They say that you can tell a lot about a culture from what its tallest buildings are. Of course, the tallest buildings are always the easiest to see. Once upon a time, the tallest buildings in the world were family homes; they were the first kinds of structures to be built. In later times and in later cultures, military installations, government facilities, royal palaces, and houses of worship dueled for the “tallest building” title. In various parts of the world and in multiple eras, a different one of those might be the one casting an imposing shadow over the place where people lived.
And now, today? In every major city in the world, in every culture, we can see what takes up our highest spaces. It’s always business. Money talks, after all, and it elevates itself above all other concerns. We live in a time in history in which the families, governments, militaries, and religions are all subject to the whims of money. After all, money’s what makes the world go ‘round, as people are fond of saying. In fact, there’s a huge sermon about idolatry in that idea somewhere, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. Instead, I would ask that you accept my premise that we put what’s important up highest, and think about it in relation to our stories today.
I read for you an odd little story from the book of Numbers this morning. This is one of those weird stories that I remember talking about as an undergrad in religion, and a lot of people born & raised in the church had no idea about. I’m not surprised if most of you out there have never heard this story before. It’s this story of poisonous snakes. It’s such a weird story that most preachers will avoid it. In fact, I’m not really going to preach on it today, either, but it is referenced in our other reading, so I think it merits some explanation before we move on to talk about the passage from John. The passage from John relies on us understanding this Numbers passage, so let’s make sure we all get that one first.
As you probably know, there was a time when the Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses helped lead them out of their time of slavery and to the Promised Land of Israel. The journey, though not a long one by miles, took them forty years as they would set up camp for a while, then move along, slowly and deliberately. The story we read today takes place in one of those times, when the Israelites have not yet arrived in the Promised Land.
On the trip, this trip which has been long, difficult, and boring, the Israelites begin to complain. Now, I don’t want to be too critical of that, nor should any of us be. The furnace went -out at our house this week – Monday, I think it was – and it got cold. Carissa and I complained, as you do. It was “way down” to 60 degrees at the coldest point. And honestly, that’s really not that cold. I mean, think about what people did in South Dakota 130 years ago. I’m sure most houses were substantially colder than 60 degrees on the day of a blizzard. So we do the same thing; it’s very easy to take what you have for granted.
And beyond that, we can often forget what things were like before. I think the Israelites suggest that “at least the food was better in Egypt” out of the same sort of logic that can cause any one of us to wish to return to an earlier time in our lives. Sometimes, earlier times were better; but honestly, most of the time, we forget the things about the “good ol’ days” that were worse than now, because we’re idealizing the things we miss. If the Israelites had given it much thought, they certainly wouldn’t’ve been wishing for Egyptian food at the cost of days of rest, the ability to control their own lives, and the promise of better days ahead. But, in a moment of difficulty, it’s very easy to make a desire to go back to something before.
So, that’s when we get to the tricky part of the passage; see, this is where the book of Numbers tells us that “The Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so many Israelites died.” Now, to my ear, that makes God sound petty and childish.
It’s one of those situations where I think we have to acknowledge that the writers of Scripture were more often concerned with explaining everything than they were with necessarily being consistent in their portrayal of God. So, in order to explain a plague of snakes, they say, “God did it; clean, easy answer.” Unfortunately, I don’t think that works for me; it doesn’t sound like the God I know. I don’t know God to punish everyone every time we complain about something. So I prefer to think of it in one way, but your mileage may vary.
Regardless, there are these poisonous snakes around, and people are dying. The Israelites ask Moses for guidance, and Moses prays to God. See, this is part of why I don’t love (or really even understand) that earlier part about God sending the poisonous snakes – God is, in this passage, the one who offers deliverance, not the one who gets the people in trouble in the first place. But either way, Moses’ prayer is answered. God tells Moses to build the highest thing in the camp – a bronze snake on a pole, which will miraculously heal anyone who looks at it. Just as we have in our cultures throughout history, the most important thing is elevated. In this case, it’s a promise of deliverance from God, and it’s healing for people who are desperately in need of it.
So hopefully that clears some of that up. Even if you didn’t know the story before, you do now. And it’s relevant, because our brief reading from John’s Gospel begins with that line, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” It’s a weird reference, but think of the commonalities. The serpent was lifted up so everyone could see; likewise, when the Romans crucified people, part of the point was to have them up high on display, so that people could see the execution. The serpent was on a pole, while Jesus was on the cross. The serpent was a direct result of fleeing a foreign power who wanted to control the Israelites; Jesus was executed by a foreign power who was controlling the Israelites. Finally, and most importantly of all, the serpent on that bronze pole and Jesus were also a means of salvation.
Yes, the serpent was a means of salvation from a physical illness. And when we’re struggling with physical illness, it’s probably very tempting to wish for some sort of serpent of our own; something we could just look at an be made well. When we’re ill, and while we walk this earth in our bodies, it’s pretty easy to think of our physical health as being the most important thing in the world. But really, think about why John’s Gospel chooses to include this reference to the story from Numbers; it’s a story about the most important thing being raised up the highest.
As I’ve said before, the season of Lent is a long march to the cross. It’s a metaphorical journey we make as we attempt to think our way through what Jesus is doing in the season of Lent. He knows that he has to prepare himself for his death and resurrection; we must therefore prepare ourselves, too. Many people choose to do so with prayer and with fasting, depriving our bodies to focus our spiritual lives. But what for?
And that’s where our passage hits us with those verses that we all probably know; those verses that are so famous that people go to sporting events and hold up only one verse from the whole Bible to describe Christianity and choose John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Continuing in verse 17, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus does not come to us as a poisonous snake to bite us, to make us ill, and to kill us; Jesus comes as the way out – the deliverance, the promise of hope. Yet, Jesus also goes through his own trials, and through them, offers us change. We’re told in these most famous of words from the Bible that od loved the entire world so much that we who believe would be given the keys to everlasting life. That’s where we see the similarity to this snake: we see that lifting up of the thing that will save us.
But the case of Jesus is different than a snake. The promise in Jesus is not a temporary relief from the pains of life, but a permanent home of life everlasting, enjoy the fruits of heaven with the creator of the universe. That’s the great hope in the promise of this passage. We know that Jesus comes to save.
And that last point is crucial; verse 17, so often omitted from readings of this passage, is just as important as its more famous counterpart in verse 16. Jesus did not come here just to condemn us; he came here to save us. It would be easy to compare ourselves to Jesus, to see where we don’t stack up, and for that to be God’s proof that we’re worthless, or that we need to be discarded. There are Christian groups a lot more excited about God’s judgment than God’s deliverance – except, that’s not what John’s Gospel has us concerned about. Instead, Jesus is the proof that God loves us, and that we will be saved, in spite of our imperfections. Jesus is the proof that God so loves us all that God’s primary concern is not harming us, rather saving us from harm.
Brothers and sisters, the life of faith is not an easy one, as the journey to the cross shows us. We will face poisonous snakes throughout our lives. But most importantly, we always have the option to look up; and when we do, we should not look to the things that the world towers over us – buildings desperate to show off the extravagance of wealth and power – but rather to the humility of the cross, on which God in human flesh came to show us that we are saved. Amen.
There’s a baseball writer I very much admire named Bill James. He is a powerful thinker and a great analyst, and has taught me a great deal about how to approach a problem. He went from being a night watchman at a factory in Kansas City in the 1970s to being named, in 2006, one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Of course, like most people, his story isn’t always a straight line. And, as it does for so many of us, his story really begins with school.
In one of his books, James wrote about how frustrating school was for him. Not because he wasn’t good at it or anything; he was a fine student, not straight-A’s or anything, but he did okay. The problem was, we was always getting in trouble. He would spend his classes taping baseball statistics into a notebook and analyzing them; asking questions about them, performing mathematical operations on them, etc. He loved baseball, and that’s what he wanted to do with his time. Of course, teachers would yell at him to study the “important” stuff. But I think all of us can understand being frustrated in school (or perhaps at work) because there’s something else you’d rather be doing.
Well, when he wasn’t messing around with baseball statistics, he spent his time in class trying to make his classmates laugh by writing funny notes and passing them around. Again, this is not unusual behavior – plenty of kids pass notes. But specifically, he liked to make people laugh. By passing notes to his friends, he learned what worked and what didn’t, what got a laugh and what was ignored. But most of all, he learned that getting caught was a problem – just like with the baseball statistics he would mess around with in class, his teachers would yell at him for passing these notes.
In the book he wrote as an adult, he wrote that, reflecting on all those years in school, the two most valuable things he ever did were 1.) mess around with baseball statistics, and 2.) write funny notes to his classmates. As it turned out, paying attention to what the teachers thought was the “important” stuff was actually distracting him from his life’s work – which is to entertain through his writing and to educate about baseball, its statistics, and its history. He’s a very funny writer even now, so I imagine that was true when he was younger, too.
Now, of course, he recognizes that, “Just let the kids do whatever they want,” is not really a viable classroom management technique; his point was really that, what appeared to be valuable was actually not actually as valuable as the thing that appeared to be value-less. What other people assumed was important was not necessarily the most important thing. I thought of this little story today because of our reading from 1 Corinthians.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God,” writes Paul. Paul tells us that “the world” views the cross as foolishness. Let’s unpack that for a moment.
What is a cross? Sure, we can start by talking about its physical description: it’s a tall plank of wood with a cross-bar, meant for execution. We can talk about its meaning to us as Christians, and we’ll get there, but for right now, I’d like to put that aside. Instead, I’d rather that you imagined yourself in ancient Israel, two thousand years ago, before Jesus was executed. Imagine that you’re just an ordinary person, minding your own business – perhaps going to market to make a purchase to help feed or clothe yourself or your family. Suddenly, on the horizon, you spot a group of Roman soldiers bringing a few crosses into town. They find a spot visible to everyone, probably on top o a hill, and start pounding the crosses into the ground. So, what would you, as an ordinary person, see, think, and feel?
Of course, as I said earlier, you’d see the planks of wood, familiarly in the cross shape. But you’d know that it had more meaning than that. The meaning would be death. It would be that the Roman Empire is all-powerful, because they will come and kill you if you represent a threat to them. Not only will they kill you, they will do it painfully, publicly, and in a way that will scare other people into not doing whatever it was you did. The cross was a symbol of death, pain, and the power of the Romans. It was meant to instill fear. And you would’ve felt it. I mean, what American doesn’t at some point, complain about the government? If you did that in ancient Israel, which was part of the Roman Empire, you’d have to worry that your passing comment about the Emperor was overheard by someone who told someone, and now they were coming for you.
Okay, now that we’ve thought that through a bit, I’d ask you to imagine being a Christian in the years immediately after Jesus was crucified, when Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians from which we read today. Christians didn’t necessarily use the cross commonly as a symbol as we do today (they used a fish more often), but they did talk about the cross, meditate on it, and talk about what Christ accomplished through it.
If a non-Christian saw that, they’d probably think that all these Christians being so giddy about a cross were crazy! WHY did they care about this scary, powerful, even evil symbol? Why would they talk about it, think about it, and even revere it? How could it turn their thoughts to God, rather than to the awesome and frightening power of the Roman Empire? After all, wasn’t the cross a symbol of how Jesus failed? After all, what kind of Messiah ends up executed?
Well, here’s the thing. It’s possible to understand a non-Christian having this perspective. But this is what Paul is talking about in our letter to the Corinthians today; the cross is a stumbling-block or foolishness if you’re not a believer. But if you’re one of us, if you place your faith in Jesus, the cross is a symbol, not of death nor Roman power; rather, a symbol of life and of God’s power.
You may notice that we have an empty cross at the front of our church. Perhaps that’s something you’ve wondered about: why do some churches have crosses with no one on them at the front of the church? Our cross is empty because it’s a reminder that Christ is not crucified forever; rather, he moved beyond the cross. He is not dead, but he is alive! The cross, painful though it was, is not the ultimate arbiter of meaning; rather, it reveals the truth about who God is.
Sometimes, the wisdom of God is foolishness in the eyes of the world, and the wisdom of the world can be foolish in the eyes of God. In the passage we read from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus turns over tables and drives out money-changers, we see this in action. The people in the Temple are doing what seems wise in the world: they’re maximizing their profits. They’re selling stuff, and they’re makin’ money. That’s wisdom, in the world’s eyes.
But Jesus goes out there to tell them that that’s not what God wants. They’re supposed to be there to worship, not to profit. While the world may see making money and taking advantage of the people in the Temple with nothing to sacrifice as “good business sense,” God sees it as deplorable; as something that threatens to undermine the very idea of worshiping God.
People were selling things in the Temple to help people make sacrifices on their trips to Jerusalem. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s all it had been, I don’t think Jesus would’ve had any problem with it: after all, not everyone could come equipped with a goat or a dove to sacrifice. Instead, the problem was the sporting event problem: you ever go to a Major League Baseball game, get ready to pay 8 bucks for a hot dog. Why? Because you have no other choice! That’s what happened here; people had no competition, and they could basically charge whatever they wanted. Good people, just wanting to worship properly, were taken advantage of by people who were looking out for themselves, rather than honoring the Temple as God’s house and treating it with proper justice.
Look, a little wisdom in the eyes of the world never hurt anyone. Paul is not telling us here is to be stupid. He’s not saying to close your eyes and walk across 41st and Louise. That’s not what this means. Paul is not saying that all wisdom is bad; rather, he’s telling us that when the world thinks it knows what the most important things are, the world will always be wrong if it hasn’t considered God. God shows us things we might never have dreamt of if we didn’t listen.
So, this passage is really about how we’re supposed to have our eyes on the prize. We need to look to the cross and see, not an instrument of death as the world sees, but the very way of life. The world may look at a cross and see one thing, but we should see something much greater. To us, it’s not humanity’s final solution for enemies; it’s proof that, no matter how cruel we can be to one another, God can show us kindness, and grace, and life. It’s easy for someone outside the church to look at a cross and see foolishness; in fact, it’s just as easy now as it was 2000 years ago. But we know there’s more to the story than that.
So, brothers and sisters, go out there and be fools for Christ. Go ahead and ignore the wisdom of the world. Keep your mind on the wisdom of God, stay focused on Christ and the cross, and remember that, no matter how powerful a symbol we can construct, however dark an answer we can provide, God can grant us life, and love, and grace. Amen.
There’s clearly something wrong with this generation of young people today, isn’t there? Here are some things that millennials are ruining: the napkin industry, golf, movie theaters, vacations, Home Depot, running, the NFL, suits… and so many more things. Those are just a few from one aggregator article I saw online. It’s so easy to find articles about what this generation is ruining, in fact, that you start to wonder… how much truth is there in it?
Of course, it’s not hard to go back to the generation that truly ruined everything: the Baby Boomers. Go read some news articles from the ‘50s and ‘60s about Baby Boomers. You’ll see what I’m talking about. All their newfangled music and dancing and their long hair on men and their lack of respect, and… well, of course, you get the point.
But then, those from a generation before had been told how lazy they were getting – the automobile, after all, was ruining everything. A man can’t even know the value of a hard day’s work if things are automated! I mean, after all, it was really the early part of the 20th century that ruined us all.
Of course, I joke. I find tremendous comfort in Jesus’ rebuke at the end of his speech about “This adulterous and sinful generation.” On the one hand, it’s hard to hear Jesus’ words as meaningless because complaints about “these young people today” have existed for literally thousands of years. On the other hand, I like to think that it’s here because, on some level, you have to respect that Jesus would come up with words that would resonate throughout history, because there will always be some part of us that nods just a little bit when we hear complaints about the “next generation.” Jesus knows that people will always be able to relate to that part because it will always be relevant, and it will always be a little true.
See, Jesus says that he lives in a sinful generation. Well… yeah, he did. That’s because every generation is sinful. We’ve all put ourselves before God; we’ve all had lapses in morality and judgment, we’ve all been selfish or cruel at times. In short, we’ve all done the same things that generations of human beings have done. So of course Jesus is right in his complaints about his own generation; they’re the same as every generation – prone to live in the world they’re given, with all that entails, including preferences for certain sins over other ones.
But look, that’s not the majority of what Jesus says here. Rather, Jesus spends most of his time in this passage actually talking about who he is. First, Jesus asks the disciples the most basic question of all – the one on which all other questions hinge: “Who do you say that I am?”
Now, that should be an easy question for a Christian to answer. We should know who Jesus is, right? But, in some way, being asked that fundamental question can be hard. It can be difficult for some of us to know exactly who Jesus is. Most of us, I think, would like it to be a more academic question, and not a question of our hearts. Frankly, we’re less comfortable speaking our hearts than we are speaking our minds – I mean, how emotional do we get in public, anyway?
That’s why one of my favorite things in the life of the church is a wedding. Weddings are a public celebration of love. Rarely do we see two people stand up in public and say that they love each other. In fact, most of us probably keep all that mushy “love” talk to the privacy of our homes. You might say that you love potatoes in public, but heaven forbid you say it about a person.
And the disciples are no different than we are. In fact, if there’s an overarching thing we notice in reading the Bible, it’s how similar, rather than how different, people are and have been for the last several thousand years. This tendency toward the “head” answer rather than the “heart” answer is exactly what happens here. Jesus asks the personal question, “Who do you say that I am?” And the disciples immediately deflect and start talking about what other people think.
“Well, some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah or one of the prophets,” they say to Jesus. They aren’t willing to go far enough to make a personal claim, as they just present Jesus with several opinions of what others say. So Jesus asks again, “But who do you say that I am?”
At this point, the disciples are struck dumb. It’s interesting; in the Gospels, the disciples are often presented as speaking with one voice. Now, I don’t think this means that all of them said stuff in unison all the time; rather, the words of the Bible are just standing in for things that are like what they said. It’s about getting the gist of it. But while the first part of the verse says it was “the disciples” who answered Jesus, when he asks that personal question, there’s only one person brave enough to actually say, “You are the Messiah.”
That’s Peter – and it’s important that we know it’s Peter for context later in the passage. Peter has the courage to say who Jesus is. I always imagined Jesus smiling and nodding at someone finally giving the statement of faith that was needed for Jesus to convey all that was going to happen to the disciples. So I figure he smiled, happy for someone to acknowledge who we was, nodded… and then explained how he would be beaten, tried, and executed.
At this point, Peter, the hero like 30 seconds ago, starts rebuking Jesus. “Rebuke” is not a word we often use, but it means a criticism, a “telling off.” So basically Peter starts telling Jesus that he’s wrong about this whole thing. This “rebuke” might actually be more emotional than intellectual. It could just as easily be Peter saying, “NO, Lord! It can’t be true!” as it could be Peter saying, “Stop it Jesus! Don’t say that stuff.” You can’t really tell from context. But either way, this is where Jesus gives his famous, “Get behind me, Satan!” rebuke of his own to Peter.
Jesus is not saying here that Peter is Satan, or a demon, or even hat he’s possessed. Rather, he’s just telling Peter that his ideas are wrong-headed; that he’s thinking in this world rather than the next.
And we see this in the next thing Jesus says to the disciples. Because instead of just laying in to Peter and yelling at him, Jesus changes tactics here. I’m reminded of what good teachers, or good coaches, or good parents do. Instead of just taking one kid to task in front of the group, they turn it into a learning opportunity for everyone. So, while Jesus gets the rebuke in in private, he then returns to the group and tells them that they need to start thinking of their walk with him differently.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” Jesus tells them.
That’s right – Jesus here is telling people that you’re supposed to lose your life on his behalf. It’s probably not, ultimately, the way that most people would recommend you gain followers. Yet, as Christians, that’s our call. But there are a couple of caveats.
First of all, “lose your life,” is a really loaded phrase. Obviously, we think of that most as meaning, “dying.” However, it doesn’t have to mean that, does it? It could mean giving up your life – again, not as in dying, but as in giving yourself to a greater cause. Jesus is asking us here, not necessarily to die for him, but rather to give up our own right to our lives, and to follow him.
Second of all, he says specifically that we are supposed to “take up our cross and follow him.” that means that we’re called to bear the burdens of life, rather than try to just pawn them off on someone else. It means that we have to be willing to endure difficult consequences in order to follow what Jesus tells us to do. But it also means that the reward for us, in the end, is that we save our own lives. In different times and places, this has meant enduring persecution, it has meant literally dying, and it has meant giving up our time, energy, and resources for the sake of Christ. All of these are valid interpretations and ways to follow the guidance of this passage.
I began my sermon today with what I think is probably the most memorable bit from this little moment in Mark’s Gospel, the part about the awful generation – but the truth is, that’s not the heart of the passage. Instead, the real lessons come from what Jesus teaches the disciples. We shouldn’t be ashamed of the love of God. We shouldn’t be afraid of giving “heart” answers rather than “head” answers to difficult questions. Jesus has to teach his disciples to do that, and he has to teach us to do it, too. Because their sins and ours, their weaknesses and ours, have a lot in common.
So note again that Jesus asks two things of the disciples in this short teaching. The first: “Who do you say that I am?” And the second is like it: “Take up your cross and follow me.” We have to ask ourselves the same first question. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Depending on how you answer that question, it’s necessary to ask the follow-up – are you willing to take up your cross and follow him, even when it’s not popular, even when it’s hard, even when those around you think you’re wrong, even when the pressure you get from others tells you not to? If you, like Peter, believe Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior, the Lamb of God, the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Lords… well, then you must be willing to lose your life for his sake.
So where does that leave us? On the one hand, church has a hard message to sell, if this is the point, isn’t it? “Come to church so you can lose your life!” That’s not really going to attract too many people. On the other hand, you know what church offers that other people don’t? Meaning. We’re not losing our lives to addiction or to something that fades in the morning; we’re not giving our time or our energy to the next election cycle or to the popular trend of the day or to the place that gives us the most return on investment. Instead, we’re giving our time, our energy, our resources, and our love to God almighty, who cares for us, who loves us, and who sent us Jesus to show us the way. We give ourselves up for the one who looked death square in the eye and said, “Do your worst.” And then, he won!
Brothers and sisters, Lent is a time in which we contemplate and work our way to the cross. Usually, that’s a metaphor about how we follow Jesus’ journey to Good Friday. But today, I suggest to you that it’s more than metaphor – it’s about your own life, too. We must be willing to do what Jesus did, and take up a cross of our own. We know the answer to the fundamental question, the most basic question, “Who do you say that I am?” We, like Peter, know Jesus to be the Messiah, the Lord. And knowing that, we get ready to bear our own crosses in the march up the hill. But brothers and sisters, do not despair that the journey is hard and that the pain is great; we know that we live for something more. And we know, too, something that God promises us on Easter Sunday morning, just a few short weeks from now: in the end, it is not the wealthy nor wise who win; it is not the prudent nor the adventurous; it is not the attractive nor the popular who win. Rather, it is God who wins, who conquers all, and who asks us to follow Christ, even to the cross. Amen.
One of my all-time favorite Christian stories is about Karl Barth. Barth was, perhaps, the most important theologian of the 20th century. He stood up to Hitler and got himself kicked out of Europe. He came to the United States where he wrote his magnum opus, his masterwork, his systematic theology. It’s called Church Dogmatics, and it’s a 14-volume work that took him 35 years to complete. It’s one of the great works of Christian history, if you’re a really big nerd.
Anyway, he was on one of his various tours to promote some edition of his life’s work, and he was asked about it by a seminary student. The student pointed out that, with a work so long, it would be difficult for people to actually follow along with it. The student asked if there was a simple, brief, even elevator-pitch-style version of his theology. Barth thought about it for a moment, and he said, “Yes, there is.” This surprised the students in the room – after all, who can sum up something so long, so fast. “Yes, there is,” Barth said, “and I learned it at my mother’s knee. ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”
It’s a great moment in the history of the faith, because you realize that, so often, really complicated ideas can be boiled down to simple thoughts. I mean, when you think about it, this happens really often in Christian belief, doesn’t it? I mean, think of the complicated ideas we deal with all the time in church: Jesus being born without a human father; the idea of someone who is both fully human and fully God; the concept of the Trinity where one is three and three are one. We throw around these ideas because they’re so important… yet, at the heart, while they help us to understand God, they themselves are too complicated to really get the point of our faith across. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to have a good passage to preach with a simple, catchy hook. And other times, we have the reading from 1 Peter that we did today.
I’m going to read it again, just so we can hear it. See if it makes any more sense to you this time than it did last time:
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
In three long and fairly convoluted sentences, this reading says a lot of things about a lot of things, so I want to talk about some of the highlights. First this passage dives in deep talking about the flesh and the spirit. The letters of Peter are clearly composed with the sensibilities of someone who grew up knowing Greek philosophy. The Greeks were much more into the idea of the duality of the body and soul. To them, there was a real difference. Judaism, for its part, has traditionally been more interested in the idea of nephesh, which is perhaps best translated as “the self,” meaning that it includes the totality of you, body and soul.
But Greek philosophy has shaped Christian thought more completely, particularly because of passages like this, written in Greek by Greek-speakers and shared with Greek-speakers. This passage talks about how Jesus, though he died, continued to be alive in spirit; he continued to work through those who were “in prison.”
Now, not to get too technical here, but this passage is using “prison” as a metaphor. It’s really about people who are captive to sin – as all of us are. And then the first letter of Peter talks about our earlier reading from today, having to do with Noah and the ark.
I have this theory that Noah’s Ark is actually the best-known story in the Bible, other than maybe the Christmas story. It’s on a lot of artwork, in movies, and even people who have never set foot in a church seem to know at least a little about it. This passage from 1 Peter talks about how God was patient with Noah and his children and saved the whole earth through water.
Then, the passage makes an interesting connection: it connects the waters of the flood to the waters of baptism. The letter implies that the world was wicked, so God used water to wash away the wickedness; now, in today’s world, we have the waters of baptism to wash away sin.
Again, though, the letter wants to get really technical about the whole thing, because that’s what you do when you’re a letter about theology. It states that, of course, the baptism itself is not salvific; in other words, it’s not that the waters are doing something, but rather that they represent something: an appeal to God. We are baptized, this says, because it serves as sort of a phone call to God, reminding God that we’re here, and requesting to Jesus that we would receive the benefits of his resurrection, which is the actual thing that causes us to be saved.
Are you bored yet? You’re supposed to be bored. I tried to summarize quickly, because no one (myself included) wants to actually run down all the little details of this passage, at least not in a sermon. This is a hard teaching, perhaps because it’s only three sentences. But they’re long sentences, complicated sentences – sentences you have a be a linguist of the first degree to parse and diagram and figure out. The Bible is rarely easy reading, and this is as good an example as any as to why people are sometimes loath to crack it open – it’s complicated, and it’s just a whole lot easier to have a pastor explain something in church on Sunday than it is to read it.
But the truth is, while there are a lot of difficult details in the passage, the message at the heart of it is not difficult at all. Not only that, the message at the heart of the passage is not only quite simple, it’s central to the Christian faith. In fact, while we read it all in a very difficult and mentally-exhausting passage to read, the heart of this passage is the very heart of our lives in Christ.
At the beginning of this sermon, I talked about Karl Barth, who summarized a 14-volume set of theology – his life’s work – by reciting the first lines of “Jesus Loves Me,” a children’s song. Brothers and sisters, we were given a difficult passage from 1 Peter today; a passage that uses words like “prefigured;” a passage that uses confusing sentences to try to describe complicated theological concepts; a passage that says things like, “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,” and then starts using literal words as metaphors and using metaphors concretely. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a heavy theological task to read and interpret it, and I thank you for indulging me in the time to go through each little portion of the reading.
Yet, this passage, in and of itself, in spite of the difficult language and syntax, breaks down pretty simply. You’re welcome to look at the passage in your Bible as I go through this; it might help. In the first portion, you can strip away that bit about the righteous and unrighteous. You can also take out the parts about the flesh, and the spirit, and the prison – not to mention the details about the ark.
In the latter portion of the reading, who cares about that “prefiguring” business; take it out. It was complicated anyway, and we removed the flood earlier, so now there’s no context for it here, so go ahead and remove it, too. Next, peel away the details about the dirt and the appeal, and forget for a moment the business about “angels, authorities, and powers.” If you strip that away, move a couple words around for clarity’s sake, and you’re left with this sentence:
“Christ suffered to bring you to God, and you are now saved you through his resurrection.” That’s it. Complicated, full of allusions to other biblical texts and to complicated theology though it was, this text is simple. Christ suffered so you could be closer to God, and you are now saved by his suffering, death, and resurrection. In other, perhaps even simpler words, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
We can easily get bogged down in the difficult parts of our faith. We can (and we should!) question, discern, wrestle, and attempt to know more. But oftentimes in life, the simplest things are the truths we can hold onto. As you begin this Lenten journey this year, hold on to this: Christ suffered to bring you to God, and you are now saved through his resurrection. May you go forth, knowing that Christ suffered to bring you to God, and you are now saved you through his resurrection. Live in that redemption, praising God for your salvation, and sharing the love of God with everyone you meet. Amen.
Sometimes we don’t know our own family history. I’d say that, once a year, I’m completely surprised by something my mom or my dad says about our family’s past. I come from a place, from a specific group of people, just as all of you do. Every single one of us has a past that we weren’t even there for that determines our lives. It is valuable to know where we come from, because it helps explain how we got here.
But, of course, knowing where we come from is not something we’re born with. It’s the job of parents and grandparents to explain family histories, to show us who we are, and to teach us about what that means. I love hearing about it in my own family.
But as Christians, we have an important duty to know our history, too. Unlike family history, our history is not just about knowing where we as individuals come from, because our history is not so self-centered. Our history is the interactions we’ve had with God. Those interactions teach us, not just about who we are, but about who God is. Unlike most of our family histories, we can read about our Christian “family history” in the Bible.
Sometimes, though, I fear that we know just as little about our Bibles as we do about our family history – maybe we even know less. And that amuses me because, at the end of the day, genealogy is a lot bigger than the Bible! The Bible is a finite book, which means it’s possible to read the whole thing. We can certainly learn our history from that.
Today’s readings focus on the Transfiguration. Now, Transfiguration is one of those holidays that comes up every year in the church calendar. It’s about the day when Jesus went up a mountain, had his clothes transformed to dazzling white, and was greeted by Moses and Elijah. It’s a good passage to preach on, which is helpful, because it comes around every year.
But as I thought more about this story, I realized that the story of the Transfiguration itself doesn’t really make sense outside the context of knowing Moses and Elijah. Now, I know that I’ve preached about Moses more than once. Beyond that, you may have grown up watching The Ten Commandments or, if you’re younger than I am, perhaps The Prince of Egypt. Both are great movies that help us learn the story of Moses. But that’s the thing: most people know about Moses. But Elijah? Well, that’s a different story.
Elijah was a prophet in the time of the Divided Kingdom. Some of you may know that there were several hundred years, following the rule of King Solomon, when what we think of as Israel was divided into two parts. The country to the south was Judah, and had its capital at Jerusalem; the nation in the north was known as Israel and had its capital in Samaria. It was in Israel that Elijah did his preaching, prophecy, and miracle-working.
Before we talk too much more about him, I’d like to point out that Elijah’s name literally means “the Lord is my God.” It’s probably no surprise that he goes on to become a prophet. After all, we know that, in ancient times, names were thought of as somehow inextricable from identity; your name is not just what people call you, but it truly says something about who you are. Perhaps you even know the meaning of your name, and perhaps you receive some comfort from its meaning.
Regardless, when we talk about Elijah, it’s impossible not to talk about the times in which he lived. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time in the books of 1st and 2nd Kings, you probably don’t realize that most of the kings who ruled in Israel and Judah were thought of as wicked and no good. Elijah lived during these times. And since the king was inadequate to serve as the moral authority for the nation, Elijah often served that way. He was the one with a connection to God, and he was the one people listened to on important matters.
Many of his types of miracles would be familiar to you: he made food for hungry people, healed the sick, and showed up the prophets of false gods by showing the power of the One True God. And, along the way, he took on a disciple. This disciple was the confusingly-similarly-named Elisha. Elisha followed Elijah around, learning from him. Elisha was more than just a lap dog who followed Elijah around; he truly wanted to be like him.
And that’s where we get to our passage today. Basically, Elijah knows that his ministry has come to an end. Elisha, though, stubbornly follows him around, even though Elijah wants to be left alone. Eventually, the time comes for Elijah to leave. Seeing how persistent Elisha has been, Elijah asks, “What’s one last thing I can do for you?”
Now, knowing that Elijah has performed miracles, it would make sense for Elisha to ask for a miracle – a miracle of healing, perhaps, or for Elijah to just once use his remarkable abilities for selfish gain. It could also make sense for Elisha, devoted as he is, to make his final request that Elijah would just choose not to go up to heaven. Yet, he doesn’t do that, either.
Instead, Elisha asks for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit. In other words, he wants, not just to be like Elijah, but doubly so. He wants to be better than he is – he wants to be better that his mentor is. And when I read that, I don’t see it as greedy or selfish; I see it as a genuine striving to be better. That’s something we can all relate to, I think – the desire to be better than what we are; to break out of the “regular” shell we have and become something better.
And that’s where we return to the Transfiguration of Jesus. Now, we’re given a moment in which we’re supposed to see Jesus differently. Now, we’ve had these before; most notably at Jesus’ baptism, when the sky broke open and God said, “This is my son, the beloved; with him I am well-pleased.” Surely, that miracle was something that would make people stand up and take notice. But this one was a little different.
In that moment, we saw a miracle from heaven; we saw that Jesus was a significant prophet. And here, if all that happened was that Jesus’ clothes turned whiter, that would be neat. But the truth is, it’s Moses and Elijah showing up that really makes this special.
Moses, as you probably know, is the central figure of the first five books of the Bible, which in Hebrew are known as the Torah. “Torah” means “Law” or “Instruction.” These five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) lay out the history of the Hebrew people leading into the Promised Land, and they explain how God has been active in the world in those trying days. They are the central “family history” for the Jewish people, right up to today.
Elijah represents the next segment of the Old Testament. This section is known as the “Prophets,” and one of the central figures there is Elijah. Even in modern Jewish celebrations of the Passover meal, an empty seat is left at the table for Elijah, and he is poured a goblet of wine. This is to symbolize how Elijah – who, as our reading from 2 Kings teaches us, never really died, but was simply taken directly up to heaven – would return at the time of the Messiah. So him showing up here is a big deal.
You may know that, in the New Testament, Jesus speaks a couple of times of “the Law and the Prophets,” which means the whole Bible, because of course there wasn’t anything else at the time. Moses and Elijah are there, representing each of those sides of Scripture. And at this moment, by their presence, they are showing Jesus to be the central point of creation – that to which all of history was pointing, and God’s plan for the redemption of humankind. Positioning Jesus in this way allows God to show the disciples – and, by extension, us – that Jesus is the culmination of all that God has done, is doing, and will ever do. He is the both present with Moses and Elijah, yet greater than either of them. Even these two giants of faith were not what Jesus is. We see a clear sign from God that Jesus is, truly, the Messiah who has come to save the world.
This may seem like a small thing on this side of history. But from the disciples’ perspective, they saw the two men they thought of as the greatest symbols of devotion to God, the two men with the most special relationship with God, be eclipsed by the One whom they followed. This was a big moment for them, and is a good reminder for us to never let our familiarity with Jesus overcome the awesomeness of who he is and what he came to accomplish.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we must learn the stories of the heroes of our faith, like Moses and Elijah. When we learn these old, old stories, like the story of Elijah, we are better able to connect to the more familiar stories, like the story of Jesus. Perhaps we are not only more able understand the words of the Bible, but they become less intimidating to break into. We simply need to know where we come from to know what’s going on.
But the fact remains, we don’t just learn old stories to understand other old stories. Jesus is not a relic or a thing of the past; Jesus is very much alive and present with us today. We can connect, even now, with this very one who was transfigured on a mountaintop 2000 years ago. We are able to connect with this Transfigured Christ, who promises to transfigure us, too. So pray for the double-portion of the spirit of your greatest mentor, and pray freely. In the Christ who greets us at the mountaintop, all things are possible. Amen.
There is a rhythm to most things in the world. Music, of course, has rhythm – that’s the obvious one. But simple things, too: the church year has a predictable, steady rhythm; as well as waves crashing on a beach; the cycle of the moon; the four seasons. We notice the rhythms of other things in life, too, when we give them a thought. Our parents take care of us as children, and as we get older, the caregiving starts going the other way. We all once thought our parents old and outdated, and as we age, we find a new, younger generation thinks about us the same way. We see cycles in the lives of children and grandchildren, as they age and experience the same things we did, making the same stupid mistakes and learning the same important lessons. Rhythm, paces, patterns – these are the things that give balance to life, that make it predictable, that help us when things turn.
Because as much as things are predictable and rhythmic most of the time, we can all think of exceptions, when patterns are broken. In my lifetime, I would certainly say that the events of 9/11 were the biggest such thing on a national scale. There have been other things that have rattled us as a society, though. But regardless of how we experienced those things, we all have things in our own lives that serve as event horizons, after which nothing is the same – a new relationship that changes the direction of our lives, the loss of a friend or loved one, the breakdown of an institution we once held dear. These changes are, in their own way, inevitable; but at the same time, they’re unpredictable. We never see them coming, because they don’t adhere to the strict, rhythmic sense in which the world usually operates. Something pulls us out of our usual patterns, disrupting how we view the world, and it changes everything around us. I have friends for whom this is the reason they don’t attend church: “If God exists,” they say, “nothing bad would happen.”
And yet, here we are, gathered in church together – even though all of us, at some time or other, have experienced something that’s changed our patterns. Church is one of those things that falls into the “rhythmic” category, isn’t it? There are those certain holy days every year, yes. But even those have a rhythm. And for the most part, our experience of church is that incredibly rhythmic, every-seven-days trip to the corner of 1st and Broadway, so that we can hear and sing songs, share time in prayer, and hear the words of Scripture, both in their own context, and expounded upon. I mean, have you ever heard the Lord’s Prayer in another language? Whenever you do, you know exactly where people are, because it has that rhythm that’s the same in every language.
The patterns of worship are life-giving, and they helps us understand the world and God’s role in it. And, as we meditate on the unpredictable breaks to the usually-rhythmic nature of our lives, in fact, I think the most important thing this pattern of worship gives us is that it helps us keep order in the times of chaos. While we know that those unpredictable times will come, it is the order and the rhythm of our weekly worship that can help ground us and keep us connected to God, even when the world seems to be changing too rapidly for our own good.
In Mark’s Gospel today, we read about Jesus and the disciples, of course. But I want to set the stage of where they came from. It’s early in Mark’s gospel – only the first chapter, after all – but already Jesus has performed his first great miracles in Mark. He teaches in the synagogue, and a man confronts him, more or less during his little sermon. Jesus casts a demon out of the man. And that’s what happened immediately before our passage from today.
So what happens after that earth-shaking, strange, and miraculous event? Jesus, for the first time, takes the disciples through the pattern that will define his ministry. That pattern is this: healing, praying, and sharing.
It’s a really simple little pattern, but it’s critical that we learn it, because it’s meant to define our lives in Christ, too. After this event, Jesus and the disciples go to Simon and Andrew’s house, and find Simon’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. And Jesus starts with her – but soon, more people gather. People are coming from all over to see him. These are people in need of healing, either physically or through possession. Either way, Jesus removes the things that are burdening them.
But think of how exhausting that would be! Jesus has basically just been put in charge of the well-being of a whole town. So how do you take a load off after that? Well, we hear from the text in verse 35 that Jesus goes off on his own, early in the morning, to pray. I’m not going to tell you that prayer is somehow more effective early in the morning. In fact, I may or may not be married to someone who’s not more effective at anything early in the morning. But either way, Jesus retreats by himself to connect with God. He needs that time, away from the hustle and bustle, so he takes it.
Then does he immediately go back to work? Is it about work and rest, in a never-ending cycle? Sometimes, that’s how we think of life, isn’t it? We’re just moving from one thing to the next, and in the middle, we’re resting. But that’s not what Jesus does. Instead, he and the disciples go out preaching the Good News. They start sharing. Human life necessitates interaction with others – verbal interaction, in which we exchange ideas, share our emotions, share our experiences, and communicate with others what the deepest longings of our souls are. Sharing is not just about “taking turns,” which is how it’s so often explained to little kids; true sharing is about giving from what you have, and making what you have, someone else’s.
Sharing, in a church context, necessarily involves sharing our faith: where it comes from, what it is, and (most of all!) why Jesus is good news to you! You’re here today because Jesus is somehow good news to you, and that’s worth sharing with others.
This simple pattern of healing, praying, sharing is what keeps Jesus going in the difficult times he faces. Believe it or not, you can see it in the most difficult time of his life, though not necessarily in this order. In the final days before Jesus’ execution on the cross, he went out healing (as ever), shared his faith both publicly and shared of himself with the disciples at the Last Supper, and he prayed alone in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus’ pattern of getting by in the world is not just for him – this is a pattern for us, too. We are meant to heal. Now, in our cases, that may not be physical healing (though for the people who do that work, it certainly counts, I think!), but we have many opportunities to heal others. Kind words, kind actions, bringing justice to the wronged, carrying food to the hungry and giving clothes to the naked are all forms of healing. In other words, doing the work that Jesus gives us to do is our pattern for healing the world! We can’t take that responsibility lightly. It’s our job to do the work of Christ in the world.
But of course, our whole lives cannot be work; no one can function like that. So how do we “refill our cup,” after we’ve poured out what we have? That’s where Jesus turns to prayer. We need to connect with God. Now, some of the “righteous” Christians we meet seem to think that all we need to do in life is pray and read the Bible; those folks miss the point, though. Connecting with God is our first calling, but not our only calling. We need to be out loving others, as well. But if we spend all our time doing that, we neglect God. So prayer, particularly private prayer, is a time to get brutally honest with ourselves, to bear our whole being before God, and to truly allow ourselves to be fed by God’s presence.
And finally, filled with God and having served, we live our lives in the world, sharing with others. This is the disciples in our story, gathering again with one another at the end of the day, sharing what they’ve accomplished, and getting ready to go back out into the world to share with others. We share the highs and the lows, and we share what God has done, is doing, and will do in the future. We connect with people, truly and deeply, and we get them to yearn for the sense of satisfaction we feel from doing the work of God; we get them to desire the sense of connection we feel through our prayers and our worship. When we do those things, we create and environment in which people want to come along on this walk with Christ.
We cannot possibly go through life doing only one thing; we aren’t built just to work, nor just to pray, nor just to connect with others. Rather, we are meant to do as Jesus did: to do all of these things, to be fed by them, and to, through them, discover the life abundant that God has in store for each and every one of us. Amen.
Carissa was supposed to teach a continuing education class for the teachers at the Marion school on Friday, but it had to be rescheduled. Anyway, as most all of you know, Carissa teaches ESL – that is, she teaches English to people who don’t speak it. As part of this continuing education thing she was doing, she was going to have the other teachers watch a Swedish educational video and answer questions in Swedish. The idea was that the teachers could see what it was like for a student who didn’t speak English to be given an assignment to do in class – if it’s not modified at all, it’s going to be hard – nearly impossible – to do.
I think it’s very easy to feel that way as Christians reading our own Bibles. I would venture to say that most Christians own a Bible (there are roughly 1.8 Bibles per person in the United States), but don’t necessarily use it. Part of the reason – maybe the whole reason – people don’t open that Bible is that they’re worried about not understanding it. They believe that it’s impossible for people to understand, unless they’ve specifically studied it in school.
This is quite contrary to some other movements in history, particularly the Reformation, from which our Presbyterian tradition comes. In the Reformation, one of the big stated goals was to get the Bible into the hands of common people, because it was basically an understandable read. This waffling back and forth as to whether the Bible is something anyone can understand has gone on for centuries, and will undoubtedly continue. On the one hand, most of the words in the Bible can be understood by anyone with an 8th-grade education. On the other hand, most of the context of the Bible is what people miss. Of course, the easiest way to understand the context is to actually open it up and read it sometimes, but that’s another sermon for another day, so I don’t want to crawl too far down that rabbit hole.
Instead, today, I would like to talk about one of those Bible passages that you can easily miss the nuance of if you don’t have an understanding of the Bible and the times in which it was written. For example, today’s passage is from one of Paul’s letters. Now, even if you know that Paul was one of the earliest converts to Christianity (though not one of the disciples); even if you know that this is a letter; even if you know that this letter was addressed to the church in Corinth, which is a city in Greece; even if you know all of that information, this passage could still be a mystery to you, because it’s about such a foreign concept. Meat sacrificed to idols?! What is this thing even talking about? Even if you got some of that, there’s a load of context we’re missing about in-fighting in early Christian worshiping communities. So let’s start with some information about the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire, which was the world power when Jesus lived, was one of the most powerful empires in history. Basically all of North Africa (the parts that border the Mediterranean Sea, anyway), the Middle East, and most of Europe were under Roman control. You may also know that in the Roman Empire, they worshiped a lot of gods. For one thing, the emperor of Rome was considered to be a god, or at least the “son of a god,” which is why Romans got so upset about Christians talking about Jesus as the Son of God – it was treason, claiming that the emperor wasn’t truly your ruler. But they also worshiped a whole pantheon of fictional gods and goddesses they claimed were real. You probably know of their names: Jupiter, Pluto, Neptune, Mercury, Venus, Mars… some other ones who the planets aren’t named after, too.
Anyway, typically, a lot of Roman celebrations revolved around holidays back in Paul’s time – just as our biggest celebrations revolve around holy days. However, their holy days were days for these false Roman gods, not for the true God, whom we worship, who came to us in the form of Jesus Christ and saved us from our sins.
So here’s what would happen. You had a lot of people at these festivals, including Christians. Christians would go, because everyone went. You had the day off of work, you went to the local Temple, you hung out with people, and you ate food. Now, you may have noticed that something in there didn’t sound right – the part about going to the local Temple. Well, that is, of course, where these celebrations were held. They took place in the Temple, because they were religious feasts. A Temple, to differentiate from other types of houses of worship, is specifically a place where you make sacrifices, particularly animal sacrifices.
In Judaism, which did have a tradition of animal sacrifice, once the animal was offered to God, it was burned completely; it was a true “offering” because you were giving it up to God. In Roman tradition, however, you “gave up” the animal by giving it to the priest, who then didn’t burn it whole, but basically cooked it. Then all the people at the festival ate it. This seems a lot less like a sacrifice, which is supposed to be about giving something up, and a lot more like a potluck, I think. But either way, it’s what happened.
Now, the church in Corinth was of three minds about this whole thing. There were some people who attended these things, and others who didn’t. And even among those who attended, there was further division. Some people there would eat the food, and some wouldn’t. See, for those who chose not to eat (whether they went or not), they weren’t eating because this was food intended for Roman gods. They saw it as engaging in the very practice of idolatry. “Idolatry” is, of course, the word we use to mean “worshiping false gods.” These Christians’ basic argument was this: “If you are doing the same things as all these people and they are worshiping, then you are worshiping; and if you’re worshiping a false god, then you’re not really a Christian.” So there were many in the church in Corinth who were mad at the people who would eat at these festivals. But what was their logic behind eating?
Well, those who did eat the sacrificed meat had a pretty good counterargument: they knew that these gods were fake. They couldn’t be worshiping, they argued, because you can’t really worship something if you don’t think it’s real or important. They looked at it as a chance to get together with other people and eat good food. There’s nothing wrong with that. If the other people happened to think it was all some celebration for some pretend god, who cares? These folks weren’t interested in turning away from God… but they weren’t going to turn down a free meal, either, so they just went and enjoyed their food. Plus, procuring meat was difficult and very expensive. These feasts were a good time to get healthy, nutritious food that might’ve otherwise been lacking in their diets.
So that’s the controversy facing this ancient church. And I suspect there are people out there thinking a variety of things. For example, some of you are thinking, “That’s interesting. I wonder what I would do.” Some of you know which of these arguments sounds more like you already. Some of you are thinking about what you’re going to eat after church. And still others are thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good, but WHAT does this have to do with our lives today?”
I will admit, I have preached on a great many things in the Bible, and it’s really hard to think, offhand, of anything that (on its surface) has less to do with our lives today than this passage, because it’s so absurdly granular and specific. I don’t disagree with that. And yet… how often are churches today in conflict? How often to fellow Christians disagree with one another on a topic – how to live, how to vote, how to dress, where to shop, even, as people in our AJ Jacobs book study learned, what to eat. We can disagree about any of those things and much, much more. But in this passage, Paul gives us some amount of guidance that’s timeless, even if the problems of the passage have nothing to do with our lives – in fact, even if this problem wouldn’t have meant anything to other people in Paul’s own life.
The passage begins by telling us that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That’s in verse 1 of the chapter. It sounds catchy, but it’s actually the solution to the problem that Paul is addressing in the text. Greek rhetoric sometimes works this way, in that it will propose the solution right away, then work at the problem, and then re-incorporate the solution. It’s actually a really good way to write, but it makes it difficult to understand as a modern English-speaking audience.
When Paul says that “knowledge puffs up,” he doesn’t mean that knowledge is bad, per se; as he also says in verse one, “all of us possess knowledge.” Rather, what he means is that knowledge, without love, does no one any good. So he wants us to understand that love, particularly love of God and neighbor, is the most important thing we can have. And then he supposes a scenario to those who eat the meat at these festivals. He basically says, “Yeah, you’re right; these other gods aren’t real, and they don’t matter, and we shouldn’t be concerned about them. BUT, if you eating this meat is hurting your brothers and sisters in Christ, maybe you should think twice about it.”
In other words, Paul wants us to consider how our actions affect others, and particularly how they affect the faith lives of others. Paul just wants to make sure that it doesn’t become confusing for new Christians, who might think that these people who eat the food at these gatherings are engaging in worship of these false gods.
The thing that’s really hard for us to wrap our minds around in this passage is that this is one of those times when the message of the Bible rubs against the message of American culture. Our culture, as a whole, is very individualistic. “What’s right for me is right for me, and what’s right for you is none of my concern.” But this passage encourages us to actually consider the faith lives of others; for us to use our own habits, actions, and lives as a reflection of our faith. What we do has a reflection on others, too.
How we are seen might change how people around us believe. If people around us see that we are good, loving, kind, generous, helpful, and faithful, they will think Christians are good, loving, kind, generous, helpful, and faithful. If people around us see that we are cruel, intolerant, vindictive, gossipy, and judgmental, they will think that Christians are cruel, intolerant, vindictive, gossipy, and judgmental. And more and more, the most up-to-date research says that those characteristics in the second group are how people outside the church see people inside the church. So let us not be stumbling blocks on the way to Christ. Let us embody the life of Jesus. Let us be thoughtful and knowledgeable, but let us above all other things be loving, and make our actions reflect the actions of the One who came to save us. Amen.
You can’t help picking favorites. When I was a kid, I was so in love with The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien that I read it more than once a year, from third to ninth grade. My mom always tried to get my family to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas, and though that didn’t work, I know that some people do that. I have a friend who reads a Neil Gaiman book each year; another who reads a Jane Austen book. It’s easy to pick a favorite book or movie, to have something you pick up every year and read or watch. We have a whole group of food that people call “comfort food” for this very reason – it brings comfort, peace, stability, reminds us of good times, helps us connect with who we are and where we come from.
Well, of course, preachers are no different in what they like to preach about. Today, we’ve arrived at one of those “comfort food” passages for me in our reading from 1 Samuel. It’s not, perhaps, the best-known passage, but it is an important one. You may be familiar with it by now, if you weren’t before I came to Marion, because I’ve used it a lot of times. I know I preached on it three years ago, have done a Bible study on it, and it was a topic at a 3F night. So it’s definitely one that’s a go-to for me.
I guess the reason it’s such a powerful passage for me is that I think its lessons are so universal and so important. But before we get into all that, I want to set the stage a little, because the book of 1 Samuel takes place in a time of serious transition for the Israelites. And while I think the lessons of the passage are universal, the setting of the story is absurdly specific.
As you may know from your Bible, or from Sunday school classes sometime in your life, the Israelites were different than the other tribes around them. This was true for a long time, but it was especially true in the time of today’s passage from 1 Samuel.
In the ancient Middle East, there were dozens of groups of people congregated in the same area, but all of them had a king. That was simply how the world worked. In fact, with a very small number of exceptions, that was true for the whole world through the middle of the 1800s… which doesn’t sound that long ago, when you think about it. Anyway, the Israelites worked a little differently. They didn’t need a king, because they had God. And they knew God’s will be consulting the religious leaders of their day, known as the Judges.
The Judges weren’t appointed or elected, they just sort of popped up. I have described it before as what usually happens in a group of friends. You’re trying to decide where to go or what to do; who’s the person that you look to in order to make the final decision? Whoever that person is, is the leader. The Judges kind of worked like that – people weren’t voted on or chosen by a superior; it was simply obvious to anyone who saw them.
Anyway, in this time of Judges, a mother named Hannah, who had been infertile, desperately wanted a child. She prayed and prayed and prayed, and she promised God that, if she were to have a child, she would make sure that her son served God; she would offer him up as a living sacrifice to God’s glory, if she could just be given the gift of motherhood. Well, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. And, in order to symbolize his devotion to God, he would never cut his hair, and he would never drink alcohol. When he was old enough, she took him to Eli, the chief priest, and gave Samuel to him to raise in the Temple, so that Samuel might be made an apprentice to the priesthood – learning about the religious life, making sacrifices, and spending long hours in prayer. His entire life of service in the Temple was laid out from a very young age – certainly less than five years old. That was going to be his lot. It was, of course, an honor to serve God – it still is – but his course was charted as a worker in the Temple. His life didn’t hold any spectacular promise; his miracle had been his birth, after all.
As a very brief aside, we learn at the beginning of the passage we read today that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” I think it is, in many ways, comforting to read something like that in the Bible. I have heard people ask, “Why aren’t things like how they were in the Bible, with miracles left and right?” I think we miss something there; while there are a lot of miracles in the Bible, the Bible covers a lot of time. There are more “dull” stretches in the Bible than we think about. This may be the only place in Scripture that actually addresses that specifically and using words, but it’s nice to hear. It’s also comforting to know that God’s special interaction in the world, whether by word or work, is never completely absent; just “rarer” in some times than others. That’s probably a reminder we all need, from time to time: God isn’t gone, but we can’t go around expecting miracles. After all, if they happened constantly, they wouldn’t be miracles, now would they?
Anyway, into this time of rare words from God, Samuel serves. And he’s doing fine. He does his duties in the Temple. So one night, he lies down to sleep, and that’s when something extraordinary happens. He hears a voice saying, “Samuel, Samuel!” Like any logical person, he runs to the only other dude he knows is there, Eli. “Here I am,” he says. Eli, not having called the boy, is confused, and sends him back to sleep. I’m quite familiar with a voice breaking into my sleep and crying; but never had my son actually accused me of calling out to him. So I can only imagine how Eli felt at this accusation.
So Samuel goes back down… only, the same thing happens again. “Samuel, Samuel!” he hears. And again, he goes to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.” “Still wasn’t me, Samuel. Go back to bed,” Eli tells him. When it happens a third time, Eli realizes that this might not be the fever-dream of a young man. This is God. So he says to Samuel, “Seriously, go back to bed. But if it happens again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
Sure enough, time #4 comes. Samuel is again called by God, and he answers as Eli instructed him. We stopped the reading there, but what happens is this: God reveals a vision to Samuel about the future of Israel. And from that point on, Samuel is God’s special servant. He becomes one of the Judges – the final one, in fact, as he is the person who anoints the first (and also the second) king of Israel.
Now, I said that this was a favorite passage of mine because it was so universal. Listening to that story, I think it would be easy to say, “No, David, you are completely wrong; that story is insanely specific.” And yes, it is specifically what happened to Samuel. But it’s universal, not because everyone has the exact experience of trying to go to sleep in church only to be woken up by God; rather, it’s universal because, even when we perceive God as silent, God is active. Even when we feel like our work is one thing, God comes along and gets ready to shake us up. Even when we feel like we’re never going to see the big picture, God shows us that the ‘big picture’ was even bigger than we imagined. In short, this is what we all live for as Christians.
God is calling us to do things all the time. If we’re young, we may be called to be kind to a person we see sitting alone, or to play with a classmate who gets ignored by other students, or to be spiritual leaders by inspiring our parents to do more prayer or Bible time in the house; if we’re older, we may feel inspired to invite someone to church, or to make our job a better expression of our faith, or to make God a bigger presence in our home life; if we’re older yet, we may feel led to find a way to give more of our time back to our church, or to connect better to the youngest generation around, or to learn something new even though we’ve already learned a lot in life. And any one of us, regardless of age, might feel the need to get in touch with a long-neglected relative or friend, or to change a destructive personal habit, or to meet new people, or to increase our time in prayer and devotion.
God calls us to many things, but just like Samuel did, we may not know where they come from. We may not know what to do. We may choose to ignore them. Hopefully, like Samuel, you have in your life an Eli. This person doesn’t need to be older or more experienced. In fact, while Eli is older than Samuel, you’ll notice from the clues we’re given in the passage that Eli has probably never had an experience like the one Samuel is having. Yet, he’s able to coach and encourage Samuel throughout his own process. These coaches we meet, who help nurture our development, are wonderful people and should be thanked, and perhaps God may ask you to do just that – to thank someone who’s been taking care of you.
In the New Testament passage that we read first, from the life of Jesus, we see a similar case of God’s calling. Jesus simply walks up to a guy (Philip) and says, “Follow me.” Philip does, and he brings along his friend Nathanael. Wouldn’t it be nice if all our attempts to follow God were as simple as being able to recognize God right in front of us and simply answering with an “okay” and following along?
Unfortunately, we live in a much different time. We don’t see Jesus walking down the street. Instead, we hear his voice in our gut. We hear it in the prayers and the hymns at church. We hear it in the voices of the people who love us. We hear the voice of God all the time, calling us softly to what we’re supposed to do next.
Sometimes, when I’m overwhelmed, when I need to remember what God’s love is like, I ponder how big the universe is. It’s unimaginably big; billions of stars stretching untold lightyears of distance. It’s impossible to picture just how big all of creation is… and yet, God loves me. God loves you. God cares about the choices we make. Isn’t that amazing? Everything is so big that it almost seems enough to glorify God. But if I made something that big, I don’t know how concerned I would be about a couple of people here and there. Yet, God does care.
God cares enough to interrupt our lives, repeating our name, and calling us to something new. No matter where we are in life, God cares and calls us forward. That’s the lesson of our story. It’s our job to listen; it’s our job to seek out the people who can help us figure out what’s next. Most of all, it’s our job to honor God’s love and care for us by living for Jesus, who calls us to his service anew every day. So speak, Lord; your servants are listening! Amen.