unveiled the golden calf to the people and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” And he built an altar for the calf – a site where the people could come and worship – and he declared that the next day would be a festival to the LORD.

I find this really interesting. Because most of us, when we think of the story of the golden calf, we imagine that this was a complete abandonment of God by the Hebrews in the desert. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Aaron made the calf, and set it up at a site for worship, but then announced a festival to the LORD, the same LORD that Moses had gone to meet up on Mount Sinai.

It seems that the calf wasn’t really meant to be a replacement for God, it was meant to be a replacement for Moses.

The calf was more exciting than Moses. It was present while he was absent. It offered them a chance to perform tasks and religious ritual. The calf relieved anxiety and boredom. It told them that everything would be OK, and it gave them agency to be able to improve their situation without having to wait for Moses endlessly in the wilderness.

And so it says that the people, “rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” And it seems the the word that is translated here as “to play” or “to revel” has a sexual connotation. It is very likely that this is referring to sexual orgies, which were quite common in Canaanite religious practice in those days.

Who says worship can’t be fun? Am I right?

This is really interesting. Because this means that Aaron and the people thought they could worship God while ignoring God’s plan. They thought they could create a world of their own choosing, a world that was more psychologically safe for them, a world of bulls and strength, a world of wealth and fertility and sexualized religious rites. A world where they could make God in their own image.

And we can relate to this, can’t we? Because we, too, like to be entertained. We, too, believe that we can follow the God of Moses and Jesus while also conforming ourselves to the practices of the culture around us. We think we are Christians, followers of Jesus, inheritors of the promise, lovers of God. But where is the evidence in how we spend our time?

If I were to do a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, I would say I spend probably two to three times more time watching streaming TV than I do reading the Bible and participating in worship. If I were to count all of the entertainment activities that I engage in – TV, social media, games, entertainment masquerading as “news” – the ratio would be much worse.

Are you in the same boat as me? Am I an outlier? Are the rest of you spending more time in prayer and Bible study than you are in entertainment? If that’s the case, then praise God, and pray for me!

But I don’t think so. I think most of us are a lot like the Hebrews in the wilderness. We’re in uncomfortable, unfamiliar territory. We’ve been forced out of the familiarity of Egypt: America-as-usual. We’re looking for anything to hold onto. 

In these circumstances, we are very susceptible to the lure of the Canaanite culture around us. The golden bull of Wall Street. The orgies of Netflix and Facebook. Pouring our wealth and attention into frivolous things rather than the service of God and neighbor. “These are your gods, O Israel.”

We are a lot like the Hebrews. We think that we can embrace both God and the calf. Both the way of Jesus and the culture that surrounds us. We think that we can walk that line. We say, with the little girl from the El Paso hard and soft taco commercial, Por qué no los dos? Why not have both?

Why not?

Moses is here this morning to tell us that we cannot hide behind our entertainments any longer. The LORD is here this morning to say that we have to choose between the illusions of this world and the reality that God sees. We are called to embrace the discomfort and boredom that comes from living in the wilderness with God. Because that’s what it means to live as finite creatures in the real world.

George Fox is here with us this morning, too. The early Quakers had something to say about entertainment and distraction. 

A lot of us today are familiar with the Peace Testimony, and the values of simplicity, equality, integrity, stewardship, community, and so on. But the old Quakers had a lot more testimonies than these, and they weren’t general principles. They got very specific. 

One of these testimonies was their testimony against vain and worldly amusements. Early Quakers would not attend plays. They would not gamble. They would not participate in sporting events. They most definitely would not have watched Netflix.

Now, that’s not to say that we all need to stop watching any TV, or playing any games, or participating in any sports. The early Quakers weren’t right about everything. And you’ve probably noticed that this sermon is full of movie references. There is room in God’s world for creativity, art, theater, and fun.

But we can’t allow these things to distract us from the truth. We must not fall into the trap that the surrounding culture has laid for us, to draw us into entertainment as an alternative reality to be immersed in. 

God gave us creativity so that we could engage more fully with the cosmos that God has made, so that we could become co-creators with him. Unfortunately, this society that we live in has twisted our God-given creativity, using it to construct a false reality that numbs our hearts and blinds us to the truth.

God is calling us to turn away from the systems of entertainment that this world uses to keep us pacified. The rulers of this world have created a whole system of entertainment to keep us disconnected and powerless. They’ve forged a new sort of golden calf to provide us with false comfort, to keep us plugged into the Matrix and ignorant of the Desert of the Real.

Whether we like it or not, we do live in that desert. The golden trinkets of vain and worldly amusements have no power to deliver, only to distract and diminish.

This morning, we stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. We’re waiting to hear God’s word together. And even now, the temptation to distraction is with us. Our hands itch for our telephones, and all our false gods.

What would it mean for us to wait on Moses to come back down the mountain? What would it look like for us to reject the false idols of passive entertainment? What would it look like to turn away from syncretism and compromise with the surrounding culture; the voice that insists that we can follow God while also participating in the false worships of this world?

The good news is, we are not alone in this wilderness. If we will look up from our false gods for a moment. If we put away the screens. If we will turn off the stream of easy wins, dopamine hits, and fantasies, we will see real people – our brothers and sisters in Israel – standing here with us. We will see life as it really is, and say together with God who created it: “This is good.”

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

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

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

Beautiful, right? Beautiful.

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

What is love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect love casts out all fear. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

God. So. Loves. The world. 

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

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

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

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

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

Is that hard for you? It is for me.

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

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

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

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

In this context, John has news for us.

First, here’s the bad news: 

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

But there is good news, too: 

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

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

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

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

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