Courage to Retrieve the Beloved

The following is the text of my short offering during a service last night (1/14/23) in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. at American Lutheran Church, Grand Junction:

It was a beautiful Mother’s Day. We gathered the kids, an aunt and uncle, and headed out to celebrate the day. Our destination was Miracle Rock (aka Potato Rock). We reached the stunning geography, admired the rock, and decided to mill about, and let the toddler down from her hiking-backpack. For what 18-month-olds lack in fine motor skill they make up in large motor function; my daughter could run. And she did. She was! In moments, a blink of an eye, with no warning, she bolted out of reach before we knew what was happening. Her new-found freedom provoked her confidence and, to her, the entire world spread out and needed to be suddenly investigated. But what she couldn’t see, her parents did: the edge. We called her. She didn’t stop. We started to run after her but she was too far ahead of us; we wouldn’t make it in time. Plus, wouldn’t chasing her become a game? No way to catch her as the deadly horizon drew closer. Desperation kicked in; reality fell like a heavy blanket. Out of options! With what felt like seconds left to change her trajectory, to interrupt her path, I waved off my husband and did the only thing I could do in that moment. I gathered up every ounce of strength I had, and I hollered: “LIZA! STOP!” so loud every muscle flexed, and I sent myself backward. But she stopped. Mom-voice hopped up on the steroids of love and life, she stopped. Mid stride, feet from the edge, she collapsed into a ball on the ground and wept. My husband was closer than I was and able to retrieve our weeping mass of baby; she was safe.

Love sounds her maternal yawp against looming destruction, life fights back the tentacles of death.

There’s a confession embedded in the theme of today’s service; the exhortation to develop courage means we must reckon with the fact that if we had courage we lost it. Where did our courage go? Maybe its buried under lethargy; everything feels so exhausting right now. Maybe our courage is gagged by forgetfulness; we move on faster and faster from traumatic events (because terror is becoming normal). Maybe our courage is trapped under fear; there’s no assurance and security right now (sending three kids off to school 5 days a week, my one prayer is please bring them home to me tonight). Maybe our courage is confused; disoriented behind weaponized walls of cis-het whiteness, patriarchy, and Christian nationalism. Or maybe our courage has atrophied; malnourished by lacking creative and curious activity, starving for hope and mercy. Whatever the reason, we must confess we do not have more courage than we did nearly three years ago and whatever we had then is now gone. The world is not better, it is not safer, it is not more alive.

Love sounds her maternal yawp against looming destruction, life fights back the tentacles of death.

While we stand in a very vulnerable place, aware of our lack, there is good news. It’s here, in the fleshiness of our confession where we’re beckoned by love’s voice into the arms of life out of the threat of destruction and out of the grip of death. These two need be our despotic rulers no more; because here in this meeting in the vulnerability of confession, clutched by love and life we are reconciled with our courage to resist their tyranny. Courage is not mustered up from the isolation of ourselves by ourselves, it cannot come to the surface if we continue to turn more and more in on ourselves by ourselves. Rather, it is born (again) in our triune comingling with life and love; because, in our individual confessions we see and hear that we are not alone, we stand in and with a great crowd of other witnesses. Consumed by the divine spirit of life and love we are invited to start again not alone but together. We are exhorted to take hold of our courage again, together. Here, with each other, we begin again, we begin anew. Here, with each other, we are emboldened to stand up however we can, reanimated with verve and vigor. Here, together(!) we are resurrected out of lethargy, out of fear, out of forgetfulness, into love’s land of daring curiosity and life’s audacious creativity; repowered to dream dreams, to have visions of possible impossibilities, to imagine the creation of better worlds marked by liberation and justice for all. Here we find what was lost: ourselves, each other, and our voices. And if we find these, we find courage abundant because we are a force to be reckoned with together.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in his Sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” said,

“The greatest of all virtues is love.…In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, [we] are challenged to follow the way of love. [We] will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.”[1]

Here, together, in the word of love and life we are given the potent and visceral force and strength (the courage!) to sound our maternal yawp against looming destruction, to actively join in life’s fight against the tentacles of death to retrieve the beloved (our siblings and ourselves) from the tentacles of death.


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

Solidarity to Love and Liberate

Psalm 29:10-11 God sits enthroned above the flood; God sits enthroned as Creator for evermore. God shall give strength to God’s people; God shall give God’s people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

Coming off of abundant spontaneous good will and festivity of the Thanksgiving-to-New Years season can be a letdown, a big one. So, in the gray of January we find ourselves seemingly dropped off at the curb in the wind and ice of winter. Lights are still up for now…but they will slowly come down over the next few weeks. Brightly lit trees will go the way of compost. The beautiful candles of our Jewish siblings celebrating their sacred festival of lights have long been blown out. Presents have ceased to come in; Christmas cards, too…even the late ones… *clears throat. School’s looming return draws nigh, work summons us return, and the “normal” grind resumes.

(In fact, we all know that depression and self-harm surges during this time after the holiday season. If you’re feeling that dip, that dark cloud, that existential sadness, please know you, beloved, are not alone; please reach out and ask for help. The cheer might have died down, but love for you has not died down in the least.)

So, in the midst of packing up the remnants of celebration we need something to divert our attention. Some good news. We need something that transcends our limitedness of time and place, something that is independent of our calendar, something that is outside of us, something that can call us to look out, away from ourselves, and wonder…We need something or someone who stands with us even when it feels like everything has just left us…

Matthew 3:13-17

But John was obstinately preventing him saying, “I, I have the need to be baptized by you, and you, you come to me?” And answering, Jesus said to him, “You permit this moment, for in this way it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then [John] permits him. And after being baptized, Jesus at once came up from the water and, behold, the heavens were being opened for him, and he saw the spirit of God descending as if it were a dove and coming upon him…[1]

Mt 3:14-16

Here, Matthew invites us to look upon Jesus’s baptism by John in the River Jordan. Matthew’s account focuses less on the scene surrounding the baptism, and more on the interaction between Jesus and God in this moment of solidarity with humankind.[2] Jesus traveled from Galilee to/toward (πρὸς) John who is waist deep in the Jordan baptizing people to wash them of their sin. In other words, Jesus doesn’t stumble upon John, his buddy, his relative, and think he’ll just pop into the Jordan real quick for a little visit and, heck, why not get baptized, too. This is an intentional journey, a divine intentional journey.

Thus why John is both surprised and resistant to Jesus showing up and getting baptized. Even though John opened up the idea of baptism to incorporate everyone (lay and leader alike),[3] he didn’t intend to open it up this much. This doesn’t make sense, Cuz, we both know you aren’t like the rest who come to me, you are the not-so-regular one! John’s resistance makes sense and is, from our perspective, theologically accurate: I, John, have the need to be baptized by you! John knows who Jesus is; but Jesus knows that his solidarity with humanity[4] necessitates participating in this moment, this event, this encounter with God in humility and dependence. This is why Jesus commands[5] John to allow it: it is necessary and right and good so to do.[6] For this righteousness that must be fulfilled is the very will of God—it is divine vindication of the oppressed, it is deliverance for the captives, it is salvation for the dying,[7] and it’s for God’s people.[8] The one who stands before John is the representative of the people.[9] Jesus is thoroughly of the people for the people; and this is part of the mission of divine love in the world born those many years ago in a meager cave among animals and shepherds.

But Matthew doesn’t stop with the solidarity of Jesus with humanity. There is one more move up his story-telling sleeve: Jesus is also the human in solidarity with God. As soon as Jesus came up from the water, the heavens tore open making way for the descent[10] of God’s spirit as if it were a dove. Once again, a dove is sent out over the waters to find a place to land, and it lands; this time, though, it lands not on some long unseen tree-branch rising from the departing waters, but on the long promised shoot from the stump of Jesse parting the waters.[11] And in this moment, God speaks, And behold a voice out of the heavens saying, “this is my beloved son, in him I am well-pleased.” Make no doubt about it, those who were merely bystanders partially wet, hanging out in the Jordan on that day, were ushered in as witnesses to Jesus’s divine sonship; everything that happens from this moment on, is as God’s mission[12] of love in the world.[13]

Conclusion

Just like on Christmas, we are invited again to come and see. This time our location is not a cave, but in the water; it is not among animals and shepherds but a host of other “regular” people ushered into the event. And we witness what was long hoped for all those years ago: God in solidarity with humanity, humanity in solidarity with God. We are beckoned to come and see and witness this great moment pointing to what will come when Jesus will (once again) stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, the captives and those sentenced to death.[14]

Remember, on Christmas Eve, I said:

“That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it hope. That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace. That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy. Because—on that night—Love showed up and changed everything forever.”[15]

In this moment, told to us by a voice located in ages past, we are reminded love didn’t just show up once; it kept showing up. God’s relentless mission of divine love in the world didn’t end when the curtains closed on Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the shepherds and animals. It kept going, it kept growing, and now it stands in the River Jordan baptized by John to demonstrate that God’s righteousness is made full not only through incarnation but through deep, deep solidarity with humanity, and it won’t stop not even in the face of death.

As soon as Jesus leaves the Jordan the divine mission of hope, of peace, of joy, and of love is on the move and nothing will ever be the same again.

Come and see the one baptized as you are, Beloved. Come and see a new story on the move. Come and see a better way to live.[16] Come and see divine love do the only thing it knows to do: love and liberate the captives, to love and stand with you and never ever forsake you.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] R. T. France The Gospel of Matthew The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gen. Ed Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 118. “But for Matthew the importance of the event is not in the baptism itself, but in the revelation which follows it, which culminates in the declaration that Jesus is God’s unique Son, a theological position which has been assumed in 2:15 but is now brought into the open.”

[3] Case-Winters Matthew, 51. “In extending this practice to everyone, John is in effect declaring that everyone stands in need of conversion, signaling their repentance and turning to God. Even the religious leaders stood in need of baptism.”

[4] Anna Case-Winters Matthew Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2015. 50. “One way we might understand Jesus presenting himself for baptism is as a sign of his solidarity with sinners. In this context, ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ is to be with God’s people, stand in their place, share in their penitence, live their life, die their death.”

[5] ἂφες aorist active imperative 2nd person singular (verb). Jesus is telling John to let it happen.

[6] France, Matthew, 119. “The substance of Jesus’ reply is clear enough: John is to overcome his scruples and carry out the baptism requested. Whatever may be their ultimate relationship, this is the right course ‘for now,’ and Jesus will be, now as throughout the gospel, perfectly obedient to the will of God. But the explanation given does not spell out why this is ‘the right way for us to fulfill all that is required of us.’”

[7] Case-Winters Matthew, 50. “We might also inquire into the meaning of ‘righteousness.’ In the Hebrew Scriptures the term (tsedaqah) is not so much about sinless perfection as it is about right relationship and the fulfilling of covenant obligations. It is about the establishment of God’s will that justice should prevail everywhere. God’s righteousness is connected with ‘vindication,’ ‘deliverance,’ and ‘salvation’ (tsedaqah is alternately translated by these terms). God’s righteousness is seen in God’s special regard for those who are powerless or oppressed and stand in need of justice.”

[8] France, Matthew, 119. “The usage of dikaiosyně (which I have translated ‘what is required’) elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel indicates a basic meaning of the conduct which God expects of his people.”

[9] France, Matthew, 120. “The most obvious way in which Jesus’ baptism prepares for his mission is by indicating his solidarity with John’s call to repentance in view of the arrival of God’s kingship. By first identifying with John’s proclamation Jesus lays the foundation for his own mission to take on where John has left off. Further, as Jesus is baptized along with others at the Jordan, he is identified with all those who by accepting John’s baptism have declared their desire for a new beginning with God.”

[10] France, Matthew, 121. “Isa 63:19 (EVV 64:1) asks God to tear (LXX anoigō, as here) the heavens and come down to redeem his people. The opening of heaven is the prelude to the divine communication which follows and especially to the visible descent of the Spirit.”

[11] France, Matthew, 122.

[12] Case-Winters Matthew, 51. “Just as God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus’ conception (Matt. 1:18) and now in his baptism (3:16), so the Spirit will lead him throughout his ministry. The first stop is the wilderness into which Jesus is ‘led up by the Spirit.’”

[13] France, Matthew, 124. “[God] is declaring in richly allusive words that this man who has just been baptized by John is his own Son in whom he delights. From this point on Matthew’s readers have no excuse for failing to understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry, however long it may take the actors in the story to reach the same Christological conclusion (14:33; 16:16; 26:63-64). It will be this crucial revelation of who Jesus is which will immediately form the basis of the initial testing which Jesus is called to undergo in 4:1-11: ‘If you are the Son of God…’ (4:3, 6). And there, as in the account of the baptism, Jesus’ sonship will be revealed in his obedience to his Father’s will.”

[14] W. Travis McMaken Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Emerging Scholars. Minneapolis, MN: 2013. 227 “…Jesus’ submission to baptism by John was not only expression of solidarity with sinful humanity. It was also a substitutionary event wherein Jesus acted in the place of sinful humanity… In submitting to John’s baptism of repentance in view of impending eschatological judgment, Jesus Christ not only acted with but also as sinful humanity, displacing that humanity and enacting the repentance required of it. He was baptized in our place. But Jesus’ baptism was not merely the first step on a road that would lead to a substitutionary work on the cross’ rather, it was itself a substitutionary act that with his work on the cross constitutes Jesus Christ’s saving history….In a way, Jesus’ baptism by John and the following descent of Spirit is a prolepsis of the whole saving history of Jesus Christ—and perhaps especially of his death resurrection and sending of the Spirit—that stands at the beginning of his actively messianic ministry.”

[15] https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/12/24/love-changed-everything/

[16] Ref. to Helmut Gollwitzer’s sermon “Reason at Last, of Another Kind” from The Way to Life: Sermons in a time of World Crisis. Trans. David Cairns. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981.

Love Changed Everything

[1]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.

A New Hope

Mary was very pregnant 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. There wasn’t anything special emanating from her. She was just another pregnant person. How many other pregnant people were seen that night? How many other babies were born that night? How many children born before this one? 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. That night, there wasn’t anything to be done but to offer up some meager space among dirty animals, trampled hay, and dirt, in crisp air of a Bethlehem night. Is this all there is for me and my baby? Exhausted eyes survey the meager estate. Nascent maternal guilt blossoms in hope’s absence, mom whispers her first I’m sorry to her enwombed beloved. I wish I could give you more

When the contractions started, Mary gave herself over to them; she had no choice, she was now in service to life. As she labored on earth, the host of heaven was still. 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 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 humble judge, the embodiment of divine love, and a new story for the world. For this child, heaven held its breath as Mary brought him forth out of darkness into light so he would be the light going into the darkness, the word piercing the silence, the divine reply to ages of human longing stuck in sorrow, pain, suffering, and captivity, those who cried out through clenched teeth and broken hearts: is there something more? Is there something better than this!? Those too exhausted to hope.

God chose this body and this regularity of being born to enter the world and identify with the depth of the pain of the human predicament. God could’ve shown up and skipped this banal and regular step; God could have come in glory and not in precarious vulnerability. However, God chose not to skip it but to embrace it, to experience it, to identify with God’s 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 the trajectory of everything with a new Word.

That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it, hope.

A New Peace

Mary wasn’t alone that night, walking steadily into that event, one step at a time. Joseph was with her. This regular guy was going about 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? Somehow, this was all the work of God, yet he questioned everything. But, even still, he walked with Mary. He walked with this mother of this child that was not his. Will God actually show up, like the Angel promised? Anxiety simmering pushing out peace.

The many closed doors to decent lodging didn’t help things. He was eager to get this very pregnant Mary to security, to a place where she could rest[2]she looks so tired. When the option for the humble estate of wood, straw, and animals came, it was a stroke of fortune even if not ideal. Provision. We’ll make this work, at least for tonight. He breathed. But not for long. When the contractions started, Joseph knew he must do one thing: find a midwife. (So goes another telling of the birth of Jesus.[3])

Then something altogether new and different happened while he sought this Bethlehemite midwife. Joseph was momentarily disentangled from everything, suspended in time and space as the cosmos seemed to come to a screeching halt, as if God was slowing it all down in order to set the whole thing in a completely 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.”[4]

When God steps into our timeline and into our space things do not keep moving as if it’s all normal. Everything stops. Time is slowed down and space is parted from itself making room for more and bigger and better. God doesn’t break into our realm like a thief. Rather, God takes our realm into God’s self, disrupts us, gives us new ground to stand on; God’s people are ruptured from death’s grip and ushered into the life of God’s reign, into something new, given a different story, and a different way of living in the world.

That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace.

A New Joy

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.[5] This life was quiet, even if deprived and rather dangerous…keeping the flock safe took a lot of work and strength and risk.[6] The census going on caused additional anxiety, fear, and made that heavy blanket of oppression draped over these humble shepherds seem a bit heavier.[7] How many more sheep would they lose from their flocks when the census was over?[8] Against this evil empire they were helpless, more helpless than against a vicious and voracious wolf.[9] Spirits were low that dark night; joy was nowhere to be found.

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?[10]

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!”[11]

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 were summoned by God to come into this event, into this space…and, that night, they went. The unclean were called; the oppressed were summoned; the meek 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. 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. And here the audacity of joy on a dark night bubbled forth in the space given to them to rejoice.

That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy.

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. On that night God showed up and Love claimed Love’s land and did the only thing Love knows to do: seek those who are cast off and call those who thought they were too far off to hear, too 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 loved and summoned to witness this divine event of love in the world and to encounter God on this night. Tonight, we are invited to experience the divine disruption of a new word, a new story pointing to something better, giving us hope. Tonight, we are disentangled from what was by this new story and liberated into the realm of peace. Tonight, we are given time and space to have joy and to dare to rejoice. Tonight—by this new story, by this new word—we are found on Love’s land wrapped up in the lap of Love.

That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it hope. That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace. That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy. Because—on that night—Love showed up and changed everything forever.


[1] *This sermon is an edited version of the Christmas Eve sermon from 12/24/2021. Found here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/12/24/on-that-night/

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

[3] The Protoevangelium of James 18:1

[4] 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)

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

[6] Gonzalez Luke 33.

[7] Gonazalez Luke 33, 34

[8] Gonzalez Luke 33

[9] Gonzalez Luke 33

[10] Gonzalez Luke 34

[11] Translation mine

Love, Even Now

Psalm 80:16-18 Let your hand be upon the person of your right hand, the son of humanity you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your Name. Restore us, God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Introduction

I know last week I mentioned that rejoicing and having joy feels decadent in the midst of our context, however, I misspoke. Maybe love feels decadent, needing to ask: can I risk this? Can I risk love? The past few years make a person feel a little iffy about love. In an environment illuminating the transitoriness of life and people, why love? How do I keep loving when things and people are yanked out of my grasp? Can I throw bands of love into a void without anything to cleave? How do I love others in a world forcing me to compete rendering the other person either as my meal ticket or in my way? Love takes energy I don’t have; I’m crawling over the threshold at night. I have barely enough left for myself, don’t make me risk what little that is. I’m laid bare, I’m exhausted, I’m at my wit’s end … Love? Actually love so I can just be hurt again…again? I just can’t.

Most days maybe it feels safer and easier to cast off love than to embrace it. Maybe if I talk about love and loving others I’ll get that dopamine rush I crave as if I’ve done something loving or have loved someone. Maybe if I close my eyes and plug up my ears long enough, I can drown out the cries of the unloved. Maybe if I keep pressing my inner garbage down far and long enough, I won’t realize I need love. Love like fire can be suffocated, and a heavy spirit will do such.

The heartbeat of love weakens.

Isaiah 7:10-16

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Isaiah 7:13-14

God,[1] through Isaiah, asks Ahaz to request a sign, a big one, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (7:11b). It’s an interesting request. A sign not only preceded a divine event but was also a means by which prophetic utterances were validated or invalidated.[2] I would jump at the opportunity. But Ahaz? No. He declines, refusing to “put God to the test” (7:12b). At this point nothing seems wrong. Ahaz shouldn’t put God to the test, right? Alas, Ahaz’s response demands a quick reply of divine admonishment.

According to Isaiah, Ahaz’s inability to do what God asked indicates a much larger problem. The way Ahaz responds to God in disobedience is the thermometer by which the rest of God’s people are judged.[3] Even if individual disobedience is allowed for, there is still the issue of individual disobedience to God being indicative of the atmosphere of the society in which the individual is found, right? It’s not like Ahaz operates in a vacuum; it’s not like Ahaz isn’t influential, right? So, Isaiah declares God’s exasperation and weariness toward God’s people. So, seems nooooone of you are content exhausting each other, you must also exhaust me?!

Isaiah continues, here’s the sign God will do what God promised: a young woman of child-bearing age[4] will be with child and she will name him Immanuel. Where Ahaz could’ve requested a very clear sign, God will deliver God’s sign: something small, unsuspecting, and vulnerable. Ahaz could have asked for a chariot to descend from the clouds; a sign that was big, clear, and powerful. Now? Nah, fam, your sign, Ahaz, is a baby born to a woman; oh, and his name will be Immanuel. *winks*

The name, Immanuel—meaning “God-with-us” (hinting at trust in God) [5]—was rather original, but the other parts of that sign are rather unoriginal. God’s sign will be nestled in the lap of a ritually unclean woman who just gave birth. Here, in this precarious unseemliness, God’s blessing[6] and promise[7]of deliverance is held. Will you dare to see it, break your own rules to lay hold of it?

Prophets are caught up in the divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s people. Here, Isaiah is so caught up in the blast from heaven[8] that he is wearied as God is wearied over Israel’s saccharine homage and the self-centered ceremonies. [9] Isaiah’s heart breaks for God’s people, just as God’s heart breaks. Isaiah becomes consumed with the “injured love” of God, it takes over his whole being. He, like God, is exhausted with the people’s disobedience and desertion of God’s love and law of love.[10] In this, Isaiah feels God’s sorrow because the hearts of God’s people have wondered far off; they do the rituals but there’s no love.[11]

Yet, Isaiah feels God’s patient and eager love for Israel. Isaiah feels the pain of his people, longs for them to be healed and mended, to come back to God the source of love and life. He wishes for them to stop leaning on their own understanding and ability to haphazardly get from one day to another, often getting lost between.[12] Isaiah loves God’s people because the firm ground where Isaiah stands is in God, in light, in life, in love. Isaiah isn’t dependent on himself to muster up love, rather it is given to him by God who is love, it comes with the deed to the land he stands on in God. To be with and in God, to be caught in the divine pathos is to be caught up in the divine love and the prophet, at that point, cannot do anything else but love God’s people.

The heartbeat of love revives.

Conclusion

Remember,

  1. Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”
  2. “this hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us…”
  3. “Hope anchored in God’s story is the capillary of divine peace extracting us from that which entangles us, giving us new ground to stand receiving space to have joy…”

This space we’re given where we have joy because of being at peace, because our hope is in God, is the space of love. The holy ground on which we stand is love’s land and herein does love exist with and in us. Thus, we can love, even now. Remember, passivity isn’t an option here. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Love exists because God is and God is within us.

Anyone born of God is born of love; anyone found in God is found in love; anyone inspired by the substance of God is inspired by love. In other words, while love is risky and something I don’t want to do because I’ve lost enough already, yet because I follow God, love is the only thing I can do. To follow God is to follow the way of life and love, good luck not loving. Hope exists; therefore peace exists; therefore joy exists; therefore love exists. Isaiah reminds us, Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel… God with us!

Love exists because it’s the unstoppable animating force of divine substance which is love. Love exists because it has neither an end nor a beginning. Love exists because my feet are on the solid ground of God. Love exists because there’s another way, a way that love will find, a way bringing life and liberty to everyone. Love exists because possibility has yet to cease to be. Love exists because we are together and, somehow, we keep making it day after day, walking with each other and not away from each other. Love exists because in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace, and if we have these, we have joy, and if we have all of that, we our found nestled in the lap of love.

The heartbeat of love quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. When everything appeared turned in, when no room was found for love and life, God made a way becoming knowable in the midst of dirt, hay, and animals, in the lap of an unclean woman, being the humble sign of divine promise, Immanuel…God with us!”


[1] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 65. “One would expect the subject of this oracle to be Isaiah, especially from the larger context (cf. vv. 11 and 13), but the reference directly to Yahweh as the subject functions to emphasize the divine authority of the offer that follows. It is not merely a suggestion from the prophet, but an invitation from God himself to request a sign.”

[2] Childs, Isaiah, 65. “Within the prophetic corpus, as distinct from the Priestly source of the Pentateuch (e.g., Gen. 9:12). a sign is a special event, either ordinary or miraculous, that serves as a pledge by which to confirm the prophetic word. The sign precedes in time the impending threat or promise, and prefigures the fulfillment by the affinity in content between the sign and its execution.”

[3] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 16. “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some crime measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.”

[4] Childs, Isaiah, 66. “The noun is derived, not from the root ‘to be concealed’ as suggested already by Jerome, but from a homonym, meaning ‘to be full of vigor,’ ‘to have reached the age of puberty.’ Thus the noun refers to a female sexually ripe for marriage. The emphasis does not fall on virginity as such and, in this respect, differs from the Hebrew be’túlāh.”

[5] Childs, Isaiah, 66. “The mother gives the child the name Immanuel, God-with-us. The name does not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, but the close parallels {rom the Psalter (46:8, 12) make clear that it is an expression of trust in the presence of God integral to Israel’s piety.”

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 68. “The meaning is the same in v. 15. The sign of Immanuel is also the pledge of blessing. Within the same short period of time the blessings anticipated in the name will be visible tor the faithful who believe in the messianic rule of God. The language of curds and honey testifies to the selfsame new eschatological reality as that of the great joy of the harvest in 9:3(2), or of the earth ‘full of the knowledge of the LORD as water covers the sea’ (11:9).”

[7] Childs, Isaiah, 68. “The sign of Immanuel (‘God-with-us’) must serve, not just as a pledge of judgment (v. 17), but also as a promise of the future, the sign of which the name anticipates by its content. It has long been recognized that the image of ‘curds and honey’ has a dual meaning. It can be a symbol of desolation, when no food is left in a devastated arable land except the wild produce of the wilderness. However, it can also be a symbol of abundance, such as a land ‘flowing with curds and honey.’”

[8] Heschel, Prophets, 16. “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 81. “In different words addressed to the king, the prophet conveys his impression of the mood of God: As happened in the time of Noah and as is happening again, God’s patience and longsuffering are exhausted. He is tired of man. He hates man’s homage, his festivals, his celebrations. Man has become a burden and a sorrow for God.”

[10] Heschel, Prophets, 81. “But the sympathy for God’s injured love overwhelms his whole being. What he feels about the size of God’s sorrow and the enormous scandal of man’s desertion of God is expressed in the two lines quoted above which introduce God’s lamentation. “Hear, then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” (7:13.)

[11] Heschel, Prophets, 207-208. “God not only asks for justice; He demands of man ‘to regard the deeds of the Lord, to see the work of His hands’ (Isa. 5:12; cf. 22:11), ‘to walk in His paths’ (Isa. 2:3), ‘If you will not believe, you will not abide’ (Isa. 7:11)…It is not only action that God demands, it is not only disobedience to the law that the prophet decries …The fault is in the hearts, not alone in the deeds.”

[12] Heschel, Prophets, 86. “Isaiah, who flings bitter invectives against his contemporaries, identifies himself with his people (1:9) which are to be ‘my people’ (3:12; cf. 8:10; 7:14). His castigation is an outcry of compassion. He sees his people all bruised and bleeding, with no one to dress their wounds.”

Joy, Even Now

Psalm 146:4-6 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in their God; who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps God’s promise for ever; who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.

Introduction

Every so often I look up words I know well because I know them too well; maybe I’ve lost the nuance of the word. Did you know “joy” and “happy” are not the same thing? Did you know “joy” participates in “happiness”? Joy carries the idea of “delight” and “well-being”, it’s got heft, substance, something that sticks to the bones like a really hearty stew in the middle of winter. Joy participates in exuberant exhibition of emotion and subtle contentedness of bliss. In its verbal form (to joy, joying, joyed) it takes on an extra measure of itself, “to experience great pleasure or delight: REJOICE”[1]

When was the last time you rejoiced? When was the last time I rejoiced?

If there’s a way to unjoice or dejoice or be ajoice, that’s me. I cannot recall the last time I had “joy”. I’ve had excitement. I’ve had pleasant surprises making me temporarily happy. I’ve laughed, chuckled, smiled at times. I’ve even been “content”, but that’s a slippery slope because one can be content in dire circumstances through “normalization” and “desensitization” (akin to surrender, giving up, numbing out). But “rejoice”? Have joy? IN THIS *wave arms about* ECONOMY?

If it’s been a while since you last rejoiced or had joy, you’re not alone. It feels decadent to have joy. The heaviness I’ve carried about for the past (nearly) three years has rendered me unable to be seized by something as beautiful as joy let alone something causing me to rejoice! Joy in the midst of violence? Joy in the midst of death? Joy in the midst of chaos and strife? Joy in the midst of sickness? Rejoice?! WHY. What about the gloom and doom of our socio-political world gives me the reason let alone the time and the space to have joy, to rejoice? I’m fine with drab and meh; I know drab and meh.

The heartbeat of joy weakens.

Isaiah 35:1-10

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
God will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
God will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Is. 35:3-7

It’s like Isaiah knows the turmoil of our inner worlds. Of us he doesn’t speak, though; we’re invited into this moment through words caught by ancient scrolls. Israel is his concern, the poor, the weak, the hindered, the oppressed, the widowed and orphaned, the exhausted, the threatened. Prophetic words as fruit of the prophet encountered, embraced, and captured by the divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s beloved. The prophet embodies the love of God for God’s people, and the prophet’s words reflect that love, signal to it, make it audible, manifest it. They ebb and flow between sour and sweet, but all the words are dedicated as a love note from The Lover to the Beloved. Sour notes fit a melody when sweet ones speak in reply; the musical communique penetrates ears and hearts of those to whom the tune was written, eager to resuscitate feeble lungs and rejuvenate unsteady legs.[2] Isaiah’s words here in chapter 35 are filled with the promises of God; it’s in God Israel’s exhorted to anchor their hope as the conduit of divine peace.[3]

Israel can only handle so much darkness and distance; the human spirit is resilient to a point. To keep throwing one’s anchor into the void of nothingness begins to break even the heartiest of souls. When God is perceived as far, distant, gone, negligent, Israel grows faint circling around the vortex of death, exhausted by the hopelessness and peacelessness of being trapped under the kingdom and rule of humanity. But then, Isaiah. Isaiah comes calling out the decrepit kingdom of humanity and declaring the reign of God. The speaking of God’s promises unentangles Israel from their chaos (unpeace) and becomes the story interrupting their captivity which is the foundation of their hope. The prophet declares not an old thing, but a new one.[4] Words cut through the oppressive gloom, pierce brutal silence, and rupture Israel’s melancholic lethargy. It’s in these words from prophet to people, “God becomes near and clear,” and the agony of a hopeless and peaceless existence dissipates.[5] Shema, O Israel, hear the footfalls of your God drawing near, look and behold[6] your God, the God of love and life, the substance of your hope, the source of your peace, the space for your joy.

And the ransomed of God shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Is 35:10

The heartbeat of joy revives.

Conclusion

Remember, “Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”[7] Also remember, “this hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us…”[8] If hope exists because there’s another story and another way to be in the world, and by this peace exists, then we can also say that by the same means does joy exist. Hope anchored in God’s story is the capillary of divine peace extracting us from that which entangles us, giving us new ground to stand receiving space to have joy, even now. But, remember, passivity isn’t an option here. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Joy exists because God is and God is within us.

There’s an audacity in Isaiah’s prophetic words daring to proclaim joy and rejoicing. Just like with divine love and life, joy sourced in the story of God is revolutionary. It’s not naïve, it’s not blind. Joy, like prophetic declaration, cuts through the darkness and gloom, not with some saccharine happiness, but with boldness arriving with something other, something new, something alive. Isaiah reminds us: we’re not dead yet. Dead bodies do not rejoice; living ones do. Hope exists, and therefore peace exists, and in this space joy and rejoicing exist. Stepping into that space daring to laugh, see beauty, and have delight in yourself, in others, in creation, and in God becomes a form of revolutionary resistance against the death and doom lurking about the kingdom of humanity—like a rainbow parting the stormy sky. Isaiah’s announcement is a summons to a party, a big one: Come, O Israel! Because of hope, come and sing! Because of peace, leap and dance! Your Beloved is near! Come and Rejoice! I dare you!

Joy exists because the story of God disrupts us long enough to give us space to see things as they are, to gather us together, and to sing. Joy exists because there’s a struggle against struggle that is divine and beautiful, the very essence of love and life and fruit of hope and peace. Joy exists because we don’t need to bury our heads in the sand, remaining ignorant to the suffering in the world, oblivious to our own suffering; rather, we can have the audacity and boldness to look it square in the eye and go beyond it. Joy exists because, to quote Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz, “The struggle for survival…is not only a struggle not to die, not only a struggle to live but only barely. It is a struggle to live fully.”[9] Joy exists because somehow in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace, and if we have these, we have the space for joy.

The heartbeat of joy quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. When everything looked lost and drab, when gloom and doom seemed to be the only words whispered on the wind, another word broke through, heralding good news in the middle of the night to those far off, And the ransomed of God shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”


[1] Miriam Webster’s Online Dictionary.

[2] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind. …Indeed, every prediction of disaster is in itself an exhortation to repentance. The prophet is sent not only to upbraid, but also to ‘strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees’ (Isa. 35:3).” 12.

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 12. “Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”

[4] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 258. “Moreover, salvation is not merely deliverance from Babylonian captivity, but rather sharing in God’s new creation (65:17ff.). Isaiah 35:10 picks up this same theme, ‘sorrow and sighing will disappear,’ which is finally elaborated in its fullest form in chapter 65.”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 193. “Agony is the final test. When all hopes are dashed and all conceit is shattered, man begins to miss what he has long spurned. In darkness, God becomes near and clear.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 193. “God is invisible, distant, dwelling in darkness (1 Kings 8:12). His thoughts are not our thoughts; His ways in history are shrouded and perplexing. Prophecy is a moment of unshrouding, an opening of the eyes, a lifting of the curtain. Such moments are rare in history.”

[7] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 1 11.27.22”; “Hope, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/11/27/hope-even-now/

[8] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 2 12.4.22”; “Peace, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/12/04/peace-even-now/

[9] Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. p. 131.

Peace, Even Now

Psalm 72:18-19 Blessed be God, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous deeds! And blessed be God’s glorious Name for ever! and may all the earth be filled with God’s glory. Amen. Amen.

Introduction

Do we know what peace is? I mean, do we really know what peace is? I know we know how to use the word, but I’m not convinced we use it correctly. Peace isn’t necessarily about being calm or having control; and it’s not about being alone. Yet we use the word “peace” synonymously with all of those words. Peace carries qualities of those words, but also isn’t those words.

Peace seems to be something received through the process of becoming separated from something entangling and holding me captive. Peace comes as I am pulled out of the thing entangling me, placed on different ground from that which entangled me, and I’m found as me even in the midst of not-calm, in chaos, and with others—those things having lost their control and influence over me. Peace becomes mine because it is given to me from elsewhere in the collision of another story disrupting and interrupting the story I’m trapped in. In this way I have peace not because I have mustered up calm, or have asserted control, or am (finally) alone but in spite of having none of them. Peace is given to me, it becomes mine, and I move forward with it and in it.

But what happens to peace if my world can only offer me more of the same, and it’s not a very good same? What is peace in a world catapulted into a pandemic turned endemic? What is peace in a world where you don’t know when the next tragedy and catastrophe will happen? What is peace in a world where you must fortify your boundaries and never cease being hyper-vigilant? What is peace in a world where some get liberty and others don’t? What thing can the world offer me to intersect and disrupt me?

The heartbeat of peace weakens.

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Isaiah 11:1-4

Isaiah greets us with a prophetic utterance declaring a new thing in the midst of something old. Caught up in the divine pathos[1]—the divine passion—of God for all of God’s people,[2] Isaiah declares to the people that what was destroyed will be made new. God will not abandon God’s people to their world with its stories of exile and separation, of isolation and captivity.[3] God will step in and alter not only the trajectory of the history of God’s people, but will disrupt them and intersect them where they are and usher in something new and glorious in their midst.[4]

For Isaiah’s audience, the imagery of a shoot—a branch—coming up from a stump invoked thoughts of divine activity[5] and disruption. The stump is the result of destruction; everything looks as if it’s done, dead, and gone. The only life a stump partakes in is the life of the devourers, the creatures returning the stump to the earth. But Isaiah declares, that which looks dead is the medium for divine life: a shoot shall come forth. In other words, according to Isaiah, this shoot from the stump of Jesse is by God’s doing and not by human hand. No work of humanity—no matter how glorious—can summon anything from a stump if that stump is unable to generate anything. In other words, the rule of humanity is eclipsed by the reign of God,[6] and humanity’s conception of right and wrong, justice and injustice, peace and tumult are exposed as corrupted, unable to bring forth the liberation of the captives God desires.[7] God will bring it forth according to God’s will of love and life and righteousness and liberation.[8]

For Isaiah the actuality of what is—even if dire—is the realm of possibility for God’s creative word out nothing. The day rises and the day sets; out of the setting of the sun the rising of the sun is ushered in. The actuality of the night works toward the possibility of morning, as it was yesterday, so it is today, and so may it be tomorrow. As prophet, Isaiah’s hope is anchored not in actuality (the descending night) but in possibility (in the coming morning, the new day[9]). It’s anchored in something outside of himself, outside of his world as he knows it; it’s anchored in God and that in God there’s another and better way to live and this better way is disruptive. Here, Isaiah is encountered and intersected, lifted out of the muck and mire of the situation Israel finds itself in and placed on the ground of a different story told by God and not humanity; in this does Isaiah find his peace.[10] And not just any peace, but the peace of God, rendering the entire cosmos complicit in God’s love,[11] transcending boundaries of flora and fauna, and restoring creation unto God and unto itself.[12]

The heartbeat of peace revives.

Conclusion

Last week I told you, “Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”[13] By the same means does peace exist. This hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us even now. Too often we jump to the peaceful imagery of the lion laying down with the lamb imagining that nothing happens with us—waiting for peace to come to our environment. But, like last week, it’s a mistake thinking Isaiah advocates for passivity. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Peace exists because God is and God is within us.

We are principle characters in this story, we are the object of divine desire—the whole cosmos and us—and in being the object of divine desire we are intercepted and disrupted. The one who comes, the righteous one, will beckon and call God’s people unto God. The burgeoning shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, the stump signifying a lack of hope becomes the foundation of hope and the means of peace not just around Israel, but within them. God is not finished with Israel. As Isaiah declares, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of [God] as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of [God], and [God’s] dwelling shall be glorious,” (Is. 11:9-10). God will contend with Israel but not in terms of death and destruction (not on their terms) but in terms of life and love (on God’s terms).

Peace exists because the story of God outside of us interrupts our cobbled together Frankenstein stories and the narratives the world hands us, the ones we’ve swallowed whole unable to imagine something better and different. Peace exists because this story of God causes us to stop and look up; in this story we’re given a moment to pause, to resist succumbing even more to the enslavement of working ourselves to death, to a hierarchy of human beings based on skin color, gender, and sexual orientation, to losing ourselves for material gain. Peace exists because we are called to consider the shoot of the stump, God’s activity intruding into our world and here we are detangled from frantic and anxious behavior desperate to control something…anything in any way. Peace exists because somehow in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace.

The heartbeat of peace quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. In the midst of all that appears dead and forsaken, a tiny, vulnerable baby will be born to a single, unwed mother, in a cave; and this word will draw all who have ears to hear unto God, On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of [God], and [God’s] dwelling shall be glorious.”


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 310. “It is such intense sympathy or emotional identification with the divine pathos that may explain the shifting from the third to the first person in the prophetic utterances. A prophecy that starts out speaking of God in the third, person turns into God speaking in the first person. Conversely, a prophecy starting with God speaking in the first person turns into a declaration of the prophet speaking about God in the third person.”

[2] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “The prophet may be regarded as the first universal man in history; he is concerned with, and addresses himself to, all men. It was not an emperor, but a prophet, who first conceived of the unity of all men.”

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “It is the God of Israel Who summons the mighty men to execute His designs (Isa. 13:3, 5). Who calls the nations of the world into judgment, and it is He Whom one day all nations shall in Zion (Isa. 2:2 ff.; 11:10; 18:7).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 183. No longer looking at Nineveh but Jerusalem “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious (Isa. 11:10).”

[5] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 102. “The naming of Jesse signals a sure continuity with Israel’s past, but serves as a reminder of David’s humble beginnings and of a promise grounded in divine election rather on human pride and royal pretension (2 Samuel 7). … [stump] the of God’s purpose after the hardening, after the destruction of the land, and after the unbelief of Ahaz, true Israel still has a future because of Immanuel.”

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 102-103. “The following verse proceeds to describe the charismata suitable to the office. He is endowed by the spirit of God to be the bearer of ‘the whole fullness of divine powers’ (Delitzsch). The gifts are set forth in couplets: wisdom and insight, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. The spirit is the source of all new life, and a contrast is immediately who did not understand (1:3). And who heard but did not comprehend, who saw but did not perceive (6:9).”

[7] Heschel, Prophets, 184. “Had the prophets relied on human resources for justice and righteousness, on [humanity’s] ability to fulfill all of God’s demands, on [humanity’s] power to achieve redemption, they would not have insisted upon the promise of messianic redemption, for messianism implies that any course of living, even the supreme efforts of man by himself, must fail in redeeming the world. In other words, human history is not sufficient unto itself. [Humanity’s] conscience is timid, while the world is ablaze with agony. [Humanity’s] perception of justice is shallow, often defective, and his judgment liable to deception.”

[8] Childs, Isaiah, 103. “These verses then portray the nature of the coming ruler’s reign according to the will of God, which has been assured by his spirit-filled-endowments. The dominant emphasis falls on the righteousness (sedeq) and equity toward the weak and vulnerable of the world. In this sense, vv. 1-9 continue a major theme introduced in 9:6ff. Again one hears the implied contrast with Israel’s unrighteous behavior that resulted in oppression of the poor and senseless acts of violence (3:5,14). For the prophet Isaiah, the coming of the messianic age is not construed as one of heavenly sweetness and light. Rather, the attributes of counsel and might in governing are exercised in forcefully constraining the wicked and adroitly discerning both the good and the evil of human society (v. 3b).”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 185. “The prophet is a person who, living in dismay, has the power to transcend his dismay. Over all the darkness of experience hovers the vision of a different day.”

[10] Childs, Isaiah, 103. “The effect of the righteous rule of the Messiah is depicted in terms of age of universal peace that embraces both the human and animal world.”

[11] Childs, Isaiah, 104. “Isaiah envisioned was not a return to a mythical age of primordial innocence, but the sovereign execution of a new act of creation in which the righteous will of God is embraced and the whole earth now reflects a devotion ‘as water covers the sea.’”

[12] Childs, Isaiah, 104. “Prophetic picture is not a return to an ideal past, but the restoration of creation by a new act of God through the vehicle of a righteous ruler. The description in vv. 6-9 is a massive extension of the promise in chapter 9 that focuses on the eschatological deliverance of God’s people.”

[13] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 1 11.27.22”; “Hope, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/11/27/hope-even-now/

Hope, Even Now

Psalm 122:7-9 Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers. For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity. Because of the house of God our God, I will seek to do you good.

Introduction

If you’re feeling a bit reticent jumping into upcoming seasonal festivities, I don’t blame you. The atmosphere is more pregnant with dread than with hope, more threaded with despair than expectation, more infused with turmoil than peace. Advent arrives and it feels too early. Not yet…I cannot feel the things I should feel. My inner world is threatened with lethargy and plagued with thoughts of giving up. More death? More hate? More lives lost, families thrust into grief and mourning, more senselessness and violence? Festive lights bedecking houses and trees look less like stars and more like tear-drops frozen in time.

I struggle with the energy to try to understand how such malice against beautiful and beloved bodies holds people so tightly. How was their self-acceptance and joy a problem to you? The safety of space dedicated to Queer celebration and revelry torn asunder by the invasion of contempt and rancor. Why? I keep asking. And just months after Uvalde? When do we learn? How much longer do we pretend this isn’t a massive issue? When will the lies and cognitive dissonance fail to numb and keep us locked in destructive patterns of social and political life together? How much longer will the despotic tyranny of hate, evil, and death hold life captive? Is this all there is?

The heartbeat of hope weakens.

Isaiah 2:1-5

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that God may teach us God’s ways
and that we may walk in God’s paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

The prophet Isaiah declares the reign of God. Prophetic witness oriented toward God’s union with God’s people, and the union of God’s people among themselves.[1] Isaiah heralds the coming kingdom of God, and in doing so highlights the discrepancy between the reign of God and the rule of humanity. Under the rule of humanity, kingdoms and nations are set against each other, each poised in aggressive defense against the other—the enemy. But Isaiah declares that under the reign of God nations and kingdoms will be united, rendering boundaries and battlements pointless for nations will stream into the house of God set high above all other human made castles of brick and mortar.

Isaiah declares that under the reign of God many peoples seek to gather in the House of God to learn God’s ways and to walk in God’s paths. Rather than choosing the failing and long expired ways and paths of humanity,[2] the people will choose what is different intending to chart different courses from the ones they charted for themselves ending in war and death fueled by hatred and obsessive self-supremacy and power.[3] According to Isaiah, it’s God’s loving desire for all people, the entire earth, to live in the realm of love and life, the realm of God, [4] leaving behind the kingdom and rule of humanity and the atmosphere infused with antagonism and death.

Isaiah’s proclamation punctures the blinds his people wear, letting the light of divine glory and desire shine and illuminate better ways. As the people keep drunk on cups of violence and arrogance, power and avarice, Isaiah introduces the living and restoring water of God.[5] God will come to dwell among this lowly nation, weak in comparison to neighboring kingdoms, and will take up the royal seat here. Not the great nations of humanity, but the small nation of God, Jerusalem,[6] will be the epicenter of divine love and life, tendrils emanating outward, impacting all the other nations, beckoning them to follow the way of God, the way of love and life. From Jerusalem, all will be beckoned to ditch that which makes sense according to human standards and is in opposition to the will of God. From Jerusalem the people will be lured to walk bold rather than timid in the midst of a world throbbing with pain and agony; they will bend toward the justice and judgment of God and not of their own machinations.[7] Instead of forging new weapons bent on destruction and death—the fruit of war[8]—the people will turn their weapons into tools to nourish and flourish the fruit of life. Rather than being students of violence and destruction under the rule of humanity, they will drink in and feed on the knowledge of God; “Passion for war will be subdued by a greater passion: the passion to discover God’s ways.”[9] For Isaiah, and the other prophets, humanity’s obsession with power and might, is indicative of a terminal sickness ending only in death; there’s a better way, say the prophets, a way leading to life and liberty, joy and community.[10]

The heartbeat of hope revives.

Conclusion

Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world. One of the mistakes we make is reading Isaiah through the lens of passivity; when we do, we neglect the core of what Isaiah declares to his people: Behold, Israel; shema, Israel! Look and listen to your God; resist the evil machinations of human hearts bent on power and weaponized violence, on destruction and death and follow the way of your God, the way of love and life. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Hope exists because God is and God is within us.

When Isaiah implores, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of God!” He turns the focus of the narrative away from the ways of his people—stuck under the rule of humanity—and refocuses the narrative on God. In this way the people are beckoned out of themselves and toward God. But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t leave his people just staring at God, just listening to God. Let us walk; let us look, let us hear, and let us walk. To be beckoned out of one’s self and to God is, in God’s anthropological economy, to be beckoned into God and thus into one’s self walking in the world in with love and life and not death and destruction.

Hope exists because what we see, what we hear, what we experience in the world under the rule of humanity isn’t the only thing to see, hear, and experience. Hope exists because things can be different, love can silence destruction, life can triumph over death. Hope exists because two patrons of Club Q said “No!” resisting hate and death in the name of love and life. Hope exists because we, too, can say “No!” and resist the lies and myths the kingdom of humanity keeps handing to us. As one of the patrons of Club Q wrestled the death dealing weapon from the hands of the shooter, we can yank the narrative and the story out of the hands of those telling us this is the only way to live. No. We don’t have to be violent, we don’t have to hate, we don’t have to be stuck under lies that another person’s self-acceptance and joy threaten us.

We’re beckoned by Isaiah, Beloved, to stop and still, to look and hear. We are asked to see that there’s the way of humanity and the way of God. We are beseeched and implored to reconsider, to refocus, to reimagine something better and bigger. We are summoned out of the necropolis suffocated by the tyranny of death’s cold, bony hand into the country of the living as citizens of God. We are lured by the fullness of divine love and life to be ramparts and bastions against death and destruction, to be God’s threat to powers dead set on violence, to be—referring to Helmut Gollwitzer—a little bit dangerous advocating for life and love in the face of death and hate.[11]

The heartbeat of hope quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. And this other word God is so passionate about God will become this Word to liberate the captives imprisoned by destruction and death, calling out to all who have ears to hear, [C]ome, let us walk in the light of God!”


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 169. “The prophet may be regarded as the first universal man in history; he is concerned with, and addresses himself to, all men. It was not an emperor, but a prophet, who first conceived of the unity of all men.”

[2] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 30-31. “In v. 4 God’s role is described as adjudicating justly among the nations. His reign is universal in scope, and the ‘many peoples’ portrayed as now living in peace and harmony are those who have gone to the mountain of the Lord to walk in his ways. The description of eschatological rule is not part of a human social program; indeed, the demonic threat of a return to war remains still virulent (Joel 4:9ff. = ET 3:9ff.). Rather, ‘the holy city, New Jerusalem descends out of heaven from God as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Rev. 21:2).”

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “The sword is the pride of man; arsenals, forts, and chariots lend supremacy to nations, War is the climax of human ingenuity, the object of supreme efforts: men slaughtering each other, cities battered into ruins. What is left behind is agony, death, and desolation. At the same time, men think very highly of themselves; ‘they are wise in their own hearts, shrewd in their own sight’ (Isa. 5:21). Idols of silver and gold are what they worship. Nineveh, ‘the bloody city, all full of lies and booty,’ held the world in spell with her ‘countless harlotries,’ with her ‘graceful and deadly charms’ (Nah. 3:1, 4).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “Isaiah proclaimed God’s purpose and design ‘concerning the whole earth’ (14:26), and actually addressed himself to ‘all you inhabitants of the world, you who dwell on the earth’ (Isa. 18:3; c£ 33:13; 34:1), delivering special prophecies concerning Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Tyre, and others (chs. 13-23). It is the God of Israel Who summons the mighty men to execute His designs (Isa. 13:3, 5), Who calls the nations of the world into judgment, and it is He Whom one day all nations shall worship in Zion (Isa. 2:2 ff.; 11:10; 18:7).”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “Into a world fascinated with idolatry, drunk with power, bloated with arrogance, enters Isaiah’s word that the swords will be beaten into plowshares, that nations will search, not for gold, power or harlotries, but for God’s word.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “Jerusalem, in contrast, was ‘a quiet habitation,’ little known to the nations except as a target for invaders. But in the vision of Isaiah the nations will no more turn their eyes to Nineveh, the seat of human power, but to Jerusalem, the seat of divine learning, eager to learn God’s ways, eager to learn how to walk in His paths.”

[7] Heschel, Prophets, 184. “Had the prophets relied on human resources for justice and righteousness, on man’s ability to fulfill all of God’s demands, on man’s power to achieve redemption, for messianism implies that any course of living, even the supreme efforts of man by himself, must fail in redeeming the world. In her words, human history is not sufficient unto itself. Man’s conscience is timid, while the world is ablaze with agony. His perception of justice is shallow, often defective, and his judgment liable to deception.”

[8] Heschel, Prophets, 73. “War spawns death. But Isaiah was looking to the time when the Lord ‘will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces’…. Israel’s security lim. (25:8; see p. 183). Israel’s security lies in the covenant with God, not in covenants with Egypt or other nations. The mysterious power of faith maintains: God alone is true protection. Such power will not collapse in the hour of disaster…”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 184.

[10] Heschel, Prophets, 160. “When the prophets appeared, they proclaimed that might is not supreme, that the sword is an abomination, that violence is obscene. The sword, they said, shall be destroyed.”

[11] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1017).150-151. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

The Untamed God of Life

Sermon on Luke 21:5-19

Canticle 9 Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in God and not be afraid. For God is my stronghold and my sure defense, and God will be my Savior. Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.

Introduction

In CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver says this about Aslan,

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

CS Lewis does a great job telling a fantastic story pointing to something beyond us. Aslan, the lion—Lewis’s representation of God in Christ, the one whom Mr. Beaver is talking about, is an untamed lion, the one no one controls and whom no one can determine and disclose. Aslan is big, striking, protective and inviting, warm and fierce, and full of life—death can’t hold this lion.

What’s striking to me is how trapped we are in thinking God is rather tame, small, quaint, proper, more concerned about etiquette than existence. We prefer the pocket-sized God, neatly tucked into back-pockets and handbags. This tiny-origami God is a very small God who could never reverse the laws of nature surrounding the scientifically demonstrated irreversibility of life and death, would never dare do anything disrupting the status quo, and is completely practical and predictable. We don’t much like Mr. Beaver’s unsafe, disruptive Aslan.

Funny thing is, I can’t find our tame and safe God among the splendor and magnificence of the cosmos from the smallest star in our night sky to the brilliant light of the noon sun, or in the technicolor coat of the flora covering the earth, nourishing the equally diverse and rich clusters of fauna calling earth home. Tell me where this safe and tame God is within the First and Second testaments. From the first page to the very last, the entire Bible speaks of a God who is big and quite untamed: a God willing to contend with Israel’s oppressors, destroy temples, tear open the earth, divide waters to the right and left, flip tables, whisper instead of yell, be born vulnerable and die as such, and call forth the living from the dead.

All that to say: God is not small. God is not tame or safe. An encounter with God will sweep you up into God through death and into new life. Even if we prefer to shrink God, make God safe, tame, and predictable, God refuses our insistences and remains big, forever outside of our grasp, and beyond the limits of our imaginations. So, to quote Mr. Beaver with slight alteration, “‘Tame? … Who said anything about tame? ‘Course [God] isn’t tame…’”

Luke 21:5-19

“Now, before all of these things they will place their hands upon you, and they will persecute, delivering [you] to the synagogues and prisons, being lead to kings and governors on account of my name. It will become to you a witness. Therefore, fix in your heart not to premeditate in order to give an account of yourself. For I, I will give you speech and wisdom which all who oppose you will not be able to resist or contradict. And you will be delivered also by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of my name. And not a hair from your head will be destroyed. In your enduring you will acquire your soul.”[1]

Lk 21:12-19

Luke begins by telling his audience about what the coming demise[2] of the temple.[3]In reply to some casual admiration of the structural magnificence of the temple, Jesus says: these things which you gaze, a day will come in which not one stone upon another stone will be left alone.[4]I imagine the look of the disciples communicated something between: Way to cut to not-so-casual warnings pertaining to the end times, and

It’s this awkward entrance through warnings of the temple’s total destruction that Jesus ushers in a(nother) discussion about how to exist after he’s gone: be on your guard because God’s great reversal will bring a bunch of discomfort![5]Jesus follows up by promising that it wont go well for those who proclaim good news in Jesus’s name. He alerts them to keep their eyes open, Watch(!)[6] [so that] you might not be led astray! Jesus declares that many men will come in my name saying, I, I am and the time has come near!” Then, as they are still perceiving, he tells them to keep their ears open so that whenever you may hear of wars and upheavals, be not struck with panic!And then he adds as a rejoinder, these will not be the end but the first things. He goes on, nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earth quakes and in many places famines and pestilences, there will be scares and great signs of heaven. Jesus then makes it personal, oh, and in case you thought you would escape it, they’ll come for you, too…and by “they” I mean your own darn family. Those who follow the Christ and proclaim his message will end up experiencing the same rejection and fate he did.[7]

Starting with the spiritual realm (represented by the Temple) through the temporal realm (represented by the advent of false Christs and national, tectonic, and viral chaos), to the deeply personal realm, Jesus indicates in all-encompassing fashion that God’s great reversal will consume their whole entire lives. There will be nowhere to run where you don’t suffer some exposure to death on a personal level as God rights wrongs, brings justice where there has been injustice, liberates the captives, unburdens the oppressed, brings in the ostracized, heals the sick, and resurrects the dead. [8] Be prepared; it will be very hard!

This is the good news? What happened to my safe and comforting God? Where did my tame God go?

According to Jesus, the tame God is a myth of status-quo proportions.[9] There is no way to live in both ages—this one and that one—at the exact same time and without disruption to one or the other.[10] Consider this passage a blown-up version—cosmically big—of Jesus’s previous discussion about mammon: you cannot serve both God and mammon. Thus, you cannot follow the Christ, live into the message and activity of Christ, represent Christ when he’s gone, and think that the world is going to be fine with it. They won’t be, not even the one who bore you. This all feels like so much. Where is the hope in the midst of the advent of the new age, where is the good news in the wake of this untamed God?

It’s here in what Jesus says by way of closing. He doesn’t leave them without a word of comfort. Rather, he presses into the promises of God, But, BUT in all of it I’ll be with you, and you’ll not be destroyed (not even a hair on your head will be lost) for in this active endurance you’ll gain your soul because you’ll be found in God and God lives![11]In other words, I might be gone, but I am with you[12] as you are with each other in solidarity;[13] wherever two or three are gathered together, I am in their midst. Whether you live or die, I am with you and you’ll not be lost or destroyed. Jesus’s God is a big, untamed God bringing a great reversal ushering in the new age teeming with life and destroying the old age burdened by death. This great reversal isn’t easy for anyone. But, take heart Beloved; this untamed God is the author of love and life, and where love and life are death and destruction cannot be also… So, Beloved, hold tight, stand firm together, take heart the fight for life is worth it for you are on God’s side. Beloved, rejoice and behold …

Conclusion

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;

for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;

for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;

for they shall be offspring blessed by the [God]–
and their descendants as well.

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent– its food shall be dust!

They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says [God].


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 238. “The siege and destruction of Jerusalem are described in terms, and even with words, that are parallel to the account of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Verses 12-19 are almost an outline of what Luke will later tell in Acts about the subsequent history of the Christian community, although obviously the phrase ‘not a hair of your head will perish’ must be taken as either a hyperbole or even better as a sign that even death is not defeat, for at the time of this writing Luke already knew of the deaths of at least Stephen and James. Even before the tall of Jerusalem and its awesome events of death and destruction, the disciples of Jesus will be persecuted.”

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 733. “The Jerusalem temple admired by those with Jesus was the project of Herod the Great, who in 20/19 B.C.E. began a reconstruction of the temple that essentially doubled its size and otherwise reflected his own aggrandizing character. Pilgrims pouring into the city from the rustic environs of Palestine and the wider diaspora could not help but be impressed, even overwhelmed, by its sheer size and magnificence, by the brilliance of the gold plates that covered its façade, and by (he while marble that adorned its upper reaches, 12 What is more, its splendor as an architectural feat would have been for the faithful more than matched by the awe it inspired as the abode of God and socio-religio-political center of the Jewish universe. Jesus’ emphatic prediction of total annihilation (leaving no “stone upon stone”), echoing his earlier words in 19:44 as well as prophetic oracles of judgment in the OT, must have been stunning on both accounts.”

[4] Gonzales, Luke, 236-237. “The rest of chapter 21 is devoted to a series of announcements and warnings about the time to come, or rather, to what is constructed as a single discourse about future events and the disciples’ lives as they await such events. The setting is the temple, where Jesus has been teaching, and the occasion is the admiration of ‘some’ not necessarily the disciples. In response to such admiration, Jesus comments that the time will come when even the temple will be utterly destroyed, a destruction so thorough that “not one stone will be left upon another.”

[5] Gonzales, Luke,237. “For these reasons, it seems best to interpret the text as bearing the same general thrust as many of the parables of stewardship: telling the disciples how to behave while awaiting the end. On this score, Jesus’ main warning is not to believe any who claim to know when the end will come…”

[6] Green, Luke, 735. “They are not to follow after those making such claims, but neither are they to respond in terror. They are, instead, ‘to watch,’ to exercise their faith in such a way that they have insight into what God is doing.”

[7] Green, Luke, 736. “‘Persecution’ is the heading under which this material can be gathered – persecution resulting from the identification of Jesus’ followers first with his message and then, consequently, with his fate.”

[8] Gonzales, Luke,239-240. “But we prefer a ‘gospel’ without eschatology—a ‘good news’ without hope—because for many of us such ‘good news’ is not so good. We prefer a gospel without eschatology, because the good of the great reversal that Luke has been proclaiming all along does not seem so good to us. If the promised great reversal is for the benefit of sinners rather than properly religious folk, for the exploited, for the poor, for those who have no other hope, where does that leave us? How can such a reversal be a promise of hope for us who are now, so to speak, on top of the heap? This is why, while for most Christians eschatology is a matter of hope, for many others it has become a matter of fear. When the latter is the case, change ceases being a promise and becomes a threat.”

[9] Green, Luke, 736. “The coming resistance is, according to Jesus, not limited to that exacted by official bodies within Judaism and the realm of Rome, but would extend as well to one’s own kin. The inventory of those who would betray the faithful is reminiscent of the list in 14:12, including those with whom, under normal je wo… share relationships of mutual trust and reciprocity. The coming of the kingdom, however, renders normal conventions obsolete, with the result that the faithful have repeatedly been called upon to redraw kinship lines, to find their familial attachments with those ‘who hear the word of God and do it’ (esp. 8:21; cf. 18:29). Of course, it is precisely this disregard for normal conventions, this embracing of the purpose of God as it unfolds in and overtakes the present world order, that leads to the despising of Jesus’ disciples among those who fail to recognize or serve God’s redemptive project. Marked as deviants by their behavior, they will find themselves detested, by those who uphold the accepted protocols of their social world.”

[10] Gonzales, Luke,240. “There is only one way, and it is to this that Jesus refers in verses 12-19. It is the way of living now as those who know that a different future awaits. It is a difficult way, for those who live out of a different order than the existing one will necessarily clash with the present order. The good news does not at first sound so good: ‘they will arrest you and persecute you… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.’ This sounds so alien to us! Persecuted for being a Christian? Rejected by family and friends for our faith? That may have been true in the first century, but not in these enlightened times…

[11] Green, Luke, 737. v. 18 “Its proximity to v 17 suggests, further, the Jesus promises that persecution, even death, does not spell the end of life for the faithful.”

[12] Green, Luke, 737. “Moreover, Jesus thus portends his continual presence with the disciples even as they face the tribunal, following his death; only with the onset of Acts do we understand fully that he will be present to the community of his followers by means of the Holy Spirit poured out among them. That this witness cannot withstood or contradicted finds ready fulfillment in Acts 4:14; 6:10, as well. This, however, does not guarantee that the testimony of Jesus’ witnesses will win the day, only that the resistance they attract and even the executions they undergo are not to be perceived as testimony against the truth or vitality of their witness or the authenticity of their understanding of God’s purpose. This is a pivotal message for Jesus’ disciples, who thus far have been unable to correlate humiliation and suffering with the divine purpose (e.g., 9:44-50; 18:31-34).”

[13] Gonzales, Luke,240-241. “What then about those of us who are not poor or disinherited, whose religion makes us socially respectable, whose mainline churches are the moral and social mainstay of our communities? If all that Luke says about the great reversal is true, there is only one way open to us: solidarity. The doctor of the law cannot suddenly become a Samaritan. He is who he is. The only alternative left to him is to act like the good Samaritan. The Pharisee cannot leave behind his faith, his piety, and his obedience to the law. The only alternative left to him is to join ‘sinners’ in their pain and their trust in God. Zacchaeus cannot undo the evil he may have done while becoming rich on the basis of exploitation and collaboration with an oppressive regime. The only alternative left to him is to use the wealth and the power he has acquired to undo as much as he can of the evil he has produced. Those of us whom society considers ‘mainline’ Christians must understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the promise and hope of the great reversal, make the very phrase ‘mainline Christian’ a contradiction in terms-that the very name of ‘Christian’ requires being at the sidelines, at the margins where people suffer and are exploited or ignored. This is the proper consequence of genuine Christian hope—and it is precisely for that reason that we would much rather leave eschatology aside.”

God of the Living

Sermon on Luke 20:27-38

Psalm 145: 18-20 God is righteous in all God’s ways and loving in all God’s works. God is near to those who call upon God, to all who call upon God faithfully. God fulfills the desire of those who fear God; God hears their cry and helps them.

Introduction

The excitement of the holidays is upon us!

However, if you feel anything but excited and more exhausted about now, I don’t blame you. I feel it. While I love the descent of cold weather and the pep that returns to my step, October’s close ushering in November brings with it the weight of another year nearly gone. I tend to roll into November like Santa rolls out on December 24th: carrying sack upon sack of all that has been created over the past months. Sadly, unlike Santa, I’m not distributing these “goods” and making things lighter. I’m storing these “goodies” for myself, my weary shoulders and back—and it feels heavy right about now.

I know it might be social conditioning, and I know nothing magical happens on January 1st, but there’s still something profoundly psychological that occurs in my inner world on 1/1. Bundled in the blankets of coldness, crispness, and bareness, there’s so much newness embedded into that day. Like a clean and clear canvas, the upcoming year lays out before me beckoning me to paint anything anywhere. By the time I hit November, I’m squinting my eyes, pallet knife in hand, looking to peel back layers of paint sloppily placed sometime back in June or maybe it was that spill in April?

I go through the motions, lumbering from one day to another murmuring like a Zombie. Instead of “brains” it’s something about “Friday” and “after Christmas” and “next year.” In other words, I’m trapped in the routine of duties and obligations, demands and deadlines, days in and days out. I’m the walking dead among the living, unable to summon myself out of it, dependent on whatever reserves of energy I have left, and growing too comfortable with the heaviness of existence and the powerlessness to do anything but give in to death’s bony claim on my life.

Luke 20:27-38

And Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and are given in marriage, but the ones who are deemed worthy to happen to be at that age and of the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. For they are not able to die still, for they are equal to angels and they are children of God, being children of resurrection. And that the dead are being raised, Moses made known on the basis of the bramble, as it says, ‘The lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ Now God is not of the dead but of the living, for to [God] all people are living.”[1]

Luke 20:34-38

Luke introduces us to a new religious group strolling temple grounds: the Sadducees. They differed from the Pharisees in the content of their ideology—they denied resurrection,[2] spent their time among the aristocratic of the Holy City, were a bit more conservative,[3] and adhered to Torah above all other writings.[4]Yet, they shared some characteristics: a preference for power, privilege, and elitism.[5] They, like the Pharisees before them, attempt to ensnare Jesus in an intellectual trap cloaked under the façade of an appeal to marriage and resurrection.[6] Their recourse through Moses, though, reveals their trap; the real crux of the question: do you, Rabbi, faithfully follow Moses?[7]

Jesus’s not-so-subtle answer? Uh, yeah, I do. Jesus’s oh-so-subtle question back: Is it about obeying Moses or understanding Moses?[8]The thrust of Jesus’s answer to the Sadducees anchors the discussion about marriage, being given in marriage, and resurrection in a right understanding of Moses and the Scriptures. it’s not about obeying what was; it’s about stepping into what will be. Starting off with a comparison of two ages (this age and that age, literally: τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου and τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου, respectively), Jesus makes a distinction between those who are stuck in the present order (this age) and those who are alive in the eschatological order (that age).[9] In other words, are you following in the ways of the kingdom of humanity or are you following in the way of the reign of God?[10]

The clues are in the language Jesus uses to speak of marriage, and it’s the clues that are lost in our translation. The Sadducees use language of “take” to speak of marriage (λάβῃ/λαμβάνω, I receive/take). We get lost in this text because of our conception of what it means “to marry” which carries with it—mostly—ideas of mutuality and equality. But the Sadducees are saying that this one man was given this woman to be his wife and then when he died the subsequent brothers then took her. They then appeal to the resurrection—something they do not believe in—to ask Jesus, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus’s reply indicates that their question is absurd, and they do not understand Moses or resurrection.[11] You do not see that you are stuck in this age and blind to that one.[12], [13] Jesus flips the language back on them, it’s in this age that human beings are taken and given as if they don’t matter;[14] but in the age of God, no such thing happens because they are children of life and not of death and do no perpetuate systems treating human beings like belongings.[15] In that age, no one owns this woman as an object; she is alive and not dead.

In this way, Jesus affirms resurrection from the dead not only as some future eschatological, end times fulfillment of all things, but as something that occurs now. Now, God is not of the dead but of the living, for to [God] all people are living.[16] According to the trajectory of Jesus’s logic here: those who die in God—Jesus’s ancestors—transition into God and thus they live because God is not the God of the dead but of the living, for God is not dead but alive. (Is not the substance of God love, and is not love living and not dying?) God is the source of all life and if the source of all life; all those who transition into God live.[17]

If in death we are alive in God through transition into the liveliness of God, then how much more should we be alive now? [18] As those who participate in God from this material angle, should we not also participate in life and not in death? [19] Shouldn’t we live with faces turned toward possibility, brazen with the bright sunlight of what will be rather than with strained necks looking backward, spines broken by weighted burdens?[20]

Conclusion

Back to the introduction.

We confuse survival mode for living. It’s not living. This is the tragedy of our moment in time; are any of us really alive? Living? And by this I do not mean “are you pursuing your passions?” or “calling”, for such language brings condemnation to already burdened bodies. What I mean is: are you here, right now? Can you breathe…deep? Can you look forward and see others or are you straining to look backwards refusing to let what is be what was? Would you see a shooting star in the night sky or are you busy looking down? Have you already succumbed to death? Are you, like me, the walking dead?

Our fears turn us in onto our own ego. Not only the feelings of guilt that overcome many people in their fear of death do this; other forms of ‘cares, grief, and personal woes’ can also hold us hostage and take complete control over us. We only become free in looking away from ourselves, which always means also leaving one’s present [curved in] situation.[21]

Right now, I need interruption. I need the trajectory of my material form altered. I need something that’ll call to me causing me to harken to it. I need to be beckoned out of myself. If anything is going to change for me at this point in the year—under the weight of these burdens—it has to come from the outside. In this way, as simple and pedestrian as it may sound, I’m dependent on an encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the story of God’s profound love for the cosmos thus for me, for you thus for me that I’m transported out of death and into life, out of this age and into that one. Truly, I cannot resurrect myself from this walking-deadness; I must be resurrected. I’m caused to stop, listen, see, hear, to turn and look by a humble proclamation of love so grand. In that moment I gain life because I gain a moment and in that moment is God; wherever life is there is God, wherever there is God there is love, and wherever there is love there is life.

So you, too, beloved, need to be interrupted to gain life, to be called into life out of death so that you can live now in God, by faith in Christ and in the power of the holy spirit and then live again in God, with those having transitioned into God before us. Shema, O Israel, the God who loves you is life.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 234. “For the sake of his Gentile readers, he explains that the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection. On the matter of the resurrection, Jesus agrees with the Pharisees, who do believe in it. So the Sadducees are questioning both him and the Pharisees.”

[3] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 521. “I said that the Sadducees were the priestly party of the aristocracy, even more conservative than the Pharisees, who were the priestly party of the middle class. It was through their conservatism that they didn’t believe in resurrection, for they accepted only the first five Books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), and in them the concept of resurrection does not appear, for it is a late concept in the Bible. Politically they were allied to the Romans, and they were the most strongly opposed to any messianic movement of the people that would endanger their privileges.”

[4] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 718. “The Sadducees, known for their emphasis on the Torah, attempt to set Jesus up; appealing to Moses, they concoct a scenario that, in essence, requires to answer the question, Do you follow Moses?” See also fn2.

[5] Green, Luke, 718-719. “Members of the Sanhedrin and their agents have been shamed and confounded into silence (vv 19, 26), leaving an opening for some Sadducees to engage Jesus in discussion. This is our first introduction to the Sadducees in the Third Gospel, but from an historical perspective this is not surprising. Sadducees, after all, exercised their aristocratic influence in the Holy City. Surprisingly little is known of them, undoubtedly owing to their loss of position following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Josephus observes that they had the confidence only of the wealthy, and this comports well with their appearance in the Third Gospel at this juncture. Luke has and will continue to represent Jesus in controversial encounters with those of highest status in the city, and this would include the Sadducees.”

[6] Green, Luke, 717. “Within this co-text, however, it can hardly be read as anything but a further attempt to ensnare Jesus by embarrassing him before the people. The artificiality of the question is suggested, moreover, by its absurdity…”

[7] Green, Luke, 718. “In fact, the staging of this scene indicates that the real issue at stake is one of scriptural faithfulness, and then authority to interpret Scripture faithfully.”

[8] Green, Luke, 718. “The Sadducees are not the only ones to cite Moses, however; so does Jesus. The baseline of Jesus’ answer may be surprising to his audience but harmonious with a central sense, he turns the question away from obedience to Moses to one of understanding Moses. Who interprets Moses (and the Scriptures) faithfully?”

[9] Green, Luke, 720. “Fundamental to Jesus’ first point is his contrast between two sorts of piety, two aeons, and two forms of practice vis-à-vis marriage.”

[10] Green, Luke, 718. Scriptures are read with the right perspective, they are not self-interpreting. “As he lays it out, this perspective is an eschatological one, one that takes into account the presently unfolding purpose of God, and that generates in the present both faithful interpretation and faithful response.”

[11] Green, Luke, 721. “Jesus thus underscores the absurdity of the Sadducees’ question by undermining its major premises. The scenario they had painted has failed, first, in its perception of the nature of the age to come. Second, it fails to account for the reality that the age to come impinges already on life in the present.”

[12] Green, Luke, 720. “The Third Gospel often depicts persons, both male and female, as ‘sons of…,’ not as a matter of literal descent but as a way of denoting their character, their behavior. One sort of person is thus orientated toward ‘this age,’ with its concerns for status honor, relationships of debt and reciprocity, and the … .) The other group consists of ‘those who are considered worthy of a place in that age….’ The apposition of the two expressions ‘this age’ and ‘that age’ assumes a division of time into two aeons, the present age and the age to come.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “A better interpretation is simply to say that Jesus is arguing that the conditions of the present age do not obtain after the resurrection. The question, ‘Whose wife will she be?’ ignores the radical newness of the coming kingdom. There are many similar questions that have no answer (and that are similar to those that the Corinthians seem to have been asking, and to which Paul responds in 1 Cor. 15)… Jesus does not attempt to answer such questions, but simply calls his listeners to trust the God who has made all things, and who will make the kingdom come to pass.”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “An interesting note having to do with marriage is that Jesus says that in the new order people ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage.’ For a woman to be ‘given in marriage’ implies subjection to others: the father who gives her, and the groom who takes her. In an order of peace, justice, and freedom, people are not ‘given’ to others.”

[15] Green, Luke, 721. “Although typically represented as passive verbs, the instances of the two verbs translated ‘are given in marriage’ (NRSV) actually appear in the middle voice: ‘to allow oneself to be married.’ The focus shifts from a man ‘taking a wife’; (wv 28, 29, 31) to include the woman’s participation in the decision to marry. This is important because the basic concern here is with a reorientation of human relations through a reorientation of eschatological vision. One sort of person is aligned with the needs of the present age; such persons participate in the system envisioned and advocated by the Sadducees, itself rooted in the legislation governing levirate marriage, with women given and taken, even participating in their own objectification as necessary vehicles for the continuation of the family name and heritage. The other draws its ethos from the age to come, where people will resemble angels insofar as they no longer face death.95 Absent the threat of death, the need for levirate marriage is erased. The undermining of the levirate marriage ordinance is itself a radical critique of marriage as this has been defined around the necessity of procreation. No longer must women find their value in producing children for patrimony. Jesus’ message thus finds its interpretive antecedent in his instruction about family relations of all kinds: Hearing faithfully the good news relativizes all family relationships …”

[16] Green, Luke, 722. “At the close of this argument, Jesus uses a clause, ‘for to him all of them are alive,’ meant to serve as a basis for his argumentation. …Instead, in some sense, these texts affirm, these persons are given life by God, Luke has already provided insight into the nature of resurrection life in his earlier reference to Lazarus, who was carried away by angels to Abraham (who is still alive[!]….”

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “Having responded to the objections of the Pharisees, Jesus counterattacks with his own argument: Moses says that God is the God of his ancestors and, since God is not a God of the dead, but only of the living, this means that for God those ancestors are still alive.”

[18] Cardenal, Solentiname, 523. “OSCAR: ‘Yes, I agree with that, too, because I’m beginning to think that to be able to rise again you ought to begin to rise now in this life, first. In order to be able to have the hope of resurrection, I say, of God. But if you die in selfishness, what hope do you have!’”

[19] Cardenal, Solentiname, 521-522. “I: ‘For the Jews, and for Christ, there was no distinction between soul and body, as there was for the Greeks, who said that the soul came out from the ‘prison’ of the body. According to biblical thinking, resurrection, if it existed, had to be complete and material.’”

[20] Cardenal, Solentiname, 525-526. “I: ‘Also, Yahweh told Moses (when Yahweh appeared for the first time in history) to tell the people that Yahweh was the God of their forebears, of their past, of their history; Jesus is now saying that the people of the past continue to live, because the God of history is also God of the future. To be alive for God is to be alive for the future.’”

[21] Dorothee Sölle The Mystery of Death Trans. Nancy Lukens-Rumscheidt and Martin Lukens-RumScheidt. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

You Are Good

Sermon on Luke 19:1-10

Psalm 119:140-142 Your word [, God,] has been tested to the uttermost, and your servant holds it dear. I am small and of little account, yet I do not forget your commandments. Your justice is an everlasting justice and your law is the truth.

Introduction

We’re submerged in the waters of identities and self-conceptions anchored in being exceptional—as if our worth and dignity are dependent on it. I think it’s one thing participating in our distinction from animals. Even with their individual quirks and personalities, I don’t think—as far as I understand them—dogs wonder much about their identity or if they are exceptional. My dog, Angie, spends what seems like zero minutes being concerned about her place in the world, if she has status, prestige, and power. I mean, she’s 97% Pitbull, so she’s got plenty of power. She isn’t wondering if other dogs think she’s dogging in the right way—her goodness isn’t dependent on what these other dogs think, I don’t even think it’s dependent on what she thinks. In general, Angie dogs around, chases light reflections, barks (relentlessly) at the mail woman, the fed-ex guy, and the UPS person—she doesn’t even care if it’s completely cliché to do so. She just dogs—wags her whole entire body when her family comes home, obeys any command for a treat, and loves stealing mama’s warm spot on the bed early in the morning. Cats cat. Horses horse. Spiders spider. Flies fly. Elephants elephant.

People do anything but just people around. How can we? We’re not only born into but are stuck on a relentless hamster-wheel of identity and dignity defined by our exceptionalism, our actions, our works, what we bring to the table. We are told that we are not good unless we…. (fill in the blank).

I find myself exhausted from endless pursuits trying to validate myself through and defend how special and good I am. The more I pursue, the more I’m terrified of it ceasing. If I stake my claim to the right to life on my virtue, what happens when that goes away and I become unvirtuous? Do I lose my right to life? If I stake my identity on my ability, what happens when that goes away and I become unable? Do I lose my identity? If I stake my importance on my work, what happens when that goes away and I am unable to work? Do I become unimportant? If I stake my indispensability on my intelligence or creativity, what happens when either of those things go away? Do I become dispensable? If everything I stand for depends on me being right, what happens to the ground under my feet when I’m wrong? Do I lose everything? If my goodness and lovability come through being exceptional in some regard, what happens when I cease to be exceptional in any regard? Do I cease to be good and loveable?

Am I less worthy of respect and love, am I not good if I have absolutely nothing exceptional to bring to the table but my vulnerable body and empty hands?

Luke 19:1-10

Now Zacchaeus stood and said to [Jesus], “Behold, half of my possessions…I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded a certain one, I return fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come into being in this house, in what manner he, he is a child of Abraham. For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.”[1]

Luke 19:8-10

Luke introduces an infamous character of Gospel proportions, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and not just any tax collector but the chief of tax collectors. So, according to many a Pharisee, the worst of the worst.[2] Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus with reference to stature was little. He struggles to see through and around the crowds when Jesus enters Jericho and passes by. His struggle may mean he was short in height or too young. What is likely is that he was short with reference to status in his community, and the crowds presented an obstacle to him because they didn’t care to let him through. The crowd prevented him from seeing Jesus and coming to know who he is.[3] Even as wealthy and powerful as he was, he was blocked from seeing Jesus because he was the chief tax-collector. In other words, he and his wealth were despised.[4] In the eyes of the crowd, he had no dignity or worth. He wasn’t good.

Zacchaeus, determined to know who Jesus is,[5] ascends a tree. Now! Now I have a clear view of Jesus…and Jesus has a clear view of him.[6] In a moment, Zacchaeus went from disgraced tax-collector to graced host of the Christ when Jesus sees him and announces he’ll be staying with Zacchaeus that day—Jesus chooses Zacchaeus as if the crowd wasn’t even there.[7] The crowd was determined to push Zacchaeus out, now they find themselves on the outside as Zacchaeus proudly and happily hosts Jesus in his home. To whom were they an obstacle? Themselves or Zacchaeus? Who here is lost to destruction and who has been sought out of it?[8]

As Zacchaeus hosts Jesus—while the people grumble about Jesus staying with a sinner[9] misunderstanding the divine mission of the Christ[10]—he immediately addresses his wealth.[11] Pulling no punches—as if knowing his means of acquiring wealth were troublesome—Zacchaeus is compelled to explain himself.[12] He blurts out, Okay, I know,…I know I’m not the greatest guy and a bit trapped in this system, but I give half of my gain to the poor and if I ever take by means of exploitation, I give it back fourfold. I wonder if Jesus was taken aback from the sudden confession—he certainly wasn’t looking for one, nor was his presence in that home dependent on such a thing. Jesus just loved Zacchaeus. I imagine Jesus smiled right before he said, Today salvation has come into being in this house…For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.

Zacchaeus knows who he is, so he now knows who Jesus is. He knows that his wealth must lovingly[13] serve his community, that he should not exploit others, and that he is unworthy if based on his own accomplishments. He can’t measure up. Zaccheaus cannot justify himself; he knows he is irreligious, despised,[14] and small in the eyes of his community.[15] If God’s love is dependent on these things, he falls short. Then Jesus shows up. Into this moment of confession of smallness, Jesus pronounces a divine bigness upon Zacchaeus: he’s very much a worthy child of God[16] and a son of Abraham.[17] Not for any reason other than love: Zacchaeus is loved and loves; Zacchaeus is good.

As it frequently is in Luke’s stories, it’s those who are small who are big, it’s those who are lost who are found, it’s those whose are weak who are strong, it’s those who strive to see Jesus who finally see who they are, it’s those who seek their dignity and worth in God who know that they have dignity and worth apart from their actions. It’s those who feel the farthest away who are the closest. It’s those dead set on their unloveliness who are the lovely. It’s those made to feel bad because they don’t measure up who are called good by God in Christ.

Conclusion

Ouch, I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah, I think that I might break
Lost myself again
And I feel unsafe

Be my friend
Hold me, wrap me up
Unfold me, I am small
And needy, warm me up
And breathe me[18]

Sia “Breathe Me”

It’s when I’m small when I experience the fullness of God surrounding me. It’s when I’m weak, when I give up, when I realize I have nothing, when I look around and see hopelessness, when I look deep into the mirror and know that I’m only a random collection of muscles, bones, sinew, and blood—nothing exceptional—that I need to be reminded by this tremendous love story between God and humanity that I’m worthy apart from what I can offer anyone else other than basic existence. It’s when I realize I don’t care for being exceptional (because that standard is so death dealing), that I rather prefer being loved for no other reason than just because and beyond what I can bring to the table. In the quiet of letting go, releasing my grip, giving into gravity, and falling, surrendering, I’m caught in the love of God manifest in Christ encountered in the Spirit. In that encounter, in hearing God’s love proclaimed to me again (and again) in word and deed, I’m unfolded, made warm, and comforted. In that moment everything becomes quite exceptional, I’m found, I’m saved, I’m reborn. I’m good.

Beloved, you do not need to prove yourself to God. You do not need to get your act together, strive for some abstract conception of perfection, kill yourself in a human made system thriving off of your livelihood, your energy, your quickly depleting spirit. You do not need to be exceptional by any human standard. That you exist—in that your being and your life is a huge miracle—you’re amazing. You are loved for no other reason than juts because. You. Are. Good.[19]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 221-222. “Tax collectors in general were despised as collaborators with the Roman regime, as exploiters of the powerless, and as often contaminated by ritual uncleanness. Major tax collectors had others performing the same duties under them. That Zacchaeus was rich implies that he was not just one of many tax collectors, but an important one. A sinner among sinners!”

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 670. “Thus, it is not simply that Zacchaeus cannot see over the crowd; rather, the crowd itself is present as an obstacle to him. On account of their negative assessment of Zacchaeus (cf. v 7), the people refused him the privilege of seeing Jesus as he passed by. Whether short or young, then, Zacchaeus is presented as a person of diminutive status in Jericho, thus rendering him as a member of the unenviable association of the lowly…”

[4] Green, Luke,  668-669. “By way of analogy with other Lukan texts, however, it is clear that Zacchaeus is thus presented as a person of advanced status, even if only among other toll collectors. More specifically, as a ‘ruler’ in the Greco-Roman world Zacchaeus would have enjoyed relative power and privilege, though from the perspective of the Lukan narrative we would anticipate his opposing the mission of Jesus. That Zacchaeus is wealthy is emphasized within the narrative by its being enumerated separately, as a quality distinct from that of the others. Within the larger Greco-Roman world, possessing wealth was an ambiguous characteristic. Although wealth was required if one were to reach the upper echelons of nobility, how one got one’s wealth was equally determinative. Zacchaeus’s fortune was not ‘landed wealth’ but was the consequence of his own entrepreneurial activity; hence, it would not have qualified him for enviable status. Within the Lukan narrative, such ambiguity dissipates rapidly, since the wealthy are thus far repeatedly cast in a negative light. Most recently, Jesus had remarked on the impossibility of the wealthy entering the kingdom of God (18:24-25).”

[5] Green, Luke, 669. “He is not interested merely in ‘seeing Jesus’ but wants to know ‘who Jesus is’ (cf. 10:21-22). He goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his quest, even enduring the probable shame of climbing a tree despite his adult male status and position in the community as a wealthy ‘ruler,’ however notorious. That he goes to such lengths is illustrative of his eagerness, to be sure, but is also a consequence of the crowd, which has positioned itself as a barrier to his endeavor.”

[6] Green, Luke, 667. “We discover at the outset that Zacchaeus is on a quest to see who Jesus is, only to learn in the end that, in accordance with his divine mission, Jesus has been on a quest for Zacchaeus, to bring him salvation.”

[7] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010.  505. “ALEJANDRO: ‘Other times we’ve seen Jesus against the rich, but here we see he wasn’t a prejudiced man or a fanatic. He chooses to stay in a rich man’s house without getting an invitation. He invites himself. Even when there were plenty of other places where he could stay, because there were swarms of people welcoming him.’”

[8] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “He is one more example of the lost that have been found.”

[9] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “I: ‘They don’t criticize that he’s gone to stay with a rich man but that he’s gone to stay with a sinner. This rich man belonged to the class that were then called ‘publicans,’ people who weren’t religious and who were despised by the Pharisees even though they were rich. You have to keep in mind that in that society … the ruling class wasn’t people that just had money, like Zacchaeus, but people that belonged to a religious caste which had money as well. The scandal is that Jesus has gone to stay with someone who isn’t religious, and it seems that’s why Jesus sent to his house.’”

[10] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “TOMAS: ‘People didn’t understand or even know what Jesus was looking for. They didn’t know his mystery. He was coming to save sinners, not to destroy them. That guy that was on the edge of the pit, he came to pull him back and set him on the good road.’”

[11] Green, Luke, 671. “Zacchaeus answers first, not with reference to behaviors or commitments that might mark him as acceptable according to standards developed heretofore—for example, fasting, praying, tithing (cf. 18:11-12), or even his choice of knowledge of the messages of John (esp. 3:10-14) and Jesus regarding economic justice and almsgiving. That is, he lists behaviors appropriate to those who have oriented themselves around the kingdom of God.”

[12] Green, Luke, 672. “According to this reading, Zacchaeus does not resolve to undertake new practices but presents for Jesus’ evaluation his current behaviors regarding money. He even joins the narrator in referring to Jesus as ‘Lord.’ Jesus’ reference to ‘salvation’ (v 9), then, signifies Zacchaeus’s vindication and restoration to the community of God’s people; he is not an outsider, after all, but has evidenced through his economic practices his kinship with Abraham (cf. 3:7-14). Zacchaeus thus joins the growing roll of persons whose ‘repentance’ lies outside the narrative, who appear on the margins of the people of God, and yet who possess insight into and a commitment to the values of Jesus’ mission that are exemplary.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “When it comes to the use of possessions, it is not just a matter of setting aside a certain proportion to give to the poor—be it 100 percent as in the case of the ruler, 50 percent as in the case of Zacchaeus, or 10 percent as in the practice of tithing-and then claiming the rest for oneself. It is not just a matter of obeying a commandment—be it the tithe or giving all to the poor. It certainly is not just a matter of some token almsgiving. It is a matter of free, liberal, loving giving. And it is also a matter of being willing to recognize the possibility that one’s wealth may be unjustly acquired. In short, it is a matter of love and justice entwined.”

[14] Green, Luke, 669. “On the other hand, Zacchaeus is a toll collector. Within the Greco-Roman world, he would have belonged to a circle of persons almost universally despised.”

[15] Gonzales, Luke, 221. “From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had clashed with those who presumed on their piety and their obedience to the law as guaranteeing their salvation, and insisted on a great reversal that would result in great joy at the conversion of sinners and the finding of what was lost.”

[16] Green, Luke, 670. “In this respect, Jesus’ use of the term ‘today’ is highly suggestive, since elsewhere in Luke’s narrative it is used to communicate the immediacy of salvation. Because of the association of ‘joy’ with news of divine intervention and salvation, that Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus with joy (NRSV: ‘happy’) signifies genuine receptivity on the part of Zacchaeus, intimating that he is one who embraces the values and claims of the kingdom of God.” And, “Rather, since the Lukan narrative has redefined status as a ‘child of Abraham’ with reference to lowly position and faithful practices. Jesus assertion vindicates Zacchaeus as one who embodies the qualities of those fit for the kingdom of God.” 672.

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “Zacchaeus stands in contrast with the fool that thought his possessions were truly his, and with the ruler who was saddened because he wished to hold on to what he had. This story also corrects the sell all and give it to the poor. He decides to give to the poor half of his possessions-not all, as the ruler was told. He adds that, if any of his wealth is ill-gotten, he will repay it fourfold. Jesus accepts this as a true act of repentance, and announces, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’”

[18] Sia “Breathe Me”

[19] Thank you to the podcast “You Are Good” discussing movies and feelings. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/you-are-good/id1527948382 The theme of this sermon was completely and totally inspired by the work they do. Thanks Sarah and Alex, you make this world better!