An Unexpected Hour | 1st of Advent

Matthew 24:36-44

 36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One. 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know. (CEB)

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An Unexpected Hour

The season of Advent is, by and large, an intrusion. Yes, it’s a new season in the Christian year, it’s the beginning of a new year, new time, and new life. We know that, with Advent, everything begins anew. We know! But, doggone it, we don’t care. We want Christmas! We want to sing Christmas carols and hear about baby Jesus! (For some reason that phrase always reminds me of Talladega Nights). Most of us, if we had our druthers, we’d rather skip Advent and get right to Christmas. Advent is just in our way. We often think of it as a season of preparation for Christmas. And, while that’s true, the message of Advent is its own thing. Advent is as different from Christmas as Lent is from Easter.

The word Advent means coming, and its meaning during this season is really two-fold. On one hand, we are preparing ourselves for the celebration of the First Coming of Jesus Christ into the world at the incarnation. On the other hand, we are anticipating the Second Coming of Jesus Christ on the Day of the Lord. There is an apocalyptic message to Advent. That’s why the Gospel readings are all about an adult Jesus or an adult John the Baptizer preaching messages about the coming of God’s kingdom. In fact, it isn’t until the Fourth Sunday of Advent that we hear about a pregnant virgin named Mary. So, before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, Advent’s message is one of apocalypse and Messianic anticipation.

Matthew 24:36-44 begins and ends with declarations that the hour of the Human One’s coming is unknown. (By the way, it’s “Son of Man” in other translations). Yet we often hear about new calculations and timetables. Such speculation only reveals human arrogance and pretense. We are told quite plainly that not even the Son nor the angels know the day or the hour when Jesus will return, but only the Father knows. It’s not that the future is mysteriously shrouded so that the armchair apocalypticists have to break the secret code to discover when the end will be. It’s that we don’t know and we won’t know until it happens. What’s more, we are not supposed to be living as calculators and speculators who guess about the future, nor are we supposed to be prospectors hunting for golden nuggets that might reveal the time of Jesus’ return. We are supposed to be living today, in the now, as those to whom a promise has been given. We count on the reliability of the one who gave us the promise by anticipating the advent of the Son of Man.

Yet, when we’re anticipating something we prepare for it. When Joy was pregnant with Kara, we were both busy getting things ready for her advent. We got a crib, and a glider, and diapers, and bottles, and wipes, and clothing. We put the nursery room together so we would be prepared when she was born. Then, when Joy was pregnant with James we got busy getting ready for his advent. We were in a different house, so we stripped the wallpaper off the wall and painted his room, we transitioned Kara to a bed so we could use the crib for James, we got more diapers, more wipes, and more clothing so we would be ready when he was born. We did similar preparation while awaiting Charlotte in yet another house.

What do you do when you’re anticipating a wedding? There are endless things to do! There’s the date, the dress, the tuxedos, the pastor, the counseling, the rehearsal dinner, the invitations, the decorations, the music, and I’ve probably missed a few things there. There are lots of things that have to be done when preparing for a wedding.

What do you do if you’re expecting company at your house? I’ll tell you what we do, we go into helter-skelter turbo cleaning mode, that’s what we do. We’re getting ready, hoping to high heaven they don’t show up five minutes early!

Jesus brings up the image of Noah and the people of his day. In the story of the flood, Noah is contrasted with the people who lived around him. Different writers in the Biblical books have interpreted Noah and the flood in different ways. Isaiah spoke of the days of Noah in terms of a new day when God will never again abandon God’s people, saying, “These are like the days of Noah to me, when I promised that Noah’s waters would never again cover the earth. Likewise I promise not to rage against you or rebuke you” (Isaiah 54:9, CEB).

Ezekiel mentions Noah alongside Daniel and Job, saying that their own righteousness would save them, but they wouldn’t be able to save their sons or daughters if their children had no righteousness of their own. There are no coattails on which we can ride to salvation. When God’s judgment comes, we are judged by the life we, ourselves, have lived. (c.f. Ezekiel 14:12-20).

In Hebrews, we’re told that Noah responded to God’s warning of the impending flood with belief in God’s word. His faith in God caused him to believe what no one could yet see, and he built an ark to save himself and his family. (c.f. Hebrews 11:7).

First Peter uses the salvation of Noah and his family as a metaphor for baptism in that their lives were rescued through water (c.f. 1 Peter 3:20-21). Second Peter tells us that God’s judgment falls upon everyone. The whole world was judged in the flood, but only Noah and seven others were judged as righteous. He reminds us that God’s judgment is an active thing that has been happening throughout history and is continuing right now, and we can trust that God knows how to save the righteous (c.f. 2 Peter 2:4-10).

What’s interesting about Jesus’ use of Noah is that he focuses on those who failed to be prepared. Noah’s neighbors were eating, drinking, getting married, and giving their children in marriage. And who could blame them? If we lived in that day, do you think any of us would have been expecting a catastrophe like the flood? Noah was busy getting ready for the fulfillment of God’s warning by building a boat while the people around Noah simply assumed that life would continue forever with business as usual. The people weren’t preparing for the flood God warned about. Noah didn’t know any more than they did exactly what the future held. The difference is that Noah believed God and prepared for what God had said would be coming. When the flood came, Noah and his family entered the ark and the people were all swept away.

Then, Jesus moves into images that immediately makes us think of “rapture” and being “left behind.” The images of two men working in a field where one is taken and one is left, and two women grinding meal where one is taken and the other is left has been given a rather one-sided interpretation in recent years with popular books and movies. The only problem is, we have no idea which person is saved in Jesus’ parable: the one taken or the one left.

We think the ones who are taken are the fortunate ones, and there is some evidence to support the idea. In Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus in chapter two, the verb taken is used four times when the child Jesus is taken to safety (c.f. 2:13, 14, 20, 21). Jesus also takes his disciples aside to teach them (c.f. 20:17) and to watch while he prayed (c.f. 26:37).

At the same time, a different verb meaning take up or raise up, is used to describe those who were “swept away” (24:39) in the flood. This is the same verb used when Jesus tells us that his followers must “take up their cross” (16:24).

We should also remember that in other scenes in Matthew’s Gospel where these kinds of divisions of the faithful and unfaithful occur, it is the wicked who are taken first for judgment. In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus explains that the weeds will be gathered first and burned. Afterward, the righteous will shine like the sun (Matthew 13:37-43).

In the parable of the net that follows, Jesus says, “That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. The angels will go out and separate the evil people from the righteous people, and will throw the evil ones into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50, CEB). In these examples, it’s better to be the one left behind because it’s the wicked who are taken away for punishment.

The point of the images is that judgment is universal. Every man and woman will face God’s judgment but we don’t know when it’s coming. It might happen when we’re in the midst of our daily work and come so suddenly that we don’t realize it has happened until it’s done.

Another figure Jesus brings up is the householder who lacks vigilance enough to protect his house. The thief is able to break in and rob the owner because the owner had no idea the thief was coming.

Jesus commands us to be ready for his advent. No one knows the precise time of his coming, yet Jesus has declared that his advent is certain. His coming will be unexpected, as was the flood in the days of Noah. It will separate people in judgment. We Christians are to be ready because we don’t know when the Lord is coming.

So what are we doing to prepare for that which we anticipate: the second Advent of Christ? How are we getting ready? What kind of things ought we be doing? Later in Matthew, Jesus tells us three parables that give us an idea. The parable of the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13) tells us to be prepared for anything. The parable of the Talents reminds us not to be idle but to actively work for the Kingdom (25:14-30). The parable of the judgment between the sheep and the goats tells us that we need to care for the hungry, thirsty, friendless, naked, sick, and prisoners (25:31-46).

I think Jesus’ message to us about judgment is that we have work to do in the here and now. We don’t need to worry about the future if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do now. We don’t know when the day of the Lord is coming, but if we are living our daily lives in righteousness by caring for the least and the lost, we’ll be prepared for the advent of Jesus Christ.

The message of the First Sunday of Advent is a reminder to us that the Day of the Lord is coming. Our responsibility is to live in accordance with God’s definition of righteousness by doing what we can in a spirit of hope and trust. We don’t have to worry about timetables. We only have to do what is right in our daily grind. That’s what it means to be prepared.

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

A Branch | Proper 29, Christ the King

Jeremiah 23:1-6

1 Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the LORD. 2 This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, proclaims about the shepherds who “tend to” my people: You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away. You haven’t attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the LORD. 3 I myself will gather the few remaining sheep from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will place over them shepherds who care for them. Then they will no longer be afraid or dread harm, nor will any be missing, declares the LORD.

5 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from David’s line, and he will rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land. 6 During his lifetime, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And his name will be The LORD Is Our Righteousness. (CEB)

A Branch

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of the Christian Year before Advent kicks off the New Year on our church calendar.

The problem with having a holy day called Christ the King is that the kingship of Jesus feels far away, something we relegate to the distant future, a reign that needn’t bother us in the here and now. And there’s the fact that, for us post-modern American people who live in a democratic republic, there is no one wearing a crown with absolute authority. Our Federal governmental system was designed to barely function with its checks and balances of power. It was designed to be inefficient. It was designed to require debate and dialogue so that dissenting voices could be heard instead of ignored. By and large, it seems the founders succeeded. It often appears that our government barely functions.

A kingship with real, absolute authority is a foreign concept to us. We Americans can hardly imagine life under the ancient kings, let alone the power dynamics at play. When the Emperor of Rome commanded a citizen to commit suicide, the citizen did it. That’s one of the many reasons why most of us are glad that we don’t understand those things. That mindset is contrary to our ideals of self-autonomy. The founders of our nation described the authority of kingship as “tyranny” and fought a revolution to rid themselves of it.

In our text, Jeremiah speaks God’s words which are an indictment against the monarchy. Yet, what follows the indictment are two promises (there’s a third promise in verses seven and eight but the lectionary stops at verse 6). In the indictment, God seems to have had enough of kings, described as shepherds, who have scattered God’s people, who are the sheep of God’s flock. When we look at the preceding chapters of Jeremiah, we see prophetic oracles against Judah and its kings.

A further complication to our understanding of Judah’s kings is that the people of Judah accepted the Davidic line as chosen by God. Their kings were anointed, which is the word מָשִׁיחַ [Ma-shi-ach] in Hebrew. In Greek, it’s χριστός [Christos]. In English, we translate the words as Messiah and Christ. The kings of Judah were Messiah’s in that they were anointed. There was a religious dimension to the kingship. In First Samuel, David describes King Saul several times as “The Lord’s anointed.” They were God’s representatives who ruled under God’s authority.

The problem is, they didn’t always represent God very well. Instead, they acted in self-interest and failed to do justice on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. In Jeremiah chapters 21 and 22, we hear words like these: “Begin each morning by administering justice, rescue from their oppressor those who have been robbed, or else my anger will spread like a wildfire, with no one to put it out, because of your evil deeds” (Jer. 21:12b, CEB).

And, “The Lord proclaims: Do what is right and just; rescue the oppressed from the power of the oppressor. Don’t exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow. Don’t spill the blood of the innocent in this place” (Jer. 22:3, CEB).

And “How terrible for Jehoiakim, who builds his house with corruption and his upper chambers with injustice, working his countrymen for nothing, refusing to give them their wages. He says, ‘I’ll build myself a grand palace, with huge upper chambers, ornate windows, cedar paneling, and rich red decor.’ Is this what makes you a king, having more cedar than anyone else? Didn’t your father eat and drink and still do what was just and right? Then it went well for him! He defended the rights of the poor and needy; then it went well. Isn’t that what it means to know me? declares the LORD. But you set your eyes and heart on nothing but unjust gain; you spill the blood of the innocent; you practice cruelty; you oppress your subjects” (Jer. 22:13-17, CEB).

What God expected of the rulers who governed the people of Judah as his earthly representatives was justice and righteousness. What God saw, instead, was injustice, unrighteousness, cruelty, and oppression. Instead of shepherds who cared for God’s flock, the shepherds destroyed and scattered the sheep of the Lord’s pasture. Their actions were a travesty that God decides to fix.

First, we’re told that God will gather the people. In fact, the wording kind of sounds like God is saying, I just can’t find good help these days. I’ll do it myself. God will facilitate the homecoming. In fact, the use of the word gather negates the word scatter. The greedy and power-hungry kings scattered people to the point that they fled their homeland to Egypt and other neighboring nations. When Jeremiah is dragged off to Egypt, he finds communities of Judahite people already established in some of the cities. The Assyrian Empire had already destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and carried off some of its people while settling foreigners in the land. The Babylonian Empire would soon come to finish destroying Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. Some of the people have already been carried off into exile, and more will soon go. But God will gather the scattered flock from whatever land they are in.

Not only will they be gathered, but God promises prosperity. “They will be fruitful and multiply.” Those words hearken back to God’s intention for women and men in the creation story. They are the same words used in Genesis 1:28. They imply growth and well-being. And God will raise up new shepherds who will do what the original kings were supposed to do: care for their people.

One of my favorite lines from C.S. Lewis’s book, The Horse and His Boy, is toward the end where King Lune of Archenland teaches his long-lost son, Cor, about kingship. “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in you land” (Lewis, 240).

God suggests the duty of kings is to wield authority for the sake of others, not to subject others to themselves as an authority. God intends to raise up shepherds who will act in such a way that the people cannot be afraid, nor dread harm, nor go missing. God has the power to create something new from the mess of old.

The second promise in verse five and six moves from shepherds in the plural to a righteous descendant in the singular. In other translations, it’s a “righteous Branch” (NRSV). God will raise up for David a righteous descendant to be king. This suggests that, despite the past failures of David’s line to rule with the qualities God expected, God has not given up on Davidic kingship. This king will “rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land” (CEB).

The Hebrew in verse 5 can be translated as “righteous descendant” (CEB) or “rightful descendant,” meaning the king God raises up will be the legitimate king. It was important in Jeremiah’s day, because King Jehoiachin had been deported to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar who then placed his uncle, Zedekiah, on the throne of Judah. Some in Judah still saw Jehoiachin as their rightful king-in-exile. Those who were exiled to Babylon definitely viewed Jehoiachin as their rightful king. The double meaning might be intentional. This descendant whom God will raise up for David will be both righteous and legitimate.

It’s a little ironic that the name of this king will be The Lord is Our Righteousness. In Hebrew, it’s צִדְקֵֽנוּ (Zedeknu). The name of the last king of Judah was (‎צִדְקִיָּ֖הוּ) Zedekiah, meaning, The Lord is Righteous. There is a difference between knowing the Lord is righteous and embodying that righteousness. When the Lord is OUR righteousness, we have a part to play. King Zedekiah bore the name, but the coming king will be the name.

But, like I said, the power dynamics of this kind of kingship can be a little beyond our American understanding. In our post-modern world, power has been so decentralized that it’s almost always up for grabs by anyone who can reach out and take a piece of it. The problem is that we are almost never wise enough to wield it. Human arrogance leads us to think that we can govern the universe, but we can barely manage our own small patch of it.

It might be helpful for us to consider our own personal power. So here are some questions for us to consider: What power do I have? How did I get it? Whose interest am I serving? To whom am I accountable for the power I hold? Our world is constantly torn apart, piece by piece, with war, famine, and shortages of commodities. But if God provides so much, the matter we need to consider in light of God’s expectations of righteousness is whether there are actually shortages or if God’s abundant provision is simply unevenly distributed.

If God’s understanding of righteousness is that we are expected to care for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the refugee, then how well are we living according to God’s definition of righteousness? What would our Christian community look like if we did a better job of living out God’s expectations of righteousness? Christian community finds the embodiment of this righteous descendant in Jesus Christ. It is not, and cannot, be found in American politics, nor the politics of any other nation.

The Gospel text in the lectionary for this Sunday is Luke 23:33-43, which is the crucifixion. Christ died for us so that we could have life, and live life to the fullest (c.f. John 10:10). But living a full life doesn’t mean we keep God’s abundance for ourselves. Living a full life means giving to others as Christ gave. Accepting others as Christ accepted. Loving others as Christ loved. These are the examples we have of our righteous king. These are the examples of what our legitimate king did for us and all his people. Are we even close to meeting the bar set by Jesus Christ, our king and God? Do we love and accept others? Do we stand up to defend the rights of others and seek justice for those who are suffering injustice? That’s our call to righteousness. The failure of Judah’s kings and other authority figures to do these things is what led to the destruction and scattering of Judah and Israel. Jesus Christ, our king, is calling us to follow his example of selflessness which rectifies those past mistakes.

When the king is looking out for the well-being of his people, human life flourishes, people prosper, and public community thrives. Jesus is our king. Jesus is our shepherd. Jesus is our righteousness and he embodies the righteousness of God in all its fullness. When we follow his example to care for each other and look out for the well-being of our sisters and brothers, that’s when we embody the righteousness of God, too.

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

Give Thanks | Proper 28

Isaiah 12

1 You will say on that day: “I thank you, LORD. Though you were angry with me, your anger turned away and you comforted me. 2 God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid. Yah, the LORD, is my strength and my shield; he has become my salvation.”

3 You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. 4 And you will say on that day: “Thank the LORD; call on God’s name; proclaim God’s deeds among the peoples; declare that God’s name is exalted. 5 Sing to the LORD, who has done glorious things; proclaim this throughout all the earth.” 6 Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion, because the holy one of Israel is great among you. (CEB)

Give Thanks

Isaiah 12 is a Psalm of praise which serves as the capstone to chapters one through eleven. It really can’t be properly understood if it is excised from these preceding chapters. Chapters one through eleven are mostly filled with oracles of judgment and doom on the unfaithfulness of God’s people. And, it’s curious what the unfaithfulness Isaiah preaches against looks like.

Most of it is the failure of those with means and those in power to defend the poor and vulnerable among them. It’s a failure to defend and care for orphans and widows who, in that time and place, were the most vulnerable people in Jewish culture. God tells the people of Judah, “Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow” (Is. 1:16-17, CEB).

But doom is also pronounced on the wealthy who take more than what they need to live, which essentially keeps the poor from escaping their destitution. Isaiah says, “Doom to those who acquire house after house, who annex field to field until there is no more space left and only you live alone in the land” (Is. 5:8, CEB). It is an injustice when people gain at the expense of the poor. God declares that their wealth won’t enrich them. Rather, they will suffer desolation and emptiness.

Doom is pronounced on those who mock God’s plan, and those who think they are so wise that they utterly dismiss the idea of justice for others and dismiss judgment for the injustice they instigate and in which they participate. Doom is also pronounced on nations which oppress and make self-interested war on other nations to steal their land and resources.

As we read through those first chapters of Isaiah, there is anger on God’s part. There is judgment and punishment for people whose words and deeds such as those I just mentioned, are contrary to God’s design for righteous human life. Those judgments aren’t easy to hear.

Yet, those judgments are interspersed with God’s plan which gives hope to the future: words of hope that are incredibly familiar to us. “God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war (Isaiah 2:4, CEB).

And, “Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14, CEB).

And, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned… A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be vast authority and endless peace for David’s throne and for his kingdom, establishing and sustaining it with justice and righteousness now and forever. The zeal of the LORD of heavenly forces will do this” (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7, CEB).

And, “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout up from his roots. The LORD’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD… The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; and the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:1-2, 6, CEB).

In our text, we are told that there will come a day when we will give thanks to God for God’s comfort and salvation. It acknowledges God’s anger. And let’s be honest, God’s anger scares us. Anyone’s anger scares us, but especially the anger of those we love and respect. The reason anger frightens us is because we fear the loss of love from those who are angry. When my children do something wrong and I get angry, I make sure I tell them that I love them. I may be angry about what they did, but I love them and I always will. The way those situations usually resolve is with a tear-filled hug with my children clinging to me because they know that, while I’m angry and disappointed in their actions, I still love them deeply.

A few months ago, in my sermon on August 14, I mentioned a quote from C.S. Lewis in his book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly About Prayer, where he said, “Anger—no peevish fit of temper, but just, generous, scalding indignation—passes (not necessarily at once) into embracing, exultant, re-welcoming love. That is how friends and lovers are truly reconciled. Hot wrath, hot love. Such anger is the fluid love bleeds when you cut it” (Lewis, 126). I love that last part of the quote: “Anger is the fluid love bleeds when you cut it.”

So, when we talk about God’s anger, it’s never about a loss of love. God still loves us. God always loves us. In fact, it’s God’s unbreakable, unshakable, undeniable, relentlessly pursuing, unyielding, never-ending, till-death-and-beyond love that is the source of our rejoicing, the reason for our thanksgiving, and the thing that undergirds our purposeful living as we strive for the kingdom of God in our midst alongside God who is unfolding it around us so that it encompasses the whole world.

Yes, we sin, and we will, unfortunately, continue to sin in impressively big ways and in ways so small we think we can ignore them. But God loves us still. God calls us back. God offers us salvation. The thing is, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, God loves you. God loves us. God wants better for us. I am preaching to myself here, too. The pronouns are in the first-person in verses one and two. The beauty of the prophet’s instructions for how we can rejoice is that each one of us can say, “God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid. Yah, the LORD is my strength and my shield; he has become my salvation” (CEB).

The fact that God loves us always, even when we’ve messed up, is a truth that offers hope. It allows us to view God’s anger and judgment as part of salvation. When we fail to live faithfully by abusing the weak, or making peace with injustice, or excusing hatred, or overlooking violence, it is God’s judgment that calls us to repent; to seek forgiveness and purification because of our sins. It is God’s judgment that encourages us to recommit our lives to God’s design for human community: a design in which people do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. A design where people put away evil, learn to do good, and defend our weaker and more vulnerable sisters and brothers within our communities.

Most of the language in this hymn of praise is closely related to the Psalms, but verse three is something unique that doesn’t come from the Psalms. The image of drawing water with joy from the springs of salvation does a couple of things. In one sense, it offers a contrast of the “waters of Shiloah that flow gently” (c.f. Is. 8:6), to the mighty floodwaters representing the king of Assyria. Isaiah 8:7-8 says, “therefore, look, the Lord is raising up against them the powerful floodwaters of the Euphrates, the king of Assyria and all his glory. It will rise up over all its channels, overflowing all its banks, and sweep into Judah, flooding, overflowing, and reaching up to the neck. But God is with us; the span of his wings will cover the width of the land” (CEB). The Neo-Assyrian Empire would wash over territory all around it, swallowing nations in every direction.

In another sense, the gentle water of Shiloah was a small stream that flowed from the Gihon Spring. It was called the Pool of Siloam in the Gospel of John (c.f. John 9:7, 11). Shiloah, or Siloam, is the spring from which, according to the Babylonian Talmud, priests would draw water every day during the festival celebration of Sukkot. Then, they would carry the water in procession to the Temple with trumpets blasting, and pour it as an offering on the altar. The Talmud describes the offering of this libation as so joyful that it says, “He who has not witnessed the rejoicings at the water-drawing has, throughout the whole of his life, witnessed no real rejoicing” (Rodkinson, p.77).

The waters of Shiloah, themselves, represented God’s provision. That’s why we have this call in Isaiah to trust in the Lord because God is our salvation. That’s why we have this call to give thanks and make God’s deeds known among the nations. Those singular pronouns give way to plural pronouns in verse 3. One voice calls to another, inviting them to join in the thanksgiving and celebration. Those voices call to still others to do the same. It’s not about one person only but the community of people, and that community then extends to the nations of people who will also come to recognize God’s saving deeds and offer praise.

There is a mighty hope of salvation on the other side of death, but the prophets also envision and voice a joyful hope for our future in this life. A future in which all people can offer thanks together for the things God richly provides. Especially for those among us who are living in the midst of pain, fear, sickness, or sorrow, these words encourage us—they are an opportunity for us—to pray with anticipation for the day when our joy returns.

Whether that moment is now, or something we yet hope for in the future, we are called to give thanks in such a way that the world around us cannot help but join in the celebration of thanksgiving and praise, shouting aloud and singing for joy. For, God has become our salvation, and the Holy One of Israel is in our midst. The Lord has done glorious things for us, and they are worth celebrating.

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

Blessings and Woes | All Saints’ Sunday

Luke 6:20-31

 20 Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:

“Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours.

21 Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied.

Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh.

22 Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. 23 Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.

24 But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort.

25 How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry.

How terrible for you who laugh now, because you will mourn and weep.

26 How terrible for you when all speak well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. (CEB)

Blessings and Woes

I think it’s safe to say that most Christians have made certain assumptions about the Gospel: that its declaration and the things it demands are meant to help us live a normal, healthy happy life. Like eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise, the Gospel enables us to make the most of life and live it to the fullest; to take advantage of life’s opportunities and to cope with its downsides. It’s a way to feel good and be happy and joyful.

But then we start reading the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is constantly affirming a complete reversal of values and offering a rather upsetting list of blessings and woes. Jesus, it turns out, has quite a different perspective than our assumptions allow us on what it means to live under God’s reign. Jesus insists that life under the Gospel is full of risk and insecurity and he raises all kinds of questions about our normal, healthy life.

I have a feeling that, if we had the opportunity to hear Jesus preach a sermon, many of us wouldn’t like what Jesus had to say. We’d probably feel a bit uncomfortable with his message, and a little exposed by what Jesus presents as truth. And our post-modern minds would rationalize his message away by saying, “Well, that may be true for him, but it’s not true for me,” because we think that—like everything else in life—truth is also relative.

Or we might rationalize it another way by telling ourselves, “Well, of course he’s talking about those other people, not me. I’m the good person in the parable.” For instance, whenever we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, we all imagine ourselves as the Good Samaritan, when perhaps we really ought to imagine ourselves as the wounded person on the side of the road—bleeding, in agony, and left to die in a ditch—and then recognize Jesus as the Good Samaritan who would pay any price to see us healed.

Jesus’ sermon on the plain provides a similar problem for us. We don’t really like what it says, so we tend to ignore the truth and go with our rationalizations. Yet, this sermon paints a vivid portrait of what life is really like under the reign of God, and the part of the sermon assigned to the Lectionary for All Saints’ Day is subversive and threatening to all of our comfortable assumptions about life and the Gospel.

It begins with four Beatitudes that invite us to take delight in the fact that the plight of the poor, hungry, grieving, excluded people will be reversed in and through the reign of God. Who can help but rejoice in the change in circumstances for such unfortunate folks? That’s great news, and it really is about time somebody did something for these people.

Then the four Beatitudes are paralleled by four woes that are declared upon the rich, the full, the happy, and the well-thought-of. We who read this sermon who have not found ourselves included among the blessed—those poor, hungry, grieving, and excluded folk—are set to wondering about our place among the groups that Jesus bemoans—the rich, the full, the laughing, the well-liked. And we question, “What in the world is Jesus talking about?”

Now, there is clearly no exaltation of poverty or hunger or grief or victimization as if these things are virtues we should all be seeking. Jesus is not saying we all need to quit our jobs and go live like homeless beggars on the street. He’s not telling us that we can never laugh again. He’s not telling us that we need to make everyone mad at us so we aren’t very well liked. The Beatitudes are not exhortations to seek after poverty, hunger, grief, and rejection.

But they are promised blessings declared upon people whose present condition would hardly seem to be called “favored.” None of us drives by a homeless person and longingly sighs, saying, “I really wish I could be homeless.” But we probably have driven by a humongous house and longingly sighed, saying, “Wow! I wish I lived there.” The future tenses in the Beatitudes, “you will be filled,” “you will laugh,” point to the future: their ultimate circumstances when God’s reign is ushered in in all its fullness.

In turn, the woes are spoken on those whose current situation looks, by all accounts, to be fortunate, but whose ultimate circumstance in God’s kingdom is quite the contrary. There’s a reason why Jesus said, “It’s very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” And guess what. Compared to the rest of the world, we Americans are rich.

I think what Jesus is saying to us is that those who prosper under the present structures of human life, who are self-satisfied and at ease with the way things are, who benefit and are honored by the system, are in fact to be pitied because they—meaning we—are the ones who are more likely to be in trouble. God’s reign does not include a divinely offered promise of health and happiness which entails a simple adjustment to the present state of the world order. Instead, the Gospel calls for a radically alternative manner of life that inevitably means swimming upstream in the cultural river. Christians are not called to go with the flow. And since we’re talking about Luke’s Gospel, I don’t mind using the analogy that Christians are supposed to be like the Rebel Alliance in our struggle against the Galactic Empire. Oh! Sorry. That’s a different Luke.

The saints that we hear about, and for us Protestant Christians it’s usually just the Biblical characters: Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint Mary, Saint Mary Magdalene, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John. Then, there are some of my favorites: Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Macrina, Saint Benedict, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Thomas a Kempis, Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Saints Cyril and Methodius, Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint John Wesley…yes, I definitely include Mr. Wesley.

These were Christian people who most definitely did not go with the flow. That’s why we still remember their names. Most Methodists today, if we actually sat down and read John Wesley, we would be shocked! We would cry out, “He’s nuts, we can’t live like that!” You see, John Wesley said crazy counter-cultural things like, “If you have two coats you are a thief, because you’ve stolen a coat from someone who doesn’t have one.” He also discovered that he could live off of something like 28 pounds a year, so no matter how much he earned in a year, he lived off of 28 pounds and gave the rest to the poor. That’s pretty crazy stuff. It’s radical.

The original readers of Luke’s Gospel who were living in the midst of the Roman Empire very often found themselves included in “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” They knew exactly how much at odds with the Imperial system the reign of God put them and how violent the response of the imperial system could be. Many Christian women, men, and children met with extremely violent and cruel deaths, like Saints Perpetua and Felicity, because of their mere association with Jesus Christ, but they persevered in their faith even to death.

My family and I went to a park near Cincinnati once, and I came across a quote by an unknown author attached to an oak tree. It said, “Today’s mighty oak is just yesterday’s nut that held its ground.” And I thought, what a great interpretation of a life that has lived the Gospel. What a perfect description of a saint. The Gospel is countercultural, not culturally acquiescing.

Jesus goes on to preach some more radically countercultural stuff about how we should live and operate with those who are our avowed opponents. Instead of retaliation, the call is to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and offer blessings and prayers for the opposition. That’s pretty darn countercultural.

Then the four examples of non-retaliation that follow all have to do with physical abuse (like a slap in the face) or material possessions (like the theft of one’s coat, begging, and the stealing of our goods). Recompense is not to be sought, and in two cases the victim is to offer even more (the other cheek, and one’s shirt). On one hand these examples serve to draw our attention to the point that in the reign of God it is love, rather than retaliation, that prevails. On the other hand, the very particularity of the examples makes it impossible to turn them into new laws. Instead, we are invited to reflect on the sweeping demands of love, especially in relation to hostile enemies.

All of this leads up to the Golden Rule and gives it context. It’s not a general proverb, but specific counsel for dealing with our enemies. Rather than responding to violence with violence, we are directed to treat our enemies as we would like to be treated. That’s tough for me to hear because I don’t even always treat the people I like the way I want to be treated.

For many of us, this sermon by Jesus reads like some indecipherable foreign language because for us the Gospel never creates the kind of opposition Jesus mentions here. We simply manipulate the Gospel so that it makes adjustments with the prevailing culture to enable us to remain rich, full, happy, and put on a pedestal. Any enemies we have are merely those with whom we have personality conflicts, or they’re the enemies of our nation. But Jesus’ sermon on the plain has the power to undermine any easy truce we have negotiated with our culture and to wake us to the sharp demands of life under God’s reign. It is a precarious and risk-filled existence, but an existence which Jesus calls “blessed.”

There is a new kind of life that is expected of the faithful. It is not the life of comfort and security that we think we get by following after the ways of our culture and our world. The saints we honor on All Saints’ Day are those who have passed this treasure of faith down to us throughout history because they embodied the Gospel in their lives. They have many stories, and we are mystically tied to them in this wonderful thing we call the communion of saints. As we recall the saints of ages past, we do so with gratitude for their endurance; and as we are reminded of their examples we are called to renew our commitment to follow their examples of living out and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in and to the world.

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