He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…
There is a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He even tithes when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning. He is good and faithful.
And there’s another man, a legal crook, who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the rest up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can’t even keep track of where he keeps all of them.
They both show up for worship one day. The good and faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the crook and, meanwhile, the crook asks God to have mercy on him, a sinner.
The parable of the publican and the pharisee. Jesus tells this tale to his disciples and then mic-drops the ending: “I tell you, this man (the crook) went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It’s all wrong, right? This parable runs against the grain of how we think it’s all supposed to work.
Put another way: Which of the two would we prefer to see sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning? How would we feel if the crook was part of our church? What would we do if he took a little money out of the offering plate or showed up with a new woman on his arm every Sunday?
This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with a resounding conclusion, Jesus tells the disciples and all of us that the whole game is unfair.
Grace is unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and yet, instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”
Do you see what that means?
It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the Publican can kick him out. The whole point of the parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good works and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation.
In short, they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead.
Week after week the people called church get together for worship.
God gathers the scattered flock into one place where we share signs of peace with whomever God drags through the door. God proclaims God’s Word to the gathered with scriptures, and prayers, and sermons. The gathered respond to God with shared sacraments. And God sends forth the gathered back into the world shaped and nurtured by the Word.
For the well seasoned weekly worship can feel normal. But to those outside the church, what we do as a church is very strange.
To the world we are a bunch of people who sing unpopular songs, we read from an old and dusty book, we listen to someone offer remarks about the book that may, or may not, interest those listening, and then everyone stands up to eat and drink really small portions or bread and juice.
Worship is strange and yet worship changes things. And sometimes the thing that worship changes is us.
We are changed through a particularly powerful prayer that expresses thoughts/feelings/hopes/dreams/desires that we did not even know we had. We are changed through a handful of sentences in a sermon that proclaim our forgiveness and we actually feel our hearts strangely warmed. We are changed through water and bread and cup as God’s grace is communicated to us physically and tangibly.
And sometimes we are even changed in spite of worship!
For instance, C.S. Lewis came up with the idea for his remarkable book The Screwtape Letter during what he described as “one very boring sermon.” And I myself fell in love with the beauty of the Bible as a child because whenever I grew disinterested in whatever the preacher was talking about on a Sunday morning, I reached for the old book in the pew ahead of me and jumped into the strange new world of scripture.
Worship, week after week, gives us Jesus and we can’t help ourselves from making a joyful noise in return.
On Sunday, we praised God with the song “Great Are You Lord.” I’m not sure whether it was the ukulele, or the arrangement, or the lyrics, or all of them combined, but it knocked me hard in the chest. When those musical moments happen in worship, I know that we are in the presence of God whose Spirit is guiding, shaping, and leading us in the ways that lead to life. It is my hope and prayer that everyone feels compelled to make a joyful noise every single Sunday, but if not I am grateful I got to experience it on Sunday.
And so I conclude with the words from the song, and if you would like to watch/hear it you can do so here: (First Light Worship [the song starts at the 14:41 mark]).
He came down with them and stood at a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed for yours is the kingdom of God. Woe to you who are rich, full, laughing, and respected for you will mourn.
Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the cheek, give to everyone who begs, on and on.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 is filled with wonder and with confusion. It has attracted and bewildered Christian for centuries and centuries. For as many answers as it provides, it leaves us with even more questions.
Like the parables, the Sermon is designed to pop every circuit breaker in our minds; it doesn’t explain things to our satisfaction, but instead calls to our attention the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.
Basically, we can help but walk away from Jesus’ sermon with our minds abuzz.
In the realm of the church, explanation is not the same thing as proclamation – though most of us prefer the former rather than the latter. We like things to be nice and orderly, we want things tied up neatly in a bow.
And Jesus rejects that desire completely.
Jesus, in his Sermon, isn’t telling us what works – he’s telling us what the Kingdom of God is like.
One of my professors from seminary, Stanley Hauerwas, puts it this way:
“A common interpretation is that the Sermon is a law that presents an impossibly high ideal to drive us to a recognition of our sin. It is meant to drive us to grace. In other words, it is not really meant to tell us what to do but rather to remind us that Christian moral life is about love. This internalizes the Christian life so that what it means to be a Christian is to do whatever we do from the motive of love. “Love and do what you will” — bad advice if I have ever heard it! It has an even worse effect on christology; why would anyone ever have put Jesus to death if it is all just a matter of being loving?” – Stanley Hauerwas, A Sermon On The Sermon On The Mount
We are so very tempted to read all of Jesus’ words in his Sermon as a list of virtues that good people ought to have. We walk away thinking we’re supposed to be poor, or hungry, or persecuted because of our faith. We convince ourselves that turning the other cheek or praying for our enemies will make us righteous or blessed.
Yet, what we miss is the fact that Jesus’ words assume there are already people in the community called church who find themselves in such positions.
Being blessed, according to Jesus, does not mean, “If you do this, then you will be rewarded.”
Being blessed, according to Jesus, means, “If you find yourself in a position like this, you are blessed because you are part of a community that makes all the difference in the world.”
Again, Jesus doesn’t promise his disciples, or us, that if we just muster up the courage to love our enemies then we will no longer have enemies. He doesn’t offer these words as a formula for how to prevent bad things from happening. In fact, loving our enemies and turning the other cheek generally guarantees that we will continue to have enemies who delight in hitting us on the cheek.
Christians don’t win by winning – we win by losing.
Remember, we worship the crucified God.
Jesus offers this Sermon to us, these descriptions and admonitions not because they will change the world. He proclaims all of it because the world has been changed by Christ forever, and we can no longer act as we once did.
We Christians are a weird bunch, in the end. We believe in impossible possibilities, and we pray for people the world never would, and we refuse to believe that anyone is a hopeless case.
And yet, without us living in such strange and faithful ways, the world will have no way of ever knowing what grace, peace, and mercy actually look like.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
The older I get the more complicated Thanksgiving becomes.
When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of delicious food, eavesdropping on grown up conversation, and running around in the cold until one of the aforementioned adults beckoned us back inside.
But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say the one thing that will set everyone off.
And that’s not even mentioning the logistic nightmare of figuring out who will cook what and how in a tight time frame!
Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). This year we are likely to hear opinions on presidential decrees, gubernatorial soundbites, and judicial rulings, just so that everyone else can know exactly what side of what issue we are on.
Which is remarkably strange, at least from a Christian perspective, considering the fact that Jesus came to destroy the very divisions we so desperately cling to and want to demonstrate around our tables.
Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.
Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Thanksgiving Liturgy to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of clarity to an otherwise bewildering experience.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
Psalm 126: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Jesus boldly proclaims in the midst of his temptations in the wilderness that, “One cannot live by bread alone.” It is certainly true that we need food to survive, but we need more if we want to really live. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is more than merely sharing food. It is through our conversation and our prayers and our thanksgiving (the action, not the holiday), that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. In many ways the table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table to which we are beckoned again and again even though we don’t deserve it and we cannot earn it. So let us rejoice in the knowledge that, through the power of the Spirit, God has done great things for us.
Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table around which to gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all that you’ve done, are doing, and will do. Work in and through us such that our tears turn into laughter, and our mourning into rejoicing. Let the feast around the table give us a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. There it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
The prevailing wisdom is that, when a newish preacher arrives in town, he or she should avoid controversial topics at all costs. At least, in the beginning.
You don’t want to burn any bridges before they have a chance to be built in the first place.
But some things can’t be ignored – some topics demand our attention whether we want them to or not.
I don’t know if you know this, but the church is on the brink of schism.
On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it really truly seems as if there is no future in which we stay united.
One pastor put it this way: “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count… But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the ways things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”
Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belated particular individuals must cease now and forever.”
And still yet another said this: “It matters not how we treat people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”
Have you heard people talk like that about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences?
Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer hold onto a common cause.
And, lest we grow apathetic about the possibility of ecclesial schism, lives are at stake.
If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you should. So, let me try to break it down a little bit. There is a sizable portion of the church that believes in the institution of slavery is a right given by God Almighty while the other side of the church believes that slavery and the ownership of human beings runs counter to the Good News of the Gospel.
So, friends in Christ, what should we do?
Or, to put it another way, which church should we align ourselves with?
Oh, I seem to have misplaced the notes for my sermon… I think I grabbed the one from 1844 instead of the one for 2021…
You see, the quotes I just read from different pastors were not shared on various social media accounts over the last few years – they didn’t come from the bitterness of recent denominational meetings in which theological dueling has become a favorite pastime. No, all of those are real quotes from pastors in 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And the matter at hand then, the decisive claim that actually split the church until 1939, was slavery.
I beg you to lead lives worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.
We don’t know all the details that required the writing of the epistle to the Ephesians, but it’s clear that not all of those who were part of the gathering, the ecclesia, were getting along.
There’s a good chance that it had something to do with Gentile Christians making claims about what the faith really looked like now that they were part of the covenant whereas Jewish Christians were holding on to the faith that had first grabbed hold of them.
Or, it could’ve been a little more like the church in Corinth that was constantly bickering about the nuts and bolts of community meals and how the unified church broke into different factions led by different leaders.
Or, maybe they were arguing about who was and who wasn’t compatible with Christian teaching.
We’re not entirely sure but, taking a step back for a moment, it doesn’t really make that much sense. How could a community founded on radical inclusion descend into rampant division? Why would a people who are commanded to love their neighbors have so much trouble actually doing it? What happened such that brothers and sisters in Christ had to be told to bear with one another in love?
Strange, isn’t it?
What we do know about the church in Ephesus is that Paul felt compelled to write this letter, a letter we refer to as Holy Scripture, and Christians like us have been gathering together to proclaim these words for centuries.
I beg you to live with humility and gentleness, with patience, and bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Who would’ve imagined that a scripture text could ever have so much to say to our current context…
And here’s the rub: Paul can exhort us all he wants to be worthy of the Gospel, he can list off in rapid fire detail all of the practical habits that define what the church can be. But, at the end of the day, we will never be worthy of the Gospel.
At least, not on our own.
We’re fickle and selfish little creatures, we humans. It doesn’t matter whether its the first century, or the 19th century, or today, we are consumed by, and addicted to, dividing ourselves into who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong.
And yet, the church touts itself as a bastion of inclusiveness: open hearts, open minds, open doors. Ever heard of it?
Is the Gospel really for all?
I mean, what about those real sinners (let you imaginations run wild)? How would we feel if they started showing up on Sunday mornings?
We might bristle at the thought, but making the outsiders into insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. Which, when you think about it, is actually really Good News because the Gospel is the most inclusive thing around: At the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
To be clear: that includes each and every one of us.
And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.
Consider the seven ones that Paul rattles off: There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
We who we far off and we who were near have been brought together by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christ is the reason, and the only reason, we can be one.
Warring cultures divided by heritage, and traditions, and moral codes, and even ethical expectations have collided into a new order, a community we call the church.
Paul’s prayer from last Sunday’s passage transforms today into a call to preserve the peace made possible in Christ. Paul literally begs us to see that even our myriad differences, great though they may be, they pale in comparison to the vast gulf between God and us. And yet God chose us!
Think about that for a moment. God, knowing full and well that we are a bunch of dirty rotten scoundrels, that we will regularly look out for our own interests instead of those in need, that, when push comes to shove, given the choice between life and death, we would choose to nail God to a cross, God still chooses to be for us!
In Christ, we encounter the incomparable new reality of God which both humbles us and exalts us, which knocks us down and builds us up, and that is our peace.
You see, peace, at least peace as defined by the Gospel, comes when we recognize our universal incompetence and our total need for someone to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.
God has claimed us. And, as Karl Barth put it, unity is the consequence of belonging to God.
However, there is a difference between the now and the not yet. Our sin-sick souls are stuck in this terrifying cycle of division and antipathy. But, as Christians, we are called to look beyond and, in so doing, reframe the now.
There are walls of division that threaten to divide the church, to literally break up the body of Christ. They existed in Ephesus, they were there in 1844, and they’re still around today.
Paul, across the ages, pleads with us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called, something we can’t actually do on our own, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
And, notably, the strange new world of the Bible reminds us again and again that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus.
The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people willing to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.
Faith is always a journey.
Paul likens it to the way a body grows – it happens, in time, and it can be painful. And we can try all we want to resist it, but God is going to get what God wants.
It is therefore in the knowledge of the hope that is beyond our current circumstances that we find our peace. Peace is upon the mountain. We have not yet reached the mountain. But we can lift our eyes to the hills, from whence our help comes.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been particularly struck by this little moment in the Gospel right before Jesus’ crucifixion. Abandoned by his followers, betrayed by his disciples, condemned by the religious elites, Jesus carries his own instrument of death to the place called the skull, and what does he say?
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The truth is, we still don’t know what we’re doing.
The United Methodist Church, the body of Christ for the world, is at war with itself over who can marry who and who can do what I do. But we’re also on the brink of schism in our community over politics, and education, and a variety of other subjects.
It’s terrifying how content we are to cut off our hands and our feet.
We still identify who is in and who is out based on categories that make absolutely no sense in the Kingdom of God. We view one another through names on bumper stickers, and through ill-advised Facebook posts, and through late-night ramblings on twitter.
And today scripture grabs us by the collar and says, “Listen! God has made us beautifully different! Unity isn’t uniformity! We bring together all of our differences and that what makes the one body we call church so amazing. So stop acting like children for God’s sake, literally. You move about with every new headline, and you give into to such shameful divisions. Listen! Speak the truth in love. IN LOVE! You don’t deserve to be part of the body of Christ. No one does. And yet God chose you anyway! We are not what we can be without you, and neither can we be who God is calling us to be if we keep cutting off our arms and our legs!”
At the end of the day, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever the they are, are wrong.
But again, the Gospel tells us something different – the Gospel tells us we’re all wrong! That’s why the Gospel is more inclusive than anything in existence! We don’t stand on our accomplishments or on our righteousness – none of us are righteous, no not one.
The only thing we stand on is the grace and love of God freely given to us in Christ Jesus.
Or, in other words, we’re stuck with each other because God has decided to be stuck with us. So be it. Amen.
Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel. It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
It was only a few days after the ordeal at the wedding. They had slept off the hangovers, returned to life as normal, but they couldn’t help but feel as if nothing would ever be normal again.
They were guests at the wedding, one of those affairs where they knew someone who knew someone. It didn’t matter, then, that they were sat at the reject table. They knew how to have a good time and how to make the most of the least.
At least they did, until the wine ran out.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being at a wedding party that ran out of booze you’ll have some idea how the tension in the room percolated straight to the surface.
So they sat there, minding their own business, wondering how long they’d have to stay before it was appropriate for them to duck out the side door to see what else Cana had to offer. But then they heard their teacher arguing with his mother.
The discomfort of a dry wedding is one thing, but having to listening to an adult son fight with his mother? That’s another thing entirely.
They tried not to eavesdrop, but it was loud enough for most of the guests to hear. And then, all of the sudden, their guy disappeared into the basement.
Within 15 minutes the wedding host announced that a miracle had occurred, and they now had enough wine to last them through the night and into the next day. And who were they to turn down an invitation like that from their host?
And so it was, a few days later, on the other side of all the pinot noir and all the partying, they found themselves in Jerusalem.
It was Passover, and all the Jews were making their way to the holy city including the fumbling crew who were still regaling one another with stories about what happened at the wedding.
They arrived at the temple and took in the scene before them. There were groups of people in every direction engaged in the economics of temple worship – some were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, while other exchanged the different currencies to make the system as simple as possible.
It had gone like this for some time.
But then Jesus disappeared again. Though this time he didn’t retreat into a dimly lit basement to turn water into wine, this time he marched straight toward the closest table, grabbed it by the corner, and flipped it high into the air. Coins went flying in every direction as jaws hit the dusty ground.
But he wasn’t done yet. Next he grabbed a leather whip and started chasing after everyone within distance, all while shouting insults about how they ruined his Father’s house.
He ragtag crew of would-be followers stood off to the side and let Jesus do his Jesus thing and they whispered among themselves:
“Is this really such a good idea?”
“If he keeps this up, he’s going to get himself killed.”
And then one of them, maybe Peter, said, “‘Zeal for you house will consume me’ isn’t that what the Psalm says?”
And they all nodded in agreement.
Just then a group of Jews shouted at the mad men with the whip in his hands, “What sign can you show for doing all of this?”
Jesus said, “I’m going to tear this Temple down and in three days raise it up!”
But it made no sense to the crowds that day, and neither did it register with his disciples. Only after he had lived, died, and rose again did they realize that he was talking about himself as the Temple of the Lord.
According to John’s Gospel, this moment by the temple not only kicks off Jesus’ ministry, but it’s also the event that puts a target on his back until he’s nailed to the cross. In one moment of physical and audible proclamation he put the religious elite in their place and shook things up.
Zeal for they house has consumed me.
The New Testament is filled with references to the Old Testament – both explicitly and implicitly. From biblical characters literally quoting from one of the prophets, to simple allusions that run back and forth, to people saying more than they know with the words they use – the two testaments are inextricably tied up with one another.
Of all the Old Testament books, the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms are quoted the most in the New Testament. In fact, in my line of work, people often refer to Isaiah as the fifth gospel because it show up so much in the other four.
But there is just something special about the way the Psalms show up in the Gospel stories.
Notably, Jesus, as a good rabbinic jew, would’ve had the whole psalter memorized and the words of Psalms are used by Jesus to refer to himself, and by others to make sense of what they experienced in Jesus.
Put simply – the psalms are the prayer book of Jesus Christ int he truest sense of the world – Jesus prayed the psalter and now it has become his prayer for for all time.
So when Jesus shows up in the Temple, starts flipping tables and chasing people with the whip, his followers immediately process the scene through one of the Psalms: “zeal for your house has consumed me.”
Contrary to how Jesus is often portrayed with his weak and quiet and reserved demeanor, whether its in sermons or Sunday school classes or even in movies, home boy was quite zealous. That is, he was on fire for things not yet seen.
In our text today he has a temple tantrum, flipping over tables and calling out the powers and principalities all as a commentary against what the faith of God’s people had become.
Regularly throughout his earthly ministry Jesus spent time among the movers and shakers and called them out for taking advantage of the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
Time and time again Jesus walked straight into complicated and even dangerous situations to reveal the confounding nature of grace and faith from meeting Mary Magdalene shortly before her being stoned to death to stopping to talk with the woman at the well.
Jesus was nothing if not zealous.
So much so that, on one notable occasion, his family thought he was completely bonkers and tried to stop him from continuing on the path that inevitably led to his cross.
Or, as the psalmist puts it, I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me!
But they didn’t stop him. You see, nothing could stop Jesus from doing when he did – he was consumed with zeal for his Father’s house.
Jesus sees possibilities where we, too often, see failure.
Jesus believes in those who have quit believing in themselves.
Jesus makes a way where there is no way.
That’s exactly who Jesus is!
And, lest we ever forgets, God is at least as nice as Jesus which also means that God is at least as zealous as Jesus.
Because Jesus, as Paul reminds us, is the fullness of God revealed.
God is not merely sitting idly by watching the world spin down the toilet – God is showing up in places, flipping the tables of complacent, and is probing us to wonder and the ways things are so that we might move to where things can be.
Taking at step back from the scene in the temple, with the tables overturned and the money-lenders cowering in the corner, it’s not hard to imagine the headline in the next issue of the Jerusalem Times: Jesus – The Disturber of the Peace
There have always been disruptors of the peace, those zealots who shake up the status quo.
And yet, the peace disturbed by Jesus that day, and still disturbs today, was no real peace. The weak and the marginalized were getting abused forced into economic hardships all while God’s blessing were being construed as something to be purchased or earned.
And then God in Christ shows up to remind us there is no real transformation without disruption. Faithful following is only every possible because of disruption and dislocation – otherwise we are doomed to remain exactly as we are.
Or, as others have put it, we never move unless someone steps on our toes.
And, for some of us, that doesn’t sound too bad. Some of us would do quite well is things remained exactly as they are. But God is in the business of making something from nothing, of taking us from here to over there, of deliverance.
We might reject transformation and disruption, we might cling with all of our strength to the status quo, we might not be comfortable with Jesus’ zealous side, but none of us could ever rejoice in the knowledge of salvation were it not for Jesus’ disruption of the way things were that eventually led to his crucifixion and resurrection.
Change, real change, good change, is never painless. It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries, an ever present remind of what happened should any of us start asking all of the right questions.
We have a method for dealing with disturbers of the peace.
And yet, it only takes a minor gander of the great stories of history to be reminded that the most important shifts from one thing to another have always come because of disruption.
We can point to the real change makers of the world, those who refused to accept things as they were, but Jesus, whether we like it or not, is the most striking example of disruption, dislocation, and painful challenge to our status quo. Ever since he showed up we’ve never really be able to return to normal because God in Christ is marching on, all while bringing us along for the ride.
“Zeal for your house will consume me,” the psalmist writes and the disciples apply to Jesus. And they were right – The zeal Jesus had for a new day did consume him. So much so that we killed him for it.
But even the grave couldn’t stop our disturber of the peace. Amen.
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
It was the perfect Christmas Eve service.
The weather was just cold enough with the faintest hints of snows falling from the sky without it worrying people away from driving to the local church.
The little cherubic children had practiced “Away In A Manger” for months and were ready to sing before the gathered people with little pipe cleaner halos hanging above their heads.
The pastor had prepared the perfect pulpit proclamation with enough humor and theological gravitas to get the ChrEasters (Christmas and Easter only people) back in church the following Sunday.
And the highlight of highlights was the so-called Living Nativity scene outside on the front lawn with the holy family, magi, angels, shepherds, sheep, goats, and one particularly cheerful looking donkey.
Like I said, it was perfect.
At the end of the service, while groups made their way up to the altar to take their traditional family color coordinated Christmas Eve pictures for Instagram, as the pastor shook hands and made small talk with all the unfamiliar faces, while the organist went through a carefully crafted holiday medley, as the poinsettias were passed out to later adorn dining room tables, while children scarfed down the sweets that were promised for good behavior during the service, as the ushers counted the largest offering ever received on a Christmas Eve… Joe and Maria, a man and young pregnant woman, stood outside the church shivering in the cold.
Their clothes were mismatched from an assortment of thrift stores, their bellies rumbled at a volume that could only rival the braying donkey, and they prayed that someone, anyone, would be able to help.
So they waited, listening to the laughter and frivolity that was taking place on the other side of the sanctuary doors.
And finally, while families fell out of the church, the couple spoke softly and humbly as asking if anyone had a place they could stay for the night, and every single person, pastor included, walked right passed them as if they didn’t exist.
Merry Christmas indeed.
King David was feeling high and mighty, all settled in his house. He sent for the prophet Nathan and said, “Don’t you think it’s about time we built a temple for the Lord who has delivered us from the hands of our enemies? I mean, we’ve got all this power and wealth and what good is it if we don’t show it off? I mean, for God!”
And the prophet intoned, “Sure, the Lord is with you.”
But that very same night, while the prophet was asleep in his bed, the word of the Lord came to Nathan and said, “Are you out of your mind? Go tell that David these words: I don’t need a house to live in, I don’t need a box for you to hide me away. I am the Lord God. I’m a mover and a shaker. I’ve got things to do, and you can’t domesticate this Spirit. Remember – It was me, The I AM, who took you from your father’s fields, I was with you when you took down the mighty Goliath, I was with you when you danced before the ark, and I will be with until the end. I’ve got plans for my people. So don’t waste your time with a temple, greater things are in store for the people Israel.”
An apt and succinct summary for this passage from 2 Samuel might be: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
In the strange new world of the Bible we come across a king and a prophet who are contradicted by the Word of the Lord – with all of their comfort and complacency they were so sure that they had it all figured out only to have it turned upside down.
Today, we’ve got plenty of examples in which, both in the religious and political realms, there are those who have no doubt what God’s purposes and plans are only to have them 180’d.
There’s a church in San Francisco that was having a problem. On Sunday mornings, while families and individuals walked through the main doors, they were treated to the smells and the sights and the sounds of the homeless who had slept in the alcove the night before. Sure, the ushers had shoo’d most of them away before the service but their presence was still palpable.
Week after week the pastor and the leadership of the church fielded complaints about the problem and people wanted to know what the church could do to help.
So, like any good church, they formed a committee and started a fundraiser. In a few short weeks they amassed $20,000 and decided to put it to good use.
Did they use the money to start a feeding ministry?
Did they use the funds to subsidize some low-income housing for those in need?
Did they use the finances to start job training programs?
They used that 20 grand to install a motion sensor sprinkler system with the solitary purpose of spraying water every sixty seconds throughout the night to prevent anyone from trying to gather in the alcoves.
The Word from the Lord today in 2 Samuel serves as a warning against any overly assured reading of the will of God and reminds us, pertinently, that God is God and we are not.
But this also comes as a great challenge.
For, we are so sure, most of the time, of what God is up to (particularly during Advent). Most of us have heard the story of Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem so many times, or we’ve seen enough plastic nativity scenes, or we’ve heard the crooning Christmas carols over and over again, such that we cannot see or hear how bewildering the story really is.
Our Advents and Christmases are far too domesticated for the Lord who refuses to be kept in a box.
Consider – God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, God brings down the mighty form their thrones, God lifts up the lowly, God fills the hungry with good things, God sends the rich away empty.
We worship a God who acts before we do and, more often than not, catches us by surprise.
David lived a life of surprises: He was anointed by the prophet Samuel after taking care of the sheep one afternoon, he confoundingly took down the mighty Goliath, he hid away from the wrath of Saul in a cave, he became king over Israel. Sure he was handsome and crafty, but the only reason David got to be the David we know is because God was with him. And yet, near the end of his days, he thought it only right to build a dwelling place for the Lord who had delivered him, and his people, time and time again.
But God does not rest on God’s laurels.
God is in the business of finding dwelling places not for God’s self but for God’s people. God is always ahead of us, from making the covenant with Abraham to waiting in Galilee for the disciples on the other side of the resurrection, God is moving and acting and shaking things up in ways that will surprise us.
Who could’ve imagined that the second born heel-grabbing twin would be the one through whom God’s blessing would be bestowed?
Who would’ve imagined that a harlot who lived on the edge of Jericho would be part of salvation’s genealogy?
Who could’ve imagined that a little shepherd boy would one day be king?
In all times and in all places, we do well to dwell upon where, today, God is moving ahead of us and acting in ways that we cannot even imagine.
What assumptions do we have about what is perfect and pleasing in God’s sight?
In what ways are we still trying to domesticate the wildness of God’s Spirit?
How receptive are we to the God who blows where He chooses and not necessarily where we choose?
Remember – God delights in the surprise!
Over and over again in scripture, and in life, God chooses the unexpected to bring about the Kingdom. God plucks people out of complacency and says, in different ways, shapes, and forms, “I’ve got a job for you!” God stirs up our understandings of the world, flips them upside down, and calls it Good News.
This is the final Sunday of Advent, our time between time. This season has a way of setting the stage for the already but not yet all while getting under our skin. Advent compels us, forces us, to slow down, wait, and notice what we so often miss.
God is God and we are not.
God works and moves in the world in ways that we would not, were it up to us.
And here, on the final Sunday of Advent, with thoughts of David and Nathan, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, we cannot help ourselves but relish in the strange and wondrous and confounding Good News of Christmas.
For, the Messiah is born in the last place left in the little town of bread, to a virgin named Mary who has no standing in the world.
He grows up in the hick town of Nazareth, and leaves only to spend the rest of his days among the last, least, lost little, and dead.
And, (most surprisingly) he becomes obedient, even to the point of death – death on a cross.
That’s the God we worship.
God is not some perfect and clean and respectful and tame deity that we often domesticate throughout the church.
Our God is on the move, upsetting expectations, calling upon people we would usually ignore, and making a way where there is no way.
God reminds Nathan, and therefore David, that God is perfectly comfortable remaining in the tent. Why? Because tents are made to be moved. We, on the other hand, we rejoice in building temples and monuments and buildings to proclaim stability and importance. We do this, in large part, because we are afraid.
We are afraid of being forgotten. We are afraid of death. We are afraid that we won’t have anything to show for the lives we’ve been given
And how does God respond to our attempts of permanence?
God laughs at our feeble attempts at immortality by kicking up the winds of change and declaring that all things are being made new.
God laughs at our struggles for perfect moral existence and proclaims forgives for sins.
God laughs at our certainty and shows up in the most surprising of ways, as a baby, to change the world. Amen.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the plant of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, my family and I loaded ourselves into the car to drive around and check out the early Christmas Lights. We figured that there would either be only a handful of houses with any indication of the Holiday spirit, or because this has been the craziest year in recent memory that we would luck out with some incredible displays.
So we drove and we drove, and we saw all the staples: The LED projection of green snowflakes frantically circling around on the siding of a house, the dangling and frenetically flashing bulbs adorning the lowest limbs of trees, and we even saw a giant inflatable rainbow unicorn.
But the best house, the Clark Griswold house, was only a block away. I passed it on a run earlier in the week and knew we had to see it in all its electric, and eclectic glory. For, unlike houses with similar color schemes or even thematic connections throughout the lawn, this house had a little bit of everything.
None of the light strands matched any of the others.
There were six different Santa Clauses of every shape, size, and variety.
An inflatable Snoopy was, apparently, keeping watch over the pre-lit reindeer.
And, to cap it all off, there was a blimp floating in mid-air with penguins parachuting to the ground like they were in the middle of a holiday invasion.
And yet, even with all its glory, I couldn’t help but wonder what Isaiah, or Luke, or even John the Baptist would make of all our holiday pageantry. Because, chances are they would be horrified to see the ways we’ve trivialized the turning of the cosmos.
I don’t mean to sound too harsh, I too have lights up on the house, with a Christmas tree standing in the front window with far too many presents already wrapped and under the tree.
But we need to know, all of us, that these things, with all of their safe and sanitized renderings, may actually prevent us from seeing, hearing, knowing, and believing what the Lord has come to do.
The audience for this Advent text from Isaiah are those forced to the margins of life, the last, least, lost, little, and dead. They are, strangely enough, words of hope for people who feel no hope. They are words meant to comfort a people who feel no comfort in the world.
Even all these centuries later, this proclamation is aimed toward the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, the mourners.
From those locked up in physical prisons, to those who feel imprisoned by their situations, Isaiah speaks to those who know not what tomorrow will bring.
It might feel or even seem bizarre, but this passage is also meant for people like us, those who are willing to wake up and live-stream a worship service on their phones, iPads, and computers on a Sunday morning.
Most of us move through life without giving too much thought to whatever it is we are wading through. Worship, blessedly, offers us opportunities to reflect on the here and the now, and we are challenged to imagine the not yet, the more of God’s design.
And we do this because who among us is truly content with our current circumstances?
Right now we are seeing more and more people kicked out of their homes and apartments because they simply can’t put together the money necessary because the bottom third of our economy is crumbling.
Right now parents are preparing to wake up with their children on Christmas morning without a single present under the non-existent tree.
Right now we are being warned that gatherings of more than ten people will most likely result in the most devastating of Januarys in which we will be burying more people than any of us are used to – 5 of the top 10 most deadly days in American history have all happened within the last week.
And, in the midst of all of this, most of us flock to the sentimentalities that hopefully distract us from the truth.
But when has that ever worked?
Whether we like it or not, our lives are bombarded with calls of such frightening frequency to make the best with what we’ve got that we no longer know what it is to hope.
And thus speaks Isaiah: The spirit of God is with me and I’ve been commanded to bring good news to a people drowning in bad news, to announce freedom to those who are trapped, and to break down the walls of prisons, it’s time for jubilee. We shall comfort those who mourn and give them garlands instead of ashes. They will be like tall trees for the Lord, steadfast and glorious. All the ruins shall be remade and the devastations of previous generations will be rectified. For I the Lord love justice!
God, through Isaiah, speaks to those who live in the world wondering if it has anything more to offer. It is received by those in worship who don’t know whether or not to hope for more. And, it is also spoken to those (though we know not how they will hear) who stopped coming to church long ago because they’ve given up hoping for anything else.
Listen – God has arrived; God shows up. God has taken action in the world to bring about a reality that we could scarcely come up with in our wildest dreams. And God’s work in the world is downright political – prisoners are getting released, reparations are being made to those who have been wronged, justice is for all.
It’s the time for jubilee in which debts are forgiven, punishments are lifted, and rectification reigns supreme.
God has, and is, turning the world upside down such that all of the empty streets of our too-comfortable neighborhoods are being transfigured into festivals of joy.
We were slaves in Egypt but God showed up and intervened – delivered us from bondage into the Promised land. Sure, we were content with what we had back there, at least in slavery we got three meals a day and clean water to drink and it only cost us our first born children! But God said there was more for us than Egypt-land.
We were slaves to sin and death but God showed up and intervened – delivered us from our miserable estate into salvation. Sure, we were fine with the way things were, so much so that when Jesus started talking about the first being last and the last being first we nailed him to the cross. But God said there was more for us than all of this.
God is in the business of intervention – an intrusion that will bring forth new life and halt our relentless march toward dust.
There have been many divine interventions – Exodus, Calvary, The Upper Room, The Empty Tomb.
And without those interventions of the Lord there is no hope and there is no “more.”
But God is the God of impossible possibility, who makes a way where there is no way, who delights in bringing something out of nothing.
God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Even in circumstances of the worst imaginings, captivity and imprisonment and mourning, this is not the end; there will always be more.”
Do we deserve it?
Can we earn it?
In the end, the gospel isn’t about being good – it’s about being rescued. It’s not about being safe – it’s about being saved.
For, there is nothing safe about the Lord. Isaiah speaks a word beyond the present, beyond the status quo, where there is actual Good News, where there is true liberty, where we wear garlands instead of ashes.
And it’s downright dangerous.
Consider the vision the Isaiah proclaims: It truly is an inversion of the ways things are for the way things should be. A world without prisons or borders or hunger or suffering.
To many that sounds more like chaos than paradise.
But, in the church we call this apocalyptic – Bible talk about the more beyond the now.
Isaiah’s apocalyptic proclamation is what taught Mary, the mother of God, how to sing:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.”
When we come to church (even online) and are exposed to the words of Isaiah and Mary and so many others we are beckoned out beyond the world of predictability and into another world, a world of more, or risk, of gift.
In short, we’re given hope for things not yet seen.
And that hope, as noted, is a dangerous one, for good reason – just look at what happened to Jesus. Advent is the time between time in which we wait not only for the baby born in the manger, but also for the return of that baby-born-King who is the great I AM.
God is not done with this world and God is not done with us.
After all, these words of eschatological rendering don’t just describe the world – they re-create the world. It is a world made open in which the old foundations are destroyed in order for something new and something more to take their place.
Imagine – the lowliest of the low raised to the highest heights, the brokenhearted bound up in love, the captives set free, the prisoners released, no more debts, no more pain, no more suffering, no more death.
This is what God desires for us and for the world.
And, make no mistake, this is God’s work – the history of humanity has shown over and over again that we are incapable of rescuing ourselves from the forces that weigh us down. The great Good News of Isaiah’s declaration is that God will set everything right once and for all. God will end war forever.
God will bring down the mighty and raise up the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
God will overthrow the pride of the smug and the arrogant.
God will engulf the cosmos in a blaze of righteousness that will consume everything in us that needs to be burned away.
God has more in store for us than all of this.
And yet, we go forth from church (or from our couches as the case may be) and there are the same arguments around the dinner table, the same anxieties about our ever-shrinking bank accounts, the same blue Mondays will break in the morning.
We are not the world of God’s more.
At least, not yet.
For we all still sit in the shadow of sin, of our choices that result in the world looking more like our kingdom and less like God’s kingdom. We are so captivated by the ways things have been that we can scarcely imagine what they could be. We assume the world runs by debt and punishment all while God exists to show grace and mercy.
In spite of the condition of our condition, Isaiah has given us the possibility to be aware of a new world with new hope and new possibilities and new dreams and new hunger for something else, something more.
The church gives us the vision to see how watered down our versions of the Kingdom have been and it gives us the thirst for the new wine that intoxicates us with grace.
The church opens us up to the strange new world of the Bible where God exists not only with us but for us.
The church envelops us into the body of Christ where we are bound to and with one another for the sake of the already but not yet.
In short: The church gives us the Gospel, the Good News.
The very best worship services are those from which we go forth not to more of the same, but to more of the name that is above all names: Jesus the Christ. For, in him, we begin to see that the Good News really is good
A number of years ago, a rather famous theologian was in the middle of a lecture about the early church when a bright eyed and bushy tailed student raised his hand and said, “Professor, I don’t understand. If the early Christians were suffering daily, why did they stay committed to the cause?”
The professor did not hesitate before answering, “They kept the faith because the Gospel is an adventure; the Gospel is fun.”
Advent is actually an adventure – it reminds us that we are caught up in God’s great story and we have the good fortune of being characters in the epic-tale. It is an adventure because it is still unfolding, it is not over, greater things are just on the horizon.
In the Kingdom of God that is the adventure without end, there is always more to come. Amen.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cried out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people all are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
“A hopeless situation.”
That’s how she described herself while sheltering against the church from the wind. Above her mask I could see a tiredness in her eyes, a tiredness that was further echoed in her story. No job, no family, no food, no money, no hope.
Meanwhile, a van full to the brim with a family drove by and, even though all the windows were up, we could still hear all of them singing at the tops of their lungs, “It’s the hap-happiest season of all!”
I handed her a bag of food, offered to pray with her, and when she walked away I couldn’t tell if it had made any difference at all.
Can you imagine anything worse than being in a situation without any hope? Being forced so strongly to the margins of life that there was no one you could call to bail you out, no family that would welcome you in?
Hopelessness can derail individuals and families. And even though, at this time of year, we light candles and string up sparkly things, and decorate Christmas trees, and talk about hope in places like this, the sting of hopelessness can still hit harder than just about anything else.
God’s people Israel knew hopelessness. During the Babylonian Exile, the time in which Isaiah speaks his confounding word of comfort, they were a people who knew no comfort.
It’s challenging for people like us, today, to imagine, at all, what that time was like for God’s people – they had lost their homes, their nation, their possessions, their worship, their status, roots, stories, identity, and just about everything else.
They were truly strangers in a strange land.
They were swallowed up by their oppressors and compelled to adopt a way of life that ran counter to all they had ever known.
They were in a hopeless situation.
And, to make matters worse, the Lord of their ancestors had commanded them again and again to take no other gods save for the Lord God. Their idolatry, their wanton disregard for the commandments resulted in an exilic punishment.
To put it plainly, they brought it upon themselves.
And they were hopeless to do anything about it.
But it is precisely here, to a hopeless people, that God speaks through Isaiah:
Comfort, O comfort my people! Speak kindly to my people, remind them that the penalty for sin has been paid. A voice is crying out – Prepare the way of the Lord! The valleys will be lifted up, the hills will be brought down, God’s divine leveling will come to fruition. God’s glory will be revealed and all will see what God can do. A voice cries out – People are like grass, they wither and float away. But God stands forever and ever! So do not fear! God is coming with might! He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom.
Chances are, some of us are familiar with at least part of this proclamation from the prophet – In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. We hear those words every Advent in reference to John the Baptist who, spoiler warning, prepares the way of the Lord.
And J the B, as I like to call him, was no ordinary fellow.
He is rather alarming, coming straight out of the desert dressed in animal skins while eating insects and yelling about repentance. And, according to Mark’s Gospel, its precisely J the B showing up on the scene in ancient Palestine that marks the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
J the B has never been fully understood, and for good reason.
He shows up out of nowhere, and before we really get to learn much of anything, he is beheaded for crimes against the state. So for two thousand years he has stood in the midst of this season, with his strange sense of fashion and bewildering diet and discomforting theology completely out of sync with his age, our age, and just about any age.
Advent, for better or worse, is a time set apart in the church when we make a conscious effort to recover some of the strangeness from the strange new world of the Bible – and John embodies it all. Because, like J the B, Advent is rather peculiar. It’s out of sync with time.
As we talked about last week, Advent is about the time between time, the already but not yet, the pause between the once and future king.
To put it in musical terms: Advent is God’s great caesura…
The best parts of Advent are those that give us the courage and the conviction to rest in the tension of who we are, and what God has done for us in spite of who we are. We take time Sunday after Sunday to look toward the darkness into which, and for which, Jesus arrives.
Advent, in a way, is actually a lot more like Lent than we often make it out to be. We take stock of who we really are in order to come to grips with what it is, exactly, that Jesus does for us.
J the B arrives, confused for Elijah, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He does so, to take the hint from Isaiah, to prepare the way of the Lord. There’s something about recognizing the condition of our condition that enables God to do the work that we so desperately need because all of us, whether we like to admit it or not, are hopeless cases.
It takes quite the Christian constitution to affirm the truth of Isaiah’s words: we are like grass and flowers that wither and blow away. Sin isn’t just something we do, it’s who we are. In ways big and small we regularly (like the Israelites before us) rebel against the Law of God, we insist on laying down at the altars of countless idols, and we are forever determined to be the masters of our own destinies.
Just take a look around – Covid cases spiking yet again, economic uncertainty as jobs are not rebounding, evictions are piling up as rents can’t be paid, and there’s no sign that any of it will slow down any time soon.
Obviously, some of this is out of our control, but some of it lies squarely with us and our unwillingness to love our neighbors as ourselves.
I know it might not seem like it, but confessing our sins is actually very good news for us. There’s a reason the Catholics have been doing it for millennia. There is a documentable psychological benefit to confessing our faults and failures, we literally release endorphins in the brain when we do so. But confessing our sins also benefits us by putting us squarely in an Adventen frame of reference.
Light is only light because of the darkness it shines in.
Grace is only grace because it cancels the power of sin.
Resurrection is only resurrection because it refuses to let death be the final word.
That’s a stark and frightening thing to admit but it’s part of the Christian witness. The message of John to a hopeless people, the message of Isaiah to an exiled people, is better for us than all the trimmings and the trappings that this season usually holds. All of the advertisements and pressures and assumptions only provide a shadow version of our own reality.
That’s not who we are.
We’re Christians! We’re sinners!
We’ve come to worship today, albeit in a way none of us quite imagined back before the pandemic struck, we’ve come to worship in some part because we know we need these words from Isaiah and from John more than we need the mall, and the wrapping paper, and the light shows, and the curated Christmas playlists, and the never-ending holiday-themed Lifetime Movie marathons.
We know we need these words from the prophets because we know we need Jesus – he’s the only hope we’ve got.
Without Jesus, we’re just a people in exile stuck in a hopeless situation. But Isaiah and John show up to prepare us for the appearance of God’s own self in the person of the Messiah. They remind us that God is active in the world in ways seen and unseen and it is upon the work of the Lord that the universe hinges.
But, how might we prepare for this? It was one thing to wander around during the days of J the B and find ourselves dunked into the Jordan river repenting our sins. But we are a people stuck in Advent between the once and future king – we already know what awaits us in the manger and on the cross.
What, then, is the right response to the triumph of God showing up?
The Beyonce of the Episcopal Church, Fleming Rutledge, makes the case that, during Advent, we should keep the tune O Holy Night stuck in our gray matter because when God shows up, the only proper response is to Fall On Your Knees!
Think about it: when the reality of God breaks in on from on high, the only thing we can do is recognize the great chasm across which God chose, and chooses, to traverse for us. When we see how God is God and we are not, we can’t help ourselves but fall to our knees in reverence.
J the B stands at the edge of time. He, in himself, holds the words of the prophets while pointing to the One who transfigures the cosmos. Advent, then, looks not just to the birth of a baby in the manger, but also to the long-awaited day of the Lord when rectification reigns supreme.
In Jesus Christ, the once and future King, the new day of righteousness is made incarnate. The old age of sin and death is crumbling away and in the coming kingdom of God there is the divine shepherd who gathers the sheep into his bosom.
That’s what J the B came to declare – our deliverance is nigh!
And how shall we respond? Fall On Our Knees!
God is going to level out all things. The mountains are coming down and the valleys are moving up. Creation will be reknit and all of us along with us.
Despite the language we might hear about in church about how it’s our job to prepare the way of the Lord – God is doing this work regardless of whether or not we participate in the divine clearing project.
And, frankly, its not going to be easy for people like us. For, God’s work of divine leveling means laying ourselves open and vulnerable to a vision of reality that is God’s will be done and not necessarily our own.
It means living every moment of our lives in anticipation of God’s bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.
It means relinquishing our most cherished (and therefore flawed) understanding of what we have earned and deserved.
It means being ready to give up all of our privileges and advantages in the world on behalf of those who are stuck down in the valleys of life.
Again, this isn’t going to be easy. Particularly for a people drunk on our own self-righteousness.
We don’t like admitting our faults and failures.
We don’t like confessing our privileges and advantages.
We don’t like repenting of our wrong-doings.
In the time between time, Advent, we can (with the help of the Spirit and the church) take a good hard look in the mirror and confess the condition of our condition. That’s how repentance works – it is a change of life, a reorientation, a turning back. And we can’t turn without admitting that we need to turn in the first place.
But even if we can’t bring ourselves to confess the truth. God is still in the business of making something of our nothing.
For God does not desire the immense brokenness that surrounds us. God in Christ is reconciling all things to himself. The old age of Sin and Death was run by death and division. But in God’s kingdom, what we are preparing for and are being prepared for, is run on reconciliation, grace, and mercy.
So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, not before or after, but in the midst of our sin. And this proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. The Kingdom of God is near. Amen.
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Christ The King Sunday started in 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted it as a day in the liturgical calendar. Mussolini had been in charge in Italy for three years, Hitler had been out of jail for a year, and the Great Depression had rippled effects across the globe. So the Catholic Church decided they needed a Sunday, every year, to remind the (Christian) world that we have our own king and its to him that we owe our allegiance.
Today, across mainline protestantism, Christ the King Sunday is usually overlooked in order to celebrate themes of Thanksgiving. Instead of reading about the lordship of Christ, we reflect on gathering at the tables and all of our blessings. And, to be clear, that’s all good and fine. However, Christ the King Sunday is a rare opportunity for churches to be unabashed in our convictions about power, allegiances, authority, and a host of other worthy aspects of discipleship.
It is the perfect time to be reminded who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.
The first time I traveled to Guatemala for a mission trip, we stopped briefly in the town of Chichicastenango, known for its traditional K’iche Mayan culture. We were told to explore for a few hours before returning to the van and after I traveled down one too many streets without keeping track of my location, I realized I was lost.
I decided to try to find a high vantage point in order to get my bearings and I wandered around until I found myself in front of a very old church. The stone steps leading to the sanctuary were covered with people resting, and I had to weave my way back and forth until I was at the top.
I should’ve turned around to look back over the town, but something (read: Holy Spirit) drew me inside the church.
The sanctuary was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. The ground under my feet was soft like soil, the walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires, and the paintings on the wall were nearly impossible to decipher. The smell of melted wax filled my nostrils as I crept closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar.
It was one of the least churchy churches I had ever experienced.
Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooden seats until I stood before the Lord’s Table. And there, poised in front of me, was perhaps the most pristine sculpture of Christ I had ever seen. In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Christ was unblemished, beautiful, and brilliant. He stood with robes draped over his shoulders with an outstretched hand and a crown of thorns resting on his head: Christ the King.
What kind of king is Jesus?
In that Guatemalan church I was confronted with what it really means to confess Jesus as Lord. For, while I was surrounded by decay, desolation, and disregard, Christ stood firmly before me as King of the cosmos. In that moment, I saw the paradox of the crucifixion – the King of kings hung on a cross to die.
The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God (in Christ) is the one who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, and binds of the injured. God strengthens the weak and destroys the strong. That is the God we worship, that is the King to whom we owe our allegiance.
And on Christ the King Sunday we confess the truly Good News that our King reigns not above us, but for us, beside us, and with us.