ADVENT 3 / Never Again

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Genesis 9:15 ESV)

Never again.

Waters will destroy. Will drown. Will flood. But never again will waters destroy all flesh. God has promised. Not an end to suffering, or danger, or sorrow, or even the threat. Waters will always loom as danger, even as they give life.

But the whole world, all at once … is safe.

This is little comfort to those who live in places where it can flood, where the waters are not so calm, where their power is always just threatening to break banks and levies and sweep away all in front of them.

Or where the lack of water dries and parches and kills.

But the whole world is safe. We live in the midst of potential cataclysm every day, in the shadow of death. But not all of us and not all at once. We have that promise from God.

It’s Okay to Serve Nebuchadnezzar

Christendom left Christians, particularly European and American Christians, with a sense that they were empowered and entitled to organize the world. And with that came an obligation to do good and confront evil.

It makes sense that, in a Christian world, the teaching of the church would be far more prescriptive — telling people how to act and how to live in accordance with God’s wishes for humanity and the good order of creation — than descriptive — merely stating the what, how, and sometimes even why of puzzles humanity finds itself dealing with. The church, after all, has an order to uphold and protect, an understanding of what it means to be human.

In the millenia-and-a-half of functional Christendom, the church came to understand God primarily as creator rather than redeemer. Redemption could be taken for granted (in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ), and so the creation needed to be explained.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t really reflect Israel’s experience and understanding of its encounter with God in scripture. In the Bible, God is met primarily as a redeemer rather than creator. The creation could be taken for granted (it was always there, and it wasn’t going anywhere, and so it didn’t really need explaining), so what needed to be understood was redemption.

Because God was met not in the phrase “let there be light” but in the words “Do not be afraid.”

The creation-centeredness of our theologies has forced us to focus on the right order of the world. Coupled with power, Christians have come to believe the world was ours to organize the way God wants it organized, either because we are imposing order on the world or simply helping the order inherent in God’s good creation realize itself. Creation-centered theology is a theology that wants and needs power — it needs to shape and form the world and all those in it.

But the Bible is not the story of a powerful people. It is the story of one man and his (rather sizable) family told to leave him home for a place he will only be shown when he gets there. It is the story of promises given to that man, to his descendants, to a kingdom that rises and falls, is conquered and occupied and carried into exile. Throughout this story, this people — Israel — are constantly subject to the whim of others, mostly enemies, and what they have, they have solely because this God of the promise has given it to them.

They have earned nothing. They have conquered nothing. They have not even fought for much of anything. God did the fighting. Most of what they have been given is taken from them, and they are left weak, defeated, and scattered, with nothing more than the promises that old man was given long, long before.

This story — promise, rise, defeat, exile — is our story as the church. We have forgotten it is our story because we think we have transcended it. Because we have taught ourselves for so long that we must confront evil and defeat it, that we have a duty to order the world, that we must remain pure and upright and always do good in order to save our souls, we forget that our story is one of sin and consequence, of conquest and subjugation and exile.

And serving those who conquered and exiled us.

This is especially important as Christians — mostly conservatives — wonder what to do with modernity, with a secular politics in the West (especially America) that no longer treats their faith with much respect or privileges their truth claims or institutional structures. The desire to protect themselves, to find a champion (Damon Linker’s interpretation of Donald J. Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christians) who will subdue enemies, seems to have guided much Christian thinking in the West for the last century.

But how should Christians deal with enemies?

The gospel is clear: love them. I constantly focus on the fact that the Beatitudes is a guide for faithful living while occupied and oppressed. Israel was not free, and was not going to be free through its own efforts. Freedom came another way — in love, a love that would not flinch in its encounter with the enemy oppressor, but would also not meet violence with violence. It was a love grounded in solidarity, in generosity, that met inhumanity and violence with forgiveness and “follow me.”

But even before Jesus meets his people in the midst of violent Roman occupation (and predicts far worse), the Hebrew Bible tells us of what it means when Israel is beaten, broken, and carried away into exile.

1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:1–7 ESV)

Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem. He killed its leaders, destroyed the temple — the house David promised and Solomon built for God to live in — and carried off the best and brightest of Israel as well as what remained of its wealth and its ceremonial objects. Because of what he did, it would be impossible to worship, and the people of Israel must have wondered — on that long trail of tears from Judah to northern Iraq — what would become of them now that the one thing that held them together — worship — was no longer possible.

If there was ever a reason for non-cooperation with any kind of government, it would be now. It would have been more than appropriate for Israel to tell the Babylonian king to go screw himself sideways and let them weep by the banks of that distant and foreign river by themselves.

Instead, the best and brightest go to serve Nebuchadnezzar, the king who destroyed their temple, conquered their people, and carried them off into exile.

How do you deal with your enemies? You love them. You serve them. This isn’t gospel squishiness … this is hard-headed Hebrew Bible history.

Oh, you speak truth to your enemies. You bear witness to the God who redeems. You refuse to bow down to their idols. You don’t eat the king’s food. You worship even when it is outlawed. You remember and confess who you are and whose you are. But you do this still serving, still loving, and trusting in God.

The church, with its rules and laws and teaching, has forgotten how to trust God. It has forgotten how to be church when the world isn’t organized in its favor. It has forgotten how to be church when it doesn’t have social and political power. Because to be Christian in Christendom is to live with a sense of agency and power, something Israel possessed only sporadically. The church has forgotten that our calling as God’s people is to be faithful, and not successful. The promises we have been given do not include success. Or power.

It will be tough to be faithful in modernity, to eat only vegetables rather than meals cooked in the king’s kitchen, to pray with the windows open so everyone may see. Modernity is all about reducing human beings to mere things to be used, consumed, discarded, and abandoned. It is about forming a standardized and commoditized humanity that conforms easily so individual human beings can be used easily. While we should not be about that, the church in modernity has easily surrendered itself to this objectification of humanity, embracing all the various ways human “things” can best be managed and put to use. It is because of this surrender to modernity, I think, that we have been defeated, and have been carried off into exile, into Babylon, where we are beginning to gather by the river’s edge and weep for what we have lost.

But we can, in good conscience, serve Nebuchadnezzar. We can, in good conscience, serve state and society in modernity, even given all modernity is and does. So long as we remember that the king of Babylon was only a man. That modernity is a transitory thing. It has come, and it will go. And that we have a promise of deliverance, a promise real in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who lived and died and rose under occupation. Who showed us what it meant to love and even serve our enemies.

Enemies who ruled us without pity.

We can still serve them, our enemies. We can still bear witness to the truth of God’s redeeming love. We know will be delivered because we have already been delivered. We do not need a protector or an avenger like Donald J. Trump. His promise of power and protection is akin to that of King Zedekiah, who started a pointless war with Babylon he could not win. We have Christ, who has overcome the world and defeated death. We have the promises of God. And they are true. They have not failed us.

They will never fail us.

Receiving a Babylonian Pension

I was perusing the last few chapters of Jeremiah the other day (because I do that), and noticed that the very last chapter of Jeremiah — chapter 52, the chapter after all the all the curses against the nations, especially the long two chapter judgment of Babylon — is a fairly straight forward narrative. And it ends with this description of deposed King Jehoiachin’s life in Babylonian exile:

31 And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-fifth day of the month, Evil-merodach (אֱוִ֣יל מְרֹדַךְ֩) king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah and brought him out of prison. 32 And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 33 So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, 34 and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, until the day of his death, as long as he lived. (Jeremiah 52:31–34 ESV)

Compare that with the end of 2 Kings 25:

27 And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, Evil-merodach (אֱוִיל מְרֹדַךְ֩)king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. 28 And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, 30 and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, as long as he lived. (2 Kings 25:27–30 ESV)

These are virtually identical passages. The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, who rebelled against Babylonian rule and brought this final destruction upon Judah and Jerusalem, suffers a particularly awful fate — both Jeremiah and 2 Kings relate that he is forced to watch the Babylonians slaughter his sons (with Jeremiah adding that the Babylonians kill all the officials of Judah), at which point the Babylonians gouge Zedekiah’s eyes out and haul him in chains back to Babylon, where he dies a miserable death in one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dungeons.

There’s no hope in this.

Which is why this last bit, about Jehoiachin finding room at Evil-merodach’s table, is so interesting. Chronicles ends with the conquest of Babylon at the hands of Persia — forecast by Jeremiah at the end of his book — and the proclamation of Cyrus that the exiles of Judah can go home to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. But 2 Kings and Jeremiah end with defeat and destruction. A burnt city, a destroyed temple, and a bloody and eyeless king cuffed and manacled and led to his death.

This is death. And nothing of the promise of God to restore his people can come of this. There’s nothing of David left.

But there is. Jehoiachin, king before Zedekiah, whose brief reign was marked by war and siege:

8 Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned three months in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Nehushta the daughter of Elnathan of Jerusalem. 9 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father had done. (2 Kings 24:8–9 ESV)

Jehoiachin (יְהֹויָכִין also known as Jeconiah) and his family surrender to the Babylonians, who carry them off — along with the spoils of the city — and Nebuchadnezzar makes his uncle Zedekiah king in his place.

Jehoiachin “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” He was an idolatrous king — by the point, idolatry has become the way Israel does business, so lost has the worship of the Lord become. Even with an intact temple in place in the center of the city. Jehoiachin follows the revelation of God given through Jeremiah to the people of Judah: “he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war.” (Jeremiah 21:9)

He surrenders. And saves his life. His wicked, godless, immoral life.

And yet here he is, later in life, dealing with a successor to Nebuchadnezzar, released, paroled, pensioned. He now has a place at the king’s table. And no doubt he enjoys all the king of Babylon has to offer him. I doubt he has changed his idolatrous and likely lustful and lascivious ways. After all, the king of Babylon probably lots of beautiful young women at his disposal for the use of “guests” like Jehoiachin/Jeconiah.

Jehoiachin the captive. The sinner. Not Zedekiah’s dismal, eyeless end. But not the thing of hope either.

Except … Jehoiachin shows up as Jeconiah in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:11–12). Viewed by itself, his is a sinful, dissolute, and probably somewhat pointless life. But viewed as part of the whole story, he is the bearer of the promise of God. A distant bearer of that promise, to be sure, but without Jehoiachin/Jeconiah, there will be no Joseph to be the husband of Mary and foster father to Jesus, who is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and to Israel through the prophets.

It’s a reminder as we view lives we consider pointless, empty, and dissolute (our own, or the lives of others), that we may not live to see the promises they will bear, the hope they will give life to. That if we live with hope, then we must live with that hope too.

JOSHUA A Special Dispensation for Caleb

6 Then the people of Judah came to Joshua at Gilgal. And Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, “You know what the Lord said to Moses the man of God in Kadesh-barnea concerning you and me. 7 I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him word again as it was in my heart. 8 But my brothers who went up with me made the heart of the people melt; yet I wholly followed the Lord my God. 9 And Moses swore on that day, saying, Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholly followed the Lord my God.’ 10 And now, behold, the Lord has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. 11 I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. 12 So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the Lord said.”

13 Then Joshua blessed him, and he gave Hebron to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for an inheritance. 14 Therefore Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he wholly followed the Lord, the God of Israel. 15 Now the name of Hebron formerly was Kiriath-arba. (Arba was the greatest man among the Anakim.) And the land had rest from war. (Joshua 14:6–15 ESV)

We first met Caleb the son of Jephunneh way back in Numbers 13, when he is selected to be one of 12 Israelites to go spy on Canaan, spies who come back not completely terrified of what they saw in “the land which … flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27):

However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. (Numbers 13:28)

Caleb isn’t afraid. “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it,” he tells Moses. But no one else agrees — the Canaanites are bigger and stronger and too much for small Israel to fight.

For this fear, God promises that none who stand in Israel that day — save Caleb and Joshua — will live to enter the land of promise. “Your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore I would make you swell,” God replies.

And thus, Israel is condemned to wander the wilderness for another generation, until all those who were afraid of the task ahead of them — of waging war to conquer Canaan — were gone.

Until the very fear itself that kept Israel in the wilderness was buried.

Today, we have Caleb, now well into his 80s, ready to take his very particular inheritance — all the land that he has trodden, the hills where the cities and forts on the Anakim (עֲנָקִים) — the village of Hebron and all that surrounds it.

His. Because of his faithfulness and courage. Because he followed and trusted God without flinching.

Sometimes, I think of what has happened in the last few years, since the untimely and unpleasant end of my first pastoral internship in Wisconsin (read my book!) as the enforced wilderness wandering of a man condemned to not come into the promise God has given him until all the fear that was in me was burned away. Because I am afraid, and there are days when I am more afraid, and not less, after all that has happened.

There has been manna in this wilderness, water from the rock, and a pillar of cloud and fire. But I am here, in part, because I flinched. And I wonder — will I ever be brave enough to finally shake the fear? Or disgusted enough, or tired enough, to truly trust the promise of God, cross the Jordan, and take what I have been promised.

But I am tired. Weary. There’s been a lot of wandering. Like Israel, I grumble. “I miss the cucumbers and leeks and spices of Egypt! Give me meat!” I want to settle and have a home and earn my bread with my own hands and the sweat of my own brow. I am trying. But it isn’t working, and I grow ever more discouraged.

I would like to be like Caleb, to receive a special city all of my own, in the midst of the land given to the people of Judah. But I think I am a Levite, dependent people among a dependent people, the very living embodiment of what it means to trust that God will provide. My hands don’t so much craft and bake and brew and fashion as they write and pray.

As we consider the promises of God, some do get cities, lands, places to dwell of their own. Others, a portion of that given back.

All have to trust God, however.

The Children of the Barren One

Whenever I read this passage in Isaiah, I cannot help but think of this ministry I do, all the hurt, wounded, broken, and abused kids who have made their way to me over the last year — most of whom needed just a word or two, but a few have grabbed tight and will not let go.

1 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.

2 “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.

3 For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. (Isaiah 54:1–3 ESV)

And so, I sing. For my children, for the children of my heart that God has sent to me. For the children I find — and who find me — along the way.

“And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” So said the Lord to old, childless Abram as he sojourned in a land that was not his.

Abraham (neé Abram) never settled down. Never had a place to call his own. And yet… we all — Jews, Christians, Muslims — claim him as our ancestor, and struggle with what God’s promise of a patrimony means to us now.

He is my ancestor. He is yours. His tent is our home. His tent makes us a family. And my tent (such as it is) … is home to souls I’ve not even met yet. Broken human beings who need to know love and grace and healing and the promise of redemption.

My tent. My promise. My people. My tribe. My descendants.

JOSHUA Remember Where You’ve Been

1 When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests ’feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight. ’” 4 Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. 5 And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you? ’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever. (Joshua 4:1–7 ESV)

Not long before I left Dubai, I sat on an ‘abra عبرة — one of the little motor boats used to cross Dubai creek, the inlet that separates Bur Dubai from Deira Dubai — looking at the sky and crystal clear water of the creek, smelling to city, watching the sun set over Bur Dubai, having paid the boatman my dirham, thinking to myself

Remember this place always. Remember that you were once here.”

Six years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I stood on the bow of a New York Waterways ferry, on the last Tuesday of my employment with a company whose death at the hands of the bankruptcy laws was set for that Friday, feeling the spray of the Hudson River on my feet, the late summer breeze in my hair, and watching the sun rise over The World Trade Center, and thinking as I beheld it

Remember this sight always. For you will not have it with you much longer.”

Israel here is beginning something. It will celebrate the first Passover in Canaan, and soon the conquest of the promised land will begin. But this is also an end. The manna, that miraculous bread from heaven which God sustained Israel during its long and arduous sojourn in the wilderness, will soon stop falling.

Just as God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that Israel could escape into the wilderness, God parts the waters of the Jordan so that Israel may leave its time of wandering, confident rather than fearful, going into something rather than running from something.

But God commands Joshua to tell 12 Israelites to gather stones from the dry riverbed, and stack them on the other side (and in the river itself), as a reminder — this is where you have walked, this is what God has done for you.

This comes at the end, and not the beginning, of Israel’s long and sometimes pointless wanderings. While Israel is to remember the Passover — the night of terror in which death swept over Egypt — and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the sea, the memorial marks the completion of their journey, not the beginning. “The journey is done,” God is telling Israel. “Remember who you are, where you’ve been, because tomorrow, the real work begins.”

This is not the end of Israel’s calling. Another struggle is beginning, one that will fully establish God’s people in the land of promise while at the same time failing utterly to faithfully accomplish the work God commanded them to.

I have a few souvenirs of Dubai — some dirhams, a map, a big visa stamp in a long-expired passport. And I still have a few NY Waterway tickets to remind myself of that last ferry trip across the Hudson, and a few bits and pieces left over from a long-dead company.

But I’ve no pile of stones to mark the place where the wilderness wandering has ended. And maybe that’s because … it hasn’t.

Trusting in God, Trusting in Means

Peter J. Leithart over at First Things writes beautifully about our trust in God’s presence sacramentally — in bread, wine, and water — and what a sacramental understanding of God’s promises means for our faith:

For many Christians, sacraments are locked in a winner-take-all battle with faith. Are we reconciled to God by faith or by baptism? Do we feed on Christ by believing or by eating bread and drinking wine? When we place too much emphasis on sacraments, many believe, we run the risk of wrecking faith on the shoals of superstition.

That’s not the biblical outlook, nor a classic Protestant one. God imprints His name on us in baptism, and we trust that God will preserve us in His favor as we keep faith with the faithful God who has sealed us. Jesus offers Himself by the Spirit in bread and wine, and we trust that He does indeed feed us, giving Himself for our life at His table.

We may not feel it. We may not see it. We may be terrorized by the shadows of Hades, or wander in a dry and desolate land. But we remember we’re baptized, we keep eating and drinking, and we trust God to do as He’s promised. This isn’t faith in the magic of sacramental performance. Rather, we trust the God who gives these gifts and gives Himself through them.

Some of you are already pastors, and others aspire to ministry in word and sacrament. Faith is as crucial for you as for those to whom you minister. To be fruitful, sacraments must be received in faith; they must also be administered in faith.

Pastors are summoned to believe that these puny rites are mighty acts of God. They don’t always appear to be such. You baptize a little girl who grows to young adulthood and slips into restless rebellion. There seems to be no fruit, no sign that she got anything out of baptism besides a dampened head. Yet you trust that God has pledged Himself to this young woman, and claimed her. You call her to conform her life to her baptism, since her baptism is the decisive truth about her. You warn her not to despise the gift that she has received. You’re tempted to think her baptism impotent, but you believe in baptism even against apparent evidence, walking by faith not sight. You have more confidence in baptism than in your own pastoral judgment.

A middle-aged man in your church is an alcoholic, off and on the wagon for decades, mostly off. He’s been disciplined time without number for his drunkenness, his inattention to his family, his wastefulness, and the host of other sins that cluster around addiction. He’s back at the table now. Apart from communion, he hasn’t had a drink for six months, but there are few other signs that anything has changed. The only difference seems to be that he used to let the bread and wine pass and now he doesn’t. You want to grab him by the shoulders and shake sense into him. You want to harangue and browbeat and pressure and manipulate; you want to take over. What you don’t want to do is wait for the Spirit to renew him. But trusting God’s pledge in the Eucharist means trusting that God is at work to remake this man even when the signs of that remaking are all but imperceptible.

Jesus the Son will build His church by the Spirit through His word and signs. So in faith – the faith that is patient, persistent, kind, restrained, gentle, humble, hopeful – we speak the word, sprinkle the water, break the bread, pour the wine, waiting on God to bring the promised harvest.

Leithart is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative confession which has come closest to any confessional group to acknowledging and accepting my call from Jesus to preach and teach the Gospel. Though the fine folks at First Reformed in Chatham, part of the Reformed Church in America, probably would have called me too. Which is funny, because my theology is definitely Lutheran and not reformed.

But Leithart’s understanding of sacraments here seems far more Lutheran than Reformed. I wish I’d said this. I know I believe it. In fact, I want to be Leithart when I grow up. I really do.

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.

Room For All Who Come

Apropos of nothing in particular, these two passages of prophetic scripture are speaking very powerfully to me right now, to this ministry with abused and neglected kids I seem to have been called to.

This passage from Isaiah 54 has long resonated with me, for a couple of years now, and I feel in my bones as if this promise — because my wife and I do not have children of our own — has been made specifically to us:

1 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
2 “Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
3 For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.
(Isaiah 54:1-3 ESV)

And this passage from Jeremiah 31 — a stunningly beautiful chapter that begins with God promising to gather the scattered people of Israel and redeem them from their sin and their exile — describes, I think, with intense beauty this ministry I find myself doing:

15 Thus says the Lord:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”
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 31:15-17 ESV)

“For I will satisfy the weary soul,” God promises toward the end of the chapter, “and every languishing soul I will replenish.”

Amen. Let it be, Lord. Let it be.

Giving Up on the “Church”

I meant to do more blogging this week — especially on the lectionary, and a piece I’ve had rumbling through my mind about mid-century liberalism — but never quite got around to it. And then Rod Dreher asked me to read his upcoming book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. So I’ve been a little engaged this week.

Part of this comes, actually, in response to reading Dreher’s book. (And in response to a letter I received from a longtime seminary friend and fellow pastor.)

I’ve been I’m limbo for the last few years, doing a lot of waiting. In fact, Michaela told me recently — and rather pointedly (I’m not sure she entirely approves) — “Ever since I met you, you have always been waiting.” And yes, I have. At first, it was waiting for… well, God knows what. I had been denied approval for ordained ministry by the ELCA’s Metro DC Synod, with no hope there would be a second chance at anything. After some work on my part, persistent and patient work, and some serious agitating on my behalf by some reasonably well-connected folks, I got a second chance, as was approved. Continue reading