Sunday, April 23, 2017

Distant Neighbors

It was a warm and sunny day in the village. Warmer still indoors, with so many living bodies crammed together in one place. No one was surprised when he stood up and walked to the front. The parchment crinkled in his rough palms as he slowly, deliberately unwound it to a place of his choosing. Everyone watched with bated breath. The attendant stood at his side. The man found his place and began intoning the Hebrew words of the prophet who lived so long ago: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,” he read – and then paused. The attendant translated into Aramaic for the ease of the crowd. “Because the LORD has anointed me,” he chanted on, again pausing for a translation.

To bring good news to the poor,” he continued, and the crowd gathered in the synagogue smiled as they listened to the translator. The reader skipped over a line, as was his prerogative, and continued, two lines this time: “To proclaim liberty to the captives, the opening of the eyes to those who are blind” (Isaiah 61:1). As the attendant rendered the words into common Aramaic, the reader's fingers deftly shifted the scroll, jumping back to an earlier line from the text he wished to interject: “To let the oppressed go free,” a line from the prophet's meditation on the fast acceptable to God, which included other gems like sharing bread with the hungry and opening one's house to the homeless (Isaiah 58:6-7).

But no time to read those – the reader returned to his original place and read half the next sentence: “To proclaim the year of the LORD's favor” (Isaiah 61:2). Many in the synagogue knew the gist of the passage; they had heard it read before. And they were eager for the rest. The next line would be about “the day of vengeance of our God,” of course. There'd be some talk about building up ancient ruins, repairing ruined cities – that part sold well here (Isaiah 61:4). So, too, did hints of other nations being forced into servitude to do their work for them (Isaiah 61:5), and especially the line where “you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast” (Isaiah 61:6). 

The elders of the synagogue were excited for that line. See, their fathers and their grandfathers had traveled up to these desolate hinterlands for one main reason: to reclaim the long-polluted “Galilee of the Gentiles” and make it, well, “Galilee of the Jews.” The land had too long been clogged with the descendants of foreign settlers, with all their odd practices. And the competition was still ongoing – the pagan city of Tiberias had been founded just ten years ago by that corrupt king Herod Antipas.

But the elders were disappointed. This man, returning to them after several months away, didn't keep reading. In mid-sentence, while the translator did his work, he speedily rolled the scroll back up and handed it to the surprised attendant (Luke 4:16-20). And then the man, Jesus, sat down. Everyone stared at him – some merely curious what this young man had to say; some suspicious of any hometown boy who thought he could rise above the rest; some already gritting their teeth at the way he'd stopped short, as if to say God wouldn't exalt them over foreigners. But for all their various reasons, all eyes were fixed on him. What would he say?

He opened his mouth, and out came plain Aramaic, for all to hear: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Oh, the audacity! This Jesus, the traveling preacher, was taking this section of Isaiah and making it his personal mission statement. He was the Messiah, the one anointed by God's Spirit to bring restoration and victory to Israel – but his idea of victory said nothing about avenging them against the foreign settlers, and it said nothing about plundering the nations for their glory. He was the Messiah who would open blind eyes to see, who would bless the pious poor with good news, who would announce freedom to the persecuted – and, he'd added, who would embody the true God-approved fast by liberating the oppressed. And this explained all the rumors of exorcisms and healings – he'd done a few in Nazareth just yesterday (cf. Mark 6:5) – which could mean only dark magic or the work of God.

The people in their seats began whispering, exclaiming. Our English Bibles say they “all spoke well of him,” but that's not what Luke writes. It just says that they all testified about him – doesn't say whether they thought it was good or bad – and that they were astonished, and perhaps aggravated, at this grace-filled message he announced. And they began asking, “Isn't this the son of Joseph,” a mere carpenter (Luke 4:22)? “Haven't we heard all the gossip about how he was born less than nine months after his folks got hitched? Don't we know his four brothers? Aren't his sisters still living here in the village, married to guys sitting in the room this very morning” (cf. Mark 6:3)? “Where does this fellow get off, announcing himself the Messiah, setting the agenda for us, turning his back on the whole reason this village is here!”

Jesus heard what they were whispering. From the teacher's chair in the front, he preempted it – he knew they would make fun of him, try to cut him down to size, or else milk him for all the miracles they could: “What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well” (Luke 4:23). In other words, they were thinking, “If this joker really were the Messiah, if we could believe in a Messiah from Nazareth, well, then as the town that raised him, we deserve to enjoy the blessings he brings first! We're loyal Jews, we're natural-born members of the covenant, we've been close to him his whole life, and that ought to mean something.”

But Jesus doesn't see it that way. He knows that ministry is a whole different animal – that it's no surprise for a prophet's hometown not to accept him, when he comes interrupting the status quo among those who feel they've got a special claim on him (Luke 4:24). He looks at their mentality and “marvels at their unbelief” (Mark 6:6). He says it doesn't amount to faith. In fact, all he sees when he looks at them is pride. Their whole mentality is about exclusivity and how special they are, how proud they are to be Jews and not Gentiles, how proud they are to be from Nazareth and not Capernaum. All they want to do is jockey for privilege, angle for status, try to come out on top, try to demand priority treatment. And Jesus will have none of it. The crowd is focused on what they think they deserve to get; but Jesus is saddened by all the things they refuse to give.

So Jesus dares to challenge their calls for priority treatment. He begins telling stories from the lives of the last two miracle-based prophets who ministered in their area centuries and centuries earlier, Elijah and Elisha. And he recalls the drought that struck the land during Elijah's ministry. Elijah was from Tishbe – not really so far away from Nazareth. He prophesied the drought to King Ahab; he went east of the Jordan River to drink from a little brook and eat whatever ravens happened to drop off for him. But even the brook eventually dried up. And there were plenty throughout the land of Israel who were suffering (1 Kings 17:1-7). And shouldn't the prophet of Israel come to help the people of Israel first?

But that's not what happens, as Jesus reminds the synagogue: “Elijah was sent to none of them” (Luke 4:25-26). Instead, God commanded him to travel outside of Israelite territory and move to the pagan Phoenician town of Sarepta, a port-town subject to nearby Sidon (in modern-day Lebanon). Ahab's wife Jezebel had been a Phoenician princess from Sidon, and her pagan influence was a big part of the problem Israel had at the time. But that's where Elijah was sent – to a poor widow living under the rule of Jezebel's daddy Ithobaal. And yet this poor widow, living in a place her neighbors saw as beyond the God of Israel's reach, risked all she had in faith that the God of Israel would sustain her; and so she shared what little she had with Elijah. When her son died, Elijah's prayers revived him (1 Kings 17:8-24). It was proof that the LORD isn't just God of Israel, but God of the Gentiles, too, and mighty to save in all their lands (cf. Romans 3:29).

And the crowd, hearing this reminder, gritted their teeth. But Jesus wasn't done driving home his point. Elisha, he reminded them, was Elijah's successor, a rich boy from the Jordan River Valley who, empowered by God's Spirit, did twice the miracles Elijah did. And in his time, Israel was not disease-free. There were plenty of lepers there, just as there were in Jesus' day – people with all manner of skin conditions. And Elisha could have been commanded by God to go heal all of them. But he wasn't. It's recorded that he healed one leper – but it wasn't an Israelite. It was, in fact, an enemy general from Syria, a servant of the Aramean king who reigned from Damascus. Naaman was his name, and on one of his attacks against Israel, he had kidnapped a young girl from some Israelite family (2 Kings 5:2). It was she who tipped him off to the possibility of healing in Israel (2 Kings 5:3-5).

Yet Elisha wouldn't even meet him or shower him in the customary honors; he communicated perfunctorily by a messenger. But at the servants' urging, Naaman found faith enough to overlook the offense of the preacher – he washed in the Jordan and was healed (2 Kings 5:9-14). No leper of Israel found healing in Elisha's day, but God healed a foreigner, an enemy, and gained a convert (Luke 4:27). God's love couldn't be limited to Israel, nor did his blessings even come first to every Israelite; nor, Jesus implies, would his ministry prioritize Nazareth or even the Jewish people. They would have to drop their expectations of priority treatment and get used to living side-by-side with Gentiles, foreigners, especially those who might, like Naaman, come in an hour of need.

The people in the synagogue that warm, sunny day didn't much care to hear that. They believed very strongly that Jews should come first, and that Nazareth should come doubly first. They believed that their neighbors, the people they were obligated to, were the people who were most like them, people from their own village, from their own native-born community. They believed firmly that the place of foreigners was as subjects, to be used for their own advantage, or at the very least, to stay 'out there' to get out of Galilee and go back home to wherever their parents and grandparents were from. And they resented Jesus' suggestion that people like them, or even the fellow Jews of hoity-toity Capernaum, would get to cut in line – as if 'waiting in line' is how the world works!

It wouldn't surprise me at all if, that day, the whispered motto in the synagogue was, “Israelites first! Nazareth first!” And Jesus tells these stories, and people are getting furious. Surely a Phoenician widow, a member of Jezebel's country, isn't their neighbor! Surely Naaman, a ritually contagious Syrian with suspicious political loyalties, isn't their neighbor! And how dare Jesus talk about prophets treating them as if they are neighbors! We can't do a thing like that. Not only is it an offensive idea to hear in Nazareth, but if we start doing things like that, how can we possibly be safe? There's got to be a line, and that's got to be on the wrong side of it.

That, I think, was the prevailing sentiment in Nazareth that day. But it wouldn't be the last time someone came to Jesus with that sort of objection. Later in his ministry, as he was out teaching the crowds, a local law expert stood up and started testing Jesus, asking about how to have eternal life. Since he asked what he was supposed to do, Jesus quizzed him about the Law, and he answered with the Great Commandment, just as he must have heard Jesus teach it before (Luke 10:25-27). Jesus told him to make it his life, this whole business about loving God and loving your neighbors (Luke 10:28). But the lawyer wanted to know the limit, the borders of the commandment: Who wasn't he commanded to love? Where does 'neighbor' stop and 'stranger' begin (Luke 10:29)? And so Jesus told him a story (Luke 10:30-35).

And you all know the story. There's a man walking on the windy road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho – he must be a Jew, and you're supposed to identify with him at first in the story. But one hazard along that road was that it was a favorite hide-out for thieves. One of those little gangs of thieves accosts the man, and because he tries to resist, they beat him bloody and rip his clothes off, stealing them, too. And so he's unconscious by the side of the road, denuded of anything that might identify what kind of person he is, and in real trouble. 

Along comes a priest, returning home to Jericho after a day on duty at the temple. And as he walks along the path and sees the man, he's confronted with a dilemma. It isn't clear if this man is still alive. If he isn't, well, a priest is forbidden to defile himself by touching a dead body unless it's a close relative. If he became ritually impure in defiance of the law and then went back to temple work the next morning, and anybody found out, he'd be in real danger of being lynched by the other priests. 

On the other hand, maybe the man is alive. If he's a fellow Jew, then the priest is required to help. But is he? Without clothes, face down in the dirt, who can tell? Is the priest required to help if the man isn't Jewish? Does he still then count as a neighbor? The priest, in his quiet reflections, has to answer that very question. And besides all that, who's to say it isn't a trap? Who's to say this apparent victim isn't a source of danger? Flummoxed by the quandary, the priest rationalizes the man's needs away, treats him not as a fellow image-bearer of God but as a potential threat, and walks past on the other side.

Along, then, comes a Levite, also having performed a day of service at the temple. He probably saw, from a distance, the priest walk by the man – and who is the Levite to second-guess a priest? Especially a priest he'd have to face in Jericho later that evening. So the Levite follows the loveless example set for him: he passes by on the other side. And it's at that point, in a typical Jewish story, that you'd expect to meet a third character coming along, a regular Jewish layman, to round out the standard trio. But Jesus plans a twist for the story.

Instead of a Jewish layman, he introduces a seemingly more nefarious figure: a Samaritan. The half-breed people living between Galilee and Judea, or so Jews of that time would have thought of them. And a Samaritan was not exactly a positive stock figure for a Jewish story in those days. Actually, people resented Samaritans, hated Samaritans, even feared Samaritans.

And it wasn't entirely without reason. The Samaritans came into being as a people after the Assyrians carted upper-class Israelites away from the Northern Kingdom, populating the land with foreign settlers, who married with local peasant families. Their religious practices diverged heavily from the teachings of the prophets. In the era when Jews returned from Babylonian Captivity, Nehemiah was fanatically opposed by Sanballat, the Samaritan governor. Later on, when the Promised Land fell under foreign Greek rule, and Jews were being persecuted for their faith, the Samaritans disowned them, denied having any connection with them. After things calmed down, there was a nasty argument between Jews and Samaritans over which was the true temple site, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim in Samaria. It wasn't always just a war of words, either – from that very time period, there are stories of Samaritans attacking Jewish colonies, places like Nazareth.

And when Jesus was a child, maybe he heard the story of the horrifying thing the Samaritans did: they traveled to Jerusalem and, one night during a festival, crept onto temple grounds and tossed corpses onto temple property to defile it. If that weren't enough, Galileans now had to put up with being ruled by Herod Antipas, who was half-Samaritan on his mother's side. And while nobody at the time knew it, the Samaritans would eventually revolt against Pontius Pilate (his response would be the pretext for removing him from office), and in time would lynch a band of Galilean pilgrims traveling through their turf. Perhaps, even in these days, there was a suspicion that it was just the sort of thing a Samaritan might do. Samaritans were hated. Samaritans were feared. Let Samaritans move into the neighborhood, and there's no telling what trouble might lurk around the corner. The phrase “Good Samaritan” is, to the ears of first-century Jews, a contradiction in terms.

So what does Jesus do? Of course he casts a Samaritan in the starring role. As he tells the story, along comes a Samaritan, who seems to be pretty well-to-do. What he's doing deep in Judea, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, I haven't a clue. Seems like a place a Samaritan probably wouldn't want to be. But there he is, and he sees the man. And his first thought isn't, “What if I catch something from him?” His first thought isn't, “What if this is an evil plot to trap and kill me?” His first thought isn't, “Do I really owe this guy any help?” And you could understand if he asked those questions, because the Samaritan's in a scary place, and if this man were conscious, he might well spit in the Samaritan's face. But the Samaritan doesn't bother to think about any of that. He just looks on the injured man and has a heart full of compassion – the 'dangerous' helping the 'dangerous.'

So the Samaritan goes to him. Finds that he's still alive. Binds cloth around the wounds, and pours oil and wine on them – standard medical practice in the day, but it's a drain on the Samaritan's resources. And then he takes the unconscious man and puts him up on his own donkey, choosing to walk the rest of the way. And Jesus says the Samaritan takes him to an inn. 

The nearest inn wasn't by the side of the road. It was in Jericho. And can you imagine what the Jericho townspeople would think when they see a Samaritan toting a beaten-bloody Jew into their town? They might well assume he's responsible for it! And can you imagine what they might do as an act of popular outrage? The Samaritan can imagine all too well – he knows there's a chance the denizens of Jericho might lynch first, ask questions later. But he goes to town, braving the crowd; he walks to the inn; he stays to tend to the man overnight; and before he leaves, he pays the innkeeper and promises to cover any additional expenses to prevent the man from going into debt-slavery for an unpaid bill later on.

Did the Samaritan make it out of town alive? Jesus doesn't say. What he does ask is who turned out to be the most neighborly, the truest neighbor, to the injured man in his time of desperate need. The lawyer can't bring himself to say the word 'Samaritan'; he just says, “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:36-37). And Jesus holds him up – the astoundingly merciful Samaritan, the hated and mistrusted foreigner – as the real model for imitation. Suddenly, Jesus hurls the self-righteous lawyer – hurls us – into the foreigner's shoes. And after we've seen through the foreign Samaritan's eyes, limits on the word 'neighbor' lose their possibility forever.

The Samaritan didn't care that the man was a Jew; he accepted him as a neighbor and risked everything to help him – just like Elijah didn't care that the widow of Zarephath was Phoenician, just like Elisha didn't care that Naaman was Syrian. All three of them helped foreigners when the need presented itself. None of them came up with excuses. They never thought, “Israel first.” They never thought, “Nazareth first.” They never thought, “Me and people like me first.” They just lived out the welcoming love of God, even when it was costly, even when it was frightful – but fear's got nothing on love. And Jesus points to stories like these, examples like these, offenses like these, and says, “You chosen people could learn a lesson in faith and love from foreigners like these. Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

Go and do likewise: Count them as your neighbor, regardless of where they come from. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of what they look like. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of what cultural traditions they practice. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of what language they speak. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of what religion they've practiced before you met them – because everyone in the world either celebrates the good news with us already or needs to receive the good news that we're put here to tell 'em. Count them as your neighbor, regardless of whether they'd do the same for you. Have mercy. Show love. Go and do likewise.

You might be wondering this morning what the application of this sermon is, this lesson on distant neighbors, on foreign neighbors. And to give you a little bit of background, a couple months ago, two of you came to me and said you'd like to hear what the word of God speaks into today's political and cultural furor over refugees and immigration. And when I turned to the scripture, when I prayed and read and studied, here's what I found. It may not be the message you were hoping to hear. It wasn't what the lawyer hoped to hear. It wasn't what the townsfolk of Nazareth hoped to hear. But I hope you'll receive it better than they did (cf. Luke 4:28-29)!

The truth is, when it comes to refugees, immigrants, and just anyone within our own borders who has a different look, different language, different subculture than us, sometimes we look at them the way most Israelites in the days of Elijah viewed Phoenicians like the widow, the way Israelites in the days of Elisha viewed Syrians like Naaman, the way the settlers of Nazareth viewed the Gentile populations in Galilee, the way most Jews viewed Samaritans. 

And so we get resentful. We insist that we, and people like us whom we accept, should come first. That we need more protection against an unspecified danger that the foreigner among us may hypothetically present. We demand priority treatment, in the name of fairness, security, and convenience the all-American trinity. It's all well and good for the Samaritan to empty his wallet for a foreign stranger, we figure, but we'd rather not sacrifice a half-second to press '1' for English. And so we come to dislike “the year of the LORD's favor.” We bristle at following Jesus in offering liberty to the oppressed. We'd sooner cook up slurs like 'foreign,' 'strange,' 'dangerous,' than use words like 'neighbor' and then live accordingly. Maybe we chosen people could learn a lesson or two about faith and love from Elijah and the Phoenician widow, Elisha and the Syrian general, and a strangely merciful Samaritan far from home.

And that's the message for today. Now, I want to be clear: I'm not telling you how you should have voted in the last election, and I'm not telling you how you should vote in the next one. There are a lot of issues at play, and your decision should be between you, the Spirit of God, and the living witness of his church. But I can tell you that earlier this year, the National Association of Evangelicals – of which our denomination is a part – released a statement that said this: pursuing the goal of security, we must not betray our deepest values, by disregarding the sanctity of human life or by closing our doors to the persecuted who seek protection. The Bible is clear that God blesses nations and individuals who uphold justice and righteousness and defend the vulnerable. The call to love our neighbor always entails a degree of risk, but the risk to our souls, and to our national character, is much greater if we fail to do what we can, and what we know is right, to help those who are in desperate need.

That's what they said, because it's what God said. It's where God's heart is: for neighbors far and near, through us. Love shapes how we should talk about our neighbors, one and all. And as the church, we, unlike the Nazareth synagogue, don't live by pride and fear. We live by the perfect love that casts out fear – and casts out pride, and resentment, and any “us-first” mentality that may still grasp at us (1 John 4:18). Love comes first, not us. And in the words of our country's national anthem: “This be our motto: 'In God is our trust!'” And as we trust him, we're set free for mercy and love. Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

All Things New: Homily for Easter Sunday 2017

Christ is risen! Oh, Christ is risen – Death is dead, and Life is alive! Can it really be true? Isn't it too good? Isn't it too unbelievable? And yet you can't explain the rise of the early church without it, and you can't explain what's happened in our lives without it. Jesus' resurrection is the victory of a whole new world over this world we know. It's true. Jesus really did rise from the dead. He really is alive today – right now, this very moment – in a glorified body, residing in heaven but planning to rejoin us for a great big party at a time of the Father's choosing.

And yet some people will still say, “So what? So what if one man rose from the dead two thousand years ago? What difference does that make in my life in this world right now?” Does it really matter? Does it make a difference? What do you think? I think it does. Paul thinks it does, or else he wouldn't have written, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is pointless and you are still in your sins. … If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:14,17,19). How tragic would it be!

But on the other hand, if Jesus is risen, then he really is Jesus Christ – Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Son of David, Jesus the Son of God – and that's big news. It's good news. And, thank God, it's true news: “In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Which means that Jesus is who he says he is. It means that God approves all his claims about himself. It means that God has sent Jesus, chosen Jesus, to be God's true face toward the world. It means that God has chosen Jesus to be God's true face toward you. In pop culture, we get a lot of pictures of God – God as an angry bearded man, thundering from heaven; God as a senile grandpa, patting us on the head; God as a butler in the sky; God as a great big mystery, totally beyond our ability to know. Sweep all those pictures into the rubbish bin. The only picture you need is Jesus, who reveals his Father's heart.

Does that matter? It does, because one of the astounding claims Jesus made earlier in Holy Week was that he had come to offer a new covenant – he said it at the Last Supper, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). If Jesus were still dead, that would've been a lie. But since he's risen, it's the truth. And that matters because the new covenant is a new kind of relationship with God. It's like God said through the Prophet Jeremiah long before:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Did you catch that? God's saying that, in this new relationship, he won't forgive sins piece by piece – a little bit here, a little bit there. No, he's going to wipe the slate totally clean – forever. And because Jesus lives, you're invited to have that. God wants a new relationship with you, one where you're totally and permanently forgiven for everything you've done, everything you've thought, everything you've been a part of. God won't remember your sin; he'll throw it far away, far as the east is from the west, far as the bottom of hell is from the heights of heaven. It won't be based on anything you do. It will be based on what Jesus already did. “The wages of sin is death,” but Jesus paid those wages. And in return, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

And instead of having to worry constantly about following a law that's outside you, that's over you, that's forboding and closing in on you from all sides – he'll write it on your heart, inside you, with his Spirit. This is a radical change – this changes everything. It's like a new exodus. Long ago, God took his people from Egypt, where they were slaves to the Pharaoh. The Passover lambs were sacrificed so that their blood would protect the Hebrews from God's judgment on Egypt's sin. And then God took them out through the sea, into the desert to meet him there, and made a covenant, an agreement, a relationship with them, like he was marrying them. And then, in time, he brought them to the place he'd promised them and gave them the victory.

And because Jesus lives, God has done the very same thing for us. He's our Passover lamb, whose shed blood protected us from God's final judgment – there's no wrath left over for you, if you're covered. And then God led us out from our slavery to sin. He made a new relationship with us. He set us free, and calls us the bride of Christ. And he gives us the victory over sin, over death, over the devil, over the world. That sort of thing does matter! If that story is your story, it means that you are not an ordinary person – not in the least. It means that you are an ex-slave celebrating freedom; it means you've passed from death to life; it means you're a victorious conqueror – “in all these things, we're more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). Don't you think that makes your life different?

In the new covenant, God promised he would “restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob” (Jeremiah 30:18) – well, that's you! You're restored! In the new covenant, God promised he would say, “The LORD has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him” (Jeremiah 31:11). Again, that's you! You have been ransomed! You have been redeemed from the hands of Satan, the hands of Death, the hands of your sin, the hands of your old self, none of which you could escape on your own, but all of which are left grasping at nothing while you walk free! In the new covenant, God promised

In the new covenant, God has “caused a Righteous Branch to spring up for David” – that's King Jesus, risen from the dead – “and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33:15). That's hope for the whole world all around us. The work he's doing in your heart, the work he's doing partly through our hands and our voices in the world today, he'll one day lead himself at the return of the Risen King.

And because Jesus lives, because Christ is risen, God says, “They” – that's us – “shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD … their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:12-13). Instead of sadness, joy! Instead of sorrow, gladness! Instead of loneliness, comfort! Instead of the desert, the Garden of Eden! God will be your God, you will be his, and you will know him yourself! That sounds like a big difference to me! And it begins now.

And is God going to change his mind about all this? Is he going to ever look at you and decide to scrap it? No! Because Jesus lives, you have a guarantee that will never happen. Because God said the new covenant would be “an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them” (Jeremiah 32:40). And as long as you're responsive to the Spirit of God working on your heart, bringing it in line with the word God's spoken, you won't turn away from him, either. In hard times, in your darkest hour, you can have this trust: that God has not turned away from doing good to you. He may be knocking down some walls, putting holes in the drywall, but he's renovating you from a shack into a palace – and “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” at the return of the Risen King (Philippians 1:6).

And all these things – they begin now. Paul tells us, “We were buried, therefore, with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). That's for now – right now. Is there something you've been struggling with – maybe an addiction, maybe a doubt, maybe a deep-seated grief, maybe a sorrow, maybe a dysfunctional relationship, maybe a sin you can't seem to give up? Christ was raised from the dead so you could walk in newness of life. Are you just tired, bored, worn out, discouraged? Christ was raised from the dead so you could walk in newness of life. Consider yourself dead to all those things and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he [or she] is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Maybe you're wondering how you can have a part in this. How can your story be one of exodus? How can you have the new covenant? How can you have that forgiveness? How can you be a new creation? How can you have the promises of God on your side? Where do you have to look? These promises are so good, you might think you have to search high and low to find them, to make them happen. But you don't. It's already within your reach, because God's grace put it there (Romans 10:6-8). “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). If you're willing to praise and worship Jesus as the LORD who reveals God his Father to you – and in the early church, this kind of public confession began with baptism – and if your heart trusts that he really is alive from the dead through the power of God, then all these promises are for you. That's it – trust in Jesus' resurrection power, worship him as Lord, give the direction of your life over to his wisdom, and all this and more is for you.

And maybe you're wondering what else this new covenant business is all about – what all is included in the package? What other big differences does it make? And if that's something that's on your mind, we'd love to see you here with us in the weeks to come. We'll be spending the next several months mostly exploring that very question through the prophecies of Jeremiah's younger friend Ezekiel, after a short detour through a very famous story Jesus told next week. Those prophecies – they find their truth in Jesus. And that story – you can trust it to have power for your life, because God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). So “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

And hear this: The words that the Father whispered in the quiet tomb of his Son that first Easter morn, the words that the Father whispers in your heart the moment you first believe, are the words that one day, at the return of the Risen King, he'll shout so all the universe hears and obeys: “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5).

When that day comes, the cemetery outside these walls will be a very exciting place to be – because Jesus' infectious resurrection life will be an epidemic, and no one out there will be immune from catching his case of immortal life! “For if we have been united with him in a death like his,” which is exactly what happens to those who believe and are baptized, “we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

And when that happens, we'll be ready for the wedding supper of the Lamb and his Bride – Jesus and his church (Revelation 19:7-9), and we will be his people, and he will be our God forever (Jeremiah 30:22; 32:38; cf. Revelation 21:3). And every day will be Easter perfection. Until then, we who believe and are baptized, we the people of the new exodus, gather around the Lord's Table, sharing the beautiful foretastes of the banquet that's coming – as we proclaim our Risen King 'til he comes. And in the meantime, he is “with [us] always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Loved to Completion: Homily 6 for Good Friday 2017

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,”... (John 19:30)

Is there any word in the Gospels that has perplexed the church quite as much as this one, tetelestai, “It is finished”? We get the impression. But we can only speculate on what exactly it means. What, pray tell, is finished? What is accomplished, what is completed, what is brought to its limit or its conclusion or its end?

You ask some readers, you might be told that what's finished is Jesus' mission to conform his life to the pattern of the Hebrew Scriptures, thus fulfilling the age-old prophecies, bringing them to completion. You ask other readers, they'll say that it's Jesus' suffering – his pain and shame have reached their limit. You ask other readers, and they'll say that it's Jesus' work of atonement – that his task of rendering full satisfaction to his Father for our sins has been accomplished, and the debt is paid in full. You ask still other readers, you might hear he's announcing the end of the temple system, hence the rending of the veil. We all get the basic impression, but the details – that's a thorny one.

John the Evangelist probably wouldn't disagree with any of those. But I'd like to suggest that he may have something bigger and broader in mind when he records that concluding word from Jesus' lips, the last one that John includes. The story doesn't quite begin when Jesus is on the cross. It begins last night, Maundy Thursday, when Jesus turns most directly to contemplating his death – what John calls Jesus' departure from the world, his personal exit from human society to rejoin his Father's company.

And listen to how John writes the opening scene of the Last Supper: “When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). To the end – to the finish line, to the goal posts, to the ultimate degree, to the point of total accomplishment, to the conclusion, to perfect completion.

And so he goes ahead and shares a meal with his disciples (John 13:2-4). So he goes ahead and washes their feet – even Judas' (John 13:12). So he teaches them his new commandment of love (John 13:34). So he assures them that he leaves them with many gifts as he departs (John 14:16-17), and tells them he'll come back to them (John 14:3). So he offers himself to them as their Way to the Father, as the Truth of God, as Life with no end – and there can never be any other (John 14:6). So he declares the Eleven “already clean” through hearing these words of his (John 15:3). He promises them joy beyond their coming sorrow (John 16:20-22), declares his victory over sin-bound society and the dark powers that undergird it (John 16:33), and prays his heart out for them (John 17:1-26).

In all these things, he shows them a love beyond their comprehension. But in it all, Jesus says that this is not yet the full completion of his love. It hasn't yet been made manifest in its greatest way. It hasn't yet reached its perfection. Because “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). His love can't be finished until it reaches “the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

And that, I'd suggest, is what's now finished: the full extent of the love of Jesus, his love-unto-death, is presented complete to us in the sight of God. His love is made solid, made tangible, made concrete and real and actual and perfect, to the uttermost degree. That's the accomplishment. That's the fulfillment. Jesus Christ's perfect love-unto-death is complete to answer all the promises of God prophesied for us, even at a cost, because that's the degree of his perfect love.

Jesus Christ's perfect love-unto-death is complete to cover, even dissolve, all our sin. This really does declare his atoning work finished, because his love is finished. And where Paul liked to talk about salvation by grace through faith, John is letting us see the same truth from a different angle: salvation by love, the love of God made fully visible to the full extent as Jesus' love-unto-death. If even our love can “cover a multitude of sins” as the scriptures say (1 Peter 4:8; cf. Proverbs 10:12), how deep can perfect love-unto-death bury the whole range of sin and banish it from our lives? There's no sin that can spread too wide or mount up too high to resist the infinite flood of Christ's love-unto-death – it's complete, and no sin of yours can stand in its way. “It is finished,” so live beyond your sin.

Jesus Christ's perfect love-unto-death is complete to shred any barrier between us and his Father's holy presence. That's why the temple veil was torn in two, from top to bottom – a divine act, announcing that the love of Jesus had prevailed, had ripped asunder the dividing wall through the rending of his own flesh (Ephesians 2:14). What remains is totally reshaped. There are no more partitions in the court of the new temple – no segregation of women from men, no segregation of Gentile from Jew, no separation between slave and free, but all have a home in the same unpartitioned temple, with no veil standing between a purified people and a pure God, who unveils himself as a Father embracing his family. Jesus Christ's love-unto-death is passionate zeal to shred any barrier between his Father and us – and us from each other. Build what walls you may, Jesus' perfect love will dismantle them 'til not one stone stands upon the other. Shield yourself from God however you vainly wish, and Jesus' perfect love will tear that veil, too. “It is finished,” so live beyond your separation.

And what's more, Jesus Christ's perfect love-unto-death is complete to bless us with victorious life. The cross is the ultimate summit of love. It's the cross that makes possible what comes after it. When John talks about the crucifixion, he treats it as an act of glory: this is the paradoxical enthronement of Jesus as the Universe's King. Jesus is the King of Love, glorified on the cross, lifted up high above the earth, winning triumph over all other contenders, even defeating death. And because his love-unto-death is for us, he shares his victory with us – and so we have the promise of life eternal, life abundant, life then and life now, beyond our sin, beyond our separation, beyond even death itself, for the healing of the world. Because “it is finished.” Thanks be to God.

The Thirst of God: Homily 5 for Good Friday 2017

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”
A jar full of sour wine stood there,
so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.
(John 19:28-29)

Those simple words: “I thirst.” Can there be any more human expression than that? Jesus, as the Bible presents him, is the Word of God made flesh – he's fully divine, fully one with his Father, fills the roles that only the God of Israel could fill; but if we ever had any doubts that he's as fully human as you or I, only without sin, let them be forever dispelled by these words: “I thirst.” Jesus got hungry. Jesus got thirsty. Jesus could suffer and bleed – and, as we find out today, die.

But the way John writes these words – isn't it a bit odd? Jesus admits his thirst to the crowd, perhaps to the soldiers... “to fulfill the Scripture”? And this sour wine, or wine vinegar in some translations, is delivered on a sponge stuck to a hyssop branch, an unwieldy thing used by priests to sprinkle blood on the altar? If we rush past this saying too quickly, we're prone to miss out on a lot.

What seems to be clear is that Jesus has one more thing to do, before his death, so as to fill out the role given in the Hebrew Scriptures to the righteous suffering Messiah. And so, as he hangs suspended on the cross, Jesus' mind is singing through the psalms of Israel, and he remembers what might have been one of his favorites, Psalm 69. It's there that we hear the words, “For my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (Psalm 69:21).

But really, the whole psalm is one that Jesus must have loved. In it, the psalmist is in deep trouble – he is in mortal danger, saying things like, “I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God” (Psalm 69:2-3). The psalmist is in a position like dying, and he's calling out, “Save me, O God!” (Psalm 69:1), “Answer me, O LORD(Psalm 69:16) – he doesn't want this scene to be his end. The psalmist, probably the king of Israel talking on behalf of his people, says he's surrounded by a crowd of hostile nations, who set themselves up as his enemies: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause” (Psalm 69:4).

And as he reflects on what led him here, the psalmist says he's being persecuted and mocked because of his loyalty to Israel's God: “It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face. … For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (Psalm 69:7-9). Because he was so passionate about the house of God, those who hate God and hate holy things choose to mock him, surround him, mistreat him, give him sour wine to drink in his time of greatest thirst.

And that's never been truer of any king than of Jesus. When Jesus overturned tables in the temple court and drove out the money-changers, John quotes this very psalm to explain it: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). Jesus was hated by the temple establishment because of his zeal for God's temple in Jerusalem, for its purity as a place where the poor and outcast were welcome and where even foreigners could come and encounter the true and life-giving God Jesus called Father. It was meant to be a house of mission and mercy, but defiled by the merciless exploitation that clogged the way there.

But what's more, what really led Jesus to the cross was his loving zeal for his Father's living house, the new temple – us, the church, who are “grow[ing] into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21; cf. 1 Peter 2:5). Jesus is immensely passionate, he's saying, for us to be a pure residence for the Spirit, for us to be a living house of mission and mercy, a sanctuary on the move, bringing the nations to God and God to the nations, a living temple where all can meet him.

And because Jesus is zealous for this house of God, those who oppose God's plans – and that is so often us, resisting God's holiness with our sin, denying God's truth with our opinions, stifling God's mission with our selfishness, muttering against God's love like Jonah, rattling sabres against God's peace – well, those (like us) who oppose God's plans put Jesus on the cross. They hated him without cause and left him there in the whelming flood of death (cf. John 15:25). That wouldn't be the end – as the psalm goes on to say, God would hear Jesus' prayers, rescue him on the other side of death, and those who love God's name will yet find life in his Holy City (Psalm 69:33-36).

But before that happy ending comes to pass, Jesus looks around from the cross, looking for a sign of human mercy, of loyalty, of companionship. What did he find in the crowd that day? “Reproaches have broken my heart … I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20). In that hour, he was abandoned and forsaken. He was alone amidst the crowd. He was opposed on every side. And he was pushed to the uttermost limits his flesh could bear, in ways he hadn't been since his forty-day fast in the desert. And just as he surely did then, so he does now: he thirsts.

Jesus Christ, the Promised King, the Righteous Branch, the Son of God, is thirsty. And he looks to us, to humanity, not because he needs us, but because he chooses to ask us for an offering. And what did the soldiers give him? Did they give him a tall glass of champagne? Did they give him refreshing water from a mountain spring? Did they give him a Coke or a Pepsi? Did they give him anything rich, anything satisfying? No, because he fulfilled the pattern laid out in the psalm: “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (Psalm 69:21). Sour wine – not terribly pleasant. It's the cheap stuff, the thoughtless gift they happened to have on hand, the soldiers' leftovers – the poor priestly offering from an ungrateful pagan hand.

So it was with King Jesus on the cross, in his last minutes of life before death's futile interruption. But, sad to say, it's often the case even now, as he reigns in glory. He looks to us each Sunday, asking us to offer him our worship – do we give him rich wine, or do we give him the cheap stuff? He looks to us throughout our weeks, thirsting for our lives to look like his own holy love – and do we give him that, or do we give him the cheap stuff? And he gazes into our eyes from the faces of the oppressed and poor and tired and needy, and in their outstretched hands he stretches forth his – and do we give him a gift of abundance, or do we give him the cheap stuff, or do we give him nothing at all? 

That day on the cross, where consuming zeal for this house of the Father led him, the Son of God's thirst was met with sour wine, vinegar, the cheap stuff. This day, when the Son of God comes to you and says, “I thirst” – what offering will you give him? Think on these things.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Deceitful Above All Things: Sermon for Palm Sunday 2017

What a thrilling scene it was. Excitement filled the air. Pilgrims thronged the road up to Jerusalem, flowing through on foot. It was time for all Judea and all Galilee to flood into the city for the Passover feast. On everyone's mind this time of year was the age-old story, how the LORD their God had taken them from Egyptian slavery, sending his mercy to save through sacrifice every household that lived by faith, while the avenging angel stole life from every faithless Egyptian house.

Yes, this time of year, the songs of salvation were in the air. But this was no ordinary Passover. The crowds of pilgrims had been electrified by rumors, and then by sight, that Jesus of Nazareth, widely suspected to be the answer to centuries of the people's prayers, reported to have healed the sick, raised the dead, trounced demons, announced that God was restoring the kingdom through him – well, if all that's true, then Jesus is the Messiah, the King, the long-foretold Son of David. He's the One who will free our people! He'll restore our dignity! He'll fight our fight, he'll win our war! He'll make good all that's been lost, he'll bring every exile home!

And look, there he is! They could see him through the crowd – those lining the streets jostled for better positions, trying to get a glimpse. Those blocking the path stepped aside or tried to synchronize their movements with his. There he is, his face shining beneath the warm sun, the breeze gently blowing his beard to one side – and everyone can see him, because he's not walking on foot! No, with his disciples leading the way and following up behind, he's riding the meekest little donkey anybody's ever laid eyes on.

And as the crowd gathers 'round in anticipation, someone whispers words every learned Jew knows from the synagogue: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (Zechariah 9:9-12).

There he is! The King is coming, the King is coming, bringing salvation and restoration and freedom and life! All prayers are answered, all hope is reborn! So is it any wonder when someone in the crowd gets the bright idea to take their cloak and toss it on the ground in his path? Is it any wonder when the craze catches on, and everyone's doing it (Matthew 21:8)? That's how you treat an arriving king. It's what they did so long ago for Jehu when Elisha anointed him king of Israel (2 Kings 9:13). And is it any wonder the crowd is waving their palm branches in victory? That's what their forefathers did when Simon, the triumphant leader of the Maccabean revolt, drove the pagan Greeks out and entered to restore the city (1 Maccabees 13:51).

Or is it any wonder the song they take up, the chants from the Songs of Ascent? “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9; cf. Psalm 118:25-26). They're crying out, “Save us now, Jesus! Save us now, Messiah, Son of David! Blessings to you, our promised king, the One sent by God to set us free!” Some Pharisees object to all the racket; they want to pour cold water on all this rejoicing. They shout to Jesus, asking him to make the crowd shut up.

But he shoots back that the celebration is too contagious today – it has to fill the air, and if they weren't doing it, joy would infect even the rocks on the ground and the stones in the wall, and the architecture of Jerusalem would let loose a hymn of praise (Luke 19:39-40). No, this crowd has to celebrate. They feel refreshed, invigorated, fruitful, like a tree that's tapped its roots into rich soil by a gushing stream – with their Promised King, they can handle all the dryness of the Pharisees' scorn (Jeremiah 17:7-8). And so with Jesus, the crowd throngs through “the gate of the LORD which “the righteous shall enter through” (Psalm 118:20).

And so five days pass. It's a busy five days. The crowd is back. The Gospels often treat 'the crowd' like a character all its own, whether it's the same individual people in it or not – what matters is, it's the crowd, the voice and vehicle of popular opinion. And this time, the crowd isn't lining the path down the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem's gates. The crowd is filling the plaza outside the governor's praetorium. The One they hailed as King of Israel is held now for trial. It was a very different kind of morning.

Pontius Pilate made his appearance from the balcony, calling down and giving them a choice. Would they rather have this popular preacher Jesus – no threat, in Pilate's eyes, to Roman rule – released back to them, or would they prefer to have the release of the terrorist Barabbas, caught with his two henchmen and scheduled for execution that day? Surely they'd never dare to pick Barabbas – no one liked him much. Some of those in the crowd had lost loved ones to his violence; they themselves had informed on his whereabouts, testified against him, urged his conviction.

And Pilate certainly didn't want to crucify this Galilean preacher, whose quiet words and silent gaze unsettled him to the core. Pilate's own wife had warned him that her dreams foretold great suffering if he meddled with this righteous man (Matthew 27:19). This preacher may be unsettling, but given some of the so-called messiahs who'd led revolts against Roman rule in this city before, Pilate saw this Jesus as a healthier object for the people's devotion, if the masses needed somebody to fixate on. Pilate would much rather give Jesus a slap on the wrist and send him back out to quietly keep the people busy and away from him.

So imagine Pilate's surprise when disgust and bloodlust passed through the crowd. They were done with Jesus. Long gone were the days of cloaks and palm branches. Silent were the loud hosannas. Someone yelled out, “Set Barabbas free!” Another, “We want Barabbas!” And the crowd as a whole cheered. Up above, Pilate was shocked; his heart skipped a beat. Surely they couldn't be serious! He asked them to think it over, to give him a straight answer. So they did – Barabbas (Matthew 27:21). And just what did they expect him to do with Jesus, if not set him free?

And there came then the fateful cry: “Crucify!” “Crucify!” Set the murderer free, and put the peaceful prophet on his cross. “We have no king but Caesar!” they cry – though they've set free a Rome-hating terrorist. The crowd cares nothing for consistency. They only thirst to see the celebrity preacher, their erstwhile king, dethroned with lethal violence – a revolution against a rule not yet begun. “Crucify, crucify!” grew the enraged cry to its crescendo. They would rather trust in human strength – be it Caesar, Barabbas, the priests, or another – and live in the desert of exile; and so their hearts veered away from the LORD (Jeremiah 17:5-6). “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:9), better to beg Jesus for salvation than to call on Caesar or Barabbas or the priests – but they forsake the one who offered them steadfast love.

How can the crowd do that? In five days, how can they go from singing to damning, from loyalty to betrayal, from victory to surrender, from adoration to anger, from Hosanna to Crucify? How can they trust in the LORD one moment and turn their trust to mere mortal flesh the next? How can they abandon the living water and go to salt land where nothing thrives? How can they change directions so fast?

Sad to say, it isn't so surprising. Such is the nature of a mob, because such is the nature of us. Long before our time, long before Palm Sunday or Good Friday, the prophet Jeremiah was meditating on the blessing and curse that the LORD held out to Judah in his day – they could have one, or they could have the other, depending on where they put their faith and trust, whether in him (for blessing) or anything else (for a curse), to either thrive or starve as they saw fit (Jeremiah 17:5-8). And yet he looked around at this nation supposed to be a light for all other nations, and he saw nothing but idolatry and failure and the wrath of God. It was like their hearts had been mutilated, etched deep with a diamond-tipped pen, chiseled with sinfulness through-and-through, so that even their worship was tainted and marred (Jeremiah 17:1).

It all comes back to what was inside them. It's a matter of the heart. Now, when we read the word 'heart,' we're used to assuming that it's talking about emotions, passions. You ever hear anybody use the phrase, “Missing heaven by eighteen inches,” for somebody who understands the gospel intellectually but doesn't feel the gospel, isn't quite committed to it with personal passion? Well, that's only half-right. We think of the heart as where emotions are – it's why we cut out little hearts for Valentine's Day, it's why we talk about people putting their heart into something when they're emotionally invested.

To the Hebrews back then, back in the days of Jeremiah, when they wanted to locate emotions in the human body, they didn't use the heart. They said 'kidneys.' Your emotions were in your kidneys; you could feel them in your gut. No, your heart was more like what today we'd call the brain – it was where you thought, where you had attitudes, where you made decisions. It was the seat of the mind and the will. They didn't talk about the feelings of the heart but the “thoughts of the heart” (Genesis 6:5). The heart was the thing that could learn knowledge (Proverbs 18:15), the thing that could understand (Isaiah 6:10). It was where your whole outlook came from, how you oriented your life – it might believe and point to God (Romans 10:9-10), it might misplace faith and point away from God (Hebrews 3:12), it could spin round and round, and where it stops, nobody knows.

And that's the problem. That's what explains the crowd in its mob mentality. That's what explains us. We know that emotions are unsteady, but so is everything else about us. They're unclear, even to us. Jeremiah puts it like this: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). When he surveys Judah in his day, seeing their hearts chiseled with sin and constantly wavering between the blessing and the curse, that's what he realizes. Our heart – our thinking, our deciding, our whole orientation for or against God – is just constantly unsettled. The word he uses is what's used elsewhere in the Bible for a road full of potholes and debris and twists and turns, like a road badly in need of maintenance. Your heart is twisted. Your heart is uneven. Your heart is bumpy and lumpy and all bent out of shape.

You could paraphrase Jeremiah like this: “The heart is the roughest, bumpiest, most inconsistent thing in all the world. It's so incurably sick, it's terminally ill. So who can figure the thing out?” Forget all the hot-and-cold emotionalism of the kidneys; even the heart, with its supposedly steady and life-giving beat, is full of deathly illness and misshapen lumps; and so are all your thoughts, all your attitudes, all your desires and decisions, all your intentions and promises. All of them are bumpy and lumpy and bent out of shape.

The whole thing is just one big mystery, hopelessly beyond our discernment, ultimately unpredictable from one day to the next. The crowd thought they had a King to give them life, until the next twisty path on their heart said, “Kill him.” Peter thought his heart was smooth and steady to love Jesus forever, until he cussed Jesus out and denied having ever met him (Mark 14:71). So much for “Follow your heart!” – that's a recipe for dying in a ditch.

Like Peter and the crowd, we would love to think we'll always sing Hosanna. But the problem is, inside you is a heart that's fatally flawed. It's sick, it's weak, it's bumpy and lumpy and bent out of shape. It's twisty and uneven. One moment you might hail the Son of David, the next you might say you've got no king but Caesar. One moment you might adore Jesus, the next you might cheer on Barabbas. One moment you might toss your cloaks beneath Christ's path, the next you might try to block his path or just get into the Holy City a different way.

One moment you might wave palm branches, the next moment you might shake a fist instead. One moment you might lift your hands and call out Hosanna, the next you might be in the mood to watch an execution. One moment you might be committed to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; but the next moment, you might be telling lies by a campfire. One moment you might reach out for living water, the next you might long to be alone in the desert or domesticated in Egypt. One moment we might sing praise to the LORD, and the next moment we might decide to forsake him – and “all who forsake [him] shall be put to shame” (Jeremiah 17:13).

And that's just the problem. The heart is deceitful above all things, and we don't understand it. One moment we face God, but then circumstances vary, our heart rotates a little bit, and we careen out of God's orbit and fly off to the cold reaches of outer darkness. And we just can't figure it out. We are so hopelessly fickle, and we are so clueless about it, and our hearts are etched in sin, and the lumps and bumps of our stony hearts crucified our Messiah, the Son of David... the Son of God. That's the nature of the crowd, because that's the nature of each of us – capable of taking any unseen twist and spiraling off, capable of hitting a pothole and crashing who-knows-where, and just utterly clueless about it all. And Jeremiah despairs of unraveling the mystery. Who can know it?

If that were the end of today's sermon, if that were the end of Jeremiah's reflections, it would not be so much of an encouragement, would it? But Jeremiah's question doesn't go unanswered. He asks who could possibly get a grip on this lumpy, bumpy heart of ours. And then he hears an answer: “I, the LORD, search the heart and test the kidneys, to give to each according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10). We may be utterly lost, but the LORD God who spoke to Jeremiah presents himself as the Divine Mapmaker, the only One up to the challenge of charting – and reshaping – the hopeless topography of the human heart.

And here, amid all our cacophany of 'Hosanna!', 'Blessed!', 'Barabbas!', 'Crucify!', he came – Jesus himself is the God of Jeremiah, “the One who examines kidneys and hearts” (Revelation 2:23; cf. Jeremiah 11:20). He has an eye on our emotions. He surveys our thoughts and decisions. He knows where we stand in our shifting sand, and not a lump nor a bump, no pothole or twist, catches him off his guard. He's mapped it all in detail, and he gives us his word to make a way through the depths of our fickleness and cluelessness. But that way leads inexorably to the cross. And it plunges into the grave, where all is lost and dead in the parched lands beneath the earth. But the road he charts does not stop there. Oh yes – it winds its way to the great feast of life, past a rolled-away stone and stupefied guards, and onward to a new world in the making.

Jesus offers to carry us on that journey. He offers to rip us up from the salty earth where we're planted and to put us back in a lush field. He offers to pump his streams of living water right through our hearts (John 7:38), irrigating and terraforming the broken landscape of our hearts and kidneys, our wills and desires, by his Spirit. But first his body must become a broken landscape, bruised and scarred and torn, bumpy and lumpy and bent to the shape of a cross. For in no other way can he be the Stone rejected by builders but raised up as Chief Cornerstone of the Temple of the LORD (Psalm 118:22).

And so his cross-shaped throne would become “the place of our sanctuary” (Jeremiah 17:12). His heart would be pierced by a Roman spear from our hands, etching our sins, our fickleness, onto him (cf. Jeremiah 17:1). He'll speak peace to the restless mob and peace to the prison pits of our craggy hearts (cf. Zechariah 9:10-11). He'll submit to our cries of “Crucify!”, because it's the only way to be our “Hosanna!”, our salvation now – salvation, yes, from our fickle kidneys and our clueless, hopeless hearts. Thanks be to God for his Son, who has “answered [us] and [has] become our salvation” (Psalm 118:21), because unlike our deceitful hearts, “his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 118:29). Amen.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Hope for the Tempted

Good morning, brothers and sisters! The Lenten season is finally winding down – or, should I say, ramping up to what it really points to. This Lent, we've been journeying with Jesus into the desert, witnessing him face the toughest temptations the devil could muster. It was, remember, the Spirit who led Jesus to the desert in the first place (Matthew 4:1). That's where God leads his children: from baptism to the wilderness. It's where God took Israel, the son of God he drew out of Egypt. It's where God led Jesus by the Spirit. And it's where God often takes us.

And there in the desert, God's children face some different ideas of what it means to live as a child of God. The devil taunted Jesus with one set of ideas. The devil says being a child of God means getting what you want, when you want it – so Jesus should turn stones to bread (Matthew 4:3). But Jesus has read the word of God by Moses, and Jesus sees there that children of God don't live by consuming whatever they crave; they live by trusting in their Father's word, which provides for them what they really need, day by day (Matthew 4:4).

The devil says being a child of God means being able to count on God for special treatment; that being a child of God means forcing God's hand to rubber-stamp your plans and agendas – so Jesus should throw himself from the temple roof and let everyone marvel as angels catch him (Matthew 4:5-6). But Jesus sees that being a child of God means trusting God's plan in God's time and letting God give the victory (Matthew 4:7).

The devil asks Jesus to give him one moment of worship in exchange for ruling the world, which would bring about paradise (Matthew 4:8-9). But Jesus knows that real healing for the world's deepest problems can only come from the Father, and being a child of God means loving the Father and worshipping him always and only (Matthew 4:10) – so Jesus refuses all the devil's temptations. And really, in those temptations, we encounter the most intense forms of every temptation we might come across. Pride, sensuality, hunger, arrogance, a thirst for attention, even false mercy – the roots of every temptation we face, you can probably find it in one or more of the three things the devil tries to tempt Jesus with. These temptations sum up the roots of all temptations.

When he was faced with the uncommon temptations that summed up all temptations, what did Jesus do? How did Jesus think about them? He turned back to the stories about the Son of God – Israel – in the wilderness long before. And later, when the Apostle Paul needed to teach a lesson about temptation, he did the exact same thing, didn't he? We remember how he used the same true stories, saying that they “took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they,” the Israelites of old, “did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). “These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

See, Paul was faced with a nasty situation in Corinth. He heard just so many upsetting things about what was going on among the Christians in that city! It's understandable: Corinth was a wild place – it really was a lot like the ancient Las Vegas. But one problem revolved around eating food associated with idols – Paul has to spend three whole chapters dealing with it. And what we have to understand is, we live in a time when there's such a thing as a restaurant: if you want to get together with friends outside your house for a meal, you go to a restaurant. In ancient Corinth, they had places like that, too. Only, the name for it wasn't 'restaurant'; it was 'temple.' A temple was where you went – they often had places for dining, and the idol of the temple was thought of as the host. And even in the marketplace, a lot of the meat you might buy had originally come from these temples and was originally blessed in the idol's name.

So you've got these converts in Corinth who still have a lot of pagan friends. And that's good, because that's often necessary to share the gospel! But it posed a problem, because what do they do when their friends want to take them out to eat or have them over for dinner? Somebody in Corinth wrote to Paul about this problem and told him that there were some Corinthian Christians who were coming up with all sorts of rationalizations for going ahead and letting their pagan friends take them to the temples. They reasoned that “an idol is nothing,” that the so-called gods worshipped in those temples don't really exist and so have no power (1 Corinthians 8:4). They reasoned that they know better than either pagans or their conscientious fellow believers (1 Corinthians 8:1). They reasoned that they have the right to eat anything now, and nobody should limit their rights and their freedom (cf. 1 Corinthians 9).

And, apparently, they also reasoned that, even if there were some real influence attributable to idolatry or to the immoral entertainment often available at these get-togethers in temples or in friends' homes, it didn't matter, because they were protected by baptism and the Lord's Supper – it made them spiritually immune to the consequences. In the end, all these ideas were rationalizations, not so different from the ones we use when choosing our entertainment or flirting with Mammon in the workplace or the store. They masked the fact that these Corinthians were tempted: they had desires to keep partying it up with their friends, and they were afraid of the social costs – to say nothing of professional, financial, even physical costs – that might come from withdrawing from pagan social life in Corinth.

So Paul tells the Corinthians to hold up: I mean, they really think there are no consequences, that baptism and the Lord's Supper make them spiritually immune? Then for all they claim they know, they turn out to look a bit ignorant – ignorant of history. Because these Corinthians are part of the Church. And the Church is the New Israel, heir to the legacy of Old Testament Israel. And so the spiritual ancestors of the Corinthians emerged from Egypt and were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” given to them by Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:2-4). Just like the Corinthians, the Israelites had baptism, and the Israelites had spiritual food like the Lord's Supper. So the question is, did that make them spiritually immune from consequences for their actions?

Eh, not so much! “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5). Why? Because they “desired evil” (1 Corinthians 10:6). And the evil they desired was the same as what the Corinthians desired: idolatry, sexual immorality, testing Christ, and grumbling factiousness (1 Corinthians 10:7-10). Corinth may not look much like a desert, but the Corinthians turn out to look a lot like the Israelites of old after all. The Corinthians think they can partake in those four things and be just fine, because they have baptism and spiritual nourishment to protect them. But the Israelites had the same protections, yet the ones who partook in the same dangerous temptations died in the desert! So, Paul says, “let anyone who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12); and that's exactly what will happen if they keep giving into temptation and unwittingly having fellowship with demons (1 Corinthians 10:20).

That's a pretty stern warning! Can you imagine how stressful hearing that might have been to some of those in the Corinthian church? Paul's threatening them with destruction – it's intimidating to hear! And some of them would then have been asking, “Well, if we're like the Israelites, and pretty much all the Israelites were wiped out and destroyed in the desert, what hope is there? How can we not fall and perish? Is there even a point in trying to live right? Isn't it too much to ask? Temptations abound; they're unavoidable.” Some might have gone further: “Now, Paul, you said that 'the end of the ages' had come upon us. And doesn't everyone know that 'the end of the ages' will bring great trials and tribulations, and temptations so severe that they're literally impossible to resist? These temptations we're dealing with are just too much! It's hopeless! Why even bother trying?”

Maybe you've never put it like that. But you've probably had a time when you thought that the temptations you were facing were just too much. They're unbearable. They're abnormal. They're beyond your ability to handle. They're hopeless to resist, because they're everywhere you turn, they're in your heart and head, and that's just the way it is. Maybe there have been times you've told yourself that. Maybe there have been times you've told yourself those kinds of stories to excuse going ahead and giving in. Maybe you've thought yourself a lost cause in the midst of all this temptation, all the trials pressing on you or the enticements pulling on you. And you've just wondered, “It's too much, it's hopeless, why bother even trying to live different?”

And it's times like that when we really need to listen to what Paul is saying here. So hear this next part very carefully: “No.” As in, no, we do not have to imitate Israel in the desert. We have their example written down for our instruction, not to teach us that it's hopeless, but to teach us a very different lesson: “Go, and don't do likewise.” Go and be different. Go and have hope. Paul admits that temptation will “seize you” – that's true, that's what temptation sometimes does: it grabs you in its clutches, like a hawk swooping down on a bunny in a field, grabbing it up in its talons. That's what temptation does, at its most extreme: it seizes you in its talons. And when you're lifted off from terra firma, when you've got no paw left on the ground, that's when you think it's really hopeless, that you have no control and no reason to resist. Paul grants to the Corinthians that maybe some of them have been caught that deep in temptation's clutches. Usually, we're dealt only a glancing blow; but let's follow Paul through this worst-case scenario.

First, this temptation you're facing is not unbearable. It is not abnormal. To kick the metaphor down another block, hawks and their talons aboundeth. They are not new on the scene. They are not native only to where you live. You may sometimes think that the temptation you're dealing with is new. So did the Corinthians. But the same kinds of temptations we face are mostly the same ones that swooped down on Corinthians nearly two thousand years ago. And those temptations were really the same ones that swooped down on Israelites still a thousand years before that.

These are the same temptations swooping down in the rugged wilderness of the desert as swooping down amid the shining urban architecture of Corinth, and so the temptations that come rushing down at you are not unique to the twenty-first century or to Lancaster County, to Pennsylvania, or to the good ol' US of A. The forms may vary, but the substance of the temptation is the same. And they aren't unique to you, either. People all around you, people all over the world, are right now struggling valiantly against the same temptation you're dealing with. You are not alone! “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man” – literally, what is just plain human (1 Corinthians 10:13a). What Paul tells the Corinthians, he'd say to you: the temptations you're dealing with are not special; they're part of the basic human experience. They come with the package of being human in a sin-damaged world.

Also, temptation is not boundless. Temptation is not infinite. It is not unbearable. By the grace of God, it has limits – it will not be a part of your life forever, and it will not squeeze you to death in the meantime so long as you resist. There is an escape route; there is rescue from the talons! Paul says as much: “Moreover, God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but will provide, with the temptation, also the way out, so that you may bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13b).

Ah, there's so much there! But think on this: when temptation comes your way, God promises to give you a way out, a way through, a limit, so that you will not be stranded in temptation, forever lost and hopeless. No, there will be an escape route. Now, that escape route may run over some pretty rough terrain! It may be a harsh mountain pass! Nowhere does Paul say that God will make the way out easy; he says that there will be one provided. Staying trapped in temptation forever isn't inevitable. You may not be invincible, but neither is your temptation. It may not come to an immediate end, but with the knowledge that there is an end, that there is a limit, that your temptation is subdued and held in check by God, you can bear it while it lasts; it won't be more than can be dealt with.

Why? Because of those sweet words, “God is faithful” – it matches beautifully with John's words, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). God doesn't want to see you fail. God wants to see you pass the test. God doesn't want to see you perish. God wants to see you survive. God is committed to walking you through, because you belong to him, and he aims to keep you. So God has counteracted each temptation you'll face. Maybe he's made it less severe than it would otherwise be. Maybe he's cut it short for your sake (cf. Matthew 24:22). But temptation is not the boss. God is. He saw temptation coming your way, he knows you, and he's taken measures to make it possible for you to get to the other side without giving in. Surrender is not inevitable.

And you see that, too, with Jesus in the wilderness. He faced the three great temptations that sum up temptation – but he stayed true. And the devil didn't just keep Jesus in the desert for the next hundred years, tempting him non-stop. There was a limit: these three, then take a hike. After Jesus repudiated the devil and passed through the temptations, it stopped: “Then the devil left him” (Matthew 4:11a). Temptation abated. You've seen that happen in your own life: a temptation you were facing, when you resisted it, eventually subsided, abated, passed – the tempter left you alone, at least for a while. Not to say he won't be back to try again later. Not to say he won't brainstorm better tactics in the meanwhile. But he'll withdraw.

And Jesus got more than that. “And behold, angels came and were ministering to him” (Matthew 4:11b). The devil had taunted him with his privilege of having the angels come to his aid. The devil had taunted him with his privilege of getting food in the middle of a desert. But instead of demanding it, Jesus waited on his Father, the God who was faithful to him. And when temptation subsided, when the devil left, when Jesus had endured completely, then that's when the Father sent his angels. And they refreshed Jesus.

In his humanity, Jesus was utterly exhausted – he was dehydrated, he was starved half to death (and then some), and then his focus and his willpower were taxed to the utmost by the devil. Jesus, in his humanity, was drained and depleted. Resisting temptation had expended his strength. But the angels came and refreshed him; they gave him food, they gave him water, they gave him comfort. And so his strength was restored, to undertake the trek back home to Galilee (Matthew 4:12). God will give the same to you: when you've exhausted yourself in resisting temptation, God will supply you with refreshment to keep going. When it comes to resisting temptation, you don't need to fear a crash-and-burn result. Be faithful and wise, and God will take care of you.

Oh, and here's another point. God says he won't let us be tempted beyond what we are able. But that ability isn't just what we naturally have in us. That ability includes the resources he's given us as believers. That's the extent of the ability Paul's talking about. We know, for example, that Jesus didn't answer the devil just by using the word “No.” That's good, but Jesus wanted to show us how it's done. Jesus exposed the thought process, the spiritual process, by which he passed the test. And you may think, “Well, Jesus is so extraordinary, but I'm just ordinary.” But Jesus successfully faced his 'extraordinary' temptations with just 'ordinary' resources available to 'ordinary' you and 'ordinary' me.

So we see that Jesus resisted temptation with the word of God. Every time he answered the devil, it was by quoting scripture (Matthew 4:4,7,10), which Jesus trusted fully because he trusted his Father fully. Jesus knew scripture, and he used it as a resource that has the antidote to any temptation we face. Well, you have a Bible, and I have a Bible. There's nothing stopping us from learning what scripture says. There's nothing stopping us from letting it work its way into our heart, storing it up there like Jesus did to use against temptation. We've got the same resource available to us – not just to learn the words, like the devil did, but to learn their context, their meaning, their application, like Jesus did. We resist temptation, not merely with a human 'no,' but by the word of God.

Also, we resist temptation by the grace of God, by the Spirit of God. When you look at this story about Jesus, there's no missing this: he was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit who anointed him at his baptism (Matthew 4:1). The Spirit didn't fly the coop once the River Jordan faded from sight. Jesus continued to have the Spirit's presence. Jesus continued to have the Spirit's power available to support him in this battle royale. And so do we. When Paul talks about the level of temptation we're able to face, he isn't talking about natural human ability. He's talking about graced human ability – what we can do when we rely on God in faith.

There was a time – Paul writes this to the Corinthians – when Paul was at the end of his rope. During a portion of his ministry, he was persecuted so severely, afflicted and injured so grievously, that he nearly crumbled under it. “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). God promised not to give us unbearable temptation, but there is such a thing – an uncommon thing – as humanly unbearable suffering. Paul was in a situation that, as a human being, he was unable to endure. He was completely and utterly broken under the weight of the suffering he was facing, and within his human power, he had no chance whatsoever of clinging to life.

But,” he goes on, “that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” – and in light of it all, he still calls God “the Father of all mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, 9-10). Paul couldn't endure, so he relied on God's endurance. When you face a temptation you can't endure, do the same thing – rely on God's endurance.

But, third, that's no reason not to prepare. God asks us to be wise. When the Corinthians mouthed off to Paul about their rights, he told them he has plenty of rights, rights as an apostle they couldn't even dream of – but he has “made no use of any of these rights” (1 Corinthians 9:15). He has radically curtailed his own rights, opting to live as “a servant of all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). To do that, he has to “exercise self-control in all things,” like an athlete (1 Corinthians 9:25). In order to qualify for a heavenly reward, says Paul, “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

And that's what the Corinthians, with all their rights-talk, have been missing. They were so addicted to their low-conflict social lives, to the taste of fine-dining at the temples and the relaxed enjoyments of the entertainment, that they didn't have discipline. Discipline means weaning yourself from those things that temptation can most easily exploit against you. Jesus disciplined his body drastically in the desert, and temptation never got a good grasp on him. If the Corinthians could learn to be more like Jesus, and more like Paul as he imitates Jesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1), maybe they'd find themselves a little slipperier when temptation tries to close its talons around them in the first place!

So our 'ability' includes plenty of resources. We have the word of God as our weapon against temptation. We have the grace-giving Spirit of God to supply us with God's endurance where ours falls short. We have the gift of discipline to train our endurance and remain slippery to temptation's grasp. And what's more, we have each other. Jesus went solo into the desert, but we travel together. We can encourage each other when we're tempted – we can seek to have our brothers and sisters in Christ hold us accountable. Instead of (like some Corinthians) insisting on our individual rights to do as we please, we can hold together, care for each other. We share in one another's sufferings and in one another's comfort (2 Corinthians 1:5-7).

And with that ability, we have the promise of our faithful God, the Father of mercy, the God of all comfort, the God who even raises the dead, that we can bear and survive temptation. When temptation swoops our direction, even when it grabs and grips us, God will make a way out from all these common temptations. You aren't alone in facing them. They are not unbearable, though they may be taxing. They are not irresistible, though they may be enticing. And they are not hopeless.

So “therefore, my beloved,” Paul writes to the Corinthians and to us, “flee from idolatry” and from every other sin to which you're tempted (1 Corinthians 10:14). Don't rationalize it away. Don't make excuses. You don't need excuses when you have hope. And you do have hope. Temptation will abate or subside, and relief will come. There is hope, even hope for the tempted – because God is faithful. Thanks be to our faithful God, who comforts us in affliction and charts our way out of temptation. Amen.