The Greatest of These…

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Psalm 71:1-2 In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; incline your ear to me and save me.

Introduction

I never cease to marvel at the mystery that is love. How is it that we can come to love another person or animal or thing? No one can command love. I can clamor until I’m blue in the face that Christians should love one another, that you should love each other, but it would be in vain. I cannot command you to love one another or other people as much as I cannot tell the very humans that came from body to—for the love of God—love each other. Love really is mysterious. Love exceeds my control.

To be honest, I’m not sold that I choose love. I hear it a lot, especially in regards to marriage: every day I choose to love this person. Ehhh….maybe. *shrugs* I think you choose to follow through on the vows, or choose loyalty, faithfulness, steadfastness, commitment, and maybe even choose to act lovingly. But I’m not sure I choose love. In the same breadth I’ll add: love is more than a feeling. You can feel in love and you can feel not in love. However, I’m not sure that means you don’t love in that moment or that you aren’t loved in that moment—it just means you don’t feel it. Love exceeds my reason and rationality.

I think a hick-up in our conception of love is that we try to define love from our limited human perspective. When we do this, we render love as something we can squish between two small pieces of glass and slide under our microscope, or something we can slice open and dissect with our scalpel. In this scenario we are the determining subject, and love becomes the determined object, the other, the thing to be examined, dissected, and defined. This top-down evaluative approach is why we end up with ideas and definitions of love that are bitter on the tongue and less permanent than cotton candy. Love exceeds my examining gaze.

Love is truly mysterious.

What if all we need to get a better understanding of love is to change our perspective? What if I just reverse the direction between us and love? What if Love is the subject and we are the object? What if love is the subject and the verb, and we are the direct and indirect objects? Maybe love defines, examines, reveals, determines me? Maybe we can’t choose it because it chooses us? Maybe we can’t command it because it commands us? And if you have ever been wrapped up in intense feelings of love, that’s exactly what it feels like: a force presenting itself in our world and our hearts and minds that drives us toward each other and the world.

Love loves the beloved toward the beloved.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Love perseveres, love acts gentle, love does not burn with envy, love does not vaunt itself, it is not inflated with its own interest, it does not act improperly, it does not demand things for its own interest, it is not exasperated into wounded vanity, it is not reckoning evil (in the wildest sense), it does not rejoice over the unrighteous but rejoices over the truth; there is nothing love cannot face, there is no limit to its faith, hope, and endurance.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The first thing I noticed when I was translating this passage was this: I am not the subject of these independent clauses. Love is the subject. While I know this may appear like a very rudimentary grammatical and intellectual moment, stay here with me. In English it sounds like a noun being modified by adjectives. For instance, I could say: The tree is tall. This is a descriptive construction about an object. *I* am doing the describing of the tree. So, as we read the English translation of the text, it sounds like Paul is describing this object “love” with these other adjectives. But here’s the thing: those aren’t adjectives. They’re verbs whose subject is love. The “is” comes from the fact that the verbal form is present tense.

ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται.

1 Corinthians 13:4

The word for love is in the subject position (it’s the feminine, nominative, singular) and the verbs are present tense and in the 3rd person singular. Thus, in accordance with the subject of the sentence doing the action of the verbs: love perseveres, [love] acts gentle. When we shift the tone of the words away from adjectival into verbal, we move from love as one more objective emotion, to love being a principal actor in our narrative. Love does this and not that.

Without love, Paul declares, he is nothing but a clanging symbol even if he can speak in tongues of humanity and angels (v. 1); without love, Paul exclaims, even with all the knowledge and all the faith, he is nothing (v.2). Yet, with love, with love acting through him the tongues turn from clanging symbols into gentle words; with love moving into and through him, he is something.[1] For Paul—holding close to Christ crucified and raised as God’s divine act of love in the world—love alters everything because love as the divine operative in the world is always oriented toward the other, toward the beloved.[2]

What Paul is describing here is not his conception of love but the activity of God in the world as the word incarnate—the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Love made manifest by God in Christ acts for the livelihood, welfare, and concern for the object of love, the beloved.[3] For Paul, who is wrapped up in the overwhelming reality of God’s love for the world and for him, launches into a poetic string of statements about what this Love present in the world looks like. He is not speaking of the way he loves or indicating that by doing such things he or the Corinthians obtains love; rather, he is proclaiming God’s love in the world for him and for the Corinthians.

Conclusion

If love is the subject performing the actions of persevering, being gentle, not burning with envy, not centering the self over and against the other person, and standing firm capable to face anything, without limit of faith, hope, and endurance, then what is the object?

You are.

The divine substance that is love seeks you and loves you to no end. From this edge of the earth to the other, in the worst and the best moments, in highs and the lows, you are loved by this divine love, by God. *You* are the beloved. And in being loved in such a way (unconditionally and completely) there is nothing you can do to lose that love; it’s not yours to lose because you are not the subject here, but the beautiful and wonderful object of love’s action in and for the world. Receive this truth; rejoice in this truth.

And if you are the beloved—the object of God’s love—then you are wrapped up in this force of love surging through the world and ushered into this realm of divine love for the world. In being so wrapped up and ushered in, you find yourself in the love of God erupting into the here and now as we are moved to love one another.[4] Love catches us up in its momentum into the world in search of more beautiful and wonderful beloveds.

We do not acquire the object of love by acting in this way or that way or avoiding this or that action; we do all of that for our own gain. Rather where there is perseverance, there is Love for the beloved; where there are gentle acts, there is love for the other; where burning envy is absent, there is love for the neighbor; where self-boasting is lacking there is love for the friend; where arrogance is missing, there is love for your brother; where there isn’t an exasperation unto wounded vanity, there is Love for your sister; where there is endurance, hope, faith, willingness to stand up and face anything no matter how scary, there is Love for God and the beloved.[5]

I’ll conclude with recourse to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The greatest of all virtues is love. Here we find the true meaning of the Christian faith and of the cross. Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time. Out of the hugeness of his [sic] generosity God allowed his only-begotten Son to die that we may live. By uniting yourselves with Christ and your brothers [sic] through love you will be able to matriculate in the university of eternal life. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.[6]

“Paul’s Letter to the Americans”

Beloved where you have hope, where you have faith, where you see the humanity of your neighbor be assured—even in our chaotic, tumultuous, and violent world—there Love is and there God is. For where you are, there, too, is God. For you who are in Christ by fait,h where you are there Love is.


[1] Thiselton Corinthians 1045. “The first person subject is now merely implicit, but the reference is clear enough from the context. The logical (as against grammatical) subject is the series of acts which build up from the familiar to a projected climax: all this counts for nothing. Petzer’s analysis of defamiliarization applies. What seemed ordinary and obvious now appears in a new, unfamiliar light, which produces shock. These wondrous gifts and triumphant victories all amount to nothing, unless love directs them, with its Christlike concern and regard for ‘the other.’”

[2] Thiselton Corinthians 1049. “Paul hammers home the incompatibility of love as respect and concern for the welfare of the other and obsessions about the status and attention accorded to the self. How much behavior among believers and even ministers is actually ‘attention seeking’ designed to impress others with one’s own supposed importance? Some ‘spiritual songs’ may appear to encourage, rather than discourage, this preoccupation with the self rather than with others and with God. Here is Luther’s antithesis between theologia crucis and theologia gloriae…”

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1035 “Second, as we have noted, love (ἀγάπη) denotes above all a stance or attitude which shows itself in acts of will as regard, respect, and concern for the welfare of the other. It is therefore profoundly Christological, for the cross is the paradigm case of the act of will and stance which places welfare of others above the interests of the self.”

[4] Thiselton Corinthians, 1035. “First, love represents ‘the power of the new age’ breaking into the present, ‘the only vital force which has a future.’ Love is that quality which distinctively stamps the life of heaven, where regard and respect for the other dominates the character of life with God as the communion of saints and heavenly hosts. The theologian may receive his or her redundancy notice; the prophet may have nothing to say which everyone else does not already know; but love abides as the character of heavenly, eschatological existence.”

[5] Thiselton Corinthians 1057. “Paul declares: Love never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up. The fourfold never with four negative actions provides rhetorical force to Paul’s fourfold all things…”

[6] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” Strength to Love Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 153.

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

Loved and Freed

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Psalm 147:1-3 Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God! How pleasant it is to honor God with praise! The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; God gathers the exiles of Israel. God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Introduction

The red and blue lights in my review mirror solicited my hard sigh; the same lights were, at that moment, entertaining the boys, seven and six, and their entertainment was entertaining Liza who was just about one. I pulled off the road and into a parking lot to a chorus of “Mommy got pulled over! Mommy got pulled over!” Both boys swaying rhythmically to their own tune. I was not amused; but I wasn’t fully mad, either. It truly was a catchy little tune.

I waited for the police officer to come to my window, clutching my license and registration; I was ready to get this business over with because I had swim lessons to get to and was already late…which may have been the reason for the red and blue lights in my rearview mirror. As I waited, a moment of condemnation came upon me. I soothed myself by remembering I was justified by faith apart from works, so if I was guilty of breaking the law than I was guilty of breaking the law and that was it. Nothing more; nothing less.

When the police officer approached, he asked me if I knew why he was pulling me over. I said, “No.” He said, you were going 60 in a 40. I was shocked. “Really?! In this car?!” “Yes,” he answered. “Are you using VASCAR? Because I know VASCAR can give false readings.” “Yes, I was, and, no, it wasn’t a false reading.” Then he asked for my license and registration, which I eagerly handed to him. He thanked me and then went back to his car.

A while later, he came back and said, “Man, I hate to do this…You’ve been really cool; I hate to give you this ticket.” I smiled, and said, “It’s okay. Really. If I’m guilty, I’m guilty.” He paused and stepped back a little from my car. And then again, “Man! You are so cool about this. I hate giving you this ticket.” I looked at the clock: swim lessons drew nigh; I needed to get this ticket from him. Knowing I couldn’t just grab it, holler “Thanks!” and peel out of there… I did the only thing I knew to do, “Listen,” I started. “I’m a student of the law; well, actually I’m a student of God’s Law. I study theology. And I know that the law can only tell me when I’m breaking it and that I’m guilty when I do break it. I accept that. I am guilty of speeding and you are free to give me that ticket.” He stepped back again and didn’t say anything; I was nervous. Then he spoke, “You have just shown a brother in the Lord mercy. Do me a favor and plead ‘not guilty,’ and I’ll take care of it on my end.”

“Really?! But I’m guilty!” I replied. He laughed and asked me to trust him.

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Now before faith came we were kept—guarded as by the military—under the law, being hemmed in until the intended faith would be revealed. Just as the law has been our trainer [in life and morals] with respect to Christ, so that from faith we may be declared righteous. While faith has come, we are no longer under the trainer [in life and morals].

Galatians 3:23-25

Paul describes to the Galatians the situation they were in prior to Christ’s advent: under the law as if trapped by a warden. The word Paul used to describe “the law” is παιδαγωγός (paidagogos/“pedagogue”). The law, according to Paul, was a pedagogue until faith was revealed. The problem arises here: we think that παιδαγωγός means “teacher.” It can mean that for us, but not in Paul’s context. The word defined according to the context in which it was used can be rendered: the slave who oversaw forcing the boys to school, who watched over and monitored and trained the boys in life and morals. Clearly, “teacher” does not cover the breadth of the definition. So, it’s better to see this word rendered as “warden,” which keeps an eye to the military aspect of having been guarded and kept by the law until Christ came. For all intents and purposes, when those kept by the law stepped out of line, the law would step close and threaten, presenting itself as an address to get back in line for their own good—like the slave would do when bringing the boys to and from school.[1]

The law, according to Paul, loomed and threatened, always bringing with it the potential to convict in order to keep those under its charge in line. But the law isn’t evil or bad; it’s just the law. The first word given by God to God’s people to bring them unto life; the law is revealed to God’s people to give them life abundant. The law was intended to turn God’s people toward God, to reveal the human tendency to think we ourselves are God; the law was there to humble God’s people and bring them toward God.[2] The relationship was always about God and God’s people, and the law was only ever to assist that relationship but not be the definitive thing of the relationship. In other words, the law was created by God for humanity, to serve humanity; humanity was not created for the law, to serve the law.

But a problem developed. Rather than being a word beckoning God’s people to God, it became like a god. And in walked fear, terror, shame, and condemnation. As the law was allowed to take over God’s thrown, it was forced into a position that it was not meant to be in. In response, the people became performative to avoid threat and punishment.[3] Thus, the law became a prison and a warden of the people; from this prison there was no escape because there is absolutely no way to satisfy the demands articulated by the law[4] to such a degree that the law stops demanding. And if it never stops demanding, to where to do you run for comfort? Where is forgiveness? And mercy?[5]

Conclusion

Deliverance from this predicament was and is necessary. Humanity cannot extricate itself from such a plight. And here the law served God’s deliverance of the people through the coming of Christ.[6] Paul explains well: the law was a warden until faith came.[7] God sent God’s only son to be born of Mary and to dwell among the dirty, poor, sick, sinners, ostracized, marginalized, and threatened people…anyone and everyone condemned by the law.

From the moment Jesus was born the law was stripped of its warden like status.[8] A woman who had given birth, was forbidden from touching anything holy, forbidden from going into the sanctuary (being in God’s presence). But then, Mary.  After Jesus’ birth, Mary was unclean. The thing that would have segregated her from her community, the thing that determined that she was unclean was the law. Yet, Mary had given birth and was subsequently holding and nursing Jesus for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet, there she was with God because God was with her, physically, in her presence and she in God’s. From the moment of Jesus’s birth, Jesus began to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment.

And so, it is to be found dumb now, just like it was found dumb when the police officer pulled me over. The law in that moment could not condemn or threaten me; it was just the law, just a word to which I could acknowledge my guilt. Same, too, for you who are in Christ through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. The law cannot determine who you are or whose you are; the law cannot strip you of your beloved status, no matter what you do or do not do. Everything that we do here on Sunday morning, and how we conduct our lives should be fueled by the very real presence of God’s love in our life and not because we are scared God will flee us or cast us out if we don’t do this or that right. When the church becomes a museum of ritual and traditionalisms, trapped in a static performance of doing just to do, exhibitions to make us feel pious and holy, I fear that church is now no longer worshipping God, but the law. When the church becomes a place serving the law, a place of judgment, of fear, of threat, it has stepped away from its love, Jesus the Christ who silenced the law the moment he came into the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in the lap of his unclean mother, Mary.

You are the beloved; laugh as the beloved, rejoice as the beloved, and live as the beloved: loved and free.


[1] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians 1535 Chapters 1-4 Luther’s Works Vol 26 Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis, MO: Concordia 1963. 335. “For the Law is a Word that shows life and drives us toward it. Therefore it was not given only for the sake of death. But this is its chief use and end: to reveal death, in order that the nature and enormity of sin might thus become apparent. It does not reveal death in a way that takes delight in it or that seeks to do nothing but kills us. No, it reveals death in order that men may be … humbled….”

[2] Luther Galatians 335. “Thus the Law was not given merely for the sake of death; but because man is proud and supposes that he is wise, righteous, and holy, therefore it is necessary that the be humbled by the Law, in order that this beat, the presumption of righteousness, may be killed, since man cannot live unless it is killed.”

[3] Luther Galatians 336. “Such is the power of the Law and such is righteousness on the basis of the Law that it forces us to be outwardly good so long as it threatens transgressors with penalties and punishment.”

[4] Luther Galatians 337. “For then a man is confined in a prison from which he cannot escape; and he does not see how he can be delivered form these bonds, that is, set free from these terrors.”

[5] Luther Galatians 337. “That is, the Law is also a spiritual prison and a true hell; for when it discloses sin and threatens death and the eternal wrath of God, man can neither run away nor find any comfort.”

[6] J. Louis Martyn Galatians The Anchor Bible Gen Ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 363. “…the Law was compelled to serve God’s intention simply by holding all human beings in a bondage that precluded every route of deliverance except that of Christ.”

[7] Luther Galatians 347. “The Law is a custodian, not until some other lawgiver comes who demands good works, but until Christ comes, the Justifier and Savior, so that we may be justified through faith in Him, not through works.”

[8] Martyn Galatians 362. “faith was invasively revealed. Paul’s use of the passive verb “was revealed” shows his intention to speak here of God’s eschatological act, and thus his concern to refer to the faith that is God’s deed in Christ (so also the faith” in w 25 and 26). From 2:16, 3:22-25, and 4:4-6, we see that Paul is referring interchangeably to the coming of Christ, to the coming of Christ’s Spirit, and to the coming both of Christ’s faith and of the faith kindled by Christ’s faith. It is that multifaceted advent that has brought to a close the parenthetical era of the Law, thus radically changing the world in which human beings live.”

On That Night

Christmas Eve Sermon

Psalm 96: 11-13 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before God when God comes, when God comes to judge the earth. God will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.

The Heavens Were Silent

Mary was a very pregnant woman that night. She probably looked as she felt…exhausted. As far along as she was, everything ached. I imagine her deep and profound desire to lie down and rest. Anyone passing by on the road and receiving her as she and Joseph roamed looking for lodging, would’ve seen just a pregnant woman. How many other pregnant women were seen that night? How many other babies would be born that night? How many children born before this one? There wasn’t anything special emanating from her. No one in Bethlehem felt the urgency to make sure she was well cared for; no one had the time or the space to make room for her. It’s not that they didn’t love her, I’m sure they did. But that night, there just wasn’t anything to be done but to offer up some meager space among dirty animals, trampled hay, and dirt, in the air of a Bethlehem night.

When the contractions started, the whole entire host of heaven hushed. Not a word was spoken, the entirety of the divine residence of angels and archangels watched with bated breath as this woman did a regular thing: bear her first child, a son…But what the host of heaven knew—as well as Mary and Joseph—was this: this regular body and this regular act of birth were bringing for this not-so-regular child…the son of God, the prince of peace, the one of ancient of days, the true leader of Israel, the humble judge, and the embodiment of divine love for the world. For this child, heaven held its breath as his mother brought him forth out of darkness into light so that he would be the light going into the darkness. This was the longed for, hoped for, yearned for child prayed for by many voices of ages gone by, the voices that cried out from bodies stuck in marginalization, trapped in violence, held down by oppression, and threatened by death. Could Mary feel their ancient cries? Could she feel those bowls upon bowls of prayers poured out on her like glory flowing from on high, covering her body and encouraging her spirit as she endured each contraction for minutes and hours?

God chose this body, this moment, this regularity of being born, to enter the world and the cosmos in physical form to identify with the depth of the pain of the human predicament. God could have shown up and skipped this banal and regular step; God could have come in glory and not in such precarious vulnerability. However, God chose not to skip it but to embrace it, to experience it, to identify with God’s beloved, to stand in unity with the beloved from the beginning of life unto the end. It is this divine child born of Mary, this one who is God of very God, who will stand in solidarity with humanity and change everything.

That night, as Mary labored, heaven was silent.

The World was Still

Yet, it wasn’t just Mary who was walking steadily into that night, into that event, one step at a time while moving toward Bethlehem. Joseph was with her. This regular guy was moving along in his regular life before God intervened and shuffled everything. Now he was moving along with Mary, the one who was to bear the son of God into the world and he…trusted. Trusted that all of this was the work of God. So, he walked. With Mary. With this mother of this child that was not his. Still, he walked with God, humbly, trusting, believing that somehow God would show up.

The many closed doors to decent lodging were discouraging. It wasn’t personal; it was just unfortunate. However, he was eager to get this very pregnant Mary to security, to a place where she could rest[1]she looks so tired. When the option for the humble estate of wood, straw, and animals came to him, it was a stroke of fortune even if not ideal. Provision. We’ll make this work, at least for tonight. When the contractions started, Joseph knew of one thing to do, rush to find a midwife, or so goes another telling of the birth of Jesus.[2]

And then something happened while he sought this Bethlehemite midwife. Everything seemed to slow down, and the world seemed to stop as if time ceased to exist and all that existed was merely matter in stasis. The cosmos seemed to come to a screeching halt, as if God’s self was slowing it all down in order to set the whole thing in a different direction.

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not lifting it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything returned to its course.”[3]

Protoevangelium of James

When God steps into our timeline and into our space things do not just keep moving as if it’s all normal. Everything stops, stops in its tracks. Time is slowed all the way down and space is parted from itself making room for more and bigger and better. God doesn’t break into our realm, God takes our realm into God’s self. The moment Jesus was born into the world marked the beginning of something new and different, a different reign, a different rule, a different leadership, and a different way of living in the world.

That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, the world stopped.

The Barriers Were Destroyed

That dark night was no different than the other nights. Here they were, once again, tending and guarding their flocks of sheep, chatting here and there to stay awake.[4] This life was quiet, even if deprived and rather dangerous…keeping the flock safe took a lot of work and strength and risk.[5] The census going on caused additional anxiety, fear, and made that heavy blanket of oppression draped over these humble shepherds seem a bit heavier.[6] How many more sheep would they lose from their flocks when the census was over?[7] Against this evil empire they were helpless, more helpless than against a vicious and voracious wolf.[8] Spirits were low that dark night.

Then the angle showed up, out of nowhere. The shepherds were rightly terrified. Here they were, in the dark of night, doing their job, minding their own business and then: FLASH! They were enveloped in the heavenly glory of the Lord. In seconds they went from no ones to some ones, illuminated by a great light, and being addressed by one from the host of heaven…who were they to warrant such attention?[9]

And the Angel said to them,

“Do not be terrified! For behold, I herald good tidings to you of great delight for all people! A savior is brought forth for you today in the city of David who is Christ the Lord! And this will be the sign for you, you will find a newborn child having been wrapped in swaddling clothes and being laid in a manger!”[10]

Luke 2

Before the shepherds found their voices, they were greeted by an army of the host of heaven who joined the angel and praised God, saying: Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace with humanity of good pleasure! And then, like it began, it was over.

The shepherds had been summoned by God to come into this moment, into this event, into this space…and, that night, they went. The unclean were called; the oppressed were summoned; the meek and meager were beckoned to come and see how good God is, how much God was for them, how much God loved them. When they arrived, they found Mary and Joseph, and the divine newborn child was, as the Angel said, lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. And here, these unclean shepherds stood in the direct presence of God without having to change, become pure, clean, or right. There was no shame, no condemnation, no guilt, no offerings had to be made, no rituals performed; they just came, looked, and touched the very small and vulnerable foot of God.

That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers between clean and unclean were destroyed.

Conclusion

All that had been was now coming undone; the savior, the son of God, was born, surrounded by wood, straw, dirt, animals, an exhausted woman of color, a humbled man, and dirty shepherds. That night God called to God’s self all those who thought they were too far off to hear the call, too far gone to be seen, to unloved to be desired, too nothing to be something…It’s here where we enter the story. As we listen in and look on, we step into that menagerie of humans and animals gazing upon the newborn child. We become a part of those also called to witness this divine event in the world and to encounter God on this night. We are summoned to experience the divine heavenly hush break into the most magnificent chorus of the cosmos. We are provoked to feel God taking the cosmos into God’s self and sending it on the trajectory of love. We are asked to see the rubble of the barriers that once tried to steal from us our belovedness.

That night, while Mary labored, heaven was silent. That night, while Joseph searched for a midwife, the world stopped. That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers were destroyed. Because—on that night—God showed up and changed everything forever.


[1] The Protoevangelium of James 17:3-18:1

[2] The Protoevangelium of James 18:1

[3] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher, eds. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). 34

[5] Gonzalez Luke 33.

[6] Gonazalez Luke 33, 34

[7] Gonzalez Luke 33

[8] Gonzalez Luke 33

[9] Gonzalez Luke 34

[10] Translation mine

The One of Peace

Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:46b, 53-54 My soul proclaims the greatness of God… God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty. God has come to the help of God’s servant Israel, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy… 

Introduction 

It’s nice to be in charge, right? It’s an ego boost to be the boss, the one where the buck stops. It’s fun to be the leader, the one who decides this and that, and here and there, the one who tells this and that person what to do and what to say. The more power the better, right? For isn’t it in the acquisition of power and dominance—the incessant climbing of the occupational ladder—where I achieve my true human liberty and freedom? As I climb up, I’m freed from the constraints of the lower echelons of human existence, and I finally have that long awaited liberty where none can tread on me. The higher up I move along this ladder, the more I acquire the rewards and accolades of this system, and the more I’m lifted out of the muck and mire of obligation to anyone else. (There’s something wrong with someone who is content with the middle or, God forbid, the lowest rung of the ladder; who wants to stay there?) Here, at the top or near the top, I’m my own law. Here, I am respected. Here, I’m freed from the tyranny of others. Here I’m that which I have strived for: powerful. I get to holler at subordinates and underlings, echoing Eric Cartman from the cartoon series, South Park, “Respect my ah-thor-ah-tah!” It’s nice to be in charge, right?  

Or is it… 

Once I start seeing my leadership in the schema of the personal acquisition of power—and the continual pursuit there in—I will ignore that the ladder I am hoisting myself upon is always made up of the human bodies I was charged to guide and lead in the first place. The bodies will be used to an end to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of a bloated and an autonomous self, untethered from the mores of being human: the humility of existence made tangible in the willing and sometimes not-so-willing self-surrender of the self to other humans in the activity of love. To climb that ladder as far as I can, I must turn off the “human” part of my humanity, which—if you are doing the math—renders to near zero “humanity.” And the farther-up I go pursuing the acquisition of power and privilege, the deeper-in I’m pushed into what can only be described as a solitary confinement with walls built of competition and fear– it only takes one slip (slide?) to fall from that glory. It’s nice to be in charge, right? 

Or is it…. 

Micah 5:2-5a 

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, 
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. 

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great 
to the ends of the earth; 

and he shall be the one of peace.  

Micah 5:4-5

The bulk of Micah’s message (from the beginning of the book to the end) is embedded in Micah’s mission to expose the sins of Jacob and Israel, being the first prophet to declare the destruction of Jerusalem.[1] What sins does Micah expose? In short: moral corruption. The long of it is that there is violence (from the wealthy and powerful) and the proliferation of lies.[2] And the even longer of it is: the heads of the houses of Jacob and the rulers of Israel “abhor justice and pervert equity” and the brick and mortar of their cities are the wrong-doing of the leaders and the spilled blood of the people.[3] And, according to Micah who is emboldened by the passionate Spirit of God in the face of such violence,[4] God will not tolerate this depraved leadership, profiting off of the bodies and souls of God’s beloved.[5]

In the prophesy, Micah, so moved by God’s Spirit, transitions from exposing sins and naming the trespasses of Israel’s and Jacob’s leaders to speaking of one who will be raised up from the small clan of Bethlehem of Ephrathah. This one will be of old and of the ancient of days. This humble one from a humble tribe will be called out to lead God’s beloved in the name of God and in the Spirit of God: delighting in unconditional and unceasing love, forgiveness, mercy, and humility.[6] Specifically in our portion of the text, Micah’s prophesy moves toward a God who rejects the idea of letting iniquity run amok[7] even if the city itself is complacent.[8] so, God comes, and in that God comes, there will be forgiveness and peace because when God comes, so to comes the true leadership of Israel defined not by humanity but by God, the one of peace.[9]

Conclusion

Micah’s words haunt me. Israel’s leadership has run away with Israel for its own power and privilege. And God is coming to rescue God’s beloved. Woe to that leadership so bent on self-aggrandizement and power and authority and privilege; violent leadership that uses the beloved as a means to their own end will be exposed in God’s light of truth. Leadership so bent in this way is in direct opposition to God and God’s conception of leading and can meet no other end in God but death. God has a very specific interpretation of what it means to lead, especially leading God’s beloved: it is done through mercy, kindness, humility, love, and forgiveness. To be completely frank, God doesn’t like it when human leaders forget themselves and become drunk with power and abusive and violent, resulting in the oppression and marginalization of God’s beloved. God will come and rescue the beloved from such domination. Thus, the judgment of this prophecy is targeted at me, the leader of God’s beloved—and others like me holding power and authority. God will come for the beloved and in that the beloved is sought and liberated from oppressive and violent leadership, so too will the violent and oppressive leaders be liberated. It’s nice to be in charge, right? Or is it?

With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:7-8

It’s into the presence of God I am called. I am pulled off my ladder of power and am dragged onto the carpet; I am beckoned into the light; I am exposed by the Spirit’s prophetic utterance still fresh on Micah’s lips. I am asked to come close and to hear and to see what means to be a good leader. And, it’s not defined in the way that I think it should be: through the acquisition of more and more power and lording it over those under my charge. It won’t look like making people feel small so I can feel big. It won’t even look elite, special, or privileged. Rather, this good leader will look remarkably like a humble and vulnerable infant wrapped in meager rags, laid in a manger, dwelling among the creation in its earthy glory, surrounded by dirty shepherds and an exhausted woman of color. I am asked here: can you lead like this? For here lies the true leader, the one from the ancient of days who knows no end of time but is now a tiny baby in swaddling clothes: humble and accessible to anyone; can you lead like this…of the people for the people? Can you love them like I do?

That this prophetic utterance of Micah is for me it is for you, too. Because divine love does not remain dormant when the beloved is in need: hope exists. We can, right now during this season of Advent in 2021, hope. We can hope because we dwell in and are invited into a story of God acting on behalf of the beloved by coming in the judgment of God’s love to give life to all the beloved trapped and held captive in violent systems—when the captive is set free, so too will the captor be set free through death into new life. We are all beckoned—leaders and the lead alike—to walk humble with God and like God, in love and mercy and forgiveness and humility. And we are called to walk this way not just here in this place, but out in the world, furthering the elastic reach of divine love in the world and for the beloved out there.

O come, Desire of nations,

bind in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind;

bid thou our sad divisions cease

and be thy self our King of Peace.

O come, O come Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.


[1] 1 Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Micah” New York: JPS, 1962. 98 “Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, apparently regarded the purpose of his mission to be ‘to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin’ (3:8). He was the first prophet to predict the destruction of Jerusalem.” 

[2] Heschel Prophets 98. “In his eyes the fatal sin is the sin of moral corruption. The rich men are full of violence, and the inhabitants speak lies: ‘Their tongue is deceitful in their mouth’ (6:12).”

[3] Heschel Prophets 98 “The prophet directs his rebuke particularly against the ‘heads of the house of Jacob and the rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity.’ It is because ‘they build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong’ (3:9-10) that Zion and Jerusalem will be destroyed.”

[4] Heschel Prophets 99. “To the soul of Micah, the taste of God’s word is bitter. In his love for Zion and his people, he is tormented by the vision of the things to come…” 

[5] Heschel Prophets 99. “Here, amidst a people who walk haughtily (2:3), stands a prophet who relentlessly predicts disaster and disgrace for the leaders as well as for the nation, maintaining that ‘her wound is incurable’ (1:9), that the Lord is ‘devising evil’ against the people: ‘It will be an evil time’ (2:3).” 

[6] Heschel Prophets 99. “Micah does not question the justice of the severe punishment which he predicts for his people. Yet it is not in the name of justice that he speaks but in the name of a God who ‘delights in steadfast love,’ ‘pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression’ (7:18).” 

[7] Heschel Prophets 100 “Yet, there is reluctance and sorrow in that anger. It is as if God were apologizing for His severity, for His refusal to be complacent to iniquity. This is God’s apology to Israel. He cannot forget ‘the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked’ or ‘acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights’ (6:10, 11).”

[8] Heschel Prophets 100 “‘Answer Me!’ calls the voice of God. But who hears the call? ‘The voice of the Lord cries to the city’ (6:9), but the city is complacent.”

[9] Heschel Prophets 101 “Together with the word of doom, Micah proclaims the vision of redemption. God will forgive ‘the remnant of His inheritance,’ and will cast all their sins ‘into the depths of the sea’ (7:18 f.), and every man shall sit under his vine and ‘under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid’ (4:4).”

Who Can Stand?

Sermon on Malachi 3:1-4

The Song of Zechariah Luke 1:78-79 In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Introduction

Judgment. We love to hate it, and we love to do it. When we are judged or when we judge other people, we are experiencing a moment where either we are being evaluated by someone else or we are doing the evaluating. In being judged and judging, we are failing to measure up or someone else is. In positioning oneself as judge or being caught in that eye of judgment creates an imbalance of power: someone in the equation is holding more of the power. It makes sense why Christians are exhorted—by Jesus!—not to judge other people by the externals, because there’s more to a person than what meets our eye. This is why we don’t like being judged because, hey, maybe I’m just having a bad day, don’t judge! Like being an exhausted parent with two toddlers and a screaming infant in a store and expressing frustration; I’m not a bad mom, don’t look at me like that because I was snappy with them…and no, I’m not going to miss this phase…stop.

We judge others (and others judge us) to self-validate, and this desire for self-validation exposes that our judgmentalism is less about the other person and more about us: we are found lacking when we find lack in others. And the way we judge others reveals our hypocrisy. Our judgment of others, our eagerness to remove the speck from their eye while ignoring the log in our own, is the action that exposes the fundamental problem of a hardened heart caught in a desperate fight to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good. And we will do whatever it takes to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good, so we thrust ourselves on that hamster wheel of performance and find anything to self-validate even if it is by the failures of others… at least I’m not like her…

But I am; I am very much her. I’ve been in the shoes of so many people I’ve judged in my feeble attempts to make myself feel better about myself. I’ve been that “bad” driver, that “bad” mom, that “bad” teacher, that biased and stuck thinker, that arrogant and pedantic scholar…the one who was too angry to forgive, to hurt to admit it, too comfortable to fight for peace and justice… And if we can feel safe here and are willing to be honest, I bet I’m not alone. We all have similar confessions.

I know, it’s not Lent. And yet, I know I’m heading down a lent-like train of thought but stay with me. What if part of this stark realization is part of the good news of Advent? What if coming to terms with who and what I am in all my robust humany glory, makes the expectation of Advent more spectacular?

Malachi 3:1-4

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Malachi 3:1-2b

The message of Malachi is as follows: God knows those who fear him and those who do not, and He desires his people to repent and turn to Him and Torah (3:7). Malachi, in prophetic tones, asks the people to consider themselves, to take a deep look at who they are in their daily life and as worshippers of God—are they helping or hindering the relationship between God and God’s people? [1] The warning that Malachi ends with in his short prophetic disputation[2] is a word of judgment: utter destruction hangs in the balance if the people do not realign with God and with neighbor. For all intents and purposes, Malachi cries out: Pay attention! He pleads with his audience, Take heed; this is serious! Judgment comes! And this minor prophet closes with a question: on whom will judgment fall?

The God of Israel is the God who heard the cries of Israel from the bowls of suffering in Egypt and is the same God who then came and rescued Israel from that captivity and ushered them into freedom. If this is the same God of whom both the major and minor prophets speak of and speak for, then we can be certain this is the same God who will also deal with people who abuse God’s people, who hinder them from God, who steal their livelihood, who judge them as inferior, failures, maybe even inhuman. In being unloving toward their neighbor, they do not love God and “profane the covenant.”[3] God will come, and God may be angry when God does.

But here’s the complex thing about God, the God worshipped in Judah and Israel is not bound to our mythic conceptions of the small and petty angry god who never stops being angry.[4] Our strict either/or interpretation of emotionality is exceptionally problematic. Emotional states are not ontological definitions. Even here in Malachi, as he leaves his people with a question about the coming judgment of God, God’s love is eternal; God’s anger isn’t.[5] God’s anger is momentary and happens, but it doesn’t abide forever; God’s love does.[6] It abides, because love is an ontological definition: divine love—the love that has been since the very beginning of the cosmos—isn’t a fleeting emotion or feeling but a permanent presence, an eternal reality forever moving into infinity, always in pursuit of the beloved. It’s this love that exposes the beloved not unto death for death’s sake but unto life.

Conclusion

Malachi closes his proclamation and disputation with the twin questions “On whom will judgment fall?” and “Who can stand?” And when our eyes meet with these words, our heart races and things get warm under the collar, looking around—with panic and fear—we are speechless. We fear the answer. We fear this divine judgment, this divine anger, will fall on us and crush us. We know who we are deep down; we know we are guilty: guilty of infractions, disobedience, not-love, of desperately trying to make our selves better than others, of unfaithfulness, ignoring, pretending, and judging.

But, what if in this profound and visceral exposure is our life? What if in our bold grasp of what is and who we are we find actual life? This isn’t to say you are rotten or horrible or an object made for destruction; none of that. Rather, it’s to turn that inner judge on oneself in the light of truth, and it’s in this light of truth where we find life.

God’s judgment does come, and it will fall on us, and under it we will not be able to stand. God will come to earth, born to an unwed woman of color. And this baby whom this woman will nurse, we will curse; the one whom Mary will birth, we will sentence to death. In that wrong judgment of an innocent other, we will be encountered by the right judgment of God. We will be exposed, fully. Face to face with God, we will be illuminated—from head to toe, from the core of our being to edge of our skin—by the essence of divine presence: Love.

Don’t get me wrong: you do not escape the rendering unto death of divine judgment; in being fully exposed in the light of love made known to us in the Word of Christ—the proclamation of God’s love in the world—you will collapse under the weight of what you see. But, in that collapse you fall into God, and that means falling farther into the source of love and life. It’s this love and life you receive back because God does not leave the beloved in the depth of the abyss of death but calls her out and onto the solid ground of life.

Where we expect destruction and death (death unto death), there is new creation and new life (death unto life). We expect that in God’s coming judgment we will be destroyed by wrath, but we are met with the consuming love of God who renders the beloved new by bringing her through death into new life in God, fueled by the Spirit of God.

Divine Love comes, born vulnerable and placed in a manger wrapped in meager swaddling rags. This one, Jesus the Christ, the son of Mary, will bear the burden of the full weight of God’s Love. It’s this babe who will bear the burden of bringing God’s love to everyone even if it means going outside the city limits. It’s this child of parents fleeing oppression who will bear the burden of standing in love and solidarity with human beings suffering in pain and sorrow, in toil and strain, stuck in captivity even if it means his life for theirs.

Beloved, in the expectation of Advent, Love comes… on whom will it fall? Who can stand?


[1] Ehud Ben Zvi “Malachi” The Jewish Study Bible JPS (Oxford: OUP, 2004). 1268. “The readers of the book of Malachi are asked to look at some pitfalls in everyday life and in the cult at the Temple, and particular at how they affect the relationship between the Lord and Israel, resulting in a lack of prosperity. Issues concerning proper offerings, marriage practices, and tithes are especially prominent in the book.”

[2] Zvi “Malachi” 1269, “The use of a disputation format … allows the readers some limited form of self-identification with the actions of the evildoers, and as such serves as a call for them to examine themselves and repent.”

[3] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Jeremiah” New York: JPS, 1962. 170. “In the words of a later prophet [after Jeremiah], ‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’ (Mal. 2:10).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “The ancient conception that the gods are spiteful seems to linger on in the mind of modern man, and inevitably the words of the Hebrew Bible are seen in the image of this conception. In gods who are spiteful, anger is a habit or a disposition. The prophets never speak of an angry God as if anger were His disposition. Even those who dwell more on His anger than on His mercy explicitly or implicitly accentuate the contrast”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “Again and again we are told that God’s love or kindness (hesed) goes on forever…we are never told that His anger goes on forever.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 290. “Anger is always described as a moment, something that happens rather than something that abides. The feeling expressed by the rabbis that even divine anger must not last beyond a minute seems to be implied in the words of the prophets…”

“Jesus of the East”

Sancta Colloquia Episode 404 ft. Dr. Phuc Luu

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I have the honor and privilege to interview scholar, teacher, and theologian, Dr. Phuc Luu (@phuc_luu). One of the primary themes of this conversation is that we still need to do better in this world if we are going to make our churches and cities and states and country environments where all people thrive and have access to their livelihood. Dr. Luu exhorts me and thus you to reconsider theological dogmas and doctrines about the cross that we’ve (too) long held to be the standard because they are causing so much violence to those who, to quite Dr. Luu, are the “sinned-against” (a term well explained in the conversation). The formerly “tried and true” claims made by those who have of the powerful and privileged do not hold water for those who are suffering under the weight and burden of oppression by the powerful and privileged. There is a need to reconsider so much that white western Christianity has taken for granted so that we can stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed and marginalized. This conversation takes many twists and bends, but the theme is consistent: there is no time like now to do better so that all our brothers and sisters in the world may experience the truly liberative power of divine love made manifest in the incarnate good word, Jesus the Christ, by the power of the holy spirit–not by means of making everyone Christian, but by being better followers of Christ who so identified with those who suffer in the world at the hands of the powerful.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

The following biographical information is taken from Dr. Luu’s website:

Phuc Luu (福†刘) immigrated with his family to the United States from Vietnam when he was four. Luu is now a theologian, philosopher, and artist in Houston, Texas, creating work to narrow the divide between ideas and beauty. If theology is speaking about God, Luu seeks to give new language to what theology has not yet said. He served for seven years on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers). He holds degrees in theology (MDiv, PhD) and philosophy (MA), but has learned the most from the places where people ask difficult questions, where they live in the land between pain and hope, and where these stories are told.

Phuc’s work has appeared in the AmerAsian Journal, The Journal of Pastoral Care, the Truett Journal of Church and Mission, the Houston Chronicle, and NPR’s This I Believe. He has published on a variety of topics such as Medieval philosophy, pastoral care, theology and culture, philosophy of religion, and art and culture. He has taught philosophy and theology at Sam Houston State University and Houston Baptist University. Phuc currently teaches Old Testament Prophets, New Testament: Gospels, and World Religions at Houston’s Episcopal High School. Phuc is working on his second book, a sequel to Jesus of the East, called Spirit of Connection.

Dr. Luu’s Website: https://www.phucluu.com/

God Comes, Emmanuel

Sermon on Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:3-5  Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. (48)

Introduction

Exceptional grief and sorrow don’t last forever. I remember a couple of years ago, around this time, that I entered into a period of marrow-deep sadness. At the end of 2019, a few negative external events collided with an already present sorrow blended with grief abiding in my soul, and then I was swept into the deep waters of sadness. While I was functional—the gift of being a detached observer—I felt the pain when I was alone. Then, as 2019 turned 2020 and 2020 let down it’s mask revealing itself for the virus laden threat to human existence that it was, I was further pushed into the depths of those deep waters, feeling as if I was just barely keeping above the threatening abyss opened below me.

One chilly afternoon in the middle of a deep south Louisianan winter, I sat on a couch in my therapist’s office expressing my pain through tears, she told me, this intensity of emotional pain only lasts for 45 minutes; if you can make it through 45 minutes, it will alleviate. Your body and mind and soul know they can only handle so much. I trusted her. So, the next time I felt the suction into darkness and pain, instead of trying to numb or run from it, I just sat there in and with it like a blanket draped over me—the intensity of sorrow and grief washing over me, and then, like she said, it would lift. It would not lift completely, but it lifted just enough for me to catch a breath, stretch, fall asleep, care for my kids, and sometimes even laugh and see beauty in what was before me and with me.

Nothing excruciating lasts forever. It can feel like excruciatingly painful moments and events last forever, but they don’t. Even in the deepest and most profound sorrow, things will lighten up emotionally. Even in the scariest moments, that fear will lighten up. Rage will dissipate. Even extreme bliss and happiness will mellow. (This is why there’s caution against chasing the dragon of “happiness”; you cannot sustain such an eternal and infinite sensation; it’s why it’s okay to be “okay.”) While it’s probably easier for most of us to climb down from extreme happiness than climb out of extreme sorrow, it’s nice to know extreme sorrow and grief do not linger forever.

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Our First Testament reading is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the weeping and suffering prophet. The words of Jeremiah’s prophecies tell of a soul who felt incredible pain, felt the threat of doom, the urgency of repentance because he felt the tremors and the footfalls of divine presence drawing nigh and with it, divine judgment; but nothing he did or said could cause the people to respond. So, he lived with an immense feeling of failure.[1] “He screamed, wept, moaned—and was left with a terror in his soul.”[2]

Through these feelings, the divine word sought God’s people, the beloved. Jeremiah exhorted—through prediction—pestilence, slaughter, famine and captivity (ref. Jer. 15.2).[3] God’s judgment was coming: turn and repent! Jeremiah cried. But when that judgment came to Israel and Judah, Jeremiah switched gears; the prophet of sorrow became the herald of good tidings offering hope and comfort to those who were heavy burdened.[4]  Jeremiah, in our passage, is in this role, and he tells the people of God, the God who fulfills promises who is fulfilling God’s good word.[5] The wailing and weeping, the long suffering and existential dread, the fear of threat and weight of burden will not last forever, says Jeremiah. God will rescue! God will redeem! God will save! God will comfort and bring rest! God will act! Do not lose hope Jerusalem; shema! Do not lose hope, Judah; shema!

This God on whose behalf Jeremiah speaks is the God of the covenant—the covenant made with all of Israel—the covenant through which God yoked God’s self to Israel, forever being their God and they forever God’s people. This covenant will be fulfilled not through the obedience of Judah and Jerusalem, but by God and God’s self; it is this that gives the covenant that eternal and divine actuality. It will never and can never be violated; God will keep it.[6] Weeping, writes Jeremiah in chapter 50, the people shall come and seek God who has come near, who is near in comfort and love, in rest from burden and weariness.[7] The true shoot of Jesse, the scion, the heir will come;[8] the Messianic King comes to make manifest God’s divine presence and eternal love to God’s people and to bring in all who suffer and weep, those who grieve, those who are in pain, those who are wearied.[9] Extreme sorrow and grief do not and will not last forever.

Conclusion

Everything that we’ve been through in the past (near) 20 months has not been taken in as single unit. Walking through a global pandemic and social upheaval, barely keeping our hearts and minds and bodies and souls intact isn’t something we do all at once. Rather, we do it 45 minutes at a time. I know that the demand to keep walking, to keep getting up, to keep breathing one breathe at a time can feel daunting in times like this. I know you may feel like you just can’t keep going at times; but I know you can.

I know you can because you’re not alone; and you’ve not been alone—even if it felt like you’ve been alone and isolated. The truth is, you’ve been embraced by God and by the eternal cloud of saints who move ahead, alongside, behind, and with you. And I know this because I’ve had the honor and privilege to be called to walk with you these past twelve months. Through ups and downs, masked and unmasked, in moments of chaos and calm, in change and consistency, I’ve watched you walk, one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, through this time—this very historical and very difficult time. And you’ve done it every day with God and with each other, bonded together through the divinity of profound and real love. And the only thing I’ve needed to do, because God’s love for you presses upon me, is remind you that you are the beloved.

And as we enter this new season of liturgy and worship of Advent, let us be consumed with that deep abiding knowledge and peace that comes with the ever-present love of God. Let us come into expectation, let us be brought (together) to the brink of curiosity as we await—with breathless anticipation—the humble arrival of the divine Christ, God’s love born in flesh into the world to reconcile the world to God, to eliminate any and all thought that there’s any such great distance to be crossed to God by God’s people.  

Beloved, extreme sorrow and grief will not last forever, behold, Immanuel, God with us.


[1] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Jeremiah” New York: JPS, 1962. 105. “Jeremiah’s was a soul in pain, stern with gloom. To his wistful eye the city’s walls seemed to reel. The days that were to come would be dreadful. He called, he urged his people to repent—and he failed.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 105

[3] Heschel Prophets 129. “For many years Jeremiah had predicted pestilence, slaughter, famine, and captivity (15:2).

[4] Heschel Prophets 129. “However, when calamity arrived, in the hour of panic and terror, when every face was turned pale with dark despair, the prophet came to instill hope, to comfort, to console …”

[5] John Bright Jeremiah: A new Translation with Introduction and Commentary The Anchor Bible. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman gen eds. 2nd Ed. 1986 Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. 296. v. 14 “fulfill the promise. Literally ‘…the good word.’”

[6] Heschel Prophets 129-130. “The climax of Jeremiah’s prophecy is the promise of a covenant which will mean not only complete forgiveness of sin (50:20), but also a complete transformation of Israel. In time to come God will give Israel ‘one heart and one way’ and make with them “an everlasting covenant” (32:39-40), which will never be violated (50:40).”

[7] Heschel Prophets 129. “The rule of Babylon shall pass, but God’s covenant with Israel shall last forever. The day will come when ‘the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the Lord their God They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, Come, let us join ourselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten’ (50:4-5). Jerusalem will dwell secure under the watchword, ‘The Lord is our vindication’ (33:16).”

[8] Bright Jeremiah 296. v. 15 “a true ‘Shoot.’ Or ‘Branch (so many EVV), i.e., a scion…But Note (vs. 17) that here the promise is broadened to include not merely a single king, but the continuing dynasty.”

[9] Bright Jeremiah 298. “The name Yahwehsidqenu, which is there applied to the Messianic king, is here transferred to Judah and Jerusalem, while the promise of the true ‘Shoot’ of David is referred (vs. 17) to the continuing dynasty rather than to a single individual. Moreover, the promise is broadened to include a never-ending succession of Levitical priests who serve beside the king.”

From One Grain of Earth

Sermon on John 18:33-37

Psalm 132: 8-10  Arise, O Lord, into your resting-place, you and the ark of your strength. Let your priests be clothed with righteousness; let your faithful people sing with joy. For your servant David’s sake, do not turn away the face of your Anointed.

Introduction

The Christian life can feel hard to live out in moderation. We are told that we are not of this world but merely resident in the world. In the letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts the believers in chapter 12 not to be “conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” (v.2a-b). In the book of James, we are told that to be friends with the world causes us to be enemies of God (4:4). 1 John 2:15-17 reads:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

With these rather antagonistic words spoken against the world, what is a material girl to do? How do I, a human being—made of very tangible materials of bone and flesh, living in a world that is made up of other various material—navigate this supposed enmity between that which is spiritual and material? That which is of God and that which is of the world? What does it mean to be here but not of here?

Answers tend to range in two binaries: be completely invested in other-worldly, spiritual matters and the non-corporeal or be completely invested in the material and corporeal. The problem with the former is that it makes you too disconnected from the plight of the world and those who are materially sabotaged and held captive by malevolent and prejudicial systems, not to mention the very real tendency to participate in those systems that abuse and consume both the flora and fauna of creation. The latter is problematic because of the tendency to make a religion out of creation, forcing it into a space it’s not supposed to be—forcing the material to be spiritual—thus stealing its mystery and magnificence as it becomes a part of your consumption.

But what if the robustness of our Christian life isn’t in the either/or but in the paradox: in our material existence therein is our spiritual existence, and in our spiritual existence therein is our material existence? What if there is something to the Ruach of God mingling with dirt resulting in human form and existence?[1] In other words, what if the incarnation of Christ our King means something for our life in the present realm and not just the ethereal one? What if the other-cosmicness of Christ’s kingdom is made most manifest in our earthliness when we, filled with the Spirit press into the love of God and find ourselves at the doorstep of our neighbor, in solidarity with them?

John 18:33-37

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this cosmos; if my kingdom was of this cosmos, my servants would be striving so that I would not be handed over to the Jews. But now my kingdom is not from this place.” Then Pilate said to him, “So then you, you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You, you say that I am. For this I have been brought forth, and for this I have come into the cosmos, so that I may witness to the truth…”[2]

John 18:36-37b

John tells us that Jesus is brought before Pilate, deep within the residence of the governor.[3] In this scene, Pilate seeks to get answers to questions to retrieve information if Jesus is a king or not. In his questions, Pilate reveals his primary concern: Are you a threat to me and my people and land? [4] Are me and mine threatened by your and yours? Jesus’s answer can be boiled down to a not-so-clear: yesno. In other words: Jesus doesn’t deny being a king, but he does deny being that type of king, a king of this world. It’s this ambiguous yesno that causes Pilate to keep along his line of questioning: If a king, what type of kingdom, then? [5] And Jesus’s answer can be boiled down again to another not-so-clear response: therehere and some herethere.

The radical thing about Jesus’s presence before Pilate is that he sees Jesus as merely a man, just a material and corporeal being. Yet Jesus’s replies indicate an otherworldliness to his presence and being.[6] There’s a collision of the divine and the created, of the infinite and the finite, of the immaterial and the material, of the non-corporeal and the corporeal. If there ever was an intersection of the collision of the otherness and the familiar, it’s here in the incarnation of the Christ the king, a divine ruler of the heavens, before a flesh and bone only human ruler of the earth. Here, Pilate is exposed by Jesus—the ruler of land is exposed by the ruler of notland. Here, the Judge is being judged by the judge who is being judged by the Judge; here, life collides with death, and death with life.[7]

Here truth confronts lie. As Jesus tells Pilate that he is here to reveal the truth into this world, Pilate is now in the position to hear it or not. The great Shema, hear!, entered Pilate’s home and spoke to him. If Jesus is the witness to the truth, then Pilate is positioned as the one who witnesses to the lie. He reveals this by his question, “What is truth?” To ask this question exposes Pilate’s not heard Jesus’s voice, the divine call to truth; Pilate remains outside of it.[8]

Conclusion

Of what is Pilate remaining outside? The reign of God entering the kingdom of humanity to overhaul it: by first taking it down to rubble and then resurrecting God’s new kingdom under the reign of Christ and the law of love, mercy and kindness, love and grace, forgiveness and longsuffering, in solidarity and revolution on behalf of the captives. This reign and kingdom does not hover above, to the left, to the right, or just below the earth; it exists in the world and on the earth, forcing everything out of the comfort of neutrality to side with either truth or lie.[9]

And that goes for us, too. We who follow Jesus out of the Jordan and into Jerusalem must see that we are neither solely of this material world nor solely of a spiritual world, for either extreme renders us as neutral to what is going on. Rather we are to hear the truth that is Christ and feel the claim of Christ the king and his reign.[10] We must see our material life made whole by our spiritual life, and our spiritual life made whole by our material life. Through the presence of the Spirit of God, we must see our profound and deep connection to the very soil beneath our feet. As we do, we will see that the breadth of the heavens, the entire cosmos, this world, this creation, this humanity is united in a profound connection of a material-spiritual existence. For from the soil humanity was created by the divine breath of God; in the essence of our existence, we all share in one grain of earth…

The Beginning of the World {Yokuts}

“Everything was water except a small piece of ground. On this were Eagle and Coyote. Then the turtle swam to them. They sent it to dive for the earth at the bottom of the water. The turtle barely succeeded in reaching the bottom and touching it with its foot. When it came up again, all the earth seemed washed out. Coyote looked closely at its nails. At last he found a grain of earth. Then he and the eagle took this and laid it down. From it they made the earth as large as it is. From the earth they also made six men and six women. They sent these out in pairs in different directions and the people separated. After a time the eagle sent Coyote to see what the people were doing. Coyote came back and said: ‘They are doing something bad. They are eating the earth. One side is already gone.’ Then eagle said: ‘That is bad. Let us make something for them to eat. Let us send the dove to find something.’ The dove went out. It found a single grain of meal. The eagle and Coyote put this down on the ground. Then the earth became covered with seeds and fruit. Now they told the people to eat these. When the seeds were dry and ripe the people gathered them. Then the people increased and spread all over. But the water is still under the world.”[11]


[1] Ref. Gen 2

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[3] Part of the definition of τὸ πραιτώριον, the Praetorium.

[4] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971. 653. “The significance of the question is determined by the fact that Pilate, i.e, the state, understands the concept of king only in the political sense. Pilate therefore proceeds now in an objective manner in so far as he, despite the mistrust of the accuser voiced in v. 31, investigates conscientiously whether there was occasion for proceedings by the state. Does Jesus claim a political status which the representative of the public authority could not recognize?”

[5] Bultmann John 654-655. “Pilate questions further, because Jesus indeed has indirectly affirmed that he is a king; and now Jesus affirms it directly: Yes, he is a king! But of what sort is his kingdom? Some kind of claim to sovereignty must be his, otherwise his statement would have lost all meaning!”

[6] Bultmann John 654. “That this concerns a claim which goes forth to the world from beyond it is signified by γεγέννημαι και… ελήλυθα εἰς τὸν κόσμον, whereby γεγέννημαι to a certain extent is orientated to the viewpoint of Pilate, for whom Jesus is first and foremost a man and nothing more: he, this man, has come for this reason… But because in this man one is confronted with a claim other than human, the mythological ελήλυθα εἰς τὸν κόσμον is paradoxically bound up with γεγ.: the origin—and therefore the being of this man is not from this world, but he has ‘come’ into this world.”

[7] Bultman John 655. “And in truth he has come in order to ‘bear witness’ for the ‘truth,’ i.e. in order to make God’s reality effective over against the world in the great trial between God and the world. He indeed has come into the world for judgment (9.39; 3.19), and his witness is at the same time an accusation against the world (7.7). It is in this ‘witness’ that he lays his claim to sovereignty; he himself is the ἀλήθεια to which he bears testimony (14.6), and he testifies on behalf of himself (8.14, 18). He is the judge, who decides over life and death (5.19ff.). So he stands now also before Pilate, who according to the world’s standard is his judge.”

[8] Bultman John 656. “…‘What is truth?’ i.e. he takes the point of view that the state is not interested in the question about the ἀλήθεια—about the reality of God, or as perhaps it ought to be expressed in Pilate’s way of thinking—about reality in the radical sense. He remains on the outside. For the person who represents this standpoint that means that he shuts the door on the claim of the revelation, and in so doing he shows that he is not of the truth—he is of the lie.”

[9] Bultman John 657. “For the βασιλεία is not an isolated sphere of pure inwardness over against the world, it is not a private area for the cultivation of religious needs, which could not come into conflict with the world. The word of Jesus unmasks the world as a world of sin, and it challenges it. In order to defend itself against the word it flees to the state, and demands that the latter put itself at its disposal. But then the state is torn out of its neutrality precisely in so far as its firm hold on to neutrality signifies a decision against the world.”

[10] Bultmann John 654. “The reader knows that if the βασιλεία of Jesus is not ‘of this world,’ and is not ‘from here,’ as it is ἂνωθεν, and therefore superior to all worldly dominion (cp. 3.31). He knows also the peculiar claim which this βασιλεία makes on man.”

[11] https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/The-Beginning-Of-The-World-Wukchamni-Yokut.html

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’.”