Crypt as Chrysalis

Psalm Reading: Psalm 16:1–11

Scripture Reading: John 20:19–31

Arguing with Jesus

I’m going to warn you ahead of time: this is one of those sermons where Pastor Michael wonders a lot of things aloud and trusts the Spirit to spin gold out of these leaden offerings.

 

This has been a unexpectedly difficult week. There have been tragedies that have touched uncomfortably close to home. There have been uncertainties and obstacles that frustrated things I was trying to accomplish. There has been that heartbreak of seeing people you love spew propaganda that is in no one’s best interests. And (of course) there has been the mounting anxiety of quarantine and all its challenges—both personally and in terms of my vocation.

That’s probably how I ended up in a cemetery, arguing with a statue of Jesus.

To be fair, he started it.

And to be honest, it probably only looked like we were arguing, had someone been unfortunate enough to walk nearby.

I had gone on a walk to clear my head; and, yes, to “have a little talk with Jesus” (as the song goes). Along the way, I started thinking about the resurrection, about life in this world and the next, and about what it all means.

In Life

We Christians look at Jesus: He was born a fully human being, just like you and me. 

As a newborn, he no doubt kept Mary up late needing to eat.

As a toddler, he needed to be potty-trained and he had to learn to speak.

The one story the bible tells of a teenage Jesus indicates that Teen Jesus also didn’t communicate the best with his parents, and had ideas contrary to theirs about responsibility.

The bible leaves us to imagine what it was like for Jesus as he experienced a coming of age, as he worked to build an independent life, as he built friendships of various intimacy with those around him, and so on.

Even at the start of Jesus’ ministry—when he is around 30 years old—he still seems to resist his mother’s meddling in his life [see John 2], perhaps part of an ongoing effort to “be his own person.”

The one thing the bible does stress is that Jesus had a fully human life. He lived as we do. He struggled as we do. He was tempted as we are. He experienced the highs and lows of life and emotion and wellbeing.

He even dies like a normal human being.

But something happened in that grave—or at least, between Jesus’ corpse going in and his resurrected self coming out.

After Resurrection

After the resurrection, Jesus still ate fish and talked and taught and did all kinds of normal human things. 

But for some reason folks were not as likely to recognize him right away [John 20:14-15].

Jesus could enter rooms that were locked (like in today’s John 20 text, vv.19, 26).

He even seemed capable of outright disappearing in an instant [Luke 24:30-31].

And, flying…… I guess? At the Ascension, Jesus is described as being “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” which left the disciples “looking up toward heaven” (Acts 1:9, 11).

I have a feeling that all this is barely scratching the surface of the ways that Jesus’ body was qualitatively different after his resurrection.

I got talking about all this with the Jesus statue because of course it is the week after Easter, so resurrection is on my mind. 

But I also got thinking about all this because of how the New Testament says that we will experience a similar resurrection [Romans 6:4], and how Jesus tells us that we are capable of doing greater things than even he had done [John 14:12].

How does this life relate to the next one?

How does this body relate to that one?

How does our progress in discipleship impact both?

Crypt as Chrysalis

Along the way, an image came to my mind, which I believe was brought there by God. Like all parables, it is imperfect and will certainly break down if you push it too far. But it challenged me then, and it still does now.

The image is that of crypt as chrysalis.

If you want to imagine a butterfly, that’s fine; if you want to imagine some other insect that pupates, that’s ok too. It’s just that “crypt as chrysalis” sounds a lot better than “grave as pupae.”

Anyway, consider the life cycle of the lowly insect:

Born in the form of some sort of grub- or worm-like creature, the insect is driven by some of the most basic instincts of life: food and survival. And so the grub spends its days (or nights) focused on the consumption of the resources required to sustain not just its present existence, but also it’s ability to endure through its change and life thereafter.

At some point, provided it has survived and has also accumulated the necessary resources within itself to make the change, the insect pupates—forming a chrysalis or a cocoon or whatever.

Here then, shielded from sight, the insect undergoes an incredible transformation shifting from an ugly, ungainly worm into one of the most delicate and beautiful creations…… changing from a slow, clumsy creature that meanders vaguely in the ground or on a plant to a nimble, whimsical creature that literally flies.

It can be hard for us to imagine how there could be any continuity between these two dramatically different creatures. And yet they are one and the same. The life the insect lived on the ground impacts its life above the ground. Its immediate focus and purposes may have changed between scenes, but somehow it’s life was always moving toward this goal, whether it realized it or not. Now at last, it has achieved the life that it was destined to live.

Quarantine as Chrysalis?

It certainly seems to have been like that for Jesus. His life before the grave has continuity with his life after it, though not always in ways that are immediately apparent. And he emerges somehow more nimble…… more focused…… more flighty.

Maybe—just maybe—it’s like that for us too. Perhaps death for us is a kind of chrysalis experience, where the things we have consumed and practiced in this life are absorbed into our very being—molding and shaping us into something more. And for those of us who work to disciple Jesus—to live a Jesus-like life—perhaps our transition is fueled by the nourishment of the Kingdom of God, of which we learned to partake through Jesus. 

But I don’t think we have to die to emerge with new life. We simply have to die to ourselves. Paul writes that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2Corinthians 5:17 ESV). Paul does not say “she will become a new creation on that eventual day when Jesus comes back to rule forever”; No! Paul says that when a person is in Christ, they become a new creation.

That means this quarantine can be your chrysalis too. 

Perhaps our homes are symbolic of the grave or cocoon that swaddles us during our transformation.

Perhaps the forced simplification is analogous to the shutting out of light and other stimulation so we can focus on becoming.

Perhaps the way this pandemic has exposed our interdependence with one another provides a launching pad for learning to live responsibly as a society together.

Perhaps allowing God to do some transforming of us during this uncertain time will enable something of Jesus to emerge more fully when a new day finally dawns.

We can hope.
We can pray.
And we can throw ourselves at the foot of God’s throne and ask God to do what we can never do on our own: 

Change us.
Make us new.
Lead us to true life.

Redemption through the Word of God

Scripture: Romans 5:10-11; 6:4, 8-11

On the Lookout

Many weeks ago now, the worship committee and I set the topic for this week: “Redemption through the Word of God.” And through the uncanny leading and presence of the Holy Spirit, this seems a remarkably appropriate topic for us to be considering right now.

In the midst of crisis, we look for a savior…… a deliverer…… someone or something that enables us to do three basic things:

to make sense of the crisis…

to “solve” the problems that perpetuate the crisis, and…

to navigate to the other side of the crisis—to get us through it.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been on the lookout for these things too. And we tend to look in all sorts of places.

Some of us turn to our favorite news outlet.

Some of us check out the CDC and the scientific medical community.

Some of us look to see what the social medias have to say

Some of us focus on what the pundits are pundit-ing and politicians are politician-ing.

Most of us are probably doing all of the above: watching, hoping, expecting that deliverance for which we long:

the medical breakthrough that will end this thing…

the drop in positive tests that signal a waning trend…

a governmental intervention that contributes to the public health and wellness…

even just a leader we can count on.

And just to be clear: we are not wrong in watching for or even expecting such things come to pass.

There would [after all] be no hope of a medical breakthrough without our creative God building creativity into us, and guiding us as we use it for the common good.

Those rational and creative powers that are part of how we reflect God’s image and likeness are the fundamental tools of science, which has in turn given us communication and diagnostic technologies.

There is no doubt that God is working alongside us to bring life and hope and wellbeing (what the bible often calls peace). That is part of the reconciling, redemptive, salvific work of God that Paul talks about in today’s Romans reading.

This selection of verses traces our journey from death to true life. And the means of this redemption—the magic sauce that makes it all happen—is Jesus.

Waypoint the First

As I read them, there are four steps highlighted here…… four waypoints on this journey from death to life. 

The first is this: We are reconciled through the death of Jesus. Romans 5:10 says: 

“While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (NRSV).

This is worth thinking about: your first step toward a true, abundant, fulfilled life took place before you were even born…… before even your parents were born, or their parents were born. When Jesus went to the cross and died, something mysterious happened…… something so incredible that we can only even glimpse its truth through symbols and analogies. 

It is like being sentenced to death, and having someone else die in your place.

It is like having been kidnapped, and someone pays an insanely exorbitant ransom to have you released.

It is like being in a battle that was going all wrong, when someone miraculously musters the troops forward to victory.

But however we imagine it: If we’re going to take the bible at its word, then we’re going to see that this has happened before our time and without our direct participation. Yet we are reconciled to God all the same on account of God’s great love for us.

Waypoint the Second

The second waypoint on the journey from death to life is this: We are saved through the life of Jesus. Expanding the context of our focus to the whole of verse 10 of Romans 5, we read: 

“For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10 NRSV)

Paul wants us to realize here the expansiveness of God’s love. If God’s love was such that, while humanity was an enemy to God, God still provided the means of reconciliation, then we can indeed have tremendous certainty that Jesus’ life will provide an avenue for our salvation.

Of course, a great deal of ink has been spilled over how to interpret those last four words: “saved by his life”…… or “saved through his life” (as the NIV translates). Given the contrast with Jesus’ death in this verse, some are quick to interpret “his life” as “the resurrection of Jesus.” And there’s a lot to say for this interpretation. 

The contrast between the death and resurrection of Jesus does work nicely here, and it fits well with Paul’s baptismal theology, as expressed in the Romans 6 verses we also read today.

This is the interpretation that may be most familiar to us as well. I was taught growing up that Jesus’ death reconciled us to God, and Jesus’ resurrection provides the means to salvation and eternal life. This might be a bit over-simplistic, but I’m not sure it’s altogether wrong.

But the actual context of Romans 5—especially the preceding verses—it speaks less of eternity and more of the character of our lives in the here and now. Verses 3 and 4 in particular directly address a growing in maturity and a character building that comes through difficulties.

Which makes me wonder……

You see, when someone asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17; Luke 10:25; Luke 18:18), his answer is never “pray a prayer that invites me into your heart.” Instead, Jesus emphasizes living God’s priorities into the world by things like “loving your neighbor as yourself,” by embodying the Good Samaritan, and by selling all you have and giving to the poor.

It seems that Jesus’ answer to what we must do to inherit eternal life is quite simply: we must live like Jesus. This is why the early church emphasized the language of discipleship to such great lengths. To disciple someone is to learn from them how to do what they do. When we disciple Jesus, we learn from him how to live like he lives.

Paul seems to have understood this part of Jesus’ teaching and life perhaps more fully than even the Twelve disciples. And that’s why I suspect this is more true to what Paul intended when penning these words: “having been reconciled to God, we will be saved by living the life of Jesus.”

Waypoint the Third

This understanding is further supported by the third waypoint on this journey from death to life, which is this: Living the life of Jesus frees us from the enslavement of death.

In the Romans 6 part of the scripture reading, this is supported in verse 9, where Paul says this of Jesus (and of us):

“Death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9 NRSV).

Now, the translations use various words: dominion, mastery, power, rule. Since they’re all basically symbols, I don’t know that any one is inherently better than any other. Later on in Romans 6, Paul will also use the imagery of slavery to describe this control and power that is exerted over us—we are “slaves to sin,” he says.

In a sense, Paul is saying that we can’t help it. We are too deceived, too entrapped, too shaped by the world’s distorted priorities to even be aware of our slavery. But there is a way out.

Way back before you were born, Jesus died on the cross, which reconciled you to God.

Those of us who catch a glimpse of God’s omnipotent love find that life cannot be lived apart from it, and so we invite God to change us and shape us so that we can live the life of Christ, learning to embody God’s priorities as naturally as we breathe.

And as we live deeper and deeper in the Kingdom of God, we will undoubtedly find that the stranglehold of death seems to have loosened…… it seems more of an empty threat…… and eventually death becomes entirely irrelevant to our lives.

In her book on vice and sin, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes that a vice, like any habit, “depends on actions wearing a groove or pattern in the longings of our heart” (Glittering Vices, 101). 

Every time we submit to the authority of death and the powers of this world, we increase their control over us, digging that rut deeper and deeper. 

But every time we submit to the authority of the Giver of Life and the power of the Kingdom of God, we lessen the likelihood that the ruts of the Enemy will hold us back from God’s good life: we experience freedom, because through Jesus we develop a new pattern of longing and being…… a new groove is worn in the longings of our heart.

Waypoint the Fourth

And that brings us to the fourth waypoint: This freedom enables us to “live to God”—to live lives fully immersed in the kingdom of God. As Paul puts it in Romans 6:11, the last verse of today’s scripture lesson:

“So you also [just like Jesus] must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11 NRSV)

It’s quite a transformation—this journey from death to life. It began before our birth and remains ongoing, because we are still learning from Jesus how to “be alive to God.” But I do hope it is quite clear to you that Paul is not talking about something that will happen somewhere far off in time and space; he is rather teaching about how to live right here, right now. He is teaching redemption through the Word of God, which is Jesus.

When you think about it, this is the most remarkable thing about Jesus’ teaching: that living the good, fulfilled life is not conditional upon our economics, or our social standing, or our health, or what others think of us, or anything other than living in the freedom and welcome of God’s kingdom.

Blessed are the poor, though the world praises wealth.

Blessed are the meek, though the world blesses strength.

Blessed are the hungry, though the world celebrates opulence.

Blessed are the merciful, though the world believes them weak.

Blessed are the peacemakers, though the world profits off division and polarization.

Blessed are you. That is what Jesus says. Jesus says: I want to help you to live in blessedness.

Here and Now

Now perhaps we’re struggling so much in the mire of this world that it still sounds like Paul and Jesus are both talking theology up in the clouds of the ever after—but nothing could be further from the truth!

According to church tradition, Paul pens these words from within a kind of quarantine of his own—albeit somewhat self-imposed. Tradition states that Paul wrote Romans in the city of Corinth during the winter. You don’t have to read much of Romans to realize it was not likely the first draft, and while winters in Corinth are mild compared to Kansas, they still had a way of slowing things down. After all, Corinth was a city whose commerce was built on shipping, and the winter months tended to bring some of the most precarious sailing conditions.

It’s easy to imagine Paul hunkered down with his secretary, going over this letter time and time again in order to make sure it is right. And it needs to be right: Paul has not yet been to Rome; it isn’t a church he started, so it might not welcome his leadership.

But this is also a precarious time for Roman Christians, too. 

Increasingly, Christianity is seen as incompatible with Judaism, and many are being forced out of the faith communities they have lived their whole lives in. 

Increasingly, Christians are seen as efficient scapegoats for the problems of the empire near and far. 

And it won’t be long before Paul does find himself in Rome—but as a prisoner instead of an evangelist.

For some reason, Paul thought these words from Romans 5 and 6 about the journey from death to true life might be valuable things to hear in a world of increasing trouble and crisis. And I suspect they’re worth hearing again for the same reason today.

Outro

Author Dallas Willard offers a thought in his book Hearing God that may sum all this up neatly. He writes: 

“It is through the action of the word of God upon us, throughout us and with us that we come to have the mind of Christ and thus to live fully in the kingdom of God” (Dallas Willard, Hearing God, p.192).

Full and abundant life comes through the action of the Word of God upon us.

Not through the circumstances of the world (its stability or instability)

Not through our health

Not through our wealth

Not through how much toilet paper we have

Not through how many likes this video gets on Facebook

Not through sharing those “I’m not ashamed to have Jesus on my wall” posts

Not even through the rituals and practices of religion
or whether the Church can gather physically in beautiful spaces.

Full and abundant life comes “through the action of the word of God upon us, throughout us and with us”…… that is how we come to have the mind of Christ and thus live fully in the kingdom of God. Our redemption is through the Word of God, and nothing—nothing!—can separate us from God’s love.

Prayer

God,

Please help us to look to you as the source of any true life,
and to seek your redemption through the Word of God, Jesus.

Help us to use this strange time
to learn how to disciple Jesus more closely,
to become like him: with hearts 

that overflow with compassion,
that forgive readily,
that demonstrate generosity,
and that find their being in your Kingdom.

Amen.

The Liberator Who Brings Joy

Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-4

Liberation

Today’s scripture reading—and indeed today’s topic—hinges on two concepts: liberation and joy. And in these verses from Isaiah, the two are deeply interconnected. But to see that more clearly, it might help to explore the concept of liberation in order to find ways of seeing ourselves in it. 

For the ancient Israelites—and as imagined here in Isaiah—liberation is a very concrete concept. The geography of their existence has been almost constantly been marked by war and conquest. When Isaiah speaks of God “[shattering] the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,” he isn’t just using metaphorical language. He is speaking of the concrete realities of their conquest and exile, wherein they were literally chained together and treated like animals. 

Amos (4:2) speaks of the people of Israel being led into exile like a stringer of fish, and based on the artwork and writings from that time, this seems historically accurate—the conquering Assyrians literally put hooks in the people’s jaws and chained them together.

Psalm 137 cries out in despair as the newly exiled Israelites are taunted and tormented [Psalm 137:1, 3]. This provokes among the most profound emotion and painful anger recorded anywhere in the bible [Psalm 137:8-9].

To a people who have known such devastation, liberation—the arrival of freedom—is a nearly impossible hope. And even though we—unlike many around the world today—have not experienced anything like that of the ancient Israelites, we do feel the rousing call of freedom beckoning to us.

Contemporary Touchstones

As Americans, we recognize that freedom is the cornerstone on which our nation was built. While ostensibly those colonists resisted “taxation without representation,” there were other dimensions of their military occupation by a foreign power that no doubt felt even more oppressive. Each of the first ten amendments to the Constitution addresses some area of injustice and oppression brought about by the British:

Freedom to worship without governmental interference (First Amendment).

Freedom to form a military to protect themselves from outside invaders (Second Amendment).

Freedom from being forced to house and feed members of a foreign army (Third Amendment).

Freedom from the government seizing their property without due process (Fourth Amendment).

And so on…

As Baptists, our way of faith has historically been built on four freedoms and the responsibilities they demand of us:

the freedom and responsibility to make our own decisions of faith as individuals

the freedom and responsibility of each person to read and interpret the bible

the freedom and responsibility of churches to embody faith as they best see fit without interference from any religious body

the freedom and responsibility of individuals and churches to embody faith without governmental interference 

Liberation & Slavery

Yet even beyond all this, somewhere in the fabric of our being, we comprehend freedom as a necessary and vital component for human life as God built us to live it out. I think that is why images of liberation resonate so deeply with us [Braveheart], even though most of us have never known oppression of the sort that the ancient Israelites experienced.

But perhaps liberation is not only a concept for the movies. 

Perhaps liberation is the impossible hope of others in far-flung places around the globe. 

Perhaps liberation is desperately needed for those who suffer injustice and prejudice in our own nation. 

Perhaps liberation is yearned for by those in our own community, who struggle against systems and powers that hold them back and prevent their “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Perhaps liberation is even lacking in our own lives in ways that we were taught to not see.

We think we are free. We think we have autonomy. We think we can do what we want. We think we can make our lives whatever we want them to be.

But we are wrong. These are oversimplifications at best and outright deceptions at worst.

We are slaves. 

We are slaves to commerce. 

We are slaves to consumption. 

We are slaves to others and slaves to ourselves. 

We are slaves to our employers and slaves to our families. 

Now when we volunteer our freedom out of love for another, that is a precious gift—much like the gift Jesus offers to us on account of volunteering his own freedom out of love for us. But in many of these situations (maybe even most?), we have not volunteered our freedom; it has been taken from us.

These are among the “powers and principalities” that Paul references in Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)—the forces in this world that enslave and corrupt and destroy. We can talk about these things as sin, of course; but too often we think of sin only in individual terms. The fact is, sin takes on a life of its own once we choose to bring it into the world.

James writes about this in his letter in the New Testament, describing the process of sin and its outcome. He uses the language of reproduction to illustrate this cycle:

“But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:14–15 NRSV)

Get that?

First some sort of desire rises in us—this is not yet sin, but can be temptation.

But that desire is then somehow fed or fueled—it grows into a “lure” that “entices us,” which is effectively the moment of conception in this process.

We ultimately birth sin into the world when we embody or otherwise act out this enticing desire that we have nurtured within ourselves.

But then—perhaps apart from us, perhaps with our help—that sin continues to grow.

And that last part is the most chilling to me: sin has its own ability to reproduce—it “gives birth to death.”

When the sin that humanity has born into the world begins reproducing itself, it takes on the form of those “powers and principalities” that Paul was talking about…… those systems and structures in our world that prevent the abundant life into which God desires we live.

Stockholm Syndrome

But what I find both deeply tragic and nearly beyond belief is the way that we so easily become deceived into believing more in the goodness of the “powers and principalities” that enslave us and others than we do in the goodness of the God who brings liberation from them. It’s as though the Church of Jesus Christ—or at least we humans in general—have developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome while living in this broken world. 

Stockholm Syndrome describes a phenomenon wherein captives begin to identify with their captors to the point that they resist rescue. While it gets its name from a hostage situation that resulted from a bungled bank heist, we seem to see this more often with kidnappings and human trafficking situations.

As one relevant illustration, consider the tragic story of Patty Hearst. A 19-year-old actress and granddaughter of a wealthy publisher, Patty was kidnapped and held hostage by a domestic terrorist group beginning in 1974. She was held in a closet, blindfolded and tied up. She was repeatedly assaulted, both physically and sexually. And yet she quickly became sympathetic with her captors. She became one of them—quite literally: taking on a new name, robbing banks, and even denouncing her own family. Nineteen months after her abduction, Patty was arrested and later sentenced to 35 years for the crimes she committed as part of the group.

Now Patty’s story may not be the best illustration of Stockholm Syndrome, but I do think it is illustrative of our experiences in the world.

We have before us a life of promise and purpose, full of the possibilities that God’s freedom opens up for us. 

And in a moment of weakness, of guard let down, we are captured by this world—held against our will by its forces and systems and structures. 

We find ourselves forced by the need to survive to play by its rules instead of living out God’s priorities

In the process, we ourselves are harmed and harmed greatly by the very systems and structures we are coerced into becoming a part of.

And yet somehow, along the way, there is a turning in us. We begin to think that not only are these systems and structures good for us (despite the harm they have in fact caused us), but that these systems and structures are what God wants too.

And so we participate in the reinforcement of the powers of this world against God, and we do it in God’s name.

We are enslaved, brainwashed, and as much in need of liberation as any person we might imagine.

Good News

The good news here—no, the great news—is that God has always been in the liberation business. And if we somehow missed the hundreds of references in the Old Testament to the liberation and the freedom that God works to bring into our lives, Jesus outlines it in bold through his life.

I remind you that the Gospel of Luke frames Jesus’ whole life through his theme verses from Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19 NRSV)

Liberation from poverty.
Liberation from captivity.
Liberation from blindness.
Liberation from oppression and injustice.
Liberation from economic enslavement—the year of Jubilee.

This is what Jesus is about, and Jesus—more clearly and certainly than anything else—reveals what God is about.

Spontaneous Joy

If we would take a moment and imagine what such liberation would feel like to us, we would know—and know certainly—that liberation brings joy. It is almost involuntary the way that joy erupts out of us when we realize our liberation. 

There are a good deal of the Psalms that encapsulate that moment of deliverance by our loving God—an outburst of joy, spontaneous praise, an instinctive utterance of hope—all rising up because freedom has arrived.

I think that’s why joy factors in so heavily in our brief scripture reading:

“You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.” (Isaiah 9:3 NRSV)

Liberation Changes our Walk

Jesus is the Liberator-Who-Brings-Joy—and both the liberation and the joy cannot help but completely change our lives and our orientation. 

Quite like God announces to the ancient Israelites back in Leviticus 26:

“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.” (Leviticus 26:13 NRSV)

Experiencing this liberation changes the way we walk. We walk “erect,” as God offers here in Leviticus. Not stooped over, not sneaking around, not crushed by the weight of the world—but upright, with confidence, and free.

Those of us redeemed by Christ have been set free—that is the heart of the good news. As Paul urges in Galatians 5:1:

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1 NRSV)

He continues a little further down:

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Galatians 5:13–14 NRSV)

When we experience the freedom brought to us by the Liberator-Who-Brings-Joy, it changes the way we walk…… the way we live. 

No longer do we manipulate freedom to our own advantage. 

No longer do we insist on our rights against the rights of others. 

No longer do we embody the primal urges of mutually-assured-destruction that run so rampant in this world. 

Instead, our life—our walk—is characterized by love.

Our walk is characterized by pursuing the wellbeing of others. 

Our walk is characterized by hearing and considering what others know they need. 

Liberation changes our walk.

Liberation Changes Our Experience of God

Experiencing this liberation changes not just our “walk” (our relationship with each other), but it changes how we understand God.

To the ancient Israelites and through the prophet Ezekiel, God spoke, saying:

“They shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them.” (Ezekiel 34:27 NRSV)

That liberation is even possible is a testimony to the present reality of God and of God’s heart of love. 

When we narrowly escape through the clutches of danger, or hardship, or even death, we can only reckon that God is behind our deliverance. 

And if God is behind our deliverance, we must conclude that God wanted us to experience liberation. 

And if God wants us to experience liberation, than what else can we imagine other than the fact that God really does care for us, and wants the best for us, and is at work to help us achieve a quality of life that would be otherwise impossible to achieve.

Joy

This, then, is why liberation brings joy.

It is more than relief at escaping bad circumstances.

It is more than happiness at our outcome being changed.

It is more than the surge of adrenaline at coming out on top.

It is because with each liberating moment—large or small—we intuit how deeply God cares for us: just as we are, no matter what.

The early church of the New Testament understood this well. That’s why they’re always going on about grace—and especially the grace of Jesus Christ. 

Grace means you don’t have to change for God to love you. 

Grace means you don’t have to become someone else before God gives you permission to live. 

Grace means you are fully accepted by God, just as you are.

God does not love you less if you do not change enough, or if you are not good enough, or even if you do not accept yourself. Though it is hard to believe in my own sinfulness, I am convinced that God loves the Adolf Hitlers of the world no less on their dying day than on the day of their creation. How much more you who have done less damage to creation?

Outro

Isaiah says: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2 NRSV). As we discussed last week, I believe this light is Jesus.

We are those who walk in darkness, often unaware of our own blindness.

Yet to us Jesus has appeared, illuminating for us and all of history the truth of life and love and God.

So now:

There is no darkness so deep that the light of Christ cannot penetrate it.

There is no sorrow so complete that the peace of Christ cannot comfort us.

There is no wound so painful that the balm of Christ cannot heal us.

There is no bondage so great that the liberation of Christ cannot free us…… and lead us into joy.

Thanks be to God, and to the Liberator-Who-Brings-Joy, who frees us from the enslavements of this world and enables us to discover life abundant.

Prince of Peace

Old Testament Scripture: Isaiah 7:10–16

New Testament Scripture: Romans 1:1-7

Absolute Chaos

Church, it’s the fourth Sunday of Advent—December 22nd—with Christmas just three days away. And I don’t feel particularly peaceful. 

Not with the presents to buy and wrap, 

the cleaning that needs done around the house, 

the preparations still to make for our holiday travels, 

the work that needs finishing before I can leave, 

and the 47-bazillion little things that will certainly come up between now and then. 

Is anybody else with me?

 

Yet I find there’s something ironic about the way our cultural celebration of Christmas parallels the life-giving message of the Advent season:

Just when we’re feeling the urge to give up, Advent calls us to hope.

Just when we’re at risk of despairing, Advent encourages the discovery of joy.

Just when we’re starting to see red in anger more than decor, Advent invites us into love.

Just when we’re feeling the time-crunch and everything is in chaos, Advent leads us towards peace.

For that I’m grateful.

Series Recap

This season, we’ve been reflecting on those identities of God that are revealed in Isaiah 9: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Parent, Prince of Peace.

Our consideration of God as “Wonderful Counselor” led us to reflect on whether we can trust God.

Reflecting on our “Mighty God” helped us consider how Jesus makes a difference in our life.

And then last week, we discovered how deeply our “everlasting parent” cares for us—working for our goodwill not just in the moment, but with the scope of eternity in mind.

Which brings us to today—and the last title that guides our reflection: Prince of Peace.

Overview of NT

The word “peace” appears 94 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament—96 in the NIV, 111 in the 400-year-old Authorized Version more commonly called the King James. 

Before Jesus’ birth, peace was being anticipated by the prophecy of Zechariah, who spoke that his son (who we come to know as John the Baptist) would “prepare” the world for the coming of the Lord [Luke 1:76] by anticipating the Way of Jesus: giving light and “guiding our feet into the way of peace” [Luke 1:79].

When Jesus’ birth is announced to those shepherds, it is immortalized in those famous words that invoke “glory to God” and “peace on earth” [Luke 2:14]. These, after all, are the root purposes of the incarnation itself: to bring glory to God and ton reconcile all of creation to Godself.

Once Jesus begins teaching, he makes it clear that the peacemakers are the ones who really look like our Everlasting Parent [Matthew 5:9]……who really resemble the DNA of one “born from above”…… and then Jesus goes on to embody such peacemaking in his life.

Repeatedly in the gospels, Jesus wishes peace upon others, though perhaps this happens most famously in John 14, when Jesus promises the coming of the Holy Spirit who will enable true peace—peace like the peace of Jesus—which will steady troubled hearts and drive out fear from our lives [John 14:27].

This theme of peace that began before Jesus’ birth continues after his death and resurrection. It is peace this is wished upon the disciples when he first appears to confirm Mary Magdalene’s incredible proclamation of resurrection [John 20:19b]. And it is peace with which Jesus commissions his followers thereafter [John 20:21-22].

The early church understood right away Jesus’ role as Prince of Peace, and so in Jesus’ name they continued to invoke and pursue peace in their communities and in the broader world.

In Acts 10, Peter will sum up the message of God with the phrase “preaching peace by Jesus Christ” [Acts 10:36].

Paul in Romans 15 will call God “the God of peace” [Romans 15:33], an identification he will make in almost every single letter he writes.

We are fortunate enough to have several places preserved in the New Testament where the significance of this Prince of Peace is expanded upon theologically. Perhaps the most complete expression is found in Ephesians 2:

“For he [that is, Jesus] is our peace [isn’t that lovely?: “Jesus is our peace”]; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jew and Gentile] 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” (Ephesians 2:14–15 NRSV).

The early church understood clearly that a central defining feature of the gospel of Jesus is that in Jesus, everything that divides us and hinders unity is rendered null and void. Gender doesn’t matter. Economics don’t matter. Ethnicity doesn’t matter. Status doesn’t matter [Galatians 3:28]. Even religion—per se—doesn’t matter, because Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion; Jesus came to reconcile the whole world to the God who made all things.

My own favorite scripture passage that describes this work of Jesus comes from Colossians 1. There we read:

“For in him [again, this is Jesus: “In Jesus”] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19–20 NRSV)

Isn’t that wonderful?

What would this look like in life?

Now then…… If we rightly understand the work of this Prince of Peace to be the ruination of those structures and systems and ideologies that divide us from each other, what would it look like for our lives to be ruled by such a “Prince of Peace”?

Isn’t that a big question, and a simple one all at the same time?

 

It begins, I’m afraid, with the recognization that we are deeply divided against others in this world…… that there are many we care little about, and even some that we wish harm upon.

If we allow the One who is the Truth to lead us down this path of seeing ourselves truly, we will undoubtedly learn that many of the reasons we care so little for others is because we have implicit and explicit biases against people who are different than us: 

we are male and they are female, 

we are white and they are brown, 

we speak English and they speak Spanish, 

we worship in churches and they in mosques,

we have forgotten our family’s story of immigration and they are living a fearful flight from violence,

the list goes on and on.

What would our lives look like if they were ruled by the Prince of Peace who tears down all such dividing walls in our world? It must certainly involve the purging of such inhumanity in us that fails to recognize the humanity in the other.

In fact, I think that Paul was trying to answer the same question in 2Corinthians 5, when he talks about the ministry entrusted to all followers of Jesus. He writes:

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2Corinthians 5:17–20 NRSV)

What does God want for me/creation?

The beauty of this passage is that it also addresses the other big question that reflection on the Prince of Peace elicits in our minds: What does God want for me and for creation?

 

God wants to see you reconciled—to God, to others, and to yourself. 

God desires healing for your brokenness. 

God desires wholeness where you feel divided. 

God desires you to be completely and authentically you—

—and so truly you that you feel no threat from another. 

So truly you that you can see apart from the biases and prejudices that we so ignorantly wield against others. 

So truly you that you can rejoice in the goodness that others experience. 

So truly you that you enable others to be truly themselves as well. 

That’s when we really become a force of reconciliation in this world.
That’s when we know the Prince of Peace truly rules our life.

Persistent Hope

Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25

Persistent Hope

This passage from the oracle of Isaiah has become so familiar to some of us that we fail to realize its significance. Here, God through Isaiah pulls back the curtain of time and enables us to peek into eternity. What we see looks strange and phantasmagorical to us—a bizarre, dream like glimpse into a reality where things just don’t work the way we expect. And yet it also depicts the direction—if not the destination—of God’s redemptive work in us and throughout all of creation.

My friend Mindi sums it up like this: 

Isaiah 65:17-25 contains the prophet’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where the ways of this world no longer have a hold on us. The prophet envisions a time when everyone enjoys what they have worked for, where the struggle of this world disappears and untimely death is no more. This vision is of peace and prosperity, of hope for all, where there is no domination, despair, and exile.

This vision is often too much for us to hope for, and yet it remains the persistent hope and activity of our transforming God. 

Part the First

Unlike Isaiah’s vision [Isaiah 65:17], we are all too aware of “the former things”—those systems and processes that have influenced and frequently impeded progress. In churches as in life, we are often stymied by claims that “we’ve never done it that way before” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work” or “Such-and-such did it that way.” In life as in churches, we often carry our past wounds into the present and the future, often stunted by the pain of grudges and the impossibility of reconciliation and forgiveness in past relationships.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
(Isaiah 65:17 NRSV)

Part the Second

Similarly [Isaiah 65:18], the idea of newness and change generally creates not gladness or joy, but fear and trepidation. We face a future—and even a present!—that feels uncertain to us. The world doesn’t work the way it used to. The old rules of life no longer produce predictable results. And so most of us struggle to sort out how to live a good life or embody our faith in this new reality. 

Yet God speaks through Isaiah:

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.” (Isaiah 65:18 NRSV)

Part the Third

Our world is filled with grief and sorrow [Isaiah 65:19b]; with lives tragically cut short [Isaiah 65:20a]; with people working their whole lives only to have nothing to show for it, or working hour after unending hour at a series of jobs and still not earning enough for their family to eat and survive [Isaiah 65:22a]. We are afraid for the world our children are inheriting [Isaiah 65:23a].

And to all these things, God says “no more!”

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19b NRSV)

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (Isaiah 65:20a NRSV)

“They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat.” (Isaiah 65:22a NRSV)

“They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.”
(Isaiah 65:23a NRSV)

The Reversal of Fortunes

The gladness and joy of this vision comes about because in it we catch a glimpse of God’s future when these injustices and fears and pains will be eradicated from the human experience.

Where there are now those who die before living a full life, Isaiah imagines a day when someone even 100 years old is considered an adolescent. [Isaiah 65:20]

Where now far too many do not receive fair compensation for the labors they perform, Isaiah imagines a day when everyone gets what they have worked for. [Isaiah 65:21, 22b]

Where now we fear for the world of our children’s future, Isaiah imagines a day of blessing and wholeness and security that will permeate not just their experience, but the experience of generations to come. [Isaiah 65:23]

Hard Work

What Isaiah anticipates 2500 years ago continues to be the impossible dream of today. 

But what stands out to me is not the content—it is not a matter of what Isaiah describes God doing. What stands out to me is that nowhere in the scriptures is it suggested that these transformations of ourselves and of the created order will be easy. 

If anything, we should expect they be hard. In last week’s reading from Haggai, this transformation was described in earthquake-like terms:

“For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations” (Haggai 2:6–7a NRSV)

The book of Revelation—in peeking behind the curtain some years later—envisions the Lord God of Hosts (or more literally, “Yahweh, commander of armies”) waging war on the forces of darkness as God brings about the imagined world Isaiah suggests. Jesus—our front-line general in this conflict—is depicted as a military leader through whom God will achieve victory. In chapter 19 of Revelation we read:

“Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.

And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”” (Revelation 19:11–16 NRSV)

Nowhere in the bible is it suggested that these changes will come about with a snap of God’s fingers. Everywhere we look, we see difficult language describing how God will make these things so—throughout history, and through those among us who partner with God.

It will not be a simple matter for all of creation to be transformed according to God’s desires. ……Just as it is not easy for our individual hearts to be transformed into Christ-likeness. 

Where Are We?

Which brings us to another point…… Isaiah describes what God is doing. But where are we in all this? If we imagine that cosmic battle illustrated in Revelation, whose side are we on? What are we doing to advance the cause of Christ? 

If we want to be on God’s side, then we will be working towards the fulfillment of God’s priorities. We will be working to achieve God’s vision of peace and wholeness.

This is not, of course, something we can do on our own. Author Dallas Willard has written that “The greatest temptation to evil that humanity ever suffers is the temptation to make a ‘Jerusalem’ happen by human means” (The Divine Conspiracy, p.380). What he means is that we try to use our own power and ability to bring about the reign of Christ in the world. But doing this—whether through our attempts to legislate morality, to establish a “Christian nation,” or whatever—it always winds up “eliminating truth, or mercy, or both.” 

This is not God’s way. These are not God’s weapons. 

God’s way and weapon is love. It is relationship. It is invitation. 

It is impossible to advance the cause of Christ while utilizing the powers of this world. Only the power of the Kingdom of God as known and expressed through Jesus will bring about the vision of Isaiah, and John, and even of you and I today. 

This hope of transformation has persisted throughout the centuries and millennia because God has written it on our hearts. Because it is an intrinsic part of God’s redemptive plan—not just in this life, but for all of eternity. Because ultimately, this life here and now is a training ground for our eternal work and existence with God. No matter our biological age, we are now children and adolescents whom our Divine Parent wishes to train, and in whom our Divine Parent wants to instill certain priorities and values and lessons. This is boot camp, preparing for the day when we can be set loose in God’s universe and empowered to “reign with him,” as the scriptures imagine.

This future reality is what gives meaning and purpose to it all. 

And for those of us who place our trust in the One True God, we realize that there is nothing that will prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled. There is no way that the enemy can derail this vision of life as God intends it to be lived. There are no obstacles that keep us from the love of Christ, and the fullness of Kingdom life that begins now with our “rebirth”, and continues, unabated by death, into the eternal future with our loving God.

There is a reason for this persistent hope. And that reason is God. The very God who loves you, who has committed an eternity of resources to develop you into who you are created to be, and who will never—NEVER!—give up. As Eugene Peterson was said to sum up the gospel message:

God loves you.
God is on your side.
God is coming after you.
And God is relentless.

An Unchained Gospel

Scripture: 2Timothy 2:8-15

A W K W A R D…

There’s a bit of a joke among clergy-folk about meeting strangers. It’s not a joke, really; but it is something we often laugh at ourselves about. Someone will ask: “Say you’re flying on a plane, or traveling on a bus, or something like that. It’s a packed flight (or whatever it is) and every seat is taken. You have two or more hours ahead of you still, when the person next to you leans over and asks: “What you do? What’s your job?”

Now maybe that sounds like a simple question, and it is really. But as a clergy-person let me tell you that answering “I’m a pastor” elicits one of two reactions:

Either the person says “Oh!” [make the face] And then the remaining trip is spent in awkward silence as they try to not make eye contact or engage with you further.

Or else the other result is this: The person begins pouring out all sorts of personal and often frighteningly intimate details of their life, and you spend the rest of the trip actively listening and providing pastoral care.

I realize that this may still sound like a simple question and answer to some of you, but please realize that clergy-persons do not have the ability to fully engage all the time. We get exhausted. We have bad days. And sometimes, we just want to be left alone so we can read a book and not be “working.”

And that’s why clergy sometimes offer more creative answers to the question of what we do. I think “teacher” and “social worker” are among the top responses, though things like “head of a nonprofit,” “writer,” and “therapist” are popular choices, too. They’re not the whole truth–to be sure; but they’re not outright deceptions either.

 

But don’t get me wrong: I do not intend to make these confessions as a justification. I only offer them because they are honest, and because I want you to know that you’re not the only one who can be uncomfortable when people put your faith in the spotlight. 

A friend of mine once confessed that the most terrified he’s ever been in life was the time he was at work and overheard the tail end of a conversation that began with his name followed by: “I know he’s a Christian; let’s ask him.”

I think today’s scripture lesson challenges us to question why we feel so intimidated when our faith becomes public…… and especially when others look to us to “explain” what we believe.

Unchained

This particular selection begins with Paul’s acknowledgment of his current status: his imprisonment in Rome [2Tim 2:8-9a], which is contrasted with the reality that provides today’s sermon title: “The word of God is not chained” (2Timothy 2:9b NRSV).

This is a fascinating contrast–Paul in chains versus an unchained gospel. Think about that:

Paul’s status as a prisoner-awaiting-trial does not inhibit the gospel.

Paul’s limited mobility as a person under house arrest does not restrict the gospel.

Paul’s reputation as a lawbreaker and felon (we might say today) does not limit the gospel.

Paul’s experience of hardship (and likely even physical weakness) does not restrain the gospel.

Isn’t that amazing?

 

All these things that are rooted in Paul’s circumstances, and in how others see him–none of them even slow down the gospel and its freedom. 

And why is that?

It is because the gospel–the word of God–it is not you, or me. It is Jesus [2Timothy 2:8]. 

And it really is that simple. 

 

Someone once humorously offered that the greatest proof of the truth of Jesus is that it has survived 2000 years of management by Christians. There’s something in that. 

Because you don’t have to look very hard at the history of Christianity before you begin to see that we seem to have repeatedly and consistently done everything possible to undermine and invalidate and distort the good news of Jesus. And yet: here we are. The gospel has survived us. The bible has survived us. Jesus has survived us.

And I’m pretty sure that God’s more up to the task of preserving the gospel than we are. I think Paul’s trying to make sure Timothy knows that too, even though they’re a lot nearer to the Jesus-event than are we.

Wrangling over Words

A little bit later in the scripture reading for today, Paul urges Timothy to “warn them… to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening” (v.14). And then later on in v.23 he offers: “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.”

 

Ephesus was one of those places in the ancient world that considered itself quite learned. And in the Roman way of things, what Aristotle called “rhetoric” was among the highest of educated endeavors. In a limited way, you might think of this in terms of a high school forensics or debate team. 

Those skilled in rhetoric and public speaking were highly valued by society, and one of the things about the apostle Paul that seems to distinguish him wherever he went was his ability to go toe-to-toe with the local superstars of rhetoric and debate.

But as Paul reminds Timothy here: the gospel is not chained to how eloquently we speak, or how many people think we won an intellectual debate, or whatever other minutiae seed our presumptions of rightness. The gospel is not chained to any of that. The gospel is not chained to us. 

And that means that ongoing debates and defenses and apologetics completely miss the point–because they assume the success of the gospel and of God’s mission of love depends on us.

Why So Intimidated?

Which brings us back to the top: When people come to us asking questions about our faith, why are we so intimidated, so scared, so embarrassed?

I’m afraid–when I look into myself–I am afraid this fear is because I have deceived myself into believing that the gospel relies on us… that the gospel relies on me. And so if “I” don’t communicate the Good News of Jesus perfectly, effectively, and in a creative and interesting way 24-7, then I might as well be batting for the other team.

What a misguided notion of the gospel!

What a misguided notion of mission and evangelism!

What a misguided notion of trust in God!

Look in yourself and ask God to show you whether this might be the case for you too. 

And consider this: If we feel like God can’t get along without us, then we’ve made ourself more significant and powerful and important than God.

 

Of course, all this does not mean we are without responsibility. It just means that God assumes we already understand how we are to be engaged in the process of becoming more and more like Jesus, more frequently and more naturally doing the things that Jesus does and talks about. 

And if that is happening to us and in us, then questions from others are going to come. And they’re going to come because others will see in us a kind of life–a kind of living–that enables us to thrive. There will be questions because they will see something of Jesus in us, and Jesus is working (as the scriptures say) to “draw all people to himself” (John 12:32 NRSV).

Outro

In a commentary on this letter, scholar Thomas Oden wrote these words: (Interpretation, p.52): 

“On the way to the last day, God continues to offer forgiveness and salvation even when recipients of his mercy are unfaithful. God keeps faith even when we are unfaithful. Why? Because God cannot be untrue to his divine word or unfaithful to himself. God cannot deny his own nature as holy love. It is God’s nature to love. For this reason he sent his Son as a ransom for all. 

Even if we disbelieve, God keeps on offering to us this grace. If we pretend that God is not, it is not possible for God to go along with our pretense. When we are faithless to God, the only effect that can have is to once again underscore God’s own faithfulness to his word…”

Unchained

The word of God is not chained (v.8b). 

Not chained like Paul (v.8a). 

Not chained to Paul. 

Not restricted by Paul. 

Not imprisoned by our imperfect eloquence, our fragmented knowledge, or our laughable ability to defend it (v.14).

The word of God is not chained. It does not rely on what we have. It is not contingent upon our status or reputation. It does not require our defense.

Because the word of God…… is in the hands of God…… and there it rests secure.

Amen.