SERMON Beloved Child

I didn’t reach today, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 ESV)

I remember a conversation once with Kaylie Mendoza. She was talking about how much she hated language of adoption in scripture. Because in all her years in the foster system, no one adopted her — and for some fairly complex reasons I won’t explain here, no one could — and so, she wasn’t really anyone’s beloved child.

Which is why it has always been important to me to say to the kids who look to me as a parent-figure of some kind (and you know who you are), to say what this voice says from heaven.

“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

I have said it to Kaylie. Not as often, perhaps, as I should. I have said it Michaela, because as bright as she is, as successful as she has been in here life so far, she struggles and fears and wonders what will come of any of it. She fears failure. And so to her I say what I say to Kaylie or to any of those young people who stick around longer than to simply find safety:

“You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. And John — troubled, bug-eating, misfit and malcontent John — knew that. He knew this man had no need of repentance, no need of water and word, of the promises of God. Jesus is the promise of God. Made flesh in our midst. He doesn’t need this.

But we need him to do it. We need him in the water with us, wet, soaked, penitent, having words of blessing pronounced as he goes under and dies that symbolic death we all die when we go under.

We need him.

Because when we come to that water, when we go under, when promises are spoken and the blessing of God called down upon us, we join him. In the water. On the road. On the cross. In the tomb. Bearing wounds. Calling disciples to follow. Ascending to the heavens.

And he joins us. In school. Eating dinner. At boring, repetitive, poorly paid work that means little and seems to accomplish less. With friends, hanging out.

He joins us. At night, when we’re alone and frightened, when those who creep and lurk and hurt come and do their worst. He has been there, alone, frightened, beaten, broken, tortured.

He went into the water. And came out beloved child of God.

And so when we go in, we too come out, and even if we do not hear those words — because I didn’t — God speaks over us:

“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Child of God. You. Me. All of us. Whether that water is a river or a font or a bowl on a pedestal, or tears are have cried in sorrow and shame and loneliness, we have been washed. Clean.

We are his. We are children, beloved and adopted, of one heavenly Father who is there with us. No matter how alone or scared or abandoned we have been. Beloved children of God.

Wanted. Needed. Called. Cared for. Redeemed. Risen. Alive.

Amen.

SERMON A Dangerous Man

I didn’t preach on Sunday. But if I had, it would have looked something like this.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:13-23 ESV)

And so we have, tossed off here, one of the most horrific passages of scripture we may ever encounter. In a book full of horror, needless, pointless, purposeless violence.

Jesus is saved. In a dream, his foster father Joseph is told to flee with him, and Mary, to the safety of another land. Herod, who jealous and angry and very, very afraid. Jesus is a usurper, “the king of the Jews,” and he threatens Herod’s very own throne. Herod wants to keep his throne. He rather likes it, the wealth and the power and the privilege that come with being King of Judea, even if it means accepting Roman rule and Roman occupation.

He likes being king. Why wouldn’t he? Who would want to give up a throne, and all that came with it? So babies, toddlers, threaten him. If the cosmos has anointed him King of Judea, King of the Jews, then Herod’s has lost his throne. It is only a matter of time.

But no man goes quietly. King Saul lost his throne when he was faithless toward God, who commanded Samuel to go find and anoint a new king for all Israel from among the sons of Jesse. The young David struggled with Saul for years, perhaps decades, before he came into the kingdom that had been promised to him, fleeing and fighting and even giving himself in service to Israel’s enemies.

Herod will not go quietly either. If a mere toddler from Bethlehem threatens his throne, well … it is better to do away with all of the little boys in Bethlehem than to risk that loss.

That’s fear.

There’s a sad fact about scripture. It is not sentimental about the dead. That strikes us as strange, because we revere our dead. We seek purpose and meaning in their lives, their suffering, their deaths. They are still with us in many ways, telling us what our lives mean and what our purposes are, what we will live for. We fight hard against meaningless suffering, against pointless death, especially against innocent suffering and death.

Scripture doesn’t do that. The dead … are dead. They are gone. There is lament for the dead of Israel after Babylon destroys Jerusalem and carries its people into far away exile, but the message of scripture is not about the dead. It is about the living, the survivors, the remnant. Yes, we mourn our dead, and we bury them. But as we sit in the midst if the rubble of the city and lament our loss, we also know — we look forward in hope to a future, to the promise of God. And not backwards, to what we have lost. To what is no more.

In this, I believe the story of Israel that we have in scripture appreciates that we live in a violent, capricious, often times meaningless world, in which little is clear. In this passage, Jesus is saved, he flees the murderous violence of a jealous and frightened tyrant. But as a result, that tyrant murders anyway. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of children die.

Frightened and angry, Herod is a dangerous man. He kills what he fears, hoping the power to inflict death will make him less afraid.

It doesn’t work. Note well, he dies anyway.

The quote that Matthew takes from Jeremiah is part of a longer promise of God to the “people who survived the sword,” the exiles of Israel who shall be regathered in the land of promise. God specifically uses the name Ephraim in the prophesy he speaks to Jeremiah. Ephraim is one of the sons of Joseph, and a name synonymous with the northern kingdom that was destroyed by Assyria many years after renouncing its share in the promises to David and going its own way as a separate state.

There is a second part to Jeremiah’s prophesy, a response to Rachel’s crying:

16 Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
17 There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
Jeremiah 31:16-17 (ESV)

Tears at the loss of innocence. Comfort from God for the one who will not be comforted — they shall return. “There is hope for your future, your children shall come back.”

Who is Rachel weeping for? Matthew has her weeping for the murdered children of Bethlehem. But she isn’t weeping for the dead in Jeremiah, she’s weeping for the lost. Perhaps Rachel here is also weeping for Jesus, who has gone into exile and lives among a foreign people, and who — so far as we know — never returned to Bethlehem.

Jesus too, is a dangerous man. Even as a baby, even as a toddler, dangerous enough to have his birth written somehow in the stars, to draw wise men from the east — possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from Iran — bearing treasure and gifts. Dangerous enough because he is, as Matthew says, the son of David, the son of Abraham, inheritor and fulfillment of the promises made to both — land, blessing, descendants, a kingdom forever. Dangerous because, as the angel told his foster father Jospeh, “he will save his people from their sins.”

Into this world he came, a world full of dangerous men who inflict suffering and death out of fear or lust or rage. But in this one dangerous man, this Jesus who fled to Egypt in the dark of night, who died on a cross and who rose from the tomb, there is hope. He has come to share joy and sorrow, gladness and suffering, tedium and excitement, life and death. In this living and dying and rising, rather than in battle and killing, in hope rather than in fear, he conquers. And he rules.

SERMON It Doesn’t Take Hardly Any Faith At All

A reading from the Gospel of Luke, the 17th Chapter.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:5–10 ESV)

I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life that talk about our faith from the standpoint of the disciples — if a little can do so much, imagine what a lot could accomplish?

If we just had lives that overflowed with faith, if we really, truly, actually believed, we could do more than command the trees or move the mountains! We could change the world! We could maybe even save the world!

With that much faith, there are no limits to what we could do.

After all, the mustard seed is a small thing that grows and gives brith to a tree big enough for birds to build nests and seek shelter in! A tiny thing can become a great thing!

So, if we had more than a mustard seed, imagine — a redwood tree, growing hundreds of feet in to the air! Something for all the world to see!

But … what if that’s not the point of this parable? Yes, Jesus is serious. Even a tiny amount of faith can move things, change things, command things, incredible and amazing and astounding things.

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What if we can’t have that faith? What if we can’t have more? What if we cannot even manage something as tiny and unimportant as a mustard seed? What if all the faith we have is something smaller — a grain of pollen, a long chain hydrocarbon molecule, or even two atoms of hydrogen and oxygen that make water. Or even less – an atom’s worth of faith, and not something heavy and complex like uranium, but the simplest and smallest thing there is — one proton and one electron, hydrogen?

What if all the faith we have is so small it cannot be seen, and is more empty space than substance? What if that mustard seed is more faith than we could conjure up in a dozen lifetimes?

What if Jesus’ answer is ironic, a way to tell the disciples that increasing faith isn’t what’s at stake here. Because even that tiny hydrogen atom of faith can do a great deal. Can love, reach out, can heal, can reconcile, can raise from the dead. It doesn’t take hardly any faith at all to live in this kingdom, to do the work of this kingdom, to bear the fruit of this kingdom.

And that’s a good thing. Because I don’t have mustard seed faith. I’m not sure how much faith I have, but it isn’t that much. No trees that can shelter birds sprout from my trust in God, much less obey my command to yank themselves out of the soil and hurl themselves several miles to the sea.

I do, however, have enough faith. Enough to do the work of love, mercy, and grace that I have been called to. That Christ invited me, commanded me, to do when he told me on that horrible day in September, 2001 underneath burning towers:

“My love is all that matters.”

But living in this kingdom, doing kingdom work, bearing kingdom fruit, being filled with even a tiny bit of kingdom faith, is not a thing we’re going to get much thanks for. There are no awards, no bonuses, no trophies, no not even much thanks for our trust, our faith, and our work. Most of use labor in obscurity, unknown by many except by the Jesus who called us. We are unworthy servants doing what Jesus has called us to do — the hard work of preaching, teaching, baptizing, proclaiming, and living the good news of a kingdom that will never end. God’s rule is here and now, in Christ’s love for us, on our love for each other and the world.

This is our calling. This is our duty. This is our love.

This is God’s love.

How Long, O’ Lord?

A reading from Habakuk, the first chapter.

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
(Habakkuk 1:1-4 ESV)

How long, O’ Lord?

I suspect many of us have cried this, wondered this, whispered this. Words sent into the air, to evaporate, to decay, unheard.

How long, O’ Lord?

The world is full of violence. It is full of wickedness, and it goes unpunished. There is injustice everywhere. “Why do you make me see it?” This is our world.

This was also Habakkuk’s world. He is speaking to the later kings of Judah, kings who failed to follow the law and worship God, kings who put their trust in wealth and power and in the worship of false gods.

10 And the Lord said by his servants the prophets, 11 “Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, 12 therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. 13 And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. (2 Kings 21:10–13 ESV)

Judgement is coming, and it’s coming because of Israel’s faithlessness. Because of Israel’s idolatry. Because of Israel’s sin. This is God’s message to Habakkuk too, as he stands and wonders how much longer he must see, must live with and bear, the violence and injustice of the world.

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
(Habakkuk 1:5-7 ESV)

Judgement is coming, in the form of Babylon, to to pluck up and destroy. “They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand.” (Habakkuk 1:9) It is coming, and it is coming in God’s time.

To the question of “How long, O’ Lord,” God answers, soon and very soon.

It’s a judgment Habakkuk says he will wait quietly for.

But it is not a perfect justice that is coming. It is a rough justice, one of violence itself. It is justice because those who live in comfort and ease, who live and profit and get pleasure from brutality and violence, will themselves fall to the sword and will themselves become captives.

Babylon is the means, the hands doing God’s work, but Babylon is not free from that very same judgement. “Woe to him that builds a town with blood” God tells the prophet of the Chaldeans. The cup Babylon has made others drink will itself be passed to Babylon. And the Chaldeans shall be made to drink.

This is little comfort, however, when you live in the time of violence and injustice. When what you see all around will not stop. Cannot be made to stop. In which no one who wrongs you or anyone else will ever be held accountable. But perhaps knowing those who wrong you will themselves eventually fall by the sword — a sword which itself God will avenge himself upon — is enough.

… the righteous shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

We live by faith, in the promise of God, that this violence is not all there will be. Habakkuk did not live to see the promises of God fulfilled. But he trusted God. And waited “for the day of trouble” — knowing he would likely die waiting. Sometimes that is all we have.

It’s a terrible answer. To know that you may never be rescued, may never be redeemed. It is a terrible faith.

But the faith we have, the faith we confess, isn’t quite so hopeless. “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says to the repentant thief dying with him. We believe in a redemption so real that we do not have to wait for it. We are saved, redeemed, right now, even if we can hold nothing in our hands and see nothing in our world that shows us we are redeemed.

We live, as Christ lived. We die, as Christ died. And we will rise, as Christ rose.

That is the only answer I have in the face of the violence and injustice of the world. It is the only hope I have. It is the only truth I can confess.

It is the only thing I know that’s real.

A Costly Forgiveness

I did not preach today. But if I had, I would have preached something like this:

17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the man who was paralyzed— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.” (Luke 5:17-26 ESV)

Early in Luke’s gospel, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man. And the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the scribes and the Pharisees, are scandalized. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

And Jesus, after forgiving the man who had been lifted down into his midst, turns to the scribes and the Pharisees and he says, “Which is easier to say? Your sins are forgiven, or get up and walk?” And he then commands the paralyzed man to get up and walk. And he does. He grabs his mat and he walks home, free, healed, whole, forgiven, praising God all the way.

It’s a miracle, this forgiveness. And it’s proclaimed long before Jesus is betrayed into the hands of the religious authorities, long before he is tried and tortured and executed by the Romans.

Long before our crucified Lord utters the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We’ve heard this story for so long that we know how it ends. It bores us, this story of Gods’ Son incarnate in our midst, who forgives sins and performed miracles and taught with authority. We know it ends with forgiveness and resurrection. That ending no longer surprises us, no longer shocks, no longer amazes, no longer fills us with awe and wonder.

We yawn. Of course it ends that way, we say. We’ve told this story our whole lives. Our parents told it, and theirs, and theirs, and theirs, farther back than almost any of us can remember. We are the inheritors of a whole civilization — of law and order and power — built on that forgiveness, those miracles, that empty tomb, his commands to follow and make disciples.

Of course it ends that way. How else can it end?

We are entirely too complacent and self-satisfied about this story. We’ve told it so long we’ve forgotten what it really says and the power it really has. We’ve so focused on the civilization this story breathed into existence and its trappings, great and small, that we’ve lost sight of the story itself.

And in doing so, we’ve made forgiveness cheap. We’ve come to expect it. Even demand it. Of course God forgives us. That’s what God does. All is right with the world when those are wronged somehow forgive those who wrong them. After all, We’re the good and decent people God has forgiven. Whatever we confess with our lips, this — we are the good and decent people that God loves and forgives — that’s what we truly believe.

That’s how we truly live.

But we miss — we completely miss — the cost of that forgiveness. Jesus came into the world, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, and got nothing but heartache. “Only God can forgive,” say the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus heals the paralytic to show not that he can heal, but to show that he has been given the authority to forgive sins.

And for this, the scribes and the Pharisees and the Romans and the crowds eventually call for his death. And they kill him.

Because he forgives.

Even in the act of dying, of being murdered by the state and its brutal authority, Jesus proclaims forgiveness.

This is a costly forgiveness. Bought at a price. A bloody and brutal price.

And make no mistake, the hands covered in blood are ours. We have betrayed him, abandoned him, mocked him, called for his death. We have beaten him, flogged him, humiliated him, tortured him, compelled him to walk to his place of execution, nailed him to that cross, demanded he prove himself God and save himself. We followed and wailed and did nothing. We are not innocent. We are not good people. We have done all these things.

We do not deserve to be forgiven. We deserve a God who would smite us or drown us or reduce us to dust. God once looked upon a world full of wickedness, regretted that he had ever made humanity, and blotted out damn near every living thing on the face of the earth.

Yet, we are forgiven. The one who we have murdered — God as flesh in our midst, light from light, true God from true God — forgives us. We, who are killing him, are forgiven.

We do not deserve it. We are not good people. We are wicked and sinful, with murder and hate in our hearts. And we struck God dead. Because he spoke these words of forgiveness.

But we are forgiven. We, who betrayed, and abandoned, and killed him, we who ran and hid, we who gawked and did nothing, we are forgiven. We who are law and order and power are forgiven.

It is not cheap, this forgiveness. Because it strips bare any notion we are innocent. To be forgiven is to be reminded that we are judged and condemned. Remember that. It puts the lie to our favorite confession, that we are the good and decent people that God loves and forgives. We are not. Only one is innocent.

And we put him to death because of that.

No, we don’t deserve this forgiveness. And we should not expect it. Not given who we are. Not given what we do.

But we are forgiven. The God whose betrayal, arrest, torture, and murder we so readily arranged and took part in does not stay dead. And he comes to us — all of us — and says, “you are mine; follow me.” He shows his wounds, the wounds we eagerly inflicted upon him, and says, “I am risen. Do not doubt, but trust. Go and share the good news!”

The women and men who met the risen Lord, and lived into their forgiveness, who preached and taught and traveled, who lived and died this good news, built this civilization that so paradoxically allows us to forget who we are. What we did to God. And how God responds to us.

Sometimes, though, we are reminded. Sometimes events reach through the fog of law and custom and culture and force us to see who we are. To see who our suffering, crucified God is. And to remind us, really remind us, that for all our wretchedness, for all we have done, we are forgiven. We don’t deserve it. But we are forgiven.

Respond to that gift with awe and wonder. With grace and forgivness. Knowing how it was bought. Remembering the part you played in it, as one unworthy of the Lord you helped put to death. Forgive, as you are forgiven. Remember the cost, and forgive.

Love your enemies, and forgive them, remembering that Jesus speaks not of an abstraction, of people far away across the sea who may mean you harm. He spoke to a people who were conquered and occupied, whose enemies lived in their midst, commanding and compelling, beating, and raping, and killing. Who dealt with those enemies every day. Because, all too often, that’s what law and order and power means.

If you don’t see your enemies in your midst like that, then consider — you might be the enemy someone has to love, to be blessed when you curse, prayed for when you abuse, turned the other cheek to when you slap, handed both coat and tunic to when you demand. Consider this costly forgiveness, that it’s yours, given freely to you, and let it change who you are.

Let it change how you live.

Do not be the kind of person who needs to be met and resisted with this kind of love. Lay down your power and your privilege and live as someone God has called to truly inherit the earth. Live as someone Jesus speaks words of blessing to, and not woe. God is merciful and kind even to the ungrateful and the evil, makes the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust. It better, however, to be kind, to be just. To forgive, as you are forgiven.

So be merciful. You helped kill God, and you deserve to drown, to perish so utterly the world would never know you existed. And yet, he has come to you in your fear and terror and shown you his wounds and you have been given new life. You met him in the teaching of the word and the breaking of bread. He still claims you. You are still his.

You have been forgiven. So take up your mats. And walk.

Sermon – The Vengeance of God

This was a sermon I gave at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Dixon, Illinois, a few weeks ago. It didn’t really work as a sermon, at least not for that congregation in that place at that time. But I’ve wanted to post it for a while because this is an example of where my thinking theologically is moving.

* * *

Sermon for the Weekend of August 30-31

  • Jeremiah 15:15-21
  • Psalm 26:1-8
  • Romans 12:9-21
  • Matthew 16:21-28

“Lord, you know. Remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors.”

These are the words of Jeremiah, his lament, in the first reading today. A reading which comes in the midst of God’s angry and unyielding judgment upon God’s people, a judgment they have earned because of their faithlessness and their idolatry. In the previous chapter, God has commanded Jeremiah, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people,” for God “will not hear their cry” and “will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”

God is speaking this. About God’s people.

It’s a harsh message, this message of earned judgment, of coming defeat and destruction. It’s a message no one wants to hear, especially in the midst of war — because for much of Jeremiah’s prophetic career, the Kingdom of Judah is at war with Babylon, a war of defense and survival, and Judah is losing. Jeremiah pays quite a price for the things he says. Imagine, for a moment, how someone counseling defeat and surrender would have fared in the weeks and months after 9/11.

God says a lot to Jeremiah, and sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether God is speaking to Jeremiah, or through him to Israel, or both. Right before today’s passage, God tells Jeremiah, “Your wealth and your treasures I will give as spoil, without price, for all your sins, throughout all your territory. I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” That’s Israel’s fate. But is it Jeremiah’s, too?

So when Jeremiah asks for vengeance against his persecutors, is he asking for himself, thinking of the priests, court officials, and army officers who have — and will continue — to try and kill him as he counsels defeat and surrender? Or is asking as besieged Judah, as the people of God, who will lose this war to Babylon, whose leaders will be dragged into exile far away?

Vengeance. It’s a tough subject. A tough subject for us to even consider. We are, after all, the people of a kind and loving God, a God of grace. We are the people who are told to turn the other cheek when assaulted or offended, or walk a second mile when compelled to go one, or give up our cloaks to whoever wants to take our tunics. That’s the virtuous people we are — in theory. That’s what Jesus tell us to do. That’s who Jesus tells us we are.

I get the feeling sometimes we think we’re not even supposed to want vengeance. To even feel anger and resentment, or the desire to get even. But Jeremiah wants vengeance, for himself or for his people. Or both. And he prays for it. Scripture does not shy away from that very human desire. The psalmist in our reading today seeks vindication, for he has done everything right — avoided sin and sinners, he’s worshiped properly and faithfully proclaimed. Vindicate isn’t quite vengeance — there’s no implication of violence and destruction, just a very public demonstration to everyone that the psalmist is correct. It’s kind of the same thing, though. Revenge is a theme in a few psalms.

None is more graphic, and more troubling to us, I think, than Psalm 137, which was composed in exile, after Judah had lost that war Jeremiah preached against.

1 By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

There is probably no greater desire for vengeance in scripture than that last verse. It’s a human desire, a deep lamentation of despair and anger, given up to God in the midst of exile. We should not be ashamed of this. Each one of us has had that desire. Perhaps even today.

The whole thing is even more troubling if we consider that Martin Luther saw the psalms as a prayer book, the very very best words, spoken by the saints of God themselves, in deepest earnestness, directly to God. Not just words of happiness, joy, and praise, but words of sorrow, anger, despair, words that help us peer into the deep darkness of the human heart.

Our hearts.

Before I go any farther, I want to make it clear what is being prayed for in Psalm 137. “Blessed shall he be…” This is not a rallying cry for action, not “Blessings to us as we…” It is merely an acknowledgment of the anger, a very real and legitimate anger. As God’s people, we can be angry. We can want vengeance. We just aren’t empowered to do anything about it.

Because Babylon is doomed. It will fall. And it does fall, many years later, to the Persians, who will then allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it.

This is where Paul comes in. Never avenge yourselves, he tells the faithful at the church in Rome, but leave it to the wrath of God. Trust God to do that work, and go about the business of loving neighbors and enemies. He then gives’ Jesus’ command to love enemies some flesh — feed your hungry enemy, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. If nothing else, it will shame them.

“Vengeance is mine,” Paul writes. “I will repay, says the Lord.”

Heard that before? It’s from Deuteronomy, chapter 32, and it comes from a long song Moses sings — yes, sings — to the people of Israel as they are preparing to enter the promised land. In that song, Moses lays out the history of Israel that has passed and that will come, and the vengeance he speaks of — the vengeance Paul quotes — is God’s promised vengeance upon God’s faithless and idolatrous people if, or when, they fail to keep their end of the covenant.

God’s vengeance upon us.

There’s another reason we need to let God have vengeance. Because maybe we don’t know what God’s vengeance, what God’s wrath, really looks like. Yes, we envision the destruction of the wicked, the suffering of those who have done us wrong, and maybe even fire and brimstone raining down from the heavens, but consider Paul, who I suspect knew a thing or two about the wrath of God. In the Bible, we meet him as Saul, when Stephen is stoned to death, and he is ravaging the early church, banging down doors and taking the followers of Jesus to prison. He is on his way to Damascus, breathing threats and murder against the church, when he is struck down blind by Jesus. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

And Saul becomes Paul, preaching Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord to gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel.

Couldn’t we call that striking down, that grasping of Saul and not letting him go, the vengeance of God? No doubt many cursed Saul, and some very likely wanted him dead, but what better vengeance can God possibly have but to take someone so vigorously and murderously opposed and make him God’s own? You and I think we know what vengeance is, but we are called to trust God. And maybe God knows better what vengeance really is. The exiles who sang their lament along the Euphrates River and said “Blessed shall he be…” most likely never lived to see Babylon defeated. They would never see home again. They lived as a defeated and conquered people, and had to trust that God would deliver, not them, but their children and grandchildren.

That’s a hard trust. Especially when we hold in our hands the power of death and destruction, the ability to exact vengeance and the willingness to call it justice. To do it right now! It’s satisfying, that power. Why trust in God when we can do something ourselves?

But that’s the power Moses sang against, and he told Israel where trust in that power would lead. Jeremiah preached against that power as it pointlessly tried to save itself. And Jesus faced that power, that desire, in the crowds, the high priests, the soldiers, the Roman governor, and the executioner.

And we face that power, too. United in death and life to the risen Christ who overcame death and sin for the glory of God.

And that’s how are we not overcome by evil. And how we overcome evil with good. By remembering that we are baptized. By remembering whose life, death, and resurrection we are joined to in that baptism. By remembering the promise of eternal life that comes with the water and saving word. By remembering that Jesus went to the cross, knowing he would be tortured, that he would die, and that he would rise again three days later, Lord of all. By remembering that the world is saved by an act of power and might that emerges out of suffering and death. Jesus rose, showing us — showing the whole world — that death and sin are powerless and defeated.

By remembering that, in words Paul himself writes in Romans, we too, all of us, were once enemies of God, reconciled to God by Jesus’ death *and* his risen life.

*That*, sisters and brothers, is the vengeance of God. And it is a marvelous thing to be a part of.

Sometimes, The Work of God Means Doing Nothing

Here is my sermon for Sunday, 20 July. The Gospel reading, according to the revised common lectionary, was Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43:

(24) [Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, (25) but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. (26) So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. (27) And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ (28) He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ (29) But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. (30) Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

(36) Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” (37) He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. (38) The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, (39) and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. (40) Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. (41) The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, (42) and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (43) Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

* * *

There are days when, as a preacher, you find yourself looking at scripture and going — well, this one’s easy for me. Jesus does all of the hard work of interpretation here. There’s nothing to do. Really, there isn’t. I’m not exactly sure why you are all paying me for this. I’d dismiss you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, except that would make for a short worship service.

And there’s the matter of the Lord’s Supper, which we still have to share. So, sit tight. No one goes home early today. Sorry.

So, I have to come up with something. On the face of this, Jesus explains just about everything you might need explained in this parable, and does so in some amazing language. We have the field that is the whole, wide world, we have the seed — the seed which only a few verses earlier in this chapter was the Word preached to an eager world — which is now “the children of the kingdom,” sown widely in soil that will allow them to grow and bear much fruit! But in the midst of all this, as the good seed grows to bear good fruit, the evil one plants his own seed, scatters his own children, amidst the good seed. A harvest is coming, when the angels of the Lord will gather it all together, the wheat and weeds, the children on the kingdom and the children of the evil one, and the weeds will be set aside and cast into the fire!

In fact, all of the causes of sin, all those who break the law of God, will be gathered together and cast into the fire, into the furnace. Sin is done for! This is good news! He who has ears, let him hear!

It seems so easy, so clear, on the face of it, this parable. Truly. Jesus does such a good job of explaining the gospel passage I’m not sure what’s left.

Well, actually, there’s something. Maybe you noticed it.

My grandfather owned a large farm and ranch in Eastern Washington, about 3,500 acres, most of it scrubland pasture where he and his brother grazed beef cattle. Grampie had about 800 acres under cultivation, wheat and barley. And some alfalfa. Up until I graduated from high school, my family would visit the ranch every other year, and some years, I’d go and visit by myself. When I was teenager, I actually got to work. At harvest time. My first harvest season, my job was to grease the combine every morning. Grampie was incredibly patient and kind as he showed me every little point — every little zerk, to be technical about it — I had to hit with the grease gun each morning before Grampie, or Uncle Mike, or one of Mike’s sons would hop on the combine and cut a swath across the rolling hills that made up most of Grampie’s fields of grain.

The second summer, I got to actually drive a grain truck, a big blue International Harvester from 1952. Which was something I will never forget.

Grampie and Grammie, however, never let me work much. They were insistent that I never acquire a taste for farm work. I was always too good to be a farmer, Grammie was insistent about that. So, my work was just a taste, a sip, a bare touch. It wasn’t real work.

But they had hired hands, and they worked hard. In fact, the one summer I remember there being lots of hired hands, I only recall really seeing them at meal time. They were so busy, and always out in the fields. Working.

Have you caught it yet? There’s a man, the owner of a farm, who sows seeds. He has men who work for him, servants, slaves — and what do they do? They sleep when at least some of them should be watching. They tattle to their master, and are somewhat clueless when they do — “Didn’t you plant good seed? Don’t you know your field is full of weeds too? How come?” And as the master assures them this was done on purpose, while they slept, they offer to go rip the growing weeds out, only to be told, “no, let’s wait until the harvest.”

“Let’s wait … until the harvest.”

So, when it comes to that private moment when Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, he hits every point and person in the parable … except for the slaves. They aren’t there. The very people who do most of the talking in his parable, who sleep and wonder and demand to do some work aren’t actually there.

These servants, these slaves, they do not sow, they do not reap, they sleep when they should watch.

I know if Grampie had such hired men, he wouldn’t have kept them on long.

Note that the kingdom of heaven here is, like it is in most of Matthew’s parables, not a thing, but a process. It is not a noun, but it is a verb. Here, it is sowing, sleeping, questioning, wanting, waiting, and eventually, reaping, threshing, burning and storing. This whole process is the kingdom, which means the evil one coming on sowing the weeds isn’t somehow contrary to the kingdom of heaven, it is an intricate part of the kingdom. You don’t have the kingdom without it.

You don’t have the kingdom of heaven without the devil. Consider that!

This kingdom, where wheat and weed grow together, still waits for the harvest, to be set free, to see the glory of the sons of God.

And that means we don’t get to stand here in the midst of the field, as servants of the master, and demand to pull weeds. That’s not ours to do. Not our calling. Not our work. If we are the wheat, then our job is solely to grow and bear fruit, and toe wait for the harvest. Which is not a hard job, if you think about it, since a kernel of wheat or barley is programmed to grow. If the soil is good, if there’s enough rain and ample sunshine, that little seed cannot help but grow tall and bear fruit.

Bearing fruit is easy in this parable. Think about that for a minute. Watered at the baptismal font, tended at the Lord’s table, we almost have to work at not bearing fruit.

Now, if we consider ourselves the servants, well, our job is even easier. We do nothing. We sleep. We question. But it feels harder because like good slaves, we want to earn our keep. We want to work. We have hands that itch to dig and grasp and pull, souls that ache to do useful work and be satisfied with that work. That’s what we were created for! After all, God created the man and placed him in the Garden in order to tend and care for it.

So this job as servants requires we actually fight our natures — our desire to do something, to pull weeds, to do that work which has been reserved for someone else at a later date. And I know it offends us, seeing weeds among the wheat, when we know that good, straight rows of grain ripening in the warm sun are so much nicer looking. We so much ache to make this kingdom of heaven ours, something we have shaped and tended and played some part in bringing into being. To have it be a kingdom without the evil one.

Instead, we are to do nothing.

Because none of this work — none of the planting, none of the growing, none of the watching, none of the reaping, none of the threshing — none of it is ours. It is not our work to do. Our hands, which are many and which fidget at the very possibility of doing God’s work, are to remain clean, unstained with dirt and the green of weeds — and whatever wheat we may pull out as well.

Sometimes faithfulness to God means we do nothing. We just sit. And wait. It’s hard, isn’t it?

Remember God’s great saving acts in scripture. When God saves Israel from Slavery in Egypt, all God asks of Israel is to prepare, to get ready. And to wait. When Israel faced the deep blue sea in front of it and a charging Egyptian army coming fast behind it, an army bent on murder, God speak through Moses and tells Israel: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

It’s the same saving work God does for God’s people at Jericho, when the walls of the city fell to the blast of a trumpet, or when God delivered the Canaanites to Deborah and Barak, or whittled Gideon’s huge army of of more than 30,000 down to a mere 300 lest Israel boast that its own hands have saved them. It’s the same saving work God does for Judah during the time of King Jehoshaphat, when God tells the people, “Do not be afraid, and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s.”

Stand firm, God says, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.

It’s exactly what happens on Good Friday, that terrible day in which Jesus was crucified, in which sin and death at put to flight, routed, defeated. At best, we are spectators, merely watching as Jesus is humiliated, tortured, compelled to carry the very cross he is nailed to, raised up and then run through with a spear. At worst, we have betrayed him, taken joy in his humiliation, mocked him upon that cross, even taken whip and hammer in hand to draw blood and pound nails. Or the following Sunday, when all we can do is gawk at an empty tomb and wonder what it means, even when we meet the risen Jesus face to face. Remember, Jesus came to redeem, to call as followers, we who betrayed him, who abandoned him, who murdered him.

Do not be afraid. Do not be dismayed. See the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.

We didn’t do that work. We cannot do that work. Because remember, if we cannot pull the weeds and consign them to the fire, we also are not commanded to harvest the good grain. That all belongs to the angels. We don’t do anything in this relationship. We are the slaves who sleep. Who notice. But we have no actual role. It happens without us.

But we know the work of salvation is done. Sisters and brothers, we know that it is done! Jesus does it! I cannot honestly tell you what that really means — because we still suffer, we still grow old, get sick, we die — but somehow I know that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of the suffering we experience, all of it is worthless, and death, which looms so darkly as the final word which answers all questions and solves all problems, is overcome and has no power. I don’t know what it means, I cannot explain it, but I know it’s true, I have lived in it, and so I wait in patience, trusting in God.

That’s us, brothers and sisters, the people who wait patiently while others do the work. Knowing that the world is in the process of being remade, not by us, not by our hands, but by the Grace and mercy of God. The Grace and mercy of God.

A Wandering Aramean Was My Father

My sermon for the second Sunday of Lent, preached at Grace Lutheran in Westchester, Illinois. This is more or less what I preached, though I did some improvising as well.

* * *

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gives the Israelites a prayer they are to pray when they make their first offering to God after a settling — after planting and harvesting — in the land of promise.

A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.

“A wandering Aramean.” That’s Abraham, the father of us all. Yes, that includes us too, as Paul writes in his letter to the Church at Galatia,

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. 

A wandering Aramean was my father. I am his son, the son of a wanderer.

Bear with me, but let’s hear that first reading again:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And so Abram — he has not yet been given his new name Abraham — leaves. He leaves everything. And for what? A handful of promises. And vapor, all of them. A land that I will show you, God says. You won’t know it’s the place until I tell you. As for the rest of it, those are promises made to Abraham, but they aren’t for him. He will never realize any of them. They are made to his descendants. People he will never meet. People he will never know.

There’s a couple of ways to think about this. And I don’t want you to think in terms of either/or, but rather, both/and. Like we, in God’s eyes, are both sinners and saints.

We are the people God makes the promises for. We have received the promise. We are the blessing to the world, we reside in the land that God has given to his people. That this land — maybe it’s the physical earth upon which we live, it’s Westchester, it’s this very ground, the United States of america — and maybe this land that flows with milk and honey is the church. Not just Grace, but the ELCA, the whole of Christ’s church, this body that we have become in the world.

We are, after all, a settled people. We have roots here. Oh, we may move from time to time, as the situation requires. But this is our land. Yes, our ancestors took flight and crossed an ocean and some part of a continent. But that was like Israel wandering in the wilderness. It’s over now, and this is the place.

We are the multitude, countless as grains of sand, as stars in the sky. (And not the bright Chicago sky, either.) We are the promise. Paul says so. We are Abraham’s children, through Jesus.

(But consider for a minute — a land flowing with milk and honey is a phrase used in scripture only to describe the promise. Once Israel actually gets there, the land is never described that way.)

And maybe, just maybe, we too are Abram, there in his home in what is now southern Iraq. And these are promises made to us. But they aren’t for us. We are wandering Arameans too.

What does it mean to be given a promise you will never realize? To grab hold and trust in something you know you will likely never see?

Let’s look again at those promises God gives. I will make you a great nation through which the whole earth will be blessed? What does that mean when you’re just a handful, and you have so little? What does blessing even mean? And how will I, will we, be a blessing to all the families of the earth?

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever dishonors you I will curse. That means there will be dishonor. Perhaps a great deal. God isn’t going to save us from it, just merely get even for us when it happens.

But that also means people who are strangers, who don’t share in this promise, will bless us. Will be kind, will care, will do us good.

Where is this place God will show us? How far away is it? What does it look like? Or must we wander, aimless, until God finally says, “Here, and no farther.”

As part of the first-call process, I’ve been interviewing a lot recently with churches looking for a pastor. Congregations where people are anxious, careful, wondering, places where they’ve been wounded by strife and division and where they mourn loss. I too wonder, and I too am anxious, who will call me to shepherd them? How much longer must I wait before someone decides, before the Spirit of God blows as she will through hearts and souls, and some people are inspired to say, “he shall lead us.”

All of us, wandering, aimless, knowing that God is guiding but not to where. Having a promise. Knowing only that God will show us when we get there. Here, and no further.

Promises given, held tight to.

And that’s the funny thing about a promise from God. The promise itself is as good as whatever is promised. Because God does not lie. I shall be blessed? Then I am blessed! I shall be a great nation? Then no matter how small I am, I am a great nation. Because God has promised. It is as real now as it will be for anyone who might actually inherit generations from now.

Do you know what eternal life is? What the Kingdom of God is? I don’t. I know we have it. I know, brothers and sisters, we have eternal life in Jesus Christ but I have no idea what it is. I don’t. Jesus promises eternal life in him. That’s enough. I don’t need to know what it is to know it’s real, it’s true, and it’s God’s gift. I don’t.

Lent reminds that we are a wandering people. Really, we are. For all our settledness, we are exiles. Grumbling, angry, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, anxious, and filled with sorrow. Exiles, carrying all we have with us. For the journey.

And then we meet Jesus. Minding our own business, we come across him, or he comes across us, and he invites us to come and see, to follow him, to feed his sheep, claims us as his own, because he knows us far better than we will ever know ourselves.

We follow Jesus because he calls. We follow, without really knowing what we’re following, only that it’s good news and we know Good News when it falls on our ears and fills up our hearts. We see signs and wonders and hear incredible things — we must be born again, with water and spirit, or we shall never enter the Kingdom of God! But how is that possible? What does it even mean?

And yet, every day, I get up, gather the manna that God has scattered as my daily bread on the ground, roll up my tent, and start walking, knowing God is there, that Jesus leads and guides and protects, pillar of cloud and fire. When Jesus tells me, be born of spirit and water and come into the Kingdom, I say, “see, here is water! What’s stopping us?”

When he tells me that the Son of Man must lifted up, and that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life, I gaze upon the glory of God crucified on that cross, the ultimate great deed of terror, and I say, “My Lord and My God!”

And I don’t understand. I follow, I believe, I trust, and it’s true, but I do not understand.

Abraham wandered his entire life. He never settled down. He never had a home. Sometimes, he was weak and vulnerable, and had to pretend his wife was his sister in order to save himself and those he cared for. And sometimes, he was a force to be reckoned with, and even went toe to toe with God in order to save a handful of righteous people in the sinful and inhospitable city of Sodom.

But he never had a home. He never had ground to call his own. And when his wife Sarah died, he had to bargain with a Hittite for a place to bury her.

It’s easier for some of us to imagine that life than others, I suspect. I find it easy. But then I’m a wanderer. Home is wherever I can pound a tent-peg in, water and graze my animals, snuggle with Jennifer, and maybe even rest for a few days.

But none of it matters. Because our real homes are not made of wood, or brick. The ground upon which we build, and live, and work, and love, bear our children and bury our dead, is not soil underneath our feet. All of it is Jesus. All of are wanderers because God’s people are wanderers. And all of us are home because we belong to Jesus, who lived with us, died with us, and rises, so that we may have everlasting life.

Amen.

The Devil is a Liar. But You Knew That Already…

My sermon for this Sunday, which I preached at First Lutheran in Harvey, Illinois. I ad-libbed a fair amount into this, but this text is the core of what I preached. The readings for the first Sunday in Lent from the Revised Common Lectionary are Genesis 2:15-17 & 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19 and Matthew 4:1-11.

* * *

Good morning, sisters and brothers. Let’s talk about Satan.

Jesus calls him a liar. In fact, Jesus calls him the “Father of Lies” in John 8. So, we know all we need to know about Satan. That he is a liar.

But there are all kinds of different ways to lie. So, I think it’s fair to ask — what kind of liar is he? What kind of lies does Satan tell?

So let’s take a look at the reading in Genesis this morning. God has made this garden, this amazing place, and created this man out of mud, breathing life into him. And put him to work, to tend the garden. That’s what the man was made for, to work and keep the garden.

And the man has free run of the place, and can eat anything he wants in this amazing place. Except for one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, many clever people have asked: “Why would God do this? Why create the temptation?” And many clever people have tried to answer this, too. I want you to set that aside — the question is pointless and the answer is even more so. This story, and the Gospel, are about the human condition. And about God’s response to the human condition. Not about some imaginary, perfect world.

Okay, so God has told the man this tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is off limits. And there will be a price for eating of the tree — “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” In the Hebrew, it literally says — you shall die the death. It’s emphatic. It’s final. Death will be a consequence of eating.

How do we hear that? I’ll tell you what I see in my mind — I reach for the fruit, I grab it, I hold it my hand, maybe I smell it, and then I take a bite. And BAM! I keel over, dead. That’s how I hear “on that day you will surely die, you will die the death.”

Most likely, the man — who’s just been made, and doesn’t know very much — probably just nodded his head. You know, like a small child hearing stern words but not quite sure what they mean. I will die the death. Whatever die is. Whatever death is.

So we fast forward a bit, and suddenly a serpent — who we identify as the Devil, as Satan, as the adversary — shows up. God made a mess of animals to keep the man company, and finally he made a woman. And the serpents asks her, “So did God really tell you not to eat of that tree?”

“Yes,” she says. “We shall surely die if we do.”

This is where the Devil gets clever. “No, you won’t die. You’ll just be like God, knowing good and evil!” That’s what he says.

Now, brothers and sisters, let me ask you — did the Devil lie?

If by “on the day that you eat you shall surly die” means grab, smell, taste, die, then no, the Devil did not lie. In fact, if anything, God is a liar. Because the Devil goes on to tell the woman a very profound truth — you shall know good and evil, and in that, be like God.”

Is he right about that? The man and the woman suddenly realize they are naked, and do something about it.

But as to the consequences of eating, well, no one dies that day. In fact, the man and his wife are cast out of this garden — the man loses the very purpose for which he is created. The serpent is cursed, the woman is cursed, even the earth is cursed so that the very work man was created to do will become an unpleasant burden. None of those things God threatened or promised.

But no one dies that day.

Adam does die, after a very long life. And death becomes part of our existence. So, God did not lie. From that day on, we live, knowing we will die.

But we didn’t die that day. The Devil didn’t tell the truth, but he didn’t quite lie either. The Devil mixes lies with truth, and he speaks more to our weaknesses and expectations. Even our hopes and dreams.

Mostly, though, the Devil wants to make God out to be liar.

And this takes us to our Gospel reading today. Jesus is out in the wilderness, driven there after his baptism in the River Jordan by the Spirit of God for the very purpose of being tempted by the Devil. He’s hungry, he’s alone, and then the Devil comes to him.

“Hungry? Well, if you are Son of God, turn those stones to bread and eat your fill!”

And it must have been tempting for Jesus to do just that! Because he is the Son of God — this is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel anyone calls Jesus by that name, and it is the Devil who does it — and can do exactly what the Devil says he can do.

Use your power to solve your problems, the Devil says to Jesus.

And however Jesus answers — angrily, confidently, just barely able to restrain himself from succumbing to temptation — he tells the Devil, “no, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

So, not content with this, the Devil takes Jesus up to the top of temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off! You are so important to God that angels will come to rescue you.” And the Devil’s not content at this point to let Jesus do all the scripture quoting — the Devil can quote the Psalms too!

And I suspect Jesus looked down and thought to himself, “why not?” Who wouldn’t want to fly like that? Who wouldn’t want to tempt God? I’m going to fall – catch me!!

But Jesus restrains himself. Quoting the Torah, he says, “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So, the Devil takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows him all of the kingdoms of the world. “All of these are yours, if you just bow down and worship me.” Now, let’s assume for a moment the kingdoms of the world are the Devil’s to give — I think they are. I don’t think the Devil is lying when he makes this offer to Jesus. He hasn’t lied to Jesus yet, not really. Not about stones and bread, not about his value to God, and not about the kingdoms of the world.

And I imagine Jesus is also tempted by this. Just think — how much suffering, how much injustice, how much evil and violence could be done away with if the Son of God ruled the world? Jesus could do it differently. Jesus knows he could do it right. Not like Caesar or any of the world’s other rulers.

But the price — worshiping Satan — is too high. And Jesus knows his Torah. “Scram, Satan! You shall worship the Lord your God and him only you shall serve!”

And with that, the Devil absconds. Whether he’s angry or not, I do not know. Did he really believe he could tempt the Son of God? I suppose that’s possible.

But the reality is he did not. The church has taught that Jesus was obedient to the will of God when Adam and his wife were not. Perfect obedience. Sure, I’ll accept that. In resisting the temptations of Satan, Jesus becomes the obedience that Adam was unable to be. As Paul writes to the church at Rome, the sin that brought death into the world is undone here.

Honestly, though, I don’t think that’s all. Because something else happens here, in each of these temptations.

What does it mean to be fed? To tempt God? To rule the world? What are our expectations? A world full of bread, so no one goes hungry. A world in which everything is a Disneyland ride, and there are no real risks because everyone’s plucked from doom just before they hit the ground. In which the world is ruled by only good and decent people, power wielded justly and fairly.

Something else happens here. Something I cannot really name. I’m not even entirely sure how to describe it. Jesus doesn’t really resist the Devil’s temptations. I mean he does, but he doesn’t.

Jesus is the Word of God. But he becomes bread — our bread — when, in that rented room at the last supper, he breaks the bread and proclaims, “this is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.” He becomes the bread that feeds the world.

And what else is his long journey to Jerusalem but the tempting of God? Yes, he constantly tells his disciples that he will die, and rise three days later, and they don’t believe it until after it happens. But maybe Jesus doesn’t either, not really. What else is his agonizing prayer in Gathsemane but a plaintive and pitiful demand that this end some other way, because Jesus doesn’t want to suffer, doesn’t want to die. Because it just might not end the way God promised.

And when the the chief priests, the scribes and the elders tell the crucified and dying Christ at Golgotha, “he saved others, he cannot save himself, let him come down off that cross and we will believe in him,” perhaps Jesus even wished, and hoped, prayed, for those angels to come down and save him. Right. Now.

“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? For just a moment, maybe even Jesus doubted the promise of God. Because those are words of despair, very real, complete and utter despair, of someone who had hoped and prayed and possibly even demanded this would have ended very differently. Words of someone who is about to hit the ground with no one to save him.

As for the kingdoms of the world, Jesus rules those. Each and every one of them. Not as Caesar, not as king, not a president, not as prime minister. He has no army, no police, no treasury, no constitution, has has no policy and np program. We want to give him a flag and a banner, and march triumphantly under them as they flutter and wave, but he doesn’t have those either. He rules by surrendering, he ruled by calling, he rules through love. His rule is not what we — or maybe even Jesus himself at times — expect rule to be like.

In each of these temptations, he says no to the Devil’s way of doing things — a way that makes sense to me. Feed the world? Wouldn’t we turn stones to bread if we could? Tempt God carelessly if we could? Rule the world — because we’d do it right!

Everyone of these things Jesus shows there’s a different way, his way, God’s way, to do things. And he does them. Because we cannot. I can’t be bread. I can’t tempt God knowing that my death on the cross will save the world, will right the wrong of Adam’s disobedience. And I cannot rule in humility and love. None of us can.

Jesus does these things for us. He invites us to participate in his reign, in his kingdom, his rule. In our baptism into his death and resurrection, we become part of this new way of obeying God, of being God’s people. We, each and every one of us, shares in his hunger, his resisting of temptation, his body that is bread, his death that saves the world, his rule that is humility, poverty, powerlessness and love. And this is what makes it possible for us to follow when he calls, to live as his lived, to love as he loves, to die as he died knowing that death is not the final answer. That we will rise as he rose. Because he rose, we will rise.

That life eternal — the promise of God — is real. And true. It is not a lie. Regardless of what the Devil may tell us.

On Bearing The Cross

The Gospel reading for the second Sunday in Lent, Mark 8:31-38 (ESV):

(31) And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (32) And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. (33) But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (34) And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (35) For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (36) For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? (37) For what can a man give in return for his life? (38) For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

It’s hard, at first, to put this gospel reading into some kind of context, given the other readings it comes with — God’s reiteration of God’s promises and God’s unilateral covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 (during which, Abram and Sarai get new names) and Paul’s musings on what it was about God’s covenant with Abraham that really mattered. That Abraham trusted in God’s promises unseen, against the evidence of his eyes, against the very infirmity of his body. (Except that he and Sarah got a little bit desperate about the “father of many nations” part, and took matters into their own hands.)

God’s promises are true. We can choose to believe we are the inheritors of the promises to Abraham, or like Abraham, we trust in God to deliver on promises we will never see — that we will inherit a homeland of our own, that from us will spring many peoples and nations and leaders, and that we will be a blessing to all the world. But we have come to trust in these promises. They are made to us. Maybe they are not about us, and maybe they are. But they are true promises because God has made them.

We trust. This is a better word for “faith” in Hebrew and Greek then “believe,” which has in it the implication that we have signed on to a set of ideas or intellectual propositions. We trust.

So what does Jesus rebuking Peter and calling upon his followers to “take up his cross and follow me” have to do with trusting God?

Jesus telling us to take up the cross almost makes it seem like a choice. “Today, I shall bear the cross. Hmm, which one shall I bear today?” Is this an aesthetic choice — pink cross versus blue cross, rainbow cross versus bright red? Or is this a political choice — today I shall bear the cross of family values in a society clearly hostile. I shall bear the cross of religious liberty, and fight for the right of churches not to pay for birth control and other medical procedures that said church might find objectionable. There are dozens, quite possibly hundreds, of crosses, in all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and ideologies, that can be picked up and hauled not just to Golgotha, but with the aid of a wheel (or a fine circle of friends or like-minded comrades) taken and carried around the world. As many times as there are willing backs and grasping hands.

Bearing the cross is not a choice. At least not a choice any intelligent, reasonable and thoughtful disciple would take voluntarily. And anyone who would too readily, too eagerly, too easily, choose to pick up a cross is a fool. Or isn’t really carrying a cross. Just a cross-shaped object that weighs too lightly on their shoulders, doesn’t cause them to break a real sweat, feel any real pain, a glowing neon object designed to point attention to the bearer, and how good they are, dragging this cross-shaped thing around, suffering the pangs of imagined crucifixion.

But that said, we are not Schleprock or Eeyore either. When we bear a real cross, when we walk slowly and painfully toward Calvary, we do not do this to draw attention to ourselves either. “Woe is me” may be something we say, occasionally, either in loud lament or quiet tears, but these are not words that become our catchphrase. We are not followed by our own tiny storm cloud that blocks the sun everyone else seems to bask its light and heat. We are not the only miserable soul in a world of happiness and joy. That’s not a real cross either, and it born just as much for show — look at me, I’m miserable! no one loves me! LOOK AT ME! — as a pink neon cross of styrofoam. Even if it feels heavy on the shoulder and sometimes strains the back.

“Woe is me” is not a crucifixion either. It is self-flagellation. But it is not crucifixion.

No. We bear a cross not for the sake of bearing a cross, not to testify to how good and noble and blessed we are, or how miserable and unloved and unfortunate we are, but because we testify to a reality that the cross Jesus carried to the place of the skull pointed to — the empty tomb. We bear the cross to testify to the power of God’s love and faithfulness and the meaninglessness of suffering and death in the face of that love. We bear witness to God’s promise. Of new life. Of life that stomps the very meaning and threat out of death.

God’s absurd promise, that a man from Palestine 2,000 years ago who was nailed to a cross and killed outside Jerusalem rose from the dead, walked out of a rock-hewn tomb a day-and-a-half later (the third day) not just alive but resurrected, and told and empowered his cowardly and traitorous followers to preach his words to the ends of the earth. Which they then did.

Oh, and that this guy who was dead and who now isn’t, was somehow God incarnate in the world.

It is a completely absurd thing to believe. Christians have lived with the words and ideas for so long, mixed them with so much Aristotle and Plato as to make them seem and feel reasonable and logical and rational, that I think they’ve forgotten just how completely bonkers the very essence of their faith is. (Islam is reasonable and rational by comparison.) We trust in something not just unseen, but something utterly ridiculous. Even more ridiculous than an elderly couple being promised a biological son through who the world would be blessed and populated.

We trust a God who makes absurd promises in completely absurd ways. And yet … we trust.

So you who bear a cross, remember what you bear witness to. Not your righteousness and innocence (though you may be righteous and innocent). Not your misfortune or misery (though you may be unfortunate and miserable). We bear witness to the eternal life given the world in and through the risen and resurrected Christ. That is the promise we trust. That is the promise to which we testify. That is the only promise that matters.

The only promise that matters.