Sermon: Not Yet Fallen

Sunday 13 January 2018
Baptism of the Lord

Acts 8:14-17, 

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the day each year when we remember how Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized by John the Baptist. There’s something different about how Luke tells the story. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus comes and is baptized by John in the river, and as he’s coming up out of the waters, the sky is opened and Jesus sees the Spirit coming on him like a dove, and there is a voice that says that Jesus is God’s beloved Son.

But that’s not how it happens in Luke. Luke never describes Jesus’s baptism. It happens completely off-stage. Luke just says, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized.” That is all the description that we get of the event. Jesus also was baptized.

That also means that the Spirit doesn’t descend on Jesus when he comes out of the water, and the voice doesn’t speak to him then, either. No, all of that happens later, while Jesus is out of the water, on his own, praying. He’s praying, after he has been baptized, and he sees the heavens pulled open, and he sees the dove descending, and he hears the voice saying, “You are my beloved child. I take delight in you.

It’s a little different than the story we think we know. Things don’t happen quite in the order we would expect. First the baptism, then the prayer, then the Spirit.

But this morning we have a second story about baptism, and it happens to be written by the same author. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are part of a two-volume work. The first volume, the gospel, tells the story of Jesus and his ministry, and the second volume, the Acts, tells the story of the early church.

In Acts this morning, we have a second story about baptism. The early Jesus Movement was centered in Jerusalem. But then one of the deacons, Stephen, is stoned to death. It causes massive disruption. Those early Christians flee the city in great numbers. They are religious refugees. Then up scattering all over the place, looking for new homes wherever they can find them, because they are afraid of religious persecution or even death if they stay in the place they are from.

Among these refugees is the deacon, Philip. He has fled to Samaria. And because he is there as a refugee, he has the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with the people there. And his message is accepted, even though it must have been hard for the Samaritans to trust an outsider like Philip.

Those who believed his message are baptized. However, as Luke says, “the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Peter and John are sent to finish the job. First comes the baptism, then the apostles are sent to lay their hands on the people, then the Holy Spirit falls on them.

That seems a little bit out of order, too, doesn’t it? Why would they not receive the Holy Spirit when they had been baptized? Is there something incomplete about their baptism?

Baptism is recognized by almost every brand and type of Christianity as a sacrament and as a rite of initiation. There is a fair amount of disagreement, though, about the details of baptism. Should it be done for children, or should it only be for people who are old enough to understand it for themselves? Does it need to be by full immersion, and can a pouring or sprinkling of water do just the same? Is it a one-time thing, or can it be repeated? If you were baptized in a tradition that is very different than the one you are in now, do you need to be baptized again the right way? And what exactly does baptism do for you? Does it wash away your sins? Does it assure you eternal life in heaven, or is it a condition of salvation? Does it grant you membership into a particular church? There are many questions.

And so we might turn to the Bible to try and answer them. We’ve got two stories here today. They both depict someone being baptized and then a little later, after some prayer or the laying on of hands, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Is that how it always works? If so, the we might assume that Christians who have only been baptized are somehow deficient. Do Christians need to have a second experience later in order to be real Christians? Do they need to be born again? Do they need to have some kind of definitive experience of the Holy Spirit that once and forever changes them? And if so, what would be the evidence of that change? Speaking in tongues? Some sort of testimony of a vivid spiritual experience? Clear, visible spiritual gifts?

If those are the requirements, then how many of us are real Christians?

I think that’s a question a lot of Christians struggle with. I know I have. Am I a real Christian? Have I had the right set of experiences in the right order to prove that I am an authentic follower of Jesus?

You know those booths that they have at the fair: Are you going to heaven? Three simple questions will give you the answer. They have a clear list of what is required. Other groups have different requirements. And sometimes the requirements aren’t as clearly stated, but they are most certainly there, even if they are not usually spoken out loud.

What does it mean if my spiritual journey isn’t shaped like people tell me it’s supposed to be shaped? What if it is missing some element that I think it’s supposed to have? What if things happened in the wrong order or at the wrong time? What if it’s too late to make it up?

We dealt with some of these questions with Kaylah not long ago. After seeing the Atchleys baptized in September, she asked about baptism. Could she be baptized? Of course, both The United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America insist that a person can only be baptized once. Even if the first baptism was done in another tradition, like a Catholic or Mormon church, it doesn’t matter. Baptism is effective the first time and it cannot be repeated. But in Kaylah’s case, we didn’t know whether she had been baptized before or not. And we have only limited communication with the people who might know. So we were in limbo, not knowing how to answer her question: can I be baptized? We found the answer just a couple of weeks ago when we met her birth mom, Tinyjah. She was able to tell us that, yes, Kaylah and Kiahla had both been baptized, and that solved our theological dilemma. She didn’t need to be baptized because she already had been.

But if we are trying to find the answers to our questions about identity and baptism in the bible, there are more than just two stories. In fact, there are several different stories of baptism just in the Book of Acts. You might expect that they would all follow the same pattern, but actually, they don’t. The first time anyone is baptized in the name of Jesus is after the experience of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Pentecost experience itself is referred to as a baptism of the Holy Spirit, a baptism that Jesus will perform. But then after that experience, the apostles baptize people with water.

Later Philip is interpreting scripture with an Ethiopian eunuch, a high official in the court of the queen. Th eunuch comes to believe, and when they pass by some water, he asks to be baptized, and Philip does it, even though he has had very little training and he is not a Jew. There is no word about the eunuch ever receiving the Holy Spirit.

Next is Paul. He has a mystical experience in which he sees Jesus, he is struck blind, he repents of his sin, then he is prayed for and receives the Holy Spirit, and then he is baptized.

Next there is a group of Gentiles in the house of Cornelius. While Peter is preaching, they receive the Holy Spirit and start speaking in tongues. Peter decides that if they already have the Holy Spirit then he has no excuse not to baptized them, even if they are Gentiles, so he does, the whole household at once.

Some time later, Paul encounters Christians at Ephesus. They have believed, but they haven’t received the Holy Spirit. Paul thinks this is strange, so he asks them about their baptism. They were baptized according to the way John baptized. Paul tells them that they need to be baptized again, this time in the name of Jesus. When they are, the Holy Spirit falls on them and they begin prophesying and speaking in tongues.

There are more examples than this, but this is enough to make the point. There isn’t a consistent pattern of how it’s supposed to happen. Sometimes people believe before they are baptized and sometimes people are baptized before they believe. Sometimes they are baptized as individuals, and sometimes they are baptized as a group. Sometimes baptism makes people a part of a congregation, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Spirit comes after baptism, sometimes before, and sometimes not at all. Sometimes the coming the Spirit is accompanied with special gifts like speaking in tongues, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the baptism has to be done in the name of Jesus or it doesn’t count, but other times, like in the case of the apostles, there is no need to be baptized in the name of Jesus. There is a surprisingly wide variety of how this whole becoming-a-Christian thing happens. And all of these examples are just from one author.

Which is sort of a long way of saying that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. And it is no wonder that different Christian groups have different beliefs about baptism. The bible doesn’t agree about it either. You know that Mormon practice that we usually think of as very strange, when they baptize dead people by proxy. Guess what. That’s in the bible. In 1 Corinthians 15:29, Paul explicitly talks about baptism of the dead by proxy.

Which maybe indicates that we should allow for some grace when we have differences with other groups of Christians. We may have really good reasons for the way we do things and strong theological arguments for why our way is right, but often the Bible is less clear than our doctrine. There are good reasons why others might do things differently.

And it also indicates that we should have some grace with our faith journeys. Everyone’s story of faith is different. We don’t all follow the same path, even if we are part of the same denomination or congregation or family. Some people have really vivid spiritual experiences, and if you do, it doesn’t mean that you’re a crazy enthusiast. And if you don’t, it doesn’t mean that you’re lacking in spirit. Some people have one really transformative moment that feels like being saved or converted, and if you do, it doesn’t mean that your faith is too simple. Some people have a more varied or gradual experience of God’s grace, and if you do, it doesn’t mean that conversion is incomplete. Some of us experience God in silence, some in music, some in nature, some in service, some in preaching, some in the struggle for justice, some in ritual, some in heartfelt extemporaneous prayer, some in words that have lasted the test of time.

We are not all the same. We do not all need to be the same. God calls us in our diversity. But whoever we are, whatever is in our past, whatever path we have taken to get to this place, God’s word to us today is the same. They are the same words Jesus heard. “You are my beloved child. In you I take delight.”

Sermon: Nations Will Come to Your Light

Sunday 6 January 2018
Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6Matthew 2:1-12

Today is the feast of the Epiphany. So what does that mean? As with so many things in the church, it comes from Greek. Epiphany means to appear, or to appear in the flesh. It was a word often used in relation to the appearance of a god, synonymous with the related word, theophany.

But it takes on a specific meaning in Christianity. It refers to the appearance of God in the flesh of Jesus. In the eastern church, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus, when he first appeared on the scene as an adult, at the beginning of the story of his ministry. But in the western church, of which we are a part, it celebrates the visitation of the magi, and is often called Three Kings Day. Celebrated on January 6th every year, it marks the end of the twelve days of the Christmas season.

In many parts of the world, Epiphany is celebrated with special festivals. Many cultures bake some kind of special cake or bread, often called a king cake. And often there is some kind of object hidden in the cake, like a ring or a bean, and whoever finds it gets to be king or queen for the day. In some traditions, it’s epiphany that is the gift giving day, not Christmas, and instead of being visited by Santa, children receive presents from the three kings. So, on Epiphany we celebrate the three kings who came to visit Jesus shortly after he was born, and brought him gifts of gold frankincense, and myrrh.

But have you ever noticed that there aren’t three kings anywhere in the story? It’s Matthew that tells the story of Epiphany, in the passage we read this morning. It talks about magi, wise astrologers from the east. But it never says anything about there being three of them, and it never says anything about them being kings. But it’s “We three kings of orient are bearing gifts, we traverse afar.” Why?

Well, they bring three gifts, don’t they? Gold and frankincense and myrrh. So, if you’re putting on a pageant, you know you’re going to need three of them, to carry the three different gifts. That makes some logical sense. It’s not precisely what we see in the text, but it’s easy to see how the tradition would develop that way.

But why kings? Where does that come from? Well, it comes from Isaiah 60, that we also read this morning. Christians were reading through Isaiah, and they came across Isaiah 60: “Countless camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah, They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming the Lord’s praises.” They saw that bit about gold and incense, and they knew those magi had come from somewhere in the east, and they made a connection. And then they read verse 3: “Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.” That sounds like the magi coming to see Jesus. They must have been kings. That’s where we get it.

But we get more added to the story from this Isaiah text. From this same verse three we imply that Jesus must have been radiant. That makes it into the carols, too. Radiant streams from thy holy face. And then back in verse six we get the mention of camels, and we know that makes it into the story. It’s the three kings who come riding camels. Matthew doesn’t say anything about kings or camels or radiance, but they come into the story because of the connection that later Christians make between that story and the passage from Isaiah.

And so, early Christians identified the light at the beginning of this Isaiah passage with Jesus himself. “Arise! Shine! Your light has come; and the Lord’s glory has shone upon you. They decided that that light was Jesus. Methodius of Olympus, a 4th-century bishop wrote of this passage, “Hail and shine, O Jerusalem, for your light is come, the Light eternal, the Light forever enduring, the Light supreme, the Light immaterial, the Light of same substance with God and the Father, the Light that is in the Spirit, and that is the Father; the Light that illumines the ages; the Light that gives light to mundane and supra mundane things, Christ our very God.” So for Methodius, this light to which the nations come is most certainly Jesus. And that’s how many other Christians have read it too.

So, we have a particular problem whenever we as Christians go back and try to interpret a text from what we call the Old Testament. And the problem is this: it’s very easy for us to assume that everything in the Old Testament is somehow a foretelling of what is going to happen in the New Testament. It’s easy to read the whole Old Testament as if it’s talking about Jesus.

But, of course, all of it was written hundreds of years before Jesus. It was all written before there was such a thing as Christianity. In fact, even calling it the Old Testament is a bit misleading. Jews were using it long before Jesus came around, and they continue to use it without any reference to the New Testament. Because of that, we often refer to it now as the Hebrew Bible, acknowledging that for many, it stands on its own.

If we read the Hebrew Bible as if it all refers to Jesus, we would have to assume that it made no sense to the people who wrote it and who preserved it as sacred scripture for hundreds of years. We would have to assume that its real meaning was hidden for hundreds of years, that the people who lived and breathed the Hebrew Bible were only understanding some kind of fake meaning. And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But you know, the funny thing about scripture is that it doesn’t seem to have a fixed meaning. It can have different meanings depending on the context. What it means in one generation may not be what it means in another generation, and what it means in one part of your life may not be what it means in another part of your life.

Writing about this passage from Isaiah, a fourth-century bishop named Theodoret of Cyr argued that it had at least three different meanings. First, it meant what it did to its first audience. It had to do with Jewish refugees returning from Babylonia and Persia to rebuild Jerusalem. It talked about the rebirth of Jerusalem, of being restored from desolation. Second, Theodoret said, it talked about the church. The nations that were coming to the light of Jerusalem were Christians who were being drawn to the light of God through the message of Jesus. Finally, he said, it told the story of the life to come in heaven. Then believers would be drawn to the light of the New Jerusalem, “the immortal and pain-free existence, the life unsullied by worry.” One passage of scripture, but referring to at least three different sets of events.

Isaiah prophesies in a time of trouble. For the last 70 or so years, Jerusalem has been laying in ruins. Many of the people ha been carted off to Babylonia. Now, generations later, some of the people have returned to rebuild the city, to rebuild the temple, to rebuild the nation. But it is tough going. It is not easy to recover from such great devastation. But Isaiah foresees a time when things will be better. Not only will Jerusalem be able to support itself, but it will a draw for other peoples. Jews from all over the known world will come back to the holy city. But not only that, even Gentiles will be drawn to it. They will bring with them their trade goods and their pilgrims. Jerusalem will once more be the center of a flourishing society, not just the broken husk of a once-great city.

And Matthew also writes in a time of trouble. In his time, Jerusalem has been destroyed again, along with its temple. The Jews had rebelled against Rome and established their own independent government. For a few years, it looked like they might succeed. But then came in with renewed force and crushed them. The temple, one of wonders of the ancient world, was burned to ground and its treasures hauled off to Rome.

And yet, Matthew sees reason for hope. He tells the story of the new thing God is doing in Jesus. Not only does it bring new hope for Jewish Christians, but it brings hope for Gentiles as well. Even foreigner from the east are able to see that God is doing something new. They don’t know anything about Israel’s God, but they know just by looking at the stars that something new, something important has happened. Something important enough to make them travel hundreds of miles to offer gifts to a newborn king. 

And in our own time of troubles, we have the hope of the light of Christ. When we feel lost or hurting, our God is there. When we feel that the obstacles are too difficult to cross, our God is there. When we feel paralyzed by the success of the past and anxious for the future, our God is there. No matter what we might face, no matter how great our fears, our God is there, always, to stand beside us, to guides, to see us through.

Arise! Shine! Your light has come;

the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.

Though darkness covers the earth

and gloom the nations,

the Lord will shine upon you.

God’s glory will appear over you.

Nations will come to your light

and kings to your dawning radiance.

Sermon: His Origin Is from Ancient Days

Sunday 23 December 2018
The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:47-55

During this Advent we have been examining scriptural songs. And this week, the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, we come to our last two. The first is a Messianic prophecy from the prophet Micah, words that foretell the coming of the Christ. The second is the Song of Mary, the prophetic proclamation of Jesus’s mother about God’s plans for the world and Mary’s own part in those plans.

So let us turn first to the prophet Micah. Like most of the prophets, Micah is written in the context of deep disruption, of empires rolling through Israel and deporting its people, spreading them out across the known world, creating the Jewish diaspora. Micah alternates between warning the people about the ways that they are violating God’s law and assuring them that God will return to God’s people.

Most Christians recognize only one verse from Micah. “What does the Lord require of you,” the prophet begins, “but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

But what sort of injustice and unkindness does Micah have in mind that needs to be corrected. It is very clearly the exploitation of the poor by those with power. God says, “Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed? Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? You wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths…. Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; they they pervert justice” (Micah 6:10-12, 7:3). Everyone is trying to cheat their neighbors, and the powerful are piling up fortunes of ill-gotten gain.

But, Micah assures the people, there is someone coming who will help to set things right, a successor of King David who will change things forever. From the town of Bethlehem there will come a ruler for Israel. Like a shepherd cares for the sheep, he will make sure that the people are fed. He will bring security to the people. He will bring justice. He will bring peace.

Several centuries later, the angel Gabriel appears to a young woman to declare the fulfillment of the prophecy. Her name is Mariam, or Mary. He tells her that she is going to have a son Jesus, who will be a great king and be called the Son of God. There is only one problem, of course: she doesn’t have a husband, and she has never slept with a man. But Gabriel doesn’t seem to think that is a problem at all. Mary will conceive a son by the Holy Spirit.

No big deal for God, maybe, but it certainly must have been a big deal for Mary. Here she is going to be an unwed mother, a social pariah. She is afraid, alone.

At the same time, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is about six weeks along in her pregnancy carrying John the Baptist. Mary has just gotten pregnant. Mary decides to travel to visit Elizabeth down in the hill country of Judea. It’s about 60 miles.

The moment Mary knocks on the door, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy like one of the Old Testament prophets. She declares that Mary is blessed among woman and that Elizabeth’s unborn child recognizes the importance of the child Mary is carrying—he leaps for joy when Mary arrives.

And once Elizabeth is finished with her prophecy, that’s when Mary breaks into song. It’s a pretty famous song now, the Canticle of Mary. Sometimes it’s called the Magnificat because the first word of it in Latin is magnificat—my soul magnifies the Lord. We don’t know what tune Mary used, but many a composer has done their best to put these words to music. Between our several hymnals, I think we have at least eight different settings of it, and we’ll be singing two of them before the end of the service.

If this were a modern musical, we would expect Mary to lament the situation she has found herself in. We would expect her to go on about the struggles of being an unwed mother, about the jeers and criticism she is forced to endure, about how everyone assumes she was unfaithful. We would expect Mary to be frightened by the appearance of the angel. And we would expect her to be frightened for the future.

But this is not the song of a frightened girl that we might expect. It is not the song of someone who is lost or depressed. But it is still the song of a social outcast. It is the song of someone who has been pushed aside by society. And it is the song of someone who is confident that God is her savior.

First, Mary gives thanks to God for noticing her in her lowliness. She isn’t from a well-to-do family. She isn’t wealthy. What she is is an unwed mother. And yet God has chosen her to be the mother of the savior of the world. To most people, she appears to be lowly. But in God’s eyes she was the opposite. She was the favored one—very great indeed.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she is known as θεοτόκος, the God-bearer, the one who gives birth to God. It’s a role that we can scarcely comprehend. What could it mean to be the Mother of God? And although it sounds incomprehensibly impressive now, it certainly wasn’t a glamorous role at the time. She may have known that the child she was carrying was something special, was the very Son of God, but precious few others did. And yet, Mary knows, and she praises God for her role in salvation history:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

But Mary does not only sing about her own role; she sings about God’s mighty acts of salvation for the whole world, and more specifically, for the lowly in society. These are not just warm and fluffy words, not empty platitudes. These are strong and sometimes harsh words, like those from the prophets of old.

“God pulls down the mighty from their thrones, and raises up the humble. The Lord fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry.”

Now, these are hard words for many of us, who are used to living relatively comfortable lives, who enjoy the power and the privilege we have inherited. Life has been pretty good up until now. Sure, we may face our own troubles and burdens. We may have challenges to deal with. But compared to the majority of people in the world, we have things pretty good. We have safe places to live. We have shelter from the weather. We have plenty of food to eat. We may not be the cream of the crop here in America, but if God turns the whole world upside down, we might just find ourselves in that upper crust that God is about to tear down. And that is something we would likely rather avoid. Mary’s prophesy about God’s justice might sound more like a threat to our ears than it sounds like good news.

But these are wonderful words of salvation for those on the underside of society. These are words of liberation for the oppressed, words of hope for the beleaguered, words of promise for the destitute. This is food for the hungry, jobs for the unemployed, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, release for the captives, justice for the targeted. God is the champion of the poor and needy, the benefactor of those who suffer, the healer of those who are diseased, the comforter of those who weep. For the AIDS orphan in Africa, for the starving widow in India, for the dispossessed native in the Amazon, for the poor youth in the urban ghetto, for anyone who has been pushed aside or profiled or counted out, this is good news. This is gospel.

And this is the good news that Mary sings. She sings a song of liberation. She sings a song of mercy. She sings a song of justice. Justice for all those who have failed to receive justice at the hands of our human society. This is not the kind of justice that is meted out down the barrel of a gun or by a laser-targeted bomb. It is not the kind of justice that is executed in an electric chair or a prison cell.

No, God’s justice is something else entirely. God’s justice makes things right, it does not stop simply at punishing those who have done wrong. God’s justice gives power to the powerless. It cannot be bought, nor can it be bribed. God’s justice sees to the heart of things. It does not let something pass simply because the only people being hurt are people who have not been granted a voice to air their grievances. As Mary so boldly proclaims:

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

To Mary’s mind, God is a powerful warrior, a mighty champion, who fights on the side of the poor and lowly. God is like a sort of divine Robin Hood, who sets right the things that powerful people have set wrong. That is the God to whom Mary sings her praise, a God who has chosen humble little her over so many other more prominent choices.

And when it comes right down to it, what greater love can we sing than of an Almighty God who humbly takes on human form, of a God who cares the most for those who have the least. That truly is good news. That truly is gospel.

 

Sermon: Draw Water with Joy

Sunday 16 December 2018
The Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6

During Advent we are looking at a series of songs found in scripture. Last week we heard the Song of Zechariah, found in Luke and sometimes called the Benedictus, along with a song from the prophet Malachi. This week we encounter two more songs from the bible, both of them from the prophets, one from Isaiah and the other from Zephaniah.

And these songs are right on topic with our theme for the third Sunday of Advent. This is joy Sunday. It’s sometimes called Gaudete Sunday, because traditionally the words of the introit on this Sunday started with “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.” That is, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice,” from Philippians. On this Sunday we are commanded to rejoice. 

Which is a notable change in the season of Advent. Advent is supposed to be a bit of a solemn time, a time of reflection and preparation for the joy that comes at Christmas, just like Lent is meant to be a time of reflection and preparation for the joy that comes at Easter. But precisely in the middle of the season, there is a break in the solemnity as we are commanded to rejoice. We have not yet reached the object of our rejoicing, but we are commanded to rejoice all the same. And it is such a special Sunday that it even gets a different color candle in the Advent wreath. Instead of the more sombre blue or purple, we get the vivacious pink. It is a Sunday for joy.

And we find that same emphasis on joy in both of the biblical songs that we have this morning. Isaiah declares, “You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation.” And Zephaniah says, “Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.”

As I was preparing for the sermon today, I took a quick look at these two passages in the original Hebrew. My Hebrew isn’t that great, but I noticed two things right away. Both of these songs are packed with two kinds of words. Both of them are filled with names for God, and both of them are filled with words for joy.

First there are the names for God. The generic middle eastern name for God is El. It’s included in names like Samu-El and El-ijah. It’s also the root of the Arabic Allah. You’ve heard it in variations like El Shaddai (God of Armies) and El Elyon (God Most High). The plural is Elohim, which normally we would translate as The Gods. But Elohim is often also used as a proper name for the God of Israel. So El and Elohim are both used as names of God.

But the term used more often in these passages is the name of God that was revealed to Moses. That name is Yahweh. Sometimes it is translated as I Am. It’s all over the Hebrew Bible. But Jews developed a tradition that the name of God was too holy to speak. The idea was that there was a commandment against using God’s name in vain, and so to be extra careful they decided never to use God’s name at all, so they would never accidentally use it in vain. Instead, whenever they would come to the name Yahweh in the text, they would substitute a different word, Adonai, which means lord. So every time you see the word Lord written in all capitals in the Hebrew Bible, the word behind it is actually God’s name, Yahweh. And that word is used over and over in these passages.

In the Isaiah text, there’s a variation on this name. Instead of Yahweh, it’s shortened to just Yah. We read, Yah, the Lord is my strength and shield. In Hebrew it’s something like “My strength and shield is Yah, Yahweh will be my salvation.” The passage gets a little confusing because Yah and Yahweh appear right next to each other, and their followed immediately by the “to be” verb, the “I am” verb, which also looks a lot like the name Yahweh. It looks at first glance like the name Yahweh appears three times in a row.

That verse is interesting for another reason, because of another word that appears throughout these passages: salvation, save, savior. “God is indeed my salvation,” Isaiah begins. And that word salvation is a word you already know. The Hebrew word for salvation is Yeshua. That is, the Hebrew word for salvation is Jesus.

And early Christian interpreters of Isaiah didn’t miss the point. Isaiah 12:2 can read Surely God is my salvation. It can also read Surely my Jesus is God. Looking back on this Jewish text from a Christian perspective, it is impossible to miss that it seems filled with names for God, including the name of Jesus. You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation becomes You will draw water with joy from the springs of Jesus. And so on.

But also striking in these passages is the prevalence of words for joy and rejoicing. In Zephaniah 3:17, for example, the same basic phrase is repeated twice. God will joy over you in joy; God will joy over you in joy. But each one of those four words for joy is a different word in Hebrew. There are at least five different roots used in these passages that mean joy, and many of those roots appear in multiple different parts of speech throughout these verses. There’s so much joy that English translations struggle to keep up, using words like exult, which seems rather obscure, and words like singing, that don’t specify that the singing is joyful. These passages are simply packed with joy.

Which makes you think that these must have been written at particularly good times, times when being joyful was easy. But they aren’t. Both Isaiah and Zephaniah are written in times of trouble. And if we look closely at these two passages and the verses around them, we can see that that’s the case. Neither this song from Isaiah nor the song from Zephaniah rejoice over something that is happening in the present. They are both looking forward to something that will happen in the future. They look forward to a time when God will deliver them in the future. And yet, the rejoicing happens now. The rejoicing happens now even though the thing that invites rejoicing has not yet been fully realized.

And that’s not unlike this Sunday in the midst of Advent. We have not yet arrived at the awaited event, at Christmas, the birth of the Lord. And yet we are called upon to rejoice now, even though we are still waiting.

And when you think about it, that’s actually similar to the holiday of Christmas itself. No one knows what time of year Jesus was actually born. Nothing in the Bible says anything about what time of year it might have been. When Christians got around to establishing a festival to celebrate Jesus’s birth, they had to pick a time. And the time they picked was the heart of winter. They chose the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Thanks to some changes in the calendar over the years, Christmas is now a few days after the solstice, but it still appears in that same winter season. It’s the moment when winter is the darkest. It’s a festival of light. It’s a festival of rebirth and new life. But it doesn’t actually happen when that rebirth and new life are readily evident. It doesn’t happen at the beginning of spring. It happens in the heart of winter, when the days are the shortest and the nights are the longest. But it happens at that moment when things are beginning to change. The days are just starting to get longer. We haven’t made it through the cold of winter, but we’re half way there. And being half way there is a reason for celebration. Being half way there is a reason for joy. It’s at the darkest time of the year that we celebrate the light.

And I don’t think that’s a mistake. If we were waiting for a time of perfect circumstances, for a time when everything is going well, we would never rejoice at all. We would never find that unsullied moment when joy makes perfect sense because there is no sorrow. In fact, it is often in the context of sorrow that we are most called to joy. We have to choose. Like those early Christians choosing the depth of winter as the time to celebrate light, we sometimes have to choose to be joyful, even when our circumstances don’t always seem like the right context for joy.

Last night, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch called “Best Christmas Ever.” A husband and wife, played by Matt Damon and Cecily Strong, curl up on the couch at the end of Christmas Day and reflect on how they celebrated the holiday. Daman says, “That was the best Christmas ever. I had a smile on my face from the moment I woke up.” The scene then cuts to that moment, when the kids came screaming into their parents’ bedroom at 5:41 am to wake them up for Christmas, and their weary parents struggling to drag themselves out of bed. And that’s how the sketch continues. As the couple reminisces in glowing terms about each detail of the day, their rosy remembrances are juxtaposed with the much grittier reality of what had actually happened. Assembling the toys, spending time with difficult relatives, opening strange gifts from their children—each ugly experience is remembered with fondness. A perfect example of looking back with rose-colored glasses. At the end, the words appear on the screen, “Even when it’s the worst, it’s the best. Merry Christmas.”

And I think that’s sometimes how joy is. Joy isn’t born out of perfect circumstances. Joy is born out of choosing to be joyful in the midst of struggle. Joy is about finding something to be grateful for in the midst of frustration. That means joy doesn’t come from wealth or power or privilege. One does not have to live an enviable life in order to be joyful.

At their best, that’s the message we get from all of those Hallmark Christmas movies this time of year. Some of them are a bit insufferable, but many have a pretty good message. They encourage us to value people more than we value things. They encourage us to mend relationships that have been broken or left unattended. And they also encourage a sense of joy, a sense of wonder. They seem to say that there is something valuable about celebrating, even if we live in circumstances that are not always happy. Putting up the lights, baking the goodies, getting together for the parties—there is something deeply valuable in that. There is something that nourishes our souls.

And that something is joy. Isaiah and Zephaniah knew it. They preached rejoicing even in the midst of suffering and waiting. Those early Christians who decided on celebrating Christmas in the gloomiest time of year knew it. Even SNL and those cheesy Christmas movies seem to get it, at least in part.

We cannot always dwell in sorrow. We cannot always be stuck on things not being good enough. We cannot always live in the negative. We have to make room for joy. We have to tube our spirits to gratitude. We have to make space for marvel and wonder. I’m not always the best at that, but I’m learning.

I’ll close with a poem on the subject by Khalil Gibran:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

 

Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion,
because the holy one of Israel is great among you.

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.