SERMON The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength

I did not preach this Sunday. Instead, I’m working all day. Because I need to work the occasional Sunday. If I had preached, it would have been something like this.

However, I am preaching next Sunday, January 31, at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. Worship starts at 10:00 a.m., so if you are in the area, come and hear the gospel. You might even meet Jesus!

Third Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 3 (Year C)

  • Nehemiah 8:1–12
  • Psalm 19
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a
  • Luke 4:14–21

1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:1–12 ESV)


14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21 ESV)

Long before today’s reading, as the waning decades of the Kingdom of Judah are related in 2 Kings, the word of the Lord — the teaching of God to Moses — was found. By accident, in a dusty corner of temple. It was being cleaned out so Israel could hold something of a great garage sale to raise money to repair the temple. Hilkiah, the high priest of Israel, has found a scroll while rummaging around. A book. The teaching. The torah.

The law of God, the teaching to Israel through Moses, had been lost in the temple, amidst the banners and the silverware and the broken images of false gods. I suspect King Hezekiah had a few “now where did we put the torah?” moments during his reign. And so Hilkiah tells Josiah, the King of Judah, that a book of the law has been found.

“When the king heard the words of Book of the Law, he tore his clothes,” the authors of 2 Kings tell us. Josiah, a good king committed to following God’s teaching and having his people follow that teaching as well, then instructs his priests to go ask God whites in store next for his kingdom. He’s heard the words of the teaching, and he knows just how much Israel has deviated from that teaching.

“For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (2 Kings 22:13)

He expects doom, the doom that has fallen upon faithless Israel to the north, which was conquered and resettled by Assyria because the kings of Israel — and its wayward people — worshiped golden calves, and other idols, including the false and foreign gods of the Assyrians. He tears his clothes, and he fears the worst.

But a woman, Hulda the Prophet, tells the king that his faithfulness has saved Judah, and has delayed the disaster forecast in the book:

19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.” (2 Kings 22:19–20 ESV)

By repentance and a promise to be faithful, the coming disaster has been delayed, but not avoided. Judgment will still come upon Judah, Upon God’s faithless people. But this turning will push it back a little. Those who are faithful, will see a reward — in their lives — for their faithfulness.

I’m telling the story of the rediscovery of the law under King Josiah, and his commitment to keeping the law, to contrast it with both our Gospel reading and the passage we heard from Nehemiah. And with our understanding as well.

We have gathered today, probably not as many as many people here in the place as gathered that day when Nehemiah read the law to Israel in the square before the Water Gate, to hear the word read. Not the whole Book of Deuteronomy — I doubt many today would have patience for that — but our simple and short readings from Nehemiah, Luke, and Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

King Josiah was sad, and even afraid, when the book of the law was read to him. He knew how he, and Israel, had fallen short — and what God had in store for Israel. In Deuteronomy, God promises famine, disease, conquest, defeat, exile, and slavery in response to Israel’s faithlessness. God does promise an eventual restoration, if Israel remembers its relationship with God. But failure on Israel’s part to live out the covenant meant doom.

And Josiah saw that doom. He’d seen how it overtook the northern portion of God’s divided people. And he knew it was coming for Judah. For Jerusalem.

And so he weeps. He mourns. He tears his clothes.

Nehemiah tells Israel something different. In part, because Nehemiah is reaping something of the promised regathering. Israel has come home from exile in Babylon, has started rebuilding the long-abandoned city of Jerusalem, and has seen the beginning of its redemption. So Ezra the priest reads the law, and if all Israel gathered at the Water Gate is moved to weep, and mourn, and tear their clothes, and fast — remember the king of Nineveh’s command to his people upon hearing the news of Jonah’s short sermon of doom — Nehemiah, the governor of the province of Judea (because remember that Judah is merely a province of the Persian Empire at this point) has told his people to remember that this day is holy, and they are not to mourn. They are not to fast. They have heard the words of the teaching, and while they know the sinfulness and faithlessness of their fathers, Nehemiah understands they live in the promise.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Deuteronomy 30:1–3 ESV)

So feast, Nehemiah says, east and drink and remember who you are. Remember whose you are. “Do not be sad, and do not weep, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Celebrate. The time for weeping will come — it comes in the next chapter, when Israel as a people tells its and story confesses its sin and its miserable position. Even with the end of the exile, Israel understands, just how precarious and contingent their existence as a people really is. Because they aren’t truly free.

36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. 37 And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:36–37 ESV)

Still, even as Ezra reads the law to regathered Israel, Nehemiah tells them to celebrate. To feast. To take joy. They may not be free, may not yet live in the fully realized promise of God. But they have that promise. That is worth celebrating.

In our gospel reading, we have Jesus proclaiming, as he reads from the book of the Prophet Isaiah — the captivity of God’s people is over. Good news has come, for the poor, the blind, and the captive. There will be enough for all, the blind will see, and the captive will be set free. And rolling up the scroll, with all eyes fixed upon him, Jesus proclaims — “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus walks into the synagogue in Nazareth and says God’s promise is real and realized. Because Jesus himself is the fulfillment of this promise. His person, his life, his ministry, his coming death, and his resurrection — this is the promise of God made real. He is the freedom Israel yearned for when they confessed their sin to Nehemiah and Ezra. He is the freedom Isaiah promised.

His freedom is ours. He invites us in to it, makes it part of us, makes us part of him. We are free. He sets us free.

There are times to weep and mourn when we hear to clear teaching of God in the torah, when we know how we have failed to keep our end of the covenant with God and face the very real consequences. Josiah was right to tear his clothes, and Israel was right gather in sackcloth and ashes to confess their sin before their leaders and before the Lord their God. When we hear the teaching that convicts us, reminds us, forces us to go to God knowing that God, his promise, his grace, and his redemption, are all we have.

But Nehemiah reminds us that there are times when we hear the words of God and we are to celebrate, to be glad, to feast, to remember that the joy of the Lord is our strength. God’s own joy is is our strength, our protection! We are to eat and drink, and be glad. We have God’s own good news! We can see! We have been set free! So come to the Lord’s table, eat and drink, and remember God rejoices over you! Our days of living in fear and uncertainty, weeping over our fate, our exile, our dispossession, are over.

Because today, the promise of God is fulfilled in our midst.

Without Samson or David

In a recent column about the now-finished synod on the family, Damon Linker over at The Week makes this general description of the Catholic Church — and it’s a description I think applies to the entire Church in the West, and quite possibly the whole world:

The reformers view the church as a community of believers founded by Jesus Christ on a message of universal inclusion, hope, love, and mercy. … This helps explain why the reformers favor loosening the strictures against divorced Catholics receiving communion: because it’s a gesture of inclusion, healing, acceptance. Just as Jesus consorted with the outcasts of his time, so his church should offer welcoming arms to any and all who want to receive the message of mercy and love and become active members of the People of God.

Those who oppose reform take a very different view. The church, for them, is primarily a rigorously consistent intellectual system that teaches a vision of the right way to live. Christ rejected divorce. Over the centuries, the church has developed a rich set of intellectually satisfying principles and procedures in response to this divine decree. A marriage can only be dissolved through annulment. Civil remarriage without an annulment is adulterous. Adultery is a grave sin. Communion is withheld from those living in a state of persistent grave sin. Therefore and with no possible exceptions, a Catholic who is civilly remarried cannot receive communion.

It really is that simple. Remove any of those steps and the whole edifice falls into incoherence. You can see Douthat making that point against Fr. Martin in a blog post written in response to the latter’s Time column: The church simply has to uphold the traditional rules and procedures — not primarily because they’re traditional but because they’re systematic.

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative more or less agrees, though he says Linker’s description of religious conservatives (at least in the Catholic camp) is not entirely fair because “[d]octrine is not about right order alone, but primarily about Truth. It is far from loving and merciful to tell someone that a lie is actually the truth, only so that they can feel good about themselves, and affirmed. This, at best, is what the conservatives stand for — not mindless rule-following.”

I am much closer to the progressive camp Linker describes (accurately) here. I admire Dreher immensely, but honestly, I’ve seen little love come out of rule, order, and truth concerned conservatives. Mostly I’ve seen judgement and condemnation without any prospect of redemption, and the strange expectation of the conservative that, in a well and properly ordered world, some people will be marginalized and subjugated and because it is good and orderly, they should willingly and gladly acquiesce (and the violence it entails) because it is “the natural order of things.”

I take issue with the very systematic nature of the conservative understanding. And with the very idea that faith in God is to believe in some kind of inherent and discernible moral order to the world. That’s not biblical, not so far as I can tell, because the biblical story — which is what counts here — is hardly systematic itself, and doesn’t concern itself much with the good order of the world, but rather with a people called Israel, and their encounter with God. Revelation, not reason, is what matters.

Scripture also doesn’t deal in abstractions. It doesn’t talk about “war” in any generic sense, but human beings engaged in very specific conflicts with very specific causes and very specific outcomes. It doesn’t talk about “marriage,” or “divorce,” but rather gives us human beings who are married, and shows as a great many ways (mostly bad) that those marriages work (with no examples of divorce). It doesn’t talk about some abstract idea of “salvation,” but rather, the redemption of Israel, with hints that means the world will be redeemed too.

I will go so far as to say the very construction of the systematic edifice of theology is somehow an act of faithlessness on our part. Inevitable and inescapable, probably, but an act that leaves the actual story in God’s people Israel in the dust as it plays with concepts and ideas and thinks about God in wholly irrelevant ways — ways that have nothing to do with the encounter of Israel/Church with a redeeming God.

This said, I have tremendous problems with religious progressivism. It isn’t really biblical. The message of the liberal and progressive church is basically the promise of modernity — freedom, equality, and liberation. The liberal church is basically the church of the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s how it understands exclusion. The marginalized have done nothing to deserve their marginalization except to be born the wrong kind of people in terms of social position and power. They have not sinned. And so the Jesus of the liberal church invites the unjustly excluded to the table, bringing them into full communion with the powerful and the privileged. And he does so not because they have been forgiven anything, but because he breaks down barriers and crosses boundaries — all of which have been arbitrarily created and imposed. There is nothing wrong with this, but it isn’t redemption. The redemption of the liberal church is largely a redemption for those who have not sinned.

And because of this, the liberal church cannot even begin talk about sin in any meaningful way. Not being able to talk about sin, the liberal church cannot think straight about repentance, redemption, and forgiveness. The only thing the liberal church knows to do with real sinners is … exclude and marginalize them.

Not very Christ-like, that. Because Jesus supped with sinners, who knew their own sinfulness, who understood the redeeming forgiveness of God. Whether they changed their lives is another matter entirely. But those sinners met God, were judged, forgiven, and invited to follow.

As I have come to understand it, the controlling narrative of scripture — the key to understanding the entire story that unfolds from Genesis through Revelation — lies in Nehemiah 9 and 10. Nehemiah 9 is Israel’s telling its story and confessing its sin in the wake of resettling of the land after the end of exile. It is a confession of Israel’s constant sinfulness and God’s unremitting redeeming grace. “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” Israel confesses. (Nehemiah 9:17) Again and again, as Israel sins, God gives Israel over to enemies as the consequence of Israel’s idolatry, and then redeems Israel when Israel cries out. Again and again.

The main actor here is God, who called a people, made promises, redeems and delivers that people, over and over again. “Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (Nehemiah 9:31)

This is the meaning of the entire Old Testament story. In fact, it is the meaning of the entire biblical story.

But Nehemiah 9 doesn’t sit by itself. After Israel confesses its sins, Israel vows to act in Nehemiah 10 — to keep the law, to rest on the sabbath, to keep their daughters to themselves, and to support the temple. This is no small thing. Israel promises to clean up its act in response to its confession of sin and its understanding of its utter and complete reliance upon God. And for a time, I suspect Israel does.

We know, however, the story doesn’t end there. Because Israel cannot maintain this. Because daughters are given in marriage and business done on Saturday. Because the slavery Israel laments at the end of Nehemiah 9 is never really lifted. This is the tension that we must live in — we cannot get it right, which is why we confess a God who does not abandon us. We sin, and we bear the consequences of our sinfulness. As do our children. And theirs. And theirs.

I get the sense both the conservative and the progressive are deeply modern — they dislike the tension and want it abolished. The conservative, for all his alleged understanding of the tragic nature of human existence, seems to believe the law can actually be adhered to (we are not, after all, Israel) and thus the consequences of sin (and the tragic) avoided altogether. For its part, the whole progressive program believes in the abolition of consequences, and so sin itself ceases to exist except as some systemic abstraction which all must repent of but no one can really point to or change.

Lost to both are the likes of Samson and David — clear and obvious sinners chosen by God, who pay the price for their sinfulness but are still loved by God and, in their very sinfulness, called by God to do God’s work in the world.

Everybody Must Get Stoned!

It’s good to be back at the keyboard after a long week of driving around Chicago. There was €€€ involved, so I won’t complain too much, especially given our current circumstances.

But the driving wasn’t constant, and I had a little downtime, mostly to read and take notes. And I’ve got a handful of blog ideas I’m mulling over. The next week should be reasonably productive. However, Jennifer and I are packing up our worldly belongings and will be leaving Chicago. I’m hoping part of this involves a book tour — churches and bookstores across this fair land! — later this spring. So, blogging will be lighter than normal here as well for a bit. Until the last box is stowed away… Continue reading

Why I Am Not a Liberation Theologian

Not that anyone (at least anyone who knows me) has called me one. But it Liberation Theology is inescapable at seminaries today, and this is a decidedly mixed blessing.

I’ve never been a Liberation Theologian. What I’ve heard during (and since) my time at LSTC of and about Liberation Theology sounded an awful lot like the Marxism — particularly the kinds of Marxism coming out of the Third World — I encountered at San Francisco State University in the late 1980s. (In fact, all Social Justice talk sounds like that to me…) The big difference is that Liberation Theology is a lot less intellectually rigorous and a great deal more sentimental than proper Marxism. Continue reading