We Don’t Belong To Babylon

Isaiah 44.6-8

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

 

Years ago I spent a summer working for a Toyota Dealership up in Alexandria. I was a porter and I was responsible for parking customer’s cars, driving them into the bays, and then bringing them back out when the work was completed. Every day I hopped into more cars than I could count and drove with great care through a parking lot that had twice as many cars as it should have.

I loved working there. I loved how every day was different, I loved all the strange and bizarre things people kept in the cars, I even enjoyed the great range of music that people chose to blare through their sound systems. But the part of the job that I loved the most was the people I worked with.

All of the other porters were at least twenty years older then me, and none of them were white. We were quite the motley crew standing together waiting to park cars, and during the slow moments we regaled one another with stories. That summer I learned about Carlos’ difficult journey from Mexico to the United States, I learned about Jamal’s continued experience of racism even though we lived in a supposedly progressive place, and I learned about Michael’s love for his home country of Ghana.

Of all the other porters Michael took me under his wing and always made sure that I was always drinking enough water. He called me Mr. Taylor and would clap his hands when he saw me walking up early in the morning.

We worked side by side for an entire summer and by the end he felt more like a friend than a co-worker.

On one particularly rainy afternoon, while business was slow, I asked Michael about what it was like to live here after spending most of his life in Ghana. He told me about how for years he only dreamed of one thing; saving enough money to bring him and his family to the US. How for years they watched American movies and read American books and they knew they had to do everything they could to get here.

And when they finally saved enough, when they finally came to the US, they were disappointed.

I remember thinking: “Disappointed? How could they be disappointed with all we have to offer here?”

And then he told me that they were disappointed because it was dirty, because there were people in need, and that he and his family still felt like strangers in a strange land.

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Isaiah’s message from the Lord isn’t just some random call from a prophet for the people to know more about God – it comes at a particular time to a particular people in a particular place. These words were, and still are, meant for a people in captivity.

The people of God had grown distant from the Lord and after countless attempts to bring the people back into the fold; they were taken into captivity in Babylon. For two generations God’s people were in a foreign land and it was in the midst of the Babylonian captivity that Isaiah spoke these words from the Lord: I am the first and I am the last, there is no one else like me. If any are so bold as to claim to be like the Lord let them declare what is to come. Do not fear, or be afraid. Have I not told you what was to happen? You are my witnesses!

The people receiving the Word from Isaiah were a people without hope. They had lost their homes, their nation, their possessions, their faith, their traditions, their roots, their identity, and their sense of belong. The Babylonian empire was known for its power and its majesty, but it was not what they thought it would be. Like my friend Michael from Ghana arriving in a new place, the Israelites were strangers in a strange land. Babylon was a nation with its own roots and customs and gods, and Israel was a tiny nation that had been assimilated into the greater empire.

Every single day God’s people were surrounded by idols clamoring for their worship. But unlike all the idols of Babylon, unlike all of the customs and the experiences, Isaiah declared that only the Lord is first and last, only God calls the future into being.

And to be honest, it is almost impossible for us to connect with the captive situation during the time of Isaiah. We are so entrenched in the culture around us that we cannot even fathom what it would look like to be in bondage, to be chained down, to be strangers in a strange land. But we are.

We are in bondage to the next new thing; in just a few months droves of people will be lining the streets for the next iPhone, Potomac Mills will be nearly impossible to navigate through, and the promise of big deals will cause people to make irrational decisions and choices.

We are controlled by the current political structures that we think determine our lives. Just ponder about how much time we spend watching or reading the news that is now completely and totally focused on who said what, the next vote down the line, and the latest tweet from the White House.

We are chained to economic plateaus that are relatively inescapable. Here in this country we cherish the American Dream, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of us will die in the same economic bracket we were born into.

We think that all of those things determine our lives. They have become our Babylon.

On any given day we will spend more time worrying about a new product, or politics, or our prosperity far more than anything else. Like the Israelites in Babylon, like Michael at the dealership, we Christians are strangers in a strange land. And here’s the frightening part: the longer we spend time in the strange land, the less strange it appears.

I know a man who started attending church later in life and quickly got involved. At first he volunteered as an usher, and pretty soon he was helping to lead worship as a liturgist. He loved church. He embraced the different rhythms and habits of the congregation and threw himself completely in.

And, of course, it didn’t take long for him to join one of the many committees at church. For months he attended the meetings and all of the other activities at church, but suddenly he stopped appearing around the church as frequently until he disappeared all together.

I asked to meet with him to discuss what happened and his answer was simple and hard to hear. He said, “I loved church because it was unlike anything else in my life, but at some point it started feeling the same. I experienced arguments in church meetings, apathy in the pews, and people never stopped lamenting about the past. I came to church to escape that kind of stuff from my life, only to discover that it was here as well.”

If the church is no better than the culture that surrounds it, if it doesn’t embody a different way of being, then it simply isn’t the church.

We are supposed to be strangers in a strange land. While the world around us strives to change our priorities the words of Isaiah ring even louder. While the culture tells us that we have to make it through this life on our own, Jesus tells us that we cannot do it on our own. While cultural idols strive for our allegiance, the Lord speaks loud and clear: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God.

We don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God.

And, as Isaiah is bold to proclaim, our God comes to us from the future. God is concerned about where we are going, whereas we often spend far too much time stuck in the past.

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The Israelites in captivity were stuck in the past just as much as they were stuck in Babylon. Their minds were focused on the old things, the failures of a distant time, memories from days long ago. They needed to hear the good and the true Word of God: “Who else can tell you what is to come? Let them try to prophesy the future. I am coming to you from the future for I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Do not fear, or be afraid! You are my witnesses. Remember what I have done for you, and you will know there is no other rock.

At the time of Isaiah’s proclamation the people were in danger of forgetting who they were, and whose they were. They wallowed in their present circumstances and were giving themselves over to the idols in their midst. They needed a probing and holy Word from the Lord. They needed deliverance from their chains. They needed to hope for things not seen, they needed to believe, they needed to know that God was with them even in the midst of captivity.

But maybe all this Babylonian captivity stuff is too much for today. We haven’t been stolen from our homes and delivered into a foreign country. Perhaps the talk of idols and nationalism, the comparisons within politics, and the particles of God’s time traveling omnipotence are just too heavy. Maybe we’ve got other things to worry about: bills to pay, people to call, children to raise, a marriage to sustain, a future to figure out. Perhaps we are so deeply rooted in this strange land that we can no longer see it as strange. Maybe our captivity has become our home.

Well then let us all hear the adapted word from the prophet Isaiah:

We cannot save ourselves. We have been and will be saved by God. There is nothing on this earth, or in the entire cosmos, like the living God. No amount of materialistic accumulation, economic growth, or political power will ever bring us satisfaction. Every little thing that we want to give meaning to our lives will fall away.

God, however, is almighty, eternal, and full of mercy. God is the one reaching out to us when we no longer have the strength to reach back. God is the one who surrounds us when we feel completely alone. God is the one who delivers us from the captivity to the Babylons in our midst.

As Christians, we are strangers in a strange land. Everything surrounding us is constantly telling us what to think, how to act, and what to believe. The world tries to tell us who we are and whose we are.

But we don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God. The world’s ways are not our ways!

We are more than the stories of the past. We are more than the failures of the present. We are more than our captivity to the idols competing for our allegiance. We are God’s children.

And our God is an awesome God! Our God is the first and the last. Our God is the beginning and the end. Our God is in control. Our God makes a way where there is no way. Our God is king of the cosmos. Our God is the solid rock upon which we stand. Our God is concerned with our future. Our God believes in our future. Our God know where we’re going.

Thanks be to God that we don’t belong to Babylon. Amen.

Naked and Afraid

John 21.1-17

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana of Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now not of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

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Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

On the first Easter Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead. The angel at the tomb shared the Good News with the disciples and with the Marys, and later that day Jesus appeared in the room with the disciples. He commanded them to “Go” and spread the Good News to all the earth. But Thomas was not there. Thomas doubted his friends, and their stories about the risen Lord. So a week later Jesus appeared again before the disciples and offered his hands and his side to Thomas to prove the resurrection. He concluded the moment by saying: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

After these incredible moments of resurrected existence, Jesus revealed himself to the disciples for a third time at the sea of Galilee when they returned to their former lives. What a fitting reading for the second Sunday after Easter. Just two weeks ago we were gathered in this sanctuary shouting “Hallelujah!” and praising the Lord for Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We were living in the light of the resurrection, and boy was it bright! The scent of blooming lilies punctuated the air and invaded our nostrils. No matter what was happening in our lives, God bombarded us with the Good News, death defeated, and we left church feeling filled by the Spirit to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

And here we are two weeks later. The lilies are gone, the hallelujahs are still are our lips but they don’t have the same power, and the darkness of life has crept back in. Every year we experience Easter like a mountaintop, but at some point we have to travel back down to the valley of existence.

The disciples, after literally witnessing the resurrected Christ, decide to return to their old lives. Peter says to the boys, “I’m goin’ fishing!” and they reply, “We’re coming with you.”

Do you love me?

It seems strange from our vantage point that the disciples should return to their former occupations, even though Jesus told them to go and spread the news. It feels bizarre to hear about them going back to their boats and nets after their friend transformed the meaning of life and death. Yet, this is how people usually respond to an emotional overload. In the weeks after a baby is born, the new parents wonder about when they will be able to sleep again. After a wife loses her husband she wonders when it will be okay to laugh again. When something deeply and fundamentally transformative occurs, it is only natural to ponder about life before the change.

This story of a reunion by the sea is a reminder that there is no escape from the Lord. Wherever the disciples went, and wherever we go, Jesus is with us.

They were out all night fishing but didn’t catch a thing. Jesus stood on the beach watching the disciple row in to shore, but they did not recognize him. He commanded them to cast out their nets one more time and promised they would catch something. Three years earlier he had said the same thing to Peter and Andrew while they were fishing before they left everything to follow him.

They immediately caught so many fish that they were unable to haul in the net because it was so heavy. In that moment, as the pieces finally came together, Peter recognized who was standing on the shore, put on some clothes and jumped into the sea.

There are many details in this epilogue to John’s gospel: the mention of a charcoal fire draws us back to the charcoal fire around which Peter denied Jesus. The appearance of fish and bread to feed the disciples hunger propels us back to the time when Jesus fed the multitudes with bread and fish. Jesus even asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” which connects with the three times he denied Jesus.

But this simple note that Peter was naked on the boat while catching fish, and decides to put his clothes on before swimming to Jesus, really stands out. It would have been easier to fish under the oppressive heat of the climate without the baggage of clothing, but instead of immediately jumping in (as he had done once before) Peter puts on clothes before he see the resurrected Lord for a third time.

Peter was naked and afraid. Not just physically naked without clothing, but maybe he was afraid of making himself completely vulnerable to Jesus. Perhaps he did not want to address the emotional denial of Jesus prior to his death. Maybe he didn’t want to admit his fallibility, or he did not want his life to be altered. But the resurrection changes everything.

Like we all do when we feel vulnerable, we put on the armor of denial and ignorance in order to protect ourselves from others. Afraid of the inevitable confrontation we sweep things under the rug and pretend that everything has gone back to normal. And then Jesus shows up with his question:

Do you love me?

Sure I do Jesus! I come to church nearly every Sunday, I listen to the pastor up in the pulpit, and I even try to sing the hymns in harmony.

Feed my lambs.

Do you love me?

Of course I do Jesus! I wear a cross around my neck, I always have my check written and ready for the offering, and I post pictures of prayers on Facebook for everyone to see.

Tend my sheep.

Do you love me?

Jesus, you’re making me a little uncomfortable… you know everything and you know that I love you. I’m a good person, I pay my taxes, I give a little money to charity, I try to pray before I eat my meals… what more could you want?

Feed my sheep.

Most of us have probably never faced a time like Peter did when he denied Jesus outright. We’ve never really had to suffer for our faith, and we’ve never really been afraid for following Jesus. But all of us have had moments where we denied him; we just might not realize it.

We might be in our car driving down the road, and perhaps we’re even listening to a Christian radio station, when we stop at a red light and we see someone standing in the median right next to us with a sign asking for money. Perhaps we reach out our hands to lock our doors, or we make judgments about how they got themselves into whatever trouble their in, and before we know it the light turns green and we are able to get on with our lives without being bothered by the panhandlers.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

We might be having a cup of coffee with a friend and the topic of the recent Panama Papers comes up in conversation. We can feel our fists tightening as we complain about the ultra wealthy evading the taxes that all the rest of us have to pay. Perhaps we start drawing connections between the economically elite with criminals who prey on the weak and underprivileged and we wish someone would do something about it. But before too long the conversation moves on to another topic and we finally feel the tension start to slip away as we talk about something else.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

We might be having dinner with our family when someone goes on a tirade about a particular political party. We keep our mouths shut because we’ve heard them go off like this but we can’t help but shake our heads in disappointment over their opinion. How could someone be so backward in their thinking? If they believe their candidate can fix all of our problems, then they are going to be sorely mistaken…

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

The conclusion to John’s gospel is like epilogue in its willingness to address many of the elements that made Jesus’ ministry what it was. As we read it, as we smell the fish cooking on the open fire, and we try to dry ourselves off after swimming in the sea, and as we listen to Jesus’ questions it reminds us of darkness.

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Through this text we are forced to confront the darkness of our hunger for meaning in our lives, or our failure to recognize Jesus in our midst, or the fact that we have denied him by denying others. But at the same time, this story reminds us that none of the darkness has overcome the light. Christ still died for us while we were yet sinners. God still sent his Son into this broken world to start putting the pieces back together. The Holy Spirit still moves among us and calls us to love one another even when it feels impossible.

Christianity, at its best, is not about what we think or feel about Jesus – it’s about what Jesus does to us. Not a technique for how we can use him to accomplish our goals, but rather his plans for using people like us to transform the world by feeding and tending to the sheep.

Here we are, just like the disciples, a few weeks on the other side of Easter. For many of us, the normalcy of life has returned. The darkness of the cross has crept back into our daily lives. We turn on the television and we want to know why we live in such a broken world. We confront people who drive us crazy. We grow tired of the seemingly endless race for the White House. We clench our fits with frustration over our lack of control. We worry about our bank accounts, and our children, and our futures.

            And then Jesus has the nerve to show up in our lives and ask, “Do you love me?”

If we love Jesus, then we have to start loving one another. Which means that we have to feed Jesus’ sheep by encountering the person on the side of the road asking for money. And not by just addressing their financial situation, but also by treating them with worth and respect. It means that we have to tend to Jesus sheep by helping those trapped by the power of greed to see how their greed affects all of God’s creation. It means that we have to feed Jesus’ sheep when they argue and bicker about politics by listening and loving rather than ignoring and judging.

It is here at the lakeshore of life, that we discover what a strange Messiah we follow. A man who came and was hung on a cross only to forgive his murders; a man who went back to the friends who betrayed him, and ate breakfast with them by the sea; a man who got killed for calling people to serve the last, least, and the lost; a man who expects us to love him by loving others. Amen.