Buying into the Kingdom of God

Scripture: Acts 8:14-17

Samaritans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Magnus

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

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

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

Enter Simon:

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

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

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

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

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

“But when they believed Philip”…..

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commodification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Consumption

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

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

The list goes on and on.

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

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

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

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

Or if you haven’t seen that movie……

Or if you play secular video games……

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

well then…… you just don’t fit.

The Challenge

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

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

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

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

 

Because one of these things is not like the other. 

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

The Mystery of Christ

Scripture: Ephesians 3:1-12

Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystery of Christ

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

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

Here’s a guy who was obviously different:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also…… did not stay dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mystery itself is revealed in v.6:

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

What does that mean? 

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

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

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

You Say You Want a Revolution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access for All

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

There is now no obstacle for anyone

nothing to stand in the way of reaching God

nothing to block access to the kingdom of heaven

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

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

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

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

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

From Galatians 3:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV)

From Colossians 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed

Scripture: Luke 1:39-55

Intro

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

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

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

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

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

Who Is Mary?: Woman

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

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

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

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

Who Is Mary?: Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Is Mary?: Betrothed

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

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

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

Who Is Mary?: Not Worth Marrying

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

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

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

 

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

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

Blessed.

Blessed. 

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

Blessedness in the New Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beatitudes Are Not…

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

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

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

 

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

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

Isn’t it the rich?

Isn’t it the happy?

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

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

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

 

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

Who Is Blessed?

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

 

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

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

The Un-blessable

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed are the poor

Blessed is the immigrant

Blessed is the refugee

Blessed are those identifying as LGBTQ

Blessed are the uneducated

Blessed are the drug abusers

Blessed are the drunkards

Blessed are the fiscally irresponsible

Blessed are the unemployed

Blessed are those pregnant too many times

Blessed are the who can’t get pregnant

Blessed are the abused

Blessed are the mentally ill

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

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

Back to Mary

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Prayer

God,

Forgive us of our sins. They are many.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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.

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.