Happy New Year!
Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s calendar year. The lectionary gives us a great gift when it begins the year with this short passage from the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 2:1-5. Here we read the account of a vision given to Israel’s greatest prophet. Isaiah sees a mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – raised high above all other mountains. And to this place, he tells us, “all the nations” shall stream. They will say to one another, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
The mountain Isaiah refers to is, of course, Mount Zion, on which stood the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. The revelation given to Isaiah in this vision is that this mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – will be a source of wisdom and right judgment for all people. The Law of Moses, given initially to the people of Israel, will instruct all the nations in the ways of God and teach them to walk in God’s paths. The result of this will be universal peace, the promise of peace with justice, which will allow humankind to “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks,” so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Given that Br. Luke (our acolyte today) went to a lot of trouble learning how to pronounce all those difficult names, I feel it’s only right that we should reflect on the lesson from Nehemiah this morning.
It might help to first establish a context for these words. You may remember that early in the 6th century B.C.E., the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians. It was a devastating defeat. The temple at Jerusalem was completely destroyed, as was the city itself, and the majority of the people were carried off into captivity. Only a small remnant remained. The period of exile lasted 70 years, and gave rise to the book of Lamentations and to several psalms of lament – Psalm 137, for example: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion” (Psalm 137:1). In the year 538 B.C.E., Babylon was conquered by the Medes and Persians. The Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, was a wise and compassionate man who not only gave the Israelites permission to begin returning home, but also provided the resources they needed to rebuild the temple. A first wave of exiles left Babylon to return to Judah.
It took over eighty years before a second group of exiles returned to Jerusalem, led by the prophet Ezra, in 455 B.C.E. Ten years after this second group departs, we find Nehemiah, a Jew still living in Persia, serving as cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes. Nehemiah hears a report that deeply troubles him: the Israelites are still struggling to establish themselves in their home country. They have managed to rebuild the temple, but the walls around Jerusalem are still in ruins. After four months of prayer, Nehemiah decides to risk approaching the king. He asks for permission to return to Jerusalem with a third group of exiles, with the expressed purpose of rebuilding the city’s walls.
Luke 9:37-50 (with focus on v. 43b-45)
We have before us today a short passage from Luke’s gospel focusing on the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus’ prediction that he will “be betrayed into human hands.” To understand it better, I’d like to view it in its broader context (Luke 9:37-50), which you’ll find printed on the handout.
Jesus is with his disciples in Galilee, about to turn his face towards Jerusalem, where he will face betrayal, crucifixion and death. He is speaking with his disciples about the cost of discipleship, and the necessity of “taking up the cross” in order to follow him.
In this section of Luke 9, we are brought face-to-face with the weakness of the twelve. They are lacking in power, having failed to cast a demon out of a boy. They are lacking in understanding, failing to grasp Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal into the hands of his enemies. They are lacking in humility, arguing about which of them was the greatest. And finally, they are lacking in sympathy and in Jesus’ spirit of inclusivity, when they try to exclude those who do not join them.[i]
“…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life….” (Deuteronomy 30:19b)
God tries to make it easy for us. Here are two ways, God says:
One way is to love God, obeying God’s commandments and walking in God’s ways. This way leads to life and prosperity.
A second way is to turn away from God, to refuse to listen or obey, to give your heart to other things, idols of your own making. This path leads to adversity and death.
Not a difficult choice, really, and yet not an easy one for most of us either.
These two paths are set before us again and again in Scripture. Take Psalm 1, the psalm appointed for today. There are two kinds of people, the psalmist suggests: the “righteous,” who have chosen the first path, and the “wicked,” who have chosen the second. (Make no mistake: you are not misreading the psalm if you take from it a fairly black-and-white picture of reality. You will also not be incorrect if you see this same pattern popping up over and over again in the rest of the Psalter.) The psalmist is making a very clear distinction between these two types of people, with not much in between by way of spiritual categories. Here’s what he says:
(The Sending of the Seventy)
Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20
Given what the gospels report about Jesus’ twelve disciples – how they were often slow to comprehend the message of the kingdom, and repeatedly failed to live by its principles – it seems to me that Jesus is taking quite a risk here in commissioning these seventy to go out as his representatives. If the twelve he had chosen to be his closest friends and companions were having trouble grasping the message, how was this lot supposed to get it right? What training did they have? Who was going to supervise them or hold them accountable? How could he be sure they were capable of representing him, or that they would be faithful to his message? Had he had a chance to test their theology? Had he checked their backgrounds? Had he measured their commitment, or tested their reliability? But here he is, entrusting them with the message of the kingdom and empowering them to heal in his name.
It seems that Jesus was willing to take chances. He was willing to place heavenly treasure in fragile earthen vessels. He was willing to turn them loose, to send them out, to let them speak, without being certain of the outcome. And, not surprisingly, he’s still doing that today – sending each of us out to be messengers of that Good News; asking us, despite our weaknesses and shortcomings, to be his ambassadors in the world; proclaiming, through us, that “the kingdom of God has come near.”
Something unusual happens to me every time I read this story from Acts chapter 16. In some ways it’s an odd story, featuring a slave woman who is possessed by a spirit that enables her to predict the future. Two thousand years removed from the story and its setting, we wonder what this description could mean. It’s hard to know for sure what troubled her. It poses an interesting question, but that isn’t the part of the story that grabs my attention.
The slave woman follows Paul and Silas around town, calling out to anyone who will listen that “these people are servants of the Most High God” and that “they are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.” She is speaking the truth, though Paul is unwilling to acknowledge it as truth because it is prompted by an evil spirit. She harasses them for several days until Paul has finally had enough. He stops, turns to her, and rebukes the demon that possesses her. She is instantly healed. The miracle demonstrates the power of God at work in these early apostles, the same power that was at work in their Lord. It poses the question of how that same power might be available to us, but even this isn’t the part of the story that grabs me by surprise and causes me to wonder.
The healing annoys the woman’s owners, who have lost a convenient source of income, and they turn against Paul and Silas. They seize them and drag them before the local authorities with the accusation that they are “causing an uproar” in the city. The crowd joins in on the attack against Paul and Silas, which compels the authorities to order that they be stripped of their clothing and beaten. Accused and found guilty without a trial, they are “severely beaten,” thrown into prison, with their legs secured in chains.
And then there is this line: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” And that is what grabs me in this story. Every time. I’m always surprised by that line. I find myself thinking, “How can that be?” Unjustly accused by greedy men, seized upon by a crowd, hauled before the authorities, severely beaten, thrown into a first-century prison, bloodied and in pain, publically humiliated and soundly defeated, their legs locked in irons… and then: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” How is that possible? Who would be singing hymns to God in those circumstances? I try to imagine myself in their place. I wonder if this would have been my response.
What is Paul’s secret? What enables him to praise and thank God in the most difficult of circumstances? From what deep place in his heart is he drawing this strength? What enables him to sing and to worship in such trying conditions?
I’ve thought about this and here’s what I’ve come up with: I think what we’re seeing here reveals Paul’s true identity. Our identity, what we truly believe about ourselves, expresses itself in our words and actions. And it seems clear to me that Paul’s sense of himself has nothing to do with accomplishments or achievements or success; it does not depend on any external factor. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges that there was a time when he was enamored by the marks of success. He writes that at one time he had it all: he was from a reputable family, he had received a top-notch education from one of the leading educators of his time, he was passionate about his faith and lived it with a zeal that impressed both his peers and his elders, he was popular and acclaimed by all. In short, he had it all. (Phil. 3:4-6)
Until he met Jesus. And his life was changed completely. From that moment on, all of the marks of status, all of his achievements, all the respect and admiration he had won, became as nothing to him. “I wrote them all off as a loss for the sake of Christ,” he tells the Philippians. “I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:7-9a) From that moment on, Paul’s identity was hidden in Christ. He recognized that he was no longer his own; that he had been bought with a price.
The great French monastic and martyr, Charles de Foucauld, once said, “As soon as I believed there was a God, I realized that I could do nothing else but live for him alone.”[i] The same was true of Paul.
But can you see the freedom that this new identity gives him? He no longer has to curry favor from the rich and powerful; he no longer has to please or impress; he no longer has to strive to be ‘successful’ in the eyes of others. All this, he says, he counts as “refuse” – as “sewer trash” (as one translation puts it). Now he is a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away; all things have been made new.
Have you known this kind of freedom? Freedom from the tyranny of having to achieve what the world measures as success? The freedom of not having to be better or stronger or more attractive or more talented or wealthier or more popular in order to be counted as worthy? This is the ‘glorious freedom’ of the children of God and it comes from knowing that we are unconditionally loved by God. Always. Paul knows this freedom. He has cast aside the marks of worldly success and embraced the truth that he is a new creation in Christ. All things have been make new.
Paul has one purpose for being in the world and that is to proclaim Christ. He lives for this. He writes to the Philippians from jail, and tells them that he is pleased to be in prison because the word is spreading, people are hearing about Jesus. He has suffered countless hardships, but they have been nothing to him in comparison to the joy he has found in Jesus.
“Who will separate us from Christ’s love?” he asks the Roman Christians, “Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” No, he says, “I am convinced that nothingcan separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord; not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Rom 8:35-39)
As a beloved child of God, Paul knows the perfect freedom of belonging to God: “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear,” he reminds the Christians at Rome, “you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children… if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Rom. 8:15-17)
It is this knowledge – that he belongs to Christ and is unconditionally and forever loved by God – that gives him the boldness and courage to take the risks that he does. He is like a tree with deep roots, roots that give him a stability and steadfastness that enable him to withstand all kinds of challenges, setbacks and disappointments without giving up or becoming discouraged. He has an unshakeable faith that he is God’s, and this faith holds firm even in the storms and tempests of his life.
Perhaps this is why he can encourage the Christians at Philippi to “rejoice always,” as we see him and his companion rejoicing here in a first-century prison cell after having been beaten and abused. “Rejoice always” – because you belong to God, because you are deeply and irrevocably loved by God, because there is nothing in all the world that can ever separate you from God, because you are God’s beloved child, a fellow heir with Christ of all that God is and possesses.
When you are facing life’s trials, when life seems to be an uphill battle, when you fear being overwhelmed by fear or worry or grief, recall this image of Paul and Silas, beaten and bloodied, locked in chains, singing and praising God! This joy can be yours as well. This freedom belongs to you as a child of God. Nothing can destroy it or take it away from you. You are, and always will be, the beloved of God.
Send down your roots into this deep soil, so that when trouble comes, you can remain steadfast and unmovable, knowing that God always has the final word. And rejoice. Always and everywhere. No matter what circumstance you find yourself in. Trust God’s power and love. Easter is Love’s Victory over evil and death; all fear is washed away. You! – yes, you! – are a beloved child of God.
“See what love the Father has given us,” exclaims the author of First John, “that we should be called the children of God, and that is what we are!” (NRSV) Alleluia!
Note: Except where otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible, ©2010.
[i]Quoted by Jean-Francois Six in his book Witness in the Desert: The Life of Charles de Foucauld, MacMillan Press, 1965, p. 28.
Parting from someone we love is never easy. The lump in our throat, the tears welling up in our eyes, bear witness to the pain of separation. Even when there is good cause for the separation, when our friend or family member is going off to do something very worthwhile, something we agree is right for them, we still find it hard to say good-bye. We know that there will be an empty space in our hearts and in our lives that will not be easy to fill.
Imagine the emotion with which the words of our gospel lesson were spoken. Jesus, gathered with his closest friends, tells them that he will soon be separated from them. “I am going away,” he says, “I am going to the Father…” He has loved each one of them; they have left all to follow him. And now they face together the end towards which this path is leading them. As he has said to them, he is about to be betrayed and handed over to his enemies, and put to death. Imagine their anguish! How will they carry on without him? What has this time with him meant if it is to end this way? How will they fill the terrible void that his leaving will cause? They are filled with anxiety and fear– for him, for themselves, for all who have believed in him.
Jesus sees the fear in their eyes. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells them, “and do not let them be afraid.” “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Do not be afraid. I am leaving you to return to the Father, but you will not be abandoned, you will not be left alone. One who is called “the Advocate” is coming, the “Comforter,” the Holy Spirit – the One who will teach you everything you need to know, the One who will remind you of all that I have said to you and who will guide you into all truth.
Maundy Thursday. If you’re anything like me, you may have to be reminded each year what the word “maundy” means; it’s not a word that comes up in everyday conversations. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our English word “mandate.” Mandatum, then, refers to a mandate or a command. In the context of tonight’s liturgy, it is tied to Jesus’ words in John 13:34, where he gives his disciples a mandatum novum, a “new command,” namely, to love one another as he has loved them.
What’snewabout that? we might ask. After all, hasn’t God always been a God of love, and haven’t God’s people always been instructed to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”? (Luke 10:27)[ii]This command did not originate with Jesus and his followers; it was deeply embedded in the religious tradition they practiced.[iii]
The command itself isn’t new, but the radical wayin which Jesus teaches and embodies it surprises and challenges Jesus’ disciples; it goes beyond their expectations[iv]:
(sermon for March 25, Feast of the Annunciation)
Isaiah 7:10-14 and Luke 1:26-38
In our readings on this Feast of the Annunciation, we have the story of two visitations: one to Ahaz, King of Judah, and the other to Mary, mother of our Lord.
In the first of these visitations, God promises, through the prophet Isaiah, to rescue Ahaz and the people of Judah from the hands of their enemies. They have only to put their trust in God and God will deliver them. Furthermore, God invites Ahaz to ask for a sign so that he will have no doubt or fear about placing his whole trust in God’s promise. Ahaz declines the offer, saying he does not want to put the Lord to the test. But what seems at first glance to be a humble and appropriate response is revealed instead to be a sign of the king’s stubbornness and resistance. Ahaz actually resents God breaking into his life; he prefers to make his own decisions and to map out his own path, and this stubbornness and pride leads to his destruction.
Mary also receives a visitation. God promises, through the angel Gabriel, to bless her with a son, who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” and through whom God’s people will be established forever. Mary’s response is the opposite of Ahaz’s. She accepts the intervention and the promise with openness and trust, and responds with those familiar words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
Two visitations. Two invitations to cooperate with God’s saving work and to reap the benefits of God’s promise. But two very different responses: one of resistance, the other of acceptance. One person says ‘No,’ while the other says ‘Yes.’
Why come to church? In an era of declining membership in mainline churches, in a time when more and more people – not justyoungpeople – are exercising the option not to attend church services, why do we keep coming back? What is it that we realize that we need, and that compels us to return to this place day after day, week after week?
There are many possible answers, and no doubt we would find a wide range of reasons if we polled the congregation today. Most of us would say we come first of all to worship and to give thanks to God. We realize that life is a gift – all of it –and we wantand needto return thanks to the Giver of all that we have received. Many of us would say we come to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to be nourished and strengthened by the holy gifts of Bread and Wine for the service we feel called to give in the world. Others of us come for community, to join together with people who have made a commitment to belonging to God and to following Christ. We take seriously the call to join ourselves to the Body of Christ, and we find strength in solidarity with others in this place. But here is another important reason why we come to church: We come because we realize that living as a Christian in the world is counter-cultural, and we need frequently to be remindedof that, instructedin that, and encouragedin that. When we realize that God asks us to live in ways that are often out of step with the culture that surrounds us, that God invites us to embrace and embody a different set of principles and values than the world promotes, namely the values of the kingdom of God, then we understand how much we need the support of others as we make this difficult and sometimes perilous journey upstream.