The Old, Old Story

Scripture: 1Corinthians 15:1-11

Forgetting

Have you ever forgotten something really important?

A doctor’s appointment?

A meet-up with a friend?

A school project or paper?

A bill?

There is something ubiquitous about forgetting important things. We’ve all done it. And we all know that panic that comes with remembering and realizing this failure and its gravity in our life and relationships.

Busyness & Forgetfulness

I’d like to blame it on our addiction to busyness. Various researchers have concluded that we now have more irons in the fire than perhaps ever before. And that constant activity—that constant engagement—that constant busyness has far-reaching and negative health and wellness consequences.

But the reality is that we did not only recently begin to forget important things. I believe that we have been created by God to live in the present, and that our forgetfulness comes from our attempts to live rather in the future or to remain in the past.

It may in fact be the biggest and most important things in our life that we are most likely to “forget”—or at least neglect.

How many marriages have atrophied because of pressing concerns that took away from the spouses’ investment in each other?

How many children have stunted relationships with a parent because of that parent’s focus on work, getting ahead, and providing a better life for their family?

How much of our relationship with Jesus takes a backseat to the more mundane concerns of life in this world?

There’s an expression we sometimes use—we “forget ourselves,” we say—meaning that we have lost track of our core priorities…… of the things that matter most to us. 

We can recognize—at least cognitively—that things like our marriage and family relationships and our relationship with Christ are among the most important realities in our lives, and yet…… Yet they are among the first that are neglected.

It may be they are neglected because they are obvious.

It may be they are neglected because our closeness leads us to believe that these relationships can survive a level of inattention. 

It may be that we just get distracted and deceived into priorities that are vastly different than the ones we would cognitively set—or that were demonstrated for us by Jesus.

Sometimes, we just need that gentle nudge—that reminder of what we already know and believe and think. That reminder of what we have, perhaps, forgotten at some functional level.

To the Scripture Text

That’s where Paul begins with the Corinthian church in today’s scripture lesson. There is nothing new here. If anything, Paul is taking them back to their elementary-age Sunday School class. He’s giving the children’s sermon, knowing (then as now) that it is often the adults that get as much or more out of it than do the kids themselves.

“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters,
of the good news that I proclaimed to you,
which you in turn received,
in which also you stand,
through which also you are being saved”
(1Corinthians 15:1–2 NRSV)

What Paul—that great speaker, that master of rhetoric and debate, that dynamic catalyst of the missionary movement of the early church, that rhetorician able to stand toe to toe with anyone of his age—what Paul effectively does in the verses that follow is simply tell “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

The Story

Long ago, in ways that are both obvious to us and mysterious to us, God entered the world. 

God didn’t look like we expected……
didn’t appear where we expected……
didn’t do what we expected……

And yet……
The reality of God’s heart and being was more accurately portrayed than anything we could have expected.

I am talking about Jesus, of course. 

 

From the perspectives of culture and philosophy and sociology and psychology and even the more truthy perspectives that drive so much human behavior, it was all wrong.

But the scriptures say that Jesus entered the world “at the right time” (1Timothy 2:6). Or to quote Paul as he writes to the church at Galatia: 

“But 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.” (Galatians 4:4–5 NRSV)

In more grown-up terms, Paul speaks this old, old story in Colossians, where we read:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20 NRSV)

Or still again: as the reality of Christ is described in the old creeds:

“I believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God;
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father,
by whom all things were made.” (Nicene Creed)

All of this, of course, is mysterious to us—in the sense that we cannot comprehend how the God who created the world actually entered it, and chose to do so with such humility. We can only confess this reality—and recognize that if God chose to do it this way, it must be the only way it could be done if God’s purposes for creation are to be fulfilled. 

Real Reality

But more to the point for Paul in 1Corinthians 15 is the historical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s why all these eyewitnesses are invoked. 

Jesus—as Paul tells the Corinthians—was really real. And among the incredible things he has done for us, Jesus died for our sins, thereby opening up new possibilities for life with God in the here and now, as well as the ever-after. 

Though Jesus did die and was buried—like any other human being—he (quite unlike any other human being!) did not stay dead, because there is nothing (not even death!) that can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). 

There is no obstacle that can appear in this mortal life that the God who brought all things into being cannot overcome. 

There is no brokenness or death that cannot be reconciled through the power of the Kingdom that Jesus announces is available to us right now.

But the story doesn’t stop there…… because this isn’t just a fairy tale. It is true reality.

Can I Have a Witness?

This resurrected Jesus—fully and newly enlivened in the Kingdom of God—was seen by…… well… everybody it seems. 

To Peter (and of course to the women at the tomb even before then!)

To the Twelve, the group we call the “disciples,” even though Jesus clearly had disciples numbering far in excess of this inner-circle.

Then there was that time when Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at once—a story which, despite being noteworthy enough that Paul heard about it, apparently wasn’t included in any of the four gospels.

Then to James, and then to the rest of the apostles, which Paul certainly intends to be a larger (and seemingly altogether different) group than the Twelve.

Finally, in a post-Ascension appearance, Jesus was witnessed by Paul himself.

Expired Witnesses

Now in some ways, we could easily gloss over this list of witnesses, much as we often do the 2000 intervening years between them and us. After all, unlike Paul’s immediate hearers we cannot chase these sources down and hear their stories—not anymore.

But there remains something of great importance here for us too, as we consider the old, old story that Paul tells and that we confess. We should not miss the fact that Paul was offering verifiable proof of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. 

We human beings have trouble believing in invisible things. I don’t think that was always the case, but it certainly is in these post-enlightenment, post-modern, post-Christian, (to-often) post-traumatic times.

It’s hard to accept as real something that our normal five senses cannot help us grasp. Especially something like: God’s present Kingdom, for instance.

After all, that is really what’s being testified to by these people. In experiencing the resurrected Jesus, what they actually offer is factual evidence for what Jesus called the Kingdom of the Heavens—that invisible-yet-very-real reign of God which is available to us through Jesus, and which enables a life of blessedness and meaning and value beginning right now.

Their testimony matters because they were able to experience with their five senses something that most of us cannot. 

They were able to experience as real something that most of us struggle to see as reality.

And so even though we cannot interview them and fact-check their testimonies personally, what they offer demonstrates to those who believe (all over again) the reality of the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

Our Experiences

Now……

While most-if-not-all-of-us have not had an identical experience to that of these witnesses, we disciples of Jesus today do believe because we have had experiences of our own. 

We do offer testimony of a living Christ and a loving God and an active Spirit that has brought us into the Kingdom rule—at times (perhaps) despite our apparent attempts to avoid such things. 

Though our experiences may not be able to be verified in the same sorts of ways as these early witnesses:

Our experiences too testify to the very real reality of Christ’s Kingdom and its power. 

They too bear witness of the invisible things in which we struggle to believe. 

They too reinforce and nurture that mustard seed of faith that has begun to grow in each of our lives. 

It is the old, old story…… lived all over again.

That, after all, is the task of those who would be disciples of Jesus: to live the life of Christ in our present setting—to the best of our abilities and as empowered and transformed by the love of God and the Kingdom of Christ.

By recounting the old, old story and our place in it, we remember together that the life of Christ really is that easy. As Jesus beckoned two thousand years ago, so he beckons still:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28, 30 NRSV)

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Experiencing God

Scripture: Psalm 71:1-6

A Challenging Week

It’s been one of those weeks. We’ve struggled against extreme weather. Several members of my own family have been quite ill, and I’ve needed to be a caregiver to them. And on top of it, I received a call to do a funeral, which took place yesterday.

It’s been one of those weeks that has left me feeling ill-prepared and under-equipped for this moment—the sermon. And this is a moment that some—rightly or wrongly—see as the most important task of my wide and varied job description.

But it’s not as though there hasn’t been preparation—through my own intent or through God’s abundant provision. Whether I realized it at the time or not, the words of this psalm have been echoing through me this week, as I have myself felt run down, overwhelmed, and even at times attacked.

Experiencing God

As I was reflecting and writing yesterday, I realized that God was preparing me through far more profound means. I anticipated writing a sermon based on this psalm about experiencing God. But God was focused on leading me through an experience of God that paralleled this psalm. That’s quite a difference.

“In you, O LORD, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me. 

Be to me a rock of refuge,
a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.” (Psalm 71:1–3 NRSV) 

Maybe… (I have come to believe)…… maybe preaching about experiencing God wasn’t in the cards for this week. After all, many times in faith what we need is not to learn some new thing, but to be reminded of the thing we have known for some time.

What is it like to experience God as refuge? to find yourself somehow strangely secured in a fortress of the Great Another’s making?

You’ve experienced this. I’ve heard some of your stories. 

Think about your close calls…… your near misses…… 

Think about the dangers you anticipated that never materialized. 

Think about those things you worried about that ended up being nothing.

But remember too the very real dangers you experienced. That aggressive person. That car accident. That time you were lost in a strange place. 

You know what the refuge of God feels like because you’ve been there.

You know what it’s like (v.4) to pray for rescue. You know what it’s like to be threatened by unjust and cruel people and systems. You know these things because you’ve been there…… and you’ve told me and one other of how the presence and power of God saw you through.

Telling of the Experience

This is a psalm about experiencing God. It tries to put into words what it feels like when God comes through for you. 

But in my experience, it doesn’t seem to matter what words we use, they never feel quite enough, do they? Even when we try to testify to God’s action in our life, it never seems that we are able to communicate the depths of what we really feel—what we really experienced.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. As the scriptures tell over and over, there will always be those who are not disposed to hearing. Repeatedly in the New Testament, we encounter stories that look to us as unexplainably miraculous, yet the scriptures speak of persons who were present and who dismissed these displays of God’s Kingdom power as unremarkably mundane or even negative things.

Those Needing to Hear

But there are always others in those stories too—and in our stories. 

Others who are hurting. 

Others who are chewed up by life. 

Others who are disadvantaged by the system. 

Others who are aching for the slightest glimmer of hope.

Others who need to hear the testimony of people like you and I—testimony that speaks of God’s presence, God’s goodness, God’s compassion, God’s provision, God’s protection, God’s healing, and all the other ways that God demonstrates love and power.

Fishers of Folk

Sometimes in churches today I think we forget who we’re fishing for. We are quick to bait our line for those monster catches—you know, those young families of the middle- and upper-class. You catch one of those and it makes a big difference in the energy and resources that flow into your congregation. But there’s also a lot of fishing pressure for this species, and they’re shy to bite.

And yet there are thousands of un-fished-for folk practically swarming around us. Landing them may not bring as much prestige. They may not look like they have much to contribute. In fact, it may seem that they will absorb more resources than they will ever be able to contribute…… which (of course) is why so few churches “fish” for them.

But what is it Jesus said in Mark 2:17?

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (NRSV)

It’s the Pharisee leaders that Jesus is speaking to and about here; they are the ones who “have no need of a physician”—or at least they think they don’t. 

In their society, they are the ones who look like they’ve got it all together, who are respectable, who have some resources, and who are the “catch of the day.”

But in case you need a reminder, Jesus does not spend the bulk of his time trying to recruit the Pharisees to his mission. Instead, he spends the bulk his time with people that the Pharisees thought were the zeros of his world. 

The Beatitudes

In fact, this is how the Sermon on the Mount begins—with the shocking revelation that even the nothings of the world have equal value, and access to the Kingdom.

Dallas Willard begins his paraphrase of the Beatitudes like this:

“Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’—when the kingdom of the heavens comes upon them.” (The Divine Conspiracy, p.100).

In his Cotton Patch Gospel, Clarence Jordan follows a similar path:

“The spiritually humble are God’s people,
for they are citizens of his new order.

They who are deeply concerned are God’s people,
for they will see their ideas become reality.

They who are gentle are his people,
for they will be his partners across the land.

They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people,
for they will be given plenty to chew on.

The generous are God’s people,
for they will be treated generously.

Those whose motives are pure are God’s people,
for they will have spiritual insight.

Men of peace and good will are God’s people,
for they will be known throughout the land as his children.

Those who have endured much for what’s right are God’s people;
they are citizens of his new order.”

You see, these un-fished-for folk are the ones who need to experience God. They are the ones who—to be blunt—end up being most amenable to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and why? Because they realize they can’t do it on their own. They realize they need some help to get through. They know they haven’t done everything right—or even anything to deserve favor or kindness—and so experiencing the compassion and love of God through the Body of Christ is revelatory…… it is revolutionary. It’s like…… being born again.

And that’s what all this faith-in-Jesus stuff is about, really. It’s about discovering that the kingdom life available to us through Jesus begins in the present, and continues uninterrupted by physical death into a “forever after” with the God who loves us.

That was the content of Jesus’ first sermon, and that was the revolutionary thrust of the early church.

Transforming Experience

But it was never an idea that changed anyone’s mind. It has always been an experience that mattered—an experience of God. 

That experience is what transforms us in ways that we could not change on our own. 

That experience is what fuels us to live out the radical commitment of love that is a hallmark of the Kingdom. 

And that experience is the one and only thing that will ever convince anyone of the reality of God, Christ, and his Kingdom.

Prayer

Let us pray.

God, we thank you for your love,
a love most fully experienced
through Jesus the Christ,
who demonstrated his love for us
by entering this world,
and by dying that we might have life.

We thank you for your abundant provision,
your oft-unseen protection,
and your omnipresent availability and presence.

Draw us deeper into experience of you,
that we might be transformed into your likeness,
sharing your heart and mind,
by submitting to your rule in our lives;
so that through our transformation and testimony,
others will be drawn
into their own life-changing experience of you.

To you be the glory and the honor and the praise forever, Amen.

Demonstrating Grace

Scripture: Luke 4:14-21

Intro: Translation & Context

Translation matters.

In case you need a reminder, the bible was not written in English—neither that of King Jimmy, nor that of your uncle Jimmy. It was written in ancient Hebrew and Greek (and some Aramaic), and even these ancient languages are quite distant from their modern counterparts. Some of you may recall encountering Beowulf in a high school English class and discovering that Old English might as well be a different language entirely—which, in some ways, it is. The same goes for these ancient versions of more modern languages.

All that means that the bible that most of us read on a daily (or occasional) basis has undergone translation in order to get it into a form that is accessible to us. 

Translation is, of course, of great benefit in that it gets the bible into the hands of everyone who can read. But with translation comes interpretation—it simply cannot be helped. And here at the start of our scripture reading, I can’t help but think that the translators may have lost something important—or at least: they did not choose to make something important stand out.

Jesus’ Pentecost

You see, when Luke speaks of Jesus and the Spirit in the opening verse of our scripture lesson (slide with multiple translations), he builds on a movement in Jesus’ life that he has been underscoring since Jesus’ beginning. 

At the onset of Jesus’ ministry, he has what we might call a Pentecost moment. In Luke’s second volume (which we call “The Acts of the Apostles”), Luke will talk about the Holy Spirit coming upon the early church. The Spirit rushed among them like “a violent wind” (Acts 2:2 NRSV), and “rested on each of them” (v.3). Luke then tells us that the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit” (v.4), and that everything that follows is because of this abiding presence of the Spirit. 

Of course, Jesus told them before he left that with the presence of the Spirit comes power (Acts 1:8), and Acts tells the story of how this power is wielded by the early church to great effect (cf. Acts 8 & Simon, which we discussed the last two weeks).

All of this Pentecost and Spirit-power stuff is paralleled in the life of Jesus himself. Back in Luke chapter 3, Jesus submits to the waters of baptism. And just as in the Pentecost story later on, the Spirit “descends upon him” (Luke 3:22 NRSV). 

The result of this is that the first verse of chapter 4 describes Jesus as “full of the Holy Spirit,” a status that Jesus did not previously have—but one that is desperately needed to face the difficult physical, emotional, and spiritual temptations and trials that characterize that first part of chapter 4. 

So then—continuing to parallel the Pentecost story (or perhaps that story parallels this one?)—our scripture lesson begins by referencing that now—NOW, after baptism, after the coming of the Spirit, and after a time of testing—now Jesus is described as being “in the power of the Spirit” (NIV; KJV) or being “filled with the power of the Spirit” (NRSV).

Jesus Needs This Spirit-Power

Hereupon lies the challenge of translation. What might be most literal here is not all that accurate—not in terms of what Luke is trying to communicate. Because what Luke insists upon is that Jesus—in the fullness of his humanity—is only able to do what he does and be who he is because of power of the Spirit that is with him.

The incarnate Jesus does not have endless reserves of magical strength.

He is not able to do anything apart from God.

I realize this sounds like Pastor Michael went all radical and rogue again, but this is exactly what Jesus says about himself in John 5:19:

“Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19 NRSV)

The Rhythm

When we read the gospel story of Jesus’ life, a certain rhythm emerges. It’s almost like a dance, really. Engagement and retreat. Engagement and retreat.

Jesus goes from baptism to retreat in the wilderness where he faces temptation.

This wilderness time is followed (Luke 4:14-15) by a time of teaching, including (further in our scripture text) the proclamation in the synagogue of Nazareth of the kind of ministry he would be carrying out—back to the engagement of service and active ministry.

As Luke 4 comes to a close, after a number of healings and other wieldings of Kingdom power, Jesus “departed and went into a deserted place” (Luke 4:42 NRSV)——withdrawing to reconnect and refill.

After calling the first disciples and performing more healings and teachings, Jesus retreated again. In fact, the way Luke 5:16 is worded in Greek, it communicates that this retreating was a habitual pattern in his life.

The pattern continues throughout Luke’s gospel, but it is apparent in the other gospels as well. Early in Mark’s account, we read that “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35 NRSV). It seems that Mark intends us to see this as a daily pattern in Jesus’ life.

The Spirt Tank

All signs in scripture suggest this to be the rhythm by which Jesus lived his extraordinary-yet-ordinary life—empty self in service, and retreat to refill…… dispense the kingdom power, and reconnect with it. 

Author Gary Chapman has popularized the image of a “love tank” in his books on marriage relationships. For those who might be unfamiliar, Chapman encourages us to imagine we have something like a fuel tank that is filled when we experience love. Similarly,this “love tank” gets emptied through our expressions of love and our encounters in life.

Jesus’ life rhythm communicates very clearly to us that we have a “Spirit tank” that operates much the same way. When we dip into God’s kingdom power and God’s joyful presence, this “Spirit tank” is filled. When we do the kinds of things that Jesus taught—love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, care for those most vulnerable, and so on—when we do these things, we expend that Spirit-power that we obtained from God’s heavenly kingdom. 

Just. like. Jesus.

The gospels are clear that Jesus routinely returned to the deep well of the Kingdom to refill and reorient to God’s ways. Yet it seems so few of Christ’s followers believe they require such help. And those who do see the necessity of this rhythm too often do not really know how to access the living waters of the Kingdom of the Heavens.

Demonstrating Grace

But don’t be deceived into thinking of this only in terms of the BIG THINGS that Jesus does—the healings, the miracles, etc. Jesus is sustained and enabled by this power to live out the more mundane (but just as challenging!) dimensions of the life of faith.

Take our scripture lesson, for instance. In v.22 we see that what amazes people is not some impressive and unexplainable embodiment of Kingdom power, but rather Jesus’ “gracious words.”

Forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the definition of “gracious” is “showing grace” or “demonstrating grace.” Jesus speech demonstrated grace—and this was a cause of amazement.

 

For this reason alone, I believe this is a text is one worth going back to again and again. We ourselves (as you well know) live a world where discourse is rarely civil. Speech that is far from gracious permeates our political climate, our social engagements, our youth culture, our news media, and virtually every other avenue of life. We have built a world that is fermenting in hate, and then we act surprised at the obvious result.

To utilize speech that demonstrates grace is as shocking today as it was back in Jesus’ day.

The Tongue

The scriptures often speak of the tongue (symbolizing speech) and its destructive capabilities. A few (of many possible) examples:

Speaking of those who harm him, the psalmist says that his enemies “whet their tongues like swords” and “aim bitter words like arrows.” (Psalm 64:3 NRSV)

The proverbs perhaps offer us more material to work with here than anywhere else. Proverbs 18:21, for instance, insists that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:21 NRSV)

Of course (and as you would expect) the New Testament picks up this theme as well. Jesus in Matthew 5 reminds us that we can murder people with our words (vv.21-22).

But it is James, however, that perhaps offers the strongest caution (and condemnation) of the dangers of un-gracious speech. In the first chapter of that work, he says:

“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (James 1:26 NRSV)

Later in chapter 3, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, which (despite its diminutive size) manages to steer the whole ship. He says: 

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:5–10 NRSV)

Back to the Fount

“This ought not to be so.”

Here is where we come back to the Luke 4 text and the rhythm of Jesus’ life: We must recognize that cannot do this all by ourselves. 

Our lives as followers of Jesus—as disciples learning to live under his rule and in his Kingdom—our lives are to demonstrate grace analogous to how Jesus himself demonstrated grace. 

But even Jesus could not do this under his own power. 

Even Jesus needed to regularly refill his Spirit tank in order to conduct himself with grace and compassion. 

Even Jesus needed to access that Kingdom-power that enabled him to submit his rule to that of the Father—to trust (in the end) that God’s ways really are better than our own.

If Jesus could not “be Jesus” to the world without God’s help, how do we dare expect to be able to confront hate with love, to embody peace amidst violence, to “cast out fear,” or any of the multitudinous other things that Jesus is about: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, and announcing the present reign of God (to name a few).

 

No one can love their enemy without relying solely on the power of the Kingdom.

No one.

 

To simply try harder and expect success is to fall into the trap of the Pharisees.

They are the ones Jesus is critiquing in John 6:63 when he says “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63 NRSV).

The flesh is useless; trying harder on your own won’t get you anywhere.

But the Spirit gives life—transforming and enabling new and otherwise impossible possibilities for life—real life—both now and in the great Beyond.

Because the kingdom of the heavens is at hand. It is now already accessible. The power that enabled and fueled Jesus’ own life and ministry is available even (and already) to you and I today. 

We need only to submit to Jesus’ rule in order to discover how truly wonderful those words of life really are……and how deeply they matter for the real life of the here and now.

The Irony of Simon Magnus

Scripture: Psalm 36:5-10

Simon Magnus

This reading from the Psalms is a kind of response to last week’s story, even though it chronologically precedes it. I get a sense that it sort of logically follows the story of the Samaritan mission, and particularly the story around Simon Magnus (that we discussed last week). We might (perhaps) even imagine that this psalm was used by the apostles as part of their response to and correction of Simon’s misguided desires. 

To remind you, the Samaritan mission of the early church is recorded in Acts 8. There’s been a crackdown on the Jesus movement, and many of the apostles are forced to flee their homes and community and seek refuge among both neighboring- (and further flung) nations and cultures. And as much because they can’t help it as anything else, all along the way they proclaim this amazing, life-changing, reality-affecting, deeply present reality of the Kingdom of God.

Philip (as one example) ends up in Samaria, where many are attracted to this genuinely good news. There are all sorts of healings and miraculous signs that demonstrate the reality and power of Christ’s present kingdom. But the Spirit does not come upon them the way it did in Jerusalem.

So up come Peter and John to help sort this out. With them present, and for reasons not fully explained in the text, the Spirit then moves further among the Samaritan church in yet again a powerful and undeniable way.

One of those Samaritans was called Simon Magnus, and he was what we might today call a magician. For some time he had worked wonders that impressed and amazed. But when Philip came to town, Simon too became convinced of the reality of Jesus and this Kingdom life, and even he experienced the transforming love of God. 

But he was soooo impressed by this transformation that the presence of the Spirit wrought in their midst, that he sought to wield this amazing power himself. He tried to buy it as if it were some kind of commodity, and was resoundingly rebuked for falling into such temptation. The story ends with Simon’s repentance, but it leaves us wondering how Paul Harvey would tell the rest of the story.

Psalm 36

Psalm 36 exposes the irony implicit in Simon’s story—the irony that he sought to purchase what is, in fact, fully and freely available to all.

“Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O LORD. 

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” (Psalm 36:5–7 NRSV)

Who is it that is able to experience these amazing qualities of God and incredible consequences of life in Him?…… “All people”

But I think it is important that the psalm clarifies “all people may“…… “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”

It does not say all people do……

It does not say all people must……

It says all people may…… Because: The possibility is there for all; but all must accept it.

You see, God is a god who creates possibility, not one who forces through compulsion.

Choices

One of the mysteries of the Christian faith is that the kind of realm God wants to create can only……only……come into being through free choice and volunteered love and loyalty. As incredible, overwhelming, and powerful as is the love of God, it is somehow restrained in such a way that leaves room for our own freely made choices—including the choices to accept God’s rule or to reject it.

In Psalm 36, like in so many other wisdom texts, a polarization of these two choices is offered:

One can choose to take refuge in God—as indicated in v.7—or else one rejects that refuge and becomes vulnerable to a host of threats.

One can choose to feast at God’s table (v.8a)—or one’s choice will lead to all sorts of famine in life.

One can choose to drink from the overwhelming plenty of the Living Water (v.8b)—or one remains susceptible to drought and a dry, desert life. 

One can choose to side with the “fountain of life” (v.9a)—or else choose death.

With God there is light (v.9b)—and without we remain in darkness.

 

And to that point, I find the expression here remarkable: “In your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9b NRSV). We don’t even really know what light is without God’s graceful empowerment. 

Author Dallas Willard illustrates this with the image of flying an airplane. There was a news story he encountered wherein a jet pilot was practicing maneuvers and accidentally flew straight into the ground—unaware that she had been flying upside down. Reflecting on this, he says:

“This is a parable of human existence in our times—not exactly that everyone is crashing, though there is enough of that—but most of us as individuals, and world society as a whole, live at high speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right side up.” (Divine Conspiracy, 2)

“In your light we see light.” In God, we discover which way is up, and thereby are enabled to truly live and thrive.

Wrap Up

As our scripture reading comes to a conclusion, we are offered an important reminder. You see, rather than expect all these blessings because we think we deserve them as “Christians,” or expect them because “that’s just who God is,” verse 10 encourages us to continue to reach for them…… to reach into them.

The Kingdom of God is not yet fulfilled, but it is already here; it is already available. That is Jesus’ message; and that is what Philip, Peter, and John lived out. That is what the Samaritans were learning, and that is what Simon missed. 

So where are we in the story? Where are we in the psalm? The answer to those questions may well be a matter of life and death.

Buying into the Kingdom of God

Scripture: Acts 8:14-17

Samaritans

The book of Acts tells the story of the expanding Christianity community, focusing particularly on the ways the Spirit of God makes available the Kingdom of God to peoples and places that were believed to be excluded from it.

Our reading this morning comes in the middle of a larger section devoted to how the Spirit and the Kingdom are available to those in Samaria—to the Samaritans. ……and yes, we are talking about those Samaritans, the ones referenced in that parable of Jesus we call “the Good Samaritan.”

You see, Jesus didn’t just use a Samaritan as a convenient motif. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were the epitome of the “other.” They were disqualified from worship, from religion, from leadership…… you get my drift. That Jesus chose such a person to demonstrate the epitome of godly life and love was radical enough to sign his death warrant. But it was also prophetic, in a sense.

At the very beginning of the book of Acts, as the author (Luke) records Jesus’ parting words to his followers, Jesus verbalizes their task. He says:

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NRSV)

In Jerusalem…… in all Judea and Samaria…… and to the ends of the earth……

“In Jerusalem,” as those early chapters of Acts describe—the Spirit descending on the church of Jerusalem at Pentecost, and it’s rapidly expanding influence.

“In Judea and Samaria,” as the early church is scattered by the persecution that rises up against them…… That’s where Acts 8 begins. The day of Stephen’s martyrdom coincided with a rise in violence against Christians, for (as we know) one outburst of violence can embolden those looking for a reason to explode. By the time we get to v.4 of Acts 8, we learn that “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (NRSV).

“In Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” “To the ends of the earth” is the final part of the story of Acts. It will coincide with the ministry of Paul the apostle, as his missionary journeys and his legal troubles take him all to the way to the capital of the world: Rome.

This Samaritan portion of the story of Acts is fascinating in itself, especially because of the inclusion of one Simon Magnus, sometimes called Simon the Great or Simon the Magician.

Simon Magnus

There’s a wealth of fascinating legend about Simon, but we’re going to concern ourselves exclusively with the actual biblical story recorded here. So let’s read around today’s scripture lesson:

“Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.” (Acts 8:5–8 NRSV)

So here the Samaritan mission begins. Philip, like many other leaders of the Jerusalem Church, is forced by the rising tide of violence to get out of Dodge for a while. He ends up in Samaria (here presumably the capital city) and he preaches the availability of the Kingdom to them. Drawing from its power, Philip and the people witness incredible things—impressive things—entertaining things—but also things that made a real difference in the real life of those who were discounted by society: those seeming to be possessed by demons, the physically disabled, the mentally ill, and so on. It was they who received the Kingdom of God with such power. And the response was widespread joy.

Enter Simon:

“Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.” (Acts 8:9–11 NRSV)

Simon had a history in Samaria before Philip came to town. 

He was the one who seemed to perform deeds of power that amazed and entertained.

He was the one to whom all ears bent, from the greatest to the least. 

He was the one who was heralded as “the great.” 

“But when they believed Philip”…..

“who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.” (Acts 8:12–13 NRSV)

No longer was Simon the only game in town. Many were convinced of Jesus and his Kingdom. In fact, even Simon was convinced. And since he and Philip seemed both to share the trade of miracle-workers, it may have been inevitable for Simon to attach himself to this apostle. Which further gives some “oompf” what was happening there, because even Simon—who himself worked what others called “miracles”—was amazed at what he witnessed.

 

So here come Peter and John in our scripture lesson, sent by the regional office to see for themselves how true the reports might be of this Samaritan mission and its success—or maybe to help out, somehow. You see, the Samaritans have been baptized, but the Spirit has not yet come upon them. 

Luke does not tell us more about this curiosity, though we keep trying to wring certainty out of this dry towel. In the New Testament stories, sometimes spirit-baptism precedes water-baptism, sometimes it follows; sometimes it all happens at the same time. 

Where we want things to be consistent and clear, we find only more ambiguity about “how it works.” It almost seems as though this is one more example of how God is not restricted to acting in the ways we expect.

For Simon, however, this spirit-baptism received through Peter and John seems a whole new level of miracle-working, and one that the Enemy uses to renew his desire for vainglory. Continuing to read: 

“Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ 

But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.’ 

Simon answered, ‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.'” (Acts 8:18–24 NRSV)

As far as the biblical saga is concerned, this is the end of the tale of Simon. He, a believer in Jesus, has fallen into temptation, has been called to account by the leader present, and has offered what sounds like genuine repentance. But we don’t know what happens next…… because that’s not part of the story that Acts is telling us.

Commodification

The story of Simon is a story of grace. But in order to be a story of grace, it has to be a story of failing. As Paul reflected in Romans 5:20: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (NRSV).

In some ways, we might easily gloss over Simon’s story. I mean: Can you think of anyone else who’s literally tried to buy the power of God with money? I struggle to find so blatant an example.

I do know, however…… that for a small fee you can buy an ordination certificate online that gives you legal authority (in some states) to marry and bury, and to present yourself at hospitals and public meetings as a bonafide clergy person. And that does feel kind of similar.

And when we start picking at this, a lot more starts coming out. 

I’ve also known an individual who confided in me that he hoped he tithed enough to get into heaven—and he was not joking.

I know another person intimately, who was directly told by a pastor that if she gave enough money to the church her mother wouldn’t die. She cashed out their life savings. Her mother still died.

You see, what Simon essentially falls into here is a kind of commodifying of God and God’s action. He treats this limitless force and Divine Being as though they were a pack of gum to be purchased at the supermarket. God here gets objectified in a most disturbing way. 

And when we start thinking in these terms, then the story of Simon starts to hit a little too close for comfort. 

Christian Consumption

The consumption of Christian commodities is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. 

T-shirts. Jewelry. Music. Movies. Fiction. Candy. School curriculum. Video games. Recipe books. Internet service providers. Guitar strap manufacturers. Travel agencies. Online streaming services. Self-help books. Candle companies. Exercise videos.

The list goes on and on.

Anything that exists, it seems there is now a “Christian” version of it.

 And maybe most of this stuff is innocent, really…… as long as we remind ourself that (first) these things exist to make someone money. And (second) as long as we’re ok paying more money for a lower quality item, which is too often the case. 

But in some circles, these things are as central to the identity of “Christians” as the notions of baptism and communion.

If you’re not wearing those t-shirts…….

Or if you haven’t seen that movie……

Or if you play secular video games……

Or if you go to an actual therapist instead of buying a self-help book by Joel Osteen at Lifeway……

well then…… you just don’t fit.

The Challenge

Now don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that we don’t have such extreme cases in this community here…… or at least I hope we don’t. 

But how much of your Christian identity is rooted in external things: like your appearance, or your hobbies, or the language you do or don’t use, or the places you do or don’t go, or whatever?

How much is based on those things?……And how much is based on pursuing that ongoing transformation of every part of your life that God desires to bring about? How much is based on your diligent, intentional practice of the disciples of prayer or study or meditation or fasting or simplicity or service or confession or others? 

How much of being Christian is managing your public image?……versus experiencing the Kingdom of God in ways that render you vulnerable and lay your failings open?

 

Because one of these things is not like the other. 

One of these things is to follow our own desires… to rule our own lives… to control and shape things as we see fit…… This is to sell out to the Enemy.

The other one is to submit ourselves to God’s desires… to allow God’s rule to invade our lives… to obey and be conformed as God sees fit…… This is to fully buy into the Kingdom of God.

Though they did not seem too far apart a few moments ago; in truth, the gulf between the two could not be greater. And the temptation to substitute this cheap imitation for the expansive grace and inclusion of God is constantly with us.

So as Simon implores: Sisters and brothers, pray for each other to the Lord. And pray for me.

The Mystery of Christ

Scripture: Ephesians 3:1-12

Mystery

I do like a good mystery…… especially if that mystery comes with a British accent. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Tom Barnaby—they all readily capture my attention with their ability to penetrate the inky darkness of vague clues and deception, and riddle out the truth.

Of course, if I were the only one in history who liked a good mystery, there would be no Sherlock Holmeses, Hercule Poirots, or Tom Barnabys. We human beings have had a taste for this kind of thing for millennia now. There’s an apocryphal tale about Daniel—the Daniel of the Bible—where he intervenes to save a woman named Susanna who is about to be killed for infidelity. She’s on death row, so to speak, and he—in true Poirot fashion—takes up the case, separates and interrogates the two witnesses, and discovers in the process that their testimonies are false. 

Have you ever wondered why we find these tales so alluring?

Certainly, one reason must be that we like seeing unjust people get their just desserts. A villain that is obviously a villain is a luxury compared to the villainy we experience in real life. We desire a black-and-white kind of justice and world—we want obvious categories of good and bad—and so these stories are in some ways caricatures of the way we wish the world would be.

In the same way, I wonder if (consciously or subconsciously) we desire the same penetrating abilities. Perhaps deep down inside, we experience the world around us as a quite mysterious thing—something whose workings we do not understand, whose rules we cannot discern, whose code we cannot crack. Should we, like Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, have the ability to see what others cannot see (what we cannot now see), perhaps we could figure out this thing called life, and truly find fulfillment.

The Mystery of Christ

In a way, this is what Paul is exploring here in Ephesians. 

There is something strange about this God…… something mysterious concerning Christ. Paul isn’t using this as an analogy to make a larger point; rather, he’s confronting head-on a reality that is obvious to anyone who knows much about Jesus at all.

Here’s a guy who was obviously different:

He readily used for himself the terms that were reserved for God’s anointed leader.

He said that if you saw him you saw the Almighty.

He turned the tables on our expectations about who is blessed and good.

He accused the mainstream “church” (so to speak) of leading people to the devil instead of to God.

He performed all kinds of incredible signs—bringing healing, wholeness, and restoration to those the world had given up on. 

He hung out with the wrong crowd, and considered his time with them more valuable than with the good religious folks of his day.

He did not fight the false accusations that led to his arrest.

He chose not to defend himself during his sham of a trial.

He spoke words of forgiveness and grace even while hanging on the cross.

He also…… did not stay dead.

And when raised from the dead by God, he was somehow transformed and even more mysterious than he was beforehand…… until that day when he sort of levitated into the sky and disappeared.

There is something undeniably strange about this Jesus…… and thus about our God. 

……Something mysterious that led people to talk…… and ponder…… and wish for the penetrating insight of Sherlock Holmes to unlock this enigma.

But as the early church reflected on all this strangeness, there was one dimension that rose to the top and seemed in the end to make some sense it all. That singular entity that came to be called “the Mystery of Christ” by Paul and others.

It is the mystery that was made known to Paul by revelation (Ephesians 3:3a).

It is the mystery that Paul has already in Ephesians been hinting at (Ephesians 3:3b-4).

It is the mystery that was not made known “in former times” (Ephesians 3:5a)…… but had been hidden by God (Ephesians 3:9

It is the mystery that was revealed to the disciples (now called apostles) and others by means of the Spirit—there is no other way to penetrate this mystery except through a revealing of it by the Spirit herself (Ephesians 3:5b)

But what is the mystery of Christ itself? What is this puzzle that has stopped the world in its tracks and brought it to its knees in wonder?

The mystery itself is revealed in v.6:

“…that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6 NRSV)

What does that mean? 

It means that everyone, everywhere, from every background and culture…… now has the same access to God and the Kingdom of Heaven and its abundant life…… because of Jesus Christ.

It means that the fulfillment of who we are—that a truly good life—is not barred from anyone because of any walls or obstacles that exist in this realm.

It means that even and especially those that are believed to be incompatible with true and abundant or faithful life are equally able to reach into and realize it.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

I cannot overstate how revolutionary this is—then or now. 

The term Gentiles is used in the New Testament in place of the Hebrew term “goyim,” which is often translated “nations” in the Old Testament. The “goyim”—the nations—the Gentiles were by definition people who were outside of a covenantal relationship with God. They were not the people descended from Abraham, the people whom God promised would be his special people in special relationship and (in this way) unique in the world.

There was this wall between God’s-people and not-God’s-people. There were those “in” and those “out.” And as far as the faithful people of the time were concerned, that wall was built by God—which made it both insurmountable and sinful to think it should be surmounted. To use the sort of unbiblical and unchristian language popular among evangelists a century ago, these people existed as fodder for the fires of hell…… They have no further value.

Maybe you could think of ways this type of language is used to talk about people in our world.

Or even if we do not use this type of language, then think about how we often treat people as though we believed this about them. 

For example: just days ago, amidst freezing temperatures, the police and fire departments in a nearby city turned firehoses on a group of homeless people in order to get them to move from the out-of-the way place they were huddled against the elements. 

These authorities offered nowhere for these folks to go to be warm and dry. They knew fully that once drenched, these people would be even more vulnerable because they had nowhere to go. But to the decision-makers in that standoff, the lives of these without homes were worth less than nothing. Their choice to endanger these lives betrayed how little value they saw in these people who carry the divine image in their creation.

Access for All

And so—with our walls fully built to keep the rabble out of our eternity, here comes Jesus. And in one fell swoop, that wall comes tumbling down. 

There is now no obstacle for anyone

nothing to stand in the way of reaching God

nothing to block access to the kingdom of heaven

nothing to discount, or preclude, or invalidate your chances of true life

nothing to prevent anyone being able to become who God made them to be

nothing to limit or destroy your value—because your value is set by God and not the powers of this world

nothing to taint the welcome of love and hospitality and grace that God the loving Father wishes to bestow upon all who reach into God’s realm.

This is the mystery of Christ, and truly worthy of our contemplation. It is, perhaps, the most important teaching that Paul communicates—as it is, in fact, the continuation of the most important reality that Jesus communicates: that the Kingdom of God is at hand, ready and accessible, available now to all who have faith in Jesus Christ.

From Galatians 3:

“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.” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV)

From Colossians 3

“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11 NRSV)

From Ephesians 2, just verses before where today’s scripture reading began:

“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [that is, Jews and Gentiles—insiders and outsiders: “he has made both groups] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him, both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:14–19 NRSV)

The mystery of Christ is that you—even you—are included. That you are valuable. You are worth it to God.

And if we can discover—by the power of the kingdom of heaven that is available to us—how to hold onto that mystery and recognize that it is more real than anything else in the world, then we will find that it is also more than enough…… that it provides a foundation for true life…… abundant life…… fulfilling life…… even and especially in the real life of the here and now.

Blessed

Scripture: Luke 1:39-55

Intro

Even though Jesus’ birth is only talked about in two of the gospels, those gospels give us a real treasure-trove of stories and lessons. 

Today’s text—at face value, may not ring with the “Christmas program” reverberation of 

Luke 2 (“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…”) 

nor as with Matthew 1 (“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit…”)

But all the same—there is a powerful reality testified to in today’s short verses…. a reality that both hearkens back to the Old Testament story and anticipates Jesus and his challenging, counter-cultural teachings. And it is all wrapped up in this woman named Mary, and the fact that she is called “Blessed.”

Who Is Mary?: Woman

We have to start with Mary herself. Who is she at this point in the biblical story? 

She is a woman; we must begin there. And being a woman in her day and age, she is not thought to be worth much. Throughout the Old Testament story, we see women counted and valued among the property owned by a man. Even in the Ten Commandments, for instance, a wife is counted second among a list of property that includes houses, slaves, oxen, donkeys, and “anything else that belongs to your neighbor.” 

In the New Testament world of Mary, women did not fare much better. While there are glimpses in Acts and other places where a woman might be able to stand on her own two feet without a man, it seems to require a good deal of wealth and power (acquired through a husband who then died) for her to do it. 

Jesus’ own teaching on divorce in Matthew 5 (vv.31-32) radically limits divorce precisely because for many women divorce might as well be a death notice. Society and commerce were not structured in such a way that any woman could likely survive on her own.

Who Is Mary?: Young

To make matters worse, Mary is young. I realize that for many of us, it is hard to think of youth as a curse. But it is, in its own way…… and even today. 

For example: I accepted the call to serve a church for the first time when I was 28 years old—not young, though a good deal young-er, of course. I encountered so many obstacles, because of my age, you simply would not believe it. People I met in the community would marvel and say things like: “I didn’t know you could be a pastor and be so young.” I began to wonder where they thought clergy came from—were we grown at the Vatican or Wittenberg or somewhere, only to be released into the public sphere when we reached the age of 45? Paul’s words to Timothy became my mantra: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1Timothy 4:12 NRSV).

We “adults” have trouble taking youth seriously. We remember our own drama, and we are acutely aware of the fact we have changed a lot—even if we don’t ever really reflect on those changes. 

But we quickly forget the frustration of having something important to say—and not being given a venue to speak out. 

We forget the pain of having our lives controlled by others—amidst the inherent desire to chart our own course. 

We forget that we had to figure out how to be ourselves, too—something many of us adults could maybe do some more work on, if we’re honest.

None of this—as the Timothy quote reveals—is unique to our place and time.

Who Is Mary?: Betrothed

Further complicating matters for Mary is that she is betrothed. We might (by analogy) imagine this means she is engaged, but it connotes so much more in Mary’s day. 

Do remember that Mary is property belonging to her father, and her father struck what amounts to a business deal with Joseph’s father. There is a certain give-and-take, tit-for-tat between the families—Mary’s family will likely gain some benefit from the association with Joseph’s family, and Joseph’s family is likely promised a certain amount of money or other wealth in exchange for Mary (and yes, you heard me right, they have to be paid to take her). 

As property—and as virtually a child at that—she has no say in any of this. This deal was probably struck well before she was old enough to be married—perhaps even way back when she was born—and the financial compensation perhaps even transferred to Joseph’s family right away—as an incentive to follow through on their end of the bargain (and take her as promised). Mary, of course, needs to be delivered in the proper, agreed-upon condition as well—in other words, demonstrably a virgin—or her family has violated this business arrangement. 

Who Is Mary?: Not Worth Marrying

That Mary ends up pregnant was thus a big deal. It brought shame to both families. It labeled her “damaged goods,” and no longer worth marrying. 

We can see this in Matthew 1:19, amidst Joseph’s attempt to “do the right thing.” He seems interested in ensuring that she can survive, but she’s just not worth it for him anymore. There’s too much scandal. Too much gossip. Too much rumormongering. 

And just wait until word gets out that she thinks she’s seen an angel. What are her peers going to say then? That she is hallucinating? or making it all up? or mentally ill? It’s certainly not helping her case.

 

Not too far into the future, Mary will be a person scandalized and nearly destroyed. That is who she is in her world.

Yet Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:41b-42 NRSV).

Blessed.

Blessed. 

I don’t know that this felt like a blessing, do you?

Blessedness in the New Testament

Let’s take a side-step here and explore what it means to be blessed in the New Testament. 

The verbiage of being blessed occurs throughout the gospels, but it finds a certain concentration in Matthew and Luke’s gospels in the passage we refer to as the Beatitudes. Now, given that Matthew’s Beatitudes tend to get all the attention, and given that we’re reading in Luke right now, let’s look to Luke’s version today instead.

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. 

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” (Luke 6:20–23 NRSV)

Coupled with these “blessed-be’s”, Luke records some “woe-be’s”:

“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation. 

Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. 

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24–26 NRSV)

And just to keep track of where Jesus is going, v.27 begins:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies…” (Luke 6:27 NRSV)

The Beatitudes Are Not…

Now, contrary to popular belief, Jesus is not commanding us to do these things. Sometimes we preachers like to refer to these as the “be-attitudes,” as in: attitudes or realities we are to make ourselves have. But this is not what Jesus is communicating here; he is not telling us to become poor or hungry or to stop laughing or that being rich is a bad thing or whatever. 

Nor is Jesus inviting us to deny reality as we experience it around us. He’s not telling us to deceive ourselves into thinking bad is good and good is bad. Biblical commentator Elizabeth Achtemeier calls that the slavery of optimism—wherein we just decide to hope that everything we perceive about the world is wrong. 

In contrast, we see throughout the gospel story that Jesus is the first one to call a spade a spade.

 

Instead, Jesus is making a proclamation here. He announces to us (via these “blessed-bes” and “woe-bes”) something of the Kingdom of God in relation to the kingdom of men. And as with most of Jesus’ teaching, he does this not by laying out general truths, precepts, or any sort of systematic theology; but rather by contradicting the prevailing assumptions and practices of the world. 

So think for a moment: what does the world assume and practice about blessing? Who do we think is well-off? Who is blessed?

Isn’t it the rich?

Isn’t it the happy?

Isn’t it those with food to eat and a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs?

Isn’t it those that are well-spoken of? Those well-respected?

And isn’t it telling that all those are in Jesus’ “woe-be” category?

 

To clarify again: Jesus is not saying those things are bad, or evil, or to be avoided. Instead, he’s turning the categories of the world on their head. The Beatitudes announce the availability of God’s kingdom to all. All. Jesus calls people “blessed” that were believed to be un-bless-able. This, Jesus insists, is how different is the reality of the kingdom of God from the kingdom of men. 

Who Is Blessed?

That question (“Who is well off?”, or “Who is blessed?” to ask it like Jesus) has been one of the core questions we humans have asked across time and cultures. And how we answer it impacts our experience and interaction with the world around us. In the Beatitudes, Jesus so completely contradicts the prevailing assumptions that he has to insist [Matthew 5:17] that he is not actually abolishing the Law—that’s how shocking these Beatitudes were to his hearers!

 

Being blessed, Jesus teaches us, is not tied to these sort of conditions. He seems to be saying here that “if you are in the kingdom of God you are blessed even though you are in those positions… and you are equally blessed……” (Dallas Willard). 

Being blessed (in Jesus’ teaching)—being well off (in the language we more often use)—is available to anyone who is alive in the Kingdom of God. 

The Un-blessable

In the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus, Mary embodies the kind of person that society would see as un-blessable. She is completely incompatible with the category of “well off.” Which leads me to wonder…… 

Who in our world do we naturally assume to be well off or blessed? [pause]

And especially: Who do we see as un-blessable? [long pause]

Dallas Willard has rightly suggested that “You only understand the gospel of the kingdom of God if there is no limit on to whom you can go and say ‘Blessed’.”

Who are the un-blessable in our world? Because these (Jesus reminds us) have equal access to being “well off”—which means being alive in the kingdom of God.

Blessed are the poor

Blessed is the immigrant

Blessed is the refugee

Blessed are those identifying as LGBTQ

Blessed are the uneducated

Blessed are the drug abusers

Blessed are the drunkards

Blessed are the fiscally irresponsible

Blessed are the unemployed

Blessed are those pregnant too many times

Blessed are the who can’t get pregnant

Blessed are the abused

Blessed are the mentally ill

Does it sting a little to hear some of these? It does to me too. And it did Jesus‘ audience as well, remember. As I mentioned earlier, those hearing Jesus offer the Beatitudes in Matthew were so bothered and outraged by them that they thought he was trying to throw the whole bible away. 

But the kingdom of God and its abundant life—which Jesus announced was accessible to us even now—the kingdom is not inaccessible to anyone who seeks it. The good, abundant, overflowing life of the Kingdom may be grasped by anyone—even and especially those that we too often think are too far gone.

Back to Mary

That’s the lesson—and challenge—of Mary. She was too far gone. There’s no way anyone would have called her well-off. She was un-blessable. Written off by humanity…… and God alike (or so they—and perhaps we— would presume). 

Because if we really did believe the blessed life was accessible to her, we wouldn’t have written her (or any of them) off in the first place. 

Mary’s story—or at least her situation—is all too common today. Through a mixture of personal choices, societal pressures, and the unjust means by which privilege is dealt into the world, there are countless among us that are written off. Hopeless. Not worth saving.

And the truly tragic element to it all is that most of them have received these labels at the hands of churches and Christians who embody a gospel closer to that of the Pharisees than that of Jesus. 

 

There is a power in blessing. It changes both the person speaking and the one receiving—and in doing so, it changes the world.

As followers of Jesus in this Advent season—this season of reflection and preparation for the coming of the Messiah—we must ask: Is there anyone to whom we cannot go and say “blessed”?

If so, perhaps that is precisely where God is calling us to go in the pursuit of the healing that we so desperately need. 

Prayer

God,

Forgive us of our sins. They are many.

We have despised your image in our neighbor.
We have conspired to demean and destroy them.

We have turned those needing your blessing away empty,
because we believed You hated them,
 as we ourselves learned to do.

So we are grateful, Almighty God,
that with you there is forgiveness.

Help us turn from our wicked ways.
Reorient us to the Kingdom,
that we might discover anew
the limitless blessing available to all
who are alive in Your kingdom—

As with Jesus, may there be no limit
to whom we can go and say “Blessed!”

Amen.