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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.

12.15.19 Moving Towards God Isa 35.1-10, Jam 5.7-10 Sermon Summary

Isaiah is a composite book, written over about two centuries by perhaps three authors. One of the shared themes among the sections and authors is that there is a time of exile and a time of return.

The time of exile follows some unprecedented calamity in the life of the community of faith, with an unimaginable result that occasions a severe test of faith. In the case of the sixth century (BC) Isaiah, Jerusalem is conquered by the Babylonians, the Temple is destroyed, and the prominent citizens are deported to Babylon.

About seven decades later, the exiles are allowed to return. There is thanksgiving to God and the anticipation of homecoming, but also anxiety over the future.

One of the Bible’s main themes is exile and return. Exile: Going where we don’t want to go. Return: coming home, even if home is different.

Isaiah offers hope to the exiles on their journey home, to encourage them as they move towards God. The last time they crossed the desert, Jerusalem was burning in the rearview mirror, the Temple was in ruins, and their precious religious relics destroyed. They were marching to an uncertain fate, humiliated, into a foreign land with an ambiguous religious future.

It’s been said we are living in exile again. The façade of a Christian nation has been stripped away.
Forces outside the bounds of Christian values rule the day. Even Christianity is divided. There’s the macho brand versus the compassionate one. There are some who manipulate the faith in contrast to those who patiently trust. There are those who say a lot about their Christian faith and those who actually do what Jesus said.

As people in exile our heads can spin. We see corruption among the powerful, but also those who care for the powerless poor. We see desperate refugees. We’re promised some stability in “law and order,” but also witness abusive enforcement. Jesus says, “do not draw the sword,” yet Christians boast about their guns.

This is the character of Advent, and why Advent speaks so powerfully to us. Jesus has come as God’s decisive intervention in the world. But his mission is not complete. There is work yet to be done, much of it by the church in the power of the spirit. But Jesus’ work is not completely done until his promised return.

Advent is the season where we live in between, between God’s coming and God’s return. We live in exile. Things are not as we know they should be, but we have a promise from God that things as they should be, shall be. We live in exile. We exist in Advent, between the revelation of God’s promise and the fulfilment of it.

In this in-between place, during this in-the-meantime time, Isaiah’s vision for his people is a vision we can apply to ourselves. Isaiah knows things are not as they should be. He uses physical examples to talk about it. People are blind. People are deaf. People can’t walk right. People can’t speak. But he promises the blind will see and the deaf will hear, the lame will leap and the mute will sing.

Obviously these are metaphors. Today we might say the homeless will decorate their houses, the mentally anguished will meditate in peace, the unemployed will slide their name badge, the working poor will pay their bills.

Isaiah’s favorite depiction is one that isn’t just metaphorical. It’s literal and also metaphorical. He evokes the desert, the very same desert they crossed when they entered their exile. Now, Isaiah says, the desert will be an oasis, waters will break through the sand, streams will meander around the dunes,  the burning sand will be in puddles, withering bushes will give way to swamps.

The experience of exile will be reversed. The displaced people will find a home. The religious dizziness will return to solid ground. God will make sense again. It is a return to Paradise—the paradise lost when sin entered the world. It is a second Exodus, another crossing of a desert when people who were enslaved were freed.

People who have experienced exile are free. Free to question religious answers to life’s questions. Free to trust God when things go off the rails. Free to shake their fists at God. Free to love God outside of official channels. And free to look for flowers in the desert.

What are the deserts you are facing in this Advent? Can you catch Isaiah’s vision? Can you hope for a turn-around? Can you begin to move towards God, when you walk the desert in the opposite direction, with oases around you and flowers under your feet?

Maybe not? Don’t despair. A passage from James may help. Whereas Isaiah talks about exiles, James talks about farmers: “Be patient,” he says, “until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. You also can be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. . . As an example of patience in suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”

Isaiah is one of those prophets. But Isaiah spoke to exiles and James is talking about farmers. What’s the difference? Exiles don’t choose their desert experience; farmers do. Farmers cultivate a plot of ground, plant a seed, wait for rain, whether it comes early or late. All the while they trust their experience because they lived it, they chose the land, they chose the crop, they cultivated the ground, they planted. And now they must wait for God to send the rains—just like those crossing the desert from exile.

The point is we all must wait for God’s deliverance, whether we planted our own fields or whether we are the victims of larger forces. To hope for a better world requires waiting for a better world, because the world isn’t what it should be and it isn’t yet what God promises it will be.

You may be the victim of larger forces like the exiles of Isaiah’s time, and the exiles of many people since then. Even so, remember that even the farmer who is not a victim must also wait for God’s deliverance. All of us need God, whether exiles or prophets or farmers. All of us are called to wait on God. All of us are called to live in Advent, between the promise and its fulfilment.

And while we wait as we move towards God, may we encourage one another in the desert. May we embrace life with the joy of faith. May we testify to the promises of God. For God has given us a sign. Rains come in the desert and flowers burst into bloom. Ponds form between the sand dunes and God’s people return home.

The purpose of signs is to remind us of God’s deliverance and God’s promises. Last week we looked at the sign of the branch in the stump. This week it is the sign of the desert. God has rescued us before in the desert. Hardships come. We have been blind, deaf, mute, and lame. But heavenly rains come too.

God gives us the signs and we bring our faith. Jesus gave us a sign at his Table. See here the branch in the stump. See here the crocus blooming in the desert. Take your first steps across the desert and move towards God today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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