Divine Paracletic Revolution

Sermon on John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Psalm 104:34-37 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. May these words of mine please him; I will rejoice in the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Hallelujah! (43)

Introduction

Today’s the celebration of Pentecost. According to the book of Acts, this is the day the Holy Spirit of God arrives, fueling tongues of flames hovering above the heads of the disciples who have been left by the one they followed and loved. Amid spontaneous tongues of fire, the disciples begin speaking and all there were able to hear them—like, listen and hear them. Whether the disciples were spontaneously speaking in different languages or those present were able to hear the message in their own language isn’t the point. The point is that there was proclamation and there was proclamation being heard. The Gospel gospelled the Gospel.[1] All of it due to the presence of the Holy Spirit, very God sent into the world to move in hearts and minds of people, to usher people and the world into life out of death from the kingdom of humanity into the reign of God.

The arrival of the Spirit among the humble followers of the way confirmed these had the divine power to preach and proclaim the gospel, the witness of Jesus the Christ died and raised and ascended. Never again would the presence of God be isolated to material structures protected by very specific people. In Pentecost, everything is blown wide open: all are the worthy vessels of the Spirit of God (no in group, no privileged few, no elite clique). From hovering over the face of the deep in Gen 1, the Spirit of God moves through time and space perpetuating God’s love at every twist and turn of the manifold pathways of the cosmos and bringing that love straight to you in a personal and intimate way through encounter with God in the event of faith. The long promised new spirit and new hearts for all of God’s people is fulfilled in the arrival of God’s Spirit among the disciples.

This is a remarkable claim. A most profound and revolutionary claim rivaling the claim of life out of death in resurrection. The presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer eliminates any possibility of exile from God; there’s no where you can run and hide where God isn’t because by faith you are yoked into God because God by the presence of the Spirit lives in you. God transcended God’s self to be born of a woman and to take the regular name, Yeshua/Jesus. Even more profound is God continues to transcend God’s self by taking up residence in our hearts and minds. We are, to quote St. Paul, the vessels of the holy spirit. We are clay, and we crack and fracture, and we are very much good but not perfect, yet we’re the beloved and worthy by our simple existence to be in and with God and God to be in and with us.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Whenever the Paraclete comes, whom I, I will send to you from beside the Father, the spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, that one will witness concerning me. And now you, you are witnesses, that from the beginning you are with me. [2]

John 15:26-27

The above is certainly good news, yet John the elder has more to say about the Spirit of God, the Paraclete: The Paraclete continues the revolution of God started by Christ. The work Jesus started on earth isn’t over. The Paraclete will come and will continue the divine witness[3] of love embodied and manifested by Christ.[4] Thus, John affirms Jesus’s ministry was not a singular and isolated historical event relegated perpetually to what was. What Jesus did in the world materially by his presence and activity remains in the present even when he leaves (“you, you are witnesses”) and surges into the future when the Paraclete arrives (“that one will witness concerning me”). God’s revelation of God’s revolutionary and liberating love set everything in motion and continues world without end.

In other words, with the arrival of the Paraclete God clearly isn’t done with the cosmos; nothing and no one is too far gone, without hope and possibility, or too sick, dirty, anxious, and other to be beyond God’s revolutionary and liberating love. In Christ the disciples witnessed God go to the fringes of their society, liberating and rescuing those who were isolated and shut out by the local rulers and religious authorities. The divine pursuit of the beloved was an intentional confrontation with human made systems of the day. It’s these systems causing death and captivity for the children of God from which Jesus called forth life and liberty in material and spiritual forms. Jesus’s work and activity while alive is as much a part of the divine witness as is his death and resurrection and ascension. So, it is this entire witness the disciples are witnessing to and which the Paraclete will continue to witness into the ages. The Paraclete comes so there will always be witness to the divine revolution of love and liberty in the world in the hearts and minds of disciples who’ll participate in witnessing in their time, culture, and context.[5]

But I spoke these things to you because the grief in your hearts is made full. But I, I say the truth to you, it is profitable to you that I, I go away. For if I do not depart then the Paraclete will not come to you. Now, if I go, I will send [the Paraclete] to you.

John 16:5-7

According to what Jesus says here, without the arrival of the Paraclete there will be no assuaging of the disciples’ grief—his presence may cease their grief but only temporarily. If Jesus doesn’t ascend, then the witness and revolution of divine love will last only while Jesus lives on earth. Due to Jesus’s resurrection being bodily, this is a finite time conditioned on human health and protection from danger—both being rather tenuous for Jesus. By ascending and sending the noncorporeal Paraclete who can live in and among the believers and followers, the divine witness of love begun by Jesus never ends.[6] No matter the threat of death, the passing of time, or variance of cultural context, the Paraclete goes and exposes systems and liberates captives in ways Jesus wouldn’t be able to do[7]—he would’ve been restricted by his body to his time and context. With the presence of the Paraclete all who grieve are consoled, all who are stripped of the power to speak have an advocate, all who are anxious and burdened are comforted, all who need help have a helper, all who find themselves without words have an intercessor, and the Paraclete comes to all who callout and need aid—in any culture, from any context, in every age. This is certainly the divine revolution of love.

Conclusion

Still I have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them just now. But when that one comes, the Spirit of truth, [they] will guide you into all truth. For [the Paraclete] will not speak from [themselves]but will speak as much as [they] hear and will report back to you the things that come.

John 16:12-13

The Paraclete isn’t stuck in the context and culture of Acts 2; the Paraclete isn’t bound by time or era. The Paraclete informs us as we are to be informed and then will inform the next generation of Christians as they need to be informed, which won’t be as we’ve been informed. The way we are being informed today is not the way our foremothers and forefathers in the faith were informed. Jesus withheld information from his disciples because they couldn’t hear it; the Paraclete was given the privilege of revealing and witnessing to God into different cultures and contexts, among different peoples. Today can never be yesterday and tomorrow will never be today; God cannot be captured and caught by time or people. Why do we confuse the consistency of God’s love with God being stuck in some romanticized version of history?

The questions we have today need answers that haven’t been given before. No matter how great the bible is, how brilliant philosophers of yesterday were, or how insightful theologians have been, they can’t directly address our questions in 2021. Thus, we’re reliant on the presence of the Paraclete to guide us into truth through exposure and comfort that leads to the revolution of the witness of God. First, we ourselves are guided by love into exposure because we must always be in the truth of who we are and where we are and find ourselves therein received and accepted. Second, we’re guided by love and truth to participate in exposing archaic, static, and septic traditions and rituals, systems and ideologies. Last, we’re guided by love to work in the world as beloved radical midwives of comfort, love, and liberty participating in the revolution of bringing forth the reality of God manifested in Christ by the power Spirit of truth, the Paraclete.[8]

Let us live and liberate, let us laugh and love like those profoundly impacted in heart and mind by the life, liberation, laughter, and love of God made known in the witness of Christ in the world by the presence and power of the Paraclete.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, RWN Hoare, JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster 1971. Original: Das Evangelium des Johannes Göttigen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964). 554 “Their witness is not, therefore, a historical account of that which was, but—however much it is based on that which was—it is ‘repetition,’ ‘a calling to mind,’ in the light of their present relationship with him. In that case it is perfectly clear that their witness and that of the Spirit are identical. The Gospel is itself evidence of the kind of witness this is, and of how that which was is taken up again…”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Bultmann John 553 “This two-fold designation makes the reference to the idea of revelation certain; even after Jesus’ departure, God’s revelation will be mediated through him: he it is, who sends the Spirit (sic, without additional description), who bears witness to him; but he does so in his unity with the Father, who has made him Revealer; he sends the Spirit from the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father, just as it is said in 14:16 that the Father sends the Spirit at the Son’s request, or in 14.26 that he sends him ‘in the name’ of the Son.”

[4] Bultmann John 552 “After Jesus’ departure, the situation on earth will remain unchanged inasmuch as the offence which Jesus’ work offered the world will not disappear. The witness, which till now he had borne to himself, will be taken over by the Paraclete, the Helper, whom he will send from the Father.”

[5] Bultmann John 554 “But when…the Spirit’s witness and the witness of the community are spoken of as two factors distinct from one another, this shows first that the working of the spirit is not unhistorical or magical, but rather requires the disciples’’ independent action, and secondly that the disciples cannot accomplish on their own what they are in fact able to do. They may not rely on the Spirit, as if they had no responsibility or need for decision; but they may and should trust the Spirit. Thus the peculiar duality, which exists in the work of Jesus himself, repeats itself in the Church’s preaching: he bears witness, and the Father bears witness. But the community’s preaching is to be none other than witness to Jesus…”

[6] Bultmann John 558 “…the historical Jesus must depart, so that his significance, the significance of being the Revealer, can be grasped purely by itself. He is only the Revealer, if he remains such. But he remains it only by sending the Spirit; and he can only send the Spirit when he has himself gone. In context the statement means the same as the others, that Jesus must be exalted or glorified in order to be the one who he really is.”

[7] Bultmann John 562-3 “The judgment consists in the world’s sinful nature being exposed by the revelation that continues to take place in the community. This is brought out by relating the ελεγχειν of the Paraclete to the three dimensions αμαρτια, δικαιοσυνη, and χρισις. The absence of the article proves that it is the three ideas that are called in question, and not three cases of sin, righteousness, and judgment. It would therefore be wrong to supplement the three substantives with three subjective genitives…The judgment that takes place in the revelation consists in disclosing the true meaning of the standards and values current in the word. But this means at the same time disclosing who is the sinner, who the victor, and who it is that is judged.”

[8] Thought influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Christ, Reality, and the Good” of his Ethics

Behold, Christ’s Feet

Psalm 4:1 Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard-pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer. (27)

Introduction

I’m not afraid of physical pain—the sore and strain of bones and muscles.[1] As an athlete, one must endure pain to be good. To build muscle, muscle must be torn down and rebuilt, a painful process. I am eager to learn new skills, so, know the demands for discomfort that comes with learning. It’s physically awkward to learn new moves, new postures, new holds. I wasn’t afraid to enter 14 hours of heavy contractions without medication as my son Jack attempted to make his debut on a hot August day in 2008. (With every contraction, Jack hit every bone he could before the midwife called the c-section—his head being too big to pass through my structure.) I’m that ridiculous person who says: no pain, no gain. If something is too easy, I immediately think: what am I doing wrong. Always looking for the next level because, to quote Will-I-Am as Pedro in the animated movie Rio: “Come on! This ain’t the level. The next level is the level.”

However, throw in a sudden shot of mental anguish and everything changes. While I won’t flee from physical pain, mental anguish is something altogether more painful to me. The mind takes over and anxiety surges in the body. Chaos starts to swirl in my mind and around me; my refuge of safety—my mind palace—is under siege. I am ushered into the crevasse opening under my feet, threatening to swallow me. Trying to fight against the discomfort (working, reading, running, tasking, scrolling, etc.) or pretending that everything is just fine (#fakeittillyoumakeit), makes it worse. The harder I fight and ignore, the worse the discomfort gets. I am no match to resist this Apollyon[2] seeking to destroy me on this journey, eager to drive me to the brink and edge of myself into oblivion.

Luke 24:36-48

Now, as they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood in the middle of them and said to them, “Peace to you.” But being terrified and becoming full of fear, they were thinking they were looking at a spirit. And Jesus said to them, “Why are you disturbed and why are thoughts coming up in your hearts? Experience my hands and my feet that I am[3] myself. Touch me and experience that a spirit has not flesh and bones just as you behold me having.” Then after saying this he showed them [his] hands and feet.

Luke 24:36-40

Luke is clear about the mental anguish of the disciples when Jesus appears in the middle of them.[4] He is clear: Jesus showing up didn’t immediately bring the comfort we might think/hope it would. The language Luke uses is thematically like the language Mark used to describe the women arriving at an open tomb on Easter morning. Divine movement in human time and space is terrifying even if it’s good.[5],[6] Divine activity here always alters reality as we know it—there’s nothing comforting about this. When God moves, things will change; we don’t like change, especially when it destroys what we know to be true. The tomb is opened; the women were terrified and seized with fear. The Crucified Christ shows up; the men are terrified and full of fear.

Jesus declares: Peace to you! Yet, fear and trembling persisted. Even if this declaration of peace was understood as the shalom that is peace with God thus salvation, it wasn’t all that the disturbed disciples needed.[7] These men were in mental anguish; speaking “peace” wasn’t enough. Jesus recognizes this. His response? He names what is going with these men: why are you disturbed? Why are reasonings coming up in your heart? I am myself![8]In other words, I see you and feel you. Jesus is truly there with them; in solidarity with them. But calling a thing what it is isn’t all Jesus does.

He knows something else must happen to relieve the disturbedness. Behold my hands; gaze upon my feet; see for yourself that I am who I am and that I am here with you! These terrified people needed to touch Jesus to know he was real. It wasn’t enough for Jesus to speak peace; he needed to show them his wounded hands and feet. He stood among them and held out his hands, experience the holes from the nails that held me to the cross; gaze at death’s feeble attempt to keep God and my beloved apart; behold, not even death can exile you from me. And they touched him. When they did, their terror and fear turned to doubt because of joy (v.41); this was too good to be true. Doubt still existed, but it’s source was the good news they felt with their hands as they touched the body of Jesus.[9] They reached out with trembling hands, like the shepherds did back at Christmas, and touched the very flesh of God and were not reduced to dust but into new life. The Lord is Risen!

Conclusion

The only way the disciples moved from their fear and terror at Jesus’s presence was through and not around. So it is with us. The only way for me to pass through my mental anguish, my fear and terror, my panic and anxiety is to sit and feel, to face and acknowledge, to look it in the eyes, touch it, call it for what it is, and exist there. Referring to the EnneaThought for this past Friday, “…if we stay present to our discomfort, we will also feel something else arising—something more real, capable, sensitive, and exquisitely aware of ourselves and of our surroundings.”[10] The beginning of release comes in facing the reality of what is and moving through and from there; this becomes our sure foundation: embracing the truth, naming the feelings, and admitting our weakness and problem.

When Jesus walked the earth, he overturned condemning material systems birthed from human judgment. In his resurrected material[11] life, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, flips time and space—like he did tables in the temple—and brings with him the women and men whom he encounters into the divine reign. Christ’s resurrected material presence on earth among people indicates that God’s reign is not merely spiritual, but physical, too; this (all) is God’s good creation.[12]

The rest is in making our home where we live and standing in solidarity with our neighbors rather than escaping it through fighting against Apollyon and turning blind eyes.

The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark
And no dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart

I took the stars from my eyes, an then I made a map
And knew that somehow I could find my way back
Then I heard your heart beating, you were in the darkness too
So I stayed in the darkness with you[13]

Florence and the Machine “Cosmic Love”

The material presence of Christ with the disciples makes it impossible for us to reduce problems and their solutions of our world to the spiritual. In other words, our presence in the world toward our neighbor must be more than “thoughts and prayers” or the ludicrous assertion people should pull themselves out of their suffering and oppression by their own bootstraps. We must look at the violence in our country and call it what it is: life denying and anti-human. To quote the biblical scholar, Justo Gonzalez, “The Lord who broke the bonds of death calls his followers to break the bonds of injustice and oppression,”[14] that which causes death. The material presence of Christ with people after his resurrection is a sure sign that, to quote womanist theologian, The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas of Union Seminary,

The resurrection asserts the sanctity of human life as it overcomes all the forces that would deny it. The resurrection in effect makes plane the ‘wrongness’ of the crucifixion, and thus of all crucifying realities. It shows that death does not have the last word. [15]

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground

In our encounter with God in the resurrected Christ of Easter in the event of faith, we are made into new people in the world. In our new life in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to love God with our whole selves and to also love our neighbor as ourselves. In this encounter we are remade and reshaped (the product of repentance[16]), we will be “wholly transformed” through death into new life to conform to the image of Christ in the world.[17] If we think this means merely speaking peace and not attempting to perform this divine shalom into the world, then Jesus is still in the tomb, and we follow phantoms.

But we don’t follow a phantom; we follow the materially risen Lord Jesus Christ who fully affirms life (for all people, and especially the oppressed and suffering people[18]). Hope is not lost; faith is not abandoned. Prayer informs our praxis, rendering the space of our activity divine space. We are indwelled with the holy spirit, God of very God. Where there is death, we bring life; where there is midnight, we shine light; where there is hunger, we bring food; where there is terror and fear we, the beloved, bring comfort to the beloved. Our hands extend to the downtrodden and we lift up, behold Christ’s hand. Our feet stand in solidarity with black and brown bodies threatened at every turn; behold Christ’s feet.


[1] I’m not including here physical pain from chronic illness. I group that under mental anguish because of the toll it takes on the mind and body. Also, as someone who has not suffered with chronic illness, I cannot speak to it. I wanted to add this here so people know I’m aware of the physical pain of Chronic Illness.

[2] Reference to the antagonist in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

[3] The εγω ειμι here is a loaded term, so I emphasized it. The Greek reads “…εγω ειμι αυτος” thus a literal translation would be “I, I am myself.” Whenever you see the personal pronoun with the verb in Greek there’s a needed emphasis. I also think Luke is intentional with the wording and order; the great I AM is with them. God is with the Beloved.

[4] Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds. Ay Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 279 “The theological emphasis of this passage lies on the true, physical resurrection of Jesus. The disciples think that what they are seeing may be his ghost, a story parallel to the reaction of other disciples in Acts when Peter returns to them unexpectedly.”

[5] Joel B. Green TNICNT The Gospel of Luke Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1997. 852 “…the Evangelist [Luke] places a premium on ‘seeing.’…Initial points of contact with accounts of angelic appearances signal the wonder of this moment, while points of contrast indicate the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. …Luke’s narrative affirms a resurrected Jesus over against these other options for the afterlife current in the Hellenistic world.”

[6] Green 855, In re Luke’s use of “Joy” “What they were experiencing was simply too good to be true.”

[7] Green 854, “Within the Third Gospel, ‘peace’ is metonymic for ‘salvation,’ so that, in this co-text, Jesus’ greeting takes on an enlarged meaning. The Emmaus travelers imagined that his rejection and crucifixion had rendered Jesus incapable of serving as Israel’s redeemer; here, following his death, though, he communicates or transmits continue salvation to those gathered.”

[8] Green 854-5, “…Jesus is now represented as alive beyond the grave as an embodied person. Jesus’ affirmation is emphatic—‘it is I  myself!’ ‘It is really me!’—intimating continuity between these phases of Jesus’ life, before crucifixion and after resurrection.”

[9] Green 855, “Nestled between these two demonstrations of materiality is a transparent indication that such exhibitions are insufficient for producing the desired effects This is consistent with the emphasis through ch. 24 on the inherent ambiguity of ‘facts’ and, thus, the absolute necessity of interpretation. Not even controvertible evidence of Jesus’ embodied existence is capable of producing faith; resolution will come only when scriptural illuminate is added to material data.”

[10]The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 37

[11] Gonzalez Luke 279, “The Jesus who repeatedly ate with his disciples, with sinners, with publicans, wand with Pharisees now eats his last meal before leaving his disciples in the ascension. He does this in order to prove that he is not a just a vision or a ghost, that he has really conquered death.”

[12] Gonzalez Luke 279, “The one whose life the church shares in Word and Sacrament is not a ghost or a disembodied spirit. He is the risen Lord. Those who serve him do not serve a moral or religious principle, nor just the natural spiritual urges of humankind; they serve one like themselves, yet Lord of all.”

[13] Florence and the Machine “Cosmic Love”

[14] Gonzalez Luke 280, “And, because his resurrection is not a merely spiritual matter, they cannot limit their service to purely spiritual matters. The Lord who showed his resurrection to his disciples by eating with them invites his followers to show his resurrection to the world by feeding the hungry.”

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013. 187 Here’s the full paragraph for context: “The resurrecting power of God is made fully manifest in the defeat of the ultimate power of evil represented by the cross. The resurrection is God’s definitive response to the crucifying realities. It clarifies the essential character of God’s power—a power that values life. The resurrection of the one who died such a hideous and ignominious death firmly established that God does not in any way sanction the suffering of human being. The resurrection asserts the sanctity of human life as it overcomes all the forces that would deny it. The resurrection in effect makes plane the ‘wrongness’ of the crucifixion, and thus of all crucifying realities. It shows that death does not have the last word.”

[16] Green 858, “Repentance’ will be a key term describing the appropriate response to the offer of salvation in Acts, and connotes the (re)alignment of one’s life—that is, dispositions and behaviors—toward God’s purpose.”

[17] Green 854, “‘Heart’ has already been used in vv 25 and 32, reminding Luke’s audience of the importance in these sense of the need for the inner commitments to these persons to be reshaped in light of the resurrection of Jesus. They must be wholly transformed—in disposition and attitude, cognition and affect, as well as practices and behaviors—but they continue to lack the categories for rendering this new experience of Jesus in a meaningful way. As with Jesus’ companions on the road to Emmaus, they are obtuse, slow of heart (v 25).”

[18] Douglas Stand Your Ground 188 “What the resurrection points to…is not the meaning of Jesus’s death, but of his life…The resurrection of Jesus thus solidified God’s commitment to the re restoration o life for the ‘crucified class’ of people. It reveals that there are ‘no principalities or power’ that can frustrate or foil God’s power to overcome the crucifying death in the world that not only targets but also creates a ‘crucified class’ of people  To restore to life those whose bodies are the particular targets of the world’s violence is to signal the triumph over crucifying violence and death itself….The crucifixion-resurrection event points to the meaning found in Jesus’ life, not his death. By understanding he resurrection in light of the cross, we know that crucifying realities do not have the last word, and, thus, cannot take away the value of one’s life. The meaning of one’s life, in other words, is not found in death and is not vitiated by it.”

In Rags and Wood

Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Canticle 15: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. Amen

Introduction

Sermons on love are often so lofty the subject—God’s love—becomes too other worldly and abstract, beyond human grasp, and of no earthly good. These sermons leave congregants grasping at the actuality of God’s love like grasping at oil; there’s nothing in your hand but the residual of what brushed past it. Preachers get in pulpits on Sunday and proclaim the word of comfort—God loves the beloved and the beloved is us (all of us)—then turn around and make that word so abstract and comfortable the divine love communicated about is not communicated to those who have ears to hear. It’s safer to preach abstract love that doesn’t touch down in the material realm in action and conviction because God forbid those coins cease hitting beloved coffers. We love the idea of divine love for us. If we’re honest, we don’t know what that means apart from some safe ideas we’ve memorized from Sunday school, gathered from the repetition of creeds, and absorbed by the incessant bombardment of dogmas.

Love is a remarkable and profound thing surging through the cosmos since the beginning of time—love neither started with us nor will it end with us. While the neuro response to love—both loving and being loved—is locatable in the brain and we can describe the way it feels, science and her scientists cannot figure out the why or the source or, coupled to attraction, the reason it’s this person and not that person. While society has historically tried to dictate who we can love, love knows not artificial man-made boundaries—love transcends and tears down walls and fences built to keep some in and others out. Love is more than a feeling and full of action in a material world.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The spirit of the Lord God 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, and the day of vengeance of our God…” (Is. 61:1-2b)

Isaiah begins by confessing: the “spirit of the Lord God is upon” me. He speaks of something beyond comfortable feeling; he speaks of ruah. Ruah, a word used to describe the breath of God animating soil in Genesis, is the spirit of God, the pathos, the passion, and the emotion of God. [1] It is this spirit that is upon Isaiah. This spirit anoints Isaiah…to do what? Not to perform sacrifices, not to stand high and mighty, not to be clad in fancy robe behind tables decorated with gold and fine stone, not to swing incense, to be solemn, or to be feared for his authority. [2] Rather, it’s significantly humbler than we could imagine. Isaiah’s anointing by the spirit of God is to herald good tidings to the oppressed, to bind and have mercy on the suffering, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. In other words, it’s to proclaim to God’s people God’s great love for them.

Isaiah speaks of being endowed with the proclamation of God’s dynamic and active love to God’s people (Ruah). He also speaks of a divine day of favor and divine day of vengeance. Isaiah intentionally throws allusion to the year of Jubilee detailed in the book of Leviticus (cf. chapter 25). The liberative activity of God’s love coming in material form to God’s people is physical and not merely psychological—debts forgiven freeing both the debtor and the creditor. [3] Thus, the juxtaposition here of God’s favor and day of vengeance is intriguing. Make no mistake, Isaiah is intentional with his words. And I’m sure, as we like to do, that day of vengeance is sitting a bit heavy. But don’t lose heart just yet, stay with me; this isn’t bad news. The day of favor and the day of vengeance are one and the same day.

The twin divine decree sounding from Isaiah’s mouth is one of comfort and confrontation, and both are oriented toward the divine art of divine love: God loves God’s people. Isaiah is exhorted by the spirit being upon him…

“…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” (Is. 61:2c-3).

To comfort those who mourn is to confront those who caused the mourning; to take away ashes and crown with garlands is to raise up those who were made low and to remove the distinction with those who were (already) raised up, thus lowering them; to embolden spirits is to give strength to those who are weak making them as strong as those who were strong. To bring comfort to captives through their liberation is to come into confrontation with captors by liberating them from holding captive.* To bring good news to the oppressed is to confront the oppressor and illuminate the oppressor’s own oppression in the system. God’s love liberates all people from violent and oppressive kingdoms of humanity. [4]

“For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed” (Is. 61:8-9)

Isaiah proclaims God’s desire: justice. God loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing. Echoing other prophets of Israel: God cares about those who are suffering under and because of unjust systems. For Isaiah and the other prophets of Israel, there is a tight link between God’s love of justice and our right worship. There’s no way around it. You can be the most pious person, wear all the right robes, say the words, bow here and kneel there, you can perform the most sacred of ceremonies, but if you are also actively participate and uphold oppressive and violent systems in word and deed, your worship is “detestable” to God. [5] According to Isaiah, there’s one way to serve God: love. Specifically, the love of neighbor in the pursuit of God defined justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[6]

Let us not forget the way Isaiah opened up this proclamation: ““The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me..” (Is. 1). It’s come full circle. This spirit which is also God’s desire and pathos has become Isaiah’s. [7] The math here is simple: being indwelled with God’s spirit, Isaiah’s desire is the same as God’s: a love of justice and dislike of robbery and wrongdoing. Thus, it is for us. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, brought out of death into new life, that new life in the world is marked by the pathos of God: active love for justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[8]

Conclusion

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Is. 61:11)

God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, Isaiah proclaims. God’s love will triumph. In other words, divine justice and righteousness prevails over injustice and unrighteousness. The day of divine favor for the oppressed will be the day of vengeance for the oppressor and love will win both out of death into life.

But…How? In a dire and precarious way no one expects: a baby born to a young woman. God will descend into the human predicament to suffer the human predicament and will not remain above it. This is divine love: to come low, to descend to the beloved. “The coming of Jesus is the bond, the event of descending love, is the appearing of new life, of life undreamt of, of eternal life in the earthly life.”[9]

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

Love drives us toward and into each other’s burdens, to share the weight, to call things as they are, to provide relief and to comfort. This love knows no bounds, it descends to the depths of human existence, into the muck and mire of suffering and pain and grief; it searches out across vast spaces looking for the beloved who is missing; it surges into the fringes and margins of society to proclaim in word and deed “Beloved” to those who’ve only heard “unlovable”. [10] It’s not found in our personal piety defined by the superiority of our self-righteousness, it’s not found in glory but in humility,[11] not in gold but in wood, not in rich and clean robes in stone buildings but swaddled in rags in a manger.


*The Work of David Justice on Martin Luther King, Jr., and King’s conception of the Beloved Community and Creative Rage does excellently to detail out in more detail how the liberation of the oppressed is good news for the oppressor.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets NY, NY: JPS, 1962. 315. “The word ruah means, according to standard dictionaries, ‘air in motion, breath, wind, vain things, spirit, mind.’ What was not noticed is that one of the chief uses of the word ruah is to denote pathos, passion or emotion—the state of the soul. When combined with another word, it denotes a particular type of pathos or emotion.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 195 “Sacred fire is burning on the altars in many lands. Animals are being offered to the glory of the gods. Priests burn incense, songs of solemn assemblies fill the air Pilgrims are on the roads, pageantries in the sacred places. The atmosphere is thick with sanctity. In Israel, too, sacrifice is an essential act of worship. It is the experience of giving oneself vicariously to God and of being received by Him. And yet, the pre-exilic prophets uttered violent attacks on sacrifices…”

[3] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary TOTL. Louisville, KY: WJK 2001. 505. “…the theme of proclaiming liberty in ‘the year of Yahweh’s favor’ (v.2) is formulated in the language of the Jubilee year…and articulates succinctly the great change in Israel’s fortunes initiated through God’s favor. Finally, to ‘bring good tiding’ … is to assume the mantle of the herald…who first sent out the message of God’s return to his people in power.”

[4] Childs Isaiah 506. “It has also been rightly pointed out that the description of Israel’s deliverance has shifted a way from Second Isaiah’s portrayal of captivity and exile to that of release from economic slavery within the land.”

[5] Heschel Prophets 195, “However, while Samuel stressed the primacy of obedience over sacrifice, Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship, far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.”

[6] Heschel Prophets 195. “Questioning man’s right to worship through offerings and songs, they maintained that the primary way of serving God is through love, Justice, and righteousness.” See also: W. Travis McMaken’s book on Helmut Gollwitzer, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Fortress Press, 2017). “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy,” p. 91.

[7] Childs Isaiah 506. “The speaker in these verses is clearly God, who confirms the word of the servant figure. The grounds for the mission of the one endowed with the spirit in vv. 1-7 rest on God, who loves justice while hating injustice.”

[8] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy.” 91 And, Speaking in terms of principle, however, the demand is more exacting…’The conversion to which the Christian community is daily called by God’s Word also includes the renunciation of their integration in the dominant system of privileges and their active exertion for justice, and so for social structures no longer determined by social privileges’…Christians are called to resist the social structures that imbue some with privileges while disadvantaging others.” 113-4 . And, “But if Marx turns theology into politics, Gollwitzer transforms politics into theology. That is, he clarifies for us that there is no such things a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” 166-7.

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1981. 80.

[10] Gollwitzer 79. “…he did not remain above, did not count his superiority a thing to be grasped at, but came down into human existence, into a slave-existence, to a place where he was spat upon, trodden down, and put to death. Thus anyone who wishes to find the ‘above’ of which the whole Bible speaks, must, w strange though it may seem, go right down below here on earth. The paradox is that what is of the earth, the thought that is of earthly origin, is actually a striving upwards, everyone wants to get on top; while on the contrary what is here called the true divine ‘above’, is a string downwards, and is only to be found at the lowest point of the earth, on the gallows among the most downtrodden and outcast of society, with one who has no longer a place in it, in the grave which is the destiny of us all.”

[11] Gollwitzer 79. “There in the depths the Lord of glory of the religions is not to be found, but the servant God of the Gospel, the ministering, self-sacrificing brother Jesus who ‘and no other one’ is the living Lord of the Gospel.”

Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:8-9: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” Amen (50)

Introduction

Have you ever thought about the word “comfort”? What is comfort? If you ask me, I may reply with some description of the darker recesses of a library, hidden from sight, nestled among books, coveting the quiet, the alone, and my beloved texts like Gollum and his precious. If you ask one of my children the answer may involve some form of “no school” and “video games” and “friends”.

Comfort is something we describe with adjectives soliciting the tactile senses and align more with “comfortable,” which contends with bodily senses. But are the words “comfortable” and “comfort” synonymous? I’ll argue they’re similar but not interchangeable. When we talk about something being comfortable we imagine some of the images mentioned a moment ago (things that bring us relaxation and pleasure), or a fuzzy robe with corresponding slippers, or a bed, or a couch, or a pair of jeans, or those old sneakers. Comfortable is something that doesn’t disrupt our state of rest; it affirms it. In fact, when presented with too much of what is comfortable, we become complacent with numbness. The old axiom exists for a reason: lethargy breeds lethargy. We can become so comfortable in what is because it is what is, it is familiar and known and doesn’t require that we reach too far out of our own spaces. In fact “comfortable” encourages resistance to anything infringing on that which is comfortable and known and familiar. It’s why change can be so scary.

But comfort is something altogether different because it disrupts us and our rest, our groove or rut, and our familiar and known. To bring comfort to someone is to alter their state in a way so they can catch that breath, breathe a sigh of relief, come down a few notches, and, sometimes, to push us into that scary unknown and unfamiliar.

Comfort comes as a person, a word, a space, an action thus it is disrupting. Something enters our sphere seizes us, speaks to us, creates space for us, and moves us into a different spot.  Comfortable keeps you where you are; comfort moves you. Comfortable is denial; comfort comes with acceptance. Comfortable is the saccharine colloquialism smoothing over tension, sadness, anger, frustration; comfort is the honest, “damn, I’m sorry…” that enters the tension, the sadness, the anger, frustration. Comfortable is pretending you don’t see that dragon; comfort is everyone you know showing up to fight it. When comfort arrives, in whatever form, we are never the same as we were before, and we are altered in some way forever—death into new life.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Through the humble yet bold voice of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Comfort, O comfort my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a). It is time to move Israel from one state to another,[1] and God declares that God’s ministers are to bring comfort to Israel. According to the text, it is God’s presence with Israel that will bring comfort; it’s God’s voice, God’s word that soothes the troubled soul and the broken hearted. Thus, the ministers of God are to bring this voice and this word to God’s people. They are to elevate the heads of the Israelites, much like a mother gently grabs the chin of her distraught child and with love in her eyes and reassurance in her smile moves the child into comfort. Israel is beckoned by the great prophet, look to the Lord your God and be comforted and have joy, for deliverance and restoration come![2]

Israel plagued by captivity and complicity, tumult and turmoil, despondency and desperation needs the good divine word to instill them with profound divine joy. Israel is not only plagued for her own internal and external issues, but by a mutuality in suffering. Israel suffers as the nations around her suffer, too. As they are held captive, so is Israel; as they are in pain, so, too, is Israel. [3] As God feels the pain of God’s people, so does God’s people feel the pain of those around them.

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Is 40:3-5)

Isaiah declares God’s forgiveness, peace, and restoration to Israel; the great comforter comes, joy will exceed sorrow, God’s presence will eliminate exile, redemption will overturn condemnation. Here in Isaiah, God reaffirms that God is their God and they are God’s people. [4] And thus, Israel is commissioned[5] to fulfill Israel’s great call: to be the “herald of good tidings” to the nations, [6] to proclaim the word of God, God’s truth and God’s comfort.[7] “…lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Is 40:9).

The revelation of divine glory will be seen and witnessed and beheld by all. [8] God will gather up God’s flock like a shepherd, God will tend and carry the weak, smoldering wicks God will not snuff out, broken reeds God will not break. God will come for God’s people a group defined no longer by boundary markers, but which will extend beyond Jerusalem to all Judea, into Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Conclusion

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her…Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper… (Lam 1:1-2, 5).

The words of Israel’s lament to God here in these opening verses to the book of Lamentations, echo our current feelings of being abandoned. Lonely, widowed, weeping, held captive by foes, and without comfort. 2020 has thrust us deep into a long season of chaos soliciting our crying out. And while we may be able to find things that are comfortable it’s to numb the discomfort we feel; yet, the more we reach for the comfortable, the further comfort remains. We need not what is comfortable but to be comforted; we need to be disrupted in such a way that we see things as they are for what they are and to feel the umbilical connection to the rest of humanity who is sick, who is in pain, who grieves, and who fights for the right to breathe.

God’s presence has always meant comfort for God’s people manifest in the people’s liberation from captivity by forces internal (Israel’s sin) and external (those who are holding Israel captive)—this is salvation. Thus, the promised divine nativity of the Christ, God born in flesh, will be salvation for all flesh and this salvation is still intrinsically linked with human liberation. And this liberation isn’t solely from mythical forces of evil, threats of hellfire, and the intellectual burden of a burdened conscience. It is bodily liberation from religious tyranny, from marginalization, it is healing from sickness, it is bringing in and bringing together those who have been forced out and into exile by the rulers and authorities, it is dismantling of malignant systems born to create hierarchy between divine image bearers.[9] Jesus is the word of God, the word of comfort, born into the world to save and redeem God’s people…all of God’s people bringing low the high places and raising up the low places. So, we, as those who have been disrupted become disruptive, like Israel declaring the divine word of comfort rousing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert
far and near, calling us to repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him
and the hills bow down to greet him.[10]

Advent is a season designed for disruption. The announcement that the divine nativity draws near and being asked to sit and wait and re-experience Israel’s pain and anguish waiting for God to act is to be disrupted in a marvelous way. God’s promised comfort comes and disrupts our comfortableness. Borrowing from Isaiah, John declared, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:3). In the announcement that God comes, we, the comfortable, have been disrupted by the divine word of comfort of the afflicted, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. The divine word of comfort comes to desperate ears, tired eyes, and exhausted bodies. All is disrupted. Behold, salvation comes to God’s people; the great comforter arrives in flesh to liberate (disrupt the captivity of) the captives.


[1] Isaiah 40:2b-d, “…that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

[2] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets Ny NY: JPS 1962. 152, “To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, says your God’ (40:1). And also, ‘I, I am He that comforts you’ (51:12). ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you’ (66:13). His comfort comes from compassion (49:13), and will bring about joy (51:3), deliverance from captivity and the restoration of Zion and Jerusalem.”

[3] Heschel 149, 40:2 “As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is s ritual its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.”

[4] Childs 297, “Most important is that God confirms his relation with the people of Israel. He is their God and they are his people, a formula that reverberates as a distant echo from the ancient covenant tradition.”

[5] Childs 296, “Seitz writes: ‘God speaks again from the divine council as he had done formerly in Israel’s day…[T]he word of God goes forth directly, commissioning the heralds of good tidings’ (245).”

[6] Childs 300, “Zion and Jerusalem are now personified as the evangelists of the good tidings. They are appointed to proclaim the news to the cities of Judah.” And 301, “Zion and Jerusalem are not portrayed simply as awaiting the coming of imminent salvation. Indeed the emphasis is not primarily on the return of the exiles, but focuses foremost on the coming of God. Jerusalem and Zion are now described from the perspective having already received redemption. Their task is rather one of the proclamation of the good news to the remaining cities of Judah.”

[7] Brevard Childs Isaiah TOTL Louisville KY: WJK 2001. 294, “in the prologue of chapter 40 God announces his will for a new dispensation toward Israel of forgiveness, peace, and restoration. His redemptive message is then proclaimed from the heavenly council as a confirmation of the truth of his word, and redeemed Jerusalem is called as a herald of the good tidings.”

[8] Childs 298, “A voice from the heavenly council now picks up the divine message of coming redemption with a cry that continues the urgent imperatives to a plural addressee…Then the imagery of the highway is further expanded. Valleys will be raised, mountains levelled, and the rough terrain made flat. This is in preparation for the unveiling of the glory of God that will be revealed to all.” And 299, V.5 tie to chapter 6 “The prophet overhears the liturgy of the seraphim bearing witness to the whole earth’s being filed with God’s glory. However, the point of his experiencing God’s presence in chapter 6 is that only to the prophet was the revelation disclosed. However, in chapter 40 a sign of the inbreaking of a new age of salvation is that the glory of God will now be revealed to all flesh.”

[9] This paragraph influenced by this quote from James H. Cone For my People: Black Theology and the Black Church  Ny, ny: Orbis, 1984. 80, “In the process of rereading the Bible in the light of black history, black clergy radicals concluded that both biblical and black histories revealed God’s unqualified solidarity with the poor in their fight against injustice. This revelation disclosed God’s salvation as being identical with human liberation. In the United States, black theologians were the first to identify liberation with salvation, and thus with the ore of the Christ gospel. It was in this context that they began to refer to God as the liberator of the oppressed Hebrew slaves in Egypt and to Jesus as the liberator whom God has anointed ‘to preach the goodness to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, an to set a liberty those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV)”

[10] “Comfort, comfort ye my people” hymn 67 v.2

Waters of Thursday

Maundy Thursday Meditation: John 13:6

(video at the end of the post)

 

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’” (John 13:6)

 

Peter does not know what Jesus is doing.

Wanting to know and seeking to understand is part of our natural inclination and orientation. Being without sight, having words held by silence, being trapped in isolation, these restrictions cause chaos, and this chaos drives us crazy. In an effort to make sense of our surroundings, our environment, our predicament we concoct schemes and stories, dogmas and doctrines, rituals and routines. Some of these things seem to rise to celestial heights others shatter on the ground as the human made earthen vessels they are.

We do not know what God is doing.

Peter feels the tension as Jesus–the Christ!–stoops low and washes his feet. This is a boggling gesture on Jesus’s part, and Peter cannot make sense of it. Roles should be reversed, seats swapped; what is He doing? The only consolation that Jesus offers to Peter’s shock filled question, is an understanding that will come at a later date. Yet that does not ease the oddness of this particular moment in the present. We know this feeling intimately. Blindness now, silence now, isolation now leaves us feeling unsteady and uncertain even if we know that one day everything we’ve endured (now) will make sense as we watch all the parts of our story fall into place.  But at the onset of every night, in our solemn prayer as we drift off to sleep is the confession: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

We do not know what God is doing.

Resisting the urge to flash forward to Easter Sunday and the glory of the resurrection, stay here in this chaos with Peter. Marvel, with Peter, at Jesus kneeling before you, laying hold of your foot, and washing it. Feel his hands grip and the water pour over. Listen as Jesus promises that even in this present chaos, you will understand. Gaze upon the Christ and his posture before you, because it’s in that divine posture of humility where our comfort will be found. It is this posture that will not only mark the night before his crucifixion, but also the cross itself. Christ the meek will humble himself even unto death on the cross for the beloved (Phil 2:8)–to restore us to God and cleanse us completely by his once-and-for-all sacrifice.

We do not know what God is doing.

However, that’s quite okay. Because in this not knowing we are made aware we’ve become the humble and meek, wholly dependent on this wholly other God, the one who calls us by name and washes us. The water of Thursday and the silence of Saturday are, to be sure, the marks of our Christian life now as we wait and walk humbly with our God, acting justly and loving mercy (Micah 6:8).

Love Wins

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (Homily)

When my eldest was in first grade, I received an email from his teacher one after-noon. The email from his first-grade teacher informed me that my son–the ever obedient, rubric hitting, perfectionism of epic first born status—had dropped the f-bomb in class. The email didn’t entail many details, but that the teacher wanted me to know so that I could address it at home. I spent a couple of minutes pondering the email. I had a few thoughts, as any parent would. I messaged his dad and let him know what had happened. Since I was the stay-at-home parent, I knew it was my duty to handle this situation. When my husband asked me what I was going to do, I told him I had it handled.

When Quinn came home, we sat on the couch and he did what he did every afternoon after school: he told me about his day. I waited, hoping he would tell me of his own volition about his rather bold and colorful vocabulary word used earlier that day. Nothing. “Anything else happen today worth noting…making mention of…sharing…” I tried leading him to tell me. Still nothing. Silence. Then I looked at him, and said, “I got an email from your teacher today…” I didn’t even finish the sentence before my son was a mess on the couch, weeping and apologizing and explaining what had happened. I held the sobbing heap of little boy while he told me the story. When he was finished and a bit more collected, I told him that I loved him. Then I said to him, let’s have a treat; how about a root beer float…

What caused that particular response from me? This: knowing my son well enough, I knew he had already suffered his consequence. The consequence had already been given, all I had to do was do what I love: comfort him. I didn’t need to bring more “command” and “demand” to his life, he didn’t need a follow up consequence. It was clear to me, in the way he was acting about the situation, that his error was known and felt. To add more consequence would be me adding an extra layer of condemnation to the situation that already (clearly) had condemnation. Adding more condemnation is adding threat where threat is already felt, and this leads to death.

Russian author, Dostoevsky, beautifully articulates the result of heaping threat upon threat, and condemnation upon condemnation in his brilliant novel Crime and Punishment. A horse, yoked to a buggy, is commanded by its owner to pull said buggy packed with a lot of people. So many people that the buggy can’t move, no matter how hard the horse pulls. In the story, the master of the horse commands the horse to move. But the horse can’t. Then the whips come out. Nothing. The horse can’t move even though it is desperately trying. Then, in what appears to be a fit of maniacal rage, the master starts beating the horse with pipe and stick demanding and commanding it to move. The horse, after many noble attempts to obey and move the buggy, collapses, dead, under the blows.

More harshness, more cruelty, more demand, more threat, more fear never, ever, produces the thing that is desired. Being increasingly harsh and cruel, threatening and demanding with others and with ourselves will never ever get us the very thing desired. Threatening someone into compliance will only result in temporary surface obedience with eventual and corresponding, resentment running very deep. Hating yourself will only result in self-destruction: you can’t shame yourself into confidence.

I’ve said it before: it’s hard being human; why do we make it harder for others and ourselves? Our lives are fragile and fleeting…doesn’t life offer enough suffering of its own? Do we have to add unnecessary and additional pain and torment? Here’s a powerful secret: Love–(love love) love that goes to the depths with us in our worst–will always generate the very thing desired because it creates comfort and freedom for the beloved. Love doesn’t seek to gain obedience from the beloved, but love can’t help generating more love.

This love-love is the “comfort” Paul speaks of in our passage. And here’s the foundational truth to why I responded to my son the way I did: I’ve been radically loved to such an extent that my life is a 180 degree turn from what it was when I was encountered by God in the event of faith. At my worst, I was loved…as is…by God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. And over the years, as that love has worked its way into my very being, I’ve grown more and more into the woman I am in Christ—faults and all.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor 1:3-4)

At the end of the day love wins because Jesus the Christ, back on Calvary’s mountain, died, descended into hell and liberated into comfort and freedom those trapped under the weight of condemnation and threat—a liberation that is true from age to age to age.

Love wins because Love won.

The Cedar Sprig and The Baby

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Homily)

*I don’t believe in Bible reading plans, but I do read my bible every day—a chapter on some days, a small passage on others. I take my time and meditate on what I’m reading as I go. One cold, winter morning, back in Colorado, my attention was particularly pricked as I was reading through a part of text from the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel of the Old Testament is full of mysterious imagery and prophecy of Israel’s exile and destruction. While there is a word of hope of restoration, the bulk of the book is rather troubling. But none of that caused me to stop and contemplate. It was a portion about a tree planted on a mountain that snapped me out of my early morning mental fog.

I lived in the high desert, so maybe the idea of a great big cedar providing shade and comfort from the burning sun of the summertime or the cold wind and snow of winter sounded good to me. Or, maybe the idea of anything green and verdant appealed to me considering it was the middle of a white Colorado winter. Whatever it was, this tree caught my eye.

In this portion of our passage, God is promising to plant a great and “noble cedar” from a sprig God is going to break off from another. And God will plant this sprig, this tender one on a high mountain, so that it will become a “noble cedar.”

You know what grows on the top of a high mountain? Nothing. Well, nothing substantial, nothing qualifying as “noble.” The top of a mountain is typically bald because the environment is too frigid and the conditions too treacherous for foliage to grow let alone allow for a transplanted cutting to take root and grow and become mighty. What caught my attention that morning was God promising to plant a “tender one” on the top of a mountain; certainly, this is sure death for a cedar sapling. What a precarious thing for God to do.

In the midst of a book that is primarily [1] comprised of prophetic utterances of judgment against the current, corrupt, oppressive, militaristic, and hopeless monarchy of Jerusalem and Israel, [2] why prophesy about a great cedar on a mountaintop planted and grown from a sprig?

Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

Because the tree is the word of hope in this passage—not for the leadership of Israel but for those who are suffering under the leadership.

The tree will be so mighty in stature that winged creatures of all kinds will be able to find shelter in its boughs. Cedars protect those creatures who find shelter in them from harsh and inclement weather—they are the perfect safe-haven from cold winds and bitter precipitation. This particular cedar planted and nourished by God will be a beacon of hope to all who look upon it, and they will know that God is still active, that God’s power is still magnificent, and that God hears the deep cries and intimately knows the suffering and oppression of God’s people (Exodus 2:25; Acts 9:4-5).[3]

This cedar will stand as the promise of an answer to the repeated cries of the troubled, downtrodden, and the broken hearted. But even more than being a static symbol of hope for the people of Israel and Jerusalem, it’s a dynamic word for the people: God is on the move. This great tree is on a collision course with God.

That God so loved the world he sent his son into it as a vulnerable baby: a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit was born of a virgin woman; the fully divine and fully human Christ would enter the world defenseless, naked, and tender. What a precarious thing for God to do.

And just as God promised that the sprig in Ezekiel would become a great and mighty cedar, so too will this baby grow to be great, becoming the Son of the Most-High God (Luke 1:32). Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the cosmos receives her loving messiah, her merciful king, her faithful high-priest.

The sprig of the high mountain top and the baby of Christmas have the same fate in Easter: to be the final answer to all of humanity’s pain and suffering, to bear the weight of sin and bear life into the world, to break down strongholds and redefine justice. For this great man, Jesus, who is God, will carry this great cedar to the top of a high mountain. He will climb upon this great cedar, and this great cedar will bear the entire weight of Christ as he bears the entire weight of our sin and the brokenness of the world succumbed to the powers of sin and death; and this cedar will holdfast those three nails.

Like the winged creatures mentioned by Ezekiel in our passage, in the boughs of the cross and the limbs of our crucified and resurrected Christ, we receive our comfort and the fulfillment of our hope, it’s in the safe and protective shade of the Cross where we hear the divine “it is finished” to our pain and suffering, to our grief and fear–where the rejected are accepted, counted as God’s own, children and heirs of the long awaited great king; where the captives are set free, the oppressed relieved, the hopeless are hopeful, the voiceless have a voice, and the refugee finds refuge.

 

 

1 “Ezekiel” The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler JPS Oxford: OUP, 2004. 

2 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament Vol. 1 Trans. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961. “Jeremiah and Ezekiel look from the monarchy of their own day, for which they can see no future, to a new order established by Yahweh himself, in which the ruler appointed by him will have become a theocractic official very different from the contemporary political and military king…This opinion on the part of the prophets was certainly strengthened by the fact that in despots like Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiakim they saw on the throne particularly blatant examples of human self-will in hostility to Yahweh” (Eichrodt 451) 

3 “The cedar, the grandest of trees, will tower over all the other trees, and all will see the power of God, who is responsible for the fall and rise of Judah” (Jewish Study Bible). 

 

*A longer version of this homily was given at The Cathedral Advent. Birmingham, AL, in 2017.

Law, Justice, and Faith

Sancta Colloquia episode 108 ft. Tim Fall

In this episode I come face to face with the law. Seriously. My guest is Tim Fall (Twitter: @tim_fall) and he’s a judge. Now, many of you may think that this might be my first time in front of a judge, but it’s not! I’ll save those stories for later…plus, a little allure never hurt. For now, let me talk about what Tim and I discussed. I’ve known Tim strictly through Twitter and have thoroughly enjoyed his Gospel-centric approach to the way he does theology: oriented toward the comfort for the beleaguered. Now, most of my beloved readers/listeners will know that I’ve a penchant for all things distinguishing Law and Gospel. So, when I found out that my Gospel-peddling friend, Tim, was also a judge my interest was piqued. How does one who is the categorical symbol of the law (a judge) proclaim the gospel so well? How is the distinction between the gospel and the theological function of the law struck when one spends the majority of their time upholding the civic function of the law? What I found out from my conversation with Tim is that it is important to maintain the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. One needs to let the law of the court and of society operate as the law and being detached here is key. Tim told me, wisely, that a judge is not in the role to be judging the personhood of the person, and it’s this that Tim carries with him to the bench. A good judge keeps control and remains open (neutral, as neutral as any human can be). But when Tim is not in the courtroom, he spends all of his time looking for ways to speak of the event of the cross, to proclaim Christ crucified, the judge judged in our place (to borrow from Karl Barth), the longed for rest for those heavy laden.  So come and listen to this conversation with Tim and take away a wealth of good information offered from the perspective of one who upholds the law as well as a word of comfort for your mind and body. 

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

Tim is a California native who changed his major three times, colleges four times, and took six years to get a Bachelor’s degree in a subject he’s never been called on to use professionally. Married for 30 years with two kids (both graduated, woo-hoo!) his family is constant evidence of God’s abundant blessings in his life. He and his wife live in Northern California.

Tim does not normally talk about himself in the third person.

Recommended Reading/Works Mentioned in the Podcast:

Mere Christianity, CS Lewis
The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
Beyond Sex Roles, Gilbert Bilezikian
Persuasion, Jane Austen
 
Tim’s blog: https://timfall.com/
 

Called

Luke 5:27-32 (Homily)

“After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him.

Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:27-32).

There’s something about having your name called and such an event comes with a myriad of potential responses: total excitement or complete fear. I remember in high school, in college, and even in seminary, I would sit in the back of the class, quiet, listening and praying and hoping that the teacher would never, ever, ever, ever call on me. (I know, the irony that I’m not a teacher, in the front of the class, incessantly yammering on about ancient texts and dead theologians.)  I remember the panic when a professor in seminary decided he was going to start calling on people to answer his questions rather than wait for volunteers (a means to ensure everyone was doing the reading). I remember my heart stopping as his eyes met mine and I had yet to fully slip all the way under my desk. “Ms. Ellis, please explain to the class Calvin’s view of the response of the believer to God in faith…” Me: blank stare. I literally just stared at him. After an awkward silent stand off, he moved on to someone else.    

And then there’s the good moments when someone calls your name like when your best friend mentions your name or when that person, you know, that someone who you like says it, the person you like “like like,” like a lot. There are people who call your name and you feel warm and your head turns and you move toward them; and there are people who call your name and you shudder and you feel exposed and you want to hide.

Luke 5 is an interesting chapter because it’s primarily about Jesus calling to himself the people who will become his disciples. And when he calls them, the come. What’s really interesting to me is that Jesus doesn’t technically know these people he calls. When he gets into the boat with Simon Peter and tells him what to do with his net at the beginning of chapter 5, there’s no, “Hey, Pete, let’s go fishing…” There’s just: do this, do that, now, come follow me.” And Peter follows. In our text, there’s no, “Hey, Levi, what’s up…how are you? How’s mom?” There’s just: “‘Follow me.’” And, as Luke tells us, Levi “…got up, left everything, and followed him” (v. 28). It’s pretty amazing; just try getting someone to follow you who does not know you by only saying, “Follow me.” Chances are, the person you address will think you are flat out not quite right.

You turn and move immediately because the voice that has called your name loves you. When these people heard Jesus call their name, they heard the voice of love calling them; they heard the voice of God and their heads turned, and they moved toward God.

What’s really, really interesting to me is this: back in Genesis 3, there’s a moment after the fateful eating of the fruit when all things go to heck in a hand-basket, Adam and Eve realize they are naked and feel shame and humiliation, and they hide. Here’s the story,

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen 3:7-10).

In their newfound ability to determine what was good and evil for on their own, they decided that God’s voice; God’s call was not good. They hid when they heard God approach. Hoping and praying that God would not notice them, they ducked behind some trees. There’s a fear and trembling here when God calls the man and the woman out from behind the tree. They’re reluctant to step out into the open.

But when Jesus calls it seems this previous moment of Genesis 3 is being undone. Jesus calls the people, and the people come, they don’t hide, they don’t run, they turn and follow.  Jesus fulfilled the great promise of God to his people: I will be your God and you will be my people. They will be the people who turn and follow God when God calls, not the ones that hide and turn away.

But why this change? Why are the people dropping everything and following Jesus when Jesus calls? Because Jesus is the word made flesh, the love of God incarnate, the loving voice that sounded at the beginning of creation and called everything into existence: the stars, the sun and the moon, the land and the sea, and all of the animals, you and me. This is the voice that is calling these people in this moment, and don’t we know when love calls?

John tells us in his gospel, that Jesus says, “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’” (3:16-17). Where before Adam and Eve assumed that God’s presence and God’s call was going to expose unto condemnation and death, Jesus reveals that this divine presence, call, and exposure leads unto comfort and life. Jesus is the word of God that goes forth into the world causing what it desires: “Come and follow me” and the people do.

The one who called Simon Peter the fisherman and Levi the tax collector calls you. You are grafted into this story because Jesus’s call goes forth by the power of the Holy Spirit today: calling, beckoning, you into comfort, into love, into life. The one who spoke the cosmos into existence calls you, lovingly calls you who are the beloved of God. Hear the God of love call you, Beloved, and turn and follow and experience life beyond measure.

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away;
for now the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away. (Song of Songs 2:10-13)

Extravagantly and Lavishly Loved: A Homily on John 12:1-8

John 12:3-5 “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’”

I have certainly wanted to flip my lid over waste. I hate waste. Of the three Rs of ecological consciousness (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) the second one, Reuse, is my mode of living. “Wait!” I holler as my husband takes out a large jar to toss in the garbage. “I can use that!” And to good use it goes. I can use all parts of vegetables and chickens to make food. Plastic bags from stores? You can cut them into plarn (plastic yarn) and make more durable bags by crocheting the plarn. I’ve used jelly and jam jars for drinking glasses. For a while I collected the water from the shower while the water warmed up and then hauled it from the second floor to the basement to the washer to do laundry in order to use less water. I hate waste.

The human reality of the situation confronting us in this portion of the gospel of John isn’t far fetched. Judas isn’t “technically” wrong. The Jews of this time had an extensive tithe system and collection in place for the poor.[1] (In fact Jesus’s rebuttal to Judas, in v. 8, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” echoes Deut. 15:1-11 which is the basis for this collection system for the poor.) All four gospel accounts of this story (Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9, Lk 7:36-50, and our passage from John), describe the scene after the woman breaks the bottle of costly oil and pours it on Jesus: the surrounding crowd around the table is upset with her.

So, when it is recorded that Judas pipes up about the loss of the perfume (prior to John’s insertion about why), he’s not technically wrong or very much out of place for voicing his disdain for the action. And, I have to confess, I would’ve seen eye to eye with Judas. I’d like to think that I’d be all about Mary’s action, but the reality is that I wouldn’t be. Prior to Jesus’s explanation of why this action by Mary was a good deed, I’m team Judas. Why are you wasting this precious and very, very, very, costly fragrant oil, Mary?!

And it was very costly. Judas rightly quotes the value of the oil now rendered useless all over Jesus’s feet: 300 denarii. At that time, it’s a year’s salary. Roughly equivalent to: $18-$20,000. Mary’s gesture–from the human perspective prior to divine revelation—is superfluous, extravagant, wasteful, and unnecessary.[2] Mary, this perfume could’ve been put to better use…

”Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’” (John 12:7-8).

And I must let my words fall heavy to the ground right at that moment, just like Judas’s did in our story. I must let the rebuke of Christ as recorded by John silence me so I can hear those falling words break on the ground like the alabaster jar did moments before in the hands of Mary. I must allow the illuminating word of the Word Incarnate to expose me for who I am: a betrayer. I must experience the extravagant aroma of Mary’s costly perfume eclipse the decaying stench of my misplaced concern.

Mary is the designated prophet (designated by Jesus) to anoint Jesus for his Kingly ministry that is going to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world (John 3:16). (Just like Samuel anoints David to be the anointed king in 1 Samuel 16, so Mary anoints Jesus The Anointed One.)[3] And, Mary is the true disciple and Judas is the anti-disciple. And like Judas, I am the anti-disciple.

Mary is the true disciple because she loves Jesus to such an extent that the most lavish and extravagant act is not wasted because it honors Christ[4] and is an act of true devotion to Christ.[5] This is the level of selfless and lavish and extravagant love of Christ that escapes Judas at this moment.[6] Even with Christ’s explanation and defense of Mary’s actions, Judas will still carry on with what it is he’s going to do. Jesus isn’t enough and isn’t primary for Judas. In fact Judas is more than willing to “surrender [Jesus] for something else which appeared better to him.”[7] Where Mary pours out a year’s worth of salary to honor Jesus, Judas takes in 30 pieces of silver to betray him.

But even here, there’s hope. Even in Judas’s wrongly ordered priority there is hope. And if there is hope for Judas (The Betrayer), for the disciples (who never seem to get it) and then there’s hope for me, for us. Judas’s sin at this moment is not his solely and alone, but indicative of all the disciples. It is this systemic sinful misalignment in the mind, heart, and soul that needs a very special, extravagant, lavish, prodigal act of love. It is this sinfulness, it is this uncleanliness[8] that is the reason why Jesus is being anointed as The Anointed One who will go to Jerusalem for them to die for them. So that by his death sins will be forgiven and by his resurrection justification will be granted by faith alone (Rom 4:25). And this lavish and extravagant love poured out through the event of the cross and with it the resurrection of Christ, is not just for Mary the good disciple, but for Judas—the very bad one, this love is poured out for the disciples who fled and denied and doubted Jesus, and for us.

Here this very, very, very, costly fragrant good news:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world [with lavish and extravagant love] to save sinners. (1 Tim 1:15)

…if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and he is the [lavish and extravagant] atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1)

For God so [lavishly and extravagantly] loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

We [extravagantly and lavishly love] because he first [extravagantly and lavishly] loved us. (1 John 4:19)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] RT France commenting on the similar passage in Mark 14, (554) “οταν θελητε might suggest that giving to the poor was merely an optional extra. But in first-century Judaism it was more than that. The concern for the poor expressed in Dt. 15:1-11 (which includes the recognition, echoed here by Jesus, that ‘the poor will never cease out of the land’) had become the basis of an extensive and carefully regulated system of donation to poor relief, which included the mandatory ‘tithe for the poor’ as well as numerous opportunities for personal charity. The point is not that you may neglect the needs of the poor, but that they can catered for at any time: the opportunity will not go away.”

[2] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.xvii.26, “The anointing did not please the disciples, because they thought it a needless and useless expense and bordering on excess; consequently, they would have preferred to have the money, which they thought ill spent, bestowed upon the poor.” (1393).

[3] Karl Barth CD IV.2.796-7. “It is to be noted that what finally made the incident significant for all four Evangelists is that it gave drastic and unexpected concretion to the anointing of the One who in the New Testament is call ‘the Anointed.’ This woman accomplishes it…in direct preparation for the confrontation of the royal man complete in His death.”

[4] Karl Barth CD II.2.462, “It is an utterly prodigal, a wholly generous and selfless, and at the same time an absolutely humble action, and Jesus later says (v.8) that it honours His dead body in anticipation, and will therefore glorify His death.”

[5] Karl Barth CD IV.2.797. “What emerges clearly in all four accounts is that Jesus not only defend unconditionally the act of the woman but in all solemnity acknowledges that it is a good act which belongs necessarily to he history of salvation, even though it seems to be wholly superfluous, an act of sheer extravagance, which can serve ‘only’ the purpose of representing direct and perfect self-giving to him.”

[6] Karl Barth CD II.2.462 “But it is precisely this, this prodigality, which Judas—as seen by his protest (v.4)—cannot and will not understand or accept…He is not wiling that the complete devotion, which by her deed Mary had in a sense given the apostles as a pattern for their own life, should be an absolute offering to Jesus…It is to be for the benefit of the poor, of those who are injured or needy to help improve their lot and that of others, and in that way it will be a meaningful devotion. This view, this attitude of Judas, is what makes him unclean.”

[7] Karl Barth CD II.2.463.

[8] Karl Barth CD II.2.465. “And He still says the same [Zech 11:9] as He takes it upon Himself to be led to the slaughter on their behalf, because of their guilt and according to their will. They have the reward which they wanted and earned. And it is with this reward that their punishment secretly beings. The sin of Judas is that, with all Israel, he wants this reward with which the punishment already begins; that for him Jesus can be bartered for this evil reward. This sin makes it clear that as far as he was concerned Jesus was present with the disciples in vain. He protected and watched over them in vain. In it there is exposed an uncleanness which was the uncleanness of all the apostle and need a special cleansing.”