Jesus

Until?

Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, we are often lulled into smugness. Here we sit this morning while others are elsewhere. Quickly we allow this seed to grow into a spiritual superiority that blinds us from Jesus, from you. Too often we read the prophets and sit in judgement on a people we barely understand . . . that is until we are reminded with Isaiah that they are us. Spare us the consequences of our hard hearts by revisiting us with your grace, lest our cities, our lives, lay in ruins. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Isaiah 6:1-13; Luke 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 15:1-11

Then I said, “Until when, Lord?” And he replied;

Until . . . That leaves a stump when felled.”

“Just wait until your Father gets home.” What that meant was Mom had spent plenty of time telling us,

Keep listening but not obeying,

Keep observing my anger but not connecting your danger

Sure, that is an adaption of Isaiah 6:9, but it gets better. How long should Mom’s keep repeating the line, “Just wait until your Father gets home?”

Until your summer dreams lay in ruins,

your hoped for trips to the community pool is empty,

until your access to your favorite Saturday morning cartoons is unplugged.

The more immediate translation was, if you think grounding is something, wait until the tender portion of your backside meets Mr. Leather. Now before you judge my parents for their use of corporeal punishment, remember it is not the best practice to judge the 60’s, even the 70’s, based on the 2000’s. I mean, when we played Little League, we did not have drafts, we signed up and played with our local team win or lose. And, when, like us, we did not win every game, we learned to be good losers. Learning to be good losers is much easier than learning to be good winners.

There was no such thing as participation trophies. Uniforms? Really? T-Shirts and jeans. We rarely spotted baseball pants until we played in Jr. High. And, no one ever used the term, Snowflake to talk about others in either direction of the social divides. 

Judging people from decades ago by the standards of the present should also be applied when reading the Scriptures. We often read what is described and treat it like it is prescribed. My recollections are in no way meant to say to teams and parents today that you should do it like we did it. It is to say parents today should take great care to judge parents from bygone days by their contemporary standards. And, that goes for the Bible.

It has become a favorite pastime in many places to castigate Israel for her regular illustrations of infidelity. We use that small tribal people as our “go to” for an example of “how not do do it” when following God. It is a move that suggests that we are a more advanced people, after all, we have Jesus.

If there is one thing we find here in Isaiah 6, is that people are people and the sooner we realize that together we comprise one big cluster of unfaithfulness to the Creator, the more quickly we will be enamored of God’s grace. Yes, that sounds awful pessimistic. But, hey, I am talking about Christ’s Church. You object. This morning, the Houston Chronicle published an investigative piece on the Southern Baptist Convention and its unwillingness to create a clergy abuse registry. The paper let it be known the article was on its way. The President of our Convention, whom I know, JD Greear, tweeted this on Friday,

I recently learned of this coming story. It is certain to be disturbing & painful, but I plan to read it immediately on Sunday. In fact, we all should read it & pray for the victims & survivors. In order for the SBC to move forward, we need to know the truth & demonstrate Jesus.

It has been easy for those in the SBC to point to the scandals in the Catholic Church among priests, and the recently revealed abuse of Nuns.  It has been like swinging at low hanging fruit to ridicule the United Methodist Church for their upcoming General Conference on a Way Forward on the issue of human sexuality and the church. For decades we have pointed out the decline in the UCC, the DoC, the PCUSA, and every other denomination. I have heard our leaders criticize these groups. Maybe it was to make us feel better about ourselves. The news that came out this morning is but one illustration that the pot should never call the kettle black.

Some of us have pushed for a registry in the SBC for more than a decade. We have not hid behind Jesus. Instead, we have hid behind an ecclesiology, a way of understand church, that privileges the institution over the person. And, we have done it all the while claiming faithfulness to orthodoxy, that is right believing about the Bible. But, here we are faced with the Bible. Sure, I am frustrated. I have grown up in SBC churches, I have pastored SBC churches now for more than 30 years. The things I know about us makes me sad and mad all at the same time.  But, the truth is, I know myself. That is exactly what Isaiah noted when he recognized that when God is not made in my image, it is fearful.

Did you catch that? Isaiah did not respond to a vision of God that was of his own making. He did not react to a God that liked who he liked and did not like who he did not like. Isaiah did not project onto his favorite political party the role of righteousness. Nope. When he entered the Temple of the Lord, he saw something different. He had a vision of how things really are, not how we wanted them to be. And, his response was, to acknowledge that his lips, his speech, his words were words of death. 

Woe is me.

Isaiah was not expressing self-pity. His was not some rendition of gloom, despair and agony on me. Deep dark depression and excessive misery. His was not the result of bad luck, it was the consequence of learning that he lived among a group of people who had set such a low bar for all their relationships. 

It would be easier for us, like it would have been last week with Jeremiah, to think this is all about Isaiah. That the words we read are only for his day and his people. That somehow after Jesus’ coming the people of God are immune to to reverting to things as they were rather than living in the newness of what God has revealed in the Messiah, in Christ Jesus. But, that is an optimism that cannot connect us with hope. I know, you fear that the Pastor has reverted to some former Fundamentalist ideology. That the once optimistic and hopeful version of your pastor has been kidnapped and brainwashed. The reality is I am the little boy that heard the words, Just wait until your Father gets home. And, while I am not as bad as I could be, I am not as good as I want you to think I am. If I am not careful, I will create a vision of God that happens to give me a pass for what is lacking … but not you. And, that is the projection of the Christian Church, the Evangelical Church, even the Southern Baptist Church, that the world rejects. And, so may we.

Isaiah, like Jeremiah, is about God. While we cannot escape the details of either prophets call and context, we must not forget that the Scripture is about God, not about us. We are the objects. God is the subject. What that means is that God acts in ways to change the way things are. That reality turns my sadness, my madness, into hope. 

God’s messengers took a hot coal and touched Isaiah’s lips. The act did not give third degree burns. Instead, God cleansed Isaiah. His confession included his cleansing. Did you see that?

Grace.

God’s grace to Isaiah moved him to respond to a question without detail. 

Who should I send?

Who will go for us?

When we hear God call, we want a job description, what will it cost me, how much time do I have? Grace experienced prompted Isaiah to answer without so much as a hint that he would be asked to give a message that essentially meant no one would listen. In other words, Isaiah was asked to give announcements at church to which almost no one ever listens. 

Listen to his assignment,

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 hears and blind their eyes;

otherwise they might see with their eyes

and hear with their ears,

understand with their minds,

turn back, and be healed.

Oh, boy! It gets better.

Then I said, “Until when, Lord? And he replied:

Until cities lie in ruins without inhabitants,

houses are without people,

the land is ruined and desolate,

and the LORD drives the people far away,

leaving great emptiness in the land,

Though a tenth will remain in the land,

it will be burned again.

Like the terebinth or the oak

that leaves a stump when felled,

the holy seed is the stump.

Wow, Pastor, it is cold enough outside. We came for some warmth!

There it is. Do you see it?

All four of the gospels tell the story of Jesus quoting Isaiah. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it comes as the disciples ask why parables or what does a parable mean. John points to the lack of response to the signs Jesus gives that Messiah has come as the enactment of Isaiah 6. In other words, Isaiah’s words point to an issue human beings have always had. We look for the God of our making.

We want warmth. We want an end to the Until. There in the last line of Isaiah 6,

the holy seed is the stump

From the ashes comes grace. Our readings from 1 Corinthians and from Luke combine to give us two people who saw God not as the object they had created for themselves, but as the One who came to them and loved them despite themselves.

Peter and Paul.

Quickly, Peter and his fishing buddies were asked to trust someone whom they figured did not know as much as they about fishing. “Cast out in deeper water,” came the suggestion. “We are slap worn out after a long night of unsuccessful fishing.” But like any of us who fish, the prospect of finally catching a fish would spur us to try another place. What Peter had experienced in scarcity, Jesus delivered in abundance. The overwhelmed Peter recognized that his self-dependence was exposed and needed Jesus to go. Jesus did not riff on Peter. Instead he gave him hope that others would be drawn into the same net of grace. This same Peter would run to Jesus on the shoreline after the Resurrection. 

Paul recounts the message, announcement, he heard. This is the fellow that stood by as Stephen was stoned. Paul is the one name that struck fear in the hearts of early Christians as he roamed about looking to purge the world of those who followed Jesus. Yet, God appeared to him. His vision of God, the one that he had made suitable to himself, was crushed beneath the weight of the Resurrected Jesus. He knew himself all the more in the face of Jesus.

Until . . . Where the power of Sin abounds, grace much more abounds. 

Until we see the glory of God in the face of Christ.

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


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.