Christ Following

Falling Into Our Own Pit

My friends over at Crackers & Grape Juice are providing daily Advent Devotionals. Last week I offered some reflections on Isaiah 5:13-25. Even though we are half way through the Season, it is not too late to get in on some very good writing based on the title of Fleming Rutledge’s newest book, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Her Introduction is worth the price of the book. But, you will want to her Advent sermons that span several decades.

He plotted. 

Legislation offered.

Legislation signed. Check.

Gallows built. Check.

Expecting to be celebrated, Haman illustrated the wisdom of the Proverbs, 

Dig a pit and you’ll fall in it.” 

Haman’s fall was not broken by the bottom of a pit.

They hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

Esther is not about Karma. Facing annihilation, God snatched victory for his people from the jaws of the Enemy. Surrounded by powers bent to destroy, God emerged the Victor, his people the beneficiaries. Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, the consequences of which came at their own agency, God’s faithfulness stood in for their lack.

The scenario replays Judah’s confrontation with Assyrian King Sennacherib. Jerusalem was surrounded. King Hezekiah’s put his confidence in the LORD and resists the threats. He instructed the idols in the high places be torn down. As the figure head of all Israel, King Hezekiah led Israel to trust in YHWH. During the night an angel of the Lord struck down the enemy. Judah could not claim victory by its own agency. Only the faithfulness of YHWH could make up for Judah’s unfaithfulness. 

And just when it looked like Israel might move ever closer to discovering grace and reveling in it, they illustrate how God described the inclinations of the human heart,

I will never again curse the ground because of human beings, even though the inclinations of the human heart is evil from youth onward.

Fleming Rutledge wrote of Advent,

“ . . . it [Advent] is not for the faint of heart. To grasp the depth of the human predicament, one has to be willing to enter into the very worst. This is not the same thing as going to horror films, which are essentially entertainment.”

Yemen.

The U.N. will request $4 billion in relief aid for Yemen. From March of 2015 through to July 19, 2018,  it is estimated 6,500 civilians have been killed. Children make up 1625 of that number. Famine and disease have left Yemen devastated. Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Arabia engage in a proxy war on Yemeni soil keeping their respective lands unsoiled by the blood of these innocents.

Humanitarian efforts are tricky. Blockades and battle zones make it hard to provide relief. Countries funding material aid to civilians also provide military support for the battle. For example, the United States provides support for Saudi Arabia’s interest. How is it that a Country will spend money on both sides of the conflict? This is not a new practice. And, the United States is not the lone culprit. 

In our sins we have been a long time . . . 

We set the agenda. Tout a high standard. We want to challenge the murderers responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi. At the same time we must admit we approved aid to the sovereign country that sought his death. We support the agenda in Yemen that results in civilian deaths. We express outrage and threaten to withhold support, not at the death of innocent children whose names do not make the evening news. We wait until a man with a name and a high profile is killed in a foreign country.

We. Us. The prophet Isaiah did not stand outside of the practices that brought God’s judgment. He included himself. Woes figure prominently in the lyrics of the Song in Isaiah 5. Isaiah pronounces the woe on himself in the next chapter. We cannot escape responsibility for what is done by our proxies, by our common community.

No self-justifying argument may be made for unjust scales.

Lyrically the prophet calls attention to the treachery of the people of God. Direct confrontation would result in defensiveness. Israel’s prophets have a history of this practice.

There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing except one small ewe lamb that he had bought . . . Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man could not bring himself to take one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guest.

David demands justice for the man whose sheep was taken. He hears the prophet say, “You are the man!”

Jesus tells the story about a vineyard owner who having built the vineyard and the watchtower leased it all to tenant farmers. Once he concludes the story with the death of the owner’s son he asks, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?” As we would expect the answer came, like David’s, rooted in the demand for justice. Just as the prophet informed David he was the man, the chief priests and the Pharisees knew Jesus was talking about them.

Maybe Jesus had Isaiah 5 in mind. Rather than a song he told a parable. The net effect is the same. Israel could not be guilty of such crimes. Could they? Would they recognize their error? Not until in exile.

Israel had become Haman. 

Digging their pit they had fallen into it.

Therefore my people will go into exile because they lack knowledge; her dignitaries are starving, and her masses are parched with thirst.

Listening to the prophetic songs and startling stories we discover . . . so have we.

The Witness Accuses and Rectifies

Pastoral Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that these peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Text: John 18:33-38

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the day in the Christian Calendar that reminds us that Jesus, Christ the King, is the witness that accuses the world as it is and through whom God will set all things right.

In January of this year, Michael Rich published, Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. In 2000 Doug Groothuis’s book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism, was published. Five years earlier, in 1995, Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton had their book published, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age.

Sometime around 30 AD, Pilate asked the question, “What is truth?
Maybe 800 to 1000 years before that the editor that completed the work of the

Preacher in Ecclesiastes, summed up the Teacher’s work,

The Teacher sought to find delightful sayings and write words of truth accurately.

The recorded history of Israel includes this,

Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden.?’

Human beings have a long sordid history with the truth. We have always battled over what truth we prefer. The one thing we cannot escape is the world is no better after all these years of making up our own truth. In fact, there are some stories that expose what we often paper over.

She asked to talk with me.

“Do you know of any assistance?” It was not unlike the question in the form of a statement that came Wednesday morning as we awaited for the Regional Food Bank delivery, “We were told that you were helping with Thanksgiving Dinners.” The same question is sometimes posed, “Can you help with some gas so I can see my mother in the hospital?” When you drill down to ask questions about other sources of income you learn that this Dad is doing all he can to keep two households going while having faced cancer and helping a daughter addicted to drugs.

“Do you know of any assistance?” Many a grandparent has responded to the call to help raise his or her grandchild. Whatever the circumstances that create that need are magnified when also taking the responsibility for a grandchild with special needs. While the unemployment rate is down, some businesses are still struggling for work. This family owns their own business and what is normally a busy time has been very slow. This mother and grandmother is also a daughter – a near full-time caregiver. Cooking meals three times a day nearly every day of the week and cleaning house for her parents leaves little time to pick up a second job.

“Do you know of any assistance?”

When we hear the word assistance in this context we often think of government assistance. Are there programs to help in the face of these arbitrary circumstances? We criticize those who look to the State, the government, to help in these instances. But, we do not see the how little difference there is between the State offering help to a family in crisis and, say, an industry that is helped to get off the ground with subsidies and tax breaks, a business given incentives to move to this city or that, and how little you and I pay attention that corporate accounts often help offset our individual expenses. We decry socialism and yet see it at work in special considerations where advantages help the bottom line, help a company survive.

The witness of the woman asking for assistance accuses the world of a double standard. Rather than apply your taxes and mine neutrally, we are selective with our outrage and criticism. Businesses from which we might benefit are privileged over normal families that could not possibly be guilty for a special needs grandchild or the debilitating health of parents, much less the economic effects of low unemployment and low wages.

“Do you know of any assistance?”

Pilate became an accomplice to the plot to kill Jesus. Try as he might to maintain neutrality, he actually could only think of Jesus as a counter to a certain form of political power. He completely missed that Jesus was a King of a different sort. Sometimes we make the same mistake. Content to think that Jesus is king over some unseen spiritual realm, we fail to take account that Jesus bears witness to the State, of government, we created that at once simply carries out the preferences of the powerful. So long as we receive from the powerful we are content to share in the chorus of personal responsibility and hard work. When we find ourselves on the wrong end of those preferential positions, we discover that the State, government, is not neutral, but supports the powerful.

This is an illustration of the Powers of Sin and Death.

Bound up in the human experience is an accusation against the world as it is. We form our opinions rooted in what benefits us, or so we think. And then we learn that there are people who would rather live in tents in a man-made-no-man’s-land rather than, in

their words, “be killed in our beds.” Only privileged people get to criticize the plight of those we don’t know. When we do it is an accusation against whatever truth we have preferred.

Pilate was not the first. We will not be the last.

Into this world.

I was born for this.

Whatever you and I make of Jesus, whatever anyone makes of Jesus, when we read his words,

I was born for this,

sets up the clash that resulted in the death of Jesus. What you say? Human beings have manipulated the law long before we came up with the now slogan-like mantra, Rule of Law. Our lived experience is that the law rules us. Pilate operated under the rule of the State. His concern with Jesus centered upon a certain geo-political sense. Pilate’s question, Are you the King of the Jews?, has in mind the sphere of power we would associate with a President, the leader of any Nation-State. His concern was not for those whose lives had been restored, where the arbitrary pains of life had been rectified with healing and hope. There was no stream of the blind, the lame, the possessed or the once-dead to bear witness to Jesus and the power of love. Care for people was not Pilate’s concern. Over what geographic area would Jesus’ kingdom take in? That was the concern.

When Jesus describes a kingdom not of this world, this did not make sense to Pilate whose concern was much more narrow.

My kingdom is not of this world

Into this world but not of this world.

Jesus’ reply to Pilate’s question reveals a better question. It is not, Are you the king of the Jews, instead the better question is, What kind of king are you? Jesus’ answer to Pilate reveals the limitation of the imagination when bound to such a narrow grid.

That Jesus did not refer to his disciples as subjects, soldiers, and that he outright rejected the form of power that would result in war, sets Jesus apart and requires an imagination not bound to the world as it is. So, when the question comes,

Do you know of any assistance?

We are not bound to a closed set of options. There are other possibilities. Confusing as it was to Pilate, it seems equally troubling today. Our imagination has so been captured

by the Powers of Sin and Death that we can only see the future world as it could be through capturing the Whitehouse for our team, the Congress for our side, even the Judiciary for our way. But Jesus told Pilate what he would tell us,

My kingdom is not of this world

The clue to a new imagination, what some have described as a sanctified imagination, is less a clue and more a person. Jesus responded to Pilate’s insistence that Jesus be pressed into the order of the day, the world as it is with,

You say that I am a king, I was born for this, and I have come into the world for this: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.

If Jesus, his life and ministry, accuse the world as it is, know that his life, death and resurrection rectify the world, setting all things right.

Here are some distinctions . . .

  1. The world as it is may only maintain the order as it is, there is no means to rectify all that is wrong.
  2. Jesus, Christ the King showed a glimpse of the world set right every time he did what the world as it is could not do.
  3. Jesus, Christ the King, is more than an ethical model. Were it about living with a new ethic, it would merely be giving ourselves to a new law. Remember, the law only accuses. It cannot rectify what is wrong.
  4. Jesus, Christ the KIng, at once accuses, points out what is not right with the world as it. is, and through his life, death, and resurrection, sets the world to rights.

We await his return not for our escape from the world, but that the world will be finally made right through Him.

Tomorrow we, us, will help the woman with what she needs. Our hope is that we bear witness to the truth. We do not want to give testimony that they world as it is will one day make right the arbitrary events of life. We do not want to indicate that our participation in what helps her get by during this difficult time is all for which she has to hope.

We want to bear witness that in Christ, his Church, his people are not special but that we are present to the world testifying to the better place in the world which is in Christ.

*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions/differences to the preached version. No audio is availalbe for this sermon.

Invasion of Grace – No Other Gospel

Galatians 1:3-9

Pastoral Prayer: Loving and Gracious Lord of All, influences in our lives lure us to be observers and consumers. In order to live that way and claim to follow your Son we must de-form the Gospel, the Good News. Remind us today that our Amen is not a verbal affirmation but our response to the call to participate in the invasion of Grace you began in Jesus our Lord. By whose faith we are saved and in whose name we pray . . And All God’s people say . . . Amen.

There seems to be great concern about an invasion. Estimates are that it will cost some $200 million dollars to stop the perceived threat. Too often we are distracted away from the invasion of Grace rooted in the sovereign Love of God. Just listen to the anger that spews in our partisan politics.

Anger is big business. In 2014 Cory noticed his comments on what he termed Liberal political sites got him banned. Whether he was responding to articles about ISIS, police violence, Black Lives Matter or the Hobby Lobby decision he was met with pushback. It was then he decided to create his own website. Stirred by the Tea Party movement, the reaction to President Obama and the rise of social media he began posting his own stuff. He would take articles and rework them, turning up the rhetoric.

He admitted that his early stuff was not well written. Even then, the response was such that he hit a nerve. Maybe it was his desire to stop working at the factory. Could be he really was interested in countering what he was reading. Taking his queue from what people wanted Cory added advertisements to his website. He learned that if he could make a good story sound bad it would go viral. More clicks meant more money. He wrote highly opinionated pieces. He saw that people wanted gossip and bad news more than good news. People wanted to read what would make them angry. In a recent interview he said,

“I would love to write about good news all day but that is not what they want.” 

Cory, and then his wife and a group of contract writers, began to write about race, extremism and Muslims. The result was he quit his job after making more in one week from his website than a month at his previous job. He persuaded his wife to quit her nursing job. They said,

“We had a month where we made more than we did in our previous jobs for a whole year.”

For a period of time they made $120,000 a month. People they said,

“Love to hate.”

Anger is big business. The Greatest Showman gave people what they wanted – a circus.

It is not hard to see from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the churches in Asia Minor, Galatians specifically, that anger and hostility ruled the day. Why else would Paul  counter the climate with, 

There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, since you all are one in Christ Jesus?

The apparent hostilities associated with these groups illustrate the current animosities at work in our Country. The young man in Tallahassee that shot and killed two women and wounded four others before taking his life was part of a self-identified group, Involuntary Celibates, In Cels for short. The group hates women because they cannot persuade them to go out with them or get them into bed. 

It is clear what a world captive to the Powers of Sin and Death, what Paul calls, “this present evil age”, looks like. 

Everyone, in every era, looks for good news.

When Caesar Augustus came to power, the term good tidings, good news, applied to his birth, his coming of age, his rise to power and his victories. Everyone knew that this son of god would bring a new world, a new day. The word good news, glad tidings, used by the Greeks was plural. That little distinction is important. It meant that each future emperor would follow that same pattern. The good tidings, plural, referred to every benchmark moment in the life of the one in whom everyone put their trust and hoped for enough food, better roads, better sanitation, fewer wars. 

When the Apostle Paul used that same word, he used the singular. When he described the Good News of God he was making a statement. Everyone puts their trust in a king: the Israelites in Samuel’s day, the emperors in Rome’s day and Presidents, Governors and Legislators in our day. Luke gives us the announcement of the glad tiding to the shepherds. He too uses the singular form. In fact, his announcement is a direct counter to the way emperors were celebrated. He and Paul both present the coming of Jesus, the event of his coming, as God’s Good News for the world – an invasion of grace.

Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia runs counter to every human attempt to provide what only comes in Jesus Christ. There is no other Good News – no other Gospel.

However, as in Paul’s day, so in ours. People desert, defect from, the Good News of God in Christ for good tidings at the ballot box. What King David could not provide, what no Roman Emperor could provide and what no President can provide or create is a community of grace. When the Gospel of Grace is absent from the Church, from churches, they cease to be, well, churches.

Listen to the way Paul begins other letters,

To the saints in Christ at Colossae.

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Phillippi.

To all who are in Rome, loved by God, called as saints.

To the faithful saints in Christ Jesus at Ephesus.

Absent in his letter to the churches in Galatia is any reference to saints. What could that mean?

Reading clue: when Paul changes his normal pattern, look for a reason. Rather than tip his hat at their faithfulness, as with the Christians in Ephesus, he jumps right into his argument. We do not want to miss this.

First, the new disciples started well. We find this noted in Paul’s remark,

I am surprised, astonished, amazed that you are so quickly turning away.

From what did they turn? What drew their first allegiance?

They like others in Collossae, Phillippi, Ephesus and Rome heard the good tiding that in Christ God had invaded the world with grace. Using the military imagery of invasion made sense in a day when the Roman army was the measure of power. They had the best weapons and the largest army. And at the same time, the people suffered lack. Poverty and hunger was the norm for most. Allegiance to the emperor came with a cost. Listen to what kings cost Israel,

He will take your sons and put them to his use in his chariots, on his horses, or running in front of his chariots. He can appoint them for his use as commanders of thousands or commanders of fifties, to plow his group and reap his harvest, or to make his weapons of war and the equipment for his chariots. He can take your daughters to become perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He can take your best fields, vineyards, and olive orchards and give then to his servants. He can take a tenth of your grain and your vineyards and give them to his officials and his servants. He can take your male servants, your female servants, your best young men, and your donkeys, and use them for his work. He can take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves can become his servants. 

Whether kings or emperors or any of the branches in a Democratic Republic, human beings will use human beings, all the while leading them to believe they will do better than anyone else to give you what you want.

When Paul came with the good tiding of God’s invasion of grace in Jesus Christ, that God gave himself for them rather thantake from them, those in Galatia turned toward God. The startling part of the story was that this invasion came via the death of Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead. This Jesus Christ,

gave himself for our sins to rescue, to snatch, us from, the grasp, of this present evil age

They started out well.

Second, the new disciples added something to the glad tiding. Not long after Paul left another group of Teachers came along. They came with the same language of good tiding. Likely they too had heard the news of God in Christ Jesus. Their zeal had made them good evangelists. The one problem: they had added to the good tiding. In fact, Paul actually writes to the Galatian Christians that when we add anything to the good tiding, it becomes something other than the Gospel. 

For the Teachers, the addition was the Law of Moses. They taught that Moses received the Law from an angel. Given such an act, these Teachers persuaded the Christians in Galatia that there was more to the story. Their good news was that Jesus and the Law would bring about the peace for which they longed. What was once only grace was now grace plus something. Paul described the work of these Teachers as, troubling you.

In the heightened rhetoric of our political climate, some have decided that to be real Christians requires the proper party affiliation, a particular position on health care, immigration and the use of force around the world. Anything less that what these new Teachers tell you means that somehow we are not Christian enough. Listen to the language games that are played. Quickly you find that prominent Evangelicals have created a new law to add to the work of grace.

These folks are keeping records of pastors and churches that support their vision. This database is used to shame and create division in churches that don’t fall in line. 

We Baptist pastors may have not done such a good job. Our history is one influenced by Separatists and Anabaptists. In England the Separatists took opposition to political power as a means to further the Gospel. Feeling the brunt of persecution that came if you were not a part of the approved church was a very real experience. Even further back, our history includes the Anabaptists. These were Christians committed to peace, non-violence. They believed that to participate in the political system actually undermined their commitment to Jesus as Lord. They too suffered persecution at the hands of others for not being considered part of the “right church.”

Somewhere along the way the form of discipleship in Western churches has looked more like grooming us to be good citizens of the Nation-State than citizens of the Kingdom of God. We forget the words in Hebrews,

By faith Abraham when he was called, obeyed and set out for a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents as did Isaac and Jacob, co-heirs of the same promise, for he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Rather than living as Exiles in Babylon, we have decided Babylon is home.

There is no other Gospel. There is no Gospel plus the Law. There is no Gospel plus the proper political affiliation. Adding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ strips the Good News of anything good and eliminates the Gospel of Grace. There is only the good tiding that God invaded the world in Jesus Christ to snatch us from the grasp of the Powers at work in this present evil age.

There is neither Democrat nor Republican nor Independent  – there is a community of grace.

Finally, they forgot the Amen.

To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The Amen that Paul has in mind is not the Amen that listens and observes a good point made in a sermon. Paul’s Amen is the Amen of participation. It is the response to the Good News that says, Truly! Let it be so. 

Paul’s Amen calls us to take up the event of Christ’s death and resurrection as Good News for the world. An Amen whose response is, “Yes,” and “Finally.” 

We may wonder how it is that this Good News has not seemed to change much in our world. Maybe it is the hard work of the Powers of this age that convince us that there has to be more to Grace, that God’s Love is somehow insufficient to save us. Maybe it plays to our need to do something, to contribute something else we feel that we are taking charity. And we are. Subject to the Powers of the world and often influenced to add to the Gospel, we are always on the verge of deserting, of turning away, from the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. 

Rather than offer a new Law in response, maybe we would hear that Good News again and give with Paul a hearty Amen.

To him be the glory forever and ever.

*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions/differences to the preached version.

Audio

He Threw Off His Coat – Seeing with His


Mark 10:46-52 (Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Hebrews 7:23-28)

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, help us to see. Give us ears to hear what our eyes cannot see. As we see, by your Spirit, may your, “Go”, be met with our, “Follow.” And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Saint Augustine wrote, 

The wretched helplessness of fallen humanity is seen symbolically in the blindness of Bartimaeus. (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures)

Seems a harsh evaluation of a story that is limited to seven verses. Even more, what would Augustine have in mind that would lead him to such a conclusion in an account with little more background than a name that follows an ancient naming pattern. Bartimaeus is the combination of bar, which means son, and Timaeus. The blind man is identified by the name of his father and presented to us by virtue of his condition. He is blind. Some, even me, have playfully referred to the man as, Blind Bart. His condition is anything but playful.

Our situation is not playful. 

It seems apparent that our world, more specifically the situation in our Country, is such that we cannot see the connection between words spoken and the bad news we hear. Code words used among those that foster hatred toward others becomes fuel for those willing to act on that hate. Even more astounding is that we pass off the rantings of fringe groups as inconsequential until a person takes up an AR-15 and handguns and sets out to kill a specifically identifiable group of people. For what? Because they supported and practiced helping others in need.

Our situation seems helpless.

Worse we fail to see.

Our Scripture readings for this week were selected years ago. Only those with eyes to see and ears to hear might consider that God’s Spirit just might be saying what we are not willing to see. Our lack of sight may be willful. We see events like that in Pittsburg and we immediately look to the deep well of conspiracy theories that will no doubt abound. Our lack of seeing may be ignorance. We really don’t care much what happens that is not in our backyard so we ignore. Whatever the reason for our failed eyesight, the Spirit of God continues to speak . . . Who will listen?

Maybe Augustine too lived in a day where it seemed that those with eyes to see failed to listen. Could he have seen it in Isaiah’s words?

Go, Say to these people:
Keep listening but do not understand;
Keep looking, but do not perceive.
Make the minds of these people dull;
Deafen their ears and blind their eyes;
Otherwise they might see with their eyes
And hear with their ears,
Understand with thier minds,
Turn back and be healed.

Keep in mind that Isaiah 6 begins with the prophet re-telling something he saw,

I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne . . . 

The one who sees is given the task of telling the people to keep doing as they are – not hearing, not seeing and not understanding. How long?, the prophet asks. The reply comes, until everything is ruined.

Can you see any parallels? In the name of greatness, our attempts at greatness, we fail to see and hear until everything is ruined. It may actually be worse. Writing about the community on the way, a technical way to talk about discipleship, Ched Myers writes, 

The community cannot be resisting the powers’ exercise of domination while re-producing their patterns in its own midst.

In other words, the Church cannot resist the world’s way if it is simply reproducing the world’s way in its own exercise of power. Challenging the way of Jesus like Peter did, or arguing about greatness the way the Twelve did, or asking for the seats of greatness as the Sons of Thunder did, is not the same as,

He emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant,
taking on the likeness of humanity.
And when he had become a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.

Who knows what happened to Timaeus. We know not what caused his son’s blindness. We do know that for whatever reason, the blind son was left to beg. Reduced to panhandling, scorned by those who passed by, his family either did not have the means to care for him or they did not care for him. Where was the family, the community, that would hear his cries and help? He surely was helpless.

Whatever the reason for his lack of help, Augustine finds the absence of help from family or community an apt description for humanity that always seems to see itself better than it is. If you happen to be on Facebook or Instagram, I know, same thing, you more often than not find people’s own stories full of the better part of their lives. Vacation destinations. No unkept living areas. Photos of when the children are playing sports. No shots of when they are exasperating their parents. Anniversary photos. No pictures of that last big argument. 

We want people to think better of us. We want to think better of ourselves. The problem is no amount of positive self-talk undoes those moments after you realize you may have yelled too much about that messy room, those ungrateful children, that frustrating spouse. Regret and guilt are difficult taskmasters. Shame is a tyrant. Oh, our children may forgive us, as may our spouse. But, we are much harder on ourselves. We expect better. We desire to be better.

Repressing the notion that we suck only increases our odds of un-health. 

Consider Job. Stuck in a cycle of seeing his life one way while battling friends who saw it another left him stuck between the temptations of self-righteousness and righteous indignation. Then, he heard from God. Once God responded to his pleas, his eyes were opened to things he did not understand.

You asked, "Who is this who conceals my counsel with ignorance?
Surely I spoke about things I did not understand,
things too wondrous for me to know . . . 
I had heard reports about you,
but now I have seen you.

Job’s confession is not a revelation that his suffering came as a result of his sin. But, he was aware of his own attempt to understand the arbitrary experiences of life. Was God merely the puppet master who toyed with his life? Job learned that God was the one with him, all around him, and that about the time he wondered if he had been abandoned to the arbitrariness of life, God speaks. Job heard what he could not see.

God revealed Godself to Job by inviting Job into the expanse of the created world and the life that teams within it.

I had heard reports about you,
but now I have seen you.?

Could it be that God shows up in Jesus to a people, a world, that teams with the arbitrariness of human weakness, human helplessness? Oppressed by earthly powers and subject to unseen powers, human beings everywhere were want to make sense of their arbitrary experiences and the flood of emotions that accompany the pursuit of answers. Left helpless under the weight, we find ourselves panhandling and scorned. Helpless.

The Rich Man ran up to Jesus looking for affirmation of his greatness. Bartimaeus, helpless to run, could only shout. Too many find themselves subject to forces beyond their control. Unsure where to run, we find ourselves shouting at the darkness. In desperation we may take up this way or that. Reading about the blind man gives us hope that along the way we realize Jesus has traveled to us.

Isn’t that what happens in our text. The man whom Augustine says symbolically illustrates our helplessness hears that Jesus has come to him?

Mark teaches the church what it means to follow Jesus and his way. He begins in Mark 8,

They came to Bethsaida. They brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him.

Spitting on his eyes and laying hands on him the man at first only saw people like trees walking. Then Jesus put his hands on his eyes and the man saw everything clearly. The series of events after that indicate that the disciples saw dimly what Jesus was up to. Over and again they tried to work Jesus’ teaching into the ways they had already learned. Time and again, Jesus undermined what they had learned by talking about the kingdom of God. Finally, here in Mark 10, just before Jesus will go into Jerusalem, Mark concludes the section with the healing of Bartimaeus.

It is as if to say the disciples, who have traveled with Jesus on his way, have not been listening and so have not seen. Here the blind man hears Jesus’ voice and will see.

Paul writes,

So faith comes by what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message of Christ.

No help had come to Bartimaeus. But look at what unfolds when he hears.

First, he heard Jesus was coming. It was not uncommon for people to travel from Jericho to Jerusalem. In fact, with Passover approaching, it would not have been odd a crowd traveled together. Filtering through the crowd, word spread that it was Jesus. Bartimaeus could not see him but he heard the word that Jesus was coming.

Second, he heard the warnings to keep quiet. Upon hearing that Jesus was traveling the same road, the man began to shout, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Stoked by the prohibition, the man shouted louder. Rather than be hushed, even shouted down, the man who knew from where his help would come, cried out more.

Third, he heard Jesus through the words of the people, Cheer up! This is the only time these words are spoken by anyone other than Jesus. Recall Paul’s words, 

So faith comes by what is heard.

The same way Bartimaeus heard Jesus was coming is the same means he heard Jesus’ words – people. Now more than ever, when the feelings of helplessness abound, the words of Jesus, Cheer up! are needed. He’s calling for you. What? No one else had called for him. Would he hear?

When he heard, what did he do?

First, he shouted, cried out, to Jesus. His response to Jesus was an indication that he had heard if anyone could help him it would be Jesus.

Second, he obeyed the word he heard. Hearing the words from Jesus evoked faith. It was not that somehow the man possessed faith. Instead, upon hearing Jesus’ words, he threw off his coat. Or, put another way, when he had seen with his ears, he threw off his coat and came to Jesus. The Rich Man ran because he saw Jesus on the way. Bartimaeus had to follow the voice.

Third, when given the choice to go his way, he followed Jesus on his way. Jesus did not tell him to follow with him to Jerusalem. He told him he was free to go. Blindness no longer held him captive. Rather than Go his own way, he began to follow Jesus.

What have you heard today, in the retelling of this story, the message of Jesus, that you now see?

*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions/differences to the preached version.

Audio

When God Pledged Allegiance?

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, we often mistake our need for people to follow us or do things our way as confirmation that you are on our side. Like the disciples, we often think we have a monopoly. Today we will, as we do each week, remind ourselves that the measure of faithfulness is not in who follows us, but that you pledged your allegiance to us. For your love and faithfulness, your allegiance to us, we give thanks. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Mark 9:38-50

Fewer things are more exciting than when a church gathers to witness Christian baptism. Earlier we were not just onlookers as Anna, Michael, Tyler, Paxton, and Grace entered the baptistery publicly declaring Jesus is Lord. Their actions conveyed their hearts to embrace what God has done in Jesus Christ. Nothing they did today ensured or secured them in Christ. Instead, they received what Jesus Christ has already done for them in his life, death and resurrection.

At their age, the burden is on us. Our charge is to live with them and in front of them modeling what it looks like to respond to God’s pledge of allegiance to us.

Already Jesus has used children to scandalize adults. Last week, Nathan preached from the previous passage. The adults following Jesus found it hard to overcome their old thinking. Rather than follow Jesus, they became more obsessed with who would replace Jesus after he died. To remind the disciples his soon coming death would work life in them he aimed to help them reject their established way of thinking. Here is how he did it. In verse 36 we read,

He took a child, had him stand among them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me.

Placing a child in the position of priority was a way to undermine the pattern that says authority runs downward – from top to bottom. Choosing a person that was not yet considered a value to the social order was Jesus way of telling those in the kingdom must desert their allegiance to other forms of thinking.

Our established habits and patterns die hard. The pursuit of power and position is always our temptation. Whether you are a Christian University President or the Alpha personality in your social in-group, there is still a temptation to choose the fruit that will make you or me more than what we are. For when we give in to the temptation, we do not become more than we are, we become less. Jesus will say as much.

John, one of the Sons of Thunder, whose mother wanted her two sons, to sit on the right hand and left hand of Jesus, approaches Jesus in much the same way Joshua came to Moses. Let’s look for the parallels. It would be Joshua that would succeed Moses as leader of Israel. We read the story,

A young man ran and reported to Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua son of Nun, assistant to Moses since his youth, responded, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” But Moses asked him, “Are you jealous on my account? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets and the Lord would place his spirit on them!”

What a piercing question! “Are you jealous on my account?” Yes, it may be a lesson to Joshua, now older than when he started out as Moses’ assistant. Could be that Moses wanted to let Joshua know he felt no threat, he was the leader. Or, maybe Moses asked such a question to get to Joshua’s motive for the appeal. Joshua may well have been asking Moses to protect Joshua’s position. He was not so concerned with what was beings prophesied but that somehow Eldad and Medad might take his place.

“Forbid them,” stop them, was his appeal. 

Now John is in the role of Joshua. It is not Moses that he appeals to, it is Jesus. Where Moses responded with a penetrating question that would expose Joshua’s motives, Jesus used much the same expression but flipped it, “Don’t stop them.” He did not tell the disciples to stop them. Instead, he set a precedent for how we respond to others in the kingdom – “don’t stop them.”

When we feel the threat of our position, we may reveal what is important to us. Our actions become an at all cost attempt to preserve our way, to make sure we have our spot at the top, or at least a seat at the all-important tables of power. Hear me carefully. When we adopt a storyline that says the only way we may preserve our way of life is to influence the powerful, we have deserted the way of Jesus. And when our actions and attention becomes so focused on what happens in the Nation’s Capitol, we place a stumbling block for these little ones. We scandalize them by offering something different than living in the allegiance God pledged to us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus warns against scandalizing these little ones. When we present to them that something is more important than welcoming those on the bottom side of power, we scandalize them. We tempt them to reject Jesus’ way. We tell them that what we have told them to resist is more important than following Jesus. We tell them that the well-established habits and patterns of human beings seeking to protect their way and gain power are the better way. Jesus puts the warning this way,

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away – it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

The Christian Standard Bible, the translation I use, translates the Greek word as causes. Fifteen times in the New Testament the word is used. Often it is translated stumbling block. It is the word where we get our word scandal. It is pronounced scandalon in the Greek. If we insert it into our translation, it will read,

But whoever scandalizes one of these little ones.

Whoever.

Scandalizes.

Whoever.

Places a stumbling block.

Whoever.

Causes.

Right there in John’s appeal to Jesus we see it. 

We tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.

We may be tempted to think that John was working to protect Jesus and the disciples. But, if we call back to the Joshua story, his statement reveals his motive, in the same way, Moses question to Joshua revealed his. Us. Jesus had told the disciples,

The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after he is killed, he will rise three days later. But they did not understand, and they were afraid to ask.

Hearing that Jesus would be betrayed and killed meant the need for someone to take his place. Imprinted on the disciples’ minds, at this point, is how do we protect us when Jesus is gone. We need someone to be our top-down authority figure. Who will it be? When they saw someone else doing a work of power in the name of Jesus, they feared that they would not be viewed as the authority for the movement. They were not interested in protecting Jesus; they were defending themselves.

For at least forty years we have been told that individual leaders do what they do to protect the Christian way of life. When the President of a Christian University suggests that Christians need a street fighter, he is not interested in protecting us – he is interested in maintaining his disciples’ power and position. We must stop being fooled that there is another way in the kingdom top-down Jesus’ way. When we assert that there is another, that Jesus way is just not tough enough, we have done two things. First, we have not understood what it means to take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow Jesus. Second, and more scandalous, is that somehow that what God has pledged to us in Jesus Christ is insufficient.

This, this is what scandalizes both little ones, young ones, and those who have looked up to find their mentors abandoning the way of Jesus for another.

Key in on Jesus’ response to John, and the disciples,

For whoever is not against us is for us. And whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ – truly I tell you, he will never lose his reward.

Did you catch it? Jesus associates the work of power that the disciples seek to stop as giving a cup of what to drink. That is, it is life giving. Stopping those who offer life in Jesus name runs counter to Jesus.

Whoever is not against us is for us.

A friend relayed a great insight. An old sermon offered two important insights,

First, who is not against us indicates generosity toward others. We accept their profession.

Second, who is not with me calls for us to be honest and test ourselves.

Put another way, our generosity toward others doing works of power in Jesus name, giving a cup of water, puts Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in front of us, Judge not, lest you be judged by the same measure.

And, our willingness to be honest about our own profession of faith indicates our commitment to examine ourselves.

Jesus then moves to issue the warning we noted earlier. 

But whoever scandalizes those little ones who believe – causes them to desert the faith, to abandon their own pledge of allegiance, reject Jesus’ way – it is better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

You do get that the focus of the concern is not what someone who does not believe does to influence these little ones. It is not a warning to those who are not Christian, who offer a different way in the world. It is a warning for those of us in the faith – Christians.

And here we discover that should we be tempted by the work of our hands, what we see with our eyes and where our foot carries us, it would be better if we cut them off or gouge them out and enter the kingdom than be thrown into Gehenna.

So we return to these little ones who today have publicly pledged their allegiance to Jesus in the practice of Christian baptism. When this practice became a sign for Christians, it was a profoundly political statement. Those giving themselves to Jesus Christ were declaring that whatever else I have been immersed in – whatever way of thinking, whatever religious commitments, whatever social patterns, whatever structures of authority – I am now immersed/immersing myself with Christ.

The public act said no to Ceasar, not to the ways of power, no to choosing up sides, not to thinking power and position are to be sought at all costs. A baptized community gathers each week to say, No!

Sadly, today, recent surveys indicate that people choose their churches based on the political leaning of a given congregation. Are not Red enough. Are you Blue enough? Baptized Christians have decided that what matters is that God pledge allegiance to us in Jesus Christ and our response has been to make our pledge in return. Baptism is that public pledge that says no matter the time, the era or the Country, what we have given ourselves to is higher.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that no matter when we live, like Abraham we live as strangers in another land looking for a home whose architect and builder is God. We have found that home in Christ.

*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions/differences to the preached version.