Sunday, October 12, 2014

"The LORD Alone Shall Be Exalted in That Day": A Sermon on Isaiah 2

Sermon on Isaiah 2 (specifically, Isaiah 2:1-5, 12-22); Revelation 6:15-17.  Delivered 12 October 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The second installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah.

When God taught us through the first chapter of Isaiah's beautiful “Fifth Gospel” last month, we saw a strong warning – for Judah and for us today – against a “divided, compartmentalized heart” that tries to “let our Monday-through-Saturday lives come unhinged from our Sunday worship”.  Judah was mired in sin – all mankind is mired in sin – and the only hope is true atonement and true repentance, for “through Jesus, God fought
our red sins with his red blood, to make us white as snow, white as wool, pure from all stain – the color of holiness”.  We remember that:

Whenever we forget our gracious God, whenever we rest on all our Sunday works to cover our faithless weeks, whenever we trample God's courts, whenever we ignore what is right and do what is wrong, whenever we stain our holy unity with the dark red dye of sin, there is and remains hope in Jesus. […] And this same grace of God lays claim to all our days and all our hours, to all our opinions and all our relationships, to all our tasks and all our words. This grace lays claim to all these, to all of each of us, for a purpose: to make them all, from all of us, reflections of the holiness and love of God.

That prophecy gives way to a new oracle, a portrait of the nations finally being eagerly drawn toward God's kingdom.  What we have in the second chapter of Isaiah is not merely some far-off utopia, a scene of things after Christ's return.  No, its perfection may await that long-desired day, but the world of Isaiah 2 lies before us.  We don't have to wait for “the last days”, for we know that “in these last days God has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2).  And what can we say of the true Mount Zion?  Is it only a future reality?  Hebrews 12:22 says, “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”.   What is this great mountain that looms so large in Isaiah's view?

Remember the dream that the prophet Daniel will interpret for Nebuchadnezzar: the great worldly powers are a statue of declining value – gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay – but there comes “a rock cut out, but not by human hands”, which “struck the statue” and so “became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35). This rock, says Daniel, becomes a mountain because “in the times of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed”, which “will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44) – and as Christ, the great Rock, himself said during the days of his earthly ministry, “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). The Mountain is Christ, expanding his kingdom throughout the whole earth: he is the true Mount Zion, the highest of mountains, exalted above all the hills of our petty idols and vain desires.

Jesus Christ, then, is the mountain of the LORD's temple – and is himself the cornerstone of that temple, in union with his people. As Paul says, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16).  Paul asks, “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).  But it is only in Jesus Christ that “the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21). Peter also testifies that, along with the great living Stone who is Christ, we “like living stones are being built into a temple of the Spirit” (1 Peter 2:5).

When Isaiah foresees a grand mountain of the LORD's temple, then, what he sees in the days of the New Covenant is Christ and his kingdom crowned with the church as a holy temple. And “the law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” – that is, in our own day, the message of the gospel will go forth from us, or through us from its heavenly source, and into all the world. That is our calling: to “disciple all nations”, which happens when we go, and when we baptize them into the pure faith in the Triune God, and when we teach them the whole of Christ's doctrine and practice (Matthew 28:19-20).

What is the effect of the gospel spreading through all the earth?  What does it look like when it gets brought to fruition?  God himself will “judge between the nations”, and with God as the Judge to adjudicate all disputes, what need will there be for war?   So “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – swords and spears, the weapons of warfare and good for nothing other than death and destruction, will be permanently useless – and thus “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”.  That is a world that can be achieved only by the gospel-message from the heavenly Zion.  That is a world that can be achieved by the kingdom of God.  And as we watch our world falling apart in warfare all around us, that is a world I want to live in.

The gospel is not a message of war – save in the endless warfare of the Savior against sin itself – for “our struggle is not against flesh and blood”, but rather is against “the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). The gospel is a message of peace, though it may bring a sword in this rebellious world – a sword, not against unbelievers, but wielded by them against us (Matthew 10:34).  And in our day more than ever, that sword is all too sharp and all too active.

We live now in a world where the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State brutally persecutes Christians and many others throughout portions of the Middle East under its control. We live now in a world where the constant strife between Israel and Palestine claims civilian lives on both sides. We live now in a world where Boko Haram still holds countless Nigerian schoolgirls hostage. And who can forget the Syrian civil war, and the ethnic violence in South Sudan, and continuing war in eastern Ukraine, and in places even our twenty-four-hour news cycle hasn't taught us. Nor is it limited to foreign shores: our own soil is stained with blood, brutality, oppression, bitterness, resentment, envy, hatred, discord. Our whole world is sucked into an endless cycle of violence begetting violence, wrath spawning wrath. This is nothing new: the rock in the hand of Cain has filled the earth for far too long. But the Rock of our Salvation came to exhaust all the wrath of evil, so as to fill the earth with a peaceable kingdom – and the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24), crying not for vengeance but for peace through justice and love.

That is the message we're called to proclaim: the gospel of peace, going forth from us, the LORD's temple – not founded upon our own strength or wisdom, but solely and securely upon Christ our Sure Foundation. But just as in Isaiah's day, the hope for Israel and Judah was only through a painful scourging of the wickedness from their midst – salvation always comes through judgment.   Salvation for the Hebrews came only by the ten plagues upon Egypt.  Salvation from false prophets and outward idolatries came only by the pains of exile and return.   Salvation from sin and the idolatries of the heart comes only by the death penalty: by the nailing of the sinful character of Adam in us to the cross, not in our own person, but in the person of Jesus Christ, the Last Adam, whose divine and sinless life made way for him to have God judge our sin in his death: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The old Adam died in the Last Adam's death, that new people in us might live through his risen life.

And ultimately, the salvation of the world will require the judgment of all that is sinful within it.  Either that sin is done away with in Christ's cross, or it remains to be addressed in the judgment that is to come.  There is indeed a day in store when all that is exalted will be humbled, and all human pride will be brought low, and the idols will all disappear, revealing their worthlessness. What we have here is no different than what Mary sang in her beautiful Magnificat, the song of how Christ's birth changes the world: God “has performed mighty deeds with his arm; / he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. // He has brought down rulers from their thrones / but has lifted up the humble. // He has filled the hungry with good things / but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).

God will reverse the fortunes that we have claimed.  What we've claimed for ourselves, we will have to give up; what we've been content to leave in the hands of God, that he will distribute freely.   The day is coming!  Maranatha!  When the LORD rises to shake the earth, the self-exalted have good reason to wish to hide and to throw their idols by the wayside.  But no earthly mountain, no earth-bound rock, can shield anyone from the omnipotent justice of God – no more than any idol can.  There is only one Rock, only one Mountain that offers a true Refuge – because only one Rock, only one Mountain, has already borne all the wrath of God and been raised up to tower over all the hills that shall surely be brought low.  Only in Christ is there hope of salvation – and that is the message that goes forth from God's temple to all the nations.

The gospel out of Zion calls forth with a challenge.  Will we humble ourselves, and let God exalt us in Christ in his due time? Or will we exalt ourselves, and resist vainly that day when God humbles us against our will?  Will we choose gospel humility, or will we cast our lot with the vile idols in their promised humiliation?  Jesus Christ chose humility: though he existed rightfully in all the divine glory, being the eternal Word of God, he emptied himself to take on the indignity of a human servant, and he obeyed his Father's will even in humbling himself all the way to the “slaves' punishment”: a painful, shameful, naked death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

Paul advises us, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Let us not exalt ourselves, let us not boast like the idols of human pride and status, but let us humble ourselves – for just as “God exalted him to the highest place” and made public that Christ bears the name of God himself (Philippians 2:9), so through the humility of faith “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him” (Ephesians 2:6).

We here, living in humble faith, are God's temple, a shining city on a hill – more than a hill, but the highest of mountains, Christ the King.  His kingdom is the mountain of the temple of the LORD, to which all nations must be drawn for the wisdom of God's design for human life.  But how will they learn, if no one tells them?   How can the nations be taught peace – not just mere détente, not just an unsteady truce, but the real peace of holy love – if the instruction of the gospel fails to go forth from Zion?   The message will go nowhere unless this temple sends forth heralds of good news!

Are we here at Pequea EC founded securely upon this mountain and no other?  Are we shining as a temple, bright and unmistakable?   Do we beat our swords into plowshares?   Does the word of the LORD go forth from us into the world that needs so desperately to hear it – not just distant lands, but here in the towns and countryside all around us?  Have we tossed all idols aside to the moles and bats?  Have we humbled ourselves, forsaken our worldly ambitions, and set our minds on things above, where our life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:2)?  Do we in word and in deed, in thought and in attitude, proclaim the exaltation of one and only one name – the name of Jesus Christ?

Christ in us, the peace of the Spirit, is the one and only hope of the world.  That good news is not easy to hear and obey.  It threatens all idols and the self-assured dignity of human pride.  Every high and lofty thing naturally resists this truth in one way or another: spiritual strongholds, governments, political parties, big business, corporate media, the ivory tower, the social elite, sometimes even the church itself. But all the high and lofty things – “all the towering mountains and all the high hills” – will be brought low, and “the LORD alone will be exalted in that day”.

Only our God will stand tall, while all the debris of failed earthly aspirations and crushed worldly boasts settles into holes and joins the rest of the guano where all idols belong.   Jesus Christ is LORD, crowned with many crowns, and he alone will be exalted!  In all our living, in all our working, in all our resting, in all our preaching, in all our teaching, in all our believing, in all our suffering, in all our rejoicing, in all our hoping, in all our loving, may Christ the LORD alone be exalted!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fields White Unto Harvest: A Harvest-Home Sermon

Sermon on Psalm 147:1, 7-14; Matthew 13:3-9, 18-30; John 4:34-38; and Revelation 14:14-15.  Delivered 28 September 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.

Year after year, we and our neighbors sow seeds into the soil beneath our feet – an act of faith in the regularities of God's providence in nature, and in his willingness to bless us with enough to survive.   And year after year, by God's blessing, we reap a harvest.  Some years, the harvest is sparse.  Other years, the harvest is abundant.  So far as I've heard, this year is quite fine: a good harvest, a satisfying harvest, a harvest worth celebrating.   So as we celebrate the Harvest Home, we thank the Lord our God for the fruitfulness of our labor, and for the practical wisdom that comes from his Wisdom, Jesus Christ, and for the Holy Spirit who always bears righteous fruit whenever he's sown in the human heart.

The Old Testament knows of various harvest festivals – some for the grain harvest earlier in the year, some (like the Feast of Tabernacles) for the other harvests later in the year.   Leviticus 23 outlines all of them, and in speaking of the Feast of Weeks, otherwise known as Shavuot or Pentecost, God reminds the Israelites to take extra care not to divorce the joys of harvest from the urgency of love. The farmers were to leave the edges of their crops unharvested and forget all about the dropped portions, so that those without farmland could come to glean.  A portion of every field was reserved for the needy, and Deuteronomy 14 shows us that one of the three Old Testament tithes was specifically to replenish the town food bank for the sake of those very same disadvantaged groups.

Today, we celebrate the Harvest Home, one of our modern harvest festivals alongside Thanksgiving.  The same spirit of Leviticus and Deuteronomy is alive and well here at Pequea, amen?  We know that joy and love go together in the harvest. We know that God doesn't bless us just for our own selves.   He blesses us to bless others.   And from the bounty that God gives us, we find ways to pour more blessings to those in need, through cooperation with ministries like Jars of Hope Food Pantry.  Today we celebrate!   Today we rejoice!  Today is Harvest Home, and we honor God as the Lord of the Harvest, the God of grace – and great is his faithfulness.  Whenever the Bible speaks of the harvesting of crops, this perspective – uniting gratitude and grace – is abundantly clear.

But the Holy Scripture speaks also of another type of harvest, one not administered by mortal hands.  We see it in the Parable of the Weeds, for which the Parable of the Soils sets the stage.   The good news of Christ Jesus is the seed for kingdom wheat – but will it find receptive ground?  Will it find soil too stony to grant it entry at all, or soil so shallow it cannot resist the trials of the heat of life, or soil too preoccupied with the thorns and thistles of worldly prosperity?   Or will it find soil devoted alone to it, soil deep and rich and fertile for the kingdom's growth?   Only then will it bear fruit – thirty times, sixty times, a hundred times over, a yield fit for the kingdom of God.  What has it found in your heart?  In your neighbor's heart, in your brother's and sister's heart, in your wife's or your husband's heart, in your son's and your daughter's heart?  Do their hearts need plowing, fertilizing, and weeding as the gospel-seed is scattered anew?  Take heart: the Spirit is at work in mighty and mightily surprising ways, and the prayers of God's saints here may avail much.  Here, in this story, the evangelistic ministry is planting the gospel seed, and the discipling ministry of preaching and teaching and loving is tending mercifully to the crop – but as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, even in the best soil and under the best farmers' and gardeners' care, all praise and thanks for the growth goes to God alone.

But the Parable of the Weeds – now there's a new complication.  Before, in the Parable of the Soils, the thorny weeds were a pre-existing condition, afflicting the growth of the kingdom within each heart.  Here, the weed is of a different sort: a counterfeit and competitor within the community, within the church.   False wheat.  Poison darnel, the infamous 'tare'.   Looks almost just like the wheat, until the wheat and darnel ripen and make manifest what they each truly are.  In this age, the kingdom-field grows both: true wheat, the sincere believers, and false wheat, growing in the same place, going to the same building, putting food on the table at the same potlucks, listening and teaching in the same classes – but grown, not from gospel-seed, but from another kind.

Are there tares in this sanctuary right now?  Are there tares on our membership rolls?  I don't know.  I hope not, I pray not, but I don't know.  To a great extent, I can't know; if I minister seventy years here, I still may never know, at least not perfectly – that's the point.  The wheat and the tares grow side by side until they ripen and make manifest what they each truly are – “by their fruits, ye shall know them” – at the time of the harvest, the great Harvest-Home of God.  Did we not just sing, “Even so, Lord, quickly come / to Thy final harvest-home”?  At the great Harvest-Home of God, the Judgment of the Last Day, the tares, which proved to not belong to the gospel-seed, receive judgment in the Lord's fire; but the wheat, the true and fruitful wheat, find salvation in the Lord's barn, a mighty refuge in troubled times.

This salvation here is the resurrection to glory, a resurrection of which Jesus Christ is the firstfruits, presented holy to God, as Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 15:20: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, and as it continues, those who belong to him will be made alive when he comes, and then he will destroy all dominion and authority and power that sets itself up against the kingdom of our God – for the tares and their devilish sower shall be no more.   And on that Day, Christ is not just the firstfruits – no, he holds also the sickle, the sharp sickle to lead the reaping of judgment, either for destruction or for salvation.  How near is that Day?  How near is the Great Harvest of Heaven and Earth?  It could be noon today.  It could be next Friday.   It could be next year.   It could be in 2020, or 2040, or yet a thousand years hence.  We don't know that any more than we can pick out a tare from wheat on sight.

But until that day, the Bible speaks of one more harvest.  The great Harvest to come yields final salvation through resurrection and glorification, but the harvest before us now is the evangelistic harvest, which yields initial salvation to be confirmed later in the Judgment-Harvest.   Jesus himself urges us to look at the fields around us.  Look at the white fields of White Horse!   Look at the fields of Gap, of Intercourse, of Blue Ball, of New Holland, of Gordonville, of Honey Brook, of all the land (named and unnamed) around us!   God has been at work in this land, in this township, in this county.  God is no absentee!  He is present, he is vibrant, he is preparing these fields for harvest – so much so that the workers are too few.  There's more harvesting to be done than harvesters actively doing it!   So, says Jesus, pray that the Lord of the Harvest would send more workers for the harvest.  We are those workers, we are called!  Are we harvesting?  Do we see, do we behold the ripeness of the fields around us?

In this season, we celebrate with thanksgiving as we and our neighbors harvest the crops of their fields, sown by human hand, tended by human hand, but grown and blessed by God.  We have much to be thankful for.  But as we harvest the crops of our fields, or as we see the large combines at work, or as we see the crop acreage shrink and shrink as the corn and tobacco come in sector by sector, don't leave your thoughts at a mere earthly level.  These times were appointed for more than that.  Think also of the work set before us – not merely to bring in the crops, but to bring the lost and ready, once they're ripe, to Jesus: a “crop of eternal life”.   The harvest is here, there's reaping to be done, so let's go forth and gather, bringing in the sheaves of souls for the High-Priestly Son to wave before God the Father on high.  And the Harvest-Home of God is coming – maybe far, but maybe near, and always nearby.

Even so, Lord, quickly come / to Thy final harvest-home;
Gather thou thy people in, / free from sorrow, free from sin;
There, forever purified, / in thy presence to abide:
Come, with all thine angels, come, / raise the glorious harvest home. Amen.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Red as Crimson, White as Snow: A Sermon on Isaiah 1

Sermon on Isaiah 1 (specifically, Isaiah 1:1-3, 11-12, 15-18, 25-27); Hebrews 9:11-14.  Delivered 7 September 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The first installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah.

Sometimes, I've wondered what it would be like to live in the world of the Old Testament prophets, or even to be one of those prophets.  When you picture a prophet in Old Testament times, what images go through your head?  For me, I often think of a John-the-Baptist type of figure: someone hairy, wild, unwashed, untamed.  Dressed in strange clothes, saying strange words, doing strange things.  Spending months in the deserts, coming back to scream fire-and-brimstone in the streets to a people unwilling to listen.  Always coming from the outside, from the fields or the hills, called to criticize the constant wrongdoing of the kings and queens, the city-dwellers, the large landowners.  Hated, disliked men that the 'respectable' worldly people wanted to avoid.

Many of the Old Testament prophets were like that.  But Isaiah didn't quite fit that mold.  The ancient rabbis had a tradition that his father Amoz was the brother of King Amaziah – and if that's true, then Isaiah was King Uzziah's cousin, and an elder relative of the next three kings during whose reigns Isaiah ministered.  The first twenty years of Isaiah's ministry in Judah overlapped with Hosea's ministry in Israel, and Micah's forty-year ministry all took place while Isaiah was still at work.  But while Micah was from the little country village of Moresheth-Gath, Isaiah lived in the capital city, in the palace, in the halls of power – the prophet-chaplain to the king's court.  Second Chronicles 36:22 suggests that Isaiah may have served as an official royal historian and scribe.

Isaiah stands among the other prophets as proof that God doesn't call just one kind of person.  He calls both the 'simple' and the educated; he calls both the poor and the rich; he calls both the country-folk and the city-slickers; and he uses both the young'uns and the elders.  The Old Testament prophets remind us of Jesus' mixed choices of apostles – both a handful of simple fishermen and a trained scribe; both a former tax-collector and a former terrorist; both country-dwellers and, eventually, a man trained in Jerusalem in the leading rabbinic 'seminary' of his times.  The gospel is preached by all sorts, because the gospel is for all sorts, and it stretches people of every personality and opinion to be open to the parts that are bigger than them, bigger than us.  We most fully embody the gospel when we work together as a diverse church – not all brain, not all heart, not all hands, not all ear or eye or mouth, but a whole body filled with all its functions, all Christ's gifts and graces.

The same is true in the prophets who ministered under the Old Covenant and foreshadowed the New.  And although each of those prophets has a message that, in ways we may never expect, points forward to the gospel, Isaiah is in a way the king of them all.  The Book of Isaiah has sometimes been called "the Fifth Gospel".  The church father Jerome called Isaiah "more of an Evangelist than a Prophet".  There's a reason the New Testament writers loved to quote and reference Isaiah when they preached.  Many prophets foreshadowed Jesus in one respect or another, but Isaiah's preaching is saturated in Jesus from angle after angle.  The first five chapters serve as an introduction to most or all of the themes of the whole book of Isaiah – and what a set of themes they are!

Here, Isaiah paints a sketch – small compared to the grand masterpieces drawn cosmically large later in his collection of oracles and visions – of a rebellious Judah, a nation gone wrong.  The chosen people of God have a collective bout of amnesia as to where they came from.  They became a nation by the grace of God, who rescued them from Egypt, who tended them in the desert, who raised them in the Holy Land as his own children – but now the chosen nation as a whole, God's own children, are too idol-frenzied to even remember which God is really theirs.

In our day, it's easy to point the finger at a secularized America outside our walls and say, "You were a nation appointed by God, who gave you prosperity in the New World, who shepherded you through the Revolution, who safeguarded your 'unalienable rights', who set you free to be a light to the nations, who made you strong and victorious over all the nations of the earth – but now you, you out there, have forgotten God."  Some of this is true, both the good and the bad, but we must not forget who really are the 'nation whose God is the Lord' - that is, the church – and who really is the Light to the Nations, and who really rules a victorious kingdom over all the nations – that is, Jesus Christ.

But more than that, pointing fingers of blame is easy, with our wrists and elbows straight.  It's safe when they only point away.  But that isn't the good news of Jesus; it's the bad news of the Pharisees.  When fingers are pointed, gospel humility means that wrists and elbows always start bent – so that the finger points first at ourselves, acknowledging the planks in our eyes before we speak a word about the sawdust in anyone else's.

America has been blessed, truly and greatly and beautifully blessed, but the church has been spiritually chosen.  In the church – not just this congregation, but the church, the whole church - do we remember the grace of God, who rescued us from the 'Egypt' of our sins, who tends us in our present roaming through this worldly wilderness, and who made us his own children and will reveal us as such when he raises us from the dead in the Holy Land of the whole new creation?  Or do our modern idols – our work, our leisure, our pleasure, our money, our success, our social status, our independence, our privacy, our personal opinions – crowd out the God of grace?

Isaiah has those very concerns.  The ox knows who owns it, and the donkey knows who manages it, but does the church know the God who adopted his children?  Through Isaiah, God poses a biting challenge.  It's easy, in a so-called Christian land, to let our Monday-through-Saturday lives come unhinged from our Sunday worship.  We might assume that "going to church" is just one part of life, a compartment all its own, unrelated to how we treat our neighbors, our families, our bosses, our employees.

Judah had the same problem.  That's why God had to remind her that her whole multitude of sacrifices were pointless if they came from a divided, compartmentalized heart.  It isn't in the mere physical blood of sacrificial bulls and lambs and goats that God was pleased; it was in the heart of repentance and justice and faithful love that those sacrifices were supposed to reflect.  The bloody sacrifices were just the outward vessel, a symbol of their inner meaning – but without a wholesale commitment to God and to righteousness, they rang hollow, because they were hollow.  Outward piety became just perfunctory.  Today, we lift up a sacrifice of praise, and make ourselves living sacrifices – but if our heart is divided, if we compartmentalize godliness to an hour or two on Sunday mornings, then our words and our lives are also hollow.  And if we run to and fro with hollow lives, then all our worship is just "trampling God's courts".

But God offered Judah a radical and reasonable offer – reasonable, because God stoops to dialogue with his wayward people, to help them think clearly and rightly so that their lives can be shaped by the Divine Reason who the Gospel of John tells us was with God in the beginning, and whom we know as Jesus Christ.  But the offer is also radical, because it is an invitation to repentance.  And repentance is a radical thing.  For people as far astray as Judah was then, it was no less than an about-face, a trade of all that they actually were for all that they were supposed to be.

God called Judah – and he calls us today, when we sin – to "stop doing wrong" and instead "learn to do right".  We should minister in justice to a needy world around us, defending the oppressed, all those pushed to the margins by the systems of society.  Isaiah's words point forward to the true washing from sin, and the true righteousness of God: Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the one who truly "settles the matter".  Our sins were like scarlet, they were red as crimson – bold, unseemly, visible to God and others.  They were vivid stains, blots on our lives.  But through Jesus, God fought our red sins with his red blood, to make us white as snow, white as wool, pure from all stain – the color of holiness.  Here in Christ, God is fully pleased: all the many bulls and lambs and goats give way to the one Son of God, the Wisdom of God, who makes his people understand.

Christ Jesus purges all our dross, everything unworthy in us – the process of sanctification, making us holy.  Again and again, he restores his church from its confused and wayward and distracted state.  He calls us back to repentance, back to holiness, back to revival.  The idols fall, and the church stands upon its one foundation: Jesus Christ, her Lord.  The church stands as Zion, the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City, pointing forward to when she is fully unveiled as the New Jerusalem, dressed as a spotless bride for her Divine Bridegroom, eager with intense longing for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

Whenever we forget our gracious God, whenever we rest on all our Sunday works to cover our faithless weeks, whenever we trample God's courts, whenever we ignore what is right and do what is wrong, whenever we stain our holy unity with the dark red dye of sin, there is and remains hope in Jesus.  We can repent – we must repent – and turn back to him.  We must remember the grace of God, and that we did not earn it through our lifestyle or our worship.  God offers his costly grace to all, though not all receive it.  He offers his grace to adulterers like David, to murderers like Moses, to cowards like Simon Peter, to persecutors like Saul of Tarsus, to terrorists like Simon the Zealot and like the two convicted terrorists between whom our Savior died – and, yes, even to us.  All equally, thoroughly, desperately in need of Jesus.

But this grace of God did not leave them as adulterers, murderers, cowards, persecutors, or terrorists.  No, no, it sought and found them where they were and led them out of their sinful pasts into the hope of glory.  And this same grace of God lays claim to all our days and all our hours, to all our opinions and all our relationships, to all our tasks and all our words.  This grace lays claim to all of these, to all of each of us, for a purpose: to make them all, from all of us, reflections of the holiness and love of God.  Grace is freely given, grace greater than all our sinful stains – but how?  The hymnwriter Robert Lowry said it best (Gospel Music [1877], no. 7):
What can wash away [our] stain?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make [us] whole again?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
Nothing can for sin atone – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Naught of good that [we] have done – Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
This is all [our] hope and peace – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
This is all [our] righteousness – Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh, precious is the flow, that makes [us] white as snow,
No other fount [we] know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus! 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

To the Law and the Testimony!

Sermon on Isaiah 8:16-20; Zechariah 7:9-13; and Acts 17:1-4, 10-12.  Delivered 24 August 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.

We believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God given to show us, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, our sinful condition before God.  It likewise shows us the way of salvation and provides the instruction we need to develop spiritually and to walk acceptably before God in the new path of faith.  [...]  These Scriptures, given by Divine inspiration, contain the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation; so that whatever is not contained therein nor can be proved thereby is not to be enjoined on any as an article of faith. (Discipline 142.1.2; 104)
So says the Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church.  And while any brief summary like this always has to oversimplify things, this is what we believe.  What we have in the Bible is absolutely amazing.  Here, in the form of many kinds of literature written over the course of over a thousand years, is a sweeping explanation of the history of the universe, from creation to new creation.  It tells, explains, and advises us as we live through the story of God's holy love for a sinful people in a fallen world, and how God conquers all the principalities and powers that try to woo us away from him – including the corruption in our own hearts.  This story is the Truth, because it climaxes in the One who proved himself to be the Way for wayward sinners, the Truth for a muddled world, and the Life to revive our dryness and our death.  That story told by the Bible defines our reality, whether we humbly accept it or pridefully write our own stories – and so, for Christians, it sets the proper context for our lives.

As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who fully affirmed and praised the scriptures of the Old Covenant - the Law and the Prophets – and showed how they pointed to him, how he was so deeply woven into their fabric at every point – so deeply woven that the Pharisees, for missing him there, might as well have been unfamiliar with the whole thing.  As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who established the New Covenant in his blood and whose earliest followers testified in writing of what he himself had taught them and was still teaching through them in their ministries.  If we are unwilling to let ourselves be shaped by the whole story, then we risk still holding something back from Christ's claim as Lord, his determination to have every inch of us all to himself.  Our beliefs, our attitudes, and our worldview need to be shaped by the Bible, by God's revelation and message, which bears witness to what he has done and how he will bring his good work to completion on the Day that is to come.

In our culture today, we are often surrounded by groups that insist the Bible is to be judged, or at least interpreted, only in terms of their own spiritual experiences or life experiences.  We all know, for instance, of the Mormons, who usually place a premium on 'personal revelation' as effectively superseding whatever the biblical text says – unless it happens to agree with what they already think.  And I've lost track of how many professing Christians, when confronted with something in the Bible that they don't immediately understand or like, I've heard say something like, "Well, so what?  Don't you know that this is 2014?  That may be true for you, but my experience in life says different."  They – and sometimes we – judge the Bible in terms of how well it conforms to their own attitudes, their own personal opinions about God, their own cultural background or desires or ethical preferences or agendas borne from their own experiences.  Contrast this to the attitude of Charles Wesley, who reflected on Isaiah 8:20 in these lyrics (Poetical Works 9:380):
Doctrines, experiences to try,
We to the sacred standard fly,
Assured the Spirit of our Lord
Can never contradict His word:
Whate'er His Spirit speaks in me,
Must with the written word agree;
If not – I cast it all aside,
As Satan's voice, or nature's pride.
Charles Wesley was right to judge all things by the Scriptures – understood rightly and truly, of course.  Sadly, we are also often surrounded by groups and people who insist that the Bible must surely agree with their ideas, and so they – and sometimes we – go hunting around in the Bible for ways to support those ideas, and then ignore or twist the rest.  These groups – like Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance – often insist that they are being faithful to what the Bible means on its own terms.  They – and sometimes we – give great lipservice to the authority of the Bible, and if my friendship with a number of Jehovah's Witnesses has taught me anything, it's that they believe themselves to sincerely mean it.  But still the agenda is that of their pet theology, working through a smattering of out-of-context verses and a modern mindset, rather than the authentic 'agenda' of God as he inspired the biblical writers.

God calls us to reject both of these approaches, although even the most sincere and dedicated Christians often stumble into forms of both from time to time.  God calls us to first read the Bible responsibly – and then to take him at his word.  This means using our heads and our hearts, and learning what we can about the way the scriptures fit together and respond to their original settings and now, through that, ours; and it means reading the Bible together, bringing all our gifts and graces to the table.  John Wesley once wrote (Works [1812] 12:230, 233):
Beware of that daughter of pride, enthusiasm!  O keep at the utmost distance from it: give no place to a heated imagination.  Do not hastily ascribe things to God.  Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God.  They may be from him.  They may be from nature.  They may be from the devil.  Therefore "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God."  Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it.  You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture: yea, or the plain literal meaning of the text, taken in connexion with the context.  And so you are, if you despise or lightly esteem reason, knowledge, or human learning: every one of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes.  [...]  Beware of judging people right or wrong, by your own feelings.  This is no scriptural way of judging.  O keep close to the law and the testimony!
Amen and amen!  If I had to quibble with any of it, I'd clarify that 'literal' here should cover all the different ways the Bible communicates in styles of literature – some of which are relatively straightforward narrative, and some of which aren't.  But even Wesley is very clear: we must stick to the clear meaning of the text, as clarified and taken in connection with the context – the context of the passage, of the book, of the time and place and culture where it was written, and of the Bible as a whole.  And once we do that, and once we take into account how it might speak from that setting to our sometimes-the-same, sometimes-different world today, what is equally clear is this: we must "keep close" to it, we must test all things by it, we must rely on it as the word of our God, to be trusted faithfully and obeyed diligently, just as the Berean Jews did in Acts 17 in testing even a true apostle of Jesus Christ against it.

Rather than turn aside to other authorities, we do celebrate all truth that anyone can teach us – whether scientific, philosophical, religious, historical, ethical, cultural, or whatever – but we recognize it in the light of the Bible as properly understood in context by the living witness of the whole Christian church and through the devoted and heartfelt study that marks the discipline of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  This is the standard, and we are called to cling to it, unlike the sinful people of Zechariah 7 who stubbornly refused to heed the Law or the Prophets – both of which were given by God to instruct them – and to instruct us, alongside their fulfillment in the New Covenant scriptures.

As Isaiah 8 shows us, we aren't to run aside after mediums, psychics, fortune-tellers, horoscope-mongers, spiritualists, gurus, or any other false God-alternative; we are called to stick to God's word of instruction, God's commandments, God's design for human flourishing, and God's testimony to what he has done in Jesus Christ and continues to do in the whole Body united to their living Head by the bonds of the Spirit he has poured in our hearts.  Thanks be to God for entrusting his sacred word to his people, and for giving us the Spirit to enlighten our minds and hearts so that we can read it together and put these words into practice.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Treasure of the Church

Sermon on Proverbs 14:31; Mark 10:17-21; and 2 Corinthians 8:9-12.  Delivered 10 August 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  

It was the middle of the third century.  Those were the days of persecution under Valerian, the emperor of Rome.  The church in Rome, although they had accumulated some wealth, lived in fear – and with good reason.  When Valerian came to power in the year 253, the emperor Decius, who oversaw one of the most ruthless persecutions of Christians in all of history up until then, had been dead only two years.

This was a powerful age of Christian charity.  Church leaders could count on wealthy Christian families to work together where it was needed.  When people were taken captive in a massive raid, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, was able to put together a large amount of money – the equivalent of thousands of dollars – to ransom them back.  And in Rome alone, the church provided charity to over fifteen hundred people in poverty due to disabilities or illness.  Valerian's advisors convinced him that the church's wealth made it a powerful danger.  They thought that maybe the economy was so weak because Christians were hoarding all the money to themselves.  

So in the year 257, Valerian suddenly gave orders to the Senate that all Christian bishops, pastors, and deacons had only two options: to worship the Roman gods in addition to Jesus, or to be sent away into exile.  The orders also tried to ban Christians from meeting in their usual places.  Some Christian leaders suffered greatly, being whipped, chained, and forced to work long hours in the mines in bad conditions.  But still the Christians praised Jesus.  Still the Christians committed themselves to helping others.  Still the Christians prayed for the leaders who persecuted them.

A year later, in the summer of the year 258, Valerian gave a harsher set of orders.  Bishops, pastors, and deacons were to be immediately executed.  High-class Roman Christians would lose their rank and have all their wealth taken away – and if they continued to be loyal to Christ, they too would be put to death.  The emperor and his minions meant business.  In Rome, bishop Sixtus and some other church leaders were seized during a worship service and put to death on August 6, just over a month before Cyprian was beheaded in Carthage, with his only answer at trial being, "Thanks be to God!"

Before Sixtus died, he gave instructions to one of his surviving deacons, a man named Lawrence.  Lawrence, as the last living deacon, was a steward of the church.  He was the church treasurer, and his task was to ensure that the church funds were handled well and put to godly use.  He took every last bit of it and traveled through the city of Rome, finding the people who depended most on the church's charity.  And he gave them alms until nothing was left.

No more than a day after his mentor Sixtus had died, Lawrence received a visit from Rome's prefect, the city administrator.  This prefect demanded that Lawrence turn over everything valuable that the church had.  The prefect tried to manipulate Lawrence, pointing out that gold didn't bear the image of God and so wasn't essential to what Lawrence believed.  Lawrence assured the prefect that the church was far richer than he had ever imagined – even richer than the emperor himself.  All he asked was for three days to get everything in order.  And the greedy prefect, eagerly imagining a horde of loot, waited.

When the three days were up, Lawrence and the prefect walked together to the church building.  I imagine that the prefect's anticipation rose with every step - and dropped as soon as Lawrence gave the order for the doors to be opened and shouted, "Behold, the treasure of the church!"  There in the sanctuary stood the most vulnerable of the Roman poor.  The disabled, the blind, the deaf, the amputees, the lepers – all the people, over fifteen hundred of them, who had depended on the church to live, as the church lived out what Jesus taught.

"Look," said Lawrence, "here they are.  This is the treasure of the church."  This was a kingdom investment, worth far more than gold.  The prefect had been right: Gold coins bore the image of Caesar, not the image of God.  But the image of God is a far, far better treasure than the image of Caesar.  The truth of the gospel, made flesh in human lives, is vastly more valuable than the contents of any bank account.  As one Christian poet put it, "Indeed the gold that brighter shines / is light enlightening all mankind".  Any coins that Lawrence might have turned over would one day rust away or depreciate.  But these lives, these precious lives, had a significance that would outlive empires.  They were the real treasure.

The prefect was not amused, and Lawrence paid with his mortal life.  Today, I don't know that prefect's name.  But I do know the name of Lawrence, a martyr for Christ's poor.  I do know that the rightful treasure of the church cannot be measured by the digits behind a dollar sign, or by the beautiful stained glass in our windows, or by the furnishings of our buildings; but the treasure of the church can be measured by where our dollar signs go.  The treasure of the church can be measured by the beauty of the feet on the mountains of they who bring good news that our God reigns and the hands that bring healing to the broken.  The treasure of the church can be measured by the way we furnish our lives with love made real in action.

The prefect was wrong.  He cared about economic domination.  Lawrence had no interest in serving Mammon.  The church of Lawrence's time knew the best financial advice that John Wesley ever gave: "Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can"!  That wasn't just Lawrence's personal philosophy.  It was the heart of the church.  The church didn't demonize money or the rich – so long as they stayed where they belong: in the service of God's will, in the service of "the least of these".

What and where is our treasure?  Is it in our wallets and in our houses and in our TVs and cars?  Or is it in food on the table of the hungry, and assurance in the hearts of those in debt, and open skies of freedom over the heads of prisoners?  Is our treasure stored in the bank, or the food bank?  I know that this church has its eye on its true treasure.  It's why we eagerly look for ways to serve our community.  It's why we take advantage of opportunities like Operation Christmas Child: to make a kingdom-investment in the happiness and education of children in need around the world.  Through giving, through prayer, through relationships, they become our treasure, and the poor right here in Salisbury Township also become our treasure.

Jesus Christ left heaven's treasury for our world of poverty.  Because we were "sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore", Jesus ready stood to save us, "full of pity, love and power".  He emptied himself, he humbled himself, he became poor to make us rich with the blessings of God.  This goes beyond the Ten Commandments.  Like Jesus told the rich young ruler, this gets to the heart of "Love the Lord thy God" – enough to take up a cross and follow him even into the jaws of death – and of "Love thy neighbor" – enough to give up everything, if Jesus asks, to serve the poor.  He may not ask us to give up everything, but I'm seldom surprised when he asks me to give up more than I'm comfortable with.  But we can trust Jesus when he assures us that, when we look back from a heavenly point-of-view on every loving act of surrender for the poor, it will be worth it.

The prefect couldn't see that.  His heart was too full of greed to catch a glimpse of the joy of the Lord.  And so he cursed Lawrence, whose heart was too full of joy to leave space for greed.  And through many agonies, handling each of them with grace, Lawrence, lover of the poor, passed into the joyous reward of the God who walked this earth as a poor, wayfaring stranger like us.  Lawrence traded time for eternity in the year 258, on the tenth day of August – 1756 years ago today.  Kingdoms have come and kingdoms have gone, but the kingdom of our God abides forever, served by a great cloud of witnesses – St. Lawrence included.  We share in his faith – the faith of our fathers.  Do we share in his heart?  We know what was the treasure of his church.  What is the treasure of this church?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Broken Cisterns and Living Waters

Sermon on Jeremiah 2:10-13 and John 4:7-14.  Delivered 27 July 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  (The first line or two did not get recorded.)

Like most of the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah had to warn God's people about things they really should have known already. For instance, the people of ancient Judah should have known that God is “the fountain of living waters”. They should have known that there's no one else worth turning to, nothing else worth turning to. But instead, in Jeremiah's day, the people of Judah had chosen a trade. They took the glory of God, a glory he offered freely among their presence, and they considered it worth bartering away at the local flea market. They traded glory for shame. They traded truth for lies. They traded the uncreated for the created. They traded the divine for the mundane.

Paul picks up these same themes centuries later in Romans 1, where he talks about how Gentile humanity traded uncreated truth for man-made deception; and naturally they went on to trade God's design of human love for rebellious reversals of God's intention. They traded nature's clear witness to God's plan in exchange for voluntary blindness. They traded faithful struggle against our human brokenness in exchange for a defiant celebration of human sin. Paul focuses there on a fruit that most perfectly illustrates the absurdity of the root, and even today, the church has to constantly point back to God's design, reminding an unwilling people not to trade the godly struggle for the sinful surrender.

Hundreds of years earlier, Jeremiah focused in on that same root: the stubborn quest to barter God away for something of our own making. Jeremiah calls God the “fountain of living waters”: he continually flows, he never runs out, he is pure, he is the source for life. But the people of Judah traded him for “empty cisterns”, things that do not flow, things that do run out, things that are easily polluted, things that are no source at all. Judah didn't just find these; they made them themselves. They “hewed them out” personally. That is, the people of ancient Judah turned away from the uncreated God, and instead they created God-substitutes and focused on those to sustain them, to satisfy them, and to refresh them.

Now, it's easy to point the finger at ancient Judah. Prophets like Jeremiah see things so clearly. Prophets like Jeremiah – and apostles like Paul – tell it like it is, with no mincing of words, with no fuzziness to cloud what's at stake. They see exactly what is going on here. But Judah is not alone, and the Gentiles of Romans 1 are not alone. They may be extreme, but they're not alone. Idolatry in its various forms is a longstanding human problem, and as crazy as it is, it's an easy trap.

See, we often take things in our lives – some bad things, some decent things, even some wonderful things – and we turn them into God-substitutes. Even when we give lipservice to God, as I'm sure the people of Judah did, we look elsewhere when it comes to quenching our thirst and keeping us going. We may look to the work we do, the accomplishments of our minds and our hands. We may trust in our financial savings for security, thinking that if we just had a bit more in the bank, we'd have some breathing room to find peace. Or, maybe we rely on our social status in our community. We may look to our family and friends to satisfy us, or to other relationships in our lives. We may turn to our own passions and desires. We may turn to our 'tribe', our patriotic heritage as Americans. We may turn to our local, state, or federal government to sustain us, to satisfy us, and to refresh us.

Most of those things aren't bad in themselves – when we hold them loosely. But when we build an idol and cling tightly to its feet, we're in trouble. Because we are made in the image of the glorious true God, yet we sell ourselves into slavery to the images of non-gods. And we reflect what we worship. We reflect what we trust in. When we turn to the God who's a fountain of living waters, who bubbles forever with life, we become lively, we're restored to his image, we become what we were meant to be. When we turn to even the second-best thing, which reflects God imperfectly at best, then we pattern ourselves after a funhouse mirror that catches God at an angle. And instead of growing healthy, God-centered, more human, we become distorted, twisted, dehumanized.

All those other things we might trust – when we idolize them, we make them into broken cisterns. They aren't the fountain of living waters. Not all the wishful thinking in heaven and earth can make them that. Broken cisterns hold no water – at least, not for long. What puddles do form are brackish, teeming with parasites. Sipping from them poisons us from the inside-out. They're stagnant. And they will run dry.

Maybe we see them run dry tomorrow. Maybe it takes a week, maybe it takes months, maybe it takes years or even decades of running from cistern to cistern, trying desperately to satisfy ourselves. But one thing we can know for sure: in the Day of the Lord, when all this story gets wrapped up and becomes the prologue to the new creation, those cisterns will be dry as dust – every last one. They will not sustain life. God, the fountain of living waters, will clearly stand alone. The all-too-familiar “double evil” of turning from him and trusting other things will leave many people high and dry. Charles Wesley was struck by this passage from Jeremiah, so he turned it into a prayer (Poetical Works 10:3):

Ah! Lord, with late regret I own,
I have the double evil done,
Forsook the Spring of life and peace,
And toil'd for earthly happiness:
But what in them I sought with pain,
I could not from the creatures gain,
The cisterns which my folly hew'd
They would not hold one drop of good.

Now for my double sin I grieve,
Again the broken cisterns leave;
Again I after Thee would go,
And gasp Thy only love to know:
Fountain of true felicity,
Eternal God, spring up in me,
And fill'd with life, and love, and power,
My heart shall never wander more.

In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, we see Jesus meet a woman next to a cistern. In her life, she's hewn many broken cisterns, and now she's trapped in her defeat and in her brokenness. She's gone from husband to husband, and now to a man who's not her husband. She tries to deflect, but Jesus gently probes to the heart of her situation and brings it out of the darkness into the light. He points out that, no matter which cistern she tries, she'll always be thirsty. She'll always need to grasp after something new – unless she accepts living water from him. Jesus, God in the flesh, presents himself to this Samaritan woman as the fountain of living waters. He promises that if she takes the refreshment, the sustenance, and the satisfaction that he offers, she'll need nothing more.

Jesus offers the same to us. He offers the same to our friends and our neighbors. He offers the same to our state and our nation, if we'll listen. He offers the same living waters to Ukrainians and Russians, to Israelis and Palestinians, to dreamers of peace and to dealers of death – come to Jesus and find life, true life, healing life. Only he can offer living water to soothe every hurt, to quench every thirst. No other prophet or philosopher brings it, unless they point to Jesus. We can't wrestle it into our lives with the force of guns and tanks. We can't vote ourselves into it through democracy. We can't charge it to our credit cards. It takes humble faith: just go back to the one fountain, the only fountain.

Only Jesus offers these living waters: the presence of the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, bubbling up forever fresh in human life. In the coming Day of the Lord, all cisterns will be dry as dust, but this fountain will not fail. This fountain will flow and flow eternally, suppling the river that runs from the throne of God and waters the tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations. This fountain will sustain life eternally in the world to come. And Jesus offers it right now, today, to me and to you. The people of Judah turned away in a “double sin”, the pagan Gentiles traded their Creator for man-made idols, but we can cling to the fountain of living waters. We don't have to be anxious about trusting in that fountain. We don't have to keep up our exhausted sprint from cistern to cistern, lapping up a puddle here and a puddle there.

Come to the fountain! Drink deep! Jesus is the Fountain of God's Spirit, and if we cling to Jesus in faith, hope, and love, he promises that his Spirit will irrigate our lives, satisfy our deepest longings, refresh us when we wear out, and sustain us to live in the kingdom of God eternally. Praise God for a fountain like that! Praise God for such a Savior!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ambassadors of Another Kingdom

Homily on Luke 8:1; 13:29; Colossians 1:12-14; and 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.  Delivered 13 July 2014.  My first homily delivered as the assistant pastor of Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. 

Good morning, brothers and sisters. It's a delight to be here today to celebrate a new beginning.  And I can't think of a better place to start a first sermon than with the story of 'in the beginning': In the beginning, God was king.  God created and ruled everything in its pristine goodness.   God created humans in his image, for priestly service and kingly rule over the earth, to spread the worshipful order of the Temple of Eden over the whole land.  But we see in the story of King Adam and Queen Eve how they lost their way and settled for smaller lives.  They fell into rebellion against the God of Gods and King of Kings.  And through that familiar human demand to govern life on our terms instead of his, the whole creation fell short of the glory God had in store for it.

As their heirs, we became broken rebels.  We need to be reconciled to God, our rightful king.  And so, at the climax of God's long mission through Abraham's family, through Israel, through a remnant, God sent his very own Son.  He sent Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, to reconcile us back to him.  Reconciliation is no cheap or easy thing. Jesus, anointed with God's Spirit and preaching about God's kingship, was often despised and rejected as he preached the "good news of the kingdom of God".  His message led King Jesus to be crowned – with thorns. It led King Jesus to be enthroned – on a cross.

But now, praise God, King Jesus is a risen king!  Amen?   Earthly kingdoms rise and fall, worldly kings live and die, but King Jesus is an eternal king, and his kingship has no end!  King Jesus rules over his kingdom from God's own heavenly throne, where he's installed as prophet, priest, and king. And he invites us in Revelation 3:21: "To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne".

Those who follow only this King, and who seek first this Kingdom and God's righteousness, are the church: the people redeemed through their King's blood; the people called out of every tribe and tongue to be a holy people and a royal priesthood; the people built together as the one living temple of God's own Spirit; the people under God's kingship who live to show their living faith in their living King.   Through union with King Jesus, the church shares his inheritance and is a living glimpse of the new creation that God has promised.

No matter what nation claims their mortal birth or their residence, faithful Christians' highest allegiance is to this King, who calls us to serve our local and global neighbors in his name.   As our own Discipline declares, "under the New Covenant the 'nation whose God is the Lord' is the Church of Jesus Christ, with its member-citizens scattered throughout the nations of the world".  So wherever the people of King Jesus live, we have dual-citizenship, earthly and heavenly; and we're sent to our neighbors as ambassadors.

And so the local church is an embassy of God's kingly domain.  As an embassy of the kingdom, King Jesus calls us at Pequea EC Church to reach out to our communities with spiritual words and self-sacrificing love – the same way that Jesus himself exercises his own kingship.  We invite our neighbors in all our cities, our towns, our villages, and our countryside: "Be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ!"  In this way, and through our public life of Christian faith, hope, and love, King Jesus wants to transform the many local communities through which we here are spread – and so are we made a sign pointing forward to God's new work of creation, which even now is bursting into the world.

And now here we are, gathered as God's people, to worship God in song and to witness to one another what God has done.  When we leave this place, we're sent out to worship God in loving our neighbors and to witness to them about what God has done in Jesus Christ – and is still doing today!   And then we come back together to repeat the rhythm, drawing strength from our spiritual communion with God and with one another.   This Sunday, that communion is represented physically in the bread and the cup.  Our King Jesus invites us into his presence, to his table, to eat with him the food that only he provides, because only he could pay the price.  He invites us here to worship God in thanksgiving, and to bear witness of Christ's death until he comes.  Our communion points back to the Last Supper and the cross, but it points forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb, when all who accept the invitation will sit down together as one reconciled family in the kingdom of God.

Until that glorious day, we pray, "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven".   Until then, we pray, "Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus".  Until then, we point to Jesus, pleading with family and neighbors, friends and strangers, loved ones and enemies, and even the very institutions of our culture itself: "Lay down your arms!  You have sinned, but Christ has died!  What's more, Christ is risen, and Christ is coming again!   So in him, be reconciled to God, and become disciples of the one true King".  That's our message and our mission.  Here at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church, I've already seen your love and faithfulness to our King and to his message and mission, and I'm thankful that he sent me here to join the Pequea embassy staff.  Together, as we partner together and with other believers, we will bring this message to our communities in word and in deed, and we will see the mighty work of God's Spirit as he reconciles Lancaster and Chester Counties to himself, one life at a time.