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.

The Old, Old Story

Scripture: 1Corinthians 15:1-11

Forgetting

Have you ever forgotten something really important?

A doctor’s appointment?

A meet-up with a friend?

A school project or paper?

A bill?

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

Busyness & Forgetfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may be they are neglected because they are obvious.

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

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

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

To the Scripture Text

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

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

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

The Story

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

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

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

I am talking about Jesus, of course. 

 

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

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

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4:4–5 NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I Have a Witness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expired Witnesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Experiences

Now……

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demonstrating Grace

Scripture: Luke 4:14-21

Intro: Translation & Context

Translation matters.

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

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

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

Jesus’ Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Needs This Spirit-Power

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

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

He is not able to do anything apart from God.

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

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

The Rhythm

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirt Tank

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

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

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

Just. like. Jesus.

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

Demonstrating Grace

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Tongue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Fount

“This ought not to be so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

No one.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).