The Advent

Luke 21:25-36

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.” 29 Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away. 34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36 Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.” (CEB)

The Advent

Happy New Year! You probably noticed with the changes in decoration, but this is the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the first day of the Christian New Year.

There’s somewhat of a persistent misunderstanding about the season of Advent. Most people think it’s a time where we get ready for Christmas. But really, Advent is a separate season where we focus our attention primarily upon the Second Coming of Christ and the end of days. In fact, the word advent means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival.’

It seems odd, doesn’t it; that at the beginning we anticipate the end? But this focus on the End during the season of Advent is done on purpose in order to help us remember what it is that the Christian Faith is all about. After all, the Coming of Jesus Christ at the Great End of all things means the fullness of our salvation. We look for the End of Days at the beginning of the Christian Year because the End is, in a very real sense, nothing less than a new beginning for God’s people.

In this text, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the signs of the end before his advent: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.” (NRSV).

Jesus came to bring good news to the world: the word gospel, after all, is a Middle English word that means good news. But this stuff that Jesus is talking about really doesn’t sound like good news to me. It sounds rather frightening, a little fearful. It doesn’t seem to fit with the whole peace and love thing that we usually think of when we talk about the Good News.

This text tells us that the Savior of the World saves by disrupting things. Jesus dispenses with the old order and is bringing a new, different order. His reign is adversarial to our dominions and powers-that-be. God’s order is so against the grain of our natural inclinations that we would be correct to label his work among us as nothing less than a revolution.

But do we really want this kind of revolution?

A now retired professor from Duke Divinity School, the Reverend Doctor Peter Storey, was formerly the Methodist bishop of South Africa. He was also Nelson Mandela’s prison chaplain. Mandela was a Methodist. Peter Storey, along with many others, labored long and hard—at great personal cost—in the removal of racial apartheid from South Africa. When the evil of apartheid was finally removed from that troubled land, there was dancing in the streets. Yet, some time after that victory, Rev. Storey said, “Now is the hard work for us. It’s one thing to begin a revolution, even to win the revolution. It’s another thing to finish it. The creation of a truly just, truly compassionate society is not easy. Isn’t that what your country found out after its revolution?”

History points to this truth: people say they want change. We say we want the solution to our problems that change promises. But do we really? A new order brings new challenges. At least in the old order of things we knew what was expected of us. We have that as a comfort, whether the old order is good or bad.

The Hebrew people were miraculously delivered from the horrors of slavery in Egypt. Those who were enslaved had escaped Pharaoh and were free at last! It was a revolution! They hadn’t been in the desert more than a few weeks when the food gave out and they started murmuring against their leader, Moses. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt,” they cried, “when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (NRSV). The revolution had been won, and already the Hebrews were longing for the way things were under the old order when they were slaves in Egypt. Revolutionary change isn’t easy to accept.

Most of us will note a sort of somberness in many of the hymns that we’ll sing in Advent. Many of the hymns are in a minor key. Some people ask, Why can’t we sing the more upbeat, joyful Christmas songs? Why all these somber Advent dirges? I’ll tell you one reason why, though there are many: the promised Advent of a Savior is not pure, neat, perfectly acceptable good news for most people. A revolution, a fundamental sweeping change in our situation, is not always welcomed by us. People are often more resistant to change than accommodating to it.

We were warned. At the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Mary sings a battle cry that speaks of the revolution that Jesus is bringing. Mary’s Song is, in fact, the theological crux of over half of the New Testament. Luke’s entire story, which includes his Gospel and The Acts of the Apostles, makes up 51% of the New Testament. Mary’s song is the shot heard round the world. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (NRSV). Kings are being cast down from their thrones, the hungry are taking over everything, and the rich are sent away empty.

The technical term for what Mary was singing about is gospel. Unfortunately, the word gospel has become rather cliché. When some people use the word they often mean, something of individual significance, the forgiveness of a person’s sins, a ticket to individual eternal life. Others mean, right thinking about the teaching of Christ. Gospel is the body of doctrine that Christians are expected to believe. For others, gospel means a particular genre of music, which usually makes me involuntarily gag.

But when you take the Greek word, ευαγγέλιον, that we translate into English as ‘gospel,’ there are some scholars who say that the word would best be translated as ‘revolution.’ In the classical world it meant simply ‘good news.’ But ευαγγέλιον is not just any old good news. It is news that has political and social significance. If a Greek city was fighting a war, ευαγγέλιον, good news, was the report that a runner brought to the city from the battle if their army was victorious. Pheidippides took such good news to the Spartans following the victory of the Athenian army over the Persians at the battle of Marathon.

Mary’s Song is an example of such a gospel proclamation, as was Zechariah’s song at the birth of his son, John the Baptizer. And when John grew up and began to preach in the wilderness, Luke described his message as gospel—good news—for the people.

But listen to John’s words, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The people asked him, “What should we do?” and John replied, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (NRSV). We may ask, That’s the gospel John was preaching? Give to the poor? And the answer is, absolutely and unquestionably, Yes! You see, God’s kingdom is coming, and the giving of our possessions and of our selves is what God’s revolutionary kingdom values.

Do you see a pattern to the good news of Jesus Christ? God is moving against the present order. The gospel is good news for the poor, bad news for the rich who don’t want to share. The good news is not only religious, but also political and economic. No wonder there were people in Judea who thought that such “good news” didn’t sound very good at all. John the Baptizer ended up dead shortly after he preached this sermon. He was killed by a wealthy king because of the conspiring of a wealthy queen.

This is the same good news that Jesus preached when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NRSV).

This is the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus has started a revolution. On the cross he fought the battle, and in the resurrection he won it. And when he comes back he will finish the revolution. He will bring about radical, sweeping change, and no dominion or power of this world will stand at the advent of Jesus.

The battle may be won, but the revolution is not yet finished. The finale of the revolution is coming. Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (NRSV).

In this scripture lesson, Jesus tells us what’s coming, he tells us how we will know it’s coming, and he warns us to keep alert. He tells us, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (NRSV).

The new revolution has begun, my friends. Jesus is coming back to set things right, to turn the current order of things on its head. Here at the beginning of the Christian New Year, we look for the end of the world with the advent of Jesus, and the beginning of the new order of God’s reign. And all I have to say is “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

The Ruler of Kings

Revelation 1:4b-8

4b Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ–the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father–to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen.

7 Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen.

8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the one who is and was and is coming, the Almighty.” (CEB)

The Ruler of Kings

Recently, the world has seemed like it’s out of control. Maybe it’s felt that way all along, but events like Nigeria, Paris, Beirut, and the downing of the Russian airliner bring the reminder to the fore of our minds and hearts that the world is messed up. Powers are at play, vying against each other and destroying lives in the process. And we have visceral, gut-wrenching reactions to the kind of violence that happens when powers collide, when hatred rears its ugly head, and when terrorists murder people.

Social media has become the place where the majority of people vent their feelings and pour out their thoughts on everything that happens. On my Facebook feed, I’ve seen everything from You Will Not Have My Hate, to Kill Them All and Let God Sort Them Out. The hate-filled extremes that I’ve seen are the ones that disturb me the most. When we hate, we have adopted the policy and practice of the terrorists themselves. We become the very thing we hate.

Our Governor, Mike Pence, has even said Indiana won’t accept refugees from Syria. My first thought was Thank goodness Pence wasn’t the Prefect of Egypt when the Holy Family sought refuge there from the murderous tyranny of Herod. Jesus was, in the earliest days of his life, a refugee from the Middle East.

I’ve seen online petitions being favorited and reposted by Christian people which demand the president halt the settlement of all refugees in the United States.

Whether a person is a Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, Conservative, Liberal, or something else, whatever our politics might be, it’s a very real spiritual problem if our politics conflict with the politics of Jesus. If we don’t like the politics of Jesus, that’s okay. That’s our choice. But we need to recognize that when our politics disagree with the politics of Jesus, it means that our politics are decidedly unchristian.

We’re allowed to be angry. We’re allowed to be horrified that any human being would commit atrocious acts like these against other human beings. And we’re allowed to be disgusted that the terrorists say they’re doing it because of some false religious ideal. But our response to those who are fleeing the very horror of war and indiscriminate violence that shocks us should not be—cannot be—rejection and hatred.

The politics of Jesus Christ do not allow us to declare every Muslim guilty because the perpetrators of violence claim Islam as their religion. The terrorists killed Muslims in Paris, too. They want us to hate each other. When we respond to hatred with hatred, and to violence with a desire to do violence, we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want us to do, and exactly the opposite of what Jesus Christ calls us to do.

This text from the beginning of Revelation reminds us what we Christians ought to be about. We’re given a vision of the true king and ruler of this world, and an expectation that there is more to come. God is not finished forming and shaping Earth’s people into God’s people: a people who live with God’s love as our guide in everything we think, say, and do. Jesus Christ has more power and greater authority than any Earthly nation, ruler, or group vying for power. There is more to the dignity of God’s people than the enemies of God recognize.

The salutation, “Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,” dispenses with the typical movement from past to present to future. Instead, it emphasizes the present reality: God Who Is, by starting there. God is reigning now, despite the list of human tragedies we hear about or experience every day. God is present with us now, even when we feel alone and forlorn. God is acting among us now, in our midst and in the midst of those whom we call our enemies. God’s grace is always active, always shaping, always moving among people in ways our senses cannot perceive.

The God “who was and who is to come,” reminds us that God’s activity and reign spans all of human history and beyond. The God who created the universe, who hung every star, who formed the galaxies in all their splendor, who shaped the Earth and wrapped it in orbit around our star is the same God who will renew all of creation, who will set every wrong to right, who will reconcile enemies so they become friends.

We are reminded that Jesus Christ is the firstborn from the dead. His resurrection to a new and glorified body which was no longer limited in any way, but a perfect extension of his will, is a sign for us of the resurrection we shall experience.

The declaration that Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the Earth should also remind us who we are. We might live here, but it’s not our true home. Those who claim Christ are a people whose citizenship is registered in another kingdom. Christians are resident aliens living in a foreign land.

You might say we Christians are refugees awaiting resettlement.

When John of Revelation tells us that Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the Earth, that’s profound. It ought to be a comforting idea for us to know that God is really in charge. But we forget. Fear and uncertainty can make us forget. And we aren’t the first ones to give in to fear. The commissioning of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6 tells us a similar story. It begins with the words, “In the year of King Uzziah’s death.”

When a king died in the ancient world, it was a time of uncertainty and fear. One never knew what the new ruler would be like. There were questions about security. Would the new king be able to protect the people from outside threats? Would the new king be respected or taken advantage of by the rulers of other nations? These questions, and the fears from which they sprung, were especially potent when a long-ruling king like Uzziah died. He ruled for over forty years. And the people wondered, What will happen now?

In the midst of these questions, Isaiah has a vision of God seated high and lofty on a throne, surrounded by the heavenly court. It was a vision of kingship. It was a vision of power. It was a vision of grandeur. And it was a vision that reminded the people that the Lord of Hosts still rules, still reigns, still commands with authority that is greater than any earthly king, nation, government, or group could ever muster.

Next, John reminds us what Jesus, our King of kings, has done for us. God has acted toward us with love. God has acted toward us with deep, profound love: love that is beyond imagining or expectation. Jesus loves us and freed us from our sins. The tenses of the verbs John uses here are not accidents. The love of Jesus Christ is always present with us. Christ loves us. And yet, Christ’s action on our behalf is in the past, but the results of God’s action in Christ continue to be effective into the future for us and for everyone who comes after us.

And it isn’t only what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us, but Christ has made us to be something. We are a kingdom of priests who serve God. That’s what we Christians are supposed to be. If we believe this stuff, then there’s no reason for us to be afraid of doing what’s right, of living into the love of Jesus Christ fully.

To be a kingdom of priests means we serve as intermediaries between God and those who don’t know God. It means we do crazy things like loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors. It means the heart of everything we do is an offering of worship to God. It means we do not respond to hatred with hate, and violence with harm.

We’re called to something different. We’re called to holiness. We’re called to be peacemakers.

Christ countered the violence of Empire with love for us and obedience to the Father. Even in seeming defeat, Jesus Christ was victorious. If we are citizens of God’s kingdom, we will follow Christ’s example as faithful witnesses of God’s reign. We’ll deny ourselves while searching out God’s will for our lives. We’ll welcome strangers, welcome pilgrims, and welcome refugees. We’ll care for the poor, the needy, the hurting, and the broken.

It will mean denying ourselves. It will mean living sacrificially for others. It will mean accepting those who make us uncomfortable.

We are living in the between-times, the age between ages. Christ has been raised, and we await his return. We believe the day will come when Christ comes with the clouds, when every eye will see him, even God’s enemies. Until that day, our job is to work and to pray for God’s kingdom so that even God’s enemies might become God’s friends. We have a part to play in this age-between-ages, and it is not xenophobia or intolerance.

Christ is the King of kings. God’s rule is now, even though we can only see it with the eyes of faith. The Alpha and Omega is the Lord of all human history, indeed, all time and all space. Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, will one day be seen and known by every eye. This is the vision of John. God is the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. And, like it or not, these are the politics of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

Each of us gets to decide what we want to be about. As for me, I choose Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Hannah’s Song

1 Samuel 2:1-10

1 Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. 2 “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world. 9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” (NRSV)

Hannah’s Song

Have you ever had one of those moments—or events, or what have you—when you thought you had a fairly good grasp on what something was about, but by the time you’re comfortably in the middle of it you realize that you must have missed some big memo because you were completely wrong? And by that time all you can do is shrug with incredibly raw embarrassment and think It would have been nice to know this a while ago. It would have been really helpful for us to know this before we got to this point in our lives.

The movie Inside Out was one of those moments for me. I had seen the trailers. It looked great. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive. And we had just moved down here from Fort Wayne, so Joy and I decided we were going to treat the kids to dinner out and a movie.

Now, we never go to the movies, largely because we have three small children. Finding a sitter wasn’t always easy. We’d have to go to an early showing because bedtime at our house is what I imagine hell must be like. And going to the movies is no small financial investment. Honestly, candy, popcorn, and water, should not put a person back thirty-five bucks. If I want to afford the ticket to see the movie, I can’t afford to eat at the theater.

If I want a snack, I would have to break the rules and sneak my own food in past those signs that say, “NO OUTSIDE FOOD AND DRINK IS ALLOWED.” Honestly, as a language person I could rationalize it by saying, you know, that kind of simplistic phrasing could easily be interpreted to mean that you aren’t allowed to have food and drinks outside. Which I wouldn’t be doing. I would be taking it in to the theater.

Anyway, going to see Inside Out was a treat for our family. What neither Joy nor I realized about the movie beforehand, is that the trauma the little girl, Riley, goes through in the movie is because her family moved. I’m just saying, it would have been nice to know that ahead of time since my children had just left their friends behind in Fort Wayne. My wife’s family is from all over the place up there, so we said goodbye to them. We had neighborhood friends, friends at church, friends from Taekwondo, friends from college who lived in the area. And we had packed up and left them all behind.

So, as all five of us are absolutely sobbing because Riley’s pain is hitting super close to home, Joy leans over to me and says, “I didn’t know this was about moving.” And I said, “I didn’t either.” We watched that movie as five people who were deeply connected to Riley’s pain. We knew that pain because it was our pain. The trauma she experienced of feeling like her life is falling apart, that’s the trauma we were experiencing. Joy and I, we thought we knew what the movie was about. But it ended up being something completely different.

One thing I’ve learned in studying the Bible is that, just when we think we’ve got it figured out, God always has something new to say to us. And it’s not that the thing God says is necessarily new, it’s that we’re only hearing it—or receiving it with understanding—for the first time. It’s usually because we haven’t been listening. We make assumptions. We think we’ve got God figured out. So we get comfortable and we think we’re good.

We’re happy. God’s happy. Everybody’s happy.

But then we read something like Hannah’s Song, and it turns everything up-side down. It ought to scare the stuffing out of us, it ought to sound a little threatening to our comfortable complacency. And if it doesn’t, we might not be hearing it as we ought.

God is, and has always been, what we well-established, well-to-do human beings would label a trouble-maker. Even the prophets who spoke God’s word were called trouble-makers. When King Ahab went to meet Elijah, the king greeted Elijah by saying, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17b, NRSV). It’s one of the perquisites of being a pastor, I’m called to be a trouble-maker.

Hanna’s Song celebrates God as the great trouble-maker. Theologians call it divine reversal because it sounds more intellectual, but I like trouble-maker. God has a penchant for taking the systems of power we human beings so painstakingly create, and turning them on their heads.

The song makes the most sense in light of Hannah’s circumstances. She was one of Elkanah’s two wives. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, had lots of children, daughters and sons galore. But Hannah didn’t have any children. Now, in that culture, a woman who could not have children was considered incomplete. Hannah lived and died over 3,000 years ago. This is a culture that is far removed from ours. Unfortunately, we haven’t entirely grown out of that thread of thinking even in 2015. It’s a lesser stigma today, but barrenness, whether by choice or circumstance, is a stigma nonetheless.

Back in Hannah’s day, barrenness meant God had abandoned you. God didn’t think you were worthy of the honor of children. Unfortunately, some women who can’t conceive think this about themselves. It’s distressing to not be able to have children when you want them.

What made it worse for Hannah was her husband’s other wife, Peninnah. She used to provoke Hannah, she would irritate her because of Hannah’s barrenness. Can you imagine having to endure that kind of mistreatment from your husband’s other wife? You’re already devastated about something, but then some cruel jerk keeps reminding you of it and provokes you about it. It’s no wonder Hannah wept.

Elkanah was a pretty good guy. He loved Hannah. So every year, when they went up to the festival at Shiloh, he gave portions of the sacrifice to Peninnah and her children, but he gave a double-portion to Hannah because he loved her. So Elkanah tried to make Hannah feel better. But then, in typical guy fashion, he said something boneheaded like this, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8b).

And all the women in the room said, “Thanks, sweetie, for discrediting my grief and making it all about you. Again.

So Hannah did the only thing she could do. She prayed. She poured her heart out to God and asked for a Son. She was so deeply distressed that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and was going to throw her out. But she told Eli how anxious and vexed she was in her prayers. So Eli blessed her. And the remarkable thing is, when she got up and left the tabernacle, Hannah changed. She wasn’t sad anymore. She had already moved from grief to joy.

When they got home to Ramathain, Hannah became pregnant and later gave birth to Samuel. When Samuel was weened, Hannah took her son up to Shiloh and loaned him to the Lord as a nazirite. As soon as her end of this bargain she made with God is complete, that’s when Hannah lifts her voice to utter this incredible song of prayer.

Hanna’s Song celebrates her own, and every, reversal of circumstances through Divine Trouble-making. She who has been derided is now able to deride her enemies by rejoicing in her victory. It doesn’t suggest Hannah is gloating. Rather, it is Hannah’s rejoicing voice that derides her enemies. Hannah’s rejoicing in her victory—which came through God’s power—is enough to cause her enemy derision. Her enemy once rejoiced in her grief, but now Hannah is the one rejoicing.

This is a dramatic reversal of fortune, and Hannah’s Song pulls out all the stops. God breaks the bows of the mighty and makes the feeble strong. Those who were full have to work for their food while those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

She reminds us of what God is capable of. God can kill and God can give life. God can make us poor or rich. God can bring low and God can exalt. God can raise the poor up from the dust and the needy from the ash heap. God can make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.

You see, God made the pillars of the earth, and God can rearrange them at will. For those of us in this culture, this can feel threatening. Those of us with pride, power, abundance, and honor might feel like we have a right to it all, but we don’t. Hannah echoes the words of Job: We come into the world with nothing, and we’ll leave with nothing. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Fortunes can change in a moment.

What’s critically important is our faithfulness to God and to each other, no matter who the other might be. What we find over and again in Scripture is that God is on the side of the weak, the powerless, the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. God insists that those who have resources should use them to welcome strangers and aliens, pilgrims and refugees. Not only are we called to help, but we’re called to be deeply connected to them. As deeply connected as my family was to little Riley as we watched Inside Out. There are people at risk and in need all over Mount Vernon.

If God is concerned with those who are oppressed, those who are voiceless, those who are beaten down, misused, cast aside, lonely, forgotten, and heartbroken, then our concern should mirror God’s. What can we do? How will we invest the short span of life we have in the vision of God’s kingdom?

I’m not going to give the answers in this sermon. Instead, I want to leave us with the question. We’re called to have brazen dependence and bold trust in God. We’re called to receive God’s word with gladness, and be eager to respond in faith and praise. So what is our response as Kingdom People? What are the ways we can be a community of faith that is at the center of our broader community?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV).

A Moabite Woman

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17

3:1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”

4:13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (NRSV).

A Moabite Woman

I proudly admit it. I’m a Star Wars fan. I can’t wait for The Force Awakens to come out in theatres. I got to watch Return of the Jedi when it came out in movie theatres in 1983. No, I didn’t see the first two moves in the theatres I wasn’t even a year old when Star Wars was released in May of 1977. And I was only three when The Empire Strikes Back came out. But I was six when Return of the Jedi was released. I got to go see it as part of a friend’s birthday party.

I went to see all of the 1997 Special Edition re-releases in the theatres. Joy and I chose the piece of music called Throne Room from the end of the first movie as the recessional for our wedding. You know, the one where Luke, Han, and Chewie walk up and get those big gaudy medals from Princess Leia.

Yeah. We walked out to that.

In my office, I have a book called The Gospel According to Star Wars. It examines the Star Wars saga in light of mythology and Scripture. What we discovered with the release of the Prequel Trilogy, is that the entire six-movie saga was not really about the growth and success of Luke Skywalker so much as the tragedy and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Even by the end of Return of the Jedi, you know you pitied Darth Vader and were glad to see his apparition standing with Obiwan Kenobe and Yoda.

Stories of tragedy and redemption hold us captive. They put us on the edge of our seats, whether it’s a villain who gets redeemed, or tragic circumstances that are overcome.

It’s why Ruth is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s a story of tragedy and redemption. It’s a story of impossible circumstances being overcome through grit, hospitality, fidelity, and a little scheming. And, let me be honest, it’s a love story. I like love stories. We all do. In fact, I think the love story I’m living is the best one ever. Even in action-adventures, we all want the love story arc to happen, but especially so in the midst of tragedy.

Naomi’s life was full of tragedy. Elimelech and Naomi, were living in Bethlehem with their two sons, Mahon and Chilion. Then, a terrible famine struck the land. In a twist of irony, Elimelech took his family away from Bethlehem, which means House of Bread, to forge a new course for themselves where they could actually get bread and live. They ended up in the land of Moab, which was a long-time adversary of Israel. Then, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi to raise two boys in a foreign land.

Naomi’s two sons grew up in Moab and married their local sweethearts, Ruth and Orpah. When Naomi had lived there ten years, both of her sons died. Naomi was left without a husband, without sons, and with two daughters-in-law who were now her responsibility. They were three women in a patriarchal culture with little means to provide for themselves. Beyond that, Naomi was a foreign woman in a patriarchal culture.

Naomi decided her best hope was to go back home to Bethlehem. Her two daughters-in-law went with her, but Naomi tried to stop them. She begged Orpah and Ruth to go back to their mother’s house so they could marry again among their own people. She reasoned with them, telling them she had nothing to offer either of them.

This was Naomi’s way of showing hospitality to Orpah and Ruth. It was her way of seeking security for her beloved daughters-in-law. Naomi wanted Orpah and Ruth to go back so they could be safe and find a future. Naomi believed she had no future. It’s evidenced when she got back to Bethlehem and was recognized. The women said, “Is this Naomi?” whose name means pleasant. But Naomi said, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara” which means bitter. She went on to say, “For the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (1:20-21, NRSV).

Naomi was a woman who, at this point in her life, was utterly undone. She had no hope. She saw no future. She believed God has brought this suffering upon her. She was lost. She was completely and utterly lost.

So Naomi told Orpah and Ruth to leave her. Naomi loved them, and she didn’t want them to suffer in her misfortunes. They had a chance at life again. They had a chance at security. But not with Naomi. They should return home and remarry. At first, Orpah and Ruth both refused to leave their mother-in-law.

Imagine the bond Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah must have had with one another. They were with each other when Orpah and Ruth lost their husbands, Naomi’s sons. They were shelter for one another during the worst times of their lives. They took refuge in each other. They cared for each other through their grief. Held on to each other as they wept at night. They loved each other deeply. But Naomi’s forceful reasoning eventually won Orpah over. She kissed her mother-in-law and went back. I can’t imagine the depth of Orpah’s sorrow as she obeyed Naomi and walked away from her. I wonder how many times she had to stop herself from turning around and running back. She left because her mother-in-law told her to go.

A lot of times, when the book of Ruth is being discussed, I hear people say, Ruth was faithful. Orpah wasn’t. Ruth clung to Naomi. Orpah abandoned her. But that simply isn’t the reality of what’s happening in the book. Orpah and Ruth were both being faithful to Naomi, but in different ways.

Orpah was faithful through her obedience to Naomi’s requests. When Orpah finally went back to her people, Naomi knew Orpah would be okay. I’m sure it was a huge relief for Naomi to have that certainty for the daughter-in-law she loved so deeply. Naomi would have been grateful that Orpah listened to her. No one can describe Orpah’s action as unfaithfulness.

Ruth was faithful to Naomi in a way that probably broke Naomi’s heart and worried her half to death. Ruth clung to Naomi and made this extraordinary statement: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16b-17, NRSV).

We hear Ruth’s words and we immediately think of her faithfulness. And rightly so. But it’s more than that. Ruth’s words are actually a statement of profound hospitality. We usually think of hospitality as something we can provide for others. It’s a gift we can give, whether it’s food, shelter, or even entertainment. But Ruth is a widow with no sons. She’s poor. She has nothing to give to Naomi but herself.

The only path Ruth could see was that she must care for her mother-in-law no matter the cost to herself or to Naomi. It probably broke Naomi’s heart that Ruth was so darn persistent. She wanted what was best for Ruth, but Ruth wouldn’t see reason. She was bound and determined to share whatever fate belonged to Naomi, even death. Ruth was simply living out her understanding of faithfulness to Naomi because that’s all she knew how to do. Naomi’s well-being belonged to Ruth as much as Ruth’s well-being belonged to Naomi.

When they got to Bethlehem, Naomi sought to secure Ruth’s future. She hatched a plan that could either be described as clever or dangerous, and probably a lot of both. Boaz has already taken notice of Ruth in the fields during the harvest. But Naomi decided to play a part Jane Austen couldn’t have written any better. As the opening words of Pride and Prejudice state: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Poor Boaz didn’t stand a chance!

Naomi intended to make Ruth look even more attractive to Boaz. So she sent an unmarried Moabite woman out to the threshing floor, among a group of men who were very likely drunk, so she could lay down next to one of those likely-drunken men, after uncovering him in some way. Naomi’s ended her plan by saying, “and he will tell you what to do.”

You bet he would!

And we know Boaz was a little tipsy because the Hebrew that the NRSV translates as “he was in a contented mood” really says, “the heart was good.” It’s an idiom that means he was too drunk to make good decisions. It’s a little surprising that Ruth’s response to this plan is, Okay. I can do that.

So after Boaz passes out, Ruth sneaked up, uncovered him, and lay down. Boaz woke up at midnight, rolled over, and was surprised to find a woman laying with him. But instead of Boaz telling Ruth what to do, as Naomi envisioned, it’s Ruth who told Boaz what to do. She invited him to spread his cloak over her because he’s her next-of-kin. Ruth offers Boaz the choice to marry her.

In the end, Naomi and Ruth’s hospitality and fidelity to each other payed off. Boaz married Ruth, and redeemed Naomi from a future of destitution. The child born from Ruth and Boaz’s union was a promise of security for Naomi in her old age.

But more than that, it almost appears that God was the grand schemer in the story. We think Naomi had a plan, but God took their sorrow, their plight, their devastation, and used their fidelity to each other for good. The child’s name was Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David the King.

God works through the hospitality and fidelity we show to strangers and pilgrims, and family and friends, in ways we can scarcely imagine. Ruth and Naomi’s story of tragedy and redemption reminds us, even challenges us, to accept those who are foreigners and outcasts, those who are different and other. God can build us into a beautiful community with grace that extends to generation after generation.

One scholar suggested the final verses of Ruth could be summarized with a variation of Hebrews 13:2: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained the great-grandmother of a king unawares. I kind of like that. Because you never know what beauty God might bring forth in the future from those we might hardly consider today. But this poor Moabite woman is proof that everyone is worth our attention. And everyone is worthy of our hospitality.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). 

A Feast of Rich Food

Isaiah 25:6-9

6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (NRSV).

A Feast of Rich Food

I have good news to preach to you today. I have discovered the jewel of Mount Vernon, the great gem of this city, the culinary holy of holies itself. Hawg N Sauce. I know God told the Israelites to eat Kosher and avoid pork, but by golly there better be baby back ribs in heaven. My favorite barbeque restaurant is still Rib Country in Hayesville, North Carolina, but Hawg N Sauce is pretty good.

Living in the Carolinas was barbeque heaven. There’s East Carolina style (which is vinegar and pepper based), West Carolina style (which is tomato, vinegar, and pepper based), and South Carolina style (which is mustard, vinegar, and pepper based). They’re all good in their own way, but West Carolina style is my favorite. There is no better food on planet earth that West Carolina style baby back ribs. I eat the meat and suck the marrow from the bones. I even dip the bones in the sauce just so I can suck on the marrow again.

This is why I’m certain there will be baby back ribs at the great banquet in heaven, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples…a feast of rich food filled with marrow.” And, I hope, barbeque sauce.

Isaiah’s words give us a glimpse of what God has promised: feasting, true sight, the end of death, the comforting of those who weep, and the removal of our disgrace. This is what salvation will look like. And death in this text isn’t merely the ending of an individual life. Death is spoken of in the Scriptures as a power, an enemy that must be destroyed. It’s the power associated with the other things mentioned around it. Death is why we mourn and weep.

But the road to get to salvation is not what we would expect. It’s a road that’s paved with suffering. And it’s not only our suffering, but God’s. If we’re honest, suffering is the part we all want to skip. We want to get right to the glory without the cost it takes to get there. We want the reign of God without judgment.

Well, some people want judgment. But the people who want judgment are usually those smug types who can’t wait to see how those other people get their just deserts. They don’t fear judgment because they’re fine. Those are the types I worry about the most because I think the Judgment of God is going to be a shock for them.

But typically, we are a people who want to get right to the feast in the Kingdom of God without the cost to ourselves, to others, and to God.

To put it in other words, we want Easter without having to go through Good Friday. As a pastor, I’ve lamented many times that Easter Sunday services are packed, while Good Friday services are barely attended. But that’s who we are as people. We want the resurrection without the crucifixion. But the truth is, without the crucifixion, there is no resurrection. Without the suffering, there is no glory. Without the cost, there is no triumph.

It’s the same with almost any story that’s written. Without power there is no conflict. Without conflict there is no tension. Without tension, there is no story because there’s nothing to be overcome. The struggle is what makes a story good.

God doesn’t always work the way we want God to work. We want God to snap his fingers and make everything okay, make all of our sins disappear, erase every mistake we’ve made. We want God to say, You know, it’s okay. This whole human sin thing, we’ll just pretend it never happened.

But redemption comes with a price. Death is a power that had to be overcome. The glorious reign of God comes with a price. By and large, it’s a price that God paid with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet, human suffering continues when people and institutions continue to resist God’s will.

It helps to look at the context of these words in Isaiah 25 alongside Isaiah 24. Chapter 24 isn’t easy to read. The entire chapter is about God’s judgment of heaven and earth. Part of it says this: “The earth is shattering, shattering; the earth is shaking, shaking; the earth is teetering, tottering. The earth trembles like a drunk and shudders like a hut; it’s rebellion weighs heavy upon it; it will fall, no more to rise. On that day, the Lord will punish the forces of heaven in heaven, and the kings of the earth on earth” (Is. 24:19-21, CEB).

Suffering and judgment are the result of human sin. It’s our disobedience to God’s way, our rejection of God’s love, our resistance to God’s rule and reign that causes us to leave suffering in our wake. Sin is what will cause us experience judgment in the future. Judgment isn’t pretty. Suffering isn’t pretty. But they’re both real, and they’re the path we trod to get to glory. No one is left untouched by them. Even God. The suffering servant bore our sins on the cross as he offered himself for our sake. The judgment we deserve, God took upon God’s self in order to show us what real love and obedience look like.

One of the things God said to us in the crucifixion of Christ is: Look! The way you treat each other, the way you do violence to each other and cause others to suffer, whether it’s individuals, governments, or organizations, it affects me, too. God made us to love and to be loved, so when we fail at that, it doesn’t leave God untouched any more than it leaves our fellow human beings untouched.

At the same time, God is working to defeat sin, evil, oppression, and violence from among us. The church is called to participate in that work in whatever way we can. We can see a glimpse of God’s victory—the victory over death—in the resurrection of Christ. And we can experience a foretaste of the victory banquet every time we come to the table for Holy Communion.

This is God’s table in God’s dining room. This is where our community of faith communes with each other. But it isn’t only with those gathered here. This feast reaches across the world. In it, we share a meal with Christians everywhere. Yet, there’s also an eschatological quality to the Eucharist, in that we are mystically feasting with the saints on earth and in heaven. It’s a foretaste of the feast to come.

God’s feast on Mount Zion is for all peoples, not for a select few. The invitation is wide open. Anyone who wants to come is invited and welcomed.

Death comes for everyone, but our hope is in God’s promise of life on the other side. We hope, we believe, and we have confidence that those who leave us behind are alive and well. Because of that, our own lives need not be defined by grief and mourning. Yes, we experience deep sorrow when someone we love dies. We do grieve. We do mourn. But we also have hope.

The lectionary actually lists a text from a book called the Wisdom of Solomon as the Old Testament reading for today. Isaiah is the alternate text. Wisdom of Solomon is in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, not in Protestant Bibles. But, since the vast majority of Christians on the planet hold this book to be sacred Scripture, and since this text is read in many Protestant churches for All Saints’ Day, I think it’s fair that we at least pay some attention to it. Wisdom of Solomon says this about those who have died:

The souls of those who do what is right are in God’s hand. They won’t feel the pain of torment. 2 To those who don’t know any better, it seems as if they have died. Their departure from this life was considered their misfortune. 3 Their leaving us seemed to be their destruction, but in reality they are at peace. 4 It may look to others as if they have been punished, but they have the hope of living forever. 5 They were disciplined a little, but they will be rewarded with abundant good things, because God tested them and found that they deserve to be with him. 6 He tested them like gold in the furnace; he accepted them like an entirely burned offering. 7 Then, when the time comes for judgment, the godly will burst forth and run about like fiery sparks among dry straw. 8 The godly will judge nations and hold power over peoples, even as the Lord will rule over them forever. 9 Those who trust in the Lord will know the truth. Those who are faithful will always be with him in love. Favor and mercy belong to the holy ones. God watches over God’s chosen ones.” (Wisdom 3:1-9, CEB).

I think both of these texts sum up our hopes fairly well. Those who have died are alive. Though their bodies—and ours—will experience decay, we will live. Though we experience suffering and pain in this life, there will come a day when God holds us and gives us such comfort that we’ll no longer weep. Every injustice shall be set right. Every act of violence will be paid in full. But we don’t need to be afraid of judgment because God bore everything for us in the cross of Jesus Christ.

God will wipe away the tears from our faces. God will set a feast for us with well-aged wines and rich, marrow-filled foods. And so, we wait patiently. Not idly, but with active patience as we labor for God’s Kingdom just as the saints before us labored. One day, we’ll join our voices with all of God’s people as we say, “This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Is. 25:9b).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the Common English Bible (CEB).