Sermon: Light to the Nations

Sunday 19 January 2020
The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 49:1-7

Most scholars agree that the Book of the Prophet Isaiah isn’t written by just one author. In fact, it was probably written over the span of a few hundred years. Scholars usually divide it into three sections, and each section is thought to have been written in a different historical context. The first section, called First Isaiah, was likely written in Judah during the time of the historical prophet named Isaiah. It was just as the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were expanding and threatening the independence of the two Jewish kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel fell first to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Judah held out longer. They sustained several attacks from the Assyrians and then the Babylonians who replaced them, but Jerusalem finally fell to the Babylonians in 597 BCE. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and many Jews were deported to Babylon. The so-called Babylonian Captivity lasted for seventy years. This is the period when Second Isaiah was written, during the crisis when there was no temple in which to worship God, and many of God’s people were exiled from their homeland. The final section of the prophetic book, referred to as Third Isaiah, was written after the Babylonian captivity, when the Persians had conquered Babylonian, Jews were allowed to return to Palestine, and the temple was being rebuilt.

The passage that we have today from the Book of Isaiah is from Second Isaiah. So this is during the time when there is no temple in Jerusalem and many of God’s people are in captivity in Babylon. It is hard to overstate what a huge crisis this is for the people of Israel. For as long as anyone could remember, their religious practiced had been focussed on the temple and on the land. Now they didn’t have either. How could they worship God if they had no temple to worship in? How could they even talk about God if they were no longer in the land that God had promised them? Did their God even exist any more? Had the God of Israel been defeated by Marduk, the god of the Babylonians? Was this the end?

But it wasn’t the end. In fact, it is during this period of captivity that much of the bible came to be written. Stories that had been floating around and scraps of writings were collected, edited, brought together, and producing into something that was the beginning of our bible. If religion could not be practiced in the promised land, and if God could not be worshiped in the temple, then something else would have to take its place. And that something was scripture. That something was story and song, law code and myth, poetry and prophecy. If they could not build a temple out of stone, they would build a temple of parchment and ink. If they could not worship their God with burnt sacrifices, then they would worship their God with song and study. If they could not return to their homeland, then the stories of their faith would be their home.

This is the context from which our reading today springs. The people are looking forward to a time when, they pray, they will be able to return home, bring back the people who have been scattered, rebuild a temple, and perhaps return to life as it was meant to be. But that time has not yet come, and no one is sure if it ever will. But they long for it. They long for a return to the way things used to be.

And that’s a feeling the church can identify with in this age, isn’t it? We often long for a return to the way things used to be. We sometimes feel like we’ve been taken away from the place that felt like home. A good portion of the people here grew up in a time when church dominated society. For many of you, the church was the center of the town that you grew up in. Church activities came first, and everything else had to be scheduled around them. Church was the place people came not only to worship and also for social activity. It was expected that every upright citizen be connected to a church. It was expected that everyone come to church every Sunday. It was expected that every child would be baptized, that every wedding happen in the church, that every funeral happen in the church.

That’s not the reality that we live in anymore. Especially in this part of the country, church is not at the top of most people’s priorities. Instead of church being the expected thing, now church is the exceptional thing. Most people don’t go to church at all, ever. The people who are connected to a church tend not to come as often as they used to. Church is not the primary thing defining people’s schedules. It is not the driving moral force in every community. It is not the center of social activity. It is not the thing that everyone is simply expected to do. The world has changed in a way that is beyond our control. And sometimes we simply feel left behind.

And so it’s normal to want to get back to where we were. It’s normal to try to figure out how we can bring everyone back. It’s normal to want to make things like they used to be.

That’s what the Jews in Babylon want to do. They want to bring everyone back to Jerusalem. They want to go back to how it used to be.

But God will not let them be content with just getting back to the way things used to be. That would be a hard enough job on its own. But God is still not satisfied with it. “It is not enough, since you are my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel.” It’s not enough to gather up all of the Jews who have been scattered by war and famine and forced migration. What else could God possibly expect from them? Even that task seems impossible. But no. “It is not enough to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel. I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!” I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!

It’s not enough to just bring the Jews back to Jerusalem. What is needed is to do something new. What is needed is to spread the message to those who have never heard it before. What is needed is to cross uncrossable social boundaries and share God’s message of liberating grace with the world. It’s not just for Jews any more. The good news has to be shared with the Gentiles. The good news has to be shared with the nations.

You know, they never do get things back to the way they used to be. Some Jews do return to Jerusalem, but more stay behind in Babylon, and they continue to develop the scriptural tradition. A temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, but it is never as grand as it had been before. After a few more centuries it is destroyed again, never to be rebuilt. They never get back to where they had been before. They never make things the way they used to be.

But they do do something new. They develop a scriptural tradition that will eventually transcend the need for a temple. They develop a moral tradition that inspires and attracts Gentiles, both common people and philosophers. And eventually they extend the message of God’s liberating grace to a much wider circle of people, a circle that now includes close to four billion people worldwide. The people of Israel become a light to the nations. According to Isaiah, Israel becomes God’s secret weapon:

“The Lord called me before my birth,

called my name when I was in my mother’s womb.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword,

and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand.

He made me a sharpened arrow,

and concealed me in God’s quiver,

saying to me, “You are my servant,

Israel, in whom I show my glory.”

I really like that image of God’s servant as a finely honed weapon, hidden away by God. I’m not always a fan of military imagery when it comes to God. It can often be very problematic, especially when it is preached by the powerful against the weak. But it’s important to notice here that the only weapon that is mentioned is words. “God made my mouth like a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand.” The weapon that God wields is the message of freedom, spoken by God’s servant. The weapon that God wields is the message of God’s own grace with humanity.

And what if God has known our names since before we were born? What if God has been honing us like a sword, hidden away for the right time? What if God is preparing to do something new with us in this world, not to get us back to the way things used to be, but to use us as a light to the nations?

For most of my time as your pastor, my office has been hidden snuggly away on the back of the lot where no one knows where to look for it, and the front doors of the church have remained locked most days. Now my office is right up front. Like, right up front. If I’m there, everyone can see it. It’s forward facing. Jennifer and I have both noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people who come in to talk to us. It is at least double, and perhaps quite a bit more than that. It’s both church people and people from the community. It makes a difference that we are forward facing.

Before we had our Open House and Building Dedication last week, a couple of you went out to invite folk in the houses that are nearest to us. It’s much of a walking neighborhood, but you made the effort to do it. I know that knocking on doors was not something that you were looking forward to doing. It’s not something we were ever trained for back when church was the center of the community. But afterward, I heard you say how meaningful the experience of knocking on doors had been for you. People wanted to hear from you. They wanted to be invited. They wanted to be heard by you. You took a risk, you let your light shine, and it made a difference. It made a difference to the people you talked with, and it made a difference to you, as well.

In the next year, I want us to think about what it means to be forward-facing with our faith. When we made our offices forward facing, it made a difference in how we connected with people. When some of you put your faith forward to knock on the doors of strangers, it made a difference. What else could happen if we face our faith forward? It’s not about getting back to where we used to be, it’s about looking ahead, facing forward in faith, and living as if we are God’s secret weapon, finely honed for such a time as this. That’s what a church called Spirit of Grace is called to do: to speak grace, to extend grace, to lead with grace. You’ve already begun. May God continue to lead you forward in faith, empower you as messengers of grace, and make you a light to the nations.

Sermon: As He Came Up from the Water

Sunday 12 January 2020
Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17

Today we celebrate the holiday called Baptism of the Lord. It’s based on one of the key stories of the life and ministry of Jesus. It’s one of the few stories that is alluded to in all four of the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t agree on much, but they all agree that Jesus was baptized, and they’re all pretty sure that it was John who did it. But the details, and the relationship between John and Jesus are different in each gospel.

In Matthew’s gospel it goes like this: Jesus has already been introduced in the first two chapters. We know that he was born by his mother Mary and that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We know that his earthly father, Joseph, is descended from King David. We know that he and his family were from Bethlehem. They actually lived there—they didn’t travel there for a census. We know that they were visited by wise men from Iran within two years of Jesus’s birth. We know that they left their home in Bethlehem and fled as refugees to Egypt when they heard that King Herod was trying to find him and kill him. And we know that when Herod died, they came back, but they didn’t stay in their old home in Bethlehem, they moved to a different region, Galilee, and to a new town, Nazareth. But we haven’t heard anything else about Jesus. He hasn’t had any lines yet. We haven’t seen him grow up. We only know him as a child who was moved from place to place by his parents.

John, though, we have heard a bit more about. Matthew hasn’t told us anything about his parents or his childhood. There is no indication in Matthew that he has any previous relationship with Jesus. But John has at least gotten some lines. He appears in the story, fully formed, out in the wilderness near the Jordan River, preaching a fire-and-brimstone message and baptizing the masses. “Repent,” he says, “because the Reign of God is near!” And when the religious authorities, the Saddudees and Pharisees, come out to be baptized by him, he he does not welcome them. He gives them quite the dressing down. He calls them snake spawn, and he preaches about axes chopping down trees and chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire. He says that a new way is come, a new leadership is coming, and their old ways will be destroyed. He might say that he’s putting the fear of God into them.

With very little introduction, the adult Jesus appears on the scene for the first time. He travels down from Galilee, like many others who were attracted by John’s rebellious message, and he wants to be baptized. Only Matthew has the next detail, that John tries to keep Jesus from being baptized, that John tells Jesus their places should be reversed, that Jesus should be baptizing John. We aren’t told how he knows this. According to Matthew, they’ve never met before. No one knows who Jesus is. He hasn’t done anything remarkable in the story yet. At this point, he still hasn’t even spoken. But that is about to change. His first words in the Gospel of Matthew are, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” My lectionary group spent quite a bit of time talking about this verse, verse 15. It’s kind of hard to translate. We finally settled on “Jesus answered, ‘Let me be baptized now to fulfill all righteousness.’ And John let it be.” Though I’ve always associated Let It Be more with Paul than with John.

So John finally agrees to baptize Jesus. He lets it be. But when Jesus is coming up out of the water, that’s when the real miracle happens. Jesus emerges from the water, he looks up at the sky, and he sees something extraordinary. The heavens have opened up. The sky has been torn apart. The ancients had quite a different conception of how the universe was ordered, so it’s hard to say what they imagined when they heard this detail read. Did it look like a lightning storm? Could Jesus see angels flying around up in the divine realm? Did it just mean that it started raining like when God opened the windows of the heavens during the flood in the time of Noah? The heavens were opened. And Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove and landing on him. We aren’t told that anyone else could see these things, just Jesus.

There is also a voice from heaven. In Mark and Luke, the voice speaks to Jesus. It says “You are my beloved son.” But not in Matthew. In Matthew the voice speaks to the entire crowd, everyone who has been gathering around John. The voice says, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”

It is miracle. A divine voice rumbles out of heaven and tells everyone the truth about Jesus. He is God’s son. He is God’s beloved. It makes Jesus special. It marks him as unique.

Or does it? According to all four gospels, Jesus never performs a baptism. Not once does he baptize someone else. But he does receive baptism. And so do we. Jesus commands that all of his followers be baptized. But what does it mean?

The baptisms John performed were generally considered to be a sign a repentance, a sign of the forgiveness of sin. But is that what baptism is for Jesus? Don’t we generally think of Jesus as being free of sin? So why does Jesus need to be baptized? That seems to be the same question that John is asking.

Well, for Matthew at least, Jesus’s baptism has something to do with his identity as son of God.  It serves to make that identity clear, not only to Jesus himself, but to everyone who witnesses Jesus’s baptism. “This is my son,” says the voice from heaven.

What we don’t always admit, though, is what happens in our baptism. If our baptism were just for the forgiveness of sins, then we wouldn’t baptize babies. Presumably they haven’t done anything that they need to be cleansed. Certainly, most of the sinning days lie ahead of them, not behind. In early Christianity, sometimes people would wait to be baptized until they were near death so that they wouldn’t have a chance after their baptism of getting all dirty with sin again. But, of course, that’s not how we do it. We regularly baptize babies, children, and youth, and we don’t worry about the possibility that they might sin afterward. We know that they will. Cleansing from sin isn’t the main thing that’s happening in baptism, nor is baptism the once and only means of cleansing sin.

So what happens when we are baptized? It might seem a bit strange, but baptism for you and me may not be that different from what happens when Jesus is baptized. We may not hear a voice from heaven. But even if we don’t hear it, we know that when one of us is baptized, God says, “This is my beloved daughter, this is my beloved son, in whom I take delight.”

Baptism is a symbol and sign to us that we are part of God’s family. It is the sign of our adoption. It is the covenant and proof that we are children of the living God.

And as God’s children, we are called to behave accordingly. We are called to reject the spiritual forces of wickedness in our world. We are called to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. We are called to put, not just some, but all of our trust in God. We are called to serve as Christ’s own representatives in the world, to be Christ’s own hands and feet, doing good to all. This is the obligation of our baptismal covenant.  This is the call that is laid upon us as children of God, who have symbolically died with Christ and then been raised with Christ, our brother and forbear in the faith.

And today, as is our tradition each year on this holiday, we will reaffirm the covenant that was made at our baptism. We will say again the holy words, make again the promises. We will remember through words and signs who we are… and whose we are. We are God’s children, beloved and chosen, and we belong to God.

Sermon: Adopted through Jesus Christ

Ephesians 1:3-14

Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, the last day in the Christmas season. Tonight is twelfth night, a phrase that is known to us today mostly because of Shakespeare’s play called Twelfth Night. But in Shakespeare’s time, twelfth night, or Epiphany Eve, was a much bigger deal than Christmas Eve. It capped off an entire twelve-day season of the celebration of Christmas. It feels a little out of step with the commercial calendar that is ready to chuck out the Christmas decorations on the morning of December the 26th in order to make room for the celebration of New Year. But for quite a while, this was the height of the Christmas season. So we still have the tree up. We still have the nativity scenes out. This is the last day of Christmas, and tomorrow is Epiphany, the celebration of the magi visiting Jesus and his parents and offering him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Normally on this Sunday we would just look ahead to Epiphany and the story of the magi. And I did choose to read that story story from the gospel today just to make sure that we heard it this year. But we read that story every year, and I think you’ve heard me preach on it at least four times.

And there was something that jumped out at me from one of the other readings assigned for today. In fact, it’s really just one word that jumped out at me: adoption. We spend a lot of time this season talking about babies being born. And that is one way that new people enter into a family. But it isn’t the only way. And it certainly isn’t the only way that people enter into God’s family. In the opening section of the Letter to the Ephesians, we hear about something else. We hear about adoption.

And you know me well enough to know that I’m going to give you the Greek word. The Greek word is υἱοθεσίαν. It literally translates as “to make into a son.” Greek is, like many languages, a structurally sexist language. There would not really be a gender inclusive word to use here such as “to make into a child.” But we can guess here that the author isn’t speaking only of men, but of all Christians, when he says that God adopts us as children through Jesus Christ. It is an interesting image, though, isn’t it, being adopted by God. We usually think of God’s parenthood of us as a birthright, something that we get because we are created by God. We are God’s children because God made us. But the author of Ephesians tells us not that we are born of God, but rather, that we are adopted by God.

As you know, our family has had some experience with adoption. All three of our kids here have come to us through adoption. We are incredibly grateful to be able to claim them as our own son and daughters and we are incredibly grateful to have them claim us as their own mother and father. Adoption is every bit as real as birth, every bit as meaningful.

I know some of you have experience with adoption, as well. Some of you are parents through adoption. Some of you are children or siblings through adoption. You know that it’s sometimes hard to remind others that adoption is real. I like this little cartoon Melissa came across a few years ago. You see the pregnant woman on the left, and the couple on the right saying, “Oh I’m sorry… you couldn’t adopt?” It’s just a way of illustrating the point. Adoption is real.

However, the process of adoption is quite different than the process of conception, pregnancy, and birth. It can be a very long process, much longer than 9 months. And it can be a very difficult process. At the same time that we were working on adoption, we had friends about our age who were having children through birth. For some of them, it was a very thought-out decision to have children. Some even had to seek medical help in order to conceive. But for others, pregnancy was an accident. Of course, many who become parents accidentally still take the role of parenting very seriously. But unfortunately, there are a few who see parenting as only an unwanted burden brought on by an accident.

With adoption, though, there are no accidents. No one wakes up with a hangover and realizes that they’ve accidentally filled out hundreds of pages of forms and written essays; accidentally had their fingerprints taken and had criminal background checks; accidentally completed home study interviews and given references; accidentally taken the required physicals exams, retinal scans, DNA testing and met the financial requirements. No, adoption has to be a very conscious, very deliberate decision, and it takes quite a bit of perseverance. You have to choose to adopt a child.

And it’s the same way with God. God doesn’t just love us because of some obligation that goes along with being the creator. We aren’t God’s children because of an accident. God chooses to love us. God chooses to adopt us as children. God chooses to include us in the family. And God chooses to grant us the inheritance of sons and daughters of the Most High. And that is a powerful message. That is a powerful message about God’s intention for us, about God’s commitment to us, about God’s longing for us.

For early Christians, adoption was an important way of explaining how it is that Gentile Christians, like you and me, could be a part of God’s family if God’s chosen people are supposed to be the Jews. It was common to talk about Israel as being God’s children, or to talk about the king being a son of God. But other nations, Gentiles, were often considered to be outside of God’s grace, outside of God’s natural family. But through Jesus Christ, the author of Ephesians argues, Christians are adopted into God’s family, with a status in every way equal to their Jewish siblings. We, by the grace of God, are a part of God’s family. We are God’s own children.

That isn’t quite the end of the story. The historian in me cannot resist pointing out that back when this epistle to the Ephesians was written, adoption was very different than it is today. When we think of adoptions, we usually think of cute little babies, or maybe infants. The adoption of older children is less common. But in the Greco-Roman world, adoption was almost always limited to grown men. Let me say that again. In the Greco-Roman world, adoption was almost always limited to grown, adult men. Today, adoption is a means of providing a loving home for a child; then, adoption was a means of gaining an heir or clearly defining a succession. Many Roman emperors, including Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, were adopted for precisely this reason: to clearly establish inheritance and succession.

For this reason, those who were adopted had great responsibility. They were expected to carry on the family into the future. Since adoption—at least legal adoption—was generally confined to the upper ranks of Roman society, this meant that the adoptee would have to do things like administer the family business, carry out diplomacy, and represent the family in the political arena. Adoptees had to be models of Roman values and maintain the family’s good image in the community and around the world.

And again, it is not that different with God. Yes, God chooses to love us and does so unconditionally. But at the same time, we, as adoptees of God, have responsibilities. We are expected to continue the family business, to execute diplomatic relations on behalf of the family, and to represent the family in the political arena. Let me say that again: as adoptees of God, we are expected to continue the family business, to execute diplomatic relations on behalf of the family, and to represent the family in the political arena.

Which begs the question, what is God’s family business? What does it mean to be God’s diplomat, or to be God’s representative in politics? What would it mean to show a profit for God? Would it be to bring in lots of money into the church coffers, to have enough influence to control the government and make the rules for other peoples? Would making a profit for God mean making as many disciples as possible, mass-producing Christians as quickly and cheaply as we can? Would it mean building a church on every block and cornering the market on religious devotion?

What is God’s family business? What is God in the business of doing? Is it money, numbers, devotion? Or is God in the business of mercy, kindness, compassion, love, charity, peace, hope, joy, justice, forgiveness, and service to the lowest and the least? Certainly this world is in need of those things. Certainly this world is in need of mercy, kindness, compassion, love, charity, peace, hope, joy, justice, forgiveness, and service.

If you and I are adopted by God through Jesus Christ, because God chooses to love us as daughters and sons, then how will we carry out our familial responsibilities? How will we administer God’s business, carry out God’s diplomacy, and represent God’s politics? How will our status as children of God affect the way we make choices every day, the way that we interact with other people, the way that we use our money, the way that we vote and campaign and advocate? How will we be models of Godly values and maintain God’s good image in the community? How can we live so that others will say, “Look at those Christians—you can just tell that compassion and hope and joy are a part of their very being”? If we are adoptees of God, then what will we do to invite and welcome others into the family? What will we do to establish a safe home for folks who maybe haven’t experienced a safe spiritual home before? What can we do to help others claim that identity as beloved children of God, chosen and adored? How will we share the stories of how we have been accepted and lifted up by God so that others might be able to claim that acceptance for themselves?

Our world needs those stories. Our world needs to hear what difference it makes to you to be children of God. Our world needs to see how God’s values make a difference in the way you live your life. Our world needs to know that God welcomes all, God welcomes all into God’s family.

And so the question simply is, how will we live as daughters and sons, adopted by choice, in love,  through grace, by the Most High God?

Sermon: Refugee Jesus

Sunday 29 December 2019
The Fifth Day of Christmas, The First Sunday of Christmas

Matthew 2:13-23

The reading from Matthew that we have this morning comes at a bit of a strange time. Next week, on January 6th, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, when we remember how the magi came from the east to find Jesus, whom they understood to be the newborn King of the Jews. But even though we haven’t gotten to that reading yet, this week, we have the section of Matthew that comes right after it. The magi have already met with Herod and told him of their search for a newborn king. They have already learned from Herod’s scholars that the messiah should be born in Bethlehem. They have already followed the star to find Jesus. They have already worshiped him and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They have already heard the warning of the angel and returned to their homes by another way, leaving King Herod to wonder what has happened to them and what to make of their story of a child who is a rival to his power. It is in the aftermath of all of those things that we get the story assigned to us this morning.

It’s King Herod the Great that we’re talking about. From 37 BCE until 4 BCE he ruled the entire Jewish homeland on behalf of the Romans: Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Idumea, the Decapolis, Transjordan. His official title, granted to him by the Senate of Rome, was “King of the Jews.”

In Herod’s lifetime, Judea had gone from being an independent kingdom to civil war to Roman control. Then his immediate predecessor as King of the Jews, Antigonus II, had led a successful revolution against the Romans and become king under the protection of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s greatest enemy at the time. Herod came to power by leading a Roman army to retake Judea for the Romans. Upon his victory, he handed Antigonus over to the Romans for execution.

Herod had no previous claim to the throne. He wasn’t a royal. He wasn’t even Jewish; he was Idumean. But with the backing of the Roman state and their legions, Herod became the most powerful king the Jewish people had known in generations. He built new cities. He built new fortresses. He built a technologically state-of-the-art port at Caesarea Philippi. He made a massive remodel of the temple in Jerusalem. He made Judea great again.

And he ruled with an iron fist. He did not hesitate to kill in order to maintain his power. He had one rival claimant to his throne assassinated in 35 BCE. He put down rebellions and riots. He employed a secret police force to monitor the loyalty of his own people. He kept 2,000 soldiers as a personal bodyguard. Shortly before his death, worried that people would not miss him, he ordered that when he died, several prominent Jews should be executed so that there would be greater mourning. Herod achieved a huge amount as king, but he was also capable of incredible violence and cruelty to maintain his rule. Judea was always on the edge of violence, always on the edge of rebellion, but Herod kept things under control. Herod maintained order. He was not a king who was loved; he was a king who was feared.

And toward the end of his reign, Matthew tells us, Herod was confronted with another threat to his authority: a child born in Bethlehem. A child whose birth was predicted by a strange celestial phenomenon. A child who was being sought by religious scholars from Rome’s greatest enemy, the Parthian Empire. A child whom they were calling the newborn King of the Jews.

Herod’s first response was to use these Parthian wizards, these magi, as agents to help him find this potential threat to his power. One way or another, this child would have to be dealt with. The easiest way would be to let these magi lead him to him. But when the magi double-crossed him and his plan failed, Herod decided on another plan. If he could not identify the one child who was a threat to his authority, he would simply eliminate every child who could possibly be the one he was looking for. He would kill every male child in Bethlehem under two years of age. If Jesus poses a threat to empire, then through Herod, the empire strikes back.

This is supposed to remind us of another story, of another child who was born to save his people, of another child who narrowly escaped genocide. In the time of Moses, the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered that all male children born to the Hebrew people be immediately killed, because he feared that the enslaved Hebrew people were becoming too strong to be controlled. However, several women from different social stations conspired together to save the life of baby Moses and have him raised as a prince of Egypt. Moses would later lead his people out of slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. He would go on the be the lawgiver for Israel, the greatest of the prophets, the architect of the people of Israel.

In a kind of reverse of the Moses story, Jesus must escape Herod’s kill order on young boys by fleeing to Egypt for safety. An angel visits Joseph in his sleep and warns him about the impending slaughter. Jesus and his family flee political violence in their homeland, like so many others, and become refugees in Egypt. Separated from family, separated from property, separated from their means of livelihood, they have to make a home in a foreign land. They have to learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, and try to find a way of supporting themselves in a new society.

As a United Methodist, I’m familiar with the work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in all sorts of situations of violence, dislocation, and poverty around the world. And I know that services to refugees is a part of the work that UMCOR does. I also know that Lutheran World Relief serves a somewhat similar function for Lutheran churches.

What I didn’t know until recently is the special affinity that many Lutherans have with immigration and refugee services. There is, in fact a separate institution that is devoted completely to that cause. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has been operating in the United States for 80 years now. In those 80 years, they have resettled more than 500,000 refugees in the United States.

LIRS was originally formed in 1939 to help with the resettlement of Lutheran refugees from Europe. During and after WWII, a large number of European Lutherans found themselves expelled from or unsafe in their homes. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, LIRS resettled more than 30,000 displaced persons from Germany and Eastern Europe.

It originally started as a program to help fellow Lutherans, but it quickly expanded to include others. In 1956, LIRS resettled Hungarian refugees following a failed uprising against the Communist government in Budapest. In 1959, they assisted in the welcome of Cuban refugees on the ascension of Castro. In 1972, LIRS started welcoming Ugandan refugees who were fleeing the dictatorial government of Idi Amin. After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, LIRS resettled 16,000 refugees from Southeast Asia. In the 1990’s, LIRS welcomed refugees from Bosnia and Albania. In the first decade of this century, LIRS has been involved in resettling refugees from Sudan, Burma, Tibet, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Thailand.1

Currently, LIRS is working to put pressure on the US government to increase the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the United States each year. It’s the President who determines this cap, with consultation from Congress. “On average, since 1980, the annual Presidential Determination number has exceeded 95,000 persons. Since the year 2000, Presidential determinations have ranged from a low of 27,131 (in the year after the 9/11 attacks) to a high of 110,000 refugees. Although President Obama authorized 110,000 admissions for Fiscal Year 2017, President Trump later decreased that number to 50,000. Ultimately over 53,700 refugees were admitted in fiscal year 2017. For Fiscal Year 2018, President Trump authorized 45,000 refugee admissions. As of August 1, however, only 18,214 refugees had actually been admitted, and it is likely that the final admissions numbers will be no more than 20,000 persons–the lowest number ever in the history of the refugee program.” LIRS is lobbying for the ceiling to be raised to 95,000, which is the average ceiling over the last three decades.

LIRS states: “Aside from the obvious moral implications of closing our doors to refugees who have fled persecution and fear for their lives, the consequences of decreasing the refugee ceiling will directly impact America – economically, culturally, and geo-politically. With refugee arrivals at an unprecedented low, the communities and organizations that have formed around welcoming new Americans are feeling the repercussions. Economically, many small towns in America have come to rely on refugees as a key component of the local workforce; socially-speaking, cities and universities are missing out on the vibrant cultural contributions of refugees; and politically, U.S. allies are beginning to question our shared commitment to addressing international humanitarian crises.”

LIRS also notes that refugees have historically not posed a security risk to the US: “Refugees are subject to intensive screening and review before they are admitted to the United States. Each refugee is hand-selected by the Department of Homeland Security and screened by security agencies in an exhaustive process that involves DHS, FBI, DoD, DoS, HHS, and the US intelligence community. At the end of 2017, most refugees waited at least two years from the time of initial identification to arrival in the United States; that time has now stretched to 3 to 5 years because of new levels of processing and vetting requirements. There is no evidence that this extended time period has helped protect the United States and many experts believe it is unnecessarily exposing individuals to harm, separating families, and undermining U.S. interests abroad. Even before the high level of vetting that exists today, the refugee program has historically been a low-risk admissions program. In fact, a Cato Institute study assessing risks associated with immigrants and terrorism found that no refugees admitted to the United States after passage of the 1980 Refugee Act have committed a lethal terror attack on U.S. soil.”2

What is more, refugees often contribute significantly to the communities where they find a new home. “While there are some upfront costs associated with resettling refugees, numerous studies have found that refugees quickly begin to contribute more to the local economy than they receive in short-term federal assistance. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, a long-term study of the impact of refugee resettlement in the area found positive economic contributions through consumer spending, payment of state and local taxes, entrepreneurship, home purchases, and job creation. A 2017 study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that refugee households earned 77.2 billion dollars in 2015, resulting in 6.4 billion dollars in state and local taxes and 14.5 billion dollars in federal taxes. Big cities and small towns alike have often made refugee resettlement a priority as part of their plans for economic development because the investment in welcoming refugees nets a positive return in revenue, human capital, and cultural diversity.”

But in addition to all of this, we must remember that Jesus himself was a refugee of state violence. Jesus was an immigrant. He and Mary and Joseph certainly did not have legal permission from Egypt to enter their borders. Jesus, the one we call Lord of Life, Christ, Messiah, Son of God, was found among the most vulnerable people anywhere, among the refugees.

It is easy to dehumanize people who we don’t know personally. It is easy to paint immigrants and refugees as dangerous, risky, strange, other, foreign. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that Jesus was a refugee, Jesus was an immigrant, and that we should see the face of Jesus in every refugee and immigrant. Because, as we are reminded in Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, wherever we encounter the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the unclothed, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, it is there that we encounter Christ: “When you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”

Welcome for the stranger is a part of our DNA as Christians. It finds a particularly strong voice in our heritage as Lutherans. Immigration is essential to the story of our nation. Even more, it is essential to the story of our faith. It is essential to the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so, when we encounter the refugee, the immigrant, the sojourner, let us remember that it is then that we encounter the Christ.

Homily: There Was No Place for Him

Tuesday 24 December 2019
Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

The Gospel of Luke puts the story of Jesus’s birth within the context of empire. At the very beginning of the passage we hear about Caesar Augustus, who rules over and collects taxes from the entire Roman Empire. We hear about Quirinius, who was the Roman governor of Syria. And Luke doesn’t name these men by accident or just as a way of specifying the time of Jesus’s birth. Luke names Augustus and Quirinus for very important symbolic reasons.

The man called Caesar Augustus was born Gaius Octavius. His father was a middling Roman senator, but his mother was the niece of the famous Gaius Julius Caesar. For centuries, Rome had functioned as a Republic, with power shared among all of the aristocrats. They detested the idea of a king. But Julius Caesar sought to change all that and establish himself as perpetual ruler of Rome. Several of his colleagues and friends conspired together to murder him, to keep him from becoming a king. In his will, he named his grand-nephew, Gaius Octavius, as his heir and adoptive son. After a series of civil wars, Octavius achieved what Julius Caesar never could. He became the undisputed ruler of Rome. By the time of Jesus’s birth, his name had been changed to Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus. It means “Victorious General Caesar, Son of God, Almighty.” All across the empire, statues and temples were erected in honor of Emperor Augustus, and the people worshiped him like a god. Whenever he accomplished something great, or whenever a new member of his family was born, news would be sent out by official messengers to every corner of the empire. That news had a special name: Evangelium, Good News, Gospel.

Luke presents us with a competing message of Good News. Luke presents us with a competing Gospel. The child Jesus is born not in a palace, but in a stable. His first bed is not an ornate crib, but a feeing trough. He is the Son of God, not because he was adopted by a victorious general who was deified by the Senate, but because he is son of the one, true God of Israel. He is a king not because he dominates the people under his control, but because he transcends the power of human rulers. He is savior, not because he wields political authority, but because he heals the human heart. He brings peace, not at the point of a sword, but though the power of his words and deeds. He is victorious, not because he leads armies to conquer new peoples, but because through his resurrection, he has conquered death itself. His birth is announced not by royal messengers, but by heavenly beings. The news is announced not to wealthy aristocrats, but to common, ordinary shepherds out in the fields. Jesus is the head of a different kind of kingdom, a different kind of empire. God’s Empire is not led by a man who draws all power to himself and enforces his power with legions of soldiers, but by a child lying in a manger, child who will grow up to heal, to preach good news, to challenge the oppressive authorities, to overturn the tables of moneychangers, and to teach a radical love that breaks down the barriers between people.

The other Roman mentioned in our passage, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, is famous for two things. One is being mentioned here in the Gospel of Luke. The other is for performing a tax census that led to a Jewish revolt. A man called Judas of Galilee led the insurgency. His followers became known as Zealots, and he was thought of by many as a Messiah. The Gospel of Luke presents us with a different kind of Messiah. He does not encourage his followers to take up arms, but invites them to win their battles with the power of radical love, forgiveness, and generosity.

Jesus is an unlikely savior. One would think that the Son of God could do better. He wasn’t born in the center of power at Rome, but in a sleepy village in a backwater province on the edge of the civilized world. He wasn’t counted as the son of an aristocrat or a warrior or a priest, but as the son of a carpenter. His mother was not a princess or queen, but an unmarried girl from Galilee. And his birth was not attended by the nobility, but by shepherds and barnyard animals, because there was no room for them inside.

It is worth remembering that the one we call Wonderful Counsellor, Almighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, Christ, Messiah, Savior, Son of God had no wealth or power in his lifetime, and he seems to have had no ambition for them either. He stood in solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable. He healed illnesses and cast out demons. He touched those who were considered untouchable. He spoke and ate with outcasts. He challenged the political authorities and called for justice: justice for the poor, justice for the oppressed, justice for the imprisoned, justice for the immigrant, justice for the weak, justice for the homeless, justice for the foreigner, justice for the excluded, justice for the marginalized. He called us to love our neighbors and to love our enemies, to practice a love that is so powerful it casts out all fear.

In a media environment that is built on fear, anger, and outrage, Jesus offers forgiveness, compassion, and love. In a political environment that is built on division, prejudice, and exclusion, Jesus offers acceptance and inclusion. In an economic environment that is built on acquisition and profit, Jesus offers gratitude and generosity. In a social environment that is built on anxiety and competition, Jesus offers assurance and solidarity. That is the miracle of the unlikely savior.

There was no place for him in the house in Bethlehem, but let us make a place for him now. Make a place for him in your home. Make a place for him in your family. Make a place for him in your work. Make a place for him in your relationships. Make a place for him in your finances. Make a place for him in your life, in your time, each day. Make a place for the unlikely savior and experience his healing, his compassion, his grace, his love. Make a place for Jesus the Christ, born to poor Mary in a stable, yet Son of the Almighty God. Amen.

Sermon: They Will Call Him Emmanuel

Sunday 22 December 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25

“A young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanual.” These are famous words of the Prophet Isaiah, made famous largely because they are quoted by the Gospel of Matthew in relation to the birth of Jesus. For Matthew, it’s about the virgin birth of Jesus and Jesus’s status as God-with-Us. But these words were around long before Matthew, 800 years before, in fact. And before they were ever applied to Jesus, they meant something else.

The context for this pronouncement is given in the first part of chapter 7 of Isaiah. The dominant force at the time is the Assyrian Empire, headquartered in what is now the Kurdish territory of northern Iraq, not far from Mosel. The Hebrew people are divided into two different kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in the north with its capital in Samaria and the Kingdom of Judah in the south with its capital in Jerusalem. Both, to one degree or another, are under the influence of the Assyrian Empire. The northern Kingdom of Israel has made an alliance with the neighboring Kingdom of Aram, headquartered in Damascus in modern Syria. These two kingdoms want to launch a rebellion against the Assyrian Empire, but they don’t think they can succeed without the help of the Kingdom of Judah. However, King Ahaz of Judah does not want to join the rebellion, so the rebel alliance of Israel and Aram decide to attack Judah first, kill King Ahaz, and put someone else on the throne of Judah, someone who will go along with their rebellion.

King Ahaz is afraid. He does not think that his little kingdom can stand up to the combined military power of his two neighbors. And he is afraid for himself, that he will be deposed or killed and his kingdom taken away from him. Because he thinks that his kingdom cannot stand on its own, he is contemplating asking for help from a much larger entity. He is contemplating inviting the Assyrian Empire to come in and protect him from Israel and Aram. But, of course, this is a tremendous risk. Ahaz’s potential ally could be much more dangerous to him than his enemies. Asking Assyria to enter the conflict would be like a chicken asking a wolf to come protect it from a goose and a duck.

Isaiah advises patience and faith. Do not be afraid, he says. Have faith in God. Don’t put your trust in Assyria. God has promised to protect you, and God will fulfill that promise. Be calm. Face your enemies without fear, because God will be at your side. But King Ahaz is still afraid. He still thinks he needs to reach out to a powerful empire in order to protect himself.

At the beginning of our passage from Isaiah, Ahaz is preparing for the attack on Judah, and the Prophet Isaiah goes to King Ahaz of Judah in order to reassure him. God speaks to King Ahaz and says, “Ask for a sign from YHWH your God. Make it as deep as the underworld or as high as the heavens.” That’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? God offers to give Ahaz any sign that he wants. There are no limits to what God is willing to do to prove God’s point to Ahaz.

Imagine that for a moment. Have you ever had a situation where you asked God for a sign? You were trying to make a difficult decision or to face a truth that you didn’t want to face, and you asked God to give you a sign about it. I’m usually happy to get a beautiful sunset, or a bird in a tree, or just a certain sense of a feeling. Many times I don’t really get anything. Here God directly offers to give Ahaz any sign that he asks for, no limits.

Ahaz responds, “I won’t ask; I won’t test the Lord.” It sounds like it might be a very pious answer. It sounds a lot like what Jesus says to the devil when he is being tested in the wilderness. Ahaz doesn’t wanted to put God to the test. However, that’s probably not what is happening here. Ahaz isn’t too pious to ask God for a sign. Rather, Ahaz does not want to hear what God has to say. If he doesn’t get a sign, then he won’t have proof of what God is saying.

Which explains why Isaiah hits him with such a snide response: “Is it not enough for you to be tiresome for people that you must also be tiresome for my God?” Isaiah isn’t going to take it. God has offered to give the sign of Ahaz’s choosing, and he’s not going to get out of hearing God’s word just by refusing to name a sign. The king is going to get a sign anyway.

“Look! The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.”

So here’s what’s happening. Isaiah is saying that there is already a young woman who is pregnant. The Hebrew doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s a virgin, just that she is young. She’s pregnant. She’s about to give birth to a son. She’s going to name the son Immanuel. It is not explicitly stated, but this young woman is probably Isaiah’s wife, and the son who will be born is his son. Prophets sometimes made a point by giving their children a meaningful name. Isaiah named his first son Shear-jashub, which means “a remnant shall return.” He named his youngest son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. This must have been a pretty tough name to live with. A lot of people complain about the names that their parents give them, but at least most of them weren’t named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. It means, “spoil quickly, plunder speedily.” Hopefully he used a nickname.

Isaiah’s middle son, though, he gave the name Immanuel. It’s a compound word. Im means with. Nu is a first-person plural suffix. So Immanu means with us. The last part of the name is the general semitic word for God. It gets used in lots of Hebrew names. Israel, Ishmael, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha. So all together, Immanuel means with-us God. But it can also be translated a little differently. In Hebrew, when you write a sentence without a verb, then the to-be verb is implied. So Immanuel would mean God is with us. Or if we were following the Hebrew word order, it would be “With us God is.”

So Isaiah’s own son, Immanuel, God-is-with-us, is supposed to be a sign for King Ahaz. But what is this sign? What is it supposed to mean? “Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.” Isaiah means that by the time his about-to-be-born son is able to do basic moral reasoning, the threat to Judah will be over. Both Israel and Aram will be defeated. By the time this child is 2 or 3 years old, Judah will no longer be in danger from its neighboring kingdoms. In other words, King Ahaz should trust God. Ahaz should trust that God is in fact with him, and with all of the people of Judah. He does not need to seek protection from somewhere else. He does not need to ask for help from Assyria or from Egypt. He should let go of his fear and have faith that God will provide, that God will protect. Only two or three more years, and it will all be over. God is with him. God will see him through. Do not be afraid. Trust in God. Do not be led by fear. Have faith in God’s love.

Nearly eight centuries later, the author of the Gospel of Matthew came to this text again and found new meaning in it. He wasn’t reading it in Hebrew, though. He was reading a Greek translation known as the Septuagint. And the Greek translation changed the meaning a bit. Rather than talking about a young woman who is currently pregnant the Septuagint speaks of a virgin who will become pregnant. Matthew saw that and immediately thought of Jesus. “Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel, God-with-us.”

The gift of Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us, is a gift of God’s love. God cares so much for us, and for our wellbeing, that God sends Jesus to live among us, to become one of us, to show divine solidarity with us fragile human beings.

And the gift of God’s love in Jesus, our Emmanuel, presents us with the same choice that King Ahaz faced. Will we choose fear, or will we choose faith? Will we live a life that is built on suspicion and anxiety, or will we live a life that is built on trust and compassion?

Where will we look for security? Will we look for it in the endless quest for more money and possessions? Will we look for it in a prejudice that separates us from those we see as enemies and outsiders? Will we look for it through membership in a tribe that promises to be superior to everyone else?

Or will we look for our security in the God who loves us enough to live with us? Will we look for it in the inner peace and assurance that comes from time spent with God in prayer, worship, and devotion? Will we look for it in the community of people in which we live and love and move. Will we look for it in our Emmanuel who crosses social boundaries and calls us to do the same?

That is choice for our lives: fear or faith. If we know that God is with us, if we experience God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, if we find that our lives expand when we choose love, then it is not a question at all. Emmanuel is here. We don’t need to be afraid. God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: The Wilderness Will Rejoice

Sunday 15 December 2019
The Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 35:1-10

The thirty-fifth chapter of Isaiah begins: “The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.” I am not a gardener, but as many of you know, my mother really is a gardener. A few years ago, she got me a book that talks about every plant that is mentioned in the bible. I broke it out this week because of this first verse. The wilderness will blossom like the crocus. Not crocus will blossom in the wilderness. The wilderness will blossom like the crocus. The crocus is being used as a metaphor to describe how the wilderness will blossom. I figured in order to understand this passage, I would have to understand how a crocus blooms.

So I found the book on my shelf: Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the Quran. And I opened it up to the section on crocuses. And there was nothing there. No entry for crocus.

So I figured it must be a translation issue. I was using the Common English Bible, so I looked in the New Revised Standard Version. It also said crocus. But when I looked in the King James Version, it said the desert shall blossom as the rose. So I went back to the garden book and looked up rose. It said that a number of plants in the Bible are identified in English bibles as roses. However, none of them actually are roses. Roses don’t grow in the Middle East. So want kind of plant is it?

The Hermeneia Biblical Commentary says that “it is variously translated as rose, crocus, asphodel or meadow saffron.” The Brown-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon says it is meadow saffron or crocus. The Greek version of the Old Testament says that this plant is a lily. And when I just took the Hebrew word and dropped it into Google, I came up with a type of daffodil.

Meadow saffron, also called autumn crocus, is not native to Israel, so that seems unlikely. There are hundreds of different kinds of crocus, including several that are native to Israel. Crocus ochroleucus grows in rocky places and light soils between October and December. Crocus pallasii grows in Israel, the Balkans, and western Iran. Crocus sieberi, or Snow Crocus, is an early-blooming, Spring crocus. Crocus graveolens is spring-flowering and is found in Turkey and northern Israel. The Winter Saffron, or Crocus hyemalis, is found in the early spring in Lebanon and Israel. Crocus aleppicus is found from West Syria to Jordan. When I just Googled the Hebrew word, what came up was the Sea Daffodil, Pancratium maritimum, It grows all over the Mediterranean region, usually on beaches and sand dunes. Even though it’s not a crocus, it is one of our most likely suspects.

So what does it mean that the wilderness will blossom like one of these flowers? Well, we can’t be certain, but a lot of these plants grow in pretty harsh conditions. Many varieties of crocus are among the first to bloom in the spring. Some will even come up in the snow. Many of these plants grow in marginal soil, like the Sea Daffodil, that actually grows in sand. They show up in places where you might not expect to find flowers.

In fact, the way that the Bible describes the desert bursting out into bloom, is probably something akin to a super bloom, like the one that happened in California a few years ago. They happen in places that are usually arid. But once in a while, water gets there, and all sorts of flowers pop up. Listen to how Isaiah refers to water in our passage:

Waters will spring up in the desert,
and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool,
and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The jackals’ habitat, a pasture;
grass will become reeds and rushes.

In a land that is often quite arid, a little water goes a long way. But in this passage, Isaiah is talking about increases in water that dramatically change the nature of the land. It goes from being desert to being bursting with life. The earth itself rejoices.

In the midst of this blooming wilderness, we are told, there is a highway. “It will be called the Holy Way,” Isaiah says. “Even fools won’t get lost on it; no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it.” There is a way in the wilderness. And it will be so clearly marked that no one will be able to get lost.

We are halfway through the Season of Advent. It’s the season of preparation before Christmas. And Advent can be a bit of a downer. The first Sunday in Advent usually has to do with the end of the world. The second Sunday in Advent is usually devoted to John the Baptist and his very fiery message about repentance. But on the Third Sunday of Advent, we get something different. The third Sunday is dedicated to Joy. It’s so special that it even gets a special color of candle: pink. There’s one Sunday, and one Sunday only, that I wear a pink stole, and this is it!

I’m not great at joy. You can ask my family about our favorite colors. Kaylah likes purple, Kiahla likes pink, Karthik likes blue, and Melissa likes yellow. What’s my favorite color? Gray. Unmitigated joy does not come naturally to me, so it’s good that I have people who can balance me out. But I’m the sort of person who can take a perfectly happy situation and find the hypocrisy in it, or the hidden way that it is actually less than joyful.

I think John the Baptist is kind of the same way. Jesus shows up and is doing all kinds of amazing things, and John is just not convinced. Whatever it is that Jesus is doing, it’s not quite what John expected from the Messiah. He’s in prison, but he sends messengers to Jesus to ask him if he really is the Messiah, or if they need to be looking for someone else. And Jesus says that they should report back to John what they see and hear. “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.” Are you serious? Jesus seems to say. All these amazing things are happening and you think it’s not enough? Perhaps you’d like more war and retribution? Can’t you just enjoy a good thing?

Jesus is drawing on texts like the one we have from Isaiah. “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing… Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. Say to those who are panicking: Be strong! Don’t fear!”

It can be easy to be overwhelmed by the negative. There’s a lot happening in our world that isn’t the way it should be, that doesn’t contribute to human flourishing. And our mass media and social media are finely tuned to deliver us the most upsetting news that is available, whatever will make us feel angry, outraged, or afraid. Anger, outrage, and fear keep people watching, keep people reading, keep people clicking. And certainly there are things in our world that need fixing, that demand our attention.

But the word gospel means good news. And good news should be good news. Sometimes we need to celebrate the things that are good. Sometimes we need to approach the world with joy. So I’d like you to take a moment with one or two people near you and share something that brings you joy right now…

Isaiah tells us:

The desert and the dry land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.
They will burst into bloom,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
A highway will be there.
It will be called The Holy Way.
The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
grief and groaning will flee away.

So let us be filled with the Joy of the Lord. Like a spring crocus or a daffodil, let us be the first to find joy and spring forth with blossom. Because we have heard the good news of our great and wondrous God. Jesus Christ is coming. Let all the world rejoice!

Sermon: The Peaceable Kingdom

Sunday 8 December 2019
The Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10

The passage this morning from Isaiah is one of the best known in Isaiah, and it’s one of the better known passages in the entire bible. It’s often referred to as the peaceable kingdom. The wolf lives with the lamb. The leopard lies down with the goat. The cow and bear eat together. So do the lion and the ox. No one hurts or destroys on God’s holy mountain. It’s an ideal picture of what peace could look like, a metaphor for the ways that the people of the earth could live together in peace and harmony.

It comes from a time when the people of Judah were particularly vulnerable. We don’t know the exact timing. The Book of Isaiah probably contains words and prophecies covering at least a couple of centuries. What we do know is that throughout that time, Judah was caught between a number of competing regional empires. Assyria, which many consider to be the world’s first empire, was centered in what is now northern Iraq, to the Northwest of Judah. Their rivals, and eventual conquerors, were the Babylonians, centered in what is now central Iraq, to the east of Judah. Even farther to the east were the Persians, who eventually conquered the Babylonians, centered in what is now Iran. And to the south of Judah was the Kingdom of Egypt. Judah was just one of many small kingdoms in the area, trying to make their way in the midst of feuding and emerging empires. They were sometimes allied with one empire and sometimes with another, sometimes relatively independent, sometimes entirely subjugated, often finding themselves on the losing side of these large, regional wars.

This meant a great deal of instability for the people of Judah. By this time, the northern Kingdom of Israel had already been utterly devastated by Assyria, many of its people being relocated and never heard from again, the so-called ten lost tribes of Israel. The people of the southern Kingdom of Judah risked the same fate if they found themselves on the wrong side of the wrong opponent. In fact, they would eventually be conquered by the Babylonians, who would deport a large portion of their population.

In the midst of this general unrest—and again, we don’t know exactly when this part of Isaiah might have been written—the prophet has a vision of a new king who will establish a reign that is free of the war and unrest and oppression that the people have been suffering for generations.

“A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” Jesse was the father of David, generally considered to be the greatest king of Israel and Judah. If Jesse’s tree is now a stump, it means that that line of kings has been cut off, or that that line of kings has become unsatisfactory. If a new shoot is growing up, it means that a new king is coming, still in the Davidic line, but one who is truer to the spirit of King David, one who acts more like David did.

And there are some specific ways that this new king is going to be different. First, he’s going to have the Holy Spirit on his side. “The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” The Spirit will make him wise. The Spirit will make sure that his decisions are based in a thoughtful humility and a deep grounding in God’s laws.

Isaiah continues: “He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.” This is a very important point. This king isn’t just supposed to bring peace. It’s not just about making sure that there isn’t war or open violence. No, Isaiah’s new king has got to do more than that. He has to rule with justice. He will not favor the wealthy and the powerful. He will offer special protection for the needy and the vulnerable. He will, in fact, show favoritism for those at the bottom of society. That is what Isaiah expects from the ideal king. He shouldn’t favor the landowners or the job-creators. Instead, he should favor the day laborers and the unemployed.

Isaiah goes on: “He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.”  So, here the ideal king is described as using violence, but it is very interesting how that violence is described. In the real world, all rulers employ violence to some degree or another. In order to police the people, some level of violence is generally necessary, if only to prevent a greater violence. That’s the kind of violence that’s described here, a violence that targets only those who use violence to hurt others and exploit the oppressed. But notice how that violence is described. It’s described as the rod of the king’s mouth and the breath of the king’s lips. It’s not the king’s arm. It’s not the king’s sword. It’s not the king’s spear or arrow. The only weapons that this king wields come from his mouth. The only weapons this king wields are words.

Finally, Isaiah says of this new king, “Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.” These belts are part of the armor of the time. They are righteousness and faithfulness. Righteousness, meaning that the king will be just, that he will do right by his people, that he will set things right. Faithfulness, meaning that he will trust in God and that he will do his duty as king.

Now the prophet Isaiah would probably never have imagined this, but Christians have interpreted this passage as speaking about Jesus. Jesus is the new king who comes from the line of Jesse and David. Jesus is the one who will bring about justice for the people. Jesus is the one who will set things right. Jesus is the king whose only weapons are the words of his mouth.

What this king is ultimately supposed to bring about is the peaceable kingdom, what we described earlier, the ancient equivalent of dogs and cats living together. And that is also the goal for those who seek to live the Jesus way. We should be striving to bring about the peaceable kingdom.

And it’s worth paying attention to just how that peaceable kingdom is described. It’s not “can’t we all just get along.” It’s not about people keeping quiet about their differences or about the ways that they are being slighted by others. In the peaceable kingdom, there is peace, but not everyone is allowed to stay the same.

The peaceable kingdom is described with a number of unlikely pairings of animals. First, “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat.” These are obviously strange because we would expect the wolf to kill and eat the lamb, and we would expect the leopard to kill and eat the goat. And notice that the animals we would think of as prey are especially vulnerable. They are not even fully grown. It’s not a sheep, it’s a lamb. It’s not a goat, it’s a kid. And yet they remain unharmed by their natural predators. The lamb and the kid don’t change. It’s the wolf and the leopard that have to change. They have to refrain from killing or harming what is an utterly helpless prey.

Isaiah’s vision continues: “The calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.” Here again we have a baby prey animal paired with a predator, this time a calf paired with a lion. This time, though, they don’t just live or lie together, they eat together. And this cannot mean that the calf eats what the lion usually eats. Eat must mean that the lion eats what the calf usually eats. The lion becomes an herbivore.

And thrown into the picture of these unlikely pairs of animals is another vulnerable baby animal: this time a baby human. “A little child will lead them.” Under no circumstances would any decent parent allow a small child to hang out with a wolf, a leopard, and a lion. But in Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom, not only is the small child left unaccompanied with three large carnivores, the child is left in charge of them. It’s not the child that’s asked to change, it is the carnivorous animals that have to change.

In the next part of the poem, this change is made even more explicit. “The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox.” Here we are explicitly told that the bear and the lion have to change their behavior and act like a barnyard animal. They have to graze and eat straw. It’s not the cow and the ox that have to change, it’s the bear and the lion that have to change.

Finally, Isaiah says, “A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole; toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.” Again, it is helpless children being paired with deadly predators. It’s not the nursing child or the toddler that have to change, it’s the snake and the serpent that have to change.

The lesson should be very clear. Bringing about the peaceable kingdom is not about changing the behavior of the poor, the vulnerable, and the powerless. Bringing about the peaceable kingdom is about changing the behavior of the rich, the privileged, and the powerful. Peace is not about the poor and oppressed keeping quiet about their situation. Peace is about the privileged changing their behavior so that their actions no longer take advantage of others.

And it’s interesting, because we wouldn’t say that the wolf, the leopard, the lion, the bear, and the snake are mean. They don’t have a deep and abiding hatred for lambs, goats, calves, and oxen. The wolves are just going about doing their normal wolf things. The lions are just going about doing their normal lion things. But the way that wolves and lions normally behave results in the deaths of other animals. The wolf doesn’t have to be especially cruel in order to kill a lamb. The lion doesn’t have to be bigoted in order to kill a calf. They only have to behave normally.

In fact, we would say that it is a part of the very nature of the wolf to hunt. It is a part of the very nature of the lion to kill. Not to do so is unnatural. A lion eating straw is unnatural. Any lion who was asked to eat straw would not doubt feel very put upon. That lion would no doubt feel that its rights were being limited. That lion might even feel oppressed. For as long as anyone can remember, it was the absolute right of lions to hunt whatever other creature they pleased. That is simply the natural order of things. And can a lion even survive by only eating straw? Doesn’t it need meat in order to live?

In our society, the people who have advantages and privileges rarely feel like they do. We don’t have to be mean or bigoted in order to benefit from the privileges of race, gender, and class. And we don’t have to go about trying to exploit others in order to benefit from systems that also oppress others. We can just be going about living our normal lives and not even notice that the abundance of our lifestyles are dependent upon the relative harm of others. Most of the products that buy and give to each other as gifts are made by people earning a tiny fraction of our minimum wage often in very poor working conditions. The fossil fuels that are disproportionately burned in the developed world result in climate changes that are disproportionately experienced by the world’s poor. Many of the advantage of race, gender, class, religion, and nationality are almost completely invisible to those who enjoy them. One doesn’t have to be mean, hateful, or bigoted in order to benefit from systems that disadvantage others.

We want Jesus’s peaceable kingdom. We want the rule of justice and harmony. But in order to get there, it may require a change in us. May Jesus bring about the peaceable kingdom. May we be instruments of the coming of that kingdom. And may we have the grace to make the changes that are required to let it be.

Sermon: Live Honorably As in the Day

Sunday 1 December 2019
The First Sunday of Advent

Romans 13:11-14

There were two men in a village, a tall man and a short man; they were neighbors. This was many years ago, before electricity. If people needed heat, they relied on a wood stove. If they needed light, they had to burn candles. Candles, though, were rather expensive, so people tended not to use them unless they had a good reason.

One evening, the tall man looked out his window and saw the short man’s house lit up brightly. It was already well past sundown, so it was quite dark. It also happened to be a new moon, which made the rest of the night even darker, everything except the short man’s house.

The tall man wondered to himself what could possibly be going on at the short man’s house. It was far too late for anything reasonable to be happening. It bothered him. His neighbor must be up to something, thought the tall man. And as he thought about it more and more, it bothered him more and more.

Finally he couldn’t stand it any longer, and he decided to take action. It was a dark night, he knew. There was no moon. So he would sneak out of his house and creep over in the darkness to see what was happening at the short man’s house. He had to be up to no good. But what kind of mischief was it that the short man was getting up to? The tall man made up his mind and went. He put on his coat and his hat, quietly opened the door, and stepped out into the cold night air, silently shutting the door behind him.

He had been right: it was very dark outside. Not only was there no moon, but much of the sky was covered with clouds so that there were hardly any stars. There were, of course, no street lights, no headlights, no porch lights. The only light that could be found was the light streaming out of the short man’s windows.

The tall man moved slowly and quietly in the dark, step by step toward the short man’s house. As he got closer, he began to question what he was doing. If he went up and looked in the short man’s window, surely he himself would be spotted. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea, he thought to himself. But he just had to know what sort of evil the short man was getting up to inside his house with all that light at this late hour. He decided that he had to risk it. It was his duty, after all, on behalf of the whole village, to find out what was going on. Whatever the short man was doing, it was probably something dangerous, the people of the village had a right to know what it was.

Just then, he noticed that light wasn’t only coming out of the windows, but it was also shining out of a small hole in the door. It was the keyhole. This was back in the days when keyholes were big enough to see through. Perfect, thought the tall man, I can sneak up to the door and peak through the keyhole. That way I can find out what the short man is doing, but I won’t have to worry about him seeing me through the window. So he tiptoed up, all the more quietly, making sure that he wouldn’t be heard from inside the short man’s house.

Now, the tall man was very tall. But the keyhole was quite low, just at the perfect height for the short man to open his door. So as the tall man approached the house, he realized that he would have to bend down in order to see into the keyhole. He carefully creeped up the steps, across the creaky porch, and ducked his head down in order to look through the keyhole. Now he would finally see what the sneaky short man was up to.

But the tall man was too tall. He could not bend over enough in order to see through the keyhole. He would have to get down on his hands and knees in order to see. So very, very carefully, trying his best not to cause the loose boards on the wooden porch to squeak, he got himself down on all fours. Now all he had to do was to lean his head forward a little bit and put his eye up to the keyhole, and he would finally be able to find out what that sneaky little short man was up to with house lit up so late at night. He would figure out what sort of mischief the short man was created and let the whole village know.

The tall man leaned his head forward. He closed his left eye and brought his right eye up even with the keyhole and began to look inside.

Suddenly, the door opened. The light from inside came pouring out through the open doorway, lighting up the night. And as the light came out, it revealed the tall man, hunched over, there on his hands and knees on the short man’s porch, looking like a fool, with one eye clenched and one eye open, peering directly into the short man’s belly.

Things that happen in the dark are hidden; they can’t be seen. When the tall man thought that he was in the dark, he behaved in a certain way, because he thought that he could not be seen, that what he did would be a secret. But once the door was opened, and the light shone out, his actions were no longer hidden, they were revealed. And he himself was revealed to be a busybody, a snoop, and a muckraker. He had intended to cast guilt upon his neighbor, the short man, while keeping his own scurrilous actions a secret. But when the light was shined, when darkness became bright, when night became day, the tall man was exposed as the ne’er-do-well he actually was.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul talks about the difference between the works of darkness and the works of light. Many of us have been taught that light means good and that dark means evil. In the old western movies, you can always tell who the good guys are because they wear white hats. And you can always tell who the bad guys are because they wear black hats. White is good and black is evil.

This interpretation has often been misused to argue that all things light are good and all things dark are evil. In particular, our cultural heritage tells us that people with light skin are good, pleasing, beautiful, and people with dark skin are evil, dirty, or ugly. Think about the story of Snow White as an example. What is she known for? She is the fairest in the land. That is to say, she has the lightest skin and is therefore the most beautiful. Whiteness is used as a synonym for beauty. It’s explicitly racist language, but it is so deeply rooted in our culture that we don’t even notice it. You’ll have not trouble finding Snow White on the toy shelves next to the other Disney princesses.

But the stakes are higher than fairy tales though. The language of light and dark has been used explicitly to deny the humanity of non-white peoples. It was used to justify the enslavement of African people, the genocide of Native Americans, and the subjugation of peoples around the world.  Even when this argument is not explicitly stated, it often works silently in the background to uphold the status quo of prejudice. Whether we want to or not, our culture has taught us an implicit bias against people of color. And using the language or light and dark for good and evil is a part of that bias.

I want to be absolutely clear that that is not what Paul is talking about here. When he talks about light and dark, he is not talking about black and white. In fact, he is not talking about color at all. He is not talking about pigmentation, he is talking about illumination. He is talking about precisely what we learned from the story of the tall man and short man. The difference between light and dark is not about color, it is about exposure.

In the dark, everything is hidden. In the dark, we can get away with things because no one can see that we are doing them. In the dark, we can hide all of our secret, we can do the things that we would rather people didn’t see, we can say the things that we would rather people didn’t hear. In the dark, we can act as if the way that we act doesn’t matter.

That’s why many people prefer to live in the darkness. Chances are that each and every one of has something hidden deep down that we would rather the world didn’t know about. And as long as we can stay in the darkness, then we never have to worry about being exposed.

But Paul has a message for us. He says, Remember what time it is. By that, he means that a new age has begun. The world had been in an age of darkness. But by the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the age of light is dawning. We have not yet come into the full brightness that will only arrive at the end of the age, but through Jesus Christ, the dawn is breaking.  Hope is breaking through. The light is shining, and it is overcoming the darkness.

And so, we have a choice. We can continue to live in the darkness, trying to hide all of the things that we are ashamed of, trying to get away with everything that we can. Or, we can live in the light. We can live as if the Kingdom of God is already here in all of its glory. We can put on the armor of light and face the darkness unafraid. We can live every moment as if everyone could see us, to glory of our God, who sees us in the light or the dark. We live as a people of hope who share the hope of Jesus Christ with the world.

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.  Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.

Sermon: New Heavens and a New Earth

Sunday 17 November 2019
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 33C

Isaiah 65:17-25

New heavens and a new earth. It sounds quite a lot like another bible text we know. Revelation 21: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”

Hundreds of years before John the Revelator had that vision while in prison on the Aegean island of Patmos, a prophet in Israel received a word from the Lord with a very similar theme. “Look! I am creating new heavens and a new earth: past events won’t be remembered; they won’t come to mind.” It’s a promise of a new start. A promise of a world that is different than the old world. A promise that the things to come will be better than the things that are now.

And it is a beautiful vision of a world to come. Every child lives into adulthood. Every adult lives long enough to see their labor bear fruit. There is no war. Even the carnivorous animals refrain from hunting and eat straw instead. No one hurts anyone else, ever. No one steals. No one oppresses. No one kills.

The Irish rock band, U2, has a song called “Peace on Earth.”  It responds to words like the one’s we find here in Isaiah 65, and it is a sort of prayer. “Heaven on Earth, We need it now. I’m sick of all of this hanging around. I’m sick of sorrow. Sick of pain. Sick of hearing again and again that there’s gonna be Peace on Earth.”

Heaven on earth; we need it now. And I have to admit that sometimes I feel a bit more in sync with U2 than I do with Isaiah 65. We read words like these over and over again. Especially as we approach Advent and Christmas, we hear these prophecies about new heavens and a new earth, about a new order where there isn’t any more mourning, where there aren’t any early deaths, where there is no more sadness.

And every time we hear those beautiful words, we continue to live in a world where tragedy is still alive and well, as strong as ever it has been. We live in a world that keeps producing storms bigger and more deadly than any we have ever seen before. We live in a world in which wars continue to take lives and displace entire peoples. We live in a world in which disease and death continue to stalk us, continue to take people long before their time.

The promise from Isaiah is a little too specific, isn’t it? “No more will babies live only a few days, or the old fail to live out their days. The one who dies at a hundred will be like a young person, and the one falling short of a hundred will seem cursed.” The Book of Revelation has the decency to tell us that there will be no more death. But here in this passage, Isaiah puts a number on it. No more will a child live only a few days. What does that do except remind of the children who have died within only a few days. The one who dies at less than a hundred years will be considered cursed. Why put that number on it for us? What does that do except remind us of all of those who have died at less than 100?

Just in this last week we have had two of siblings in Christ die. Barbara Beardsley died on Monday morning at the hospital in Portland from septic shock, complications after a surgery. She was 81 years old, but it was still a shock. In fact, her mother, Helen, is over a hundred years old and still living in The Dalles. And Mickey Stubbs, who moved to Nampa, Idaho a few years ago, died yesterday. We’ll be holding services for both in the coming weeks, Barbara’s on November 29th and Mickie’s on December 8th. And we continue to pray for Frank Moore, as he is in and out of the hospital as he waits to die from terminal cancer.

In the face of all of that, what are we supposed to do with these words from Isaiah? The one who dies at a hundred will be considered a youth, and the one who falls short of a hundred will seem cursed. What are we supposed to think? How are we supposed to deal with the distance between what has been promised and what we continue to experience each and every day? How can we maintain hope in a world to come when our world right now is so full of pain? How long are we supposed to keep on waiting?

And that is precisely the struggle for people of faith. We live in anticipation. We live in the realm of right now, but not yet. We look forward to a greater future, but we live now in the world as it is, with all of its suffering and pain and death. And what are we supposed to do about it? Should we just give up on our world and look forward to a better time, a better place in the sky by and by? Is that what we are supposed to learn from this vision of a perfect world?

Or does it stand as a call to us? Does it stand as goal and target toward which we can work, in our own small ways? Aren’t we called to cooperate with God in making our world more and more like the anticipated Kingdom of God? Aren’t we called, as disciples of Jesus Christ, to transform this world that Christ has come to save? To make a world where everyone has food. To make a world where everyone has health. To make a world where everyone has freedom. To make a world where everyone has love. To make a world where everyone has peace. To make a world where everyone has life. That is our calling. That is our mission. That is our task. As we look forward to the more perfect that God has in store for us, we are called to transform this world.

There are some parts of this passage that frustrate me. We don’t yet live beneath a new heaven on a new earth. We don’t live in a world where wolf and lamb lie down together, and the lion eats straw like the ox, and no one hurts or destroys on God’s holy mountain. And that is frustrating.

But there is a part of this passage that sings out to me as eternally true every time I come across it. God says, “Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.” Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.

Because we do have a God who listens. We do have a God who hears. God knows our needs before we even know them ourselves. No matter what we face, no matter where we go, no matter what we have to endure, God is there with us. Whether we are celebrating or grieving, whether we are happy or depressed, whether we are calm or anxious, whether we are confident or afraid, whether we are hopeful or hopeless, God is there with us. God walks right alongside. God answers us before we call. God hears us while we are still speaking.

And we know we have a God who understands our struggles and our triumphs, because God has shared our experience in Jesus Christ. Jesus has known our joy, and he has known our pain. God meets us in every part of our human experience. As Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, “Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.”

Yes, this world is sometimes full of pain for us. There is disappointment and illness and heartache and anxiety and grief and disorientation and uncertainty. But we don’t face any of it alone. We always have God with us, just as close to us as our own breath. “Before they call, I will answer,”God says. “While they are still speaking, I will hear.” Thank be to our Emanuel, the God who is with us.