Sunday, November 11, 2018

When War is Done: Sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 for Veterans Day

As the bullet pierced through his helmet, passed through his pack, and sank into the flesh of his back, Sgt. Myers knew it was not his day. This was hardly what he'd expected just two and a half months earlier when he'd left Camp Meade and set sail on the Agamemnon from Hoboken to France. Sgt. Myers served under Capt. Loane in Company L of the 316th Infantry Regiment. And that first month had been such a happy one. Everyone felt an optimistic hope. They enjoyed adventures, suffered no hardships, thought they'd be home so soon. Even into mid-September, they felt themselves in relative comfort – for what that was worth.

But then came the first real trial by fire. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive. And Sgt. Myers had his part to play. On the second day of battle, as noon neared, another regiment in his division managed to capture Montfaucon, a French commune, from the dreaded German army. That night, Sgt. Myers slept in the mud. He'd scarcely touched his rations. They each carried a two-day supply – a pound of corned beef and three boxes of hard biscuits – but in battle, who thinks to eat? The landscape all around him was ruined by war – trees become dead logs, towns become piles of stones, holes ripped into the earth, shreds of barbed wire everywhere.

Frightfully early the next morning, the 316th Infantry Regiment received their orders: they were to relieve the 313th at Montfaucon and, at seven hundred hours, attack southeast toward the Bois de Beuges, a dense forest, to press back the German lines. The 313th needed relief, alright; they'd had a rough day and rough night. One of their captains called those days “a lifetime in hell.” And the 316th and Sgt. Myers were about to get a taste of what that was like. Mere moments after beginning their advance from Montfaucon, they fell under intense artillery fire. One captain described how “big shells arrived with monstrous roars and crashes that tore holes in the earth as big as a house.” They didn't come as a surprise. The telltale sound rumbled through the air, raising the suspense of where it would land. And they were everywhere, dropping all around, sending shrapnel hurtling every which way. Sgt. Myers, as he advanced, was lacerated by shrapnel in his shoulder and right thigh – but he kept going. He ignored, best he could, the duller explosions that released puffs of mustard gas.

Soon, though, they came within range of the German machine guns, which spewed a prolific rain of bullets at them, the metal whizzing and whistling through the air. The advance was no longer an orderly affair: they crept onward, pressing, falling back, literally crawling through the dirt at times. The devastation was immense. Capt. Loane was hurt; many officers were wounded or killed. One captain in a nearby company watched in horror as one of his soldiers crawled to him with a macabre grin on his face. The soldier said the perplexing words, “I've lost a lamp,” before opening his right hand to reveal the secret in his palm: his own right eyeball, ripped out by a bullet. But Sgt. Myers wasn't there. The companies had gotten woefully separated in the general confusion, and the best efforts of runners to re-establish contact were mostly in vain. For his part, he continued his crawl through the dirt, past his comrades' corpses and the injured moaning in agony for first aid. He kept crawling toward the Bois de Beuge, the dense underbrush where the German gunners were positioned. He was hardly defenseless – he sporadically fired his own weapon, and thought he laid a few German soldiers low – but the closer he got, the fiercer the ghastliness of battle.

And finally, a German gunner swept his way. A bullet from the machine gun pierced the back of his helmet, deflected through his pack, and hit his back; it would surely have gone deeper if the intervening supplies hadn't slowed it. That was the injury Sgt. Myers felt, though a later medical exam would show his back pockmarked with holes. But that was the wound that convinced him he was done. He beat a hasty retreat back to a dressing station, got himself bandaged, and was taken by ambulance to a field hospital. After a few days of treatment there, he was loaded onto a French train where they hung his stretcher from a framework of pipes and taken over two hundred miles of rough riding to Base Hospital 48 at Mars-sur-Allier, safely away from the front lines. He was shot September 28; it was early October when he arrived at the base hospital. From both places, he wrote letters home. In both places, he wrestled with his “fierce grudge against those Germans.” And in both places, I'd bet, he did his share of praying.

Home for Sgt. Myers, you see, wasn't so far from here. Ralph Myers, just 22 when he enlisted and 23 when the bullet hit his back, had been a high-school math teacher in York County, but a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College. More than that, Ralph grew up on Main Street in Terre Hill. His dad William made cigars while his mom Lydia held fast the home, raising Ralph and his older sisters Clara and Mamie.

All three kids were raised in church – at our EC church in Terre Hill, in fact. Of course, it wasn't called 'EC' then yet; it was 'UE,' United Evangelical, since the year before Ralph was born. William Myers and his brother-in-law John Tish, Ralph's uncle, were deeply involved there. William spent much of his son's childhood as a steward, and John was again a trustee when Ralph shipped out. Clara and Mamie had both been baptized and joined as teenagers, but Ralph held back. It wasn't until 1915, already a college student, that Ralph took the step to give his life over to Jesus. Midway between Easter and Pentecost, Pastor William Rehrer admitted him and baptized him. A year later, he finished college and got hired as a teacher, like his sisters before him; a year after that, he registered for the draft. And it didn't take him long to be called to action. Later, when Ralph was in the field hospital, he wrote home to one of his sisters, “I do not enjoy the army and would be tickled to death to get out today, but I would not have missed it for the world. I have learned a lot and seen a lot too – some things I do not care to see again.”

But the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and its horrors didn't stop when Sgt. Ralph S. Myers was shot and crawled off the battlefield. It lasted for nearly two more weeks, becoming the deadliest battle in American history, which one British major-general nicknamed 'Armageddon.' While Sgt. Myers recuperated in an army hospital in France, his friends and family and neighbors back home were nearly sequestered by the epidemic of Spanish influenza. Scarcely had it receded when they got the news that Sgt. Myers had seen coming over a month before: a ceasefire, an armistice, had gone into effect. Early in the morning on Monday, November 11 – a hundred years ago this very day – German representatives met a French marshal on a train car in the woods to sign the armistice agreement. It was a little past five AM there – here, about midnight – and would go into effect just under six hours later, to give the news time to spread to all units.

Well, spread the news did. Fighting was done. Shooting was done. Shelling was done. The war, for all intents and purposes, was done. There, in France, it was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when it took effect; here, it was the sixth hour. In New Holland and all the towns and countryside around, some people were already at work, and others not even up yet, when the church bells started ringing to announce the good news. Giving no thought to breakfast, people started pouring out of their homes with joy into every street, waving flags and cheering. The bells rang and clanged, whistles blew, people marched all around the town, too delighted, too relieved, to treat it as any ordinary day. It took 'til nine o'clock for people to get back to work.

That afternoon, thanks to a lot of last-minute planning by local civil leaders, chief marshal Isaac Snader led a parade around the town. The Red Cross was there, a-marchin' through the streets. Folks from New Holland Machine were there, a-marchin' through the streets. The silk mill employees, too, and the schoolkids. Nearly a hundred cars, plenty of floats, hundreds of people – there was even a contingent of Civil War vets a-marchin' through the streets, past all the houses draped in bunting with the stars and stripes waving in the November air. No quiet parade, bands played and the people sang and cheered. The joy in every human heart at peace bubbled over; it was uncontainable. The night ended with a post-supper meeting in Harner's Theatre to hear from local pastors and sing patriotic songs. The next day, many streamed to Lancaster for a parade, but up in East Earl, folks gathered a little parade of their own, as schoolchildren from Cedar Grove marched to the drumbeat, with flags from America and England and France all waving, and sang the national anthem house by house.

What a relief we remember today! Those jubilees of joy, those songs of security, those parades proclaiming peace at last! Can you imagine how they felt? For four years, the entire world, it seemed, had been embroiled in the Great War. America stood back as long as we could, until declaring war in April 1917. We mobilized over four million soldiers from every community in the country – including right around here. The economy of the whole country was redirected for the good of the cause; nearly everything was rationed; folks campaigned for the purchase of Liberty Bonds time and again to finance the fight. The Fourth Liberty Loan was issued the very same day Ralph Myers got shot. And then, to have all the ardors and fears and horrors of war – vanish! Oh, challenging news would still pour across the seas, but for families all around here to suddenly have the hope of seeing their sons again – to resume really living again.

Seven months after the armistice, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Sixteen days later, Ralph Myers boarded the Rotterdam in Brest, France, and set sail for the good ol' USA, where after a stint at Bethlehem Steel, he later returned to teaching and became a principal in western Pennsylvania. I wonder what he felt as he thought back to his service in the Great War. As it was going on, some proclaimed it “the war to end all wars.” Even in our denomination, some voices held out that hope. And no wonder – even many of our pastors sent sons to the front to fight, some to die. But the Great War wasn't really “the war to end all wars.”

Ralph Myers lived long enough to register for the draft in World War II. He lived long enough to see young neighbors go off to fight in the Korean War. And he lived two years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the deployment of combat troops to Vietnam. Ralph Myers, a veteran of the Great War that was supposed to end all wars, lived nearly five decades after taking that bullet from the German machine gun – yet, when he died, his nation was again at war. When the parades marched through the streets a century ago today, it meant a war was done. But not war itself. Veterans would continue to be forged in combat. Any veterans here this morning, are veterans because World War I was not a “war to end all wars.”

Over two and a half thousand years earlier, when the ancestors of Ralph Myers and the ancestors of whatever German gunner shot him were probably both among the proto-Germanic tribes pressing southward into the northern European coast from Scandinavia, a prophet in the far-off land of Jerusalem had a vision that one day, no new veterans would be made. Isaiah saw a vision, and in that vision, he heard that the day would come when everyone would “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Imagine the parade through our streets when not just one war, but all war is done! Can you imagine it? Never again a soldier sent off to fight. Never again the shells, the bullets, the gas. Never again the bombs and missiles and tanks. Never again the lists of casualties. Never again the bereavement of a war widow, a lost son, lost grandson. Never again the hardness of battle or the fraying of nerves. No Agent Orange, no sarin gas, no PTSD – none of it. No nervous home front, no battle-weary warriors. Only parading and cheering and singing, only welcoming and embracing and rejoicing. When war becomes a distant memory, when all conflict is forgotten, when peace is all and in all, when happiness breaks through in gushing torrents of relief, and every field will give back its blood, and every bullet and bomb repent, and all that's gone wrong will come undone.

Not long after the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations was established to secure world peace. It didn't work. After World War II, it was replaced by a new body, the United Nations. Its headquarters is in New York City. Across First Avenue from the United Nations, there's a park, dedicated in 1948 during the construction process; and if you ever visit that park, you'll see a wall. It's called the Isaiah Wall. And chiseled into the stone, do you know what you'll read? “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” It's Isaiah 2:4. Eleven years later, the Soviet Union presented a bronze statue for the United Nations Headquarters' North Garden: it's a man beating a sword into a plowshare. In the decades since, we've seen museums dedicated to military hardware repurposed for peace; we've seen presidents like Nixon take their oath of office on Bibles open to Isaiah 2:4; we've heard presidents from Carter to Reagan and beyond appeal to the very same verse. But it still isn't here. What gives? But if you read the rest of what Isaiah says, it's clear what has to happen.

First, the world has to become centered on Jesus Christ. Isaiah starts his prophecy like this: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills” (Isaiah 2:2). In Isaiah's Jerusalem, that mountain was the temple mount, the central site of Jewish worship of the God of the Bible. Other countries had mountains where they worshipped their gods, and even in Israel there were sometimes 'high places' on various hills for people to go worship this idol or that idol. But Isaiah dares imagine a world where the real temple, the real mountain, will loom undeniably higher than every rival – a world where the worship of the true God will be elevated over all. And in the New Testament, we see Jesus presenting himself as the true mountain, the true foundation of God's new temple, which is his body, the church. When war is done, it'll be because Jesus looms higher than every thing. It'll be because Jesus is lifted up – and he was lifted up... on the cross. For “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” Jesus said (John 12:32).

And just the same, in Isaiah's vision, when “the mountain of the house of the LORD is lifted up, it will draw all nations to itself. Isaiah continues by saying that “all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob'” (Isaiah 2:2-3). To get to the whole swords-into-plowshares part, here's what needs to happen: the nations have to be drawn to the mountain, to the temple, to Jesus and his church. Jesus and his church need to be attractive. Jesus promised he would be – and he has been. In being lifted up on the cross, he's been drawing people from every nation to himself, as the nations are discipled through being baptized and taught (cf. Matthew 28:19).

Speaking of teaching, Isaiah says that's why the nations come to the mountain. They say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3). The nations go, because they need to be taught. Instead of learning war, they have to learn something else. They have to learn the ways, not of the petty gods of war and blood, of race and clan, of money and leisure and lust, of technology and identity and power, but the ways of the God of peace, the God of good news. And the nations are taught so that they can walk – they learn it in order to live it, to put the good news into practice. “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). That's where the gospel got its start, and it's been spreading into the nations since the days of the apostles, and it's still going forth now through us. Our task is to have this gospel word keep going forth, because we go into our community and carry it there. That's how the word moves: we, gathered from the nations, penetrate the nations with the good news message, and we disciple others who hear it, leading them back to the mountain who is Christ.

As that happens, as the nations are discipled, they'll learn to refer their disputes to God and accept his verdicts. That's what Isaiah pictures: “He” – meaning, the LORD“shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4). That's a great fruit of discipleship: learning to let God settle arguments instead of trying to do it on our own. So often, even in the church, we fail to do that. We bicker and we feud, we fuss and we groan, we wrestle each other for power, instead of referring it to God and cultivating a heart that accepts his verdict. If Germany and Britain and France and America had all been discipled well enough to do that in the first place, would there have been a world war? If they'd been able to submit all concerns to God through his worldwide church, and accepted how God speaks to the whole church through his Holy Spirit – if that had happened, would the war have been fought? Would Sgt. Myers have been shot? Would his fellow soldiers have bled and died? Would any war since then need to have been fought?

See, in Isaiah's vision, it's only then – when God decides all these disputes, settles world wars and civil wars and culture wars – then we read that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – tools of destruction, demolition, harm, into tools of creation, cultivation, nurture. Because there won't be a need for swords or spears – no use for machine guns and artillery shells – no function for nuclear missiles or mustard gas. Global disarmament as an act of faith in a God who so visibly judges the world that all can trust him to maintain peace among all nations. And on that day, Isaiah says, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). No more war. No more carnage. No more loss, no more grief, no more death. No more heated anger, suspenseful nerves, fearful unease.

In a day of “wars and rumors of wars” (cf. Mark 13:7), we rightly long for another day – a day, not of war, but of peace. A day when “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken” (Micah 4:4). Today of all days, we remember the sacrifices of those who endured the hardships of war and lived to tell the tale. We remember it today because we also bring to mind, from a hundred years ago, the hour the fighting stopped, and families could breathe easy. As we remember the armistice, we long for a day when we can breathe easy for good – know that it will never start again, that the next generation will never be called to risk life and limb, terror and trauma, in combat; that the toll taken on veterans will never be repeated, that every soldier can lay down his arms, that the price paid will be refunded by a God who doeth all things well, and that parades of praise march every street, waving not the flag of a nation but the sign of the cross as the banner of the victorious love of God.

It seems like such a dream. It's easy to picture utopia. Even John Lennon could imagine his version. We know a billion utopias that really are 'no place.' Dreams are a dime a dozen. It's nice to toy with them. But can we really believe this one? Can we believe that a day will come when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”? And I declare to you this day, we can! “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you..., was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes, for all the promises of God find their Yes in him(2 Corinthians 1:19-20)! All the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ. And that means this promise of God – the promise of no more sword, no more war – finds its Yes in the same Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom I am here to proclaim among you, and whom we are here to proclaim among the nations of the world! “That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20). As surely as Jesus Christ is risen, as surely as death has no more dominion over him, just so surely will the day come when war, all war, is done. And “no one shall make [us] afraid” (Micah 4:4).

And the march toward that day starts here – starts with a people who ascend the mountain of Christ here, starts with the gospel word going forth here, starts as we come to God's teaching here, starts as we learn to walk in his ways of peace here, starts as we beat our own swords into plowshares here, starts as we disciple people of all conflicted and conflicting nations here, starts as we lift up Christ in word and deed here, starts as we go forth on gospel mission here. Right here. Right now.

This very day, this Armistice Day, this Veterans Day, we can seek that day by bringing the gospel word of peace from this place into the neighborhood around us, and bringing people back to “the mountain of the house of the LORD which is Christ. And with as beautiful as that day will be, the day that will answer the hope of every veteran's service and every family's prayers with a Yes to Peace in Christ – we have every reason to do it. So, as Isaiah would tell us: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD – and march forward with the gospel until all war is done, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Smashing Satan: Sermon on Romans 16:17-27

An older Jewish man stood, lost in Rome and lost in thought, at the edge of the new forum, in front of the world's first covered shopping mall, six weeks after its opening day. Seemed as good a place as any, or better, to do the grocery shopping. He reached into his pockets and pulled out a handful of shiny new coins. One denarius in his hand caught his eye. Didn't feel like they used to – the ruling emperor, Trajan, had slashed the silver purity to coin more, so it was lighter. On the front, the man saw the side of Trajan's face, grim and curly-haired and crowned with laurels. The man flipped the denarius over to look at the back. Around the rim, the usual dedication: “The Senate and the People of Rome, to the highest prince.” In the center, the goddess Pax – 'Peace' – stood, holding a horn of plenty in one hand, filled with abundant supply for all the Roman people. The man's stomach growled just seeing it stamped in silver – hard to avoid going grocery shopping on an empty stomach, back then. In the other hand, the figure of Peace held forth an olive branch, the symbol of reconciliation. All well and good. But this coin had been minted in the wake of Trajan's victories in the Dacian Wars. And so there was a familiar dark side to how the coin portrayed peace. The man rubbed his finger over the bottom of the coin. The figure of Pax, or 'Peace,' was trampling a barbarian into the dirt, crushing him under her Roman feet.

The figure reminded the man of a story he'd heard in synagogue once, a story out of the Sefer Yehoshua. Long ago, when his people first entered the promised land, a strong Hivite city called Gibeon saw the wisdom in not fighting against God's people. So the Gibeonites had dressed themselves in worn-out clothes and shoes, had made their provisions dry and crumbly, and tricked Joshua into thinking they'd come from a far-away place beyond the land of Canaan. So he made a covenant with them, and only realized too late that they were among the inhabitants they'd been meant to drive out. Still, a covenant's a covenant (Joshua 9).

But other local city-states had been quite displeased at the Gibeonites allying themselves with the Israelite invasion. So five of the Amorite chieftains conspired to attack Gibeon together. From Eglon, Lachish, Jarmuth, Hebron, and Jerusalem they came and besieged Gibeon. The Gibeonites had appealed to Joshua, as a military ally, to lead the Israelites to their defense. Joshua marched from his base at Gilgal all through the night, struck by surprise early in the morning, and sent the Amorites fleeing up and down Beth-horon, where God pelted them with hailstones. The five chieftains escaped, though, and hid in a cave. So once Joshua was ready, he came to the cave and captured them. Joshua had summoned his captains to him, all the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him. And as a sign of their victory, he had the native chieftains pushed over into the dust, and told his captains, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Just like the Roman peace-goddess and the beaten barbarian, so the Israelite captains trod the Amorite chieftains underfoot (Joshua 10).

It seems harsh, perhaps, to later ears. It seems triumphalistic, imperialistic, hopelessly violent. Seems like the worst of ethnocentrism, for the Israelites to have come in and struck down city after city of the local Canaanites. But the point was to create space for God's people to enjoy peace in the land that God had given them, and on which the Canaanites were, in God's eyes, no longer welcome tenants. The promised land was meant to be a second chance at Eden – one which, one day, would be destined to be shared with redeemed nations of every stripe, once they saw the light. The hope was to someday share Eden with redeemed Gibeonites, redeemed Amorites, redeemed Dacians, even redeemed Romans.

The man reflected on his coin. A secretly Christian neighbor walked past him into the market, carrying similar coins in his own coin-purse. Fifty years before they were minted, his late parents had listened to Phoebe come into their gathering and explain an apostle's letter, all the way down to its closing personal touches from Paul as he greeted everybody he knew in the Roman churches and passed along well-wishes from his own companions. Tucked in alongside those last greetings are the two passages we read this morning, and they're all the more striking for where they are.

Those last lines cap off the whole letter with a beautiful doxology: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ, amen!” (Romans 16:25-27).

Previous generations couldn't see what the story of Joshua was really about. They couldn't see what the rest of the scriptures were really about. Not the fuller story. Couldn't see it until a second Yehoshua came – the Greek form of the name 'Joshua' is 'Jesus.' Long before Jesus the Messiah was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead, this book, the Sefer Yehoshua, was encoding the threads of this mystery of hope for all nations. God kept his secret, woven hiddenly into the scriptures, until the time came. And then he made the sovereign decision to announce the mystery openly to all who'd hear: that the story was never just about the forced repression of the nations, but about an invitation for them to join a voluntary covenant of peace, and enter a new Eden. This deep mystery is hope for every nation, to dwell in a worldwide promised land together as a complex unity of peoples in one people. The good news is that what God is looking to grow is not just any kind of obedience, but the obedience of faith, a willing trust in Jesus, who allowed himself to be stricken and slain for us so that he could be our real peace. And, Paul said, this good news can strengthen us in any time, no matter how dark, because Jesus is for every time and every place. It's in Jesus that the beautiful secrets of God are brought into the open, and through the obedience of faith, he aims to unite all nations in an Eden that will last forever and of which his church now is a foretaste of the new creation.

But as Paul reflects on this mystery, as he passes along greetings in the garden, he has a terrible thought. See, if there's one thing Paul knows from experience, it's this: if you're strolling in Eden, watch out for serpents. Don't let serpents catch you by surprise. Don't be oblivious to who and what they are. And so he has to interrupt the greetings to let the Roman churches know that serpents will slither into their midst eventually. They may not have seen any yet – lucky them! But they're coming. They soothingly hiss crafty messages, presenting their trickery as a way of tempting us into falsehood. In Paul's words, they're those who “cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught … for such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own bellies, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:17b-18). Them's a bunch of slippery snakes, alright.

The Roman churches, for all their conflicts and misconceptions, haven't been dealing with false teachers. Not yet. But Paul knows they'll make their way there, at some point after he passes through. Even pagan Roman historians said that Rome was where every ridiculous and shameful idea from around the world would come and find an audience. These serpents will come in and tempt the churches away from the obedience of faith. They'll tempt them into mistrust. Tempt them into disobedience. Tempt them into dividing. The churches there had already had too much division, and the serpents will entice them to keep building walls from each other. The serpents will come and tempt them into rebellion, disruptive behavior. The serpents will come and tempt them with weird ideas, craftily constructed theologies that seem to make sense but veer away from the mystery of hope for all nations. The serpents will come to steal and ruin Eden. They always do.

Our neck of the woods is different from Rome. But not different enough to be empty of serpents. The Cocalico runs through our land, and we know that's the native word for “place where the snakes sleep.” Serpents may well at times wriggle into the churches and hiss soothingly. What they say may appeal to our deepest instincts. Serpents may come quoting scripture out of context. Serpents may come wrapped in the stars and stripes and hissing patriotic tunes. Serpents may come playing on our pride or our fears. They come to entice us to divide. They come to entice us to think ourselves too big and great to be accountable to each other under God. They come to entice us with bizarre theories and twisted scriptures that will have us building a god of our own vain imaginings, who will be our own puppeted mouthpiece for what we really want to hear. Serpents can slither all the jargon. They can hiss in Americanese or in Christianese or in corporatese or in the dulcet tones of so-called 'common sense.' But make no mistake: their “smooth talk and flattery” can trick you into trading Eden for just another patch of wasteland.

So what did Paul want Roman believers, or us, to do? Well, the main things Adam and Eve didn't in the first Eden. They weren't paying attention and keeping watch; they weren't policing the boundaries of the garden like they were supposed to. They weren't on the lookout. So Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for,” well, serpents (Romans 16:17a). Adam and Eve failed to be vigilant; Paul says, don't make that mistake – look how that turned out.

Second, Paul says, if you do uncover some serpents, if they really do slither into your midst, “avoid them” (Romans 16:17c). Adam and Eve didn't do that. They let the serpent practice its wiles on them. They heeded every hiss. They should have walked away from its tempting words. But they stuck around to hear it out, and they deferred to it, and look how that turned out. Now, make no mistake: all throughout this letter, Paul's been insistent that the churches in Rome need to be open to one another's different backgrounds, different customs, different scruples, and to welcome one another without qualms. And it's because he's encouraged such mutual love and inclusivity and tolerance that he now has to remind them that such things can be taken too far. There's a fellow believer who simply does things differently, but then there's a serpent. And the difference is, a serpent will aim to disrupt the obedience of faith. Their weird ideas won't actually mesh well with the basic gospel that Paul handed down.

And so Paul says, third, that you need to be discerning. You need to develop the skill at telling apart a brother or sister, on the one hand, and a serpent, on the other. This is a post-'tree-of-the-knowledge-of-good-and-evil' kind of world. And in that kind of world, Jesus told his disciples, people need to be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Be clever and clear-thinking enough to match wits with a serpent, but let the distinction be that, in discerning good from evil, you accept the definitions God writes and keep yourself on the side of good, of innocence, like a dove. Or as Paul rephrases Jesus' words, “For your obedience is known to all, so I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Romans 16:19). Don't be naive. Know the difference between a hymn and a hiss. Trust God to lead you into deeper truth and deeper moral maturity, in accordance with everything he's already said as read in context.

A growing Eden infiltrated by snakes is not the most comfortable place. And that's the condition of plenty of churches. Serpents slither in – some as human false teachers and false leaders, but sometimes as spiritual influences among authentic believers – and try to stunt the garden's growth. I've watched it at work. They hiss and they twist and, working through the noble but sin-infected motives of decent believers in disagreement, they cause divisions and create obstacles and trip up Christians and lay waste to Eden.

But God doesn't want us to think that Eden will be overrun. Long ago, God gave Israel a promise in one of the songs they sang. It was a song that Israel's army, like the army Joshua commanded, might sing or hear as they went out under God's command. The song is full of daring promises for the Israelites as they march to the beat of his drum. And one of those blessings is this one: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (Psalm 91:13). The serpent doesn't get the last word. The armies of Israel stomp serpents into the dirt. And when those soldiers sang that, they were looking back to an even bigger promise God gave right outside Eden. God cursed the original Serpent and said that he'd have to tangle with a Child of Eve who was to come: “He shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). In striking at Jesus on the cross, the devilish Serpent took a blow right to the skull.

That promise from Genesis is most perfectly about Jesus. But it foreshadows countless points throughout the Old Testament where villains die of head trauma, being identified with the offspring of the Serpent. It gets applied in the hope for Israel's army to trample the serpent underfoot. And it all leads up to this amazing line from Paul to the Roman churches and to us today: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). Have you ever read that verse? What a verse! “The God of peace will soon” – or 'swiftly,' in some translations – “crush Satan under your feet.” Maybe there were Christians in Rome who remembered that verse when they looked at those coins, portraying Peace crushing disruptive enemies under her feet.

A few important things here. The focus in this verse is not chiefly about human minions of the devil, the false teachers themselves, and their fate. Our hope is for even false teachers to be converted, for them to respond to the brighter light of the real good news of Jesus and be saved from their own hissing lies. That's why Paul, in another letter, insists that church leaders need to be able to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9) – to at times “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). But here, Paul takes aim, not at human minions for whom there's some hope, but at the spiritual serpent behind them – and not just any, but the headliner of the roster of evil, 'the Satan' himself.

Second, we don't overpower Satan. We don't take the initiative to hunt him down. That's not what St. Paul says here. Paul doesn't write, “You will soon crush Satan under your feet.” That task belongs to God. It has to be God who hands out victory, or there won't be any victory at all. We deceive ourselves if we think that we have enough strength, enough resources, to tackle the devil – or the evil and corruption he leaves in his wake through all the world or even in the church. It has to be God who deals with it. And not just God, Paul writes, but “the God of peace.” Just like that coin. Roman peace is a cheap counterfeit of God's peace. The God of peace must reign in his church. This is the God whom Paul preached (Romans 15:33), the “God of love and peace” who insists that we “aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace” (2 Corinthians 13:11). This is the “God of peace” who promises to be with those who put into practice the gospel Paul taught (Philippians 4:9). This is the “God of peace” who has no intention of stopping short from “sanctify[ing] you completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). He's none other than “the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20). That is the one and only God who can crush Satan, who can “crush the heads of Leviathan” (Psalm 74:14).

But, third, God doesn't just promise to crush Satan under his feet. He doesn't just promise to crush Satan under Jesus' feet. That's what we would've expected, and fairly so. God goes on to promise something so much more personally relevant. What did Paul write? Listen again: “The God of peace will swiftly crush Satan under your feet (Romans 16:20). Yours. Remember that scene from the old Jewish book, the Sefer Yehoshua, the Book of Joshua. When Joshua had beaten the Amorite chieftains, servants of the devil, he called his captains together and said to them, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings” (Joshua 10:24). And as they did so, Joshua said to them, “Don't be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the LORD will do to all your enemies against whom you fight” (Joshua 10:25). And here's the mystery woven into the scriptures long in advance. What Joshua said to his captains over the defeated kings, a Greater Joshua – the one we call 'Jesus' – will say to us over the defeated devil! So don't be afraid, and don't be dismayed; be strong and courageous!

Because here's the God-honest truth, from Genesis to Joshua to Romans to Revelation: Satan is a loser. That old serpent, that raging dragon, will not come out on top. The God of peace will knock him to the floor. Evil does not take the day. And not only that, but God then calls for your personal involvement in the victory. Think about what Joshua's captains must've seen and felt as Joshua called them over to trample on the Amorite chiefs. Now think what you'll see and feel as Jesus calls you over to stomp Satan into the dust. We – me and you – will be given the victory over Satan and over every dark thing in this world he inspires. Every surge of darkness, every prevailing sin, every tragic twist – it's not forever. It's part of Satan's works that will perish with him – and he will perish, after God has crushed him under your feet. Because you are the body of Christ.

Satan's head will be crushed under our feet. The God of peace said it, we believe it, that settles it! So no matter what comes on today's or tomorrow's or Tuesday's headlines – be it car wrecks, be it storms, be it shootings, be it election returns, be it wars or rumors of wars, be it the horsemen of the apocalypse galloping across your front lawn – do not be afraid, do not be dismayed, be strong, and be courageous, for thus the Lord will do to “the spiritual forces of evil” and “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” against whom and against which we fight (cf. Joshua 10:25; Ephesians 6:12)! The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet. And with him will die sin, and with him will die war, and with him will die addiction, and with him will die carnage, and with him will die slavery, and with him will die poverty, and with him will die death!

Satan's head will be crushed under our feet, but it will never be the other way around. No matter what he does, no matter how many fiery darts he shoots, no matter what wiles he hisses to deceive the hearts of the naive, he cannot crush your head, for a believing church member's head is Christ, and “the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3), and “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9)! “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and neither the devil's works nor the devil himself can survive the march of Christ's feet – or, in him, ours.

So whatever this week holds for you, whatever this month holds for you, whatever this year holds for you, take heart! Don't be afraid, and don't be dismayed; instead, be strong and courageous! Satan's rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure – for “the God of peace will swiftly crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). God will give each of you a share in Jesus' victory over Satan. And on that day, the devil will regret ever having tangled with you, because you're entangled with the unconquerable life of Christ – through whom be glory to the God of peace, the only wise God, forever and ever, amen (cf. Romans 16:27)!

And what a day that will be, when the God of peace crushes Satan under our feet. But it will be a good day for us because of who God has adopted us to be, and how he's written our stories. I leave you with the words of Jesus to his first disciples: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:18-20). Even better than Satan hitting the dirt at your feet – which is the promise of God – is that, both already now and long after Satan meets his fiery lake, your name will still recorded in heavenly triumph by the God of peace. So don't be afraid. Don't be dismayed. This week, this month, this year, this life – be strong and courageous. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Romans 16:20). Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Priestly Service: Sermon on Romans 15:7-33

Along a pathway in Jerusalem, an old man, his robes hanging loosely around his thinning frame, leans atop his staff while he slowly walks. His mind is on the troubled but hopeful fate of his people. He's seen too much, he thinks. Glimpsed things he ought not know. In time, the kings will run this city into the ground. Enemies will come and lay it waste. Years will pass. And in God's hands, its fortunes will turn. Beyond the darkness will be light. He knows that. He's seen that, in his mind's eye. Beyond all the darkness, light.

As he gets lost in thought, he stumbles. It's happening to him again. The wind picks up, e'er so subtly; his robe flutters around him, and he clutches his staff all the harder. The road ahead fades from view as his mind falls down the rabbit-hole. Unshakeable feelings dance across his bones. Pictures and symbols flash through his head, like a whispered melody whose fullness he can't grasp, only the rhythm and the gist. But that's enough. He calls for a scribe – his scribes can't be far away; he never leaves home without them. As one rushes to his side, he steadies himself and begins turning his visions into poetry. What does old man Isaiah see?

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you! For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. They you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house. Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows? For the coastlands shall hope for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from afar, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has made you beautiful. Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you, but in my favor I have had mercy on you. Your gates shall be open continually; day and night they shall not be shut, that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations...” (Isaiah 60:1-11c).

Oh, for the day when the nations would send their wealth to Zion! Oh, for the day they would approach, having learned the good news! Oh, for the day when they would make Zion's heart thrill and exult! Oh, for the day when even distant Tarshish in Spain will know and come!

Hundreds of years pass since old man Isaiah at last rests his weary bones. Another man sits, lost in thought, in a room in Greece – in the Peloponnese, in the grand city of Corinth. He itches to get on the road. He has places to be, and most certainly things to do. All he really has to do before he and his traveling companions set out is polish off this letter for Phoebe, a merchant from the nearby port town of Cenchreae, to take west to the imperial city when she sallies forth on business. And as Phoebe goes to the imperial city, he himself can go to the holy city for one last crowning achievement before this man of Tarsus aims to reach Tarshish.

This man, Paul, finally has the fulfillment of years of work at his fingertips. Ever since he started his second major tour of the Roman world, announcing good news and planting and nurturing local gatherings devoted to Jesus, Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord, there's been a dream he hasn't been able to shake from his head. If he could just convince these churches – populated as heavily as they are by Gentiles, ex-pagans, people from the 'nations,' to share their wealth! So everywhere he's gone, he's been asking them to set aside funds – every week, if they can – so that, little by little, he can gather it from them, from among these nations, and have it carried to Jerusalem for the impoverished church there. He says as much to his own scribe, who writes: “I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When, therefore, I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you” (Romans 15:25-28).

That's Paul's vision, which he's been cultivating side-by-side with his evangelistic and church planting work for years. Coin by coin, the treasury has finally come together. Churches in each place have appointed people to go with him on the journey, so that together they can keep this prized sum safe and secure. This is what he's been hoping for all along. And it hasn't been an easy sell to the churches by any means. Paul knows that, in every place, Gentiles have always tended to resent the Jewish population for a number of things, but one of the key resentments is the fact that Jews scattered among the Greek cities pay an annual religious tax to the temple in Jerusalem. With so many local temples in need of maintenance, and with tax bills pressing down on the city where they live, Jews insist on snatching wealth out of the local economy and shipping it off to a city in Judaea to support some temple there. A drain on the local economy, is how many Gentiles saw it, to take money that could help with local concerns and send it instead to Jerusalem. And as soon as some of these Gentiles accept the news about Jesus, this Paul guy wants them to start doing something like it – setting aside money that could bolster the local economy and instead committing it to help people in a place they've never seen?

So it's been a hard sell for Paul to get them on board. He sees things differently. These Gentiles struggle to get a grasp on what would connect them to this Jerusalem place and the people who live there. For Paul, it's plain as day. His converts aren't unconnected to Jerusalem and its Jewish world. “Salvation is of the Jews,” the Lord Jesus had said (John 4:22). It was there that the disciples were to wait, and there that they began to bear witness to the risen Christ: “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus told them, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And for as far as Paul himself has traveled with the gospel – all the way to the fringes of what we'd today call Albania – it's a circuit always anchored to the gospel's home in the holy city where Jesus rose from the dead. “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum,” Paul says, “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19). It was through ministry emerging out of that Jerusalem church that anyone in Macedonia or Achaia or Asia had heard the good news. And it was because the good news united them to the promises God had long ago made to Israel, that the good news could be good news to them.

They had received the gospel out of Jewish lips, passed along from the Jerusalem church, some of whom had themselves touched the risen Christ with their hands, smelled his very breath with their noses – and now that church was in poverty and in need of material blessings. But the Jerusalem church is no needy stranger; they're the spiritual benefactors of all the world, wherever the good news has spread through Paul's ministry. So it only seems right, to Paul's mind, to answer sharing with sharing. The Jerusalem church wasn't stingy with their spiritual inheritance – at the very least, Paul had made it his life's work to take that spiritual inheritance and spread the wealth around in the heart of pagan nations by discipling them in the Lord's name. How better to answer that than for the churches among the nations to not be stingy with their material goods, the very thing the Jerusalem church most needed? “If the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also be of service to them in material blessings” (Romans 15:27). Made sense to Paul.

He had worked for years to get the churches he'd planted to understand that point clearly and crisply – for the Greeks and others that he led to Christ to understand that they belong to the same family as the poor saints in Jerusalem. And by making this offering, the Gentile churches were saying that they understood that truth. The same sort of truth that Diaspora Jews confessed when they submitted that temple tax: we are one with you. This money Paul was gathering – the very giving of it was a symbol of recognition that it was indeed into a tree growing from the holy root of Abraham that these Gentile converts had been grafted through union with Christ by faith (cf. Romans 11:13-20). Now Paul just hoped that the Jerusalem church would see that the faith of these Gentiles was enough to fully graft them into the same tree – enough, all on its own, to make them real and equal sharers in Israel's spiritual inheritance. If the Jerusalem church accepted this offering, the way the temple would accept the temple tax from Diaspora Jews, then it meant the Jerusalem church was admitting these Gentile churches as outposts of the same body: equal partners, equal sharers of all spiritual blessings, on the terms of the faith that they obeyed.

Paul hoped it went well. That was the big question on his mind. Through his letter, he asked the churches in Rome to pray: “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that … my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints” (Romans 15:30-31). If it's acceptable, then that clinches it: the churches in the most quintessentially Gentile places, and the church in the most quintessentially Jewish place, will have both admitted their common spiritual blessings on an equal level. A concrete partnership in Christ between the most Jewish Jewish church and the most Gentile Gentile churches.

And if that works, then... could this, just maybe, be what we've all been waiting for? Paul wonders that. After all, centuries ago, Isaiah the prophet saw... what? Saw glory begin to overtake Israel as wealth from the nations flooded toward Zion, toward Jerusalem. Might it start here? Might it start now? Might this collection be the opening salvo of Isaiah's prophecy? At one time, early in the process, Paul hadn't been sure if he himself would even accompany the funds on their way to Jerusalem (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:4). But now, after thinking about it over and over... how could he not? If this really could be the opening of what Isaiah saw, an offering for God's true temple, the Church, in Jerusalem... How could Paul pass up the chance to himself be the priest mediating that great sacrifice? To be the priest offering the firstfruits of the prophesied 'wealth of the nations' in Zion?

That's how Paul is coming to think of himself, by this stage. He announces in his letter that God had given him grace “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16). That's priestly talk. Paul finds himself with a priestly calling to offer up the converted Gentiles as a living sacrifice, which he hopes will be made acceptable through the Holy Spirit's sanctifying power; but not just that, he also imagines himself a priest who brings the financial offering from the Gentiles, a sacrifice consisting of 'the wealth of the nations,' to Jerusalem to present it before God there. He likely hopes to be the priest who offers up the global sacrifice Isaiah saw, or at least the firstfruits of it. And he then hopes to travel to Spain, where he likely believed Isaiah's “Tarshish” was, so that he could reap a gospel harvest among the Gentiles there, too.

Sadly, we don't know for certain if Paul ever reached Spain. Nor do we know, on the way, how the offering was received when Paul finally got to Jerusalem. Paul's later letters have no reason to belabor it, and Luke doesn't talk about this project at all, other than maybe one contested reference. Some scholars conclude that it was rejected. Others think it was accepted and a success, but that Luke just has other reasons not to mention it in his history. What became of Paul's priestly service? At least we know that, however the Jerusalem church reacted to his collection, God received his Gentile converts as an acceptable living sacrifice.

Again, years passed. Twice as many years as separated Isaiah and Paul. That's how much time separated Paul and Martin. Martin Luther. A German monk and professor turned reforming firebrand, five hundred years ago. An imperfect vessel, still, he recovered some needful truths and staked his life for them. Among those truths was the realization of the priesthood of all believers. Priesthood isn't reserved for apostles like Paul or pastors like me, much less to the bishops or the pope in Rome. Priestly service is the calling of every believer, and the priesthood that makes priestly service possible is therefore shared with every believer.

Seeing this, Luther insisted that “we are all consecrated priests by baptism.” It's because the whole church is united by faith to Christ the way a wife is to a husband: that's what baptism is about. “As Christ by his birthright has obtained” the dignities of priesthood and kingship, “so he imparts and communicates them to every believer in him, according to that law of matrimony … by which all that is the husband's is also the wife's. Hence all we who believe on Christ are kings and priests in Christ...” That was one of Luther's keenest insights, right up there with the recovery of justification by faith alone. As we celebrate the anniversary of Luther's Reformation breakthrough this week, this is part of what we're celebrating: the Apostle Paul isn't the only one whose ministry is a priestly service; so is mine, and so also is yours.

When Martin Luther wrote those things, some of those he had in mind were noblemen. Some were soldiers. Some were traveling merchants. Some were cobblers. Some were carpenters. And some were farmers. Luther said that his dream was to work toward a day when a young farmhand would know the scriptures better than all the popes and bishops. He believed that it was possible for a farm boy to not just be a priest, right there amidst his vocation, but to be both a farmer and a well-trained priest, learned in God's word and serving God as a priest right there in the fields among his crops.

Today, here, not too many of us in this congregation are farmers. Some of us have pursued occupations that Luther wouldn't be familiar with. And yet, like our farming ancestors, we set aside a day toward the end of the harvest season, and we celebrate a good harvest. We ourselves may not be the ones out in the field, harvesting crops. But God has provided some level of material blessings to us. In that sense, the 'harvest' has been a good one – sufficient to sustain us. And as a token of thanks, we've brought some 'produce' into the sanctuary this morning. In our case, it isn't fresh fruits and vegetables; it's canned goods and assorted non-perishables. This is the form of our Harvest Home.

Unlike Paul's collection, the goods we've collected here won't go especially far – not in the geographic sense. The food pantry is in our own broad community. The material needs aren't distant from us. And this Harvest Home offering doesn't have the same kind of rich theological significance, the same prophetic import, as Paul's attempts with the collection for Jerusalem. That's true. But Luther would remind us that we're still priests. We offer up a sacrifice, and with it, we minister to the needs around us. And it's only fitting that we share our material blessings, because we've received spiritual blessings from Christ, who bids us give to him by giving to the poor, with whom he identifies: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. … As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

The work Paul was talking about is still going on. He summed up his mission as being “what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience” (Romans 15:18). His gospel was all about Jesus as the risen Lord “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5). This gospel revealed long-sealed mysteries that were now to be “made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26).

And we live among those nations. We ourselves, most of us, are 'Gentiles' – 'nationals,' 'ethnics' – descendants of pagan idolaters however far back – and so are the people Paul was given grace and apostleship to reach. To what end? So that, through him, Christ might bring us to obedience – the obedience of faith – by announcing among us the good news that makes it possible. This gospel, spread from that earliest Jerusalem church through Paul's ministry to the churches he founded, and through later generations of priestly believers to the ancient Germanic and Nordic and Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tribes and beyond, have gotten that same good news down to us – so that we, too, might be brought to the obedience of faith as dutiful priests. And part of that priestly obedience is to raise up the priestly service of generous hearts, and to make a priestly offering of material blessings “for the sake of his name among all the nations.”

What we have before us today is such an offering. But not the only one we're to make. We are always priests, making offerings from our wallets as we earn and give, and the sacrifice of praise from our lips as we speak and sing, and the living sacrifice of our bodies as we serve. All of it is a holy calling. May this Harvest Home be acceptable and sanctified. And may the offering of ourselves and of those we can serve and reach also be acceptable and sanctified (cf. Romans 15:16). “May the God of peace be with you all. Amen” (Romans 15:33).

Sunday, October 21, 2018

For Our Instruction: Sermon on Romans 15:1-6

A few years after the close the Second World War, a young Egyptian pharmacist made a drastic decision. He'd graduated from the University of Cairo four years earlier. In those opening years of his career, he'd done quite well for himself. Two pharmacies. Two houses. Two cars. All property of Dr. Youssef Eskander. Seemed like he had all he could want. But he felt a call. There was something more in life. He knew it. He just wasn't ready, wanted to hide from the choice that could cost him everything. Finally, some friends persuaded him to join them in visiting the monastery on the side of a nearby mountain. A famous mountain. Mt. Sinai. Youssef got in the car, and in the early hours of darkness they began to drive up the mountain road. Slowly, Youssef felt an increasing discomfort, and when he yelled for the driver to stop, and he got out and looked, he found that his discomfort had been from God: they were just seconds from driving off a cliff.

Shaken and stirred, it wasn't long before Youssef confirmed his decision. He wanted to know this God who had been such a rescuer to him. But Youssef was so easily distracted by long hours of work, by money's enslaving influence and all the cares of the world. Tormented in his soul, he'd thought about becoming a sailor or a camel-driver. But Youssef resolved for even more simplicity. After consulting an Ethiopian bishop, he committed himself to become a monk. It was August 1948 when he left everything behind – his pharmacies, his houses, his cars – and traded the name 'Youssef Eskander' for a simpler one: 'Matta.' He moved out to the desert to a solitary life. Him, a few other monks, and most importantly, his Bible.

Matta later said that he'd withdrawn from society with his face set resolutely toward his dream, which was the Bible itself and nothing less. The Bible and prayer. He would spend the day reading the Bible, over and over again – sometimes fifty chapters a day. He felt overwhelmed by it, even so – wondering if he could ever come to plumb the depths of the Old and New Testaments in all their splendor, even if he lived the years of Methuselah. And every time he opened it, he would say a prayer. And the prayer went something like this:

O Lord, this Bible was written for me, and it has lasted all this time – close to two thousand years – till I arrived and found it. I thank you, God, that you have brought the Bible all the way to me, and even in printed form! This Bible is mine. All of its books, beginning with Genesis, were written for me. Does it make sense that I die while having not read one of these books? No, Lord. I must read the entirety of both the New and Old Testaments. Abraham is my own father.

Reflecting years later on his journey through the Bible, Matta said that it shook him tremendously – that it was for him, that it revealed his faults and his sins and his soul and his Savior. Looking back years later, Matta said, “In the beginning, the Bible began to open itself to me little by little, and how happy I felt when I found Christ speaking to me through those words! … I sensed that the words were pointed at me; and for the first time, my life began to take shape. My mind took focus; my spirit awakened; and it dawned on me that my salvation and the rectification of my life, its renewal and empowerment, would only come by way of the Bible.”

In those early years, he says, he “made [his] way from book to book,” – that he “passed through the entire Bible, event by event, verse by verse, name by name – and found that it all belonged to me. I also found,” he said, “that I bore a personal relationship to each father and saint in the Bible, even were it only a small one, even if it were only the privilege of loosening his sandal-strap.” Using the only notepad and the only pen in the whole monastery, he underlined verse after verse and took careful notes. What he discovered was that “the only thing that could satisfy was God's Word.” He realized daily “the absolute necessity of reading the Bible.”

The Apostle Paul would've seen eye-to-eye with Matta on this one. In fact, Paul said something not so unlike it himself. In today's passage, listen to what Paul says: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through encouragement from the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). When Paul opens his Bible, what does he see? What does he want the believers in first-century Rome – this diverse and divided church network, filled with division and condemnation – what does Paul want them to see when they take out their Bibles? What does he want us to see when we grab ours?

The entire Old Testament is covered by that phrase, “Whatever was written in former days,” “As much as was written in the past.” Any passage out of the Old Testament – Paul doesn't want to leave any of it out. And the first thing he sees, no matter where he turns, is this: “instruction.” Teaching, learning, doctrine. It furnishes us with knowledge, with information, that brightens up what's in our heads and filters down through how we live. It's meant to change how the hearer thinks, to give the hearer new pieces of the puzzle or retrieve some that have fallen by the wayside. What sorts of things do we need to learn in life? We need to learn who God is. We need to learn what he's like. We need to learn what he does and what he's done. We need to learn what he wants, and how to do it. We need to learn who he says we are and where he says we went wrong and what he says will fix us and where he says we're going. We need to learn how to respond to the hazards of life, and how to navigate our way through a tricky world. We need to learn about that world, and about the world we're made for. We need to learn how to get where God wants us to go, and how to be what God wants us to be.

To learn all of that, we can't just make it up as we go along. We can't piece together a patchwork of ideas that just instinctively appeal to us. Do that, and madness that way lies. Today in America, there's an epidemic of efforts to each found our own private cult – make up a god who suits our tastes, who reinforces all of our own opinions, themselves swallowed up from popular culture or stewed in the dented pots of our own self-flattery; and by the sputtering flickers of light we generate, we propose to chart our own course deep into the midnight desert that we fancy we can redesign at will. And it's no wonder we get so lost. What we need is to humble ourselves and give attention to the guidebook and survival manual and toolkit, written by an experienced companion who will go with us. This guidebook references timeless features of the terrain; it may require thoughtfulness to observe how other aspects shift, and how to apply its survival techniques in the situations we face. But the guidebook is far more trustworthy than venturing off into the midnight desert blindly. We cannot afford to make it up as we go along. We need to be instructed.

And so Paul explains that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” Not just to instruct the people of former days, mind you, but “for our instruction.” For Paul and Priscilla and Aquila and Urbanus and Stachys and Junia and Julia and Olympas and all the other Christ-followers in Rome – Paul opens his Bible, and no matter what page it falls to, he's convinced it's there to instruct him and them. And as years pass and generations rise and fall, each can lay claim to that 'our.' Whatever was written way back then, it was written to instruct Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and Athanasius and Augustine; it was written to instruct Patrick and Benedict and Dominic and Francis; it was written to instruct Bonaventure and Aquinas and Palamas; it was written to instruct Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, Cranmer and Wesley and Albright. It was written to instruct believers in Uganda and India and Norway and Brazil and Japan and right here in this sanctuary. That isn't just a side effect; God had one eye on you when he breathed his Spirit into the situation that produced the writing. As the prophet spoke, as the scribe wrote, as the Spirit carried them downstream in the flow of words that were entrusted to scrolls and handed down through thousands of years, God had us right here in mind. We may not be the original audience; we may need to get a grasp on the context they lived in, if we want to really appreciate what's being said, because it's said to us by means of them; but God always meant for it to be passed along to us, because he intended all along to reach us through it – we are why he went to all the trouble.

That means that whatever we open the Bible to, it has some sort of enduring relevance. It may not always be easy to see how. We have to be retrained how to read, retaught how to think. We need the gift of new eyes. Yet it's true. If you open your Bible to Leviticus, which was “written in former days,” Paul will tell you that, yes, Leviticus was written for our instruction – my instruction and your instruction. Open your Bible to Obadiah, and Paul says yes, that too: Obadiah was written for my instruction and your instruction. Same thing holds if your Bible falls open to 1 Chronicles – it's not just that we can get something out of it, but as God inspired it, he purposely made sure that it would be a suitable vessel for carrying his doctrine, his teaching, to you where you are. “For our instruction” (Romans 15:4).

That's a tough pill to swallow, when you really think about it! But Paul wants to give us an illustration himself. To address a situation in first-century Rome, a community made up of almost entirely Gentiles who aren't sold that any part of the Jewish heritage is relevant any more, Paul quotes from a Jewish poem written centuries earlier: Psalm 69. Whenever and wherever exactly it came from, it would have surely been popular during the days of Zerubbabel, the generation freed from exile in Babylon who returned to the ruins of their land. And the first problem they noticed was that Jerusalem was in ruins, the temple of God was in ruins, and something had to be done. So they got to work on rebuilding, but met opposition from the Samaritans. And this psalm was no doubt prayed by some frustrated Jews who were being persecuted for their devotion.

It fits. The singer prays for God to save him from his trouble. He laments, “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause” (Psalm 69:4). And then he turns to God and says that all the insults he's received, all the shame and dishonor he's bearing under – “It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother's sons. For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me. When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach. When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them. I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards made songs about me” (Psalm 69:7-12). He's saying that, out of love for God and out of love for his temple, he's stepped in to act like a human shield, to stand before God's glory and absorb all the staining insults and mockery that the godless are shooting out against God and against his 'house,' the temple. All this devotion, acts of love for God, puts the target on the psalmist's chest – but while it greatly distresses him, and he wants God to rescue him, he'd rather absorb those insults, that dishonor, that shame, rather than let it fall on God's glory on on God's temple.

When Paul reads that, he knows who it's really trying to reveal. Whoever wrote the psalm, they wrote it – no matter if they even knew it or not – to give voice to the heart of Jesus. If the psalm was popular in the days of Zerubbabel, it's nonetheless the song of Jesus right here. It's no surprise that later lines from the same psalm are applied to the crucifixion: “I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (Psalm 69:20-21; cf. Mark 15:36). This is a song of the Messiah, who steps in between God and sinners to absorb every insult against God or against the temple that the Messiah is building for God: the church. Every reproach against God's glory, every indirect reproach against God's glory via demeaning his temple – Jesus is so full of zeal for the temple, his Father's house, the church, that he steps in and can say to his Father, “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (Psalm 69:9). And reproaches against the temple are reproaches against its God. Which means that the reproaches we turn against each other, the times we condemn and insult and judge and despise each other – those, in taking aim against parts of God's temple, are insults that the Messiah intercepts, a burden of shame he takes up and bears through his cross, and one we ought not to keep piling higher.

So Paul quotes that half-verse – “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” – and knowing how to read the psalm rightly, he's found it just dripping with Christ. And the lesson he takes is wonderfully understated. If the Messiah dedicates himself to the painful and agonizing task of being a human shield for God and his temple, and intercepting all the insults, and bearing reproach and dishonor and shame for God's sake – if that's what the Messiah does, the very least you can say is that “the Messiah did not please himself” (Romans 15:3). That's an understatement! The Messiah we meet in Psalm 69, the Jesus who prays this prayer, is not one who's trying to satisfy all his cravings. He's not chasing worldly prosperity. He's not flattering himself. He's not putting his own desires first. He's not out to 'live life to the fullest,' in anything like a twenty-first-century American sense, or even a first-century Roman sense, for that matter. For the sake of his Father, and for the sake of the temple he's built for his Father's Spirit to indwell, he's dedicated himself to carrying shame – and that is definitely not a self-pleasing lifestyle.

If the Messiah's going to live that way, what does that say to the arrogant Romans, who occupy themselves in judging or despising or resenting their fellow believers who follow different customs? “We who are 'strong,'” Paul says, “have an obligation to bear with the failings of the 'weak,' and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, for upbuilding” (Romans 15:1-2). They should be shocked that all their strife, all their efforts to puff themselves up as better than one another, has amounted to a messy war amidst which Jesus has placed himself as a human shield. The reproaches fell on him, since he didn't please himself. And neither should we be focused on pleasing ourselves. Instead of reinforcing our opinions, instead of patting ourselves on the back, instead of surging ahead and leaving the rest behind or casting them aside as disposable, we're supposed to help build their house – to support them, to carry some of the weight, to lend a helping hand, to do good to them in a way they can receive and approve and be pleased by. In building them up, we build up God's temple. That's a different kind of church atmosphere. That looks a lot more like the Jesus of Psalm 69.

And isn't it amazing where Paul gets this? Here's a church network in his day that's dealing with a specific sort of situation totally unique among all churches in the world at the time. Nowhere else is there such a thing as a Gentile-majority church. No other city has this many local church gatherings – dozens of them, even when Paul writes. In no other place is there so much diversity among Christians as in the Rome Paul's writing to. It's a weird new world for Paul. And yet he dives into the pages of his Bible, into writings from the distant past before Paul's great-great-grandparents were born, and he surfaces with just the instruction that can change everything. Because Psalm 69 was written long in advance to teach the first-century Roman Christians what the Messiah would be like, and how to be like him. And that's the heart of everything we need to learn in life.

In that psalm, a song probably sung in the sixth century BC and maybe even older still, what we meet is nothing less than the vivid, life-changing, church-building spirituality of Jesus Christ today – his living and active presence here and now among us, vibrant and sorrowful and zealous for us as his Father's house. The living Christ abides in Psalm 69, which is written for our instruction. Go anywhere in Paul's Bible, and you'll find that Paul was right, and Matta was right: it's written for our instruction now. So how could we not yearn to read it all, again and again, and learn for today and tomorrow?

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” To what effect? What help can biblical instruction give us? “That through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Through the Bible, God will equip us with endurance. Patience. The ability to last in trying circumstances, to persevere and make it through. Faced with the cross, faced with the mocking reproach of the crowd, Jesus needed to endure. And Paul says Jesus got that endurance out of Scripture, out of Psalm 69. When we're put in a bind, when we're tested and stretched thin by the challenges of life in the world, when we're in need of some training to hold out longer and resist the pressure and keep our head above the floodwaters – Paul says God has endurance to give you, and it comes through the Bible.

Learn how to read the Bible the right way – not just pecking kernels along the surface, but digging for the reservoirs of Christ in each page – and you wouldn't believe how much raw strength can surround you and defend you and equip you to endure. Because all these things, written over two thousand years ago, are finely tuned and specified to train you with exactly what you need to know to outlast whatever trial you're facing right now, and whatever challenge will surface tomorrow.

And then, through the Bible, God will offer us encouragement. Consolation. Comfort. The soothing message of a personal advocate and close companion. When we're downtrodden, when we're discouraged, when we're hurting and wounded and traumatized, when we're tempted and confused and in need of advice, when we're in the cold midnight of life and shivering and need a warm embrace and a kindly word, God reaches out from the Bible. That's what Paul's saying. The aid, the comfort, the exhortation you need – God will give it to you, and it comes through the Bible. In your struggling hour, God offers you comfort and reassurance through scripture. In your grieving hour, God offers you comfort and reassurance through scripture. In your lonely hour, God offers you comfort and reassurance through scripture. In even your dying hour, God offers you comfort and reassurance through scripture.

The function of all this endurance and encouragement is to give fresh birth to hope in us. That's what Paul says. Hope is a major theme of Romans. Abraham isn't offered just the father of all the faithful; he's the example of hope, a radical hope that God's wildest promises are true: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, 'So shall your offspring be'” (Romans 4:18). Hope is what will outlast all our reproaches and dishonor: “Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:4-5). Hope stretches beyond the borders of Israel, and takes formerly hopeless pagans and writes them a new future in Christ: “In him will the Gentiles hope” (Romans 15:12). Hope points us to a new creation filled with freedom and light: Paul speaks of a “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). Hope points us to our new selves in the new creation: “We wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies, for in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we don't see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:23-25). What we hope for is nothing less, Paul says, than God's own glory: “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God,” based on a Christ-given “access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). God commands us to “rejoice in hope” (Romans 12:12), and this very “God of hope” aims to “fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13). All that, God aims to do in you through all the things that are already written in the Bible.

You have a new future in Christ to look forward to, a new creation waiting at the door, a new freedom you can't even imagine. That's hope. All you have to do is outlast this short night. That's endurance. And for every cold and chilling breeze that chatters your teeth in grief or loneliness or trial, there's the warmth of encouragement and comfort to surround you. To get all this, you don't need to journey to some far-flung mountain, or meditate on foreign mysticism, or leap through rings of fire. It's buried in your Bible in endless abundance. Swing your pick-axe anywhere, do some digging, and it'll come bubbling up and gushing out.

What's more, the hope that springs out of this endurance and encouragement has its own purpose. By looking ahead to a new future in Christ in a new creation with a new freedom, by focusing our attention on the Messiah, God will enable us to “live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6). We will learn to all sing the same song in harmony. Whether our background is Gentile or Jewish, whether our customs mark us as 'strong' or 'weak,' whether we sing baritone or soprano, Paul envisions a harmony, a unity, as we sing a chorus with Jesus, as we match our voices to his. Where do we find his voice? Scripture. And what does our song with Jesus do? It glorifies God his Father.

How often do we think of the Bible as a unifying force? In today's age, we're almost accustomed to mistaking the Bible for an agent of division. We can so easily split hairs over different interpretations of this theme or that theme, this verse or that verse, and the proliferation of opinions threatens to throw us off the hermeneutical cliff and render us paralyzed to find meaning. Paul doesn't see it that way. Certainly, there will be differences in some matters of application. There will be a variety of opinions on an assortment of details. As we heard last week, Paul stresses charity for the diversity of customs and opinions on some of those matters. But, he says, if you really read the Bible for endurance and encouragement and hope, if your desire is to praise God and glorify him forever, then when you go digging in the scriptures, you won't get sidetracked by analyzing soil samples endlessly or throwing rocks at each other; you'll just be digging 'til you hit Christ.

And if you aim for all things to be in harmony with the multifaceted Jesus revealed by each chapter, our chorus of many tones will glorify God with one voice. After all, like Psalm 69 says: “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. … Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. For God will save Zion...” (Psalm 69:30, 34-35). That's the goal: for universal glory to God to overflow the temple for which the Messiah was filled with zeal. And all the sweep of all scripture was given for our instruction to provide the endurance and encouragement that fixes in us a common hope for which we can sing together. May you be able to say, like Matta – Fr. Matthew the Poor these words: “My joy in the Word is that it was to me a parent, a guide, an instructor, and a reliable physician. It has truly penetrated me like a sword and excised the cancers. The Word is living and powerful! If you receive it, you will be filled with grace upon grace. But if you live without it, you will ever live in blindness. … Never in my life have I found such a helper and guide as the Bible. One must bow one's head before it in utter submission, just as one bows before a celestial king.” Abba Matta was right. Whatever was written before, was written for him – and you.