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02.16.20 A Perpetual Promise Deuteronomy 30.15-29 Psalm 119.1-8 Sermon Summary

There are two ways to hear the book of Deuteronomy. One leads to hope and the other to despair. It’s a hard but fascinating truth that these lead back and forth to one another—hope to despair, despair to hope. What we need is the assurance that we’ll end with hope.

Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ farewell address delivered on the threshold of the Land of Promise. Moses is prohibited from entering, even after leading the people out of Egypt with the ten plagues and across the wilderness after forty years.

Why exactly Moses is barred is a matter of interpretation but the biblical explanation is familiar: He was unfaithful in some way and so denied the Land of Promise. But if anyone is qualified to mouth these promises from God it is Moses.

Deuteronomy teaches that there are two paths. One leads to life and prosperity, the reward of love and obedience, in a word, it depends on loyalty to God. The other leads to death and adversity. The choice and the outcome are in our hands.

For some people Deuteronomy is a message of hope. It offers some certainty in an uncertain world. It gives some explanation in confusing times. There is a formula: Be loyal to God in love and obedience, and live in the land and prosper. It’s like a contract. We do our part and God does God’s part, simple and sure. The response of such people to Deuteronomy is, “We can do this!” And that’s exactly the goal of Moses’ final sermon.

But what if you know you can’t do this? What if you know by your own weakness you can’t do it? What if you acknowledge the overwhelming power of forces around you, keeping you from doing it? Or what if you’ve already committed such a grievous violation that there’s no way to recover and do it? Then Deuteronomy offers not hope, but despair.

Many of us who start with hope end with despair because we discover our weakness or the overwhelming power of forces around us. This is what the Bible calls sin.

Some don’t experience this. They are in good standing according to Deuteronomy. Or close enough. Just make a small course correction and they can quickly resume the blessed life. If nothing else, they take comfort in the fact that they’re not as bad off as others.

Jesus challenged this way of thinking. Encountering a man born blind he asks the question, “Who sinned that this man was born blind—his parents or himself?” From Jesus’ perspective the answer is neither. “But that God may glorified . . . ,” Jesus continued, and he healed him.

This infuriated the righteous religious. Jesus’ actions didn’t go along with the formula. They didn’t enforce the contract. “Why would anyone be good now?!” they complained.

Jesus wasn’t the first to challenge the perspective of Deuteronomy. The preacher in Ecclesiastes observed children of the righteous starving while children of the unrighteous were satisfied. The psalms observe this same thing and lament about it. The prophets were keenly aware of the dangers of Deuteronomy thinking.

Jesus wasn’t the first, and after him came Paul, the most righteous religious person of his day. But he discovered his weakness. He discovered the overwhelming power of forces around us. Paul discovered sin. He wrote, “The good I want to do, I find I can’t. The evil I don’t want to do, that I do.”

Given enough time and with enough honesty the hope of Deuteronomy ends up in despair. Why? Because relationships based on formulas and contracts are not good relationships. They’re not enduring relationships. They’re not loving relationships.

But God is enduring and loving and wants a good relationship with us. Whatever wisdom there is in Deuteronomy, there must be more. Jesus desired to give us this “more.” So does Ecclesiastes in its own way. So did Paul. And so do the Psalms.

Psalm 119 is the longest book in the Bible. It is a hymn with twenty-two verses, each verse being eight lines long. That’s 176 lines! Almost every line contains a synonym for the Law; for example, statutes, commands, or ordinances.

Given this structure you might think Psalm 119 would sound like Deuteronomy. And Deuteronomy is lurking back there. But Psalm 119 takes a wider view, one shared by Jesus and the prophets. God is faithful even when we are not. And more, God’s faithfulness helps us even when we are weak.

Psalm 119 recognizes that God’s faithfulness rewards our faithfulness. “I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.” This hope of Deuteronomy persists.

But it also recognizes that God is good, enduring, and loving, and that God is faithful, even when we are not. God’s faithfulness even helps us when we are not faithful—until we are faithful. “I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances. I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.”

This kind of faithfulness is what Jesus taught. Given enough time and with enough honesty, the hope of Deuteronomy ends up in despair. But given enough time the despair of relationships built on formulas and contracts yields to the realization of a good relationship, with a loving God, who is an enduring God. And that ends up in hope.

This is what Jesus taught and lived. God delivers us to that Land of Promise even when we are overwhelmed by sin. For just as sin overcame Jesus on the Cross, yet God raised him from the dead. And that same spirit which raised him from the dead now resides with us and will deliver us as well.

02.09.20 Grace Promised & Realized Matthew 5. 13-20 Sermon Summary

Early on there were questions about Jesus and his relationship to the Law. Jesus was a Jew, and his first followers were Jewish. First and foremost, being Jewish implies a close relationship to the Law. But Jesus’ first followers saw in him a new revelation. He himself challenged the religious authorities who often accused of disregarding laws. Jesus “spoke with authority” and exuded God’s presence. Eventually his followers would come to claim that in Jesus “God was with us” in a unique way. To know God best, they claimed, one must know Jesus.

The early persecution of Jesus’ followers by Saul coming from Jerusalem proves two things: Jesus’ followers were Jewish, but Jesus-Jews were also different.

One way Jesus addressed this comes from Matthew 5:17-20. There he reveals several thoughts about the Law. First, the Law is extremely valuable. He sees it as his mission to fulfill it. Second, the Law will not be abrogated “until heaven and earth pass away.” Next, the Law determines one’s standing in heaven. Breaking the Law and leading other’s astray makes one “less” in the Kingdom of Heaven; doing the Law and teaching others to also makes one “more.”

But then Jesus makes this remarkable claim: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now the scribes were the law school professors of the time. And Pharisees were religious zealots who specialized in abiding by the Law. How could it be possible for followers of Jesus to have righteousness that exceeds scribes and Pharisees?

Jesus must be talking about something else, something besides adherence to the Law. Can righteousness come another way? Is there a righteousness that is available to common folk? Before the Law and in the Law grace had been promised. Now beyond the Law and outside the Law grace could be realized.

Jesus was making righteousness possible for everyday people. His understanding of “righteousness” was something like Psalm 112. On one hand, “Blessed are those who greatly delight in God’s commandments.” They will have “mighty descendants” and “wealth and riches.” They are “brilliant examples” to others and enjoy “everlasting fame.”

But two verses lift up something quite ordinary by contrast. In the middle and towards the end of the psalm we read, “It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice,” and “they have distributed freely; they have given to the poor.”

James reflects same truth: “those who look into the perfect law, . . . being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. . . Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (see James 1:22-27)

This is no professional religion of scribes and Pharisees, of priests and ministers, or of relief workers and chaplains. This is not righteousness afforded to religious professionals. This is righteousness for everyone. Which is why Jesus spoke about salt and light.

Salt that isn’t salty isn’t salt. I don’t know what it is chemically, but it can’t be used as salt the way Jesus used it. And not being useful, there is no loss in discarding it. That’s like a battery today. If it doesn’t give energy it ceases to be useful and we throw it away. And light, Jesus says, gives itself “to everyone in the house.”

Jesus sees in us something we often forget. He sees God’s image in us no matter how faint. Jesus knows it is our nature to be salt and light. He is simply calling us to be as he is. And being one of us, he knows we can do it.

Jesus’ followers understood this and they began to have hope—hope apart from official channels. They don’t need a priest to assess their righteousness. No matter how righteous you are a priests will never say you’re righteous enough. It’s always a discouragement. It’s like the Christian friend who tells you that you shouldn’t feel good about doing good. In fact, you should feel bad for feeling good.

But now Jesus’ disciples could ask themselves: Am I salty? Am I useful as a follower of Jesus? Do I give myself to everyone in the house? We can determine for ourselves if we are righteous simply by asking if we are disciples of Jesus. Are we following him? Are we salt and light in the world?

This is how Jesus lived. It got him in trouble with the scribes, Pharisees, and Priests. And this is how Jesus’ followers lived. It got them in trouble with Saul and Jerusalem. Jesus and his followers recognized one righteousness in the Law but practiced another righteousness based on acts of generosity, justice, and love.

James said it this way: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18) Jesus by his works showed us his faith. Like a light, he gave himself to all in darkness. He calls his disciples to remember this at his Table, and to live their lives according to the same pattern. Grace is promised once again, and once again grace can be realized.

02.02.20 Promises Disguised Matthew 5.1-12 Sermon Summary

Humanity needs moral guidance because it reframes our lives. Without it we risk becoming self-serving, whereas moral guidance makes it possible for us to be part of a community. Without it we risk becoming pleasure-seeking. But moral guidance reveals a purpose in our lives beyond pleasure. We risk becoming overly concerned with seeking relief for the things that bother us. Moral guidance calls us to face and manage our problems. And without moral guidance, we risk becoming obsessed with immediate gratification, whereas moral guidance equips us for longevity.

Moral guidance improves our lives and our society. But like all things, it can get out of hand. Without moderation, moral guidance leads to moralism. Instead of becoming moral beings, we become moralists. We grow suspicious of every act. It is no longer moral guidance but rules, proscribing certain behaviors (“you can’t do this”) and prescribing others (“you must do this”).

Moralism makes something good into something bad. It takes a blessing and makes it into a curse and in doing so forfeits the blessing.

The Bible contains many lists of moral guidance. The Ten Commandments is perhaps the most famous. Jesus’ Beatitudes is a Newer Testament example. Psalm 15 is an example of moral guidance.

“Who may enter God’s tent?” the Psalm asks. The remaining verses provide moral guidance. They include those who act blamelessly, speak the truth, honor the LORD, and conduct honest business. The psalm teaches that admittance into God’s presence is salvation, one will “not be moved,” we are given a solid foundation when the world around us shakes.

I am reminded of Buddhism’s eight-fold path, the steps to enlightenment taken to forsake suffering and experience a salvation of sorts. Where Psalm 15 speaks of “walking blamelessly” I hear the path of “right conduct.” “Not charging interest or taking bribes” sounds to me like “right livelihood.” The Buddhist path of “right speech” finds expression in the psalm’s “speaking truth, not slandering neighbors, and standing by oaths.”

Psalm 15 is good moral guidance. It presents a path into God’s presence and a way to walk into salvation. Moral guidance can bless us with salvation, and we want and need what moral guidance offers us. We want to be in a community, to have purpose beyond pleasure, to manage our problems, and to live into the future.

Moral guidance can bless us with salvation but taken too far it can curse us with condemnation. Take “right speech” for example. Psalm 15 says simply to speak truth, avoid slander, and uphold your promises. The ninth commandment says simply “you shall not lie.” These are examples of life-enhancing moral guidance.

But it can go too far and become life-diminishing. Just take a look at what the Westminster Larger Catechism does with the ninth commandment (Q144 and Q145). Enumerating every possible meaning of moral guidance takes away the responsibility we have for interpretation related to our own lives. It takes moral guidance from something to which we aspire to something we avoid. It is why rules are ultimately deficient: They don’t call to responsibility, they merely constrain behavior.

Now God did give us rules or laws. Some we find in nature, some in revelation. The Bible writers gave us many more laws, and the Westminster writers certainly did their part. Laws and all their additions are just promises in disguise. They point towards something higher, something Jesus came to show.

That something higher to which laws and multiplication of laws points is love. God’s old promise is that the universe is founded on love. Everything is based on love. If we live our lives based on love we will fulfill the law.

Paul wrote, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10) Elsewhere he said, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14) James wrote, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (James 2:8) And Jesus, when asked which is the greatest law, answered, “You shall love God, your neighbor, and yourself.”

By his deeds Jesus showed us how to love. Ultimately he gave his life for those he loved. But before that he showed us how to love. He welcomed all and taught about loving. And he taught that we are blessed to live by love.

To love is to be poor in spirit, and we are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is ours. To love means we will mourn; we are blessed because we will be comforted. To love means to be meek; we are blessed because such will inherit the earth. To love means to hunger and thirst for righteousness; we are blessed because we will be filled.

To love means to show mercy; we are blessed because mercy will be shown to us. To love is to be pure in heart; we are blessed because we will see God. To love is to be a peacemaker; we are blessed because, like Jesus the peacemaker, we will be called children of God. To love means we will be persecuted for the sake of doing right, and hated because we are found with Jesus. It is a blessing because ours is the kingdom of heaven, and our reward with others who have gone before is great.

Here is the conclusion. We need moral guidance. In Jesus God has given us moral guidance. But we have also been given more. Now we can chase rules or more simply, we can love. And just by loving we can receive all God’s promises, those promises hidden in moral guidance. One of those promises is that we are and will be blessed.

Jesus saw a blessing in bread. It wasn’t blessed because it followed rules. It was blessed because it was broken and given for the sake of life. Jesus hid the promise of God in bread and cup—the promise of life being found when broken and given.

God has given our lives, like Jesus’ life, to be broken and given. Only you can determine what that means for your life. But at his table, this is what we are called to do so.

01.26.20 True to God’s Call Matthew 4.12-23 Sermon Summary

If we make too much of conversion experiences, we may end up not following Jesus for long.

Deciding to follow Jesus can be momentous. It can be life-changing and transformative. Just ask Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

Talk of “repentance” and “kingdom” were in the air since John the Baptist. But now John had been arrested and the message had been picked up by Jesus. One way or another, a spirit of renewal was about.

Now Jesus was preaching by the Sea of Galilee. The accounts vary greatly, but they all agree on this: There were two sets of boats, one used by Simon Peter and Andrew and the other by James and John. It was near the end of the fishing day, which means early morning. Some fishermen were mending their broken nets, others were still casting, and others were cleaning their nets.

Simon Peter and Andrew were among the last to be casting their nets when Jesus called to them from the shore. “Follow me, and you will catch people.” And so they did! They up and left their profession to follow Jesus.

Then he came to James and John who were with their father Zebedee in the boat mending their nets. And the same thing: “Follow me.” And they also left their boat and their father. All these fishermen left their jobs to follow Jesus.

Now this may be easier to imagine for some people than for others. If your job is boring or exhausting then maybe following Jesus doesn’t look too bad. Peter and Andrew, we’re told, were fishing, fishing, fishing; the last to be casting their nets that day. Trading in fishing for sardines for fishing for people might have sounded pretty good.

But others may have a hard time following Jesus because of their jobs. They may be climbing the corporate ladder and have yet to arrive. “I’ll follow Jesus once I make VP, or regional rep, or $1M in sales.”

It may be hard to follow Jesus if you’re between jobs. “I’m not what where I’m supposed to be. I’ll follow Jesus once I land on my feet.”

Or maybe you think your job is unimportant. “Jesus wouldn’t want me. I’m just a waiter, or a personal trainer, or a contractor.”

Or perhaps your job is too important. “I don’t have time to follow Jesus! I have quarterly estimates to hit!”

Or what if you think your job is a contradiction to the call of Jesus? “I work on Wall Street, or in politics, or I tend bar.”

But Peter and Andrew were fisherman. Ordinary people with ordinary jobs. The point of the story is that any person, that is all people, in any job, may be called by Jesus.

For example, Jesus came calling to a Centurion in the army, a Governor of the state, a religious ruler, a tax collector, and a prostituted woman. No matter what your job or the tasks ahead of you, Jesus may come calling.

James and John left not only job but also family to follow Jesus. Again, this may be easier for some than for others. If your family is a mess, taking up with Jesus may sound like a good idea. But others may have a hard time following Jesus on account of their families.

Maybe there is momentum of expectations and traditions in your family. Zebedee probably expected James and John to take over the business.

Or maybe you won’t have your family’s blessing; you’re worried about your parents’ approval. Perhaps there could be outright rejection for following Jesus.

There are matters of reputation to consider: “In our family we don’t get take religion THAT seriously.”

Some people realize that following Jesus will occasion a disruption to others’ lives or to their relationships.

But James and John left Zeb in the boat. The point is that any person, that is all people, from any family, may be called by God.

For example, God called John the Baptist, a charismatic, from a family of traditionalist priests. God called David the shepherd king from a generation of military servicemen. God called Ruth the grandmother of David from a Moabite non-Jewish family. So no matter what your family situation, God may come calling.

But even beyond doubts about job and family, the call of Jesus comes with uncertainties. The call of Jesus is to repent, to “turn away from.” But “what are we turning towards?” Jesus said the “kingdom is near.” Well that sounds too political! Jesus arrives on the scene after John is arrested. That sounds dangerous! And who is this Jesus anyway? Isn’t he homeless and unemployed?

Following Jesus could mean a change in your vocation, your lifestyle, your income, your activities, or your location. Following Jesus could challenge my loyalties, question my financial commitments, and disrupt my social habits.

There are a lot of uncertainties when following Jesus! It would take a whole lot of faith to do so. It would be a momentous decision, a turning point, a life-transforming moment, even a conversion!

And so it was for Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Maybe for you, too. We’re here today because sometime in the past we made the momentous decision to follow Jesus, regardless of job, family, and uncertainties.

I pray that first decision has enriched your life. But here’s the question: Have you continued to follow Jesus? Because Jesus doesn’t call just once. Jesus is always calling because Jesus is always on the move, always leading somewhere new.

His calling will challenge our jobs, loosen our family bonds, and introduce uncertainties throughout our lives, not just at the beginning of our discipleship. For as Jesus calls us more and more to serve others, he challenges our jobs. As he calls us to be children of God, he loosens our family bonds. As he calls us to walk by faith, he leads us into greater uncertainties.

But like Peter and Andrew, and James and John, we can be true to God’s call when he first calls and as he calls us the rest of lives.

Jesus was true to God’s call, even as it led him to this table. I suspect he was mindful of Psalm 27:1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?”

Leaving all other work behind, he became a servant. Leaving all other family behind, he became the firstborn of a new family. With the certainty of death before him, he left all uncertainty in God’s hands, being true to God’s call.

 I invite you to come to this table with new resolve to follow Jesus again, to be empowered by grace to follow wherever he leads you today. Let us listen for and hear God’s call, no matter what job we have or tasks we face, no matter who our family is, or the uncertainties we have. And as we hear God’s call, may we have enough faith to take another first step in following Jesus. Amen.

01.19.20 Called to Fellowship 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 Sermon Summary

Paul’s introduction to the Corinthian letters appears simple and standard. It is anything but.

Scholars tell us Paul wrote at least three letters to the churches in Corinth. This appears to be the case because the flow of the two we have in the Bible suggest major editing in order to combine fragments into wholes. These letters give us the best glimpse into early church life, and what we observe is leadership disputes, wayward liturgical practices, and theological misunderstandings, among other challenges.

The introduction starts by identifying who is writing: Paul and Sosthenes. Then who is receiving: The church in Corinth. Next follows Paul’s favorite salutation, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” and a thanksgiving.

Remove the introduction to 1 Corinthians and the letter immediately begins addressing the issues. Thus this is no standard or simple introduction. Paul is not going through a formality. He is setting the foundation for correcting and guiding the Corinthians. That foundation is that we are, “called into fellowship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

What does it mean, to be “called into fellowship”? Paul begins here to counter a natural impulse, an impulse that all too often is the undoing of a community, or a family, or even a marriage. It is an impulse the Bible identifies from the earliest chapters and one which only in final chapters is overcome. It is an impulse especially characteristic of our culture—some say it is THE characteristic of our culture. It is the impulse to go it alone, towards individualism, towards tribalism.

The Corinthian church had become tribal; Paul calls them back to fellowship. Take two examples of their tribalism: Leadership and Spiritual Giftedness. In the first, various groups in the church were saying, “I follow Paul . . . I follow Apollos . . . I follow Cephas . . . I follow Christ.” They were enamored with the original evangelist, a scriptural teacher, the authoritative apostle, or the movement’s founder.

We see this still today when groups in our churches have nostalgia for the pastor long gone, or dig deeply only into scripture, or express distorted loyalty to the institution, or believe they can dispense with all that and have a “just Jesus and me” relationship with God.

In the second evidence of tribalism, various groups in the church were saying, “I have the gift of wisdom . . . or healing . . . or discernment.” But most impressively the gift everyone envied and wanted was the gift of “tongues.”

This is tribalism in the church, a clustering around particulars that breaks up the fellowship. So Paul in his introduction sets the foundation and reminds them all of God’s grace:  “You have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and knowledge—you do not lack any spiritual gift.” The word Paul uses for “grace” is related to the word “gift.” The Corinthian churches were richly graced, they had received many gifts both in leadership and in spirit. But instead of receiving these gifts fully, they divided them tribally.

Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about the foolishness of mistaking the means by which we live with the ends for which we live. The Corinthian church had many means by which to live. They had in impressive pedigree (founded by Paul, influenced by Cephas), good scriptural expositors (through Apollos), charismatic experiences and wisdom and knowledge (all gifts of the Spirit).

I am reminded of what the Methodists call the “quadrilateral”: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. John Wesley appeared to use all these in developing his theology. The Corinthian church had many means by which to live but lost sight of the ends for which they live. Wesley modeled the end for which we live. He received all these means as gifts and rather than using them to divide the church into tribes, Wesley and Paul called the church to fellowship. The end for which we live is the fellowship of the Son. The gifts of grace are the means by which we live.

The fellowship of the Son is a wide fellowship. This is why ecumenism—recognizing and celebrating the gifts of other churches—is good. Because there can be tribalism not only WITHIN a congregation, but also tribalism OF a congregation. When we think our denomination has the best theology and others are inferior, we have become tribal.

In his introduction, Paul sets the foundation against this tribalism also. Towards end of 1 Corinthians he reminds them that he will be collecting an offering for the churches in Jerusalem. Why should Corinth care about Jerusalem? In the not-so-simple-or-standard introduction Paul already invokes “those everywhere who call on the name of Christ.” Then to drive the point home, Paul assures the Corinthians that Jesus is not only “our Lord” in Corinth, but “theirs” in Jerusalem as well.

Very famously Paul instructs us in the attitude to have to combat tribalism in our lives, in our congregations, and in our denominations. One of the most famous chapters in all of scripture, 1 Corinthians 13 calls us to love. But Paul gives us more than just the attitude to have in love; Paul also gives us an action.

In the final verses of the first letter Paul speaks of Stephanas who is, “devoted to the service of the saints.” He then commends such service to the Corinthians. If gifts are the means by which the church lives, and fellowship is the end for which the church lives, then service is the way we use those gifts.

King reminded us of Jesus’ words, “The greatest among you shall be the servant of all.” Then he commented, “It means that everyone can be great, because everyone can serve. . . You need only a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

Let us leave tribalism in the church behind. Let us not go it alone, neither as individuals, nor as congregations, nor as a denominations. But let us receive God’s grace upon grace, the many gifts bestowed upon us, serving one another and the world in love. For we are called into fellowship with Christ. Amen.

01.12.20 Old Promises of New Life Matthew 3.13-17 Sermon Summary

Do you remember your New Year’s resolutions from last year? Of course you do. You made them again last week! “This year I’ll lose weight, exercise more, spend more time with the family, and ask for that raise.” Today I start a new sermon series called “No New Promises”. But is there really anything new? Today’s message is entitled “Old Promises of New Life”.

One lesson that Psalm 29 makes very clearly: God’s presence and power are in God’s voice. “The voice of the LORD is over the storm waters.” It “thunders, breaks and twists trees, stripping forests bare, and causes the ground to skip like a frightened calf.”

From the opening chapter of the Bible God has been speaking. If God’s presence and power are in God’s voice, our response is to listen. But we don’t listen. Why? For lots of reasons. Maybe God has been silent for so long we’ve stopped listening. Or we don’t like what we’ve heard. Or we’ve heard it all before. Maybe we’ve grown spiritually old and tired and deaf.

When Jesus came to John he had heard the promises of God. Centuries earlier God had promised deliverance from foreign occupiers, justice for the exploited, and healing for the sick. And surely, arising out of his parents’ faith in the extraordinary circumstances of his birth, Jesus had been told of something special that was going to happen in his lifetime.

Now he is thirty years old. His people had been waiting generations. And HE had been waiting. By thirty you’ve begun to ask question that never go away. What does God want me to do? And we begin looking for some kind of sign. Should I get married? Should I get divorced? Should I return to school? Should I change industries? Maybe I should relocate? Perhaps I need to explore and find my new self?

Did Jesus ask these questions? Well, do you ask these questions? Because these are human questions, and Jesus was human just like you. If you ask these questions, Jesus did also.

John was preaching a “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins.” I wonder how Jesus heard this? It’s perplexing for us because later in the Bible we’re told that Jesus was without sin. But did thirty-year-old Jesus know this about himself? Why would a sinless Jesus go to be baptized by John?

Have you ever wondered if your life is turning out the way it is because of sin? Maybe something you did, or something done to you? Or have you ever had the sense that the world just isn’t what it’s supposed to be? Jesus knew things aren’t what they are supposed to be. He had all our questions. He saw the disappointment of sin. So when he heard of John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, he went. He went because he was listening.

There are some profound things that are true about people who listen. There’s a certain wisdom about them through the knowledge they’ve accumulated from others. They are attractive because people want to be heard. They have a peaceful patience because practicing listening takes time. People who listen are compassionate because they understand that all people suffer.

Maybe John recognized these things in Jesus. John was also a listener. He also recognized sin in the world. But in Jesus he recognized a deeper listener, which is why John wants to be baptized by Jesus. Eventually, John baptizes Jesus and because Jesus is a listener he hears God’s voice over him (John, too, according to Matthew and John.) And God’s voice declares, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”

In his baptism Jesus hears an old promise of new life. The first part of God’s declaration comes from Psalm 2:7. It’s about anointing a new king, a new “son of God” as the ancient Israelites were comfortable affirming. The second part comes from Isaiah 42:1 which is about a servant who is a delight to God. We have celebrated Christmas—the birth of a new king. And Epiphany—the revelation that it applies to all people. And today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, which teaches us how we enter that kingdom and what the kingdom says to us.

We enter God’s kingdom by listening, by paying attention, by exercising patience. In the words of Isaiah we enter God’s kingdom by “waiting on the LORD.” And what God’s kingdom says to us is that we are God’s beloved children and that God delights over us. You are God’s beloved child and God delights over you.

It’s an old promise going all the way back to the first chapters of the Bible. God created us and declared us good. When we hear it in baptism—Jesus’ and our own—the old promise brings new life. When we listen, no matter how sinful we are or not, we are likely to hear God’s voice. It is a voice expressing love and delight. And from there we are able to discern God’s will.

For Jesus the servant king, God’s will led to the Cross. At the Lord’s Table we remember God’s love for us. Jesus prefaced his Passion by saying, “No one has greater love than the one who lays down his life.” We remember Jesus’ Cross, but we also remember our own crosses, the ways we also love and serve others.

At this Table Jesus would have remembered his baptism in water by John, for later he would refer to his pending death as his baptism. And we also remember his baptism, which is why we touch the waters as we come to the Table. Together, then, let us remember God’s love and God’s delight—the old promises of new life.

Eucharistic Prayer

Spirit of God, who before the invention of time hovered over the waters of creation, hover over us now. In your wisdom God spoke and those words brought forth light from darkness, solid ground from stormy seas, and life within the heavens, earth, and oceans. Grant us wisdom through God’s Word this morning. In the waters of Mary’s womb you knit together the body of Jesus the Savior. Through the waters of birth you introduced into our world Emmanuel, God with Us. Out of the waters of baptism you proclaimed the love and delight of God upon Christ. And at of the baptism of his death, you let water flow from his side to show us the extent of God’s love for the world. Come now we pray, and knit us together as the body of Christ through our shared bread and cup. Grant us communion with our Savior that we may know, as deeply as he did, God’s love and delight. Lead us as you did Christ, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who languish in our unjust world, that having been fed and united with Christ, we may be the Body of Christ to them and to all. This we pray for the sake of his baptism. Amen.

12.22.19 Where Today Isaiah 7.10-16, Romans 1.1-7 Sermon Summary

This Advent we’ve been looking at various locations of faith. Today we consider one of the hardest places to have faith.

We started with Isaiah in Jerusalem, which God promises to make a joy rather than the heartache it is today. Then we found ourselves in a dark tunnel of which Jesus is the light at the end. Next we were in a decimated forest but noticed that one of the stumps had a new shoot growing out of it. Lastly we rejoiced in the desert following a rainstorm that produced flowers where there was only sand.

Today we follow Paul to Rome. Yes, Rome, the seat of power that crucified Jesus, persecutes his followers, and will eventually martyr Paul. He writes the churches in Rome because he believes God is even there, in Rome.

How could this be? Rome was the home of Caesar Augustus, emperor from 27 BC -14 AD. After winning the civil war he was proclaimed Prince of Peace. He claimed to be the Son of God. Augustus reinstated much of the previously neglected popular nationalist religion. Rome was the last place one would expect to find the God of Israel.

Power produces lords. The more power, the bigger the lord. Most of us have limited power and we are the little lords of our lives. Some people have big power and they become big lords. There was a big lord in Rome. How could there also be room for God?

Paul is confident to say God is in Rome because Jesus “was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.” Paul recognizes that Jesus is Lord over the non-Jews, even in Rome.

Where in your life do you doubt God is present? Where is Rome to you? Where does the little lord of your life reign, where your ego is so fully in control that you doubt God could ever be there? And where do you see a big lord who boasts to be sovereign?

Maybe you don’t want to say, as Ahaz didn’t. Ahaz was the king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Judah was a vassal to the kingdom of Assyria. A new alliance was forming between the Northern Kingdom Israel (also called Ephraim) with its King Pekah, and Syria (also called Aram) with its King Rezin. This alliance had Ahaz uncertain and afraid. His “heart was shaken, as tree in forest by wind”

So God sends Isaiah to reassure him. They meet in a secret location where Isaiah brings his son Shear-Jashub which means “a remnant shall return.” Isaiah presents this child as a sign from God to increase Ahaz’ confidence. “Now,” he says, “ask for a sign yourself.” Ahaz refuses and this frustrates Isaiah.

Sometimes asking for a sign indicates a lack of trust. You can read one of the most famous examples in Judges 6. But sometimes asking for a sign is itself a sign of trust. And this is what Isaiah is prompting Ahaz to do. When he refuses, God gives a sign anyway. There is a young woman who will have a child named Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Before this child is weaned, typically by age 3, the threat Ahaz fears will be over. Assyria will eliminate it.

Later (long enough for Isaiah’s wife to get pregnant and produce a child), Isaiah offers a third child-sign. This child’s name is Mahar-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means “go promptly to the plunder, swiftly to the spoil.”

With all these signs and promises and opportunities to exercise trust, Ahaz is still afraid. So Isaiah finally says “Assyria will come for everyone now, even you. And the reason why is because Emmanuel, God is with you.” (8:8)

On one hand, God assures Ahaz in the sign of Emmanuel. “Don’t fret, God is with you.” But then God judges him for his lack of trust. “Because God is with you, you could have more confidence, but you don’t.”

We say God can be trusted but sometimes we show we don’t trust God by our actions. Nonetheless, God is still trustworthy. And eventually our lack of trust will be tried and exposed.

The Gospel of Matthew borrows from Isaiah the sign of Emmanuel. Because Matthew uses a Greek translation of the Hebrew Isaiah, the “young woman” becomes a “virgin.” (Isaiah used the Hebrew words alma “young woman” instead of betulah “virgin,” but the Greek used parthenos “virgin.”) The Gospel of Luke was also influenced by this translation and so the two Gospels use Isaiah to teach that Jesus is the Son of God because he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin.

Paul, Matthew, and Luke all refer to Jesus as Son of God. Paul does so because of the resurrection. The birth narratives do so because of conception. For Paul, because Jesus is Lord over Gentiles even in Rome, new life can come even there. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus is Lord even over the darkness that is caused by Rome.

In Jesus God has given us a sign. No matter how dark our world is God’s light still shines. No matter how dead things seem to be God can still bring life. No matter what Rome refers to in your life, God comes to us in Christ to be born anew, to bring light, and to save.

Jesus is Lord and Augustus is not. But Jesus offers a different kind of lordship, one based on service not might, inclusion not marginalization, and generosity not exploitation. To keep us ever mindful that Jesus is our Lord and that our Lord is a servant, he gave us his Table where we remember that he still offers us his life for our salvation. Let us come with our own lack of trust, with our own versions of Rome, and find that God is with us even here. Amen.