This Is Good News

Scripture: Luke 3:7-18

What Should We Do?

If it wasn’t clear last week, the personality of John the Baptist has long captured my imagination. Those extraordinary characteristics of his life, faith, and ministry are just sooo captivating. But alongside all of that, there’s the fact that John’s teaching and ministry so completely anticipates Jesus’ own. John’s proclamation of the Kingdom and what discipleship means is perfectly consistent with that of Jesus…… 

Somehow, it seems that before Jesus even enters the scene, John manages to show everyone what being a follower of Jesus means. 

This particular passage describing John’s ministry has a lot of different things to teach us, but the Luke’s focus in telling it is on discipleship. Discipleship and what it means is the answer to the crowds’ question in v.10: “What then should we do?”

I hope you find this to be familiar ground. “What then should we do?” is the natural human response to an encounter with God

And in encountering God we always seem to discover both our own insufficiency and God’s sufficiency. 

In encountering God, we are called into repentance, into reflecting on the fruits of our life (and our human efforts), and into the core of who we are. 

In encountering God, we find a simultaneous affirmation of love and a calling to be something more—something we can only be if God is the one changing us.

Between John’s teaching here and his responses to the crowds, I believe there are some significant morsels to be gleaned about the nature of discipleship—the nature of what we do in response to experiencing God.

Discipleship Is Not Passive

First, let me suggest that discipleship is not something passive. It is not something that happens to us without any involvement of ourselves. 

In v.8, John suggests that some in the crowds think they do not require the transforming work of discipleship in their lives—simply because of who they are. They “have Abraham for an ancestor.” They think the life of faith is about bearing the right label—for them “descendant of Abraham,” but for us what? Christian? Baptist? Republican? Democrat? Church member? Baptized believer? Tither? Good person?

If you think that “getting right with God” is based on who you are associated with—or having your name on a list somewhere—you are sorely mistaken. John reminds his hearers that the Creator who brought all matter in existence could easily transform mere stones into “members,” if members were what God was after.

Discipleship is not something passive; it is not about “being” something. It requires that we “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (v.8). That’s active. That’s “doing.” As one author has offered: “Discipleship is about generating intention” (Dallas Willard). Discipleship doesn’t just happen. Or perhaps: it only happens when there is a plan, a purpose, and energy directed toward an outcome. 

Discipleship Involves Others

Discipleship also involves others; it is not something we do alone. Looking at the instructions offered by John starting in v.10, all of them involve relationships:

Give your extra coat to the one without a coat (v.11)

Do not wield your authority to the disadvantage of others (v.13)

Do not harm others in your pursuit of wealth (v.14).

The kinds of relationships involved in discipleship end up being multifaceted, but might be able to be condensed down to two basic, overlapping circles—a Venn diagram of sorts.

Some of those involved in our practice of discipleship are those within our community—whether we define that as the community of the church or something different. We require these people to help us see things about ourselves we cannot see (much in the same vein as John exposing the way the people rely on their heritage to “cover them”). We require their accountability. We require these people to teach us what we do not know. We require them to carry us when we are weak. And we, of course, do the same for them. 

That brings us to the second group of people we’re talking about. These are the recipients of our faithful practices. They are the ones receiving—receiving of our generosity, our justice, our kindness, our self-restraint. Sometimes these people are within our community; but this circle needs to be much bigger than just those we are closest to or most comfortable with. We need to encounter some people who don’t have a coat to keep warm. We need to discover some extortionists and those they injure…… some abusers and their victims…… those who wield fear and those victim to it…… because this is the real world, and the real world is where the rubber of discipleship meets the road of life. 

The biblical story testifies—from the very creation of humanity as recorded in Genesis 2—that we human beings are created to be in community with each other. There is an interconnection between us…… an interdependence on each other. As Americans, we resist this simultaneous need and responsibility for each other. The whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth is a grand deception of the Enemy, wherein we deny the help we ourselves receive in order to deny help to others in need. But this interdependence is an integral component of the kind of discipleship that John taught…… and that Jesus requires.

Discipleship Is Contextualized

So here’s a third thing that John teaches us here about discipleship: discipleship is contextualized. What do I mean by that? 

I mean that John recognizes the path of discipleship does not look the same for everyone. 

To the crowds in general, John instructs: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” and don’t rely on your heritage to save you. (Luke 3:8 NRSV)

To another segment of the crowds, John insists they need to be generous with the surpluses they have—redistributing their wealth in order to provide for those without. (Luke 3:11 NRSV)

To tax collectors, John says: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:13 NRSV)

Similarly, soldiers are instructed to “not extort money from anyone by threats and false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:14 NRSV)

Different people; different paths. We are gifted differently (as Paul talks about in 1Corinthians 12). And God knows our experiences of life can be incredibly different, too. 

The road you take is going to be quite different if you start in Atchison, KS…… or Detroit, MI…… or Buenos Aires, Brazil…… or Tokyo, Japan…… or Berlin, Germany…… or Khartum in the Sudan…… or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia…… or wherever else you might begin.

It is a glorious thing that God meets us where we are. In very literal ways, this is what the Incarnation is all about…… it is what the season of Advent is about. God meets us where we are: within creation, deep in the mire of sin, the light of hope fading from our eyes. 

Discipleship Is Life Changing

And though presence is powerful, God does not just sit with us there; God changes our fates, as God changes us. That’s the last element of discipleship that John teaches us here: discipleship is life-changing.

I don’t want to get bogged down in historical minutia this morning, though it’s always tempting. I hope it is sufficient to say that in the ancient world, tax collectors did collect more than prescribed—it is who they were; it is how the business worked; it just was part of being a tax collector. 

The same points can be made about soldiers—abusing their authority and power to get all kinds of “fringe benefits” was part-and-parcel to being a soldier. I imagine most soldiers back then wouldn’t think soldiering was worth it, if you took these “fringe benefits” out of the equation. 

In both cases, we’re talking about what “everybody” does. It’s not just that these were common practices; to not participate in them was confrontational to your colleagues, and akin to spitting in their eyes. To not do these things was to upset the apple cart of society enough to risk being bullied, fired, and ostracized.

Discipleship is life-changing. God calls us and draws us toward somewhere different than where we are. God invites us into awareness and discovery…… into repentance and forgiveness. Our transforming God seeks to transform us.

There are frequent New Testament citations that talk about the nature of this transforming work of God. In each case, it is clear we are being transformed into the image of Christ. 2Corinthians 3:18 is as good an example as any. Paul says:

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2Corinthians 3:18 NRSV)

The apostle Paul anticipates a day when we will see Jesus clearly, and we will all be transformed into his (same) image.

Now I’m not going to point fingers here, [humorous tone!!] but you-all need to experience some more transformation in order to look like Jesus. Of course, I do too——like major work…….like “raze it to the foundation and start over” work. That means we cannot stay as we are; we have to embrace the change that God is trying to work in our lives. 

It is hard work. The cost is high. But it is worth it, when we also count the benefit.

Good News

The last verse of the reading today identifies John preaching the “good news.” What Luke means here is certainly what is elsewhere announced as the nearness of God’s kingdom. Yet at the same time, he seems to intend the inclusion of the teachings just discussed as well—Luke seems to mean that these teachings are somehow “good news” too.

So I wonder…… Perhaps these teachings could be seen as expansions of that kingdom proclamation. Maybe these are real-life examples of where the rubber meets the road. 

That would certainly be consistent with the call to discipleship that we find throughout Jesus’ ministry, as well as the Great Commission with which he leaves us—which has “disciple-making” as its central command.

These teachings about discipleship, I believe, are good news. They are good news because they are baby steps towards being recreated in the image of Jesus. They are good news because they remind us that we can be better than we are.

Discipleship is good news for us because deep-down inside we know things aren’t right…. that we aren’t right. We know:

[Luke 3:8] that we tend to practice a passive instead of active faith, 

[Luke 3:11] that we hoard our resources even when we know they are needed by others, 

[Luke 3:13] that we’re happy to benefit from an unjust system, 

[Luke 3:14] that we’re eager to use and even abuse power and privilege for our own gain, 

[Luke 3:14b] and that we don’t know how to be content with what we have.

All these are pools of darkness in our soul. They are shadow places where the light of God’s love has yet to penetrate. They are the “old self” that is yet to be reborn of God’s kingdom. 

And the promise of discipleship is that God does meet us where we are. That we can be more than we are. That this slavery of sin and failure and inadequacy is self-imposed: liberation is available when we will turn to God.

But it’s not just going to happen to us. Discipleship and discipline are from a common root word. We have to train ourselves to be open to God’s redemptive work in us. Speaking metaphorically about his own practice of discipleship, Paul says:

“I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.” (1Corinthians 9:27 NRSV)

If that sounds extraordinary, it is. But it is extraordinary in the same way that John is extraordinary, and that we are called to become extraordinary as a people dwelling in the present Kingdom of God.

Direction

As I have offered many times before, an important part of my job (as I define it) is to provide direction and community to those desiring to learn more about these kingdom practices—the “spiritual disciplines,” as we sometimes call them. These are intentional practices that the church has used for centuries to invite God’s transforming power to work within us. 

To use an analogy, these traditional practices are the various tools in the toolbox of the Christian life. Growing up in church, I was only taught one or two of them—and at that, I only received an anemic version of a practice and was taught it only passively.

I really do believe that God wants to transform us. And I really do believe that most Christians want to grow in their spiritual lives. But I also believe that most of us don’t really know how to make that happen.

But the good news—if you’ll allow the pun—is that the tools are there. We just have to be willing to pick them up and learn to use them. 

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Upside Down

Scripture: Luke 3:1-6

Intro

One of the consequences of the family being out of town is that my workaholic tendencies ramp up to eleven. The benefit—not that it outweighs the consequences—is that I had the majority of my sermon draft finished by Wednesday night.

So on Thursday I went hunting. The “wilderness” of Atchison State Lake doesn’t look much like the wilderness of John’s life and ministry. But there is something about wild places that has always connected us to God.

While scrutinizing every blown leaf and squirrel sound, I learned something. I learned that sermon that I’d written…… just wouldn’t work. It just wasn’t what God wanted said.

As I reflected, I realized that there is something about John that is extraordinary—but that’s no news, of course. 

What I also realized though is that there is nothing extraordinary about John that could not be extraordinary about any one of us today.

Extraordinary Calling

“But Pastor…” your mind begins. And I understand. My mind did the same on Thursday. Like Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3, I came up with countless counter-arguments, just like you may be imagining right now. But also like Moses in that story, God batted them away like they were nothing.

Perhaps my strongest argument was based on John’s extraordinary calling. Luke’s gospel anticipates John’s ministry so strongly that it almost forces us to use words like “destiny” or “fate,” even if we do not normally believe in such things.

John’s birth and calling to “turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…” and “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” was announced by angel to Zechariah before Elizabeth had even conceived (Luke 1:8-24).

His conception was announced by angelic messenger to Mary in Luke 1:36.

Even John’s naming was accompanied by the miracle of Zechariah’s sudden healing from an inability to speak, and the prophecy Zechariah uttered when “his tongue was freed” (Luke 1:59-67) was one which likewise declared John’s calling:

“for you will go before the Lord
to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins…

to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
(Luke 1:76-77, 79 NRSV)

Take that, God! (Am I right?). Clearly I’m off the hook.

No angelic messengers heralded my birth

No prophecies were uttered about my destiny and calling

 

Yeah.

What is my calling? What is your calling? What is the calling of everyone who decides to allow Jesus to rule their life?

Is it not to be (like John) heralds of the Kingdom of God, announcing its nearness and accessibility?

Is it not to be (like John)—navigators in the wilderness of this physical world, who lead those at its mercy into the abundant and expansive Kingdom of God?

Is it not—[Luke 3:4-6]:

to prepare for the coming of the Christ?

to give knowledge of salvation to the world?

to announce the forgiveness of sins?

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death

and to lead into this way of peace?

Is not John’s calling the same as our own?

 

In John 17, Jesus prays for everyone who will come to know him through the testimony of his immediate disciples. He prays: 

“that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

That is no different than the kingdom way of living that Jesus presents to Nicodemus in John 3. This extraordinary calling to Kingdom life right now—being “born again”—is made clear in those most famous verses of the bible:

“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 [that means born-again, abundant life in the Kingdom even now].

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16–17 NRSV)

“Well… that’s Jesus being talked about in those verses.” 

Yes… but that’s you too. Because: 

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1Corinthians 12:27 NRSV)

Your extraordinary calling……
my extraordinary calling……
our extraordinary calling is to be Jesus
. 

We cannot do that on our own. 

Our calling is more than we can manage of our own human will and exertion. It requires divine intervention in our lives if we are to live it out. We have to bathe in the healing waters of the Spirit—and not just once, but over and over again. 

I’m reminded of that great passage of Romans 8 [vv.5-6], where Paul contrasts a life lived “according to the flesh” with one lived “according to the spirit.” The flesh here refers to what you can do with your natural, human abilities…… what we can accomplish individually and socially through our own power and initiative. 

Unfortunately, most churches live “according to the flesh”…… doing only what we know we can succeed at doing, only committing to what is safely within our resources within a comfortable margin of error. 

To live “according to the spirit” then is to draw from God’s strength in the pursuit of what God is accomplishing.

Extraordinary Lifestyle

This brings us to John’s extraordinary lifestyle. Luke doesn’t emphasize John’s appearance and lifestyle as much as the other gospels. Mark (for instance) introduces John via the characteristics that made up his “first impression,” so to speak. He says: 

“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 

He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'” (Mark 1:6–8 NRSV)

Were you to jump in the Wayback Machine and travel to the area around the Jordan in those days, your first impression of John would be thus: peculiar clothes (like a biblical prophet or something), strange diet (very hand-of-God-to-mouth), and uncommon humility.

Weaving together the passages that refer to John and his teaching, it becomes clear that John’s lifestyle was also characterized by a holistic morality, the pursuit of justice, the practice of peacemaking, and living by the rules of the Kingdom of God—rules that Jesus will articulate further for the world. 

Again, I am forced to ask: Is this any different than the lifestyle to which we are called?

Extraordinary Trust; Extraordinary Witness

This lifestyle is enabled and empowered by an extraordinary trust in God. Despite the prophecies and extra-ordinary circumstances of his birth, John was a human. He could have said “no” to God. He could have charted his own path (“to live according to the flesh,” as that Romans 8 text described). 

As a quick aside, I think it’s worth noting that Jesus could have done the same as well. Even being God incarnate—the very embodiment of God-with-us—Jesus himself wrestled with his calling (at Gethsemane, for instance), and prayed for another way. A “no” was within his power, and aren’t we grateful he didn’t take it?

For John, his “yes” to God opened the Kingdom to countless faithful and paved the way for Jesus to come onto the scene. 

It enabled him to have an extraordinary witness: people came. In addition to having his own disciples, John is said to have drawn crowds. He certainly draws the ire of the religious and political establishments along the way—because, of course, the Kingdom of God doesn’t support their systems of power and authority; it directly undercuts them, placing all equally under the lordship of the Christ.

Extraordinary Message

Of course, John wouldn’t have such an extraordinary opportunity to witness without the extraordinary message he proclaimed. What was John’s message?

Well, it was the same Good News that Jesus proclaimed:

John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2 NRSV)

Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17 NRSV)

In his own, less-direct way, Luke is telling us the same thing when he says that John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and then offers us a quote from Isaiah 40:

the valleys are “filled”

mountains and hills “made low”

crooked things “made straight”

and rough places “made smooth”

Everything, you see, seems to be getting pulled in the opposite direction. 

 

That’s the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God. 

Neither Isaiah nor Luke—nor certainly John himself—expects these inversions of the created order to happen literally. No—they are symbolic representations of some other kind of inversion that they anticipate—but perhaps cannot yet see clearly.

We, however, have the 20/20 vision enabled by hindsight.

Jesus—in entering the same scene inhabited by John—adopts the same core message……the same “good news”: “The Kingdom of [God] is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 NRSV).

But as Jesus expands his teaching about that Kingdom throughout the gospels, we begin to see more and more clearly the quite literal ways that God’s Kingdom inverts and subverts our world. Things like:

“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31 NRSV)

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35 NRSV)

There’s what we’ve come to call the Beatitudes (Matthew 5 & Luke 6), wherein Jesus pronounces that the “blessed ones” are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for justice, those showing mercy, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and of course: the persecuted. 

To these, Jesus says, belongs the Kingdom——it does not belong to the rich, those with full bellies, or those apparently successful and happy.

(Is your equilibrium quivering yet?)

Remember too in Luke 21, when that poor widow threw two insignificant copper coins into the offering plate? What did Jesus say? 

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3 NRSV).

Or consider what the early church believed to be the deepest fulfillment of the Royal Law of Jesus—the true path of discipleship into the Kingdom:

“But I say to you that listen [Jesus says], Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27–31 NRSV).

Are we upside-down yet, or have we just decided it is too hard?

 

I wonder about our trust……. about our witness…… 

As we wait for Jesus’ return, what might be accomplished:

If we demonstrated such extraordinary trust? 

If we proclaimed such an extraordinary message? 

If we relied on the spiritual power of the Kingdom rather than the “fleshly” power of this physical realm?

You see, what John did made a difference. The omnipresent crowds around John—crowds so sufficient even Jesus could get lost in them—they were not there to see a spectacle…… not all of them of course. Spectacles are about entertainment, and entertainment usually tapers off pretty quickly with repeat performances. People wouldn’t keep coming back unless they had an encounter that mattered. 

There are many—myself included—who lament the fact that our society no longer regards the church as any kind of authority worth consideration. Luke 3:10 depicts the crowds begging John: “What then should we do?” Tell us! Tell us what to do!!

He does, of course, but that’s next week’s reading.

For this week, John invites us to reflect on the ways his “extraordinary” is identical to our own. His extraordinary calling, lifestyle, trust, witness, message, and response are all identical to our own or to what is available to us. 

But are we willing to be drawn by God beyond ordinary to extraordinary?

Are we willing to go upside-down into the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God?

Can we live—let alone proclaim—the Good News announced by Jesus: “The kingdom of God is at hand”——or to put in different terms: “Put your confidence in Jesus, and live with him as his disciple now, in the present Kingdom of God” (Dallas Willard).

Things You Already Know

Scripture: Luke 21:25-35

Change in the World

There’s an old blues song that goes [sing]:

Great change since I been born
Great change since I been born
Great change since I been born
Great change since I been born

And it’s true, isn’t it?

While I don’t even have half the perspective that some of you do, I marvel at the changes I have witnessed in the world around me.

Computers, the internet, social media—none of that was a regular part of anyone’s life back when I was growing up. Now most people can’t make it a day without “going digital” at least once.

Newscasters used to simply “read” the news instead of spinning drama and propagating agendas.

And news outlets used to employ photojournalists—actual people whose job it was to tell the story of what was happening through photos and videos. Now news outlets simply link to Jim-Bob Dolittle’s cell shots that it grabbed off the internet.

Back then, the church was a gathering place for the community.

School curricula were not oriented around standardized tests, but actual learning.

The World Trade Center towers still stood.

People could talk about politics without demeaning each other and becoming lifelong enemies.

Great change since I’ve been born.

The Israelites

The Israelites—by the time of Jesus—had experienced some great changes too.

They’d gone from being a united and independent kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon……

To being a divided, fractured nation under the kings who followed……

To being conquered by foreign powers and carted off to exile like livestock……

Only to return roughly 50 years later to a land devastated by war and destruction.

They rebuilt—albeit in small scale, comparably—though they remained controlled by foreign powers: first the Persians, then the Greeks; then under the Ptolemys and the Seleucids when the Greek empire started to fracture. 

Amidst this weakening power, the Israelites momentarily gained independence under a family named Maccabees. At last, things were looking up, and they thought this was the break they’d been waiting for.

But then, they were overcome by the Romans in 63 BCE. The descendants of the Maccabean family—called the Hasmoneans—maintained a role in leadership until 37 BCE (when Herod the Great was placed in charge by the Romans).

But those dreams of independence—dreams rooted in God’s promises to them—were never fully squashed. Countless self-proclaimed “messiahs” sprung up, attempting to raise an army and overthrow Rome. It never ended well.

This is the world Jesus is born into. Great change, indeed.

Parable of the Tree

The scripture passage today—or at least the image on which Jesus builds it—rests on our ability to perceive change in the world around us.

We are created to be intelligent, creative, observational beings, who are tasked from our very beginning with caring for the created world in which we live—a task that involves all of our observational, creative, and intelligent abilities. We must pay attention to what is happening if we are to fulfill this pivotal role for which we were created.

Starting with the parable of the fig tree in v.29ff, look at what Jesus says. 

He says: Consider a tree. Any tree will do, Jesus says—but maybe there was a fig tree right there which is why that kind of tree is singled out .

Consider a tree: A maple. An oak. A hickory. “A larch.”

When those bare branches start to be gilded in green, and those teeny-tiny leaves grow into recognizable shapes and forms——then that tells you something. 

What does it tell you? It tells you that the seasons are passing. That a transition is taking place. That all of creation has moved through change to a new state.

Consider a tree. You already know this, Jesus insists. You are endowed with the ability to observe patterns in what is happening and to anticipate where life is going. You have that ability. Consider a tree.

Signs—the “Nations”

If, then: we can observe so extraordinary a reality as the passing of the seasons from so common a thing as any old tree, how much more can we discern what God is doing when we consider the whole of the created order?

That is the question that Jesus is essentially asking in the first part of the reading.

Humans have looked to the sky for divine omens seemingly since the beginning of time. In fact, in the creation account recorded in Genesis 1, God specifically states that the various celestial objects—the sun and the moon in particular, but also the stars and planets—were created with this purpose in mind:

“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so.” (Genesis 1:14–15 NRSV)

The celestial bodies are designed to help an observant humanity to delineate years, seasons, and days. But they also can function as “signs.” We’ll explore that more in a moment.

Right now, it’s important to distinguish between the way God intends us to interact with these entities, and the way we choose to do so apart from God……or to use the language of the Bible, the way the “nations” interact with them.

Look to Jeremiah 10:

“Hear the word that the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel.
Thus says the LORD:

Do not learn the way of the nations,
or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens;
for the nations are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the peoples are false.” (Jeremiah 10:1–3a NRSV)

This is how those who do not know God approach celestial phenomena—they believe them to be signs of doom and gloom—cause for “dismay.”

Signs—the Faithful

But this is not the way those who do know God see these “signs.” As one example among many, let’s look to Joel 2. 

Joel contains a lot of the kind of language Jesus uses in Luke 21—you know: the earth-shaking, sun-darkening kind of thing. And as chapter 2 nears its close, we find some verses that I believe are pretty important for correctly interpreting what Jesus is saying.

After painting a picture of a restored Israel, we find the prophecy that Peter says is fulfilled at Pentecost in Acts chapter 2:

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2:28–29 NRSV)

Then in the very next verse, Joel—or perhaps we should say “God”—continues:

“I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood.” (Joel 2:30–31a NRSV)

This is familiar, right? Signs in the heavens, just like Jesus is talking about. Signs in the heavens, just like Jeremiah says should NOT cause dismay among those who know God.

Joel adds a dimension, however, that is right in line with what Jesus is talking about. He says all this will come to pass “before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” (v.31b).

And look at the next verse……v.32:

“Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” (Joel 2:32 NRSV)

According to the scriptures…… according to the bible with which Jesus saturated his life and intentionally aimed to live out in the world, the orientation of those who know God (upon observing such signs) should be hope.
Should. be. hope.

Back to Jesus

And this is, of course, precisely what Jesus proclaims in Luke 21:28. Instead of “fainting with fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” as v.26 says those who do not know God will do…… instead of experiencing terror and hiding our faces, Jesus commends us to to do what? To “stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28 NRSV).

When we who know God apply our observational and creative abilities to the cosmos, we will become attuned the Kingdom that is being born in our midst. That is our hope—the present and immanent nearness of God and God’s Kingdom.

All this can be compared, perhaps, to Psalm 19 and others like it, which begins: 

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1 NRSV)

All creation proclaims what Dallas Willard calls “the progressive with-ness of God,” that God is increasingly more and more “with us”—a trajectory that will be fulfilled when God’s Kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. 

But this is not where Jesus leaves us. Jesus never leaves us with a mere idea, instead giving us direction in how to connect with and embody that Kingdom right away.

Look back to Luke 21, now at v.34:

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.” (Luke 21:34–35)

[And let’s add v.36 too:]

“Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:36 NRSV)

It’s amazing to me that Jesus is so easily able to diagnose my heart from 2000 years and 6500 miles away. Maybe, though: it’s not just my heart being diagnosed.

Is your heart weighed down?

Are you troubled by the way resources are squandered? (that’s what “dissipation” means)

Do you find yourself just bumbling through life sometimes, like you’re drunk or something?

Are you sick of it?

Does worry and anxiety crush you?

Are you so busy and hurried attending to these and other troubles that you just loose track—caught unexpectedly off guard—about things you actually care about?

If so, it might just be that you’ve lost touch with who God created you to be: an intelligent, creative, observational being, who is tasked from your very beginning with caring for the created world in which we live. 

Maybe all this is a call to simplicity…… the sort of “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” that Jesus talks about in Matthew 6 (v.33 ESV).

Maybe it is a call to acknowledge that you can’t do it with your own strength. I mean: Jesus invites us here to “pray that you may have the strength” to survive all this, and be whole/intact when Jesus returns. I mean, the whole notion of salvation by grace confesses that this life is more than we can handle, and we must let God be our strength in order to discover abundant life.

Back to the Blues

But you know…… that blues song I began with isn’t really about the changes in the world that the singer has witnessed. It’s about the changes in himself that have come about by knowing God. It’s about the measurability of our progress when we dip into God’s Kingdom in our daily life. The verses testify that

Things I used to would do, I don’t do no more (3x)
Been a great change since I been born

Lies I used to would tell, I don’t tell no more (3x)
Been a great change since I been born

People I used to would hate, I don’t hate no more (3x)
Been a great change since I been born

Roads I used to would walk, I don’t walk no more(3x)
Been a great change since I been born

A new song been sung, since I been born(3x)
Been a great change since I been born

This change is possible for all of us. We know it already, because it has been written in our hearts from our very creation. As always, Jesus calls us back to ourselves. 

Will we follow?

Will we trust?

Will we believe that the invisible reality of God’s kingdom is as present as this pulpit…… or that pew you’re sitting in…… or the roof over our heads that keeps out the elements?

Immanuel means “God with us.” And God is. God is with you. God desires good for you. And God intends to give you every strength and power to become who you are created to be…… because being the true you—the fullness of your unique personality—brings God joy.

Good News, indeed.

He Comes

Scripture: Revelation 1:4-8

Reign of Christ

Greetings!

No, I wasn’t actually saying “hi!” I was telling you what our scripture lesson was about this week.

These greetings are very much framed with references to God—the one “who is and who was and who is to come” (cf. v.4, 8)—but they are in reality wholly focused on Jesus.

That’s probably why the Lectionary places this reading here on what is traditionally called “Christ the King Sunday.” This Holy Day—perhaps today more often referred to as “The Reign of Christ”—is a relatively recent addition to our Christian calendar, added just under 100 years ago. It takes place on the last day of the Christian calendar year—(remember that the Christian calendar begins with Advent). Christ the King is a day for celebrating and remembering what it means that the Reign of Christ—the Kingdom of God—has already begun and stretches towards fulfillment.

For followers of Jesus, the reminder that Christ alone is Lord is always appropriate. But since the lordship of Christ factors heavily into the traditional themes of Advent, it is doubly appropriate here and now.

This text from Revelation is part of the lectionary schedule that pairs the Sunday scriptures with the Christian calendar. And for our celebration of the Reign of Christ, I’m not sure there’s a better text available.

Trinity

The language that John uses here is permeated with trinitarian language, which helps us see Jesus in context of the Trinity. 

First up is “the timeless and eternal one ‘who is and who was and who is to come’,” the Being who frames the whole passage in vv.4 and 8……

Then is invoked “the sevenfold Spirit or perfect presence” of v.4……

And finally we encounter the Risen Christ—the third person of this Trinity (this unity of community)—who (as I said) is the real focus of this brief passage.

Within these brief verses of greeting, blessing, and teaching, we find the whole of the Gospel proclaimed through three statements about Jesus.

Who Is Jesus?

The first of these is found in the first half of v.5, and it answers the question: “Who is Jesus?”:

“Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5a NRSV)

 

Who is Jesus? Jesus is first “the faithful witness.”

Now, I’ve got to tell you—I went into this sermon with my teaching hat on. I performed complex search analytics, translated from multiple languages, and read countless commentaries. I wanted to have astute, educated, thoroughly-researched answers and explanations.

I went into this sermon with my teaching hat on, and God knocked it off.

God knocked it off because I didn’t need any of that. As a redeemed disciple of Jesus, I am the gospel story. Just as are you.

Jesus is called “the faithful witness.” And to what is he witnessing?

to God’s love

to God’s nature and being

to God’s purposes

But especially to the nearness of God’s Kingdom. It won’t take many more years before before this Greek word for witness and testimony gains an added meaning—to die for one’s beliefs. It is, in fact, Jesus’s witnessing to the nearness of God’s Kingdom that runs him afoul of the authorities, and ultimately leads to his death…… to his martyrdom on account of what he believed.

 

Who is Jesus? John (in Revelation) also tells us that Jesus is also “the firstborn of the dead.”

What does that mean? That means that because Jesus has been raised from the dead, we will be too. Because Jesus experienced life so abundant it could not be constrained by the confines of time and space, we too can truly live in excess of this life’s limitations. Addressing this same reality in 1Corinthians 15 starting in v.20, Paul speaks of the resurrection almost like it is contagious. Just like Adam was Patient Zero for the sin that infected and enslaved us, Christ proves to be a new kind of contagion that alters our DNA and renders us immune from the death caused by sin.

 

Who is Jesus? Jesus is the “ruler of the kings of the earth.”

Now, anyone who has read the book of Revelation and understood even a fraction of it can tell that John would never claim that Jesus controlled or caused the actions of the rulers of his world. 

From the rest of Revelation, it is pretty obvious that this phrase is intended to communicate the supremacy of Jesus over and against all the other rulers or kings of the world. As preacher Tom Long has written:

“Naming Christ as ‘the ruler of the kings’ also assures the reader that no earthly power, regardless of how toxic, can ultimately loosen the grasp of Christ upon his followers.”

Or, I might add, prevent the victory of Christ from being fulfilled in creation.

What Has Jesus Done?

That is who Jesus is. What has Jesus done?

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father” (Revelation 1:5b–6 NRSV).

Now maybe this is just my brain looking for a pattern where there isn’t one, but I notice a certain sequentiality to these things Jesus has done.

Jesus loved us. I could quote verses all over the place about this, from fan favorites like John 3:16 to less well-known verses like Ephesians 5:2. But for all my love and respect for the bible—words are words unless they are lived out. If you’ve experienced Jesus’s love, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, then I’d sure like to tell you about how I’ve been loved and you are too. 

Jesus loved us enough to free us. We are freed from the tyranny of sin and death. We are freed from the cycles of violence that consume us. We are freed from our destined-to-fail do-it-myself attitude. We are freed to become: and not just to become enlightened, or to become better, or to become saved.

We are freed to become a kingdom—we are made to be a kingdom, to stick closer to John’s words here. Our passport no longer bears the seal of the United States of America or any other earthly power—for that is no longer where our citizenship lies. We are “citizens of heaven,” to use the language of Philippians 3:20. Or to return to Jesus: we are citizens of that Kingdom of God that even then was already and still now is not yet. Confessing Jesus alone as our Lord and King and Ruler, we bear no other allegiance.

Thus loved, freed, and drawn into belonging, Christ empowers us for service. Virtually all of Jesus teaching was about the Kingdom of God. And virtually everything he demonstrated about how we live in it and access it is centered around service. In John 13, for example, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and commands them to do the same into perpetuity. When he’s done, Jesus asks them if they understood what he did. They (of course) do not, so Jesus lays it out even more directly:

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master…” (John 13:14–16a NRSV)

If Jesus is Lord and Master, and his path was one of service, we cannot dare expect that ours will be one of power and might. We will serve, as Jesus served, or else Jesus and his Kingdom is not in us at all.

Jesus Is Coming Back

Following this confession of who Jesus is and what he has done, John continues with a statement about Jesus’s return—his “second coming,” to use a common expression:

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

So it is to be. Amen.” (Revelation 1:7 NRSV)

See, this is the last part of our Gospel hope. We know that things aren’t right around us. We know that things aren’t right within us. And God has given us a pretty good idea about where things are going to end up—about what God intends for creation. It involves a lot of reconciling the balance of justice—lifting up the downtrodden, restoring those on the margins to the center, reestablishing those who slipped through the cracks—that kind of stuff. 

But for everyone who has been oppressed, there has been an oppressor

For each that is poor, there is one ravaged by greed

For anyone who has been displaced, someone else has conquered

See, John reminds us that Jesus’s return will not be experienced in the same way by everyone. He says that “on [Jesus’s] account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” Justice will be painful for those on the wrong side of it.

This Revelation hope of Jesus’s return is only hopeful if you’ve actually taken Jesus seriously enough:

to take up your cross and follow him…… 

to believe that the first will be last and the last will be first…… 

to know that the world will only know that we are Christ’s disciples by our L-O-V-E……love.

Which means…. we’ve got to live out self-sacrificing love too.

I love the way Peter Wallace sums this up:

“So, how [Wallace asks] do we live under the reign of Christ the King? How do we operate as priests who serve God? Consider this: We reflect within our everyday spheres John’s threefold description of Christ:

(1) we follow Christ’s example as a faithful witness,

(2) we seek ardently to understand his will for us, to deny ourselves, and take up our crosses and serve others sacrificially; and

(3) we make it our life’s goal to bring others into his reign of love and praise, which will last forever.”

“Christ [Wallace continues] is not a tyrant; he is a lover. He is not a power-mad despot we are forced to serve or else; he is a servant witness. And he calls us to be the same sort of loving and serving witnesses to others. 

When we grasp that calling, our lives become sources and avenues of praise for ‘the Alpha and the Omega…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’ Amen.” (in Feasting, 331)

And Amen.

Perfectly Imperfect

Scripture: Hebrews 10:11-18

Wandering My House

If history were a house, and you could walk around its rooms and visit the different times and experiences of someone’s life, you would be alarmed at the number of projects left undone around this imaginary house of mine.

There’s the old car I bought when I was 15…

There’s that old Schwinn bike I was going to convert a single speed…

There are partially filled out journals,

Musical instruments I never ended up learning how to play,

Abandoned day planners,

And let us not forget the partially-begun-but-never-completely-read books… That’s a whole wing of the house in and of itself…

But then there’s the things that are less physical and tangible, too:

Poking around this imaginary house, you would find whole rooms stuffed with unfinished New Year’s Resolutions…

There would be piles and piles of exercise programs and diets I began but never saw through to the end…

You would find whole languages I have lost–languages I once was proficient or even fluent in speaking…

I used to be more ashamed of all these abandoned fragments I seem to leave in my wake. But I am coming to learn that I am not so alone in this as I often feel. So instead of experiencing guilt about shifting interests and my erratic participation therein, I’m trying to find the grace to let things go.

For all sorts of reasons–rooted in both character flaws and strengths–I struggle to bring things to completion. Yet as we often discover when we look inside ourselves, our flaws and strengths are not so far apart as they initially seem; they are usually opposite sides of the same instinct.

I am a perfectionist, and so the work I do tends to be good work…… but it sometimes mean I struggle to call anything “finished.”

Patterns become obvious to me quite quickly, but I can then be impatient when others don’t see what I see.

I am more interested in puzzles than solutions, which makes me great at problem solving and not so great at resolving problems.

(I could go on…… but, how much time do we have, right?)

All these are sometimes strengths, and sometimes foibles.

But other than cheap therapy, is there a point to my sharing all this?

I hope so, whether or not it’s yet (or even eventually) obvious. 

God

God in scripture is often contrasted with we human beings by the use of the language of completion or endurance. 

Human life is a breath, a mist, mere dust… Yet God is enduring, eternal, and almighty. 

Whereas the bible is filled with stories of humans failing to follow through (book of Judges, as an easy starting place), God is described as a god who finishes what God starts. 

Amidst the backdrop of our unfaithfulness, the whole story of the OT is that God is a god who can be trusted; God’s promises can be relied on to be fulfilled. 

Sanctified = Perfected

Here’s the connection to our reading…… I’m not perfect. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But look at what v.14 of our reading says about me…… about us……

“For by a single offering he [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14 NRSV)

If I am among the sanctified–and I believe (or at least hope) myself to be, as someone who attempts to follow Jesus—-If I am among the sanctified, then Christ (quote:) “has perfected me for all time.” If you are among the sanctified, then Christ “has perfected you for all time.” 

Sisters and brothers, if this is true, I’m not sure that God knows what “perfect” means!?

I mean, the only other option is that…… we’re wrong, right?

Perfect?

This is an important insight in this scripture…… It’s an important insight for anyone, really. When God sees you, God sees someone who has been made perfect. Crazy, right?!?

But here’s the thing, of course: Perfect doesn’t mean sinless. Perfect can’t mean sinless, because I’m the foremost of sinners, yet God sees me as someone who has been made perfect. The verses here in Hebrews don’t say that we sanctified (and too often sanctimonious) folk stop sinning somewhere along the way. 

No. In the text God says: 

“‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:17–18 NRSV)

The memory of sin has been excised.
The sacrificial remedy for sin has been declared unnecessary.
And why? Because we have forgiveness with God.

You see, because we have been made perfect, God relates with us differently. That’s what the author of Hebrews is getting at when she quotes the prophet Jeremiah in v.16:

“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:

I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
(Hebrews 10:16 NRSV)

This a new thing that Jeremiah anticipates–a time when God will relate to us in a different way. 

Instead of laws written on monuments or tablets or scrolls, God’s laws will be written on hearts and minds.

Instead of God’s ways only being accessible through ritual and religious leaders, God’s ways will be accessible to each who turn to God.

This “new thing” Jeremiah anticipates is part of the same “new thing” foreseen by Isaiah and others as well. In Isaiah 43:19, God speaks directly about this turning–this changing–of the means of relationship, and of access between God and humanity. There God says:

“I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19 NRSV)

In this “new thing,” God makes a way–God creates accessibility–where no way could previously have existed. 

That which was impenetrable and un-passable has given way to a highway of expedition. 

That which had been a barren wasteland of impossibility has opened to a fertile and well-irrigated hope.

Back to Hebrews

In using this language and quoting from Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews connects all this to Christ. She draws our eye to the fact that it is with Jesus that this “new thing” God is doing has begun.

A new way of atonement.
A new way of reconciliation.
A new way of forgiveness.
A new way of relationship.
A new way of accessing the Kingdom that is now breaking into this world.

But even more than that–God is doing something new in you. In Christ you have been made perfect–or at least perfectly imperfect, if we continue to feel the need to qualify that. 

And since you have been made perfect, you have the whole Kingdom of God available to you right here and now! 

All those stories of grace and forgiveness and love and reconciliation that Jesus tells about God’s Kingdom–those can be present realities! 

All those teachings about peacemaking and blessing and contentment, about hungering and thirsting no more, about living and experiencing true life–these can be fulfilled in us–even now!

It’s hard to explain to those who haven’t really experienced God in a such a literal, real way. But when you discover this kind of accessibility of God–this “new thing” that God does through Jesus–it really does change everything.

The call of discipleship is real. And it is now. 

Jesus does not ask us to know the right things.
Jesus does not ask us to demonstrate moral superiority.
Jesus does not ask us to overthrow the “Rome” of our world.

What does Jesus do? Jesus beckons: “Come, follow me. Let me show you the already-within-your midst, fully-accessible Kingdom of God.”

Fulfilling Salvation

Scripture: Hebrews 9:24-28

Intro

This week’s reading builds on that of last week. Though there are some verses in between, we essentially find a continuation and development of what began earlier in the chapter. Hence: the continued emphasis on Jesus’s action being “once for all,” and the underlying awareness of “how much more” Christ does for us than we can comprehend.

The Gospel

Now, for the author of Hebrews, the gospel of Jesus Christ is most often expressed through the language of sacrifice. This is consistent with some parts of scripture and at odds with others. But we must remember, as our ancient forbearers knew, that all this is analogy. Just as Jesus told parables to communicate eternal truths about God and grace and the Kingdom, so the early Church (like the psalmists and other scripture-writers before them) used analogy to communicate the deliverance of God.

The whole of Hebrews is built on an analogy for Christ’s work that is deeply rooted in the Torah of the Jewish people. Back in those Old Testament books that we Christians largely ignore (like Leviticus and Deuteronomy), we find instructions that talk about how to “get right with God and each other.”

This (they say) is how you demonstrate gratitude to God……

This is how you remember and teach your history with God to the next generation……

This is how you are restored to community after offense……

This is how you achieve forgiveness and reconciliation with God……

And so on.

If you want to really understand what the author of Hebrews is trying to say, you’re going to have to take a deep dive back to those books that were central to the life of Jesus, Paul, and the other early Christians.

Sacrifice

Christ, we read in v.28 of our scripture lesson, was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (NRSV). Whether or not it is immediately apparent, this is another expression of the “how much more” of God that we discussed last week. And it is another “how much more” thing precisely because the sacrificial system at the time did not work this way. The Old Testament sacrifices were not “offered once to bear the sins of many,” but rather offered over and over again to bear the sins of a few. 

They were not, as we discussed last week, enduring in terms of permanence.

And they were not for all, as the scriptures claim about the “sacrifice” of Jesus.

These distinctions could not be more important…… which is why the author of Hebrews spends 13 chapters trying to make them clear. For those of us reading 2000 years later and many thousands of miles away, these arguments can often seem convoluted and opaque. Part of that, I believe, is because the author often circles back on herself. She is so intent on making her point that she—like many other biblical authors—says the same thing several different ways. 

But I think the biggest obstacle for us today is that we are not immersed in a sacrificial religious system—it is not a native language to us, the way it was to those original readers and hearers of Hebrews. And I think the biggest misunderstandings come because we don’t know the answer to one, significant question: What did the Old Testament sacrifices actually achieve?

The Result of Sacrifices

Now, in our exploration of an answer to that question, we first must recognize that there were different kinds of sacrifices, each of which was intended to achieve something different. It’s outside the scope of our conversation this morning to work thorough all of these, but you can find out more by reading Leviticus chapters 1-7. I think you will discover that all the sacrifices have a bend toward community—that is: building community, restoring individuals to community, reorienting community around gratitude or generosity or reliance on God, and so on.

There are, among the other sacrifices, specific special sacrifices prescribed for sin and purification. Leviticus recognizes sin as a fact—and both intentional and unintentional. So these sacrifices and instructions are designed to restore right relationship between individuals (or between an individual and God) through ritual and restitution.

But these individual sin sacrifices are not—alone—what the author of Hebrews is referring to. She may be more focused, I suspect, on the Day of Atonement.

Day of Atonement

This annual Holy Day is described in depth in Leviticus 16. And once again: right now I’m not as interested in the details of how to carry out the ritual, as I am the mechanism of how the ritual “works”—that mechanism, after all, is what Hebrews is building this analogy from.

An important passage is Leviticus 16:21-22:

“Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region…” (Leviticus 16:21–22 NRSV)

This is similar to the mechanism in place when it comes to those special-case sin offerings, too. All the “iniquities”…… all the “transgressions”…… all the “sins” of the people are placed on the animal. As the animal is then removed from the people—either physically or through death—so their sins “go away” or they “die” with the animal. At that point those sins are no more. 

 

But what is going to happen?
What always happens?

We sin again (right?). Every. Single. Time.

So what did these sacrifices actually achieve? They wiped the slate against us clean. They removed the impediments that we put between ourselves and God. They provided us with possibility—the possibility of a second chance with God.

Back to Hebrews

As the author of Hebrews talks about these things…… As she seeks to teach us something important about the work of Jesus through these analogies and comparisons, we hear the same sort of thing:

The death of Jesus wiped the slate against us clean.

The death of Jesus removed the impediments we put between ourselves and God.

The death of Jesus provides us with another chance to be in community with our loving God.

Expressing the same reality, Peter and Paul both imagine that Jesus switches places with us (cf. 1Peter 2:24; Galatians 4:4-5; Philippians 2:6-8; usw.). They are using a different analogy, of course—the analogy of a courtroom. But it is easy to see overlap in how the Gospel is communicated between these different presentations. In the courtroom analogy:

We stand accused of great crimes. We’re guilty. The judgment comes down—we are sentenced to death. 

But Jesus, the beloved child of God, switches places with us. Jesus takes our place, accepting the death sentence that is upon us. We, then, take Jesus’s place—as beloved children of God. 

In a reversal akin to the ones in Jesus stories of the first becoming last and vice versa, we are transformed from death-roll convict into deeply-loved children of the Almighty.

This is the Good News.

The Hope

And this leads us to the second half of the verse—the half that speaks to the hope we have in Christ:

“[Christ]…will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28b NRSV).

Jesus is coming again…… Amen?

This is the confession that Christians have made for centuries:

Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ is coming again

In but a couple short weeks, we will begin a season recognizing Jesus’s first advent—the incarnation, as God becomes flesh and lives among us (as John 1:14 tells). The season of Advent though isn’t about Christmas carols and holiday cheer. It is, rather, an anticipation of Jesus’s second coming—

an anticipation: of the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise: “I will come again” in John 14:3 (NRSV).

an anticipation: of the realization of the angels’ promise in Acts 1:11: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (NRSV).

The Second Coming of Jesus is the basis of our hope.

The Second Coming

But here (I believe) is where we meet another obstacle. We misunderstand Hebrews because we don’t really know what the second coming of Jesus is about.

What is the Second Coming of Jesus about?

The author of Hebrews says here that when Jesus appears again, it is “not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 NRSV).

 

There are a million things I want to say about the Second Coming, but I don’t have time for them all—and I love you, but I don’t think you’ve got the patience to hear them all today, either.

When we talk about the Second Coming, sin is usually a big part of the conversation. We say:

The world’s going to hell in a handbasket

People are going to have to answer for their choices

There’s going to be danger—especially for those practicing sin instead of righteousness

And so on……

But the thing is—if we are to believe the author of Hebrews in what she tells us—if we are going to believe the Bible in what it tells us—sin has already been dealt with.

Yes, of course, we have the image of the so-called Great White Throne Judgment in Revelation 20—that cosmic reckoning when the dead are judged.

Yes, of course, there’s all that “Day of the Lord” stuff in the prophets, where it is clear that—on that day—things aren’t going to go well for you if you are on the wrong side of justice.

And yes, of course, there continues to be sin and violence and destruction and hate in the world. I do not deny any of that……

But what Jesus did on the cross—(and this is important)—what Jesus did about sin—was once. for. all…… Sin has already been taken into account. In the expansive love of God as revealed through Jesus:

Even those on the wrong side of history have the possibility of being reconciled to God. 

Even the ones committing the worst kinds of injustice have the potential of being delivered from the deceptive slavery of sin and death and redeemed to new life in God’s Kingdom. 

Even those who deny the image of God in their fellow humankind may discover a new identity as a beloved child of God.

Once again, this is the Gospel.

Salvation

So let’s talk about salvation.

When pastors and theologians talk about salvation, we tend to use big theological words: propitiation, sanctification, justification, imputation, glorification, and so on. We take a bunch of verses that describe the same thing with different words, and we try to nuance meaning so everything fits neatly and cleanly. 

But it doesn’t. And it shouldn’t have to. Neat and clean didn’t matter to the biblical authors. They used many of these underlying Greek terms interchangeably. And I really suspect that when we split hairs in this way, we end up losing out on what God means when scripture says that God intends to save us.

Even when we just stick to the one word that is most often translated “saved” in the New Testament, we see that the Scriptures speak of salvation as past, present, and future. 

There’s a story of Cambridge professor Brooke Foss Westcott, who was approached by a student to ask if he was saved.

“Ah,” said Westcott, “a very good question. But tell me: do you mean…?”——and then he voiced the three forms of the Greek verb “to save,” indicating that his answer would depend on which of the three the student had in mind. 

“I know I have been saved,” he said; “I believe I am being saved, and I hope by the grace of God that I shall be saved.”

Salvation (in the NT) has a past, a present, and a future reference. 

Examples

Let’s grab a few examples—and just to eliminate some variables in an attempt to be more scientific about all this, let’s just look at examples from the writings of the apostle Paul.

Ephesians 2 illustrates the past dimension of salvation. In vv.8-9, Paul says “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9 NRSV). 

“You have been saved.” In the underlying grammar here, this signifies a past completed action—something that is contained entirely in the past.

Philippians 2 is a good place to turn for the present dimension. In the last part of v.12 there, Paul urges the church at Philippi to 

work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12 NRSV). 

This couples nicely with verses in 1Corinthians like 15:1-2, which says, 

“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, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain” (1Corinthians 15:1–2 NRSV).

For the future dimension, we turn to Romans 5. These verses may not be the best illustration of my point, but they are verses I love. After stressing that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NRSV), Paul continues in the next verse: 

“Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, we will be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, we will be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8–10 NRSV+)

Back to Hebrews: Parousia is about Salvation, Not Sin

As Paul conceives of God’s salvation, there can be no doubt that he intends something with past, present, and future dimensions. To build off of the biblical language we encounter, I think it would be appropriate to say that God’s salvation has its beginnings in the past actions of Jesus, it is being worked out through our present faithful actions, and it will be fulfilled (completed…… perfected……) when Jesus returns again.

Perhaps Philippians 1:6 sums all this up for us:

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6 NRSV)

This “day of Jesus Christ” is what the author of Hebrews is looking towards, too. She says in Hebrews 9:28 that “Christ…will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (NRSV).

As we talked about earlier, the Second Coming is the root of our Christian hope. On account of the Cross, the slate is wiped clean. Sin has been dealt with. Christ has changed places with us, and God sees us as beloved children.

But God’s designs for creation—God’s plan, if you prefer that language—are not yet complete. The big picture of justice and peace and reconciliation and healing is not yet here. So our faith remains, to quote another part of Hebrews, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 NRSV). 

So for those of us growing in faith as we follow the Way of Jesus, we know that God is at work fulfilling salvation in us and in the world. And we find in that promise—in that “assurance”…… that “conviction”……—a hope that transforms our very lives. 

Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ is coming again

Amen.

A Greater Love

Scripture: Hebrews 9:11-14

The Early Church

It would have been strange to have lived at the time of the early church. In so many ways, the world of our Christian ancestors was upside-down to our own. 

They were the minority; we are the majority.

They had to worship in secret; we have churches on every second corner.

They faced very real and literal persecution at the hands of the government; we today are the ones controlling the government and frequently stand accused of persecuting others.

But also: we have the “whole story” of Jesus, whereas they only had fragments.

Remember: Back then there was no New Testament. What we today call the “Old Testament” was simply “The Bible” (and even it wasn’t yet completely set). For Christians “The Bible” was supplemented by memories of Jesus’s teachings and actions that were passed along from person to person.

There was also no clear tradition of how to “do Church.” Our ancestors’ tradition was that of the Jewish worship in synagogues—synagogues they were kicked out of for believing Jesus was the Messiah. 

We today have so many answers where our ancestors had questions. 

And yet……

And yet in the newness and vagueness of all these “hows,” our ancestors found a kind of clarity that called them to action—radical action—in the world. 

What’s Important?

You see, when you know you don’t have all the information, you become really careful at figuring out which pieces are most important. 

The pieces of Jesus’s life—the pieces of the Christian faith—that they deemed most important were all about the extravagance of God’s love, itself demonstrated most completely through the person of Jesus the Christ.

For God so loved the world… (John 3:16)

No one has greater love than this… (John 15:13)

You shall love your neighbor as yourself… (Mark 12:31)

Love your enemies… (Luke 6:35; Mt 5:43)

Unless your righteousness surpasses… (Matt 5:20)

The world, they decided, has known no greater love than that demonstrated by and through Jesus. Since that is the hallmark of who Jesus is; that also must be the hallmark of who they will be.

In today’s reading from Hebrews, this focus on God’s “greater love” is demonstrated through the use of two phrases—phrases that are not uncommon throughout this book. Those phrases are “once for all” and “how much more.”

Impermanence

Nothing in creation is eternal. As everything has been brought into being by the great Being—the I AM—so everything continues to depend on God for its ongoing existence. The scriptures do not describe a God who, like a cosmic watchmaker, sets things in motion and moves on to another project. 

Quite the opposite! Scripture speaks frequently of God’s loving and tender care of all creation [e.g. Psalm 104:24, 27-28], of God’s intimacy with its most seemingly insignificant parts [e.g. Luke 12:7], and of the reliance of creation on God for its most basic functioning and existence [e.g. Isaiah 42:5].

And in comparison to our eternal God, the scriptures marvel at the brevity of life. It is a breath, a vapor—vanity, says Ecclesiastes [1:2], which in the English language of the 1600s meant it was “without permanence.” Like smoke dispersing into atmosphere, the Psalmist offers [Psalm 102:3]. Like a fog burned off by the morning sun, James says [James 4:14].

And if our mere existence is described in such fleeting terms, consider relationships, or purchases, or experiences, or politics, or whatever. Consider, asked Carl Sagan some years back, the pale blue dot—our planet in the context of the vastness of space: “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

But consider also—Hebrews suggests—how we are reconciled with our Almighty God. For round about 1500 years, reconciliation with God was brought about by a series of sacrificial offerings prescribed at regular intervals. These had no permanence. Like everything else in the world, they “worked” for a time and then must be repeated.

Enter: “once for all.”

Once for All

You see, it takes something outside of creation to break the limitations and inevitability of time…… something, as the author of Hebrews says in 9:11, is “not made with hands…not of this creation” (NRSV).

Once for all, God entered this world as Jesus

Once for all, the right way to be human was demonstrated for us

Once for all, we were shown how to break the cycles of violence that hold us back from God’s purposes and destroy us

Once for all, the greatest love of all was revealed to the world

Once for all, Jesus died on the cross

And once, so that all may follow, God raised Jesus from the dead.

“Once for all”—as used by the author of Hebrews to refer to the whole of the gospel story—defines the Way of Jesus as well as nearly any other phrase. 

How Much More

Any other phrase (that is) except perhaps: “how much more.”

There is an extravagance with the Almighty that we often seem to miss.

Consider for a moment the Parable of the Sower (e.g. Mark 3:3-20), one of the most famous of Jesus’s stories. It is—like all of Jesus’s stories—a story of grace and of God’s Kingdom.

There’s a farmer, Jesus says. And it’s planting time. 

So he takes the seed he has—that precious seed……seed that he has no doubt painstakingly saved from last year’s harvest—he takes this valuable seed, and he throws it willy-nilly every-which-way.

It falls on the road.

It falls where the rocks haven’t been cleared from the ground.

It falls among the brambles and hedge trees that line the field.

And—seemingly miraculously, given the apparent incompetence of this farmer—some actually lands on the field—the good, rich, tilled, weeded, and rock-free soil that was prepared to receive it.

This (Jesus says) is what God’s Kingdom is like. This extravagant sowing of grace is who God is. And I (Jesus says) am a demonstration of that.

How much more!

The “How Much More” of Christ

“How much more!” was a refrain throughout Jesus’ teaching.

“How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11b)

“How much more valuable is a human!” (Matthew 12:12a)

“How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13b)

“Of how much more value are you!” (Luke 12:24)

“How much more will [God] clothe you—you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28)

Or jumping to our scripture text today: “How much more will the blood of Christ… purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” (Hebrews 9:14 NRSV). 

How much more effective!
How much more powerful!
How much more permanent!
How much more complete!

How much more!

 

Of course, “how much more” was also lived out in Jesus’s life. Perhaps this is best exemplified by what we read in John 15:13 and what we know about the rest of Jesus’s story. There Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (NRSV).

We know love—but consider how much more is God’s love for us!

We know parents—but consider how much more God is mother and father to us!

We know forgiveness—but consider how much more is God’s forgiveness!

We know grace—but consider how much more is the grace God gives us!

I think “How much more!” is a reminder that whatever we can conceive is a fraction of the goodness that God desires for us.

The “How Much More” of Us

Of course, “How much more!” is also indicative of the way that we followers of Jesus are to live. 

There is, Jesus says, no greater commandment than to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31 on screen). That—in and of itself—is not innovative or revolationary, as I have said before; other rabbis before Jesus made such a claim. What Jesus does that is both innovative and revolutionary, however, is define “neighbor” in a way that it includes even ones enemies (cf. Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10). 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus works to show his disciples how they are to be distinctive from the world—how to live into this “how much more.” 

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus begins in John 13:35. But what is the rest? Do you remember? Everyone will know you are my disciples……

If you achieve a high level of moral purity?——No.

If you protect your own interests and grow in prosperity and power?——No.

If you infiltrate and wield the government to force Christ’s kingdom to come?——No.

If you repost that meme on Facebook that “proves” you aren’t ashamed of Jesus?——No.

How does it go? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 NRSV).

“How much more!”

 

The Christian life is to be characterized by an excess of love:

More, Jesus says in Matthew 5:20, than the scribes and pharisees. 

More, Jesus says in Matthew 5:46, than tax collectors.

More, Jesus says in Matthew 5:47, than unbelievers.

More, Paul says in 2Corinthians 3:9, than the “ministry of condemnation” of the world.

More even, suggests John in Revelation 2:19, than we demonstrated at the beginning.

If we are followers of Jesus, then our lives and actions are going to be ruled by the greater love of Christ, a love that we demonstrate by living into these phrases: “once for all” and “how much more.”

As Jesus instructs at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37 NRSV).