Pre-Membering

 

 

Exodus 12:1-14

Setting the Stage

This is a sermon about faith. I want to say that right away, so we all can keep on the right track this morning. But it’s a lot less “this is how faith works” and a lot more “have you ever noticed?…”

Our text today is comes near the end of the story of the Hebrews’ slavery in Egypt, and near the end of the story of their liberation through the astounding miracles and plagues God wrought through Moses. These verses contain the instructions that establish the Passover sacrifice, which later became an intrinsic part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (cf. Jewish Study Bible, p.126). The modern Passover seder (the meal) has evolved significantly since these instructions–and even since Jesus’ day–and so it looks quite different than what happened a few thousand years ago. Symbols–of course–need to evolve if they will continue to evoke the reality they represent.

At this point in the story, God is working on liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, but Pharaoh is having none of it. God keeps instructing Moses on how to perform these remarkable signs or predict the coming of terrible plagues. But Pharaoh keeps doubling down. These plagues escalate from mere inconvenience to the deaths of thousands before Pharaoh will finally tell them to leave. And in that moment–on the eve of this final, terrible plague–between life and death, between slavery and freedom, between let go and leaving–that is when God offers these symbols and these rituals to commemorate what is to come.

Symbols

Everything has meaning:

The young sheep or goat must be “without blemish” (v.5), which is consistent with the sacrificial code they have not yet received–that’ll happen in Lev 22:17-25; Deut 15:21; 17:1; usw. Such valuable animals are offered to God to remind us that God is due our best, not our leftovers. In addition, the animal is to be roasted over the fire, an anticipation of the kind of cooking they will be performing in their wilderness journeying.

Bitter herbs are the type that shepherds would eat in the wilderness–where the Hebrews are about to spend the next few decades, though they don’t yet know that. In modern Seder celebrations, the bitter herbs recall the bitterness of the slavery they endured in Egypt (cf. Jewish Study Bible, p.126 and here).

Alongside these foods, they are to eat bread made without yeast–unleavened bread. Such bread was actually a fairly common type to use, not altogether different than the various flat breads baked even still in that area of the world. But here the unleavened bread–the matzah–acquires new meaning: it is unleavened because the Hebrews will be quickly leaving Egypt; they do not have time for yeast breads to rise (Exod 12:39). As this meal evolved, rabbis eventually dictated that matzah may only be made of flour and water, which in turn represent the only two “ingredients” necessary for faith: humility and submission to God (see here).

Notice too that even what they wear and how they eat matters. Verses 11 and following tell us that they need to eat it with their traveling clothes and shoes on–even holding on to their walking sticks! They need to scarf it down quickly. All of this refers to the urgency of their departure–an urgency that they don’t yet know about, an urgency that comes about because (in Exodus 14) Pharaoh will regret his decision to let his cheap labor leave, and he will chase them down with chariots and the weapons of war.

“Pre-membering”

In all of these cases, the symbols God prescribes commemorate events that haven’t yet happened.

The Israelites haven’t yet been forced to gather wild greens to survive the wilderness.

They haven’t yet been limited to roasting meat over an open fire.

They haven’t yet realized the urgency of their departure.

They haven’t yet heard the instructions about offering God your best.

When instructing them to ritualize these symbols. God is inviting them to remember events that haven’t happened yet: pre-remembering—-or pre-membering, as I’m calling it.

 

This is particularly fascinating to me because this isn’t how faith usually works in the OT. “As the OT understands it, faith is always [humanity’s] reaction to God’s primary action” (Artur Weiser, TDNT VI:182). For Jews, “faith in God is not just general trust. It is grounded in what God has done in the past” (TDNT, VI:198).

Yet here, in one of the most significant stories of the OT, God invites faith on account of what God will do, instead of merely on account of what God has done.

Perhaps we think God just expects them to  shut up, obey, and take what comes…… Yet that is at odds with virtually every depiction of God in the bible.

Perhaps we think God expects the escalation of plagues was sufficient to prove to the Hebrews that God can do more…… Yet they can’t even begin to understand the meaning of these symbols until a future time when they’re living them out for real.

Perhaps we think God knows that it doesn’t take much faith for big things to happen…… Yet for all of us who have searched, we know how difficult it is to muster up even a mustard seed’s worth.

I wonder if we should see something else. I wonder if God is planting seeds of God’s own–seeds of hope that will sprout and grow and produce fruit in the most difficult times they have ahead.

I wonder if–as the Hebrews mobilized and moved out of Egypt–if some of them didn’t think: Gee, we wouldn’t have made the wagon train if we had tried to make yeast bread.

And I wonder if–as they crossed the Reed Sea with Pharaoh’s chariots chasing in hot pursuit–if some of them realized that leaving as rapidly as they did allowed them to get to the other side of the sea instead of being overcome by the Egyptians before they got there.

Did they remember the pre-membering God gave them?

I wonder: as they traveled in the wilderness or sat encamped at Sinai, eating what they could gather form the barren landscape around them, did they remember their pre-membering about the bitter herbs? As they roasted the God-gifted quail each day to eat, did they remember their pre-membering about the roasted lamb?

You get my point, I hope. It seems to me that these symbols came into meaning at the precise times when the Hebrews would have needed assurance the most.

Without their realizing it, God planted seeds of grace in them–seeds that would bear fruit at the appropriate time, whether or not they understood.

Last Supper

I think the Last Supper–itself connected to the Passover meal prescribed in Exodus 12–is another biblical example of this pre-membering.

In Matthew 26, Jesus and his disciples are observing the Passover meal–a ritual rich with symbolism and meaning about events long past. Yet Jesus takes these symbols and gives them new meaning. Just as does God in Exodus 12, Jesus makes these symbols about a future event–his suffering and death–events that will soon take place. The disciples at that time pre-member:

Jesus’ body is broken,
Jesus’ blood is shed,
a new covenant is established that ensures the forgiveness of sins.

Were these, too, seeds of grace, planted to bear fruit when grace was needed the most?

Did the disciples remember–when Jesus’ body was being whipped and torn and pierced–did they remember how Jesus broke the bread and said “this is my body”?

Did the disciples remember–when his blood flowed from his pierced head, his flayed back, and eventually his pierced side–did they remember when Jesus said “this is my blood”?

 

I wonder.

But I also hope. I hope because of all the times I have discovered such seeds of grace bearing fruit in my own life–all the times that I finally realized I needed God’s grace, only to discover that such grace was already given and present.

Such is truly the way of our loving God and friend Jesus. In the very moment we are broken apart, we discover God has already been there, quietly and fastidiously endeavoring about the work of healing, protection, hope, peace, provision, and love.

Praise be to God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom all things were made and find their being,
and in whom we discover life abundant.

Amen.

 

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The Hope of A Savior

 

1Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

The Hope of a Savior (Saved from Saving Ourselves)

Throughout this Easter season, we’ve been looking around 1Peter for hope in hard times. This morning, we finish this series, ending largely where we started: If we are to find hope amidst the storms of life, we will find it when we anchor our hope in God alone.

Perspective

But before we get to “how letting God save us directs us to hope,” we have to attend to the issue of perspective. This (in fact) is where Peter begins our reading—with an attempt to reorient the perspective of the Christians receiving his letter. He starts out:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1Peter 4:12-13a).

Those receiving this letter have a perspective on hardship. We all have a perspective on hardship.

Maybe we decide hardship is the consequence of our own choices

Maybe we decide hardship is God testing us…

Maybe we decide hardship is just an unfair game of chance, a roll of the dice that lands in favor of some and against others…

Whatever we come to believe, it is certain one cannot live long in this world without struggling with the age-old question of why bad things happen—and especially why they happen to good people.

Peter’s audience has some preconceived notions about hardship, too. And they think hardship shouldn’t be happening to them. They believe hardship is something that happens to other people……you know, people who aren’t like us?

There’s something about this that feels a bit like the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18, in the parable Jesus told there: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11 NRSV)

According to Peter’s audience—and many Christians believe the same today—bad things happen to bad people. If you’re living right, and if you’re following Jesus, then they believe bad things shouldn’t happen to you.

This connection between hardship and sin almost seems hardwired in our human brains. There is even support of it in various parts of the Bible—especially in the Psalms and Proverbs. And this is (probably) rightly so—this is what we might call the “normative pattern of life.” Most of the time for most people “you reap what you sow” (Gal 6:7; cf. Hos 8:7; 2Cor 2:6).

But words like “normal,” “most of the time,” and “most people” reveal that these patterns are not universally true for everyone, everywhere, and all the time.

Peter’s audience thinks they are living according to the “normative pattern of life.” They are following Jesus. They are practicing kindness. They are actively working to be part of the Body of Christ. They may even be sharing their experiences of God’s love and grace with others.

But if they’re doing everything right, why is everything going wrong?

Peter’s answer to this question is that their perspective is too short. They are focused on the here and now when they need to adopt a God’s eye view of their situation. What they are experiencing isn’t strange. It’s not unexpected in the least. Had he wanted to quote some Bible or Jesus here, Peter would have had ample fodder:

There’s the story of Job, who the story makes clear has done nothing to deserve the hardship that befalls him.

There’s Jesus’ teaching at the end of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Mt 5:11 NRSV).

There’s the frequent comparison by Jesus between discipleship and carrying one’s cross (Mt 10:38; 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23).

There’s the inquiry about the man born blind, as Jesus demonstrates his disability is not due to anyone’s sin (John 9).

And there is (of course) Jesus’ own story, in which the NT makes it clear Jesus did not deserve to be killed (Lk 23:15-16; Acts 2:23; usw.)

Peter could have made direct reference to any of these things, but he doesn’t even mention the innocence of Jesus. Why? Because they know these things already. And because Peter realizes that appeals to logic and facts do not change hearts.

The only sure-fire way to change hearts is to expose them to our transforming God. That’s what Peter encourages them to do. Developing God-vision requires exposure to what God sees, and they can’t see what God sees unless they delve deeper into submission to Christ as Lord.

Now Peter does share what he believes they will discover. As I mentioned already, Peter thinks they are short-sighted, and that God’s view is much longer than is our own naturally. If they can capture a glimpse of the long-view of God, they will see how facing hardship the way Jesus does brings him glory because it demonstrates his love more completely—and concretely—to the world. Peter believes that if they can see the way God can redeem their suffering to advance God’s mission, they will face it with more determination, bravery, and faithfulness than they would by assuming themselves to be mere victims of chance.

Savior

But this is not where Peter stops. Nor—despite the time I have taken this morning—is the reorienting of perspective even his primary point here. The focus is really on what these Christians can do, and what they cannot.

There’s quite a long list of what they can do:

1. They can practice humility (5:6a—”Humble yourselves”)

2. They can submit to God’s desires (5:6b—”under the mighty hand of God”)

3. They can trust God to judge and/or vindicate them (5:6c—”so that at the proper time he may exalt you”)

4. They can trust a loving God with their concerns and fate (5:7—”casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you”)

5. They can guard themselves against irrational thinking and practice self-control (5:8a—”Be sober-minded; be watchful”)

6. They can discipline and strengthen themselves in body, mind, and spirit (5:8b—”Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”)

7. They can resist temptation (5:9a—”Resist him”)

8. They can ground everything they believe and do in the solid rock of Jesus (5:9b—”firm in your faith”)

9. They can pursue unity and solidarity with Christians around the globe (5:9c—”knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world”)

They can do all these things—but you know what they can’t do? You know what we can’t do? We cannot save ourselves. 

“After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1Peter 5:10 ESV).

We cannot save ourselves:

No matter who we are, no matter what our lot in life;

No matter whether we have experienced the “normative pattern of life” or an incredibly abnormal one;

No matter the language we speak or the color of our skin;

No matter our occupation or our economics or our age;

No matter whether we wield the power and authority of kings or cleaners, of debutants or drivers;

We cannot save ourselves. We need a savior.

And hope of all hope, we have a savior.

The Story of Jesus

Two thousand years ago, Jesus was born. He was just as human as you and I, yet somehow also fully God. As he came of age, he called disciples—traveling and teaching and performing the odd miracle.

His teaching centered on the Kingdom of God—an alternate vision of the world he expected his followers to live into.

Jesus paid little respect to the power players of his world—even the popular religious voices—and instead spent his time with what everyone thought were “the wrong kind of people.”

He taught us to “turn the other cheek” to the violence of our world, and then he demonstrated his own teaching by not fighting back as they sent him to the cross.

In his death, Jesus exposed both the violence that drives us and that there is an alternate way—a way of peace that destroys death and hate forever.

Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we can have confidence that we too will experience resurrection and abundant life when Christ’s Kingdom is made complete. There will be a time of reckoning—of answering for sins and of wrongs set right.

If we accept Jesus as our Savior and Lord, then God’s grace, mercy, and life is extended to us. With a God’s-eye view, we will faithfully endure whatever hardship comes our way because we know that through it all God remains with us—because we can be confident that God’s love abides with us—because Jesus assures us we have deliverance. In John 10:27-28, Jesus says:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (John 10:27–30 ESV)

Thank God, we don’t have to save ourselves.
Thank God, we have the hope of a savior.

The Hope of Grace

 

1Peter 3:13-22

 

The Hope of Grace (Saved from Defending God)

This is a complicated passage of scripture. It is, without a doubt, the most complicated part of this whole letter by Peter. But it is complicated because it is the heart of the whole thing—it is in these verses that Peter reveals the most important truths that he has to share. The key to the whole letter is found in v.18. Hear it now again in another translation (VOICE):

The Anointed One suffered for sins once for all time—the righteous suffering for the unrighteous—so that He might bring us to God. Though He died in the flesh, He was made alive again through the Spirit.

This is the reality that undergirds Peter’s faith. This truth is what allows him to proclaim hope in hard times to people who find themselves suffering—especially on account of their faith.

But there’s a lot to unpack in so simple a truth—which is why the surrounding passage seems so complicated.

These verses are loaded with code-words and specialized terms for a purpose. It allows Peter to reference much larger pieces of instruction and story without having to relate the whole thing.

“Suffering once for sins” brings to mind the Passion story of Jesus, reminding us that his death on the cross was a “sacrifice” that need not be repeated—by we ourselves or any surrogate.

“The righteous for the unrighteous” recalls Jesus’ sinless nature, but also his innocence of the trumped-up charges that led to his execution. And even more, this expression looks back at how Jesus’ “righteousness” contrasted with the “unrighteous” politicians and religious leaders in cahoots against him—We saw Jesus’ righteousness most clearly as his own nonviolent response was met with ever-escalating violence by everyone else.

“That He might bring us to God” takes us back—waaaay back—to God’s desire for relationship with us—persistent since our very creation. It reminds us of those days we strolled in Eden with our Maker, of the rift we tore as we hid from our God (then and still), and of the ways God has tried again and again to be reconciled to us:

through personal relationship with Abraham and his descendants,

through prophets like Elijah,

through kings like David,

through a different kind of prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah,

through pagan leaders such as Cyrus of Persia,

and now (at last) through Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah and Son of God.

Nonviolence

When Peter refers to how it is better to suffer for doing good than doing evil, he is saying it is better to suffer undeservedly (like Jesus) instead of because you earned it.

He stresses this point—and he does so this close to his key verse about Jesus’ own suffering—because he himself knows the instincts of our species: when we are threatened, one of our primary instinctual responses is to attack and destroy.

But this is not the way of Jesus. As we read two weeks ago, 1Peter 2:23 tells us that “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1Peter 2:23 NRSV).

Jesus saw that violence cycles back on itself. He even said as much in Matthew 26:52: “People who live by the sword die by the sword” (VOICE). It was by bathing himself in the stories and teachings of Jesus Christ that led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to proclaim:

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that
(Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? p. 67).

As revealed in how Jesus lived and taught, we now know that it is impossible to break the cycles of violence through the use of violence. Christ could not have overcome the violent systems of this world through force; he only would have imposed new violent systems.

In order to “overcome the world” (Jn 16:33; 1Jn 5:4), Jesus had to respond nonviolently to the harm being done to him—he had to trust that he would be vindicated by God, that “vengeance is mine…saith the Lord” as the old King James Version put it (Rom 12:19).

By helping his audience see the way that God redeemed Jesus‘ suffering, Peter wants to open their imagination to the ways God might be able to redeem their suffering, should they respond (like Jesus) in ways that break the cycles of sin and violence, instead of reinforce it.

If we (like Jesus) trust God to be a righteous judge, then we recognize that we too have a hope that carries us through our suffering. Our hope is called grace.

It is the hope that things will turn out differently than they do in this world.

It is the hope that God will view us through the lenses of compassion and forgiveness.

And it is the hope that when we face our Judge, we too will hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21 ESV).

Apologetics: Ancient Misunderstandings

Now maybe this is enough of a sermon for one day, but I want to take it a step farther.

In the early days of the Christian church after the NT era, there was a lot of misunderstanding about Christianity. Since it emerged out of Judaism, some considered Christians to be yet another Jewish group, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes. But even within the NT era, Christians started to be pushed out of their Jewish world of synagogues and rabbis. In the Roman Empire, practicing Judaism as a religion was permissible, but Christianity had no such protections. We were seen as a rogue, insurrectionist cult by many.

This led us to be rather particular about who we allowed into our gatherings and rituals. In some places, symbols and codes were used to prove you were a Christian or mark where we were to next gather. Often, we were forced to gather for worship in suspicious places and times, such as catacombs and graveyards in the dead of night. This, combined with ignorance about what Christianity is really about, led to all sorts of gossip and slander that only furthered the persecution we experienced.

As one example, Christians generally did not allow non-Christians to be present when we celebrated communion. But whispering abounded and gossip (as still) filled in the blanks. The dominant theory quickly became how we met in secrecy and under darkness in order to perform human sacrifices that involved drinking human blood and eating human flesh.

Apologetics: Ancient

In order to counter all these misunderstandings and help to mainstream Christianity, a number of Christian leaders began practicing what historians call “apologetics.” Simply defined, apologetics is the practice of “speaking in defense” of religious belief.

There are places in the NT where Paul does this kind of thing, but it becomes more of a discipline with Origen, Augustine of Hippo, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and many later writers.

And while (as you might expect) there has been a nearly infinite variety to the arguments that have been made by these “apologists,” there is also a remarkable consistency among these early voices. All of them utilize the most solid secular data and logic that was available to them. In other words, they defended Christianity in ways that stood up to peer-review, that were consistent with the scientific knowledge of their world, and that made sense to someone with no knowledge of Christianity. They embraced the conclusions of the world around them, but used those conclusions to argue for the validity of the Christian religion and worldview.

Apologetics: Modern

There’s been a resurgence of people calling themselves “apologists” in the last century. In fact, the opening paragraph of Wikipedia’s page on “Christian apologetics” lists over twice as many modern voices as they do for the previous one-thousand-nine-hundred years (as accessed 19 May 2017 at 1:10 pm CST).

But particularly in the last few decades, I’ve noticed these “new apologists” handle themselves in a very different way than their ancient namesakes. These “new apologists” tend to be antagonistic toward the world, supposing they can “prove” Christianity by condemning everything else. They work to undermine the generally accepted scientific data instead of discovering the ways it points to God. And throughout it all, they present themselves as victims of some mass conspiracy.

Now our country identifies as over 70% Christian. Unless you live in an apartheid state, it is not very likely that such an overwhelming majority will find themselves so victimized.

The ancient namesakes of these “new apologists” would hardly recognize them.

What’s my point? Well, there are significant players of American Christianity that are working hard to convince us that we are the marginal victims of an anti-Christian majority. They work to keep us afraid—and many of us are afraid—because when we are afraid we are more easily controlled and manipulated. When we are afraid, we need them more, because we are more willing to trust in the supposedly-Christian power players of our nation than in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

These “new apologists” may be doing a great job selling fear to the Christian public, but they are in fact undermining the cause of Christ and making the Way of Jesus a laughing-stock among those who need salvation. Their arguments are faulty. Their denial of repeatably demonstrated scientific principles undermines their credibility. And their anti-culture language only serves to distance them—and us—even more from those Jesus loves. They are not defending Christianity to those outside it; they are building walls between Christianity and the world Christ entered to save.

Back to Grace

The grace we receive as Christians—the grace we experience through a transforming relationship with God—it is not given to us to purify us so we can escape this world unscathed. The grace we receive is given to us that the cause of Christ might be expanded as we—like our Savior—give it to others. This grace forces us to tear down walls and overcome divides in order to bring all into the reconciling mission of our God.

But it is also rooted in that core trust of Jesus—the trust that God is Judge and not we. This gives us a clean conscience and frees us from unnecessary battles. These verses of Peter and the teachings on Jesus and God here demonstrate that God does not need us to defend God or God’s actions. How can God save us if God needs saving by us? No! God is fully capable of defending God’s-self. Our job is not to defend God against a vile and evil world, but to reflect Jesus so that the world “God so loves” might be brought back into his tender embrace.

The hope of grace saves us from defending God.

And in the hope of grace, we discover how to move forward as a faithful people loved by our God, even in the midst of hard times.

The Hope of Being Chosen

 

1Peter 2:2-10

 

The Hope of Being Chosen (Saved from Chance)

Now, this might surprise probably none of you, but I was not the most coordinated or athletic of children.

The only sport I ever formally played was basketball… in third grade. I think I played for two minutes in the second game, and I warmed the bench the rest of the season.

PE was forced on me—as it is on many of my kind. And honestly, I didn’t mind it much unless we were playing team sports. Then it was horrible. Because team sports meant real competition—it meant team captains, and team captains meant choosing teams, and choosing teams meant being picked last or nearly so. I can’t tell you how many times I fantasized—in full technicolor, like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story”—of being chosen, of being wanted, of being the one that would save our team. Needless to say, it never happened.

I’m sure these traumas left their mark on my psyche, but in graduate school I learned there was something worse than not being chosen—and that was chance.

My advisor intended to ensure everyone had to participate with some regularity, so he had a system: he would work through the room person by person as we moved line by line through our translation exercises. Like many other students of all ages, we would usually count ahead to see when our turn would come, in order to make sure we were sufficiently prepared to answer his probing questions. But my advisor—by accident or intent—would lose his place after teaching us about some obscure grammatical feature, and then he would guess where in the room to pick up again.

All of a sudden, predictability went out the window. All of a sudden, we were subjected to the cruelty of chance.

We would freeze, careful to not make sudden movements.

We would cast our eyes down to our desks and papers in order to avoid making dangerous eye contact with the apex predator before us.

And then—it seemed more often than not—he would say: “Uh, Michael, why don’t you pick it up here?”

Chance, I learned, could be far crueler than not being chosen.

The scripture text today intends to guide readers from chance to being chosen, from a place of helplessness to one of intention, purpose, and affirmation.

Suckling at Jesus’ Teat

Peter begins (in v.2) by likening his hearers to newborn babies. This is where we begin—all new and fresh and innocent, yet driven only by instincts aimed at self-survival. And there is one instinct Peter wants us to focus on for this analogy—the instinct to nurse. This is a deep longing that is so powerful it overwhelms everything else. That, Peter says, is the kind of longing we will have for “spiritual milk” if we “have tasted that the Lord is good” (v.3).

But the word translated here “spiritual” doesn’t really mean what you think it does. It’s actually the Greek word from which we get the word “logical.” Understood this way, we could say that: Just as a newborn baby longs for the food that is appropriate to its growth and development, so we Christians will long for the “food” that is logical and appropriate for our own growth and development (see Ray Summers, “1 Peter,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, p.155).

It’s a more helpful reading, for sure; but that is not the way I choose to read it here. You see, the word translated “spiritual” here is built off of the word translated “word” in John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

“The Word” is how John’s gospel introduces Jesus in its telling of God’s redemptive work. I think Peter is building off of this concept (as does Paul in other places), suggesting that the “milk” that we hunger for as desperately as a newborn is the milk of Jesus. At least one ancient writer makes this graphic, speaking of [quote] “the nourishing substance of milk swelling out from the breasts of [Christ’s] love” (see Clement of Alexandria in ANF02, “The Instructor,” Book I, Chapter VI, paragraphs 218-220; available here).

If we have indeed discovered the goodness of God, we will nurse ourselves on the the milk of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, the Living Water—desiring and becoming what we eat.

Stones

Now if it’s not yet obvious, Peter is a Jedi master of the mixed metaphor, and this mashup of Jesus and a nursing mother is just the beginning. He moves on in v.4 to some mixed metaphors about stones in order to continue his instruction on how to move from being a victim of chance to the joy of being chosen.

We are told to “come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious” (v.4 RSV). The reference here is obviously Jesus, even before we look to the rest of scripture—which make the connection to Christ even more clear.

There are a series of OT quotations in vv.6-8—from Isaiah and the Psalms. Each is chosen by Peter to reveal a different reality about who Jesus is, yet one of them stands out. A quotation of Psalm 118:22 is found in v.7: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (RSV). This is a verse Jesus has quoted to describe his own rejection by the Jews in an encounter recorded in both Matt 21:42 and Mk 12:10. But it is also picked up by several NT writers, weaving its way into sermons and instructions in Acts 4:11, 1Cor 3:11, and Eph 2:19-22.

In our scriptures, this quotation has become an intrinsic part of how we understand the person and work of Jesus. Jesus did not fit the plans of this world—not even those of the religious leaders. Yet the one who was rejected and oppressed—persecuted to the point of death—became one who is called “chosen and precious” in God’s sight.

What an amazing word of hope to Peter’s audience, to those who are facing persecution and very real suffering! We worship a God who sees and values differently than does our world. The people who are meaningless, useless, barely-human cogs in the wheel of commerce—these may be “chosen and precious” in God’s sight. Amen? Amen.

Four Places of Transformation

So now again we move a bit forward and a bit backward at the same time as we look to draw the whole passage together: How do we experience the hope of being chosen? How are we transformed from victims of chance to “chosen and precious” in God’s sight?

I want to suggest four places of transformation and growth—four experiences or practices that are absolutely necessary, if we are going to be saved from chance and discover the hope of being chosen.

First, as we’ve already mentioned, we’ve got to have an experience of God. We have to have “tasted that the Lord is good.” If we’ve had a genuine experience of God, then that has left a mark on us, and we will be driven to tasting more of God’s goodness—to nourishing ourselves by Jesus Christ, as we grow into salvation.

Second, we present ourselves to God in order to be built into the Body of Christ. As Peter puts it in v.5, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (NIV). As the cornerstone, Christ is the one the rest of us are measured against; his placement orients us all. This is Peter’s version of the Body of Christ metaphor used by Paul, where Christ is the head and we are the eyes, noses, ears, hands, feet, and other unmentionable members.

An important note here is that this “house” is described as “spiritual” because it is where the Spirit of God resides. This is a different word than the one we encountered before. And it is important to realize that spiritual does not mean non-physical.

This means that we cannot be built alongside Christ as living stones if the Spirit does not reside in us. We each have the responsibility to cultivate an awareness of and submission to the Spirit of God that leads and comforts us. But the Spirit is not given to us for our own individual edification. We have a responsibility to submit to the Architect’s design, coming together with other stones to be built according to God’s intent.

Never forget: Stones are useless when left in the quarry—whether they live or not. And the Builder of Creation will reject spirit-less stones from the project being built.

Third, the way we practice submission to the Architect’s blueprint is through the offering of “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (v.5). The word translated “spiritual” here is of the “spiritual house” variety, NOT that used of “spiritual milk” in v.2.

Here, the word distinguishes the kind of sacrifices that are acceptable to God from the sacrifices offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. Christians (by this time) had begun to realize those sacrifices didn’t make sense anymore if Jesus’ own sacrifice had been once-for-all. They were beginning to realize the failings of a faith based solely in external religious rituals. And so Peter uses the term “spiritual sacrifices” to refer to a different kind of faith response—one that offered all of oneself all the time, instead of only outward actions from time to time.

The challenge for us today is moving beyond the rituals and cultural parts of Christianity to a genuine, sacrificial faith. Over the 2000 years of our faith, the powers and principalities of this world have found ways of coopting our faith for their own power and gain. Time and time again, the cause of Christ is undermined through subversive and unholy alliances with king and country. Just as in the early days of our faith, we need to hear these words of Peter and their reminder to hold the rituals of our faith cautiously, knowing that they are easily stolen from us by the powers of darkness.

Instead of rituals, we look to sacrifice and submission of our own desires to those of God.

Instead of the externally observed characteristics of a so-called Christian, we remember that transformation is an internal process brought about between a person and their God.

Fourth and finally, being chosen comes with responsibility. As Baptist historian Walter Shurden has written, since we have a Statue of Liberty on the east coast, we should have a statue of responsibility on the west (in Four Fragile Freedoms).

Being chosen by God means our identity is wrapped up in four realities, each requiring their own expression and action of love. [I wish I had time to flesh these out more, but perhaps thats a sermon for another day.] When we are chosen by God we become:

A. A chosen race, which recalls God’s choice of Israel as a people for his redemptive witness—with the purpose of redeeming all people and all of creation.

B. When we are chosen by God we become: A royal priesthood, suggesting a kingdom in which each citizen serves as a priest both for themselves and for each other. As Jesus reminds us in Matt 18:18: Whatever we bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever we loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. In context there, it’s quite clear that what he suggests is that followers of Jesus have the power to dispense forgiveness to each other—not just in the here and now, but perhaps also for eternity.

C. When we are chosen by God we become: A holy nation. This envisions a nation of people set apart to and bearing the nature of the holy God whom they worship and serve. By demonstrating the nature of the holy God in our lives, we shine as a light to the nations and a city on a hill—the light of Christ shining through us and beckoning others into the glow of God’s forgiveness and love.

D. When we are chosen by God we become: God’s own people—This expression is not a translation but a paraphrase of that last expression. More literally, this reads: “a people for his cherishing.” That’s a beautiful expression—it’s a beautiful reality.
(adapted from: Ray Summers, “1 Peter,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, p.156).

Being chosen by God stands in contrast to the haphazard appearance of life. But when we follow the path of Jesus, we discover that life is not a series of accidental encounters but rather something purposeful. Only in discovering and living into those purposes does it make sense.

What hope there is in being chosen by our loving God! Amen!

The Hope of Meaning

 

1Peter 2:19-25

Senselessness

More and more often (it seems) our news reports are filled with tragic deaths.

An inner-city gang shooting leaves an 8 year old dead

The abuse of power by someone in law enforcement results in the death of a teenager

A military strike with poor intelligence results in significant civilian casualties

A distracted, sleep-deprived, or negligent parent forgets their infant in the car

When death is senseless, we tend to have one of two primary responses. It can leave us reeling in shock. Or it can kindle a furious anger within us.

We want meaning. We want purpose. We want order and predictability. We want life to make sense.

But too often—when we look around us and reflect on the circumstances of our lives—we cannot find meaning. We cannot find purpose or order or predictability. In our daily lives, we experience things that we cannot make sense of.

And so we struggle to fit together the pieces of life and faith—of experience and belief.

This was certainly the case for many that Peter was addressing in our scripture lesson this morning.

Slaves

As I have stressed in the past weeks, there was an increasing amount of persecution taking place against the Christian communities to which Peter writes. But today’s reading also gives us insight into the daily suffering that some experienced—not on account of their faith, but because of their ethnicity and social standing. The verse immediately before our reading addresses these verses to “slaves” who serve not only masters “who are good and considerate, but also…those who are harsh” (1Peter 2:18 NIV).

The word used here refers to slaves or servants who worked within the house. Because of the ambiguity of the Greek terms, we cannot say for sure whether these slaves had much power over their own lives. There have been some convincing arguments made that claim Peter is using this word for “slave” to refer to all Christians, given (in part) the expression “slaves of God” in 1Peter 2:16 (though the word used there is a synonym).

But this generalizing is not the way we have read these texts over the last 200-300 years. One thing we can say for sure is that these verses were used to support slavery for a very long time. Theologian and activist Walter Wink has written: “One hundred and fifty years ago, when the debate over slavery was raging, the Bible seemed to be clearly on the slaveholders‘ side. Abolitionists were hard-pressed to justify their opposition to slavery on biblical grounds” (Homosexuality and Christian Faith, 47). This particular text in 1Peter was a hobby horse text for slaveholders.

The Challenges to Avoid Valorizing 

This history of interpretation presents us with some real challenges—both for understanding this text and applying it. And unfortunately, we’ve not done a great job at either over the last century or more.

As I just mentioned, these verses were used to affirm slavery. And even more damaging, that eighteenth verse was used to argue that a slaveowner had a God-given right even to abuse their slaves. As the argument continued, if it was their right to abuse slaves, it must mean those slaves do not bear God’s image, and thus they are not human.

But even among those of us not suffering overt slavery, these verses have led us to develop unhealthy images of God’s sovereignty. When we—or more often others—suffer, we [air quotes] “encourage” each other by saying: “It was God’s will.” As Adam Hamilton argues in his book Half Truths, we often deal with the apparent senselessness of suffering by blaming it on God and whitewashing it with denial.

But yet another challenge that emerges is that verses like these have led some dimensions of Christianity to develop a martyr complex. When this happens, we think we’re supposed to be suffering all the time, so we either create conflict in which we will suffer or we become doormats, never standing up for ourselves or others.

Now, there is a strong tradition within Christian history that celebrates martyrs. But it is important to realize that we celebrate martyrs for their steadfast faith amidst terrible violence; we do not celebrate the violence done to them.

This, I think, is an important distinction in 1Peter as well. Whether or not we are talking about actual slaves without basic human rights, Peter is writing to people who are already and consistently experiencing oppression. They are not seeking the violence being done to them. They are not presenting themselves as the doormats of society, unwilling to even recognize their own humanity. They are people for whom suffering (in various degrees) is a part of life. They are people without the power or authority to remove suffering and oppression from their daily existence. And the persecution they face is not the product of their own actions, but of the cruelty of the “powers and principalities” of this world, as well as a slew of unjust masters.

Senseless suffering is their norm.

What Peter aims to give his original hearers—and we modern readers—is a way to discover meaning amid the senselessness of our lives.

Binary Thinking

Peter, like Jesus before him, wants to help us see things differently. The way the Kingdom of God works is not the way things seem to work in the world around us. We need a reorientation of our vision and understanding. We need a recalibration of our ethic.

And one of the places most in need of transformation is our dualistic thinking—this refers to the way we categorize everything in terms of opposites:

white or black

yes or no

right or wrong

chaos or order

Republican or Democrat

The list goes on and on.

In this way of thinking, it’s one or the other—with no gray areas in between. One New Testament professor calls this “binary thinking,” using the imagery of computer programming. She says:

We see evidence of binary thinking across the spectrum of life.

On the streets one gang member’s slight becomes another’s death warrant.

In the boardroom, one failed contract becomes the automatic justification for downsizing.

In the schoolroom, one quirky learner quickly becomes labeled as a problem.

In the family, one disappointment in a relationship becomes the foundation for divorce.

In the church, one year of decline means the church is dead.

By and large, we work under the constraint of this mind-set all the time.
(Joy Douglas Strome, in Feasting, p.438)

In his book The Naked Now, Christian author Richard Rohr connects this mindset to ancient heresies such as Gnosticism, but also to many of the current challenges of the church and our world. He says:

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that “us-and-them” seeing, and the dualistic thinking that results, is the foundation of almost all discontent and violence in the world.

Things that appear senseless often appear so because our way of thinking is limited to yes-or-no, us-or-them, sinner-or-saint dualism. Such it is for the “slaves” among Peter’s hearers too. If a master is being “harsh” with you, what can you do? Stand up for yourself and be beaten unjustly, or suffer undeservedly in silence.

What we find “embedded in our 1Peter text, however, is the subtle message that there are always more than two choices. [To contemporize it:]

One can be abused and not become a serial abuser.

One can suffer ridicule or physical harm and not fall into a cycle of never-ending violent behavior.

Jesus’ experience on the cross teaches us that God always has optionslife-giving options, options that expand possibilities and trigger in us instincts that only God can touch… As an antidote to all the ways life is frightening and dangerous, God offers a way” (Strome, Feasting, 438).

St. Clare’s Mirror

Hundreds of years ago, St. Clare of Assisi talked about learning to see ourselves in the mirror of Christ. It’s an image that is probably at least a little familiar to you, even if you never knew of the woman who first imagined it in those terms. Considering her image in light of these verses from 1Peter, St. Clare’s “mirror of Christ” helps us see that “we understand our suffering only in the light of Christ’s suffering, and that we grasp the sense of this suffering only as we realize its redemptive purpose” (Stephen Edmondson, in Feasting, p.438).

This is very much the way Peter presents his picture of suffering and Jesus in our scripture lesson, starting in v.22. He draws heavily off of the Servant Song of Isaiah 53, weaving that thread with threads from the life of Jesus and those who will read this letter. In doing so, he gives an example of how looking in the mirror of Christ can help us discover the hope of meaning in the midst of trying circumstances. To accomplish that, Peter points out these reflections of Christ (adapted from Joel Green, in Feasting, p.441):

The audience’s suffering is like that of Jesus Christ.

Christ does not retaliate in the face of suffering, and this is a model for his followers.

Whereas Peter described God as the “Father” who judges impartially back in the first chapter (1:17), he now observes that Jesus entrusted himself to the just Judge, and he will go on to urge his audience to entrust themselves to a faithful Creator—in spite of unjust suffering.

Peter refers to Jesus’ having been executed “on the tree” (v.24), drawing attention to the disgrace of Jesus’ death. Rather than deny the shame of Jesus’ execution, Peter seems actually to embrace it, since the cross is the signature of the God whose purpose is realized through the atoning death of Christ.

Just as Peter directs his audience to “do good” rather than “sin” (v.20), so he notes that Jesus was without sin. Moreover, because he “bore our sins in his body on the tree,” believers, having died to sins, can live to righteousness.

What all this is trying to say is that it is that they need to be shaped by the reality of Jesus Christ. Or perhaps—returning back to St. Clare’s imagery—We make sense of our lives when we find reflections of Christ’s life in our own. 

In doing so, we too will find our experiences of bondage and suffering transformed from senseless violence to purposed witness: Here is how to be like Christ.

This is how we are saved from senselessness. This is how we discover the hope of meaning.

 

The Anchor of Hope

 

Intro to Series

Did you know that in the church calendar, Easter lasts for 50 days? Christmas lasts just 12 days. Advent lasts anywhere between 22-28 days. Lent lasts 40 days. But Easter—the season dedicated to celebrating hope and grace in light of Christ’s resurrection—is the longest holy season of the year.

And as things would have it, this year the Lectionary prescribes reading the letter of 1Peter during the Easter season.

1Peter is an interesting book. While it is has traditionally been identified with the apostle Peter, this letter addresses themes and situations that grew in urgency around the end of the first century AD. Specifically, this letter is addressed to Christians who are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ—those whose religious convictions have led to very real social, economic, and perhaps even physical suffering. They are being punished by a culture prejudiced against the Way of Jesus.

In the face of such difficulties—standing before such tremendous obstacles—these Christians are finding their faith tested in ways they could never have imagined. The simple act of following Jesus is costing them in ways we could never imagine.

This letter, then, meets them where they are. It acknowledges the suffering they are experiencing—the hard times they face. Yet it aims to reorient the reader toward joy and hope.

While the trials most of us face pale in comparison to those of this letter’s original readers, the wisdom that is offered is just as valuable to us today, as we too struggle to find hope in hard times.

That will be our theme for the rest of this resurrection season: Finding Hope in Hard Times. In the coming weeks we will reflect on

the hope of salvation (and how we are saved from ourselves)

the hope of meaning (and how we are saved from senselessness)

the hope of being chosen (and how we are saved from chance)

the hope of grace (and how we are saved from defending God)

and the hope of a savior (and how we are saved from saving ourselves)

But first, we begin where the author of 1Peter begins: by identifying the Anchor of Hope. Let us read.

1Peter 1:3-9

 

11 Reasons for Praising God

(adapted from New Bible Commentary, s.v. 1Peter 1:3-9)

This treatise on finding hope in hard times begins by identifying the anchor of our hope: the one true God. And then, in the next few verses, it offers us eleven reasons for praising God…… Eleven realities that are indisputable…… Eleven facts that are not conditional upon circumstances. Within these eleven points, we discover how the inalterable reality of God and God’s work gives hope in the midst of trouble.

[And yes, that means this sermon is going to have eleven points. I may have to skip the poem at the end.]

1. Our reading begins: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1:3) The first reason to praise God is that God is father to Jesus Christ. Jesus himself talks about the closeness between he and the Father, even saying “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is our example, redeemer, friend……without a God who “so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” we wouldn’t have a Jesus either. So no matter what’s going on in our lives or world, there is something—someONE—to anchor our hopes to.

2. The reading continues: “In his great mercy” (v.3). This is the second point. It is mercy that motivates God—not condemnation, not anger, not jealousy, not pride. Contrary to the faulty images of God that so many of us hold, this verse is quite clear that God’s motivation in engaging us is driven by mercy. Jesus wants us to know this about God—he goes to great lengths to show it to us. And twice he even quotes Hosea 6:6, insisting that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13; 12:7). That our God is a God motivated by mercy is another reason to put our hope in God in all circumstances.

3. “In his great mercy, he has given us new birth” (v.3). this “new birth” is the third point. The new birth……the new beginning……the transformed existence that is given to us is a product of God’s great mercy. It’s that mystery that Nicodemus wrestled with in John 3. It’s that transformational reality proclaimed in Galatians 2 as Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ—I am no longer alive—but Christ is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s Son” (Gal 2:20 VOICE). Because of God, there can always be a new beginning, a new day, a new chance.

4. Point four. The author says that this new birth is “into a living hope” (v.3). In other words, the result of that new birth is a life of hope. This hope is qualified with the next two points, as its means and its object are made explicit. Yet it is also remarkable simply to recognize that on account of the inalterable reality of who God is and what God is doing, our lives can be filled with hope.

5. So what is the means of this hope? That’s the fifth point here. It comes about “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (v.3). Christ has been raised from the dead. We celebrate that most fully on Easter, yet this reality undergirds the hope that draws us every week. Without the resurrection, we would have no hope, as Paul points out in 1Thess 4:13. Without the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus’ death would have been “the most tragic waste in all of history” (Gal 2:21 VOICE). As we read in 1Cor 15, “If what we have hoped for in Christ doesn’t take us beyond this life, then we are world-class fools, deserving everyone’s pity. But Christ was raised from death’s slumber and is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death… Through Christ all of us can live again” (vv. 19-20, 22 VOICE).

6. This brings us to the sixth point. If the means of our hope is the resurrection of Jesus, the object—the reason—for our hope is surely the inheritance that awaits us as children and heirs of God (v.4). One of the ways we have understood the work of Jesus on the cross is to say he swapped places with us. Later in 1Peter 2 we’re told that Jesus “took on our sins in His body when he died on the cross so that we, being dead to sin, can live for righteousness” (v.24 VOICE). But if we swapped places, it also means that Jesus places us in his own position in God’s eyes, as God’s beloved children and heirs. Once again, as followers of Jesus, this is an inalterable reality in our lives—no matter how the storms of life may bluster and blow.

7. This inheritance, v.4 of 1Peter 1 continues, “can never perish, spoil or fade.” This is the seventh point. No matter what hostile elements may menace…… No matter the pollution that threatens to defile…… No matter our own fears of fading zeal or faith wasting away…… Our inheritance remains secure; it “can never perish, spoil, or fade.”

8. And why is this? That’s the eighth point. It remains secure because it’s keeping is not left with us: Peter tells us that it “is kept in heaven for you” (v.4). This is Peter’s way of saying what Paul means, when he says that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). In the Roman world, if you were a Roman citizen, there would be a record of your citizenship kept in Rome. No matter what happened in the world, that citizenship would be secure. But of course, just because you were a Roman citizen didn’t mean you were supposed to end up in Rome when you retired; quite the opposite: your job was to bring Roman culture wherever you were.
(cf. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.293)

9. That brings us to point #9: We “are shielded by God’s power” (v.5). This word “shielded” might better be translated “guarded.” It literally means “garrisoned.” And the point here is that we are “garrisoned” by the power of God so that we will be able to inherit. Nothing can threaten that. As an analogy, there are quite a few times the apostle Paul relies on his Roman citizenship to get him out of sticky situations. It provides him with certain protections not available to the average Joe. God is so intent on ensuring we inherit the promise that God uses God’s power to shield us and protect us—not preventing any harm from coming our way, but guaranteeing we do not face it alone and that God will see us through. Another reason to trust God as the anchor of hope.

10. Number ten. Peter tells us in v.5 that it is “through faith” that we are “shielded by God’s power.” Faith, then, is the means by which we are guarded by God. It is how we hold onto God’s promises. Our salvation does not depend on our actions, our morality, our righteousness, our knowledge, or our purity. It depends only on faith. It is only “through faith” that we begin the lifelong process of turning toward God. It is only “through faith” that we can submit to God and become like our savior Jesus. It is only “through faith” that we find salvation.

11. That’s the last point. Salvation. Peter says that we are guarded—”garrisoned”—”until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (v.5). Salvation—whether we do a good job explaining it or not—has past, present, and future components. Here in 1Peter 1, “salvation is described with reference to the past (Christians have been given new birth by God’s mercy), to the present (Christians are being shielded by God’s power), and to the future (at the last time will come the final deliverance from evil)” (IVP-NB Commentary, s.v. 1Peter 1:3-5). We can confidently anchor our hope in God because with God there is salvation. As the apostle Peter proclaims in a sermon early in Acts, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NIV11)

Peter, of course, in the remaining verses of our reading, goes straight into acknowledging the troubles his hearers are facing. He speaks of “suffering” and “grief,” of “trials” and the crucible of persecution. But he does it all with the foundation of knowing God as the anchor of hope.

As we’ll see in the coming weeks, Peter never dismisses suffering. He never demeans it by suggesting it is any less devastating than it is. He also, I believe, never glorifies it. Peter isn’t interested in creating martyrs—the people he is writing to are already being martyred.

Instead, he wants to help them come to terms with the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.

He wants them to know that God is with them.

He wants them to know that as followers of Jesus, they will survive this, even if they die in the process.

He wants them to know that—even in the face of tremendous adversity—it is possible to have hope and joy in your life. All it takes is anchoring your hope to the one and only God, who loves you and wants to see you through.

Amen.

Fulfillment

 

Matthew 1:18-25

 

Posture: Responding to Fulfillment

As we near the climax of this Advent season, we have already reflected on many different experiences:

How does anticipation position us so we are ready to serve God and each other?

In what ways do we resist the confrontational nature of the gospel?

How do we reconcile faith with our inner questioning and uncertainty?

And now today……How do we respond to the fulfillment of our hopes?

What goes through our minds?

What changes in our physiology—in our body’s language and composition?

And how does the fulfillment of our hopes impact our lived-out faith as disciples of Christ?

The Story

The scripture reading today is well known among Christians. Now, the Sunday before Christmas Day, we have begun our move into the Christmas narrative itself, inserting ourselves as a fly-on-the-wall into these intimate, fearful, and joyous moments of Mary and Joseph’s relationship.

Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married……or so we would position them in today’s rituals and rites. In their own time and culture, it would be more accurate to say Joseph had contracted to wed Mary. While Joseph is certainly painted as a compassionate and caring individual here, the fact is that marriage in that day and age had nothing to do with love and everything to do with economics, social aspiration, and the cold, hard realities of a thoroughly patriarchal society.

Mary—throughout this episode—is not afforded a voice. Her opinion is not consulted. Her perspective is not presented. The version of Jesus’ birth told here in Matthew is not about Mary—it is about Joseph. It is about the hope of Israel. And it is about the fulfillment of that hope in an unexpected way.

As we begin, I think it’s important to realize that while we know Mary is “with child from the Holy Spirit” (v.18), no one else seems to know this at the time. Of course, as Luke will tell, Mary has an angelic visit of her own—but (as I said) Mary gets no voice in Matthew’s gospel.

Joseph, in resolving to divorce her in v.19, reveals that he does not know about—or believe—any spirit-impregnating mumbo-jumbo. He only knows that a pregnant fiancée is scandalous, that the child is not his, and that an unfaithful fiancée is likely to be an unfaithful wife. Since the covenant has been violated, he intends to quit the covenant.

Yet still, as a godly person, he does not intend to cause irreparable harm. Unlike so many separations today, Joseph is not intent on lashing out and destroying the one he perceives has wronged him. He does not want Mary to suffer for her unfaithfulness; he just doesn’t want that kind of trouble in his life any more. Whatever hopes he had for this marriage have been dashed—and dead hope brings its own kind of grief, as we mourn a life we were invested in but will never breathe a breath.

Out of this grief—and out of this quiet wrestling—an angel invades Joseph’s contemplation. Like most angels, this one begins with an instruction to not be afraid. The angel tells Joseph to go ahead with the wedding, that Mary has not been unfaithful but that her baby is brought into being by the Spirit; and the angel tells Joseph something about this baby’s future: call him Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins” (v.21).

Why?!?

There is……one more thing we learn here in Matthew, too. It’s an answer to the question that is first on our lips when our own hope is dashed. It’s the question we most want answered when our grief peaks. It’s the question “why?”

Why?……Why?……Why?…… How many times must Joseph have asked that question in the hours and days before the angel appeared? How often must he have shouted it at the heavens, or prayed it with the same intensity as will Jesus pray at Gethsemane?

How many times have we prayed “why?”, crying out in grief to the sky, or falling on our knees, or having it echoing around inside our empty soul?

How many times have we ourselves earnestly desired an angel break into our despair, offer us words of peace, and promise the fulfillment of all our hopes?

But alas, while such experiences happen, they do not happen to everyone, everywhere, or every time. They are, in truth, exceptions to the norm—as befitting their exceptional nature.

The answer to Joseph’s “why” is certainly an exceptional one. This boy who will be born in such exceptional circumstances has an exceptional fate—even more exceptional than his name alone suggests. This Jesus will not just be the one who will “save his people from their sins”; he will also be “Immanuel… God with us” (vv.21, 23), the presence of God promised by Isaiah hundreds of years and a nearly equal number of pages ago.

History Lesson

Now, there’s some interesting history behind this prophecy of Isaiah, not the least of which is that the Jews of Jesus’ day believed these words of Isaiah had already been fulfilled.

Here’s what Isaiah 7 is actually about. In the early 700s BCE, Syria and Israel allied with other small states for protection against Assyria, the region’s 800-pound gorilla. Judah refused to join the alliance. Syria and Israel, fearing a potential enemy at its rear, moved to conquer Judah.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to tell the king of Judah that, with faith, his enemies would be destroyed. Isaiah tells the king to ask God for a sign of this prophecy, but the king refuses to put God to the test. Isaiah [then] sees this as a lack of faith, scolds the king, and gives him a sign: “The [maiden] will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14). Before the boy is old enough to understand right from wrong, Syria and Israel will be destroyed.

In other words, in five years or so, your enemies will be destroyed—that’s the point of the Immanuel [prophecy]. The boy simply acts as a clock. And not only is Immanuel not a messiah, his three-verse story isn’t even a significant part of this chapter, which goes on to describe the impending conquest of Judah by Assyria and…[the] painful future [that awaits].

(The previous paragraphs copied with slight alterations from HERE)

You see, from the perspective of Joseph and his peers, this is a prophecy that had already been fulfilled. It had been fulfilled when an otherwise unimportant boy was born to the house of the King of Judah, and when Syria and Israel were destroyed less than five years later. This otherwise unremarkable child is called “Immanuel” because his presence reminds ancient Israel that God has not forgotten them, and that God is at work to save them.

“Fulfillment”

It is this meaning, I believe, that led Matthew to see a connection to the infant Jesus. Like the Immanuel of centuries prior, the presence of Jesus reminds us of the presence of God. Like his namesake, Jesus will help us see that God is working to save us. Perhaps too, Jesus serves as a kind of clock for us, marking both the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God at his birth and its fulfillment when he returns.

But with Jesus, there’s more to it too. When Matthew says that Jesus’ virgin birth is the fulfillment of prophecy, we remember this is not the only prophecy Jesus will fulfill. A big part of the purpose of the gospel of Matthew is to connect as many of these prophetic dots as possible.

But “prophecy” and “fulfillment” are not fatalistic concepts in the New Testament, despite how we have read them over the years. For Jesus to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 7 is not to say that he and only he is what Isaiah 7 intended. Rather, the fulfillment of prophecy takes place when faithful people choose to embody the hoped-for reality. Jesus is familiar with the scriptures of his Jewish religion—which was made up of the bulk of what we now know as the OT. And in particular places we can read about Jesus deliberately choosing to live into an OT text—deliberately choosing to “fulfill” an OT prophecy.

It’s obvious and mysterious and earthy and supernatural all at the same time. But it’s also the same sort of task that is presented to faithful disciples of Jesus over and over.

Fulfilling the Kingdom

Jesus spends most of his teaching and preaching ministry talking about the same thing. Know what it is? It’s the same thing John the Baptist talked about: the kingdom of God.

John will proclaim that the Kingdom is “near” (Matt 3:2).

Jesus takes it a step further to say it is “in you” (Lk 17:21).

Paul will talk about how we are to live in the world but according to a different set of laws and standards (Titus 3:1-8 and others);

and Peter will show how we “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

They’re all talking about the same thing—inching and pushing and plodding and fighting their way forward as they seek to bring the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God into the world.

So it is with us, as well. We are citizens of this nation, tasked with upholding justice and peace, and with praying for our leaders.

But this nation is not where our allegiance lies.

Each one of us must live the Kingdom of God into being.

Each one of us must contribute toward its fulfillment.

Each one of us has roles to play in order for “thy kingdom” to come, and “thy will” to be done, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The past fulfillment of hope in Jesus reminds us of God’s presence, love, and desire to deliver us from the bonds that oppress us—both within and without. But that past fulfillment also drives our future hope, and our present labor.

In a world so deeply divided, who will know unity?—unless it is lived out by the Church.

In a world filled with such pain, who will know comfort?—unless it is lived out by the Church.

In a world driven by consumerism and greed, who will know generosity?—unless it is lived out by the Church.

In a world where facts have become irrelevant in public discourse, who will know truth?—unless it is lived out by the Church–the people who embody the way, the truth, and the life—that is Jesus the Christ.

We have a role to play in the world, sisters and brothers. God is not finished yet. The Kingdom is not yet fulfilled. The cause of Christ is still advancing.

But are we advancing with it? Are we fulfilling the Kingdom of God through our choices and engagements? As we do what we call “the Lord’s work,” is good news being preached to the poor? Are captives and prisoners being set free? Do the blind now see? Are the oppressed liberated?

These are the things Jesus indicates are fulfilled in his life and mission. Are they fulfilled in ours?

Letter from Birmingham Jail

For some weeks and months, I have discovered my mind recalled a particular writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963. In so many places, Dr. King seems to speak straight to the circumstances of our world today, to the criticisms used against those pursuing justice, and to the difficult task that committed followers of Jesus are likely to have in the future.

As we reflect on “fulfillment” today, I regret that we have lived into the prophetic fears expressed by Dr. King instead of living into the life of Christ and Kingdom of God. Near the end of this substantial letter, Dr. King says this:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

(accessed HERE)

From dashed hopes, to fulfilled hopes, to dashed hopes again. This is our history. And this is where we stand today.

But it is not where we have to remain.

Each of us—one by one—can choose to fulfill Jesus’ life with our own.

Each of us—one by one—can choose to live in the Kingdom of God even now.

Each of us—one by one—can choose to stand with God against the injustices of this world, actively fighting the “powers and principalities” that crush the lives and spirits of those on the margins.

In doing so, we fulfill the life of Christ and advance God’s Kingdom.
Sisters and brothers: Gird up your loins. We’ve work to do.