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17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.
Thank you, Martha of Bethany, for your furious statement to Jesus. You said what we have all wanted to say in the face of senseless deaths, deaths too young, and mean violence. You didn’t shout, “Why?” Instead, you spoke to your faith in Jesus and to your disappointment in him. You believed he could have and would have healed your brother. That’s faith. But then you challenged his absence when you needed his presence so much. That’s disappointment. For many people it’s a disappointment that faith struggles to overcome.
In a Bible study this week, I brought up this point. For the most part, the participants in that group are all women in their 70s-90s. When we started a conversation about faith and grief, one woman said, “When my child died, I was really mad at God for a couple of years. My son was two years old.” Another piped up, “My nine-year-old son died in a car wreck. My 16-year-old son was the driver.” Yep, just open that Pandora’s box of grief, and out will spill all sorts of stories of faith in Jesus and disappointment in Jesus.
Christians have historical trouble arguing with God much less raging at God. As is witnessed by the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), such as the Psalms, the Book of Job, and various prophets, the Jews are not so anger-averse in their prayers and conversations with the Holy One.
Jews are comfortable fussing back at God, reminding God of the holy covenant, and asking hard questions. Even more, agnostics and skeptics are extremely curious and questioning about how it is that Jesus can heal the man born blind, can turn five loaves and fishes into food enough for 5,000 men plus women and children; but allows one of his best friends to die. No explanation is really ever offered for his delay in coming to his friend’s bedside.
Classic preaching about this story would lead us to believe that Jesus delayed in coming to his dying friend so that he could bring him back to life and demonstrate that he is both the “resurrection and the life.” I wonder if this made everything alright with Martha.
Given all the people I know who dropped out of church or who carried unforgiving anger toward their pastor who didn’t visit Mama when she was dying (even though she went to be with Jesus), I can’t imagine Martha was all jazzed about making an early Easter dinner when they went back to the house.
Lazarus’ death, given the time that he lived, might have been agonizing. Those who have kept vigil at the deathbed of someone who is not passing peacefully know the agony and helplessness. “Where is God in the midst of this?”, is every vigil-keeper’s question. Why would Jesus let him go through that torture?
Two other things that wouldn’t have escaped Martha’s notice is that Lazarus would eventually die again. He was back to life, not immortal. She would grieve him again. The other thing that would soon become clear is that the raising of Lazarus (in the Gospel of John) becomes the final straw that leads to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. In John 12:9-11 we are told that the chief priests were planning to kill Lazarus also because it was on account of his new life that so many were believing in Jesus. Martha’s and Mary’s grief would soon be doubled. Only the promise of resurrection could dry their tears and repair their dashed hopes. Loving Jesus can be complicated. But Lord, to whom shall we go?
1As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”
While I’ve only quoted John 9: 1-9 this big story in this gospel often called the “Healing of the Blind Man” goes on for 41 verses though the conversation and teaching about it continue into chapter 10. My doctoral advisor once emphatically taught us that we should always refer to this story as the one about “the man born blind” instead of “the blind man”. I wasn’t sure I really understood the emphasis, but I trusted him on this. Because my professor was born blind.
Aware that the man in the story had never seen the light of day puts a more profound focus on his condition. He has always been in darkness or has only seen shadows of things. He doesn’t know colors. He has never seen the faces of his parents who show up in the story. Because we understand that he has always lived in physical darkness, it’s a good time to remember that in John’s gospel, light and dark represent belief in Jesus and lack of belief in Jesus.
What’s intriguing about this unusually long story is that, as many have pointed out, verses describing the man’s cure only take two verses. The other 39 are all about the controversy surrounding this healing. So many questions. So many theological questions! I counted 17 questions in these 41 verses. The first question and last question are addressed to Jesus. First, the disciples ask Jesus about the man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” By the end of the story, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
A lot of movement has taken place in this story. A lot of growth in believing in Jesus, a lot of understanding. Worlds are shaken herein. In these ways it’s a similar pattern to the story of the woman at the well. Growth in faith, believing in Jesus isn’t a flash in the pan conversion experience, but is often a slow revelatory process.
This always brings to my mind the wonderful quote by Martin Luther about growth in righteousness. He wrote so long ago:
This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness,
not health, but healing,
not being, but becoming,
not rest, but exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be,
but we are growing toward it.
The process is not yet finished,
but it is going on.
This is not the end, but it is the road.
Only death, not perfection, completes this process. This tells me that we must be patient with ourselves and with each other. This tells me that we love our neighbor by encouraging their growth in faith. It seems we should also remember that growth in faith, moving from blindness to sight for us, isn’t a slow upward climb. Sometimes we wander off the road and the darkness of doubt closes back in on us. For some folks this is a quick episode. For others it might be years. Wherever we are in the process, Jesus has our backs and our souls. Let’s continue to hold each other up in the light!
5[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. . . .
Last week in worship, many of us heard again the story of Pharisee Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. The story before us now is in a different time zone.
For those observing the pattern of Lenten worship, we are experiencing a series of Sunday gospel stories that are long in verse and theologically thick. All are painted with the faith colors important to gospel writer John. Too often we ignore these as we lift stories out of their whole scripture context. That causes us to only hear the stories in “black and white” rather than in multi-color. Let’s look at some of the color in the story in John 4 (I recommend pausing here and reading the story yourself) and getting a new or better picture of what is being shared with us.
[And as an aside to my colleagues who are pastors or faith teachers, I would recommend adding to your bookshelf the commentary on John written by Dr. Karoline Lewis at Luther Seminary in the Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentary. Karoline’s expertise in John’s gospel, her passion for biblical preaching, and her particular focus on the women around Jesus; all contribute to an excellent resource for your ministry. I will share here some of Dr. Lewis’ commentary combined with my own as we dive briefly into this deep well of a story.]
Here's something we often miss when we yank a story out of its biblical framework. This story in John 4 comes quickly on the heels of the Nicodemus story in John 3 that contains the very popular verse of John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life…
And almost immediately after this verse, Jesus, on his way back to Galilee says he has to go through Samaria (the land of enemies for the Jews of this time) in order to get home. Geographically, it’s not necessary. Jews avoided going through Samaria all the time by crossing the Jordan River and going up or down the other side. But it was a theological necessity in order to show his disciples what this “world” God so loves looks like and who lives in it. The world is all of creation, not just those in “our world”. This is who the woman of Samaria represents – people that seemed “other-worldly” from a Jewish perspective. That’s one color in this portrait of Jesus in John.
Another bold color is the way John uses the imagery of light and darkness in his gospel. In the Nicodemus story, that seeker came to talk to Jesus in the dark of night. A chapter later, Jesus meets the woman at the well at high noon, the brightest time of day. Why does this matter, really? Because John uses darkness as a metaphor for unbelief and light as a metaphor for belief.
Very often in sermons and Sunday School lessons of old, the woman coming at noon has been thought to signify her avoidance of the other women who would come early in the cooler morning. Why? Because reading further in the story we learn that she has been married several times and that she is currently living with a man who is not her husband. Immediately and unfortunately, this causes many people to yell out, “Tramp!” in their minds. Coloring her as a prostitute or some fallen woman seems to be the only color that comes to mind when many hear this story or teach it or preach it.
But the right crayon to pick up for gospel writer John to paint in this unnamed woman isn’t the color of sin. That’s because in John’s gospel sin is not defined by past misdeeds or naughty behavior but is defined as a lack of a relationship with God. There’s no indication that this woman lacks a relationship with God or lacks what most of us have – a relationship in progress.
So what about all these husbands? That might be a reasonable reason in our day to raise a moral question, but the well woman lived in a very different time and culture. As a woman of her time, she is likely widowed or divorced. Dr. Lewis suggests that if she was divorced (which is something the husband decides often for trivial matters like one too many burnt dinners) it could have been because she was unable to have children. The fact that she is now living with a man to whom she is not married, isn’t like “living in sin” as our grandparents would call it. It could also be that a dead husband’s brother, who was obliged by Deut 25: 5-10 to take in his brother’s widow, if not by marriage, then by arranging for her to live in the family’s basement; had done just that.
Jesus, the incarnate one, God like us, recognizes what her life is like, he knows about the things that define her. To color her story and this whole story with the incarnation is powerful. The incarnation color paints a picture that says, Jesus doesn’t just know about us, he knows what it is to be us. And to be so understood by Jesus causes a great shift in her life that even more colors fill in. She is a very unexpected disciple. I hope somewhere her name was preserved and that one day it might be a wonderful unexpected archeological find. But for now, we color her unnamed and we color her beloved in the world God so loves.
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Many worshipers on Sunday will hear this reading from John, but it will continue through verse 17. That means it’ll include the most famous verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…” It’s a verse so well-known that its very citation “John 3:16” can be flashed up on a piece of cardboard at a football game as witness to the gospel. Unfortunately, it’s too often ripped out of context leaving the Pharisee Nicodemus, the one who is in conversation with Jesus at this point, nothing but a forgotten prop. Sorry about that Nic!
In this time before Easter, the church invites us to ponder anew our own discipleship and the discipleship of our whole community. What we discover is great discipleship diversity. I think Nic at Night here, is an example of what that looks like.
Nicodemus has obviously been listening to Jesus’ teaching and seeing or hearing about his miracles of healing. He says to Jesus when he comes to meet him one night, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” He has this wonderful, yet perplexing theological conversation with Jesus.
Nicodemus isn’t asked to give up everything and follow. He’s not asked to resign from the roster of Pharisees. He is invited to see faithfulness in a different way. He’s challenged to re-define what it means to be in relationship with God and with his neighbors. They talk, and then Nicodemus shrinks back into the shadows. And we think, well, that's it. He’s a guy who just doesn’t get it, he won’t be back to church. But then four chapters later, a group of Pharisees are arguing with the police about why they haven’t arrested Jesus. Have you fallen for his malarkey, too, the Pharisees ask! And during this argument, Nicodemus appears (in the daylight!) and defends Jesus to his colleagues. He says: “Our law doesn’t judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” And his friends say in essence, “Have you fallen for his malarkey, too?
And then he disappears off the pages of John’s gospel again until chapter 19 when he boldly joins with Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate to let them take the body of Jesus and they gave him a very expensive burial. They gave him a burial that his disciples could not, not only because they were poor, but mostly because they weren’t around having denied, betrayed, and fled.
But Nicodemus’ relationship with Jesus is probably much more like ours. His relationship with God was a work in progress. He was a teacher of scripture but also open that God was doing something new in the world through Jesus. He is a seeker. So many of us are. Seeking to see some sign of God’s presence in our lives. Seeking to be known, understood, loved. Seeking to understand what God is doing in the world and how we’re suppose to be a part of it. Nicodemus was a work in progress. Aren’t we all?
If you have been part of a local congregation or led one in some capacity, you’ve got a lot of “discipleship diversity” stories to tell. Or, if you just talk to people about faith stuff at your local coffee shop (here’s a plug for Curiosity Coffee on N. Main in Columbia, SC where I’ve encountered a wide diversity of people and had some great faith conversations!) or in your high school cafeteria; you’ll encounter all sorts of faithful disciples, former disciples, barely disciples, kind-of-disciples, and absolutely-not-disciples.
The portrait of a disciple is painted with a broad brush by the Holy Spirit. But it’s often too Jackson Pollock for most of us. We’d rather have a photograph of what a disciple looks like, with all the features and colors clearly in focus. We’re a bit suspicious of those who won’t come to church in the light of Sunday morning, but meet up with the pastor at IHOP at 11pm. We often don’t approve of people who come to worship a couple of months, then drop out for six months, then come back for Christmas Eve only to disappear until Ash Wednesday in the dark of night again.
But, note to self, just because the Gospel of John only records these episodic appearances of Nicodemus doesn’t disprove the possibility that he and Jesus met every Thursday night over coffee for a spirited faith-filled conversation. Right?
Nicodemus has many spiritual cousins. He had his own calling as a disciple that was different from Peter and James and John. And it was different from other non-traditional disciples like Paul and Mary Magdalene. Discipleship diversity has always been like this. It’s like this now. How big is your discipleship tent? [Discuss amongst yourselves!]
1Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
When I was a kid, I saw the Devil a lot. Ever present in our house was a mounted Kabuki mask of a devil face my Daddy brought back from his time in the Korean War. My mom often partnered with the Devil when it came to discipline of her kids. If I was in trouble about something, she would sometimes knock on a kitchen cabinet. Then she would say it was the Devil coming to get me for being bad. Thus traumatized, I once had a very vivid hallucination of the Devil’s face (identical to the Kabuki mask) as it appeared on my bedroom wall clutching my favorite baby doll. I could go on with such illustrations, but this is supposed to be “super quick”!
While Martin Luther spoke often about the Devil and seemed to be frequently haunted by his/her presence and influence, (and had Devil-filled hallucinations, like me) most Lutheran preachers and other more mainline Protestant folk don’t speak the Devil’s name very often in preaching or teaching. Some have wondered why we don’t bring the Devil up more often. Wouldn’t we be better taught, better warned, more strongly led to repentance if we had the fear of the Devil put in us?
That might come to mind as we return to the Lenten wilderness where Jesus is met by Satan during a vulnerable time. He’s in a desert with no food, water, or company and it’s been 40 days. Satan tempts him three times with some pretty tempting things for a guy in his position.
Satan, the Devil, the tempter, the snake in the Garden of Eden, is a continuing character in scripture. He/she is the one who constantly tempts us to do the opposite of what God desires. God commands, “Love your neighbor!” The Devil whispers back, “But loving yourself is so much more fun!”
So as modern people of faith, who is the Devil for us? For many of us, the dark man with horns and a tail is perhaps a mythological creature feared by our ancestors. But evil itself is still a constant character in our lives. Whatever it is, whatever we call it, it plagues our purpose to serve God and love our neighbor.
The Devil in our lives is known in monsters like Hitler, the lynch mob, the school shooter who kills a class of first graders. I lift these characters of evil up because it’s easy to assume that we would all agree that they are pure evil. Except, we don’t all agree on that. Hitler still has a fan club, racism still rationalizes hate, and the defense of the 2nd Amendment seems to make even horrible school shootings oddly defensible. It seems to me that our inability to agree on what evil even looks like makes the Devil very real. Evil’s ability to operate so well the “divide and conquer” strategy, is for me a sign that the Devil is alive and well, and no doubt, smirking.
As a post-modern preacher, I admit, I don’t often talk about “the Devil” except on occasions when the Biblical Satan is featured in the scripture of the day. But do I very often talk about violence, cruelty, racism, war and other horrors? Yes, I do. And with that, I would say, I preach about the Devil in every single sermon.
2 Peter 1:16-21
16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
19So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
For those of you who are fairly Biblically literate and liturgically observant, you will know that this Sunday is called Transfiguration Sunday in many denominations. The gospel story is always from Matthew, Mark, or Luke telling of Jesus taking three of his closest disciples up a mountain where he was “transfigured” before them. He became dazzling white and then was joined by Moses and Elijah. It was an amazing demonstration of who Jesus was and God’s voice declaring him his beloved Son was pretty thick icing on the cake.
This passage from 2 Peter uses the gospel story as confirmation that Jesus was the divine one who will return to us to set us free at last. The writer of 2 Peter says that the disciples were eyewitnesses to many amazing graces of God. He says in effect, we aren’t making this stuff up, or just making up our own interpretation of who Jesus was. Then he whacks us over the head with the exhortation: You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place.
I assume when you’ve stood in the white hot presence of the living God you don’t think twice about such boldness. When you’ve felt the heat on your head with your face to the ground just feet from Majestic Glory, you aren’t shy about telling others to wake up to wonder.
To those who are skeptical about stories in the Bible as being exactly what the writer of 2 Peter says they are not, “cleverly devised myths”, I realize I cannot prove a thing to you. All I can do is witness to what I have experienced of the Transfigured Christ and of the transfiguration and holiness of others. I’m aware that a growing number of people find the Bible to be totally mythological with regard to the stories found in its pages. They may acknowledge some good ethical teaching here and there but don’t find it that different from what many other religions and simply people of good will also teach.
So why do some of us heed these scriptural words in 2 Peter to pay serious attention to these Spirit inspired testimonies as a lamp in a dark place? Why do we modern, intelligent, enlightened, lovers-of-science-people stay grounded in these ancient, pre-science stories of the faith? Mainly because we know that we have more in common with these ancestors in the faith than we do differences. No matter how smart, educated, enlightened we are or will become; we are still bound to our human nature. We can know the right thing to do, be aware of best practices, and yet still choose the wrong or worst practices. And we don’t even understand why we do it. We let each other down, choose violence and war over love and peace.
Some say the events of WWII burst the growing bubble of the 20th C that modern education would eliminate hate, war, and other barbaric doings. We learned that all the brilliance that built weapons of mass destruction also caused mass destruction. We saw that enlightened people would gas six million Jews. We saw that loving Dads who were also Nazi soldiers would, as part of their work day, toss Jewish babies up in the air and shoot them dead. Then, they would go home at night and tuck their own kids into bed. We Americans dropped atomic bombs on Japan for rational reasons of war and irrational reasons of humanity.
You see, our education doesn’t change us and obviously can’t save us. I know some do believe us modern people have outgrown the childish religious myths of the ancient ones, like Jesus of Nazareth being transfigured on a mountain and declared God’s child. But as we grieve another senseless shooting at a university in Michigan, it seems to me that the real myths that are being busted have to do with our grandiose stories of our own greatness. I’ll take the stories of God’s greatness and God’s great love for us over these myths every day.
Matthew 5: 21-26
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
These verses in Matthew are just a sample of what Jesus has to say about commandment-keeping. There is a pattern of rabbi-speak that Jesus uses in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. I hope you’ll keep reading more in Matthew 5. The rabbis would use this pattern of “You have heard it was said…but I say to you.” The name of this teaching of the law is “binding and loosing”. Interpreting and applying scripture and tradition by a trusted authority is what happens here. Jesus in elevating Peter among the disciples said that whatever he loosed or bound on earth would be loosed or bound in heaven. In the New Testament book of Acts, we witness a lot of letting some laws and traditions go and others taken up. Much of this is around the concerns of how to incorporate non-Jews into the emerging Church. They didn’t do this willy-nilly, but with a lot of Spirit-led conversation and prayer. They also did it because of the experiences they were having with Gentile neighbors, something they gave total credit to the Spirit at work among them.
In my denomination (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), in 2009 we loosed some former ways of being church together around the issues of LGBTQ persons, especially as it related to ordination and marriage. Like the First Church, this Church took over 30 years of discernment about where the Spirit was leading us, what Scripture had to say, how our traditions informed us, and how our experiences with LGBTQ people shape our understanding (much as what happened with the First Church around Gentile righteousness.) This is what it means to understand the Word of God as a Living Word.
There are in the Old Testament from Genesis to Deuteronomy, 613 commandments. When most Christians speak of The Commandments (with a capital C, notice) they are referring to the first ten commandments, the words Moses (possibly pictured above) brought down from Mt. Sinai. Some Christians would summarize their faith as “believing in Jesus and obeying the commandments.”
But keeping the commandments is very complicated. Many will say commandment- keeping is very easy and straightforward. Is it? Just take the commandment, “You shall not kill.” Aside from some small Christian communities like the Mennonite and Amish, most Christians interpret this commandment so that some killing is allowed and others are not. (I acknowledge that there is a difference in scripture between the Hebrew words “to kill” and “to murder.”) We as a nation allow the killing of enemies in times of war, we allow killing to defend ourselves from being killed, we allow people to receive the death penalty. Notice how complicated it gets when we seek to explain why we might be against abortion but for the death penalty. This is the stuff that drives the strict non-violent Mennonites crazy.
Martin Luther, in the 16th C, did a lot of biblical and preaching work on the Ten Commandments. We still use his basic teachings on them today. He lifted up the Jesus way of commandment-keeping which is to discern what is the most loving and caring thing I can do toward my neighbor in this particular situation. He also flipped the commandments from largely negative to greatly positive. For example, we are commanded to do no harm to our neighbor, yes, but in order to do no harm, we are also commanded to help them with all their physical needs. When I first understood this, I, who had assumed all my life that I would never break the commandment not to kill, was suddenly convicted by realizing that because I participate in a society that allows people to be hungry, homeless, and vulnerable; I was constantly breaking this commandment. Actually, the fact that we struggle to love our neighbors as ourselves, causes us to break all the commandments ad nauseum.
And lastly, and quickly, another thing that makes the commandments complicated is that many Christians and many Jews (except the ultra-Orthodox) have shelved most of those 613 commandments in the Torah. So, for those who confess that they obey all of scripture, we realize that they have been selective in their obedience as most of us have. But that selectivity is largely due to our own binding and loosing that has been sanctioned by some authority in our faith tradition – the Pope, our churchwide assembly, a rabbinic tradition, or our local pastor or even just ourselves (hello, Thomas Jefferson!)
We frequently want our faith to be simple and simplistic. But we have a big God, who insists on complexity, richness, and diversity. To go deep in God is to find great joy and abundant life. These are gifts that an easy checklist of “do’s” and “don’t” will never bring you. Keep it complicated!
[Jesus said:] 13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Jesus used several natural, quotidian, things around us to describe our life of faith, our life in him. We hear two of those ordinary things in this scripture – salt and light. We often hear that as disciples we are salt and light in the world. Here again, it’s nice religious wall art, but what really does that mean?
Jesus also speaks of our faith being like yeast and like seeds that fall into the ground. I guess we aren’t as keen to refer to ourselves as yeasty or seedy. No wall art for you!
What light, salt, yeast, and seeds all have in common is that they dissolve and dissipate (become invisible) into the thing they are seeking to impact. If you are a baker, you know that you can see the grains of yeast that you prepare for the dough, but after they dissolve and are mixed in the lump of dough, you can no longer see those grains of fungi, you can only see what they cause as they give off carbon dioxide – the rising of the bread. Yeast is invisible, but very impactful.
Salt does the same thing. It dissolves into whatever you put it in. You can’t separate it out once it dissolves, you can only taste its presence. Invisible now, but highly impactful. Light, once it floods a room or floods a morning can’t be scooped up and taken out of the air. It too is invisible but impactful.
Seeds become invisible after the little plant starts to grow because it dissolves into the dirt or more rightly, as Jesus says elsewhere, it falls into the earth and dies.
In his teaching, in various ways, Jesus told us that to be a person of faith means that we like salt, light, yeast, and seeds, dissolve into invisibility in our world in order to be highly impactful. The world teaches us that we are most impactful when we are famous, public, on the big stage. Jesus teaches a different way to be an influencer. He says we are most impactful when we die to ourselves, when we dissolve into the very culture around us and influence it in ways often unseen.
Thank you for all the ways you are an unseen, humble influencer in our world, our church, our life together. May your salty, seediness, yeastiness, and lightness continue to be a force for good in our world so attracted to the influencers of negativity and despair. Keep rising!
8He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Many are familiar with Micah 6:8 even if they aren’t familiar with many verses in the Bible, especially ones in the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures. This verse is in some ways God’s will for us in a nutshell – do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. It’s practically preschool theology. It’s perfect for religious wall art. It’s not rocket science. Except when it is.
You may remember an episode of The Simpsons when Homer is having a nightmare that his evil boss at the nuclear power plant, C. Montgomery Burns, is building a Frankenstein robot and is planning to use Homer’s brain in it. Homer lies unconscious on a gurney as Mr. Burns prepares to remove his brain assisted by his loyal assistant, Smithers.
As he prepares to cut Homer’s head open, Mr. Burns instructs Smithers, “Hand me that ice cream scoop.” Smithers is shocked that for such a delicate procedure, he would start with a clumsy and hardly precise instrument.” Mr. Burns scoffs and says, “It’s not rocket science, Smithers, it’s brain surgery. Now hand me that ice cream scoop!”
As a people, we love bumper sticker, wall art theology and philosophy. After all life isn’t rocket science, not complicated. Right? All you need to do is just: “Be blessed to be a blessing.” “Love one another.” “Do justice.” “Make love not war.”
If Jesus thought about getting a tattoo, I’m guessing he seriously considered putting on his body the words of Micah 6:8. Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God – ‘nuf said! It’s like the Ten Commandments in concentrated form. It’s the Golden Rule painted over with a stain of justice. What we love about such things we lift out of scripture is that they don’t feel like “rocket science.” We find peace in their simplicity. It almost makes them seem doable.
They definitely are not rocket science. But they are heart transplant surgery and brain surgery all rolled into one. And in our innocence or stupidity, we approach life and say, “Sounds easy enough, now hand me that ice cream scoop!”
Do justice. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly with your God. When we seek to do these things, we run into two big obstacles. One is us. The other is our neighbor. We discover in the application of our religious wall art, that we are stumped by other things the Bible tells us over and over. If we are hard-hearted, it’s difficult for the will of God to work on us. Hence the necessary heart transplant surgery. And if we do not have the same mind as Christ as Paul said, we discover that loving our neighbor, doing justice, and being fairly humble become real problems. Hence the need for brain surgery to have a “mind of Christ” implant. Doing justice sounds pretty awesome until you count the cost and realize that you might have to give up something (your money, or ego, or prejudice, or classism) in order for your suspicious looking neighbor to have their supposed justice. Now it’s getting personal.
Frankly if you have a problem with doing justice, you’ll no doubt struggle with being kind and humble. They really are part of a package deal according to Micah and according to our human experience.
Maybe Micah 6:8 is as hard as rocket science or brain surgery. We should probably read this verse and realize that rocket science and Einstein’s theories would be easier to understand and do. Organic chemistry is easier than biblical studies.
Doing justice. Loving kindness. Walking humbly. These are hard things for us selfish, broken, sinful people. And still God loves us. And still Jesus keeps cheering us on. Most things worth doing are difficult. Most difficult things are successfully done when we do them together. That’s why Jesus built a community of people, yes, the flawed church, so that we could learn to walk humbly by walking together, love kindness by learning to love the grumpy people traveling with us and doing justice because we have gotten to know others walking this road and have realized they are just like us.
Keep cheering us on, Jesus. We know we are a “three steps forward, 2.5 steps back kind of people” so we need your grace and forgiveness every step of the way. On we go, together!
1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
4One thing I ask of the Lord; one thing I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek God in the temple.
5For in the day of trouble God will give me shelter,
hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary, and raise me high upon a rock.
There are over 300 references to fear in the Bible. When divine beings show up to us mere mortals, often the first words out of their holy mouths are “Do not be afraid.” From fear of spiders to fear of failure to fear of death, many things set us shaking in our boots. The singer of Psalm 27 names a number of things or people who cause us to be afraid.
In the face of fear, the ancient psalmist doesn’t toss out empty platitudes like: “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” or “it is what it is” or “let your smile be your umbrella.” Instead of encouraging us to make lemonade out of our abundant lemons, the psalmist acknowledges that we can’t simply dig deep into ourselves and pull a happy rabbit out of our hat. Turns out we don’t really have “the right stuff” no matter how tough, independent, or skilled we are. Our fear can only be managed by the white-hot presence of the living God. It’s that light that drives our fears away or at least keeps them from crushing us. This song of the heart we call Psalm 27 centers on the confidence of the faithful that we are totally dependent on God. That confessed and professed, where does it lead us?
We speak sometimes of being paralyzed by fear. By that we mean that we can’t take action or can’t make good decisions. When our faith turns to fear, we forget the plot of the gospel story, forget that God is always making all things new, forget that God always has the first and last word. It’s our greatest temptation – to question whether God’s got our backs for real.
When we allow the bright light of God to shine on us, to banish our fears, we can be renewed, brave, and strong. We can turn that fear into fuel for faith and life.
Sometimes I get fearful about what’s happening in our political world and our church world. It feels like the very foundations of institutions I once thought held everything together are wobbling underneath me. But when I allow the light of God to shine on those situations, I realize that the world and human history have been evolving and changing since Day 1. In the light of God’s shining, I see there have been better days/years/centuries and there have been worse ones. While we might not like everything that is going on or wish we lived in a different time, this is the season God has given us. This is our time to live, to turn challenges into opportunities, to decide for love rather than hate.
Thanks be to God whose light recycles our fear in life into fuel for faith. Shine on!
John 1: 35-39
35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.
The church’s season of Epiphany is focused on light – shining it, pointing to it, and being it in all the places we are sent to serve. But it has seemed to me that the stories and scriptures we hear in this season seek to answer one big question: Who is Jesus? In the first decades of the church, everybody understood that Jesus was Mary and Joseph’s kid, that he grew up in Nazareth just like plenty of other folks did. He learned to be a carpenter under his father, and it’s assumed that they probably did a lot of building work together in the new big Roman city of Sepphoris just down the road.
But the gospels proclaim that there’s more to Jesus than rough carpenter hands. The early church proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth was also the Son of God, the Messiah. For the Epiphany season (right after the celebration of Jesus’ birth), the church curates its scriptural claims that Jesus is more than a carpenter, more than a rabbi, more than a rebel, more than one of thousands of crucified criminals left dead by the side of the road.
The church proclaims that this human being is also God’s chosen one to redeem the world. That, of course, is a big claim. So, the scriptures tell us stories of both who is Jesus is and also, I think, responds to the natural second question, “how do we know?”
The core stories in this season seek to do this. They are the story of the visitation of the magi at the manger who worship this newborn (the story on January 6th, the Day of Epiphany), then comes the story of Jesus’ baptism by John when Jesus doesn’t just get wet like everybody else but gets a shout out from God in heaven proclaiming him to be his son. That’s some paternity test! Then there is the story of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana when he turned the jars of water into wine. These are the core stories of Epiphany accompanied by a variety of others in these weeks that tell of his calling of disciples along with stories of miracles he performed. All these stories work together to address the questions: Who is Jesus? and How do we know?
This week we read and hear one of those other stories, this time it’s from John chapter 1. It’s the testimony of John the Baptist, especially in verses 29-34, where John proclaims who Jesus is and tells us how we know. Here John says that he knows Jesus in the Son of God because he witnessed the Spirit descending on him like a dove and heard God’s voice proclaim Jesus to be the “Son of God.” This is the kind of epiphany testimony that has been passed down to all of us.
As a preacher, I have found richness and newness in focusing less on the “who” and “how” questions about Jesus as discussed above and instead focusing on the “what” question in this scripture. In this story when John is walking along with some of his disciples, he sees Jesus from afar and like a bus tour guide yells into the microphone, “Look out to the left and you’ll see the very Lamb of God walking down the road.” With that announcement, two of John’s disciples asked for the driver to stop the bus, got off and chased after Jesus. One of these disciples turned out to be Andrew, Peter’s brother.
What has captured my attention and what holds my imagination captive still is how Jesus responded to these two guys who were chasing after him on that road. Maybe it was the sound of their huffing and puffing as they chased Jesus down, but Jesus notices them following him, turns and asks them a soul-piercing “what” question: What are you looking for? Some translations say, “What are you seeking?” That verb echoes the wise men “seeking” Jesus and is echoed again in the oft-written Christmas message, “Wise Men (and Women) still seek him.”
Imagine yourself as a huffing and puffing follower of Jesus chasing after him your whole life. Imagine Jesus turning, meeting your eyes, and asking, “What are you looking for?” What would you say? If you seriously seek to answer that “what” question, my hunch is you’ll have your own epiphany, not only of who Jesus is, but who you are.
34Peter began to speak to [Cornelius and his household]: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.
I have the impression that most people don’t have Bible verses memorized from the Book of Acts. I could be wrong. It’s a collection of stories from the beginning years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension that describes those early issues facing the first church and the ways the Spirit led them through this new Day and new Way. There are some wonderful teachable moments in those chapters that always seem to be relevant for the church of every time and place. This scripture for the week is part of a long story in Acts 10 and 11. You might hear it referenced as the Story of Peter and Cornelius. The Holy Spirit was hard at work leading Peter, a follower of Jesus, to Cornelius, a non-Jew who was a Roman military leader. This story ultimately leads Peter and the early Jewish Christian community to the understanding that the gospel message was also for the Gentiles (non-Jews), not the Jewish community only. While this might seem like a no-brainer to us all these centuries later, it was a huge ah-ha moment back then. But, let’s face it, the church has continued to have periodic ah-ha moments about who is included in Christ’s church – both in the pew and in the pulpit.
A verse I have memorized from Acts comes from this story. It is the first verse of Peter’s witness statement when he realizes that he and Cornelius have been led together by the Spirit. He proclaims: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Wow!
“I understand that God shows no partiality.” In my Lutheran liturgical tradition this passage from Acts is always our first scripture reading on Easter Day. What that means is, before we even hear the story of Jesus resurrection from one of the gospels, we hear the gospel proclamation: God shows no partiality!
God’s work through Christ and the Spirit are not once-upon-a-time events. They continue to occur in the present, including among all of us now. Our faith community isn’t built around the celebration of historical events but the celebration of current events – what God is doing among us right now. One of our gospel celebrations is that God shows no partiality. A core witness of the Book of Acts is that God works in our world and in our church in unexpected ways.
Dr. Virginia Mollenkott was for decades an evangelical lesbian Bible scholar who said she was radicalized by the Bible. She wrote of this verse in Acts 10 saying, Acts 10:34 quotes Peter’s realization that ‘God shows no partiality,’ a realization that should silence any claim that God is only on our side. . . When almost everyone you live and work with believes and behaves more or less the way you do, it is easy to believe that your way is the only way. But in a society in which Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, skeptics and atheists rub shoulders with one another at work and school, people start to learn, as Oscar Wilde did, that “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.
I find beauty in the rite of baptism because it is so impartial. As Peter discovered 2,000 years ago, the gift of the gospel is available to everyone. Any questions about gender, race, a difficult past, sexual orientation, age; all wash away in the waters of baptism and fall to the bottom of the bowl. For truly, God shows no partiality.
[The accompanying picture was taken by me in November 2022. It shows people from all over the world coming for baptism at the Jordan River, where tradition tells us Jesus was baptized by John.]
13Now after [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.
The Christmas Story of Jesus’ birth, the stuff of falling snow and holiday cards, is continued in these following days of the Christmas season by stories much less merry and bright. Not that the story we read in Luke 2 hasn’t been white washed of its poverty, rejection, and chicken poop in the manger straw. Now like a landscape of beautiful snow several days after its fall, the Christmas landscape is a mess of ice and dirt. The earth to which the Baby Jesus came is rising up to bring him down.
The stories after The Story have not been lifted up in the glitz of secular light. Those who do keep reading in the gospels after December 24thdiscover a tension between the violence of this world (played by Herod) and God’s on-going protection and providing. Here we have stories of real danger as Jesus is hunted and the children of Christmas town are murdered. We hear of the Holy Family in holy flight as they escape from Herod. Gospel-writer Matthew details God’s protective guiding through the deep and dirty snow of Christmas.
Below, I share a piece on this Matthew scripture by well-loved preacher professor Fred Craddock written five years before his death in 2015. I share it because he so nicely continues to show us how the tension between violence and peace begun in this Christmas story, continues all the way to the cross. Here’s Fred:
Matthew's story begins almost humorously: magi come to Herod's city asking the way to the newborn king. You do not ask the king, "Where's the king?" The city is in turmoil; Herod's throne is in question. But Matthew's point is clear: there are two kings; there are two kingdoms, one of violence, one of peace. Violence has its sword drawn against peace, but at every turn, Herod's attempt to destroy Jesus is thwarted by the will of God revealed to and carried out by Joseph. There is no reason to believe that the death of Herod will end the chase. After Herod comes Herod Archelaus, after Herod Archelaus comes another Herod, and another and another. The reader of Matthew will want, therefore, to follow the theme of two kings, two kingdoms to the end of the story.
In fact, we might well take a little time to observe the unfolding of the drama that began at Christmas. The pattern is set: Jesus the King of Peace retreats before Herod the King of Violence. At first, the decision is Joseph's: from Judea to Egypt, then from Egypt to Judea, and finally from Judea to Nazareth in Galilee.
When the narrative continues, Jesus is an adult; what happens to the pattern of threat and retreat now that Jesus is ready to announce the coming of God's kingdom? The old threat reappears: Herod Antipas arrests John the Baptist. In the Jordan Valley, Jesus hears of John's arrest and retreats to Galilee. He moves his home from Nazareth to Capernaum and makes teaching and healing tours. Success is interrupted by a conspiracy to kill him. Jesus retreats, asking the crowd not to reveal his whereabouts. John is executed, and Jesus retreats alone in a boat to a deserted place. Soon comes a verbal clash with a delegation from Jerusalem. Again Jesus retreats, this time to the north, near Tyre and Sidon. He returns to Israel only to be interrogated by leaders of the religious establishment. He withdraws again, but begins to tell his disciples he must go to Jerusalem. Perhaps now he will draw a line in the sand; no more retreat.
At his arrest one of his disciples resorts to violence. Jesus says no: If I wanted, God would send 12 legions of angels to fight for me. He could have, but he didn't. Maybe at Golgotha he will call down divine power and destroy his enemies. He could have, but he didn't.
There is no power like the power of restraint, and there is no restraint like the restraint of love.
In this new year, may we all exercise our power of restraint in the name of love and peace. Blessed 2023, everyone!
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank, Palestine, there is this silver-starred spot on the floor where tradition has it that Jesus Christ was born. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Around 248 CE, the Greek philosopher, Origen of Alexandria, wrote about this site:
In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshiped and reverenced by the Christians.
In 326 CE Emperor Constantine was urged by his mother Helen to build a basilica on this identified holy site. Construction began and we have evidence that pilgrims visited the church beginning in 333.
When it comes to religious sites like this one, we use the language “according to tradition,” a lot. In the very early days of the church, decades before the New Testament was written, the memories or partial memories of those who knew Jesus, were relatives of the disciples, or the people who made up “the crowds” that gathered around Jesus, began to share what they remembered about places and events. As a result, traditions grew up around geographical places such as “this is hill on which Jesus fed the 5,000.”
This Christmas, as always, we will speak and sing of Bethlehem – a place most of us have never been and a place we don’t even mention except in December. And yet, we do go on a spiritual pilgrimage by attending a Christmas service in our local churches or even with Christmas devotions at home, in our hospital room, homeless shelter, prison cell or nursing care facility. For a day or two, these places in Iowa, South Carolina, Tanzania, Japan, and Argentina, become Bethlehem for us. We are there again.
While I doubt that those early traditions were spot-on about the place of Jesus’ birth, it doesn’t really matter much to me. I know what hospital my children were born in, but I hardly remember my room number. None of that affects my love for my girls or my on-going relationship to them.
After all, in our Christian faith community, we are a people who profess “God became flesh.” We have probably done a disservice to this powerful story by disempowering it through the modern decades. Reducing it to cute kids in bathrobes with cloth diapers tied on their heads and pulling toys decorated as sheep gets me every time; but it’s not the gospel story that moves me. It’s the cuteness.
When we make our pilgrimage to Bethlehem this year, what will we see there? What is it that the scriptures want us to hear, to feel, to understand? Matthew and Luke, the only two gospel writers who include an account of Jesus’ birth, must have believed these stories were vital to understanding who Jesus was and who Jesus is. What happens in Luke 2 is meant to happen among us right now.
The story of Jesus’ birth isn’t a historical account at its heart. Obviously both gospel-writers Mark and John felt the story of Jesus could be fully told without it. At its heart, the Christmas story in Luke 2 is a theological declaration that God is always with us in all the places of our lives – including smelly stables and backwater towns, including complex and oppressive political situations, including places of violence and threats. In God’s story, no one is forsaken or forgotten. Just like the shepherds, we are to be witnesses to this declaration that “Behold!” God is with us indeed.
Believing that God really is with us in all things, we are called to speak and act like people who trust this promise.
As you celebrate this promise on Christmas Day, in whatever ways you do, take some time to reflect on how you will live the Christmas promise in the coming days and months. This is truly more vital and spiritual than the normally empty promises of New Year’s resolutions. How will you witness to the promise that God continues to abide with us long after the dried Christmas tree has been dumped on the curb? We who go now to Bethlehem to see all that has taken place, are called then to be Bethlehem wherever we are. May peace be with you and all in this beautiful and suffering world.
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
For most of us, our knowledge of what we call the Christmas Story is a mash-up of two very different stories. One is in Matthew 1-2 and the other in Luke 2. The gospels of Mark and John do not have stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood. The story we tell the best is largely from Luke 2 with the story of the visit by the Magi (found only in Matthew 2) added on. Biblical scholars like to remind us that each of the four gospels are four portraits of Jesus, each with their own theological and preaching agenda. This means that the story of Jesus’ birth that we literally display with our nativity scenes around the house is like merging two portraits of Jesus resulting in a blurry image. In Luke’s story, Mary is the featured parent. In Matthew, it’s Joseph who has angel visitations and who protects his holy family.
In Matthew’s gospel story, the gospeler focuses on Jesus’ title as “Son of David”, a kingly reference. As such he is visited as a baby by kings or magi from other lands who worship him. But Matthew will paint Jesus as a different kind of king. This king gathers the gifts of his majesty and uses them to heal and restore all those who lack. Often this royal orientation is compared to the failure of Israel’s past rulers who cared for themselves rather than for the least of these.
And as Professor Stanley Saunders points out, Jesus is a king who builds a different kind of temple. Kings in the line of David had been temple builders. While these temples were architectural wonders, they were – as my contractor brother-in-law likes to say – just made from construction materials. They could crumble and did. They could be decimated and were. Jesus builds on earth a different kind of temple that cannot be destroyed. As “God with us”, Emmanuel, Jesus becomes the Temple in our very midst. He is the ideal temple that gathers all people, feeds them, protects them, saves them from the worst of themselves.
We don’t have to make a pilgrimage to a particular land or to a particular religious site. Whenever faithful folk gather in the name of Jesus, he is always God with us – again and again.
I think this is a particularly helpful message this Christmas for all of us during what many consider a great transformation of both church and culture. Many of us now are blinking our eyes as our post-COVID church is becoming abundantly clear, and what we are seeing is far from abundance. In most congregations I’m visiting and pastoring, there has been only minimal bounce back from our quarantine times. Congregations that easily had 150-200 worshipers each Sunday all now seem to have 40-60. There has been no big return. And of course, our traditional ministry programs and our traditional budgets are rapidly declining. Fear is our most abundant emotion.
That’s why Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as a different kind of king might be the picture of Jesus we need to hang on our holiday walls. He is God with us – everywhere and in all circumstances. When the great brick-and-mortar Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed along with the Holy City in 70 CE by the Romans, many were afraid that Judaism itself would be no more. And worse, it was thought that God might be dead and buried under the rubble. Hardly.
In an unexpected way, we in the faith communities of the Western world, are experiencing a slow motion destruction of the temples of denominational structures and of local congregations that dot American landscapes. Can God survive our possible demise? Oh, I think so.
We are disciples of a different kind of king. Jesus isn’t nearly as concerned about our church mortgages as we are. Just concerned about us.
In this Christmas season 2022, I hope two things will happen. One is that the gift of the Christ Child will truly bring us comfort, joy, and hope. We need those Christmas gifts of Jesus desperately. The other is that filled with hope and joy and believing, we can begin to seriously focus on our discipleship in 2023 and ask some of the deep theological questions that this season of transformation and reformation is rubbing in our faces. If you want to read more about what some of those questions are, they will be in the up-coming issue of my Ponder Anew blog.
In the meantime, give good old Matthew chapters 1 and 2 a read. Joseph’s example of righteousness, of faithfulness amid things he didn’t always understand, and his loving protection are certainly needed balm for our weary world.
1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
If you play the game of creating four corners of a room with signs that say Winter + Spring + Summer + Fall and invite participants to go to the corner of their favorite season, one season will win out but at least a few people will be in every corner. They can all tell why they love their favorite season – even Winter!
When we hear the word “seasons,” immediately to mind are the four seasons that occur during our annual trip around the sun. But our personal lives and the history of a people or a culture have their seasons as well. The scripture from Advent’s favorite prophet, Isaiah, is a promise of God’s coming to save, coming to save a people who are desperate. Take a look at the poetry here and you can detect the seasons.
To say that the desert will rejoice and blossom implies that before this promised season of beautiful blooms, there was a season of barrenness and dryness. To promise that the eyes of the blind shall be opened implies that there was a season of blindness. Before hearing, there was a season of deafness.
In our personal lives, we can sketch out seasons, too. These seasons make up our life story and our faith story. We can relate times (maybe a week, a couple of months or several decades) when we lived in grief, times when we were deeply in love, times when we went without a single kiss from a loved one, times of our widowhood, and our season of being employed or unemployed or retired.
And for much longer periods of time are the seasons of nations, cultures, peoples. Times of suffering and victory, times of home and displacement, times of power and oppression, times of conflict and peace.
Scripture confesses that God is present and working in all the seasons of our lives – working in both the blindness and the sight, the winter and the spring, the times of love and times of loss. The movement from what we experience as a negative season to a more positive one is often described as healing. When times of war experience healing, they transform into times of peace. Yet, God isn’t a one-time healer, but repeats healing salvation whenever we hurt ourselves or are hurt by others. The mystery of our sinful nature causes us to repeat our mistakes more frequently than we learn from them. We end up bleeding from multiple skinned knees, broken hearts, gunshot wounds, nuclear bombs, and holocausts.
We often question why bad things happen in the world. We, like the ancients, cry out over God’s apparent absence. But faith maintains that God is always present, always working, always saving. Some mock us saying this is all wishful thinking. Some say that a truly loving and all-powerful God wouldn’t allow the tragedies that fill the nightly news, wouldn’t allow the death of innocent children. In a perfect world, some say, there would never be a winter season where creation must go dormant or die.
People of faith don’t seek perfection, we seek God’s face. We believe God is love. And for us, love is greater than perfection.
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea,
proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one
of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’ ”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and
his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea
were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were
baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to
them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to
come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We
have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to
raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees;
every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the
I’ve looked everywhere in the Cracker Barrel gift store, and even though it’s early
December and they start sneaking Christmas decorations in some corner of the
store in September; I can’t find John the Baptist anywhere. It just confirms again
that only in the church and in liturgically observant homes will you find an Advent
wreath burning and a story from the wilderness setting the stage for Christ’s
coming. The scripture from Matthew 3 above is most of the reading that many
worshipers will read and hear on the coming Second Sunday of Advent. Well
before we get to angels harking, cattle lowing, Mary groaning, or a baby sleeping;
we get this. Outside of church worship this story isn’t part of the Christmas
experience. Maybe even inside the church, people in the pews just put up with this
odd character ranting in the wilderness. It’s understandable that there are no locust
cookies or John the Baptist tree ornaments. You just can’t clean this guy up. So,
what’s he doing yelling at us so close to Christmas and what’s his point?
The gospels give the impression that Jesus and John are cousins. Tradition has it
that their mothers were kin. Some scholars are now making connections between
John and the religious sect that inhabited Qumran just west of the Dead Sea from
150 BCE to 68 CE. They lived by a strict code of conduct including foods,
clothing, and religious observations. That might explain John’s diet and wardrobe.
The above picture was taken by me in Qumran a month ago. The area of the Dead
Sea is all dry rock and in ancient times must have been a brutal place to live. We
also know that the book of Isaiah was their favorite scripture, parts of which are
quoted to introduce John to the world. [The Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at
Qumran in 1947 contained a copy of Isaiah far older than any we had at the time.]
Before the angels announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, John came preaching
that the kingdom of heaven was near and it was high time to get ready for God to
show up big time. How does one get ready for something like this? It’s not like
preparing for your life to end as we do with writing a will, designating a power of
attorney, cleaning out our closets, and meeting with the funeral director. Rather
than preparing for your life to end, John says we need to prepare for our new lives
John calls all people – the barely believing and the religious leaders – to come for
baptism, to wash themselves for a new life. And the way we live this life is to
“bear fruit” that shows we “get God”, that we are prepared to have our assumptions
overturned and expectations increased. John is super honest, probably another
reason to avoid him both at Cracker Barrel and at church. Today he might put it to
us this way: Just because your ancestors started the congregation you barely attend
anymore doesn’t count for much. What have you done for God and for your
neighbor lately? Being kind and loving to your family doesn’t make up for the way
you despise your neighbor. Just because you recycle doesn’t mean you’ve check
the box to care for creation. Just because you gave $50 to the homeless shelter on
Giving Tuesday doesn’t mean you can spend $300 on yourself guilt-free.
People who eat honey-sweetened locusts for breakfast preach like that. The desert
has a way of drying you out.
Before we are up to our eyeballs in wrapping paper, Christmas plays, drop-ins and
concerts, give John’s preaching a place in your life and in your heart. You won’t
find him many places, but you’ll find him here.
[Jesus said to the disciples]42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
As a younger pastor, I once experienced a colleague who introduced the reading of the scriptures in worship by saying, “Our service continues with the hearing of God’s Word. Let us all be attentive.” I started using that call to attention as well. Being attentive to God’s Word for worshipers at this time and place (in scripture and in preaching) certainly seems like something we’d want to pay attention to. I offer this notion despite the stereotype of preachers putting their listeners to sleep!
While the culture will refer to the coming days as Thanksgiving Weekend, many a Christian will this Friday and Saturday be preparing their homes and church buildings for the beginning of Advent this Sunday. It’s the first day of the new church year for us. In my house, we’ll be handing out Advent calendars to the younger generation, will be setting up our home Advent wreath, and I’ll start to read on Sunday my annual Advent devotional book, All Creation Waits by Gayle Boss.
All of that sounds warm and homey, yet all the scriptures we will be attentive to in worship will all be “coming in hot!” The above verses from Matthew are but a few of the wake-up words we’ll hear to snap us to attention. Every season of the church year calls us to a particular spiritual practice that we’re encouraged to maintain all year long. In the four weeks of Advent (November 27 – December 24, 2022) we’ll be encouraged to be attentive to what’s going on in the world, to what’s going on in our personal lives, and to what God is doing in the world right now. We need to do this not occasionally, but constantly. Just like a farmer is always attentive to what the weather is doing, we are to always keep our antennae up for what is happening with God, the world and ourselves.
That might sound pretty exhausting. How can we always be in alert mode? That can’t be healthy. How about mindfulness and self-care?
Perhaps we can hear it better as awareness rather than attentiveness. For example, I sometimes hear people say they don’t keep up with the news because it’s too depressing. I often respond that fasting from the news is probably healthy from time to time; but if you don’t know what’s going on in the world, how will you know what to pray for or what people need your generous gifts? There is self-care, which is a beloved priority for some, and then there is neighbor care, which is the priority of the gospel. We can’t care for ourselves or our neighbor if we are not attentive to what is happening in the world around us.
Love, mercy, and generosity must be ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Responding to the world with the justice of the gospel is the balm we are called to offer the world asap. We are always dealing with what Christiaan Beker calls “the discrepancy between what is and what should be.” This is the tension of this season. Yet the promise of this season is that Jesus shows us what it looks like to stand in that gap between what is and what should be. Be attentive to what Christ now shows.