Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Mary

Bwana asifiwe! Praise the Lord. Several years ago, when I was in Kenya, I spent a few days visiting a small village in the mountains, up overlooking the Great Rift Valley. The only way up to Mwimutoni was by a sharply winding, difficult path, bumpier even than the regular roads – a real delight for jeep or van, let me tell you! The village has dirt roads where goats roam freely. I saw chickens cooped up inside some of the houses. Some of the houses I saw were built of sod and sticks; some had holes in the walls or roofs. Plenty of children are orphans, courtesy of the AIDS crisis. I watched as some of them played soccer with a ball made of plastic bags and rubber bands, and rolled a tire down the dirt road with a stick. And while I was there, I met a young woman, a high school student, named Tabitha. She was the daughter of one of the village's pastors, Elijah. We spoke for a few minutes after a seminar on youth ministry we came to co-lead; I spoke for a while with her father as well. I wish I remembered what about. I don't recall any mention of great big dreams and aspirations. To them, the village was simply home. I sometimes wonder how they and their village are doing these days.

Mwimutoni was a small village. By its native name, you'll scarcely get a hit on Google. You'd struggle to find it on a map; I know I did. Despite the proliferation of cell phones – some of those villagers get pretty good reception up there! – as far as I can tell, neither Elijah nor Tabitha has much of an online footprint. They have no international fame to their credit. But as small as Mwimutoni was when I was there, it was bigger than first-century BC Nazareth. And as little known as Tabitha may be in the broader world, the same could have been said about a humble teen peasant-girl of Nazareth named Miriam... 'Mary.' Later legends tried to situate her in the religious centers and halls of power, giving her an upbringing in the Jerusalem temple itself. But the truth is, Mary was a small-town girl in an obscure little village, under the distant thumb of pagan Rome. Her parents or grandparents were probably some of Nazareth's founding settlers; it wasn't an old place. Mary doesn't seem to have had any special status in town. She was just one of the girls – no doubt very nice, no doubt quite devout and God-fearing, but nobody famous. Over in Capernaum or Bethsaida, her name was utterly unknown. She wasn't wealthy, wasn't popular, wasn't a trendsetter. She didn't wield great authority and influence. She didn't have bragging rights anybody would have recognized – not that she would've been the type to use them if she did. She was just a teen peasant-girl in a teensy village, out in the hinterlands of backwoods Galilee (Luke 1:27). Doesn't get much more humble than that.

And that's when it happened. To Mary, a young girl a couple years younger than Tabitha, suddenly a figure appears. Did he pop into visibility suddenly, I wonder? Did he come with light streaming from his every pore? Or did he look like a normal human, strolling down a common dirt road in her direction? But Mary knew what he was: an angel. A messenger of God, sent from the throne room in heaven on an errand to the human world. A special and rare turn of events. And for all her apparent worldly insignificance, her societal obscurity, her humble peasant upbringing, her lack of notoriety, for all that, this special messenger who flew down directly from the presence of the Omnipotent Creator of the Universe, greets her like one of the blessed women in the earlier sacred books, like Hannah. Mary is “the favored one,” this messenger says – and he announces that the Lord of Everything is on her side (Luke 1:28).

When he says that, she's rather confused and concerned (Luke 1:29). Wouldn't you be? She doesn't know quite what to make of it. Would you? What does this inhuman, unearthly creature, this blazing fire in the form of a man, want, and what is going to happen to her now? Why is this happening? Is this good or bad, helpful or harmful? I'd want to know, if I had a run-in with Gabriel and he talked to me like that. But he talks to her by name, tells her that she's found “favor with God” (Luke 1:30). She's in the Most High's good graces. God and Gabriel know exactly who she is, even if the folks in Capernaum and Bethsaida don't. For all her worldly smallness, she's big news way up yonder. And that's news to her. She's going to be, Gabriel says, the mother of the Messiah – she's going to have a son, and he'll be hailed as “the Son of the Most High,” who will have title to the long-vacant Davidic throne and who is destined to claim it (Luke 1:31-33).

If you read back in the Gospel of Luke, this isn't Gabriel's first earthly rodeo. Just six months earlier, he paid a visit to the finely-garbed priest Zechariah in the temple sanctuary, surrounded by gold and the woven images of cherubim on the veil. But when he made a surprise announcement to Zechariah, Zechariah reacted by asking Gabriel for proof – to back up the angelic proclamation with something more convincing (Luke 1:18). (Life tip: If you ever run across a bona fide angel, don't ask for extra proof!) The priest, ministering in God's own house, didn't believe Gabriel's words without a sign (Luke 1:20). But the teen peasant-girl from a village that wasn't even on the maps – she has no trouble believing whatever God sent his angel to say. She has questions, sure, but she's not looking for added confirmation, just added information (Luke 1:34). She wants to know if she should expect the normal course of events – she is engaged, after all – or if something more peculiar is in store. And, of course, the answer is pretty peculiar.

Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). We read those words so often. But we don't grapple with them. If you survey the Old Testament, which Mary probably knew pretty well, you'll notice that there are two kinds of people that the Holy Spirit is said to be upon, or to come upon, or to rush upon. On the one hand, there are prophets. When the pagan Balaam was to be employed as God's unwitting mouthpiece as he surveyed the Israelite camp from afar, “the Spirit of God came upon him,” and he prophesied (Numbers 24:2). In the days of King Asa, we meet an obscure prophet named Azariah, and when “the Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded,” he prophesied to the king and sparked a national revival (2 Chronicles 15:1). And in the days of King Jehoshaphat, when the people were in crisis and begging God for help, there was a Levite named Jahaziel – you're all familiar with Jahaziel, I assume! – and “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel” (2 Chronicles 20:14), who soon enough was pronouncing a 'Thus saith the LORD' (2 Chronicles 20:15-17). Ezekiel says that he prophesied when “the Spirit of the LORD fell upon me” (Ezekiel 11:5). And the prophet Simeon of Jerusalem – more on him in a couple weeks – of him, too, we read that “the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25). Even King Saul took his turn in prophesying when “the Spirit of God rushed upon him” (1 Samuel 10:10; cf. 19:23).

And on the other hand, there are warriors. Caleb's nephew Othniel, the first of the judges, when the people had cried out under foreign oppression – we read that “the Spirit of the LORD was upon him … He went out to war, and the LORD gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand” (Judges 3:10). Eight chapters later, we meet the less savory judge Jephthah, called “a mighty warrior” (Judges 11:1), and when the time comes to fight the Ammonites, “the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah … So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand” (Judges 11:29-32). And then there's Samson. Attacked by a strong lion in its prime, “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him,” and he ripped it in pieces (Judges 14:6). Tied up by his own people for the Philistines, “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and the ropes that were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands,” and soon he was winning a fight against a thousand men (Judges 15:14-15). And, whether as warrior or prophet or both, we read that after Samuel anointed him as future king, “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). And David's ultimate descendant, the Messiah – Isaiah says“the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him” (Isaiah 11:2; cf. 61:1); Isaiah reports that God himself says, “I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).

So what Gabriel is describing to her: this is the language for warriors and for prophets. And Mary is both. The great warriors of the Bible had the Spirit come upon them for miraculous power to win victories and accomplish deliverance for God's people. And so does Mary. God's power is going to flood through her, fill her, and bring about the downfall of evil and the triumph of good, for the rescuing of the faithful. Mary, the humble teen peasant-girl, is to be God's chosen warrior in her generation, whose weapon is her prayerful childbirth, laying a ticking time bomb under the devil's nose. But the great prophets of the Bible had the Spirit come upon them to fill them up with the truth-unveiling word of God. And so does Mary. She won't merely carry God's words on her lips; she'll carry God's eternal Word in her womb, supplying the Word with humanity from her very own flesh and her very own blood. God's loudest and greatest declaration to Israel and the nations alike was to come, not through the speeches of Isaiah or the tears of Jeremiah or the visions of Ezekiel, but through the mighty birthing labor of Mary, who delivered the Eternal Word of God. Her mission is to be God's great warrior-prophet – the Messiah deserves nothing less for a mom.

We Protestants are often a bit squeamish about expressing our appreciation for, our admiration of, Mary. After all, we've seen the dangerous excesses in some church traditions. But a very deep, very intense respect for her goes back to the earliest centuries of the Christian movement. It was an early way of celebrating the divinity of Christ to call his mother Theotokos – Birthgiver of God. And if Mary is God's great warrior-prophet, I'd say she's more than warranted high billing on any list of big-name Bible heroes. And if Mary herself was inspired to say, “from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), well, shouldn't we? The Blessed Virgin Mary has an impressive destiny outlined for her by her heavenly visitor!

That's her mission: to be God's great warrior-prophet in being mother of the Messiah. And now she's got a choice how she should react. It's an impressive destiny, alright, but it won't come easy. She's got some reasons to fuss about it, actually. If she gives in to this charge, how's she going to explain it to Joseph? She may well lose the love of her life. She certainly can't expect him to believe she hasn't cheated on him. Same goes for her parents – what are they going to think when their little girl comes home pregnant and her ex-fiancé disavows having done it? In days like those, that could very well get her lynched! She'll be disowned and friendless, at the least – a target of mockery. You know how gossip circulates in a small community like a village! She has her whole life ahead of her. Does she really want to be “that woman” for the rest of her days? Is she prepared to become an outcast? Because that could very well be what saying yes entails: becoming the first of her generation to bear the reproach of Christ (Hebrews 13:13).

You could understand if the gears in her brain started churning out excuses. You could understand if she wanted to back away or hide. You could understand if she tried to bargain some extra assurances out of Gabriel. You could understand if she asked him to come back in a couple decades, or even if a few months 'til the wedding night, at least. You could understand if she wanted this whole Christ thing to be a lot easier than it was looking to be. You could understand all that. But that's not what Mary did. Mary trusted the rewards of God to far outweigh the cost – and, oh yes, she certainly was counting the cost (cf. Luke 14:28). Like Moses long before her, Mary “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:26) – or, in her case, than the treasures of friends, family, respect, safety, and a nice normal life in Nazareth. And so, with great conviction and great submission, she doesn't presume to argue with God, to confront him, to rebuke him, to call his wisdom into question. She simply accepts: “Look, I'm the Lord's handmaiden; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Hers is a costly faith – but is there really any other kind?

Rushing off to the hill country to where her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah, lived – probably in Hebron – Mary found all the confirmation she needed. And after Elizabeth pronounced her blessed, Mary – like Samuel's mother Hannah – answered with a prophetic song. Costly faith is a valuable thing, but only if the faith finds the right object. Costly faith in Zeus, in the Devil, in money, in yourself – that only yields loss. Costly faith in the path of the Zealots or the Pharisees – that won't get you nowhere. But Mary's costly faith is in her topsy-turvy God, who's turning the world around. The God she worshipped from childhood, she's now encountered herself in ways she can't totally understand. But she knows her God is holy and strong (Luke 1:49). She knows her God has mercy on the humble (Luke 1:48, 50, 54). She knows her God is faithful to all his promises (Luke 1:54-55).

And she knows that God is topsy-turvy. Mary's God reverses the fortunes of the strong and the weak, the proud and the humble, the rich and the poor: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). In Gabriel's words, Mary has discovered a God by no means content with the status quo. This is good news for the poor, this is hope for the helpless, this is relief for the oppressed. This is acclaim for the unnoticed, strength for the sick, a shield for the beaten-up and beaten-down. There is no malady, there is no frailty, there is no exhaustion, there is no despair or grief, that can't turn upside-down when a topsy-turvy God gets involved. This is a God who breezily turns poverty into riches, weakness into strength, barrenness into fertility, death into life. This is a God ready to hold this rock-bottom world upside-down – which, as it turns out, was the right way to hold it all along. And this holy God will do it by placing his holy Son in Mary's womb through his Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). This holy Child will be really somebody special – the Messiah, born not in a palace but in poverty, not amid prestige but amid peasants – but he will be great, and he'll receive power and authority, and he'll tame the beastly kingdoms of the nations and rule over an unending dominion – he'll be King of the kingdom of God (Luke 1:32-33; cf. Daniel 7:12-14).

That's the power of a topsy-turvy God. That's the power of the God Mary was prepared to call “my Savior” (Luke 1:47). And as we keep reading the story, we find out how intimately acquainted with God her Savior she became. We read how she and Joseph – more on him next week – traveled to Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David (Luke 2:4-5). We read how she “gave birth to her firstborn son and … laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:6-7). And after she hears more reports of how significant her Child really is, we read that “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Mary was a just a girl from a humble background in a tiny village, thinking she was a nobody; but God loves a small-town girl like her. And so she was given an impressive destiny like none other, as God's warrior-prophet handmaiden whom all generations would call blessed once she became mother to the Messiah. It would come at a cost, a steep social price that would follow her all her life, and indeed would be accompanied by deep and painful grief like a sword slashing her heart to ribbons. But in her humility, she counted the cost and reached out with a costly faith toward the topsy-turvy God she called her Savior. And when she saw him faithfully keep his promise, when she delivered God's Great Word to the world, she treasured everything in her heart's memory. And thank God Mary delivered the Word of God to us, because that Word is our Savior, too!

That Word, taking on flesh and blood from Mary to become a Holy Human Child named Jesus, the Messiah – that's who this life is all about. And his appearance in the flesh on our world stage – that's what this upcoming season called Christmas is all about. And we stand on the other side of that first Christmas, looking back on the costly faith of the humble peasant-girl Mary in her topsy-turvy God – and where does that leave us? Like Mary up to that day, I dare guess that many of us don't have a fame that reaches far and wide. I dare say what Paul said to the Corinthians can be said of us: “Not many of you were wise according to the flesh, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27). Like Mary, I'd guess most of us here come from humble origins: we're not especially strong, not especially rich, not especially powerful or influential or famous. We just try to get through our day-to-day lives, doing our jobs or pursuing our retirement hobbies, trying to care for those around us, trying to please God how we can.

And yet we're not so unlike Mary. She was God's warrior-prophet, because the Word of God called Christ was to be formed in her womb. But Paul said to us that he was likewise “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). The One who was born from Mary's womb is born in our hearts and dwells there. And with this Word in our hearts, we have “the testimony of Jesus” which is “the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10), and from this Word we are commanded to speak “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). And with this Word, we are equipped with God's armor and armaments to “stand against the schemes of the devil” and “wrestle … against the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). If Mary is God's warrior-prophet, we follow her example and her call, as something like warrior-prophets bearing the Word of God. Long ago, the prophets prophesied that, in the days of the Messiah, God's Spirit would be “poured upon us from on high” (Isaiah 32:15). And so he has been: the Holy Spirit that came upon Mary has come upon us, too.

As with Mary, it doesn't come cheaply. Discipleship is no wimpy thing; it's a hard road to travel, a tough fight to take on. We may receive scorn and exclusion like Mary had every right to expect. But, we're told in Scripture, “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 4:14), like Mary. Mary would've loved that verse. So should we. Because Mary's topsy-turvy God is ours, too. And there is no challenge, no trial, no disadvantage we face, no exhaustion we endure, no infirmity or sorrow we bear, that our topsy-turvy God can't flip over into something beyond our wildest imagination. Living as you have, you may well have experienced that firsthand on many occasions – and certainly on the day you could first say for yourself, with personal conviction, that phrase of Mary's: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:47). You, too, from whatever humble background you come, can share an impressive destiny through a costly faith in this topsy-turvy God. Just look to the cradle, look to the cross, look to the vacant tomb and the Risen Son of God on his Father's throne, and say, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This season, will you treasure and ponder all these things in your heart? Let it be to us according to his word. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Midnight Approacheth

I have a question for you. 'Tis the season now, and all: How many of you, when you were children, ever tried to stay up on Christmas Eve to catch a certain jolly old elf in the act? Or how many of you who have raised kids of your own ever noticed them giving it a try? Give us a show of hands. I bet it was a hard thing to do. I asked my mother, and she said she and her one brother tried it once. They hid behind one of the couches, in hope that their parents wouldn't notice them sneaking around back there. But they fell asleep before any of the action happened. Keeping vigil through the night is tough. I apparently never made the effort on Christmas Eve.

But I do remember another occasion, around this very time of year. It was eight years ago. I was living in Greece at the time. And shortly after tracing Paul's footsteps in Corinth, I took an overnight stay in a village called Andritsaina, settled on the hillside in the mountains of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Not being able to get a proper sleep, I rose in the twilight hours and hiked the rest of the way up the mountain. At the top of the winding path was a small courtyard hosting a stone chapel. And I made a decision that I would keep vigil and pray without ceasing 'til the sun rose. At first, all was pitch dark. But after hours in cold and gloomy darkness, I began to see dark blues, and then peaches, pinks, lavenders, light blues, as the sun's dawning rays pierced the horizon over Mount Lykaion, and the mountains and forests and red roofed villages dotting the landscape came slowly and fuzzily into view. All the while, amidst the darkness, I struggled to keep myself warm and awake, and wondered every moment if the sun was just a minute away – or whether the sun would ever rise at all.

Being caught between those two wonderings made it challenging to keep praying, watching, wrestling through the long, dark, lonely night. And it reminds me a bit of a story that Jesus once told. He told of a wedding, or more precisely, of the ten attendants who were summoned to keep vigil for a wedding procession. There were all sorts of ways they did weddings back then, but a few things were constant. The wedding procession, either the groom going to the bride's house to pick her up or the groom returning with the bride to his own house, took place late at night. When the procession got near its destination, it was heralded by shouts announcing their arrival. It wasn't unusual for things to take longer than expected, and so grooms frequently delayed. And once the groom got where he was supposed to be for the party, the doors got shut and locked and were not about to open for anybody. And the attendants keeping watch, lighting the night with simple torches or lamps, were frequently very young female relatives, friends, neighbors – younger than twelve, usually – whose role was vital in honoring the married couple; and so they got to observe weddings and get ready for their own someday.

So Jesus tells a story of ten young girls who stand outside the destination and watch for the procession; that's their job, to make light to welcome the groom when he comes for the banquet. But five of the girls bring oil, oil enough to do their job; and five of the girls don't. And since the groom takes his sweet time along the way, the hours wane on, and all ten doze off. But when the shouts herald the groom's approach toward midnight, the girls all wake up and get their lamps ready. And five have lamps that will work well enough... but five don't. There isn't enough total oil to light all ten; if the five wise girls try to share with the five foolish ones, then none of the lamps will be sure to last, and it'll ruin that part of the ceremony. So the five foolish girls have to scatter around and procure oil at the last minute – and they miss the groom's arrival. When they come back, the five wise girls have entered the feast, the door has been shut, and the groom won't open it for them, because their failure was an insult to the groom, the bride, and the entire party. They put the celebration in jeopardy. What were they thinking? They either assumed that he'd show up quickly, or that he'd take all night and tarry until morning when they'd have no need of oil. The result of their last-minute scramble was shameful exclusion from the party – and that was a foolish path. But the girls who came prepared for the groom to arrive soon or late – they enjoyed the party – the fruit of wisdom (Matthew 25:1-12).

Jesus told that story on the heels of another one, illustrating two approaches a servant might take if his master went away on a trip to a far-away land and left him responsible for caring for the whole household. On the one hand, the chief servant might choose to be responsible – “faithful and wise – by persistently carrying out his tasks. He'd count on his master to possibly return at any moment, but would also ration their resources properly in preparation for the master's continued absence. On the other hand, the chief servant might choose to be irresponsible – “wicked” – by abusing his peers, consuming all the rations himself, and living it up on his absent master's dime, figuring that the master's delay will continue longer, and he'll have time to clean things up if he needs to; or maybe that the master won't return at all, and he'll inherit everything. But, Jesus says, then the master shows up unexpectedly, abruptly; and his reappearance would result in harsh punishment for the servant who took Option #2, but a good reward for the servant who took Option #1 (Matthew 24:45-51).

There's a key word that crops up in both stories: 'wise.' The five young maidens who bring sufficient oil are 'wise,' and the servant who administers the household faithfully is 'wise.' And wisdom is a tough thing to define – but one decent starting place is this: Wisdom is skill for navigating the world we live in. When you have wisdom, you understand how the world works, what makes it tick, what the lay of the land is like, the direction you ought to go to reach your destination. We read that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; cf. Proverbs 1:7). And that's true because real wisdom, whole-world wisdom, is only possible when you're anchored in the real world; when you're navigating with your eyes open and with good information.

If I try to find my way from here to Delaware, but I ignore all the road signs, and I try to navigate using a topographical map of the ocean floor, and I'm wearing a snorkel, scuba tank, and flippers – is that wisdom? No! And if we try to navigate our way through life in ignorance of what world we're living in, it's the same way. The most fundamental fact about the real world we need to navigate, is that it's created and maintained, in spite of our interference, by a holy God who rightly inspires awe, speaks with authority, and elicits adoration. A life that ignores him is following a bad map and neglecting the signs – and that ain't wise living. But the second fundamental fact about the real world is that the same God, who faces our world in Jesus Christ, has acted and will act decisively and abruptly to remake that world. And a life that doesn't reckon with the perpetual potential and positive promise of the Master's return, the Bridegroom's arrival – such a life ain't wise living, either.

You see, Jesus' parables hold up a mirror to us. Because we are indeed appointed as stewards over the Master's goods during his personal absence. We are responsible for feeding, for tending, for well-treating our fellow servants, and our dwelling-place itself, 'til the Master comes back. And he does not want to come back to a house that's in ruins, to a bankrupt fortune, to starved children, to bruised and battered employees, and to a chief steward drunk with power – or just plain drunk. He wants to come back to a happy and healthy family, work force, and house. And so, just like in Jesus' story, the foolish – those who shortsightedly see his seeming delay as a pretext to be abusive and excessive – will find the Master's abrupt return to be destructive. But the wise – those who farsightedly see his seeming delay as an opportunity to endure in faithfulness for the long-haul while being ready at any minute to give account – will find the Master's abrupt return to be highly rewarding.

Just so, we are indeed attendants waiting for the Bridegroom's arrival to start the party. We cannot afford to assume he'll come immediately, like those cults where folks sell their property, quit their jobs, avoid education, all because they're so certain the end will be tomorrow. Nor can we afford to assume he'll delay throughout the entire night and make our readiness unnecessary. Like the five foolish girls, either of those approaches adds up to the same result: a last-minute scramble when the Bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and the very real risk of getting shut out of the party. No, the Bridegroom may very well come in the midnight hours. And we have to admit: the night can be dark. The night can be cold. Sometimes, when it's so dark and cold, it's tempting to think that means the end must be just minutes away – after all, don't they say it's darkest right before the dawn? (Spoiler alert: It isn't.) And sometimes, when it's so dark and cold, the doubts creep in about whether the night could ever end, whether there could ever be brightness and warmth again. And isn't that the way it can be in our lives? We wait, and we wait, and we watch loved ones die, we get sick and broken, we grieve and mourn, we lose our sense of direction, and we toy with both temptations. The night can be very dark and very cold. But as in the story, there's one question that matters: Are we equipped to light the way when the Bridegroom comes?

In the church, when it comes to the return of Jesus, our Master and Bridegroom, we are big fans of making both mistakes. Let's admit it. Some of us tend to live as if he's never coming back down here, as if there's nothing to live for but ourselves, as if everything we see around us is fixed in stone. And others of us always talk as if the signs are everywhere, and we can count on being the generation who lives to see his return, and we can neglect God-given responsibilities like stewarding the environment, working for peace and justice, caring for ourselves, or due prudence for our future because of it.

The stories Jesus told us this morning, Matthew has stapled to the bottom of what we call the Olivet Discourse, his big end-times speech. This is one of the trickiest sections of the Gospels, because a lot of it clearly refers to events Jesus was prophesying in the first century when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and the Jewish Christians were to retreat to the mountains at Pella until the seven years of war were ended (Matthew 24:15-16). Jesus warned that the Roman onslaught would come so quickly and harshly that, out of two men in the field or two women grinding at the mill, “one will be taken” – killed by Roman soldiers – “and one will be left” – spared immediate death (Matthew 24:40-41). But the Romans would be, in their own brutal way, executing judgment against the Jerusalem establishment that hopelessly corrupted the temple, condemned Jesus, and persecuted his followers – and hence, Jesus uses the language of Daniel 7 to call it “the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27). In that sense, the generation to which he spoke did not “pass away until all these things [took] place” (Matthew 24:34).

But some of what Jesus says here seems to point beyond the first century, to the time of his personal return; and that's why the church preserved these sayings, treasured them, well beyond that long-ago year. It's just hard to figure out how much applied then, how much applies to what's to come, and how much overlap there is. And I won't unravel it all now. But two things are clear in what Jesus says. First, he talks as though the final arrival is near at hand and heralded by predictable events. The disciples had asked him about “the sign of your coming and of the end of the age,” and he talked about false messiahs, about “wars and rumors of wars,” of “famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:3-7). He mentions persecution (Matthew 24:9), apostasy (Matthew 24:10), numerous false prophets (Matthew 24:11), the increase of lawlessness and the waning of love (Matthew 24:12). He mentions the “sign of the Son of Man” appearing in the skies, and his glory on the clouds of heaven as he approaches the Ancient of Days and receives rule over the kingdoms of the earth, and the sending out of angels to “gather his elect from the four winds” – and, Jesus says, “when you see these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Matthew 24:30-33). And we read that, and some of us tend to think that we see that all around us, and so it can't possibly be long now.

On the other hand, as soon as Jesus talks about “wars and rumors of wars,” he says right away, “this must take place, but the end is not yet” when all that happens (Matthew 24:6). When he speaks of famines, earthquakes, and the rest, he calls it only the beginning of birth pains” (Matthew 24:8). Perhaps some of the ladies in the congregation can attest: the labor of childbirth can take a while, can't it? The beginning doesn't mean the end. Jesus goes on to warn us it can be a while to get through this all, and so “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). Plenty goes on, “and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). He says explicitly that no one knows the day or hour of the Son of Man's arrival (Matthew 24:36). It comes suddenly, abruptly, while people are going about their daily business, just like the Flood in the accounts of Noah (Matthew 24:37-39). “Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42). “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). It may be sooner than you think, or later than you think; you can see some indications, but it will still catch you somewhat by surprise.

A wise chief steward tends to the provisions faithfully and is ready when the Master comes, but a foolish one uses the delay as a pretext for abusing the Master's goods and personnel in his absence – so the Master's abrupt arrival will punish the foolish and reward the wise (Matthew 24:45-51). A wise wedding-maiden understands that grooms often delay, so she comes prepared to wait out as little or as much of the night as is necessary; but a foolish wedding-maiden assumes the groom will work on her time-table and neglects to ensure her success for all contingencies – so the Bridegroom's abrupt arrival will shut out the foolish but welcome in the wise.

If the kingdom arrives suddenly and abruptly at a time we can't predict, then it's clear that there's a wise way to live and an unwise way to live – good and bad, skillful and incompetent, ways for navigating the world. An unwise life looks like unreadiness – either banking on the wait being short (and so not being ready to endure), or banking on the wait being long (and so procrastinating everything we need). But a wise life looks like perpetual readiness for the Crucified and Risen King's arrival in the near or the distant future.

An unwise life looks like faithlessness to the Master and Bridegroom. It dishonors the Master by arrogating to oneself his authority over the household and abusing what he's entrusted us with. It dishonors the Bridegroom by jeopardizing the party through our failure to be ready to celebrate him. But a wise life looks like faithfulness – we faithfully steward what the Master has entrusted us with, and we faithfully keep ourselves equipped to celebrate him when he approaches for the party.

An unwise life might look like feeble expectancy – like losing faith in the future return of Jesus, dismissing it as a myth, calling it a failed hope, relegating it to irrelevance in our lives. We might start scoffing and doubting, asking ourselves, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). We look around, we see the same rhythm keeping pace in our own lives, and we assume the Lord is slow or perhaps even gone. That would be an unwise way to live. But an unwise life might look like apocalyptic burn-out – losing faith in Jesus' warnings, assuming we can read the signs clearly and uniquely in ways no past or future generation possibly could see better. And that is unwisely risky, too. But a wise life looks like an enduring expectation that no time can abate – a certain conviction that the Lord's patience cannot imperil his promise, but that Christ will return very suddenly and change everything, whether the “coming day of God” is sooner or later (cf. 2 Peter 3:8-12).

An unwise life looks like a life centered around the mundane and the human. “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage..., so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:38-39). The foolish servant and foolish wedding-maidens in the parable consume their days and hours in eating, drinking, earning, spending, sleeping, conserving – the ordinary things of life, maybe taken to excess, but certainly placed at the center. And that's not where they fit. So that's unwise. But a wise life is anchored in advance in God's reign – the Master's return, the Bridegroom's arrival, the kingdom of God through the Son of Man. Even before the Master returns, the wise servant is absorbed in diligently and faithfully executing the Master's business; even before the Bridegroom arrives, the wise wedding-maiden is absorbed in keeping her post and remaining equipped for the Bridegroom's party. And even before Christ returns as King, the wise disciple is absorbed in doing the same.

Today is a holiday: the Feast of Christ the King. In one church tradition, it actually bears a different name: the “Sunday of Doom.” I have to admit, I like that. Today we remember the certainty that Christ will return, and he will render a final verdict on all the world and everything in it – ourselves included. By faith, we are already justified, vindicated, approved; but we must endure in that faith, and be faithful in our lives, and be ready for the Last Day all the same. And to be ready, we live “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God” (2 Peter 3:11-12). Keep a vibrant expectation of his certain return, which may abruptly happen at any moment; and be equipped to endure for the long haul, in case that abrupt moment tarries longer. But in readiness for that certain moment of uncertain timing, “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace, and count the patience of our Lord as salvation,” even when the night is cold and dark (2 Peter 3:14). It may well be, and midnight approacheth. “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13), so “watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). Be wise, according to the promises of the Lord, which can never fail. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The God of Great Parties

You know, I really can't help but wonder what was on the table that day. I almost like to imagine it the way we tend to picture the first Thanksgiving. What do you see in your mind's eye when you picture that? I think I see a couple plump roast turkeys, bronzed exterior glistening in the sunlight. I see pumpkins and gourds and grapes and apples. I see the vivid orange hues of bushels of yams, and the golds and browns and purples of ears of colorful corn. I see bowls of filling – and not just any filling will do, you know, but the good stuff – and spreads of cranberry sauce. I see mashed potatoes running with gravy, I see those sauteed green beans and the glazed carrots and pie after pie after pie. That's how I think I have to picture what was on the table that day in the home of a leading Pharisee. I'm sure that's not what the Pharisee and his wife and his hired help actually served the day Jesus came to dinner one fine Sabbath. But whatever the table fare, whatever the Mediterranean equivalent to our fabled Thanksgiving dinner, I'm sure it was lavish.

I think it was lavish because Luke records for us, when he sets out the picture of the dinner and the scrutiny and the healings and all that, Luke tells us of one guest who's reflecting on this abundance. And the guest is looking around at the guests, and he wants to celebrate his host for bringing such refined, prominent, sophisticated colleagues together for such a fancy soirée. And so surely he raises a glass of wine – of a fine vintage, I'm sure – to make a toast. “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15). Or, you might say: How exciting it is to be so good, to be so esteemed, to be so upstanding, that you have confidence you'll be on God's guest list with the prophets and patriarchs of old!

In response, Jesus does what he so often does. He tells a story. And it's never the kind of story anyone expects, and usually not the kind of story anybody asked for. And so Jesus paints a picture. Once upon a time, you might say, there lived a man with a house not so unlike this one. He was the master of the house, a wealthy man of refined sensibilities, a man who wanted to throw an especially big dinner party – perhaps Jesus wants us to imagine it as the wedding reception for a favored son or daughter. And so, long in advance, this man sends out members of his staff into the nearby villages to invite his closest friends, his relatives, and all the people one would hope to have at a wedding – a veritable Who's Who of the province, maybe of the whole countryside. So these refined and desirable guests send in their RSVPs; they book their reservations at this splendid banquet, to be held when the time is ready.

And then the day arrives. The chefs and caterers have put together the most sumptuous feast you ever saw. You would be a fool to miss out on the rich diversity of foods, the flowing wine, the musical entertainment provided, and more. And so the master of the house sends his staff out to go let everyone know that it's ready. That was the custom in those days – the initial invite couldn't be very specific as to the time, and so if you wanted to have a big social event, you'd send out two invitations, and the second basically meant, “It's ready, so come on over now.” The master of the house sends out this second invitation, to call folks to hustle on in for the party.

But these refined, prestigious, desirable guests all blow it off! One just picked up some real estate and wants to undertake a survey – something he could do any time, any time at all, but he uses it as an excuse to skip the party. Another one has been augmenting his personal estate – he bought five yoke of oxen, a pretty impressive investment for a very wealthy farmer of the time. Today, if Jesus told this story here, I have a feeling this guest would be saying, “Oh, please cancel my RSVP – I just bought a new Harley, and I want to take her out for a ride.” And then there's a third guest mentioned, who says that he's gotten married since the original invitation came, and he just can't leave the little missus unattended for a couple hours or who knows what kind of grief he'll get, so he won't be there either (Luke 14:16-20). All of them concoct their lame-brain excuses – reasons not to go and eat, reasons not to honor the host, reasons not to celebrate. Or, they presume the party can't start 'til they stroll in, fashionably late, and the host would just have to adapt to their schedule.

Well, the messengers return to the party's host, who's standing there surrounded by all this catered food, all these table settings, the band ready and eager to play – and when the messengers tell him that all the people who RSVP'd are backing out, he's furious! And who wouldn't be? Especially in a world, like the world where Jesus and the Pharisee lived, where honor was everything – a world where a snub like this was a serious offense, a grievous insult, as bad as a slap to the face if not worse. And so the host is just furious. He looks around and takes a gander at the food, the table linens, the band, the performers, maybe his son or daughter, and all the empty seats – and his heart breaks.

So he has an idea. He tells the members of his household staff, the messengers, to go out to the city, into all the broad roads and squares and all the narrow little back alleys, and find just anybody – to go look up “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” – and bring them back to have a seat at the table (Luke 14:21). And that's a very interesting decision. Usually, when people invited folks to parties, there was an expectation of getting to go to one of their parties in return. I invite you to mine, then you invite me to yours – that's how it worked. But beggars panhandling by the side of the road, the dreadfully maimed and disfigured, those absent a foot or limping, those missing a vital sense – that's the definition of people who won't be throwing fancy parties any time soon. And you have to admit, it's a pretty rare host these days who seeks out their company. In some Jewish circles in those days, it was also the list of people who were excluded from the fellowship of worship, and imagined to be excluded from a seat at God's table.

And yet the host of this all-too-empty party sends out the messengers to bring them in. And they do exactly that – but there are still plenty of seats, reserved in the name of people who snubbed the shindig, left unfilled (Luke 14:22). And so the host tells his staff, “Alright, go back out. Go down every road people travel. If that's not enough, start barging through hedges, knocking down fences, climbing over walls; grab people in their yards, if you have to. Drag them here, or get down on your knees and beg, or offer them a reward to come – anything, whatever you have to do, but do not leave any seats still in the names of those jerks who canceled at the last minute when everything was ready. Because one thing I know for sure: not a one of those guys will taste even a bite, not one bite, of this banquet I set out for them” (Luke 14:23-24).

That's the story. And so, Jesus hints, that's the way things are with God. See, the God Jesus knows is no dour figure with a permanent scowl. The God Jesus knows is no buzzkill. The God Jesus knows is no sourpuss. No, the God Jesus knows can be described many ways, but not those. The God Jesus knows is the God of Great Parties. He's a God present in all holy joy, a God of invitation and welcome, a God of abundance and plenty, a God who has plans to share his delight with us. The scriptures Jesus read talk about how, when the covenant was made with Israel in the days of Moses, the elders climbed up Mount Sinai and “beheld God and ate and drank,” up there on the mountain (Exodus 24:11). Those twenty-four elders were guests at a divine party, and what a celebration it must have been.

Looking back, the prophets saw that day – the day the covenant was put into effect and sealed – as being like the wedding celebration of God and Israel. In Ezekiel, we read, “I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine” (Ezekiel 16:8). And through Jeremiah, God talked about the covenant he made with that generation freshly brought out of Egypt, “my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband” (Jeremiah 31:32).

And just the same, the ancient prophets like Isaiah caught glimpses of a coming day when that marriage feast would take place all over again – the banquet of the kingdom of God. Isaiah prophesies, “On this mountain the LORD of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 25:6-8). Can you picture what that feast will be like – when not just twenty-four elders, but people from every tribe and tongue gather up high in the Lord's presence to dig in to the most sumptuous food and wine anyone's ever tasted, with death destroyed and grief a distant memory?

It's not just in the Old Testament. The Bible's closing book picks up on the prophets' themes, and talks about this new wedding banquet: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), the big party celebrating the union of Christ and his Church. And Jesus in his own teaching spoke of it, how “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). And Jesus told his loyal disciples at the Last Supper that they would “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:30). But can you imagine what that party will be like – how fun, how exciting, how filling and satisfying and delightful in every way? Can you picture the buffet spread before you, and the company you'd have to your right and your left? Blessed are those who eat in the kingdom of God!

But who will that be? That's what Jesus is driving at here. See, those who ate at the Pharisee's house that day took for granted that they'd be there, because they were so good, because God through Moses and the Prophets had invited them long ago. But what Jesus is telling them is, “Don't you see it's time to get dressed, time to get ready, because the table is set?” And yet so many are snubbing the invitation at the last minute. So many were making excuses why they couldn't join Jesus for the party. So many were presuming that the kingdom couldn't be arriving except on their schedule.

And things are no different today. How easy it is to assume that God won't start the action until we stroll in, fashionably late to the party. How easy it is to make excuses for not being wherever Jesus is and lending a hand to whatever he aims to do. How easy it is to take offense at his message and snub the real invitation altogether – all while presuming that we'll find our way to the grub when it really counts. Because we think we're qualified. We think it just wouldn't be a good party without us.

But Jesus says that the supposedly 'qualified,' the seemingly 'desirable' guests, often don't take a seat. It's not the snubbers who come. It's not the presumptuous. It's not the excuse-makers. The ones who actually find a seat, in the end, are for the most part the uninvitable – beggars, disfigured, weak, needy, poor. Those who have nothing to cram into their schedule, those who know a deal when they hear it, those who make themselves available at the last minute – those are the ones who find a chair. It's not the eminent and the prominent, but the helpless and the available, who eat and drink at the banquet in this story.

And so it is with the God of Great Parties. He spreads lavish grace and eternal delight on his table, far beyond all we can conceive or imagine (for “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared” for that table [1 Corinthians 2:9]), and he asks nothing but a response now while there's still room. The God of Great Parties actively seeks out the excluded and the downtrodden, the bereft and helpless, – those who've got no gifts to offer but their appetite and their excitement and their gratitude. Those you'd never expect to be sharing a table with Jesus – that's who eats and drinks and parties with him after all. Not those who think they deserve it 'cause they reserved it, but those who show up wherever he is with an appetite and a thanks-giving heart.

And so, Jesus tells us, we should imitate the God of Great Parties. He told those at the table with him that day, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, don't invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, your rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they can't repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14). In other words, don't look for good company; look for need. Be hospitable to the helpless. Share freely with the chronically excluded. Favor the unfavorable. Ask nothing but an appetite and a thanks-giving heart. It's true, you may get nothing out of it – at least, not that you can see now – but just you wait 'til the Great Party that's in store when even those now six feet under get up and dance a jig in the light of resurrection.

And, he says, don't be afraid to issue an invitation on the spot – and if that goes for the parties we throw below, how much more for God's Greatest Party of all? As messengers, we're sent into “the streets and lanes of the city” (Luke 14:21) – into broad public squares where big culture happens, and into crowded nooks and forlorn crannies filled with shade and trouble, the unseen places of society. And as messengers, we're sent to “the highways and hedges” – we're sent to places where people travel, where people might expect to see you; but we're also sent to the hedges, the fences, the barriers, to bust through all these dividing walls and defenses that shield people from each other, and to persuade and implore and urge people to come to the Great Party.

Do we do that? What a shame, what a tragedy, if anyone around us – caught up in the hustle and bustle of the public square, traveling on a journey to some needless place, languishing in the nooks and crannies, or holed up behind a hedge – would miss out on this!

O Church, we've been sent to evangelize with urgent joy like there's a party in store – because there is! But do we spread the word, and do we live it, and are we showing up ourselves? O Church, be ye imitators of our God of Great Parties! Have fellowship with this God of Great Parties! And savor real joy through the God of Great Parties, “the King of All Kindness who welcomes us in with the wonder of love and the power of grace”! May you bring to him a real appetite and a thanks-giving heart. May you all fill your seats at his table, and may those you bring back with you – to your tables and to his – fill his house ever more. Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Art of Discipleship: What Sun Tzu Didn't Write (But Should Have)

He saw the worst of it firsthand – felt it with his own body. The First World War was no walk in the park; and the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history, most certainly wasn't. And he was there. It was his third time on the front lines, this captain – Captain Liddell Hart. On the first day, his battalion was essentially exterminated; the British Royal Army lost over 57,000 men that day. Captain Liddell Hart survived. During the next couple weeks, he was hit three times. But he kept fighting. Until the gas warfare nearly claimed his life, and he was sent away from the front lines for good.

He spent the remainder of the war away from the ferocity of action – after recovering, Basil Henry Liddell Hart trained new volunteer units and wrote booklets about the process of infantry drill and training. Nearly two years after he was so horrendously gassed at the Battle of the Somme, he married his assistant adjutant's daughter. And seven months later, the fighting was done on the Western Front. Early in the morning of November 11, 1918, in a carriage in the French field marshal's private train, representatives of the French, British, and German governments signed a ceasefire agreement – an armistice – to officially go into effect six hours later, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The world was exhausted by the incredible carnage of the war. A year later, President Wilson issued a message commemorating the anniversary as “Armistice Day.” Congress made it a federal holiday in 1938, and it was renamed as Veterans Day in 1954. We observed it yesterday – a day of solemn remembrance.

As for Basil Henry Liddell Hart, his talents did not go unnoticed. He became a military correspondent for a couple major papers, wrote books on military strategy, even became an unofficial advisor to the prime minister, and after the Second World War carried out extensive interviews with captured German generals. But in the wake of yet another exhausting round of war, he wrote that “civilization might have been spared much of the damage suffered in the world wars of this century,” if only the military readership had familiarized themselves with just one book. And although Basil Henry Liddell Hart was a pastor's son, he wasn't thinking of the Bible. He meant another book. That book would later become a favorite of the American general who drove the Taliban into hiding in Afghanistan and overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. That same book is now taught as part of the curriculum of the war colleges of the US Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force – yes, all four of them. And I have it in my hand this morning.

It was written by a Chinese general and mastermind, known often to history as Sun Tzu, who may have lived around the time of Esther. Written on slips of bamboo, his book wasn't translated into French until 1772 or into English until 1905. And the whole book has commonly been understood as being about one key thing: How to decide whether or not to go to war, and how to win if you do, preferably without even having to fight a battle. And to this very day, over two thousand years after it was written, that book is still being read and studied by the generals who hold command over our armed forces.

Four or five hundred years after the book was written, thousands of miles west in a place called Galilee, a crowd gathered around another teacher, a man named Jesus. The crowds had come in hopes of learning from him a few tidbits of teachings to apply to their lives, and call themselves his students. But Jesus challenged them with a couple short stories. One was about a man building a tower, and how any sane person undertaking a building project is going to calculate the overall cost before they start – because a half-finished tower is just a waste, and its builder is a laughingstock (Luke 14:28-30). But the other parable is interesting, too. “What king, going out to meet another king in war, won't sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who doesn't renounce everything he has can't be my disciple” (Luke 14:31-33).

I've always thought that was a strange and confusing parable. It doesn't sound very much like the other parables you read in the Gospels. It's all about how the decision to follow Jesus as a disciple is a lot like the decision a king makes to launch a military campaign – both require serious thought, calculation, and sacrifice, because they can be such costly endeavors. How do you make a decision like that? Only by taking it seriously and with a great deal of care. And that has me thinking this morning. If the life of a disciple is an enterprise that Jesus compares to a military campaign, what if Sun Tzu had been there that day in the crowd? What would Sun Tzu, this brilliant military strategist, have said or done? What if he believed and followed? What if he'd written the book he should have written: not just The Art of War, but The Art of Discipleship?

The truth is, some of his insights are profoundly applicable to what Jesus tells us about taking up our cross and following him. And so this morning, Sun Tzu is going to teach us a bit about The Art of Discipleship. From the very beginning, Sun Tzu had said that the art of war is vitally important, for it is “a matter of life and death” for a state and so can't be neglected: “It is imperative to examine it,” to think very carefully and clearly about it (1.1-2). And the same is true for discipleship. It is literally a matter of life and death for your body and your soul. Too often, the church is willing to soft-peddle discipleship: Jesus is comforting, Jesus is kind, Jesus is nice, if that's what you're into. In today's culture, the life of a disciple of Jesus – what's popularly known as “Christianity” – is thought of as a fine option – or, for some today, not so fine – but still an option, one item on the menu to be chosen by personal taste, of little ultimate consequence or relevance for the remainder of life; it's seen as one quirky hobby to be enjoyed moderately and quietly. And there are plenty of churchgoers, or 'private Christians,' for that matter, who buy in to that idea. But that isn't what discipleship is. Sit down at a restaurant, and no item on the menu is a matter of life or death. No hobby can make you alive or get you lynched. But discipleship can. This is life-or-death serious, and we need to pay attention and quit playing games.

No, discipleship is a matter of life or death – it is a momentous decision, as big as a declaration of war – and so it requires the same amount of thought. Sun Tzu writes that the general who wins victory makes many mental calculations before the battle starts, and the general who loses makes only a few – so he bids you decide which kind you'd rather be (1.24). Jesus tells his would-be disciples in this crowd the same thing. And Sun Tzu tells us that, if someone is deciding whether or not to go to war, there are five conditions, “five constant factors,” that you have to take into account (1.3). And they're the same things we need to weigh carefully for the prospect of following Jesus. After all, an authentic disciple is nothing else, Paul says, than “a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).

So first, there's the terrain – literally, the condition of earth – meaning “distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death” (1.7). And that's seldom encouraging. Because if you want to follow Jesus, he'll lead you a long way. It will be tiring. You'll be lugging a cross. Not every patch of ground you cover will be easy to keep your footing on. Some will be slippery. Some will require climbing. Some will be filled with people who mock you, take advantage of you, bankrupt you, hurt you – there's plenty of peril out there for disciples of Jesus. There are large numbers arrayed against you in the world – powerful forces, human and otherwise, that will resist you. In some contexts, being a disciple will very literally mean being ready to die at any moment. Don't believe me? Visit a little Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where twenty-six of our brothers and sisters in Christ were gunned down last Sunday as they worshipped.

For the rest of us, “in [our] struggle against sin [we] have not yet resisted to the point of shedding [our] blood” (Hebrews 12:4), and yet we do have some difficult and draining terrain to cover sometimes, don't we? And make no mistake, if you start that journey, there will be points where you look at the distance yet to go and want to give up the march. There will be sections where you're squeezed tight and have to abandon some supplies. There will be parts where it's easy to trip, and at the very least you are guaranteed to get scuffed up and sweaty. That's a very real cost, and Jesus does not want us to be ignorant of it. If you are in at all, you are in for the march, the long haul. You cannot, like the crowds tried to, come for the parts you want, the level meadows and refreshing brooks and mountaintops with easy slopes, and resume 'normal life' the rest of the time. The Christian life is no highlight reel. And there is plenty of risk involved. Jesus wants you to think very clearly about that before you start, and not to lose sight of it once you're underway. “Count the cost” (Luke 14:28), for “the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (1 John 5:19).

Second, there's the weather – literally, the condition of heaven – which, Sun Tzu says, “signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons” (1.6). And this isn't a rosy picture either. Paul told us, “Look carefully, then, how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). The days are evil. These can be dark times. He elsewhere refers to our era as “the present evil age,” from the power of which God sent his Son to deliver us (Galatians 1:4). We live between the First Coming and the Second Coming of Christ, and these are “the times and the seasons” (1 Thessalonians 5:1). Within them, some seasons are brighter, and some are dimmer and grimmer. Some seasons are cold, and other seasons are hot. Sometimes things are still, and sometimes there are storms. Some of us here have been through especially stormy, frigid, dark seasons of life over the past year or two – seasons that make you question the cost. As you contemplate being Jesus' disciple, you have to grapple with the challenges posed by these times and seasons. Because these seasons may cost you a great deal, and you have to decide whether it's worth it to answer his call if he calls you into the storm, into the fire, into the hot desert or the freezing wasteland, in the dead of night or the blinding noonday. Jesus does not want us to be ill-prepared to face these kinds of conditions; he tells us to think about the cost beforehand.

From all that, the cost is readily apparent. And to hear just those factors, it seems like only an idiot would enlist for this. But you haven't yet heard the rest. The third factor Sun Tzu mentions is the leadership, the qualities of the top-ranking commander of the forces, whether he has virtues like wisdom, trustworthiness, benevolence, courage, and more (1.8). And the top-ranking commander for disciples is none other than Jesus Christ. Is he courageous? Above all others: he marched to certain death for us, to suffer the due penalty for our sin. Is he benevolent? He is kinder to us than we could ever grasp, because he loves us unyieldingly. Is he trustworthy? All his words are “trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:5; 22:6), and in him we place our total faith and trust. Is he wise? To those who hear the call, Jesus Christ is revealed as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), who “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). You could not ask for a better leader than Jesus.

The fourth factor we hear about from Sun Tzu is the way, the 'moral law,' the Tao, the underlying principle that brings the people into alignment with their ruler (1.5). In the American armed forces, maybe you'd say that patriotism fills that role. What's the saying – that our soldiers don't fight because they hate what's in front of them but because they love what's behind them? And that principle, that cause, unites the soldiers – and ideally the citizenry – with their leadership. But what unites disciples with their leader is something far more potent than patriotism. What unites disciples with Jesus is the Holy Spirit, who produces love and all his other fruit (Galatians 5:22-23); and this Holy-Spirit-generated love “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). You could not ask for a stronger principle of victorious harmony than the Holy Spirit.

And then Sun Tzu bids us to consider one more factor: method and discipline (1.9). And on the one hand, that means the chain of command, whether the officers are capably directing the soldiers in accordance with the king's strategy, and are able to bring in sufficient supplies so that the soldiers are sustained throughout their campaign. In terms of the art of discipleship, it's a question of whether church leaders, the 'officers' among the disciples, are actively directing the church members in keeping with Jesus' strategy and are feeding the people with Word and Sacrament. A few Sundays ago, we commemorated the Reformation, and the Reformers agreed that this feeding with Word and Sacrament, this active direction, was the mark of a congregation truly belonging to Christ's church. Am I directing you in line with the King's overall strategy and mission? Are you being fed with Word and Sacrament here? These are the questions you should be asking if you want to be Jesus' disciple here.

But when Sun Tzu talks about method and discipline, he means more than just the chain of command. He also means the unity of the army – he insists that it's unity, not size, that yields strength (3.14c) – and also whether the troops conduct themselves in a regulated manner (1.9). And so it is with discipleship. First of all, it requires us to maintain unity – to move as a unit – and that can't happen if we visit and drop out according to our own individual tastes. Those of you who served in the American armed forces will remember how important it was to be present at roll call and to keep your post. Why would it be different in Christ's army? And yet we seem to think lightly of being absent without leave, and there may well be names on our roster who will yet receive a dishonorable discharge from Heaven's Commander-in-Chief. If you aren't willing to accept the responsibility of showing up and manifesting unity, Jesus warns, you can't be his disciple.

But there's more to it than that. Troops have to conduct themselves in a regulated manner. So do disciples. We live under discipline, and that's a challenge for us. Jesus tells us that his discipline may separate us from our families and even from our own lives (Luke 14:26). He tells us that his discipline may require us to renounce and give up everything we own (Luke 14:33). He tells us that his discipline may lead us on a march of shame that could get us killed (Luke 14:27). He outlined the content of his discipline in his Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in his teachings. To be Christ's disciple means to obey Christ's discipline. Soldiers are not free to pick and choose. In a well-functioning military, soldiers maintain the rigors of their discipline, the rhythms of the soldier life, which holds them accountable and forges them into what none of them could individually be on their own. And so it is with disciples. Jesus has laid out for us, through his own words and through the inspired teaching of his prophets and apostles, and through sensible and Spirit-prompted application throughout thousands of years of church history, a wiser and more powerful discipline than any other. It is demanding, and yet his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30). You could not ask for better; but we have to live it.

There's plenty that goes into The Art of Discipleship. And we could go on, because Sun Tzu has other lessons to teach us, other lessons we can apply. “A victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory” (4.15). “Do not swallow bait left by the enemy” (7.25). “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and you know Earth, you may make your victory complete” (10.31). Another time, perhaps. Jesus tells us to count the cost, to deliberate on whether we can achieve the goal that discipleship aims for. The terrain is rough, and the weather is often bad; but we have the best leader, Jesus Christ, and the greatest principle, love in the Holy Spirit – and their victory is assured, in spite of any terrain and any weather. If we hold to our discipline and “endure to the end” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13), then the cost will be well worth it. But you have to think that through and make a commitment, a choice. But as you do, know this: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith” (1 John 5:4-5). Persevere in your faith and your discipline, with thanks to God. Glory to the Father and the Son and the Spirit, one God, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Three A's: Amnesia, Assault, and Arithmetic

The envelope must have crinkled as he ripped open the top. The sheet inside – a statement from the royal loan agency – was folded in thirds. Gordon unfolded it – and screamed. He should never have placed a bid for the contract as the province's tax collector, responsible for turning over the revenues to the king. Because he had been an utter failure – shirked his duties in every way. Now he was on the hook. But even so, Gordon couldn't believe he'd managed to drag it out this long, this far; he couldn't believe he was so far under. He'd known he had a debt to pay. But he'd ignored it, put it off. And now the king expected a pay day. Gordon opened his eyes, wishing desperately that they'd see something else. But there the figure was again. His total debt. There was the 'one,' followed by a string of altogether too many zeroes. Ten of them. You know what number a 'one' followed by ten zeroes makes? Gordon knew. Ten billion dollars. That's what he owed. And he didn't have it.

The next day, an armed escort arrived. The king didn't mess around – didn't take a chance of Gordon fleeing. It was time for all debts to be settled. And so six soldiers marched Gordon into the royal palace. And Gordon fell to his knees, admitting he didn't have the money. He knew what the custom was in this place – for debtors and their families to be sold into slavery, to have everything they own confiscated, to have their entire lives ruined by the debt. Gordon begged. Gordon pleaded. Gordon wept. What he blubbered made no sense. “Just give me more time, I'll come up with the money, I promise!” He was a pitiful sight, and his words were nonsense. A spare ten billion dollars isn't something one fishes out of the couch cushions.

He was a pitiful sight. So pitiful, the king felt bad for him. Gordon kept begging, making every sort of terrible argument, all manner of cockamamie excuses, until finally Gordon was reduced to crying out, in heaving sobs, “I have nothing, I have nothing, have mercy!” The king's heart was moved. And so the king rose from his gilded throne, marched past his guards and down the steps. He came to where Gordon was and knelt down with him. And the king placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered consolingly, “I will have mercy on you. Listen, this is an incredibly large debt. It's clearly impossible for you to pay. But not for me. I'll cover the costs of it; all I ask is that you remember this. I'll cover the cost and suspend your debt; I won't demand payment from you for it, since you can't give it. So go in peace. Back to work with ya, eh?”

A rejoicing, grateful Gordon felt the crushing weight of his turmoil roll off his shoulders at the king's bidding. He was a free man. The soldiers released him from custody. And you'd think it would make all the difference in Gordon's life. After the weekend, he went back to work at the royal tax agency. Passing by the water cooler that very Monday, Gordon spotted Eric. And the sight filled him with rage and resentment. A month ago, he'd loaned Eric a thick wad of cash – $600 – and so Gordon confronted Eric. “When am I going to see that?” Eric protested he didn't have it; he'd blown it all, he was broke. “Not good enough,” Gordon muttered through gritted teeth as he slammed Eric against the wall by the throat. Eric squeaked out, “Come on, man, just give me another month to come up with it!” Gordon refused. That very day, Gordon retained legal counsel and had Eric arrested in a debtor's prison until Eric's friends and family could come up with the money. Serves Eric right, Gordon thought to himself. But when the king heard that an employee of the royal tax agency had been jailed in debtor's prison, he was shocked and concerned. When he read the court transcript and found that Gordon had filed the charges, the king was furious. And so the king revoked his verbal offer to assume Gordon's debt. If Gordon wants to live in a world where people get what 'serves them right,' then so be it, mused the king. His soldiers arrested Gordon that very day. And soon Gordon was in a cell down the hall from Eric's, until such time as Gordon could gather the ten billion dollars for his release – and not a penny less (Matthew 18:23-34).

Ten billion dollars... Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being ten billion dollars in debt? I mean, my student loans are no small change, but they're a lot less than ten billion! But that's just the sort of extravagant picture Jesus used when he told the parable on which the story of Gordon, Eric, and their king is based. When Jesus told it, the tax official – a 'servant,' he's called – has a debt of “ten thousand talents,” we're told (Matthew 18:24). The footnotes in your study Bible might explain that, for a poor manual laborer, even one talent is about the equivalent of twenty years of wages.

But we also know that the sum total of tax revenue that Herod the Great's administration took in – from all of Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Idumea, and Peraea, all the multiple provinces under his rule – in a given year was about 900 talents. And so realize that, when Jesus is describing the indebtedness of this civil servant, the picture he's painting is one who somehow manages to owe the equivalent of almost twelve years' worth of the national budget. Can you wrap your mind around that? I sure can't!

Why do you think Jesus paints such a ludicrous picture into his story? There's nothing realistic about a tax official managing to owe eleven or twelve years' worth of the national budget! This may be more money than they had in circulation; some commentators suggest this is the largest sum of money that could be expressed in language at that time without doing multiplication! But Jesus uses this financial exaggeration as a symbol of our very real debt before God. No real tax collector owes the king ten billion dollars, no real civil servant owes the king ten thousand talents, but no tamer figure, no lesser scale, can capture the extent of how deep our sin goes. Calculate our sin in numbers and put a dollar sign on it, and you're looking at a number like this one.

The truth is, each and every one of us, each and every relative or neighbor, has gotten those notification letters with the royal seal, whether we realize it or not. We owe, and we owe big, for all that we've borrowed, all that we've done that merits a penalty fee or a fine. Facing God, each and every one of us is ten billion in the hole, at least. – deeper than we could ever hope to escape. And when that comes due, the pretense of being good, upstanding, a responsible person – that'll be all stripped away. Our sin-debt is vast orders of magnitude beyond our comprehension, and there's no denying it. And yet our King's heart was moved. He got off his throne, he descended to our level, he knelt with us in our blubbering shame, and when we confessed we had nothing to give, he touched us, he showed mercy – and he showed mercy by agreeing to personally eat the cost of our debt. That is the gospel message. That is how the kingdom works: In mind-boggling mercy from the King. We had a debt we couldn't pay, so the King paid a debt he didn't owe, back into the royal coffers.

But it's after that where the parable takes a sharp turn down a dark road. A servant of the king, forgiven his ten-billion-dollar debt, accosts a fellow servant for a measly six hundred bucks – and takes him to court and has him thrown in jail for it! It makes no sense: Hasn't the first servant stepped into a new world of mercy-getting and mercy-giving? Forgiven as much as he has been, shouldn't he be extra willing to forgive? Yes – but he suffers from a bad case of selective amnesia about it. He forgets he's entered a new world of mercy. Once seemingly in the clear himself, he goes right back to his old patterns of resentment and ruthlessness.

And how often we see people – how often we see believers – and sometimes the believer we glimpse in the mirror – do likewise! We develop a selective amnesia, where we conveniently forget how much we owed to our King. Our selective amnesia blots out the hefty degree of what he's forgiven in us. We begin to have a sense of pride that can be offended; a sense of entitlement that demands satisfaction; a greed for gain at others' expense, when we should be rejoicing eternally just to be in the clear. And just like the first servant in the story, when we nurture a selective amnesia about our debt, we're likely to assault those we see as owing us. Oh, it isn't always a physical assault of violence. But when we think someone owes us, has wronged us and not made up for it, we assault them verbally with our words of biting criticism. We assault them socially with our exclusion. We do it emotionally, attitudinally, even if it's only a sense of resentment we nurture in the quietude of our own hearts. There, in the secret place, we assault them with our feelings. They may not even notice it consciously, but it's our assault all the same – because they owe us something.

Amnesia – the first 'A' – leads to assault – the second 'A' – and that brings us to the third 'A': arithmetic. Jesus spun this parable because Peter approached Jesus one day, while he'd been teaching about how to handle sin in the disciples' community, and suggested a guideline to forgiveness: he could imagine himself forgiving a person all the way up to seven times, if Jesus told him to (Matthew 18:21)! When you think about it, that sounds like a lot to forgive somebody for the same sin, over and over. Compared to the next verse, it sounds petty. But Peter thought he was being very generous; he thought he was about to get a congratulatory pat on the back from Jesus for saying it. Because the common opinion of the rabbis of the time was to set the bar lower than seven, at two or three. We have multiple warnings against forgiving somebody more than three times. “If a man sins two or three times, forgive him. But a fourth, do not forgive him” (t. Yoma 4.13) – you find that in early collections of rabbinic law. And in twenty-first-century America, it might be a rare person who even live up to it.

But Jesus is having none of it. Because when he thinks about his Father's mercy, he doesn't see biblical poetry about God rescuing someone two or three times (Job 33:28-29), or God punishing Israel for four transgressions (Amos 2:6), as establishing a limit to mercy. Jesus knows full well that he was sent to pay a far greater cost than for just the fourth sin or the eighth sin, a greater cost than merely a $700 debt. He was sent to bail us out of a hole deeper than all the wealth of creation. That's the measure of our debt. And our debt, unthinkable as it is, is orders of magnitude less than the King's mercy. So when Jesus hears the speculations of the other rabbis, or even the self-satisfied musings of his dear friend Peter, Jesus holds it up to his Father's mercy and deems it far too little. Holding a fourth or even an eighth sin against our neighbor, our brother, our sister, and drawing a line in the sand beyond which our mercy won't pass, falls way too short.

In Genesis, when Lamech twisted God's offer to protect Cain with sevenfold vengeance, Lamech proposed unmitigated revenge: seventy times seven, a symbol for the unyielding completeness of his wrath (Genesis 4:24 LXX). So Jesus inverts it: if Peter proposes being the anti-Cain who offers sevenfold forgiveness, Jesus calls him to be the anti-Lamech who forgives, not just three, not just seven, but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:22). Unyielding completeness in mercy and forgiveness toward those we see as owing us. Anything less, any limit at all we might concoct, is selling God's mercy short – betraying the forgiveness he extended to our far greater debts we owed to him. And the King is deeply grieved when those in his employ assault each other and when those he calls his family bear a striking resemblance to his bitter enemies. Jesus offers his parable as an exhortation to forgive without limit, and as a warning: “So also my Heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Perhaps we should take that seriously.

Jesus warns us that, if we don't take up a lifestyle of mercy and forgiveness, the King may well be within his rights to reinstate our own debt and enforce it after all. If you had to stake your eternal destiny on whether you forgive those around you who sin against you... where would you be headed? And yet, here's the truth. Over the past three years, as I've gotten to know the wonderful people of this church, as I've rejoiced with you and mourned with you, I've noticed that for some of us, this verse, this parable, should cut very deeply. Because in some of our families, there are cases where we refuse to release debts, real or imagined, that have been incurred by our own relatives and professing fellow believers. There are so many forms it can take. Friction and hurt feeling between siblings. Turmoil in marriages, where one spouse won't overlook the other's perceived flaws and infirmities. Resentment against harsh insults and opposition from stepchildren or parents. Longstanding grievances against unpleasant aunts, uncles, neighbors, co-workers, even other congregations. Think long and hard about any broken relationship in your life, one where you're owed something different than what you got.

That's the story of the unmerciful servant, right out of Jesus' lips. And let me tell you, it's not worth it. It's not worth it to not forgive. It's not worth it to try to recoup your losses and collect on all those petty debts. Release them. Let them go. Don't set boundaries to your forgiveness. Keep reminding yourself of the mercy of God – the mercy he showed you when he wiped your ten-billion-dollar debt clean with the blood of his Son, when he ate the cost himself. And for all the lesser debts you're owed, go and forgive likewise.

Does that mean there's no way to resolve hurtful issues? No. This parable is mainly about what happens inside the disciple-community, what we call the church – it's between those who claim to all be believers, brothers and sisters in the Lord, children of one God as Father. And right before Peter made his proposal, Jesus had just explained the right way to resolve these issues. If a fellow believer wrongs you, go and humbly show them that they've sinned against you (Matthew 18:15). If they don't listen, enlist a couple other believers to mediate with you (Matthew 18:16). And if that doesn't work, take it to the church, which has authority from God to handle it – Jesus says so, and you can read it for yourself (Matthew 18:17-20). But for your part, release the debt: it has nothing to do with you anymore. Release the debt without regard to how big it is, or how repetitive the figures, or how many times it's been incurred. Don't be like the unmerciful servant. If the King has forgiven you, let imitation be your sincerest form of thanks. Seventy times seven – no limit. Thanks be to God. Amen.