Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Prize by Surprise

“Wealth and wages make life sweet, but better than either is finding a treasure” (Sirach 40:18). That line from the Book of Sirach turned over and over in the mind of Ben, the hired hand, as he sweated beneath the sun. His body was overheated, sticky, and weary in the seemingly permanent heat that was ceaseless by day and apparently unending at night. He'd had dreams once – dreams of a life he could enjoy. Dreams of having a place to call his own. Dreams of farming his own land, instead of hiring himself out to farm this distant edge of a vast plantation not his own. Dreams of really being his own man. But life didn't turn out that way. He had to eat by the sweat of his brow – and then some. His daydreams were useless. But they got him through the long days of manual labor when there was no breeze to help. So he dreamed. And he dug at the soil.

And then he heard an unusual sound – clink – like instead of hitting dirt or hitting rock, he'd struck a patch of wood and metal beneath the sediments. Scratching inquisitively, he found a box – very narrow but two feet long and plunged lengthwise into the earth. He needed a break anyway, so he paused to pull it up. And when he opened it, his hands trembled so he nearly dropped it. He unfurled a stretch of canvas and saw something he'd seen in a textbook once, in that art history class he'd never finished – he gazed at the Renaissance painter Raphael's lost Portrait of a Young Man – worth a fortune – he thought he remembered an estimate of a hundred million dollars it might fetch now. Ben was so overwhelmed, he absentmindedly turned over and over the yellow gem in his hand, with all 126 of its facets gleaming in the fiery sunlight – the missing Florentine Diamond, unchanged since its theft from the last Austrian emperor in 1918. What room was left over in the box alongside those two fit in – it was overflowing with gold coins. There could not have been a greater surprise.

Ben looked around – no one in sight. No one could see him except maybe as an indistinct silhouette on the horizon. It was a vast plantation, after all, with few to work the spacious fields. And so, with his heart pounding in his chest, Ben carefully rolled the painting back up, slipped it into the box; gently placed the diamond in; and scooped gold coins in until they were all there. Wedging the box back into the crack whence it came, he dropped a few spadefuls of dirt over it, smoothed out the soil, and moved merrily along his way, with a barely concealable spring in his step – it was joy, plain and simple.

Ben hustled home – he had scarcely any time to think. He knew his neighbor had been wanting to buy his house – wanted room to expand, he'd said – so Ben hammered on the door and made a cash sale. Ben cashed in his few stocks and bonds. He emptied his retirement fund account. He sold his clothes, his favorite chair, everything in his house that wasn't nailed down – and a few things that were. Wasn't much – but when everything was put together, it was enough. Enough to march into the landowner's office. Enough to say he wanted a new start, some land on his own – and a plot of a couple acres at the edge of the plantation would be quite nice. Oblivious, the owner saw only a dumb peasant willing to fork out 190% of the plot's retail value – a winning transaction for the owner. He had no clue what had been buried there years before he'd bought the land himself. He signed the bill of transfer. Done deal.

In the days to come, Ben threw quite a few parties in celebration. His former employer was now, you see, the second richest man in town – a distant second, in fact. It had cost Ben everything he had – his home, his investments, his security in the future, his clothes, all his earthly possessions. When his brothers and sisters heard, they were ready to drag him off to the asylum. Why become homeless and penniless to get a couple acres of dirt? But as soon as the land and all its contents were legally his, he dug up the box. The cost was nothing next to the value of the prize. And thanks to the discipline to handle it wisely, Ben was set for life. “Wealth and wages make life sweet, but better than either is finding a treasure.” Amen, thought Ben. Amen.

If Ben were real, and if Ben were one of the relatively few Americans who still possess some basic biblical literacy in this day and age, Ben might have drawn a comparison to a teensy snippet from the Gospel of Matthew – a story from the lips of Jesus. Two stories, in fact. Jesus invited his students and the eavesdropping crowds to imagine two men. One, a refined pearl merchant on the hunt for quality merchandise, makes a stunning discovery: a seller who apparently has less refined tastes is willing to part with the biggest pearl anyone has ever seen for a price criminally cheap; so the merchant divests himself of all his stock and his personal possessions at a discount, and scoops up the bargain of the century. Or as Jesus tells it: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).

But Ben would have resonated even more with the other story, a story of a farmhand and some buried treasure: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). See, back in those days, people did bury their savings – no banks in Galilee, after all – and it wasn't outside the realm of possibility to uncover a stash hidden a couple generations ago, before the land changed hands a few times. Finders keepers, for landowners.

The dream of finding buried treasure was to them what winning the lottery is to twenty-first-century Americans – it's not likely to happen, but folks find it fun to daydream about. And if there were a fair and legal way to make it a sure thing, there's no cost within your reach that's too great. It's simple math – the jackpot outweighs your current assets, so if it can be a sure thing, you ditch your current assets and grab that jackpot. If the field holds a buried treasure worth more than all you own, you sell all you own and buy the field. Passing the opportunity by makes no sense. Dismissing the find of a lifetime is ludicrous. Dithering and dilly-dallying would be foolish. Deeming it just another day on the job would be absurd.

There's nothing humdrum about finding buried treasure. That's the moment that changes your life forever. That's the moment where your dreams come true, and a totally new life comes within your reach. When you find buried treasure, you don't just move along. You figure out how to get it legally in your possession. And when you find buried treasure, you don't shrug your shoulders and say, “That's pretty nice.” Your heart races, you grin, you leap and holler – you celebrate – you rejoice. And no matter what sacrifice it calls for to get it, even if it's everything you own, even if you have to sleep in a cardboard box for a month, no matter what worldly possessions or creature comforts you have to part with for a season to get that treasure – you know you'll look back once you've got your prize, and you'll think, “It was all worth it. I would have been an idiot to pass this up. I would have been an idiot not to take the deal. I would have been an idiot to forgo this treasure I found... a prize by surprise.”

Jesus told just such a story. And the point of Jesus' story here is that this is what God's kingdom is like. Have you ever thought about it like that? When people imagined God's kingdom, what they were thinking about was a healed world – a world fixed and made right – a world with God at the center and God in charge – a world and a society with God as King, who would finally reward his loyal people with victory, with top-dog status, and with every lavish luxury their hearts have ever dreamed of – who would finally crush all evil and cleanse all stains – that God would take charge and enforce his perfect will, to the benefit of all those who gained his favor.

That's what people meant when they talked about the kingdom of God – it was the world they were all waiting for, a world their ancestors had almost tasted in the days of David when Israel was humming along in working order, but which had clearly fallen into grave disrepair. And then Jesus came along and announced that the kingdom, this long-lost world, was arriving – it was showing up in strange ways wherever he went, in whatever he touched – like he said, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them; and blessed is the one who does not stumble on my account” (Matthew 11:5-6). This abundance, this healed world, this lavish grace – a new world poking into our old world wherever Jesus is. And those who follow him and live according to his vision get tastes of it now and, when the new world takes over fully, will enter it and enjoy it completely. That's the kingdom of God.

And what Jesus is telling this story for is to show us what a surprise this kingdom is. Jesus' new world pokes and prods at the fabric of this one in places you didn't think you'd find it. His lavish grace jumps out at you when you're not looking. You're going about your daily business, trudging through the dirt, lazily strolling the aisles at the corner store – and whoa, there it is! There's the kingdom! The kingdom shows up where you least expect – even at an execution on a hill outside Jerusalem – even in a locked-and-guarded grave. The kingdom is not content to be obvious. You'll find the kingdom hiding under a layer of topsoil. You'll walk face-first into it and break your nose. But there it is. The only question is: Will it be yours?

And when you crash into the kingdom, when you turn over the dirt and catch a glimpse, you need to understand: what you have just found, what you have just seen, is not merely one option among others. What you've found is not mundane. What you've found is incomparable. What you've found is an only hope. What you've found is riches beyond compare. What you've found is not worth trying to find a measuring system that can handle both it and what you've known before. The kingdom is of an incomprehensibly higher order of magnitude than all else you've ever known. Because the kingdom yields abundance. The kingdom yields peace and joy. The kingdom yields virtue. The kingdom yields wholeness. The kingdom yields eternity. The kingdom is divine – it is the very treasure of God. If you can think of the kingdom and dismiss it as unimportant, you ain't seen the kingdom. Every act of terror, every mass shooting, every tyrant's injustice, every mob's riots, every famine and drought, every scream of grief or silent pang of poverty – that's from the old world, where we're all grabbing at the crown. But the invitation to a new world stands open, and those who enter in will ultimately find that “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

The kingdom, the grace of God, comes knocking with a rare invitation. The grace is given freely – but to accept this free grace may well cost you, and cost you dearly. Like the man in the story, you may have to sell more than you bargained for. Entering the kingdom means doing the Father's will (Matthew 7:21). You can't see it unless you've got a new start to life, a new birth (John 3:3). You have to strip away all your pride, stoop down, turn around, become like a humble, helpless kid (Matthew 18:3-4). You've got to get hold of a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). You have to let the big sack of possessions roll from your back, or else you'll no more fit through than a camel can squeeze through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). And yet the most sinful and outcast, “tax collectors and prostitutes,” can find this deal within their reach (Matthew 21:31). But the pathway in is “through many tribulations” (Acts 14:22). And you'll find that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9) – those who cling to lives of “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry..., hatred, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy..., and things like these … will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

The grace of God comes knocking... but the kingdom's new world will cost you all that old-world junk, and more besides. A German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed under Hitler, famously wrote about this kind of costly grace. He said: “Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has. … It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.”

And that's the honest-to-God truth. And that's the measure of a true teacher: a true teacher will showcase the value of God's kingdom – and its cost. Lose out on either, and you've missed the message of Jesus. “Therefore every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). The kingdom treasure has more facets than the Florentine Diamond – it shines from all angles, all different but all beautiful, no matter when those angles were cut, whether in the era of Isaiah or the days of Paul. There's plenty in that treasure – and a true teacher is going to show you an endless parade of reasons to celebrate in finding it, but won't gloss over the price tag.

The truth is, even though God offers his grace freely, even though the gates of the kingdom are thrown wide to all who'll dump their old-world junk by the wayside and come near to slip on through, there are plenty who count the cost as too high. The Gospels are honest about that: folks invited to follow Jesus to the kingdom, but they make excuses – they want to cling to life as they know it. Not everyone knows an eternal investment when they see it. You can even sit in a pew, you can get your name on the membership roll, you can put a token bill in the plate now and then – but still not be buying the real treasure. Jesus tells another story: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age...” (Matthew 13:47-49). The Sea of Galilee was full of plenty species you could catch by trawling with a net spread between two boats. But not every species was kosher, not every fish caught was clean. When the net gets pulled ashore at the end of the day, some won't pass muster for the kingdom. The kingdom was within our reach, and yet there are those who don't know a treasure when it's right underfoot or staring them in the face. And only when the net's reeled in and the crops are harvested do we get sorted.

But what about now? Maybe you hear that story, and it makes you concerned. Well, Jesus probably meant it to. If you truly trust in him, if you proclaim him as the Lord who rescued you, if the truth of his resurrection is planted in your heart – then you've found a real treasure. It's already yours, by grace through faith... and when the end of the day comes and the new world crashes fully down, you'll enjoy it without any impediment. In the meantime, though, sticking to that path and following through is a costly endeavor. But if we've actually caught sight of the treasure, if we really understand, then the price doesn't seem so high, because we see how short it falls next to the surprise we've uncovered. And so we can sell all we've got with joy.

There are plenty of things we have. Many of them are obstacles in our progress toward the kingdom: demands on our schedules, demands on our energy, demands on our bank accounts, demands on our lifestyle – demands that proceed from society, from culture, from family and friends, from traditions, from desires, from all sorts of scripts we make up or accept and pursue. And when we lose sight of the joy of buried treasure, we struggle to sell those off – but that discovery, that sale, that blessed purchase, is just what the kingdom of God is like.

Do we rejoice to invest our time, gathering with fellow kingdom-citizens on a Sunday morning? Do we rejoice to invest our efforts, serving those around us with what they need? Do we rejoice to invest our paltry funds to favor those through whom our King accepts our gifts? Do we rejoice to invest our devotion in our King? Do we rejoice to invest our words to invite others to his treasure? If so, we're getting more than the bargain of a lifetime – we're getting the deal of eternity. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

God on the Hunt: Sermon on Luke 15:1-10

It had been a drizzly autumn day. And now it was a chilling autumn night. For this little sheep, not a pleasant one. This little sheep felt a rumbling in his stomach. This little sheep panted with thirst. This little sheep was shivering and anxious. This little sheep was hurting and stuck. It had started the morning before. He thought he'd seen a greener patch of grass over by the ridge. But mean ol' Shepherd wouldn't take the flock there. This little sheep had been quite frustrated. This little sheep had a rebellious streak. So this little sheep had parted ways with the flock and gone over for a tasty bite. It had been easy to slip away from the back of the flock. And it had been easy to slip and fall over the ridge's rock. And down this little sheep had tumbled, tumbled, over stone and root and withered dandelion tuft, into a dry and shady place where even the grass was dusty.

This little sheep tried to get up. This little sheep had fractured a leg. So this little sheep struggled and struggled to get back up the hill – and this little sheep just couldn't. He looked to and fro. But nothing was familiar. This little sheep started to panic. He wanted to convince himself he didn't need Shepherd. This little sheep calmed himself as best he could, made one more valiant effort – and he tumbled again, tumbled head over heels, down further – and then it hurt worse.

This little sheep opened his eyes and twisted his head. All round about his matted fleece were thorns on living wires – a briar patch, he saw – and such was his hunger, he twisted round and tried to take a bite. It pricked his mouth, made him taste iron on his tongue – and the briars were sour and decayed. But this little sheep wasn't in a position to even reach the thorns holding him tight. Like it or not, this little sheep was stuck. And so he laid his weary little body down in resignation. Hours passed. He tried to convince himself of all the perks of his new thorny home. But deep down, he knew it wasn't true. The sun grew high in the sky, high enough to pierce the shade. But it only brought heat. And then the sun moved far behind him, and the light grew dim. His leg still hurt. Everything hurt. And as the sun set, the air grew cold. And this little sheepish heart raced as he heard behind him in the distance an ominous chorus of howls. But this little sheep, whose struggles only bound him more and more tightly to the briars, could do nothing but wait and lament.

A couple hours earlier, having reached the edge of the desert, a shepherd and his apprentice saw fit to carry out a little census of their flock. There was Lumpy – he was never far behind. There was Frisky – never far from Lumpy. There were Fluffy and Drowsy and Flighty and Trippy, Shaky and Nosy and Peace Boy and, yes, even Steve. And so on it went – the shepherd knew his flock by name, recognized the minute details in the contours of all their faces, could even recognize many by tail alone. As he passed through the flock, he recited the names to his apprentice. And then he reached the end. And he knew his fears were confirmed. Ninety-nine names had passed his lips. And that was the wrong number.

“Benjamin,” he said to his apprentice, “take good care of them 'til I come back. If it gets dark, go to the village and put them in the pen yourself. You can do this. I believe in you. But my heart is sick thinking of that little sheep lost out in the cold.” And so, leaving the ninety-nine in his teenage apprentice's care, he began to race to retrace the day's steps in search of the one. This little sheep, he thought to himself, wasn't the biggest in the flock. Not quite the smallest, but on the runty side. He certainly wasn't the strongest. He wasn't the friendliest. Certainly not the best behaved by any stretch of the imagination. But this sheep was his. And in its absence, his heart was pained with grief; it beat thunderously within him. As he scoured the slim grasslands mowed low by his flock's passage, memories flooded back. The day that little sheep was born. The first tottering steps. Some funny antics of a prancing lamb. Adventures and misadventures. A tear of concern trickled down his cheek. As he roved, he called out this little sheep's name.

He passed south of another village, where coincidentally, a similar tear of concern was sliding down the cheek of an old widow. Early that afternoon, a couple hours after the shepherd's sheep had slipped away, the widow had come to a bitter realization. She had only ten drachmae to her name, ten silver coins to spell all her wealth – but only nine were accounted for. She looked down at the dirt floor. It would be so easy for a coin to get lost down there. And this was no small value. This was no penny, no nickel. For her, this was two days' pay of what she could get for her hired weaving, her meager livelihood. Two days of work, amounting to a tenth of all her savings! She thought of where she might have been outside the home, but no – no, best to look here first. And so, as daylight filtered lazily through her slender window holes, she took up a broom and started sweeping – first turning over the top layer of dirt anywhere she could see, then scraping in every nook and every cranny, bending low to inspect with her blurred and hazy sight. Neighbors came calling – she could only wave them away. Today was no day for frivolities. Today was no day for togetherness. Today was not even a day for weaving. Her sustenance was in jeopardy. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

A mile west of the village, in the chill of night, a little sheep in a briar patch had been trying to shut his ears, trying to block out the slowly approaching howls. But then, through his little ears came a lofty and familiar sound. His ears perked up to catch it, sailing overhead. “Dopey! Dopey!” His name! His name, his name – Shepherd was calling his name! He bleated feebly in answer. He struggled again to stand up, but the briars had too tight a grip on him. He bleated again. Up above, the shepherd heard that sound, and a sense of relief spread over him. That dopey little sheep was alive!

The sickness in his stomach began passing away as he peered over the ridge. He climbed down until he could see the sheep, wool a bit bloodied, stuck in the thorns. Whispering softly to reassure Dopey, the shepherd pulled out a knife and cut away the briars. Squinting in the darkness and feeling with his fingers, he felt the fractures in Dopey's leg bones. He felt Dopey's quivering, labored breathing. But he managed to cut Dopey free. Tenderly picking up the little sheep, the shepherd draped him across his shoulders and the back of his neck, climbed the steep rocky incline toward the ridge, and then began the midnight trek back home.

Dopey, for his part, was so relieved to have been found – so relieved to have a protector – so relieved to be safe from the elements and safe from the wolves. He breathed a sigh of relief and rested his weight fully and fully contentedly on Shepherd's strong shoulders. And then he felt a curious shaking, bouncing him wincingly up and down. And he couldn't understand what was happening to Shepherd. Until he heard the sound. The shepherd, you see, was laughing – the laughter that only grief giving way to relief can produce. And tears no longer of concern but of joy slid down his cheeks as he walked through the early morning hours.

That very hour, as he passed south of a village, a woman there had similar tears carving their way through the wrinkled canyons of her face. And so, too, did her shoulders shake like the shepherd's shoulders, for much the same reason. Drawing up her candle, she held it near her other hand, wherein her knotted arthritic fingers felt metal wedged in a narrow crack. Prying it loose, she held it to the soft candlelight. She rubbed aside the dirt – and she saw a reassuring gleam. Her tenth drachma had been lost – but now her coin was found! And so what could she do but laugh and laugh and laugh?

As a new crisp autumn day dawned, two people in two villages called together two sets of friends, family, and neighbors. With relief like they felt, with joy like they knew, how could it not be shared? “Rejoice with me,” he said to his apprentice and his neighbors, “for I have found my sheep that was lost!” “Rejoice with me,” she told the neighbor women, “for I have found the coin that I had lost!” Their joy cared little for expense. All that mattered was that right was restored – it was as right as an estranged son finding his way back home. It was too right, too good, too true, too beautiful, to let the opportunity for a party go to waste.

Stories like these need no GPS coordinates, no latitude and longitude; they don't have to be placed on a calendar or measured by the regnal years of kings and queens. They need no names. Stories like these could happen, did happen, in any and every village since time immemorial. And that's why Jesus told stories like these. They had that air of familiarity; they were instantly relatable. But he told them from his grief and disquiet. As the crowds had gathered 'round, as tax collectors and thieves and an assortment of notorious ne'er-do-wells hung on his every word about his Father, a cadre of religious experts, with greedy, prideful hearts as filthy as rotting corpses, but outwardly plastered over with a pretty facade, mocked and grumbled and murmured their noisy complaints. Jesus heard them all too well.

This man, this Jesus, has no discernment. He teaches all and sundry. He revels in impropriety. He squanders his fellowship on bad company. He associates with the filthy. He calls thieves and ruffians and killers his friends. He's close with loose women. He pitches his tent in flyover country and hangs out in dark alleys in the city's seedy underbelly. He drinks with rednecks and wastes his time with hillbillies and outlaws. He goes to all the wrong parties. This Jesus character, you see – he welcomes sinners, approves of them, endorses them, even eats with them! And in this we know what kind of man he is, for did not the sages say, 'Let a man never associate with a wicked person, not even for the purpose of bringing him near to the Torah'?”

Oh, Jesus heard their gripes and snipes, their scornful complaints. And sometimes, at least I imagine, he might have wanted to pry their eyelids open and make them see what he saw! If these callous Pharisees and scribes have the earthly sense to recognize the joyous tears in a shepherd's eye as he carries his lost sheep home, and if they can understand and appreciate the laughter in a widow's voice as she sees silver where she feared was only dirt, if they can grasp these ordinary, day-to-day celebrations of finding what was lost, how is it they can be so blind to the same tears and laughter writ large in his Father's heart? Don't they see? Don't they get it, these Pharisees? For what other reason was the Messiah to come, but to seek out and save the lost (cf. Luke 19:10)? What kind of god have they been worshipping? How can they be so blind not to know that there's no God but a God on the hunt?

But enough of lambasting the Pharisees. O church, can you see what they couldn't? Do you know what tears of joy were shed, and what laughter boomed in all the halls of heaven the day each one of you went from lost to found? Do you understand this truth, that “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10)? That day you were saved, that day you were found – it was a pretext for the angels to party with their Maker! They blew the trumpets, they banged the drums, they broke out the champagne, they held a parade over gold-paved roads from one pearly gate to the next – and it was all because of the laughter of God when he cut you loose, picked you up, and carried you all through your darkest night back to his fold, his church! The angels soaked up his howls of delight as he brushed off the dirt and saw you shine! But do you realize it today, brothers and sisters, that you've been the occasion for such a shindig way up yonder, all because you repented and believed – all because, when you raised your clenched fist, he opened up your hand to receive his gift?

Mike, let me ask you something. You and Wanda have your fair share of furry critters sharing a home with you. Suppose Baby Girl slipped out the door and got loose in the neighborhood – maybe stuck in some bush, you don't know where. Would Wanda be indifferent to the whole situation? Can you ever see Wanda getting that news and saying, 'Good riddance'? Even if Baby Girl had started biting, even if she'd begun ignoring the litter box, whatever the case, wouldn't Wanda still be desperate for Baby Girl's return? And Mike, would your wife give you any rest 'til you spent day and night with her in the hunt? 

And Jesse, if one week your paycheck from Rocky Ridge slips behind the fridge, way in the back where you can't reach (even with a yardstick going underneath), wouldn't you move the darn thing out of the way? Wouldn't you slide it away, wouldn't you lower yourself down and squat among the dust bunnies to reclaim your treasure? 

Who among us wouldn't be sick over a lost household pet? Who among us wouldn't get dirty to fetch a missing paycheck? Who among us wouldn't go on the hunt?

We know these things! So how can we see less in our Father's heart? Didn't the divine glory kneel among dust bunnies, move heaven and earth with the leverage of his cross, shove a stone from his path, all to reclaim what's his? And when he calls us to the hunt for his strays, how can we look down on what our Father treasures? And how can we stay aloof from the celebration when a stray is brought home?

The Pharisees saw tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees saw addicts, gluttons, liars, thieves, killers, loose women, gays, atheists, pagans, drunks, rednecks and hillbillies and outlaws – they saw dirt all the way through, because they saw them only through a sneer and a squint, and their own eyelids were dirty on the inside. But Jesus saw lost sheep who belong in his fold, lost coins who belong in his treasury, and lost sons and daughters who belong at home with their Father. He came for no other reason. He aims to implement a No Lost Sheep Left Behind policy. God is on the hunt, lookin' for a laugh to share with the angels when another lost treasure is found and another lost critter gets carted home – no matter how wild, no matter how woolly.

What about us? What do we see? Are we the voice of judgment or the arms of welcome – love that does better than merely affirm the lost in their lostness, love that goes far enough to invite the lost back into the limelight of home? Do we only see dirt? Do we pass them by? Do we murmur and complain about the notion of having 'that sort' get too close? Or are we actively seeking them out, not as a project, but as real live people to find – to eat with – to share life with – to introduce to Jesus – to celebrate over? Are we keeping aloof from the raucous parties and the uncouth dinners with Jesus and the sinners, preferring our faux gentility and our refinement? Or are we willing to venture into the rough-and-tumble places where the kingdom of God is taking place? Are we content to exclude, or do we long to include? Do we prefer talking points, or are we ready for conversation? Make no mistake: God is on the hunt. The only question here is whether we aim to join the hunt and join the party. For in no other way can you laugh so happily with your Father... than by going with him on the hunt.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

When Towers Fall

[Preached on a Sunday where our church invited local first responders to attend, be honored, and receive tokens of our appreciation for their service to the community.]

I wonder if there were any warning signs. Any conspicuous cracks, any trembling. But up until then, it probably seemed like such an ordinary day. And then, from one minute to the next, everything just changed. The masonry gave way. Screams of terror filled the air. I wonder if there was any smoke; certainly there were great big clouds of dust permeating the atmosphere. But the blocks of stone fell, this way and that. To those passing nearby, the sky seemed like it was raining bricks. The lofty tower collapsed. No wonder the people screamed out. But the stones crashed to the ground in a hail of rock, and any denizens of first-century Jerusalem passing beneath were crushed.

And the only reason we know about it today is an almost off-hand comment of Jesus recounted by Luke. Jesus was in the midst of teaching. He publicly urged his disciples, in the midst of the crowd, not to live by way of anxiety; not to waste their time worrying about what to eat, what to wear, where their meals would come from; not to invest their energies in all these pursuits, but to focus on enthroning God as king in their lives and trusting his provision (Luke 12:22-31). But to do this, Jesus said, you have to stay ready for God to act. Don't be encumbered by the constant frenzy of activity in life, running to and fro to make sure all your needs are taken care of; no, think carefully whom you're really serving, and organize your life lightly, so you're equipped to spring into action as soon as the alarm sounds: “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning,” he says (Luke 12:35).

Jesus warns that a crisis is around the corner, a crisis that will send everyone into a frenzy: “I came to cast fire on the earth,” he tells them (Luke 12:49). And, turning his attention to all the onlookers who gathered round and eavesdropped on his instructions, he challenged them: If they know that clouds coming in from the sea are carrying rain, and if they know that wind blowing up from the desert is going to be hot – if they can link cause-and-effect in the weather, if they can figure out that smoke and heat are signs for fire, if they have the smarts to make those kinds of inferences on the earth and in the sky – then why can't they read the signs of the times? Why don't they put together the clues about how the world is shaping up (Luke 12:54-56)? And if the signs are pointing to a crisis around the corner, then why don't they get their affairs in order and settle their accounts, lest they suffer the full weight of all their debts (Luke 12:57-59)?

And when Jesus says that, some folks in the crowd pipe up with some input. They want to chat with Jesus about the latest tragedies coming across the Jerusalem news wire. Evidently, a group of men from Galilee had taken their families to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the temple – a fairly ordinary turn of events. But some investigation had to be taken – we don't know any of the circumstances – and things got out of hand. The hot-headed governor Pontius Pilate gave his soldiers permission to go poking around in the sacred temple precincts where the sacrifices were taking place – areas Gentiles were forbidden to go on pain of death – and amidst all the furor, the soldiers butchered some of the Galileans who only came to worship their God in peace (Luke 13:1).

Jesus addresses it, and he mentions in passing another piece from the local interest section of the daily paper: he talks about “those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them” (Luke 13:4). That was the day the mortar and masonry gave way. That was the day the bricks fell from the sky, and dust and screams filled the air. That was the day eighteen people in Jerusalem were crushed to death beneath the plummeting stonework of the Tower of Siloam.

We don't know anything more about it. It was just a local incident, something that poked into the news cycle for a week, maybe, and then was old hat. Other than the Gospel of Luke, no writer of the era records it for us; and Luke only gives us these couple of words. But what Jesus wants us to clearly know is that there was nothing special the Galileans in question had done to provoke Pilate's wrath, and there was nothing special those eighteen people had done to deserve death any more than the people who were just out of range and walked away unscathed in body. Those Galileans were not worse sinners than any other Galileans; those Jerusalemites were not in deeper debt than anybody else who lived in Jerusalem (Luke 13:2, 4).

The truth is that unaccountable tragedies strike. Houses and barns catch on fire. Buildings collapse. Cars crash. Trucks overturn. Hearts go haywire. Breathing gets impeded. In many cases, there's no one-to-one correlation when tragedy strikes. When a house catches fire, it's not the hand of God reaching down to punish the occupants. When the brakes go out on a car and it crashes, there's no deep spiritual dimension to the event, most of the time. That's just life in a world where we're all complicit in sin. And those who suffer in that way have no reason to say, “Why me? What did I do wrong?” The truth is that, while some of these are consequences of carelessness, they're not usually punishment. It's just the way our world works. Many of you read stories like this in the paper all the time, and some of you are on the scene yourselves.

But here's what I wonder. Here's why I wish Luke had more paper on hand when he composed his inspired history. He records the death toll and the cause of death, but that barely amounts to a headline. I wonder about the aftermath. When the tower collapsed at Siloam, when the stones fell and ended the stories of those eighteen people, I wonder if anybody besides those eighteen was injured but lived to tell the tale. I wonder if anybody was pinned and in need of assistance. And I wonder if they got it.

In Jerusalem that day, were there any folks who tried to dig survivors out of the rubble? When the clouds of dust filled the air, and children cried and men and women shrieked and turned tail, did Jerusalem have any selfless people who ran toward the crash, into the hail of rock, putting themselves into harm's way – like Jesus said, refusing to “fear those that kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (Luke 12:4)? When the Tower of Siloam fell, who was first on the scene? Who cleared away the rubble to recover bodies, check for life signs, give medical treatment to the wounded? Who cleaned up afterwards, when all the dust had settled and the shaken neighbors tried to resume life as usual?

On the days when towers of Siloam fall in our community – when buildings collapse, cars crash, bodies fail, buildings blaze – on all those days when unaccountable dangers intrude into our world, I'm glad we have people who do all those things. Who are willing to charge toward the rubble and the dust, the furor and the smoke. Who stay dressed for action and keep their lamps burning and their pagers on. Who take methodical care of the gear they'll need to be ready. Who are reliably there when emergency strikes, amidst any crisis that might lurk around the corner. Even this morning already, some have no doubt been called into action in medical emergencies and more. Thanks to their efforts, the Towers of Siloam that fall in Lancaster and Chester Counties rarely leave scars as deep on our community as that Tower of Siloam left on a Jerusalem neighborhood two thousand years ago.

In all this, they remind me of the one who told us about the Tower of Siloam in the first place: Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, who acknowledges above in heavenly society all who acknowledge him here below in human society (Luke 12:8). Because Jesus Christ, this eternal Word of God, wasn't content to stay safe and sound in heavenly society. We were in trouble, and he saw us as “of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). And so his Father dispatched him to the earth, to take on flesh in a world on fire, a world in crisis. When our sin made a hazard out of the world and put our souls in jeopardy, Jesus Christ responded to the call. He came, he lived, he warned of the fire and the fall, he taught us the road map to spiritual safety. And then this Galilean offered himself as a sacrifice.

You see, when our souls were trapped in impending fire, he braved that fiery judgment; he plunged into our clouded condition on the cross, all so he could pluck us as a brand from the burning. And when Jesus had pulled us to safety, he breathed his life-giving Spirit into our breathless lungs. He shocked our dead hearts into the rhythm of heaven's beat. He bandaged our wounds with his righteous life. And he poured on them the medicinal wine of his resurrection joy. And for those rescued and resuscitated and restored by him, even now he attends to our recovery in this hospital he calls his church, his open arms of healing hospitality. He promises to rebuild all that's been charred and ruined in all the world, and in the meantime he recruits us to his rescue crew and sends us forth in his name.

And when he found us amidst the smoldering rubble, desperately in need of help, all he asked was that we turn away from burning and collapsing things and trust his outstretched hand reaching for us. To turn and no longer lean on the splintering wood of our dead works – that, he calls repentance. To trust in and surrender to his outstretched hand offered in rescue – that, he calls faith. And so it's no wonder, when he tells the story of the Tower of Siloam, that he cautions the crowd, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5). Unless you get off the splintering wood, unless you dive out of the path of the crushing rocks, unless you evacuate into the arms of a Savior, a Rescuer, you'll be a casualty. Because none of the constructs of human society, none among all our Towers of Babel, are any more stable than Siloam's tower. Our lives were always meant to be about so much more (Luke 12:23). But “fear not, for you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). Fear not: Jesus is on the scene. And the gospel, the good news, is but the siren of his nearness. Trust and obey!

If you're here this morning, and you realize that you're still leaning on anything that can one day burn or collapse – the food you eat or the clothes you wear or whatever you drive, the prayers you say or the language you speak, the good deeds you do, the lifestyle you live, the rules you live by, or anything of the sort, anything that could ever fail you, anything that can burn or collapse – if any of those are the things you're leaning on, and you have just now realized your need to trust only in the Savior's hand, I'd love to talk with you this morning after the service. Because I promise: he is here to rescue you, to revive you, to restore you, and to lead you to full health and safety in his kingdom. And whenever we grow faint, weak, and sick, he will be here to revive us again. Praise God for the Son of Man! And praise God, too, for all who imitate the Great Rescuer and stay ready to come to the rescue themselves, whether of property or of life, of body or of soul. Thank you. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Last Words for the Hopeful Living: Sermon on 1 Peter 5

September 20, 1866: “A lion killed a woman yesterday morning, and ate most of her undisturbed.” November 13: “A lion came last night and gave a growl or two on finding he could not get our meat: a man had lent us a hunting net to protect it...” The next day: “Lions sometimes enter huts by breaking through the roof.” December 13: “When we started this morning after rain, all the trees and grass dripping, a lion roared, but we did not see him.” January 28, 1867: “When at Molemba … afterwards, two men were killed by a lion...” July 17: “A lion roared very angrily at the village last night.” October 17, 1872: “Two lions growled savagely as we passed.” April 7, 1873: “A lion had wandered into this world of water and ant-hills, and roared night and morning, as if very much disgusted...”

Those passages all come from the diaries of David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer who famously spent most of his life in Africa, disappearing and then dying there. And Dr. Livingstone, one need not merely presume, knew for himself what it would be like to be attacked by a lion. In the 1840s, in what's today Botswana, he defended one village's herds and flocks against a lion and was very nearly killed for his trouble. The lion was wounded in the bushes, and yet it still rushed out faster than Dr. Livingstone could see, and – well, I'll let Dr. Livingstone tell you himself:

Starting, and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. … Besides crunching the bone into splinters, he left eleven teeth wounds on the upper part of my arm.

Dr. Livingstone would have been killed and devoured, he admitted, if not for the intervention of Mebalwe, an elderly African believer who rescued him. I can't help but imagine, though, that it was a traumatic experience for missionary and native alike. Have you ever seen a lion in the wild? Have you ever heard a wild lion roar – not on a video, not that sound effect at the start of some movies, but seen it with your own eyes in person? I have. Four years ago, I was over in Kenya. Between networking and serving local church leaders, they sent us on a safari. Near the end, we pulled up into the midst of a whole pride of lions – at least twenty of them. They were reclining in the shade, sticky and full. I could smell the gore of their buffalo prey in the bushes; one of the cubs was still finishing his meal. I was close enough to almost count the flies dotting their faces and sides.

I couldn't help but imagine what the experience would be like if they were awake and hungry and on the hunt. In retrospect, I think: that van didn't even succeed in keeping out the baboon; what chance would it really have stood against a hungry and persistent lion? And can you imagine what it would be like, friends, to stand alone on the savannah, with nowhere to run, and have the gaze of a lion locked on you, to hear its 114-decibel roar and see its muscular paws part ways with the ground as he leaps toward you, to glimpse the powerful jaws snarl and gape and the pitiless hunger in his eyes? I can almost imagine.

In any of the villages that Dr. Livingstone visited, surely one thing must certainly have held true: When a lion is in the neighborhood, it would be positively criminal to let anyone go unwarned. That's just not something you do. If there were a lion on the loose on the Welsh Mountain, and the local news wasn't covering it, you best bet word of mouth would! It would be antisocial to let a conversation end without making mention of it. And so, as he draws his letter to a close, Peter writes: “Be watchful! Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

It would have been positively criminal for Peter not to warn us. Friends, we may go through this life and think that everything is fine, everything is normal, everything is safe and ordinary, and it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. But the truth is, you have an adversary. We have an adversary – one who opposes us in the court of God and in the court of public opinion, who aims to prosecute us, who will resort to any slander, any accusation, any dirty trick to entrap us and make the case against us. And not only that, but this enemy of our souls, “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44), “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), is hungry and restless. His aim is not to let you walk out of this life in one piece. He is on the prowl, “going to and fro on the earth, and … walking up and down on it,” as we read in the Book of Job (Job 1:7).

Peter compares this adversary of ours, the devil, to a roaring lion. And this devil is a consumer – he aims to gulp you down, to swallow you whole, to devour you and leave only scraps and fragments and shards of bone in his wake. That is a serious thing! If you came home this afternoon to hear a lion roaring in your house, you would not come in, sit down on the couch, and turn on the TV! You would not recline in your chair to crochet or do a crossword puzzle! You would get out and run through the streets, or barricade yourself in a room, and call for help with trembling hands and quivering voice!

Brothers and sisters, Peter is telling us that we may well find that devilish lion prowling when we get home, prowling on the street, prowling at work, even prowling amidst the pews. And that lion is hungry. And that lion is fierce. He may often whisper like a serpent, but he also roars to shake your faith, and all he cares about is that, one way or another, even if he has to stalk for years at a time... you'll be called dinner sooner or later. As much as the world sometimes has trouble believing in the devil, or in any dark spiritual power lurking with predatory intent behind the scenes, it's the honest truth, and that's why Peter is warning us. This is no myth, discarded on the ash-heap of history; this is no mere cipher for the base component of the human ego. This is a crafty, wily enemy on the hunt, looking to eat up your joy, your life, your living hope, and kill it by paw or by jaw. “His craft and power are great / and, armed with cruel hate, / on earth is not his equal.”

So what, brothers and sisters, are we called upon to do? In Peter's last words to we hopeful believers who still live in this devil-prowled world of growls and roars and claws and fangs, he counsels us, first, to be watchful and attentive: “Be sober-minded, be watchful” (1 Peter 5:8). We are not to simply pretend the lion isn't there. We are not to deny his existence. Nor are we to obsess over him, to the point life crawls to a standstill. We are to continue on our mission, we are to keep raising up the lambs and keep receiving our food with thanksgiving and keep marching with purpose from place to place; but we are to keep an eye and an ear open, and stay alert.

This does not mean seeing the devil at work in every pitiful inconvenience – he isn't likely hiding your car keys or mismatching your socks! But it does mean being on the look-out for his angle of attack. Where in your life might he leap from, creep from? What hill hasn't been laid low, what valley hasn't been raised, what crooked path hasn't been made straight as a highway for our God (cf. Isaiah 40:3-4)? What dark leafy cover or tall grass have you left for him to slink in, instead of bringing everything out into the light of the gospel? And are you listening for the telltale signs of roaring in the distance?

And then, Peter says next: “Resist him, firm in the faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). But how do you resist a lion that's ready to attack? Peter tells us to be firm in the faith – stand your ground, and don't give way. Don't turn your back on the lion when he's charging. Stand your ground. And your ground is “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The same faith, the same doctrine, the same sacred promises in which generations of believers lived and died trusting in – stand firm and solid on that turf. Don't let the prowling devil catch you on shifting sand where you can't keep your footing, or buried up to your waist in the quicksand of false teaching or loveless legalism. You'll be easy prey if he catches you away from the Solid Rock who is Christ our Lord.

And then there's that word: 'resist.' How might you resist a lion on the loose? And there are really only a few ways to do it. As we hear the accounts by Dr. Livingstone, we find out about those ways. And first, we can try to protect our sustenance and stewardship where the lion can't reach. Remember this line from Livingstone's journal: “ A lion came last night and gave a growl or two on finding he could not get our meat: a man had lent us a hunting net to protect it and us from intruders of this sort”? And so, too, we can weave such a net with our prayers, crossed with God's answering grace. Have you been doing much weaving lately? Or have you been leaving things in your life exposed? Resist the devil!

But I didn't quote the whole story in that account. The lion was frustrated by the hunting net, but could still have done some damage. And yet, Dr. Livingstone writes, “The people kept up shouting for hours afterwards, in order to keep him away by the human voice.” And that's another way to resist a lion: by frightening him off. A lion isn't going to fear a single human voice; that's just one more squawk from something tasty. But the voice of a whole village in unison? Now that can make a lion think twice! And the same is true in things of the spirit. A lone Christian, praying and praising God, is not too likely to scare the devil off. But a whole community, loudly raising the strains of praise and making their voices heard in heaven and earth? Now that can frighten the devil away, if we keep on praising out loud together!

This is why it's so important for us “not to neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some” (cf. Hebrews 10:25). This is why you can't live the Christian life on your own, in your own home, with an evangelist on the TV and a song on the radio. None of that is loud enough to frighten off the predator stalking your soul! It isn't safe! Nor is it safe for you to deprive the rest of us of the volume your voice adds to our village choir. The more you stay away, not only are you putting yourself in greater danger, but you're reducing our safety, too. We need to all stay together, praising with one loud voice – “Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15). Be like the disciples on Palm Sunday, when “the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen” (Luke 19:37). Praise the Lord together – resist the devil!

But sometimes the lion may have you cut off and cornered. Sometimes the lion will catch you on the middle of the week, when you're alone and vulnerable. Sometimes the lion may get your arm in his jaws, and there's not a moment to spare. And Dr. Livingstone shows us the only other way to resist a lion: by outgunning him. The lion that attacked Dr. Livingstone – it was wounded because he'd managed to shoot it, even a glancing blow. And when it grabbed his arm and crunched his bones, the only reason it didn't kill him was that Mebalwe snatched up the shotgun and blasted the lion with both barrels. And even then, that very lion attacked Mebalwe and would have killed him, had it not dropped dead of its own injuries first.

When you have no choice but to square off with the lion, you'd better be armed, and you'd better not hesitate or fumble. And while we have no shotgun against the devil, you are equipped with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). You can see Jesus fending off the prowling devil with that sword in the wilderness. And while our aim not be quite as deft as our Lord's, still he's put the hilt in our hands. And every time we listen to sound preaching, we watch how to handle our blade. And every time we open up the scriptures and study them ourselves, we practice how to thrust and swing that sword. And believe you me, we'll need all the practice we can get so as to handle that sword well when the devil pounces.

Do you still have that sword strapped at your waist, at your back, in your heart? Or have you misfiled it somewhere, left it neglected? Have you been training to use this word-of-God sword responsibly? Or have you been hanging it on the wall, untouched; or perhaps hurting yourself by wielding it irresponsibly? You'll want to have it stored within reach and know how to use it if you're going to wield it to resist a prowling, pouncing devil dead-set on devouring you.

The devil can be resisted. You don't have to be devoured. You can weave a net of prayer, you can scare him off with the praise shouts of the whole church, and you can fight him with the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. Still, though, it would be a bit depressing if Peter ended his letter on the mere note of readiness for battle. So Peter has more to tell us. He reminds us that the fight is not ours alone. We have no hope of killing the devil. You can fend him off, but you have no strength to slay him. “Did we in our own strength confide / our striving would be losing.”

And so Peter reminds us of this beautiful little phrase: “the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6). We don't have to merely confide in our own strength! Our striving need not be losing! We may have no strength to slay the lion, but God has a mighty hand, he is a mighty fortress, and the devil is not nearly so mighty as the mighty hand of our God! “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4)! We are not left alone in the fight. The hand of God has reached into our earthly history and our present plight with a name-tag labeled 'Jesus, Messiah, King of Glory.' And “who is this King of Glory? The LORD, strong and mighty; the LORD, mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8)! No wonder the psalmist prayed, “You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand” (Psalm 89:13). And so we join in his prayer: “O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver. … Arise, O LORD, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies” (Psalm 7:1-2, 6).

You have a mighty God who is hardly daunted by this prowling lion! You have a Lord strong and mighty, a Lord mighty in battle, a Lord who rescues his people “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 11:2; 26:8)! This mighty hand of God will not let the lion prowl forever. And while we're still called to be watchful and vigilant, this God has got his church's back – “and he must win the battle!” So Peter tells us, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you; casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).

The word for 'anxieties' there – maybe you've heard it phrase, “cast all your cares on him” – it means whatever is dividing you, or your attention, in pieces. All your distracting worries, all your dividing fears, all the worries and fears and concerns that pull you this way and that, that churn inside you and make you afraid and ill at ease – cast them on God, because he cares for you, he takes an interest in you. You are not a statistic to him. You are not a nameless casualty. You are his beloved child, “born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3), and your Father wants you home in his presence and his love, not out wasting your inheritance or eating pig slop or falling prey to the lion's clutches.

So all the distracting and dividing things that mask reality from your sight – all the things that keep you from watching out for the lion or looking toward the mighty hand of God – we're asked to cast them on him. The only other use of that verb in the New Testament is when Luke describes Palm Sunday, and the disciples hurl their cloaks over the donkey's back for Jesus to sit comfortably on top of. And when they did that, the cloaks no longer had anything to do with the disciples. They were not touching the disciples. They were not weighing the disciples down. The disciples were not getting tangled up in them. The cloaks' entire weight rested on the donkey's back. And God asks us to do the same with our anxieties and cares – to throw them at him, drape them over his fingers – he's big enough to hold them all. Don't try to lift up a corner of their weight. Cast your anxieties on God. He cares for you.

And then “humble yourselves … under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6). It is not yet the proper time for the lion to be caged in hell. It is not yet the proper time for the lion to be slain in the lake of fire. This is still the day of resistance. It is still the hour for nets and shouts and swords. We still have need to be on the look-out. And so, with assurance that both we and the prowling devil are under God's mighty hand, within God's power and subject to his will, keep being watchful, vigilant, alert – and stay humble, knowing that the lion roars against you.

That's a humbling thing. None of us have room for boasting. None of us can say we've got skin too tough for fangs to pierce. None of us can say we're too fast to be caught. None of us, old or young, can honestly say we have immunity. The shepherds and the flock alike have to be on their guard. And so Peter writes this note to the “elders,” the pastors and church leaders, and to the younger believers – to the shepherds and the lambs – and says many instructive things; but above all, his instruction for shepherds and flock alike is, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:1-5). So indeed, “humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6)! Be humble: none of us is safe alone. We need to watch each other's backs and mount a common defense against this lion on the prowl. Be humble: it's God's business to lift us up to glory; it ain't our job to exalt ourselves and have God's mighty hand work against us.

And God will indeed give grace to the humble and exalt you in the day of his victory. “After you have suffered a little while,” Peter writes, “the God of all grace, who has called you to eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). And the lion's roar can never gainsay it. God will raise you up from bones and meat, if he has to; God will set you firm on the Solid Rock; God will take your broken arms and give them strength and heal your bite marks; and God will establish you in eternal life and glory. Because there's no grace that doesn't scream his name! And his voice, louder than the lion's roar, has said, “Come up, have faith, follow my Son into glory that knows no end! Come up, come up, out of the lion's reach!” Indeed, “this is the true grace of God – stand firm in it” (1 Peter 5:12). “Resist [the devil, resist the lion], firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9).

So these are Peter's last words for those chosen even in the midst of Rome and Babylon (1 Peter 5:13). There's a lion let loose, so keep on your guard. Be on the look-out. Resist him with nets of prayer, songs of praise, and the sword of the Spirit. But this lion, this adversary, this devil, this prince of darkness grim – oh, tremble not for him. “For lo, his doom is sure,” under the mighty hand of God, whose roars of grace are calling us onward to eternal glory in Christ. So band together for the journey. “Greet one another with the kiss of love.” And let there be “peace to all of you who are in Christ” and so live with this hope that never disappoints (1 Peter 5:14). “To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:11).

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Hopeful Living Through Fiery Trials: Sermon on 1 Peter 4:12-19

For the lieutenant colonel, it had started like any other day at work. But it wasn't any other day. It was a day shy of sixteen years ago. And in his boss's office, he had just come from watching live coverage of a strange and tragic event: a second plane had struck those towers in New York. It was no accident, no malfunction. Lt. Col. Birdwell, heavy in heart as he thought about those tragic victims so many miles away, had slipped away and was returning to his own second-floor office. There was no warning – not until it was too late to react. Less than twenty yards away, the walls crumbled in a wave of fire; the force of the explosion hurled him to the ground. And a fireball consumed him. Disoriented and in agony, the lieutenant colonel tried to escape, but saw no way from the blaze. Thinking he was in his last moments, he thought of his wife and son, and then cried out, “Jesus... I'm coming to see you.” And he collapsed on the floor of the Pentagon.

Thanks to the fire sprinkler system and dozens of subsequent surgeries, September 11th wasn't the day the lieutenant colonel came face-to-face with Jesus. Those were not his last moments. But they were certainly moments, in the most literal sense, of a fiery trial. In a less literal way, they were for the entire nation. Attorney General Ashcroft used those exact words – “fiery trial” – for the whole season America endured in the wake of that horrid act of terror. But he was only quoting Abraham Lincoln, who'd said just such a thing in the early years of the Civil War. In a message to Congress in December 1862, President Lincoln urged that “we cannot escape history. … The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.” And so, quoting some of those words, John Ashcroft called 9/11 a “fiery trial.” He said about our present 'war on terror,' “May the fiery trial through which we now pass be of short endurance, and may our passage light us down in honor for generations of Americans to see.”

The truth is that there are a lot of trials in these days. And even more things we're prone to worry about here and there. There's natural disaster, of course. Over the past couple weeks, we've all had our eyes and ears fixed on Texas – watched footage from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey. Maybe you've sent funds or supplies. And now our attention has shifted to Hurricane Irma, which – after passing closely by a friend of mine in Haiti and running roughshod over Cuba in a weakened state – is now strong again and beginning to maul the southern tip of Florida as we speak. And then there are the wildfires out west – a friend of mine lives beneath its smoky haze. Until this past week, she said she hadn't seen a drop of rain since May.

All of us, I think, have some measure of concern for the people touched by those natural disasters. But those aren't the only trials on our minds. Over the past month, we've also been worried about violent strife, about divisions within our country, about the clashing protests that have, at times, seemed as though they might herald a new civil war on the horizon – I've heard more than one person express a concern over just that. But that seems to have quieted down – for the moment.

But what else? As we draw so near to the anniversary of the most lethal terrorist attack on American soil, we remember that, throughout these sixteen years, a great deal of American life, whether we admit it or not, has been lived in a state of nervous anticipation – all the more so in recent years, as news of terrorist incidents both here and in Europe, to say nothing of the Middle East or Africa, have become almost weekly or even daily news. And in a world like that, it's easy for us to think, “What will be next? Will it be someone I know? Will it be close? Will it be here in my backyard?”

But all that almost pales next to the latest big concern: a “fiery trial” of the nuclear variety, unleashed by the stubby finger of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. It's actually very unlikely to happen, but... after so many threats with nuclear missiles, and after successfully testing a thermonuclear warhead a week ago... well, in this past week, I've had numerous people tell me directly that they're upset. They're dismayed. They're concerned. They're worried. They're out-and-out scared. I've overheard even more people saying the same things to each other. That's the pulse of our country – that's the pulse of our neighborhood. Maybe you feel the same way. Maybe, with everything that we remember this weekend and everything that's going on right now, and everything that doesn't seem as ludicrous as it used to – well, maybe you're upset, dismayed, concerned, worried, scared, just as much as the rest. After sixteen or more years of utter madness, it certainly feels like we're constantly at the edge of one fiery trial or another. Do you feel that way?

And so we wonder, in days like this: If a prophet or apostle of God were to step into our midst and counsel us; if he were to bring his words, as the very word of the Lord, to bear on our contemporary situation, and our very real hopes and very real fears – what would he say? If St. Peter came and took charge of this pulpit, how would he reassure us? How would he comfort us? How would he advise us to think, to feel, to act, to respond, in a world that seems like it's filled with one big fiery trial?

I don't think we have to wonder. Because in the passage before us today, Peter uses exactly that phrase: “fiery trial” (1 Peter 4:12). And I would like to suggest that he offers a seven-point plan of response that is perfectly relevant to the situation we are facing right now, or to the situation we worry we might be facing tomorrow or next week or somewhere down the road.

First, Peter might tell us, when a fiery trial bears down upon us, we should scrutinize the reason. We should engage in heavy reflection on what brought the fiery trial about. I say that because there are several general reasons that such sufferings enter into our lives. Peter himself says that it's possible that our suffering is as a consequence – proportionate or not – of our own actions and attitudes. That's not easy to hear, but it's what he says. He advises, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler” (1 Peter 4:15).

That was the case, in a sense, in the Civil War. At least, President Lincoln thought so. Three months before that message to Congress, in a private note he jotted to himself, he meditated that God had purposes not grasped by either side of the conflict – that “God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” And a month before General Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln remarked in his Second Inaugural Address: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so must it still be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” President Lincoln did believe that, in that instance, the country suffered for having been evildoers.

Of course, it's also possible for suffering to enter our lives simply because we happen to be there. Suffering by simple proximity – what we might call, “Wrong place, wrong time.” That might well be the lieutenant colonel's story: he was just walking down the hall, on his way to do a job. But then he found himself in a plane's path: “Wrong place, wrong time.” He'd done nothing in particular, whether evil or good, to provoke it; he was just there.  That happens to us sometimes.

But it is possible for suffering to enter our lives for doing good. Think of the firefighters who charged into the World Trade Center as survivors rushed down the stairwells. They suffered, and indeed died, as a consequence of doing good. Or think of the Houston police officer, Sgt. Perez, who died while braving the floods to go aid the hurricane's victims. He suffered and died as a consequence of doing good.  (Two weeks from now, we'll be holding a special service to honor our local first responders.  If you know any of them personally, please do invite them.)

And it's also possible for suffering to enter our lives, not merely because we do good, but because we do good in Christ's name – because we are Christians. Peter explicitly holds out the possibility that someone would “suffer as a Christian” (1 Peter 4:16), or would at least be “insulted for the name of Christ” (1 Peter 4:14). Peter may have written this letter not long before the Emperor Nero, looking for a scapegoat for a fire in Rome, settled on Christians – and held mass executions. Decades later, a Roman historian wrote: “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired” – all in the emperor's own gardens, like a show at the circus. They suffered simply for bearing the name of Christ. So might we. When fiery trials come our way, Peter would call us: Be careful over why we suffer, because that matters.

Second, Peter might tell us, we shouldn't be surprised when fiery trials come our way. We shouldn't think of it as unusual. Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). We have this tendency, especially in this country, to imagine suffering to be some foreign intrusion into our lives – something that cries out for a special explanation. We look at the world around us, of terrorists and H-bombs and floods and earthquakes and fires, a world of wars and rumors of wars, and Peter asks us, “Why are you confused? Don't you see that this is what you should have been expecting all along? This isn't strange. This isn't inexplicable. This isn't foreign to your Christian experience. You were called to nothing less than such a time as this.” In the fiery trials, whether personal, regional, national, or global, don't be surprised. If you don't treat it as a surprise, you're less likely to fly into panic mode and get all worked up about it.

Third, Peter might tell us, we should view fiery trials, whatever the earthly motive, as having a divine purpose. He said it himself: “the fiery trial … comes upon you to test you (1 Peter 4:12). He's probably reflecting back on the prophecies of Zechariah, where God said: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land, declares the LORD, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, 'They are my people,' and they will say, 'The LORD is my God'” (Zechariah 13:7-9).

Did you catch that? That's where Peter finds the fiery trial. But what is the fiery trial for? To refine and to test. When fiery trials come our way, they serve two functions. On the one hand, they refine us. They're meant to burn away our impurities – all the excess baggage we've built up in life. And you've seen how it happens: when disaster strikes, all the petty feuds and nonsensical cares get exposed as irrelevant. That's what happened after 9/11. That's what happened in Texas in the floodwaters. Suddenly the divisions of politics and class and race were, for a while at least, burned away. The fiery trial refines. But the fiery trial also tests. It evaluates. You put gold in the fire to see how much heat it can stand, to know what grade of quality it is. When the fiery trial comes, you find out what kind of quality you really have. How much of the heat can you stand? But if you look at the fiery trial as having these purposes, it takes away the senselessness and gives you back a sense of purpose in the midst of it. Like Peter said earlier in his letter: “You have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

Fourth, Peter might tell us, if fiery trials can come from our evil or our good, and if fiery trials are here to purify and test us, then the most central action called for is repentance. When people mentioned some tragic disasters to Jesus, he denied that those killed were worse sinners than their neighbors; but Jesus followed that up with the message, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5). And Peter says, “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if the righteous are scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18). The truth is that, when the hurricane's at your door, there's no time left to fool around. When the planes or the nukes are already falling, it's too late. We talked last Sunday about how to live when the end might be at hand – as it is for any one of us every day. But in a world of fiery trials, it's all the more imperative. If you are really concerned about the prospects of civil war, rampant terrorism, nuclear crisis, natural disaster, you won't waste time. You'll expend every effort to cultivate a healthy relationship with the Jesus you might be soon on your way to go see. He died and rose to take your guilt and shame away. Judgment still begins with the household of God – but the fire will be a lot hotter beyond it. In the wake of his own fiery trial, Lt. Col. Birdwell – now a state senator in Texas – said, “I did not enjoy... the day of having the finality of my life in front of me, in darkness, burning. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have God Almighty tell you, 'Depart from me, I never knew you.'” If you really take seriously the things you hear in the news and shake your head at, don't make excuses for delaying your growth in grace by attending to prayer and fellowship.

Fifth, Peter might tell us, we can celebrate in the face of the fiery trial. The fiery trial is not a reason to lose hope; it's a reason to have more hope! I know that sounds weird. Why would a hurricane make you even more optimistic? How could the prospect of nuclear war or terrorism or persecution ever be an encouragement? But let's hear the apostle out. He writes, “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:13-14). This is mostly focused on persecution – suffering explicitly for following Jesus. But I'd suggest that any suffering can be Christian suffering if borne with Christ's mindset, for Christ's sake, and with an eye on Christ's cross. After all, we're his body; he shares in what we suffer, and our suffering is transformed into sharing his suffering. If your suffering is fellowship with Jesus, as ours will be, then it is a cause for rejoicing; it brings us closer to him and to his glory. When it purifies us, it makes us more like him. When it tests us, it reveals the presence of his Spirit resting upon us. So in that way, suffering can become a blessing for us. That's not to say we should seek it out or provoke it; we shouldn't. It's also not to say we shouldn't relieve suffering when we see others passing through it; we should. But it is to say that, if we view the fiery trial the right way, it can be viewed as something that blesses us and therefore is cause for joy and hope. If terrorists strike at us, we share in Christ's sufferings and reveal his Spirit, and that yields hope. If Kim Jong-un fires missiles our way, we share in Christ's sufferings and reveal his Spirit – so rejoice in the fiery trial. And in what you rejoice over, you're more likely to obey Christ's constant command, “Fear not.”

Sixth, Peter might tell us, leave things in God's hands. Trust that he knows what he's doing. Trust that he hasn't turned against you to tear you down. Trust that, even when the worst-case scenario is on the horizon, if he lets it fall your way, it cannot kill a soul that's in his safekeeping: you “by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). Peter tells us, at the end of the chapter here: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19). And that's the honest-to-God truth. No matter what madmen seem to run the scene, you have a faithful Creator. No matter what crumbles or burns or falls, you have a faithful Creator. No matter whether the earth quakes or the winds rage or the fires blaze, you have a faithful Creator! And you can trust him to either deliver you from the fiery trial or to keep you through the fiery trial.

It's like what Daniel's three friends said when threatened with a Babylonian furnace: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18). They knew that, no matter whether God rescued them out or held them through, he would prove himself to be their faithful Creator – the God whom they served. The same God whom we're here to worship this morning. In days of fiery trial, entrust your souls, your whole selves, to the God who made you – and know that, no matter what he permits to come your way, he is faithful and good – so put your faith in, and be faithful to, this Faithful One.

Finally, Peter might tell us, respond to the fiery trial not with fear but with virtue. He finishes the passage by telling us: “Entrust your souls to a faithful Creator while doing good (1 Peter 4:19). When your neighbor is in a fiery trial, lend every helping hand you've got. When you're in a fiery trial, fight fire with love. When you wonder what fiery trial is next, when you feel paralyzed by the possibilities, when you're feeling discouraged and frightened, don't slow down. Having placed your faith securely in a faithful Creator, pour out everything you've got in works of love. Martin Luther once remarked that, as Christians, “We have no other reason for living on earth than to be of help to others. … Since we are still living here, we should do for our neighbor as God has done for us, and give ourselves to him as God has given himself to us.” Entrust yourself to God, and then be free to give yourself away in love... even when the trial burns hottest.

Reflect. Don't be surprised. Count it as a refinement and a test. Repent. Rejoice. Trust God. Do good. That's Peter's seven-point plan for facing fiery trials. Some of the ones we're worried about may never come to pass. Others might – and God will be with us in the flood or the fire. When everything shakes, we stand on a Solid Rock that cannot be drowned and live by amazing grace. Don't be afraid, and don't be dismayed. These days have their challenges, but so has every age. Fiery trials may well come – and may God preserve us from any we don't need. But may he sustain us through ones that do come, and give us his perfect love to cast out all our fears, all our grumbling, all our worries. As we reverently remember what's past, let's also look beyond what's to come, toward the salvation that's ready and waiting to be revealed in full. Thanks be to God, who through his Son gives us a victory of faith that overcomes the world and all its fiery trials – so that we can maintain our living hope. Hallelujah. Amen.