Jesus

Can’t Drain the Swamp

Luke 4:21-30; Jeremiah 1:4-10

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, it is easy for us to get tied to things as they are. After all, it is what we know and have known. We admit that we really like Jesus’ message of planting and building his Kingdom. We do find it hard that Jesus also challenges our idols. We fear what we might lose. Help us, Lord, to see that grace is greater than all our sin. And all God’s people say, Amen.

Ecologists tell us that it is not good to drain the swamp. Plant and animal life need the available water to survive. Remove the water and there is a rupture in the ecosystem. Things die. Rebecca Harrington noted in a piece for the Business Insider, written in 2016, that the practice of draining swamps was popular when malaria was a problem in the U.S. and Europe. Keep the mosquito population down and maybe you could reduce the incidence. 

If there is anything we know, we have not rid the planet of mosquitos. Do you really think we could? 

Human beings cannot drain the swamp, you know, the one Ronald Reagan called for in 1980. Reportedly it had been found that there was $424 billion dollars of waste that could be cut from the Federal Budget. Drain the swamp. Reagan appointed the Grace Commission. After the report was combed through, it was learned that the writers had included in their numbers items that were necessary, not wasteful. The recommendations were never implemented.

The phrase stuck. Anytime you need to rally voter sentiment in one direction or the other, just shout, Drain the Swamp. I suspect that had the phrase not been first used in 1903, it may well have been floated in Israel. Think about it. Over the course of 208 years, Israel, even if divided between North and South, suffered through 38 kings. Of those 38, 33 were considered evil kings and only 5 deserve the description righteous, or good. Human begins can’t drain the swamp.

What is it? Well, Washington, or Jerusalem, seem like handy scapegoats. Blame those leaders for all the ill in their respective countries. But, before you decide to do just that, remember, those swamps are filled with people just like us. Don’t forget, Israel asked for a king. With all the sadness he could muster, Samuel relayed the words from God. He told them what would happen should they get a king,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants.  He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

For more than 200 years the people lived most of their time under the rule of kings that gave them what they wanted. Or, maybe it would be better to say, they served under kings that produced for them the sort of leadership that magnified their own faithlessness.

Have we learned much?

Before Israel’s captivity in Babylon, Jeremiah heard a call from the Lord. YHWH, Israel’s God, had given the young man a commission. For 40 years his voice could be heard. Jeremiah describes God’s actions and the content of his message,

Then the LORD reached out his hand, touched my mouth, and told me:

I have now filled your mouth with my words.

See I have appointed you today

over nations and kingdoms

to uproot and tear down,

to destroy and demolish,

to build and plant.

If you are keeping score, that is four verbs that describe demolition and two verbs that paint the picture of renewal. That is a 2 to 1 ratio of words that foretell loss. Some get distracted. They think this is about Jeremiah. What we find in the Scriptures is that Jeremiah is God’s object, not his subject. That is, the story is about God renewing and restoring. He describes God’s activity. Before there is building and planting, those things in the way of faithfulness must be torn down. Focusing on Jeremiah would reveal a prophet of little success. Jeremiah was saddened. No amount of positive thinking would change the very real landscape of a people who could not drain the swamp. They could not see they helped create the swamp. 

Jeremiah is often referred to as the Weeping Prophet for he exclaimed,

If my head were a flowing spring,

my eyes a fountain of tears,

I would weep day and night

over the slain of my dear people.

Compare these words of Jesus,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

Nearly six centuries had passed between the fall of Jerusalem and the time of Jesus. Yet, the message given Jeremiah rings in the words used to describe the Messiah.

He has done a mighty deed with his arm;

he has scattered the proud

because the thoughts of their hearts;

he has toppled the mighty from their thrones

and exalted the lowly.

He has satisfied the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

And these words,

Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed – and a sword will pierce your own soul – that the thoughts of many hearts many be revealed.

A sign that will be opposed – the hearts of many will be revealed.

Uproot. 

Tear Down. 

Destroy. 

Demolish.

Jesus had just stood to proclaim the very words spoken about him by his mother had come to pass,

Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.

Quickly the crowds buzzed with enthusiasm. The idea that the LORD had sent someone to change the system, topple the institutions of oppression, to break up the monopoly of power energized the crowd toward Jesus. Luke records, 

They were all speaking well of him and were amazed at his gracious words that came from his mouth;

Even in their praise of Jesus, the witnesses to his work in Capernaum, and the way he handled the Scriptures, they could not get beyond what they saw,

Isn’t this Joseph’s son?

Firmly stuck in the world as it is, the people poured cold water on their own enthusiasm. Did you get that? Gracious words of deliverance. Amazing words of promise. Despite the hope in Jesus’ words, they built a wall and dared Jesus to scale it. And just like that, Jesus did not opt for positive thinking. He began to uproot their ideas of what is. He called attention to the sort of thinking that needed to be destroyed. He spoke in such a way as to demolish their dependence on more than the very words of God. Jesus demolished their reliance on their own judgement. He exposed the swamp.

And to be a sign that is opposed – that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

We not only hear the themes of Jeremiah’s words in Jesus’ preaching, we witness the living out of those words in the life of Jesus. Rather than evoke images through words, God made clear in Jesus what filled the hearts of people. Try as we might to paint a better picture by downplaying the walls we build and emphasizing our confidence in human potential, human history does not lie. 

And that is what Jesus does. He tells them history does not lie. When the people were faithless, God sent the prophet Elijah to a foreigner, some outsider, a widow. When people were faithless, God sent Elisha to Syria, to an outsider. Plenty were hungry in Israel  during famine and many were afflicted by leprosy in Israel, but their lack resulted in God showing up elsewhere. Lest we think God only shows up among us, that we can wall God into our tribe, our group, these stories demonstrate how God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Telling the people their story did not convince them. Instead it exposed them. Rather than own their faithlessness, they became engaged at Jesus. They drove him out of the synagogue – for us the church – and brought him to the edge of a cliff and intended to hurl him over the cliff and be rid of him. 

But, it was not his time.

Hear me please. Jeremiah was given words that pointed to the creation of a new community – one built upon the faithfulness of God amidst the faithlessness of people. Jesus embodied those very words and plants a new community built upon his faithfulness to do for us what we cannot. We don’t rely on human beings to drain the swamp, we trust in Jesus who by his death and Resurrection drain the swamp of its power and influence over us. In fact, if you like a more vivid picture of the Gospel, Jesus entered the swamp and took all of its infectious parasites that represent the Power of Sin that build walls, structures and institutions that keep us sin sick, to borrow from the old evangelists. In his body he bore the disease that kills us and suffered death that comes from our exposure to those parasites. Then to demonstrate the power of God over our disease, in the Resurrection, Jesus tore down, uprooted, demolished and destroyed our enemies so that in us He may create a new community of hope.

Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Here is a link to the preached sermon.

Freedom from the Tyranny of the Self or, You Are the Body

Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Below the post will be a link to the preached sermon.

Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, by the power of the Spirit Jesus came with the Good News. We risk missing it for we only hear the Law. Forgive us for taking the Good News and making it into a new law. By your grace set us free to love – all bodies, even your Church. And all God’s people say, Amen.

He would stand in the mirror before we left the cabin for evening worship. Upon checking out his hair and clothes he would declare, “I’m so pretty.” Just like that. The young man was years ahead of People Magazine’s, Sexiest Man Alive feature begun in 1985. People has since offered its award for the most attractive male annually. Notice, Michael declared himself pretty. People recognizes attractive as sexy.

My friend Jason, who has been here with us a couple of times, generally uses self-deprecating humor when talking about himself. Except, except, when talking about his baritone voice. His line about his voice? His line that he has used in a sermon or two? “I have a voice so manly it comes with its own chest hair.” How does he get away with it? Well, he is much younger than me. He is in a different denomination where he is assigned to his congregation. And, some may give him a pass since he carries in his body the death sentence of terminal cancer.

After thirty years as a full-time pastor, almost twenty-five of those years spent right here, I thought it high time we have a talk about the body. Not my body. After all, some of you know that Tommie picks me up every weekday at 5 a.m. in order to buffet my body. Remember, we are Baptists who tend to take the Scriptures literally and somewhere we misread buffet as buffet. The Apostle Paul wrote these words translated in the old American Standard Version,

But I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage: lest by any means, after all that I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.

The more modern rendering, in for instance, the Christian Standard Bible,

Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

Ideas about the body, during and after the time the Apostle Paul would have written these words, assumed anything material was bad. The body is material. The body is bad. Undercurrents of this idea have run along the rails of human history. Today we witness the same idea in body shaming. Consider art from not too long ago and we see something very different from what you find in Men’s Quarterly or Vogue Magazine. Thin indicated poverty. Thick reflected wealth. The idealized images of today actually become a social law under which humanity suffers an incredible weight.

Eating disorders, yo-yo dieting, and so-called healthy eating all indicate the cruel imposition the law has on human beings. Did you hear that? When we work to understand how the Law functions to enforce expectations – social and moral – we get a better understanding of grace when we discover that we have been forgiven and set free from the law. Remember, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the power of Sin is in the law. 

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 

We are crushed beneath the weight of its constant reminder that we are not good enough, smart enough, strong enough or pretty enough. How can we fail to see that this is the most unifying human experience?

It is no different for the Church in the world today. The analogy works. Every ideal assigned to the Church becomes a law unto itself. The same power that works to shame the human body would enjoy nothing more than to shame the Church as God’s Body. The metaphor is right there, in the Scriptures. The Church does not do enough. Under the breath the specific charge is, The Church does not do what I want it to do. What that means is that the Church suffers the Body shaming normally expected from those on the outside only it comes when you or me idealize a vision for the Church from the inside.

It also means that a young pastor friend may be right. We were texting the other day and he sent this,

I came across [John] Wesley talking about how he’d not preach anything but justification to non-Christians or new Christians, sanctification only to those ready for meat. I think we are in a milk only moment.

My response? The response I sent back?

Given that many have conflated their faith, or understanding thereof, with American Civil Religion, I don’t know how we are not in a milk only moment.

The reference of course is to the Apostle Paul who described the need for us to move on from milk to meat. One thing about this working out regimen that Tommie lured me into is that it comes with a coach that knows her nutrition. Not only does she have the command of a drill sergeant, she also requires that we actually tell her what we are eating. Imagine that we are paying for this! When I open the Facebook App on my phone I wince when Julie has tagged me in a post. That means she is going to tell me that I have not been eating very well. Not enough protein, she scolds. 

I fill out the Diary of the My Fitness Pal App and hope that when I click the nutrition tab, I will feel the weight lifted. You know, the weight of not living up to the law of percentages. It is for my good. I do feel better. Little does she know that at my age no matter how well you eat or exercise, when the clock strikes 2 p.m. it is like Smokin’ Joe Fraizier delivered an uppercut and I am often looking for a power nap. Her insistence is that we are building muscle. I muse to myself. She does know what I do for a vocation, doesn’t she. Why normally we are poster folks for body shaming ourselves. I digress.

Our growth has been stunted by a low protein diet. We fail to build the muscle of resistance to the foods that have as their label, God and Country. There is no God and Country in the Scripture, particularly the New Testament. There is only an Empire that creates unhealthy conditions for its people. Look at conditions of the people Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61 – poor, captives, blind and oppressed. We think they describe others. But, under the banner of Country, Empire, that is us, all of us. Listen to the so-called religious leaders that consort with power. They have created for us a new law, bow or be ridiculed as disobedient. This is the milk of our diet. 

The law is every where. But the one place that it should not reign is in the Church. When we find the law in the Church, it usually comes under the pious conviction used in the sentence, “This is what our Church should be doing.” Whatever this is that is not connecting people with the grace of God is for some other organization, not the Body of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this as the wish dream. We bring our wish dreams to the Church and it disrupts our life together. How? Because the wish dream becomes the law for everyone else. This is the argument in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. 

Stand firm then and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

When we submit again to a yoke of slavery, we need a message of milk. We reached for the meat too soon.

That brings us back to the body. Each of today’s Texts point to something about the body. In Nehemiah Israel gathered like one body at the Water Gate to hear the Scriptures read. 

Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and with their hands uplifted all the people said, “Amen, Amen!” Then they knelt low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

Their bodies were involved. No, this is not to invoke a new law here at Snow Hill. The point is that the people involved their bodies. In fact, even though they realized they had missed the law, Ezra told them not to weep but instead to eat and drink and have a great celebration because they understood the words that had been explained to them. They had lived under Empire while in Babylon. Hearing the word of God explained led them to celebrat.

Maybe Paul had in mind Israel standing as one body listening to the word of God when he pressed the metaphor by saying,

Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it.

Often all we hear is individual. We fail to connect ourselves to the Body. But, Paul did. He pointed out that we are Christ’s Body by God’s Spirit. There is no shaming Christ’s Body. If we point to the Psalmist that writes that we, our bodies, are fearfully and wonderfully made, is it any less fearful and wonderful that by God’s Spirit we are made to be Christ’s Body?!

This takes us back to the reading we heard in Luke 4. Don’t miss this. Jesus got up to preach. He used Isaiah 61. And then, he went out and practiced his sermon. How did Paul not take this from Jesus,


Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

Here is some milk.

First, Jesus’ message was not for those folks over there. It was for us. It is for us. We cannot read Jesus’ sermon as though it was for someone else. We are the poor. We are the captives. We are the blind. We are the oppressed.

Second, Jesus cut off Isaiah’s words about judgment for he would take in his body our judgement. This startles some and confuses others. The law judges harshly. Though the Psalmist says the law of the Lord is good, the law does not redeem or rectify. The law lifts the ideal and condemns those who do not keep it. The judgment of the Power of Sin upon us is taken up in Jesus’ own Body.

Third, Jesus declares God’s grace – God’s favor. This is forgiveness. The tag line of a Church in Manhattan is, Enjoy your forgiveness. That might be worth borrowing. Enjoying our forgiveness entails connecting people with God’s grace. That is, when we hear the Good News, we look for ways to connect people to it.

How? 

Look around you. Here is what we are doing. It is not all we are doing. But at present it is what we are doing. We will not be working through the list and checking it twice to see who is signed up with at least one of these opportunities. That would be creating a new law. Instead, we are presenting to the Body what we do in the enjoyment of our forgiveness. Consider it an invitation to enjoy with us.

Freedom from the Tyranny of the Self or, You Are the Body


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

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.