Samuel and Eli | 2nd after Epiphany

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Now the boy Samuel was serving the LORD under Eli. The LORD’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the LORD’s temple, where God’s chest was.

4 The LORD called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.

5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.

6 Again the LORD called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”

7 (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)

8 A third time the LORD called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

Then Eli realized that it was the LORD who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.

10 Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

11 The LORD said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! 12 On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household– every last bit of it! 13 I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about– how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. 14 Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the LORD’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!”

“I’m here,” Samuel said.

17 “What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.

“He is the LORD, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.”

19 So Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail.
20 All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the LORD’s prophet. (CEB)

Samuel and Eli

Have you ever noticed how many call stories there are in the Bible? I think these call stories are records of some of the most powerful moments in human history. They’re really amazing stories because the infinite God of creation calls seemingly insignificant human beings to do God’s will. Many of these call stories are theophany events: moments where God reveals God’s self in some powerful and unusual way.

In Exodus 3, Moses was called in the great theophany of the burning bush. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah was given a vision of God seated on the throne in majesty and glory. In Luke 1, Mary, the mother of Jesus, experienced the visitation of the Angel of the Lord. In Acts of the Apostles 9, Paul was blinded by a heavenly light and saw the risen Lord Jesus appear to him. These are all powerful call stories.

And yet I find this—perhaps less impressive—call story of the boy Samuel to be closer to my heart than any of the others. That’s because there are some similarities between it and my own call story, but also because there appears to be a similarity between it and the state of the world today. In the very first verse of 1 Samuel 3, something is mentioned that I think many Christians find relatable. We’re told, The LORD’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known.” (1 Samuel 3:1b CEB).

And as if to put an exclamation point on this scarcity of the Lord’s word and lack of visions, we’re given this example of the boy Samuel who hears a voice calling his name. But, instead of recognizing the voice for whose it was, Samuel thinks it is Eli. He runs to him saying, “I’m here. You called me?”

This happens twice before we’re told as a side note, “Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7 CEB). And poor old Eli didn’t get what was going on either. All he knew was that this kid kept waking him up.

It isn’t until the third time that the Lord calls Samuel, and Samuel mistakenly goes to Eli yet again, that Eli perceives that the Lord is calling Samuel, so he tells Samuel what to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” So, on the fourth try, the Lord finally gets Samuel to listen to the word of the Lord. As we find out by the end of the chapter (verse 21, which the lectionary left out), “The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh because the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh through the LORD’s own word” (1 Sam. 3:21 CEB). So the drought and scarcity of the word of the Lord ended to some degree, because Samuel became a reliable source for the hearing of God’s word.

As I said, many Christians would probably agree that the word of the Lord is rare in these days; visions are not widely known. But I don’t know that I would agree with that take. If we look closely at what was going on in Samuel’s day, we discover that things were not as they should have been with Israel’s religious life. Eli’s sons were cursing God and doing all kinds of wrong things while they were serving as priests. Eli knew about it, and yet did nothing to stop the evil they were doing.

You see, I think the word of the Lord was probably as active as ever, but people simply weren’t able to hear because they weren’t listening. How can we hear the word of the Lord if we aren’t even listening? How can we hear when the din of the world around us so easily drowns out the voice of God? If you remember from the story of Elijah, God didn’t speak in the fire, the earthquake, or the wind. God spoke in the sound of sheer silence (c.f. 1 Kings 19:12).

When it comes to hearing the word of the Lord, I bet we all have a bit of a learning curve just like Samuel had. When Samuel heard this voice for the first time, he didn’t recognize it for what it was. But we’re told that, “So Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail” (1 Sam. 3:19 CEB). Samuel didn’t follow after the ways of Eli’s corrupt sons, he listened ever more closely for the voice of the Lord so that he could hear when the Lord spoke.

I know I’ve mentioned my call to ministry before, but call is important in the life of the church, so I’m going to tell it again. My call began when I was serving as an acolyte at Central United Methodist Church in Evansville. There were moments when I sat in the front pew in my acolyte robe as my pastor preached and I heard God speak to me. I heard God say that I would do what my pastor was doing. But at the time, I didn’t understand what this voice was. All I knew was that such thoughts scared the heck out of me because I’m an introvert and there was no way on God’s green earth I was ever going to stand up in front of people and talk. I was just a boy, and I didn’t recognize the word of the Lord even as that voice spoke to me.

That voice came and went over the years until I was in college. It was almost mid-February in 1996 when the voice of the Lord came again with a vigor and an intensity I’d never before experienced. It was absolutely inescapable—almost to the point of being annoying. At first, I wasn’t sure what was going on. I recognized it as the same voice, the same feeling, the same sense of call to ministry that I’d experienced as a boy sitting in the front pew at church, and I just hoped it would go away as it had each time before.

But I also tried to understand what it was telling me. I finally recognized it as the voice of God calling me to ministry on St. Valentine’s Day while I was trying to study chemistry. I knew that God was calling me to ministry. And, for a few seconds, I know that I registered my protest, I tried to push back. I thought, there’s no way you could want me to do this, I can’t talk in front of other people!

But then God argued back with the overwhelming weight and intensity of that voice, and I can’t even quote what God said in that moment but it was an audible declaration—I heard it—and all I could do was push my chemistry book back, throw my pencil aside and—with, I admit, some degree of frustration because of the fact that I couldn’t seem to change God’s mind about it—say out loud, “All right, God, I’ll do it!” And once those words were nearly shouted from my lips, I felt a profound sense of peace.

Sometimes I wonder if the voice of the Lord is rare in these days, or if we just need to learn how to listen. That was my call to ordained ministry, and it was a profound event. But not all calls to ministry are calls to ordination or preaching. Long before I was called to ordained ministry I was called to the ministry of all Christians, which is also called the Priesthood of all believers, through my baptism. When I think about it, that might have been an even more profound moment in my life, though I don’t remember it at all.

You see, it was at my baptism that the Lord took me and, when I was nothing more than an infant, filled me with the grace of God, mysteriously incorporated me into the body of Christ, united me with Christ in his death and resurrection, marked me as God’s own with the seal of the Holy Spirit, placed me in a covenant relationship with God, and forgave me of my sin.

We United Methodists believe firmly, along with the ancient position of the church, that baptism is something that God does, not something that we do by choosing to be baptized, and not something the pastor does to us by applying the water to us. Baptism is an act of God through the church and it’s a means of grace where the one being baptized receives the grace of God.

That’s why I think my baptism was a more profound moment in my life than my call to ordination. Without my parents placing me in the care of the church through my baptism as an infant—much as Hannah placed her son, Samuel, in the care of the house of the Lord at Shiloh right after he was weaned—how would these later calls have taken place? How would my call to ordination have come without the faith of my parents first offering me to Christ in the mystery of holy baptism? How would Samuel’s call as a prophet have come without his mother’s offering her son as a nazirite to God?

Baptism is both a call to ministry and a call to a new and different kind of life in Christ. Every baptized person has been called by God to the ministry of all Christians. Our Book of Discipline says, “Very early in its history, the church came to understand that all of its members were commissioned in baptism to ministries of love, justice, and service…all who follow Jesus have a share in the ministry of Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve.” That’s a call! We who follow Jesus Christ are called by God to move beyond ourselves and carry the Great Commission into the larger world around us.

We’re called by God, but sometimes we still find the word of the Lord difficult to hear. If we don’t feel particularly called by God to anything, then maybe we need to listen better. We live in a multitasking world of short attention-spans. When we have conversations with people, we’re usually doing something else, too. Talking on the phone while flipping through TV channels, talking to a coworker while checking our e-mail, talking to our kids while working on a project.

We live in a time and place where we’re losing the art of listening. When was the last time we focused solely on the person we were talking to without pulling a smart phone from our purse or pocket? (I’ve seen elderly people eat together at restaurants while each were on their smart phones, so it’s not just a young-people thing). When was the last time we focused solely on what God is trying to say to us?

This story of Samuel’s call can serve as our invitation to hear again and to recognize again the call of God upon our lives. We are called by God to ministries of love and service. The word of the Lord might not be so rare in these days as we think. We simply need to be better listeners to what the Lord is saying.

Where is God calling you?

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




Promise | 4th Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

1 When the king was settled in his palace, and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “Look! I’m living in a cedar palace, but God’s chest is housed in a tent!”

3 Nathan said to the king, “Go ahead and do whatever you are thinking, because the LORD is with you.”

4 But that very night the LORD’s word came to Nathan: 5 Go to my servant David and tell him: This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build the temple for me to live in. 6 In fact, I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. 7 Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?

8 So then, say this to my servant David: This is what the LORD of heavenly forces says: I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be leader over my people Israel. 9 I’ve been with you wherever you’ve gone, and I’ve eliminated all your enemies before you. Now I will make your name great– like the name of the greatest people on earth. 10 I’m going to provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so that they may live there and no longer be disturbed. Cruel people will no longer trouble them, as they had been earlier, 11 when I appointed leaders over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies.

And the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make a dynasty for you.

16 Your dynasty and your kingdom will be secured forever before me. Your throne will be established forever. (CEB)


Another text that comes to mind when I read this is Isaiah 55: “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.” (8-9 CEB).

These words from the prophet Isaiah remind us that God is always more steps ahead of us than we’d care to admit. We might have our own agendas, but God has an agenda, too, and it’s not always the same as ours. We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that our agendas—no matter how honorable or righteous our intentions—can stand in contradiction to God’s own. In our text from 2 Samuel, King David has an idea. On the surface, it sounds honorable enough. Now that David is all settled, he wants to build God a house. He consults the prophet, Nathan, who tells him it’s a good idea and he should go ahead.

Yet, right there, the text leaves us with all kinds of questions. We know David’s story, and we know enough about people and human nature that we should be a little suspicious. Throughout history, people in power have used religion to push their own agenda. Over the past several years, we’ve watched in horror as some groups of people have pursued what they call righteousness through evil actions. So, while it appears that David wants to honor God, the statement leaves us wondering. (At least, it leaves me wondering). Might the king also want to build a house for God as a way to honor himself? After all, he’d be forever known as the one who built such a house. As long as it stood, it would be tied to his memory: an enduring memorial to King David of Israel.

And, why does David consult Nathan? Is it because he really wants to know what the prophet has to say, or is it because he wants a religious blessing for his pet political project? Nathan’s initial answer is a little odd, too. He gives David the blessing that the king wanted to hear without even attempting to consult the Lord about it. What we don’t know is whether this is Nathan’s genuine conviction or if he’s bowing to the will of the king like a good brown-nosing lap-dog. To Nathan’s credit, when God speaks to him—though he didn’t bother seeking the Lord’s counsel on the matter—he has enough courage to deliver the message to the king, even though it’s not a message the king will like.

It begs the question, how could both David and Nathan have misjudged God? They were both people of faith. They both knew Israel’s story. They’d lived parts of it. Yet, despite this, they both got God’s designs wrong. Everyone likes to think that God is on their side. But we, like David and Nathan, are prone to misjudging God’s character and purposes.

We should, perhaps, be a little hesitant to link God’s purposes with our own political agendas, like David, or our religious agendas, like Nathan. That doesn’t mean we should never act. But it means that, while we act in good faith, we keep an open heart and mind to the movements of a God whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts.

I tend to wonder where and how God is moving now. And, I wonder in what ways our human agendas and aspirations, however noble they might look, might be hindering the things God wants to do. One thing I think we should always expect from God is the unexpected. Another thing we can expect is that, if we do manage to get in the way, God will work around us. At the same time, God is good enough to post WRONG WAY signs on our path, extend forgiveness, mercy and grace, and invite us to come along with God again.

That’s what happens in this story about David. God’s response to David comes as a warning. The first oracle reminds David about God’s character and freedom. God neither needs nor desires a permanent dwelling, as if God could be contained. “You are not the one to build the temple for me to live in. In fact, I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?” (2 Sam. 7:5c-7 CEB).

One of the verbs used in verses 6 and 7 is (הָלַךְ) halak which is move, travel, walk. The Lord has always been a God on the move. Wherever God’s people were located, that’s were God could be found. Abram was at Haran when God told him to set out for the land God would show him. God didn’t wait for Abram to get to Canaan, God sought Abram out in another land. That verb, halak, is one of self-determination. God chooses where God will go, no one chooses for God. The Lord’s message to David is that God is the one who did the walking and moving about in the wilderness. God says, I brought…, I have been traveling…, my traveling….

The same verb is found in Genesis 3:8 where God walked through the Garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve who had hidden themselves. God goes where God wills, and God walks where we are. One of the problems with David’s decision to build a temple is that David is choosing for God. David is attempting to take away God’s self-determination, God’s ability to walk where God chooses to walk. David’s trying to contain God in one place: and since David is choosing the place, it becomes a place which David can control. But how do you contain the uncontainable and control what can’t be controlled? God tells David, I don’t need your house.

That leads to the question God asks in verse 7, Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?” (CEB). Here, the king is reminded that God was with Israel long before David lived. If God didn’t need Moses, or Aaron, or Miriam, or Joshua, or Caleb, or Deborah to build a permanent temple as a dwelling, then God doesn’t need David to do it either. If God wants someone to build a temple, God will be the initiator of that project.

This part of the warning reminds David that, though he is king of Israel, he’s still a little human being who needs to remember his place in God’s kingdom. God will not be controlled. God will not be domesticated. God will not be contained. God’s sovereignty and self-determination will not be infringed upon by a mere human. When God decides to have a temple built, it’ll be God’s choice, not David’s.

The second oracle changes significantly in tone. Instead of, “This is what the Lord says” (1 Samuel 7:5 CEB), it changes to “This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says” (1 Samuel 7:8 CEB). Instead of addressing David intimately, God speaks as one who holds the power of heaven’s armies. David gets an earful of a reminder about where he came from and how he got where he is now. God made David king. God took David from the pasture and following the flock. God has been with David wherever he has gone. God chose to walk with David and set him up as king over Israel. God is the one who gave David victory over his enemies and who settled David in his house. It’s God who will make David’s name great.

What’s more, God reminds David that it isn’t only him whom God favors, but all of Israel. The Lord says, “I’m going to provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so that they may live there and no longer be disturbed. Cruel people will no longer trouble them, as they had been earlier, when I appointed leaders over my people Israel” (2 Samuel 7:10-11 CEB). Then, God turns the tables completely. Instead of David building God a house, God will make David a house—a dynasty—that will last forever. Sometimes we forget that God has plans, too. God is way ahead of us in the planning stages and, more often than not, God’s plans surprise us.

Something else we should note about the books of First and Second Samuel themselves, is that the texts weren’t compiled during the days of David and Nathan. They were compiled during the years of exile in Babylon when there was no king of David’s line settled anywhere resting from their enemies. There was no temple; it had already been destroyed. It would have been important for the people living in that exile to hear that God might not be confined to the ruins of a building located in Jerusalem. That was actually a prominent theme of Ezekiel, whose visions described God moving about in a chariot with omnidirectional wheels rising up from Jerusalem and moving across the earth. The claim that God’s presence cannot be contained opens the possibility that God is there with the exiles, too.

Think about it this way: The exile to Babylon called God’s power into question. If God couldn’t prevent something as horrible as the exile from happening, then maybe God didn’t have a whole lot of power after all. Yet, the claim that God’s covenant is forever opens the possibility that God’s promises would continue after the exile ended. The exile also made people wonder if God really cared about them. It made them wonder if God had heartlessly turned against them. (We tend to think that way, too, when tragedy happens). But this story’s claim that grace was God’s answer to David’s arrogance—that grace is God’s answer to all human arrogance—suggests that God will always act in a way that redeems and saves.

Here, a people who were in the hell of exile, sought alternative answers to their questions about God’s power and love. When the evidence before them suggested that they might as well give up on God, they began to look at the world in a different way. Instead of forcing the world—or God—to conform to their already-made answers about what God should be doing and how God should have acted, they opened themselves to new ways of understanding how God works in the world, and how God’s love is made known.

As we approach Christmas Day, I want to leave us with a few questions:

What are our assumptions about what is pleasing to God, and how might God be nudging the church to move in new and unthought-of directions?

What are the ways that we—like David—seek to enshrine and confine God?

How receptive are we to the idea that God acts in ways that catch us by surprise?

This holy day we’ll celebrate tonight and tomorrow is just such a surprise. God was born as a human being to be Emmanuel—God With Us—which was, I might add, a most unexpected move on God’s part. The mother of God was a peasant woman in a backwater town in a backwater region of a mighty empire. Yet, this birth moved the whole world in a new direction.

I might add as a final note that one of the most significant verses of the New Testament, John 1:14, says, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14a CEB). A better translation might say, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled” or “tented, among us.” It’s a reference to the tent in which God traveled with Israel long ago. Jesus Christ became the new tent in which God moves, walks, and travels among us. It’s a reminder that when God came to be Emmanuel, it wasn’t to sit idly in a permanent home or human kingdom. Jesus told us that “Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 & Luke 9:58 CEB).

God came to walk with us. God came to move among us and, importantly, to get us moving in ways we might not have imagined.

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


Good News | 3rd Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1 The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the LORD to glorify himself. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.

8 I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. 9 Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD.

10 I surely rejoice in the LORD; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom in a priestly crown, and like a bride adorned in jewelry. 11 As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations. (CEB)

Good News

 These verses from Isaiah express themes of mission, righteousness, and salvation. Of course, my first questions are about what those words mean and how we, as the church, are to apply them. Sometimes, the definitions we assume don’t quite jive with what the Scriptures say. We like to narrow things, pare them down to Cliff’s Notes, so we can get the gist without having to dig deep or think too much. Honestly, it’s easier that way. It’s simpler not to have to wrestle with hard truths. If we can get the basics figured out, then we can assume we’re all set.

The problem with this kind of faith—I’ll call it lazy faith—is that we miss out on the life-giving richness the Scriptures offer to us, and the way it can shape and reshape our lives and our community.

Let’s take the idea of salvation as an example. What is salvation? Most people think it’s getting into heaven. It’s about making the cut. I think most of us are fairly comfortable with our level of commitment and aren’t too concerned about not making it in to heaven. I mean, if there’s any question on judgment day, we’ll just plead “Jesus” and God will let us in.

Yet, we conveniently overlook the words of Jesus in Matthew 7, “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong,’” (7:18-23 CEB), and Luke 6:46, where Jesus asks a simple question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?” (CEB).

There is, undoubtedly, an ethical component to salvation. That ethical component is found throughout the Scriptures. Every place where judgment is mentioned in the New Testament, we’re told that we’ll be judged according to what we’ve done, said, or failed to do. Not once do the Scriptures say that we’ll be judged according to what we believed. There is a tension between belief and action. Our belief in God had better inform our behavior and, more importantly, result in behavior that’s consistent with God’s understanding of right and wrong.

Revelation 14:13 tells us that our “deeds follow” us when we die. Yet, the prevailing notion among Protestant Christians since Martin Luther is that works, deeds, actions, words we speak—however we may want to describe the ethics of how we live—don’t have any bearing on whether we’re saved or not. That’s why Luther wanted to throw the book of James out of the Bible. Luther preached salvation by faith alone. But the only place the phrase “faith alone” is found in the entire Bible is James 2:24, where James tells us, “So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone,” (CEB). One of my professors used to say, “Faith alone and fifty-cents will get you a cup of coffee in the coffee shop of you-know-where.”

I think the price of coffee has gone up a bit since then.

It is God’s grace that saves us—God’s extension of love, mercy, and forgiveness to us, God’s incredible desire to be with us—but how we live, our ethics, matter to God. To think otherwise is to ignore what God tells us over and again. Verse 8 of our text tells us that God loves justice and hates robbery and dishonesty. What God loves and despises about our behavior matters.

To tack in another direction, the word salvation is something that’s difficult to nail down. It’s one of those churchy-religious words that we use but don’t quite get. We struggle with what it means. It may be helpful to know that saved also means healed. The forms of the Greek word σώζω (sodzo) which are often translated in our Bibles as “save” and “saved” are, in different places, also translated as “heal” and “healed.” The Greek word for salvation, σωτηρία (soteria), can mean deliverance or preservation from impending physical death, as well as salvation in the sense of a mystical future reality (which is that whole Heaven and Hell thing).

So, the essence of salvation, or being saved, is healing. The disease from which we are healed, so to speak, is sin and sinfulness: our penchant for choosing and doing things God doesn’t like. Salvation means that our “bent to sinning,” as Charles Wesley called it (c.f. Love Divine, All Loves Excelling) will be healed because of what God has done—and is doing—for us. While salvation is ultimately something God accomplishes, and wants to accomplish for us, we have a part to play. That’s why Paul told us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (c.f. Philippians 2:12).

Another aspect of salvation that we Christians often overlook is that it’s meant to be, in part, a quality of life that we experience here, now, which reflects God’s desires for our community. In Isaiah 61, salvation is good news. It’s justice instead of oppression, healing of the brokenhearted, liberty for the captives, release of the prisoners, and a proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor and vindication. It’s comfort and providence for those who mourn. Garlands instead of ashes. Praise instead of discouragement.

This all points to community as God desires. The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, which was every fiftieth year. It’s when slaves and indentured servants were set free. Property sold had to be returned to the ancestral owners, and everyone had to return home to their family property. It was supposed to be a complete reset of the Israelite economy, and it was meant to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor in ways that led to injustice and disparity. The word liberty here means more than freedom. In the context of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, it’s a complete socioeconomic reconfiguration. It was God’s reset button on the kind of wealth accumulation that led to oppression and injustice in Israelite society which led to a destruction of God-intended community.

Salvation is described as a restored city and an abundant garden. This isn’t a vision of pie in the sky after we die. While Christian theology does speak of a future reality of salvation, the Christian community is supposed to look like a reflection of that future reality in the present. We’re invited to participate in salvation-style living right now. Jubilee is what Jesus came to proclaim. That was his mission, and it’s the mission of those who follow him.

Remember when Jesus visited his hometown synagogue in Nazareth? “The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it,’” (Luke 4:17-21 CEB).

Jesus came to make every year a year of the Lord’s favor. His good news is that we can live out salvation even in a world that’s still broken. We can. And we do it by living our mission in our community.

That brings us to another term we need to re-examine. What is mission? First, it might help to dispel a common incorrect understanding of mission. Mission isn’t only something that goes out from the church, whether it’s money or people sent as missionaries for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners. Mission is also something that defines the church, in that we exist for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners.

Mission isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are. It’s our identity. Throughout the Scriptures, God tells us over and over that God is deeply concerned for the least, the poor, the oppressed, the broken, the captive, the weak. Shouldn’t we reflect that concern, too? The church exists for mission. Church is not an end unto itself. If we think we’re here only for ourselves and what we can take away from the sermon to get us through the week, we’re severely missing the point of what Jesus came to do. We aren’t here to maintain a building, or run programs, or fellowship with like-minded individuals. We’re here to be the mission of the anointed one—the Messiah. Our building, our programs, and our fellowship should serve and support that mission.

But, when Christians only exist as people who are divided, who are judgmental, who fight amongst ourselves, who exclude others, we’ll fail to be the mission of Jesus Christ no matter how much money we throw at ministries, and no matter how many missionaries we send.

We’re here to live as Jesus Christ lived. Which means we’re here “to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn,” (Isaiah 61:1-2 CEB). The church exists so that we can be the kind of missional force that transforms the world here and now by being a reflection of the Kingdom of God that’s coming.

When we do that, when we are that, the world will take notice. And the result will be joy. Not some superficial happiness, but deep and abiding joy; like wedding-day level stuff with brides and grooms dressed and ready. Our mission is righteousness. When our community faithfully lives as the mission of God, God causes transformation to happen all over the place. When mission is authentically lived, this stuff spreads. Good news is worth sharing and, when others see it, they know it’s worth emulating.

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


The Advent | 1st of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you 2 like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence.

3 When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. 4 From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! 5 You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. 6 We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. 7 No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin.

8 But now, LORD, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand. 9 Don’t rage so fiercely, LORD; don’t hold our sins against us forever, but gaze now on your people, all of us. (CEB)

The Advent

When I go to the grocery store, I usually walk down the entire checkout row to find the shortest line. I don’t like to wait. It makes me wonder how I ever survived the days of rotary-phone dialing, and dial-up internet when it took ten minutes to load up a single webpage.

And I’m not the only one. Waiting isn’t something that any of us like to do. Oh, sure, there are people who don’t mind waiting so much, but I’m not one of them. And it’s not like any of us seek to wait. That’s why I think the Black Friday shoppers who camp out at store entrances are crazy. Seriously, think about what they’re doing. They’re waiting in line so they don’t have to wait in line when the store actually opens. Who thinks that’s a logical idea?

Right now I’m waiting for five books to be published so I can read them. They’re already pre-ordered, and they’ll be at my door the day they’re released. But they’re all sequels, and I want to read them now. I don’t want to wait. Waiting is not on my list of virtues.

I don’t know that it’s on anyone’s list, quite honestly. We are a people of hurried, if not instant, gratification. We don’t even want to wait for Christmas to get here. Ask any kid and they’ll tell you, “I can’t wait until Christmas!” and they mean it! I think some kids would rather hunt Santa Claus down than wait for him to show up at their house.

It’s no wonder that Advent is not a very popular season on the Christian calendar. Some of us would prefer to skip Advent and get right to Christmas. We want these four Sundays to get out of our way so we can get to the Christmas family gatherings, the food, the candy, and the presents!

What’s Advent about, anyway? Why does it feel like some ogre-saint of old put this season in the way to block our path to Christmas joy? What’s this inconvenient season even doing here? Can’t we just shove it aside? Why do we have to bother with Advent?

I don’t like to wait, and yet, Advent is one of my favorite seasons on the Christian calendar. I think it’s one of my favorites because, in part, Advent tries to teach us how to do the very thing I don’t like to do. Advent tells us to learn how to wait.

In Isaiah 64, the prophet laments this very thing. Terrible stuff was going on all around the people of Israel. Horrible things were happening to them. They were waiting for God to act, to intervene, to get involved. But God wasn’t appearing. For Isaiah, this became an active waiting. He cried out, he prayed, he looked, he searched. The people suffered in exile, their cities had been laid waste, their Temple where they once worshiped the Lord had been burned to the ground. And still they waited for God to appear. But waiting is hard.

He cried out for God to come down, to make God’s presence known and felt, to do awesome deeds of power like God did in ages past. Isaiah remembered what God had done and cried out for God to show up again. After all, no one has ever heard or seen any God besides the Lord. Isaiah confessed that God works for those who wait, and meets those who do what is right and who remember God’s ways.

But something had gone wrong.

Isaiah looked around him and saw abandonment. From his point of view, God had simply stopped showing up. His prayer turns in a direction that sounds surprising to us. Isaiah acknowledged Israel’s sin, but claimed that God, too, must share some of the blame. Isaiah said, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

How can human beings not sin when God is absent? How can we possibly do what is right when God hides from us? God can’t brush these sinful people off for this very reason: God’s absence initiates sin in human community! We might be sinners, but when God disappears, we sin more!

Now, what we need to understand about Isaiah’s prayer is that Isaiah is not saying this in order to excuse the people’s sin. He’s not passing the buck by blaming God. Rather, Isaiah is trying to make the claim that God has a stake in them as a people. He’s trying to motivate God to act in a redemptive manner on behalf of the people whom God took for God’s own self and made God’s own inheritance.

It’s like marriage. When Joy and I got married, I knew that I was hers and she was mine: the good, the bad, and everything in-between.

Isaiah fully acknowledges the people’s sin. He admits that they’re unclean, that their righteousness is like a menstrual rag in need of washing. He admits that the people have turned away, that no one calls upon God’s name or attempts to hold on to God. God’s face is hidden.

Isaiah describes the punishment the people are currently enduring as a result of their own iniquity. They are reaping the consequences of their sin. He says, “You have melted us into the hand of our iniquity,” (Isaiah 64:7d my translation).

This is what we chose, and so this is what you allowed us to have. The guilt of the people, Isaiah suggests, is a guilt so insidious, so all-encompassing that it engulfs and overwhelms both Israel and God.

Then Isaiah says, “But now, Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are all the work of your hand,” (Isaiah 64:8 CEB). Isaiah is trying to remind the Lord that Israel has a claim upon God because they are FAMILY. The Lord made Israel what they are: children of God. So the Lord is bound by an irrevocable covenant to act on Israel’s behalf. God cannot abandon them. The relationship between God and Israel requires God to act.

Gaze now on your people,” Isaiah says. God cannot, God will not let the people be wiped out any more than a loving parent would abandon their own child to death, or a potter shatter the prized work of their hands. God must act. Isaiah knows it, and Isaiah is waiting. He’s even screaming his head off about it, God, I’m waiting!

When I read this, I hear Isaiah’s longing and Isaiah’s anguish. I hear Isaiah’s prayer, and I find that it echoes my own prayers of late. I read the news reports where men, women, and children are being slaughtered. I read about so-called “honor killings,” rape, kidnapping, murder, sexual slavery, and violence against women and girls. School children are murdered in classrooms here, and kidnapped from classrooms in other lands. Captive girls are sold as brides. Children are gunned down by police officers. Nations play power games by inciting violence in other nations. And the lives of people who, like any of us, just want to live are destroyed.

And I find myself asking God, Where are you? How long will you let this go on? Get up off your couch, rouse yourself and get involved! If you’re going to hide away from us, of course this is going to be the result! Where are you, God? I’ve prayed this prayer because I feel helpless. I feel abandoned. And it seems to me that only God can fix this.

It sounds like an impertinent prayer. But it’s a prayer that I learned from reading the Psalms. My heart echoes the words of Psalm 44, “No, God, it’s because of you that we are getting killed every day—it’s because of you that we are considered sheep ready for slaughter. Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Get up! Don’t reject us forever! Why are you hiding your face, forgetting our suffering and oppression? Look: we’re going down to the dust; our stomachs are flat on the ground! Stand up! Help us! Save us for the sake of your faithful love,” (Psalm 44:22-26 CEB).

It’s a prayer of desperate need for God’s presence.

And yet, I must acknowledge that I, too, am guilty. Even in this community at First UMC, I haven’t loved as well as I ought to love. I haven’t cared as I ought to care. I haven’t always been the father or husband I ought to be. And those are just a few of my sins of omission.

When we’re surrounded by such violence, injustice, and oppression it’s easy to forget that God is with us. It’s easy to forget that God has torn open the heavens and come down. The Word became flesh, the Son became a human being in order to be Emmanuel: God with us. The Holy Spirit has been poured out and is with us in the midst of everything. God is with us.

Advent is a season of waiting. It’s about how we wait, hope, and watch. It’s been almost two-thousand years since Christ was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, but still we wait for the fullness of God’s Kingdom to come. We await Christ’s return and the day when every wrong that has ever been shall be set aright.

In the meantime, Isaiah reminds us that our waiting is an active endeavor. This kind of waiting requires action. It requires that we seek God.

Advent reminds us to seek the Lord. But it tries to do so in the midst of the very weeks of the year when we’re encouraged to go crazy. It’s the season in which our culture invites us to—in some sense—lose control and lose patience. It’s a season of excess.

We need to seek God, but it requires action on our part. It takes active waiting where we watch and hope with joy. We are God’s people, and God has torn open the heavens and come down to us. God is here. But God’s presence is not always what we expect.

Advent invites us to wait as Isaiah waited: to wait with action. Like Lent, Advent is a time to renew our dedication to God and the disciplines of the faith. We are invited to grow closer to God; to pray, to seek, to study, to search, and to serve others. It’s the Christian New Year, so make a resolution. Christmas will be here soon enough, and the Kingdom of God is on its way. Let’s wait for the arrival of both with action by loving and caring for others.

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


The Sheep and the Goats | Proper 29

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.” (CEB)

The Sheep and the Goats

This last of the four Advent Parables in Matthew tells of Jesus’ return and the ensuing judgement of the world. Christ the King Sunday gives us permission to hold an early celebration of the universal rule and reign of God and the coming Kingdom of Heaven. I say it’s an early celebration because, while the kingdom is here in part, the kingdom is not yet here fully. While no earthly power can match the power of the reigning Lord, we’re reminded that much is yet promised. Right now, we live in a sort of interim—a time between the times.

The surprising thing Jesus teaches here, which really shouldn’t be a surprise for those who’ve been listening, is that the King of Kings is revealed to us among the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. That notion still tends to surprise us even though Jesus was notorious for welcoming prostitutes and other stigmatized sinners into the kingdom of Heaven and telling those who presumed themselves to be righteous that they could go to Gehenna. The judge who sits on the throne surprises because the judgments of Jesus are unlike ours.”

One thing that strikes me every time I read this Great Judgement passage is that neither the blessed nor the accursed realize anything about what they had done or failed to do: they’re all surprised! When Jesus calls the blessed into the kingdom and tells them, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matt. 25:35-36 CEB), their response will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

When Jesus commands the accursed to get away from him he’ll say, “I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me,’” (Matt. 25:42-43 CEB). The response from those who are accursed also will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

How is it that neither the blessed nor the accursed came to realize what they were and were not doing? I think part of the answer has to do with habit. When a practice becomes habit we often fail to realize that we do the practice. When I’m lost in thought I often pick my lip with my finger. Sometimes, when I unconsciously raise my hand to my mouth in an act of deep contemplation, my thoughts will be suddenly interrupted as Joy smacks my hand away from my mouth and says, “Stop picking your lip.”

When children are learning to tie their shoes they often begin with difficulty, but with practice they can learn to tie their shoes without even thinking about it. When was the last time any of you tried to tie your shoes and had to think it through? It’s just habit: something we can do with our eyes closed.

It seems as though the accursed became so hard, so callous, so indifferent, and their religion so apathetic, that they never recognized the fact that Jesus identifies with other people in love. The accursed closed their ears to Jesus’ command that we act toward others in sincere deeds of compassion—that we take care of each other. The people who were among the goats were not necessarily ignorant concerning Jesus, but they were surprised to discover—just as the blessed were surprised to discover—that they had met Jesus many times along the way and didn’t recognize him in the faces of the poor, downtrodden, and rejected.

Again, the difference between the blessed and the accursed was how they acted toward others. Apparently, the accursed had never developed their faith or love of God beyond their first confession of believing in Christ. Their faith became an empty and dead faith—empty ritual and correct creed—instead of a full and living faith. And while there’s nothing wrong with ritual or creed—which can be wonderful and deeply powerful expressions of faithfulness—there is a problem when we separate Jesus from what we do: when ritual and creed—when faith itself—become empty and removed from Jesus Christ. A citizen of Heaven must be more than this.

For the blessed their habit was doing. Their habit was living out their faith so that it permeated into every part of their being. In Matthew 13:33 we’re told, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough” (Matt. 13:33 CEB). A little yeast permeates throughout, and leavens the entire loaf. As Christians, as citizens of the Kingdom our faith cannot merely be viewed as a part of our lives. Our faith must become our life! Our faith must permeate throughout every part of our being. It should affect us in all that we do, and cause the practice of our faith to become our habit. This habit, however, can only come about with practice.

Practice forms habit. The two go hand in hand. We have to practice our faith in order to allow it to work its way into every aspect of our lives, or we will end up like the accursed do and allow not doing to become our habit. Doing nothing, after all, is the easiest habit to form. It is called sloth.

Some people have taken what Paul said about Justification by faith and twisted it a little too much. We need to understand that Paul was saying that we’re justified by faith, not works of the Jewish Law. He never wrote against the loving, mercy-giving, and justice-seeking works we Christians ought to be doing. If he had, he would have been teaching something in direct opposition to Jesus.

Paul was saying that circumcision, sacrifice, and dietary customs—some of the concerns of the Law of Moses—will not save you. Sometimes we fail to make this distinction between those specific works of the Law and works of love, mercy, and justice. It’s not unheard of for Christians to accept a lazy theology in which we think that because we believe in Jesus and have faith we’re all set. Anyone who falls into this kind of thinking misses the point of being a Christian: serving God through being servants of each other and the world, loving God and neighbor. Our faith is missional by design.

After Jesus washed the feet of the disciples he commanded them to wash each others’ feet. When Paul wrote down those words about how we’re justified by grace through faith in his Epistles to the Galatians and the Romans, he wasn’t sitting on his couch. He was out ministering to an empire! Paul went on three missionary journeys that we know about as Luke recorded in The Acts of the Apostles. He traveled almost Ten Thousand miles preaching the Gospel throughout Asia Minor, Greece, Cyprus, and Italy. He mentioned in one of his letters that he would like to go to Spain to preach Christ there.

Paul’s the one who said, “I’m in trouble if I don’t preach the Gospel,” (1 Corinthians 9:16b CEB). He knew that if he wasn’t living out his faith in what God had commanded of him then he wasn’t living. This is why James wrote, “As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead,” (Jas. 2:26 CEB). Or as the late Rich Mullins once wrote, “faith without works is like a song you can’t sing… it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

Our faith grows and is built up not by saying ‘I believe,’ but by what we do with the Gospel, this rich treasure that God has given us. Faith grows out of our experience. Saying ‘I believe’ is only the beginning of faith, not the end. If we have faith in Jesus Christ our actions should be those that please and honor God—by doing no harm, doing good, acting out of love and charity, working for the sake of mercy and justice. It’s when we do these things that we’re proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our actions.

Jesus Christ tells us, in no uncertain terms, that he identifies himself with the poor. Christ places himself among the least, the poor, the marginalized, the needy, and the oppressed, even prisoners justly convicted of crimes. In other words, we should recognize Christ in people who are on the fringes of society because that’s one place where Christ, undoubtedly, is.

We see this throughout the Gospels as Jesus touches the untouchables, loves the unloved, and gives hope to the hopeless. Jesus came into this world as a poor Jew. He lived among the poor and oppressed every day. He suffered among them. He was judged by them. He shared in their pain and agonies. In Matthew 25 Jesus says, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me,” (Matt. 25:40 CEB).

What we do to and for others is what we do to Christ because Jesus identifies with each one of us, and especially with the poor. In the same way, when we fail to do for others, we fail to do for Christ.

How different would the world be if every time we saw a person we recognized Jesus in that person? How would the world be different if every professed Christian saw his or her Lord in the face of every person they encountered in their every day? “Lord, when did we see you?” “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matt. 25:40 CEB). This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

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

The Valuable Coins | Proper 28

Matthew 25:14-30

14 “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. 15 To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

16 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

19 “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

22 “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

24 “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? 27 In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. 28 Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. 29 Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. 30 Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’

“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. (CEB)

The Valuable Coins

This is the third of the four advent parables in Matthew. This parable, like the previous ones, also emphasizes in its own way the delay of the Kingdom of God. Jesus really wanted people to understand that, while the kingdom of God is indeed coming, the time of its arrival is completely unknown to us. We, therefore, need to be ready for it to come immediately, but also be prepared for the possibility of delay.

It is important to note that the valuable coins, often translated as a talent, is a very large sum of money: about fifteen years’ wages for a typical worker. It is perhaps unfortunate that it’s been called a talent for so long, because it tempts us to confuse this with the ordinary definition of talent and leads to a common misinterpretation of this parable.

Often times, this parable is taken as an encouragement to discover what gifts and talents we all have, and to use them for God. Taken this way, the parable teaches that everybody has a talent; some have many, others have a few, but all of us have at least one. Maybe one’s talent is playing the piano, or perhaps it’s the gift of hospitality or the skill of organization, or playing quarterback, or point guard. Regardless of how many talents we may have, and whatever those talents may be, God wants us to use them wisely and not waste them. So goes the conventional interpretation.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the idea of using our talents to glorify God. Indeed, we ought to use our God-given talents in that way. But that idea alone is much too tame for this parable. The parable is not a gentle tale about what Christians should do with our individual gifts and talents, as helpful as that may be. Really, it’s a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ—as they wait for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The first two servants are called “good and trustworthy” because they set out immediately to work with the treasure entrusted to them. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this treasure is the gospel—the teachings of Jesus—and these two “good and faithful” servants symbolize all wise and faithful disciples who hear Jesus’ words and act on them. The third servant is called “evil and lazy” because he’s a living embodiment of Jesus’ warning that “everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built his house on sand,” (Matthew 7:26).

The reason it’s good and faithful to act on the gospel is not simply that Jesus said so and the disciples need to learn to be obedient and to follow orders. Living out the truth of the Gospel—living lives of mercy, peace, and forgiveness—is wise because the future belongs to God. Mercy, peace, and forgiveness are the values of God’s kingdom. The master will return. The promised Kingdom is coming. And its advent will render all the false values of this age—the accumulation of power, wealth, status, and possessions—obsolete.

Sometimes we look back on the anger, the harshness, the indifference toward others in our past and say, if I had only known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have treated anyone like that. One purpose of this parable is to say that we can know now what we will know in the future. What will stand at the end is the gospel. One might call it true wisdom to live out God’s future, today.

So, the parable is about wise and foolish disciples—those who live the gospel now, and those who don’t. But the parable also cuts in another direction. It is not only a story about the moral character of disciples, but also about the moral character of God. What kind of God do we serve? The voice of the one-talent servant is trembling and full of fear: “Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid,” (Matt. 25:24-25 CEB).

The thing is, at this point in the parable there is no basis whatsoever for this kind of depiction of the master. Quite to the contrary, the master has entrusted his servants with vast sums of money, not just for a night or two but for an extended period of time. Moreover, in a culture where servants were expected to do their duty without receiving praise, pats on the back, brass plaques, or trophies, this master astonishingly gives them extravagant tribute, increased authority, and apparently, with the words, “Come celebrate with me,” he welcomes them into his home as members of the family. There’s even the implication that he lets them keep the money entrusted to them along with all the profits they made.

In other words, everything in the story leads us to see the master as an extraordinary person—trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent. That’s the way the first two servants view him, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so free to risk and act, and that’s the way the master conducts himself. Clearly the one-talent servant has badly misjudged the master, distorting the master into a tough, uncaring tyrant, and has acted accordingly.

When the master finds out that this servant has buried the money entrusted to him and why, the master responds, “You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest,” (Matt. 25:26-27 CEB). This reply exposes the one-talent servant even more. Even if the one-talent servant missed all the trust, joy, and generosity in his master, he could still have done a little low-risk investing.

However, the man’s problem with the master goes deeper. He viewed the master as evil, not just tough. In this servant’s twisted mind, the master is so pernicious that there’s no room whatsoever for freedom or responsible action; only paralysis. He’s so afraid of this terrible master that the only choice left to him is to shove the talent back as soon as possible and have nothing to do with this master that he perceives as a spiteful tyrant.

We may know people like this. I remember that one of my fraternity brothers thought God was out to get him. He thought God was some big ogre in the sky who was trying to send everyone to hell. I don’t know that I ever convinced him otherwise, but I sure tried to talk about the loving God that I know whenever he would listen.

The tragic news of this parable is that the one-talent servant pronounces his own judgment. He gets the master he believes he serves; he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see. In theological terms, he gets the peevish little tyrant god he believes in.

The story is not about a generous master suddenly turning cruel and punitive; it’s about living with the consequences of one’s own faith. If we trust the goodness of God, we can boldly venture out with eyes wide open to the wonder of grace in our life, we can discover the joy of God’s providence everywhere. But to be the child of a generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, despite this, to insist upon viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear-provoking, is to live a life that is tragically impoverished.

There is a kind of theological economy at work here. For those people who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous, they find more and more of that generosity everywhere they look; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed alone, quivering in needless fear. Verse 29 sums up the whole parable, “Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them,” (CEB).

God is a God of deep love, generous beyond measure. We’ve been given a Gospel—Good News—about salvation through Jesus Christ. This isn’t something we bury in the ground, but something we shout from the mountain tops. God has given us a great treasure—God’s only Son—so we could be redeemed from the power of sin and live forever with God. It’s something we ought to joyously celebrate and share with everyone we know.

When our master returns, what will we have to say? Will we dig up our talent and say, I didn’t want to bother with all this, here’s your gift back. Or will we say, Here’s what you have given me, and I’ve made this much more!

We don’t know when our master will return, and it’s not our job to worry about the timing of Jesus’ Second Advent. The kingdom may come before our worship service is finished, or it may not come until my great-great-grandchildren are all in their 90s. Our job isn’t to worry about when. Our job is to work for God’s kingdom until the master returns and we finally see our trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent master face-to-face.

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


The Day of the Lord | Proper 27

Amos 5:18-24

18 Doom to those who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or sought refuge in a house, rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Isn’t the day of the LORD darkness, not light; all dark with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. 22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food– I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. 23 Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.

24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (CEB)

The Day of the Lord

I took Old Testament Prophets with Dr. Louis Stulman at The University of Findlay, and Amos was the first book we covered. When I tell people that Amos is one of my favorite books of the Bible, it’s passages like this one that might make them ask, “Why?”

For one thing, I like the guy’s style. The dude can preach. He doesn’t care if the message is unpopular, when God gives him something to say, he says it without holding back. And, Amos has the coolest similes and metaphors: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

For another, Amos has a way of irritating us that can’t be denied. Jesus had the same habit of irritating people. The problem with religious people is that, little by little, we forget the enthusiasm we once had and slip into various degrees of apathy. If Amos’s words do annoy us, it should give us pause to consider whether we’ve come to accept that apathy as normal and okay.

Honestly, apathy needs a little irritating. Sometimes we need to hear a challenge to our comfortable status quo, or have our feathers ruffled, or get our underwear in a twist. If we need a spiritual wedgie, Amos is ready to provide. If the kingdom of God is to come, then God’s people need to hear Amos’s challenge and get busy.

Let me tell you a little about Amos. He was a street preacher. He was a shepherd and trimmer of sycamore trees who went from his home of Tekoa, probably the one in Judah, to the capital of Israel to tell them they were worshipping and living wrong. For some perspective, we might appreciate that about as much as a migrant agricultural worker from Mexico traveling to Washington D.C. to tell the American people off. To get the people’s attention, he started out by preaching against all of Israel’s enemies, even his homeland of Judah. You can almost hear the people saying, Yeah! God’s gonna bring the hammer on ‘em.

Then, suddenly, Amos turned on Israel. And he kept going for seven more chapters. It was a scathing indictment, but Amos had their attention. In fact, Amos 5 begins this way: “Hear this word—a funeral song—that I am lifting up against you, house of Israel:” (Amos 5:1 CEB). This is doom and gloom. This is apocalypse. And Amos voices the rage of God against a people who should have known better.

The Kingdom of Israel broke away from Judah and the kings of David’s line because of Solomon’s corruption. For a wise guy, he did some really stupid things, and God told Jeroboam that he would take ten tribes from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, and give them to Jeroboam because the people had abandoned God under Solomon’s reign (c.f. 1 kings 11:26-39). They broke away from Judah so they could be faithful to God. They rejected Solomon’s innovation of worshipping only in the Jerusalem Temple for the older shrines of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha at Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba (c.f. Amos 5:4-6).

Roughly 170 years after they broke away, Israel had slipped into unfaithfulness and apathy for what’s right. Prosperity and comfort can do that to people. The wealthy had grown wealthier, and the poor had grown poorer. The Kingdom of Israel was at the height of its prosperity and power. The King at the time of Amos’s preaching, Jeroboam II, had pushed the boundaries of the kingdom out to an extent larger than any previous king. By some standards, the kingdom was doing well. They projected a sense of power. King Jeroboam II had made Israel great again.

At the same time, the people were not living out God’s expectations for justice and righteousness. Amos points out that Israel has done things like selling the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, crushing the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pushing the afflicted out of the way. They’d also turned to some business practices that God had outlawed, (c.f. Amos 2:6-8). The wealthy had built lavish summer houses and winter houses with beds of ivory by cheating the weak and crushing the needy (c.f. Amos 3:15-4:1). They’d corrupted the judges against justice, crushed the weak, taxed their grain and used the proceeds to build houses of stone. They’d afflicted the righteous, taken money on the side, and turned away the poor who were seeking help (c.f. Amos 5:10-12).

It’s this lack of justice and righteousness on the part of a people who are supposed to be holy that has the God who made the Pleiades and Orion seething with anger. The people who think they want the Day of the Lord to come might want to get their act together first. The people of Israel likely assumed the Day of the Lord would mean victory for them over every enemy. When God comes in judgment, that judgment will be inescapable. The people seemed to assume that they had nothing to fear on such a day because they were on God’s side.

God, however, seemed to have a different idea. Another prophet, Joel, described the Day of the Lord this way: “Blow the horn in Zion; give a shout on my holy mountain! Let all the people of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is near—a day of darkness and no light, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread out upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes, unlike any that has ever come before them, or will come after them in centuries ahead. In front of them a fire consumes; and behind them a flame burns. Land ahead of them is like Eden’s garden, but they leave behind them a barren wasteland; nothing escapes them,” (Joel 2:1-3 CEB). Joel presents this army as coming for Israel, too. But he also tells them that the people can return to God and live because God is merciful, compassionate, patient, faithful, loving, and ready to forgive (c.f. Joel 2:13).

Joel and Amos both suggest that God is going to judge the world fairly and, whether we’re a part of God’s chosen people or not, our actions of justice and righteousness are what matter to God. If we’re on the wrong side of that, we should expect darkness, not light; gloom and not brightness. We can run, but we’ll be caught. Like a person who fled from a lion only to be met by a bear, or like a person who fled into the safety of a house and rested against the wall only to be bitten by a snake.

Then, Amos tears into Israel’s worship. God says, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps,” (Amos 5:21-23 CEB).

These festivals included the three annual pilgrimage feasts of Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Harvest mentioned in Exodus 23, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 16. The joyous assemblies are the times of festival and breaks from regular work so the people can celebrate and worship God as mentioned in 2 Kings 10:20 and Isaiah 1:13. The offerings of the people no longer please God, and every kind of traditional offering is rejected: the whole burnt offering, the grain offering, and the peace or well-being offering. God even refuses to listen to singing and harp-playing. The Hebrew word used here is the title for the Book of Psalms. God doesn’t want to hear the hymnbook of the Scriptures! And the question is, why?

Earlier in the chapter, Amos mentions three ancient sanctuaries: Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba. Bethel was the site of Abraham’s altar, Jacob’s ladder, it’s where the matriarch Rachel died. It’s where Deborah sat as a Judge, prophet, and administrator over Israel. It’s where Saul went to seek the Prophet Samuel.

Gilgal was where Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan so the people could cross over into the Promised Land. It’s where Samuel had abandoned Saul as king over Israel in favor of David. It’s where Elisha turned poisonous gourds into something edible. Beer-Sheba was where Hagar had her second theophany (Genesis 21:14-20). It’s the site of Abraham’s well and Jacob’s altar. It was where Elijah hid from Jezebel.

These are holy places to Israel. Significant places in the history and life of the people. It almost sounds like God is rejecting Israel’s worship as a whole. But a complete rejection of worship is not the case here. We have to look at the whole of Amos’s message to understand why God has gotten so angry. All those things I mentioned earlier about Amos’s message: cheating, selling, crushing, and pushing away the poor, the needy, and the afflicted tell us that, although the people participated in the correct liturgies, sang their favorite hymns, participated in all the wonderful holy days, and gathered together every Sabbath to worship, that worship didn’t affect how they lived.

In other sermons, I’ve preached about how our worship of God is more than gathering together in this building. Our worship of God is also how we live our everyday lives outside of these walls. How we treat others is our worship of God. What we give to others is our worship of God. How we speak about others is our worship of God. Our everyday actions reflect our worship of God.

At the same time, our worship of God, here, is supposed to shape and influence our everyday actions so that what we do, what we think, what we say, are holy and righteous and just. If it doesn’t… If our worship doesn’t shape and influence us so that we speak and act like God’s people in our everyday, then what’s the point? If we don’t offer ourselves to God when we come here, if we don’t seek a change of heart and mind for ourselves so that we can live according to God’s ways, then we aren’t worshipping as we ought. It’s at that point that coming to this place is pointless.

And, to be clear, any lack of being shaped or changed or influenced to righteousness is not something we can blame on the preacher or the choir or the liturgy or the hymns. Worship in this place is what we, ourselves, give to God. The question we may need to ask is, are we really giving ourselves? The difficulty with any living sacrifice is that, no matter how many times we throw ourselves on the altar, our tendency is try and crawl off before our lives are no longer our own.

Yet, it’s when we give ourselves to God that we worship as we ought because our life, itself, becomes worship. That’s when we live in such a way that justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God wants our actions to be righteous. God wants us to seek justice for those who need it. Our relationships need to be set right.

Amos reminds us that, as much as God loves us–as deeply as God loves us–God also expects certain things from us. In fact, I would argue that God loves us so much that God will not let us ignore justice and righteousness without saying something about it. God speaks strong truth when it needs to be spoken so that we can turn back to God and live lives that are holy, righteous, and just. That’s why Amos preached this stuff. If God didn’t love us, then God probably wouldn’t bother. I would argue that the fact that God speaks these difficult words to us is proof that God does love us.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay