Questions: The Old and the New – Sermon on Genesis 11.1-9 & Acts 2.1-4

Genesis 11.1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Acts 2.1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.


Today we continue with our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have, again, come to the time when I attempt to faithful respond to those questions. Last week we looked at what it means to be saved and how we can come to understand it in our own lives. Today we are talking about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, how can we reconcile the vengefully destructive God of the Old Testament with the loving merciful God of the New.

So, here we go…

I saw the two representatives walking up and down the street, knocking on the doors of all my neighbors. Sitting at my kitchen counter, I was at home on break from JMU working on a paper for my class called “Jesus and the Moral Life.” As I sat there, Bible and computer spread before me, I eagerly awaited any distraction.

I wondered what organization or church the two men represented. It was clear that whatever they were trying to sell was not working out for them because they were moving quickly between the houses on the other side of the street. I remember trying to focus on my assignment, but my mind wandered regarding the the possibilities of the speech the pair were giving to my neighbors.

When the doorbell finally rang, I sprinted to the front door with my bible in tow.


“Good afternoon sir,” they chimed simultaneously with seemingly forced smiles that almost hurt to witness. “Have you heard about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” I mumbled something in response about being a Christian, but they continued as if I wasn’t really standing there.

“Are you aware of God’s impending destruction of the earth? We have failed to be obedient, and God is surely going to rain down his wrath upon all of us. There will be earthquakes, floods, and famines. Nothing can stop God’s judgement, but we can save you.”

“Tell me more,” I replied.

“Well, Satan and his demons were cast down to earth in 1914 which initiated the End Times. Over the years he has begun to take over human governments in order to create evil on earth. God will come to destroy Satan, and this entire earth with him, but if you join us, God will protect you from his armageddon.”

Now, before I continue, I urge you to remember that I was a young and foolish biblical studies student, convinced that I knew everything there was to know about God, faith, and scripture.

And so, it came to pass that after listening to these two men describe for me the fall of Satan having occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, and their ability to save me from God’s impending destruction, I could no longer contain myself…

“Where does it say that in the Bible?”

“Well, if you look at our pamphlet, it clearly outlines…”

“Where does it say that in the Bible?”

“These charts will show how natural disasters are connected to Satan…”

“Where does it say that in the Bible? I’ve got one right here, and I would love for you to show me where your facts come from.”

At that point they slowly started to step away from the door, thanked me for my time, and continued their evangelistic work to the rest of the neighborhood.

Thinking back upon that interaction, I regret the poor Christian hospitality I showed those two men. I had a predetermined commitment to scripture that blinded me from hearing them out and kindly responding to their interpretive theology. However, I believe the interaction does point to a faulty mode of reading God’s Word that has plagued the church from the beginning.

Marcion was a Christian bishop during the first century. Like many Christians, he saw discrepancies between the actions of God in the Old Testament and during the time of the New Testament. And after wrestling with the differences, Marcion proposed completely rejecting the existence of the God described in the Jewish scriptures, and also argued for omitting the sections of the New Testament that were connected with the Old. Central for Marcion’s edited bible was the idea that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the actions of God as found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

After numerous debates, fights, and even scandals Marcion was declared a heretic by the early church fathers and was removed from the church.

Like the two men who came knocking on my door, Marcion (and many others) had a very tunnel-visioned understanding of scripture. If it did not agree with their beliefs, they omitted it, they ignored it, and they taught in spite of it.

Without a doubt, if you read through the stories of the Old and New Testaments you will discover a number of difficulties regarding the actions of God throughout time. Wrestling with these changes has been a part of the church’s history from the very beginning and still takes place today. To fully address these differences it would take numerous sermons series and bible studies, and certainly cannot be fully proclaimed in one sermon. If this is something that you really wrestle with we can talk about doing something in greater detail down the road, but for today’s purposes we can only accomplish so much.

One of the major problems with the inconsistency of scripture is that we tend to view chapters and narratives in isolation. We take one verse from the Old Testament and compare it to one verse in the New. I am thankful for the numbering of chapters and verses for organization, but I believe they have also stratified our understanding of scripture into tiny bits that can be reorganized for our understanding. The Bible is one thing, it is the single story of God with God’s people; it may be divided into two testaments, with numerous chapters and verses regarding a plethora of people and places, but it is nevertheless one unified collection of the living Word for God’s people.


Rather than reading in isolation, we are called to understand and experience God’s word canonically, which is to say we have to understand each individual narrative in light of the entire saga of scripture. Reading, preaching, and teaching canonically opens our eyes to the many ways that God runs through both testaments like a river; the water may change with the seasons, but the water always moves.

In Genesis 10 we find the story of the tower of Babel. Humanity had one language and had gathered in the plains of Shinar to settle down. There they decided to build a giant tower into the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. God witnessed the construction of this tower, recognized that this was but one domino leading inevitably to a belief that humanity did not need God, so God confused their language and scattered the people over the face of the earth.

In Acts 2 we find the story of the disciples gathered together 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. While they were all together a great wind came from heaven filling the entire house. All of the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

Babel and Pentecost, two stories, one from the Old Testament, one from the New. These stories are often used in church to make separate points about the identity of God and what it means to be a disciple; Babel demonstrates God’s punishment of humanity for sin and Pentecost shows God’s desire for the gospel to spread amongst all nations and languages. However, they cannot be fully understood without the other. They are not two separate stories describing two different Gods, but are instead part of the greater canonical narrative of how God is God.

Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride. Like the garden, Babel exhibits that same sense of sin whereby humanity believed it no longer needed God. Though the story clearly contains examples of God’s wrath, it also contains an abundance of grace.

In striving to build a city and a tower for themselves, humanity had lost sight of the unity under which they already enjoyed from God. The true sin evident in the story is the arrogance of thinking that humanity must take itself as one takes brick and mortar, and make themselves the lord of history. In violation of the original unity of creation, in humanity’s desire to control its own destiny, the people of Genesis 11 were no longer naturally organized under the great Shepherd, but instead were brought together by the selfish desire to live in ignorance of God’s created order.

God punishes the people gathered together by confusing their language and scattering them over the earth. His wrath is evident, but his grace also lies under the surface. God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine example of control to achieve the punishment. He could have destroyed the tower and everyone in it. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done with Noah and the flood, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining down death and destruction, God limits the punishment to linguistics.

We discover God’s unyielding grace in the fact that God will continue to be our shepherd regardless of our self-righteousness. God will not abandon us to our own devices but will remain faithful even when we are not.

And remember, the story of Babel does not end in Genesis 10, it continues on throughout the Old Testament and finds reflection in the New. As Christians we are aware that God has more in store for his creation than one isolated story from the past would have us believe. In the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided world finally comes back together. It is in the story of Pentecost that we are reminded again of God’s desire for humanity to rest in unity, not division.

Pentecost tells us about the miracle of the Holy Spirit coming down to help reunite the world in order to fruitfully live into God’s kingdom. God did not abandon the people of Babel, just as God has not abandoned us while we continually act as if we can make through life on our own.

The same year I met the two men who knocked on my door, I took a group of college-age Christians to Taize, an ecumenical monastery in Burgundy, France. We camped for a week on the property, gathering together with 5,000 young Christians three times a day for prayer and reflective hymns. The Christians gathered together that week came from all over the globe, representing nearly every continent. In between the worship services, we met in small groups talking about faith, scripture, and discipleship. When the last day arrived, my group sat together and I asked us to end our week by standing in a circle to pray with each other. I asked everyone to pray the Lord’s prayer together in their native tongue, and then individually pray it so that we could hear what it sounded like. For perhaps the first time in my life, Pentecost became really for me while we prayed together in that field. Though all of us had been divided across the planet we were all brought together by Jesus Christ. Though we had been previously separated we were gathered in unity by the great “I AM.”


Babel and Pentecost are intimately connected but I want to be clear that the relationship between the two testaments is not that God fixes the problems of the Old Testament with the revelations of the New. God did not change himself from wrathful to graceful. The New Testament is not the band-aid for the Old.

Yet, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ changed everything. The Old Testament tells of God’s interaction with creation and the New Testament inaugurates the event where God came to dwell among us. Jesus Christ is the lens by which we are called to read scripture, both the Old and the New Testament. God’s love of creation is woven into the fabric of scripture, consistently revealed through people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Mary, Peter, and Paul and places like Egypt, Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem.

This is one great cosmic story, a story that begins with God’s creation of all things declaring them good, a story that has no end because it still taking form right now.

So, how do we reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament? We read scripture knowing that it does not happen in isolation, but can only be understood within the canon of both testaments. 

We read knowing that, like all great things, God is mystery unrevealed until its proper season. We read with faith knowing that God has not abandoned us, though we struggle to find meaning in the shadow of suffering, fear, and doubt, God’s plan for us is greater than we can possibly imagine. We read knowing that God does not choose us because we are good, but because he wants us to be good.

We read scripture in the light of Jesus Christ recognizing that where we find wrath, there is also grace; when we suffer we discover our hope; and when there is death there is also resurrection. Amen.

Cross and Crown – Sermon on Jeremiah 23.1-6 and Luke 23.32-43

Jeremiah 23.1-6

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall fear nor longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”


Luke 23.32-43

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence for condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”


If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself! There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.

The first time I traveled to Guatemala I had no idea what to expect. Sure I had been on previous mission trips to different parts of the United States, but I had yet to serve the church in a truly different environment. Everywhere we traveled there was a sense of excitement in the air because everything was so remarkably fresh. The abundance of colors in the differing marketplaces, the worn and wrinkled faces of the elderly mayans carrying heavy loads, and the mountains scratching across the horizon.


I had been looking forward to the trip for sometime and when we finally arrived, everything was meeting my expectations. I believed that we were truly serving God’s kingdom by serving our Guatemalan neighbors by building stoves in the indigenous highland areas. I believed that we had something to share with them, not to convert them, but to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ and demonstrate the love of God in the world.

On one of the early days of the trip, our team arrived in the town of Chichicastenango, known for its traditional K’iche’ Mayan culture. It was a pit stop for us on the way to the higher regions, and we were there for lunch and to explore the vast and dense market. Everywhere you turned you were overwhelmed by the sense of time and tradition, as if this place had remained unchanged for the last few centuries. I wandered through the winding streets, peeked in some of the different booths, but really I was just trying to soak up the culture.


At some point, I became lost. I could not see anyone from my group and continued to travel aimlessly throughout the town. I tried to keep it together, not panic, and decided to find a high vantage point in order to get a bearing on my surroundings. I walked until the stones under my feet started to slant upwards and eventually found myself in front of a very old church. The stone steps were covered with Mayans, sitting and sprawling over every space, and I had to weave my way back and forth in order to reach the entrance of the church. Though I should have immediately turned around to look out at the town, something drew me inside.


The church was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. The ground felt alive under my feet as it gave way to my weight, the walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires, and the paintings and decorations had nearly all disappeared from view. The smell of melted wax filled my nostrils as I began to creep closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar. It was the least church-like church I had ever entered. Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooded seats until I finally found myself standing in the front of the church. There poised in front of me was perhaps one of the most pristine sculptures of Christ that I had ever seen. In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Christ was unblemished, beautiful, and brilliant. Jesus stood elegantly with his robes draped over his shoulders with one hand outstretched with a remarkable golden crown resting on his forehead: Christ the King.


The celebration of Christ the King Sunday is a relatively recent addition to the Christian calendar. The greater church had celebrated the knowledge and image of Christ as king for centuries, but Pope Pius IX officially added to the Christian year in 1925. It took the church 1900 years to need this feast so bad in order to add it to the life of worship. When the first celebration of Christ the King occurred, Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for three years, the maniacal man named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was growing in popularity, and the United States was preparing for the Great Depression. In such a time, when the world seemed out of control, the church asserted that, nevertheless, Jesus Christ is King of the universe.

This day, this celebration in the life of the church, became the church’s great nevertheless to the godlessness of the world. Despite the rise of dictators, wars, fear, and death, despite the widespread notion that religion was only a “private affair” for individuals, Christ the King asserted that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and he shall reign forever and ever. 

During the celebration of holy mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Monastery 6 members of the OCDS community made promises to the Order.  Dr. Jason Bourgeois and Judy Hawkins professed their temporary vows for 2 years and David Travers, Suzie Megown, Kath

On Christ the King Sunday the Lectionary provides for us scriptures that reflect the “kingliness” of Jesus. The Old Testament scripture from Jeremiah, contains a prophetic word about the coming Messiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” Jeremiah reports the Word of the Lord to a people in a time of chaos: there are people who are unworthily leading and scattering God’s sheep. But nevertheless, God will bring about a righteous Branch, a king to rule all things, a king of righteousness.

What do we want out of a king? Someone who will execute justice and righteousness? Someone who has our best interests at heart? Someone who lowers our taxes? Someone who will lead us victoriously into battle?

The Israelites wanted a king like David. They so desired someone to come in the name of the Lord in order to overthrow the powers that be, and take a seat on their appointed throne. To be crowned with glorious gems and rubies, to bring about God’s kingdom on earth with power. What kind of a king do we want?


And he was led away to the place called The Skull with two others, who were criminals. There Jesus was crucified with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left. With the blood still wet on his hands and feet, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” those who had gathered to witness his death began to cast lots for his clothing, and people stood by watching, waiting. The leaders began to mock him, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers present also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And there was a sign hung over his head that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”


One of the criminals hung next to Christ kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself AND us!” But the other criminal rebuked him, saying “Are you not afraid of God, since you are under the same punishment? And we were condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he looked to the Christ, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

That is our King.

When you really get down to it, when you hear Luke’s remembrance of the crucifixion, it is so simple and straightforward. This is in contrast with the flood of feeling-filled poetry, hymns, sermons, and images that have flowed ever since. Our King did not reign in glory according to the expectations of the world. Instead of a long flowing purple robe he was left nearly naked on the cross. Instead of a crown of rubies, diamonds, and gems, he wore a crown of thorns. Instead of a majestic throne inlaid with gold and comfort, Christ reigned from a cross.

The Romans were notorious for using crucifixion as a form of execution for common criminals because it not only warned the public about the crimes against Rome, but it also added shame, pain, and a slow death. Yet somehow, instead of being hung for shame, Jesus Christ was elevated to his throne on the cross.

In that simple moment of hanging for all to see, Christ the King reigned magnificently over God’s kingdom and demonstrated the depth of what it means to be our King. Jesus refused to test God and heed the call of his tormentors to save himself. Three separate times Jesus was mocked to “save himself,” with the one criminal adding, “and us.” In his final moments Jesus does save someone, and that the one he saved was a dying criminal fits perfectly with the greater message of God’s Good News of the world. In Jesus’ dying hour, he continued his ministry: For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost. That is what it means to be King.


As I stood in that Guatemalan church, I was confronted for the very first time about what it really means to believe that Christ is the King. I was surrounded by decay, desolation, and disregard yet Christ stood before me as the King. In that moment I saw the paradox of the crucifixion, that the King of God’s glory was hung on a cross to die, that Christians in Guatemala can see the world slipping away from them, yet Christ is still King of the universe. I thought I was bringing something with me to Guatemala, that I was carrying God’s message. I believed I was looking for and seeking out God in my own life when God was the one looking for me; waiting to confront me in that dark and empty church.

How remarkable is it that we worship a God who loves us so much that he is continually looking for us, finding us in the differing moments of our lives to remind us who is really in charge? How beautiful is it that our God came in the form of flesh, to be the incarnate Word, and reign from a cross at the place called The Skull? How perfect is it that our King does not meet the expectations of the world, but instead turns the world upside down? How blessed are we that our King reigns not above us, but for us, beside us, and with us?

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, we have come to the conclusion of our liturgical calendar. We began with Christ’s birth made our way through his life death and resurrection. We have remembered the stories of the Old Testament where God made covenant with his people to be their God. We have witnessed the tragedies that have occurred in the world, we have lost loved ones, and suffered in our own lives.

Yet, nevertheless, Jesus Christ is King of all things.


Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, brought forth a new age in the life of humanity, ushered in a new kingdom by water and the Spirit, reigned triumphantly from the most unexpected of places. Jesus Christ, Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus Christ, Son of God, died on a cross for the world so that we might all be reunited and reconciled with God. Jesus Christ, the Holy One, taught us about how to live and love abundantly in God’s Kingdom. Jesus Christ, King of the universe, was resurrected from the grave to share life eternal with us.

Hallelujah! To God be the Glory forever and ever!



Weekly Devotional – 11/25/13



Philippians 4.4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.


My family loves to celebrate different holidays. My maternal grandmother loves to go out of her way to develop new and fun games depending on the particular festivity. On Easter there is always an easter egg hunt in addition to counting all of the different easter bunnies throughout the house. On Christmas we are usually given a random assortment of objects with the challenge to create something that is indicative of the Advent season in addition to trivia quizzes about differing Christmas songs, scriptures, and traditions. I will wear my grandfather’s lederhosen while my sisters will wear some of my grandmother’s dirndls. Holidays are a big deal.

Mertins Family Christmas 2012

Christmas 2012

On Thanksgiving we always gather together as a family while also inviting friends to partake in this special holiday. The abundance of food and guests usually leaves us with having to put up temporary tables in different rooms in order to accommodate. There is usually some sort of Turkey quiz, or an acrostic poem for something like “M-A-S-H-E-D-P-O-T-A-T-O-E-S.” But the best thanksgiving tradition takes place immediately following the blessing of the food where everyone has to go around the table and share with the group what they are most thankful for. One of my uncles usually says something that makes the entire table laugh, one of my cousins leaves us with something deep to ponder, and my grandmother usually has us all in tears by the time she finishes. I love sharing what we are thankful for because it gives us a time and a space to reflect on the goodness in our lives with the people who embody God’s goodness for us.

Thanksgiving 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes about the Christian life as happy and holy. He encourages the budding Christian community to rejoice in the Lord, to think about the blessings in their lives, and to keep the faith.

As we gather together this week to celebrate Thanksgiving with our friends and family I encourage you to share the goodness of your lives. Reflect on how God has made your life happy and holy. Reflect on how you can be a blessing for others.

Remember that as you gather together around a communal table, Christ has invited you to partake of him at his table. That from Him all blessings flow. That we all have something to be thankful for: the gift of God’s son, Jesus Christ.