Sweet Divine Liberty

Psalm 19:13-14 …keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Introduction

I spend a lot of time thinking about freedom. Specifically “freedom” as the product of the encounter with God in the event of faith. What does it mean that “in Christ” we are now “free”? Free into what? Free from what?

This freedom as a result of the encounter with God in the event of faith is what Jesus is talking about today in our gospel passage: liberation from captivity, freedom from enslavement, release from bondage.

There’s an aspect of liberation embedded deep within Jesus’s words that any form of enslavement is anti-God. Whether we look at it from the perspective of spiritual, emotional, physical, mental (etc.) enslavement, humans are not created by God to be enslaved to anything or anyone. If we were, then Jesus is a lunatic, and we shouldn’t trust him. But yet we do; it’s why we’re here every Sunday as a result of the faith we have in Christ uniting us into God by the power of the Holy Spirit. We do not come here every Sunday to be enslaved or re-enslaved or enslaved further into our burdens. (This is why church, to continue in being church and good news in the world, must resist the trappings of religious totalitarianism; no one need come here and feel afraid and condemned, for that is not good news, that is not liberation, that is not freedom, that is not Christ.) In coming here and hearing the proclamation of the gospel of the good news of God for the beloved, for you, for the people and the world, we are liberated, we are freed, we are released…

But again, I’m still left curious. Into what am I liberated and freed? And what put me there in the first place?

Luke 4:14-21

And he went into Nazareth—where he had been brought up—and he entered the synagogue—according to his custom on the day of the Sabbath. He stood up to read and the book of the prophet Isaiah was given to him and after unrolling the book he found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for the sake that he has anointed me
to announce good news to the poor,
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who have been broken down/enfeebled,[1]
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And then he rolled up the book and gave it back to the servant, and he sat down. And the eyes of all of the people in the synagogue were fixedly gazing at him.[2]

Luke 4:16-20a

Jesus goes home. Upon going home, he enters the synagogue as was his custom to do on the Sabbath. There’s no way to charge Jesus with not being a faithful and good follower of God. But it’s not just Jesus’s piety that is highlighted by Luke here in the phrase “as was his custom” but also that it was normal for Jesus to stand up, read from the scrolls, and to expound the scriptures.[3] So, that Jesus stood up and took the scroll from the servant of the temple and read it, isn’t the thing. It’s the passage that Jesus read that is the thing.[4]

Through the prophet Isaiah, Jesus makes known for whom his ministry is for: the poor.[5] There’s no reason to qualify this “poor” with an adjective to render it one way or another. We don’t need to feel better about this text by applying adjectives; we can let the word hang where it is as it is. We want to let the word lie because if we did apply adjectives here we would miss out on the breadth of this word in its original context. To be “poor” in Jesus’s context and culture had many and varied connotations; the poor are anyone who has “diminished status honor” for whatever combination of reasons.[6] Thus, using the prophet Isaiah, Jesus describes his mission: to proclaim good news to the poor; and highlights that he is the recipient of the anointing and the Spirit of God to proclaim good news, to set free, to release all these varying examples of the “poor”.[7] The poor will be released by God from their various forms of isolation and captivity; thus they will be partakers of what has been withheld from them: life, freedom, and the fullness of divine presence and love.

In delineating a specific direct object of his proclamation and ministry, Jesus created a dividing line between him and the social, political, religious, and economic boundaries erected—by people—to keep some in and others out.[8] According to Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, no one…NO ONE is beyond the long arm of God and the expansive substance of divine Love enveloping the entire cosmos. No one is too far gone, no one is too lost, no one is too fractured, no one is too stuck, no one is too trapped, no one. Not me. Not you. Not anyone existing beyond these four walls. And if this is the implied statement falling from Jesus’s proclamation, then any boundary is anathema to God and God’s love; both the boundary and the boundary builders collide with all-encompassing and inclusive divine Love. Thus, it is through Jesus that these boundaries will not only be challenged but also destroyed. The reign of God has come, let the kingdom of humanity tremble; life and light has come into the world, let death and darkness cower.[9]

Conclusion

So, back to the questions from the introduction: Into what am I liberated? And what put me there in the first place?

First, “Into what”: Better to ask, “Into whom…?” In the encounter with God in the event of faith I am liberated and freed and released into God.

Now he began to say to them, “the writing has been fulfilled/completed in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

That Jesus the Christ, God of very God, is the one who is the fulfillment of this divine promise spoken by the prophet Isaiah, and if we are brought into this fulfillment of the promise by faith (as in: we do not fulfill this promise ourselves) then we are brought into Christ. This is what it means to be liberated by Christ: not liberated into myself for myself, but unto God thus for those with whom God stands in solidarity with: the poor (as big and expansive as that word can be). As the proclamation of the good news of Christ goes out, liberty and freedom and release of the captives, the oppressed, and the blind bursts forth. As the cages burst open, as chains drop, as jail cells slide open, the liberation of the oppressed and poor is a liberation into God and for others. The imprisoned, the chained, the shackled, the caged, the enslaved step out and into God. While I might be freed, and you too, it cannot mean that it is done in an isolated and autonomous way as if it is just for me and me alone. Rather, we are liberated into God and into community of those brothers and sisters who have been so liberated, too. We then bear a divine burden as those liberated by Christ and into Christ…to bring this same liberation to those who are burdened with various forms of poorness and thus captivity. In other words, we undo what we’ve done and have been complicit in doing…

Thus, second, “what put me there…”: Better to ask “Who put me there…?” There’s a tendency to blame everything on the abstract concept of “Sin” and then to point further away to the myth of Genesis 3, which then makes us point more fingers at each other and at snakes and serpents…But none of that is helpful. I prefer to say that we put ourselves in those prisons, cells, cages, and chains by putting others there. I know enough philosophy, enough ethics, enough history to know that God didn’t enslave us in the fall, we enslaved ourselves. Our inability to see and hear God and our neighbor as they are is our fundamental problem. Stated in the positive: we have a catastrophic hearing and seeing problem. We love hearing what we want to hear, we love seeing what we want to see. So, we create systems and schemes that reflect what we see and hear to benefit ourselves. In various ways, we erect barbed and electrified fences keeping out those deemed different, “other”, not “us”, “them” and then these people lose their humanity. The sad fact is that as we build these walls, these fences, these rules of membership of the ingroup, we, too, lose our humanity. Everyone loses in this system of walls and fences and cages and chains.

Beloved of God, we are guilty of being complicit in dehumanizing systems and schemes even if we, too, were held captive by them. But, by the grace of God, we are sought and liberated so that we can hear and see rightly both God and our neighbor; and in hearing and seeing rightly, we can act and speak with divine inspiration and participate in the great divine mission of love in the world to stand in solidarity with the poor and to liberate the captives.

Beloveds, we were blind and now we see; we were captive and now we are free; let us live and love and bring to all who cry out that sweet divine liberty, long granted to the world through God on a tree and resurrected for thee.


[1] I’m using the translation of θράυω from the Greek dictionary: “to break down, enfeeble”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] [3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 209, “Luke’s presentation indicates not only that Jesus regularly demonstrated his piety by attendance of the synagogue on the Sabbath, but also that it was his habit to take the role of the one who read and expounded the Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:2). This phrase, ‘as was his custom,’ underscores the paradigmatic quality of this episode, both with regard to his Sabbath practices, and with regard to the content of his proclamation.”

[4] Green Luke 209 “The primary point of focus, then, is the citation from Isaiah, which is itself a mix-text.”

[5] Green Luke 204. “These scenes are also taken up with the consequences of Jesus’ status, the ministry activity that grows out of his obedience to and empowerment from God. Taken together, they highlight four features of Jesus’ ministry. First, his is a ministry empowered by the Spirit. Second, Luke’s central interest in Jesus’ message, and the inseparability of teaching/preaching (4:15, 16-21, 43-44) and the miraculous (4:16-21, 33-36, 38-41), is foregrounded here. Indeed, 4: 18-19 establishes a narrative need for Jesus ‘to bring good news to the poor,’ and so these verses characterize the form and primary recipients of Jesus’ ministry”

[6] Green Luke 211. “In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as ‘poor,’ but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and ‘poor’ would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although ‘poor’ is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount.”

[7] Green Luke 210. “Consequently, three structural features are emphasized. First, the first three lines each end with ‘me,’ repeating the pronoun in the emphatic position. This underscores in the clearest possible way the inexorable relation of the Spirit’s anointing and the statement of primary mission, ‘to proclaim good news to the poor.’ Second, and as a consequence, the three subsequent infinitive phrases appear in parallel and in a position subordinate to Jesus statement of primary mission. Third, as we have observed, the notion of ‘release’ is twice repeated.”

[8] Green Luke 211. “By directing his good news to these people, Jesus indicates his refusal to recognize those socially determined boundaries, asserting instead that even these “outsiders” are the objects of divine grace. Others may regard such people as beyond the pale of salvation, but God has opened a way for them to belong to God’s family.”

[9] Green Luke 214

With Christ, With Others

Sermon on John 2:1-11

Psalm 36:5-7 5 Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep; you save both human and beast, O Lord. How priceless is your love, O God! your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

Introduction

One of the things that has been most on my mind as I’ve walked into 2022 has been the idea and concept of “presence.” I know this is not a new concept; the self-care industry has been talking about this forever. It’s a concept I’ve talked about as a mom, partner, teacher, and priest. So why talk about it again?

Because this year it feels different to me.

Historically, presence was a stillness of the whole person. Body and mind take a rest in a particular moment. A seat. A kneel. A pause. A static moment. And these are all great aspects of the concept of presence and ways I’ve definitely employed the idea in my work/life balance. But what occurred to me recently was the idea of presence in motion and movement. I’ve been thinking about how this idea of presence in motion envelopes my relationship to others and to time. I can define this relationship by asking this question: Can I just be here right now with this person?

I think about this question a lot as I walk with Liza two miles to school and then again on our way home in the afternoon. There are times the two miles feels massive…about 40 minutes of time. In a society that demands me to validate each and every minute and submit my time sheet of productivity, it is hard to realize 80 minutes of the day are me, just walking with my daughter. But here I am, walking 80 minutes with my daughter at least 4 days a week. There are mornings where I’m consumed about the time it’ll take me to walk back before I can get to work on various projects—the stress about what needs to be done builds. There have been mornings with the temperature low that the many, many steps—comprising “there and back again” a Larkin tale—feel daunting, and I long for yesteryear when school was just down stairs.

And lately the question—Can I just be here right now with this person?—has grown louder and louder. Can I walk in this moment with Liza without thinking of what is ahead of me and what is behind? Can I just walk, one foot in front of the other, one minute at a time, not rushing and not dragging and not internally complaining? Can I just be here right now in this moment and activity with this person? Can I forget about the time and the distance and just be here, walking with this beloved?

John 2:1-11

Now there were placed there six water pots made of stone each holding a two or three anaphoras [8.75 liters]—in accordance with the purification of the Jews. Jesus said to [the servants], “Fill the water pots.” And they filled them to the brim. And Jesus said to them, “Now draw out and bring forth to the master of the feast.” And they brought [it] forth. Now as the master of the feast tasted the water having become wine …[1]

John 2:6-9a

Jesus is physically and emotionally present at this wedding in Cana. He’s not aloof and above such a scene. One might assume that wine running out at a celebration would be exactly what the Son of God would and should prefer. Aren’t we too holy for such potentially ruckus camaraderie? Apparently: No, we’re not. Instead of informing the servants that water will be just fine because *casually gestures around the room* Jesus adds to the distribution of wine (a lot! 3 anaphoras was about 30 liters, and there were six of these vessels!). Jesus allows the party to go on. In this I hear a question…Why?

An ordinary wedding in Cana is certainly not the place for one’s first miracle. It’s by all definitions very, very ordinary. Yes, weddings can be fun and great, but if you think about it they’re rather common place. (We all breathe a sigh of relief when we finally leave “wedding season” of adult hood.) John the Elder records this story because it’s Jesus’s first publicly performed miracle. But it’s not that extra-ordinary. The miracle here is merely the transition—the transubstantiation—of water into wine. Water, by the word of Christ, becomes wine. That is what happens here. Nothing more; nothing less. For the man Jesus who is the Christ, who is God, this is nothing. Yet it’s here in this very basic act of turning water into wine where Jesus reveals the glory of God.[2] And this is the point.

What is the glory of God being revealed? It is not merely in the water turned wine, but the essence of the why: God’s love for God’s people manifested here at this wedding, in this revelry, in this way, by the presence of Jesus. What John the Elder highlights for his reader (both then and now) is that the gift being given isn’t the wine, but the very real and whole presence of Jesus himself, God of very God, the bread and wine of life.[3] Jesus isn’t just present in a spiritual way in this story. Rather, Jesus is actively present in the lives of all the people invited into this celebration of union and life. A reflection of what comes in the great celebration of the union of God and God’s people. The very celebration started the moment Mary pushed and the angels heralded the shepherds.

Conclusion

A story about a miracle at a celebration revealing the glory of God, which is God’s love for God’s people, has really big ramifications for our lives. This isn’t merely a story that we look in upon, but one into which we are invited. We are called in as guests, with Jesus, to this wedding to see, hear, and experience the joy of new and best wine being revealed at the end of the celebration. We are asked to see Jesus present with these people, and imagine and be reminded that Jesus is with us, too.

You, by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, walk with God in Christ. Every moment. God is not hiding from you as if you have to hunt and seek for God. You are in Christ (a location) by faith. And the last I checked, it is really hard not to be where you are. You are always here; you are always in and with Christ.The love of God comes to you, reveals to you God’s love for you,[4] enfolds you, wraps you up in the swaddling clothes of love, and you are held in the arms of God. We are in Christ’s presence and with Christ. And Christ is in us by the power of the Spirit and with us by the same power.

In a sermon, “On Being a Good Neighbor”, Martin Luther King, Jr., said,

“The ultimate measure of a man [Sic] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”[5]

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In being located with and in Christ means that others are there, too. This location of being in Christ is one we share with others. And we are all here in this now in Christ, in this presence being given a present. In Christ we are alleviated of the drudgery of the past and the threat of the future, and we can be here now; we get a present tense not just for us but especially for our sisters and brothers in Christ, those sharing this location. We walk with them, one step at a time, one minute at a time, and we bear with them their burdens, their pains, and their sorrow for they live with us. As Christ resided with those whom he counted as his brothers and sisters according to his flesh, as Christ was present at that wedding, so are we present with others, elevating them, to quote Dr. King, “to a higher and more noble life.” In other words, if “‘Christ is the [person] for others’”, then “the [person] for others is the [person] after God’s heart.”[6]

We, the beloved, are gifted with the revelation that by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit we walk with God in Christ… with God not behind and afraid, but with God. God is with us, all of us, and thus we are called to the other of the beloved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray and RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 1971. 119. “For the Evangelist the meaning of the story is not contained simply in the miraculous event; this, or rather the narrative, is the symbol of something which occurs throughout the whole of Jesus’ ministry, that is, the revelation of the δόξα of Jesus. As understood by the Evangelist this is not the power of the miracle worker, but the divinity of Jesus as the Revealer, and it becomes visible for faith in the reception of χάρις and ἀλήθεια; his revelation of his δόξα is nothing more nor less than his revelation of the ονομα of the Father (17.6).”

[3] Bultmann John 120. “…the Evangelist’s figurative language refers not to any particular gift brought by the Saviour Jesus, but to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as is true of the images of the living water, the bread of life and the light, as well as of the shepherd and the vine; equally the wine refers not to any special gift, but to Jesus’ gift as a whole, to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as he is finally visible after the completion of his work.”

[4] Bultmann John 121. “The story then will teach us that the help for all man’s perplexity is to be found in the miracle of the revelation; but the event of the revelation is independent of human desires and cannot be forcibly brought about by man’s supplication; it comes to pass where and how God wills, and then it surpasses all human expectation.”

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “On Being a Good Neighbor” Strength to Love Minnesapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 26-27

[6] Dorothee Sölle Theology for Skeptics : Reflections on God Trans Joyce L. Irwin. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995. 96. “[Jesus] let this light shine through himself,  he did not hide it in the depths of his soul, he gave it out. He was the man [Sic] for others because he was the man of God and knew himself to be so borne up by God that he did not fall out of God, not even when he felt himself abandoned by God. The old formula ‘true man’ is rendered by Bonhoeffer as ‘man,’ where being ‘true God’ is called by Bonhoeffer simply being there ‘for others,’ because God is for others the God of love. Thus the sentence, ‘Christ is the man for others,’ is the old Christological formula ‘true God and true man’ in contemporary speech which refers to God without using religious formulas. The man for others it’s the man after God’s heart.”

On the Way

Sermon on Mark 10:46-52

Psalm 34:1-3 I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth. I will glory in the Lord; let the humble hear and rejoice. Proclaim with me the greatness of the Lord; let us exalt his Name together. (44)

Introduction

Our gospel reading today reminded me that our encounters with God change us. I know that for me, this is the case. While the encounters vary from one to another and are difficult to pin down as this thing or act, an encounter with God in the event of faith brings me from a moment ago when I was this version of myself to now where I am this new version because of the encounter with God in the event of faith.

The most profound experience was when I became “Christian”. I was at the end of my rope, falling apart in so many ways, lost, chaotic, upside-down in all the ways one could imagine. I was devouring myself from the inside while I was letting the world have at me from the outside. And then…Jesus. I met Jesus in the isolation of my apartment in Hoboken, NJ, and left everything on the ground and took hold of his outstretched hand. And then I followed. I couldn’t not follow. My life was changed; I could see, I could hear, I could think, I could speak, I could feel in new ways; words and thoughts and deeds became fruitful seeds dropping into soil rather than weeds needing to be pulled out.

Other experiences of God-encounters in faith have come and gone. Many significantly smaller and simpler than the very first logged in the books by my own hand. Maybe it’s in the first sip of coffee, or the succumbing to exhaustion at the end of the day; in laughing with old friends and crying with a new one; in making bread in my kitchen and breaking bread at this table here in this church; in placing food into hands covered in dirt because that mud was too enticing and placing spiritual nourishment into hands that have seen so much; from moments outside these walls and moments inside these walls, the encounters with God in the event of faith are prosperous in possibility. There is no formula for them; they just happen, and they always catch me by surprise and change me as I find myself, once again, transitioned from was to is while taking hold of that outstretched hand of Christ and following.

Mark 10:46-52

Now, he, throwing off his cloak, rushed in and came toward Jesus. And then Jesus answered him and said, “What do you wish I would do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Teacher, that I might recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Depart, your faith has healed you.” And immediately he recovered sight and was following [Jesus] on the way.” (Mk. 10:50-52)[1]

Jan mentioned last week that all these stories and the discussion of what it means to be a disciple are leading up to Jesus arriving up to Jerusalem. She’s right. Mark doesn’t always mention the specific location when he tells a story. Sometimes it feels as if Jesus is teleported from here to there. However, this time, we get a clear and intentional geographical location: Jericho. This is the last stop before Jesus arrives at the outer limits of Jerusalem, just a day’s travel from Jericho.[2]

Mark tells us Jesus came to Jericho and as he is leaving, he encounters one who, having no sight and no belongings, recognizes who he is: Jesus, the son of David; this is no small claim. For all intents and purposes, this “son of David” was equivalent to “Christ” (Χριστός) but with more national and royal identity; according to this blind beggar, this is Jesus, the Messiah.[3] And here we begin to encounter a new facet to the discussion carried through the text. Not only do those who follow Jesus need to re-examine what it means to be a disciple of Christ, but they will also have to contend with their commonsense expectation of who Messiah is and what Messiah will do as Jesus’s ministry becomes more public.

Mark continues to tell us that this blind beggar, Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus—after being chided and rebuked by the crowd to be quiet—shouted all the more and all the louder, Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me! Once again, Jesus doesn’t tolerate chiding and rebuking and sides with the one calling on him.[4] Jesus doesn’t only acknowledge him, but he halts (himself and most likely the crowd) and tells the crowd to call the beggar to him. Immediately the chiding and rebuking crowd become eager and encouraging as they tell Bartimaeus to go to Jesus.[5]

Bartimaeus, the blind beggar publicly declaring Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel, throws off his cloak and rushes to Jesus. Jesus asks him, what do you wish I would do for you? Bartimaeus is clear in response: I wish to completely recover my sight. Done. Go, Jesus says. Your faith has healed you. Bartimaeus immediately regains his vision; he can do nothing else but follow Jesus, the one who gave him his sight, the one who gave him his life, the one who took his nothing and gave him something.[6] Bartimaeus ignores the command to go (ὕπαγε[7]) and chooses instead to follow Jesus as a disciple on the way (to Jerusalem).[8]

Conclusion

The interesting thing about Bartimaeus is how Mark juxtaposes him to the Rich young man (Mk 10:17ff). Prior to Jericho, the rich young man was the last and more likely recruit. Yet, he couldn’t do that final thing: abandon his privilege and follow after Jesus. Here, Mark highlights a blind beggar who, like the rich young man, recognizes Jesus, and who, unlike the rich young man, chooses to follow Jesus at the very last minute.[9] Both men encountered God, but only one was transformed by that encounter and thus experienced God in his self. One had everything and needed nothing; the other had nothing and needed everything. It is the poor, blind beggar—with nothing in this earthly life to lose who encounters God and is transformed in the encounter—who does the only thing that now makes sense because of that encounter: follow. The rich young man had too much to lose to let that make sense at that time. And Bartimaeus isn’t following Jesus as Jesus is growing in popularity but follows Jesus as Jesus is about to enter the most public and more devastating part of his ministry: his betrayal, his suffering, and his death.[10]

According to Mark, the way of the disciple is thus: follow Jesus deep down into the human experience, to be identified with the pain of others, to stand in solidarity in the fight for life and liberty of the captives, it is to weep with others who weep, too. And in it all, it is here where you find yourself, in the nitty gritty of human life, growing more in love with God and more in love with your neighbor.

As I think upon my own encounters with God, the most intriguing things is that after my first profound experience of encounter with God in the event of faith, I believed that this encounter would lead me up and out of the world, more into the heavenly, celestial, saintly realms of spirituality and purity. However, the reality is that I am, as I follow Jesus, lead deeper down and into the world, into the depths of human suffering and sorrow, into the nitty gritty of life in ways that I didn’t care for and didn’t desire. As a follower of Christ, I have felt more pain and more sorrow and more sadness than I have ever felt before when my life seemed decorated with such things. As a follower of Christ, I have felt the weight of my love for God and for others increase, driving me to reach each and every little one with the love of God, to tell them how loved they are by this God of love. In this deeper in and deeper down into the human experience, I find I’m given the gift of knowing who I am, specifically who I am in Christ. The more I walk with Christ, the more I encounter God and my neighbor—in both small and big encounters, both good and bad encounters. The more I encounter God and my neighbor the more I know who I am; and the more I know who I am the more I know who I am for you and in God. And the cycle repeats.

We, as disciples (united and individual), are called to go deeper in and deeper down, to see our call and our purpose in going out into the manifold masses, proclaiming—in word and deed—God’s profound and real love for them as the beloved when things are good and when things are bad, when things are big and when things are small. Those of us who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan have been and are encountered by God in the event of faith, we have been and are loved as we are, where we are, in every mundane day. I pray we bring this very love and encounter to others who may not have the ability to meet us here; may we meet them out there, on the way.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 421-22. “The preparation of the disciples for Jerusalem has already reached its climax in v. 45, but this final incident on the way moves the plot on from the vague geographical information of 10:1 to a specific location, Jericho, the last town before the traveller reaches the environs of Jerusalem, a mere day’s walk away. So we see Jesus and his disciples, with a growing crowd of fellow pilgrims, leaving this last town for the strenuous climb up from the Jordan valley to the city more than 1,000 metres above. But as they set out, the company is augmented by a further and unexpected recruit.”

[3] France Mark 423. “For Jewish people it would be functionally equivalent to Χριστός but the voicing of David’s name increases the loading of royal and nationalistic ideology which it carries. Peter’s recognition of Jesus as ὀ Χριστός in 8:29 would have given a sufficient basis for the disciples to use such language, if Jesus had it (8:30). But they have observed the ban, and so its first use now by an outsider is remarkable. No other onlooker has interpreted Jesus in messianic (as opposed to merely prophetic) terms in this gospel. Whether we should think of Bartimaeus as having unusual spiritual insight or as simply aiming to gain attention by the most flattering address he can think of, his words open up a new phase in the gradual disclosure of Jesus in Mark. For it is now time, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, for the messianic aspect of his ministry to become more public…”

[4] France Mark 424. “Like the disciples in 10:13, they (πολλοί, not just the disciples this time) rebuke someone of no status who wants to gain access to Jesus — and like the disciples they are overruled….but whereas in those instances it was Jesus who thus prevented disclosure of his identity, here it is the crowd who try to silence the ‘messianic confessor’, and Jesus who takes his part against them.”

[5] France Mark 424. “Given Jesus’ urgency in 10:32, his stopping (and presumably bringing the whole crowd to a halt) for a beggar is remarkable. The crowd’s sudden and complete change of heart indicates the authority of Jesus: they are now as enthusiastic as before they were dismissive, and become the medium for Jesus’ call to Bartimaeus.”

[6] France Mark 424-25. “The ‘privileged’ status which Mark has given to Bartimaeus allows him not only to call on Jesus as υἰὲ Δαυίδ but now also allows him to address him already as we might expect a disciple to do.…The request is expressed simply and boldly; the aorist subjunctive ἀναβλέψω looks for an instantaneous and complete recovery of sight (as in fact happens in v. 52), rather than the more protracted process we have seen in 8:23-25. Jesus’ reply uses terms already familiar from other healing stories….”

[7] ὕπαγε is the present active imperative 2 person singular of ὕπαγω. Thus, Jesus commanded him to depart (as he’s done with other recipients of divine healing), but Bartimaeus doesn’t. But that’s fine. France explains, In 5:19 ὕπαγε marked a refusal to allow the healed person to become a disciple, but in other cases it is simply a recognition that the person is now cured and may go, so that there is no need to see a conflict here between ὕπαγε and Bartimaeus’s deciding to follow Jesus.”

[8] France Mark 425. “The two terms ἀκολουθέω and ἡ ὁδός both speak of discipleship, and the prominence of the latter phrase in Act Two ensures its occurrence at the end of that Act reminds us of this central theme. Bartimaeus, now set free from his blindness, represents all those who have found enlightenment and follow the Master. So as the pilgrim group sets off again up the Jerusalem road, with one additional member, the reader is prepared to witness the coming of the Son of David to ‘his’ city, and challenged to join him on the road.”

[9] France Mark 422. “The last potential recruit we met was an admirable, respectable, and wealthy man (10:17-22), but to the disciples’ consternation he has not been welcomed into Jesus’ entourage. Now we meet a man at quite the other end of the scale of social acceptability, a blind beggar. And it is he, rather than the rich man, who will end up following Jesus έν τῇ ὁδῷ, with his sight restored, nothing to sell, and so his commitment can be immediate and complete. While we hear nothing of his subsequent discipleship, the fact that Mark records his name and his father’s name suggests that he became a familiar character in the disciple group.”

[10] France Mark 422. “…so now his extended teaching on the reversal of values in the kingdom of God is summed up in the recruitment of the least likely disciple, the ‘little one’ who is welcomed, the last who becomes first. As Bartimaeus joins Jesus έν τῇ ὁδῷ he functions as an example of discipleship, with whom ‘Mark encourages the reader to identify’.”

Be Encouraged, Beloved

Sermon on 1 John 5:9-13

Psalm 1:1-3 Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.

Introduction

A couple of weekends ago, Daniel and I went to a store looking for a lamp for a bedside table. The table isn’t big, so the lamp needed to be a specific size. Sadly, when we got to the store (a secondhand store) the options for table lamps were sparse. About to lose hope, something changed. Suddenly, I said, “What if we look for a floor lamp instead?” Remembering that I had a lamp on my desk I was eager to get rid of and that was the perfect size, I switched my perspective and there were (now) many options available. We found a floor lamp that works marvelously, and the table lamp has a new home.

So, when I looked at the texts for this Sunday, I cringed and sighed. The passage from Acts made me furrow my brow and shrug. Scanning the Psalm, meh. The 1 John 5 passage made me cringe and shudder, gosh I dislike the assumption that Christians are better than others. The gospel was … to say the least… a lot and too much. So, there I was…speechless…: I wonder if I anyone would notice if there wasn’t a sermon?

But then: floor lamps. Oh damn. I went back to the text that gave me the strongest visceral reaction and looked at it again, but this time from a different perspective—bottom up rather than top down. 1 John 5:13 was like a neon sign at night with no other light around: I wrote these things for you all—those who believe in the name of the son of God—so that you may know that you have eternal life.[1] Boom. This isn’t a text about judging non-Christians or people of other traditions as inferior, hell-bound, bad, and life-less. Rather, it’s a means to tell a small group of Christians under attack to hold-on: hold the faith, little flock, God’s with you. And here, the author, like many others before, whispers courage and compassion to those struggling to make sense of things, who are fighting against doubt, who want to call it quits and walk away, wasn’t our life before easier? And rather than offer some trite colloquialism, what does our author do? Points up: this is of God and not of your doing; keep following The Way of Christ. You are not alone, the Spirit of God is with you in your fear, in your doubt, in your anxiety.[2]

1 John 5:9-12

If we are receiving the witness of humanity, the witness of God is greater; because this is the witness of God that God has witnessed concerning [God’s] son. The one who believes in the son of God has the witness in themselves; the one who does not believe has made God a liar because [they] have not believed in the witness which God has witnessed concerning [God’s] son. And this is the testimony: God gave to us eternal life, and this life is in the son of [God]. The one who has the son has life; the one who does not have the son of God does not have life. (1 Jn 5:9-12)

1 John 5:9-12

The author here is exceptionally (and painfully?) logical and mathematical. If we receive human testimony, why wouldn’t we accept the testimony of God who is greater? If we trust what our neighbor says who is capable of being inconsistent in retelling and lacking love, can’t we also trust God who is the substance of consistency and love?[3] And to what has God witnessed? God’s son: Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ died and raised.[4] This is the thrust of all four gospel narratives, the core of Paul’s theology that he was willing to die for, and through which the rest of the second testament weaves and wends. For John, this is not the stuff of humans but of God[5]—we couldn’t make this up and, if you really think about it, I doubt we’d want to.

The author continues, the one who believes has the witness from God of Jesus the Christ in themselves and the one who does not believe calls God a liar. Again, this is logical and mathematical: to believe in a witness is to affirm that the one who shares it is truthful; not to believe the witness is to say that that one who shares it is lying. If I say I have seen unicorns, many of you may not believe it and thus would esteem the claim a lie and me with it as a liar. To believe in the testimony of God is to affirm with the Spirit that Jesus is the Christ and to call it truth; not to believe is to categorize it as a lie. I want to point out that there’s no condemnation here, just a plain statement that those who do not believe do not have the eternal life that is found in and given by faith in Christ. They live, but not in the same way as those who claim Christ crucified and raised.

I also want to point out that for those who join in the claim of the centurion at the foot of the cross watching Jesus breath his last (“Truly this was the son of God!”[6]), faith affirms in us this man Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, is God. For those of us who believe the testimony of the women fleeing the tomb, faith affirms in us who Jesus is thus who God is for us. There isn’t the claim that there can’t be other ways to live, but that this is the way for those who have been so encountered. Thus, our affirmation is neither mere intellectual choice nor confession made by threat of death and hell; it’s the assertion of faith which is of God and in God.[7] We believe not because it’s been proven to us or is material fact, but because we’ve been encountered by this God in the event of faith and that encounter affirms the testimony of this God about this Jesus by the power of this Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

In this affirmation of the testimony of God is life. For John, it’s eternal life and it’s for those who believe in the name of the Son of God. Those who do not believe do not have life. This is tricky language and coarse to our ears in 2021. So, what is our author getting at?

First, this is not a recipe for the violence of threatening human beings in the name of evangelism. We are not to create systems by which we force people to choose life or literal death to confess Jesus is the Christ. You either do or you don’t; in the end God is love and loves all: those who do and those who do not believe. (This is the offense of the Gospel!). Jesus descended to the dead to release the captives and close those doors, not leaving them open for those who don’t believe. The most this text gives us is those who don’t believe don’t have the life that is promised in Christ to those who believe. This letter was written to Christians to encourage them; it isn’t a treatise on mission and evangelization.

Second, and importantly for us, the life we have in Christ by faith is life that is lived like Christ by faith. Faith asserts that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, thus by faith we’re linked to and grafted into the history of this Jesus the Christ—in and into his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.[8] What was and is Jesus’s, is now ours—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The church has existed, continues to exist, and will continue to exist not because of dry human rituals and violent force, but because this testimony of God keeps going forward calling people into it (culturally and contextually shifting, bending, and moving). It’s not our doing but God’s. Thus, in being grafted into the life of Jesus, we are ushered in as part of the manifold followers of the The Way of Christ.

And this is the way of life for the Christian, the one who believes the testimony of God: we live in love, in asking and granting forgiveness, in baptism, in truth, in reality, in possibility, and in solidarity with God and with our fellow human beings. In this way, we live eternally now and, one day, forever. For us Christians, the way of Christ leads through death into new life and is the way of freedom and liberation, release and the end of captivity—not only for us but for others. Having been given the way of Christ as our framework, we are made aware of what systems of death look like and what systems of life look like; we are made to be free in the world to bring life to those stuck in death not by forcing personal conversion at the tip of a sword (metal or verbal). Rather, we do so by exposing human made systems threatening death for those who don’t measure up to the dominant culture; and then we convert those systems by bringing them through death and into new life to participate in the cosmic and divine work of love and freedom.

Be encouraged, Beloved, hold steady; God is with you.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] I. Howard Marshall The Epistles of John TNICNT Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1978. 3-4, “…he here summarizes his purpose in the composition of this Epistle. He was writing to a church in which there had arisen divergent teaching regarding the nature of Christian belief…John now sums up by saying that the effect of what he has written should be to give assurance to believers that they do possess eternal life. John was therefore writing not to persuade unbelievers of the truth to the Christian faith but rather to strengthen Christian believers who might be tempted to doubt the reality of their Christian experience and to give up their faith in Jesus.”

[3] Keeping the consistency with the larger context of Chapter 5 and 4.

[4] Marshall The Epistles of John 17 “The witness of the Spirit is God’s testimony to Jesus.”

[5] Marshall Epistles of John 17, “…John is saying that we ought to accept God’s testimony precisely because it is God’s testimony and that this testimony concerns his Son, the supreme importance of the fact that Jesus is the Son of God is thus brought out. Because it is God who has borne testimony to Jesus and declared him to be his Son, it follows that acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God is of fundamental and decisive importance.”

[6] Mt 27:54; Mk 15:39; Lk 23:47

[7] Rudolf Bultmann The Johannine Epistles a Commentary on the Johannine Epistles Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1973). “This testimony can no more be exhibited as something at hand than can the testimony of the spirit. Ζωὴ αἰώνιος (‘eternal life’) belongs to the eschatological time of salvation, but is already present for faith; for God has given it to us as a gift, and according to 3:14 we know ‘that we have passed out of death into life.’ It can thus only be testimony in the sense that this knowledge is inherent in faith.” 19

[8] Bultmann The Johannine Epistles 19-20, “The basis of this knowledge is given by: καὶ αὕτη ἡ ζωὴ ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ ἐστιν (‘and this life is in his Son’). That the ‘life’ can be the ‘testimony’ lies in the fact that life is there in the Son of God for the believer, indeed in the historical Jesus, in whom the life was made manifest, according to 1:1–3. On the basis of v 6, it is specifically to this historical Jesus that the spirit bears witness: the testimony given by the spirit and the testimony of God to the life bestowed upon us as a gift are one and the same, because life is given in the Son. One would not be surprised were the text to read: ἡ ζωὴ ὁ υἱός ἐστιν (‘The life is the Son’). But, certain as it is that the revelation of the life is given in the historical Jesus, the author does not risk the direct equation of ‘life’ and ‘Son’ (as is done in Jn 11:25; 14:6), but chooses to say that ‘life’ is given ‘in the Son,’ a formulation that appears also in Jn 3:15 (similarly Jn 16:33; 20:31).”

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 the End the Beginning

Psalm 118:22-24 The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. (41)

Introduction

“On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it,” (Ps 118:24). Are there any words more fitting than those for today? Today we rejoice in the activity of God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the risen Lord Jesus Christ: the one who was crucified, died, and was buried, the one who descended to the dead, and the one who was raised from it. What appeared to be gone, was the furthest thing from. What sounded like bad news, wasn’t. What looked like sure failure became a means for something else. All because a rock was moved, and a tomb was opened. What seemed the end, was the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where everything that was, is (now) not the only thing there is. Today is the day we celebrate an action so divine in substance and impact that someone walking out of a tomb—who had been sealed in—became possible. That’s not the trajectory of activity when it comes to tombs. When you’re sealed in with a massive stone, you do not come back out. But divine action made the impossible possible; the new was ushered in.[1] On this day the possibility opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where all the doors of the building are thrown open. Today is the day we celebrate a redefinition of what it means to worship God and to be God’s people. What was restricted to wood and stone, to brick and mortar is now set loose into the world in spirit and flesh. The very thing that kept God separate from the people was destroyed. The temple veil was torn in two, and the holy transcended and coupled with the common bypassing the rulers and authorities, seeping into the fringes and margins of society.[2] On this day the temple opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where the entire sky bursts forth with love and hope and peace. Today is the day we celebrate the cessation of incessant rains[3] and the rising of the sun with healing in its wings.[4] This sun shines down, enlivens and invigorates chilled and tired bodies drained from resisting and enduring separation and silence. The sun breaks through the clouds of chaos bringing comfort and peace to those minds exhausted from trying “…to be a man with/A peace of mind/Lord, I try/I just can’t find/My peace of mind”—borrowing lyrics from a talented former student of mine.[5] On this day the sky opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where the very ground underneath violently shook. Today is the day we celebrate great divine movement of the earth opening again. This time, God and God’s self dropped into the pit of Sheol; drawing light to shine among the darkness of the dead.[6] Here God searches and finds and looks upon the face of Korah, and as God’s hand extends God declares: Beloved, not even the exile of death and the pit can separate you from me. On this day the earth opened. In the end, the beginning.

Mark 16:1-8

Then very early on the first day of the week [the women] went to the tomb after the rising of the sun. And they were continuously talking to themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” (Mk 16:2-3[7])

Mark 16:2-3, translation mine

Mark highlights the humanity of the women, thus showcases the divine action of this story.[8] The beginning of the gospel passage opens with what feels like minutia. At the completion of the Sabbath, being Saturday night,[9] the women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—purchase spices and perfumes to use on Jesus’s entombed body. Then, early the next morning, they head out.

Apart from Jesus being buried in haste the previous Friday evening, none of this is worth writing home about. Nothing—so far—is out of the ordinary. In fact, Mark robes the story in so much humanity, he writes about the women worrying as they walk to the tomb. The greatly great stone occupied their conversation as they walked. Our English translation misses the extent this stone bothered the consciences of the women. In Greek, it’s an imperfect verb indicating a continuous action. Thus, they didn’t just ask themselves once about who will roll away the stone; they literally talked about it the entire time.

And then looking up and beholding/gazing that the stone has been rolled away; for it was exceedingly great.

Mark 16:4

Then suddenly all conversation comes to a dead halt. The women lift their eyes and behold: the very thing they were worried about is removed. The stone was rolled back. What was a regular scene is now an irregular one enveloped in supernatural activity.[10] Our translation loses the emotion here. The women didn’t just look and see. As the tomb comes into view, they lift their eyes up from having been talking among themselves, and, as they draw near to the tomb, they see…it…#wut? They gazed and beheld the scene: the greatly great stone was rolled away. Their hearts raced as they gazed in disbelief while trying to make sense of an impossibility made possible. Everything changes here.[11]

As they step inside the tomb, they do not see the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth, which they expected to see. Rather they encounter one whom they did not expect: a young man clothed in bright light, an angelic being.[12] Thus, onto disbelief there is added great astonishment and fear. Their entire world does not make sense.[13] Then, adding to the topsy-turvy situation making itself known, the brightly clothed young man says, “Do not be greatly astonished! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene the one who was crucified; he was raised, he is not here. Behold the place where they placed him” (Mk 16:6). The tomb is open, there’s an angelic being casually seated inside, and Jesus’s body is not there with the declaration that he is risen.

And they went out and fled from the tomb for trembling and bewilderment was holding the women; and they said nothing to no one; for they were terrified.

Mark 16:8

For these three women, fleeing and running in fear and trembling is a very human response considering a remarkable and an unbelievable encounter with the impossible being made possible. He whom they saw crucified and dead was raised[14] and gone out.[15] When time and space shift and change, when the narrative takes a surprising turn, when the thing that is going to happen does not happen, fear and trembling is a right response. When something overhauls reality, you are put on a collision course with the possible and reality reshaping and altering; it’s terrifying. It’s why real love is scary and hard to accept and receive (as Rev. Jan brilliantly made note of on Thursday). Real, unconditional, nonperformance-based love is terrifying because it undoes everything you think you know to be real, to be true, to be actual. The narrative you’ve been given by the world and crafted in your head about you and the world is exposed as myth by real, unconditional love. Thus, good news can be as terrifying as bad news because it radically alters and transforms the reality of the one who hears such good news.[16] And so, the women run and are afraid. But, in the end, the beginning.

Conclusion

As Mark’s gospel suddenly ends on a note of fear, we are propelled back to the beginning.[17] As the women run from the tomb afraid and in silence, we follow and find ourselves located back at Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the good newsof Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[18] The end of Good Friday is now the beginning that is Easter. This is the source of our hope that springs eternal. Today we come into encounter with this God who raised Jesus of Nazareth the Christ from the dead. And today our world is turned upside down by the “mystery of divine love…acted out in human history,” to quote Rev. Emil. Today, in the end the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story— where everything that is, is not the only thing there is. Today is the day we dare to embrace this divine event and step into the possible. Today we dare to dream of what could be for us and for all those around us. Today we dare to reject what has always been and believe, anything is possible with God. Today, the possibility is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where we sit in a similar predicament as did the founders of this humble church. Today we are eager to (re)claim our building, to enter it, to be bodily present with others. Yet, we are asked to reconceive what this building means considering divine activity redefining the temple. Can we open the doors and throw open the windows extending divine love to the fringes and margins, spreading good news in word and deed? Can we remember that we were once homeless and without shelter?[19] Do we really believe that God is not restricted to a building but resides in each of us? Today the temple is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where the sky is illuminated with love and hope and peace. Today is the day we celebrate the rising of the Son with healing in its wings for bodies drained from enduring a pandemic, witnessing human life being destroyed, social upheaval, confusion, and isolation; for bodies exhausted from trying to find peace where peace doesn’t reside. Today the sun shines down, warms and energizes our chilled and tired bodies, rejuvenating hope and bringing forth the sapling of long desired peace. Today the sky is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where the very ground underneath our feet shook. Today is the day we celebrate the fracturing of old structures and the exposure of the errors and faults of our human judgment and human made systems and kingdoms as the God of life and liberty reigns victorious over death and captivity. We rejoice in the freedom and liberation that is brought in the divine love for the whole world. In the risen Christ, we hear and feel chains and shackles dropping as all the captives are released from the effects of sin and death into new life. On this day the earth opened. In the end, the beginning.


[1] Jeremiah 31:31-34; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/03/21/and-the-possibility-opens/

[2] John 2:13-22; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/03/07/and-the-temple-opens/

[3] Genesis 9:8ff; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/02/21/and-the-sky-opens/

[4] Malachi 4:2

[5] Cameron Seaton “Peace of Mind” Cry Me A Song 2020

[6] Numbers 16, Psalm 88; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/02/17/and-the-earth-opens/

[7] All GNT translations are mine in this portion of the sermon

[8] R.T. France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2002. 675, “The setting for the discovery is remarkably down to earth, with the women coming to fulfil the previously omitted duty of anointing Jesus’ body with perfumes, worrying bout how they were to get into the tomb, meeting there a young man who tells them that Jesus has risen and gives them a message for the disciples and Peter, and running way frightened from this unexpected encounter. This is not the stuff of a heroic epic, still less of a story of magic and wonder, and yet what underlies it is an event beyond human comprehension: the Jesus they had watched dying and being buried some forty hours earlier is no longer dead but rise, καθως ειπεν υμιν. It is in this incongruous combination of the everyday with the incomprehensible that many have found one of the most powerful and compelling aspects of the NT accounts not of Jesus’ resurrection…but of how the fist disciples discovered that he had risen.”

[9] France Mark 676, “As sabbath finished at sunset on the Saturday, the phrase διαγενομενου του σαββατου probably refers to the Saturday evening, the first time after Jesus’ hasty burial when it would be possible to buy perfumes.”

[10] France Mark 678, “Rather than arranging with Joseph’s servants to come back with them, they were now trusting to luck that someone would be around to help. But from the dramatic point of view their anxiety is important as the foil to their discovery that the problem was already solved…The unexplained removal of the stone thus begins to create a sense of superhuman agency in the narrative.”

[11] This is Mark’s written intent. The Greek here at the beginning of v.4, και αναβλεψασαι θεωρουσιν…, is an attendant circumstance construction of an aorist participle and a present indicative main verb. The attendant circumstance indicates that something brand new is happening, there’s new action on the table and the author wants you to take note of it.

[12] France Mark 678, “Other features of Mark’s description add to the supernatural impression: he is wearing white, and the women are terrified.”

[13] France Mark 679, “For εκθαμβεομαι…conveys a powerful mixture of shock and fear, and this is followed by τρομος και εκστασις leading to a precipitate flight from the tomb in 16:8. Such a reaction is more consonant with a meeting with an angel than with an ordinary young man, and his first words to the women convey the same impression…”

[14] France Mark 680, “τον εσταυρωμενον, however, poignantly describes what the women at present believe to be the truth about Jesus. Having themselves watched him die on the cross, they have now come to attend to that tortured body, and that is what they expected to find in the tomb. That whole tragic scenario is reversed in the simple one-word message, ηγερθη, though the clause that follow will spell out more fully what this dramatic verb implies.”

[15] France Mark 680, “The women, even if they were unaware of Jesus’ predictions, could not mistake the meaning of this verb in this context. But the νεαωισκος goes on to make it clear that he is talking not merely about survival beyond death but about a physical event: the place where Jesus’ body had been laid…is empty. The body has gone, and from the promise made in the following verse it is plain that it has gone not by passive removal but in the form of a living, travelling Jesus. However philosophy and theology may find it possible to come to terms with the event, it is clear that Mark is describing a bodily resurrection leading to continuing life and activity on earth.”

[16] France Mark 682-3, “…in Mark the sense of panic is unrelieved. The words the women have heard were entirely good news, but their immediate response is apparently not to absorb the message of the words but to escape as quickly as possible from the unexpectedly numinous situation in which they have been caught up.”

[17] France Mark 680-1, “The announcement of Jesus’ resurrection is not an end in itself, but the basis of action, which for the women is the delivery of an urgent message, and for the disciples to whom that message is sent a journey to Galilee in preparation for the promised meeting with Jesus…Life, discipleship and the cause of the Kingdom f God must go on.”

[18] France Mark 672, “…the Mark who began his story on an overt note of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God (1:1) and has reminded his readers quite blatantly from time to time of that faith, is not likely to leave any room for doubt about its reality at the end. By the time mark wrote his gospel the message of the resurrection and the soties of meeting with the risen Jesus were so widely in circulation and so central to the life of the Christ church that there was in any case nothing to be gained by concealment: what is the point of being coy about what everyone already knows.”

[19] Reference to a document about the early history of Nativity by Bruce Jones

Refiner’s Fire

Sermon on Acts 19:1-7

Psalm 29:10-11: The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore. The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

The chorus of a Vineyard hymn, “Refiner’s Fire,” goes like this:

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy/Set apart for You,
Ready to do Your will

I remember singing songs like this. I remember wanting “holiness” to be my one desire. I was so moved by this desire, I dedicated myself not only to the holiness of right thought but also to right action. This is the way active holiness was explained to me: not having anything to do with vile “secular” culture that is the playground of Satan and his demons waiting for unsuspecting Christians to wonder in and partake of his pleasing fruit and fall from grace through his seduction to damnation. I had to avoid anything deemed morally “bad”. This is what it meant to be set apart for Christ and holy: to keep myself clean from the stain sin (of “not Christian”). So, following recommendation, I tossed “secular” CDs, avoided “secular” movies, made sure my books were either the Bible or “Christian”, and ditched friends who weren’t Christian. I’d keep my mind on heavenly things and make sure my deeds aligned with them. I would go to Church every Sunday, memorize scripture, submit to men, and attend every bible study. This is how I was holy, and this was God’s will.

Sadly, that definition of holiness ran me into the ground. I had to spend my time focused on myself, on my image, on my presentation of myself so I could appear right with God. That definition of holiness was killing me, making me judgmental, condescending, angry, and starved for personal substance and presence and action. I didn’t reckon with myself, I just tucked everything I didn’t like in a box and shoved it somewhere else. It turned me so far inward that I couldn’t follow Jesus and I couldn’t see my neighbor and her needs. I was inside out, self-consumed, dysfunctional, and dead. This was holiness? This was being set apart?

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord

Acts 19:1-7

…[Paul] said to them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” But they [said] to him, “But we heard nothing if there is a Holy Spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Into what then/therefore were you baptized?”

Acts 19:2-3a; translation mine

The way the introductory Greek reads suggests Paul has intent to go to Ephesus to find those who believe in Jesus to ask some interesting questions.[1] When he finds them, Paul asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s current crucial mission.[2] Paul wants to know: has God taken up residence with you and in you? The disciples reply they’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit. Paul’s response? Another question: into what therefore were you baptized? While the question is simple the impact is profound. The disciples explain they were baptized by John. Wellokay…Paul says…but…: there is John and then there is Jesus; there is the verbal assent of repentance and then there is the bodily assent of practice; there is cleansing the outer person with water and then there is the refining fire of God’s cleansing the inner person; there is water and then there is Spirit.[3]

For Paul, John’s baptism with water is for the confession of sin and repentance. But it’s not enough. There’s more. There’s a trajectory involved in baptism that necessitates the presence of God in the life of the believer; it’s this presence, this Spirit, that unites us to God through faith in Christ. This trajectory is started by John, according to Paul, and it is finished by Christ. [4] John is the herald and Jesus the message. Not only their bodies must be baptized, washed, and dedicated to God but also their work, their discipleship must be baptized in Christ. It’s through repentance we die and are submerged in water; it is through this death we find life in the baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit.[5]

“I have baptized you with water,” says John the Baptist. “[B]ut he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mk 1:8

The one who is baptized last in the Jordan by John is now the first of New Creation, of the new order, of the new age, of the “new day.”[6] In being last in the waters of the Jordan and receiving the baptism of repentance with water by John, Jesus is the one who stands among the people and in solidarity with God. As the first of the new divine action in the world, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, Emmanuel, the promised divine child of Mary, is God incarnate in solidarity with humanity in those same waters of death and new life. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[7] and with humanity in its plight.[8] This is the one who will leave the Jordan and begin his ministry in the world focused on bringing in and including those who are shut out and excluded, mending the wounded, soothing the brokenhearted, and calling by name those whose names are forgotten.

In the event of baptism, Jesus’s history becomes our history[9]–we, with our histories (past, present, and future), are grafted into the history of Christ (past, present, and future). It’s in this event where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[10] It’s here we’re made holy, receive holy gifts, and do holy things because of the presence of God. (Where Christ is proclaimed there Christ is and holy activity is worked out in and through us.) We’re baptized by water and Spirit into Jesus’s mission and ministry. One by one, each of us is encountered in the waters of the Jordan, in repentance; one by one, each of us is encountered by God in the event of faith. Thus, in this baptism, one by one, each of us must reckon with ourselves and ask: will I follow Jesus out of the Jordan?

Conclusion

To follow Jesus means to love others and to love God, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to stand in solidarity with God. To follow Jesus in this moment means to come against empire (the deeper theme of Acts 19),[11] like Paul did, like the disciples eventually did, and just like Jesus did in his divine ministry and mission in the world. When Jesus leaves the Jordan the kingdoms of humanity come under judgment and are exposed for what they are: realms of death and darkness.

This week we witnessed a coup. A coup to uphold and maintain systems, ideologies, authorities, and persons in opposition to life. White supremacy and its dominant culture of whiteness reared its head and stormed the state house and demanded democracy be silenced so the empire of man can remain standing. It wasn’t solely about supporting Trump but ultimately what Trump represents: the old age of the evil empire of death and destruction. The message sent to black indigenous people of color, to the lgbtqia+ community, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to womankind was loud and clear: power and privilege and me and mine is worth destroying your life, liberty, and democracy. This is what narcissistic power does when it’s challenged; this is the fit privilege throws when threatened. I thought 2020 exposed just how bad things are; I stood corrected on Wednesday. We are in the process of being exposed. We have racial capitalism[12] deep in our bones and it’s dragging us, each of us, into darkness and death unto death. Be sure: this is not a “them over there” problem; it’s a problem for us. We are held captive and are complicit here. I am held captive and am complicit here.

Willie James Jennings writes,

Both the water and the touch become the stage on which the spirit will fall on our bodies, covering us with creating and creative power and joining us to the life of the Son. Through the Spirit, the word comes to skin, and becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit.[13]

The word comes to skin, becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit… This means that we, in our baptism with water and the presence of the Spirit and word come to skin, are intimately connected to the rest of humanity—in all shades of melanin. Thus, in no way can we support governments, people, actions, ideologies, institutions and systems designed to hinder and threaten lives. As sons and daughters of life and light, we are exhorted t to live in ways to make this world free and safe for our black and brown brothers and sisters in light and life. Womanist[14] theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes,

It is time for us to be embodied realities of the black prophetic tradition and with moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination begin to create the world we ‘crave for our daughters and sons’…Now is the time. It is the time to live into God’s time and to create that new heaven and new earth where the time of stand your ground culture is no more.[15]

For those of us encountered by God in the event of faith, we must harken back to our baptism of water and the refining fire of the Spirit. We must begin with ourselves. Without this deep and painful self-reflection and self-work, there can be no substantial change. We must ask those very hard questions: how do I participate in these death dealing systems? How have I squandered divine holiness for human power and privilege? Where does anti-black racism live in my body, my mind, my heart? Following Jesus out of the Jordan demands we step into the light and be exposed, and we repent of our guilt. It means we begin again washed clean through the water of repentance and resurrected into the new life of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ in union with God and God’s mission in the world on behalf of the beloved for this is holiness and for this we are set apart.


[1] Εγενετο δε εν τω τον Απολλω ειναι εν Κορινθω Παυλον διελθοντα τα ανωτερικα μερη [κατ]ελθειν εις Εφεσον και ευρειν τινες μαθητας… (Acts 19:1). I’m taking the aorist active infinitive ευρειν to have intentional direction of action thus as apposition in relation to the aorist active infinitive of [κατελθειν] which completes the thought of the aorist active participle διελθοντα: Paul passed through the higher part and came down into Ephesus. Why? Well, namely, to find some disciples. In other words and looking at the questions that follow in the dialogue between Paul and the disciples, he is intentionally looking for disciples to make sure they’ve received the Spirit.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 184, “These were not people who needed convincing. Their commitments to a new way were clear. Yet the questions are crucial.”

[3] Jennings Acts 184, “John was preparation. The way of repentance he declared in Israel was the stage for the one who lived that life of repentance for his people. John was a person, but Jesus was a person and a place of living. John was an event that flashed across the landscape of Israel. Jesus was the bringer of a new time that extends to all space.”

[4] Jennings Acts 184, “These questions expose not simply gaps in their discipleship but lack of clarity of its telos, its end, goal, and fulfillment. Clearly John the Baptist presented a renewal movement in Israel, a calling home, a clarifying work establishing the divine claim on a beloved people with a purpose. That purpose was to trumpet a new day in Israel. Paul is of that new day, and soon these disciples of John will also be of that new day.”

[5] Jennings Acts 184, “The saving work of God is always new, always starting up and again with faith…Paul invites these disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters only to find it again in the resurrected One.”

[6] Jennings Acts 184, “Baptism in Jesus’ name signifies bodies that become the new day.”

[7] Joel B. Green“The Gospel of Luke” The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”

[8] Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”

[9] Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174

[10] McMaken Sign 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”

[11] Barbara Rossing “Turning the Empire (οικουμενη) Upside Down: A Response” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Ny NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) p. 154 “‘In the οικουμενη all are Romans’: this fact—mourned by Agrippa but celebrated by Aelius Aristides—describes the first-century context both geographically and politically. It is the context we have to assume also for Acts. So, I would argue οικουμενη in Acts means ‘empire’. And this proves important for the reading of Acts 17 (both the account of the incident at Thessalonica as well the Areopagus speech) and acts 19 along with the trial scene we find there. What Paul is turning upside down is not the ‘world’ in the cosmic sense but rather the ‘empire’ or imperial world.”

[12] David Justice defines this term in his paper “Negating Capitalism: The Beloved Community as Negative Political Theology and Positive Social Imaginary” presented at AAR/SBL 2020 Annual Conference Virtual/Online forum Black Theology and Martin Luther King, Jr. 12/2020. Justice writes, “Racial capitalism, wherein racism and capitalism are mixed such that race is exploited to gain capital from racial identity…” p.1.

[13] Jennings Acts 185

[14] Womanism  is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It seeks, according to womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (Phillips), to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension” (from Wikipedia)

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. New York NY: Orbis, 2015. 227. Lorde quoted.

Some Sölle

I recently read the short book Creative Disobedience by Dorothee Sölle. She was influenced by both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Friedrich Gogarten. Her work is excellent, pastoral, tangible, accessible; dare I say she’s the best of both of these scholars. Also, considering my own work engages both Bonny and Fritz, it made sense to me to begin reading Sölle; seems she’s my older sister here in this odd theological family.

What I am providing here is not a book review; sadly, I’ve no time for a quality book review. Rather my aim is to provide some enticing quotes from the text, encouraging you, beloved reader, to go get it and read it and take it to heart. I will use bold to add emphasis to parts I want to stand out to you.

“Basically, however, in a completely authoritarian model of obedience one never asks the question ‘why.’ The world loses its significance and is degraded to being but the raw material used in practicing formal obedience. That which is done is uninteresting. When obedience concentrates itself completely on a higher and guiding ‘other,’ it becomes blind, that is, blind to the world. It hears the voice of its master in a very narrow and exclusive sense but it sees nothing. it accomplishes the act of obedience for its own sake, recognizing no additional significance.

“An attempt has been made to solve this dilemma by suggesting that the obedience requested and carried out is given freely. To be sure an obedience freely given does mean a displacement of the power relationship and allows the obedience subject to maintain a certain semblance of honor. But the problem of worldlessness and the lack of objective concerns inherent in such a person-oriented obedience is only sharpened. A critique of obedience cannot satisfy itself merely by maintaining that those who obediently submit choose to do so freely. Blindness toward the world and total irresponsibility are still lacking in this variant of the authoritarian model.

“An obedience that is blind to objective concerns and to the world, that merely listens to what it is told, has divest itself of all responsibility for what is commanded. Obedience and not what is to be done is the sole motivation.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 15-16

“But it is precisely spontaneity for which Jesus sets us free. That which he requires does not presuppose the order of the world; that order has yet to be established in the future. Insofar as the human must first discover what God’s will is, the future of the world remains open.

“In traditional usage one speaks rather descriptively of ‘fulfilling’ obedience. The picture is that of a container of form which must be filled. So too with obedience. A previously existing order is postulate that must be maintained, defended, or fulfilled. But Jesus did not conceive of the world according to a model of completed order, which person were merely required to maintain. The world he enter had not yet reached perfection. It was alterable, in fact, it awaited transformation. Schemes of order are in Jesus’ words utterly destroyed–great and small, scholar and child, riches and poverty, knowledge of the Law and ignorance. Jesus did everything in his power to relativize these orders and set free the person caught up in the se schemes. This process of liberation is called ‘Gospel.’ Out obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory?

“I detect that we need new words to describe the revolutionary nature of all relationships begun in Christ. At the very least it is problematic whether we can even continue to consider that which Jesus wanted under the term obedience.

Creative Disobedience pp. 27-28

“A society is imagined in which it is no longer necessary to deny someone people their own subjectivity. Such an inhuman demand destroys the person on whom it is made. Those who require such a degree of self-sacrifice, or include it in their life plan, lose their freedom. He who makes use of another person as a means of achieving his own ends not only humiliates that person but also degrades himself. To treat another person as if she were a thing is to become a thing oneself, a servant to the functioning of the very ‘thing’ being manipulated. By demanding sacrifice, such a person destroys his own freedom. As the one in control he becomes the one controlled. In alienating others from that which they wish to be and can become, he alienates himself. Because he concentrates on domination, on employing others as means to his own ends, he loses all the other possibilities open to him. For example, he no longer pays attention to anything that does not fit his purpose. He loses the ability to enjoy ling because he must constantly reinforce his life by accomplishments. The relationship between people is so interdependent that it is impossible for one person to prosper at the expense of another. In the long run such exploitation proves detrimental to both.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 34-35

“The stronger a person’s self-identity–that which we have previously referred to as his or her being a subject–the easier partial renunciation becomes. in borderline situations the expression ‘partial renunciation’ can be applied to the runcination of one’s own life for the sake of the other. However, even then it is impossible for such a person to relinquish his or her identity for the sake of the other. And so one could formulate the thesis: The greater one’s realization of selfhood the greater one’s ability for true renunciation. The more successful one is at living the easier it is for him or her to let go of life.

Creative Disobedience p. 39

“A person can, during the course of his lifetime, become more imaginative, or, on the other hand, he can give u more and more of his phantasy. He then becomes progressively poorer in his style of living and ever more fixed in that which he refers to as his life-experience or his understanding of people. This growing impoverishment of life takes pleasure in assuming the appearance of maturity, in feigning a full awareness of reality.

Creative Disobedience p. 51

“Jesus made people whole without asking for thanks. He fulfilled people’s wishes without requesting their validity. He allowed phantasy full reign without bowing to propriety. he took seriously the religious requirements such as fasting, the breaking of bread, and thanksgiving, but he was also able to put them all aside. He was at ease with friend and foe alike. The conventional classification of people in artificial groupings could be suspended at any time.

“He never brought new virtues and duties. It was fulfillment he offered to those with whom he dealt, a certain sense of wholeness, of well-being, which made virtue and its practice possible. He did not fulfill duties; instead he changed the situation of those whom he met. His phantasy began with the situations but always went far beyond them.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 52-53

“The liberated human being is so strongly aware of him or herself as a self-determining subject that partial denials become possible. The expression ‘partial denial’ may seen inappropriate when it is applied to Jesus, but I use it in order to underscore the fact that a person can never deny his own identity simply at the will of another. In this sense Jesus too never denied his own identity. It is more appropriate to say that his death was the final substantiation of his identity, of the unheard of assertion ‘I am the life.'”

Creative Disobedience p. 58

It appeared to be forgotten that for Jesus ‘God’ meant liberation, the unchaining of all powers which lie imprisoned in each of us, powers with which we too can perform miracles which are no less significant than those we are told Jesus himself performed. The feeling of possessing a full life, the fulfillment of Jesus, was lost. It was as if one wished to promise people something more and greater than the fulfillment of Jesus–a participation in divine life which is realized only after death. With the help of this beyond, this still to come, fulfillment was defamed, and the transformation of this earth in view of the possibilities for fulfillment remained subordinate.

“We still secretly feared that the realization of selfhood could only be achieved at the cost of others, suspected that it was the robbery of others, because we viewed the earth itself and the projected possibilities for fulfillment as constant and immovable. If instead the world is seen as moving toward a goal, if God is experiences as active in history and not merely posited as resting beyond nature, as eternally being, then the possibilities for fulfillment are multiplied. Then phantasy ceases to be a thing for children and poets–that which Christian history has made of it. The person is once again given the courage to say ‘I,’ without, in so doing, taking anything from anyone else.

Creative Disobedience pp. 64-65

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