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.

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. 

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.