Resurrection

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Matthew 28:1-10

 

A New Boy

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, a boy was born. The circumstances of that birth were only noteworthy on account of the misfortune that tainted that supposedly joyous day.

The mother—pregnant out of wedlock.

The location—forced to travel 70 dangerous miles on account of a ridiculous political decree.

The parents—so shunned by family members that they were forced to sleep where the animals were kept at night.

There would be visitors laterafter the birth of this boy—but their arrival would be more unsettling than joyous. I mean, what do you do with the promises and predictions of vagabond shepherds and Iranian astrologers?

The childhood of this boy also bears no particular mention. It was a typical childhood for one born into a blue-collar family in that time and place. There was one peculiar event when he was about 12 years old. The family was traveling back from a festival, and it appears the boy did not get on the bus home with the rest of the family. When they saw he was missing, they called the police and went searching—but he was at a church (of all places) doing some Bible study. Certainly atypical for a teenager who runs away. But then again, maybe it was just a mix-up, right?

The life of this boy does not gather much attention until he is a man. But even then, one wonders. It was a turbulent time and place—and itinerant preachers were pretty common. I’m sure it was hard for his father and mother when the boy-now-man failed to continue the family business. But I suspect they came around—especially seeing the way people came to seek him out.

The man taught a back-to-basics type of religion. Be kind. Care for each other. Do good. Wash behind your ears……that kind of stuff. But he had some radical notions too.

He said that following God involved self-sacrifice: “take up your cross and follow me.”

He taught an inversion of the social order: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

And—most radically—he taught that we are to love our enemies.

Like many of us in the exuberant days of our youth, the man had a flair for bucking authority. He didn’t keep the Sabbath the way he was taught—that attracted a lot of negative attention. But what made it worse is that he’d break the Sabbath by doing remarkable and incredibly good things.

Somehow, he’d heal someone’s blindness……but it was on the Sabbath.

Somehow, he’d cure someone’s sickness……but it was on the Sabbath.

Sometimes, it almost seemed like he was giving the middle finger to the religious authorities.

And people in power will usually do anything to keep their power. That’s the way this story goes, too. Our fellow upsets the wrong people. A plan is made. A betrayal is bought. A trap is set.

Arrest.

Trial.

Sentence.

His life ends as a footnote: just another would-be messiah, crucified by the Romans as a rabble-rouser and insurrectionist. Just as in the beginning, there are those who saw something more as he died, yet they proved unsettling too: a crucified thief, a Roman centurion……

But death was not the end for our Jesus. The morning after the Sabbath, two women go to the grave. They are tasked with the dirty, stinky, tainting job of attending to a decomposing corpse. But instead of a fetid body, they discover an empty tomb. Instead of the corpse of their teacher and friend, they receive word from an angel. And as they run away, afraid, they meet their risen Savior, who proclaims “Do not fear.”

A New World

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far, away, a new world was born—a Kingdom “not of this world.” It’s birth, too, went largely unnoticed by the world at large. It’s advent, too, appeared more unsettling than joyous in the moment.

Jesus, having “descended to the grave” (as the Apostle’s Creed and 1Peter 3:19 tell us), is raised by God to new life.

His resurrection conquers death and paves the way for abundant life—eternal life.

His resurrection breaks this world open so that a new creation can emerge.

His resurrection is a taste of the resurrection that awaits us all.

For in Jesus’ resurrection, the power that this world has wielded against us—the power of death—has been rendered impotent, for all time.

In Jesus’ resurrection, the very fundamental realities of how life works have been altered. It is as dramatic as though gravity no longer applies, or the earth no longer rotates around the sun.

In Jesus’ resurrection, the Kingdom of God is birthed into this world.

And now we—who were so lost to sin—can find rescue.

Now we—who were so broken by the world—can find healing.

Now we—who were so devastated by grief—can find comfort.

Now we—who were so afraid—we can find love.

In the resurrection of Jesus, what is of this world has been broken open. A new day has dawned. A new beginning has started.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the End was decided. And life, peace, joy, and hope……and love……love wins.

Christ has died!
Christ is risen!
Christ is coming again!

 

 

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Lent: Rejection

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Matthew 4:1-11

 

Rejection

It’s a familiar text and story that we have before us today. Jesus, having just been baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist, is whisked away to the wilderness where he experiences a period of preparation, discernment, and temptation. The gospel accounts pay the most attention to the last hours of this isolating-yet-constructive experience of our Savior, as he—like any and every other human being that has ever lived—experiences pressures that could very well reroute his life away from the narrow path of God’s Kingdom.

Three times he experiences the pull of this world, forces that would draw him away from the path of God’s Kingdom—forces that are still very present and very powerful in our world today. These are the forces of the world—the empire, if you will—that we too will need to learn to reject, if we are to remain on the path of God’s Kingdom, following the footsteps of Jesus our leader.

1. Miracle of Bread

As Matthew tells the story, the first temptation faced by Jesus—the first strong pull of the way of the world—is to turn stones into bread. The temptation here is more than miracle—it is to be a savior of people’s immediate needs—and thus to be needed by them.

Now when we see folks hungry, God is pretty clear that we should be working and sacrificing to meet their needs (cf. Isa 58, 1John 3:17, Matthew 25, and many other places). But as Jesus reveals in John 6, he did not come to end physical hunger but to become the Bread of Life, through whom we obtain abundant and everlasting life.

The temptation that Jesus faces here in the desert is the temptation to be needed by others. And Christ could have done this. Jesus could have come as our high-and-mighty Savior, turning stones into bread, purifying the waters of the world, renewing creation, and saving us from ourselves by taking away the free will that we were given when formed of the dust of the earth.

And honestly, some days that sounds pretty good. But it only sounds good because of how we’ve been brainwashed by the culture and powers of our world. Jesus himself knows it to be a false promise—that it doesn’t really work that way, and that it couldn’t work that way.

And so Jesus rejects this pull that the world imposes on him, and he chooses the way of God’s Kingdom.

Instead of appearing as our high-and-mighty Savior, Jesus is born as yet another apparently insignificant Jewish baby.

Instead of crushing our free will, Christ enters into our broken human condition, engages with the lowest and least of society and the world, and extends sacrificial love to all.

Instead of being our “white knight,” Jesus accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death, supporting and encouraging us. Becoming human like us and with us, he walks with us and guides us toward salvation through relationship with God.

The pull of the world is to make sure others need us—to ourselves become the saviors who brings culture/enlightenment/protection to the weak heathens around us. This was, in fact (and quite sadly), the way the Christian church performed missionary activity for quite some time. Identifying with a savior instead of those Jesus loves (those in need of salvation), we infiltrated and destroyed entire cultures in the name of evangelism. We tried to force our own way of faith upon people instead of meeting them where they were, which was what Jesus himself did. And in the process, we Christians became complicit in some of the most violent and unjust systems that continue even to this day.

To follow the Kingdom way of Jesus is to reject these impulses to be needed and to save. Instead, we follow the example of Jesus Christ to love sacrificially, remembering his teaching that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV).

The cause of Christ is advanced—the Kingdom of God is expanded and made more complete in this world when we identify with the broken, the forgotten, the abused, the abandoned, the addicted, the imprisoned, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the powerless. If we cannot learn to love them for the sheer purpose of loving them, then we are not following the example of Christ in rejecting the empire of this world in favor of God’s Kingdom.

2. Miracle of the Superman

After this first temptation in Matt 4, Jesus is tempted to play Superman—to perform amazing supernatural feats that are guaranteed to impress and garner positive attention. If only Jesus would use his abilities to bring himself fame—if only he would amaze and entertain the easily-impressed masses—then he would have a platform to carry his message throughout the world. That is his temptation. That is the pull of the world.

But this, too, is rejected by Jesus. It is rejected because it involves—once again—playing by the rules of this world instead of the rules of God’s Kingdom. To seek to impress people and cultivate fame is one of the more powerful forces this world wields within us. Yet (as Jesus knows), fame is an empty promise; it never leads us to the expected fulfillment.

Yet there is so much we do in order to impress—in order to ensure people think well of us. When we meet new people, we change our introduction of ourselves so they will accept us. So many of our untruths—our lies and deceptions—are fueled by the fear that we won’t be accepted, or that we need to impress. Instead of “count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves,” as the Kingdom way of Jesus instructs (Phil 2:3), the way of the world (the pull we feel within us) is to prove ourselves superior to everyone we meet, no matter the deception or violence it entails.

If we are to reject the pull of the empire around us and follow the way of God’s Kingdom, we will practice a disciplined humility, instead of a false pride. One early Christian voice, a man aptly nicknamed “the Shepherd,” offered this recommendation: “Behave as if you were a stranger, and wherever you are, do not expect your words to have any influence and you will be at peace” (Abba Poemen).

3. Complete World Domination

This brings us to Jesus’ third temptation. Psychologists tell us there are two powerful desires within us that require constant management: control and power. In fact, most of our conflicts with one another come down to issues of power or control.

When we feel a loss of power in one area of life, we seek to exert power in another. I have seen many good folks do terrible harm to their families and churches because of an experience of powerlessness somewhere else.

In the same way, when we feel a loss of control in one area of life, we seek to control other people and things as a way of restoring balance. Along with power, such efforts to control others bring us great frustration and can result in great violence. The most dramatic example of this reassertion of power and control is domestic violence, but there are far more insidious ways we inflict power and control on people, as well.

There are times when we deceive ourselves into thinking we are helping them—saving them from themselves, perhaps. But here Jesus has that opportunity—he is offered complete world domination, to use however he sees fit. He could successfully take over the world, as Pinky and the Brain could never manage. He could end poverty, stop all wars, mete out true justice, ensure land is used responsibly and for the best purpose. He could redistribute populations to ease the burdens on creation that we generate when we clump up in cities, and to ensure reliable access to the necessary services that are harder to come by in rural areas. He could blend our red states and blue states into a royal purple, where he is to rule as king. With Jesus exerting ultimate power—with Jesus controlling everyone and everything—it seems like the world would be so much better, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it??

It might seem that way, but Jesus did not come to control us but to love us. Such it is for our life and mission as well. Even those times when it seems controlling others would be for their benefit, we are being deceived by the forces that want to break us down and destroy us. The way of Jesus—the way of God’s Kingdom—is not to control, but to love.

And the Bible tells us what that love looks like: willing, humble, self-sacrificing obedience. In 1John we find repeated over and over that we know we are walking with Jesus if we obey his commandments and if we love one another. These are (of course) one and the same, for Jesus tells us that the way of God’s kingdom is fulfilled when we love God and love one another—even our enemies.

So while the world pulls us toward trying to exert as much power and control over people and things as possible, we Christians must reject and fight against this notion. Like our example and savior Jesus, we must submit completely to God in order to purge our desire for power over others.

There’s an ancient story from the early years of Christianity that is symbolic of the kind of counter-cultural submission and obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us.

There was a Christian leader named Sylvanus, who was regarded as a wise fellow who closely walked Jesus’ path. Because of this, others were drawn to him as disciples or apprentices, seeking to be mentored by this sage. Trouble was that his disciples thought Sylvanus had a favorite disciple, a man named Mark. They got so jealous of Mark that they started causing trouble, and the other Christian leaders in the area showed up to correct Sylvanus, reminding him not to have favorites and all that.

When they showed up, however, Abba Sylvanus decided to show them around first—you know, give them the tour. As he passed the rooms of his disciples, he knocked on the door of each, calling out, “Brother, come out, I have work for you to do.” But none of them opened their doors right away.

When they came to Mark’s door, Abba Sylvanus had hardly finished speaking before the door was opened. He issued Mark some task to complete, and Mark went on his way. But Abba Sylvanus and his visitors went into Mark’s room. He’d been writing—copying a book—and was making the letter “O.” But when he heard Abba Sylvanus’ voice, he didn’t even finish that one letter, which is made of a single stroke of a pen.

The kind of obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us is immediate and complete. Jesus does not ask God to wait for him to finish what he’s doing—not even to finish that word or that letter. No, Jesus submits in complete obedience to God. He voluntarily chooses powerlessness. He voluntarily gives up control of his life and destiny. He voluntarily rejects these ways of the world.

And he does it on account of love.

1 + 1 + 1 = Empire

It’s important to understand these temptations individually—these “pulls” on our hearts by the powers of this world. But it is equally vital that we recognize them in combination as the core of an empire that is not God’s Kingdom. These forces are the building blocks of the social evils around us and throughout history.

If we do not reject this empire, we can have no part of God’s Kingdom. If we wish to follow the way of Jesus, we must reject the ways of this world. A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25).

Sisters and brothers—followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom—let us then reject the empire around us and follow Jesus’ kingdom example to love sacrificially, to humbly consider others more significant than ourselves, and to submit completely in obedience to God’s leading and desires.

In doing so, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will will be done, on earth, just as it is in heaven.

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.

Confrontation

 

Advent 2

Matthew 3:1-12

 

Confrontation

For Advent, we are following an unorthodox path through some very traditional advent texts. As we read these scriptures each week, we are exploring the way we posture ourselves on account of what we are experiencing. In other words: how do we think/feel/change when we experience anticipation, challenge, questioning (from inside ourselves), fulfillment, and promise? And what does that mean for us as disciples of Jesus Christ?

This week, we attend to confrontation.

I wasn’t a pastor very long before I discovered it to be a vocation that involves a great deal of confrontation. At less than a year into the job, I recall a man–a church member–in my office, screaming and cursing at me, threatening me and the church with lawsuit after lawsuit until it bankrupted us, and promising me that he would use every dime of his (repeatedly spoken of) wealth to slander and ruin us forever. The tipping point that brought us there? He had been in charge of building us a website, which had been “in process” for three years but he had yet to produce anything tangible. I told him we were going to have someone else do it.

As he cursed me a blue streak and threatened me with lawsuits, imprisonment, and more, imagine you were in my shoes:

What do you think I felt?

What would you imagine was going through my brain at the time?

How do you think my own physical posture changed during the confrontation?

What does confrontation feel like? When someone “comes at you”–both guns blazing or even in a quiet, sneaky way–what happens in you?

Most of us respond with anger, at least on some level.

Most of us feel our pulse race, and our blood pressure rise.

Most of us clench–our fists, our abs, our teeth……something!–as the tension rises.

Most of us think thoughts of outrage, perhaps mixed with hurt and betrayal.

Some of us move forward, puffed up to meet the challenge; others instinctively retreat.

Confrontation–in all truth–may be the most reliable way to create conflict and imperil relationships. Which is part of why John the Baptist’s tactics here should stop us in our tracks.

John & Pharisees

Here’s John, dressed in vintage camel hair, an up-cycled leather belt around his waist, munching on some sustainably-sourced locusts and honey, perhaps completing the picture with a hipster beard and a can of pomade in his back pocket. His counter-cultural ways are somehow influencing a new culture, something he calls the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.

And this resonates with people. Many flock to him on the yet-to-be-gentrified shore of the Jordan River, where he teaches and gives people a symbol of their new citizenship in this new culture, the Kingdom of God.

Let’s picture John–in all his hipster self–showing up here. Every day he stands down by the river and preaches to whomever happens to be nearby. Many of us, I’d imagine, would simply ignore him and expect he go away after a short time.

But what if he didn’t go away. What if he regularly draws a crowd–a crowd that starts to include our church members, members who might even choose on Sunday morning to go down to John at the river instead of coming to our church? What then?

Among other things, I imagine some of us pastors and preachers might start taking John a bit more seriously. Maybe we’d even go down to the river and have ourselves a listen–incognito, of course: we’d be the ones in big Hollywood sunglasses and hats.

But John–being John–would see right through even a Marx Brothers eyeglasses-nose-and mustache disguise. We clergy folk have come out of genuine curiosity–some of us anyway–yet John attacks us verbally, calling us “vipers” and threatens that we will be “cut down” and “burned.”

Confrontation.

How do this feel? What do you think? What changes in your attitudes and actions?

There’s a reason that successful, Christ-like evangelists do not use John the Baptist as a pattern for their ministry.

Confrontation for Everyone!

But recognize that John is not just confrontational with the religious leaders. His call is a call to repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and when folks accept that call, they “confess their sins” and are “baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matt 3:1, 6 NIV).

Now those who have ever attended a Christian church with any regularity are pretty comfortable with the language of repentance. But repentance is never a familiar or comfortable thing.

The call to repentance is an accusation of guilt--and no one wants their sin named.

The call to repentance exposes that we are subservient to a higher authority–and none of us wants to admit that we are not in complete control of our lives.

Moreover, true repentance is followed by action. “Prepare the way; make paths straight” means to make this world look more like the Kingdom of God so it’s easier for the two to fit together–“your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Confrontational Realities

These are confrontational realities. And advent is one of the best times to come to terms with them.

You are a sinner. [repeat]

Your lot in life is hopeless unless you learn to submit to the God who created both you and the universe with like complexity and care.

And knowing the right things?……Knowing the right things is not going to save you. The Pharisees knew the right things, yet John condemns them and issues the charge: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v.8).

None of us should be altogether comfortable with any of those three statements. We should never become comfortable with these confrontational realities until that day when we will be changed–when “we shall be like [Christ], for we shall see him as he is,” as we read in 1John 3:2.

A Confrontational Christ

Keep in mind–this is not just John’s call to repentance we’re talking about. John’s message is the same one Jesus picks up in his ministry. And Christ’s ultimate role–as John describes it–is to winnow (or thresh) us as wheat, separating the chaff in us (and among us) from the grain. Christ is the one who will gather the wheat and destroy the chaff completely.

Now, we’re talking in parables, but don’t let that diminish the gravity of this kind of confrontation, either.

It is confrontational to have our “chaff” separated from our “wheat”–to have someone sift through who we are and what we’ve done and decide what was meaningless and what mattered, what was bad and what was good. We can’t stand someone judging us based on the sliver of our closely-guarded selves that we reveal to the world; let alone peer behind the curtain into our dark and spiderweb-ey soul.

But even more than that: burning our chaff destroys parts of who we have been. And if we’re honest, it’s hard to let go of even those bad parts of our past.

When I was younger, I drove fast–I even raced my friends at times on the streets, albeit usually in rather ancient and asthmatic vehicles. I know it was wrong. I readily admit it was wrong. But there’s something kind of thrilling that it is something I once did.

My first car was a 1959 Oldsmobile 88 Holiday Hardtop, bought from the original owner. It had been parked in his garage since 1972. Beautiful lines on that car. I fell in love with the lines and woke up with a car with some serious problems, which I attacked straight on. But a change in academic priorities resulted in my Oldsmobile fund drying up. For nearly two decades, she sat–she and I hundreds of miles apart. In theory, I would have been glad to sell her, but I never tried that hard. When she finally transferred ownership only this year (believe it or not), my heart broke. In a sense, that Oldsmobile was a pile of chaff in my life. But in ways that are difficult to articulate, I still feel less whole without her.

Threshing ones soul and burning the chaff is a confrontation, to be sure.

Jesus–in his person and his message–is always more confrontational than we readily acknowledge. When beginning his ministry, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61, asserting that these verses are fulfilled in him. They speak of “good news to the poor,” “freedom for the prisoners,” “sight to the blind,” “freedom for the oppressed,” and so on. These are not idle phrases. They are a political statement as much as a religious one–this is how you describe revolution. And when Jesus takes up John’s message about the immanent Kingdom of God……well, what do you think that meant for the current government? It’s no wonder the religious and secular politicians of the day conspired to kill him.

Making It Personal…

Now, there’s a reason I’ve spent so much time exploring how all this feels and affects those in the NT story. The reason is this: the message of Christ is the same today as it was two thousand years ago. It is still a call to repentance; it is still a call to make way for the Kingdom of God in our lives and world. It is still confrontational.

If I preach a quality sermon that is encouraging and affirming–one that tells people to “stay the course” and “keep doing what’s right”–I’ll hear feedback about it being meaningful, impactful, and powerful. I may be told it is one of the best sermons I’ve ever preached.

But if I preach a quality sermon that is challenging–one that exposes places that need healing or change, or one that outright names a sin in our culture or world–in a case like this the feedback will be all about how I stepped on toes, I was divisive, I need to stay out of politics (even if I said nothing of politics), and that people will stop coming if I continue preach like that.

This isn’t universally true, but it is a pattern: affirm people where they are and I did a great job; suggest people need to change and I should improve my resume as I might be needing it in the near future.

Christ confronts us. Christ calls us to repentance. And this advent season we must wrestle with God and ourselves as we prepare for the coming of the Christ.

Advent, you see, is not about outreach. It is not about others. It is about getting our own souls and our own houses in order. That, I believe, does create the only solid foundation for successful outreach. But that is a sermon for another day. Unless we have learned to be honest and aware of our own individual sin and reliance on God, any attempts at getting others to follow our religion will fail, because to the outside–to the mainstream culture–we will look like hypocrites……”whitewashed tombs,” as Jesus says in Matthew 23:27.

Let this be a season where we invite our confrontational Christ to expose us for the hypocrites and sinners we are.

Let this be a season where we pull back the curtains and allow the light of Christ to dispel the darkness within us.

Let this be a season where we learn to give up the broken pieces of our past and present, trusting that our true wholeness will be found in Christ.

Let this be a season where the rubber of faith meets the road of life, and we too learn to be liberators after the fashion of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

The Apple of God’s Eye?

 

Psalm 17:1-9

 

Living Stories

We talk about the Bible being a “living book.” But I wonder sometimes whether we realize what that means.

There’s a piece (in my mind) that is Holy Spirit driven—the Bible continues to speak in powerful ways to each of our lives, today. Unlike some other ancient texts, it transcends time and space to attend to the needs and challenges of this current era. That’s inspiration—happening even now through the work of the Spirit.

But there’s another dimension I see too. There are strong resonances between these ancient stories and our lives. They are our stories, too—told with other names and places, but entirely analogous to what you and I experience each and every day.

In the story of Adam and Eve and the first sin, we find a retelling of every time we choose our own way over God’s way.

In the story of Noah, we see a retelling of every time we think the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we find encouragement that God will be faithful.

In the story of Abraham, we find a retelling of every time we try to force God’s will into being through our own efforts and initiatives.

In Jonah, we have a retelling of every time we try to run away from God.

In Job and Ecclesiastes, we have a retelling of our struggle for answers in the face of senseless tragedy or injustice.

And so on. These stories are our stories. Part of why they have become scripture and Bible is because for so many hundreds and thousands of years they have lived in us—they have spoken the truth of who and how we are, and of what life in the world and with God is genuinely like.

Such is our story for today. In the episodes from the history of ancient Israel that we will look at this morning, we do not read ancient history, but current events.

Reflecting on a nation of God’s favored people, we find application for our own, oft-called “Christian,” nation.

Examining the hearts of ancient people of faith, we find our own hearts—and sin—revealed.

Living stories of a living book coming alive.

Psalm 17

While there’s much in the Psalm that could be applied in this way this morning, I want to focus on two adjacent lines, which have captured my imagination, mediation, and prayer of late: “you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (v.7) and “keep me as the apple of your eye” (v.8).

You see, there is a connection between seeking refuge in God, being saved, and being “special.” These elements are interdependent, kind of like our Baptist churches. They are distinct from one another, yet also reliant on one another to form a functional whole.

And yet our propensity—as Baptists and as humans—is to emphasize the individual and neglect the whole; to amplify our independence and silence elements of interdependence. And when this happens, things never go well for us.

When we do seek refuge in God, we are saved, and we feel special. Perhaps, as we read here and other places in the bible, we are special—friends of Christ and children of God.

And yet…… The testimony of scripture is that when we associate too strongly with our specialness—when our whole identity is wrapped up in being “the apple of God’s eye”—when we are most convinced that God is on our side——that is precisely the moment when the bottom falls out, because that is also the moment when we stop actually taking refuge in God. That is the moment when we trust our identity for our protection instead of trusting God. That is the moment when our expectations of God actually become idolatrous.

History of Israel

There are no better illustrations of this than can be found in the history of ancient Israel. As descendants of Abraham, the people of ancient Israel know they are special. They are without a doubt “the apple of God’s eye.” Centuries of covenant relationship have proven to them that God loves them and pays them particular attention.

They were saved out of Egypt.

They were given the Law at Sinai.

Their battles for control of the Promised Land were fought and won by God alone.

For them God raised up righteous leaders—”judges”—to get them out of binds with the Canaanites.

And during generations of kingship, they were protected by God from invading powers.

But they began to think themselves invincible. They began to see God as a totem of protection—a cross to wear around your neck to ward off evil spirits, like the bloody lintels of Passover night in Egypt. As long as they maintained the symbols, they believed they could wield God as a weapon for their protection and benefit. Jerusalem could never fall, because God would never allow it.

Captivity of the Ark

Back in 1Samuel 4, there’s an interesting story along these themes. It’s one of those stories that should have stood as a warning against this kind of thinking to later generations. But like so many of the lessons of the past, we choose to repeat our errors instead of remember and learn from them.

In 1Samuel 4, the Israelites are once again at battle. If you read their story from the beginning, it seems like they’ve been at war for generations now. War appears to be something they’ve gotten good at, from the strategic brilliance of folks like Joshua and Gideon to the mundane brutality of others like Jael or Ehud. The Israelites are a force to be reckoned with, and they have dominated the Philistines for some time. And so, at this point in the biblical story, the Philistines are revolting, trying to escape the destiny of becoming “slaves to the Hebrews,” as we read in v.9 of 1Sam 4.

At the beginning of this chapter, however, a battle is fought, and the ancient Israelites are defeated (v.2)—four thousand Israelites die that day. But defeat doesn’t seem possible—How can they lose with God on their side? They are the people that God favors; it is inconceivable that any human power could triumph over that!!

But then some astute person recognizes a pattern. Patterns are our salvation and damnation. Sometimes patterns show us the rhythms of life that we must recognize to succeed. Other times, such correlation does not equal causation—what we see as a pattern obscures the real causes.

This story is one of the latter times. This astute person realizes that when they carry into battle the Ark of the Covenant—which for the Israelites (and their enemies) was a visible representation of their God—they won. Every time. Never fail.

But when they did not bring the Ark into battle, they did not always win.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? If they bring the Ark into battle every time, they simply can’t lose. All they have to do is bring the Ark into every battle and they will never be defeated.

Except…… this is one of those times where correlation does not equal causation. Bringing the Ark doesn’t lead to victory; trusting God for salvation brings victory. Or, to put it in the terms of Psalm 17, taking refuge in God results in salvation.

The ancient Israelites thought they were the apple of God’s eye, and that God would never allow harm to come to them. But they put their trust in a wooden box instead of into the Creator of the universe, and as a result, 30,000 Israelites died that day, and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines.

Exile of Judah

Many years later, as the ancient nation of Judah is threatened by foreign powers, it again begins to overemphasize its “special” relationship with God, believing (as I mentioned earlier) that Jerusalem can never fall to a foreign army. After all, God had promised them “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever. And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers” (2Kings 21:7-8).

As a result, they believed they were golden; they were the apple of God’s eye—God’s chosen nation——to quote Psalm 56:11: “what can man do to me?” And so they trusted in their special status. And they trusted in their own political prowess. And they expected—genuinely expected—that nothing bad could or would ever happen.

Of course, they forgot about the second half of that promise: “if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them” (2Kings 21:8).

They remembered the “getting saved” and the “being the apple of God’s eye” part, but they forgot about the “taking refuge in God” part. They forgot that trust needed to be anchored in God, not their status or identity. They forgot that being the apple of God’s eye was a conditional state—favor to be revoked if conditions changed. And changed they did, as Israel took refuge in themselves instead of in God.

Israel’s downfall happened because they thought they were God’s nation and thus could not fall. In doing so, they made their identity into an idol, trusting themselves for their own protection instead of seeking refuge in God.

The Remedy

There is, of course, an easy and obvious remedy. In the words of the psalmist, “take refuge in [God]” (Ps 17:7). Or in the ancient confession of Christianity, live out the commitment that “Jesus is Lord.” The key to continually trusting in God alone for protection is to remember that God and God alone is king. God and God alone is able. God and God alone will save us.

Our allegiance is not to the nation of our residence. We are instructed in Leviticus 25:23 to live as aliens wherever we find ourselves. This is an image Peter develops further for Christians in 1Peter 2, urging us to both “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (v.17).

Our allegiance is not to a president, king, or ruler. The ancient confession that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous confession to make, as it implied that Jesus is lord and Caesar is not. By insisting that we live under God’s watchful eye instead of complying with the government’s demands, many faithful have experienced great suffering and even death, from the time of Daniel on through the present age.

Our allegiance is not to a party or a platform, but to the ethic and life initiated by Jesus Christ, who proclaims “good news to the poor… liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—a Jubilee Year, the year of liberation and forgiveness when everything goes back to the way it was created to be.

As Christians, it has never been our dominance that drew people to Christ. Those drawn by power are those who are always drawn by power, and their purposes have nothing to do with those of the Savior of the world.

Instead, it has been our humble and quiet willingness to suffer for the good news of God’s love that has spread the name of Jesus throughout the world. The cause of Christ has been advanced the most when we genuinely take refuge in God, trusting in God alone for our salvation, whether or not anyone thinks we’re the apple of God’s eye.

Prayer (inspired by Psalm 17)

Hear my prayer, O Lord!

Probe our hearts
examine us and test us
see if there is any evil in mouth and intents.

Where, we ask, have we been bribed by the world?
Where, we pray, have we been implicit in violence against our neighbor?
Where, we implore, have our feet stumbled from your paths?

Remind us of the wonders of your great love.
Remind us of your salvation.
Remind us that you are a refuge from the foes and forces that work against your work of Jubilee.

Shield us from enemies without and within
And make us new again.

Teach us to follow Jesus your Christ. Amen.

 

True Religion

Psalm 32:1-7

Isaiah 1:10-18

 

“True Religion”

The message I have today could easily have been a sermon series. We’re going to be reflecting on five characteristics of true religion, as revealed in our scripture text and the psalm of our responsive reading. While I could spend a month going into depth with each of these, my hope is that the cursory presentation today leaves you hungering for more, and that you will read, pray, ask questions, and discover more as the seeds of this sermon bear fruit in your life and the life of this community of faith.

The scripture passage from Isaiah, like virtually every other text in the Bible, is spoken to deeply religious people. Though he calls them “rulers of Sodom,” Isaiah’s audience is in fact the Franklin Grahams and the James Dobsons and the Rick Warrens and the John MacArthurs of his world—those that the world looks up to as guides in the Christian life, those whose spiritual credentials most folk would say were impeccable, those whose version of religion is believed by many to be the only right way of faith.

The slanderous association with Sodom is purposeful—just as the sin of Sodom (made explicit in Ezekiel 16:49) involved participating in the oppression of the poor and needy, so God accuses these Israelite leaders of that same sin.

In doing so, what God suggests here in Isaiah 1 is the complete unraveling of virtually everything ancient Israel has ever known. In Christian terms, God’s scathing commentary might go like this:

Listen up, you friends of Satan!
God doesn’t want your prayers—God stopped listening a long time ago.
Your supposed worship is entirely self-serving, so God doesn’t pay it any attention.
Your songs grate on God’s ears; why would he listen to that?
You heap up words in sermons, yet without result.
All that bible reading is pointless, since you obviously don’t understand any of it.
Your “holy” buildings are monuments to your irrelevance; they stand for everything God hates.
Your sacrifice?—Ha! you don’t sacrifice a thing.

Look for God all you want, but you won’t find him—not while you have blood on your hands. They drip with the lives you have stolen and destroyed for your own selfish gain.

Repent, God says. Turn your life around.

As presented here in Isaiah, God’s remedy—as always—involves paying attention, wrestling with God and ourselves, changing our ways, and submitting to God’s transforming power.

Too often sermons do a good job of describing the wrong thing, but don’t present a very clear picture of the right thing. To rectify that, I want to take a few brief moments to suggest what true, real, life-giving religion and faith in God looks like.

1. Moral

First, there is a moral dimension—”cease to do evil, learn to do good,” as we read in vv. 16-17 of Isaiah 1. Every religion prescribes a system of morality—a way of knowing right from wrong. On top of that, every major religion has some version of the Golden Rule—”Do to others as you want them to do to you.” Even the seven tenants of the Satanic Temple begin with the instruction: “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason” (http://www.wakingtimes.com/2015/12/23/seven-satanic-precepts-beat-ten-commandments-as-moral-guide/).

This is not, of course, to say that everyone’s sense of morality is the same, or right. But it does suggest that most people of all religions struggle to live up to the moral requirements prescribed for them.

The only true God Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God most fully revealed in Jesus Christ—that God requires we practice a certain morality too. Here in Isaiah, that morality is summed up as “cease to do evil, learn to do good.”

In a similar text in Micah, the prophet likewise suggests an insufficiency in the outward practices of religion. And just like in Isaiah, Micah tells us that God expects us to do what is good. He says:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 ESV).

2. Actively pursues justice

The second characteristic of true religion is that it actively pursues justice—”seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17). Now a lot of justice is tied to what God considers a moral life, something that is obvious from the Micah 6 text I cited a moment ago. Over and over again, God exhibits concern for the poor and needy, for the marginalized and powerless, and for all those who are vulnerable.

What I want to emphasize this morning is not what God’s justice looks like. I trust that we’ve spent enough time over the past weeks touching on that. Instead, I want us to consider how the pursuit of that justice as an intrinsic part of true religion.

In Isaiah’s presentation—and that found elsewhere in the bible—it is not enough to “join” a cause. We must instead be agents of transformation. It’s hard as a pastor to provide examples about injustice needing correction without someone believing that pastor is speaking politically. Many times, I feel I must hold my tongue and not speak the truth God reveals to me because the Enemy has so effectively sown seeds of dissension and division among our nation and our churches. It has gotten a lot worse these past 18 months or so.

So think about it yourself. Pray about it. Ask God to show you where and how people are not being treated justly. It won’t take very long for you to come up with quite a long list. Just make sure you get your information from real sources instead of political spin-machines. Otherwise, like the Pharisees of Isaiah’s day, you will find yourself on the wrong side of justice.

Once you discover how someone or a group of people are being unjustly harmed, silenced, or treated as less than divine-image-bearing humans—then comes the courage part where you step out of your comfort zone, step into the fray, and actively work with God to change their situation.

With God, we lift up the downtrodden.

With God, we fight against those taking advantage of the vulnerable.

With God, we pursue fair and equitable treatment of your fellow humans.

With God, we are to be a healing presence to those who are ill.

3. Relational

The third dimension of true religion is that it is relational. While a common element elsewhere, this characteristic is a bit oblique in the Isaiah text. There, it is best revealed in two places. First, there is the instruction to “plead the widow’s cause” in v.17. One cannot “plead the widow’s cause” without knowing the widow, without being involved with the widow, and without being trusted by the widow—in short, you can’t do it unless you have a relationship with the widow.

We have a responsibility to (and for) each other. The Law code of Exodus-(through)-Deuteronomy is littered with instructions about caring for each other and how our sin affects each other. The early stories of Israel in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell story after story of how the sin or failings of one person have consequences that affect the whole. As Paul says in 1Corinthians “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (12:26).

But in addition to the horizontal dimension of relationship, true religion also has a vertical dimension. As I addressed last week, God has created us to be God’s friends. It is out of love and a deep commitment to that relationship that God acts with mercy over and over again. Here in Isaiah 1, I believe this is revealed in the beginning of v.18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD.” The word usually translated as “reason together” more directly means “dispute.” Even though Israel has done such injustice, even though God is so upset as to not pay attention to their worship any longer, God is still trying to hold the relationship together. In more colloquial language, God is inviting us to “duke it out” with God when our relationship breaks down. It wouldn’t be that far off base to remember the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32, last week’s text.

There’s a popular notion in our era that one’s faith is private and can be lived out and practiced in isolation from others. I frequently hear folks claiming they can read their bible and pray on their own, listen to a TV preacher, and live their life for Christ. I frequently want to respond that sure, they can do that—but that’s not the Christian life we are called to live. Life in community is messy; just like life with God is messy. As God challenges us, so do our sisters and brothers in Christ; God pushes us and exposes the darkness in our own hearts; our sisters and brothers push us and force us to come to terms with our own humanity and sin. Both are required if we are going to be true followers of Jesus.

4. Confessional 

The fourth characteristic is that true religion is confessional. As I mentioned a week or two ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that confession is the foundation of real community. In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer suggests that it is only confession that strips away our false pretenses and forces us to be truly honest with one another.

The Psalm of our responsive reading—Psalm 32—paints a graphic picture of the importance of confession. The author says:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

This is as cut-and-dry as it gets. When we withhold confessing our sins to God and do not acknowledge our failings to each other, it harms us—deeply, inwardly, and physically. Though Psalm 32 doesn’t say it, there are plenty of other passages (like those in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) that describe how individual sin—when concealed instead of confessed—affects others in dangerous and sometimes life-threatening ways.

But when sin is confessed—when our weaknesses and failings are acknowledged in community—we are bowled over with a wave of forgiveness and grace.

5. Trusts God to see us through

Lastly, true religion trusts God to see us through. God is, the Psalmist proclaims, “a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance” (Psalm 32:7)

Virtually all the early stories of the bible—and most of the rest of them—emphasize that God is a God who can be trusted; God is a God who is faithful. But the kind of faith this produces is not passive.

Unfortunately, many of our era think that confidence in God’s faithfulness means that we have no role to play in fulfilling God’s desires for creation. Of late, I have heard all sorts of Christians throw up their hands in passive surrender to the will of the world because they believe God will somehow force God’s will into being, even if faithful Christians do not participate at all. This is not, however, the way of faith presented in the bible. Most of the time, God acts through people to influence and affect the circumstances of our world. As St. Theresa of Avila is famous for writing,

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

We must participate in God’s kingdom-advancing mission of love, and we must rest in the God who is faithful. These things are not at odds with one another. We don’t have the full picture; we don’t know all the details. Maybe all we know is that God wants us to smile and look someone in the eye. But we trust God enough to know that God is working through others as well. We trust God enough to know that the decisive battle has already been won. We trust God enough to know that God’s will will eventually be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Pray

O God of mercy and love, revive us again.
Heal the divisions that we have so blindly created.
Forgive us for making our religion into an idol.
Bend our will to your own.
Open our eyes to injustice,
And move our feet and hearts toward compassion.
Teach us to find peace in your presence.
O God of mercy and love, revive us again. Amen.

Watching, Waiting, and Working

“Watching, Waiting, & Working”

In my college OT class, the professor would always open with prayer, and sometimes by reading a few verses he thought appropriate for the day or the circumstances of the world at large. He also had what is often called a “wicked sense of humor.”

One day, early in the course, when overzealous students were still trying to prove themselves through enthusiasm alone, he asked us to open our Bibles to Hezekiah chapter 3. There was a flurry of pages as many raced to be the first there. Dr. Crouch just sat with a smile on his face, waiting for his OT students to realize there is no book of Hezekiah in the Bible.

There is, however, a book of Habakkuk—though it may take nearly as much searching to find. Though obscure, Habakkuk is my kind of prophet. He has a lot of questions for God, and many of those questions have to do with injustice, religious hypocrites, and how on earth people of God are supposed to live in the midst of it all.

The message that I believe God wants me to offer today unfolds in three parts: watching, waiting, and working. I believe they flow in that direction, and I believe that in them Habakkuk and the Bible provide us with a model for living in a world where things are not as they should be.

But first: our scripture.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

 

Act 1: Watching

A little context: The world as Habakkuk knew it was crumbling.

When the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to their Assyrian conquerers about a hundred years prior, those in the Southern Kingdom of Judah had patted themselves on the backs. Their survival, they believed, proved that they were right and Israel was wrong, and God would forever be on their side.

But everything had started going wrong again, Habakkuk noted as he looked around him. The Kingdom of Judah occupied a little strip of land that had long been the battleground of the larger states to the south and the east. Now Babylonia was expanding, conquering more land and peoples than ever, and Judah was a fly on the windshield as Egypt sent armies to resist.

His world was filled with what today would have been called terrorism, racial aggression, religious persecution, and crimes against humanity. Some of his questions are the same sort many are asking today:

Why do arrogant and predatory people prosper while benevolent and humble people are victimized by a violent, materialistic society?

Why do greedy businessmen and politicians fleece the underprivileged, rarely coming to justice?

Why do powerful nations oppress smaller nations for the sake of enslaving people and harvesting their natural resources?

(Questions from The VOICE Bible, p.1104).

The watching side of this is that Habakkuk is looking around—he is aware of what is going on. He is using his God-given reason and abilities to evaluate and assess the world at large. And that evaluation leads him to believe that God is not acting as God should.

Now maybe you’re uncomfortable with that idea, but this is what the Bible testifies. Almost all lament—in the Psalms, the prophets, and throughout scripture—finds its voice by calling God to account—to act in accordance with God’s nature of compassion and justice.

When Habakkuk cries out in chapter 1 verse 2: “How long must I cry, O LORD, and get no answer from You?”, he is squarely in the same tradition and place that led the psalmist to accuse God of sleeping on the job in Psalm 44:23, and (even more dramatically) sleeping the deep sleep of a drunken reveler in Psalm 78:65.

In the spirit of Habakkuk, many folks today (Christian and otherwise) are watching the world around us and crying out: “God, Don’t you hear my prayers? Are you listening? Are you there at all?”

Act 2: Waiting

Having watched the world, Habakkuk begins chapter 2 with the intention to now watch for God. He waits expectantly, confident that God will answer. We’ve no idea how long Habakkuk waits, but we only have to wait one verse; for at verse 2 of chapter 2 God is already responding, and in the next verse we read:

For the revelation awaits an appointed time…
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come and will not delay.

In other words: I’m paying attention; it’s just not yet time.

Timing is a tricky thing. Without knowing all the variables and being able to see the big picture, we might well screw the timing up. It’s hard not to hear echoes here of those famous verses from Ecclesiastes 3: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven” (Eccl 3:1, ASV). Later in that book, in chapter 9 (v.11), the author shares that timing and chance play a big role in how life turns out.

Sometimes we forget that God doesn’t get permission to be an unjust jerk just because God is God. God’s central characteristics are compassion and justice for the marginalized. God can’t just do something in creation without the timing being right.

A great example of this is in the story of Abraham, back in Genesis 15. There, Abraham is promised he will inherit all the land around him—farther than he can see in any direction. But he is also told that it won’t happen during his lifetime. Why won’t God just kick out the locals right away so Abraham can live into the promise? In Genesis 15:16, God says it is “because the sin of the Amorite people has not yet reached its full measure” (VOICE). In other words, God won’t kick them out because the timing isn’t right. There, in Genesis 15, they don’t deserve it; to eject the Amorites would involve God acting contrary to God’s nature. God is, after all, “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:17 ESV; cf. Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8, usw.). That is who God is, and that is why sometimes God has to wait too.

Act 3: Working

But Habakkuk doesn’t leave us there, nor do the other texts of the Bible. Our morning’s reading concludes with the statement that “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (2:4). As people of faith in God, we do not merely watch and wait—we also work. We live out God’s faithfulness and characteristics in our lives—that’s what Habakkuk meant by being a “righteous person.”

As Jesus and the NT reveal to us, it is precisely those times it seems the world is coming apart that are the most important to live out and work in the Kingdom way. In several gospels, Jesus speaks on such things. He talks about about wars, natural disasters, ethnic conflict, famines, and the breakdown of the family unit. He says that “false liberators and prophets will pop up like weeds” (Mark 13:22 VOICE), inciting our fear by claiming the end is near. But he also tells us that all this stuff has nothing of significance to do with the end times (Mark 13:7; Matthew 24:6; Luke 21:9).

In his way, Jesus does tell us what to do about it—but he usually speaks through parables—a fig tree, a man returning from a journey, a persistent widow, a gaggle of bridesmaids. While the stories may vary, the lesson remains the same: double down—recommit yourself to practicing justice, doing right, paying attention to those around you, and working to advance God’s mission of love.

The NT letters of 2Peter and 1Thessalonians both emphasize the initiative we are to take when we sense the world needs more of God’s transforming power. As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he says that the day of God’s intervention—the “day of the Lord”—is going to surprise us all. But that only means, he says, that we need to “stay awake and in control [of ourselves]” (1Thessalonians 5:6 VOICE). What does that look like? Paul elaborates for us in v.11: “Support one another. Keep building each other up as you have been doing” (VOICE).

In 2Peter, we see the same challenge. Peter urges us to self-reflection and assessment: “think what sort of people you ought to be” (2Peter 3:11 VOICE). And then he lays it all out: “While we wait for the day of the Lord, work hard to live in peace” (2Peter 3:14). In fact, in what may be the only backhanded compliment recorded in scripture, Peter says that Paul has written all of this in his own letters, “although uneducated and unstable readers misinterpret difficult passages, just as they always misread Scripture, to their spiritual ruin” (2Peter 3:16 VOICE).

When we look around us and see the world as we know it crumbling, it is not time to back down or to huddle up in our religious fortresses. When the world needs more of God’s transforming power, it is time to double down on God’s mission, to recommit ourselves to following the path of Jesus, and to work toward God’s justice in the here and now.

As Peter reminds us in 2Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow about enacting His promise—slow is how some people want to characterize it—no, He is not slow but patient and merciful to you, not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn towards God’s” (VOICE).

Wrap Up

Watching.

Waiting.

Working.

That is our reaction to the chaos of the world—at least if we are people of faith.

We watch—both attentive to the world around us, and anticipating the impossible when our redeeming God intervenes.

We wait—knowing that God will act as God is able, often intervening through very human hands and means.

And we work—reflectively, diligently, persistently, compassionately—just as did our Savior Jesus Christ. We work harder than we’ve ever worked in our life. Because no one knows how much time is left—for each of us or for any of us.

The world needs some good news right now. Good thing Jesus brought enough for everyone.

Amen.