Meeting Expectations – 2017/12/03

Psalm  80:7-15
Isaiah 64:1-5
Mark 13:24-37

Sermon:

Have you ever had someone tell about a good movie?  “It’s, like, the best movie ever,” they might say.  It’s high praise.  So, you sit down to watch the movie… and it just disappoints.  I remember when the Star Wars prequels came out, I believe in 2001.  I had a few friends who were massive fans of Star Wars.  I mean, I enjoyed the movies, don’t get me wrong, but I was never really “into” them as much as some people get.  Anyway, I just remember these friends being devastated by Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.  Now, it’s not a great movie; nowhere near as good as the first one.  But it also didn’t destroy the universe or anything.  But from my friends’ reactions, you’d have thought it did.

The problem, of course, was that I had a bunch of friends whose expectations were impossible to live up to.  They were asking a movie to be something it was never going to be.  We do this often; we build something up, only to get disappointed when it fails to live up to our expectations.  Parents feel this way about their kids, kids feel this way about their parents; spouses, friends – really every relationship has a moment in which one person lets the other down.  We’re just people, so that’s kind of our “normal” – failing one another.

But, of course, it shouldn’t surprise us.  Our expectations are just out of whack with reality.  So that’s what we’re here to talk about today.  Because if ever there was an unfulfilled expectation, it was when Jesus came.  Now, I know that probably sounds scandalous to everyone, but I want you to bear with me while we think it through, because it’s really important that we understand this the way Jesus’ followers and other contemporaries would have.  I think it gives us another way to look at our own lives.

First of all, we read a passage from Isaiah this morning.  It began with a cry to God to come to earth, saying, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”  Here, Isaiah expresses that understandable feeling that the world is unjust, and the even more understandable desire for God to come fix it all.

In so doing, he asks God to come with a flash and a bang – tearing open the heavens, shaking the mountains, and setting the world aflame, so that all the enemies of God tremble.  And, frankly, this is how most people expected God to come into the world that first time; with fires and floods and burning, wearing a crown and bending every knee.

Only, that’s not what happened at all, is it?  Instead, God came as a baby – not a royal baby, just a baby born in a barn to a poor family.  And who shows up for the birth?  Some angels, yeah; but they share the experience with the nearby shepherds.  These are just regular people, on a regular day, doing regular things.  There were no fires or floods, no earthquakes or bloody battles.  All that happened was the most commonplace of God’s miracles, the miracle of birth.

The thing is, if you’re expecting the sky to tear open and the world itself to start shaking, it’s going to be awfully hard to understand what was so special about this baby, isn’t it?  I mean, I’ve had people ask me many times, “How come people didn’t believe in Jesus?  They saw him do so many miracles!”  That’s true; but again, they were brought up with these words from Isaiah about God making a big show of things.  So on the one hand, you can’t blame the people who saw Jesus.  Many of them thought he was just a prophet or a special messenger… and that seems kind of reasonable, given this perspective on what they thought God would do.

But, as I’ve been saying, that’s just expectations getting in the way.  That’s us, as human beings, foisting our expectations of what God should do onto events.  It’s asking God to act they way we would act, rather than allowing us to be us, and God to be God.

And that brings us to our other reading, the passage from Mark’s Gospel.  This passage takes for granted one of the key aspects of Advent.  As you all know from our children’s sermon, we are now in the Christian season of Advent, which is the lead-up to Christmas.  We are getting ready for the coming of Christ.  But for most of us, I think, that’s actually just an act of “memory.”  Advent is definitely a season in which we remember waiting in the past.  That is, it’s partially about remembering how people waited for so longthousands of years – for a Messiah.  They waited and waited for God to come, so we wait, too.

But the thing is, we’re not just supposed to be doing an act of memory.  Today we’re celebrating the sacrament of Communion, which is also an act of memory.  But more than just memory, it reminds us that we will, one day, feast with Jesus at his heavenly table.  So it’s also anticipation.  That same idea holds true for Advent.  And that’s what this passage is getting at.

For as long as Christianity has existed, we have been waiting for Jesus to return.  It’s part of the Christian deal.  We hope for Christ to come and set everything right, once and for all.  That’s what he’s told us is going to happen, and that’s what the Mark passage refers to.  The passage from today talks about suffering and miracles of darkness and the heavens themselves shaking, and the Son of Man – that is, Jesus – coming from the clouds in glory.  Jesus tells us all this in today’s reading.

But Jesus also says that it will happen within the generation to which he was talking.  Well, that didn’t happen.  So what did Jesus mean?  What are we supposed to take from this?  How on earth is this supposed to be relevant to us, and particularly what has it got to do with Christmas?

Well, if I were a betting man, I would say that Jesus is speaking in riddles here, as he’s wont to do sometimes.  Perhaps he had planned to come back within one generation, but he changed his mind.  Perhaps he did come back, but invisibly.  Perhaps because God’s time is not like our time, it’s still to come, and Jesus was using the word “generation” in a way that’s really different from how we use it.  No matter what, though, this is a passage about how Jesus will come again.

And if I were a betting man, I’d also bet that it’s safe to say that, while Jesus uses this particular type of language to refer to his second coming, his first coming was surprising and challenged everyone’s expectations; I’d expect his second coming to do the same.  Maybe it will look exactly like that, and maybe it won’t.  Maybe everyone will be able to see, or maybe only certain people will.  No matter what happens, though, the best advice to follow is that at the end of the passage:  keep awake!

That’s not just good advice during sermons; it’s also important for us as believers.  We’re supposed to make our faith a part of our lives every day, not just on the rare occasion that we deign to think of it.  When Jesus says, “Keep awake,” he doesn’t mean “don’t go to sleep.”  Rather, he means, “Pay attention.”  It’s hard to think of better advice.

So while we’re in Advent, while we’re in this season of waiting, let’s spend our waiting wisely.  Let’s look for what God is doing.  Keep awake, and open your eyes to finding God in unexpected places.  Don’t be blinded by the world around you and its expectations for you; rather, pay attention to the things God is already doing.  That way, whenever God shows up, however God shows up, you’ll notice.  Whether it’s in the sky tearing open and the earth trembling, or if it’s merely in the crying of a child, by keeping awake, we can find where God is showing up right now; and when we do that, we know we’ll be able to find Jesus when he comes again.  Amen.

November 19 & 26 Sermons

Sorry it’s been a while since the last post.  Here’s your chance to catch up!  The 26th is here at the top, and Gayle Janzen’s sermon from 11/19 is below!

Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

I’ve never been a King.  I mean, any kind of king.  I was never prom king or homecoming king or anything.  I was never voted king at a county fair or anything like that.  I was never even one of those honorary “king” titles that they give out at some jobs: “sales king for the month of August.”  Nothing.

So, at first blush, the whole idea of kings is a silly one, and (for me, at least) not a very relatable one.  But, of course, one of the things about kings is that our idea of them is super weird compared to most of the history of the world.  We think of “king” as an honor, rather than a right.  We even elect the king of most things that have a “king.”

But, of course, for most of the history of the world, kings weren’t chosen, they were born.  And most kings weren’t “right” or “wrong” based on the quality of their ideas; they were automatically right, by virtue of being king.  That is, to us, a completely backwards way of thinking about understanding a person, a role, or an idea – it is because it is.  There’s nothing more frustrating for a kid than when your parents say, “Because I said so;” yet, that’s how everything works for a king.  That doesn’t sound too good to Americans raised in this day and age.  We know about tyranny, and we believe that all of us should have a voice – even if that voice is wrong.

So that brings us to today in church.  Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It’s kind of a goofy little day in the life of the church:  the final Sunday before Advent begins and we ramp up to Christmas.  It’s important for a couple of reasons, though.  This is the first one:  during Advent, which is the lead-up to Christmas, we tend to focus on the “baby” part of Jesus.  That’s great, because it helps us to remember that he came as a lowly person, just like us.

What can be lost when we do that, though, is remembering the power of Jesus.  He wasn’t just a baby.  He was the baby who would grow up to be king.  Not just king of a small province, either, or even a country; especially not prom king or used car king or something like that.  Jesus is king of the whole world.

Now, I spoke a little bit ago about how the idea of kings can sometimes rub us the wrong way a little bit as Americans.  The difference about this king is that earthly kings don’t always measure up to our standards, right?  Earthly kings can be unjust; they can be just as sinful as the rest of us, because, end of the day, they’re still just human, whatever they might want you to believe.

Jesus, though, is a righteous king; in fact, the only righteous king.  He’s the only one who can guarantee that his rule is just.  And that’s very important, because if we have a king, the only kind we would want is a just king.  Jesus is that; he is someone we can rely on, because he is the only person to have ever walked the face of this earth to have also been divine; he’s the only one who has goodness at the core of his being.  The rest of us would do well to remember that we should be happy about the fact that our heavenly king rules over his earthly realm fairly.

And in fact, in today’s reading, we get a little glimpse of how Jesus rules over his earthly kingdom.  Now, briefly, I would like to talk about the general Christian conceptions of heaven and hell.  Chiefly, I don’t think that’s what this passage is about; yet, they’re mentioned here, so I think it needs to be addressed.

Now, I’m not one of those preachers who wants to go on about heaven and hell all the time.  Partly, this is because I’ve done a lot of study of the Bible in my life, and I think some of the ideas are a lot more ambiguous than most of us likely suspect.  I also think that our job in church here is to talk about Jesus, and, frankly, he doesn’t spend that much time talking about it.

In fact, as I was researching this sermon, I looked.  Outside of Matthew’s Gospel (from which we read today), Jesus only makes three mentions of hell at all (and they’re probably not what we’d expect), and mentions heaven only very rarely.  Yet, today’s passage is from the book of Matthew, so it would do us well to mention this briefly.  Obviously, there’s a concept here that people are separated and set apart from one another, some to one destination and some to the other.

What I think is most important here is how our King makes this judgment.  See, what’s important in this passage isn’t wealth or fame or money or influence.  It isn’t political beliefs or intelligence or looks or popularity.  It isn’t church attendance or Bible verses memorized or number of friends.  The things that are emphasized are acts of love.  Not romantic love or friendship love, but love for all of humanity.

Jesus here tells people that what they’re rewarded for feeding him when he was hungry, giving drink to him when he was thirsty, welcoming him when he was the stranger, clothing him when he was naked, caring for him when he was sick, and visiting him when he was imprisoned.  The people he tells don’t remember doing these things for Jesus, but he tells them that, when they did it for others, they did it for him.

I love this passage because it’s a way of reminding us of a different bit of Scripture, the part called “the greatest commandment.”  That’s when Jesus summarizes our whole faith by telling us that we are supposed to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and that there’s a second command just like it:  to love our neighbors as ourselves.  In other words, we show love of God by loving others; we grow in love of others by following God.  These two things are linked; it’s impossible to be living a Christian life in which we don’t help others, because we can’t love God if we’re not loving other people.  Similarly, our love of other people brings us closer to God, improves our relationship, and drives our faith.  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

In short, what matters most is living like our King.  Our King was unique in his life, because he showed us what a true ruler should be like.  Our good King gave up his own life for the lives of his subjects.  He was willing to die to show us that we are loved.  He was willing to take on pain and sin that he didn’t deserve so that we could be made free through him.  Our good King made himself a servant to all of us, so that we would see how to live.  The goal wasn’t to show us how to be doormats, but to show us how we can become examples of service to others, and thereby live more like him.  We become our own, smaller version of Jesus whenever we’re able to make ourselves the servants of others.

Therefore, we’re supposed to engage in the same cycles of Jesus’ life.  I don’t know how much you’ve ever thought about the patterns of Jesus’ life, but he has a pretty specific pattern of what he does in his life.  He withdraws to pray, often.  Even though he himself was God, that didn’t mean he was supposed to stop engaging.  He also regularly attended services of worship.  Most of the time, he was the one doing the teaching; but not all of the time.  Once he was spiritually fed, he went out and served.  He fed the hungry and healed the sick.  He told people about his faith.  He was welcoming to children, women, ethnic minorities, immigrants – all the people that would be easy to look down on in his culture (and most cultures in history, in fact); yet, he treated them with the same dignity and respect that anyone else deserved.

So when we try to figure out how to be good subjects of our King, we do so by emulating him.  We take his actions and wear them in our own lives.  We need to serve when we are called.  That means helping others, particularly those in need.  When we care for someone needy, particularly someone whom society considers to be “less than” we are, we are acting out the life of Jesus.  We are supposed to use the church – this place, these people – as our grounds where we are fed.  We are supposed to collect ourselves here, just as Jesus did, to get energy to serve.

Therefore, I encourage you to engage, just as Jesus did; to build up your own faith so you can serve; serve so you can deepen your faith.  Become part of the great cycle of faith, wherein our relationship with God gets deeper, and our lives become more about living like Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, we will never live exactly like Jesus.  We are not divine; we will make mistakes and mess up.  We will let other people down.  But we know that our righteous King also taught us about second chances and about grace.  We have a King whose Law is absolute; yet his law is love, forgiveness, and peace.  So, brothers and sisters, let us go out and live the Law of our King, acting just as he would, and living out his call on our lives.  Amen.

 

For a Time Such as This – 2017/11/12

Selections from the book of Esther

Sermon:

We have reached the end.  I started this sermon series on the Old Testament waaaaay back on June 11.  That means we’ve been five MONTHS in this series.  We’ve seen creation, the flood, the Exodus from Egypt, the time of the Judges, the rise of the Kings, the dividing of the Kingdom and the Exile in Babylon.  We’ve heard about Abraham and Moses and David; Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a whole bunch of other Old Testament figures.  The last two weeks, we heard reading about hope for return to Jerusalem from Exile in Babylon.  Indeed, brothers and sisters, that time comes, and the Jewish people are returned to Jerusalem.

But today’s final reading from this very long series of Old Testament sermons is about something else; this reading is about the time in which the Kingdom has been restored and the Temple rebuilt.  But instead of taking place in Jerusalem, this story, as you heard, takes place in Persia.

The book of Esther is really interesting.  Chronologically, it is the last book to take place in the Old Testament.  It is therefore a fitting end to this series.  In college, I actually took an entire semester class on Esther, so I can talk about this book waaaay longer than anyone would want to hear about it.  So why not end with a book that actually takes place in Israel?  Well, Esther’s family was one of those families that, during the Exile, moved away from Babylon.  They established themselves in Susa, the capital of Persia, and that’s where they made their lives.  Even when they were allowed to return, they didn’t.  So, this story is partly about being Jewish in a foreign land.  And there’s some relevance to Christians in that; we don’t really have a “promised land” to go to; we are without a homeland, so ending on a story about people far from home makes sense to me.

But, as you may have seen in the pre-worship slideshow this morning, Esther is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God.  At all.  So… what are we supposed to make of that?  I mean, if we’re going to end this series by talking about a book that teaches us to be faithful no matter where we may be, it would probably make more sense if the book in question actually talked about being faithful, wouldn’t it?  If we are meant to use this bit of Scripture in our faith lives, it deserves some attention as we try to figure out what it has to say to us.

In case it went by too fast for you, the brief outline of the book of Esther is that there are four characters, living two stories which come together in fascinating fashion.  King Ahasuerus, who is looking for a queen.  Then there’s Esther, the most beautiful woman in the whole kingdom, who becomes his bride.  Their story, the first of the two in this book, is pretty straightforward.  Esther is Jewish, raised by her uncle Mordecai after her parents died.  Mordecai is a scribe.  And he runs afoul of another servant of the king named Haman.

It begins when Haman gets a promotion.  He parades around town, looking for people to bow to him.  Mordecai won’t do it.  Mordecai doesn’t because he’s a Jew, and he won’t worship some human ruler – that’s never mentioned explicitly in the text, but is obvious if you’re familiar with other parts of the Old Testament.  This behavior infuriates Haman, who believes Mordecai is not showing proper respect – but Haman also thinks murder is beneath him, so he goes the sneaky route to punish Mordecai.  Haman tells the king that there’s this group of people who don’t follow the same laws as everyone else – the Jews.  They should all be put to death; I mean, what other solution is there to this problem?  The king, who, as you’ll see, is played like a fiddle by everyone in this story, agrees, and signs an order that the Jews can be killed on this one particular day in a couple months.

Hearing this devastating news, Mordecai and Esther conspire about all these events.  Mordecai tells Esther, “You have to DO something!”  Esther says, “But if I approach the king without permission, he can have me killed.”  Mordecai says, “Yeah, but you’ll probably die, anyway.  Don’t think that being the queen will save you from this planned genocide!”

So Esther decides to go into the king’s palace without his permission.  As she is his favorite, the king grants her permission to speak.  She, being clever, invites him (and Haman) to a special dinner she throws for them.  At that dinner, the king is so taken with Esther that he says, “I’ll give you whatever you want!”  She says, “There’s this plot to kill me and all my people, and Haman made it!”

The king, furious, fires Haman, and then gives Mordecai Haman’s old job.  He has Mordecai draft a letter saying the Jews are allowed to fight back on that planned day when they were to be murdered, and everyone lives happily ever after – well, everyone except Haman, but that’s a pretty gruesome part of the story, and I skipped it.  So that’s basically the whole story.

As we try to see what this book has to offer us, let’s first remember that Jews are a people united, not just by religion, but by shared ancestry.  That explains why Jews wanted to re-tell this story, and even why there’s a holiday (called Purim) in honor of it.  However, even if it’s important, why is it in the Bible if it’s not about God?

I have a couple of answers for that.  First of all, this book helps us understand how God is present, whether we name God or not.  Just because the people of this book didn’t name God, that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there.  As Mordecai says to Esther, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  In other words, “Maybe God put you in this position so you can save us.”  Even without naming God, Mordecai has shown us something important:  God puts us in certain places at certain times to do the right thing.

A second answer as to what a book that doesn’t mention God can tell us about God is this:  we live in an increasingly secular age in the United States.  This has been true for a couple of generations, though most people only realize it now.  There are some positives from it, though most often we’re likely to dwell on the negatives.  But how do we see God’s hand in the world, even when no one around us is saying it?

Traditionally in our country, Christianity was taken for granted, so we could say Christian things and flaunt Christian symbols in public.  But to some extent, I think, that made us lazy believers.  We came to believe that saying Christian things was the same as doing Christian things. Faith in God has to be about more than just public prayer, more than using Christian language.  It seems to me that people are more likely to complain about a lack of stores having “Merry Christmas” signs than they are about whether or not their own Christmas celebrations actually reflect anything about the Christian life.  It becomes about seeming Christian rather than being Christ-like; saying the right things rather than doing them.

Perhaps the most explicit way I’ve seen this play out in my own life was in the form of the WWJD bracelet.  You remember those, right?  For those of you too young to remember these (and I feel really old saying that), these were little rubber or woven bracelets that had the letters “WWJD” on them.  It stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and it was supposed to be a reminder to behave in a Christian way all the time.  In my opinion, this was a great idea – until they got really popular.  See, when they started, they were a subtle reminder to people to act like Jesus.  You were actually supposed to look down at them and think twice before you spoke or acted.  What they became, though, was a status symbol to show off your Christianity to others.  You started seeing them on people who wanted to look Christian, rather than people who cared about the message at all.

In this regard, the book of Esther can be a really good thing to keep in mind.  What Esther does in this book is not have a showy prayer.  She doesn’t win favor by converting the emperor to her beliefs.  She isn’t a big political hero who turns everyone into a follower of God.  Instead, she changes the world by acting in a way that a follower of God would is supposed to act.  She stands up for the innocent.  She speaks truth to power.  She risks her own life and well-being in pursuit of the greater good.

But it’s not just Esther who is to be our example.  After all, this whole story hinges on Mordecai and his unwillingness to bow down to someone who isn’t God.  Haman is parading through the streets and expecting complete and total obedience.  Mordecai, a good Jew, doesn’t want to bow down to him, because Mordecai knows that he’s just a man.  Mordecai knows that it’s not about the posture of your body; it’s about the posture of your heart.  Mordecai’s heart is right, because he puts God first; Haman’s heart is wrong, because he puts himself first.

Mordecai’s action enrages Haman, who orders not just Mordecai’s death, but death to all Jews throughout Persia.  But, even though the book of Esther doesn’t have a single mention of God, we can see that Mordecai is unwilling to bow down to idols.

To me, that’s the third and biggest takeaway from this book.  Sure, one of the lessons this book teaches is about knowing God is there, even when no one even says the word, “God.”  And a second one is that it shows us how to be faithful in a culture that isn’t explicitly our faith.  But probably the most important thing I see in this book is that we’re meant to stand up to idols, and to be obedient only to God.  If we’re familiar with the language of the word, “idol,” we’re probably used to hearing about idols in the Old Testament as statues made of wood or stone or precious metals that people worship instead of worshiping God.  In our day and age, we tend not to worship statues, and we think that makes us more “advanced” than the people who came before us.

Yet, at the end of the day, we bow down to idols often.  You see, idols don’t have to be statues.  Anything we put ahead of God can be an idol.  Concepts like pride and status are common idols.  Feelings like lust and greed can be idols.  Probably the most common idol in our culture is money.  If it’s not that, it’s our own comfort, or perhaps our own happiness.  Beyond concepts, individual people, perhaps family members or even celebrities, can become idols when we start to put them first in our lives.  Political affiliations, countries, and the flag can become idols.  The ideas of “safety” and “security” are immensely powerful idols in our culture, convincing us to push aside the radical call of inclusivity and justice in favor of staying “safe.”

The book of Esther teaches us about the courage it takes to stand up to idols.  Sometimes, the world around us is telling us that something other than God is what’s most important.  Mordecai stands up when he feels the pressure to fall in line like everyone else.  Esther stands up to the King and transgresses her station.  She has to violate the law to do what’s right, but she saves her entire people.  These are models for us, because they show one of the ideas we talked about last week in the Book of Ezekiel:  their whole lives become part of their faith witness.  It’s not just about words; it’s about living a life that makes God’s presence apparent in you.  Esther and Mordecai do that.

So let us take the example of Esther and Mordecai and live it out in our own lives.  Let us not treat God’s name like a status symbol, or a piece of jewelry we can put on or take off as we please; let’s make it a tattoo that marks us as God’s forever, and that’s visible for all the world.  Let us not believe that saying “Merry Christmas” in public, or support of school prayer, is the test of someone’s faith; instead, let our actions show that we believe God is in charge, and let our lives reflect what God wants us to do.  Let us embrace living a Jesus-life.  Let us live as God intended us to live, loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Amen.

The Valley of Dry Bones – 2017/11/05

Psalm 19:1-6
John 11:25-26
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Sermon:

I know some people from church have asked why we gave our son such a weird Bible name.  There are a few reasons.  First of all, (CLICK) we wanted a biblical name for our son.  As I’ve talked about many times, I always loved hearing the stories of King David when I was a kid, because I found kinship with this Bible character, just by having the same name.  Before Carissa and I knew anything else about our child, we knew we wanted a biblical name. (CLICK)

Second, we’re big dorks.  This is probably not a surprise to anyone, but while we didn’t know what our child’s name was going to be, we had the first initial picked out.  Carissa’s parents are Art and Barb.  So, when Carissa was born, her family’s initials were “ABC.”  (CLICK) My parents are Bob and Cathy, so when I was born, our family initials were “BCD.”  (CLICK) To continue the tradition of consecutive letters, since “Carissa” and “David” have the C and D, we knew we wanted an “E.” (CLICK)

Now, that actually leaves a couple of good boy names (and a bunch of weird ones).  For example, Elijah would be a good one.  He was an Old Testament prophet who famously never died.  He simply ascended into heaven at the end of his ministry.  He performed many miracles and was very wise.

Personally, I always like the name Ezekiel, though.  It’s a good name – your lawyer, your banker, your doctor, some famous author – he could have a name like Ezekiel – a name with some gravitas, some heft, some authority.  On the other hand, I always thought “Zeke” sounded like a fun guy you would want to hang out with.  You get a serious name, and a fun goofy name.

But more important than how the name sounds is the character himself in the Bible.  (CLICK) Ezekiel was a prophet in the Old Testament, right around the time of Jeremiah.  Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel were around during the Divided Kingdom – that is, the time when Israel in the North and Judah in the South were separate.  They both lived to see the Exile to Babylon (CLICK) – when the Babylonian Empire finally took Judah and its capital Jerusalem, kidnapping all the wealthy and influential people and removing them to Babylon.

This meant that both of them had remarkably difficult jobs to do.  Jeremiah spent his time trying to influence powerful people, using the power of speech and persuasion to get people.  Ezekiel had a much more… shall we say, “colorful” approach to prophecy.

Ezekiel was renowned for his “sign-acts.”  (CLICK) A sign-act is when a prophet does something physical to signify the meaning of his prophecy.  For example, in chapter 4 of Ezekiel, he lay on his side for over a year.  First, on his left side for 390 days, then on his right for 40 days.  This was one day on each side for each year that first Israel, and then Judah, would be without a king; they years they would be in Exile.  Can you imagine, just lying on one side for so long?  The bed sores he must’ve had!  But that’s the whole point:  he was showing people physical signs of the emotional pain they were going through to help drive his message home.

Later, he cooks food over cow dung.  This was prohibited by Jewish law, but he does it to show that, while the people of Judah are in Exile, they’re not going to be in the comfortable bubble of Jerusalem.  They’re going to be around people with different ideas of what is acceptable, including what to eat and how to prepare it.  Jeremiah might’ve been more inclined to tell people that; Ezekiel was inclined to show people.  He wanted them, not just to have an intellectual understanding of what was coming, but for them to have a real, physical, visceral understanding of what lay ahead.

There are other things:  in chapter 12, Ezekiel physically packs up his stuff to demonstrate that the Exile is coming; when his wife dies in chapter 24, he refuses to cry, to symbolize to people that God is not going to cry over the loss of the King and the Temple; after all, God has new things in store.  Ezekiel has a way of making his whole life about what God is doing.  Yes, it’s eccentric; it’s a little batty.  Sometimes, it’s goofy or funny.  But more than anything else, it’s inspiring that someone would take God’s message so to heart that his whole life, the way he conducts himself, the habits and routines of his life, everything – would be about God.  That’s a big thing to live up to, but it’s exactly what any believer should aspire to.  Not cooking your food over cow dung; I mean that devotion to God in your life.

(CLICK) And Ezekiel’s very name means, “God strengthens.”  How else do you describe the physical skill toll this took on him, yet the perseverance he showed in his ministry?  God strengthened him where so many others failed.

But Ezekiel was more than just some weirdo who acted out to show people God’s message.  He was also a deeply spiritual man who received some of the great visions of Scripture.  And in today’s reading, we see perhaps the most famous vision in the whole Bible, as Ezekiel sees the dry bones come to life. (CLICK)

In this vision, Ezekiel is placed in the middle of a valley that’s filled with dry bones.  Incidentally, I love the detail that these are dry bones.  Somehow, it just sounds wrong to call this “the story of Ezekiel and the bones.”  It has to be the dry bones.  That little detail helps us know that the life went out of these bones long ago.  This passage is rich in sensory detail, and it’s important to pay attention to something like that.  God asks if the bones can live, and, skeptically, Ezekiel responds, “Only you know, God.”  God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones.

Ezekiel starts talking, and we hear our second great sensory detail:  the rattling of the bones.  Just imagine a valley full of bones; I have the picture up there to help you visualize it.  If they started to move, surely there would be a rattling.  And as Ezekiel speaks, that rattling continues.  The bones come together in skeletons, and on those skeletons, muscles and tendons and ligaments and skin start to form.  The dry bones have turned into living people!  Surely, this would be a sight unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

This is to be understood as a message of hope during the Exile.  Much like what we read from Jeremiah last week, this was a message that this Exile would not be permanent, but rather that God would bring back hope from the pit of despair.  The Exile was a critical moment in the history of the Jewish people, because it seemed that all of God’s promises had gone away.  The promised Davidic King?  Gone.  The promise of the Temple, where God would dwell and they would worship forever?  Destroyed.  The promised land they were supposed to enjoy forever?  Distant, thousands of miles away.

Yet, Ezekiel’s vision is about the impossible coming to pass.  It’s about something that not only seems dead coming back, but something that is dead teeming with life.  And while we heard such things in Jeremiah last week, this prophecy from Ezekiel means more to me, because unlike Jeremiah’s specific prophecy about hope for restoration in a particular time and place, Ezekiel’s prophecy is forever.

Today, as you may know, is All Saints’ Sunday.  That’s the first Sunday in November, during which we remember All Saints’ Day.  All Saints’ Day is when the church universal recognizes those who have died; those saints who now rest with their heavenly creator.  And on this day, we remember that Ezekiel’s prophecy is not just about the Israelites 2500 years ago, but it’s about us today, as well.

God is in the business of resurrection.  We see in this passage a vision of Ezekiel that’s more than a vision.  We see that our deaths will come, but that God still has plans for us.  We are never dead to God, though our bones may dry up; though our names may be forgotten by history, God still wishes for us to live.  And in God, we do live.  God raises us up.  And while this doesn’t happen in a way that others can see, it is nonetheless God’s sure promise.  We know it, just as God was able to restore the people of Judah to their rightful home when it seemed impossible, this, too, is something God can, will, and does accomplish for us.

Brothers and sisters, we know that our resurrection comes, because we’ve seen it already.  We have seen it foretold by Ezekiel.  But more importantly, we have seen that Jesus was raised from the dead, the firstfruits of God’s planned harvest.  One day, we may all feast at God’s heavenly banquet table with the redeemed from throughout history, because we have seen the risen Christ, who broke bread with his disciples.

Today, we remember and honor those saints who have gone before us.  And today in worship, we break bread.  As we break bread and share the cup, remember that these are not mere symbols of one meal a long time ago; they are a promise.  They are a promise that the resurrection that met Christ Jesus is our destiny, too.  This meal is not just remembrance, because it is also a foretaste of the feast that awaits us when we meet God again.

Brothers and sisters, we know that death awaits us all.  And therefore we are right to mourn those who have gone before us.  But we are also right to rejoice, knowing that those who have left us already sit at God’s banquet table, awaiting out presence in good time.

And know that today, in this life, whatever troubles you face, whatever exile you find yourself in, God is there to free you from it.  No obstacle is too great for God to overcome, for even death is subject to God.  Amen.

Reformation Sunday – 2017/10/29

Psalm 25:1-7
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

Sermon:

I remember starting in a new school district in 6th grade.  I was the new kid, didn’t really have any friends in my class.  I only vaguely knew a couple of kids from playing youth sports in the area, but I had been open-enrolled in another district for elementary school (basically, my parents and I moved, but I kept going to the same school; now, I was finally starting in the district I actually lived in).

Middle school can be an awkward time for any kid, but if you really don’t know where you fit in, and middle school is a time to reinvent yourself, anyway.  In that sixth-grade year, I went from being probably the quietest kid in class at my old school, to someone who was constantly sent to the corner of the classroom for talking too much in class.  But that was the year I remember really starting on group work for the first time in a classroom; it was the first time I remember being encouraged to talk in class.  I learned to rein it in eventually, but that year I was talking all the time.  I had a change in circumstance, and it really made a lot of things different.

Similarly, last week, we talked about Jeremiah.  Today, we return to him.  Last week, we talked about Jeremiah’s early life as a prophet.  He lived during the time when Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) were split, so the whole people of Israel was not united.  Jeremiah lived and prophesied in Jerusalem.  Specifically, the main part of his job was to give people this warning:  “Just because you live in Jerusalem, where God’s Temple is, that doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen here; I know God chose this city to be special, but we have to keep following God!”  Of course, no one listened and the Babylonian army came roaring through town, destroying the Temple and getting rid of the king.

Now, that level of destruction would’ve been enough to prove the Babylonians’ power, I think, except they had other ideas.  They believed the best way to make some changes was to beat the culture out of people.  And the best way to do that was to remove the most cultured people from a place.  So the Babylonians took the educated elite – the upper class, even most of the middle class – and all the “influential” people, and removed them.  They just took them from their homes, and marched them across the desert to Babylon.  They had to leave all their belongings, they had to leave their homes, their land, and they had to make a new start somewhere else.

Now, I’m going to jump ahead a little more than 2000 years.  Today is Reformation Sunday.  That’s the Sunday on which we remember the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door, protesting injustices in the church.  Luther (and our Presbyterian forefather, John Calvin) saw that things in the church needed to be changed.  The church, as an institution, held too much power, and it was being taken from the people who were trying to lead faithful lives.

For example, the church had largely decided to stop serving Communion to the people in the pews.  There was a fear that people might spill the body and blood of Christ.  And since there was a fear that the body and blood of Christ were too sacred for being spilled, they decided the only way to be safe about it was to take them away.  Not only that but the preachers had mostly stopped preaching.  Not only that, but the messages they did give were in Latin, which meant that the majority of people in churches couldn’t understand what was going on, then they watched someone else take Communion, and then they went home.  That was church.

Some brave men saw that this was a time for change.  They started preaching that people needed to have Communion.  They talked about how people needed to see, read, and hear the Bible in their own language.  They talked about how important it was to have preaching in the service, not just Communion, so that people could hear a message that would bring them closer to God.

They had to have a message that was appropriate to their times.  In the time of the Reformation, the message that was needed was about greater access for people.  The feeling of the Reformers was that God was being kept away from the people, to the benefit of the hierarchy of the church.  So they preached a message of openness; a message of a theology that better explained how God was present in the lives of everyone – not just in the pews at church, but out in the world.  It was a message of God’s love, and God’s will that we live godly lives everywhere.  Just like Jeremiah, their message had to be tailored to the time in which they lived.

Jeremiah’s first message to the Judeans had been a message of warning.  He was the doom-and-gloom prophet for a time of abundance.  Last week, I mentioned a particular quote about the Gospel, that says that a true Gospel message should “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.”  Well, in Jeremiah’s early ministry, the people of Jerusalem were definitely the comfortable, so he afflicted them, warning of the danger on the horizon.  Now that they’ve been met with that, it was time for the “I told you so” to come from Jeremiah, right?

Wrong!  That’s not what prophets do; they don’t rub it in, they speak the word of God.  And, in this moment, Jeremiah was no longer to be in the business of afflicting the comfortable.  Now, the Babylonians were the comfortable, and the Judeans dragged across the desert were the afflicted, living in a foreign land, away from Jerusalem.  What the afflicted need, is comfort.

So what does Jeremiah preach?  Well, he does two things.  One of those is to say, “You guys should get married, have kids, build a life.  You’re in it for the long haul, so live.”  That’s pretty good advice for anyone in distress, isn’t it?  Live with hope for tomorrow.  Jeremiah knew that God always has hope for tomorrow.  In the darkest, most tortured point in Israel’s history, Jeremiah’s message was a one of restoration.  That must surely have been a hard message to hear; yet, it was the message that was needed.

Jeremiah himself actually buys a field back in Judah, even while away in exile in Babylon.  He had been carted away with everyone else, and yet he buys a field.  He says, metaphorically with his purchase, that they will return.  It’s a powerful message.  The message of hope is one that we literally always need, because there’s always a reason to be afraid.  Yet, Jeremiah tells the people that God will get them through it.  Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what happens.

Of course, there’s a lot of trouble first.  Some people live and die in Babylon, only knowing that world.  It’s not like everything’s perfect.  And I say that so that the harsh truth of reality is not blunted.  It is often true that the greatest moments of joy and triumph we receive in this life follow periods of prolonged difficulty and sadness.  That’s not to say that we should seek out difficulty and sadness, and it’s not to say that the joy we feel removes all the bad feeling.  Those feelings are very real, and they hurt.  It’s just to say that, even for the Judeans, even in a hopeful story, there was still pain and loss.  Even the Resurrection of Jesus, the most hope-filled moment in the history of the world, only came about after the suffering of the cross, and the pain and separation of death.

Yet it is that moment, that moment of the empty tomb is the one we need to look to when we’re feeling like the Judeans who were carried away to Babylon.  Personally, I think that it’s of the utmost importance that we always keep both messages of Jeremiah in our minds.  We live lives of great comfort, relatively speaking.  Even the least comfortable American lives better than more than half the world’s population.  I just read this morning that if you make $34,000 per year, you are in the top 10% of earners globally.  The average American in 2015 (last available year of data) made $55,775 – basically, the majority of our country is in that top tier.  So we have to live with the knowledge that we deserve a little affliction.  We are the comfortable.  Therefore, we must remember that our wealth, our prosperity, our possessions can’t save us from some of the things that will come.

On the other hand, no matter what happens, God is by our side.  God is there to keep, guide, and watch over us.  And in our moments of deepest pain – those moments of illness, loss, addiction, grief, suffering, family conflict, spiritual struggle – we must remember that the God of exile in Babylon was also the God of return from exile.  The purpose of Jeremiah’s prophecies was never just to depress people; it was to open their eyes to the world.  Similarly, Jeremiah wasn’t offering a false hope; he was offering eternal hope that lies only in the God who created the universe, who brought a people out of Egyptian slavery, returned them from exile, and brought forth from them the Savior of the world, God in human flesh, Jesus Christ, whom even death could not hold.

And that leads us to the final thought.  If Jeremiah preached disaster when things were going well, if he preached hope when things were bad; if the Protestant Reformers offered words when people had none, access when God seemed inaccessible; if the best preaching is about offering what people need to hear in their own time, what do we need to hear today?

That’s the tricky part.  We need a lot of messages.  We need to hear more about faith and devotion.  We need to hear about bringing our lives closer to God.  We need to be scolded for keeping our faith at arm’s length and treating it like something we trot out only on Sunday mornings.  We need to be convicted of that, and we need to learn to wear our faith proudly.  We need to grow closer to God, and let our lives be affected.

We also need to be convicted of what comes from faith.  Jesus tells us about how we are supposed to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  But there is a second commandment like it:  to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the other.  We must put compassion and empathy first, and leave judgment to the side.  We have to wear our faith proudly in our lives, but we must also let it affect how we think about the things going on around us, and let our lives be better reflections of the way Jesus lived.

But if I had to narrow it down to one thing, I think what’s most important for us today is to hear and remember the story of Jesus.  While I’ve been preaching from the Old Testament, as a Christian, everything will always come back to Christ and what he means for the world, and for my life.  We too easily forget that he was a servant, who lived to serve others and to serve God.  We too easily forget that he was the one at the bottom of the social ladder, not the top.  We too easily forget that he was born out of wedlock, fled to a foreign country as a refugee, that he worked with his hands, that he was homeless, that he was dirty all the time, that he was smart, that he was not at all “respectable.”  And yet, he drew followers to him, and that was the form God chose to take on earth.  We would do well to remember that when dealing with many of the people we can so easily look down upon.

Brothers and sisters, hearing a message for our own day is to hear a message that confronts us with the reality that we may be wrong; our culture, our society, may be wrong.  It’s the reality that God, more often than not, has something in store for us that we can’t remotely see.  And that message means that, in plenty or in want, we have only one course of action:  that’s to stand by God’s side.  We must follow, because that is the only path through good times and bad.  And in the end, we must live the lives God is calling us to lead by seeking God, following God, and putting God first.  Amen.

Jerry & Rex – 2017/10/15

Psalm 103:8-14
Mark 10:42-45
1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29

Sermon:

Alexander the Great; Genghis Khan; Emperor Constantine.  These three famous world leaders share something.  Well, actually, they share a lot of things.  They were all great military leaders, they were all emperors of the three largest kingdoms in history, and they were all very powerful politically and militarily.  But beyond that, even though they lived in different times and places, they share something odd.  That is this:  they all died.  Well, their dying isn’t the odd part.  What’s odd is that, when they died, each of these men chose to split his kingdom among his sons.

This made sense to them, and maybe to us, too.  See, it tends to be the case that, when only one son inherits a kingdom, the other sons fight amongst themselves.  That’s not always true, but it does happen.  So some fathers (and I use male language here because, let’s face it:  it’s always been fathers and sons; maybe if it were mothers and daughters, things would be different) think they’re keeping the peace by splitting things up.  But you know what happens to these empires, 100% of the time?  They crumble without the strong, central leader they had.

David was a strong, central king for Israel.  Even while he was alive, his sons fought for the right to inherit his throne.  Solomon, the son of David’s third wife, Bathsheba (whom we heard about last week) is the one chosen to inherit.  And it is, frankly, an inspired choice.  Last week, I mentioned that David was “perhaps” the greatest king in Israel’s history.  Well, if he wasn’t #1, Solomon is a good choice for that spot.  Israel’s military was never stronger, its riches never greater, and its king was never wiser than when Solomon sat on the throne.  He is the one who built the Temple in Jerusalem, a monument to God’s eternal presence.  He is the one who helped keep peace with the much more powerful Egyptians.  But he was truly known for his wisdom.

The Bible teaches us about how Solomon solved a dispute between two women, both claiming that a boy was theirs.  Each one claimed to be the true mother of the child.  Solomon, seeing that there was no way to solve the debate, ordered the baby cut in half.  The first woman thought this was fine; it was better than letting that other woman have the baby.  But second woman screamed at Solomon to let the other woman have the child, because that would be better than seeing him killed.  Solomon gave the second woman the baby, reasoning that no true mother would ever let her child be sawn in half; a true mother would rather see her child raised by her enemy than watch that child die.  It was a clever trick on Solomon’s part.

Anyway, Solomon the wise king got old and died, as everyone does, and there came a time to determine what was to happen to the kingdom.  Now, there are two characters here with very similar names, so I’m going to change them for the purposes of retelling the story.  Solomon’s son Rehoboam, I’m going to call “Rex.”  The other important character is Solomon’s most trusted general, named Jeroboam, whom I’m going to call “Jerry.”  Now, Rex, Solomon’s son, was the obvious successor, so he took over.  But Jerry, the trusted general, had a little different perspective on things.

See Jerry grew up in the North.  Jerusalem, the capital, is pretty far in the south.  You know how people in South Dakota, particularly West River folks, complain when they perceive that too many things are in Sioux Falls?  Picture that, only in a day when you couldn’t just drive somewhere.  Long, long walking trips (like weeks) were needed to get to Jerusalem.  Not to mention, it seemed like no matter how successful Israel was during Solomon’s reign, the farmers and laborers seemed to do most of the additional work, but the people in Jerusalem seemed to be the ones getting most of the benefits.  So Jerry decides that he’s going to reason with Rex, the new king.

Jerry approaches him with an offer.  He says, “We’re pretty fed up with the hard work.  Ease up on us; don’t be so harsh like your father, and we’ll serve you forever.”  Rex, wanting to be wise like his father, says to Jerry, “Come back in three days.”  During those three days, Rex consults his advisors.  He first talks to the older advisors, the ones who had worked with his father.  They say to him that it’s in his interest to be a servant to his people for a little while; serve them a little now, and they’ll serve you forever.

Thing is, Rex doesn’t like this advice.  He feels like his dad never got pushed around this way.  So he asks some of his younger advisors – the ones who grew up with him.  They end up, unsurprisingly, being the “yes” men, and they agree with Rex.  They say, “Tell those fools up in the north that you’re even harsher than your father; if they thought they had it bad before, watch wait ‘til they see what you do!”

He takes the advice of the young men.  Instead of being careful, measured, and wise like his father, he just does what makes him feel good.  He tries to put Jerry in his place.  Jerry goes back home to the northern part of Israel, where they decide something:  obviously, Jerusalem doesn’t care about them, so they don’t care about Jerusalem.  They decide to go on their own.  They say, “We have no share in David.”  In other words, “We’re obviously not considered a part of David’s house, so let’s go it alone.”

They set up with Jerry as king.  It makes sense; he’s an experienced ruler, he’s been their political champion, and he’s sort of the rallying person for their movement.  And when he becomes king, he realizes something:  there’s still just the one Temple to make sacrifices to God in, and it’s still in Jerusalem.  In other words, to properly worship, his people in the north are still going to have to go down to their rivals’ territory.  And when they do, Jerry fears that they might find themselves aligning with David’s ancestor again, and forgetting all about him.

Therefore, Jerry sets up a couple of idols, one in a city called Dan and another in a city called Bethel.    At each site, he made golden calves (most of you will, I’m sure, recognize that symbol), and told the people to worship them instead of God.  Since the people were sick of being mistreated and their new worship sites were closer to home, many of them went along with it.  And this new, official Northern Kingdom ruled by Jerry became known as Israel.  The older Southern Kingdom became known as Judah; and with that, God’s people were divided, a wound that would not be healed for hundreds of years.

This is a little story in the Bible, in one of the Bible’s most difficult-to-read (aka “boring”) books, particularly if you don’t already know what’s going on.  Many people, even those who have gone to church for many years, don’t know much (or even anything) about Israel being two separate kingdoms; yet, that is actually the status quo for nearly half of the written works preserved in the Old Testament.

To me, this is a passage about a lot of things.  For one, it’s a passage about what it means to be a good ruler.  We can see both of the rulers here caring more about themselves and their own status than they do about their people, and that’s a problem.  But related to that, but even more generally, this is a story about pride.

Pride is defined as “a deep feeling of pleasure or satisfaction at one’s accomplishments, possessions, or friends.”  Basically, we are proud when we do something good.  But the problem is, pride is often unhealthy; it’s not usually about having a good or proportionate amount of good feeling at what we’ve done; it’s about going overboard.  Pride is, so often, the thing that gets in the way of doing what’s right.  Pride is what causes rifts in families and rifts in communities.  Pride disrupts the kingship of both of these men, and it is so pernicious that it’s just as likely to hurt the one who’s expressing the pride as it is to hurt the one to whom they’re expressing it.

In this case, we see pride get in the way of God’s purposes.  You see, God wanted there to be a Davidic King in Jerusalem for all time.  In fact, God promised to deliver that.  But the people who were supposed to be serving God actively rebelled.  Solomon rebelled when he worked the northerners too hard; the northerners rebelled when they left Rex’s service; Rex rebelled when he cared more about his status relative to his father than he did about the good of his people; Jerry rebelled when he’s rather turn his back on God than risk losing power.  All these men were too prideful to just put aside their own feelings for one second and consider the greater good.

This often plagues churches; in our worst moments, we get self-righteous about our beliefs, and we don’t care whom we hurt in the process.  We don’t even care if we stop acting like Christians.  We don’t care if we stop emulating Christ.  What becomes most important for us is proving that we’re right, that everyone else is wrong, and that becomes more important to us than our commitment to Christ.  It’s often our first reaction to respond to criticism with defensiveness, because our pride doesn’t allow us to see the legitimacy of someone else’s complaint against us.

And it’s not just church life that’s like this.  How many of us react like Rex did, that when you’re criticized, you end up being worse, and actually making the other person’s complaints about you come true?  How many of us have, like Jerry, cared so much about “protecting” what we perceive as being “ours” that we don’t stop to think of the consequences?  These are nearly universal experiences, I think.

We heard a brief passage from the Gospel of Mark today, before we got into all this Old Testament tomfoolery with the hard-to-remember names.  In it, Jesus said, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  You see, Jesus’ example for us is not one of pride, but of selfless giving.  If anyone in human history had a right to be prideful, it was Jesus.  Yet, he was the opposite.

Jesus could’ve lorded it over everyone, given his divine power, his eloquence with words, and his many followers.  Yet, Jesus didn’t do that.  Jesus spent his life as a servant.  He served God by being among people.  Even when he didn’t want to die, praying to God to be released from the responsibility of the cross, he was obedient and went to pain and death.  He served people; he washed the feet of the disciples, he listened to children who were treated like dirt, he spoke with women whom others considered non-human property.  Jesus made it his life’s work to live humbly, even as God on earth.

Brothers and sisters, we spend most of our lives as Jerrys and as Rexes.  We spend more of our time worried about what’s best for us than we do worried about what God is asking us to do.  It’s hard to put aside our pride and attend to God’s commands.  But what we see here is people putting themselves first.

Always, God’s people will divide against one another; it’s human nature.  We’re never going to be perfect.  Yet, this story shows us what happens when no one gives in, when everyone cares only about themselves.  When we do that, we actively struggle against what God is trying to do.  God intends for good kingdoms to last forever, and we let our selfish pride tear down God’s good things.  Our lives, you see, are best when we embrace what God is doing.  So let us check our pride at the door.  Let us be less concerned about being right, and more concerned about doing right.  Let’s worry less about whether or not we’re on top, and more about whether we’re in right relationship with the true top, our Lord and Savior Jesus.  Let us grow more like him every day.  Amen.

The Temple of the Lord – 2017/10/22

Psalm 105:1-6
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Jeremiah 7:1-11

Sermon:

I’m going to start with a blanket statement that I hope makes sense.  It’s easy to be critical of biblical characters for not following the voice of God in their own lives; yet we so easily fail to listen to the voice of God in our own lives.  If we give it a half-second’s thought, we would realize that, most of the time, we don’t just hear a message and then immediately put in into practice.  We have to hear it over, and over, and over again.  It’s why people come to church more than once in their lives.  It’s part of the reason, I think, that preachers tend to have only a few favorite topics that everything else ties back to:  we need to hear certain messages more than once.

I would include, by the way, that I need to sometimes preach certain messages more than once before they finally sink in, even for me as the person speaking.  Yet, at the same time, we have a belief that people in the Bible should’ve somehow “known better.”  We get the sense that, if God were talking right to us, we’d be better at listening.  But here’s the thing:  how many times has God tried to get our attention, and we’ve failed to listen?  And how many more times have we heard, understood, and simply failed to act?

This is what makes the initial chapter of Jeremiah so interesting, I think.  It begins with God talking to Jeremiah about how God has known Jeremiah from before he was even born.  It’s an inspiring message for all of us, actually:  God knew us from before we were even formed in the womb.  Yet, when God tells Jeremiah these facts, Jeremiah objects.  “I don’t know what to say, God, for I’m only a boy!” Jeremiah says to the Creator of the universe.

“No excuses,” replies God.  “I’m putting my words in your mouth, and those words will have power to do remarkable things; power enough to change the world.”

So, let’s talk about Jeremiah a bit.  Jeremiah was a prophet.  When we think of the word “prophet” today, we most often think of someone predicting the future.  Really, though, that’s not the job of a prophet in the Bible.  His or her job is not about the future; it’s about the present.  Sometimes, that means reading the signs of what’s going on in the present that will determine the future; we actually see that in one of today’s readings.  But even more often, it’s about what’s happening rightnow.  It’s like being a religious news service, providing commentary on what God sees going on in the world.

Because we have this association of prophecy with telling the future, we most often think of prophets having a special connection with God that gives them these insights.  That’s actually a really good way of looking at it; though, again, it’s not that God is giving them knowledge about the future.  Rather, God is allowing the prophet to see with God’s eyes, rather than with the prophet’s own eyes.

Well, Jeremiah lived in an interesting historical period.  The Kingdom of Israel was, as we discussed last week, divided.  Israel was in the north with its capital in Samaria, and Judah (with its capital in Jerusalem) was in the south.  Jeremiah lived in Judah, which was prosperous.  Israel, on the other hand, was not so lucky.

Over a hundred years earlier (think about this:  as distant as we are to the Civil War, basically) the Assyrian Empire came through and attacked Israel.  The Assyrians won.  Then, they headed south to Judah.  The Judeans, though, in spite of their smaller army, defeated the mighty Assyrians, then the most powerful nation in the region.  The Judeans took this to mean that, 200 years earlier, they had made the right decision by sticking with the king from the line of David and keeping their worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, unlike the Israelites who wandered away.  They figured, as long as they had a Davidic king and the Temple, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, Jeremiah was appointed the prophet to begin challenging that assumption.  Jeremiah’s calling was, as we learned in chapter one, “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”  In other words, Jeremiah’s prophecies were going to have a profound impact on the world, and people would be wise to listen to him.

People know that a war is likely coming, because this time, it’s the Babylonians, and they intend to succeed where the Assyrians failed.  There are a bunch of people out there who are saying, “Don’t worry so much about it; we have the Temple of the Lord!  What could happen?”  Jeremiah mocks this position by caricaturing them as saying, “The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord!”  Jeremiah knows, though, that know building can save you.

There’s a great quote out there that God’s message is meant to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  In other words, if you’re having a hard time, a true Gospel message will pick you up; if you’re having too easy a time of life, the true message of God is going to shake up your world!  In the case of the Judeans in Jeremiah’s time, they were far too comfortable.  They got so comfortable, in fact, that they stopped worrying about following God’s laws – like, at all.

We actually see Christians today who often have similar attitudes.  There was just a group last month that claimed the world was going to end in September.  It’s a great out, that belief that God is going to fix it all in a neat little bow, isn’t it?  I mean, it means that our actions don’t have to be focused on the world at all.  We only have to worry about our relationship to God.  Don’t get me wrong – our relationship to God is what’s most important.  But God asks for a part of that relationship to include our treatment of our fellow humans.  We’re not allowed to just say, “Well, it’s all gonna end soon anyway, so who cares?”  That’s not a Christian response; the Christian response is to say, “I don’t know when it’s all going to end, but until it does, I’m going to do all I can to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love my neighbor as myself.”

Jeremiah sense this same streak in people:  “Our actions don’t matter, because, hey, God’s going to protect us.”  Yeah… well, here’s the deal.  Jeremiah accuses the Judeans of “oppress(ing) the alien, the orphan, and the widow,” and “shed(ding) innocent blood . . . [and] go(ing) after other gods.”  Those are big charges.  In other words, they have not protected the most vulnerable, they have hurt people without a second thought, and they have ignored God in favor of other gods.  They have forsaken their essential goodness.  And then, according to Jeremiah, they have the audacity to retreat to “The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord!” for safe-haven.

Jeremiah cries foul.  It’s what his ministry is about, at this juncture.  This is his time to afflict the comfortable.  He is there to show them that being a believer in God is about more than empty words and actions; it’s about making time in your life to listen to what God is telling you to do.  As it turns out, the people of Judah aren’t going to amend their ways.  The Babylonians come in and ransack Jerusalem.  They cart away the wealthiest people from Jerusalem and forcibly relocate them.  They remove the king from power, so there was no more promised king from the line of David.  And, as a final show of power, the Temple that Solomon had built nearly three hundred years earlier, the Temple built so God would dwell there, the symbol of peace and God’s blessing and righteous worship – in short, the “Temple of the Lord” they were so comforted by –was destroyed completely, leaving only a pile of rubble.  There was now no Temple to save them.

It would be so easy to read this passage and say, “Those stupid Judeans.  They should’ve just listened.”  But, as I’ve been saying throughout this Old Testament sermon series, the Old Testament is not the story of “them;” it’s not someone else’s story.  It’s our story.  When we hear this story, we have to think, not of where someone else went wrong, but of where we continue to go wrong.  If we are the Judeans, what are the messages God is sending us?  What are we failing to hear?  What are we hearing, but not responding to?

Jeremiah’s unique ministry is one in which people are asked to see what their lives have become, and to amend their ways.  Unsurprisingly, they are not able (or perhaps willing) to do so.  If we’re being honest, that has a lot more to do with our lives than we’d like to admit.  How many, “I’ll get around to that later”s do we have in our faith lives?  How many times have we made God an afterthought?  How often have we committed in our hearts and our minds to doing something as we sit in the pew, only to waver once we feel the comfort of our couch?

Jeremiah delivers a message that’s uncomfortable.  It’s the message, “We are sinners.  We’ve screwed this whole thing up.”  He gives steps to escape that cycle of sin, but the people of his own time respond just the way we do when we hear about our own sin:  it’s just plain easier to keep pedaling along the same way we were going.  Changing direction is what’s hard.

In his preaching, Jeremiah asks people to act justly, and says that God will save them from the coming war.  I don’t know exactly how effective that strategy can be; I figure, when a war comes, it comes.  And maybe completely changing their actions could’ve changed the outcome; maybe faithfulness and obedience to God would’ve somehow altogether prevented the Babylonian army from entering Jerusalem.  Maybe, with the right show of faith, God would’ve come down and  stopped the approaching army.  But instead, I like to think that Jeremiah is offering the Judeans a different type of salvation:  the type wherein you learn to live God’s way, whatever the world around you is doing.  You can experience a little slice of God’s salvation right here on earth, simply by refusing to be part of the systems that prop up evil, even if it’s easier to just go along with the thing that’s popular.  If they had managed to live as God told them to, maybe they wouldn’t have had their city, their country, their Temple destroyed; but even if they did, they would know that they were going to be okay, because God would guide them through it.  They would know that, whatever comes, they were living in a way that would make God take notice.

Jeremiah talks about protecting the most vulnerable; he says that the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant have been forgotten, when God has explicitly asked for those specific groups to be protected.  In our own culture, we take economic advantage of groups that can’t fight for or protect themselves.  Jeremiah asks people to avoid the taking of vengeance and the sin of putting idols before God.  Frequently, in our culture, we confuse “justice” with “revenge,” and we believe that “getting even” is our right, forgetting Jesus’ words about forgiveness.  We also regularly put our own comfort, our own pleasure, our own economic pursuits, first in our lives, rather than putting God’s will first.  There’s nothing wrong with comfort, pleasure, or economic security – but those things are, so often, our very own version of the refrain “the Temple of the Lord! the Temple of the Lord!” They are things that promise safety and security, but ultimately can’t deliver.

So let us truly hear the words of Jeremiah for us today.  Let us honor God, not just with our lips, but with how we conduct ourselves every day, and thereby experience a little bit of salvation right here on earth, and learning to trust in God, who knew us before we were even born.  We have been called, like Jeremiah, to share words that pluck up and pull down, that destroy and overthrow, that build and plant.  Let us use those words, let us use this calling on our lives, to afflict the comfortable, even when it’s us; to comfort the afflicted, even when it’s our enemy; and ever and always to speak the truth of God.  Amen.

Chosen & Flawed – 2017/10/08

Psalm 149
2 Samuel 11:1-6, 14-17, 26-27
2 Samuel 12:1-19

Sermon:

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the founding of Protestantism – that is, the churches of which the Presbyterian Church is a part.  We will celebrate and talk more about that in the final Sunday of October (known as Reformation Sunday), but for now, I’ve been thinking about it.  One of the central figures of the Reformation, Martin Luther, contributed one of the most helpful pieces of Christian theology in a short statement.

In Latin, Luther said that all Christians are simul justus et peccator.  In English, that means, “simultaneously saint and sinner.”  That is to say, every single Christian is, in his or her own way, a saint.  We have been inspired by God, we attempt to do the work of God, and in our best moments, we let Christ shine in our lives.  That makes us saints.  At the same time, we are still human beings; we are just as fallible as anyone else, and we continue to sin.  We seek to be justified in God’s eyes by doing right, yet we find that we always fall short and continue to be imperfect.

Which leads me to this:  let me tell you one thing about a pastor.  You know you’re going to mess up, because you know you’re a person.  You know that you’re simultaneously saint and sinner, and yet people are always going to expect you to be the “saint,” and would rather you leave out the “sinner” part out of your life.  Every time you mess up, it feels like you should quit – after all, who can do it?  Who can live up to that standard?  The thing is, I know that being an elder in the church can feel the same way – burdened with the leadership of the church, feeling like you can’t ever make a mistake.  But church isn’t alone in this feeling.  Being married can feel this way.  Being a coach, a volunteer, a mentor, a politician, a boss, even a parent – any position where your choices affect someone else – when you mess up, it stings extra hard.

And so today, we arrive at the story of King David.  David, as you’ll recall, was a very special boy.  He was handsome, a good athlete (killing bears and saving sheep and whatnot), and played the harp beautifully.  The youngest of 8 boys, he was somehow always forgotten in his family – but never by God.  The prophet Samuel anointed him to become the next king after Saul, an inept ruler.  David killed the giant Goliath and earned the praise of the other Israelites, while at the same time causing Saul to hate David and try to kill him.  David’s best friend, Jonathan – the son of Saul – saved David’s life.  But eventually, Saul died and David did, in fact, become king.

He was a pretty stellar king, too.  He succeeded in battle, united all twelve tribes of Israel (Saul never managed that in his time as king), and he was beloved of the people.  David had it all.  Well, he thought he did.  Until one day, when he saw a beautiful woman bathing on a roof.  Her name was Bathsheba, and David had to have her.

Now, there have been interpretations through the years that she seduced him; that’s not in the text at all, so it doesn’t make sense to me; in fact, as we hear later from Nathan, it’s actually not a very good interpretation of this story at all.  Instead, David treats Bathsheba more like an object than a person.  He wants her, and he’s the king… so he takes her.  He even knows that she’s married to one of his soldiers, a man named Uriah.  As it turns out, their encounter together results in her becoming pregnant.  She tells David, because this is going to be particularly because her husband was off fighting in David’s name.

So David develops a plan; he tells Uriah’s commander to send the troops out into battle, with the order that when they get to a certain point, they’ll pull back.  Only, David tells the commander, Joab, not to tell Uriah about this.  They charge into battle; some of the men die; Uriah is one of them – no surprise there.  The whole thing was set up so that Uriah would die.  It was murder by proxy; David wanted Uriah dead, and he made sure that it happened.

This is a universally awful act.  First of all, one of the things Saul was criticized for as a king was that he often let his soldiers fight for him; he didn’t ride out into battle himself.  David was different.  Only now, having been king for a while, he was starting to rest on his laurels and just let things happen, just like Saul did.  So his actions are shameful as a king.

David was already married to two wives, and didn’t need another.  He had children, which kings are always under such pressure to produce.  And yet, he ends up impregnating a woman whom we’re not even sure had a choice in the matter, so his actions are shameful as a man.

And to top it all off, David commits murder to get away with his crime, now being able to take Bathsheba as his wife, letting her bear his child without anyone raising an eyebrow, and not having a problem with it.  So his actions are shameful as a human being.

All in all, it’s truly despicable.  And this is the man whom God has chosen as king!  Not only is he a king, he goes down as the best king (or one of the top-4, anyway) in the nearly 500 year history of Israel and Judah as a kingdom!  Not only is he special, even among kings, but he is the one king given a covenant by God.  A covenant is a promise; a covenant from God means that God makes a promise that can never be broken.  God’s promise to David is that there will always be someone from his line on the throne in Jerusalem.  So David is given an eternal legacy, just four chapters before this moment, and yet David still finds a way to screw up so much that it calls into question whether or not he was ever a righteous king in the first place.

David is the “chosen one,” God’s special servant – yet, he messes up.  And like all of us, he needs someone else’s help to see just how messed up he is.  Now, he is the king, so you have to come at him with a little bit of tact, and that’s just what Nathan, the prophet, does.  He tells a story about a wealthy man with everything who takes a beloved sheep from a poor man who has nothing else.  David’s first reaction is like what most of ours would be – get mad, want revenge.

But then Nathan says to him, in no uncertain terms, “You are that man; you have everything, and yet you felt the need to take the wife – and the life – of Uriah.”  Nathan takes the bold step of calling out the king for his actions.  That may not seem like a huge deal.  After all, we live in a country in which you can call or write to your representatives in the government and criticize them all you want, and they have no recourse against you; you’re allowed, even encouraged to do that.  In ancient days, though, such a thing could be sentencing yourself to death.

So David is stunned – not because he’s called out, but because he realizes that Nathan is right.  Some leaders – Saul, the king before David, for example – would dismiss someone who said something so bold to them.  But David, for his part, possesses more wisdom than that.

David realizes that Nathan is right.  He knows that he has done something wrong.  But what David learns here is not that you have to be perfect.  In fact, David immediately realizes that he must confess his sins to God.  These are great sins, grave sins.  The kinds of sins you’d think could never be gotten over.  I think, if we knew him in real life, most of us would be unable or unwilling to forgive David his sins.  How could we be asked to forgive something that big?

But that’s what’s convenient about our ultimate fate being in God’s hands.  Many, perhaps most, and potentially even all of us have done (or will yet do) something that would easy to think of as utterly unforgivable, even if we didn’t do something so extreme as David’s actions.  Yet, God is able to forgive.  And what good news that is for us!

We are never beyond God’s reach; neverNever, ever.  The story we know so well, the story at the heart of our faith, the story of the resurrection of Jesus, is a story about the place we are most separate from the world, most unreachable.  And yet, God can bring Jesus back.  Even in David’s state of depravity, God never gives up, God absolutely always looks for us, and calls us closer.  There is no boundary too big for God to cross – even death, even sin.  God can do it.

This is a story in which David, the saintly king, is revealed as a lowly sinner.  And as his sins are laid bare for everyone to see, he needs to hear a story to understand.  Brothers and sisters, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  we read the stories of the Old Testament because they are our stories.  They teach us about ourselves.  They are our Nathan the prophet.  These are the stories that we use to teach us about ourselves and our actions; they are the parables we need to hear.  Just as Jesus taught in parables, we need stories.  Yes, we have the stories of Jesus, and yes, these stories are different than those, but the point remains:  we hear this story because God needs us to hear it – and the stories like it.  Like David, we are sinners; like David, we need to hear it; like David, we are forgiven by God who, across even the border of sin, loves us:  unreasonably, irrationally, and infinitely.  Amen.

Best Friends – 2017/09/24

Psalm 26:1-7
1 Timothy 6:13-15
1 Samuel 18:1-16

Sermon:

When I was young, I used to play with my next door neighbor all the time. I don’t know quite how to explain just how often we were together.  I remember getting in trouble with his dad one time for calling their house… at 7:00 in the morning… on a Saturday.  Well, I knew he was up, so why should I have had to wait?  This friend and I were so in-sync that there was a time when I picked up the phone to call him, only he had already called me, and I lifted the phone before it even rang.  That’s how close we were – practically reading each other’s minds.  Now, there’s nothing weird at all about kids being best friends, being connected at the hip.  And it’s especially not weird for next-door neighbors to become friends.

The thing is, on the surface of it, we had basically nothing in common.  I mean, we both lived in really thoughtful, caring, churchgoing, two-parent families.  But he was the third of four children, I was an only.  He was three-and-a-half years older than me.  He was (and is) handsome and tall, and I’ve always been kind of short and dumpy.  He’s always been a gifted athlete – one of those kids who just takes to any sport he tries in seconds, and I had to try really, really hard to get to be “acceptable” at any sport.  He was so active that, when we were kids, he couldn’t sit through his favorite movie – all 88 minutes of The Little Mermaid.  We had to go outside and play basketball for an hour or so just so we could watch the second half of the movie.  Whereas, I’m more the kind of person who likes to make a nice, little, me-shaped divot in the couch.  Even today, this guy takes his vacations from his two full-time jobs (personal trainer and occupational therapist) to go mountain climbing – he does this like three times a year.  Even simple things were different between us when we were kids – he went to private school, and I went to public.

Of course, we both liked church, and since he had a religious education in school, we had a particular set of biblical characters we liked to compare ourselves to.  Those characters were David and Jonathan.  After all, my name is David, and his is, of course, Jonathan.  I remember laughing about that with him once as we sat in my basement talking about school.  Looking back, there was a lot of them in us:  best friends, even if it’s not likely.  Yet, devoted to one another in a way that time and distance can never diminish.

As we’ve grown up, I realized how important it was that when we were just pre-teens, we could see ourselves in characters in the Bible.  Part of the reason that I have spent the last few months preaching from the Old Testament is just this:  our faith, our engagement with the Bible, are strongest, not when it’s an old book with even older stories, but when we see it as something living, something that teaches us timeless truths, something that we can connect to.  The Bible is our window into God’s purposes for us; it’s our way of understanding who God is.  Without it, we are left with just our experiences.  Don’t get me wrong, our experiences of God are deeply meaningful, and cannot be neglected.  But my experiences and yours are different, whereas the story of the Scriptures is something we can all share.

The stories we hear in the Old Testament are not the same as the New Testament, which teaches us about Jesus.  But the stories of the Old Testament are just as important, as they are the stories that Jesus himself grew up hearing in worship.  The New Testament is the story of Jesus – a human being like us… but who is also God, and therefore profoundly unlike us.  The Old Testament, on the other hand, is the story of people exactly like us.  Living in a world with a lot less technology, sure, but otherwise, victims of the same types of tragedy, subject to the same sorts of flaws of character, in the same kinds of relationships as ours.  Therefore, we continue to read these stories – these things that can seem so disconnected from us.

These stories are not ‘history” meaning, “his story,” meaning “someone else’s story.”  They are “outstory.”  These are stories of people like us, and stories that we can learn from – learn both about God, and about one another.

Two weeks ago, I read to you and preached from the story of David and Goliath.  This week, I want to pick up right where we left off.  We finished at the end of chapter 17, the point at which David has become a hero.  This starts to irk Saul.  You may or may not remember, but Saul was the first king of Israel.  He was… well, just an okay king.  No one’s favorite, but definitely not the worst king Israel would ever have.  And like a lot of people, Saul was a really insecure guy.

Basically as soon as David starts getting treated like someone special, Saul starts getting jealous.  After all, he’s the king!  Why is anyone else getting attention?  Saul was so insecure because he knew how much he had to lose.  Of course, he had so much to lose because he had so much to begin with, but that’s how it often plays out.  David starts to get popular; Saul starts getting resentful.  This story, though, has a wrinkle, a twist.  And the name of that twist is Jonathan.

David and Jonathan are best friends; not just best friends, but something akin to blood brothers.  Jonathan is said to have “made covenant” with David; that is, he pledged to be David’s best friend.  And he did this in an era in which people’s word was their bond, and it would be unthinkable to go back on a word like that.  But in this passage, we see the roots of conflict.

In fact, Saul goes so far as to try a two-pronged approach to dealing with David.  On the one hand, he promises his eldest daughter to David.  This ensures that they will be allies.  We probably all know from history classes that marriages have been used by the powerful to ensure peace for a long time.  But Saul has another secret strategy, too.  He keeps David as a commander in the army, and sends him to the front lines.  That way, the Philistines can finish the job Goliath tried to start, and David will likely die in battle.  Unfortunately for Saul, this backfires big time.

David wins more and more battles, which only makes him more popular and makes Saul more insecure.  In the meantime, Saul marries off Merab, his eldest daughter, to someone else (David does end up marrying Michal, Saul’s second daughter).  Eventually, David realizes how dangerous it is for him to remain near Saul, so David flees.  Saul then begins a manhunt for David, trying to murder him.  And all the while, David has an ally right in Saul’s family – Saul’s only son, Jonathan.  Jonathan is often the one keeping David alive.  He’s the reason David knows to leave town in the first place; he tells David of Saul’s intentions and strategies.  He keeps his best friend alive, even though it directly flies in the face of what his father wants to do.

So many people assume that David kills Goliath, becomes king, and everything works out for him.  But in many ways, the hero of his story is Jonathan, the best friend who disobeys his family to help his friend.  So, as I’ve had to ask in just about every Old Testament story we’ve read this year, what is this passage supposed to be teaching us?  I mean, it’s an interesting story, but… so what?

Well, I think it’s mostly story about where God puts us in the world.  We’re put into all sorts of weird places and circumstances.  We can’t possibly know what those situations are going to yield.  We can try to make hard and fast rules, like we read in the Ten Commandments – “Honor your father and mother.”  But, in this story, Jonathan is the hero here for going against his family and disobeying that commandment.  Of course, that’s because his father is in a murderous rage and trying to kill an innocent kid.  If there’s a time to disobey your parents, that’s it.  But that’s the thing:  so often in life, the situations we’re placed in are not so easy to create rules for, because we can’t possibly plan for every eventuality.  For so many of us, the critical moments in our lives occur in places we’d never have imagined ourselves being, so how do you make rules for that?  Instead, we hear stories like this one, to inspire us to act correctly in the face of difficult situations.

Whenever we make a difficult decision, like Jonathan does where others will view us as being against our family, we’re likely to face judgment from others.  But sometimes, God is asking us to do just that.  In fact, our first allegiance is not to our family, not to our friends, not to our country, but to God and God alone.  The passage tells us explicitly that “the Lord was with” David.  Jonathan can see that he can’t help his dad – his dad has transgressed what he’s supposed to do as king and ruler, so he helps his friend, whom he can see is fulfilling the work of God.

Undoubtedly, we’ll be faced with difficult decisions in this life about whom we’re supposed to help and where we’re supposed to be in this life.  This is a passage that teaches us that, no matter how difficult those decisions, what’s important is following what God is doing in our lives.  Those things are hard on us, but we have to have courage, as Jonathan did.  When we make a decision, we do it prayerfully, and do our best to please God.  When we do what’s right, we see it borne out in the results.  We have to approach the hard parts of life with humility, prayer, and putting God first.  In this way we honor God – by putting God at the center, not just of our prayers, nor just our Sundays, but in our everyday relationships with everyone.  May we have the courage of Jonathan to make the hard choices and follow after God.  Amen.