This past Monday, my grandfather died at the age of 98. He’s the one I was talking about in a sermon just six weeks ago as having a coherent mind and enough good health that he very well might see 100. He was ready to go, though, and this just goes to show how quickly things can change.
Death isn’t easy, no matter who it is that dies. But Deedle, as we called him, was my last remaining grandparent. Growing up, he and my grandmother were the set of grandparents we’d see more often. When my dad retired from the Air Force, we moved right down the street from them. And since he lived for so long, and we’d visit so often, and he was fun to be around, I have a lot of memories, good memories. Lots of other people have good memories, too, of which I’m proud and thankful.
Of course, in a week like this, you start to remember and share all those memories. You pull out pictures you haven’t seen in years - or even decades. You share stories with the rest of your family and laugh and cry and generally just try not to bottle things up.
I easily got the days mixed up this week - even more so than I normally do, thinking Tuesday was Wednesday, Wednesday was the start of the weekend, and Thursday was another Monday. I kind of just “was” for a lot of the week.
So, needless to say, it was a weird week for me, trying to fill others up when you yourself are so empty. Trying to proclaim Good News when, in the moment, you don’t feel like things are good.
And yet, even in the midst of death, life goes on. Stuff still needs to get done. As one of my seminary professors used to say, “Sundays come around with vicious regularity.” Sermons still need to be written, even when one’s heart isn’t in it.
But while my heart wasn’t in it, Paul in this first chapter of his letter to the Romans, speaks to the heart of the Gospel. He writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith…”
Nothing cures heartache like highly convoluted religious speak, am I right? These couple of verses are thick with meaning, and these are the verses that Paul is going to spend the next 15 chapters unpacking. But here, he boils the whole thing down to one tiny, little paragraph. But trust me, there is good news here once we peel back some of the layers.
Paul is not ashamed of the Gospel. And why not? Because the Gospel is God’s power to save everyone who has faith. Why everyone? Because that type of salvation is what shows God’s righteousness.
Now, the key to all of this - the key to these verses and to Romans in general - is the next four words, “through faith for faith.” God’s power (salvation) is God’s righteousness and is revealed “through faith, for faith.”
Here’s the thing about “faith.” We often think of faith as believing the right stuff, you know, having it all straight between the ears, or right in our heart, or something like that. But really, Paul’s expression of faith is more along the lines of “faithfulness” than “belief.” And I make that distinction because here, Paul’s not only talking about himself or them, or us, or me. He’s expanding it beyond what is in our heads or our hearts. He’s also talking about God’s faith and faithfulness.
The first faithfulness we come across in Romans is God’s faithfulness. It is through God’s faithfulness (through faith) that God’s righteousness is revealed. It is through God’s faithfulness that salvation is given.
If we look up from verses 16 and 17 to verses 1 and 2, Jesus is God’s promise kept - God keeps promises. God upholds the covenant. Nothing says faithfulness to someone like keeping a promise. Jesus is proof of God’s faithfulness to us. God didn’t believe in us in the way we often interpret faith. God keeps relationship with us. It proves God’s faithfulness. Despite everything - and I do mean everything - God is faithful to us.
God’s power, God’s salvation, God’s righteousness is revealed through God’s faithfulness - for faith... for our faith.
Through faith, for faith.
Our faith and faithfulness is founded on the rock-solid acts of God.
Our faith doesn’t make God powerful; our faith doesn’t reveal God’s righteousness; our faith doesn’t make salvation happen. Our faithfulness to God simply flows out of God’s faithfulness to us.
Salvation and life and grace and all this goodness and promise of God isn’t up to us; it’s not up to our head or our heart. It is all up to God and what God has done, how God has responded throughout human history.
When it looked like God was absent, God raised Jesus from the dead.
When it looked like God forgot about covenant, God made a new, better covenant.
When it looked like God was not faithful, God gave us everlasting relationship.
Which means, even when we are sad, God is faithful. Even when we are empty, God is faithful. When our heart just isn’t in it, God is still ever faithful. When a sermon needs to be written, God is still faithful, still speaks, still shows up. God’s faithfulness and love comes with vicious regularity, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
That’s where my faith, my trust, lies - in a God who is faithful to me, faithful to us, faithful to Deedle, faithful even when our hearts are broken.
This is God’s promise. This is God’s faithfulness: that even in the midst of death, life goes on. Life will go on. This is what our faith is founded on. Because our God promises life, life will happen.
There was a man in Lystra who couldn’t walk. He sat there, crippled since the day he was born. He heard Paul talking, and Paul looked him in the eye. He told the man to get up. The man was up on his feet in an instant, walking around as if he’d been doing it his whole life.
A chaotic scene erupts among the Gentile crowds as they interpret what has happened. They use their own understanding of the world and their religion. They believe that Paul and Barnabas are gods. Even the priest of the local Zeus shrine gets in on the action, bringing bulls and banners, ready for the ritual sacrifice.
It’s a bit of an odd story. But the people Paul is preaching to didn’t have the narrative or context to understand what had just happened. They try to fit this healing event into something they already know. They try to understand using the common - if not incorrect - images of their society.
When Paul finally catches on to why the people are responding as they do, he tailors his message to to fit his audience. Before he can tell them about Jesus the Messiah, or about the Gospel message, or even about grace and love and mercy, he must tell them about the one, true God. He urges them to "turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them."
Upon reading this story and thinking about how to apply it, most people would glean from it an evangelism slant - which is pretty accurate. Paul knows his context and tries to meet these people where they are. We could do worse than to follow the Apostle Paul’s example for evangelism.
But something struck me this week in the reading. It’s that line Paul uses, “turn from these worthless things to the living God…” It made me start thinking about the things we turn to that are, for lack of a better word, “worthless.”
And as I thought more about it, the more like the Laconians I thought we were. Instead of letting the Gospel message shape our lives and the narratives around us, we do the opposite. We force Jesus, God, and Gospel into our boxes, into the stories we know and the stories we want to tell. Instead of our hearts being turned, we justify what we thought all along without having our worldview changed.
I should also note that when I say, “we,” it’s less about the 100 or so people in this room and more about our society, particularly Christians in America, as a whole.
We, like the Laconians, interpret the Good News through the lenses we have. We filter the Good News through American values, when really, we should filter American values through the Good News. Instead of living out the ways of Jesus, we’ve learned to justify injustice. Let people starve, let people be segregated, let kids get shot.
Afterall, we each are in control of our own destiny. We are self-made. We work, we earn, and we deserve.
And then there is the big, societal narrative we buy into: you are not enough. You aren’t enough, unless… unless you get more. Then, maybe, just maybe, you make the cut.
We fall to the pressures of consumerism. We are convinced that our lives are incomplete - that we ourselves are incomplete - unless we attain more. More…whatever. Shoes, computers, apps, square-footage, elements on a resume, promotions achieved. It doesn’t really matter what it is, it just needs to be more.
And it’s not that any of these things is necessarily bad in and of itself. America’s not bad; it’s pretty great. Shoes and apps and computers aren’t bad; they’re nice to have. It’s just that while they are good, they aren’t the Good News; it’s not the Gospel. It’s not what should shape us and change us and give us meaning. That is what we often forget about.
So, it is good to be reminded from time to time about the basics, about who God is, about what God does for us. See, we hear these other messages all the time. You will hear nationalistic, consumeristic messages from the moment you get in your car to go to lunch. We just have a little bit of time on Sunday mornings to remind you.
God gives you meaning. God gives you everything! God is the creator. That’s how Paul starts out, right? Look at God who created all things, even you. All your little intricacies and passions, your drive and your wit, your eye color and handedness and more - everything about you is crafted by God.
And not only you and me, but everything - sky, earth, sea, resources, plants, animals… Paul tries to get us to look from a different point of view - and by seeing this way, it also helps to reshape the way we see ourselves.
We see we are in relationship with a God who loves us, guides us, guards us, and blesses us. We belong to this God, a God who showers humanity with blessings.
And so, we no longer can be over-proud of what we have. Our self-esteem and worth isn’t based on consumeristic possessions, but on God. Nor should we have anxiety over what we don’t have. We have God; God has us. We can’t do any better than that, and because of that, we have nothing to worry about.
This is the story that defines us. If a loving God, surely seen in all of creation, but most clearly revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Christ, if this God creates and writes out a Good News story, how do we respond? What does it look like to live that story out in our lives?
We remind ourselves that we aren’t the center of all things; God is. We acknowledge that God gives us all things - and for that we are thankful. Through this thanks, our hearts become full of joy and thanksgiving for what God has done. Our hearts become glad and generous, expressing our love for the God who establishes relationship with us. And as we do that, what we are really doing is worshiping. The act of worship is, by definition, looking not to ourselves, but God.
As we confess that all we have and all we are is because of God and belongs to God, as we remember our created nature, we who have been given our very existence, personality, intellect and abilities - we open ourselves up trust in God. That trust is an act of faith. Faith opens us up to how God will use us and what we have. We do that by putting faith in action, expressing our faith, pointing to God in tangible ways.
Through this, we continue to grow. Part of it may be removing some of those things that stand in the way of our relationship with God. Maybe tithing, maybe denying ourselves “more,” maybe fostering new holy habits. Each of those ways is a discipline for faith growth.
In God’s story, we know who we are. We aren’t defined by what we have or don’t have; we are defined by God. And under that narrative, we live differently. We keep challenging ourselves to grow in faith - instead of succumbing to ways that distract us from God. We stay open to the new, exciting ways God can use us - yes, even us - in mission and ministry. Instead of needless, consumeristic getting, we do the opposite.
We filter our lives - our money, possessions, time, everything - through the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, not the other way around. Doing so, we live glad and generous lives, defined by the story God is telling here and now.
In the midst of so many competing narratives and world views, God is still speaking to us, reminding us of the Gospel message of love and belonging. God is still showing up in bread and wine, in water and word, in community and song, to write that love story in our hearts.
This story is far from worthless; as a matter of fact, in it, God gives us everything.
This morning we read the fairly familiar story of the Prodigal Son. When we hear that title, our minds quickly jump to that younger son who clears out and recklessly wastes all that he has.
I wonder when that title came about; Jesus certainly didn’t call it that. In a lot of ways, the title, “Prodigal Son,” is a misnomer, because it narrows the focus to only one character of the parable. This reckless spender isn’t the only one in the story. Jesus starts off, “There was a man who had two sons…”
This story is as much about the older brother as it is the younger. The parable might better be called, “the Two Lost Sons.” Jesus tells us a good bit about each.
The Younger Son’s story might be more familiar: he demands his share of the inheritance, scoots off to a foreign land, and squanders all the money away. He is literally down in the mud with the pigs when he comes to his senses and devises a plan. He’ll go back, say what he did was wrong, and then ask to be taken back as a hired hand. Once he works up his nerve for this conversation, he begins the journey back home.
As he is coming up the road, his father notices him and runs to him. The dad goes and wraps his arms around his son. The son tries to get out his prepared speech, but the father ignores him. “Quick, bring the best robe! Bring a ring! Prepare a feast!” What a welcome. It’s a sign of God’s love and forgiveness; it can restore any kind of sin and wrongdoing. What a wonderful ending!
But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus doesn’t stop. There must be more to learn. So, on to the older brother…
The older son is mad. He refuses to go into the celebration, standing outside. So, the father goes to him. The son lets dad have it. “Look, I’ve worked hard! I’ve done everything right! You’ve never rewarded me, not even a little bit!”
Yet, the father still wants this older son to come to the feast. “We have to celebrate! I didn’t disown your brother, and I’m not going to disown you, either.”
That’s where Jesus ends. It’s a cliffhanger. We wonder whether the older son will ever make it into the party. The ending makes us think… who do we know who is like that? Who do we know who is like the younger son?
Lists of people probably come to mind, right? But if we’re honest, the top name on the list should be us, because we’re both of the brothers in this parable. We have moments of each.
We, like the younger son, have a panache for individuality. We don’t want the life someone else sets for us and so, we buck the authority our parabolic dad, be that our parents, our church or God, society or expectations. We like to be free, free from all that - free from convention, free from outdated approaches or unrealistic expectations. We don’t need that stuff stifling us. Besides, there are other things in life that are way more… attractive.
The younger son wanted to be his own boss. We like that, too. No one telling us what to do, and especially not doing it because that’s the way they’ve always done it. We want it to make sense for us, to decide for ourselves. And sometimes going that route, we make mistakes. We hurt others or ourselves. We don’t rely on people or God the way we could or should.
On the other hand, we’re a lot like the older brother, too. Maybe you are a literal eldest child (you know, science has proven that eldest children are the smartest. Just sayin’). But aside from that, we do what we’re supposed to do. We follow the rules and the laws, we work hard, we earn and deserve the things we have. We plan and save - or at least we don’t waste on frivolous stuff.
We do the right thing for the most part. We’ve got good morals and recognize the place a cordial relationship has with others, God, and so forth. Which is why we get so rankled up over people getting things they don’t deserve. We do the work, do the right things, and they get something, too?!? We follow the rules, and they are still welcomed. We do what we are supposed to do, week in and week out, and they get the same thing we do? It’s not fair. We deserve it; they don’t.
We can be lost no matter what path we are on; do we run away or does our behavior demand we get rewarded? Whether we are full of rebellion or jealousy; if we are welcomed or offended by who else is welcomed, no matter if we are the older or younger son... we are missing the point of the parable.
It doesn’t matter who you are. That’s not the point.
The point is: God comes to you. God comes to you.
The father runs out to meet, welcome, invite, love, show grace to each of the sons. He’s not on one side or the other. The father is on both sides. God goes to each of us as children, no matter where we are on the “son spectrum.” God comes with grace and love and welcome, to warm our hearts over reception and to shatter our categories about who should at the party.
This parable isn’t about following the rules or avoiding poor choices. It’s not about which way is right and which way is wrong. It’s not even about forgiveness. This parable shows us a God who welcomes each and every one of us, no matter what. We’re not going to earn our way back into the family, no matter what we do; God simply takes us back, wants us there.
Whatever is going on in us or around us, God has good news for us. Jesus in this parable points to what God wants for us: God wants us in the party. God wants us welcomed. God wants us to know that we are loved and that nothing changes that.
God invites us to the feast. God feeds us in communion, with a little bit of bread and wine, with Jesus’ presence. God welcomes each and every one of us to come, to be present, to feel the love given for you. God welcomes you.
In this parable, Jesus is showing us the God of great expense. This God is nothing if not prodigal toward us. God’s extravagant grace is our greatest hope.
And since this parable isn’t really about either of the sons - and thus not about us - maybe a more appropriate title is the “Prodigal Father.”
This prodigal God keeps on coming to us, running with arms wide open, happy to see us; God keeps speaking to us, encouraging us, whether we are outside the party or not. All because God wants us there. Jesus shows us a God who is abundant in giving grace, lavish in love, and doesn’t know when to stop welcoming us back.
How do you close the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? How do you wrap up a story with miraculous acts of healing, the drama of Jesus’ execution, and the triumphant defeat of death? How do you write “The End”?
I ask because that is what we get today. We have the very last verses of Matthew’s Gospel. And part of what Matthew ends with is: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
This is the Great Commission. It is often seen as a list of things to do, commands to follow. But Jesus doesn’t give these words as commands; aside from the word “go,” they aren’t imperatives. Jesus isn’t trying to command us to do these things. Instead, as the name implies, he is commissioning us. The distinction is important.
When someone commands you to do something, it’s all up to you. You obey or you don’t; you do it or you don’t. It’s up to you and your skill set to accomplish the tasks.
But a commissioning is different. When you are commissioned you are not merely commanded but also equipped, empowered, and given the necessary authority to accomplish your duty. Police officers and leaders in the military, for instance, are commissioned into their offices. They give and are given many commands over the course of their careers, of course, but before those commands come, they are granted the necessary authority and support to accomplish their mission.
In fact, that word “mission” is at the heart of it all. When we are “com-missioned,” we are sent, sent with a purpose along with Jesus’ authority and trust. To be commissioned is more than to be given a list of instructions. To be commissioned is to be entrusted.
That is what Jesus is doing here. He entrusts his disciples with the message he himself lived and preached.
So, the Great Commission sends us out on a mission with Jesus’ backing. Go out, share the Good News of God’s love and grace with all nations, go everywhere, to everyone. Go with my authority! Go!
It had to be a bit overwhelming for the disciples. Go everywhere? To everyone?
In a world that revolved heavily around one’s tribe or clan, in a society filled with the rise and fall of empires, where disputes were settled by violence and wars… the call to go to all nations is extremely wide. It still is. There is no room for enemies, no room for ‘others,’ no room for outsiders in Jesus’ commission.
It requires followers of Jesus to see neighbors where we once saw the “other.” It calls us to seek people wherever they might be. It calls us to go to them.
Our first thoughts about “going” probably jump to missionaries. Let’s send more missionaries out to these third world countries to preach and save and do all that mission stuff. But here’s the thing: the church in Africa and Asia and South America… the churches there are growing. The Gospel message is being spread. Compare that with the state of the church in the United States where it’s declining overall. Maybe they should send missionaries to us!
Or, maybe instead of all of us heading to Malawi, Jesus commissions us for right here, right where we are. Jesus commissions us to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all” of Myrtle Beach. Or all of wherever we are from. We are commissioned to do as Jesus did.
It sounds scary. It sounds hard. It sounds very un-Lutheran.
But maybe it starts something like this: We go places and say things. We hug those who are sad and encourage those who need it and applaud those who did a really good job. We are the ones Jesus commissions.
We live the life Jesus lived, we fill others up with love and grace, we give ourselves away for the sake of others. We are the ones Jesus commissions.
We recognize the ways God works in our lives. We learn to name where God is active and alive. We share our story of comfort and hope and support seen in God’s love for us. We are the ones Jesus commissions.
And maybe we haven't spent much time thinking about any of that. But, if we are to live out our commissioning, it’s something we should think about. How has God in Christ added value to your life? Your homework is to think about that, pray about that. Recall a few key moments in your life where you know God was working. Then in your “going” and “saying,” you’re ready should the opportunity to share arise.
But this need not be as scary, intimidating, or as hard as I may have made it sound. Because in all of this, Jesus promises to walk with us, to accompany us in this difficult but important work of going and saying. He will comfort us and strengthen us from this day until the end of time. It is what Jesus promised.
When we touch the water in the baptismal font, we are reminded. We are reminded that we are sent in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and are entrusted with Good News.
When we share in the communion meal, we taste and see our commissioning. Jesus is with us; Jesus feeds us; Jesus sends us.
When we gather as a community to tell and retell the story of faith, support each other in love, hear words of forgiveness and life, we are re-energized for our mission. We are the ones Jesus commissions.
In all things, we learn from Jesus - learn from his examples and his presence. The mission of Jesus is all about the relational acts that bring people together under God’s grace. We are commissioned to be relational with others as Jesus is relational with us.
And with that commission, we see that the end isn’t an end at all; it’s just the beginning. Our story, the church’s story, starts when Jesus commissions us. Our story is still being written and will be for eternity.
You are called, commissioned, and promised Christ’s very presence. You are the one Jesus commissions, until the end of the age.
Easter is an odd holiday. It is probably the most important Sunday of the year for Christians, and yet, compared to Christmas, the long lists, the planning, the nostalgia… they just aren’t there. Maybe babies are more easy to relate to than resurrected saviors.
But, despite the lower nostalgia level, there is just as much pressure on preachers and music directors and choirs and anyone who helps lead and plan worship - maybe even more pressure than at Christmas. Worship and music and energy and preaching all has to live up to the greatest news there could be!
As such, of course I want today to be my best sermon ever. I want to have just the right amount of humor, balanced with perfect insight into what an empty tomb means for you. I want things to touch your heart as well as your mind. I want to have a good hair day. I want to do my best, be my best for you.
I want today to be beautiful and perfect so you know Jesus is risen.
And worship today may check off a few boxes on that “Perfect Easter” list. But chances are, even if I do preach what I consider to be the sermon of a lifetime, something in the sermon will fall short. Our best always falls short in some way or another. And to be honest, even if it is kind of boring for the next 7 minutes of sermon time… Jesus still rises.
As a matter of fact, today shows us that no matter how good or bad our best efforts, Jesus rises from the grave without our help.
For that matter, Jesus rises from the grave despite us trying to keep him there. Take for example the Romans and Religious leaders. We may say they did their worst, but, to them, they were trying their best to get rid of Jesus. The story we told over this past Thursday and Friday shows that they did everything they could to stop him. They captured him. They convicted him. They beat him, nailed him, hung him. They killed him. They laid him in a tomb, sealed it up tight, and put armed guards at the entrance. I’d say that’s a pretty good effort at stopping Jesus.
But it didn’t stop God. An angel shows up, sitting on that huge rock. It’s as if the best efforts of the powers-that-be were nothing more than a convenient place for him to sit. Their best wasn’t able to stop God’s intention for life. Jesus is raised, whether we and our efforts deserve it or not.
I guess things don’t depend on us as much as we’d like to think.
Our best cannot make resurrection true. No matter how hard we try, no matter our words or abilities, no matter how good and pious we are, we don’t make Jesus rise from the grave. Only God can do that. Christ is alive, even when I use the right conditioner for my perfect hair day.
On the other hand, our “best” cannot make God’s love false - not for us and not for others. We try lots of things to restrict - and even entomb - God’s love. We divide and blame. We exclude and harm. We miss-prioritize and look inward on ourselves. God’s love overcomes all that, even that. God’s love powers through.
We are culpable of both - best and worst, good and bad, saint and sinner. And in everything that goes on in our world, in our lives, in our blessings and in our struggles, God has acted in Jesus Christ to tell us, to tell you, that you are loved. No matter what. At your best, at your worst, you are loved.
The promise is in the risen Christ. We may think the point of resurrection is to show how big and powerful God is, but that is only a means to an end. The point is to show us love. God doesn’t abandon Jesus to the grave, and God will not abandon us to sin and death either.
Jesus’ resurrection is the sign, symbol, and promise that God’s redeeming love is stronger than all things - stronger than pain, stronger than death, stronger than us at our best and at our worst. And no matter what our best or worst looks like, resurrection is assurance that God doesn’t give up on us.
In fact, the beauty and surprise of it is… when things are most crummy, God doubles down on us. When we think things are the worst - like a cross, like a tomb, like death - God surprises us with resurrection. With life. With love. Forever. The worst, our worst doesn’t leave us outside of what God has done in Christ.
And yet, even our best doesn’t win this type of love for us. We can’t earn God’s love. It is God’s grace, a gift, that sets us free and gives us life. Nothing we have done or will do makes the resurrection more true or un-true. It is God’s gift to this world. It is God’s gift, given for you.
You are loved at your best, at your worst, when you are just plain you. You are loved and given the gift of Christ’s resurrection for life,
for life now,
for life lived on behalf of others,
for life lived forever.
So, while today may be a bit less nostalgic than other days, it may be a day that we allow ourselves to see God’s love raised up again in our lives. It just may be a day that we can let down our guard and have that message of love and life sink in just a little bit more.
Today we hear the Good News that God loves us at our best and at our worst. God’s love, in and through all things, is victorious. Jesus is raised. Life is given, and life is promised. For you.
He is risen. He is risen! He is risen indeed.
We finally have our answer. It’s Jesus.
We’ve been waiting so long for him to arrive. My whole life, I’ve heard about “the one who is to come.” My parents and grandparents and rabbis would teach me what the prophets said: he will come to set things right for us. He will set us free. He will be a king, greater than David. He is God’s chosen Messiah, Savior, King.
And the rumors are, it’s Jesus. I tend to believe them.
I got to see him a couple of times over the past few months. The way he handles himself, the way he commands an audience... Wherever he goes, people crowd around him. If he’s teaching in the synagogue or walking down the street or even eating in someone’s home, people go out of their way to get close to him. That’s the type of guy he is. That’s the type of leader he is.
I admire him. I admire the way he bided his time, laid the groundwork for this day. He gathered support from the crowds, ready to move into Jerusalem for one big showdown with the Romans. I can’t wait for him to send them running. We’ve got his back. He won’t have to fight alone.
His entrance today was so royal! It’s the way the true messiah, the rightful ruler, would enter! Not walking, but riding. Not quietly, but with a show! And we gave him a royal welcome to match. We waved and cheered! We shouted, “hosanna!” Hosanna to the Son of David!
And he embraced it. He acted out his kingship.
He planned the whole thing. Take the donkey - he set that up. He sent two of his disciples ahead to get the animals, and if they had any problems, they were to say, “the Lord needs them.”
Even the timing of this is perfect. It’s Passover; there are a lot of people here. Plus, it’s a time when we remember God’s ultimate act of salvation, bringing our ancestors out of slavery into freedom! And Jesus is going to do the same thing. He’s going to set us free, give us a new life where we aren’t ruled over by the likes of Rome. He’ll show them what a powerful ruler looks like.
He knew how this would go; he knew what was coming. He wanted to set the tone when he entered Jerusalem, ready to take his throne. He would enter Jerusalem one last time as a lowly prophet but leave as king, seated on high with a crown upon his head.
He will restore Israel to its rightful place. He will drive out the Romans and anything that defies God. He will raise us up with power and might and nothing will defeat us! He will restore us, make things just like they were - but better! He’ll get rid of those who oppose us! Victory and glory are ours!
We have a lot riding on this messiah. Or, should I say, we had a lot riding on this messiah. He had this great wave of momentum and power and authority, and then he went and screwed it all up.
The first thing he does when he gets into Jerusalem - the very first thing! - is he heads to the temple and tosses over the tables of the money changers and those selling sacrifices. He completely disrupts the whole place during the most holy time of year. I mean, what, Jesus? We’re not going to need sacrifices anymore? Please.
He plays up this whole kingdom thing, but all he does is hang around the lame and outcast; he prays and talks with kids and women and riff raff. I always thought it was to build support wherever he could get it, but it turns out, that’s just who he is.
I should’ve seen it sooner. He never really was much of a go-getter. He has a way with words, I’ll give him that, but he never really had the drive to be the best, to be first. He’s always just content with who he is.
It’s fine to focus on peace and healing and welcome, but there comes a time when you’ve got to put your foot down. You’ve got to step up or shut up. We had hopes. Hopes that are ruined.
What about us? What about our feelings? What about our fears? What about us? We gave up everything - everything - to follow you and now you’re just going to throw it all away like this?
You know what they do to little half-hearted rebels like him, right? They kill them. Crucify them. They nail them up on a cross bar and just hang them there. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what they do to Jesus. And good riddance.
We don’t need a king like that. We don’t need a savior like that. We thought he was God’s answer; turns out, we just have more questions.
How naive I was to think that Jesus could actually conquer the powers of this world. His heart is in the right place, but he doesn’t have what it takes. It’s like he’s limited - limited by his compassion. He can’t follow through with what needs to be done. He has it all. He could’ve been great! But he held himself back by doing what he thinks God wants.
You know what? This isn’t what God wants. You think God wants a dead prophet?
All those promises, and this is the best God can do? This is God’s best king? Psht.
This isn’t how the story is supposed to end. It’s not how the parade is supposed to end.
Jesus, to me, to us, to this movement, to this world, Jesus is a failure. A failure. What a waste.
No salvation, no king, not today.
I thought he was the one.
I thought he was going to succeed.
I thought he was going to be our triumphant savior. I guess I was wrong.
It’ll take something pretty drastic - a miracle, no less - to save us now. Nothing can stop what's going to happen - not even us.
What are we going to do with a dead messiah? Better yet, what’s God going to do with a dead messiah?
I guess we’ll have to wait on that answer.
The parable of the sheep and the goats seems simple enough - do nice things for people. Be good, do good. That’s how one gets to be on the right side.
It is pretty straightforward, aside from the question of “how much.” How much good do we need to do? How one answers that question really determines how this sermon goes.
Because I can preach this sermon in a way that makes it feel like you’ve done it. You’ve done enough to get in. While there are poor and hungry all around us, there’s a lot we as individuals can’t do. We can’t give a meal to the hungry in Africa. We can’t put every person in a house. We can’t help everyone, but we can help those we run across - and we do at times. As part of a community of faith, we pool our resources together and donate to places like Helping Hand and Lutheran World Relief who fulfill those gracious deeds on our behalf, in our neighborhoods and around the world. And though we may hate to hear it, even our taxes do that some. We are part of feeding, clothing, sheltering, even if we aren’t physically present. That’s pretty good.
Or... I can preach this sermon in a way that makes you feel like you haven’t done enough - and that you will never do enough. Because we can always do more. The sheer fact that there are hungry kids in our very community means we - you and I - don’t do enough. We avert our eyes when we see the guy holding the cardboard sign at the stoplight. We tell people on the street that we don’t have any change. We buy more than we need and waste the rest. We don’t live simply so others can simply live. There’s an imbalance in our world. Our selfishness and greed are what keeps it that way. We don’t feed when we should, we don’t clothe when we could. We all always fall short in caring for others.
How do you hear this parable?
We can pat ourselves on the back for opening up our fellowship hall to host anyone who is hungry. Or we can beat ourselves up over the way we should’ve responded to the lady outside the grocery store. We can glory in giving away things that we don’t want or need anymore, and we can appease ourselves with excuses and a “yeah but.” Any inadequate response to someone who is needy can easily be justified. Any adequate response can easily be seen as futile.
But in each of these responses, based purely on whether we do these things enough or not, we control if we are on the right or the left. We are in control. And ultimately, we like it like that. We like that idea of controlling our own destiny. We can feed, clothe, visit, work, earn, control our way to heaven.
Oh, yeah, we like that. Control is the mythos of our society. It’s in America’s DNA. And, the thing is, it’s not just controlling our own destiny that we like; it’s that we get to control God that way, too. We get to tell God how to judge us because, see? Look at this resume! We’re good, so good that God owes us heaven. We become our own savior.
But there is one thing about the story that I think is essential to understanding it properly. And this one thing challenges all the notions we have about good or bad, right or left; it even challenges our notion of control. The essential detail is the surprise on both accounts. Both the sheep and the goats were surprised.
If even the sheep were surprised that they found themselves where they were, then that means they weren’t doing these benevolent things in order to gain or earn something. Feeding and clothing and giving wasn’t a strategy for them to work their way up or to knowingly get on God’s good side. The surprise means they weren’t expecting any reward for what they were doing. They were just doing it.
Which means it’s less about what we do and more who we are.
And who we are is a lot harder to control.
Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, ethical behavior is indeed a response to Jesus’ commands. But the behavior doesn’t come from effort, from trying harder. Instead, as Matthew points out in various ways, it comes from who you are. Another way Jesus says it, “good fruit comes from good trees.”
There are lots of examples Jesus uses. In chapter 7, Jesus uses that aforementioned line: “good trees bear good fruit; bad trees produce bad fruit.” In chapter 12, Jesus expresses this same sentiment: “The fruit tells you about the tree.” In the parable of the sower in chapter 13, it is the good soil that produces good grain. All of which is to say, our fruit, our actions, come from who we are, from how we are nurtured and nourished, from what type of care is taken of us.
I’m not sure if we like this more than the control part or not.
Because this way, this way of good fruit... heaven is not up to us. Our actions aren’t stepping stones to the correct, good, right side. The fruit that is feeding, clothing, visiting isn’t because of right choices or right attitudes. This is not a controlled plan to get a reward; it’s all a surprise.
Instead, caring for our neighbor emerges from something beyond our control. Action comes from something more significant than a prize. Good deeds come from something more selfless than looking out for ourselves. Grace comes from something more loving than laws.
I’d dare to say it all comes from Jesus.
Our ability to care for another human being comes from Jesus.
It comes from Jesus who, through baptism, grafts us into himself; he is the vine, we are the branches, and we grow in him.
It comes from Jesus, who, through the communion meal, fertilizes our souls to spur on good growth in us and through us.
It comes from Jesus, who, in community, trains our development so that the fruit we bear will be good fruit, able to feed and nourish and strengthen others.
What makes us faithful and generous sheep is not just a redoubled effort to follow moral rules. Rather, all these good deeds come from a deeper understanding of the gifts Jesus Christ gives. These gifts of nourishment, growth, and salvation put us in a place to be the generous sheep of God.
Not because we followed the formula or did just enough, but because Jesus shapes more than our actions; Jesus shapes who we are. And because of who Jesus makes us into, then we can live, unsurprisingly, as sheep, ready and expecting to serve all God’s children.
Jonah, appropriate for a pastor’s kid, was born on a Sunday.
For months before, Dana and I planned and prepared; we packed bags and put together furniture. We even had arrangements if baby #1 was to come on a Sunday morning. (Those plans came in handy!) But once the planning was done, there wasn’t anything to do but wait for him to show up. Time was filled with expectation. Hope. Anticipation. We wondered when it was going to happen… and we couldn’t wait for it to happen!
My grandfather is 98 years old - will be 99 two months from tomorrow.
He still lives at home, with a coherent mind and enough good health that he very well might see 100. But he doesn’t get to do anything he used to love doing. He can’t go out in his garden any more. He can’t fish or drive. He’s lived alone in his house since his wife, my grandmother, died nearly 20 years ago. There isn’t anything to do now but wait. “I’m just ready to go on,” he often says when we go visit. His time is filled with waiting. Loneliness. A sense of being trapped. He wonders and waits for death to come… and we as family, selfishly, can wait for that.
Anticipation, wonder, eagerness, dread, agitation, fear, longing, loss… all are symptoms of waiting, and all arise depending on what - or who - we are waiting for. It is experienced differently in nearly every case - but often, waiting is hard.
Waiting for the Lord is a different kind of waiting altogether.
This parable about wise and foolish bridesmaids is about waiting - about how to deal with the wait, about what to do, what to bring, and how to respond. On first reading, it is a pretty harsh parable. Half the group runs off to go grab more oil after the others refuse to share, and then those who left are locked out of the wedding banquet. Forever.
Where’s the grace? Not in this parable, apparently. Which doesn’t bode well for us. Haven’t we all be guilty of poor planning at times? Forgetting to pack extra underwear for our vacation, forgetting the one thing we actually needed at the grocery store, failing to remember to bring along our keys so we can get into our office.
Too bad, says this parable. Be perfect! Always have what you need! Bring enough oil to last you through the night! Good advice if you’re waiting on the bridegroom to show up a few hours late. But what if you’ve been waiting 2,000 years? How much oil do you need then?
It is tough for us to be anything like these “wise” bridesmaids. We’ve stopped waiting. When this parable was first bouncing around Galilee, everyone was anticipating Jesus’ second coming - at any second! “You never know! Is today the day? Who knows, but it’ll be soon!”
This isn’t something we really do. After two millennia, we’re pretty accustomed to the bridegroom’s absence. It’s a long time to wait expectantly. It doesn’t mean his return isn’t happening one day, but we’re definitely less concerned.
So, what do we do with this parable, especially those of us who most likely aren't as ready as we think? How do we wait? Expectantly? Preparedly? How do we do that?
One thing that struck me this week in reading and in conversation, particularly for our context and our lives, is that maybe this whole oil thing is the wrong way to look at the parable. Maybe the foolish bridesmaids’ lack of oil wasn’t the problem. Maybe the problem was that they left.
At the critical moment when they were to welcome the bridegroom, they abandoned their posts. They were foolish because they acted like their primary job was to have lots of oil in their lamps, when really this was only a secondary task. Their main job was to welcome the bridegroom - welcome the bridegroom when he shows up. They were to celebrate with him! But because they got distracted with tangential, showy concerns, they missed his arrival, and then they missed out on the party.
Maybe preparing doesn’t mean get stuff, do stuff, have stuff. Maybe preparing means we know what is at the top of our job description. We meet Jesus whenever he shows up, wherever he shows up.
Which might be even harder for us because Jesus shows up every day, all the time, in places and at times we least expect. God, in fact, is always coming to us, but never on our terms, according to our calendar, or in line with our expectations.
We can sit on our hands and wait, expectantly staring at the sky… or we can welcome Jesus in those we come across everyday. As we’ve heard throughout Matthew’s Gospel and we’ll read more about next week, just as we do it for the hungry and thirsty and homeless and naked and sick and imprisoned, we do it for Jesus. We meet Jesus in our neighbors.
As long as there are people who need to hear the gospel, and as long as there are hungry people to feed, strangers to welcome, sick people to take care of, outcasts to include, and all kinds of people in need to visit, we have lots of opportunity to greet Jesus.
However, there are lots of things in our world that distract us, call us away from meeting Jesus in those around us.
For some, it is preoccupation with getting this second coming exactly right. We have to be ready for when he comes! And yet, they miss the bridegroom who shows up right next to them.
For others, it is finding and storing up enough oil. They are so concerned with maintaining their own rule-following-oil-supply that seeing Christ in their neighbor is a distraction from being the best doggone lamp holder they can be. (Are we called to be lamp holders?)
Even some listen to those around them, and the ill advice given, that what they have and who they aren’t enough; “the the bridegroom wants more than your presence,” others say. And so they fret and worry, trying so hard to be “not themselves” that they miss the party Jesus brings.
And if we’re honest, we all get distracted by our own inadequacies, our own self-righteousness, our own need to be right, be enough, have enough.
It’s not that preparing isn’t important; it’s that we should know what and who we are preparing for. We should prepare knowing that the most important thing is Christ. It’s being with Jesus that is the most important thing, not having or getting or doing the right stuff.
Because when one prepares for the coming of Christ, is there really any way that we on our own can prepare properly? Can we really give Jesus the welcome he deserves? Not really. But the good thing is, Jesus doesn’t need or want that; Jesus wants you - he wants you at the party, at the banquet, with him. Knowing who we wait for shapes how we wait.
And we don’t need to wait as long as we think. The crucified and risen Lord is already here with us - always with us. And we greet him in service to neighbor, in participation in community, in a life lived in grace toward others.
We wait. It’s easier said than done. But we know who we are waiting for. We wait, ready to see Jesus when, where, and in whomever he comes. We wait… and then we welcome Jesus into our midst.
What a bizarre little parable.
A king sends out invitations for the prince’s wedding party. This initial invitation to the feast is met with rejection by those invited. That’s odd. No one reject’s a king’s royal summons, but we’ll let it slide.
A second invitation sweetens the deal: Look! The dinner is set! The prime rib is ready for carving! It’s going to be delicious! Who wouldn’t want to come to this party? Hobnobbing with the king AND free food? But those who are invited are apparently unimpressed, coming up with mundane excuses. Again, this is a bit unusual, but it’s the kind of unusual we expect in a parable from Jesus.
But then things go completely off the rails. We watch in horror as the king’s servants are seized, mistreated, and killed. I didn’t see that coming! How did the stakes suddenly get so high? And the weirdness and violence are just getting started. When the king hears, he retaliates! He goes to war against his own people, unleashing an army. Before we know it, the murderers are all murdered. The city, presumably the king’s own city, is a pile of burning ash.
But, maybe the weirdest thing yet, in the midst of a whirlwind of war and violence, we learn that the party is still on! Invitations go out again, this time to commoners on the street corners of a (destroyed?) city. Apparently, while the soldiers were out doing their killing and burning, little Sterno burners beneath silver chafing dishes were still keeping all the food hot for whatever eventual guests would come.
What a bizzare parable.
On the surface level, it’s pretty easy to interpret. Those who reject the king’s invitation and all the subsequent destruction is interpreted here as God’s judgment on those who rejected the new thing God was doing in Jesus. And the invitation to commoners on the streets points toward the surprising ways the invitation to God’s banquet is continually extended to those who once were considered outsiders.
So, a new thing in Jesus; we like Jesus. We’re in! We’re good.
The broad, open invitation to come to the banquet is easy and affirming. But before we decide that this parable is simply a ‘thumbs up’ to we who are on the right side, there’s a bit more to the parable. There is a final scene to Jesus’ story, and it is a doozy.
There’s a guest who doesn’t have a wedding robe. And the king isn’t happy about it. But the king doesn’t just kick him out, no. He binds him up and throws him into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Again, this is bizarre. Of course the guy wasn’t dressed appropriately; he didn’t know he’d be going to a party! He was pulled off the street at the last minute. (Plus, maybe his wedding robe got burned up by the army, who did, afterall, destroy his city.)
What do we make of this? Well, Matthew is warning his community and us against self-satisfaction. Sure, the doors are open to all, the invitation is for all. But once you’re in, there’s more. There are expectations. You can’t go along acting like you’re not part of the party.
All this is very un-Lutheran. More is required? Those of us who are saved by grace through faith apart from works of the law?!?! There’s more? What “more” is there beyond God’s invitation? What “more” is necessary? What “more” is demanded? What “more” is expected?
There are many ways to look at what this “more,” this robe, is.
Appropriate clothing could be a metaphor for the need for appropriate behavior in the new, inclusive community.
It could be a warning against complacency and taking God’s invitation for granted.
The robe could show us that we don’t get to do, act, wear what we want at God’s banquet but instead are to wear, act, do as God wants.
Or, it’s further invitation to party. The kingdom of heaven is a banquet, and it’s time to put on your party dress, your dancing shoes, and get with the program. The music is playing, the drinks are flowing, the food is delicious, and everyone is there. Act like it’s a party.
But whatever we take this wedding robe to mean, it all comes down to a choice - again, a not very Lutheran word - but a choice. And maybe it shouldn’t be as taboo as we make it out to be, because we make choices every day. We choose what spiritual clothes we’re going to wear.
In light of the incredible invitation and grace of God, truly knowing that God has opened up the kingdom banquet for you to come, what do we choose to wear? How do we choose to act?
We can continue to wear the status quo clothes of “main street” - judgement and hypocrisy and anti-whatever. We can continue on, caught off-guard at the splendid spread God set out before us. God welcomes us to a party with the Son; are we really going to live like nothing is different?
God invites us in; God invites us to get ready to party. So, it’s time to do more than just show up to the banquet. Because God did more than just show up. God sent Jesus so that a party could be thrown!
Because of that, and because God assures us that we’re invited to the party, we have a chance to put on our party clothes now, showing the world who and whose we are. We put on love for others. We put on grace. We put on welcome, hospitality, celebration, invitation. We come dressed for the party.
And as we wear, act, do as God wants, others start to see it. As others see it, we get to let them know they are invited to the party, too.
And if you still aren’t sure what to wear, if you wonder where your wedding robe is, if you feel like your best clothes are lost in a closet somewhere, just look to your baptism. Look to what Jesus has given you. Look at the gift of being clothed with Christ’s righteousness. (Galatians 3:27) God has given us what we need to live as invitees to the banquet. God feeds us with a foretaste of the feast to come in bread and wine. The Spirit plays party music in the background wherever we go. God wants you there.
We are invited. And so is everyone else. We can dress like it, act like it, and we can get ready to party.
Jesus certainly has an interesting definition of “fair wage.” It’s almost like he enables a poor work ethic. With people like this guy running our businesses, nothing would get done.
This parable brings up the question of ‘fairness’ in our minds. What is fair and what isn’t?
Like, I’ll play soccer in the backyard with Jonah, and when he falls down or slides or trips because he was running too fast after the ball, I don’t stop. I take the ball while he lays there helplessly, and I score a goal. There aren’t timeouts in soccer; the game keeps going even if you’re on the ground! In my mind, that’s the rule. Following the rules is what is fair.
But in his mind, it’s not fair. I’m bigger, stronger, faster, wiser, and more soccer-experienced than a seven year old (thankfully), and I took advantage of that.
Jonah’s perspective is often how we look at what is “fair.” We look at what is fair, not only to us, but what is fair for us. Fairness is judged by our own wants, needs, hopes, expectations. Having daddy rip a shot off from 50 feet while you’re on the ground… not fair!
When we look at this parable, it is fair? Is it fair that the ones who worked long hours got the same amount as the ones who worked only one? Not really. It’s a strange model for vineyard management.
And I feel that I need to remind you that this is a parable, not life advice. No one asks, “how should I run my vineyard, Jesus?” No. Jesus here is telling us, “God’s kingdom is like…” This gives us a sense of the kingdom of heaven. There is no “go and do likewise.”
We don’t go and do because this parable isn’t about payment and wages. Instead, it is about grace and an undeserving gift. It’s about what Jesus brings to the world and how he transforms it.
While we may be relieved to be able to revert back to our type of fairness in our day-to-day world, God’s fairness (or unfairness?) is what shines here… and it upsets us when we start to think about it. No matter what time the landowner went to find workers, he gave them all the same gift. No matter how late, God gives the kingdom.
Which, I think on good days, we can get behind. People who are willing to do something, sure. Include them. But if you really want to get a sense of where our fairness line is drawn, think about if he started giving out daily wages to people who didn’t even work one hour. The landowner was pretty close to doing that anyway.
What if God gives the same gifts you and I have to those who haven’t worked for the kingdom as long - or ever? Our fairness alarm goes off, and we start really to put up a fuss. “The parable doesn’t say that! At least those last ones did something!” But what if God is that generous?
“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Dare we hope this is the case?
God can do what God wants, whether we deserve it or not.
In reality, this parable and this vineyard owner should obliterate any ideas we have of “deserving” when it comes to the kingdom of heaven. It is not about what we deserve, or what we think we deserve, or what we think others deserve. It is not based on what we do or do not do. The emphasis of this parable is squarely on the generosity of the vineyard owner.
And there are two levels that we can see that generosity.
The first is a very practical kind of view: The owner gives, grants, bestows upon each person what they need - enough to live for that day, no matter how many hours they have worked.
See, each worker rolled out of bed that morning with nothing - no job, no wage, no livelihood. Each one is dependent on the landowner, who came and sought them out and gave them work - a purpose and a livelihood.
Likewise, each of us are given everything - our life, our purpose, the ability to roll out of bed, a breath, a job, an income… all of it is a gift from God. Our thoughts, the involuntary beating of our hearts, the air around us - all a gift from God. The workers are dependent on the landowner for their daily bread; by the same token, we are dependent on God for each and every day, too.
How easily we forget all that and start to think that we somehow deserve what we have - and maybe even deserve more. How easy it is to forget over the course of the day that every good thing that comes to us is a gracious gift from God. God wasn’t obligated to create us, and yet did so anyway out of a love that needed to be expanded and shared. When we forget that all we have is a gift, we so easily become resentful of God’s generosity to others.
God loves us, loves you, enough to give you today.
Which leads to the next level. God’s grace is about more than what we have and see here. We learn that the kingdom of heaven is like… a God who doesn’t give us what we deserve. God, it turns out, is not fair when it comes to the kingdom of heaven. God doesn’t play by our rules. God does not give us what we deserve.
And thank God for that! Because if each of us got exactly what we deserved, where would we be? We can only work for, be, live out the kingdom if God comes to us as we sit idly by. We don’t deserve entrance, but God lavishes grace, mercy, and salvation on all of us, no matter our circumstances or situations. At the end of the parabolic day, we’ll all be gifted with grace.
It is an undeserving gift. But that is what Jesus brings to the world. That is how Jesus transforms it. Not with some mediocre, down the middle kind of way, but through a radical love - a love that when we see it, we wonder if God doesn’t go a little too far sometimes.
But that is the nature of God. To give grace. To give us life, both physical and spiritual. To transform our world. To welcome us and all people. To blow out of the water our notion of what is fair. All to give us exactly what we don’t deserve.
We have a pretty long lesson from the book of Matthew today. There are three main sections, all revolving around the issue of forgiveness.
The first section has Jesus teaching on what to do when someone sins against you. It seems that Jesus knew that even his expert teaching wouldn’t keep us from sinning, so he gives us some tips on how to handle it when we do. Essentially, talk it over with the person. Don’t gossip about them behind their back but talk directly. If they still don’t respond, take another person with you.
The second section is Peter’s follow-up question to such a scenario: how many times do I have to forgive someone? Seven times? And you know what? Good for Peter. We give him and the other disciples a hard time for sometimes being dunces, but here, Peter tries. He goes above and beyond a reasonable amount of forgiveness, all the way up to seven times - which is kind of a lot of times.
But Jesus isn’t impressed. He ups the ante to seventy-seven times - or, as many other translations put it, seventy times seven - 490 times! Jesus’ point here is that forgiveness is never done. Don’t count it; just do it. And keep on doing it. Forgiveness in our lives should be abundant - even more abundant than we think.
And then we get to the parable. A king wants to settle accounts with his servants. He brings in one who owes 10,000 talents. If you check your Study Bible, you’ll see that one talent was the equivalent of 15 years’ wages. Fifteen years! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for workers in the United States in the fourth quarter of 2017 was $857 per week or $44,564 per year for a 40-hour workweek. Ten thousand talents, then, is about 6 billion, 684 million, 600 thousand dollars. The absurd amount is all to say that it’s something this laborer could never pay back. Long story short, the king forgives him the debt. Grace abounds!
But the parable doesn’t stop there. We run into another slave who owes money to this guy who just got his debt forgiven. This debt is only 100 denarii - one denarius was one day’s wage. So, using the numbers above, this guy owed about 17 thousand dollars. Not insignificant, but *slightly* less than 6.7 billion. It’s a test! And he fails it.
The other slaves who are eavesdropping notice and run off and tell the king about the situation. The king, in turn, punishes the guy for not forgiving.
A few things here. First, Jesus just got done talking about forgiveness abounding - being limitless. Why continue the parable after the king forgives the huge debt to include all the forgiveness failures? Also, why does the king lash out after only one failure? What happened to forgiving seventy seven times? Or the other servants - where is their forgiving nature? Heck, where even is their “going and pointing out the fault when the two of you are alone”? They just throw him under the bus!
We often try to identify with a character in the parable; and the thing is, no matter who we identify with - the king, the servant, the other servants around - everyone fails. Everyone in the parable fails at living up to what Jesus teaches about forgiveness.
What I think this shows us is that God’s Kingdom, when lived out the way Jesus presents it, brings chaos to our lives and our world and the way we want things to be. God’s Kingdom is not based on our justices or tit for tat, but an unlimited amount of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. And when that mercy, grace, and forgiveness show up, chaos breaks loose in our nicely ordered, judgment-filled lives.
We want our logic to win the day. We want there to be just-desserts. Failure leads to punishment. It’s only right. And by appealing for justice - or what we judge to be justice - we push our agenda upon God, up against what God calls for: unlimited mercy, forgiveness seventy-seven times, conversation with each other face to face about our wrongs.
But what about those bad guys in our world? The murders and rapists and whatever else? What do we do there?
Well, we make a decision, don’t we? We make the best decision we can. And the best decision we can make is to deal with those people in a way that looks more like our justice - with laws and juries and jails. Maybe we can forgive, but it is unlikely that there will be any sort of mercy or reconciliation going on.
And what becomes clear in all of this is that our best, our very best as individuals and as a society, our best isn’t good enough for God’s Kingdom. The very best we have to offer in the face of evil is not worthy of God’s Kingdom. We fall short of God’s glory, even when we are doing what we judge to be right.
And the only option left for us is repentance. That we admit we are broken, that our world is broken, that even in protecting others, we fall short of God’s standard of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
At the end of the parable, Jesus says that his heavenly Father will torture you unless you forgive from your heart. Nothing conjures up genuine love and forgiveness like scaring the hell out of people. Is God going to throw you under the bus if you don’t forgive unlimitedly?
And I think this is why it is so important that we know the story of the Bible - especially the story Matthew has been telling us. Because through this story, we see that God is not petty like the King at the end of this parable who is fed up after one bad judgment on our part.
Instead, we hear of a God who establishes a Kingdom to welcome the broken, the poor, the lowly. Blessings go to those who aren’t good enough by our standards.
We hear of a God who sends us a King who is unlike any other earthly king. This King will rule differently.
We hear of a God who is present with us in Jesus, our Emmanuel. And we hear that this Jesus will do exactly what it takes, no matter what it takes, to make sure we are welcome in God’s Kingdom.
And ultimately, we hear of God’s forgiveness changing people - healing, raising, bringing life. God’s forgiveness and mercy, it seems, re-creates life. It resurrects something out of brokenness and pain and death. God’s forgiveness does something that we can’t make or do.
Our God is a saving God, one who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Our God is one who practices what Jesus preached. Our God is one who forgives, not just seven times, but billions and billions of times more than that. One might even say we can’t count it.
With this parable, Jesus calls us to take forgiveness seriously. And his overall teaching is that our lives, our church, should be like his life - patterned after the mercy and grace of God’s free forgiveness. As God forgives, so should we forgive.
When confronted with this parable, when confronted with forgiving seventy-seven times, when confronted with direct conversation, all we can say is, “Lord, have mercy.”
And know that God grants forgiveness, now and forever.
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
Why, we are, of course. Now, we may not say it out loud - we have better common sense than that - but we know it deep down. We are faithful people, here at church on a Wednesday (not even a Sunday!), and we live pretty good lives, unlike most other people. To be sure, we aren’t the top; there are holy people ahead of us - people like Billy Graham and Mother Teresa, but they are a special case, afterall. That being said, we know exactly what it means to be a good Christian, thank-you-very-much. I mean, if people would just listen to us and do what we know is right, then everything would be so much better - everything from Congress right down to the Church.
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
We are, because we act like children. Selfish, needy, know-it-all, give me dessert even when I didn’t eat my dinner children.
Which is probably missing the point of what Jesus was saying.
So, let’s rewind and look at what Jesus really was telling us.
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus says we must change and become like children; become humble like a child; welcome one such child. And the key word in all of that is “humble.” Otherwise, we may get an image of snotty-nosed brats instead of Jesus’ presentation of a child who is utterly dependent on others to provide, protect, and care for them.
Unfortunately, we kind of act the opposite of a humble, dependent child. First, we act a little more spoiled than humble, imposing our preferences as inerrant truth, all the while silently judging those who don’t see things the obvious right way.
And second, we are far from dependent on God. We make grand plans for ourselves and do everything in our power to ensure those plans come to fruition. We make plans for our own protection - plans via accumulation, plans via weapons, plans via aligning ourselves with the right people. It’s a nice idea to rely on God and all, but we really need to have our own self-interest in mind.
Yet Jesus calls us to depend and rely and trust on God and not our own power or status.
And nothing calls our self-importance or power or status into question quite like the phrase, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Today is the ultimate lesson in humility.
Today is the ultimate remembering who we are.
Today is the ultimate focusing back on God.
On Ash Wednesday, unlike any other day, we Christians remember who we are: we are dust. We as Christians remember where we all head: to dust we shall return. This really puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?
All our plans and preferences, all our judgments and justifications. We are nothing... nothing but dust.
And yet, we are dust that God has breathed Spirit and life into. We are dust that God has meticulously fashioned for relationship. We are dust that God has molded and shaped for a purpose. And that is the ultimate remembrance this day: God has made us, and we are God’s own.
And though we are but dust, and one day we will return to dust, we trust are God’s.
Though we are dust, God loves us.
Though we are dust, God gives us life - life now and life to come.
And while we sometimes act like children in the worst ways, we are God’s beloved children; and God, like the greatest of any parent, because of love, won’t let us go as easily as we let God go. God forever washes, cleans, and claims us in the waters of baptism. God feeds our spirit at Jesus’ table, as any parent ensures their child has the nourishment they need. We are God’s children - cared for so much that God will sacrifice everything for us.
As we remember that - as we remember that we are but dust made alive for relationship - that changes our perspective a little bit, doesn’t it? On our own, we are nothing and will turn back to nothing - but with God, because of God, we are beloved children… what a gift.
Remembering that is true for us really changes our perspective, and yet, when we remember that is true for others, then we really start to enact humility. Maybe we no longer fight like preschoolers in the sandbox, but instead learn to share and care and play together. It is no longer an “us” and “them,” or “our way” or “the wrong way,” but it is all God’s way.
Because we are all dust.
And we are all loved by a God who made us, saves us, and gives us life.
Today is a day that the promises we proclaim at our baptisms and the promises that will be proclaimed at our funerals come together. The promises God proclaims at our birth and death, at our baptisms and burials, of our past and future… God’s promises for all of who are we meet in this day. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. We come from God and to God we shall go. There is so much that gets in the way of this simple truth.
We are God’s beloved children.
God chooses to hold us forever.
God invites us to Jesus’ dinner table.
Christ is with us.
These promises outlast everything - even us and our attitudes.
We are God’s beloved children, whom Jesus came to save. And to claim. And to welcome home. Now and forever.
It’s the Transfiguration of our Lord.
And a lot of us - preachers included - don’t usually know what to do with a day like today. It’s hard to wrap our minds around this experience of Jesus because, well, we weren’t there. We get to hear how “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” God shows up in a cloud and says, “Listen to him!” That’s what we’re told. And this week was one of those weeks where I thought to myself, “so what?” It’s hard to find this story important because it’s so outside of normal experiences, and I wasn’t there to take it all in.
See, I can tell you about mountain-top experiences in my own life - those high points that changed me, that redirected my life. I can say that working at Lutheridge for many summers turned me into who I am today. I can tell of campfires and skits; of friends who are now family; of devotions and vespers and the spirit of that place. I can even say it was literally on the top of a mountain. I can pour my heart out over this time in my life. And a lot of people would go, “oh, that’s nice!” Life changing for me, just an anecdote for you.
But, turnabout is fair play! You might tell me of some life-changing thing in your life - that semester you studied abroad or the professor who shifted your worldview or the time you met your childhood idol - and they actually lived up to it! And I’d say, “great!” I can empathize and understand cognitively what it means, but I don’t really know.
Such is the Transfiguration.
We respond like this because we didn’t experience those things. We don’t know what it was really like. And no matter the words, the descriptors, how intricately detailed story is, if we didn’t experience it, we only grasp a fraction of what it really means.
Being told that something is important, a big deal, that we should believe this or that… being told doesn’t much matter. We need to feel it. Experience it.
And so, we preachers are tasked with telling you about something that can only be experienced. No matter what I say or teach or preach about Transfiguration and meaning, it won’t matter unless we can feel God’s glory. Explaining Moses’ and Elijah’s presence won’t matter unless we sense God’s redemption. Bright and shiny Jesus doesn’t mean much unless that brightness enlightens our lives.
We’re pretty good at telling people stuff. We tell people what the Bible says, what God meant, why we do this or that (because we always have). What we’re not so good at is helping people experience the God of transfiguration and transformation, of mountain tops and means of grace.
Maybe that’s above our pay grade. I sure know that I can’t make an experience of God happen. And so, I think more often that not, we return to telling. Just trust us! Even if you don’t feel it.
We can’t make it happen. But just to remind you: God can. Jesus does.
Jesus takes normal fishermen up the mountain to show them a new revelation of the Messiah. They had been told their entire lives the whats and whos of the Messiah; but now, God communicates all that through experience. It is an experience Peter wants to hold on to. It is an experience that overwhelms them. It is an experience that they surely remember.
Jesus shows us the grace and splendor of God. Jesus leads us to where God acts. And that is how those godly, transfiguring moments happen in our lives. In the beginning of our lesson, Jesus calls us to follow him, to be a disciple and hear, learn, follow.
Jesus says to us, “come with me up the mountain,” and we follow where Jesus leads. Following Jesus puts us in places and gives us opportunities to experience the love and grace of God in a transfiguring kind of way.
Sometimes, yes, following Jesus does take us to mountain-top experiences - life changing and beautiful, a brilliant display of God doing something powerful and meaningful in our lives. But even down the mountain - down the mountain where we are most of the time - we get to journey with a resurrected Christ, an Easter Jesus, who is present even in non-mountainous places of our lives.
Following Jesus helps us experience God in all the myriad of ways God shows up.
God sends the Spirit to be with us and surround us. God feeds us in a meal of bread and wine. God gathers us for worship, creates a community of people around us, and gives us opportunities to experience transformation.
And I’d say if there was any way that we as a community of faith create experiences with God, it is simply through listening to what Jesus says. As Jesus tells us elsewhere, “Love God, love others.” We as St. Philip Lutheran try to listen as best we can, and through those words put into action, Jesus leads us to opportunities to experience God. There is transformation and a realization that God’s glory is here, is present, is working and active and alive in our world and in our lives.
Our Reading Buddies get to see it. They see it a child’s eyes when they finally get it, when that kid can read that sentence or sound out that word. There is God’s glory.
Those who volunteer at our homeless meals see it in the appreciative thank you from one of our guests when they get a ziplock bag of socks, snacks, and a toothbrush. There is God’s glory.
Parents of some of our preschoolers see it in the gift of a scholarship to attend. Without the financial support St. Philip gives, many of those kids wouldn’t have a solid educational and social foundation upon which to build. There is God’s glory.
These experiences are all around us. God’s glory is waiting to be experienced. Jesus calls us to follow. He leads us to places that transform us - and then takes us to places where the glory we have seen can transform others.
It’s ironic to talk about faith as experience as I preach words at you, and it is hard to name the ways to experience God because each of us has a different story of seeing the divine in our lives.
And yet, God works here and there, in each of us, in words and in our experiences. It’s transformation; it’s transfiguration; it’s grace. It’s God changing us and changing the world through us.
I’ve told you a lot about it.
How about you experience it for yourself?
Bio 1 - Esther
Bio 2 - Ruth
(Note: the biographies are of bold women throughout history. The audio quality of these are not great because of their location to the audio recorder.)
So, you can tell that today’s sermon is going to be a little different than usual. Different isn’t always as bad as we in the church like to think. Sometimes, we (individuals, groups, congregations) don’t grow or develop because growing would mean something changes; we hold on to what is good - or even simply what is - never knowing if the change could move us from good to great.
Growing, doing, stepping out is part of what being bold means. Boldness is a call to action, a call to live, claimed and called by God. We are hearing stories today of several women throughout history who have acted in God’s bold ways.
Esther and Ruth were bold. Esther speaks the word of a God who preserves and saves life. Ruth is the outsider whose life turns out to be essential for telling the complete story of God’s ways among us.
Boldness comes in many forms. It can be big, loud, attention-grabbing. Or it can be firm and quiet. But in it all, no matter what form boldness takes, this willingness to risk is always right when done in conjunction with God’s purpose of love.
Bio 3 - Rosa Parks
There are times when I wonder what I would do.
What would I do in that situation - were I to show up at an empty tomb I expected to be filled and sealed, were I sitting on that bus in 1955, were I to be in a situation of decision: to be bold or not? To be right - not my right, but rather, God’s right.
I think many of us avoid being bold like we avoid the plague. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves, or create conflict, or we don’t want others to judge us.
We all know someone who seeks out ways to be bold. It seems they’re always on the front lines of whatever is going on or making unprompted statements on the topic of the day or taking the road few choose to travel - and making sure people know that. But I’m not so sure that’s being bold in the ways we’re talking about today. To me, that often is boldness for their sake, not for God’s sake.
True boldness as we talk about it here today is about God’s will, God’s ways. We don’t often hear all the stories of boldness in our world - of doing God’s will behind the scenes. And in all the stories today, none of these women sought out to be bold, nor were they bold for boldness’ sake. Instead, it seems that they were in particular situations, and God was able to give them just enough courage, strength, willingness to be bold so that God’s way of love would shine in the darkness.
And while we focus on women’s stories today, stories we don’t tell often enough, we know that God calls each and every one of us. That God doesn’t put limits on the love we can share, the role we can play, the boldness we can live. God’s call comes to each of us to live boldly for the sake of the Gospel.
Bio 4 - Kate Nolan
Bio 5 - Summary of Bold Women
And so, we as people of faith; we as the congregation of St. Philip Lutheran; we as individual children of God: we have the call to be bold - and not bold for boldness sake, but bold for the sake of the Gospel. We step out in boldness, step outside of our normal way of doing things, sometimes let go of the way things are so that we can share the love of God in a way it hasn’t been done in a while, or ever.
We’ve done it before. St. Philip stepped out boldly with our Forward in Faith vision and plan so that we could more effectively live out the mission God is calling us to here and now. And my guess is, we will be in that spot again. We’ll need to be bold for the sake of the Gospel. Bold in a way that says grace is alive in this world. Bold to share and live God’s vision in this world. Bold to grow in ministry, faith, and relationship with God.
And God will be there, each step of the way. God is there, with bold women as examples in our lives; with a meal to sustain; with water and word to wash; with community, with Spirit, with a Savior, with love… with a love bold enough to to call us, call us to share in the Gospel.
What we have here is a parable about good versus evil.
A man plants a bunch of wheat in his field; during the night, an enemy comes and scatters some weeds among the seeds. Wheat, good. Weeds, bad. No inbetween. Which are you?
This scene kind of reminds me of Batman. Remember the Batman TV show from ages ago? No, not the ones in the early twenty-teens. Or the ones in the 80s and 90s. I’m talking about the one with BAM and POW and Shark Repellent Bat-Spray. You had Batman and Robin, the above reproach good guys; then you had all the over-the-top bad guys - the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and more. And there was no inbetween. Good versus evil. It was obvious who was on what side, kind of like this parable.
More recent Batman movies, however, are a bit more nuanced. There is some ambiguity on goodness and badness. And that type of trend has continued on through other TV shows and movies. People aren’t purely one or the other. Shows like Dexter, Breaking Bad, and the Americans all have us kind of rooting for the bad guys.
The nuance, the tension, the gray area is more real to life, isn’t it? When are things ever so clear cut as they were in 1960s Batman?
It’s easy to look at this parable in a simple, straightforward way and say, “I’m wheat because, well, look at me! I’m at church, and I’m nice to people.” And then there are all those bad people out there, the weeds that choke out all the goodness in this world.
And yes, surely, there are bad people out there, and there are good people, too. But really, life is crazy. It’s good and bad all rolled into one. Not just out there, but in here, in us.
The enemy sows weeds in and among us; that enemy thwarts God’s desire that all people enjoy abundant life. There is evil and suffering in the world. There is evil and suffering in us, sometimes because of us. It all stands against what God wants.
Martin Luther said that we’re saint and sinner at the same time. God has claimed us and named us, for sure, but also, there is this brokenness inside every single one of us. Our hearts are sometimes in the right place, but our actions fall way short. We can will it, but we can’t do it. We can decide to do good, but we don’t really do it. We decide not to do bad, but then we do it anyway. There are pieces of us that give no thought to God or our neighbor.
This evil that is in me, the times that I curve in on myself; the excuses I make not to do the best thing I should; the ways I fall short for the people in need in this community and beyond. We live in that tension of not being only wheat or a weed. Usually, we’re full of both. Saint and sinner.
And then Jesus gives us this parable, saying not to worry about the weeds. Should we pull out all the bad stuff? No, let them grow!
It’s hard. Evil is hard. Life is hard. Christianity is hard.
And this parable is hard when we really think about it. When we see ourselves as not just a lone stalk of wheat, but more like a whole field of both wheat and weeds. And maybe what’s hard about the parable is that it isn’t a call to action. Jesus isn’t telling us how to weed the world. Instead, it helps us be honest - honest about life, honest about evil, honest about ourselves.
But in the honesty, Jesus also gives us a promise - a promise that God will take care of it in the end. That promise may not make it all ok right here and right now, but it does give us hope, a hope that makes a difference in our lives now.
Sorting out between who is wheat and who is a weed isn’t our job, isn’t my job; it is God’s job. It’s not our job because maybe we don’t see things quite like God sees them. Perhaps, we might unintentionally confuse our values with God’s values. For example, Jesus begins his ministry teaching the upside down nature of what God sees. Blessed are those who… aren’t the winners, as common thought would play out. Rather, blessed are those the world considers losers. Blessed are those who are lost, who are empty, who are at their wit’s end. It’s not how we see it, not how we judge blessing.
So also, perhaps, this parable not only promises that God will sort things out in the end, but it lets us know that really only God can make the right judgement on it. And I trust God. I trust God to do it in a way that is more just, more gracious, more loving, more right than even me at my very best. And so in this parable, Jesus simply says to us, “be.”
God’s job is to plant wheat in our world and in us and sort it all out in the end. Our job in the meantime is to be the wheat God has planted.
And while it may be uncomfortable, maybe even incomplete, for us to not pull any weeds and, in our minds, make the world a better place, God, I think, intends for us just to be wheat. Be who God made and planted us to be. Remember, God will pull the weeds. We just be wheat and work on being wheatier.
We are called to be who God created us to be - not judges, not round-up for weeds, not anything we’re not. We’re called to be the people in whom God plants, to live and grow in the Gospel promise with full awareness of what the resistances will be. Be the wheatiest, grainiest Christian you can be.
Like, for example, there is a literacy problem in our country and particularly in our community. This is due to broken families, negative influences in kids’ lives, and a whole host of other things. Literacy is so bad that law enforcement actually looks at third grade reading scores in order to determine how many jail cells they’ll need about 10 years from now.
Now, are we going to be able to pull all those weeds of disengagement and strained relationships and all those negative factors out of a child’s life or out of our world? No way. But we can be wheat, accentuate our wheatiness. We can grow something good in and among those weeds. That’s what Reading Buddies does. By going to the school and reading with a child for an hour each week, we are wheat, growing strong, and God uses us to plant more good wheat in and among that child’s life.
Or, can we eradicate the weeds of hunger and homelessness? Not all of it, not likely. But we are the wheat God planted us to be, feeding others in our Fellowship Hall, making sure they have something warm to eat and wear. We are wheat among the weeds.
Can we solve the problem of addiction, pulling the weeds of alcoholism, drugs, and disease from the world? I think you know the answer by now. But we are wheat as we offer those in recovery a place to share, to support, to set strong roots so that they may grow healthier.
Can we pull the weeds of -isms in life: sexism, racism, homophobia, age-sim, whatever? No, but we do welcome those affected, by being a place, a community, soil where God’s wheat can grow.
We can be honest about our world, Jesus says. And know that while we as Saints and Sinners may not be able to pull all - or any - of the weeds that infest our world and our lives, God has made us to be wheat. God promises to take care of our weeds in due time. And until then, God encourages us to carry on, growing, living, being wheat - just as God made us to be.
With our lesson for today, we wrap up Jesus’ sermon on the mount from which we’ve been reading for the past few weeks. His sermon is full of sayings instructing his followers on how to live.
Today is more of the same. Jesus goes through many brief examples, one right after the other.
Don’t judge - or more accurately, don’t condemn others. In the midst of conflict, fear of outsiders, intolerance of those who are different, prejudice, disdain, anger... people can write others off, cast them outside God’s grace, and condemn them to hell - either real or hell here on earth. Jesus instead says to offer mercy, even dignity, to another because what you give is what you will get.
Along those lines, we should be more aware of ourselves. Often, we’re insecure; and when we’re insecure, we try to make ourselves feel better. We do that by pointing out all these things we don’t like about others, ignoring the huge flaws in our own lives. We see the others’ speck, but not our own log.
Jesus then asks us to evaluate our priorities:
What is most important? Don’t waste it. Don’t throw your pearls before swine.
What is necessary? Ask God, and it will be given.
How should we treat others? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In it all, Jesus asks us to consider our priorities up against what the world tells us is most important. The world preaches the way of self, rivalry, inferiority, winning. Jesus gives us another way.
Mercy. Grace. Holiness. Generosity. In everything - everything - do to others as you would have them do to you.
It may not be easy, but it’s the way we should go. Steer clear of the shortcuts and simple formulas for a holy life; don’t fall for that stuff, even if crowds of people do.
And this is all good advice, right?
There are two foundations, two builders, two responses to Jesus’ teachings. And with them come two destinies. Jesus’ followers are to be wise; they are to hear and obey Jesus’ words. It would be foolish and self-destructive to hear and not act.
And yet… how often do we not?
How many times do we fall short on each and every one of those teachings? We succumb to the ways of the world. We judge with impunity, we call out inconsequential things, we get our priorities screwed up, we take the path of least resistance. Why?
Do we not know? I doubt that is the case. Jesus lays it out pretty plainly.
Do we not have the will to follow? Maybe some days, but I think many of us would like to follow Jesus better.
Or is it that we don’t trust what Jesus says - that we don’t believe that God’s way is the best way? We have to act this way on everything? Really?
At the end of Jesus’ sermon, Matthew tells us that the crowds were astounded. They had never heard teaching like this. He taught as one having authority, and not as the other teachers.
That word, authority, can mean a few things.
One, it can mean coming from a place or position of authority, like a boss, a teacher, a police officer. The position has authority, so the one speaking has authority.
Or, it could mean that he was speaking with confidence. Matthew contrasts Jesus to the scribes, saying the scribes didn’t have this type of authority or confidence. But I don’t think they were totally lame in their teachings. In fact, whenever they encounter Jesus, it seems they have plenty of confidence.
So, maybe it means something deeper. To me, it has something about power in authenticity - that Jesus not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk. He says what he truly means, and he also acts as he truly means.
When he talks of blessings, he blesses. When he speaks against judgment, he forgives. He welcomes, he includes, he puts others first in every circumstance. Jesus speaks with authority because his word and his life are the same, and his authority comes from being exactly who he is called to be.
And so, maybe these words are more than just “good advice.” Maybe they are where we start when building our life of faith. The Message translation of the concluding parable says it like this: “These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on.”
Jesus’ words are at the core of what it means to be created in the image of God, to be children of God who truly know love and grace, and who share that love and grace in their lives. It is a foundation of love.
And while the world scoffs at anything beyond bottom lines and doing things to help ourselves, Jesus teaches something different; Jesus lives differently. And we see where Jesus’ way leads.
It leads to life. His life still stands in the midst of any and everything the world throws at it. His life is strong, lasting, authentic, and authoritative. It is life that rises out of any and all situations. It is life built on a foundation of love.
And because of who Jesus is, because of his power and authority, and because God brings us into Christ through baptism, we, too, have the authority to live the Jesus way. God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us. God fuels us for this life with bread, wine, and the presence of Christ. God reminds us in worship week in and week out of our calling, our blessing, our gift of new life every single day.
It is a life built on the foundation of Christ; and because of Christ, we have the authority and the freedom to live like him.
And while in our best moments we do live this way, we also come up short many times. We have a knack for taking a shortcut here or there, leading to shoddy craftsmanship and improper foundations. But in the Spirit, in a meal, in a life of forgiveness, and because of a God and a Savior who do live up to these standards, it means our relationship with God is never without that foundation of love and grace. Though we may fall, God builds us up again. And again. And again. Mercy. Grace. Holiness. Generosity.
And each time, God reminds you of who you are. Of who your foundation is. And how Jesus is at the heart of it all.
My preaching professor in seminary was quite the character. He was southern Southern, with a pipe, seer-sucker suits, and an accent to match. Plus, you never really knew what he was going to say. He kept you on your toes that way.
He had a means of getting his point across in interesting ways - like if he thought you were laying it on kinda thick, he would stand on his chair and hike up his pant legs saying, “it’s gettin’ deep in here!” He would add “y’all” to the end of German or Greek phrases. Or say, “you have to hit them in the face with a 2x4.” (I know it’s a little out of context, but it’s more fun if you just try to figure out what he meant.) He was a great professor because he had a way of describing things that not only were memorable, but helped you improve as a preacher.
And one piece of advice I remember is that a sermon shouldn’t take you into every cove of Lake Murray, meaning, start at point A and go to Point B without heading down every little path or story possible.
Unfortunately, Jesus seems not to heed Dr. Ridenhour’s advice on this one. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus abruptly shifts from topic to topic, with no real thin red line leading through. Last week, we started with the beatitudes and then had the abrupt change to salt and light. This week, we start with learning to pray and then end up talking about possessions.
Prayer, forgiveness, fasting, money, treasures… do they have anything in common?
Yes. Maybe you’re surprised by that? So, let’s explore.
We start with Jesus instructing his disciples not to overvalue the importance of a flowery display with language or whatever else. The show, the words, the eloquence doesn’t make prayer more effective. Instead, pray as yourself, pray in a real way, pray genuinely. We don’t need to impress God or convince God of anything; God already knows what you need before you ask. God knows what’s in the heart.
So, having told us to be real in prayer, Jesus gives us an example of how to pray.
We pray that we might speak and act in a way that keeps God’s name holy; that is, we act in ways that show we honor God. We ask that God bring God’s rule of justice and peace and that we act as God would have us act until that time. We ask for enough provision for the day, no more and no less. We ask to be forgiven and that we may forgive others. We ask that we not be tried beyond our ability or endurance.
Through prayer, you aren’t wasting your time or giving empty words. Instead, you are baring your heart to God - not because God doesn’t know - but because by praying, God gets a willing participant in shaping your heart.
True prayer, genuine prayer is a prayer in which we lay it out before God, and God gets a chance to do some work on us, too.
And here is where the rest of Jesus’ sermon falls in line.
See, all that flowery language makes it seem like one is better at talking to God, like our hearts are more in the right place than they really are. And the grimaced face while fasting? “Look how devoted I am!” And of course, all of our shiny, new toys are often times a way to show off. In it all, we keep up a facade and hold our hearts stuck in a pattern apart from God. It’s a sham, and you’ve already received your shallow reward.
Jesus calls us to something else. To use prayer to better connect us with God’s heart; to pray in a way that leads us to action.
Prayer leads to our hearts aligning with God; and as our hearts align with God, so do our actions. Our actions begin to look like our prayer. Our heart starts to seek what God wills. It leads to forgiving; it leads to fasting from the excesses in our life; our relationship with money and possessions changes. Our actions reinforce and show others where our heart truly is.
As we act, our hearts follow.
That’s what Jesus says in the last line of our lesson for today. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” While we may want Jesus to have said, “where my heart is, my treasure goes,” he didn’t. Instead, he said that what we do with our treasure will cause our hearts to follow along.
Our use of wealth displays where our hearts reside. The uses to which we put money identify what our innermost selves care for most deeply. What we do with our money and our possessions impacts our faith. It’s what Jesus says. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus calls us to be faithful with treasures and possessions, which is hard in a world that constantly tells us how unsatisfied we are - oh, and they have just the thing to fix it!
But Jesus has different priorities. He wants to shape our life, shape our hearts. How we handle our money has a direct influence on that. Want to be more aware of God? Give toward what God is doing.
Along with that, how we act in other areas of life influences faith, too.
See, I think Jesus’ line can be expanded. Surely, where our treasure is, our heart will follow. But also, how and who we forgive will direct our heart. Where your forgiveness is, there your heart will be also. Holding back on forgiveness holds our heart back from experiencing the love and grace of God.
Where your fasting is, there your heart will be also. In a world of excess and go-go-go, sabbath, a break, doing without too much leaves room for what God wants to fill us with. Fasting becomes a space for God.
And of course, where your prayer is, there your heart will be also. Prayer as Jesus teaches leads us out of our own opinions and narrow attitudes; it directs us out of our false selves and puts us in line with God’s heart, with God’s will for the world, on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus teaches us how to have have a real, genuine, faithful life - through our prayer and actions - that shapes our hearts toward God. And as we act, as we pray, as we hold others in prayer, as we donate food and money for the Souper Bowl of Caring, as we let go of those things that crowd out grace and God’s presence… we start to see, we start to know, we start to have our hearts shaped by God.
And then we can more readily hear, know, share, be filled by God in all the ways God comes and speaks. In bread and wine. In water and word. In forgiveness and grace. In action and prayer.
So, maybe Jesus does take us on a trip around every jetty and into every cove, and maybe this sermon followed that. But it is all connected: our prayers and our wills aligning with God, our actions leading and our hearts following, and then our hearts bringing us back to God in prayer. It’s all part of the journey in this life with Christ.
Do you ever hunger and thirst for righteousness?
How meek are you?
What kind of peace do you make - in your home, in our community, in the world?
Count your blessings.
If you feel like you aren’t bless-ed enough, maybe it has crossed your mind to do a few of those activities a bit more, try them out in order to add a few more blessings to your life. Well, most of them; not the mourning or being persecuted. Who wants to do that?
But surely, “trying these out” isn’t what Jesus means.
The Beatitudes, this list of blessings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, are so simple and yet, so hard. And maybe a lot of our difficulty has to do with the question, “what exactly is blessing?”
On the one hand, we all kind of know what a blessing is. But, if we’re forced to put it into words, we start to stumble. It can mean happy, fortunate, well-off. It can indicate special favor, special protection, permission, empowerment… All these words touch on the meaning, but they don’t quite get the whole picture.
Blessing is one of those words that’s hard to explain; so, maybe, we don’t try to explain what it means. Instead, maybe we explain what it feels like. What does it feel like to receive blessing?
To receive a blessing feels like the person giving it is behind you, supporting you. Blessing is that feeling of having worth, not because of something you did or because of that thing you might do one day - but simply because of who you are, because of where you find yourself, because they feel like you deserve it. It’s like you have someone’s unconditional respect and praise. That’s blessing.
And that type of feeling is rare. It was rare in Jesus’ time, and it is rare now.
Jesus lived in a culture built on honor and shame. What you did either brought you and your family honor and pride, or it brought shame and guilt - and possibly got you kicked out of whatever group or tribe you were part of. People were always walking a thin line, wondering if what they were doing would be acceptable enough, pleasing enough, good enough in the eyes of everyone else.
And Jesus comes in and offers blessing. Unmerited blessing. Blessing despite what is happening or not. It is a gift for you, because of you, not dependent on what you do, did, or will do. It is acceptance; it is love; it is blessing - defying the cultural norms to let these people know they are blessed, supported. They have worth apart from their circumstances. They are blessed by God. What grace!
Now, fast forward a couple thousand years. Our culture is very different than what Jesus lived in, and yet, we have a lot of similarities. There is this deep desire for acceptance but through wealth, power, happiness; through things that make our lives quote/unquote “easier and better.” Those are often the things we misname as “blessings.” On top of that, there is separation among us: it may not be separation of honor and shame, but definitely between those who we look at as “blessed” and those who aren’t. Powerful and not, rich and not, born in the right place or not.
And yet, Jesus says, “blessings.” Blessed are you. And not good ol’ US of A blessings, but Holy Blessings. God’s blessing.
It is a blessing of God’s unconditional care for us. It is God’s assurance to accompany us, and promise that we deserve love, honor, and respect, no matter what the world around us says, no matter if we feel we are enough or not. This type of blessing isn’t earned or worked for; this blessing is one that is given, bestowed upon us as a gift.
What a counter-cultural thing: to bless. Not blindly offering praise or honor to some; not having our first impulse as to shame those with whom we disagree, disapprove, or dislike. But instead, Jesus’ impulse is to bless. To accept. To give love and support to people, to all people, to the meek, the mourning, the persecuted…
These aren’t the people we normally associate with a blessing. They aren’t the ones who’ve earned anything from us or our society. In fact, our society often frowns upon these people - as weak, as losers, as undeserving. But Jesus wants us to see that God regularly, relentlessly, always shows up where we least expect God to be in order to give us what we can’t earn or achieve. And what God gives is blessing.
And more than that, we all encounter these downtrodden moments, regardless of our consumeristic blessings. It is precisely in these powerless moments of life when we are most likely to let go of our knee-jerk, binary mode of reacting with praise or blame, with honor or shame. We more easily let go of all the cultural, national, and worldly stereotypes and instead can see the presence of God. A God who meets us in our sufferings and pulls us toward a blessed future of life. A God who gives without asking anything in return, and blesses us so that we might be a blessing.
Blessed so that we might be a blessing. That’s where Jesus goes next.
Jesus elaborates on blessing. Being a blessing looks like being salt of the earth. It looks like being a light to the world. And the blessing of that is, it, too, is a gift. It’s a promise. It’s a statement.
Jesus isn’t saying, “You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” Or, “You have to be…” let alone “You better be...” Rather, he is saying, you are. As in, you already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing it.
Jesus is making to his disciples a promise about their very being, and that being is blessing - blessing for the world around us.
Salt and light and blessings are all needed today. This is a difficult time in our world and in our community for many people and for many reasons. We are divided. We are hateful. We are scared. We are closed off. Jesus reminds us of what we are. We need salt and light and blessing in this world. And the crazy thing is that God has already provided it… through those of us who are gathered right here, right now.
You are blessed.
God blesses you. God is behind you, supporting you. God gives you worth, not because of something you did or because of that thing you might do one day - but simply because of who you are, because of where you find yourself, because God feels like you deserve it. God gives you unconditional respect and praise. I want you hear that. Blessed are you, child of God.
And this blessing is for the sake of the world. Through God’s blessing, you can bless another. Because this blessing isn’t about potential joy or wealth or anything like that. But it is a blessing for the sake of the world. For those who mourn. For those who are apart. For those who aren’t welcomed just yet. We can bless them. As a pinch of salt, a sliver of light, a glimpse of hope, a blessing to the world.
It’s easy to get caught up in John and his eccentric tendencies. Why the camel hair, why the weird diet, why the name calling and harsh language?
We could - and some would - spend an entire sermon on John. But that isn’t really what Matthew wants us to do. Instead, Matthew sees him as a bridge between the old covenant and the new. John is like one of the Old Testament prophets - except here, his job is to be the last prophet. Fulfillment is here! This story is a passing of the baton from John to Jesus.
That handoff happens at baptism. A baptism to which John says, “no” - even though “baptist” is in his title. And why wouldn’t he decline? It’s Jesus!
John’s objection to baptizing Jesus is all about a difference in status. John knows Jesus is more powerful than he is. This is the guy he’s been talking about for quite some time. John, instead, sees himself in need of what Jesus offers, not the other way around. “I need to be baptized by you,” he says.
In the text, Jesus gives both himself and John a way out of all the questions by saying 1) this is a temporary thing (“let it be so for now”). And 2) Jesus says that by doing this, they “fulfill all righteousness.” That seems to be good enough for John.
More modern Christians don’t really have that much of an issue with John being the one who baptizes Jesus. Maybe we’ve recognized the idea that the power of baptism isn’t in the baptizER; instead, baptism’s significance is all in God’s promise of forgiveness and grace. And THAT is where OUR issue arises.
Because if John’s baptism is one of repentance, and baptism in general is one of forgiveness, then why in the world did Jesus - the sinless one, not in need of repentance or forgiveness - why did he get baptized? Why does the Son of God need it? How does baptism benefit him at all?
Well, those are the questions we ask if forgiveness is all we think baptism is about.
Sure, forgiveness is part of what baptism is; but forgiveness is not all that baptism is. Baptism announces God’s favor and establishes our identity. This is particularly true for Jesus. A voice from heaven declares that Jesus is “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!” Baptism for Jesus is less about forgiveness and more about commissioning. It is the start of his mission and ministry and an assurance that God was indeed present.
Imagine if we viewed our own baptisms more like Jesus did. That baptism isn’t just wiping the slate clean; it’s God claiming you as a daughter and son; it’s God affirming who you are: you are mine, I love you, I am pleased with you. It’s a commissioning for us - the start of our mission and ministry in this world - a mission that continually calls us to move in faith beyond where we are now. These are words of empowering grace and acceptance. And they are true, no matter what.
That’s not always the case in the ways of our commercial, consumer culture. We’re accepted if we are strong enough, skinny enough, popular enough, young enough, if we’ve got the right stuff. We are given an identity which is linked to some product being sold. Eventually, all those things go away. Our bodies deteriorate. Our abilities change. Our cell phone becomes obsolete; thus, we are obsolete. We are promised acceptance only if… we keep up with what they’re selling next.
In turn, baptism plunges us into a message of grace. God declares we are enough, God accepts us as we are, God desires wonderful things for us and through us. Baptism is a message of grace, love, and identity; no “ifs” about it. God has made it so.
I think that is a good thing to know, to celebrate, to remember. Why wouldn’t we want to remember all that?
Wherever we are - home, work, park, hospital - we can remember God’s promises to us. Water, any kind of water, is usually a good reminder. Maybe a note on your bathroom mirror. Or a simple ritual of of signing the cross during morning devotions.
Here at church, baptism shapes things in our worship and liturgy each week.
Confession of sin is a time to remember baptism. Not just because of forgiveness, but because God promises to accept us even in the midst of what we’ve done wrong.
Communion is an extension of the baptismal promise - a table that is open to all God’s children.
Our dismissal is the time where we are sent forth to live out our baptism in our various roles and vocations in the world, trusting God goes with us.
When we have a baptism in worship, we give the family a candle. The candle is there to remind us of God’s presence, God’s promises, and our call to be a light in the world. It’s a tangible reminder.
One good way to remember one’s baptism is to celebrate it. To bring that candle out again - not only to have it lit that first day for about 3 minutes, but to light it again each year on the anniversary of baptism as a reminder of all that baptism is and means for us, all those things I’ve been repeating over and over. It’s a new-birth day.
So, I want to do something today. We don’t have enough baptismal candles to pass out, and though the Christmas Eve candles are probably still readily available somewhere, I’ve got a better, more efficient idea.
Remember the song, “This Little Light of Mine”? You’ve got your finger, right? This finger is now the light given to you at baptism, that physical reminder of God’s promise and love, and your call in this world. Your finger, from now on, will remind you that God claims you. God forgives you. God accepts you. Baptism announces God’s favor and establishes your identity. Your finger will remind you of that.
Let’s hold it up and sing the first verse:
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. (x3)
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
An epiphany is a revelation or awakening and comes from a Greek word which is translated most literally as a “revealing” - a manifestation of the divine. We use the word in everyday language to talk about a moment of deep insight or awareness - when all the pieces fall together. In Christian circles, Epiphany names the day, today, January 6, when we celebrate the revelation that Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
Of the whole world, actually, and that’s where the connection between Epiphany and the story of the magi in Matthew comes. For while Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, Christians confess that through him God seeks to save the whole world, just as through Abraham God sought to bless the whole world. Matthew tells of magi – the ones we often call “three kings” – though we do not know how many magi actually came. We assume three because there were three gifts, but it could have been more. But anyway, they come from the East following a star to worship the newborn king, Jesus.
Our story for today takes us through three major scenes or episodes. I’ll title them: a new hope, the empire strikes back, and return of the Jesus. (OK, so the Star Wars theme is a bit forced, but it gives a some framework we can use as we look at this story.)
First, a new hope. God gives us new hope in this child, Jesus.
Matthew will stress again and again through his Gospel that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, who comes like a new Moses to save Israel from oppression. And while this claim will be met with mixed reviews by Jesus’ own people, at the very beginning of the story it will be people from another land who recognize him, indeed, as King.
These magi - people who are from far away, who aren’t Jewish - these magi come to worship. And they are the first in Matthew’s story to worship Jesus.
This scene shows us that God includes Gentiles in the promises made first to Israel. The magi are God’s children, and God draws them to witness the grace and mercy dawning from on high in the birth and life of Jesus. In it is hope for us because God opens up the promises to include us, everyone.
Matthew makes it clear that Jesus doesn’t come for some or a select few; Jesus comes for all. Jesus accepts all. Saves all. Loves all. Here we see one of countless examples of how God loves everyone. Those in and out of Israel, those foreign and not, everyone, you and me. It is hope.
And how I wished the story ended there. But it doesn’t. The empire strikes back. And it strikes back in the only way it knows how to: with violence and anger at what this new king, what this reign, means.
King Herod becomes greatly troubled to hear from the Magi that a new king for the Jews is born. He feels threatened, worried, and paranoid about his throne. It is the reaction of anyone in power when there is a threat to what they have.
This is the hard part of the story. Actually, the horrific part.
Herod, discovering that the magi would not serve as his spies, and enraged that they had fooled him by returning home by another route, decides to go to appalling measures by killing all the children in and around Bethlehem two years or younger to make sure he has eliminated his potential rival.
People regularly and relentlessly do awful things to protect their power. And children are far too often the victims of the rage of tyrants and the powerful. Whether it is girls sold into lives of slavery and prostitution, or students of Columbine or Sandy Hook, or refugee children dying at our border, we have witnessed too many episodes of lack of care, negligence, even violence - all in the name of status quo security, to protect what is put in place for the comfortable.
And the thing is, the powers that be react like this, and Jesus’ power isn’t one of retaliatory violence. It isn’t one that will kill and fight and opress. It, instead, is one of love and acceptance and sacrifice. It is open and welcoming. It is vulnerable, peaceful, peace-making. And our world can’t handle that. It can’t handle the peace Christ brings.
Someone has to win. Someone has to be on top. Someone has to wield the power. Peace means we can’t lord over someone or something. Peace means we can’t keep divisions. Peace means understanding what affects them affects me. Peace means we don’t get final say.
We don’t even give up the lordship of our own lives very easily. Live a life like Jesus? Give away what I worked so hard for? Love people for who they are even if they aren’t like me? Sacrifice for someone who doesn’t deserve it? We have a long way to be convinced that Jesus - and not us - Jesus is Lord of all, even Lord over ourselves.
We don’t get the last word.
But neither does Herod. God continues to work, always working for the good of the world. God worked here, too, keeping Joseph, Mary, and Jesus safe.
Joseph was warned in a dream to flee the violence in their hometown. They headed to Egypt - a land very close to the story of Israel. I mentioned earlier that Matthew sees Jesus as a new Moses, who comes to save Israel from oppression. And what was Moses’ big accomplishment? Moses leads the chosen people from bondage in Egypt - the same land that Jesus is a refugee in, and from which he now exits. It’s the return of the Jesus.
Jesus returns - returns to life, returns to fulfill what God promises. God makes sure of it. Even when our world and empires strike with more violence, a cross, and death, God makes sure Jesus returns with life, life for him and life for this broken world.
Jesus is our hope, our hope in the midst of empires and pain and violence. Jesus is our hope in the midst of brokenness and selfishness and darkness. Jesus is our hope, our light in this world. And though the world fights it, Christ is victorious. Jesus returns to us always. Jesus returns with resurrection. Jesus returns in bread and wine. Jesus returns with love and life.
Today, we have Epiphany. A day we see promise despite evil, a day in which God reveals Christ. Christ as our life. Christ as our hope. Christ as the light of the whole world.
What a way to continue the Christmas spirit! A monotonous list of names!
But maybe you’re into genealogies and history. A lot of people are. Websites like ancestry.com have really taken off in the past several years, and there are TV shows about famous people finding out their family history - all the good and the bad. Nowadays, you can even take it a step further and spit in a tube, get it analized, and see where your DNA comes from. It’s a whole new level of digging up your history.
Some people really like to try to trace their lineage back and see what famous people they’re related to. I never got into the whole family tree thing, but I do know that I am not related to either Bruce or Robert E. At least, that’s what my dad says. But don’t we all want to have some of those famous people in our lineage? A President or a King or someone who did something grand. It’d make us feel pretty important, too, right? Like we, too, could be great!
Family trees in ancient times used to be just that. It was proof of how good and important you were. “See who my relatives were!” It was how you showed you were the preeminent people, the best, the most important.
At first, that may be what we think Matthew is doing here. There are, afterall, some pretty big names on that list. Unfortunately, though, it seems Matthew messed up a teeny-weeny bit. Ok, a bit more than a bit. There is a pretty glaring error: Jesus shares no biological relationship to Joseph and thus the generations that preceded him. Maybe ancestry.com would’ve helped Matthew get started on the right foot. Bloodline connections seem pretty important when coming up with a family lineage.
But maybe Matthew had something else in mind besides talking about Jesus’s step-dad, Joseph, and his family. There are bigger truths he wants to convey to us.
First, let’s look at all those those big names. I’m not sure Matthew put those people in there to impress us, like other genealogies of the day. Sure, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David - they’re all pretty famous. But they also did some pretty bad things. Jacob, for instance, swindled away his older brother Esau’s birthright and blessing with help from his deceptive mother. Some model of faith.
David killed Uriah, an innocent soldier fighting to protect his empire, so that he could cover up a baby conceived through his own philandering with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. I don’t think someone cheating and covering it up is something we would hold up as exemplary.
Rahab was a prostitute - not something that many people would freely advertise. Those are the stories most families try to sweep under the rug.
Yet, the Gospel of Matthew names precisely those “people who do the darndest things” as Jesus’ family. It seems incompatible to have Jesus descended from people who did stuff like this. And yet, God’s redemption of the world can handle, absorb, transform despicable histories like these. God’s grace is always surprising and is always working to change, to save, to bring life. Jesus is kin to those who need his forgiveness most.
Learning about these people in the genealogy and their stories opens us up to seeing others the way God sees them. We commit ourselves to broadening the family of God and including people we might not think of at first. Our preconceived notions can fade to the background; God welcomes sinners like them and God welcomes sinners like us, too. And, it should be noted, that none of the people listed are identified as sinners. Their faults aren’t what define them here. They are, however, named as belonging to Jesus’ family. That’s what matters most.
But, there are more than those big names on this list. There are also a bunch of people we’ve never heard of like Salmon and Manasseh and Zadok. Who are those people? What did they ever do? And maybe that right there is the point.
God can work big, famous, and grand, sure, but God also can work in the normal and ordinary. The God of the Universe, the Creator of all that is, is at work in human history through regular, average people that we might never meet or know. It is through regular folks that God works to redeem the whole cosmos.
Which takes a boring list of names and turns it on its head. God uses people you’ve never heard of to bring Good News to the world. That’s not so mundane; it’s actually a bit inspiring. It gives us hope - hope that nobody - NOBODY - is forgotten to God. It is hope that average people living normal, everyday lives, not known for being heros or royalty or coming from the aristocracy, hope that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves.
That should be no surprise. God pretty much always uses the usual and ordinary. Abraham was a nobody. David was the youngest and most insignificant of the family. Mary was an unwed teenage girl. Christ was born among us in a lowly manger. Jesus comes to us in the simplicity of bread and wine. The Word of God claims us in regular ol’ water… it’s how God works.
That’s what Matthew wants us to know: God is working. Jesus is connected to God’s work in the story of Israel. What starts with Abraham works its way through the generations to Jesus and, thanks to a bunch of boring and exciting people in our past… continues in us. Their faithfulness and God continuing to work brings us to today. And how are we continuing what God has started?
God works in it all - the super and the mundane - to draw us into all that God has been doing, connecting us with God’s larger story, and ultimately, making us part of God’s family. Who we are - grand or not, famous or not, full of faults or not - who we are is handled, absorbed, transformed by God. All because Jesus claims us as family.
We belong to Jesus; we’re part of his family tree. That is what defines us. And that is what matters most.
Christmas Eve is hard for preachers, as you might would imagine. There is so much that is special about this evening, and we don’t want to screw it up. Screwing up is well within the realm of possibility, you know.
Instead, we want the exact opposite of a screwed up evening. We want to script out the perfect Christmas Eve service, with just the right carols, just the right amount of drama, just the right words preached during the sermon.
The problem is, we’re competing against familiarity. Nostalgia. Beloved memories. So much has been said, done, written, and composed. What can we do to make this night stand out from all the other Christmas Eves - aside from lighting the altar on fire or something.
The family memories ingrained in our head are always the bar to which we compare things - even if they are maybe remembered a little more fondly than what actually happened.
The story of angels, shepherds, stables, and mangers is all so familiar - what new is there for a preacher to say?
And those Christmas carols. How can one compete with the likes of theological poetry put to evocative, sentimental, nostalgic melodies? They do such a good job of capturing the emotion - of saying what it is *I* really want to say on a night like tonight.
Like the sheer economy of words used in the third verse of my favorite carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing: “Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die. Born to raise each child of earth, born to give us second birth.” It lays out the meaning and hope of Christmas so perfectly.
Or, in O Little Town of Bethlehem, the last line of the first verse: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” How much is packed into that sentence? Hopes and fears… a whole sermon could be written about that.
There is the prayer which concludes “Away in a Manger,” a prayer that could and should be on all our lips, “Be near me Lord Jesus; I ask you stay close by me forever and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in your tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with you there.”
We all, not just preachers, struggle to have Christmas now match any of our Christmases past, even the nostalgia of the first Christmas. Everything now is so different. Different people are gathered - maybe marked most notably by those who are missing. Beloved decorations break, wear out, or maybe they just end up staying in the box because it’s too much of a hassle. The hustle and bustle grinds on us a bit more than it did even a few years ago.
We, too, can struggle to script our perfect Christmas in these days. We want to control it, but we can’t. We want to plan it, but we can’t - not really. We want it to match up to the greatest of Christmases, to be perfect… but it probably won’t be.
But, if we’re honest, nothing went right that first Christmas either. Manger, bands of cloth, unwed parents and a guy who isn’t the dad, a poor family. The first visitors were either A) animals if you want to count them or B) shepherds who were about the same level as animals. It’s a story that should have faded into obscurity - a real Christmas screw up. But God had other plans.
By any standards, that first Christmas wasn’t perfect. But perfection isn’t the point. Christmas is the enfleshment of God in all that is imperfect. God comes and lives in all that is painful, ugly, frustrating, limited, screwed up. God doesn't shy away from imperfection. Which is good news, because if God only showed up in and for what was perfect, we’d be the ones left out.
Instead, God embraces our world, accepts our imperfections, so that God can do something more than create warm-fuzzy nostalgia. God brings life. God brings hope.
The Light shines in our darkness. The Son of the Father now appears in skin and bones, regardless of what kind of Christmas it is. An angel announces Good News of great joy, announces it with an invitation to come.
“Don’t be afraid. Come. Come and see. Come and share. Come and glory in the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing! Come.”
Of course, there is a hymn for that, too. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” invites us to come into that joy, to behold the king of angels, to greet the Lord who is born this happy morning. But, of course, there is more to the story.
Shepherds, afterall, were the first who were invited, and they are far from perfection, far from any perfect picture this carol paints. And if we take God seriously in the ways God shows up, in the world God embraces, then we should see that invitation as way broader than perfection.
So, yes, come all ye faithful, but also, come all ye who are not quite sure.
Come, all ye who are dressed up and those who could be working the fields.
Come, all who have hopes and all who have fears.
Come, you who are insiders and those who haven’t been inside a church in a long time.
Come, you who try for perfection and you who have failed.
Come, you who screw it up a lot, and you who screw it up sometimes.
Come, you, whoever you are. Because Christ is born.
And Christ was born for this, for all of this, for you.
We so want to script the perfect Christmas for us and our families. We - *I* - want the perfect service and sermon. But God doesn’t mind the imperfections. Maybe all the more, God shows up when things aren’t perfect, is born into our chaos and disorder, giving us promise and hope. That type of love is something we can’t script out. That type of love surprises us. That type of love is perfect.
How is the birth of a baby supposed to take place?
Well, when it comes to a real birth, you have no idea. All you can do is prepare. There is no “supposed to” when comes to birthing a baby.
For example, Jonah was born on a Sunday. Optimal time for a pastor’s kid to be born. (Strike 1, kid) And on that particular Sunday, the Senior Pastor I was working with at that point was away on vacation. (Strike 2) But! We had a plan. We prepared for the birth of a baby. We already had the intern preaching that Sunday since it was the lone uncovered sermon day. And we had a dedicated retired pastor in the congregation who was ready and willing to jump in and preside at communion - much like St. Philip had last week. Thank you Dick Albert for filling in. Again, we prepared!
But before these plans had to be enacted, we prepared by buying stuff. We took classes to learn about what to expect (not that much help). We had baby showers and parties, appointments and sonograms, names picked and car seats installed. We prepared for the birth of a baby.
But none of this is in Matthew’s Gospel. Well, the name was picked, but we’ll get to that in a few.
See, none of this is in the Gospel because Matthew wants to be clear that he is not preparing for the birth of a baby, but the birth of a Messiah. “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”
Yes, it’s a baby. Yes, it’s cute. And, no, that’s not the point.
The point is that God is with us. The coming of Jesus into this world is the sign of God’s permanent presence with us. The birth of THIS baby isn’t only a mere birth; it is God coming, it is God residing, it is God with us.
There is no greater sign of God choosing to be with us than Jesus. Other things, other signs, like nature or music or personal experience, are good and nice, but sometimes they can be ambiguous. They can sometimes leave a little question. But not this one. Jesus came into the world to reveal God and redeem us, to show the true character of God, and to save his people.
And this presence, this ‘God is with us,’ happens in the midst of all the realities of life.
It isn’t a clean, neat family situation in which this birth takes place, afterall. And while we could dissect what exactly Joseph and Mary were - engaged, betrothed, married but not living together (a conversation probably better suited for a Bible study) - what Joseph and we know is, at this stage of the game, Mary shouldn’t have gotten pregnant without him. So, Joseph followed the letter of the Law but wanted it kept under the radar. It was a messy, disappointing situation. And in this messy situation, God is with Joseph. God is with Mary. God is with us.
In the realities of our life, the birth of the Messiah lets us know that God is with us. Not life in general. Not theoretical life. But your life. Your messy, neat, dysfunctional, put-together, anything and everything life. In the complexities of our family situations, in our pains and sorrows, in hurts and needs, in our failings and brokenness, God is with us.
What does that mean, what does it look like? Because surely, we encounter confusing, unanticipated, painful situations in our lives, much like Joseph does, but we don’t often get the luxury of angels appearing to us to let us know everything will be ok. Sometimes, divorces do happen. People are unfaithful to each other and to God. Babies aren’t born. Pain and hurt and loss are real.
What does Emmanuel mean in times like that?
It means that past or current situations don’t define us. God is with us to deliver us from wherever we find ourselves.
In times of loneliness and broken relationship, in divorce, break up, death - any severing of relationship, we are never alone. God is with us to walk with us each step of the way.
In those things where we are wrong, in the hurt we cause others - either purposely or without thought, in sinful and fallen times, God is with us to save us from our sins.
You can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened. But you can trust that God comes to us, even in the midst of that stuff, and wants to give us the gift of presence. You can trust that you are claimed by God and nothing changes that. You can trust that Jesus is there in bread and wine, surrounding you with his love and the love of the people around you.
Jesus comes to show us that in all times and in all places, God is with us.
It is his name, after all. Jesus means ‘God saves.’
It is title, Emmanuel. God is with us.
It is his purpose. To deliver us by being with us.
The birth of Jesus, the Messiah, opens our eyes. And not in the way that having your firstborn child opens your eyes, but Jesus opens us, prepares us, to see God with us everywhere, all the time. In the complex realities of life and in the everyday things that pass by unnoticed, God is there.
God helps us, walks with us, points us again to the hope that is the Messiah. And his name is Jesus.
Because our lesson from Esther was a little convoluted, and because many of us aren’t that familiar with Esther, I thought it would be good to to tell the whole story. Thanks to the kids for helping us out by playing the roles and acting out the story for us. For the Children’s Message, though, we did leave out some of the more crass, demoralizing, and violent parts. Obviously, we streamlined it and skipped some of the subplots and many details, but I hope you get the main point.
Esther did something hard, against protocol, and not in-line with societal expectations to make sure people were protected from being killed. Yeah, killed, not “get rid of” like we said in the children’s message.
Before this week, I had forgotten much about Esther and her story, so I sat down and read the book in less than half an hour - and I am NOT the fastest of readers. I encourage you to do the same.
As I read through it, I felt like I was reading a Shakespearean play. The characters are relatable enough to be realistic but just slightly over the top. The villain, Haman, I picture with a handlebar mustache that curls up at the ends, always wringing his hands, and having that evil “heh eh eh” kind of laugh. The King is shallow, superficial, and chauvinistic. Esther is way more than looks.
In our actual scripture reading for today, not our ‘dramatic reenactment,’ we are at that pivotal scene in the story where Esther goes from being quiet and afraid to standing tall in who she is and standing up for her people. It is at this point - “at such a time like this” - that the book takes it’s crucial turn.
And what is interesting about this scene - and the whole book of Esther for that matter - is that God isn’t mentioned. Not once. There is no divine being, no Jerusalem, no law, prophets, or Promised Land. Nor are there formal prayers or miracles, though it does show fasting as pious practice. God is missing.
So, what do we do with a text that doesn’t talk about God or Jesus - not just in the immediate way but in its entirety? As Lutheran Christians, we want God to be present; we need God to be present. We know in all things, it doesn’t depend on us, but it depends on God. God is the initiator. God is the subject of active verbs. God does stuff. But here? It doesn’t seem like God is around, that God matters.
And maybe this applies not just here in this text or in Esther as a whole. Maybe that perspective carries over into today, into here and now. Where is God in a time and a place like our world? It’s hard to see.
Where is goodness? Where is grace? Where is peace?
Where is mercy and love and hope?
Where is the God who speaks through burning bushes and splits seas and performs miracles? Where is God when we hurt? Where is God in oppression? Where is God when the forces of death and violence seem to be triumphant? Why is God not with us? God is hidden. Not there. Maybe non-existent.
I’ve heard it said that God is subtle to a fault.
God doesn’t show up in our story. God might not show up in our lives.
But there is something there, something here: it’s promise. Promise.
Even though God doesn’t show up as a main character in Esther, God’s promise underlines the whole thing. God promised long, long ago to always be on the side of Israel. God would always claim them, God would always bring them home, God would always save them.
Way back in Genesis 12, God makes this covenant promise to Abram: “I will make you a great nation… through you all nations of the world will be blessed.” After the Exodus, God promised Moses and the Israelites, “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Prophets reiterated that promise, “I will be their God and they will be my people.”
Here’s what we know because we have seen it time and time again: God is faithful to promises. God saves God’s people, Israel. Over and over and over - in grand ways like pillars of fire and in subtle ways, like through a strong woman who doesn’t always play by societal rules. God promises to save. And God does, even if we don’t see it right away. God is subtle to a fault.
And since God is faithful to Israel, then God will continue to be faithful to those of us who, by God’s grace, are grafted into Israel through Christ. God promises to save us in grand ways, like resurrection, and in subtle ways, like a simple meal of bread and wine. Through overwhelming us with a love and a call, and through the subtlety of light in our darkness.
They are all part of God’s grand promise. In Jesus, God brings us into that covenant promise - to be with us, to make us God’s own, to save us in, through, and despite everything.
Even when we don’t see it, even when it is too subtle for us to catch, God’s promise is the foundation of all we are. It shapes us, shapes us to respond in ways like Esther does. Even if evil seems to be winning, she - and we - act on the side of life because that is what God promises.
To us, God may seem missing because God doesn’t show up on our timeline, in the ways we want. But instead, God promises to be with us - and promises that we are part of the treasured possession. We are God’s people. Named and claimed in water and word, fed and nourished at the table. On the lookout for God and for the fulfillment of promise.
We wait. We wait for those promises to be completed. And even as we wait, even if it doesn’t seem like God is around, we know that God keeps, God fulfills, God works on those promises. Even still. Even now. Always.
I can honestly say I have never preached on Habakkuk before. A lot of people probably haven’t read it and don’t know what it’s about - and if you have read it, it was probably lumped in with other minor prophets as you were reading through the Bible.
So, a little insight into Habakkuk: he is a prophet. Prophets are known for speaking God’s word to us. They confront us with God’s truth and justice as it is, not as we imagine it to be. They often are blunt in their assertion that we pay attention to God.
But Habakkuk is a little different. He speaks our word to God. He gives voice to our bewilderment, articulates our puzzled attempts to make sense of things, faces God with our disappointment in God. Habakkuk insists that things don’t make sense.
That’s how we start out in our lesson today. The prophet looks around and is overwhelmed by all the violence he sees. “How long do I have to cry out for help before you listen, God? Anarchy and violence break out, quarrels and fights all over the place. Law and order fall to pieces. Justice is a joke.”
To use a biblical word, Habakkuk cries out in a lament. One might also say he is complaining.
But after he gets this off his chest, Habakkuk does something rather unusual for someone who just spouted off a list of grievances. He waits, and he listens.
It is in this waiting and listening that God speaks to him - and not with anger back, not with the same vitriol Habakkuk used. Instead, God promises that everything Habakkuk lamented over will end. God’s judgment, rule, life IS coming. It’s on its way. It will come at the right time.
Which is Good News. The way things are won’t always be. There is a promise of something better, way better. This news brings comfort, gladness, even a little bit of hope. God will win!
But I’m also a little bit like… so what. I don’t want a God of sometime in the future. I don’t need a God who just lets things play out and then one day decides he’s seen enough. I need a God who cares about the things going on right now. I want a God who cares about how we live in this world, in this moment, with these people.
Wildfires and wars and refugees. Greed and selfishness and pain. The poor, the sick, the orphaned. People getting shot and people getting shot and people getting shot. Bumper stickers don’t change it. Just believing doesn’t change it. Saying, “Keep Christ in Christmas” doesn’t change it.
Where is God? Why doesn’t God do something?
“For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
The fact of the matter is, God has done something. God has saved and redeemed this world through sending the Son, Jesus Christ. God has answered our laments. God sends the Spirit to be with us, to comfort, to counsel, to support us. God feeds us week in and week out with body and blood. God washes us and claims us forever through water and word.
And God promises more. God promises, in due time, that this Good News will come to fruition. It is already set in motion, even if we don’t see its fullness just yet.
This is the tension we have in the life of faith, is it not? We live between our complaints and struggles on the one hand, and God’s right time on the other. We live between our world and God’s Kingdom, between our will and God’s will.
This is where we are as people of faith: active and alive in this world, struggling with injustice, perverted judgments, and the misuse of God’s intent, all while waiting for God’s promised time, for the promise that God makes, knowing that God has answered us, and God will answer us again. God has saved us through Christ Jesus, and so we are saved even in the midst of all that is going on.
Living this hope is how the prophet closes his out his book.
To read a different translation than what we have printed:
Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen,
though the apples are worm-eaten and the wheat fields stunted,
though the sheep pens are sheepless and the cattle barns empty,
I’m signing joyful praise to God. I’m turning cartwheels of joy to my Savior God. Counting on God’s Rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength. I run like a deer. I feel like I’m king of the mountain.
In all things, we have faith and trust in a God who has saved us and promises to it again. And in that faith is life, full life, real life. It is in a life of faith that we are given the strength to change the world, to live beyond our laments and cheap fixes. In the midst of it all, we count on God’s love, God’s faithfulness, God’s promises.
Maybe that is our greatest witness along this journey of faith. That even when we are impatiently waiting, even when we question and wonder, even though we don’t know when or where or how God will come, we live out our faith in tangible ways. We care for our neighbor, we alleviate the hurt we can, we praise along the way. And we do it until God gets here and relieves us of our work.
This Advent season, we don’t get easy answers, but God answers in ways that give us hope. Give us life. Give us faith.
May God not tire of our complaining.
May God keep us strong in these promises.
May God continue to accompany us all along this journey.
Your God is useless.
Forget about all those beautiful, but empty, promises about God saving you. Don’t let your king lead you to believe such nonsense. He has these pious sermons telling you to lean on God. But they’re all lies. Your God, as well as all the other gods of neighboring cities, is useless.
Rather, listen to the king of Assyria’s offer. He promises you a life of peace and prosperity - something far better. You’ll have wide open spaces, with more than enough fertile land for everyone. Don’t let Hezekiah fool you with this, “God will save us,” nonsense. Has that ever happened? Has any god ever gotten the best of the king of Assyria? Name one! So, what makes you think that your God will do any different?
That’s the gist of the speech Rabshakeh gives to the people of Judah. Rabshakeh was a messenger for Assyria’s king, Sennacherib. Assyria was wiping out everyone - Babylon, Samaria.
All who stood in their way of being the world’s dominant power were wiped out.
It’s war. And war is ugly.
My favorite comic strip of all time is “Calvin & Hobbes,” even though it’s been out of print for almost 20 years. In one strip, Calvin, the rambunctious kid, and Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who is alive to Calvin, are standing with army helmets on. Hobbes asks, “How come we play War and not Peace?” To which Calvin replies, “Too few role models.”
Another has Calvin going up to his dad in the first frame asking, “How do soldiers killing each other solve the world’s problems?” Then we get two frames of his dad staring blankly in different directions, and ends with Calvin walking away saying, “I think grown-ups just act like they know what they’re doing.”
If we kill more people on your side than you kill on our side, we get to implement our ideas and values. If we have bigger guns, extra soldiers, more destructive bombs, does that mean we have better values? If we have drones or armor or twice the military spending, does that mean our decisions are more wise? It’s all just survival of the fittest.
There are a few shows out now about the “what ifs” of some of the big wars. “The Man in the High Castle” is such a show. What if the Nazis had won? What if they were stronger or luckier or had slightly better technology they used on us first? Would it make their ideals better than ours?
Or, since we’re so close to Thanksgiving, the British settlers fought a lot of battles against Native American Tribes. They were in the way, uncivilized, a threat to our security… or so the history books say. Was that the right way to handle settling in to a new land?
It’s not like we don’t try to be peaceful. Despite our best efforts to unite, there are some who have more individual, selfish, destructive aspirations. We all will come up short. War is the way of our world. War is a force that defines us, gives us meaning. War is the story we tell, the story that has been used in just ways and unjust ways.
I don’t know if we can do anything but. It’s our reality, our world, our story.
To that, God speaks promise, hope, peace. God gives us another story to tell, and God never relents in telling us that alternative story, which brings life out of the death we cause.
In days to come, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
It’s the promise. It’s the hope. God will bring a peace that we cannot.
In the days to come, God will be the one to arbitrate among peoples. God will intercede for peace. God will teach what is right and what is wrong. And we’ll learn - learn to the point where we take action. We turn weapons into farm tools; what was meant for destruction now cultivates life. Swords to plowshares. Spears to pruning hooks. Guns into irrigation pipes. Missile silos to grain silos. Bombs into harvesters. War into peace. We have hope.
And it is at this point that the world cries out in a loud voice in the language of our lives:
Your God is useless. Forget about all those beautiful, but empty, promises about God saving you. Don’t let your pastor lead you to believe such nonsense. He has these pious sermons telling you to lean on God. But they’re all lies. Your God, as well as all the other gods of neighboring cities, is useless.
How do we respond? Do we believe God? And if so, how does that shape what we do right now?
Maybe we can’t reach world peace without the second coming of Christ, but I can’t believe all hope is lost. If we believe what God says, when we believe, since we believe, that should shape what we do. Though God’s kingdom is not ours to make, it is ours to practice.
We can change the weapons around us, what is within our control. The weapons of our words can be changed to words of cultivation and life. Our fists clenched tight on what is ‘rightfully ours’ can soften, can open, can be used for reaching out, for sharing, for lifting up. Instead of building walls of division between us and them, we can build a bigger table where all are welcome.
Under God’s instruction, all nations and many peoples will come. There is no more “other.” There is no more “we” and “they.” And that is the first step of what we can strive for. That is within our control as a community of faith and as people of God. Because God teaches us the ways of peace, we can live God’s welcome in our lives and in our world.
That welcome leads to peace. And God is taking us there, says Isaiah.
So, come to the table Jesus sets for us - a table that does indeed span all times and all places, where all are welcome. Be fed, nourished, strengthened. Hold in your hand the presence and peace of Christ.
Remember the waters of baptism that stream from God, that flow over us in renewal and life. Be forgiven, cleaned, invigorated for bearing the peace of God to the world.
While it may be hard to change dictators or commanders of great armies, by hammering those weapons of war in our lives, we can practice peace - within ourselves, among our families, in our congregations, in our neighborhoods, for our world. And by doing so, we prepare the way. We prepare the way for the One who does bring peace, Jesus Christ our Lord.
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
When we first read this verse, with its key words like ‘Bethlehem’ and ‘one who is to rule’ and ‘origin is from old,’ we can’t help but jump to Christmas, right? How can we not? It’s like the radio stations who are already playing Christmas music. Or the stores who have up their decorations. Or the people who are already finished with their shopping.
Some of us are just fine with going there already. We’ve had Christmas music going in our van for about a week and a half. Others of us aren’t there yet. Isn’t it a little early for messianic language?
Well, good news for you Advent and Christmas purists out there. We don’t necessarily have to go to a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes just yet. Let’s take the details of Christmas out of our minds for a moment and only listen to what Micah is telling us.
The first portion of our passage from Micah focuses on a new kind of ruler. And there are a few things about this ruler that are important to note. First, the ruler will be from Bethlehem, which is the house of David, who was the most beloved ruler. Second, this area is considered the boonies, outside the city and outside power and privilege. Third, just to reiterate his point, Micah refers to it as one of the “little clans” to be sure we don’t miss its insignificance. Last, the new ruler is really from old, rooted in the ancient story of God and Israel.
This new ruler is not the stereotypical picture of a mighty leader coming from a place of privilege, wielding power and prestige. This leader achieves peace in a different way, will feed the entire flock, and the name of the Lord is what brings security.
The second portion of our reading for today needs no real introduction. It is probably the most famous half-verse in all of the Old Testament. The focus of this portion is on relationship with God. What do I, a sinner, have to do for God to be pleased?
What does God want from us? What does God require? It’s like the people are begging God, “just tell us your favorite offering, and we’ll surely sacrifice it!” The options offered up start off rather reasonable - these are things people already offered, like burnt offerings and calves. But they quickly escalate in grandeur, even to hyperbole.
How *exactly* does one gather ten thousand rivers of oil?
The excess is here to remind us, to slap us in the back of the head and say, “you know better.” No matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to offer enough to make us acceptable in God’s sight. Isn’t it kind of arrogant to think so? Arrogant, over-the-top sacrifices aren’t what God wants.
And yet…we still want tangible blueprints. We want to quantify things. We want to compare ourselves to other people, making sure we have the better insight or worship attendance or well used Bible. It’s how we try to offer “more” than the other, making us holier or something. Even though we know better, we still try to offer up something to make God smile upon us a bit more.
But God doesn’t work that way.
What does the Lord require of you?
Is it to have the strength, the wealth, the connections to amass ten thousand rivers of oil? No.
Is it to be able to persuade or overpower or even pay off people or God? No.
Is it peace through power, welcome to those on our side, all in the name of politics as usual? No.
It’s so much easier than that. While we emphasize the types of offerings or the types of sacrifices, God focuses on the type of person. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.
These things don’t require riches or exceptional knowledge. They only require living into the communities we have, reminding each other of what’s important. We care for each other - our neighbor, those here and those who aren’t. We stand on the side of the unfortunate, the lowly, the shunned; we strive for their livelihood and inclusion as much as our own. We act humbly. As C.S. Lewis put it, we don’t “think less of ourselves, but we think of ourselves less.” Other people, no matter who they are, are ensured justice and kindness from us, individually and communally.
Unfortunately, we still have different ideas of what is “just” and what is “kind.” How much justice is enough, and what does that look like? Do we have to be kind even if they “fill in the blank”? I’m more humble than you are!
So maybe I should edit my previous comment:
It’s so much easier, and oh, so much harder.
To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God are not single, measurable acts that can be checked off the list and then left behind. There isn’t a level we reach. We simply act toward others as God acts to us. Always. Everywhere. All the time.
And we fail. We fail so bad.
But God doesn’t quantify our failures, which very well might fill ten thousand rivers. Instead, God is a different type of ruler, one that focuses on relationship. Ultimatums and guilt don’t bring relationship; instead, God does things the hard way for our sake. It’s forgiveness, grace, and love.
God doesn’t want offerings and sacrifices; instead, God wants us. And to make sure God has us, God offers to us, God sacrifices for us, all for the benefit of the relationship. God offers forgiveness, feeds us in bread and wine, claims us as children - not demanding inordinate amounts from us, but instead offering to us. Because this ruler, this God, values the person, the relationship, more than anything else.
God comes to us as one who is unexpected. God sends our only hope. And by this, God reframes everything that we want to justify and quantify and define. God loves. God forgives. God encourages.
The people to whom Micah was preaching weren’t too different from us. They, like we do, often got things mixed up when it comes to God and leaders and relationships. We tend to focus on the wrong things in all of that stuff, losing what is important.
And so, Micah invites us to reframe our lives within God’s story, see a new relationship with a new kind of ruler. Divine love and justice abound in the reign of God. This ruler proclaims a new kind of relationship not based on score-keeping or our ability to appease God, but on love and justice.
This is the reign of God. This is relationship. This is Christ.
Sometimes God works in reverse.
When Naaman is in search of a cure to his leprosy, it isn’t he himself, or his king, or even his wife who puts him on the path to a cure. It’s a lowly servant girl. She is the one who points him to hope and life. God works in the reverse of what we think.
When Naaman goes, he isn’t cured because he can provide a the gift of
ten talents of silver,
six thousand shekels of gold,
and ten sets of garments; or because Elisha did some hocus pocus; but because his slaves encouraged him to listen to the prophet. God uses the reverse of who we think.
How Naaman finally gets healed isn’t because he took an epic quest, or had impeccable faith, or because he was who he was. Naaman was upset that an important guy like him didn’t get a fancy, showstopping healing performance. He didn’t believe, didn’t trust, didn’t have faith in the simple, little promise of God that washing, that water, will heal. God heals the reverse of how we think.
Now, that may not be news to you. You may even expect that that is how God works. God upends expectations! God reverses the order of the world! The lowly are lifted; the poor are blessed; the outsiders become the inner circle. I think we get that at some level.
God lays out how we should live, and this story is a good example of it. We should be mindful of the people through whom God works. We should be aware of where God shows up. We should be conscious that God entirely reverses what we in our society and world think of as the best way.
But we fight it every step of the way. We don’t trust God’s reversal… mostly because reversal for us looks… bad. If God works through the lowly and outcast, what does that make us? If God shows up to outsiders, what about us, here, now? If God reverses the way things are, why would we want that? We’d much rather God NOT do things that way. That’s the sinner in us.
So, we go at it like Naaman, prefering to do things our way first. We depend on wealth and possessions to sustain and satisfy. We trust people in power to know the answers and guide us along. And we’ll trust God as long as God is doing something great and mighty. But, God doesn’t often work that way. And when God doesn’t work the way we want, well, we try to explain how God should be doing things. Again, that’s the sinner in us.
We tell a tale to ourselves: we ourselves can handle whatever comes our way; we alone can fix it; we know how things work.
But God asks us to reverse our way of thinking. Not just asks, but God proves to us again and again that God’s way is the best way. God invites us to see the reversals in our world - reversals that reveal God’s values and love.
God gives us gifts and guides to shape us - to help us focus less on us and instead focus on the ways and people and places where we can better see and understand God working in our world.
The Take a Step in Faith Beachwalk Stewardship program is a good example. We all were involved in some way, shape, and form. We gave of our time to participate and take the beach bag to the next on our list. We reflected on giving our treasure, tithing, supporting God’s mission and ministry through St. Philip.
Much like in our story for today, God still doesn’t need ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. But tithing isn’t about God; it’s about us. It’s about shaping our heart’s desires - shifting from focusing on what we have or own to making more room for God, to trusting in God instead of our things. Offerings, tithing, and stewardship of resources are ways we train our hearts to be more attune to God instead of stuff. It’s a way God reverses the consumerism and self-centeredness in our sinful selves and shapes us.
God reverses the messages that get pounded into us all day every day when we take time to worship and study and reflect and pray. Through Bible Study, we discover God speaking to us. Though Small Group conversations, we learn of others’ experiences and how they inform our own. Through hymnody and music, God speaks to us in ways that transcend other means of communication. God reverses the messages of fear and hate that our broken world stokes, and instead God gives us a message of grace, love, and acceptance in, despite, and through all things.
God reverses our sinful idolatry of ourselves through community and worship. We become part of something larger than our individual selves. We recognize our place as fallen human beings and are offered a word of healing and wholeness. We are fed in unexpected ways - with some bread and wine, with the presence of Christ, with water to wash us and remind us of the promise of God. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
And as we do these things, as they become holy habits in our lives, we start to more often and more regularly see the reversal that God has in store for us and for all of creation. We see God everyday.
Even in our world, we start to see more regularly where the cross leads to empty tomb. We appreciate the subtle ways God comes to show us life. We realize God has reversed the story - no longer in and out, high and low, good and bad, but flipped it from death to life, from pain to healing, from sinner to saint.
God reverses it all, even the finality and separation and hurt of death. God changes what we can’t. For all the saints, who from their labors rest, God reverses our end into a new beginning. God writes more to the story. And not just one day, but now.
We are the saints of God. Backward in the ways of the world, but headed in God’s direction of life, of love, of grace.
God’s reversal, God’s blessing, isn’t dependent on grand plans, on washing in rivers, or on us. God reverses things in ways we might not always catch. But God does it. And as we grow, as we recognize the little, subtle reversals around us, we start to see more just how much God reverses the story. Reverses sin. Reverses death. Turning sinners into saints.
“Ask what I should give you.”
That’s a big command God gives to Solomon. God comes and offers, “What should I give you?”
And after a few verses of praise and humility, Solomon asks for discernment, an understanding mind. We often sum it up by saying, “Solomon asked for wisdom.” But it’s not just any wisdom. It’s not a grasp of facts or piles of experience… It’s knowing what God would want and then doing it. It’s knowing God’s heart; it’s following God’s heart.
In the next scene, we get an example of Solomon doing something like that. Theatrics aside, he, the king at the upper rung of society, is listening to two prostitutes, lowest on the societal ladder. Solomon demonstrates that God’s wisdom, God’s desire, God’s heart is in him by listening to these women whom kings normally don’t listen to. By doing this, he discovers the true mother.
Now, for a little fun, do you ever think what would happen if we were put into Solomon’s situation? God comes and asks, “what do you want?”
And I pose that scenario just a few days after the one point six billion dollar MegaMillions lottery ticket was sold here in South Carolina. The first few minutes of our Wednesday Night Small Group was spent chatting and dreaming about that. Surely there is a piece of us that longs for that type of financial problem. It’s where our heart goes.
But this isn’t a genie in a bottle kind of situation. This isn’t three wishes where we can explore multiple options. This is a one-shot inquiry coming from God. So, maybe we start feeling a bit more altruistic. There are lots of places to go - health for a loved one. Peace on earth - a stop of massacres and bombings and shootings. End of poverty. Cure to cancer. Any numerous great things. Maybe, just maybe, we’d get it right and ask for something that would follow God’s heart - even though it is so tempting to follow our own.
Switching gears a bit, today is also a day we commemorate the Protestant Reformation, the day 501 years ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in protest of how the Catholic Church was manipulating scripture, tradition, and the people. Luther tried to let God’s heart lead the way for the Church instead of anything our own hearts would desire.
And maybe that is more how we fit into this story. We might not get the one big “wish,” but thousands of years after Solomon, and 500 years after Luther, our call as Christians and as the Church is the same: follow God’s heart. That changes what our Reformation celebration is about. It becomes less about remembering, and instead, it is a day we recognize God is asking, calling, moving among us now, giving us all that we need so we can follow God’s heart.
Today is about seeking God in
how to live today,
how to be the Church here,
how to reform who we are and what we are doing to more closely follow God’s heart.
How do we do that? Or, to say it a different way, what do we want our Church to be?
That’s actually a pretty easy question to answer. We want the church to be just like it was when we were growing up. We remember when…
when the church was full.
When people cared.
When there wasn’t so much stuff going on.
When the world was simpler.
We want that again. We want people to come to us, and we want the world to stop being so “now” and go back to being what it was “then.” We want our familiar, comfortable experiences; we want the words and the hymns and the routines that we know; we want to go back to that church. It’s where our heart lies.
It’s almost like God says, “ask what I should give your church,” and we choose to follow our hearts.
And so, the one-point-six billion dollar question: what does God want?
It’s not a question we ask that much. It’s easy to know what we want, but what does God want? What does God want our church to be?
Does God want the same things we want? Maybe.
Does God want our Church to be and do the same things that we did years ago? Maybe.
Does God want us to be a place where we come to experience the familiar and comfortable? Maybe.
It’s a little scary to think that God may not want what we want.
That somewhere we lost our way,
that at some point we settled in,
that at some comfortable place, our hearts were content, and we lost the draw of what God’s heart wanted.
What is it that God wants?
I think God wants to reform us, to make us new. Not leave us like we are, but pour into us a love and a grace that makes us live in new ways. God’s heart leads us to new relationship with God.
Solomon, through following God’s heart, ended up building a temple - a permanent place to worship God, something the Israelites had never experienced before. This brought on new ways of being with God, new ways of worship, new experiences and religious life.
Luther, through trying to put God’s heart at the forefront of everything the Church does, brought about a new way of living with God. This way of life was not born out of fear and guilt, but relationship which is made alive out of love and grace.
In baptism, God creates us anew. In those waters, God’s Word comes to us and doesn’t leave us the same. God changes us, renews us, reforms us. And not just once, but continually, ongoing, every single day.
God intends for us to be reformed, individually and communally, so that we can reform the world in which we currently live. God’s not afraid of new things. God delights in making us new.
And on a day like this, I can’t help but think of all the ways God has made us as St. Philip Lutheran Church new. We reach outside of our doors in mission and ministry more than we have in a long time. We share the Good News more than just Sunday morning. We welcome new people. We collected over 1,000 food items for hurricane and flood relief. We have revitalization in music and choirs. Our building and grounds are looking better. We’ve all been involved in sharing the ministries of St. Philip with the Beach Walk Stewardship program. We are sharing our lives with each other more. We have a lot going on, and we have energy and excitement. And I think all this is a result of trying to follow God’s heart.
But, our hearts shouldn’t be too content with what is. God is present, not leaving us as we are, but reforming us in water and meal. God is always making us new, drawing us deeper into relationship, calling us to share God’s heart with the world. What will that look like in the months, years, decades to come? I don’t know yet.
But I know that God isn’t done. God’s heart continually calls us to reform, to share love and grace in new ways - in ways that are the heart of all we do, ways that are the heart of God.
The appearance of this text at a time when news reports are inundated with stories of the abuse and victimization of women by men of power offers both an opportunity and a challenge for us as Christians - especially for the one who has to preach. Anyone else want to take that on?
On the one hand, it’s easy to ignore all that is going on in the world around us. Sometimes I think we want our preachers to do that. Leave us in the bubble and don’t confront us with bad news. But, I also think that is why a lot of people find the church irrelevant to their lives and so stop coming. The church often ignores hard issues, issues that actually affect real people, because we don’t want to upset or offend anyone. So, I’ll state it now: there’s a chance you’ll get uncomfortable or even offended in this sermon.
And maybe that’s a good thing. It’ll cause you to wrestle, to really think, reflect, pray about where God is in a text like this. How does God want us to respond?
David sees Bathsheba, who is immediately identified as the wife of Uriah, the Hittite. David knows from the start that she is the wife of another, a man in his army no less. This fact should give him pause, but there is no hesitation. David acts swiftly and decisively. "He sent, he took, he lay" (11:4). The action is stark - no romantic words, no cuddling, no flirting - just action.
We see a real ugliness in David here. He can have whatever he wants. He is at the culmination of his enormous power, and he takes, simply because he can. I can’t help but think of all the other men in power simply doing what they want because they can. Presidents Clinton and Trump, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, countless others. They did it because they could. This is exactly what we see here with David.
David raped Bathsheba. Though our translation softens it, the Hebrew states that David orders his soldiers to go and “take” her in v 4. The text does not tell us how willingly she came. Neither those soldiers nor Bathsheba had the option to refuse. When it comes to royal commands, there is a lot of complexity to how “willing” one really is. David sinned. Big time.
We try many ways to gloss over that fact - like not using the word “rape,” instead opting for the less jarring word, “adultery.”
Movies have been made, transforming this story from violation to love. David was the sensitive, reflective king who just wanted to be loved for who he really was. Bathsheba was the lonely wife of an over-dedicated soldier. They fell in love! Love can't be wrong, or at least not very wrong. The event is remembered, but not as anything like a sin.
We even go as far as to blame the whole thing on Bathsheba. It takes two to tango! She was bathing on her roof, after all. This narrative attributes seduction - and so the sin - to Bathsheba. If the sin must be remembered, it can at least be blamed on the woman.
The prophet Nathan offers a different interpretation. Nathan's parable in chapter 12 brings the hard fact of sin to the forefront of David's mind. At the end of the story, only he will be held accountable by God and Nathan. Bathsheba will not be accused of - or punished for - adultery in the scriptures.
Of course, David’s sin here is just the beginning of a chain reaction: pregnancy, lying, trickery, murder… The chapter concludes with the statement: "And the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of God."
Acknowledging this about David threatens a whole worldview. It shatters a vision in which saints and sinners can be neatly divided, a vision in which God works through the good actions of good people to establish peace and justice.
It hurts to read. It hurts even more to know that this stuff still goes on.
It’s really hard to find Good News in this story. There are no miracles or conquering of death. There’s no unexpected “grace” moment. There is the failure of a leader, a violated woman, and a dead husband.
But I think what this story does do is it gives us an opportunity, as I said at the beginning, to wrestle, think, and pray about how God would have us respond. How have we responded in the past when these stories come up in our lives or in our friends’ lives? Because they do.
What kind of community do we as a church want to be? Or, better yet, what kind of community is God calling us to be?
God wants us on the side of the oppressed. To stand up for those whose voice has been suppressed. To welcome them into a place where they can share their stories and heal. And maybe it isn’t only about sexual assault; we can’t force people to share their story if they don’t want to. But maybe we give people dignity by giving them a good meal in our Fellowship Hall. We stand up for the rights of people who need care, particularly mental health. We commit ourselves to being a community that welcomes people even if - particularly when - they aren’t like us.
We do that because God does that. What we see through the whole Bible is that God works on behalf of and gives justice to those who are pushed aside, those whose stories are forgotten. No one is outside of God’s care - not the oppressed, not the persecuted, not the violated like Bathsheba. She too was a child of God, with all the gifts that God gives to each and every one of us.
We name injustices we see. Believe it or not, there is grace in calling people on their overt sinfulness. God could’ve allowed David to think he got away with it all, but instead, God sent the prophet Nathan to preach a parable of judgment about David’s actions. That moment certainly impacted David and opened the door for him to live more fully into the life God intended for David and for Israel.
God’s judgment comes to correct, to renew relationship, to create in us new, clean hearts. Because we surely can’t do it ourselves. God has to intervene, to change us. And God promises to do that. To wash us, to feed us, to nourish us so we can live as God’s people.
How does God want us to respond?
It’s a hard question for a hard world. But we have a God who continually comes to us and models a response for us. Love, grace, life. For all.
Today we hear one of the most famous verses in all the Old Testament: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Some of us may even have a cross-stitched pillow or sentimental picture of that verse hanging in our house. And, just to give you a heads up, the kid’s canvas that will be hanging up next week? Yup. Got that verse on it. And you know if it ends up on the kid’s canvas, it must be pretty famous.
But the verse often leaves out the context in which Joshua stakes his claim.
The Israelite people have finally reached and secured the Promised Land. They are on the cusp of entering in. This is the very end - the final scene of this journey and conquest. And Joshua, the guy who took over after Moses died, speaks to the people. Though, it doesn’t seem like it is Joshua speaking. Instead, he takes on the role of “prophet” here, speaking from the perspective of God.
All the mighty acts of God are recounted, starting long ago with Abraham. This speech emphasizes God’s doing, not so much anything the people did. I took, I gave, I made, I sent, I brought, I handed, I rescued… over and over, God repeats the saving history.
God gives to the forefathers. God sends Moses and Aaron. God frees from the Egyptians. God hands over land, towns, vineyards - all as a generous gift.
And it’s interesting to note that God doesn’t bring up any instructions, warnings, or criticisms. There is no mention of complaining in the wilderness. No allusion to a golden calf. No failures or wanderings away are mentioned. It’s almost like that’s not important to God. Instead, this is a straightforward, powerful narrative of God’s presence with and action on behalf of the Israelite people. And not just for those people then, but these people now.
God tells the story of salvation in such a way as to make history also the present. “They” and “you” alternate in a way that weaves the history of the ancestors with the identity of the Israelites now listening to Joshua.
"Afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea. . . When they cried out to the LORD, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt," (vs 5-7). God wants to tell, to show the people that they are part of a whole. They, too, are saved by God’s grace, even now, in full continuity of generations who have past.
God continues to work. Their story is our story is your story.
And after all this, after all the reminding and telling and sharing and “God as the subject of active verbs,” then Joshua calls the question. In light of all that, who will you serve? How will you remember your history in light of moving forward? Who will you serve?
At this point, we ought to see ourselves in a similar position as the Israelites. It’s not just what God did long ago for our ancestors. God’s actions for them are actions for you. You are a continuation of God’s work in this world, work to save and bring life, work to share and be gracious. God has been active in our lives, past and present.
For us gathered here, God indeed has worked through those saints in the Bible - through Abraham, Moses, and Joshua…
Through Peter, Paul, and the disciples...
Up through historic church saints, like Augustine and Joan of Arc...
By people like Martin Luther to bring us back to center...
all throughout history, even as a group of Christians gathered in June of 1954 in the Myrtle Beach High School Cafeteria.
God brought them together to start St. Philip Lutheran Church and gave you leaders, Mission Developers, and pastors; musicians, directors, and volunteers. God gave growth, God gave community, God gave excitement and energy and creativity. God made this community of faith strong, giving it all it needed and more.
And when their time of struggle and difficulty and wandering in the wilderness came, God gave you patience to keep going. When they were wondering where this congregation was headed, God gave you guidance. When they were longing for the days before, God gave you a calming presence to bring you through. When they were about to give up, God gave you hope.
God brought them gifts - people, talents, passions. God brought them through tough times, impossible times, to a place where you now stand. And so, here we are, on the cusp of something new, something exciting. We don’t know quite what it looks like, but God, through all the ages, has brought us to this very place.
God gives us opportunity, a place, a community. God gives us things we don’t deserve. God gives us means of grace, a love that surrounds, a Spirit of service. Our “Take a Step in Faith Stewardship Beach Walk” hopes to show you some of the more recent ways in which God has been involved in our community of faith. And, hopefully, we see God has been involved each step of the way.
Knowing that, being reminded of all that God has done, who will you serve?
We each have a choice in how we respond to this God who has worked throughout history to save. God brings us here. How will you serve? God gives us everything. Who will your serve? God saves us in Christ. How will you respond?
As for me and my house, we’ll do our best to serve the Lord. We’ve seen God moving here in the community of St. Philip and want to see what God will do next. We will be involved in ministry and mission. We’ll give financially to support all that is going on - and hopefully take a step to do a little bit more. We’ll pray and serve as we can.
I hope that as you reflect on God’s history and blessings that brought you to where you are, you respond by taking a step in faith. By growing in how you live as a disciple through involvement and giving. By letting go of what we think fulfills us so the Spirit can fill us more. By hearing the story of “them,” but knowing God makes it your story, too.
God’s story shapes us. It forms us into God’s people. God story promises that God is with us, each step of the way. Knowing that, let’s take the next step in faith.
Laws in the Old Testament are one of those places that cause the most frustration and confusion for Christians. There are lots of reasons for that.
First, we mostly tend to look at biblical law in negative terms. It’s the big “no” to those things we really want to do. It restrains and restricts. To use some Lutheran lingo, it convicts us of our sin and drives us to Christ. But how do laws - especially Old Testament laws - apply to those of us who are freed in Christ, who is the new covenant?
Second, the laws we tend to be most familiar with are the 10 Commandments since they have prominence in movies and Catechisms and as political pawns about statehouses and whatnot. Aside from these 10, we may know a couple others, like the Shema in Deuteronomy (6:4-9 - You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.) or the Leviticus law to “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). But we probably only know these because Jesus states these laws are “greater” than the others.
Of course, there is the other occasional Old Testament law that gets pulled out of context by some hard-nosed believers and applied selectively to various swaths of people. This approach, conveniently, ignores other laws that tend to make us uncomfortable - laws like welcoming the resident alien in your land, not charging interest on money one lends (Exodus 22:21-28), and giving liberally and ungrudgingly to those in need (Deuteronomy 15). We like to pick the laws that call out someone else and ignore the ones that point to our own prejudices.
Third, we brush a lot of the laws off because they come from an ancient cultural context that looks nothing like our own. There are lots of laws about what to do with your ox. Who’s got an ox anymore? There are laws about shellfish and sabbath, ceremonies and sacrifices. Times, societies, religion, lives have changed. These laws seem to only apply to narrow range of life that has passed long ago. Why pay attention to any of them?
So far this is setting up to be a sermon that’s not pertinent to your life, huh?
But I think there is something pertinent about the law. As with most things in the Bible, there is more to it than “do this or burn forever.” That’s not the premise for why God gives the 10 Commandments.
To explain that, let’s start by saying, “nineteen comes before twenty.” We’ll understand what that means in a second.
While some people look at these laws as the way to climb the ladder to God, to get in on God’s good side, let’s look at what actually happens before God gives the 10 Commandments.
Going all the way to last week, we saw that God saved the Israelites from slavery. Plagues, Passover, the miraculous crossing through the Red Sea. God worked to save. Today, looking at Exodus chapter 19, God says, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” God reminds them of that established relationship. It isn’t until chapter 20 that any talk of commandment comes up. Nineteen comes before twenty.
The point is that the relationship God establishes with the chosen people comes first in chapter 19 - it is literally primary. The law, with its ethical demands on our behavior in chapter 20, comes second - it is literally secondary. Relationship with God isn’t established by doing these things. God establishes the relationship and then gives the law, coaching us how be holy.
That relationship is even emphasized at the start of Exodus 20, right before the commandments. These verses underscore the same point as chapter 19: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Most Christians call verses 1 and 2 the “prologue” to the Ten Commandments. However, the Jews call them the “First Word.”
The Jews emphasize this so strongly that the “First Word” is actually their first commandment. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” gives context to the rest of the law: God wants to establish relationship and then teach us how to live in that relationship.
This is the positive thrust to the law. It is about relationship - living in an established relationship with God. To be concerned about the law is to be concerned with the well-being of other people. We see that the law preserves life; the law instructs us and helps us to develop wisdom and maturity; the law promotes good.
But there’s a little bit more to this. The opening word of God establishes relationship: “I am the Lord your God.”
Now, a quick English lesson:
When I am talking with one person, and I want to use a pronoun, I say, “you.” You are great! Second person singular.
When I am talking with three or four people and want to use a pronoun, formally I’d say, “You are great!” But we live in the south, so really I’d say, “Y’all are great!” But the point being is this a formal (not Southern) translation of the Bible. “You” and “Your” are used for both singular and plural.
Now, normally in English translations of the Bible, we run across a lot of “you” usage that really should be “y’all” usage. Paul, for example, does this a lot. It gets translated, “I commend you therefore..” when really it should be, “I commend y’all therefore…” Plural, community, etc.
And here’s where things get interesting with the 10 Commandments and God’s promise of “I am the Lord your God.” It’s singular. It’s you. These are words given to you by your God. God redeems you, saves you, frees you from the bonds of slavery to sin. The Ten Commandments begin with a word of good news about what God has done on behalf of you. God reminds you, me, each and every one of us that God has already rescued you and me, and you already have a relationship with God. So, then, here’s how you live in that relationship.
And while God says that the relationship and the commandments are for you, this isn’t some private relationship. The whole point of the commandments and relationship with God is to learn to live with others, to serve the community, to help each other grow in life, faith, and relationship. Each and every individual plays an important role.
Jesus says it vividly. You are a city on a hill, unable to be hidden. You are light for the world. Don’t hide, but shine. Live the way God calls us to. Be the best in that relationship. Nurture that relationship. Live the commandments, not to save yourself, but to show the world what life in God, with God looks like.
We each are given the promise: God is your God. God saves you from bondage. God gives love and grace, nourishment and forgiveness for you. And we each are called to live into that relationship by loving as God loves, by establishing relationship first, by reflecting on how to make more room for that relationship in our lives.
Nineteen comes before twenty.
Relationship comes before command.
God’s love, grace, support comes…
And we have life, live life, share life with God.
I’ll bet this story is not one many Sunday school teachers spent a lot of time with.
What catches your ear in this story? The betrayal? The lies? Unfaithfulness? There is plenty here that seems so… familiar. The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife seems like a plot taken from any political drama one would see on TV. The themes have not changed one bit in the thousands of years years since Joseph.
Joseph, for a little refresher on his background, was the guy who had the coat of many colors, given to him by his father, Jacob. It’s important to note that this is not the same Joseph we hear about in the New Testament, especially around Christmas time. We pick up in the middle of this Joseph’s narrative, seeing that he has been sold into slavery.
Which may make us ask, “Why is Joseph in slavery?” The short answer is because his brothers were unfaithful to him. They betrayed him, beat him, stripped him of his coat, and sold him. Joseph’s brothers use that coat of many colors as evidence, saying to their father that Joseph is dead.
Not a very good start to Joseph’s story. Which leads us to the story today. He starts out as a slave and ends up… in prison. Not really how we want the story to end, is it? And why is Joseph in prison?
The short answer is because Potiphar’s wife has been unfaithful. She betrayed her husband’s trust by trying to lie with Joseph, and then she betrayed Joseph by lying about lying. She uses Joseph’s garment as evidence, saying to her husband that Joseph tried to rape her.
This guy does not have very good luck with his attire.
Now, the immediate response from most of us is to speed through this part of Joseph’s story and get to the good stuff, get to him being freed from slavery and jail and placed in Pharaoh’s mansion - which is what happens. There he has honor and power and prestige. Hooray, happy ending!
That is how we often do things. We avoid the painful, unpretty places in the world around us and in our very own lives. Think of how our eyes move away from someone sitting at an intersection with a coffee can and a sign. We don’t like to see the unpleasant, let alone dwell in the hurt. We try to ignore or hide or rush through - like what we want to do with Joseph’s story. Skip the sad parts, just get to the good stuff.
And yet, pain and hurt and uncertainty are part of all our lives. To deny that is to be unrealistic - unfaithful, even - about our lives. We may not have ever been sold into slavery by our brothers or been sent to jail, but we have been in places where we are alone, dejected, unsure, shortsighted, suffering.
I’ve had conversations with people at home, in the hospital, and in my office about this very thing. And you probably have, too.
Things change; the “good ol’ days” aren’t around - whatever those were.
Hurricanes and flooding, as we’ve seen, change things in an instant. We can lose everything, be cut off from things that bring us safety and comfort.
Our health may not be what it was, and that limits us from doing those things we enjoy - travel, yard work, even living independently.
Or our relationships are strained for various reasons; some are even severed by divorce, indifference, or death.
We often are in places in our lives where the future is uncertain, and we don’t see light at the end of the tunnel - or if we do see light, we are afraid of the oncoming train.
We don’t sit with this type of difficulty in our lives and instead try to brush by it by ignoring it, pushing it away, or heaping hackneyed phrases of help on top of it.
It is ok to feel it.
It is ok to express it.
It is ok to be in the moment of pain or hurt or loss.
It’s not that God plans bad things,
or that God drops a pop quiz on us to see how we’ll handle the sudden death of a loved one,
or that God experiments with our faith with terrible news of an unwanted diagnosis.
Instead, God is present in the midst of that really crummy, crummy stuff.
In the Joseph story, we have the theme of terrible things happening to Joseph, story after story of human unfaithfulness, unfaithfulness of which Joseph bears the punishment and pain. And yet, there is also the theme of God’s presence.
In verse two, “The Lord was with Joseph...”
Verse three, “His master saw that the Lord was with him…”
Verse 21, "The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love..."
Verse 23, "The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph's care, because the Lord was with him…”
God was present with Joseph, even in his suffering, pain, and loneliness. Even so, it’s hard to remain faithful to God in the midst of all that happens. We could chalk it up to, “Stuff happens, deal with it. God loves you!”
That’s pretty unhelpful.
Which is why it is important to remember that God’s presence is more than just “existence,” sitting there twiddling thumbs. God is there for a purpose, and that purpose is promise. God is there to remind us that these things that happen do not define us. We aren’t a diagnosis. We aren’t a severed relationship. We aren’t a screw up, a mistake, a lost cause.
We are loved. We are cared for. We are more than what happens to us. We are children of God, blessed with the promises of God - promises that what “is” won’t always be. God promises more, and God is faithful. God’s promise, God’s presence, gives us hope - hope beyond where we are right now.
That’s what Joseph knew. He was able to surpass being sold and held in prison because Joseph knew God’s presence and promise was with him. More than that, God’s presence enables Joseph not to get sucked into unfaithful ways. God’s presence changed how Joseph acted in uncertain situations, all situations. He is not defined by other’s unfaithfulness or what happened to him because of it. He knows God defines him. That gives a sense of hope.
God’s presence in our lives enables us to see the things that happen in our world and respond like Joseph. We can say “no” to the unfaithfulness we see around us in our world. We can reject things that aren’t loving, that aren’t grace-filled, that aren’t faithful to the relationship God has with us. Instead, we give and share, we live and follow, we love and grow. We help others who suffer, we feed those who hunger, we support efforts to bring peace.
And we do it because God has shown us in Jesus that this is the best way to live. It is the most faithful way to live. God is with us as we do it, enabling us to be as faithful as we can be. God is present, feeding us, nourishing us, washing us, sending us into the world - sending us prepared and equipped.
God’s presence makes a difference in how we live, how we see ourselves, how we respond in life.
Those things - whatever “those things” are in your life - they don’t define you. God defines you. God calls you beloved. God calls you child. God is present with you. Wherever, whatever. Now and forever.
It’s been a pretty festive day so far, hasn’t it? I do hope you were able to snag some breakfast with us and share in conversation. It was great to have some of the local firefighters here so we could say “thank you” for all they do. And, of course, St. Philip and Church of the Messiah are here with some of our guests to worship together and break bread of a different sort. All and all, it’s been a festive and fun morning together.
And then things get real ugly real quick: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth…”
Noah’s Ark is one of those cute Old Testament stories - cute until you actually think about it. Most people know the basics for the story: the earth was rampant with wickedness, and God wanted to start over. However, God found the righteous Noah, whom he commanded to build a big boat. God told Noah to bring on two animals of every kind. And as the raindrops started to fall, Noah and his family boarded the boat and closed up. Then the rains came for 40 days and 40 nights, flooding the earth and wiping out every living thing not on the boat. When the rains stopped, Noah sent out a dove who returned with an olive branch. Noah then knew it was soon time to unload. Lastly, God placed a rainbow in the sky - a reminder that God will never send a flood again. The end.
Like I said, it’s a cute story until you think about it. I’d like to think that God could’ve been a little more creative with the solution to the world’s problems. You know, have a little moral finesse instead of wiping things out.
But we do get to see a struggle within God. There is a struggle between God’s justice and judgment up against God’s faithfulness and mercy. God looks at the wickedness in the world and wants to start over.
Which seems pretty logical.
Have you ever burned a bag of popcorn? Do you choke down the charred kearnals or toss it and zap a new bag? I know where I stand.
Or maybe you’re working on a project, and you go so far down one wrong path that it’s best to scrap the whole thing rather than try to fix it. It’s hard work to revamp something so far gone.
Sometimes it is easier to just start over than go through the headache of repairing or rewriting or repainting or dousing it with extra butter and salt.
But God chooses not to start over. There is a glimmer of hope and mercy, despite the judgment that comes. God saves a segment of creation - the very same creation that was there in the beginning. And it seems that this choice shapes God. That little bit of mercy wasn’t enough. God vows, from then on, to take a different route. God commits to a different way of renewing and healing creation. No more wiping it out; instead, God promises to act differently, very differently in the future.
This promise doesn’t come because humanity somehow changed during their boat tour. They still bring corruption on the earth. Noah ends up not being all that great. Upcoming in the story, Israel makes a golden calf. They whine and complain. They choose poor rulers for themselves. The earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.
Thousands of years later, what is it that we do differently? We misplace our trust from being in God to being in the next shiny thing, in products and profits. We misuse the resources and blessings God gives to us. We mishandle relationships, talk past each other, ignore those who aren’t in our immediate tribe. Again, even now, the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.
Human beings are not changed by the flood, but God is changed. God judges, but God also choses to redeem over and over and over again. God chooses to live out faithfulness to all of creation. We are not tossed out like overly-microwaved popcorn, but instead, God is faithful. God is willing to put in the hard work. It’s the moral finesse I was talking about earlier.
God acts differently. When human sin and corruption again became so great that they threatened to overwhelm the world, instead of sending rains, God sends the Son. God sends Jesus to our world. God does the hard thing and works to fix the brokenness, fix the world, fix us. Instead of the rain, God sends the Son to show once and for all that God is passionately committed to creation, to the world, to us.
The sign of a rainbow isn’t just a reminder of God’s promise to us. It is a reminder to God, too. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” It is a visible sign of God’s promise and love from here on out. It’s a sign that this God is different. This God loves you and will handle your faults in an everlasting covenant kind of way.
The sign of a cross, too, is a reminder for us. It is a reminder that, no matter how hard it is to fix something that’s broken, God dares not throw it out. God has put blood, sweat, love in it. And so God will do anything to make sure it comes out how it was planned. For God, the cross means even death doesn’t stop faithfulness. A tomb doesn’t stop love. Instead, a new way - resurrection - achieves God’s goal of relationship.
Every time we gather, not only do we see a cross, mark the cross, sign the cross and remember those promises for us, but we get to participate in God’s love and grace. We share a meal - the bread of life, the cup of salvation - signs and symbols, for sure, but even more than that, in the bread and wine is the presence of Jesus himself. God sends the Son to feed us, to nourish our souls, to remind us of God’s dedication and faithfulness to us.
Then with a splash of water, we remember we are:
claimed as children, not cast aside.
God washes anew, not washes away.
God saves, not squanders. Instead of rain, God sends the Son.
That’s the love of God.
That’s the promise made.
That’s covenant between God and all of creation.
That God promises to be faithful.
Now and forever.
There, I said it.
I said it again.
And I guess it’s not a surprise - preachers have a reputation for mentioning sin whenever they can. At least the ones on TV do. It seems like they are always spouting off what you shouldn’t do. But Jesus has already taken care of that for us today. Fornication. Theft. Murder. Adultery. Avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly... I feel like Jesus should be holding a Bible and standing on a street corner. Sure, all those things are bad - sins - but what if you’ve got a pretty good reputation?
I mean, some things on that list are fairly easy to keep. But we’ve all done something Jesus mentions. At least once. Maybe twice. So, how many black marks are we allowed? A dozen? One per day? Infinity? Most of you have probably heard enough Lutheran sermons to know where this is going, so let’s cut to the chase: Grace and Forgiveness!
But doesn’t that feel a little cheap? Skipping the whole sin thing? It should; it is cheap to gloss over Sin. But if God is just going to forgive me, why does Sin matter anyway?
When we look at Sin as actions being kept track of on a giant scoreboard, the way we often think about it, it is easy to pick winners and losers. It is easy to say, “I’m not as bad as that person.” “At least I’ve never done that!” “Why don’t your followers wash their hands?!” Our Sin doesn’t matter very much because, hey, at least we’re better than somebody else.
But Jesus doesn’t look at Sin like that. To him, Sin isn’t so much the action as it is the source of the action. Sin starts from within us; it comes from the human heart. And when Sin is less about what we do and instead more about who we are, then Sin really matters. Sin affects who we are supposed to be.
Maybe you’ve never killed anyone. But have you ever thought ill of someone? Maybe you’ve never stolen anything of significance. But have you ever desired more than what you have? Have you ever put what you want before someone else? That’s the heart of the matter. Because of sin, no matter what we do or don’t do, sin wants to make it all about me. I. Us.
I remember four or five years ago coming home from the office. I’d walk into the living room and see little toddler Jonah there playing. I’d feel proud and happy. And when he’d see me, he’d get this big smile on his face, he’d laugh and stumble around joyfully. He’d waddle over to me, glad to see me, happy to be in the arms of his dad. It was a good, fun, loving, joyful relationship. The same was true with Anna when she was little.
But, as the years have gone on, it’s different. It’s not that my kids aren’t happy to see me when I get home or anything, but things are different than when they were toddlers. They’ve learned the word, “no.” They want to do things their way, often times without me. And at some point, I’m sure, they’re really going to break my heart. Not really on purpose, but, it’s going to happen.
I can’t help but wonder if that is how God thinks of us. “I made you to be with me. To be joyful. To love and to share and be happy in relationship.” But we sure don’t live that way.
We can make excuses: “Oh, they’re just growing up,” one may say. Or, when we reflect on ourselves, “we don’t really mean those things we say or do.” Or, even, “I’m captive to sin! There’s nothing I can do!” Our excuses can be a little dangerous - dangerous in that they let us off the hook far too easily.
Truth is, we fall short. We turn away. We demand our independence from God with our foot stomping “no” from time to time. We want to blame someone and something else - “it can’t be our fault!” But, the bottom line is, we ourselves don’t want to believe the truth that we turn away from what God wants.
It’s hard to admit, probably because if we do admit it, then we start to doubt ourselves. We doubt our worth to be loved. We doubt that God will do what God says because we aren’t what God wanted. We doubt our call to bear the heart of God to the world. We doubt that we can do anything, that we are doomed to fail.
Which is why God came to us in Jesus. Not just to point out our faults and failures, but to save us from our faults and failures. Because we can’t save ourselves. No excuse we make, no law we try to follow, no tradition that has been passed down can protect us from the darkness within our own hearts. So, Jesus came to take who we are and change the darkness, make us new, form us into new creations.
God comes to us now in Jesus. God comes to us to forgive us. God comes to us to assure us we are loved. God comes to us to remind us of promises made and promises kept. God comes to us in ordinary ways to establish relationship with us.
Though it seems like mere ritual washing, baptism isn’t about the show, and it isn’t about us. It’s about God. In baptism, we focus on God creating us anew. We focus on God’s saving work for us through water and Word. We focus on how God promises always to be present with us, to work on us to make us new each day, to make us into new creations - drowning our old selves and raising us up to new life.
The same is true of Communion. It’s more than something that gives us warm fuzzies because it’s the same thing we did last week. In the meal, we focus on Jesus’ presence with us. We gather to share in the food and drink that gives our faith nourishment. We eat the bread of life. We drink the wine of welcome. We are a community - sharing - loved.
Even though we turn, God has a way of coming to us, scooping us up, holding us… The more we recognize our stubbornness, our brokenness, our sinfulness, the better the news that God loves us anyway. And not just loves us like we are, but loves us enough not to leave us that way.
God promises not to leave us stuck in sin, relying on our own broken ways, but promises one day to remake us into who we are supposed to be. In that, God tells us we are worth it, worth every bit.
God’s promises take deeper root as we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, in our tasks, and in our rituals. God is there, and God works in our ordinary, yet broken, lives. God’s actions are reminders and assurances for us so that our focus can be taken off of ourselves and placed on the relationships and community around us - in welcome, in service, in sharing. God comes to us to shine in our darkness, that we may be better disciples, be given clean hearts, and live in relationship.
When our focus moves from “me” to “God,” our rituals, our actions, our lives are reminders for us and for others of God’s gifts to us.
Because in the end, God’s saving us is what matters. Not us, not our excuses, not our sins list. We rely on God.
As we start the journey to Holy Week on this First Sunday in Lent, there are two important things revolving around this final sign - or miracle - Jesus performs. First, this sign is actually what puts him on the path to the cross. Right after this scene, although some of the bystanders believe, others go and report Jesus to the authorities. It is because of Jesus’ action here that those leaders decide definitively to put him to death. The way to the cross and Jesus' own tomb starts here, where Jesus is most impossibly and lovingly life-giving.
The second important thing about this sign is that it foreshadows pretty heavily what is to come: death is real, but death is not final. We get all the “realness” of death here - sealed tombs, the stench of four days of decay, people gathered, weeping, even the questions we throw at Jesus when death happens: why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you do something?
It is what Martha and Mary both ask of their Lord.
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not rebuke Martha or Mary for what they say. When Martha questions Jesus about his delayed arrival, Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again. Death is real; death is not final. Martha answers, “Yes, I know he will rise again on the last day!” It is, by all accounts, absolutely the right religious response.
Our own first impressions may be the same. We tend to focus on the resurrection as a distant promise, a hope of salvation, an eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven one day.
And yet, Jesus seems not quite satisfied with leaving it there in the future. Jesus responds to Martha with another promise: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus points to the future resurrection, for sure, but he also adds more. He pulls the hope of resurrection into the present, promising abundant, eternal life that begins here and now. He is resurrection. He is life.
That’s not often what we think of when we hear “resurrection,” but the Gospel message should make a tangible difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now… right? The promises of God are present tense, not just future.
Jesus is resurrection and life, now. And, believe it or not, we have a role in that life. See, after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns to those who had gathered. He says to them, “unbind him, and let him go.” In other words, the community of faith is told to participate in God’s action, to bring life to its desired outcome, to join with Jesus in redemption! Sure, raising Lazarus from death to life is entirely Jesus’ work - I know I can’t do that - and yet, Jesus invites the community to participate, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.
We have a role to play in resurrection life right now. And there are ways we as St. Philip are doing it right now. Here are a few stories.
A few years ago, all the soup kitchens in Myrtle Beach shut down on the weekends due to financial and other restraints. That meant the hungry and homeless would have to go from Friday lunch to Monday breakfast without anything to eat. An active group of volunteers started preparing small bagged lunches to pass out; then a small pot luck lunch. Now several churches help in making sure hungry people are fed each weekend. St. Philip is one of those churches. We gather volunteers, we prepare food, we set up tables. And we serve. We welcome. We make sure if someone is hungry, they have something to eat. We give them baggies to take with them - healthcare items like a toothbrush and chapstick; there are snacks like crackers and granola bars. And more than that, we make sure people aren’t just fed physically, but through our conversations and interactions, we feed them spiritually, too. Because of you, people aren’t hungry. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
All across the country, but particularly in Horry County, there is a major opioid epidemic. People are dying. It is something that has even hit us at St. Philip, losing one of our own young people because of it. So, it’s not just a problem “out there.” It’s a problem that really affects us as a community. And yet, St. Philip opens up four nights a week to host Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Time and space is offered up for people to gather. People need help; they know they can’t do it alone. So, they come to this place for community, support, a system which holds them accountable. When they gather, they confess their lives are broken; they turn themselves over to a higher power; they seek to make amends; they find encouragement, care, discipline. It keeps people from using. It keeps people from dying. Thanks to you, people are living clean lives. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We support Lutheran World Relief, which just so happens to be our benevolence for the first quarter this year. Beyond providing assistance and relief after a natural disaster, LWR works to build sustainable relationships and partnerships across the world. One way they are doing that is through fair trade coffee. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, and the people who farm it live in some of the poorest communities. As such, those farmers are often taken advantage of. They don’t normally get paid enough to support their family. But Lutheran World Relief provides fair, sustainable payment. Through LWR, parents can earn enough so their kids can go to school. There is daily bread. They have safer, better, more efficient equipment that produces better coffee beans. Help goes directly to the very community of the farmers. Because of your support, people can actually live. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We at St. Philip recruit, gather, and support Reading Buddies, a program where a volunteer meets one on one with a young child at a local school to help improve their reading. Reading is crucial to life and is a huge indicator of how future life will be. For example, did you know police departments pay close attention to reading scores - particularly, third grade reading scores? They do this because the number of kids below reading level in the third grade is a good indicator of how many jail cells they’ll need in a few years. Reading Buddies helps to inject hope where there may be none. They bring relationship where there may be none. They bring a bright future where there may be none. Thanks to you, some kids won’t go to jail. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
Those are some of the ways St. Philip works to bring resurrection and life to our community and beyond. And as you give, as you participate, as you hear Jesus’ call to “unbind and let go,” you help to bring resurrection and life, too. Are there ways to do more? Sure! We can live it out in our daily lives in conversation on the golf course (you know the weather’s getting nicer) or at the grocery store or at lunch or wherever. Listening, pointing to Jesus and the hope and promises he has - that brings resurrection and life.
So, I encourage you: spend a few moments today looking at the week to come and think about where you might be able to follow Jesus’ command to “unbind him, and let him go.” Where can you participate with God in resurrection and life?
It doesn’t have to be huge (though it might be).
It doesn’t have to take a long time (although it might).
It doesn’t have to be spectacular (though, who knows, maybe it will be).
Opportunities to unbind and let go abound. Jesus is calling us to make a life-giving difference to those around us. Because, while death may be real, death isn’t final. And God uses us - us! - to bring about resurrection and life.
Here are sermons from Pastor Jason, delivered at St. Philip.
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