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Archive for the ‘Kingdom’ Category

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 
– Matthew 5:1-12

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Our scripture reading for today is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible.  It is also probably one of the most misinterpreted, mis-used and/or completely ignored passages in the Bible.  So I’d like to spend some time with it today, really digging into the meaning of Jesus’ words. I want to start out taking a look at the context of Jesus’ teaching, and then look at what these words might mean to us personally, and finally what they might mean to the church as the body of Christ.

So starting with context.  The Beatitudes, as these verses are called, are part of a much longer teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire sermon is found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  So it’s a pretty long teaching. The Beatitudes are the opening section of that teaching.

In terms of location, Jesus taught these words on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

beat6These photos show what the mountain looks like today.  Of course back in Jesus’ day the top of the mountain would not have been flattened, and there would be no church there.

beat4But you can still get a feel for what it was like.  It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot.  I mention this because so many Bible movies show Jesus and the disciples trudging over brown landscape, rocks, and dust, and there are parts of southern Israel that look like that, but not Galilee.  The region of Galilee is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.

beat3So this is where Jesus and the disciples went – surrounded by beauty.  In a way this would have been for them kind of like going on a retreat to Jumonville would be for us, a way of getting away from the everyday and spending some time – I was going to say ‘in the word’, but with the Word in this case.

Matthew says very specifically “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” where the disciples came to him. So Matthew seems to imply that Jesus was speaking mostly to the disciples, probably not just the Twelve, but to people who were already following him.  As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, a crowd builds, so by the end of the sermon in chapter 7 Matthew says “a large crowd” was astonished at Jesus’ teaching.  And then at the beginning of chapter 8 Jesus goes back down the mountain, and Matthew says even larger crowds (plural) were at the foot of the mountain waiting for Jesus.

I’m going to come back to the significance of these crowds in a moment, but for now I’d like to dig into the text.  One side note first on the Beatitudes, especially for those of us who have heard teaching on this passage before. There’s a common pitfall, I think, with the Beatitudes, and that is to take the characteristics Jesus describes as “blessed” and make them into personal goals. We are not supposed to try to make ourselves mournful, or meek, or poor in spirit, and so on.  What Jesus is saying here is if you find yourself  in these situations, if you hunger for righteousness, if you are grieving (and so on), then count yourself blessed. Not go try to make yourself blessed.

So having said that, let’s dig into these Beatitudes.

First off Jesus repeats the word “blessed” at the beginning of every sentence. In Hebrew literature, this kind of repetition is meant to build, one upon the other. Not that there are levels of blessedness, but that taken together as a whole the blessing becomes magnified. And the Greek word here for blessing goes beyond mere happiness and implies transcendent joy.

So the first group of people Jesus calls ‘blessed’ are the poor in spirit.  This has absolutely nothing to do with economic poverty.  The phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is a concept in Greek that is not directly translatable into English. In Greek the phrase refers to a person who is humble about his or her own abilities, someone who recognizes their need for other people. The exact opposite of poor in spirit is illustrated in just about every Clint Eastwood movie I’ve ever seen.  You know, at the end of the movie, after killing the bad guys and saving the town, Clint rides off into the sunset alone.  He leaves the town behind, he leaves the woman behind, he leaves the cute little kid behind. He doesn’t need anybody. His entire life is bootstrapped. This is the total opposite of what it means to be poor in spirit. A person who is poor in spirit knows they need others, and knows they need God.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says – because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.  The word for comfort here in Greek is parakaleo.  If you were here last week you’ll remember this is the same word Paul uses in I Corinthians 10 when he says, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters that there be no divisions among you…” The word translated “I appeal to you…” is parakaleo. The literal translation is ‘to call alongside’ or ‘to draw (a person) to one’s side’.  So if you mourn, if you are grieving, Jesus says you are blessed, because God will draw you to His side.

Next Jesus says blessed are the meek – the gentle, the considerate. This does not mean weak but rather strong with flexibility. Jesus says the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth.

Next Jesus says blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, people who long for and deeply desire righteousness. The word ‘righteousness’ has kind of gotten a bad rep in recent years, so we could substitute the word ‘justice’, if we define justice as an attribute of God, not as something we see on Law & Order. Jesus says those who hunger and thirst for what God says is right are blessed because they will be completely and totally satisfied by God.

Next Jesus says blessed are the merciful – people who are compassionate, who have empathy – because they will themselves receive mercy.

Next Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart – again, a difficult phrase to translate, but – literally, free from dirt; figuratively, free from wrong. Impurity and evil cannot exist where God is – just like darkness cannot exist where light is. So blessed are the pure in heart because they will be able to stand in God’s presence; “they shall see God”.

Next Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Literal translation peace-maker.  Someone who is able and willing to build friendly relationships between people. (Try that on Facebook!)  Jesus says peacemakers will be called children of God – because God himself makes peace between fallen humanity and heaven, so when we make peace we are being like God.  We are being God’s children.

Next Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted – expelled, harassed, oppressed – for doing what God requires. Not for doing something wrong, but for doing what is right.  I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot in workplace politics – where standing up for what’s right can sometimes even cost a person their job.  Blessed are you, Jesus says, when people shut you out for doing what God has asked you to do; yours is the kingdom of heaven.

And last, Jesus says blessed are you when others reproach you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of your loyalty to Jesus. Jesus says “rejoice and exult! For your reward is great in heaven” because they treated the prophets the same way.

So if we find ourselves in any of these situations, we are blessed. God knows what we are living through, and God will bless each of us beyond our ability to describe.

The Beatitudes are words of comfort for each of us.  But they’re also more than that.  There’s also what Jesus’ words have to say to us as a church, as the local body of believers in Jesus Christ in this community.

Remember a moment ago I mentioned I would come back to the question of who Jesus was talking to on the mountain.  Usually when Jesus went up a mountain it was to get away from the crowds. His public teaching was usually – not always, but usually – either in the cities and towns, or near shore of the Sea of Galilee, where there are natural ampitheaters.  Even so, after Jesus went up the mountain, a crowd managed to find him, and by the end of the sermon “a large crowd” had gathered.  But in chapter 5, where we began, Jesus is clearly speaking to ‘his disciples’, that is, his followers – not just the twelve, but a group of people who already believed in Jesus and were following him.

So as Jesus begins to speak the different blessings, he does not actually say ‘blessed are you’ when these things happen. He says, ‘blessed are they’.  Of course these blessings do apply to us, to the disciples, to believers – but in the moment Jesus is pointing the disciples’ attention away from themselves and onto others.  And I think what Jesus is doing, at least in part, is describing to the disciples what kinds of people will make up God’s kingdom – the kinds of people the disciples are to go look for as they go out into the world in Jesus’ name. Charles Simeon, the great British preacher and contemporary of John Wesley, said this in his introduction to the Sermon on the Mount: “[Jesus’] design in this sermon was to open to [the disciples] the nature of that kingdom which he had… announced as about to be established, and to rescue the moral law from [the] false glosses which the Pharisees had put [on] it.” (Expository Outlines, Vol 11)

Or to put it another way, the Sermon on the Mount is to be the church’s game plan.

The prophet Isaiah said, in a verse that Jesus quoted: “The spirit of the Lord… is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor… to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2, edited)

King David wrote: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” (Psalm 34:18-19)

Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testament talk about God’s love for the hurting and the oppressed, and God commands the people of God to do the same.

Looking at this from a practical standpoint, it’s interesting to contrast the Beatitudes with today’s advice on church growth.  If you’ve ever read books on church growth, so many of them say things like “find the leaders in your community” or “create an attractive worship experience” or “take a poll to determine the community’s perceived needs”. And there are a gazillion magazine articles out there like “7 Keys to Church Growth” or “10 Church Growth Strategies”. One even said “44 Church Growth Strategies”!

All of these may contain some interesting tips; but not one church growth strategy I’ve ever seen says “go out and look for the humble, and the meek, the ones who are grieving, and the oppressed, and the ones who show mercy, and the ones who don’t compromise what they know is right, and the ones who build bridges between people, and the ones who are willing to suffer for doing God’s will. Go find these people and tell them God blesses them, and tell them God’s kingdom is at hand, and don’t bother counting how many show up on Sunday.” Sounds crazy, yes? But in the first few hundred years after Jesus, believers did these things and the faith spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

And if any of this sounds vaguely political – it is, but in not the way we expect.  As one pastor and author wrote recently, the problem with both the Christian Right and the Christian Left is that they reduce the word “Christian” to an adjective. God does not serve any worldly power.  To live as a Christian is to live under the reign and rule of Christ. And this is revolutionary, in fact (as the author put it) the only truly revolutionary politics the world has ever seen. And he adds, “The church doesn’t need to enforce this revolution, the church only needs to live it.” (Brian Zahnd, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/the-jesus-revolution/)

After Jesus came back down the mountain he went out and showed the disciples how this plan works in real life.  So we see him reaching out to people like the Samaritan woman at the well – who was rejected by her own people but whose heart was open to God – or the Roman centurion with the ill slave, who wasn’t even Jewish, but who had faith like no-one else.

So this is Jesus’ game plan. Go. Find the people who are grieving, the people who are victims of injustice, the people who the world overlooks because they’re too small or too unimportant, the people who long for righteousness, the compassionate ones, the people who are looking for God’s way and don’t care what the cost is. Find them, welcome them in God’s name, and invite them to be with us.

How do we do this? Start with prayer.  The opportunities will come.  In fact if I know this church at all, some of the opportunities are already here. Pray for God’s leading and keep an eye out for the opportunities.

Each one of us here, in some way, knows what it is to be blessed by God in the places where we are weak or where we’ve been hurt. Each one of us at one time or another has found ourselves described in one (or more) of the Beatitudes. We have received God’s comfort, and now it’s our turn to offer God’s comfort to others – blessing them and welcoming them in Jesus’ name. Let’s go for it. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 1/29/17

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[Scripture readings are found at the end of this post.]

“Then Jesus came from Galilee…”

Matthew’s gospel for today begins with the word “then” – which of course leaves us asking, “what happened before then?”  In this particular story – the story of Jesus’ baptism – that’s an important question.

In Matthew’s gospel, after the Christmas story, Jesus appears on the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized as a full-grown adult. But what happened in between birth and baptism?

What Matthew skips over, some of the other gospels talk about.  Jesus was born the Son of God, but he was also born a human baby.  And he had to learn all the things that you and I had to learn growing up: how to eat, how to walk, how to do chores around the house.  He did all the things that kids do like playing, and learning to read, and recovering from chicken pox.

It’s important to remember the human side of Jesus.  We see Jesus as Lord and Savior – and rightfully so – but he was also human.  He lived life day to day just like we do.

Which raises the question, how much did Jesus know about himself being the Son of God when he was growing up?  His parents, Mary and Joseph, would have told him about his Father, that he was the Son of God. And they would have told him what the angels said about how the Savior had been born that night, and what the shepherds said and the gifts the wise men brought.

But Jesus would have had to grow into an understanding of what that meant.  I suspect that’s why Jesus as a 12-year-old stayed behind in the temple, asking questions of the religious teachers. He needed to know, he needed to learn, what it meant to be Messiah.  Scriptures say after that he ‘went home and was obedient to his parents’ – which I’m sure was practice for being obedient to his heavenly Father during his ministry.

And after that, Jesus worked in the family business for a while.  He was well liked in the community, and for the first 30 years of his life Jesus led a fairly unremarkable life in Nazareth.  He did not, as some people claim, travel to the far east or to Egypt to study mystical religions.  And the one thing that was a little unusual about his early life was that he did not marry or have children. Sorry, Da Vinci Code.

And then one day all that came to an end.  One day, Matthew says, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan”.  We don’t know why that day, other than Jesus was being led by the Holy Spirit. We have very few details.  We do know Jesus was around 30 years old, and we know the place where John was baptizing was about 60 miles southeast of Nazareth as the crow flies (not quite as far as from Pittsburgh to Morgantown WV.) And we know Jesus most likely walked to the Jordan. How long would that take? For someone in his shape – with a carpenter’s build – two or three days maybe?

And more than likely Jesus made the trip by himself.  He didn’t have family with him, and he hadn’t called any disciples yet.  But the road he was traveling on was well-traveled, and there were probably other people traveling in the same direction at the same time. And he would have walked with his fellow travelers, and chatted, and maybe shared a sandwich.  For those of you who travel, you know some of the best memories of a trip is the people you meet while you’re on the road. And I imagine these conversations were an encouragement to Jesus, a confirmation of the rightness of what he was about to do.

Where exactly where John the Baptist was baptizing has been lost to history, but most historians believe it was near Jericho or a little further south towards the Dead Sea.  So as Jesus walked, the countryside around him would have changed… from hilly and green in the north, to dusty and dry in the south.

And so at last Jesus arrived at place where John was baptizing.  And there in the wilderness, in semi-desert, on the banks of the Jordan River, a large crowd had gathered.  In the middle of the river, a man wearing camels-hair clothing was listening to people as one by one they came forward and confessed their sins, and were baptized in the water.

In those days in Israel baptism was mostly a thing done for ritual purity, that is, to cleanse oneself after doing something nasty like burying a dead body.  But John taught a different meaning to baptism, a meaning that was taught at the community at Qumran at the time, which was that baptism represents inner cleansing – a way of preparing oneself for the coming of the Lord.

So people came to John and confessed their sins and were dunked, whole body, into the river, and raised out again.  In the meantime, at a slight distance, there were observers: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the political elite from Jerusalem.  They came, not to be baptized, but to ask awkward questions and cast doubts on what John was doing.  One theologian I came across said: Remember at the time of John the Baptist, the ‘rulers of the nation… rejected the counsel of God… by refusing John’s baptism’ while the tax collectors and sinners received it.  He said, “we should prefer entering heaven with publicans and harlots over being excluded… with the great and mighty of the earth.” (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines)

So on the banks of the Jordan River, Jesus, after standing in line with everyone else, Jesus enters the water and approaches John.

Now John and Jesus were related, as we heard a couple weeks ago in the Christmas story. But they grew up far apart from each other: Jesus lived in the north in Galilee, and John lived in the south near Jerusalem.  Whether or not they ever met after birth is unknown.  But we do know that by the power of the Holy Spirit, John recognized the Messiah.

(As a side note, I think it’s comforting to know that even John the Baptist – who as baby leaped in his mother’s womb when Jesus’ pregnant mother walked into the room – even John had questions and doubts sometimes.  In Luke 7:20 we read, “John the Baptist [sent messengers to Jesus] to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Even for John the shape of Jesus ministry was unexpected. And it’s interesting that Jesus answered “go and tell John… what you see and what you hear”.  Faith comes by hearing, not by sight as we might expect.)

So back to the Jordan.  John sees Jesus, recognizes him as the Messiah, and objects to Jesus being baptized.  He says, “I need to be baptized by you! And you come to me?”  John knows himself to be an imperfect person, as much in need of baptism as the people he’s ministering to.  (Which is true of all of us in ministry.)  And so John confronts Jesus, not saying ‘no’, but asking a question, and giving Jesus the opportunity to respond.

Which Jesus does. He says, “Let it be so now” – and Jesus speaks this as a command, but gently – “for it is fitting that we fulfill all righteousness.”  Notice how Jesus includes John in this: ‘It is fitting that we fulfill.’ Jesus is – from the very beginning of his public ministry – looking for people to work with him.

And so Jesus is baptized by John. And as he comes up out of the water the heavens open and the Spirit like a dove lights on him.  Can you imagine what that looked like? ‘The heavens opened’ – and a voice was heard saying “this is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

John, and all those who witnessed it, knew they were seeing a once-in-the-history-of-the-world event. The Messiah, the savior of the world, the Son of God, come to earth in the flesh, was revealed this day by the very voice of God.

…and then, Jesus was immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. Does this strike you as odd? It does me. I mean, Jesus has finally made himself known – and God has given witness that Jesus is the Messiah – and no sooner is this made public that Jesus is sent into the wilderness for over a month.  This is not the way people usually roll out a new ministry!

But God’s ways are not our ways. And Jesus’ time in the wilderness was necessary, because even though Jesus knew he was the Son of God, there were still some things he needed to grow into.  And I suspect the depth of the meaning of his baptism was one of those things – because Christian baptism is not just about confession and forgiveness, it also represents dying to sin and being raised again.

From this point on, Jesus’s future is set.  The goal of his life is the cross, and the resurrection beyond it.  The temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness were temptations that called his goal into question… that tempted Jesus to find some other way to achieve his purpose, to find some short cut around the cross.  Praise God it didn’t work.  Jesus was, and always has been, completely faithful.

So I’d like to wrap up with two thoughts.

The first is just how astounding this event is. After 4000 years of waiting for promises to come true, Messiah is finally here!  God says: “my son, my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  In his baptism Jesus is identified and his arrival is announced to the world.

This won’t necessarily mean what people think it means.  In Jesus’ day, many people believed the savior would save the nation from the Romans, and return control of Israel to the Jewish people, but they were mistaken about that.  And today there are people who make a similar mistake, thinking Jesus has come to create a Christian nation here on earth.  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Jesus is our Savior because he saves us from our sins – which makes it possible for us to become citizens of the kingdom of heaven – which is a whole new ballgame.  The majority of Jesus’ teaching will be about the kingdom of heaven: what the kingdom is like, how much the kingdom is worth, the things we can do here on earth to take with us to the kingdom. This is the heart and soul of Jesus’ teaching.

Which leads us to the second thought, summed up in Jesus’ words to John: “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

John the Baptist objected to baptizing Jesus because Jesus had no sins to confess, no uncleanness to be washed from.  John’s objection was rooted in an honest, perceptive, and loving heart.  And Jesus does not argue with him or find fault with his theology.  Rather Jesus overrides John with a higher calling.

Jesus is not in need of baptism, but we are, and Jesus came to take our place in every way.  Jesus does not come to earth to judge us or to make demands of us. Jesus comes to identify with us, to become one of us, in order to raise us out of sinfulness and into holiness, out of death and into eternal life.  The Word put on flesh and – as the Message Bible says – “moved into the neighborhood”. (John 1:14)

It’s an astounding thing to take in, that God would become one of us.  It’s not quite what the Jewish people expected in a Messiah.  And the non-Jews – the Romans and Greeks – were offended by it. They considered it shocking that a god would lower himself to put on flesh.  Greek philosophy taught that human flesh was corrupt, and spirit is our higher nature: so much so that some of the early Greek converts to Christianity started to teach that Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh at all, but only appeared to.

I point this out because our society today, without being aware of it, is very much influenced by this thinking. There are many today who try to separate body from spirit, flesh from spirituality, as if what a person does in the body has no effect on the spirit and vice versa.  As if only the spirit is eternal.  The Bible does not teach this.  As we say in the Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body…” and that’s not just Jesus’ body, we believe in the resurrection of our bodies too.

In Jesus, God has become flesh and blood in order to bring us – body and spirit – into God’s kingdom.  Jesus is born into our world to stand in our place, and to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: by his death destroying death and by his resurrection opening the door for us into God’s kingdom.

And all of this is foreshadowed by Jesus’ baptism.

So Jesus says to John: “let us fulfill all righteousness”  And Jesus invites all of us to take part with him in the ministry of reconciling the world to God and God to the world.  How will we respond?

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(In the Methodist Church the sermon on the First Sunday After Epiphany is immediately followed by a ceremony of renewal of baptismal covenant. See Baptismal Covenant IV on this page for the text of the ceremony.  This Sunday we segued into the renewal ceremony with the following comments: )

One of the ways we can respond is by remembering our own baptism.  For some of us, who were baptized as children, we were welcomed into the family of faith even before we can remember.  For others, baptism may have come later in life.  And some of us may not even know if we were baptized.

In the New Testament, baptism is not just for repentance and forgiveness but is also the sign a person has come to faith in Jesus.  Over and over in the New Testament we hear the words, “they believed and were baptized.”  Most of the time in scripture these were adults being baptized, or adults along with their children.

Today we usually baptize our children very young as a sign of their being received into the family of God.  Before we come forward today, we will remember the promises we made, or that were made on our behalf, and recommit ourselves to those promises.

For most of us this will be a service of remembrance, but if anyone has never been baptized, or isn’t sure if they’ve been baptized, and would like to be, please let me know after the service.  In the meantime, all are welcome to come forward and touch the waters of baptism.  Let’s remember our baptismal covenant in the words of this ceremony….

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Scriptures for the day:

Isaiah 42:1-9  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Matthew 3:13-17   Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 1/8/17

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“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:2-7

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I received a Christmas card in the mail this week from a school in Africa where some of my colleagues have worked.  It included a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during WWII – one of the few clergy who had the courage to take a stand against Hitler, and he paid for it with his life. He wrote a good deal before he died, and one of the things he wrote was a poem called The Turning Around of All Things.  The card quoted it in part:

We are talking about the birth of a child,
not the revolutionary act of a strong man,
not the breathtaking discovery of a sage,
not the pious act of a saint.
It really passes all understanding: The birth of a child
is to bring the great turning around of all things,
is to bring salvation and redemption to the whole human race.
What kings and statesmen, philosophers and artists,
founders of religions and moral teachers vainly strive for,
now comes about through a newborn child.

This is what our reading from Isaiah is all about.  Isaiah 9 is a big-picture view of God’s kingdom breaking into our world in the form of a child – “to us a child is born” – and what that will mean in our world and our lives. In just seven verses God addresses every level of human life: our selves, our relationships, the work world, and relationships between nations. All the things Jesus preached in the Gospels, all things promised by the prophets of old, all summed up in just seven verses.

To try to get a handle on something this big, I’d like to take a look at four aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy:

  1. The Personal – what do Isaiah’s words say to us?
  2. Our relationships, particularly where it comes to career or work
  3. International relationships
  4. What does it mean when we say “God’s Kingdom has entered our world”

So starting out on the personal level.  Isaiah says “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Of course Isaiah is saying this metaphorically – he is talking about spiritual darkness. But if you’ve ever had the experience of being physically in total darkness, the parallel is a good one.  I remember one time teaching a class in the old Isaly’s building out in Oakland.  It’s part of Magee Women’s Hospital now, and it’s mostly offices, but they have classroom on the 2nd floor that used to be, at one time, the freezer that warehoused Isaly’s ice cream. So you can imagine there are no windows in this room, and the walls are very thick and insulated. Sitting in there you feel like you’re in a cave. (I was sorely tempted to bring in a can of paint and paint a window on the wall so it wouldn’t feel so closed in.)

Anyway one day I was teaching there and all of a sudden we heard a loud bang and everything went totally dark. We didn’t know it at the time but a transformer down the street had blown and all power went out in the building. And the emergency lights were way down the other end of the hall. My class and I couldn’t see a thing. (This was before everybody had flashlight apps on their cell phones.) Fortunately I knew the layout of the room and was able to guide the class out by following the sound of my voice, otherwise someone could have gotten hurt tripping over something or running into someone.

Metaphorically speaking this is how we follow Jesus. Our world is dark, spiritually, and we need to be led by the voice of the one who knows the lay of the land.  It’s no mistake the Bible says “faith comes by hearing” – not by sight. In a dark world we follow Jesus by his voice.  Jesus said “My sheep know my voice… and they follow me.”

Speaking of darkness in the world, a few years ago psychologist M. Scott Peck began his best-selling book The Road Less Travelled with these words:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth… because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult […] then life is no longer difficult…”

With all respect to Dr. Peck, I disagree.  I mean, I agree that life is difficult.  I disagree that once we know life is difficult, it’s no longer difficult.  Knowing life is difficult may help us shift our expectations a little, so we’re not so disappointed, but that’s about it. Life is difficult from beginning to end. Being born is difficult. Growing up is difficult. Being a teenager is difficult. Having a teenager is difficult. Finding a life partner is difficult. Launching a career is difficult. Dealing with illness is difficult. Getting old is difficult. Facing death is difficult. There is nothing easy about life. And knowing that doesn’t help (much).

So on the personal level Isaiah tells us we are all walking around in a dark world.

But God doesn’t leave us there. Isaiah tells us “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”.  For those who live in a land of deep darkness, the light has shined on us.

Have you ever had the experience of walking from darkness into bright sunlight?  It takes you aback for a moment. It’s too much. When people meet Jesus for the first time we tend to have a similar reaction. Jesus is too good. His light is too bright. It takes time to adjust. But as we do – which is part of the process of sanctification – the world never looks the same again. We experience great joy. “Like people rejoice at the harvest” Isaiah says.  Most of us don’t live on farms any more, but back in the day when people had to grow their own food and so much depended on the crops doing well, bringing in the harvest was a time of great celebration. We still celebrate Thanksgiving, remembering those times.

Isaiah says there will be joy “as people exult when dividing plunder”.  Generally speaking we don’t go around plundering any more… but anyone who’s ever gone to an after-Christmas sale, and found something they’ve been wanting for years – at 80% off – knows the feeling. “Look what I found! It used to be $100 and I got it for only $20!”  That’s the joy of the plunder!

So light and joy – these make up the personal, individual aspect of Isaiah’s message.

The second aspect of Isaiah’s message deals with relationships, particularly the kinds of relationships we have during the work week. While there are exceptions, much of what we do during the week – especially for those of us who work – goes to increase the power and wealth of people who don’t necessarily honor God and who don’t necessarily treat their workers with dignity. Here in Pittsburgh, where labor unions started, I don’t need to go into detail on that. But even unions can’t guarantee proper treatment of workers 100% of the time, or control how management uses its power or spends its money.  Isaiah says: “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.”

The ‘day of Midian’ refers to an Old Testament story of the Midianites, who came up and attacked ancient Israel, and God appointed Gideon to face that army. Remember the story – Gideon started out with a huge army, and God said “too many men” so Gideon cut the army down to 10,000. And God said “still too many” and cut the army down to a mere 300.  God then told the 300 men to take trumpets, and torches inside clay pots, and surround the Midianite army at night.  And at a signal, they were to blow the trumpets and break the pots and  wave the torches.  And they did what God said to do – and the Midianites thought they were being attacked and turned tail and ran!

God won the battle for Israel without a single sword-stroke. And when the time comes God will break the yoke of oppression and win our battle for us as well.

This doesn’t mean Christians should stop having jobs in secular society. Just the opposite – our challenge is to do our best to bring God’s values, like fairness and honesty and equality and mutual benefit, into the work world. But until the Lord comes again, the economy will never be 100% fair.  We will always have the poor with us, as Jesus said. There will always be issues.  And so Isaiah addresses this and says God has broken the rod of the oppressor.  God will one day set up a society with an economy marked by fairness and justice.

From this second aspect Isaiah then moves into the third aspect: relationships between nations. Throughout human history, relationships between different countries have been violent and bloody.  Much as we love peace, you’d never know it by looking at how nations treat each other. But there will come a time when (in the words of the old spiritual) we ‘ain’t gonna study war no more’. Isaiah says, “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Why?

Because “to us a child is born; to us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  His authority will grow, and there will be endless peace in God’s kingdom, upheld by justice and righteousness.

Just as an aside, we hear a lot of talk about “justice and peace”, and I want to point out in Isaiah – as in many passages in the Bible – “righteousness” goes along with justice and peace.  It’s not a duality, it’s a triumvirate.  There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice, but there can be neither justice nor peace without righteousness.  As long as sin exists in this world, justice and peace will be only ideals, not realities.  But the kingdom that is coming is a kingdom of peace, upheld (as Isaiah says) with justice and righteousness.  This righteousness is a gift given by Jesus to all who trust Him.

The kingdom of the Messiah will last forever. And as we sing in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever, Hallelujah!”

So, so far we’ve seen three aspects of Isaiah’s message: personal, corporate, and international.  The fourth aspect is what all this means to us today.

Isaiah’s words are, for us, the ‘big picture’ of the Good News which Jesus speaks to all people: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news.”  Let us open our hearts to receive this message with joy, and in the words of one theologian, “let us not be content with scanty measures of joy”. Celebrate, like at harvest-time, like at the plunder. Praise God and thank God for the great promises that are ours and the great victory that is ours in Jesus Christ, in the birth of a child. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/11/16

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Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.  Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:67-79

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Well here we are in Advent again!  Doesn’t it seem like the years go by faster every year?  It seems like only yesterday I was doing Christmas shopping – for last Christmas!

It can be a challenge to keep Christmas feeling fresh and new every year. One of the ways I’ve found to do this is to make Advent special, because Advent has a focus on the future – it builds anticipation.

With this in mind, we’re doing an Advent series called The Songs of Christmas.  I’m glad we’re doing this because the songs of Christmas focus our minds and our hearts, like nothing else, on who and what we are waiting for during this Advent season.

Today’s song is the Song of Zechariah, found in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke.  Feel free to grab a Bible and follow along with me.

Before I begin, just a little bit of background on Zechariah himself.  Luke tells us Zechariah was a Levite, which gives us information about both his tribe and his career.  Zechariah was descended from the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi, which means he was of the tribe of Levi.  And the law of Moses tells us in Deut 18:5:

“…the LORD… has chosen Levi out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, he and his sons for all time.” 

 So Zechariah was born into the priestly tribe of Levi.

Luke also tells us that Zechariah was descended from “the priestly order of Abijah”.  II Chronicles 6:28 tells us Abijah was one of the grandsons of Levi, and he was assigned to “minister with song before the tabernacle.”  In other words, Zechariah’s family were essentially church musicians.

Back in ancient Israel, anyone who worked in the temple – preaching, teaching, making music, even doing maintenance – had to be trained in ministry. So in addition to whatever work they normally did, Chronicles tells us they also “had as their appointed duty in their service to enter the house of the LORD according to the procedure established for them by their ancestor Aaron…” (1 Chronicles 24:19) who was the high priest.  So they did priestly work on top of whatever else they did.

So what we see happening in the first chapter of Luke is exactly that: Zechariah has been called up out of the choir (so to speak) and into his priestly duties.

As a side note, Luke also tells us Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was “a descendant of Aaron” – which was the order of high priests. So Elizabeth’s priestly pedigree is actually higher than Zechariah’s. By ancestry, she is qualified to be a prophet. And Elizabeth actually becomes a prophet later on in Luke chapter 1.  Since her song is not included in our Songs of Christmas series I’d like to share it now. Elizabeth sang this song when she was pregnant with John the Baptist, and Mary (who was pregnant with Jesus) came to visit her. Luke writes:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:41-45)

And I would add this: Even today, blessed are those who believe there will be a fulfillment of what has been spoken by the Lord.

But we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves in the story-line.  So backing up a few verses, Luke says in chapter 1 verse 6 both Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

That’s no small feat. But Luke makes this point because of what he says in the next verse:  Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless.  In those days having no children was considered a sign of God’s disapproval, or of sin in a person’s life. So Luke makes it clear their childlessness is not through any fault of their own. Zechariah and Elizabeth have been doing everything right.  This doesn’t mean they’re perfect – just that they had kept the law of Moses to the best of their ability.

So in Luke 1:8 Zechariah is serving in the temple, because this was his time of ‘appointed duty in service’ in the house of the Lord.  Luke says “he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” (Luke 1:9)

Considering the number of Levites living in Israel at that time, this duty might have come around only once or twice in a lifetime.  And the lot just happened to land on Zechariah that year? This is no coincidence! This is God’s hand reaching into human history.

So Zechariah is supposed to do two things: (1) enter the sanctuary, that is, the holy of holies, where only priests were allowed to go; and (2) offer incense, which represents the prayers of the people. In those days priests were go-betweens between the people and God.  The people would give prayers to priests to take to God, and God would give messages to the priests to give to the people. And the holy of holies was hidden behind a heavy curtain. The people could never see, with their own eyes, what was going on back there.

But this system of worship would soon come to an end. When Jesus died on the cross, that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom – and people, from that point on, had direct access to God through the blood of Jesus Christ. Priests were no longer needed because people could pray directly to God and hear directly from God.

Back to our story, Zechariah goes into the holy of holies and offers the incense and the prayers. And while he’s there the angel Gabriel appears, and says, “you’re going to have a son, and you will name him John.”  And Gabriel says: “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…[he will] make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:15-17, edited)

Now Zechariah thought about this, and thought about how old he was, and how old Elizabeth was, and he doubted Gabriel’s word.  He said, “How can that even be possible?” So Gabriel gave him a sign: Zechariah would be unable to speak until the prophecy came true. When the baby is born, Zechariah writes on a tablet “His name is John” – and he is able to speak again.

After almost a year of being unable to say anything, Zechariah’s first words are:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a mighty savior…”

Zechariah’s song is all about praising God.

I was reminded of this passage yesterday when some of us went to the Messiah Sing-Along at Calvary United Methodist on the North Side. At the end of the concert over 500 people stood and sang the famous words of the Hallelujah Chorus:

“The kingdom of this world
Is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ
And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!”

And the whole congregation broke into cheers like at a Steelers game!

 

(Here’s the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall with the Hallelujah Chorus)

When God opens a mouth, praise is what comes out. And so Zechariah praises God.  First he praises God for the Old Testament prophecies that are coming true. He says, God has ‘remembered his covenant’.

It’s interesting that Zechariah’s name, in Hebrew, means “God remembers”. And this remembering is not just ‘bringing the past to mind’ but thinking about, paying attention to, and caring for, God’s people. Zechariah says:

  • God has looked favorably on his people
    • As spoken through God’s holy prophets of old
  • God has remembered his holy covenant
    • Which he swore to our ancestor Abraham

All the promises made to Abraham nearly 2000 years before, and all the promises made to King David and King Solomon nearly 1000 years before, and all the promises made to Nebuchadnezzar and to Daniel and to all the prophets – everything focuses in on this one point in history.  So Zechariah praises God.

Secondly Zechariah praises God for the blessings that come to the human race through Jesus. He lists six blessings in particular:

  1. We will be rescued from our enemies
  2. We will be able to serve God without fear
  3. We will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness
  4. Jesus will be a light to those walking in darkness and in the shadow of death
  5. Jesus will bring the dawn of God’s mercy to God’s people
  6. John the Baptist will prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming

Let’s take a brief look at each one of these.

First, we will be rescued from the hands of our enemies. Some of us may say, “but I don’t have any enemies. I try to live at peace with everybody.” And that may be true as far as it goes. But not everyone in the world loves Jesus, and some people may choose to make themselves our enemies because we bear Jesus’ name.  And even if we escape that, we still have enemies: illness, injury, the suffering of loved ones, death. Jesus has overcome all of these, and rescues us even in the middle of our troubles and trials.

Secondly, we will be able to serve God without fear. Zechariah’s words here contain an echo of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. When Moses went to Pharaoh he didn’t just say ‘let my people go’.  He said (as God told him to say), ‘let my people go into the wilderness to worship and serve the Lord’.  This set up a contest of wills – a contest of loyalties – between Pharaoh and God.  And the same contest of wills between worldly powers and God still goes on today. Zechariah praises God that with the coming of the Messiah, God’s people will be set free to serve God without fear.

Third, along with that, Zechariah says we will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness. As one theologian put it, “heaven would not be heaven to an unholy soul.”  In the power of Christ we are set free from spiritual enemies and therefore we are set free to serve God in holiness and righteousness.

Fourth, Zechariah says Jesus will be a light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.  It’s not hard to see how much our world is in darkness.  Think of all the things we’ve experienced as a nation in this past year alone.  All of the divisions, all of the hurt.  Our world longs for peace… but it wants a peace that doesn’t involve giving up sin.  And like the old saying goes, ‘no justice, no peace’ – or maybe more accurately, ‘no god-likeness, no peace’. Jesus comes to break through this darkness.

Fifth, Zechariah says Jesus comes to bring God’s mercy for God’s people: salvation through the forgiveness of sins. This Saviour will be a very personal savior. Yes, Jesus comes to save the world; yes, he comes to save the people; but where the rubber meets the road, Jesus saves one person at a time. Jesus touches and shows mercy on one life at a time. Jesus forgives us, one past at a time… and heals us one heart at a time.

And lastly, Zechariah says that his son, John the Baptist, will prepare the way for Jesus by preaching this salvation through the forgiveness of sins.

So for those of us listening in on Zechariah’s song, what does this mean for all of us?

First and foremost – we are invited to join in the rejoicing!  Sing! Celebrate! Not with material things like the world does, but with spiritual joy in the coming of the light of the world.

Secondly, take this song of Zechariah into the coming week with us. Maybe put it up on the refrigerator. Or try praying the words this week. Use Zechariah’s words as a part of our joy.

Third, as a wise man once said, “Don’t be satisfied with captivity when Jesus is proclaiming ‘liberty to the captives’.” In other words, if there’s anything that holds us captive – a bad habit, an addiction, a relationship – anything that keeps us from being who God created us to be – bring it to the foot of the cross, and be free. Jesus proclaims liberty to the captives, and that’s a promise good for every one of us.

Fourth, if there’s anyone who feels like they’re wandering around in a world of darkness these days: Jesus is the light of the world – keep eyes on him.

And finally: following in the footsteps of Zechariah, let’s bless God with our whole hearts, and with our lives, demonstrating in our lives the mercy of God which is ours in Jesus.

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, thank you for this song of your relative Zechariah.  Thank you for the truth of his words, and for the joy of his words.  Thank you for your light which lightens our darkness. Help us to enter into this season of Advent with a fresh faith and joy, remembering all you have done for us, and above all remembering your love for us that never quits and never dies. We look forward to your coming, Lord. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/4/16

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[Scripture readings for the day may be found at the end of this post.] There’s a commercial on TV these days – have you seen this one? – where there’s a bank robbery going on, and somebody rushes up to a guy in a security guard outfit and says “DO SOMETHING!!” and the guy says “oh, I’m not a security guard, I’m just a security monitor.  I can only tell you if the bank is being robbed. The bank is being robbed.”

The ad is for identity theft insurance.  Identity theft – or ‘hacking someone’s accounts’ so to speak – is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. It involves stealing a person’s personal information and then impersonating you and buying things using your name and your good credit.

The point of the ad is there are lots of free services that will monitor your bank accounts, but they can’t do anything to protect you from hackers or fix the problems they cause.  So this company basically offers identity insurance, something that can help you replace the money and get back to the way life should be.

In a way, when we look at the Old Testament and the system of laws God gave to ancient Israel, what we’re seeing is like the monitor in that ad.  The ancient laws can tell us when something’s gone wrong, but they can’t fix the problem or set things right.  The ancient laws point to the fact that people aren’t perfect, but the human race needs something more than that to get back on the right track.

So God sent prophets and priests to teach the people about God’s ways. But that didn’t work either, because the priests themselves didn’t always keep the law.  The Old Testament is full of stories – like the sons of the prophet Samuel – who took advantage of God’s people, sometimes stealing the offerings, sometimes demanding “favors” from the worshippers.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about in our first reading for today.  Israel in the time of Jeremiah was led by priests (and kings as well) who were corrupt, who stole from the people, victimizing particularly the poor and the widows – and as a result they did not lead the people to God.  If anything they pushed people away from God.  And because of the corruption in the nation’s leadership, during Jeremiah’s lifetime the kingdom in Jerusalem fell to foreign invaders and the people were deported.

So in the opening lines of Jeremiah 23 we hear God speaking, and God is royally ticked off.  He says: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! You have scattered my flock, you have driven them away, you have not attended to them.  Therefore I will attend to you!!” There are very few things that make God more angry than people who drive God’s people away from God. (That’s why Jesus saved his sharpest criticisms for the Pharisees.)

God then says the harm these false shepherds have caused will be set right by God.  God says: “I will gather” – where you have scattered the sheep, I will gather them. “I will bring them back” – where you have driven them away, I will bring them back.  Where you have failed to attend to them, I will make them fruitful and multiply them… “and they shall not fear any longer, nor shall any be missing.”

So all of this, that I’ve said so far, is the set-up for our theme for today: as we “count our blessings” entering into Thanksgiving week, the greatest blessing of all is God’s solution to a world and a human race that has been ‘hacked’. God’s solution also addresses the problem of false shepherds, which will come in the form of the Good Shepherd.

So both of our passages for today talk about Jesus – even though neither passage mentions his name.

Starting with Jeremiah, God unfolds the plan that will undo all the harm caused by the false shepherds, and set things back the way they were meant to be.  God says: “I will raise up for David a righteous branch… and he will be called the Lord our Righteousness.”

There are two parts to this promise.  The first is “I will raise up for David a righteous branch”.  David of course was the great king of Israel under whose reign the nation of Israel was finally settled and at peace in the Promised Land.  Jesus is often referred to as “the Son of David” because David was one of his ancestors, but more than that, David was “a man after God’s own heart” and so is Jesus.

The “righteous branch” refers to Jesus being related to David, but it means more than that.  The prophet Isaiah talks about this branch in a prophecy that we often hear around Christmas-time.  Isaiah writes: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Is 11:1)

Jesse was David’s father.  And the ‘stump of Jesse’ refers to the fact that the line of kings descended from David appeared to be dead, like a tree stump is dead.  The kingdom had fallen, and the people were captive in Babylon.  But God had promised David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (II Sam 7:16)

In Jeremiah’s time it looked like God’s word had failed. But no… “there will be a shoot from that stump” – there will come a descendant of Jesse and David, who will be a man after God’s own heart like David was.

The second part of the promise in this verse is the phrase “the Lord is our righteousness”.  This sounds like Jeremiah is describing the man of God who is to come – ‘he will be righteous’ – and that’s true.  But ‘the Lord our Righteousness’ is also a name.  In the Hebrew it is ‘Yahweh-tsedek’: Yahweh (the Lord), tsedek (our Righteousness).

The reason I point this out is there is one other place in the Old Testament where someone has a similar name, and it’s in Genesis 14.  This is a really obscure story but hang in there with me.  In Genesis 14, Abraham has just returned home from rescuing his nephew who had been taken captive.  There was a battle, and Abraham won and brought his nephew and his family home.  And on his way back home he is met by a mysterious priest-king, who seems to come out of nowhere, and is never heard from again. His name is Melchizedek.  And he blesses Abraham, and brings out bread and wine (sound familiar?), and Abraham offers him a tenth of the spoils, a tithe. The name Melchizedek – the first half of his name means ‘king’ and the second half means ‘righteousness’.

So in Jeremiah we have ‘Yahweh-tsedek’, “the Lord is our Righteousness”, and in Genesis we have Melchi-tsedek, the “King of Righteousness”. And Genesis tells us Melchizedek was the King of Salem – or in Hebrew, shalom – in other words, the Prince of Peace.

So this verse in Jeremiah connects the dots between Genesis, Psalms, Jeremiah, and the book of Hebrews: the Old Testament to Psalms to Prophets to New Testament.  Watch this!

In Genesis 14 we meet Melchizedek, King of Righteousness. In Psalm 110:4 David writes about the coming Messiah: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” In Jeremiah 23:6 we meet a descendant of David named “the Lord our Righteousness” or Yahweh-zedek.  And finally in Hebrews the author writes, “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”

So this coming Messiah, Jesus, is our great high priest. But more than that, he is a priest (1) forever, and (2) he is not like human priests and ministers who are flawed.  Jesus is a priest of a whole different order, the order of Melchizedek, which is Righteousness, the King of Righteousness, coming straight from heaven.

All of this is tied together by this one verse in Jeremiah!

So what can we expect from this King of Righteousness and this Prince of Peace?

Jeremiah and Paul both answer that question. In order to sort of organize the thoughts I’d like to approach it in three parts: (1) what Jesus has done, (2) who Jesus is, and (3) what Jesus will do.

Starting with what Jesus will do:  Jeremiah says Jesus will reign.  In other words, Jesus is King.  The ‘Kingdom of God’ is not a euphemism for heaven. The Kingdom of God is forever. Jesus is on the throne now and always will be. We say this in the creed every week: “seated at the right hand of God…”.

Just as a side note: we Americans are not really used to kings.  We kind of admire the Queen of England, from a distance.  It takes a little getting used to, this idea of having a king.  God’s kingdom is not a democracy. We don’t vote on who gets to be God this year.  But thank God, Jesus loves us, and loves us perfectly.  Jeremiah also says the Messiah will “deal wisely” and “execute justice and bring righteousness”.

Secondly we move to Paul and his letter to the Colossians, where Paul talks about who Jesus is.  Paul says Jesus is the head of the body, which is the church.  He is the firstborn from the dead.  Jesus has the fullness of God dwelling in him, and he reconciles all things to God.  In other words, Jesus is the ‘hacker-buster’.  When the Old Testament law wasn’t enough to fix what’s wrong in the world (or in our souls), Jesus was the one who was able and willing to set things right.

Paul then talks about what Jesus has done for us. Because of Jesus we are now able to share in the inheritance: that is, we are able to be citizens of God’s kingdom, children of the King, as we were meant to be.  He has rescued us from darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of light.

Because God created all things through Jesus and sustains all things through Jesus, Jesus knows how the whole creation works. He was there and helped to make it. The apostle John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

And His ultimate ‘anti-hack’ was the cross.  Paul says Jesus “made peace with God through the blood of the cross.”  And so we are free.  The cross is not a monitor – it is our insurance policy, written in Jesus’ blood.

This is what was promised in the words of Jeremiah, and fulfilled in the words of Paul.

So how do we bring this to where we are today?

Paul leaves us with three things:

  • Paul says be strong in his power, that is the power of Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. Remember Kingdom living is done in Jesus’ power, not in our own. We don’t psych ourselves up for it… we just follow Jesus and rest in His power.
  • Paul says be prepared to endure with patience and with joy. This verse reminds me of the words of Scottish theologian William Barclay who said, “Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” Because we rest in Jesus’ strength, we are happy and we can live without fear. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be trouble – it just means somebody bigger than us will be going through the troubles with us.
  • Paul says: “give thanks!” Give thanks to God for all God has done, throughout history, from Genesis until now… preparing salvation for us from Abraham to David to Jeremiah to Jesus right down to today. Give thanks for God’s kingdom and for our place in it.  Give thanks to God who has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light… and rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus thank you. Thank you for the holiday coming up this week when we will have time to spend with family and friends. Thank you that we can count on your love and your strength throughout our lives. Thank you that you knew how to set things right and were willing to pay the price for us.  Be with us now as we prepare to celebrate again Your birth into our world… which has made all the difference.  Help us to place our worries at the foot of your cross so that we can give thanks with our whole hearts, because we can never thank you enough. Amen.

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Jeremiah 23:1-6  Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.  2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.  3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.

5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, 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.  6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Colossians 1:11-20  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  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,  14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;  16 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.  17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/20/16

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[scripture readings for today are at the end of this post]

The lectionary that gives us our scriptures every Sunday was created about 50 years ago, and it’s based on a lectionary used by the early church, which in turn is based on a lectionary used in ancient Israel before the birth of Christ.

I say all this in order to say: there is no way the creators of our lectionary could have known that our gospel reading for today – which talks about the end of human history as we know it – would fall on the Sunday after Election Day in America in the year 2016!

That said, I’m not going to comment on the election. I don’t ever want anyone to be turned off to Jesus because of my personal political beliefs. I would willingly give up my right to vote if it meant someone finding eternal life in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

But that said, I do have one comment on the events of this past week:  Post-election, there are people who seem to think it’s now OK to harass and threaten people different from themselves: people of different races or religions, people from different countries, or even just people who voted differently than they did.  As Christians we are called by God to welcome the stranger, and to show compassion and hospitality to those in trouble. In the days ahead let’s be watching for opportunities to be peacemakers in our neighborhoods and in our places of work.

One small way to do this is something the British people did after the Brexit vote. (And you remember I was in England when the Brexit vote was taken – I’m going through this a second time now!) When British people realized the refugees and foreigners and minorities among them were feeling afraid, they put on safety pins as a way of showing solidarity. The pin basically means “you are ‘safe’ with me. If somebody gives you trouble, I will stand with you.” The pins are starting to catch on here in the States now so I brought a bunch with me today. I don’t expect everybody to take one – not everyone is physically or emotionally prepared to step into difficult situations – but if you feel you would like one, they’re on the back table, take one on your way out after church.

So having said all of that, let’s look at our scriptures for today.  We have three passages: one from Luke and two from Isaiah.  In the passage from Luke we hear Jesus talking about the final chapter of earth history. And in our passages from Isaiah, the prophet tells us about God’s kingdom that will follow the end of history, and the joy that will be ours when we see God’s salvation.

These three passages taken together create a panorama of history: past, present, and future.  In a big-picture sense they give us comfort, knowing that we are never without hope because we are never without God.

But in the short term we can expect trouble.

Let’s start with our passage from Luke.  Jesus is teaching in the temple, and it’s only a few days before the crucifixion.  As Jesus is speaking, someone in the crowd remarks how beautiful the Temple is: hand-carved stonework, votive offerings… great beauty.

And Jesus says, basically: “See all this around you? The day will come when not one stone will be left on another, everything will be thrown down.”

If Jesus was here today, He could tell us the same thing.  The day will come when the houses we live in won’t be there any more. The day will come when the places we work and the places we worship will either be repurposed or torn down. The day will come when even our country will cease to exist. That’s the lesson of history. Nothing lasts forever.

The people hearing Jesus believed this message.  They did not ask “will this really happen?” they asked, “when will this happen? What’s the sign to watch for?”

The answer Jesus gives is a little confusing at first glance because it deals with both the immediate future and the long-term future (which includes us).

Jesus starts out with answers relevant to everybody, no matter when in history we live.  Jesus says “there will be others who claim to be me, who will say the end is near. Don’t listen to them. Don’t follow them. Don’t be led astray.”

Jesus says “there will be wars… and troubles… these things have to happen. Don’t be afraid, and don’t let it surprise you when they do happen.”  In Matthew’s account of the story Jesus adds the words “all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  It’s as if the earth is pregnant and is about to give birth to the new earth.  In fact this same picture is given in the book of Revelation – of a woman in birth pangs. So don’t be afraid. What we see happening is what’s supposed to happen.

Jesus continues saying, “Nation will rise against nation.” The Greek here is ethne, it’s the word we get ethnic from. In other words, people groups will rise up against people groups (does this sound familiar?) and kingdoms against kingdoms. And there will be earthquakes and famines and pestilences… and horrors, and signs from heaven.”

Up to this point Jesus has been describing the end of the age, and though we see at least some of it coming true already, be careful not to be misled. People in my parents’ generation thought Hitler was a sign the end was coming.  Not yet… the troubles we see right now are just a foretaste of the end.

Then Jesus switches focus and comes back to what the disciples will face. He says: “Before all this, people will lay hands on you and persecute you and hand you over to prison and lead you away to stand before kings and governors for the sake of my name.”

These prophecies begin to come true in the book of Acts, and they continued to come true for the next few hundred years, until the Roman emperor became a Christ-follower in the 4th century.

Persecution didn’t end completely though; it still happens today in some parts of the world. So Jesus’ next words are for anyone who is ever arrested or persecuted for his name’s sake. He says: “see this as an opportunity to witness.”  And the Greek word for witness is martyr. This doesn’t necessarily mean dying for the faith, but it does mean laying down one’s own interests and putting God’s interests first.  Jesus is basically saying that in bearing witness we will find our freedom. Even if we’re in chains, our freedom is found in bearing witness to Christ.  And that is as true today as it was back then.

Then Jesus says something surprising: “Therefore fix it in your heart – plan ahead and be ready – NOT to think beforehand how to answer.” We are not to defend the faith or bear witness with words planned out in advance. Jesus says, “for I will give you a mouth and wisdom that no one will be able to oppose or contradict.”

Have you ever noticed how when Jesus got into arguments with the Pharisees and Sadducees, how he left them completely speechless? They walked away with nothing more to say. Jesus promises to give us the same wisdom when we are called to witness for our faith.

Jesus then continues to warn his disciples: “You will be handed over by family members… some will be put to death… you will be hated because of my name, but not a hair of your head will perish.”

And then comes the promise: “By your steadfast endurance you will gain your souls.” All we have to do is stand and endure.  Not attack, not defend, just take our stand.

So summing up this passage: Jesus warns about the destruction of Jerusalem – which happened in the year 70AD – and looks ahead to a time when everything we see will likewise be torn down. And Jesus promises if we endure – if we hang on tight to him – we will live. And that’s where our gospel lesson ends for today.

But it’s not where the story ends.  There is a Kingdom coming.  The prophet Isaiah – even though he lived 500 years or more before Jesus – takes us to God’s new beginning.

In Isaiah chapter 65 God speaks the words “Behold I create a new heavens and new earth; the former earth will not be remembered or even brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create…”

God’s Kingdom will be a joy forever.  And when the Bible talks about “joy” it’s not talking about mere happiness, as in, I’m happy the sun is shining or I’m happy to have mocha in my coffee. Joy is something deep, rich, satisfying, with a touch of awe – like watching a sunset over the ocean or holding a child for the very first time.

Joy like that, all the time, is more than we mere mortals can handle – which is why we need to put on immortality.  In our new life we will have the capacity to live in joy.  Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “I will rejoice in my people.”  God rejoices over us! The prophet Zephaniah says: “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” (Zephaniah 3:17) Can you imagine God singing? Over us? Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “No more will there be an infant that lives only a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… they shall not build and another inhabit… they shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. […] Before they call I will answer… they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.  Someday that day will come.

Isaiah tells us that we will respond by saying: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid.” The word ‘salvation’ in Hebrew, is pronounced yeshua – the name given to Jesus.  We will say, “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known the things he has done… he has acted majestically – let the whole earth know!”  Someday that day will come.

But it’s not here yet.

There are some people who will call this kind of faith “pie in the sky when you die”. And they say “I’d rather have steak on a plate while I wait.”  But God’s kingdom is not just for the future. It’s not just for when we’re resurrected.  God’s kingdom begins at the beginning – when God said “let there be light” – and it stretches all the way to the end (of which there will not be an end). We just happen to be included in that eternity, in our little piece of history. For us, eternal life begins now and carries forward into eternity.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

From where we stand in history right now, the last days have not come yet.  This world is still standing, and God’s kingdom only breaks through into what we perceive as unexpectedly.  Right now it looks like the forces of darkness are winning. But there will come a day when everything will be thrown down and God’s kingdom will come in all its glory.

God will have mercy on God’s people, both now and in the days to come. We just need to be sure that we are with God, that we are preparing ourselves for eternity in God’s kingdom.  So I wanted to share with you a few things Scripture tells us about God’s kingdom and what life in the kingdom is like:

  • Jesus said: “the kingdom of God is near; change course, believe the good news.”
  • Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me… for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. […] whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
  • Jesus said: “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.”
  • The apostle Paul said: “the kingdom of God is… righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
  • King David wrote: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. […] The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
  • The apostle John wrote in the book of Revelation: “I saw the holy city… coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

Paul and Jesus also both warn us that nothing unholy can enter the Kingdom of God. We need to confess the things we’ve done wrong, and receive God’s salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.  We need to be growing in God’s likeness, and we need to live our lives in a way that bears witness to God’s truth… no matter the cost.

If anyone here has not yet made the decision to follow Jesus and to live forever in God’s kingdom, don’t wait. Do it today.

For the rest of us, preparing for life in the Kingdom is mostly inner work, spiritual work – both individually and as a church. This world is passing away and a new heavens and new earth are coming. We need to live in such a way that when people see how we live and how we love each other, they will catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

And if we’re not sure where to begin, the apostle Paul said: “in the end only three things will last: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”  There’s no better place to start.

Let’s pray.

Lord, we live in fearful times. We hear angry voices around us and we see violence all around us.  Calm us Lord, with your presence.  Give us a confidence in your love that can’t be shaken. Forgive us, when we fall into sin. Give us courage and wisdom and compassion as we live and work with others who are also feeling afraid and angry. Fill us with your Spirit so we can be beacons of your love and your truth in the world. Guide us in the days ahead, O Lord. And help us to keep our eyes on the prize – eternity with you, that begins now and lasts forever. Thank you Lord for your great promises and your great salvation. May all the glory be yours. AMEN.

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Isaiah 65:17-25  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent– its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:1-6   You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

Luke 21:5-19   When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.  When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.  But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;  for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/13/16

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[Scripture readings for the day are reprinted in full at the end of this post.]

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – talk about a story that’s right up my alley!  At one time or another I have been both a Pharisee (of sorts) and a tax collector (literally).  And I stand before you today as living proof that God cares for both Pharisees and tax collectors. And if God cares for someone like me, then for certain God cares for you!

So looking at our Gospel reading for today (Luke 18:9-14):  Jesus tells a parable that Luke says is directed at people who trust in their own righteousness and look down on others, and Jesus uses a Pharisee as an example.  So this parable is pointed at Pharisees, but it is not necessarily just about Pharisees.  People without religious training can act like Pharisees too. In fact listening to people who are so sure of their own righteousness, while putting others down, I think is part of what’s made all of us all so sick of the upcoming election.

But getting back to the Pharisees: I have known a few in my day.  I’ve been sorely tempted to become one, (although I wouldn’t have thought of it that way at the time).  Where it comes to Pharisees this is what I’ve experienced:

  • Pharisees are motivated by fear. (both in Jesus’ day and now.) Pharisees are very keenly aware of sin, and the seriousness of sin, and of God’s judgement on sin; and they are afraid of God’s judgement and so they’re afraid of anything that might cause sin. They’re even afraid of the appearance of sin. And all this fear gets pressed down and shaken together and then sometimes explodes in the form of anger at ‘sinners’ who are seen either as sources of temptation or as the cause of the decline in society’s morals.
  • In their fear, Pharisees turn their focus inward – on the little groups they’re a part of. They lose sight of the needs in the world, and they fail to see the pain that sinners feel at their own sin. They forget (if they ever knew in the first place) (for example) that drug addicts hate the drugs they’re hooked on… that prostitutes hate their customers… that most people who are caught in sin would welcome a way out it if they could find one.  Pharisees don’t see the needs. They lack empathy, and so they judge.
  • Pharisees also, as Jesus points out, love money. Not necessarily because they actually enjoy the things money can buy, but because poverty doesn’t look good.  Plus money makes it possible for them to move in the social circles they want to move in.
  • And the sins Pharisees preach most strongly against are the very sins they’re most likely to fall into. For example, in Jesus’ day the Pharisees were all about observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy. This law had a practical, nationalistic side to it: because the Romans (who occupied Israel) didn’t observe the Sabbath; God’s people did. So Sabbath observance was the mark of a loyal Israelite. Kind of like standing up for the national anthem at a ballgame. It wasn’t so much about the object of worship (God and/or country – which often tend to get conflated in a Pharisee’s mind), as it was about conforming to expected, traditional standards of behavior. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day got on Jesus’ case about healing people on the Sabbath – but they saw nothing wrong when they themselves spent an entire Sabbath afternoon making plans to kill Jesus.  As if that was a permitted use of the Sabbath!  Pharisees are capable of the most amazing feats of hypocrisy… and they rarely if ever see it.

As for modern-day Pharisees, I’m sure we all can think of few.  Personally when I read about Pharisees in the Bible I tend to think of them as the televangelists of the ancient world.  It’s not a perfect parallel but it works on a number of levels.  Like them, the Pharisees were well known, supported by the people, highly regarded by their bands of followers, legalistic, and looked pretty clean on the outside.  For a while.

Back in the early 1980s I did some volunteer work for a ministry headed up by a man who once worked for televangelist Jimmy Bakker. Many of you here will remember the scandal Jimmy and his wife Tammy Faye fell into back then. One day I got up the nerve to ask this friend what happened – what really happened behind the scenes?  (My friend had left the Bakker ministry shortly before everything broke loose.) He said this: “it got to the point where there was only a handful of trusted people around Jimmy and Tammy Faye – only about five or six people. Nobody else could get close to them. Not their congregation, not the public, not me, and – as became obvious – not their accountant. Those of us who could have warned them something was wrong were not allowed into the inner circle.”

The problem with Pharisees – the core problem – is that they rely on human strength and human righteousness instead of on God and on the Holy Spirit.  And what a powerful illustration this is of how that works out!

As a postscript to that story, Jimmy Bakker has since renounced his former teachings. He has admitted, publicly, that the first time he ever read the Bible all the way through was in prison; and that doing so he was confronted with mistakes and false teachings he had fallen into. In the late 1990s he wrote this:

“My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray. I was appalled that I could have been so wrong, and I was deeply grateful that God had not struck me dead as a false prophet.”

That is true repentance.  And praise God, salvation can come to even Pharisees.  Remember that whenever you feel like you’ve made the worst mistake of your life. There’s nothing God can’t forgive, and there is no place so low that God’s mercy can’t reach.

Which brings us to our tax collector.  (I love it when Jesus talks about tax collectors!)  Speaking as a local tax collector, if you want to ‘win friends and influence people,’ becoming a tax collector is not the way to do it!  As a tax collectors I am required to uphold the law, whether I like it or not, whether I agree with it or not, whether I think it’s fair or not. I have seen the struggles of some of our senior citizens trying to keep the taxes paid on their homes.  And there have been days I’ve gone home from the tax office saying “God forgive me.”

But compared to Roman times, tax collecting today is an honorable profession. At least I know the taxes I collect will be spent on the town and in the school where the taxpayers live. In Jesus’ day, taxes were collected by and for the Romans – and there was no guarantee money collected in Galilee (for example) would stay in Galilee.  It was more likely to end up in Rome.

And tax collectors back then were basically traitors to their own people. They were Israelis who were paid by the Romans to collect taxes from their own countrymen.

As Americans we have never known what it is to pay taxes to a foreign government (except for in the 1700s when we had that little tea party in Boston Harbor).  We have never known what it is to be conquered (I pray God we never will).  We have never known what it is to have a neighbor or a friend working for the enemy and extorting money.

These tax collectors in Jesus’ day were basically collaborators. They collected more than the Romans told them to, and got rich on the backs of their families and friends. They sold themselves for money. That’s why the Bible refers to them as “tax collectors and sinners”.  They knew what they were. They knew what they were doing. They were about as low as you can go.

But one day one tax collector decided – for whatever reason – to get right with God. So he went to the temple. He didn’t raise his hands in prayer, he didn’t even look up as he prayed, but ‘beat his breast’ and said “oh God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector didn’t make excuses. He didn’t try to bargain with God. He just appealed to God’s mercy.

Our God has a heart that is quick to answer a prayer like that. God declared this man righteous. And Jesus wasn’t ashamed to be seen with tax collectors like him (even though the Pharisees criticized him for it).  It’s no surprise the tax collectors loved Jesus so much and wanted to around him all the time!.

So to sum up the parable:  The prayer of the Pharisee is full of pride, self-dependence, and self-righteousness, lacking in charity and compassion. Theologian Charles Simeon writes, “The Pharisees… were extremely diligent in the observance of outward duties: but, while they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, they were as far from the kingdom of God as if they had been openly profane.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, humbly stands at a distance, admits his faults, and trusts in God alone.  And the result was: the tax collector goes home justified by God; and the Pharisee does not.

There’s one more thing that we haven’t looked at yet in this story: context.  The context of this story – the big picture – is the kingdom of God.

In the passage from Luke we read today, in the chapter immediately before it, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God is coming. And this parable is, in part, an answer to that question – as well as a warning about something that may prevent people entering into the Kingdom of God.

Our Old Testament reading from Joel also speaks of the Kingdom, and Joel gives us the big picture back-drop against which this parable plays itself out.

The passage from Joel begins by saying to God’s people ‘be glad and rejoice in God, because the day of the Lord is finally coming’.  God says, “I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten… you shall eat and be satisfied… your God has dealt wondrously with you.” The prophecy continues, “my people shall never again be put to shame.”  Twice God says that: ‘you shall never again be put to shame’.

And then Joel’s prophecy turns very dark. It talks about how terrible and frightening the day of the Lord will be.  The Kingdom will come, he says, in darkness and in blood; and ‘those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved’ and ‘among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls’. (Notice there’s a mutual calling here: God’s people call out to Him, and God calls to His people; calling in both directions, the calls meeting each other.)

When we read Joel’s description of the coming Kingdom, and then look at the Pharisee and the tax collector, their story takes on real clarity.

First, the parable is full of shame.  The Pharisee shames the tax collector. The tax collector shames himself. To be alive in this world is to know shame.  But the prophet Joel says the day is coming when God’s people will never again be put to shame.

Second, held up against the backdrop of the darkness and destruction at the end of this world, the Pharisee’s words sound a bit ridiculous. He says: “God I thank you I’m not like other men. I fast twice a week, I gave away a tenth of all my income…”  How on earth is that going to benefit anybody when the world is ending?

But listen to the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Isn’t that what any sane person would say when they’re witnessing the end of the world?

Third, Joel gives us the same good news Jesus preached – and it is this: “I will restore the years the locust has eaten.”  Some translations say “I will repay…” but the actual verb here is shalom… ‘I will bring peace, I will bring wholeness’. In those very places where we have been injured… in those places where the world has ridiculed us for our faith in God… in those places where we could find no answers to the question “why?” – God will restore, and will give us shalom, and will take away our shame.  Jesus himself, who was shamed with the words “The King of the Jews” nailed above his head – will at last claim his kingdom.

Phariseeism is, at its roots, a lack of courage of convictions and a lack of real faith in God.  A Pharisee fails to trust God’s heart or to grasp God’s truth. The tax collector on the other hand appeals to God’s heart, to God’s loving-kindness (his hesed). He knows that salvation, forgiveness, and mercy belong to God alone.

So our take-aways for today:

  1. For those of us who are called to minister or to leadership in God’s church – and for all people – pray that we escape the temptations of Phariseeism. Pray that God will save us from that question which has no good answer: “am I being humble yet?” Pray we stay focused on Jesus.
  2. Pray we don’t waste time comparing ourselves with others, that instead we are honest with God and trust in God’s mercy.
  3. Pray we keep our eyes on the prize. Our goal is to be with Jesus in the coming kingdom of our God. The coming of this kingdom is the Good News we share. And this goal infuses everything we say and everything we do in life with meaning and purpose.
  4. Praise Jesus for His boundless love and mercy, and thank God for God’s promise that one day we will never again be put to shame.

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Joel 2:23-32  23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.  24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.  25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.  32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) – Pittsburgh, 10/23/16

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