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12.08.19 Where Faith is Hidden Isa 11.1-10, Rom 15.4-13 Sermon Summary

Sometimes faith is pretty obvious, like when facing illness or misfortune people endure through prayer and vigilance. Or when someone is the victim of a small slight or a major sin, but follow it by forgiveness and grace. Or when someone is the recipient of an unexpected gift and they pass it on generously to others.

But sometimes faith is not so obvious, but rather like the sunlight retreating to the south or the decaying leaves pressed into the gutters. Sometimes faith is so well hidden we wonder if it exists at all. In this situation, Isaiah has something to say.

The glory days of ancient Israel were during the kingdom of David, which lasted from 1025 to 928 BC, at which point the Kingdom divided. In the Northern land of Samaria it was called Israel. In the South it was called Judah which included Jerusalem.

In 722 BC, Assyria threatened and then conquered Israel. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were written at this time. The prophecies of warning, of judgment, and of hope were so powerful and enduring that two centuries later, when Judah was threatened and conquered by Babylon, two more authors picked up Isaiah’s spirit and finished the book.

And so powerful and enduring are the images and promises, and so powerful was the experience of first century Jews of Jesus, these words from Isaiah were applied to him. And so powerful and enduring are these two together that we hear Isaiah a lot during Christmas.

The first Isaiah’s career started during the threat from, and continued through being conquered by, Assyria. Isaiah’s words include warnings and judgments but also hope. So much like our experiences.

Isaiah warned that Assyria was God’s instrument. God’s people had been unfaithful so God was about to bring changes. God’s people had committed idolatry, the worship of other gods. They were overly materialistic. They trusted in their own military might and were oppressing the poor. The rich were confiscating the land of the poor and lived in perpetual luxury. Perhaps this sounds familiar?

What made Isaiah’s message even harder was that Assyria was no better than Israel. They weren’t godly or righteous, and Isaiah assures his people that God will prune Assyria when he’s done with Israel. But imagine the thinking: “We, God’s chosen people, are being judged or punished by a nation that is unrighteous! How could God do this?!”

Maybe you’ve felt this way, in your own life or about the state of affairs, that God isn’t making sense anymore; that things keep going from bad to worse; that there’s no purpose to the hardship; that things are being irreparably lost.

Our tradition has an answer. It comes from people far down this path. People who questioned God, who questioned goodness, who questioned faith. Isaiah was one of them. They say to us that such hardships are not God’s punishment. They aren’t there to even the scales.

Instead, such hardships reveal another side of God. They invite us to love God not for rewards or because we’re afraid of punishment, but to love God just for being God. God wanted Israel, and God wants us, to love God first and to love God for God’s sake alone.

Human faith is fragile, and we need help. God knows this and so does Isaiah. So we are given signs to help our faith. One of Isaiah’s signs is the stump with a new shoot. Only after Assyria is cut down, only when the forest of hardship is over, is this stump visible. It is the stump of David’s kingdom, the stump of David’s father Jesse. Isaiah sees that it has a new shoot growing out of it.

A new kingdom with a new king is coming, Isaiah says, and God’s Spirit will be upon him. He judges in righteousness, not impressed by appearances or corrupted by bribes. The world will be like the original Paradise with peace and harmony. Concern for sustainability replaces co-existence with co-thriving. Intimacy with God will cover the earth like the oceans.

The Hebrew word for this is shalom. This sign begins to transform darkness to light, despair to hope, sorrow to rejoicing, and scarcity to generosity.

There are three ways to wait when you’re on a long ride. One is to check out, to sleep, to pretend you’re not waiting. Another is to complain about how long it’s taking. The third is to sit on the edge of your seat, rehearsing in your mind what you’re going to do when you arrive. It’s the difference between passive waiting and active vigilance.

Signs of faith can transform passive waiting to active vigilance. Paul, like Isaiah, describes active vigilance in Romans 15. To a mixed congregation of Jews and non-Jews, Paul writes, “Things written in former days were written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.”

Paul then quotes several scriptures to urge harmony—not just tolerance, which is passive waiting—but harmony. Tolerance is like two songs playing at same time. You let the other person play her song while you focus on yours. But harmony—which is active vigilance—is listening to the other, tuning and adjusting your song so you can play together.

And the final verse Paul quotes to this end is our verse from Isaiah: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule also the non-Jews; in him also the non-Jews shall hope.” Paul then expands Isaiah’s vision to reveal the most secret place that faith is hidden. When our faith is no longer apparent, so hidden as to be forgotten or lost, Paul says this: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The most secret hiding place of faith, the place we can look for it when every other place is empty, is the God of hope. God has hope, and that hope is in us. That God has hope in us leads us back to joy and peace, and back to our own hope and faith. Hear it again: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Scripture, and especially the prophets, loves signs. Some signs remind us of the past, some signs remind us of a promise. Past reminders push us to the future, promise reminders pull us to the future. Isaiah’s sign of the branch in the stump is both. The stump says both “remember David” and also “a new king is coming.”

God gives us the signs, and we bring our faith. Jesus gave us a sign at his Table. Communion is a sign of past remembrance. “This is my body; this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus gave his life for the life of the world. But it is also a sign of future promise. “I will not drink of this again until I do so anew in the kingdom of God.” That kingdom decisively began in Jesus’ resurrection. It is now the risen Christ who is present to us by the Holy Spirit in God’s kingdom whenever we gather at this table.

When faith is hidden from us, and we have nowhere else to look, the mystics invite us to love God for God’s sake alone. And as we do so, we discover that faith is hidden in God’s hope for us. And God has hidden this hope in signs—a tree stump with a branch growing out of it, the bread and cup of Communion, and the birth of a child in Bethlehem. May the Spirit prepare us to receive faith and hope this season. Amen.

11.24.19 We ARE in the Kingdom Colossians 1.11-20 Sermon Summary

Christian faith begins by recognizing Christ as the number one priority in our lives. Mature faith keeps Christ there.

The letter to the Colossians teaches us that Christ is number one in all creation. He is, “the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.” (1:15-16) And Christ is also number one in the re-creation: “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” (1:18)

God established Christ as the firstborn of creation. But even before we knew him through his birth to Mary, God knew him already as also the firstborn of the dead. Christ birthed a new creation, a re-creation, throughout the world that had fallen in darkness to sin. This means we know God, not just as a distant creator, but as an intimate re-creator in Christ’s resurrection and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

Maturing in the Christian faith is hard because in our lives lots of other things want to be number one: Being liked by one special person, or alternatively many people; Being successful at work or in a group; Acquiring lots of things, or experiences, or recognitions; Living an easy, uncomplicated life.

All these things and more vie to be number one in our lives. And what makes keeping Christ as number one even more difficult, there’s no guarantee we’ll have any of these other things after Christ is number one.

The main concern of Colossians is to help us keep Christ number one. It’s that we become mature. It says, “It is Christ in you, the hope of glory, whom we proclaim, teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (1:27-28) This goal is represented by this prayer: “We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” (1:9-10)

How do we do this?

In the perspective of Colossians there are two parallel realities. In one reality Christ is Lord and King. In the other, something else is lord and king. Colossians refers to these other lords as “thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers.”

This is a development of Paul’s theology. Paul referred to our being slaves either to righteousness or sin, to our living according to either the spirit or to the flesh, to our walking by faith and not by sight. There is a hint of dualism here, of a mentality of either this or that, and which includes opposition between the two.

The Bible has often been read this way, through the lens of dualism, to the detriment of our bodies, our souls, and even the whole earth. In the early centuries of the church, dualism was recognized as a heresy because the dualism found in the Bible is temporary. Colossians recognized this: “Through Jesus God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” (1:20)

The Bible teaches that the first reality is not opposed to the second reality, but is rather the ideal of the second reality. It includes virtues like truth, goodness, beauty, and justice. The second reality strives for, occasionally merges with, and eventually yields to the first reality.

As a picture, we may say that the first reality is light, and that the second reality is the darkness of a tunnel. We live in the second reality, but we can see light at the end of the tunnel—the first reality. In the words of Colossians, “God has enabled [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. (1:12-13)

Christian faith recognizes Christ as the light even as we live in the dark tunnel. And mature faith moves towards, and lives life in, that light at the end of the tunnel. According to Christian doctrine the first reality entered the second reality. The Kingdom of God entered human kingdoms. The eternal entered the temporal. The Spirit became flesh. The light shone into the dark tunnel. We celebrate this doctrine during the Feast of the Incarnation. You know this feast as Christmas.

During Advent, the season we find ourselves in just now, we remember this truth. We live in the dark tunnel but the kingdom of light shines and we can live in that light. How might we keep Christ number one during this season? It helps to think about those other things that want to be number one.

In that dark tunnel, fear wants to be number one. We fear being the victim of violence or of a scam. And there is violence in the world, and there are deceitful people. But the light at the end of the tunnel reminds us that safety and security prevail in God’s Kingdom.

In that dark tunnel, worry wants to be number one. “Surely there’s not enough for everyone!” “What if we don’t have enough when we need it?” And there are times when we have less than we want, and maybe even less than we need. But the light at the end of the tunnel reminds us that God is faithful to deliver us through all our deprivations, and is able to provide for everyone.

In that dark tunnel, death wants to be number one. We are aware of the fragility of life. We are anxious about what happens after we die—to ourselves to those we leave behind. And there is no denying death, or the pain of sickness and aging, or the grief that follows. But the light at the end of the tunnel reminds us that Christ is the firstborn of the dead. Life now—and later—flows from our sacramental union with him.

This Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ and remember his promised return as Lord over all, as we remain in the dark tunnel but with the light of Christ at the end of it, let us live in that light. May our gifts and our hopes reflect that light. May our prayers express our faith in that light. May we be patient as we approach that light.

We begin to live this way by giving thanks. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father,” Colossians says. (1:11)

Giving thanks turns our face to the light. It makes us more gracious to ourselves and others. It makes us more hopeful for the future. It makes us more joyful in the present. It makes us more generous to others.

The Table of the Lord is called Eucharist, Thanksgiving. Here we pray for the Holy Spirit, that the light we have seen in Christ, and anticipate in his glorious return, may reveal his presence even now in the breaking of this bread and the sharing of this cup. May it make us stronger in faith as we rejoice in the light of Christ. Amen.

11.17.19 All Places are New Isaiah 65.17-25 Sermon Summary

The Bible is a book about God, about us, and about all creation. It says some unique things about each, and sometimes all three come together.

One of the things unique about God the Bible says has to do with creation. “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” God says in Isaiah. The word in the Bible here translated “create” is used only with God as the subject. God goes on to say, “I am about to create a new Jerusalem,” which is good news for Isaiah’s audience, because Jerusalem was nearly out of hope.

For seventy years the people of Israel had experienced exile. Their temple was destroyed, and their religion permanently altered. Now they have returned, but the restoration of their society had stalled. Isaiah recounts how corruption remains, that there is wickedness and bloodshed. He reports miscarriages of justice and syncretistic worship. He notices oppression and the profaning of the Sabbath. He accuses the leaders of being blind, greedy, and drunk.

The people of Isaiah’s time had become disillusioned and cynical. God is their only hope, only God could create—or recreate—a new Jerusalem.

The first creation included a garden. It was created “out of nothing” according to Christian theology. But this creation is a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem. It is created out of what already exists. The new Jerusalem represents a familiar place, but new. Old battles give way to something new. Traditional religion remains, but it is somehow new.

God, as only God can, is creating something new. But the symbol of it as new version of something old shows us that God includes us. God wants to create with humanity, work with humanity, not destroy and start over. God does this because God is a redeemer. We’ve seen it before most famously in the great flood when God works with Noah in a sort of recreation.

Here again in Isaiah we see it: “I am about to create a new Jerusalem, a new heaven and earth.” It is among the most beloved, compelling, and enduring visions of Scripture—finding expression again all the way in the final book of Revelation.

Do prophets see the future? They do, only as their visions are self-fulfilling. Yes, there will be a new Jerusalem in the future, but we don’t have to wait for God to do it in a distant future. Because God doesn’t do it alone; God wants to do it with us. St. Augustine is famous for describing the redemption of the world: Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.

This is why Isaiah’s message had hope in his time. He reminded the people of his time that God must do the recreating. He saw a new Jerusalem, a concrete vision, and so did the people of his time. “I am about to create something new,” God says, “out of something old.”

What is old in your life? What is something you need to let go of? Something that needs to be redeemed? Perhaps you have some old grudges you carry around? Or old habits that are not serving you well. You might suffer under old ways of thinking, or live under the clouds of old disappointments?

It’s an important question to ask, because God is always “about to create something new,” and this Advent you may see it in your own life. Isaiah saw it. The people of his time saw it. And you can see it, too.

Jesus saw it. Jesus saw God’s new creation. He called it the Kingdom and he saw and lived it because God was alive in him. And this can be true of us also. How can we, like Jesus, live into Isaiah’s vision? It might be simpler than you think. Consider the words of Mary Eleanor Johns:

We are able to give one drink of cold water at a time. We are able to bring comfort to the poor and the wretched, one act of mercy or change at a time. One book given, one friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of commendation, one confession of God’s presence but for the asking, one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice, one declaration of the evil that is hiding in plain sight, one declaration that every person is a child of God: these acts accumulate within God’s grace.

“I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” God promised through Isaiah. God has shown us how in Jesus, and every time we come to this Table we remember and see it again.

11.10.19 Faith in the Dark Job 19:23-27a Sermon Summary

When I was a new Christian, I avoided reading the book of Job. I’d heard of “the patience of Job,” and was told if I read it, it would necessarily cause a test of faith. But the real danger for new Christians reading Job is their inability to discern true faith from false. Job’s faith sounds shaky and his friends’ faith sounds strong. But that is wrong, and it takes some maturity to realize that.

Throughout the book, the main character Job describes his “months of emptiness” and “nights of misery.” He likens himself to a slave laboring in the sun wishing for shade, to workers who must keep waiting for payday. He speaks of long nights of tossing to and fro with no sleep. He says that worms and dirt inhabit his skin, and that just as his sores harden he breaks out again.

With all this going on, three friends show up, and after a week in silence, they begin to speak. Job curses the day he was born and wishes he had died at birth. “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.” (4:26)

The first friend to speak is Eliphaz the Temanite. He reminds everyone that Job had offered words of consolation in the past for others who had suffered, but chides Job for not taking his own advice. He says, “Those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” (4:8) And besides, he reminds everyone, it is impossible for humans to be righteous. (4:17)

But Job is compelled to speak because of three factors: The extremity of his suffering, that it is unjustified, and in light of the brevity of life. He laments to God, “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone so I can swallow my spit in peace?” (7:17-19)

His second friend is Bildad the Shuhite. He tells Job that God will take care of him, but only if he repents. (8:5-6) Job responds that both the just and the wicked suffer. He accuses God of being just plain mean and whispers, “I could say more but I’m afraid to.” (See chapter 9) “Yes, God has fashioned me with delight,” Job says, “but now he destroys me.” (Chapter 10)

The third friend is Zophar the Naamathite. His philosophy is like that of smoke and fire: Where there is affliction there is sin. He reminds Job that God knows him better than he knows himself, and that basically what God sees when he looks at us is that really we’re nothing but losers. When asked how he is, a popular radio host responds, “Better than I deserve.” He believes like Zophar, and knows little of the God of Jesus Christ and Job. With Zophar, he would say to Job, “Know that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” (11:6) Zophar argues further that even Job’s despair proves his guilt: “The hope of the guilty is to breath their last.” (11:20)

Job understands that God is sovereign. He sees God’s sovereignty in nature and in politics. But he also sees God’s arbitrariness. “If God withholds the waters, they dry up; if he sends them out, they overwhelm the land.” (12:15) “God makes nations great, then destroys them; he enlarges nations, then leads them away.” (12:23)

Eliphaz jumps back in to warn Job that he is abandoning religion and tradition. “You are doing away with the fear of God and hindering meditation . . . The gray-haired and aged are on our side, those older than your father.” (15:4, 10)

Job responds, “I suffer whether I speak or whether I remain silent. I may as well speak.” And he goes further, “God is already against me, while you, my ‘friends,’ should be with me.” He concludes, “Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?” (19:22)

It turns out the best comfort the three friends offered was in the first week, when they were silent. We would do well to remember this. Job says, “If you would only keep silent, that would show your smarts! I have heard your advice many times; terrible comforters are you all!” (Job 13:5; 16:2) As he is maturing, Job realizes that his friends say these things because they are afraid. (6:21) Suffering makes us afraid because we don’t have an answer for it. In the face of severe suffering, silence is preferred to pat answers. At the least and at the most, we can simply offer, “I don’t know what to say, but I am with you.”

Have you ever been in Job’s place? Maybe not to the extreme of his suffering, but many of us have felt that life is conspiring against us. Your friends or family aren’t helpful and when they try, it’s obvious they don’t understand.

Your suffering makes people uncomfortable. Some people don’t know what to say. Others simply avoid you. It’s just you and God and you’re not even sure God is on your side. It can be a pretty dark place. You rack your brain to identify the problem causing your suffering only to conclude there is no cause. Your suffering is a mystery to you.

Yet you believe God is loving and powerful and redemptive. But you’re running out of hope and it’s only a matter of time before you run out of faith. What would you do?

Here’s what Job did. “If only my words were written down,” he says, “inscribed in a book, carved on a stone. For I can protest only so long. I can cry only so many tears. I can scream only so loudly.

“But I have to register my complaint because I know truth and justice must prevail. Even if it takes longer than my faith or my life can last. Then someday, a redeemer will come, my vindicator, and take up my case and defend me, and win my acquittal, and stand upon the earth.

“After all my accusers have returned to dust my redeemer will stand upon that dust and bear witness to my innocence. And though my suffering might not be justified, my protest will be.

“And as sure as my flesh is afflicted now, so my life will be vindicated then.”

Through the centuries since Jesus, Christian readers have seen Christ as that Redeemer who comes. And when will Job see his vindication? They answer in the resurrection of the dead. This is a true and hopeful message indeed.

But Job did not think in those terms. Those terms reflect a theology found later in the Bible. So maybe Job was envisioning a future friend, one better than Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. A true friend one who would actually listen to his complaint and help him reconcile his experience with his belief. Because that is what faithful friends do. For that is how faith matures: Reconciling experience with belief.

Or maybe Job is envisioning a principle. That principle might be the triumph of God when truth, justice, and innocence will prevail. “The glory of the Lord will be revealed,” says the prophet Isaiah, “and all flesh will see it together.” All creation will rejoice. Keeping this principle in view, Job can have faith in the dark.

Job was hoping for a redeemer, for a future vindication of his suffering. Those who suffer today also hope for a redeemer. They suffer under the anxiety of poverty. They suffer in the midst of conflict. They suffer at the borderline of desperation. They suffer in the confusion of non-binary identity.

Those who so suffer have faith that their redeemer lives. Maybe you can be their redeemer. Maybe you can alleviate their suffering. Maybe you can be Jesus to them.

Job hoped and said, “in my flesh I shall see God.” Jesus came and responded,” you shall see God in my flesh.” We remember that promise as we come to the Lord’s Table and receive the Body of Christ. And we depart from his Table equipped to be the Body of Christ in the suffering world. Let us not fear suffering this week, whether our own or another’s. May we embrace suffering with faith. And may we see our redeemer, and show the redeemer’s presence to others.

11.03.19 Faith in the Future Ephesians 1.15-23 Sermon Summary

People believe in life after death for lots of reasons. Some hope for justice that has been denied in this life. Others hope for rewards for faithfulness in this life. Many hope for reconciliation with others in the next life. All Saints Sunday gives us another reason to believe.

All Saints Sunday is a combination of All Saints Day which is November 1 and All Souls Day which is November 2. Basically this is a day of thanksgiving for exemplary Christians and for people of the Spirit. It’s also a day of remembrance for all people who have died and for God’s faithfulness to raise us with Christ.

The lectionary puts Ephesians 1 on All Saints Day because author “has heard of their love for all the saints.” The letter is too early in the history of the church to refer to All Saints Day, of course. It refers rather to all those believers in other churches at the time of the letter’s writing. But could the same be said of us? If Ephesians was addressed to us would it begin, “I have heard of your faith and your love for all the saints”?

One of the greatest hindrances to understanding the Bible, and it is largely unconscious in our country, is we hear “you” in the Bible and think it refers to “me.” In fact, many of the “yous” in the Bible are plural, not singular. The Bible mostly addresses communities, not persons. This becomes obvious later in Ephesians but it’s important to know in this passage. Because “you” as an individual may not have remarkable faith or love for others in other churches, but “we” as a church do.

This doesn’t mean you as an individual aren’t called to more faith and love, only that you’re not alone in your faith and love. First, you’re not alone because of those sitting next to you. You with the people next to you do have remarkable faith and love.

Next to you is someone who sits with homeless families, who cooks meals for hungry youth, who gives generously to our ministry, who delivers clothes to underclothed people, who visits prisoners in jail. Yes, you, you all, you plus one another, have remarkable faith and love.

Second, you’re not alone because of those who came before. Someone else used to sit where you’re sitting. And before sitting here they sat in the basement of the Illiam’s house or at Shove chapel on Colorado College’s campus. They prayed for their children and the residents of this neighborhood and for you.

They prayed for this building and gave money to build it and served on committees to maintain it and served on other committees to determine its use. Their ministry came before you so that your ministry can come now, and together, yours plus theirs, is a remarkable faith and love.

So remember you are not alone. You are surrounded by saints, partners in faith and love, partners in the present and from the past, partners who make remarkable faith and love possible, partners on whom you depend, and partners who depend also on you.

All this is possible because of the partner we have at this Table. We have a partner in Jesus. The Ephesians prayer ends reminding us of God’s power, on display in Christ’s ministry but especially in his death, resurrection, and ascension. Christ is seated at God’s right hand with all rule and authority under his feet.

But Christ is still head of the church and we, the church, you and I and the people around us and the people before us, are the Body of Christ. We can have remarkable faith and love because of God’s power in Christ. And here at this Table that power is present, that power is available. Christ himself is present in the power of the Spirit. And as we receive the bread and the cup we receive Christ. And together with all the saints our faith and love grows.

So here is another reason to believe in life after death, because after we die our ministry continues through the Body of Christ which is the church, and together with Christ we continue in grace. Amen.

10.26.19 The Witness of Weddings John 2:1-11

In the story of the wedding in Cana, Jesus is central but only by accident. At the beginning, Mary is at center stage. She is the primary invited guest. John tells us after noting her presence that “Jesus and his disciples had also been invited.”

As the celebration wears on, the host family runs out of wine. This places the celebration in jeopardy and is an extreme embarrassment to the family. It is not an auspicious way to begin a marriage.

Still in center stage, Mary tells Jesus about the deficit of wine. Jesus, not wanting to assume center stage, reminds her, “My hour has not come.” In John’s code, this is a reference to his crucifixion and resurrection.

Still, Mary thinks Jesus may be valuable beyond his crucifixion and resurrection (something the church often forgets) so she opens a window of possibility. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do, and she leaves center stage and watches for what Jesus will do.

What Mary does is something we all can do. Naturally each of occupies the center stage of our lives. And God is also always present. Like Mary, we can vacate the center, invite Jesus in, and watch for what he will do.

Jesus has the servants fill the water jars and begin serving the contents. All this is behind the scene. Only the servants, and we the readers, know that the water has been turned to wine. The crisis is averted. The party can go on. The embarrassment is avoided. And that could have happened with ordinary wine; but Jesus provided extra-ordinary wine.

The guests didn’t know it. The hosts didn’t know it. Only a few know that Jesus did this. But everyone received the gift Jesus provided.

And this is the nature of grace, of God’s loving disposition towards us. Whether or not we vacate the center of our lives, whether or not God is only a marginal presence, whether or not we see Jesus at work, whether or not we know God has saved us—God has provided for the party to go on.

Whenever we celebrate a wedding today God is present. But the Spirit is a polite guest, always eager but eternally patient, waiting for the invitation to take center stage and to work, even behind the scenes, to sustain what is begun in response to enthusiastic love. Throughout our covenant relationship with God, begun in baptism and sacramentally represented in marriage, we may remember God’s presence and call upon the Spirit for help.

10.27.19 Judging Not Luke 18.9-14 Sermon Summary

On this Reformation Sunday we remember that the Reformers asked key questions, or answered them, differently. One of those questions had to do with righteousness. “Does my righteousness count for anything?” The Reformation answer was, Not as merit for God’s saving grace.

Grace is grace because God gives it as a gift, not as a reward. And grace is what leads to our “justification,” which has a theologically particular definition of “being acquitted” or “not found guilty.” God graciously justifies us, declares us not guilty, not because of our righteousness but because of his free gift of grace.

While the Reformation exposed one distortion about righteousness, grace, and justification, namely “I can earn grace and be justified because I am righteous;” it also led some to another distortion: “My righteousness has no value whatsoever. Rather, I am only ‘a wretch’” (as the most beloved hymn says).

Pastoral work often falls into these two distortions. Sometimes I’m trying to convince people they are not as righteous as they think. Sometimes I’m trying to convince people they’re not as wretched as they think.

The Pharisee needs to be taught Reformation doctrine on righteousness, grace, and justification. Righteousness is good and attainable. Grace is a gift of God. Justification is God’s judgement of our lives.

The Tax-Collector doesn’t say he’s a wretch, just that he’s a sinner and that he needs God to be merciful. This is where pastoral work ends up many times. “Yes we’re sinners; but God is merciful.” That’s the gospel truth in one sentence: Yes we’re sinners; but God is merciful.

The Pharisee certainly was righteous. Paul, once a Pharisee, who understood more about God’s grace than anyone, even said “as to righteousness under the law” he was “blameless.” The Pharisee was not a thief, a rogue, an adulterer, a political collaborator, or a cheat. He fasted twice a week. He gave a tenth of his income to the church. I wish I was this righteous. Pastors would love to have more parishioners like this Pharisee!

The Pharisee was righteous. Something the Tax-Collector certainly was not. But the Pharisee was also presumptuous. He presumed that others could not be justified. And worse, he was contemptuous. Especially towards the Tax-Collector. And that is why he did not go home justified.

Justification results from grace—the free gift of God—and not from righteousness—the way we live our lives. And the Pharisee did not understand that.

What Jesus is teaching is that you can be righteous, but you can’t be contemptuous.

So how can we avoid becoming the Pharisee and be more like the Tax-Collector? How can we go home justified after prayer? The answer is whom we have in view when we pray.

Here’s the scene. Both men are at the Temple, but they are contrasted with one another. The Tax Collector is standing far off; the Pharisee is as close to the center as he can be. The Tax Collector won’t look to heaven; the Pharisee has his face lifted upward. The Tax Collector is beating his breast; the Pharisee has his arms spread wide.

Both men, it seems, are taking an interior view. The Tax Collector sees himself; the Pharisee sees himself. But the Tax Collector also sees God. The Pharisee sees not God but others. And that is the difference. The Tax Collector has God in view; the Pharisee does not.

With God in view the Tax Collector sees himself a sinner and God as a merciful judge. Without God in view the Pharisee sees himself as more righteous than thieves, rogues, adulterers and, looking around, even this Tax Collector.

Prayer that starts with ourselves and doesn’t have God in view leads to self-congratulation, to self-adulation, and to contempt towards others. You can be righteous, but you can’t be contemptuous.

You can also be sinful. The Tax Collector’s prayer also started with himself. He sees that he is a sinner. But he also has God in view. He sees a merciful God, and that’s important. Because you can have God in view, but if it is a distortion of God it also leads to some unhealthy places.

If you have in view a judgmental God, it leads to fear. If a disapproving God, then it leads to shame. If a permissive God is in view, it leads to nonchalance. But having a merciful God in view as we pray leads to the gospel: “You are a sinner; but God is merciful.”

Such a prayer is the beginning of reformation. And it sends us home justified. How do we know that God is merciful? Just because Jesus said so? No, but because God showed us. As Jesus went to the Cross he said, “No one has greater love than this, that one lay down one’s life for his friends.” At the Table of the Lord we remember God’s love, a love that is merciful, judging sin on the Cross, but restoring life in the resurrection.

Let us pursue righteousness without contempt, keeping the merciful God in view through all our prayers. And may we love others as God has loved us, judging not, as we have been shown not judgment, but grace.