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07.26.20 Message to Leaders Malachi 2, 3 Sermon Summary

The job of prophets is to critique conventional wisdom, those thoughts and practices that everyone agrees with and conforms to. Prophets contradict popular opinion by offering a godly perspective and call us back to godliness. What the prophet Malachi says about leadership, we need to hear today.

The people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah had experienced something of a purge. First the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Then Judah and the Temple at Jerusalem were destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. The Persians defeated Babylon in 539 BC and sent the Judeans home.

They rebuilt the Temple and restored ritual sacrifice, but the society was corrupt and the religious leaders didn’t offer correction. From this context the prophetic book we know as Malachi arose. It means “my messenger” (of the Lord) and what Malachi said was, “If you fulfill your religious duties and pursue justice among the people, God’s blessing will come to you.”

Today we look at Malachi’s message to the leadership of the people. “To you priests, I give this command,” chapter two begins. Priests came from the tribe of Levi, the only one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel who did not receive a portion of land. Instead Levi was given a vocation—the priesthood—to mediate between the people and God. Since they had no land to cultivate or herd, and since they were busy with the priesthood, Levites were materially supported by the offerings of the other eleven tribes.

God made a covenant with Levi, that is, a relationship based on promise. “I will give you life and well-being,” God promised, “and you will give me reverence and awe.” The role of the priests included true speech and instruction without regard to status, consequence, or benefit to themselves.

In Malachi’s time the priesthood of Levi, the Levitical priesthood, had become corrupt. They accepted the second best from the people. Their best was reserved for their Persian governors. And so the Levites offered the second best to the LORD. They accepted less than was their due from the other tribes to keep the peace. To make up for their lack, they offered judgments with partiality, showing favor to the privileged.

In all this, God says through Malachi, they profaned the covenant between God and Levi. But they also profaned the covenant among God’s people, the promise of just relationships. In this way the priests perverted justice.

And so God says in judgment, “I will curse your blessings, rebuke your offspring, spread dung on your offerings, and put you out of my presence.” Or in other words, “Your ministry will do nothing, your legacy will be nothing, your offerings will be utterly rejected, and you will not experience my presence.”

These are hard words to leaders. Many read the Bible as if it addressed to them. But some things are addressed only to leaders. For example:

  • James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
  • Timothy 3:2-4 Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.
  • Titus 1:7-9 For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.

Biblical instructions to ancient leaders must be interpreted for today. We know this because the following verses in Titus above propagate bigotry against Cretans and Jews. We don’t believe, as Titus asserts, that, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, and lazy gluttons.” Nor do we believe that Jewish belief is invalid because it rests on myths.

There are instructions for leaders in the Bible but they must be interpreted before they are applied today. Incidentally, there are also words for congregation members who are not leaders: Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.”

Those of us who are leaders must take the Bible’s instructions “to heart,” to use Malachi’s words. I take them to heart. My vocation is leadership. So what about Malachi’s words? How shall I receive his words to the leaders of his day?

The priests of Malachi’s day were national leaders. This was especially the case after the exiles. So Malachi’s words address our national leaders today. Now think about that. Malachi’s words apply not just to me as a pastor, but to our mayor, to our governor, and to our president. We leaders are to speak truth without partiality.

Each of us has to judge for ourselves: Do our governmental leaders speak truth? Do they speak with impartiality? Or think of it this way: When it comes to the refining fire, who’s going to feel the heat?

But we also need realize this: All of us are leaders. All of us lead someone, because all of us influence someone. If you are a parent, a caretaker, an employer, or a manager, you are a leader. If you are financially secure, a decision maker, or have power over others, you are a leader. If you are privileged, technologically proficient, or educated, you are a leader. If you are experienced, white, or physically able, you are a leader.

As a leader, you are also held to these standards in the kingdom of God. Do you speak the truth? Do you show impartiality? Do you respect the covenant? Do you love God? Do you love your neighbor? Because this is what it means for leaders to have faith, to respond to God with faith.

“What God calls for from the Judeans in Malachi’s time, and always from us, are love in response to God’s love, trust on the basis of all that God has done, obedience out of gratitude for God’s constant merciful and forgiving presence with us.” (Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching from the Minor Prophets, p. 136)

Such leadership can feel overwhelming. If you feel that leadership in the church or in the country or in your own life is so corrupt, so wayward, so wrong-headed that it can never be corrected, hear this good news. God is sending a refiner’s fire. We don’t have to do it alone. We don’t have to do it ourselves. In fact, we cannot. God desires to purify our leadership until we offer to God an offering in righteousness.

Do you desire this? Are you among the faithful who “hunger and thirst for righteousness?” Will you participate in “the day of God’s coming?” If so, then surrender yourself to the Refiner’s fire. Speak the truth. Show no impartiality. And stand by those who speak the truth with your voice, with your vote, and with your action.

And through your leadership may “the offerings of God’s people be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and in the former years.” Amen.

07.19.20 Embarrassing God Malachi 1, 3 Sermon Summary

Psalm 33:12 states, “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord.” Some people say the United States is a godly nation, a religious nation, or was at least founded on religious principles. Such a nation would have responsibilities; one of which is don’t embarrass God.

Today we begin a series of sermons on a new minor prophet. In the past months we’ve listened to Habakkuk from the 6th century prior to the Babylonian exile, and Hosea from the 8th century prior to the Assyrian exile. Today we listen to Malachi from the 5th century after both of these traumatic events.

By the time of Malachi, the people had returned to Jerusalem, the Temple had been restored, but Judah remained only as a minor nation. They had a glorious past, had been promised a glorious future, but it hadn’t come to pass.

Hosea had said, “They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon. “ (14:7) And Habakkuk had assured, “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” (2:3)

The people of Malachi’s day were saying, “Why hasn’t God been faithful?” Malachi offers an answer. It is a book about reality, about how life after exile is still hard, and about the choices that we make. By our choices we either honor God or embarrass God.

God says through Malachi, “From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (1:11)

By contrast, Judah was dishonoring God. They called God “father” and “lord” or “master,” but gave God only the second best. Did you know the church often receives hand-me-down, second best things. Some people are offended when I inform them that the church is not obligated to receive anything anyone hands it. And neither is God. But God is more patient.

Malachi’s message is that God’s patience runs out. The people failed to treat God as a parent or a lord. They failed to honor God as much as they did the government: “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now you implore the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. (Why isn’t God answering?) The fault is yours, (by the choices you make.)” (1:8-9)

Later God says, “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you!” (3:9) How were they robbing God? By not bringing a whole tithe, which refers to a tenth of one’s accumulations, whether money or harvest.

Let’s take an excursion about the tithe. A tithe is one standard in the Bible guiding people on giving to the religious establishment. It is an easy, convenient benchmark. Not all biblical faith communities treat it the same. Mormons enforce it. You report your income and they monitor whether you tithe. The Jewish community in my city develops a budget, splits expenses among households, and sends an assessment.

Most Christian communities, including Faith, treat giving and the tithe more passively. You can read my thoughts at this link.

Malachi was one who believed in the tithe—the whole ten percent. But he also believed in giving God our best, not our second best. And also giving God the first-fruits of our lives, not our left-overs.

Jesus once sat opposite the treasury at the Temple and watched as people made their financial offerings. As Mark tells the story, Jesus commented on the paltry gift of a widow’s two coins. “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)

What are we to make of this? Did she have only two coins to her name? Do the two coins represent a tithe out of twenty coins? We don’t know exactly, but the Greek word Mark uses of her gift is “bion,” like bio. Jesus is speaking about her life, about her heart. The gift of two coins represented the woman’s heart.

Ultimately, Malachi is talking about the same thing. Chapter three reports, “the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (After I) draw near to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (3:4-5)

The nation was robbing God not only of the tithe but also by worshiping other gods, by withholding a living wage, by neglecting widows and orphans, and by rejecting immigrants. The Bible’s word for such grievances is “justice.” Justice does not refer to legal alignment, but to relating in a right way. The synonym for justice in the Bible is “righteousness.” It refers to our right relationship to God, to neighbor, and to all creation.

“If you do this,” God says in Malachi, “if you bring in the whole tithe, and if you relate with justice, I will bless you.”

Some people say America is a Christian nation, or at least founded on Christian principles. If so, are we giving God his due? Are we giving God honor, our best, better than we give the government? Do we give God our first fruits? Do we ensure justice for all?

Or are we embarrassing God before the other nations? We must ask this as a nation and as individuals. We are blessed as a nation and as individuals. Imagine how blessed we would be if we were more just.

07.12.20 Ritual Righteousness and Love Hosea 6:4-6; Psalm 51:16-17; Matthew 23:2-3, 23-24 Homily Summary

Ephraim, that is, the northern Kingdom of Israel, kept up religious appearances. They maintained worship, had festival observances, and offered daily sacrifices. But they shared their religious love with idols. Those idols included self-reliance, military might, political maneuvering, and exploitation of the poor.

Given the choice between religious righteousness and relational righteousness, God prefers relational righteousness. God prefers love over sacrifice, knowledge over offerings. Only some people really understand this. They’ve done everything right and followed the religious rules. But they didn’t love God or neighbor.

They understand the words of Psalm 51: “For God takes no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, God would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Some read this verse and conclude that God is not interested in religion at all. They say that ritual, prayer, worship, sacraments are meaningless. Even worse, they conclude, such things are DISTRACTIONS to what God wants.

In the Gospels, the Scribes and Pharisees are the foils of Jesus’ teaching. It’s not always fair or accurate, but it is effective. In Matthew 23 Jesus says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Later Jesus goes on: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Jesus understands the purpose of religious righteousness. It is to direct us to relational righteousness, to remind us God is in the details of tithes and offerings, for example, so God is also in the big picture of loving our neighbor.

Can religious righteousness become a distraction? Only if it becomes a SUBSTITUTION. Only if ritual sacrifice replaces ego sacrifice which is necessary for love.

Jesus, Hosea, and the Psalmist would have us love God truly, and love our neighbor concretely, and practice our religion sincerely. Sincere practice of religion requires these kinds of love. Love of God truly. And love of neighbor concretely. Amen.

07.12.20 The Nature of True Faith Hosea 6:1-6; and 10:1-2, 12 Sermon Summary

This week I heard a famous preacher interviewed by an NPR agnostic. The preacher said that what impressed him about Christianity is that it assumes suffering—demonstrated by our “brand” being a cross. (We are not alone in this.) It begs the question: Is there a purpose in our suffering? What is God’s desire when we suffer?

Some people say God is the author of our suffering. There is a kind of logic to it, and it ensures that our suffering has a divine purpose. This perspective is relatively easy to find in the Bible, especially in prophets like Hosea. Such prophets see what’s coming and call the people to repent. Don’t repent, and God’s judgment comes. We will suffer.

In weeks past I have said that God gets our attention by frustrating our plans or actively making us suffer. Take Hosea 5:6, for example: “With their flocks and herds, Ephraim shall go to seek the LORD, but they will not find him; God has withdrawn from them.” (Frustration) Or more graphically, Hosea 5:14: “I will be like a lion to Ephraim. I myself will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue.” (Actively making us suffer)

In Hosea, God gets our attention by frustrating our plans or actively making us suffer. What does God want according to this perspective? What is the purpose of our suffering? Hosea 5:15 says, “I will return again to my place [God’s throne room] until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face. In their distress they will beg my favor.”

Let me confess that I have my doubts that withdrawing protection, withholding affection, or actively savaging those we love to modify their behavior is advisable. . . or that God is actually like this. But that’s the perspective of some of the prophets.

But let’s back up and ask: Why was God so disappointed with Ephraim? It is because he blessed them, and instead of gratitude and generosity, they aggrandized themselves and gave credit to idols. Hosea 10:1 says, “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more its fruit increased the more altars he built (to other gods); as his country improved, he improved his pillars (to other gods).” Then Hosea 10:2 says, “Because their heart is false; they must now bear their guilt. The LORD will break down their altars and destroy their pillars.”

When a nation mixes the blessings of God with the idol of nationalism the blessing becomes a judgment. The last two sermons (6/21/2020 & 6/28/2020) talked about these idols. I encourage you to review them. All nations have idols. Our nation has idols, including some of the same ones as Hosea identifies. Today I want to ask: What does God desire as the result of our suffering?

There is a hint of Hosea’s answer is found in chapter six. Chapter five ends: “In their distress they will beg my favor.” Chapter six begins with what God wants us to say, “Come, let us return to the LORD; for it is God who has torn us, and God will heal us. Let us press on to know the LORD. God’s appearing is as sure as the dawn.”

There is truth in these words. God CAN heal us. IF God causes our suffering, God can relieve it. And God’s mercies ARE new every morning like the dawn.

But this is not true faith. Remember what else God wanted: Not just that we would seek God’s face, but that we would also “acknowledge our guilt.” Until we acknowledge our guilt we will return to our idols. And God has seen this innumerable times.

God says in Hosea 6:4, “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.” We return to God in distress, but we return to idols in times of ease—as often as night turns to day.

God grows tired of sending us prophets, “hewing us by the prophets” to use Hosea’s words (6:5). Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about “hewing out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

We hear the prophets. We hear Hosea. We hear King. We hear prophetic words today. Prophetic words about how wealth should be distributed, about how privilege should be diffused, about how power should be shared.

In our distress we cry out to God for relief, but we do not acknowledge our guilt of taking credit for ourselves or giving credit to idols. And so we return to our oppressive ways. Our love evaporates like the morning dew.

This is why God was disappointed with Ephraim—and us—individually, and as a nation. We say we love God, that we seek God, that we are grateful for our blessings. But we mix those blessings with idols and so we suffer for it.

I don’t know how much God is responsible for our suffering. I know I’m responsible for a lot of mine and that I suffer because of chance. Jesus suffered his Passion and the Cross. He said he laid down his OWN life; no one took it from him. He didn’t blame God for his suffering, didn’t hold those perpetrating it accountable.

He DID say, “Into your hands, O God, I commend my spirit.” And that was apparently what God wanted. Because,  “God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father.” (Philippians 2)

What is God’s desire when we suffer? True faith. So Hosea invites us not just to return to the LORD but to thank God for our blessings, and to be faithful stewards of those blessings for the good of all the world.

Hosea give these instructions  for those who would exercise true faith: “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, that God may come and rain righteousness upon you.” Amen.

06.28.20 When God Seduces Us Hosea 2:14-20 Sermon Summary

The last time ancient Israel was in the Wilderness was during the Exodus, thirteen centuries before the birth of Christ, when they were liberated from slavery in Egypt. It was a time of both deliverance and judgment. The prophet Hosea says that God is taking his people back to the Wilderness for a time of judgment and honeymoon. In any case, through hardship and redemption, the Wilderness is a place of transformation.

There are two primary metaphors in Hosea. The first is God as Husband and Israel as spouse. The second is God as Parent with Israel as son. Metaphors are powerful. They are “word pictures” that say “something is something else.” They don’t’ say something is “like” something else, but that it “is” something else. Metaphors are    side-by-side juxtapositions meant to expand understanding.

“Metaphor” is a Greek word that means carry with. Metaphors carry with them non-literal truths (note the plural) which cause us to see something from a different angle. We must avoid identifying or confusing a metaphor’s something with something else, and it helps to know the context of the metaphor, to locate the angle of the metaphor, and only then to take in the view and ponder.

Last week we looked at the metaphor of God as parent. It was Father’s Day so I let the idea that God the Parent was a father stand. But the text is uncommitted. And the descriptions of the parent in Hosea 11 are typical descriptions of caring mothers, not fathers. It is valuable to see God as Mother especially in this instance. It balances the metaphor of sexual identity which is the topic this week, namely, that God is a Husband and thus male. The point is, God is not a husband or a mother, is not a male or a female, and using both metaphors together with Hosea keeps us mindful of this.

This week God is the Husband and Israel is a spouse. She is not a faithful spouse, but rather an adulterous one. She has chased after other lovers. “She went after her lovers and forgot me,” says the Lord. (Hosea 2:13)

Hosea describes the leaders of Israel with these words: “They have dealt faithlessly with the LORD; for they have born illegitimate children.” (5:7) Who are some of these illegitimate children,                “born out of unfaithfulness”? Hosea identifies at least four.

The first child born of unfaithfulness is the economic exploitation of the poor. In Hosea’s time, peasants harvested crops of “grain, wine, and oil.” It was their practice to rotate crops in order to ensure a successful harvest. But the social elites demanded more harvest for lucrative export. They exploited the peasants’ labor, and they exploited the land. Hosea refers to them as, “A trader, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress.” (12:7)

The second illegitimate child is the religious legitimation of the oppressive situation. Quoting the elites, Hosea says, “Ah, I am rich. In all of my gain, no offense has been found in me that would be sin.” (12:8) This came up last week also, but the point is their earnings may be legal, but they are not just. Yet the religious leaders condone this injustice, and so Hosea writes, “As robbers lie in wait for someone, so priests are banded together.” (6:9)

A third child of unfaithfulness is Israel’s reliance on might. They made military alliances with foreign nations when they questioned their own abilities. So Hosea prophecies, “Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed.” (10:13-14)

Finally, the fourth illegitimate child is idolatry. God says, “They keep on sinning by making a cast image for themselves, idols of silver made according to their understanding, all of them the work of artisans. ‘Sacrifice to these,’ they say.” (13:2) Today these idols look like new cars, or bigger houses, or fancier vacations, or exotic hobbies, or the latest technology, or the cheapest prices.

How many of us are “sacrificing to these”? Sacrificing our health? Sacrificing our families? Sacrificing our integrity? Sacrificing our time? From God’s perspective, these are all idols. They are our adulterous lovers.

Despite these four illegitimate children, born of God’s people from adulterous relationships, Hosea reveals God’s strategy for redeeming us. It is basically to strip away all our idols. God will take away our fine things and our productivity. “I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season; and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness.” (2:9)

At least God takes away our satisfaction. “She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them.” (2:7) “As they go, I will cast my net over them; I will bring them down like birds of the air.” (7:12) We may fly after our idols, but God brings us back down.

Have you ever become dissatisfied? Have you had the experience that things which have always worked no longer do? So you try harder but to no avail? Hosea might say we are chasing an idol.

Hosea’s metaphor goes even further. God creates dissatisfaction not only for one generation, but for generations to follow. “Upon her children also I will have no pity.” (2:4) “Her glory shall fly away like a bird—no birth, no pregnancy, no conception!” (9:11) “I will give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.” (9:14) “Ephraim is stricken, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit. Even though they give birth, I will kill the cherished offspring of their womb.” (9:16) God’s judgment upon idolatry is severe.

As a summary of God’s strategy Hosea writes, “They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall have the sex, but not multiply.” (4:10)

What is God’s goal in stripping away our idols? It is first to counteract our forgetfulness. It is to cause us to remember God and to be grateful. Second, it is for us to live faithfully—faithful to our communion with God and also with one another. It is that we will live with relationships built on faithful promises.

And so after stripping away our idols, after forcing us back into the Wilderness, God says through Hosea: “I will now allure you, seduce you, speak tenderly to you, in the wilderness. You will not call me ‘Master’ or ‘Lord’ as you did the Baals, but you will call me ‘Husband.’ I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy, and in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD.”

This vision of Hosea inspired another prophet to speak of the same love. Isaiah 54:5-8 says, “Your Maker is your husband, the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit. ‘For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. For a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.’”

Pastor and Professor Christine and James Ward write, “God’s renewed covenant with Israel is based on God’s unfailing love, and it requires Israel’s love in return, love expressed in faith in God and in works of love and justice.” (Ward and Ward, Preaching from the Prophets, p. 112)

God’s people are not faithful spouses when we fail to love God and one another. We are not faithful spouses when we fail to uphold justice for all God’s children.

Hosea must have inspired Jesus in John 8. There a woman is caught in adultery. She is brought by the religious leaders, the Pharisees, to Jesus. They remind Jesus that the Law says she shall be stoned to death. So what does Jesus say?

Here is this woman, standing naked before Jesus, just like Hosea said Israel would stand before her lovers. I wonder, was her husband in the crowd? Was her lover in the crowd?

Jesus bends down and writes in the sand. Suddenly everyone is looking at him and not at her. It is an act of grace. Jesus stands and responds to the question, “Shall we stone her?” “Let you who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus responds. Then he bends down and continues writing.

Brennan Manning comments: “The god of the Pharisees is interested in the contract, in [law-keeping] first and foremost. Let us kill the woman for the contract. The person is expendable. But in the Man, Jesus, we see the human face of God, one in keeping with the . . . revelation [in Hosea]. He is interested in the woman. His love moves beyond [law-keeping] and proves more salvific than spelling out the ground rules all over again.” (Brennan Manning, Dear Abba, p. 96)

Jesus, like God in Hosea, knows that we all are adulterous spouses. We all are Hosea’s Israel. We all are this woman in the story and the wife in the metaphor. True religious faithfulness is NOT sexual purity but relationships built on faithful promises. It is to belong to God in righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness. (2:19-20)

This is God’s faithful promise to us, and the same is God’s hoped-for response from us. And in our hearts, it is our intended response to God. Righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness. Hosea urges, “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.” (10:12)

No matter how unfaithful a spouse we may have been, let us remember that God seduces us yet again. And may we render to God the fruits of God’s Spirit in our lives, and be a faithful spouse to our God. Amen.

 

06.21.20 Out and Back to Egypt, Hosea 11, 8, 12 Selections, Sermon Summary

The warning of Hosea the prophet was relatively simple: God took you out of Egypt, but God is about to send you back.

You probably remember the Exodus—with Moses and the plagues, the first Passover and the journey through the Wilderness. That occurred some 1200 years before Christ. The ancient Israelites had spent somewhere between 210 and 430 years in Egypt, the latter part as slaves.

The Exodus was the defining moment of the nation, with the dramatic parting of the Sea of Reeds and the giving of the Ten Commandments. As the story goes, the people would spend forty years in the Wilderness. After only forty-five DAYS, they complained. They said to Moses, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)

Things were bad for ancient Israel in the Wilderness. But they forgot how bad it was in Egypt.

After the death of King Solomon, the kingdom of David was divided in 922. Ten tribes went with the Northern Kingdom of Israel (AKA Ephraim) and two went to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Israel was conquered by Assyria in 722 BC. Judah was ultimately conquered by Babylon in 587 BC. Hosea was written for Israel before the Assyrian invasion. It was later adapted for Judah.

In his generation Hosea saw that things were bad. But they forgot how good God is.

There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to forget. Remembering disappointment or trauma is protective against future pain. Even deeper there’s a part of us that won’t forget. We have wounds that need healing or a ruptured relationship that can be repaired.

But usually most people want to forget. Pain is unpleasant. We don’t talk about it. We want to replace bad memories with good memories. We try to substitute with busyness, or we work for a brighter future.

But forgetting is spiritual poison. If we forget, we die spiritually. The reason is that to remember is divine.

In Hosea, God remembers fondly: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” This is a reference to the Exodus of the 13th century. “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

Presbyterian biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier comments, “Nowhere in the Scriptures is there a more poignant portrayal of God. ‘It was I who taught Ephraim to walk.’ . . . All of God’s patient, tender, forgiving, guiding fatherhood is revealed in that portrayal.” (Preaching from the Minor Prophets, p. 25)

God has a long memory, like parents’ first memories of children. Hosea’s generation had forgotten. Instead of trusting God their liberator, they turned to more conventional means of security: Political manipulation, military power, unjust distribution of resources, and unholy alliances.

With regards to political manipulation, God complains through Hosea: “They made kings, but not through me; they set up princes, but without my knowledge.”

Regarding military power: “Judah has multiplied fortified cities.”

Commenting on the unjust distribution of resources: “Israel has forgotten his Maker, and built palaces. Ephraim says of herself: ‘Ah, I am rich, I have gained wealth for myself; in all of my gain no offense has been found in me that would be sin.’” In other words, what they did was legal, but it was not just.

And related to unholy alliances God says, “Ephraim has become silly and without sense; they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria.” (7:11) Why does Israel do this? To battle Judah!

What is this called when a country turns to these alternatives for security? Hosea calls it “unfaithfulness.” He calls it “idolatry.” Instead of turning to God, we turn to political manipulation, military power, unjust distribution of resources, and unholy alliances.

The road to idolatry is paved with privilege. “With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction.” It is paved with privilege followed by forgetfulness. “When I fed them, they were satisfied; they were satisfied, and their heart was proud; therefore they forgot me.” (13:6)

Hosea’s generation had long forgotten God. “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”

Hosea saw in his time, as prophets since have seen, God’s fond memory and a nation’s privileged forgetfulness. He saw that these lead to exile and judgment. “They shall not remain in the land of the Lord; but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food.” (9:3)

God’s people had come out of Egypt and now they’re about to go back—all because in their privilege they forgot God, became unfaithful, trusted in idols, and didn’t listen to the prophets.

God’s memory is long. God remembers when we were faithful, even if it was just our wonder in childhood (which is why we baptize children). God remembers picking us up, teaching us to walk, calling our names, even when we stopped listening. “I have been the Lord your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior.” (13:4)

God remembers that he created us in love, adopted us as his own, freed us from slavery to sin, and saved us in Christ.

So when our idolatry leads us back to Egypt and back into sin and its painful consequences, God has a conversation within himself. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (11:8-9)

When things are bad we sometimes forget that they’ve been worse. We sometimes forget how good God is. We sometimes forget to trust God, and the spiritual poison enters our lives.

But thanks be to God, that God never forgets. When you were just a child, God loved you. And out of Egypt God calls his children. Again and again and again.

06.14.20 Giving to Jesus John 6:32-40 Communion Homily

Most preacher approach Year B in the lectionary with a sense of dread come the summer months. The lectionary takes us to John chapter 6 which begins with Jesus feeding the 5000. Then there follows a search for Jesus which is somewhat humorous. The bulk of the chapter is the “Bread of life Discourse.”

Jesus’ audience is pressing him for a sign, for something to believe in. He tries to redirect them to God but they are slow to arrive. Finally Jesus concedes with four points. The people can 1. See Jesus, 2. Believe, 3. Have eternal life, and 4. Be raised on the last day.

The chapter continues with some back and forth between Jesus and the audience until finally Peter confesses that Jesus has the words of life. This takes us all the way back to the first chapter where John writes that, “In the beginning was the Word which was the life of the world.” It’s a lot for one summer.

John has no “bread and cup” Last Supper, but nonetheless has the most developed Eucharistic theology. It is found in this chapter. What is being taught here?

First we are told to “see Jesus.” In its setting this means simply seeing Jesus with the eyes. This the crowd of 5000 did. But there are some who also “believe.” These people see Jesus, but they also see more. These two points combine in John’s telling to teach us about the bread of Communion. At the table we see bread with our eyes, but we believe there is more there.

In Jesus, what people may see and experience is “eternal life.” According to Jesus, it is a life that is lived for the life of the world. It is doing the will of God. Eternal life is not a reference to our lives after death, for that is the fourth thing Jesus promises: Being raised from the dead.

But this brings us back again to “seeing Jesus.” For we can see Jesus when we see people who live their lives for the life of the world. When we see anyone doing the will of God, we are seeing Jesus. This is what Christians believe: God is always doing more than it appears.

There are two more things I want to point out from this passage. Those who come to him Jesus never drives away. And those who come to him Jesus never loses.

So will you come? For Jesus is calling. Will you see and believe? For here is bread and cup, but more than that also. Will you have eternal life? Will you live according to God’s will? Will you live for the life of the world? In your life, will people see Jesus this week?

Eucharistic Prayer: We give you thanks and praise, almighty Father of Jesus and life giving-Mother of all, for you sent Jesus to reveal yourself to the world. He came teaching grace and truth, eating with the hungry, sharing and giving his life for the life of the world.  He took bread and blessed it, broke it and gave it to those in need. Some ate and were satisfied, some ate and believed. Send your Spirit we pray, that at this table we may eat and believe, and find our satisfaction in receiving Christ, that we may be born from above, live out of love, and be raised on the last day.

06.14.20 While we Wait Habakkuk 1-3 Selections Sermon Summary

It feels like Advent in June: We’re doing a lot of waiting. Waiting time can be productive or a waste. But it can also be very discouraging. Today we turn to some ways Habakkuk dealt with the long time of waiting for justice and deliverance. Six strategies emerge.

  1. Be honest about the discouragement. Habakkuk begins with the words, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (1:2) We’ve already looked at the value of being so honest in the Sundays in May 2020, so I encourage you to review those sermons.
  2. Appeal to God’s character. Habakkuk reminds God, “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (1:13) How can you know God’s Character?

The first place to seek God’s character is in the person of Jesus Christ. After that, we look to the Bible “as it bears witness to Christ” (Confession of 1967). Finally, we know God’s character by remembering God’s deliverance in past, whether from the scripture, tradition, or in our own lives. God is a saving God.

  1. Remain watchful. Habakkuk writes, “ will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.” (2:1) The monastic hour of prayer called “vigils” now begins in the darkness of pre-dawn. It originally referred to an all-night time of prayer. This is what Habakkuk is talking about—watching and waiting for God’s response.
  2. Call out idols. Habakkuk utters a woe against the unrighteous in Jerusalem and the unrighteous Babylonians: “What use is an idol? For its maker trusts in what has been made . . . But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:18-20) He is appealing to one of the central points in the doctrine of creation. It is that no matter how much of God may be revealed in the creation, there is still the truth that God is Creator. Nothing in creation can save us—our salvation must come from outside creation. We need a savior. We have a creator. We look to our Creator for a Savior.
  3. Be defiant in faith. Habakkuk ends with this strong affirmation: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (3:17-19)

In each of our lives, we have a sentence that can begin with “Though”. Though my childhood included trauma. Though my marriage didn’t work out. Though I can no longer work. Though I am injured. Though . . . However your sentence begins, Habakkuk reminds us to turn it around another word: “Yet.” Yet will I praise God. Yet will I seek the Lord. Yet will I love others. Habakkuk is defiant in faith.

  1. Keep vision in view. The waiting Habakkuk did report this response from God: “Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” (2:2-3)

The instructions God gives the prophet is to make the vision so large that even a passerby running could see it and be encouraged. It would be like a billboard on the side of a road announcing how far the nearest fueling station is.

What Habakkuk doesn’t give us is the content of that vision. Some have suggested the entire third chapter contains the vision. But if we look at the other prophets writing at the time of Habakkuk, we might get a better sense of God’s inspiring vision.

Here are some examples of what God’s vision for Habakkuk’s audience is:

The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him. (Nahum 1:7)

Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon. (Jeremiah 50:34)

The days are surely coming, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. (Jeremiah 23:5)

If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, then I will dwell with you in this place forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. (Zephaniah 3:16-18)

For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, and gather you from all the places where I have driven you, and bring you back from exile. (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. But this is the covenant that I will make: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They shall all know me for I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

While we wait for God’s vision to become manifest, Habakkuk has shown us six steps for making our wait a productive, faithful time.

06.07.20 Law and Justice Habakkuk 1-3 selections Sermon Summary

The prophecy of Habakkuk begins with the same words as Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?” The psalmist hopes someday to rejoice in the salvation of God. Habakkuk finds peace in continuing to wait. What can we learn from Habakkuk about dealing with delayed answer to prayer?

Habakkuk began writing around 600 B.C. The ancient Israelite kingdom of Judah was on the brink of a catastrophe called the Babylonian Exile which began in 587 B.C. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been decimated by the Assyrians over 100 years earlier. Habakkuk hopes Judah can avoid that same fate.

Judah had not maintained righteousness. They had not heeded the warning from Israel’s fate. They committed idolatry, and tolerated corrupt courts and dishonest business which led to an uneven execution of justice. Judah deserved God’s judgment of unrighteousness, and Habakkuk knew it.

But Habakkuk was alarmed that God’s judgment might come by the Babylonians, whom he calls Chaldeans. Their theology was deficient. “Their own might is their god,” he tells us. Instead of following God, they held to a might-makes-right philosophy. In the same vein, “justice and dignity proceed from themselves.” They were their own law.

Babylon boasted military supremacy, with “horses swifter than leopards.” They were “more menacing than wolves . . . fearsome and impetuous . . . dreadful and fierce.” Because they were invincible, they “gathered captives like sand.”

And so Habakkuk laments that as Babylonian approaches Jerusalem, “the law becomes slack, and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous, therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

The late Presbyterian biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier writes, “The key word in Habakkuk 1:1-4 is mishpat, justice, which here refers not simply to judicial justice [courtroom justice] but to God’s whole order for society’s life.” (Preaching from the Minor Prophets, p. 89) Biblical justice, what Habakkuk laments is being perverted in Judah, refers to social righteousness, to “shalom,” the Old Testament vision of a society in which every life flourishes.

And God agrees with Habukkuk. The Babylonians are “proud.” They are condemned for their abuse of their wealth and their “arrogance.” We’re told they are “insatiable” like Death, never being satisfied, slaves to the Deadly Sin of Greed. Babylon colonizes other nations, “collecting peoples as their own.”

Later in the second chapter Habakkuk utters five “woes” against Babylonians. We attend to two. First: They practice segregation. God judges them for “setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm.” Using their wealth, they live in what we might see as gated communities. While less privileged people perform dangerous jobs below them, the privileged remain quarantined on high. And even “the very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork”; their own houses, built by oppressed people, will testify against them.

The second woe reveals that the Babylonians use their privilege to take advantage of others. “You make your neighbors drunk to gaze on their nakedness.” We see the exact replication of this on college campuses—just ask Chanel Miller.

But we see it also in society’s quick-fix public programs and lavish initial responses to disasters and tragedies. These work only so long. Temporary solutions to injustice eventually lead to violence, “in cities and all who live in them,” Habakkuk observes.

So Habakkuk laments two instances of injustice: (1) Judah’s unfaithfulness and (2) the “even worse Babylon” as God’s instrument. In both cases, he remembers and prays in chapter three: “I have heard of your renown, O God, and of your work. Revive it in our own time.”

More specifically, Habakkuk remembers God the Lawgiver. When he remembers that “God came from Teman, from Mount Paran,” he sees God rising from the region of Mt. Sinai where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law. Habakkuk suggests that the solution to both injustices—Judah’s unfaithfulness and the “even worse Babylon” as God’s instrument—is the law.

Habakkuk longs for the law. Through a return to the law mishpat, justice, will be restored. God’s desire for society will be realized. All lives will flourish.

Jesus was asked about the law, about which commandment is most important. His answer is well-known: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second is like it: Lover your neighbor as yourself.” How simply stated.

Love, Jesus taught, is the essence of the law. And Habakkuk would agree. This explains his observation that when the law has gone slack, injustice results. Without the law of love, injustice is inevitable.

In 1967 Martin Luther King answered white citizens who wanted to help bring about civil rights. He called them to a just love: “Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection . . . Love at its best is justice concretized.” (Where do We Go from Here, 1967, p. 95) What does it look like when love is made real? When it is not just rhetoric on our lips but actions in our lifestyles?

Habakkuk provides some answers as he understood the relationship between law, love, and justice: If in Judah they worshiped God and not idols; if in Judah the courts treated all people the same; if in Judah everyone had the same opportunity to advance economically—then judgment might be averted. If in Babylon they didn’t segregate themselves; if in Babylon they didn’t take advantage of others; if in Babylon they didn’t use their military to suppress—then judgment might be averted.

Habakkuk saw the need to return to the law, to mishpat, to social righteousness, to the standard of every life flourishing, to the law of love as Jesus taught. Until there is law applied through love, Judah and Babylon—and nations like them—will experience divine judgment.

Thus what Habakkuk and Jesus appear to be saying is that there can be no law and order until there is law and justice.

Thanks be to God that through the power of the Spirit, the baptized in Christ may bear witness in the nation and in the world of the love and justice of the Kingdom of God.

05.24.20 Morning is Coming Psalm 30 and 1 Peter 1 Sermon Summary

Psalm 30 comes to us as a song from the other side. The occasion for the author’s lament has past and he is being restored to a joyful community of worship. Our national anthem is another song from the other side. The dark night of war, punctuated only by the glare of rockets and bursting bombs, yields to dawn’s early light to reveal the stars and stripes of our banner. Songs from the other side encourage and give hope. They are honest about our laments and hopeful of God’s deliverance.

The author of Psalm 30 is one who has lamented, who peered into the “Pit” of death and survived, and is now returning to congregational worship. His cause for lament is given in one compact sentence: “You hid your face, I was dismayed.”

Psalm 104 uses the same language. “When you hide your face, creatures are dismayed; you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” Our psalmist was brought to the point of death where the dark Pit of Sheol is visible. But he survives and returns from the other side to say, “Sing praises to the Lord, and give thanks to God’s holy name.” (verse 4)

The heart of the psalm is verse 5: “God’s anger is but for a moment, God’s favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

We’re told that the psalmist was healthy and wealthy. He was “established as a strong mountain” and enjoyed “prosperity.” But then the fortunes were reversed. He uses a lot of metaphorical language: “strong mountain,” the “Pit,” God’s “face,” sickness as “foes.”

This brings us to the first point about lament psalms: They invite personalization. What is your “strong mountain?” What are your “foes?” What losses cause such grief that your own life seems in jeopardy? Psalm 30 speaks to you from the other side.

How did this psalmist survive?

One thing he did was to cry out to God for help. So often we don’t do this, perhaps because we feel guilty for our own suffering, as if it is our own fault. And there may be some truth to that.

But God is a savior. It’s God’s nature to save. God doesn’t care who’s to blame. God doesn’t care how long it takes us. We can always ask for help.

A second strategy for survival is based on this. A saving God wants to be praised and thanked, so the psalmist argues, “The dead don’t praise you—they’re dead! If I die, I can’t praise you.” This is the perspective of the psalmist. “Save me from dying, so I can praise you.”

God’s answer to the author of this psalm was to save from dying. But what about when that isn’t God’s answer? Is the psalmist’s faith voided by death? Is psalmist’s hope vain in death? What about the death of our loved ones? What about our own death? What about when God’s answer is not to save from dying? Does God just not answer? And if God does not answer, should we continue in prayer? Continue in faith? Continue in hope?

First Peter was written to answer these kinds of questions. This is evident early on in the letter. The resurrection of Christ is God’s answer to the psalmist’s charge, “If I die, it’s too late to save me, and I can’t praise you.”

The resurrection of Christ removes the foundation of the argument. After the resurrection death is not final. It is not the end. God’s ability to save is not extinguished by death. In fact, it is enhanced by it. Jesus’ foes thought they had won: “He claimed to be God’s Son, let God rescue him now.” Jesus even cried in the words of the psalmist, “My God, why have your forsaken me?”

Then he breathed his last, and died. Jesus went down to the Pit. He entered Sheol where God’s praise cannot be uttered.

“But,” Peter proclaims, “God raised Jesus from the dead,” and now we have a “new birth” into a “living hope.” What is more, “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” is secured for us. This is a salvation in the future, necessarily in the future, because it is beyond death.

In the meantime Peter acknowledges we will suffer, we will lament, and we will die. But the “genuineness” of our faith—the “truth” of our faith—will be proven like gold refined by fire.

And the result is exactly what God desires: “praise and glory and honor when Christ is revealed.”

God the savior will save. Death cannot hold us captive. The resurrected Christ liberates us from the grave. Our mourning is turned into dancing. We replace our sackcloth with garments of joy. The weeping of the night gives way to joy in the morning. And we will praise God. Morning is coming. Thanks be to God.