Sermon: I Am Sending My Messenger

Sunday 9 December 2018
The Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79

Today and for the rest of Advent we are going to be looking at a series of songs in the scriptures. Every week we read at least one song from the bible. We don’t know anything about the melodies or rhythms, but every single psalm in the bible is actually a song. They were meant to be sung by the worshipping community. Some we even written for particular liturgical occasions, like walking through town on the way up to the temple. In fact, psalm is just the Greek word for song.

But the psalms are not the only songs in scripture. There are many more. In fact, we have a special word for songs in scripture that aren’t in the Book of Psalms. They are called canticles. Which, of course, is just another word for song, this time borrowed from latin.

As you know, we have four different gospels in the bible, and three of them have some version of the Christmas story. The gospel that we are following this year is the Gospel of Luke. And Luke’s gospel has something very peculiar in it’s version of the Christmas story. In Luke’s Christmas story, people are constantly breaking into song. When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, she breaks into song. When they take baby Jesus to the temple eight days after he is born, the prophet Simeon breaks into song.

And toward the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, just after John the Baptist is born, his father, Zechariah breaks into song. That’s the canticle that we read together this morning. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”

Like I said, we have no idea what the actual music would have sounded like, but we can tell by the form of the writing that it is a song. And it’s actually a very popular song in the Christian tradition. It has become a standard among Christian communities who pray the hours. For many Christians, morning prayer is always accompanied by this song. It usually falls right after the reading of scripture, and it is often sung. You can find in the morning prayer services in both the United Methodist Book of Worship and in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. When it’s chanted, it can sound something like this.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
  Who has come to set the chosen peo-ple free.
The Lord has raised up for us
  a mighty Savior from the house of David.
Through the holy prophets,
God promised of old to save us from our  enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us;
to show mercy to our forebears
and to remember the ho-ly covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our fa-ther Abraham:
  to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship with-our fear,
  holy and righteous in the Lord’s sight,
all the days of our life.
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
  for you will go before the Lord to pre-pare the way,
to give God’s people knowledge of sal-vation.
  by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
  the dawn from on high shall break u-pon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Glory to you, O Trinity, most holy and blessed;
  One God, now and for-ever. A- men.

Zechariah is a priest in God’s temple. One time, when it was his turn to enter the sanctuary and give an incense offering, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, standing next to the altar. Gabriel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, that their son would be a prophet, and that they should name him John.

The angel said to John, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his brith, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah is frightened and confused, and he also knows that he and Elizabeth are too old to be having children, so he asks Gabriel for a sign, so that he can know that Gabriel is speaking the truth. And Gabriel obliges. If Zechariah wants a sign, he will get one. Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute. For nine months, Zechariah can’t say a word. It’s not until after John is born that Zechariah is finally able to break his silence. And when he does, he opens his mouth and begins to prophesy with a song.

He sings about God’s care for the people. He sings about the ways that God works for liberation. He sings about God’s promises. And he identifies John as the one who will go before the Lord to prepare the way. He will prepare the way for the one who will shine a light in the darkness. That is John’s role, to prepare the way for Jesus, to prepare the way for the one who shines light in the darkness.

Zechariah’s song calls back to an older song, the song that we heard read this morning from the prophet Malachi. Like all of the books in the Old Testament, Malachi  is a Jewish writing, and it is part of the Hebrew Bible. It appears in the middle of the Hebrew Bible, as part of the book of the twelve. But when Christians claimed the books of the Hebrew Bible as their own and transformed them into the Old Testament, they changed the order of the books. For Jews, Malachi is in the middle of the bible. But for Christians, Malachi is at the very end of the Old Testament. And that’s not by accident, either. Early Christians placed Malachi at the end of the Old Testament because they thought that it prepared the way for the New Testament. Malachi sets the stage for the appearances of John and Jesus.

And like the passage from Luke 1 today, the passage from Malachi comes in the form of a song:

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path be-fore me;
suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant in whom you take de-light is coming;
s. ays the Lord of heaven-ly forces.

As Christians understand it, Malachi is prophesying about the coming of John the Baptist. John is the messenger who goes ahead to prepare the way, to prepare the way for Jesus.

But, Malachi warns, the coming of the Lord may be difficult. Again, this is done in song, and the setting we best know of this text is by Georg Friedrich Händel.

But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth?

In other words, Is anyone able to endure the coming of the Lord? Does anyone have the strength to stand in the presence of the Lord?

The prophet continues:

For he is like a refiner’s fire.

And he shall purify. And he shall purify….. the sons of Levi.

God’s presence is hot, it is intense, it purifies, it makes stronger. It is a good thing, but it can be overwhelming. It is in the midst of crisis that God’s best work is done.

Which introduces an important question. Does God intend bad things for us? Does God intentionally give us suffering? Does God put us through trials in order to make us stronger?

That’s a pretty common theological understanding. God gives us blessings, but God also sends us suffering. And if God sends us suffering, it must be for our own good. It must be meant for us, intended for us.

When people experience significant tragedy, that’s often the kind of message that we send them. You may feel bad, but it’s part of God’s plan. God has a reason for putting you through this.

And you know what, I don’t buy. It didn’t seem like good theology to me even before I had an experience great loss, and it certainly didn’t feel like a blessing while we were going through loss. I don’t think that a good God intends us harm. I don’t think that the God who loves us intentionally subjects us to suffering. I don’t think that God plans tragedy for us.

I do believe we live in a very big, very complicated world. I believe that as a result of our human freedom, and the freedom of other beings in the universe, hardship arises. It is a natural consequence of life. If God kept us from experiencing any pain or loss, then we wouldn’t really be alive. But God does not choose out special hardships for each one of us, like some kind of sadistic scientist performing tests on us. Suffering is an unavoidable consequence of a life of freedom, an unavoidable consequence of the human condition. Sometimes we suffer because of our own choices. Sometimes suffering just hits us out of nowhere. I don’t think God chooses suffering for us.

But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in suffering. On the contrary, most of God’s best work is done in and through suffering. Because God has the power to take something that is truly horrible and to bring something good out of it. It is true that we are refined in fire. It is true that many of our greatest strengths are born out of the experience of pain and suffering. But that isn’t because God makes us suffer. It’s because God redeems our suffering. God takes a situation of pain and finds a way to work good out of it. It doesn’t make the pain disappear. It doesn’t make the grief go away. But God’s grace somehow finds a way to draw good from the grief, to find some purpose in the pain, to forge strength in the suffering, to bring some transformation out of the tragedy. For he is like a refiner’s fire, the one who is able to use the fire to strengthen our faith.

The Lord is coming, we are told. And the prophet John goes ahead to prepare the way. And sometimes the preparation is painful. But through God’s grace, through God’s grace, we see fear and we find hope, we see conflict and we find peace, we see despair and we find joy, we see hate and we find love. May we be transformed through God’s redemptive grace, that we might be prepared for the coming of the Lord.

Sermon: The Day Are Coming

Sunday 2 December 2018
The First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The prophet Jeremiah is in prison. He was put there for questioning the power of the king, for suggesting that the ruler might not be as powerful or as competent as he loudly proclaimed himself to be. Outside the city, Jerusalem, the mighty Babylonian Army of King Nebuchadrezzar stands at the gates, laying siege. It’s only a matter of time before they breech the walls and capture the city. Everything will be left in ruins, the people will be hauled off into captivity for 70 years. They will lose everything: their land, their king, their freedom, and the very heart of their religious proctice, the temple of God that lies in the center of the city. It will be utterly destroyed. It seems like a hopeless situation, something akin to the end of the world. And of course, the people’s anxiety is all the stronger because they don’t what is going to happen next. All they know is that enemy is at the gates and the future is entirely unclear.

And this is the moment when Jeremiah proclaims these words: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my promise. I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he will execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Truth be told, things had not been all that great before the Babylonians showed up. The kings of Judah were not what you would call ideal. Like most politicians, their actions did not live up to their words. And the people hadn’t really been living their lives in particularly godly ways either. When Josiah was king, he had tried to make some reforms, but apparently they weren’t all that effective, because Jeremiah is still preaching doom and gloom everywhere he goes. And Jeremiah’s negative message has gotten him in trouble with just about everyone. It lands him in jail.

That’s why it seems so strange that at the moment of greatest despair, at the time when things seems their absolute worst—that is when Jeremiah changes his tune and offers a message of hope. The days are coming, he says, when all of this mess will be fixed. Not only will Judah be freed from the coming captivity, but a new king will sit on David’s throne. And this new king won’t be like the old ones, corrupt. This king will bring about a reign of justice and righteousness.

Justice. Righteousness. It’s taken me quite a while to make my peace with these words. For a very long time I resisted them, because they did not hold particularly positive connotations in my mind.

Justice always seems like punishment. We have a Justice System, and its function seems to be to punish those who have done something wrong. Ideally, it would do more to rehabilitate people, but the most it can usually manage is punishment. No one looks forward to an encounter with the Justice System. And I must say that my feelings about the word justice were very strongly influence by the way it was used when I was 22 years old, in September 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attack, when President Bush said: “Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” By that he meant, of course, that attacking Afghanistan and killing our enemies would be an act of justice. Justice is not something delivered by police and courts, but by smart bombs and unmanned drones. If that is what justice is, then it would be wise to stay as far away from justice as one can.

And righteousness. It’s not that much better. Most of the time when we use it in ordinary speech, righteous is preceded by the word “self.” Self-righteousness is quite common, but not something to be praised. It can be quite convenient, though, and very appealing to believe that “I” am right and worthy and good while “you” are unrighteous, wrong, and bad. It makes life much less complicated. All I have to know to determine if something is right is to determine who did it. If I did it, or if my people did it, it must be right. But if it was done by my adversary or my enemy, then it must be wrong. It is oh so easy to compare the very best of what my side has to offer with the very worst of what their side has to offer, so that I can always be assured that my side is the righteous side. Of course, this kind of self-righteousness ensures that I will never be able to sympathize or compromise with someone on the other team, and that they will never be able to sympathize and compromise with me. It means I will never be able to love my neighbor, as God commands.

Even if these ideas don’t sound very appealing to me, something about justice and righteousness represented a message of radical hope to the Judeans in exile in Babylon. For us today, justice and righteousness often function as catch phrases, words that we use to describe our actions that otherwise might seem immoral. “I was filled with righteous anger. What I did wasn’t revenge, it was justice.” But the Judeans looked forward to a king who would bring justice and righteousness; they didn’t fear such a king.

And it’s probably because they had quite a different idea about what those words meant. Justice, for example, wasn’t about punishing the guilty. No, it was about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the weak. Justice was about love and grace, not the opposite of love and grace. It was about deliverance, about raising up the oppressed, about salvation for God’s people.

And righteousness. The dictionary definition is “the state of being right.” Note that it’s not “the state of believing oneself to be right.” The righteous king would do right by the people, would bring about peace and equality, not hide behind a screen of so-called righteousness. The righteous king would actually do the right thing, not just think that he is right or declare that he is right.

It is only when I change my perceptions and start thinking of justice and righteousness in this light that they seem like they might be worth looking forward to. A time when everyone is judged fairly, when those who have been kept down will be brought up, and when peace will reign. That seems like something worth waiting for. It seems like something worthy of our hope and anticipation.

Advent is a season of waiting, a season of hope. We are waiting for Christ Jesus, putting our hope in Christ’s coming. And it is a threefold coming that we anticipate: the coming of Christ in the past, the coming of Christ in the present, and the coming of Christ in the future. It’s a bit like those three ghosts in Charles Dickens’s famous novel. Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future: those are the three things that we anticipate in the season of Advent.

The coming of Christ in Christmas Past is a familiar story. It’s a story of shepherds and angels, wise men and a star, a virgin mother and a newborn baby lying in a manger. Christ came into the world, forsaking heaven, and became Emmanuel, God-With-Us, in order to show us God’s love. In order that we might know just how far God is willing to go to get our attention. God was willing to give up the godly nature and become one of us. Willing even to become a helpless child, wrapped in rags, surrounded by stinky animals out in a cold barnyard. That is the depth of God’s love for us.

And the story of Christ’s coming in Christmas Future is almost as familiar. The Lamb of God riding on the clouds, coming in glory at the end of the age to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. To once and for all set everything right, and to bring everlasting and complete peace. No matter how hard it gets, we know that Christ will come at the end of time to set it straight, and we anticipate Christ’s coming in final victory in this Advent season.

But the story of Christ’s coming in Christmas Present is a bit more tricky, isn’t it? How will Christ come this year, in 2018? Will Christ be born in your heart? Will you make a room there for the baby Jesus? Will Christ come in the breaking of the bread, the sharing of the cup? Will Christ come in the sounds of singing voices? Will Christ come in the way we treat our neighbors, the way we reach out to the needy? Will Christ come in the way we spend our money and our time this holiday season? Will Christ come in the laughter of children, the wisdom of the elders?

Jeremiah was not looking for a king who would come at the end of time. He was looking for a king who would come and set things right in the real world. And he wasn’t looking for a merely spiritual solution, either. Jeremiah was looking for a practical, real-life solution that would address the most difficult of society’s problems.

So, how will your king come this year? Will you make room in your heart for the little baby to be born? And will you make room in your life for the Christ child to grow and mature? And will you make room in your world for that fearless prophet, the living Christ, whose kingdom will bring real justice and real righteousness, not just in the future, but in the present?

The days are surely coming, says the Lord.  The days are surely coming.

Sermon: Ἄρχων τῶν Βασιλέων

Sunday 25 November 2018
Reign of Christ Sunday

Revelation 1:4b-8

This is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we have a new beginning. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, the start of the cycle of a new liturgical year. But this week is the end. This is Christ the King Sunday, also called Reign of Christ Sunday. This is the end. 

And so we begin at the end, or rather, at the beginning of the end. We turn this morning to the beginning of the last book of the bible. And Apocalypse of John, the Book of Revelation.

It’s hard to capture in English the true depth of meaning or the elegance of poetry in today’s passage. It’s hard to perceive the pure volume of significance that is packed into such a very few verses. Virtually every word is loaded with hidden meaning. And in only four and a half verses, there are no fewer than twenty-eight allusions to other passages of the bible, each one evoking a world of context and meanings, all crammed into these few words. It’s difficult to get all that across.

The Book of Revelation is in the form of a letter, and like any letter of the period, it begins, after an introduction, with blessings upon the intended readers. “Grace to you, and peace”—a very standard blessing. But then we are told where the grace and peace are supposed to come from, and it is hard to imagine a description more florid than the one we get.

First, blessings come from “the one who is and who was and who is to come.” Only eight words, but I could probably spend eight minutes explaining them. The one who is. Literally, the being one, the one who is existing, the one who is existence itself, the source of all being, the great I AM. This refers not only to the Hebrew understanding of God the creator, but also to the Greek understanding of the prime mover, the first cause, that thing whose existence allows all other things to exist. This is also the title you’ll see written around Jesus’s head in most icons. Just three letters in Greek: ὁ ων. The being one. The one who is being itself.

But this being one, the who is, is also the one who was. Who has been since the beginning of time, the eternal, the everlasting. The one who existed before there was existence.

And the one who is and was is also the one who is coming. The one on whom we wait. The one who will set the world right, who will bring about salvation, who will declare justice and peace to the nations. The one who is and was and is to come. Heavy, heavy words, filled with an over abundance of philosophical meaning. Blessings from one who is and was and is to come. Blessings from God the Creator.

Second, blessings come from the seven spirits who are before his throne. This letter is addressed to seven different churches, and so here are described the seven spirits or angels who are assigned to look after them, one for each church.

But third and most importantly, blessings come from Jesus Christ. And the remainder of this passage is spent describing Jesus.

First, Christ is the witness. The Greek word is μάρτυς, martyr. The one who will declare the truth regardless of the consequences, and the one who through his death reveals the true nature of reality. His words bring about his death, but his death and resurrection speak a word of their, a word of blessing and grace to all people, the good word that Death has been defeated by the Lord of Life.

Christ is also the faithful one. The one who can be trusted. The one who fulfills his obligation to God even if that means death. The one whom we can trust with our cares, our joys, our sorrows, our fears. The whom we can trust with our very lives. Jesus Christ, the faithful one.

And Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead. He died, and dying he defeated death. He conquered the grave. And because he lives we know that death no longer has any power over us. In his resurrection is the promise of eternal life.

And Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth. That is the title of this sermon: Ἄρχων τῶν Βασιλέων. Βασιλέων is the word for kings. Ἄρχων has a dual meaning. It can refer something very powerful, like an archbishop (a bishop that is over other bishops) or an archangel (an angel that is over other angels). It can also refer to something that very old, like archaic or archeology. Jesus is above all of the earthly authorities, the one whose power is so great that even the greatest of emperors seems weak in comparison. He is greater than earthly rulers because he came before all of them, because his authority comes from before the beginning of time, from before the foundations of the earth were put in place. He is the ruler of the kings of the earth.

Next, Christ loves us with a holy and godly love, the love by which all other love is defined. He has freed us from our sins. He has broken the chains and set us loose from the power that sin had over our lives. And he did it by his blood. The blood he shed for our sake, the blood that he shares with us in the sacrament of Holy Communion, the blood that makes us one human family, bound together through his self-giving grace.

Christ makes us to be a kingdom, an empire of God. In him we are part of an order, part of a reality that is not like the broken politics of this world. It is a kingdom that transcends this world, that is beyond and above our understanding. But at the same time it is a kingdom that is continuously breaking in to our present reality, overthrowing the forces of evil, bringing about justice and peace. And it is a kingdom that will one day conquer evil once and for all, that will put an end to suffering and pain and grief and crying and mourning. Christ’s kingdom of peace will be without end.

Christ makes us priests of God, each one of us. In everything we do we are serving the most high. In the most mundane actions we are offering sacred sacrifices to God. And so each thing we do should be done as a gift to God. Every action we take should be a sacrament. Everything that we do should bring glory to our God.

For behold, this Jesus Christ is the one about whom Daniel spoke, the Son of Man, the great celestial being, the Messiah, the one who is coming with the clouds. Every eye will spy him. His glory will be hidden from no one. As Zechariah told us, even the ones who pierced him will see and understand him. Those who crucified him, those who have brought him pain through our failure to love God and love our neighbor, all will see and know him. And we will cry out for the great sacrifice, the great gift he has made for us. The one who was once crowned with thorns is now crowned in glory.

“I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” the Lord God is saying, “The One Who IS and Who WAS and Who IS COMING, the All-Powerful.”

Christ the King. Quite a different picture of Jesus than the one we are used to hearing in the gospels: a poor traveler, a teacher, a healer, a prophet, the dirt of the road caked to his feet as he proclaimed the good news of the coming kingdom of God. Quite a different picture than the exorcist and miracle-worker, the one who expelled demons by laying on his own hands. Quite a different picture than the Galilean peasant hung on a cross like a criminal to die.

But John the Revelator wants us to know that Christ did not end on that dusty hill called Golgotha. The author of the Apocalypse wants us to know that the suffering Christ endured was not a sign of weakness, but a revelation of the greatest kind of strength. John wants us to know that Christ is a new kind of king, a king who through his self-sacrifice has turned suffering into salvation, has turned pain into paradise, has turned tears into triumph. This Jesus is the very sovereign of the universe, the ruler of the kings of the earth. He has unlimited power, and yet he chooses to reveal his strength through what the world saw as weakness.

But do not be fooled, John tells us. Do not be taken in. Jesus is the lord of all.  Jesus has turned that crown of thorns into a crown of glory.  Jesus has turned that cross of torture into a royal throne. Jesus has turned death into life, has turned sorrow into joy, has turned despair into hope… do you believe it brothers and sisters?

And in the midst of our imperfect world, Jesus invites us to be a part of God’s kingdom. To stand up for what is right and leave behind what is evil. To work alongside him to bring about God’s will on this earth. To live as if heaven were already here so that through our living heaven might finally come, not just in part, but in all of its glory… my friends, Christ is our king. Christ is our emperor. Christ is our president. If we will only let him lead us. If we will only give him the control of our lives. If we will only stand with him in the struggle, until Christ comes in final victory and we all feast at his heavenly banquet. Christ is king. Alleluia. Amen.

Sermon: Don’t Worry

Sunday 18 November 2018
Thanksgiving on the Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Pentecost

Matthew 6:25-33

We are right on the edge of the holiday season. Four days from today we celebrate Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving is closely followed by the high holy days of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. And from then it’s only 28 shopping days left until Christmas. The decorations have been up since the moment Halloween was over. The sales are on. We have gifts to buy, parties to plan, travel arrangements to make, cards to write. It’s time to hustle, hustle hustle ourselves into a holiday spirit.

And in the middle of all of that Jesus says, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear.” Well that’s easy for Jesus to say. He never had to shop for Christmas gifts, did he? He never had to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner. Don’t worry, Jesus says. What on earth does he mean?

The Greek word is μεριμνᾶτε. It has a range of meanings. In a positive sense, it can mean to care for or to be concerned about something. But in a more negative sense, the sense that Jesus seems to intend here, it means to have anxiety, to be distressed, or to be unduly worried. In turn, anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. More technically, anxiety is a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.

We have an awful lot of things to be worried about in our world. We might be worried about our job, or getting a job, or losing a job. We might be worried about our retirement, our investments, our debts. We might be worried about bills or medical expenses. We might worry about our popularity, our reputation, whether people will like us or not. We might be worried about our kids, about their future. Or we might be worried about our parents, about their future. We might have worries that are related to how our families interact. We might be worried about a medical condition or an addiction, whether it be our own or someone else’s. We might worry about dangers out in the world, the possibility of being a victim of theft, or assault, or some other attack. We might be worried about how we perform, about giving a presentation of some kind or passing a test. We might have anxiety around being in crowds, or being alone, or doing something new. We might worry about the great issues of our time, about politics, or the economy, displaced people, social justice, the environment, or war.

What is it that Jesus is telling us not to worry about? On the one hand, it seems like some pretty basic things. Don’t worry about your life. Don’t worry about what you will eat. Don’t worry about your body. Don’t worry about what you will wear. These seem like basic needs, food and clothing. These are things that  we need, things that we require for our very survival. How could we not worry about whether or not we, and our families are going to have enough food to eat? How could we not worry about whether our children will have clothes to keep them warm in the cold? Wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to worry about such things? Wouldn’t it be reckless to leave such things to chance?

But on the other hand, Jesus does compare the worry over clothes to the splendor of King Solomon, well known as the wealthiest of Israelite kings. And he does talk about the worry for food in terms of storing up food in barns. Perhaps Jesus is talking about a kind of worry that goes beyond the worry over basic needs. Perhaps Jesus is talking about the kind of worry that leaves us yearning after more and more.

Eugene Peterson seems to think so. He translates this passage this way:

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

Because the truth is, even if something is worth worrying about, worrying about it is rarely worth it. Has anyone ever grown even an inch by worrying about it? No.

Worry often leaves us paralyzed. We become less able to deal with the things we are worried about simply because we are worrying about them.

You know that I’m working on a dissertation right now. I’ve been working on it for the last several years. And, let me tell you, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about it. Do I really have anything new or worthwhile to say? Am I a good enough researcher or writer to pull this off? Do I have the mind for it? Do I need to reframe the project? Maybe it’s too specific and I need to widen my scope, take a broader view of the subject? Maybe it’s too broad and I need to narrow down on one thing and focus there? Will I even be able to read enough books and papers to feel like I have a full understanding of the topic and what other scholars have said? Will I go through all this work and then end up looking foolish? Maybe it would be better just to quit and spend my time on something else, something more practical. Am I determined enough to complete this project? Am I smart enough? Am I good enough?

And of course when I’m thinking like that, am I able to get anything done? No. I can’t. When I’m thinking like that I’m paralyzed. I lose energy for anything except the worry itself.

In our Dissertation Proposal Seminar, we were assigned a book by Anne Lamott. In it, she tells this story:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’1

That can help with worry. In fact, it’s almost exactly what Jesus says in the verse that comes right after the passage we read today. “Stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Today’s worry is enough for today. Just take it one thing at a time. Just take it bird by bird.

Sometimes it can help just to speak your worries. Don’t let them keep spinning around and gaining speed inside you. Tell them to someone. Tell them to God. Speak them out loud. Write them down. Make a list. Then it’s easier to stop worrying, because you’ve got the list to do the worrying for you.

And there’s another practice that is an excellent antidote to worry: the practice of gratitude. It’s easy to get stuck thinking over and over about all of the things that aren’t going right, all of the things that need fixing. Taking a moment to stop, and to think about all of the blessings in your life, it makes a huge difference. It puts our worries into perspective.

It’s a practice we do every night as a family around our dinner table. Every evening we check in with each other. What is one important thing that happened today and what feelings did you have about it. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s a bad thing. Either way, we acknowledge our feelings about it. But then, no matter how we’re feeling that day, we all say something that we’re grateful for. And you know what, it makes a difference. It makes a difference to stop and give thanks. Be when I stop and realize all of the many blessings that I have in my life, it makes the things I worry about seem so much smaller.

So I encourage you to make a practice of being grateful. Even if you don’t choose to do it every day, maybe once in a while. We do have that holiday coming up, you know. Thanks-giving, I think it’s called. It might be a good opportunity to give thanks. And so I don’t leave you unprepared, I’m going to give you a chance to practice right now. I’m going to invite you to turn to the person next to you and just share one thing that you’re grateful for, one thing you’d like to give thanks for.

———

Let me close this morning with a poem by Mary Oliver, titled simply “I Worried”:

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.


1 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Kindle ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), 18.

Sermon: Widow’s Mite, Widow’s Might

Sunday 11 November 2018
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32B

Mark 12:38-441 Kings 17:8-16

It’s a fairly well-known story. Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples. It’s the week leading up to the crucifixion. They are in the temple courtyard, watching as people bring their offerings for the temple treasury. There are plenty of flashy givers around. But there are no debit cards, no checks, and no paper money, so you can hear the sound of each and every coin as it’s put in. Some of the bigger givers are making a show of their offerings. Some must have been a bit more humble, but one could hardly avoid attracting attention with a particularly large gift.

Ancient Judea was what we call an honor-shame society. Someone’s standing in the community was based on the amount of honor they were perceived to have. Honor could be based on the family you came from, your gender, your class, your ethnicity, your generosity in public, whether you were known to be honest and fair, how much power you wielded in society. Honor could be gained or lost. Honorable actions or circumstances increased your honor. Shameful actions or circumstances decreased your honor.

It’s not how our society tends to function these days, but there is one good modern example of honor-shame dynamics. Online, multiuser commercial communities have an honor-shame system. Airbnb, Uber, eBay. These are markets in which individual sellers and buyers, who don’t know each other personally, have to be able to trust each other in order to do business together. How do I know that it’s safe to stay at this particular Airbnb or ride in this particular Uber car or buy from this particular eBay seller. I know because of their rating. After every previous transaction, they get a rating from the person they did business with. And good ratings accrue as honor. If someone has a 4.9 star rating based on over 1000 different transactions, then I can be pretty sure that they are safe to deal with. They have great honor in their particular society. If someone has low ratings, I might be more apprehensive to work with them. Or if they are a new provider and have no ratings, I might not want to take the risk.

But these ratings are not based on any kind of objective test. They are just based on other people’s impressions. And people’s impressions include their implicit biases. Studies clearly show that  ratings and service are effected by a person’s race and gender. If you are black, it will be harder to get a ride on Uber than if you are white, and you will likely have to wait longer and have a higher chance of being cancelled on. Though I should note, racial discrimination on ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft is much less pronounced than racial discrimination in the taxi industry. Honor and shame are based on more than one’s competence and ability, though. They are effected by all of the factors that influence how we understand and classify other people.

When people are gathering around the temple to bring their offerings, everyone is aware of all of the markers of honor and shame. Those wealthy worshipers who come and bring large gifts: they would likely have exceptional honor in the community. Others would notice when they came by. They might have various clients and retainers following them around, attesting to their impact and influence in the community. Everyone would know that they were people worth looking up to. They would be the ones drawing attention, drawing admiration.

But Jesus notices someone else entirely, someone who was generally unnoticeable. A poor widow. Widows are a particular type of character in the bible. When a biblical writer wants to talk about people who are vulnerable and marginal, people existing right on the edge of survival, they talk about widows and orphans. What both widows and orphans lack is a male protector. They meant that they had no means of support and also no one to protect them from physical and legal threats. It is almost unnecessary to indicate that she is poor. Simply saying that she is a widow implies that she must be poor.

This didn’t necessarily mean that she would be reviled. A widow was not shameful in that way. She simply would have been invisible, the kind of person you might avoid making eye contact with. She could have walked through that courtyard and dropped her two, small copper coins in the collection bin without anyone taking notice at all or remembering that she had been there.

But Jesus notices her, an unnoticeable woman. He doesn’t just notice her, though, he praises her. He says that she has given the greatest gift. He ascribes honor to her. She would have had no honor. She is an unnoticed, poor widow. But Jesus, completely counterintuitively, says that in God’s eyes she has more honor than anyone else gathered there. Completely unthinkable, boggling.

That’s not so hard to understand. Two pennies don’t get your name on a memorial plaque, do they. Two pennies don’t get your name on a college building. Two pennies don’t make you a philanthropist. In order to have that kind of honor, in order to have that kind of prestige, you have to give monumental amounts of money.

Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Bill and Melinda Gates. One doesn’t get a reputation like that with small donations. Bill and Melinda Gates have given $27 billion to charitable causes, making them by some accounts the most generous people alive. But of course, they still have $84 billion to keep them comfortable. Perhaps instead we should look to Chuck Feeney. He has given away only $6.3 billion, but, on the other hand, he has only $1.5 million for himself. His charitable gifts are 420,000% of his net worth.1 According to one Forbes article, “no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime.”2 Perhaps we should consider him to be the most generous person alive.

But you will never find an article in Forbes profiling a poor widow who donates two pennies to her local church. No one would even consider such a thing. The church that accepted that donation probably wouldn’t even record such an offering, it’s so small.

And yet Jesus says that her small gift is worth more than the gifts of Bill Gates or Chuck Feeney. Her gift is bigger because, “All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” She has a tremendous faith in God that allows her to give everything she has even when she doesn’t no where her next meal is coming from.

We have similar story in the lesson from 1 Kings this morning. We have another widow, with only enough flour to make a last meal for her son and herself before they die. But she has the incredible faith to instead make bread for the prophet Elijah when he asks, even when she has nothing left to live on.

And here is the point in the sermon when I’m supposed to make a stewardship appeal. This is when I’m supposed to encourage you to have faith like the widow, to make a sacrificial donation, to give until it hurts. If you have enough faith, then you won’t worry where your next meal is coming from. If you just give all you have to the church, then God will give you a blessing. You’ve heard that sermon before, haven’t you? I know I have.

But that’s not what I’m going to do this morning. Instead, I want to go back to the first half the gospel lesson this morning, the part we haven’t talked about yet.

Jesus says, “Watch out for the scholars. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.” In other words, Jesus warns you not to trust people like me. Beware of those scribes, those scholars who are the keepers of the biblical text. They love to wear long robes. They like to be recognized in the community. They pray wordy prayers. That is a description of a clergy person that is surprisingly accurate even today.

But none of that is the most important warning that Jesus has for the people. What is more important is that scribes are the ones who devour widow’s houses. In other words, they cheat the most vulnerable out of their livelihoods. Watch out, Jesus says. Don’t trust them.

Right here in the same passage we have praise of sacrificial giving and a warning against those who call for sacrificial giving. What about that widow at the temple? Are we supposed to imagine that she is among those being cheated out of their houses? What else can be happening if she is giving everything she has to live on? Is she someone we should emulate? Or is she someone we should pity? Or is she someone we should protect?

The bible does call for generosity. Jesus, in particular, calls for extreme generosity. He says, “No one can be my disciple unless they give up everything they own” (Luke 14:33). But at the same time, Jesus calls for the poor to be lifted up out of poverty. He does not want people to live in destitution. Yet here he praises an already poor widow who gives her last pennies to a bloated religious institution. What are we supposed to do with that?

Well, we have to hold a few different things in tension. Jesus does call for a faith that is stronger than fear, a faith that is willing to give even to the degree that it radically changes someone’s economic circumstances. And it is incumbent upon every follower of Jesus to consider Jesus’s call for radical generosity. At the same time, Jesus calls for the poor to be lifted out of poverty. At the same time, Jesus warns against those religious figures who exploit the poor and take their last penny in order to support the institution. At the same time Jesus praises the widow who in her poverty gives everything.

And yet, those can all be true at the same time. Jesus does call on all, especially those of means, to display a radical generosity, and at the same time he can say that the most generous philanthropist is not as generous as a poor widow. They deserve no extra praise for their large sums of money, because the poor widow’s mite was more dearly given. And Jesus can admire the might of the widow’s gift while still warning against the leader who would accept such a gift. It is often true that the poor are more generous than the rich, more willing to share from their meager means than the rich are willing to share from their abundance. And it is right that Jesus honors that generosity. But it would also be wrong to exploit that generosity.

I don’t know what your giving habits are. Some pastors do keep track of such things, but I don’t. I don’t know how much you give to the church, and I certainly don’t know how much you give to other charities and causes. Giving is an important part of every Christian’s spiritual life. We each have a God-given need to give. And those of us who are blessed with more are called to give more. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). But it shouldn’t be grounds for boasting. Having more money to give does not make you more worthy in God’s eyes. Jesus says that the tiniest gift of a poor person is more praiseworthy.

We each have our gifts to give. And it can be hard to recognize true generosity when we see it. But God recognizes it. God sees the widow’s mite and knows that it is a mighty gift. And sees your gifts, even if no one else notices. God sees your gifts, even if they seem insignificant to others. God sees. So let us give as we called, remembering that the largest gift is not always the mightiest gift.

Sermon: Now My Eyes Have Seen

Sunday 28 October 2018
Reformation Sunday, The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 30B

Job 38:1-17, 34-41. Job 42:1-6

During the month of October, the lectionary has been following the Book of Job. We haven’t heard any of it until today. We usually read three of the four lectionary lessons in worship, and this month Job has gotten the short end of the stick. So we’re making up for it today by reading two of them together.

The story of Job is ancient, a story that was likely shared among many of the peoples of the ancient near east, not just Jews. It is set, so far as we can tell, from a time even before Abraham and Sarah, from a time when Satan was still a part of God’s court. Satan believes he can convince God that humans are faithless. He makes a wager with God that even the most faithful person would lose faith if they endured enough suffering.

The most faithful person on earth is Job, and he is allowed to endure all kinds of hardship. At the beginning of the story, he seems very blessed, with seven sons, three daughters, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 1000 oxen, 500 donkeys, and many servants. He is the richest person around.

But through a series of very unfortunate events, he loses it all. Job’s oxen and donkeys are taken by the Sabeans, a meteor kills all of his sheep, the Babylonians take all of his camels, and all but four of his servants are killed. At the same time, a wind storm comes and knocks down the house killing all of his children. But Job does not lose his faith; he does not curse God. Then Job becomes very ill, and his body becomes covered with sores. But he does not lose faith. His wife encourages him to commit suicide, but he does not.

Most of the book of Job is taken up with a conversation between Job and three of his friends. The friends try to convince him that God must be angry with him. He must have done something in order to have brought so much suffering on himself. God must be punishing him for something. If he would only admit his faults and ask God for forgiveness, then God would forgive him and things would get better. Or they encourage him to curse God for everything that has happened to him. But he won’t. He insists that he hasn’t done anything that would warrant the kind of suffering he has endured. He is not being punished by God, and he will not curse God. He wails. He laments. He asks God over and over why? Why? Why? But for a very long time, there is no answer.

And that is the same question we often ask of God. Why? And I’d like to talk about four different why’s today. The first is, why doesn’t life seem to be fair? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do cruel people prosper while right-living people endure hardship?

If we are good, if we treat others with respect and compassion, wouldn’t it make sense for God to reward us? If we go to all of the trouble to follow God’s commandments, shouldn’t we get something for it? Shouldn’t we experience a blessing that it is proportion to our faithfulness?

That mindset leads to something we call the Prosperity Gospel. It’s fairly popular right now in America, and among the televangelists. If you have faith, if you put your trust in God, if you give money to the right ministries, then God will bless you with material possessions.  Christians are entitled to well-being, and since physical and spiritual realities are inseparable, Christians are entitled to both physical health and economic prosperity. Christians have been given power over creation because we are made in the image of God. We can exercise dominion over our souls and over the material objects around us. The power of the atonement can destroy sickness, poverty, and spiritual corruption. If we just have faith, God will give us not just everything we need, but everything we want as well. Conspicuous consumption is a sign of God’s blessing.

Of course, that’s not how things work, is it? Faithful people don’t always become rich. Not all rich people are faithful. But it is a common impulse to think that it’s true, that a powerful faith is reward with worldly blessings. We ask the question: why isn’t life fair?

Which leads to the second why: Why is God punishing me? If I am experiencing some kind of hardship, it must be because I did something wrong. It must be because I didn’t pray enough, I wasn’t faithful enough. It must be because there is something wrong with me. It must be because God is punishing me. This is what Job’s friends think. Bad things don’t happen to good people. So if bad things are happening, you must be doing something wrong. 

But that isn’t how it works, either. When someone experiences a tragedy, it’s not because they did something wrong and God is punishing them. When a fire, or a hurricane, or a tsunami destroys a city, it’s not because that is a particularly sinful city. When someone contracts a terminal illness, it’s not because that person is sinful. Sure, sometimes bad things happen to us that are a natural consequence of something we’ve done, but not always. Sometimes tragedies happen. Sometimes terrible things happen to you that you did nothing to invite and there is nothing you could have done to avoid them. Why is God punishing me? Maybe God isn’t.

The third why: Why does God let evil things happen? If God is good, then why is there evil? If God really were good, then God wouldn’t let evil happen.

This is one of the harder questions, isn’t it? Especially in a week like this week, when we live in the wake of terrorism. Eleven people gunned down during worship at Tree of Life Synagogue outside Pittsburg, the deadliest attack ever on Jews in the US. The terrorist blamed Jews with helping the migrant caravan coming from Central America. Before that, 14 bombs sent in the mail to two former presidents and other politicians, activists, and government officials. This terrorist apparently acted out of a desire to advance his political beliefs. Fortunately, police and security personnel acted swiftly and no one was injured. But both of these are real terrorist attacks, right here in America, committed by Americans against other Americans. Why? Why poverty? Why war? Why violence? Why does God allow evil if God is supposed to be good?

Which brings us to the fourth and final why: Why does God seem so far away? Why doesn’t God answer me? I pray, and I ask God. And I don’t hear anything in response. Or maybe I am so frustrated and disappointed with God that I. Don’t even want to try. Why has God abandoned me? Why isn’t God listening? Why doesn’t God answer me?

This is what Job asks. And for a very, very long time, there is no answer.

There is no answer until chapter 38 when God appears in person to Job, speaking to him from a whirlwind. That’s where we picked up in our reading of the story today. God shows up and basically tells Job, “Who do you think you are?” It goes on for three chapters, pointing out how small Job is in comparison to God. “Have you surveyed earth’s expanses? Tell me if you know everything about it. Where’s the road to the place where light dwells; darkness, where is it located? Can you take it to its territory; do you know the paths to its house? Have you gone to snow’s storehouses, seen the storerooms of hail? Can you guide the stars at their proper times, lead the Bear with her cubs? Do you know heaven’s laws. or can you impose its rule on earth? Will the ox agree to be your slave, or will it spend the night in your crib? Can you bind it with a rope to a plowed row; will it plow the valley behind you? Did you give strength to the horse, clothe his neck with a mane, cause him to leap like a locust, his majestic snorting, a fright? Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook, restrain his tongue with a rope?”

It’s really quite unsettling. Here Job has been pouring his heart out, and when God shows up, it is as if his concerns aren’t taken seriously. Who are you to question me and my wisdom?

When God finally finishes the rant and calms down, it is Job’s turn to respond. At first he is speechless. He is overcome with awe for God, and he tries to get away without answering God. “Look, I’m of little worth. What can I answer you? I’ll put my hand over my mouth. I have spoken once, I won’t answer; twice, I won’t do it again.” But God won’t accept that answer. The whole argument gets wound up again.

Finally Job answers, “I am convinced: You can do anything and everything. Nothing and no one can upset your plans. You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water, ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes? I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me, made small talk about wonders far over my head.” Job is overcome with amazement and wonder.

He says something very interesting. “My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you.” I used to just know by word of mouth, from what someone else told me about you. But now I have had an actual experience of you. Now I have seen.

It amazing how much of a difference that can make. It doesn’t always come when we want it, but when it does come, it can be incredibly powerful. When you have that sense that you really have caught a glimpse of God, that you have heard a word from God, that you have felt, deep in your soul, the presence of God. Just that presence makes a difference, the sense that whatever I am facing, I am not facing it alone, because God is here with me.

And we never do face it alone. Wherever we go, whatever we do, no matter what trial we may be facing, we don’t face it alone.

The last line from today’s text is a very hard one. It is notoriously difficult to translate. The NRSV says “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job seems to shrivel up in self-loathing. But it can just as easily be translated, “Therefore I relent and find comfort in dust and ashes.” In this case, Job gives up his angst and finds peace in his lament. He is comforted in knowing that even in his grief, even in his dust and ashes, God is there, close by, never farther away than his own breath.

Job doesn’t get answers to all of his questions. But he is vindicated by God. God confirms that Job spoke the truth. Job wasn’t being punished. That’s not how God works.

Why isn’t life fair? Why is God punishing me? Why does a good God allow evil? Why does God seem so far away? There aren’t easy answers. There is a great deal of mystery. God’s universe is a very big and very complicated place, and God created it with lots of room for human will and independent action. God is not a puppeteer. God is not vindictive. And while there is evil in the world, God is always there in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the trouble. God is there with comfort. God is there with transformation. God is there with hope.

Notes-N-News

Good morning! This Sunday is Reformation Day: wear red, if you like! During service we will get to enjoy our choir and a voice solo by Victoria Hustman.

Weekly Reflection Hebrews 5:2 Is there a wound or weakness in your past that gives you special insight into the hurt and struggle of others?

Worship Duties
Usher/Greeter- Donna & Scott Fitch
Reader- Pat Pettit
Coffee Hour- Dottie Gilbertson & Bette Lou Yenne

If you would like to help with November Coffee Hour, the sign up is on the bulletin board.

++ So you didn’t win the billion-dollar lottery?! Try and win the next best thing: the Golden Spatula for the 2018 Chili Cook-Off!
When: This Saturday October 27 @ 5pm in the FISH Community Room. Cost: $5 to enter your chili + a goodwill offering to eat!
The church board will supply cornbread and fixings. Money collected will go into our scholarship fund for graduating seniors. We’ll also have games and fun for all ages.

++ Warming Shelter Training Tonight from 6-8pm at Riverside Community Church in Hood River.

++ Our Fellowship Hall is now under construction! The front entrance is also closed as framing work has begun on the new offices. Any groups needing to use the FISH Community Room for meetings has to reserve the room with Jennifer in the office, as the room is booked with several groups throughout the week. The meeting room is also available in the church office. Happy Hands: I already have you scheduled for Mondays in the community room.

Sermon: The Order of Melchizedek

Sunday 21 October 2018
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29B

Hebrews 5:1-10

Last week I mentioned that Hebrews is erroneously labeled in some Bibles as Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. However, it is not written by Paul. It’s an anonymous work and no one really has a clue who wrote it. It’s not an epistle, either, which is just a funny word for a letter. And, since it’s not really a letter, it’s not addressed to the Hebrews either, whoever they might be. Instead, it’s a sort of theological treatise, with no particular known audience, and no known author. In this sense, it is unique among the books of the New Testament.

In addition to that, Hebrews is fairly unique in terms of its content. It is the only book of the New Testament to refer to Jesus as a priest, more specifically as a high priest. Hebrews goes on for several chapters talking about Jesus as a high priest. And since this is a rather unusual way to talk about Jesus, perhaps we should take a few minutes to explore that image further.

In ancient Israelite religious practice, priests served in the temple, offering the sacrifices of the people to God. By tradition, they were all descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, or at least of his ancestor, Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. You might remember that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest who was serving in the temple when he received a revelation about the birth of his prophetic son.

First among these priests was a high priest, which traditionally was also a hereditary position. In addition to being in charge of the temple and the other priests, the high priest had a very special duty to perform. Once a year, and only once a year, the high priest performed a very special sacrifice.

The temple was divided into sections that became increasingly more holy and more restrictive as one got closer to the center. There was an outer courtyard where anyone could come. This is where the moneychangers were, and the people who sold animals for the sacrifices. The next level was the court of the women. No gentiles could enter here, but any Israelite women or men could. Next was the court of the Israelites. Women could not go into this section. Then there was another area where one had to be at least a Levite to enter. Then an area where only Aaronic priests could enter.

The innermost sanctum of the temple was the Holy of Holies. That’s where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It was supposed to be the dwelling place of God on earth, the footstool of God’s heavenly throne. The earthly temple was thought to be a copy of the real temple in heaven. The holy of holies is where those two temples met, with God seated in the heavenly temple and God’s feet resting in the earthly temple.

Only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, and then only once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When it was time, he would dress in special priestly garments and perform special cleansing rituals to get ready. The other priests would tie a rope around his ankle, and he would enter into the most sacred place on earth. There, he would offer special blood sacrifices for the sins of the people. The rope was on his ankle in case he died while he was in there. No one would be able to go in after him. They’d have to drag him out with the rope.

By the time that the Book of Hebrews was written, there was no temple in Jerusalem. It had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, by armies led by the new Emperor Vespasian and his son, the future Emperor Titus. They conquered Jerusalem, leveled the temple, and took it’s treasures away to Rome, installing them in the new pagan Temple of Peace. They issued coins celebrating the destruction of Jerusalem and the pillaging of the temple. They also ruled that they would never allow the temple to be rebuilt. Without a temple, there were no sacrifices. And without sacrifices, there was no way to atone for the sins of the people. There was no Holy of Holies, and no high priest to enter it once a year, on behalf of the people of Israel, to make a sacrifice for the atonement of their sins.

It’s strange for us to think about. We don’t live in a culture that practices blood sacrifice. But in the ancient world, every religious tradition practiced blood sacrifice, including God’s chosen people, the Judeans. Everyone thought that the gods required animal sacrifices, including sacrifices of blood, in order to keep humanity on their side. That’s why it was such a big deal that the Romans forbade the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple. It meant that Jews would never have any means of getting right with God. Without a temple, without sacrifices, without a high priest, there could be no forgiveness of sins, and the sins of the people would just keep piling up, bringing down curses on them. It was a huge theological crisis. How could God’s people worship God without the temple? How could the people get right with God?

This is the question that the Book of Hebrews seeks to answer. And the answer that it proposes is a new high priest: Jesus. Jesus becomes the high priest for all of humanity. Through his death, Jesus passes into the heavens, into the heavenly temple. And there, carrying his own blood with him, he goes into the inner sanctum of the heavenly temple, the Holy of Holies, the throne room of God, and offers his own blood, a perfect sacrifice, for the sins of the entire world. There might not be a temple on earth in which to offer sacrifices, but there is still a perfect temple in heaven. And there may not be a high priest in Jerusalem to offer that sacrifice, but there is a perfect high priest, Jesus Christ, who can enter into the heavenly sanctuary to offer a sacrifice, once and for all, for the forgiveness of the world.

Now, Jesus wasn’t a priest in his earthly life. He wasn’t even born of a priestly family. But Hebrews insists that he is a priest; he is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is only mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible. Back in Genesis, he is mentioned briefly in the Abram story. Melchizedek isn’t even an Israelite. He’s one of the Canaanites in the land. Specifically, he is the King of Salem, that is, Jerusalem, centuries before Jerusalem ever becomes an Israelite city. In addition to being king of the city, he is also a priest of the God of Salem, El Elyon, which translated means God Most High. So just to reiterate, Melchizedek is an ancient king and priest, he’s from Jerusalem, but from long before Jerusalem was a Jewish city, and it’s not even clear that he worships the same god that Abraham worships; he worships a god named El Elyon, God-Most-High.

After Abram has won a battle against several rival kings, this Melchizedek shows up and blesses Abram in the name of El Elyon. In response, Abram gives Melchizedek one-tenth of the booty that he has won in the battle, as an offering to El Elyon. Abram tithes his loot. And it is Melchizedek, the King and Priest of Salem, who offers that tithe to God on Abram’s behalf. Before Aaron, before Levi, before any Israelite priest, there is Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is mentioned one more time, in Psalm 110. The psalmist, who is presumably talking about the Messiah, records God saying, “You are a priest forever, according the order of Melchizedek.”

By the time Hebrews was written, Melchizedek had become a kind of mythical figure. Traditions had grown up around him, saying that he had no beginning and no end—that is to say, he had no parents and he did not die. And this is the figure with whom Hebrews identifies Jesus: Melchizedek, the King and Priest of Salem, one who has no beginning and no end, one who is a great high priest. King, priest, immortal.

Hebrews goes on to say that Jesus is even superior to the high priests of the old temple. After all, it argues, the high priests in the Jerusalem temple had to offer sacrifices for their own sins before they could offer sacrifices for the sins of the people. But Jesus was sinless. He didn’t need to atone for his own sins. This made him the perfect high priest, according to the order of Melchizedek, who alone could enter the perfect temple, and who alone could offer the perfect sacrifice, his own blood, for the forgiveness of the sins of the entire world.

This solves the theological problem of the loss of the temple. God’s people need no longer be afraid that sins are piling up with no means of atoning for them. The earthly temple has been destroyed by Rome, but the heavenly temple still stands tall, and Jesus has entered it to make the perfect sacrifice of atonement.

But it also spoke to another problem: the problem of Rome. Remember that Hebrews says that Jesus is like Melchizedek, the immortal and divine King and Priest of Salem. Well, there was someone else who could fit that description: the Roman Emperor. King was not his official title, but he was treated like a king. He was an autocrat. What’s more, he was a priest. He held the title pontifex maximus: high priest. And he was an immortal god. Like many other emperors before them, both Emperor Vespasian and Emperor Titus were deified after their death, and worshipped as gods. The emperor was even king and priest of Salem. Salem, salam, shalom—it means peace. After Vespasian conquered Jerusalem, he built a new Temple of Peace in Rome, and that’s where he put all of the treasures that he had stolen from the Jerusalem temple. He took the tithes they paid for the temple in Jerusalem and used them to build a pagan temple in Rome. He tried to obliterate every last reminder of God and God’s people and replace them with himself. Caesar would be their king. Caesar would be their high priest. The temples that they would use would be Caesar’s temples. Even the god they would worship would be Caesar. King, priest, temple, god: all of these were Caesar…

But the Book of Hebrews defies that narrative. They know that God’s temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed and there is unlikely to be another temple any time soon. They know that the religious treasures of the temple have been carted off to Rome to ornament the temple of a foreign god. They know that Emperor Vespasian intends to obliterate the Jewish people, to obliterate their temple, to obliterate their priesthood, to obliterate their city and transform it into a Roman colony, even to obliterate their God.

And Hebrews says, “No!” Despite all evidence to the contrary, our God lives. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we have a temple in heaven. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we have a great high priest who has made a perfect sacrifice for our sins. God has taken the ruins the Romans left in Jerusalem and transformed them into a perfect and eternal temple. God has taken a cross—a Roman instrument of execution—and transformed it into an alter. God has taken an executed criminal and transformed him into a perfect high priest who offers the perfect sacrifice of himself for all the world. This world does not belong to Caesar, it belongs to God. We do not belong to Caesar, we belong to God. Caesar is not our savior, our savior is the Lord Jesus Christ. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but remember that all things belong to God.

On the front of the bulletin, you can see an icon depicting Jesus as he is described here in the Book of Hebrews. Like Melchizedek, he is both priest and king. On the top of the image are Jesus’s initials: I-S, X-S, which stand for Jesus Christ.  To the left of his head, it says, ὁ Βασιλεύς τῶν Βασιλευόντων: which means, The King of Kings. On the right are the words, καί μέγας ἀρχιερεύς: which means, and the Great High Priest. He is dressed in the vestments of an Eastern Orthodox priest and wears the crown of a Byzantine emperor.

He is the King and Priest of Salem, the King and Priest of Peace, then, now, and forever, and his offering in the heavenly temple is once and for all, for the forgiveness of my sins, and your sins, and the sins of the entire world. Amen.

Sermon: Draw Near with Confidence

Sunday 14 October 2018
The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28B

Hebrews 4:12-16

This week and next week, we’re going to be looking a little more closely at the readings from Hebrews. Just a little bit of background. This book is sometimes referred to as Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews. However, it definitely isn’t written by Paul, it is not an epistle, and it isn’t addressed to the Hebrews. It is written by an anonymous author, it seems to be roughly in the form of a long sermon, and it never explicitly says who it might be addressed to. It’s kind of it’s own thing.

And the theology in Hebrews is unlike any other book that we have in the New Testament. There is nowhere else that Jesus is ever described as a priest, but in Hebrews, the main image used for Jesus is that of priest. When Hebrews talks about a great high priest, it’s talking about Jesus.

But before we explore that idea more, let’s get to the beginning of the passage that we read this morning. “God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow.” Sometimes this passage is read as something very fearsome. God confronts us with a sword, an instrument of war and death, and tool of dismemberment. The judgement of God’s word cuts deep into us, leaving us utterly powerless, completely exposed.

But the word used for sword here, μαχαιραν, doesn’t necessarily mean sword. It can be used for any kind of dagger or knife. In fact, when it is used to describe a sword, it almost always refers to a single-edged sword, a sword that is used for slashing, rather than a sword that is used for stabbing. More likely we’re talking about some kind of knife.

Which for some reason makes me think of an infomercial. “And just check out the unparalleled sharpness of the Logoblade. It cuts through meat. It cuts through vegetables. It even cuts through this coffee can and still stays sharp. And it’s so precise, it can even separate joints from marrow. It can even separate soul from spirit. Order now while supplies last.”

But it’s the word of God we’re talking about here. What is that supposed to mean that the word of God is like a sharp knife that divides soul from spirit, divides joint from marrow? The following verse helps. “It is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we give an answer.”

This two-sided blade, this word of God is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It is able to lay things bare. Which is all the more reason to think that we are not talking about a sword here. What we are talking about is a scalpel. Archeologists have discovered scalpels from this period. Surgical tools with a handle in the middle and a blade on each side, a bit like a modern dental tool with a different hook on each side, to be used for different applications.

The word of God is a scalpel. It is so sharp it can divide joint from marrow. It lays things bare. It pierces straight to the heart, separates the soul from the spirit, separates life from breath. It exposes our true self, leaves nothing hidden, puts our deepest secrets on full display.

It is the word of God that does this. It is the word of God that lays us bare. The word of God both as we read it in the bible, but also as we experience it in the proclamation of the community.

In Lutheran theology, we use two words to talk about the function of scripture: law and gospel. Sometimes people use law and gospel to distinguish between the Old Testament and the New Testament, but that’s an oversimplification. The Old Testament contains both law and gospel. The New Testament contains both law and gospel.

The law is rules, guidelines, commandments, instructions for how to live. Law shows us the ways of God. It gives us a framework for how to live a holy life. And it tends to operate on a few different levels. It often first works through fear. We receive commandments, we are afraid of God’s punishment, and that helps to keep us from evil actions. But that is only the most base function of the law. It can also work as a mirror. It allows us to compare our lives to the perfect standard of God. We can see exactly who we are, with all of our faults, failings, weaknesses, and wounds. In the traditional language, the law makes us aware of our own sin. It holds us up to the mirror so we can see ourselves as God sees us.

And it is in this second sense of the law that the word of God seems to be operating in this passage. The word of God, as we read it in the bible, as we proclaim it in preaching, as we experience it through our study together and through prophetic words, it cuts through our defenses, our disguises, right to the heart of the matter. It discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It leaves nothing hidden. It shows us exactly who we are, with our weakness and our wounds. It exposes us to God. It provides that mirror. It reveals our true selves.

But that is not all. It does not leave us exposed, humiliated, and hopeless. The word of God is not only law. It is also gospel. The gospel, the good news, is the promise of grace through Jesus Christ. It acknowledges that we do not meet God’s standard, but asserts that God’s law is overwhelmed by God’s grace. According to the law, we are convicted. According to the gospel, we are pardoned and liberated.

Here in Hebrews, the gospel message of grace comes in two forms. It comes most obviously in Jesus’s role as a cosmic high priest. God has raised up Jesus to act as a priest, a priest who is both priest and sacrifice. He offers his own blood for the redemption of the world. This act of extreme love gives us hope in God. Jesus knows our human condition because he became human himself, like us. And his sacrifice of love proves God’s grace for us, a grace that justifies us. We’ll explore this image of Jesus as high priest a bit more next week.

But there is also a second, less obvious way that the gospel of grace is present in this passage. And it’s back in the section with that double-edged blade. In the verses leading up to this section, the author has been talking about hardness of heart. A hardness of heart, a resistance to God, keeps us from responding to God’s call and bars us from accepting God’s grace. You might remember in the story of Moses that pharaoh suffers from a hardness of heart. Every time Moses asks him to let the Hebrew people go free, pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and he can’t respond to God’s movement. He says no to God, over and over, until it destroys him and his kingdom. It’s that kind of hardness of heart that effects us too, that makes us resistant God, unwilling to accept God’s movement in our lives.

But according to Hebrews, the blade of God’s word penetrates through to the heart. And it lays it bare. That is, it cuts away the hardness. God’s scalpel does not only expose, it also heals. It is not judgmental so much as it is therapeutic. It cuts away the hardness so that the heart can be responsive to God. It is, as Hebrews says, both living and effective. It is living, it brings life. It is effective, it cuts away our hardness of heart and opens us up to God.

The truth is, we all have parts of ourselves that we try to hide from the world. We have scar tissue built up around deep emotional wounds. Every mistake we have made, every poor choice, every person we have hurt, every resource we have wasted, every relationship we have harmed, every promise we have broken, every wrong we have done, and every good we have left undone. To protect ourselves, we try to keep them hidden. We try to lock them away. We try to make them disappear, but they don’t disappear. Our grief, our fear, our anxiety, our despair, our hopelessness, our anger, our wrath, our greed, our envy, our lust, our indifference… they don’t go away, even when we try to deny them, to hide them.

But we can’t hide them from God. God’s word pierces to the heart. It exposes the things we try to keep hidden. God sees every part of us. And seeing every part of us, even the ugly parts, God loves us. God forgives us. God embraces us, claims us, celebrates us. Even knowing the things we try to hide, God accepts us. The gospel of God’s grace is so profound that it cuts away any barrier we try to put between ourselves and God.

So profound is God’s acceptance of us, Hebrews says, that we don’t even need to fear entering the throne room of God, the holy of holies, the undefiled sanctuary. So profound is God’s acceptance of us that we can approach God’s throne, not with fear, not with uneasiness, not with anxiety—we can approach God’s throne with confidence. With confidence. So profound is God’s gospel of grace, that the law stops being an object of fear and becomes instead a focus for our love, a standard that we strain for, not out of fear of punishment, but out of love for God and God’s life-giving grace. We seek to be bound to God’s direction, because in being bound to God we are set free.

God’s word cuts straight to the heart, separating even soul from spirit, even life from breath. But it does not pierce us to wound. God’s word pierces us to heal, that being cured of our hardness of heart, we might be able to accept the full embrace of God’s love and grace. Thanks be to God.


 See: Gene R. Smillie, “Ὁ λογος του θεου in Hebrews 4:12-13,”  Novum Testamentum 46 (2004): 338-359.