Sunday, January 29, 2017

Now Presenting...

Good morning, brothers and sisters! Here we are again. After meandering off to the first chapter of Jeremiah for a few weeks, we're back to where we were before: the Gospels. And specifically, the Gospel of Luke, which if you remember is how we closed last year and opened this one. As we journeyed through Christmas, you'll remember, we talked about God's glory, his 'gravity,' and how that's what's missing from our world: a genuine centeredness on God. But we'd long since fallen away from his orbit and closed our eyes to his beauty. So he sent his beautiful Son to this out-of-control earth, to reveal his glory under the veil of human flesh, to show us what a truly God-centered and God-immersed human life looks like, and to make it possible for us. We have a foot in the door of a new creation, courtesy of grace – and that really is good news worth telling.

And then we began to journey further through Luke's account of the earliest earthly days of this Son of God – how he received a name on the eighth day, the day he was circumcised, the day he submitted to the Law on our account. And we learned about how our flesh, fallen and mortal since Adam, is so vulnerable, but we trust in it and build a lifestyle around trying to overcome its limits with its own means. And God instituted the covenant of circumcision with Abraham to enlist Israel in a fight against that kind of lifestyle of 'flesh' – it was to teach Israel that the only way forward was to trust God to make his power perfect in their weakness, for God to bring life out of death. And so on the eighth day, still in Bethlehem, baby Jesus was circumcised to join our fight, to give us his victory, to shed his blood, to circumcise our hearts.

And now here we are, looking forward to Candlemas – a day coming up this week, also known as the Feast of the Purification of Mary or as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord. Candlemas is the fortieth day after Christmas, so it's the day we commemorate the events of the story Luke shared with us this morning in his Gospel, as he learned of them from Mary herself. And Mary told Luke this special story about the day of purification. Under the Law of Moses, after a child was born, the mother would be mildly ritually unclean for a certain amount of time, and then when the time was up, she would take the child to the priests and make an offering – it was a way to recognize the incredible power of bringing new life into the world. The offering was supposed to be a year-old lamb, but the poor could offer a pair of pigeons, which is exactly what Mary and Joseph do.

Luke has a special heart for the poor and downtrodden. But his main goal is to highlight the lawfulness of Jesus, to emphasize that those who imitate him will be respectful and valuable citizens. And so just like Luke portrayed Joseph as obeying the Roman law about the census, here Luke stresses how the infant Jesus and his family were obedient to the Jewish law. I mean, in this short story, there are five references to what the Law says and to them following it. Joseph and Mary are hardly lackadaisical about it: they are happy to follow the Law to the letter, to please God (Luke 2:22-24).

And so they travel to Jerusalem – it's a six-mile walk – carrying Jesus and a couple pigeons. And when they get there, they climb their way to the temple courts, hoping to look for one of the priests milling about. But just then, onto the scene pops another main character of Luke and Acts, someone who's already made his appearance several times already: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is just everywhere in this story! And this time, the Holy Spirit has been at work on a local man named Simeon. Simeon lived in Jerusalem, and by now he's an old man; he's been waiting all his life for the Messiah to come, and the Holy Spirit had shown him that Simeon – unlike generations before him – would definitely live to see the Messiah with his own eyes. And now the Holy Spirit is prodding Simeon to venture over to the temple... at just the right time (Luke 2:25-27).

This Simeon is an interesting character. Some Christians throughout the years have called him “St. Simeon the Prophet” – because, make no mistake, that's what he is. Other Christians have actually called him “Simeon the God-Receiver,” because he cradles God Incarnate in his arms. And some scholars have suggested that maybe, just maybe, this devout Jew named Simeon in Jerusalem is the same person as Shimon ben Hillel, the president of the Sanhedrin – and father of Paul's rabbinic mentor Gamaliel. It sure would be fitting. But in this story, both Simeon and an elderly prophetess named Anna, the daughter of Phanuel – which is a name meaning 'face of God' – recognize the baby Jesus for who he is (cf. Luke 2:36-38). And Luke wants us to know how righteous and devout both of them were. The pious cream of the Jewish crop, unlike a later generation of Pharisees, were actually eager to see Jesus as the Messiah.

But put yourself for a moment in Simeon's shoes, a few days before this story. Imagine living in those days, the days of the Roman occupation of Israel, the days when God has seemed largely silent – not entirely, but largely – for centuries. For decades and decades, you've wanted one thing: for God to answer your prayers. And what you've been praying for is the same thing – for God to reveal himself, for God to send the Messiah, for God to set his redemption plan into action. And maybe Simeon was still a young man when the Holy Spirit first clued him in that he'd live to see that day. Man, can you imagine how excited Simeon was? To know that generations over centuries had been looking forward to this, and it would definitely happen in his lifetime? To know that all the suffering – not just under Rome, not just in the shame of his people, but suffering under the regime of sin and death – was going to be changed forever, and he would himself get to meet the man who'd make it happen?

And the years pass. Simeon grows up, has a family, raises them. His wife passes away – he'd really hoped that she would get to share that exciting moment with him. And then more years pass. Simeon wrestles with doubts – he wonders if maybe he misheard, if maybe he made the whole thing up. But still he clings to faith. And then more years pass. Decade after decade. He prays every day. And now he's in his eighties or nineties, at least. Maybe his health isn't what it used to be. Maybe breathing doesn't come so easily. Maybe he's starting to forget things here and there – little things around the house, you know? Maybe he has aches and pains in all sorts of places and feels like he's coming apart. And he looks back on the years and says, “I've had a good life. I really can't complain. I'd like to get some rest and call it a day now... but I'm still waiting.” And maybe the exciting promise was almost starting to feel like a curse – a curse to keep living beyond what his worn-out body could bear.

Decades before, when young Simeon first heard that word from the Spirit, he was so excited. But Simeon never imagined it would take God so long to answer. Simeon expected a timelier response to his prayers. But God made him wait... and wait... and wait... and wait. Simeon waited beyond his life expectancy! And there must have been times he felt like giving up. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like Simeon? Praying and praying for something to happen, and it just seems like you and God have clocks that aren't even close to synchronized? Have you ever felt like you've been waiting around for God to do something, and you aren't sure you can handle the wait any more? Have you ever been tempted to give up hope? I have – and I'm sure I'll grow to identify more and more with Simeon as the years roll on.

Just remember one thing, when the wait seems weightier than you can carry: Simeon learned firsthand, in God's time, that “wait” is not God-speak for “no.” The Spirit did not lie to Simeon. Simeon's prayers were not for nothing. They did not crash and splinter against the underside of the cloud-speckled firmament. They did not vanish into thin air. They reached the ear of God, who set his time and gave a promise – a promise he fulfilled. God did not make Simeon wait forever. It may have felt like it to Simeon some days, but it wasn't forever. God made good on his word, in answer to Simeon's prayers. And he will for us, too. God may tell us “wait.” But “wait” is not God-speak for “no.”

Simeon learned that firsthand. The Spirit prompted him: “Hey, today would be a fine day to go to the temple.” And so he goes. And as he strides into the temple courts, he sees this couple. That's not unusual – every day he sees plenty of couples carrying month-old baby boys, two-month-old baby girls, here with sheep or pigeons in tow. Happens all the time, all day, every day. Keeps the priests plenty busy. The temple is a bustling place. As Simeon looks around, his eyes alight on this one couple and the baby they hold – and the Spirit whispers to him. “There he is.” Simeon totters over as fast as he can, intercepting Joseph and Mary perhaps before they reach a priest. And Simeon gently takes this Jesus in his trembling arms. And so Simeon holds the Messiah, sees him with his own eyes – and now, says Simeon, he can die in peace (Luke 2:28-29). “Wait” was not God-speak for “no.” And on that day, “wait” became God-speak for “now.”

Through the Spirit, Simeon sang a song of praise – we'll get to that in a few minutes. But first, I'm fascinated by what he tells Mary next. He amazes and blesses them, of course, but then he offers a prophecy to Mary (Luke 2:33-34). He says to her, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed – and a sword will pierce through your own soul, also – so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). That's such an important prophecy. And it sounds awfully cryptic.

First, notice the word Simeon uses for Jesus. He will be a 'sign.' It's the same word that the Gospel-writers use for the miracles Jesus performs: they're 'signs.' Jesus himself is a sign. His whole earthly life is a sign. Jesus will be a walking miracle, a living pointer to God. And because he'll be God's presence on earth, because he's the true temple even now as he visits the temple, Jesus will be a sign that God's kingdom is opening for business at last.

God the Father has appointed Jesus to make all the difference. His being here, his activity among us, will make all the difference. Because Jesus – the unexpected working of God – will expose what's really in us. Jesus will unmask every hypocrite, and he'll reveal the real devotion or the real faithlessness inside each of us – whether we really carry faith, hope, and love in our hearts. For so many years, the prophets criticized the people, for the impressive religious bigwigs were empty on the inside (or some of them, at least). And we know from the Gospels that Jesus unmasked them as whitewashed tombs – clean and pretty on the outside, but inwardly filthy like being full of the stinking bones of the dead. That's what was in their heart.

Jesus brings these things to light. There's no pretending around Jesus. When Jesus comes near, all the masks come off. Everything outward – all the posturing of the prominent, all the ordinary lowliness of the seemingly average – becomes see-through at last. Around Jesus, there's no prospect for pretend piety – the truth of who you are will be brought out. Nor, around Jesus, is there the risk of lingering false shame – the truth will be brought out. The real person, the person of the heart, will be exposed.

That's an incredibly disruptive thing. Our lives, like their lives then, are built around conventions. We say what we don't mean, and we don't say what we do mean. We go through certain agreed-upon motions. We look on outward appearances. A nice church person of the upper-middle class, socially active – well, that must be an example to follow. A struggling divorced mom of three, barely making ends meet – well, if only she could be more like that other guy. But when Jesus comes around, maybe he exposes the prideful self-satisfaction of that guy's heart and the sincere desperation for God in hers. Or vice versa. When Jesus comes around, he disrupts all the outward markers we use to classify and categorize the social world around us. He remakes the social hierarchy, reconstitutes it based on the heart, the inward deliberations of the heart.

For some people, Simeon says, that will result in their “falling.” Luke uses the same word here that Matthew uses when ending the Sermon on the Mount. Remember that story of the house built on sand, and the wind and rain come, and the house crashes to rubble? For some people, what Jesus exposes in their hearts will result in that. But for other people, Jesus' disrupting will result in their “rising,” their resurrection from their deadened lives and the plight of their position, when they grab his hand and let him pull them up.

Jesus changes everything. Naturally, those whose exposure is less than pretty, those whose downward tumble is less than pleasant, aren't going to be thrilled by the presence of Jesus. Jesus is a threat. And so it's no surprise that he's “a sign that is opposed,” spoken against – and worse. And Simeon warns Mary that a sword would pierce through her own soul, also. The word Luke's using for 'sword' here – it does not mean a butter knife, that's for sure. Of the seven times this word shows up in the New Testament, the other six are all in Revelation. This is not a delicate kind of sword. It's the kind you'd see William Wallace swinging in Braveheart as he bellows about freedom. This is a nasty, heavy broadsword, like a Highland claymore. And for people like Mary who love this Jesus, loving him means having grief pangs skewer your soul like a broadsword. If you've ever felt emotional pain like that, Mary can relate. That's the cost of Jesus changing everything. And to this day, Jesus is disrupting things. Jesus is exposing hearts. What, I wonder, will he reveal about ours? If we offer our hearts to him, to shed his light on them, will we like what we see? More importantly, will he like what he sees?

But back to Simeon. Here he stands, in the temple courts – but the baby in his arms is the very presence that lit up the Holy of Holies. This here is the Messiah. This here is the consolation of Israel. This here is the living presence of the redemption of Jerusalem. This here is light and salvation. This is Jesus. And both Simeon and Anna proclaim it. Here, in this moment, as the Lord is presented to the Lord, Jesus goes public. That's what Simeon is saying: “Lord, you are now letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

Think about that. What Simeon sees with his own eyes is not God's salvation prepared in secret. Jesus is not God's salvation off in a corner. Jesus is not God's salvation under wraps. Jesus is light and salvation prepared “in the presence of all peoples.” Jesus is God's salvation made public. And Jesus is God's salvation presented to the public. Jesus is God's salvation for Israel – he's their consolation, he's their redemption, he's the light that brings them glory. And just the same, Jesus is God's salvation for every other nation, every people that once was far from God and dead in sin – Jesus is their light of revelation. That's what Jesus is all about, revealing. He reveals our hearts to us, but more than that, he reveals God's heart to those who never knew God at all. And God's heart is salvation, a loving and heroic feat of costly rescue, to the uttermost degree for those at the uttermost remove from him – as we all once were, and as some of our neighbors yet are.

That day at the temple, Jesus Christ was presented to us – offered by Joseph and Mary to God, and offered by God back to all humanity, to us, to be our salvation. Jesus was presented in our presence. But now the question is, will we seek to be present where he is? Will we return again and again to the temple, the fellowship of the saints, to meet him here? Will we go forth, led by the Spirit as Simeon was, to be present with him on mission throughout the week?

Jesus Christ went public for us, public as the Messiah, public as God's light and salvation. But now the question is, will we go public for him? Will we receive him and celebrate him as publicly as he was acclaimed Messiah, as publicly as he became salvation for us? All those questions – those are our questions to answer. Luke doesn't write down what each of us will do. Luke's shared his story. The response is between us, God, and each other. May we, like Anna, go forth from God's house to “give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who are waiting” for God's redemptive power to work in their lives, also (Luke 2:38). May we now present Jesus Christ, the long-awaited salvation of God; and may we, the church, ever present him to our world and to each other. Hallelujah. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Over Nations: Sermon on Jeremiah 1:9-19

We've spent the last two weeks with Jeremiah. And we heard how, since before he was born, this Jeremiah kid was given a job title: “Prophet to the Nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). And in this scene, as a teenager, the Word of the LORD has come to remind him of that, to flesh it out. Jeremiah's objections are no use. He may be young, but he's not too young for God to use. Wherever God sends him, he's going to have to go. Whatever God tells him, he's going to have to say. And he doesn't have to fear, because God is a God of salvation, of deliverance, for him and with him (Jeremiah 1:7-8). Jeremiah hears that, and if that weren't enough, God reaches out and touches him on the mouth. God installs his words in Jeremiah.

And once Jeremiah gets the download, God finally fleshes out what being a prophet to the nations means. “See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms” – not that Jeremiah gets to rule over them like a king. He's not a king. He doesn't have 'rule.' He's a prophet. And what a prophet has is oversight. Jeremiah is an overseer over nations and over kingdoms, and not just his own, but even foreign nations. He'll exercise that oversight through God's words in his mouth – words whose function will be “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). And Jeremiah's going to wish he had a lot more opportunity to do the last two.

Here, at the start of his career, he records two more visions, two further youthful encounters with the Word of the LORD, which illustrate the sort of messages he's receiving. This is how the prophet trains. So, still in the days of his youth, the Word comes to him and asks him what he sees. And he sees an almond branch. Which isn't surprising. He lives in a village surrounded by famous almond groves. They're everywhere. Of course he sees an almond branch. But God draws his attention to it, because God wants to make a pun. The word for 'almond' in Hebrew sounds a lot like the word for 'watching.' And so this almond branch is a reminder from God that he will be watching – watching over his own word, watching Jeremiah's ministry and giving life and power to the message Jeremiah speaks (Jeremiah 1:11-12).

Later on, Jeremiah gets another visit from the Word of the LORD. And this time, what Jeremiah sees – maybe it's a vision, or maybe it's literally there in his house – is a boiling pot that's starting to tip over. And Jeremiah notices, as he describes it to God, that it's tilting away from the north and toward the south. That's exactly what God wanted Jeremiah to see – because, as Jeremiah's later prophecies will tell in greater detail, the big message of Jeremiah's life will be a warning about trouble and danger spilling over from the north, the direction of the eventual Babylonian invasion, onto the land of Judah. And so Judah, and especially Jerusalem, will be in hot water for all their persistent idolatry (Jeremiah 1:13-16). But as for Jeremiah, he's to get ready for work; he's being set up and fortified, made strong in the way Jerusalem used to be in a godlier age, so that he can withstand Judah's resistance: “They will fight you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you (declares the LORD) to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:17-19).

And so begins Jeremiah's career. Jeremiah is a Jewish patriot – he loves his country. It pains him very deeply to have to criticize it, to have to announce judgment against it, to have to even encourage surrender to the Babylonians. It pains him to be told to describe the pagan Nebuchadnezzar as God's servant, using the same language with which Jeremiah refers to Israel's greatest historical king, the pious David. These aren't easy messages for Jeremiah to deliver. Maybe he envied some of the other so-called prophets who got to offer false hope. But Jeremiah relayed the message exactly as he was told – not leaving anything out, and not adding his own opinions.

In his ministry as a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah sent words of warning and judgment, but also future hope, to mighty Egypt (46:2-26). Jeremiah sent words to the Philistines (47:1-7), to the Moabites (48:1-47), to the Ammonites (49:1-6), to the Edomites (49:7-22), to the Arameans of Damascus (49:23-27), to tribes like the Kedarite Arabs and city-states like Hazor (49:28-33), to the Elamites (49:34-39), and finally a small book to the mighty Babylonians (50:1—51:64). And even to many of these pagan nations, even in the midst of stern judgment, Jeremiah offered hope of restoration (e.g., 46:26; 49:6, 39).

Jeremiah's main focus, though, was in prophesying to Judah. He saw new kings, new administrations, come and go – even some who were put in place by the meddling of foreign powers. As a young man, he began his ministry during the reign of Josiah, just as King Josiah started the godly reforms of Judah's worship. Jeremiah was in his early twenties when the 'Book of the Covenant' was rediscovered in the temple archives. He was in his mid-thirties when Josiah died in battle against the Egyptian army at Megiddo; when the pharaoh kidnapped Josiah's son and successor Jehoahaz, and put the elder son Jehoiakim on the throne. Early in his reign, Jeremiah urged the king and the people to repent – but instead, they killed a prophet named Uriah and put Jeremiah on trial (26:1-23). He was saved only through the work of an official left over from Josiah's administration (26:24).

In Jehoiakim's fourth year, Jeremiah warned at the continued idolatry and self-satisfied nationalism of Judah, and warned that the Babylonians would come destroy them for seventy years (25:1-14). Jeremiah offered God's forgiveness (36:3). But Jehoiakim didn't listen; he burned the word of God that Jeremiah sent to him (36:23). Later, Jeremiah criticized his personal building program and his style of rule, and said that King Jehoiakim would die unmourned, and “with the burial of a donkey he shall be buried, dragged and dumped beyond the gates of Jerusalem” (22:19). And, to be sure, after Jehoiakim's waffling foreign policy put the capital city under siege, he died – probably assassinated – and was dumped outside city walls.

His son, Jeconiah (Jehoiachin), only last three months before being rejected by God and removed by the Babylonians in favor of Zedekiah, another of Josiah's sons (22:24-30). Early in Zedekiah's reign, Jeremiah strongly urged the king to fully surrender to the Babylonians (27:1-22). It was to Zedekiah that Jeremiah predicted Jerusalem's great downfall, and urged the royal family to rule with justice for the oppressed or else burn (21:3-14). No one listened: “Neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet” (37:2). Zedekiah tried to rely for protection on the same Egyptians who killed his father Josiah – but the Egyptians, Jeremiah warned, would abandon him (37:7-8). So Zedekiah had Jeremiah arrested on charges of treason. Yet still he tried to counsel Zedekiah on the right course of action – surrender to Babylon (38:17-18).

In the end, Jeremiah had no choice but to compare Zedekiah to a bowl of rotting fruit (24:8-10). After Jerusalem finally fell – and it did – Zedekiah would die peacefully in Babylon, mourned by his people (34:4-5). Nebuchadnezzar gave orders to set Jeremiah free (39:11-14). The wise governor Gedaliah was murdered, Jeremiah urged the Judeans to stay put – but they disobeyed and fled to Egypt, kidnapping Jeremiah along with them (41:1—43:7). And there in Egypt, Jeremiah lived out his last days of prophecy, warning that Egypt was endangered, too, and urging his fellow countrymen to finally give up their idolatry and to obey God's instruction (43:8—44:14). As always, they refused – but that didn't change God's word (44:15-19).

At times when the leaders and the people all blindly assumed that they would be protected by God, or that God would show them special favors, Jeremiah had a different story to tell. The only hope was the eventual Righteous Branch from David's line, whom God would raise up to “reign as king and deal wisely,” to “execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely” (23:5-6). There would be no other hope. If only they had listened. But still, through all his years, Jeremiah never gave up speaking what God had said – no more, no less. Like other prophets like Nathan and Isaiah before him, Jeremiah advised, counseled, and at times encouraged or corrected the kings of the nations, especially their own.

Fast forward, oh, twenty-six hundred years, give or take. And here we are. This week, we've watched the transfer of power to a new administration in the land where we happen to live. For some people in our country, that's a time of considerable happiness and relief. For others in our country, it's a time of rage or grief. It's been a strange thing to watch, the immensity of this division.

And the Church's calling is a lot like Jeremiah's. The Church has not been asked to rule. Individual believers may or may not occupy positions in the government. But the Church, as such, has not been placed on earth as a king. Our role, our calling, is more like Jeremiah's – something like a prophet. We are “set over nations and over kingdoms.” Like Jeremiah, we might love the land where we're born, we may love the people around us – and we should. But Judah's brand of patriotism could never claim Jeremiah's total allegiance, much less his subservience. Much as it pained him, Jeremiah was willing to offend Judah's national pride. He maintained a critical distance and loving engagement with every nation and every king about which the Lord God spoke to him.

And the same is true for the Church, or at least should be. Individually, we might be patriots, in the way Jeremiah was. But patriotism is never our highest value; the calling is. No nation can ever claim our total allegiance. No nation can ever claim to come first, because the God's kingdom and his righteousness already do. The Church is given oversight over nations, oversight over administrations, insofar – and just insofar – as God puts his words in our mouth (Jeremiah 1:9-10).

And so the Church has to be ready to carry out her calling. There will be times she has to relay the word of God in a way that will “pluck up,” or “break down,” or possibly even “destroy” or “overthrow” the earthly powers in our land. There will be times that her message has to be one of correction, one of rebuke, one of speaking God's truth to man's power. And whatever our personal inclinations, we cannot afford to be a bunch of yes-men or yes-women, like the false prophets whom Jeremiah opposed, whose main function was to rubber-stamp the king's folly and to tell the people what they wanted to hear. One weakness of the American church in our time is that, because we so often haven't maintained Jeremiah's critical distance, we've acted more like the false prophets – we've been partisans of certain leaders and their agendas, we've bought into their mantras, and so we've lost credibility to speak God's word with God's authority. We can't afford that loss. We need to be like Jeremiah.

There will also be times when the Church has to relay the word of God in a way that will “build” and “plant.” That's the more enjoyable role, and I'm sure Jeremiah wished he'd lived in a time where he could've done more of it. But there will be times that the Church's message has to be one of thanks, one of encouragement, one of gentle affirmation, where we see leaders in society doing something truly and clearly right, in the light of God's word. So far as this nation is concerned, I hope, we should all hope, that we get to do plenty of this.

So the Church, in her oversight, will at times be given God's word to encourage and affirm, and at times given God's word to correct and rebuke, any nation – including this one – and any administration – including the one now beginning the task of governing. Like Jeremiah, we're given strength to speak this word to “kings” – in other words, those at the very top, the highest positions in the land. We're given strength to speak this word to “officials,” or “princes” – in other words, all the rest of our elected leaders. We're given strength to speak this word to “priests” – in other words, opinion-makers who teach their varying points of view. And we've been given strength to speak this word to “the people of the land” (Jeremiah 1:18).

And what word has God given us? It's the truth of the gospel. It's the story of God's love, which became most visible when his Word descended to earth and became wrapped in human flesh as a man, Christ Jesus, who showed love and compassion, who announced the truth of God, who died to break the chains of sin, who rose to restore the life of God to us, who called us together and commissioned us and then ascended into his Father's presence. And that same Jesus is Lord and Judge. He was King over all nations a week ago during the last American administration. He's King over all nations now during this administration. He'll be King over all nations when this administration ends, and even when America ends. And when he returns, all the flags of all the nations, and all the crowns and seals of all their presidents and prime ministers and princes, will be laid on the ground at his feet. Jesus Christ and his kingdom are first, and he is over all and in all. No one can dethrone this King of Kings and Lord of Lords, thanks be to God!

Every world leader, every president or potentate past and present, is answerable to him, and to the word from him that his Church is faithful to speak. His word is a word of justice for men and women, for the young and the old, for the born and the unborn, for the native-born and the naturalized, the immigrant and the refugee, for victims and victimizers, for criminals and convicts, for urban and suburban and rural, for black and white and every other hue of the human tapestry, for people of every walk of life and every nation. And his word is a word of salvation for all of the same, calling all to repent and to trust in King Jesus and to live according to his teachings of justice, righteousness, and mercy.

Maybe we've presumed on God's protection of a nation without taking a step back and asking the tough questions. Maybe we've tried too long to seize the reigns of royal power in the nation, tried to play the king instead of the prophet. Or maybe we've fallen prey to disengagement, thinking that we have no word to speak to kings or princes, that our job is the private world with no bearing on the public one. Or maybe we've fallen prey to obsessive engagement, obsessing over the nitty-gritty of governance and neglecting the bigger picture – tithed the mint of activism, the dill of partisan politics, and the cumin of the Constitution, but yet neglected the weightier matters of God's Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

Or maybe we've fallen prey to uncritical support, cheering for our political tribe and booing the other, but according to our opinions and not by the whole counsel of the word of God. Maybe we've harshly condemned an administration before it begins, or maybe we've prematurely pronounced it blessed and a blessing and thereby risk falsely endorsing injustice on God's behalf. Or maybe we've imagined that all praise or blame goes to the king or princes, and that the people of the land are somehow innocent bystanders in the nation's affairs, as if what truly mattered were whether the government were controlled by the people and not whether government and people alike “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with [the one true] God” (Micah 6:8)?

Maybe we've made all sorts of mistakes and all sorts of missteps. I know I have, at one time or another – but that's what repentance is for. Let's do justice to one another instead of judging one another. Let's return to our calling as the church – over nations that are under God, whether they confess it or not. With Jeremiah's patience, let us speak the word of God, whether to plant or to pluck, whether to build or to break, according as the leader or the people are just or unjust.

But let's never forget what truly comes first: our Lord of Love, our Prince of Peace, the Righteous Branch who calls for justice for all and righteousness from all. May that vision be the one that governs our land, and especially that governs the Church. And may that vision shine from the church as an example with light for all nations from the Light of the World. Open your hearts to nothing less than this risen King and his unending kingdom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On "Solidarity in Marginality" Politics

Warning: The following post is not a sermon, but rather constitutes an exploratory foray into a contemporary political topic.
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R.R. Reno and others have employed the phrase “solidarity in marginality” as a way to describe the style of identity politics presently rampant in the Democratic Party, and which has gained a significant level of support in American culture more broadly.

In this style of politics, a broad coalition is formed out of a number of historically socially 'marginal' groups, with membership in one or more of these groups seen as conferring moral authority on weighty issues of our time (with compounded moral authority in the occasion of 'intersectionality'); and to this coalition are added socially conscious 'allies.' Such marginal groups, within the 'progressive' coalition, include ethnic minorities (African-Americans, Arab-Americans, Hispanics), certain maligned religious groups (e.g., Muslims, atheists), women (not significantly in the minority, but deemed marginal relative to historic patriarchal trends), marginalized economic majorities (“the 99%”), and sexual and gender minorities (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, among certain others) really, any (sufficiently acceptable, by current norms) groups that can be constructed in opposition to those presumably identifiable (in some way) with historic power-holders as they existed a century ago. And, as a political and cultural coalition, these groups (or their actual or self-appointed representatives) maintain 'solidarity' with other member-groups of the coalition.

There's something to be said somewhat in favor of “solidarity in marginality” as an ethical political-coalition strategy. Solidarity with the marginal (with certain caveats) is a key foundational piece of the biblical ethic. The whole sweep of scripture describes God as a defender of certain socially marginal groups of people – the 'poor,' the 'fatherless,' the 'widow,' the 'stranger'/'sojourner.'

So, for instance, God is described as a deity who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). Numerous legal instructions within the Torah recognize these as specially protected groups whose rights and interests must be continually recalled to the community's memory (e.g., Deuteronomy 14:29). The prophets likewise give strict admonishment to the social elite or the broader populace on behalf of these marginal groups (e.g., Isaiah 1:17 – “seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause”).

The New Testament continues these themes but raises them to new heights, wherein God, in the person of Jesus Christ, enters a lineage littered with marginal figures (cf. the Matthean genealogy), ministers compassionately to the socially marginal (even, after some testing, the Syro-Phoenician woman), lauds a prophetic history of service to foreigners (see Luke 4:25-27), offers socially marginal figures as role models (e.g., the Good Samaritan in the Luke 10 parable), models behavior usually associated with the socially marginal (e.g., table-fellowship with 'sinners,' or washing his disciples' feet), and ultimately assumes a marginal social position himself, i.e., “the form of a servant, … even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). 

Those previously marginal on account of ethnic/national factors have, within the context of the church community, been thus “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13), into a fellowship where “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11; cf. Galatians 3:28).

And throughout subsequent history, some of the greatest victories of the church have been in defense of the otherwise marginal (both inside and outside the church), reminding the powerful that members of these marginal groups are our neighbors, are made in the image of God, and have a potential or actual status as our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ and thus as the future rulers of a glory-filled new creation. To have solidarity with the Messiah requires solidarity with these sorts of marginal people – that is a central contribution of Christian ethics.

That said, there are several key problems with the “solidarity in marginality” political-coalition strategy as we see it enacted on what, for lack of a better name, we might term the American Left.

First, “solidarity in marginality” is distinct from “solidarity with the marginal.” A biblical Christian ethic supports the latter (again, with certain significant caveats), but does not suggest that marginal status as such is a positive moral quality. While certain theologies attempt to transform it into one (e.g., liberation theology's “preferential option for the poor”), the Torah contains cautionary phrases in this regard, such as, “nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit” (Exodus 23:3; cf. Leviticus 19:15). Many prominent biblical figures enjoyed social power and prestige in their respective social contexts (e.g., Abraham, David, Solomon).

Second, biblical “solidarity with the marginal” was solidarity built on a recognition of common value, in terms of the imago dei and the duty of neighbor-love, along with other considerations. The root of solidarity was a recognition and defense of the dignity of the marginalized person, not insofar as he or she is defined by a 'marginal' category, but insofar as he or she is a person with God-given dignity and honor, belonging to the human community, subject to an invitation to the lofty God-given human destiny. But the “solidarity in marginality” strategy is frequently different, with solidarity built on a common experience of struggle against the powerful 'Other.' These are very distinct foundations for solidarity. Several historically admired marginal-solidarity movements, like that aspect of the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., or abolition advocacy by the likes of John Wesley and William Wilberforce, have their foundations (largely) in the former, not (primarily) the latter – and were all the healthier for it.

Third, “solidarity in marginality” is insufficient in offering guidance for navigating conflicts between the (real or perceived) interests of (recognized) marginal groups, whether different such groups or the same group. Thus, which is to be accorded higher value or precedence:
  • The interest of workers in selling their labor at a high price irrespective of its value to buyers, or the interest of the poor in have affordable access to useful or desirable commodities?
  • The interest of children in having familial environments designed for their success, or the interest of sexual minorities to enforce the equal validity of reconstructed family notions on all sectors of society (e.g., private adoption agencies)?
  • The interest of women in having the unique contributions of femininity affirmed, or the interest of women in deconstructing 'femininity' as such, or the interest of male-to-female transgender individuals in reappropriating femininity?
  • The interest of transgender individuals in having others affirm their assertions of gender identity, or the interest of sexual-assault survivors and children in having security and privacy in vulnerability-enhancing environments (e.g., public bathrooms)?
  • The interest of women in equal treatment in all situations, or the interest of transcultural immigrants and ethnic-minority or religious-minority populations in living unhindered according to distinctive codes of conduct, including gender roles?
  • The interest of ethnic-minority populations in expressing frustration against institutional abuses of power, or the interest of similar populations to receive protection by institutions of power?
  • The interest of low(er)-socioeconomic-class traditionalists to govern their own behavior, or the interest of high(er)-socioeconomic-class sexual minorities to employ coercion?
All of these disputes have played themselves out recently in American discourse, with majorities in the “solidarity-in-marginality” coalition favoring one set of interests, and others – equally perceiving themselves as defenders of the marginalized and (potentially or actually) victimized – favoring the other. But the anemic strategy of “solidarity in marginality,” as such, fails to offer guidance as to how solidarity is to be expressed toward all marginal parties simultaneously.

Fourth, “solidarity in marginality” as a strategy tends to presume that the identities of demographic blocs can be tied ineradicably to political preferences. Thus, it presumes that there is one valid set of views (political, ideological, cultural) 'natural' to an ethnic-minority group, or to women, or to some other member-group in the 'solidarity-in-marginality' list of approved marginal identities. But, while certain common interests are likely (e.g., African-Americans' rightful common interest in overturning Jim Crow laws during the era they were in force), this hard-and-fast expectation unduly reduces the individuality of real flesh-and-blood people, and does so inexcusably. The result has often been for 'dissenting' members of marginal groups to be unjustly targeted with harsh pejorative epithets (e.g., “Uncle Tom”).

Fifth, “solidarity in marginality” fails to recognize that 'marginality' and so-called 'privilege' vary with social context and other factors. What makes one 'marginal' in Mayberry may not make one 'marginal' in Los Angeles, and vice versa. What makes an individual 'marginal' in the subculture of a Southern Baptist church may not make one 'marginal' at an Ivy League school, and vice versa. And what made one 'marginal' (in the broad sense) in the 1950s may not make one 'marginal' in the present, or in the future. Before his conversion, Matthew gained exploitative economic power through his role as tax-collector – did that make him more privileged (in broader Roman society) or more marginal (in local Jewish society)? The answer is both. Marginality is a complex thing. And the forms of marginality selected for inclusion in the American Left's “solidarity-in-marginality” coalition are clumsily defined relative to a perceived historic power-center at a broad national level, with limited regard to historical shifts, local circumstances, and social context.

Sixth, “solidarity in marginality” frequently licenses the employment of thoroughly dehumanizing language and conduct against those perceived as the historic bearers of privilege (i.e., white, religious, conservative, rich, 'cisgender' men). Some participants in the “solidarity in marginality” coalition have engaged in such dehumanizing language repeatedly (e.g., “#@&$ White People!”), and even where examples are not so blatant, there is frequently a predominant oppositional-militant strain of rhetoric ('resistance,' 'rise up,' 'down with,' insults toward political opponents) that belies claims to embody virtues like love, diversity, respect, and inclusion and, what is more, effectively dehumanizes its targets. This inevitably fosters social division and inhibits the development of a more just and civil society. Moreover, the gospel reminds us that the historic bearers of privilege (even Pharisees like Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus) are every bit as inherently dignity-worthy and every bit as redeemable as marginal figures like Mary Magdalene or the Gerasene demoniac.

Seventh, “solidarity in marginality” as a political-coalition strategy is – as a function of the fifth and sixth points – unsuccessful in doing justice to unrecognized marginal groups (particularly those who are unrecognized by virtue of some similarity to, or continuity with, the aforementioned 'historic bearers of privilege'). The discourse of urban elites with broad social influence (as particularly exemplified by those dominating the power-wielding subcultures of the entertainment-media, the news-media, and academia), for example, frequently marginalizes (with considerable disdain) both religious traditionalists and white working-class Americans. The results of the 2016 United States election cycle pointed strongly to the frustration that both of these marginal groups felt from their interests being ignored or assailed, and their identities held in derision, by the “solidarity-in-marginality” coalition championed by the Democratic Party. Moreover, it must be added that other legitimate marginal groups – such as the pre-born – are excluded from “solidarity in marginality” thinking in the most radical way possible, i.e., being viewed as targets of justifiable lethal violence on a routine basis. All of these are significant failures of “solidarity in marginality.”

Eighth, biblical notions of 'marginality,' while applied to socially vulnerable categories (e.g., 'orphan', foreigners, the economically disadvantaged, etc.), are both broader and narrower than the forms of 'marginality' employed by modern “solidarity-in-marginality” thinkers. The biblical notion is broader in including the figure of the Levite alongside the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner (Deuteronomy 14:29). No parallel figures in American society are accorded comparable respect and prominence in current “solidarity-in-marginality” thought. Likewise, the biblical notion is narrower, and rightly so, in not endorsing the behaviorally marginal or equating this with other forms or expressions of marginality (though it does, of course, insist on the fundamental human dignity and potential redeemability of even the most behaviorally marginal persons).

Ninth, the “solidarity in marginality” coalition, while endorsing/including certain behaviorally marginal groups (e.g., the LGBT coalition), inconsistently (though thankfully) does not (currently) seek to endorse or include certain other behaviorally marginal groups (e.g., polyamory/complex-marriage advocates, or NAMBLA), to say nothing of a wide array of ideologically marginal groups (e.g., the so-called 'alt-right'). Yet the “solidarity-in-marginality” strategy, in and of itself, does not rest on a sufficient bed of deeper principles to assuage concerns that the coalition will eventually be expanded to include some of these other marginal groups in ways that would augment social harm.

And tenth, as Reno has accurately observed, a “solidarity-in-marginality” coalition will inevitably, and in fact does visibly, have an unending interest in manufacturing 'oppression narratives,' magnifying the faults of alleged oppressors, and seeking out new prospective member-groups, so as to maintain its gains in power and influence, rightful or wrongful. This is especially so in the case of elite 'allies' in the coalition who thus benefit from the continued Kulturkampf of the coalition, and so in the continued perceived victimhood of the marginal member-groups. And there is a corollary interest in concealing any complicating facts or sentiments that might erode the benefit thereby gained by these elite 'allies.'  This trend is (almost self-evidently!) socially corrosive, and may well lead to harms at least as severe as those attributed to total dominance by historic power-holders.

The “solidarity-in-marginality” political-coalition strategy is insufficient and fatally flawed as a mode for ethical political engagement in modern America, particularly for those sharing Christian convictions regarding the importance of human dignity, community, and potential.  There are better models available that transcend the weaknesses of 'solidarity-in-marginality,' but would require the latter's advocates to significantly broaden their vision of tolerance and engage in deeper reasoning about first principles.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Ready: Sermon on Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, Me, and You

You know, when you read the Bible, you find out that God doesn't always recruit willing volunteers. Oh sure, there are some – Noah, Abraham, now those guys said yes right away. But then there are the others. Like Moses – now there's a character. Born into mortal danger, adopted into the royal court, raised in the awareness that his people were oppressed, he thinks nothing of killing a native Egyptian he sees abusing a fellow Hebrew. But his cover-up is less successful than he thinks, and he's wanted on a capital offense. He flees Egypt in guilt and shame, goes to the desert to the hospitality of a local Midianite priest named Jethro. In his time of hiding, he grows forgetful of God's commands – don't we all, though? But then one day, while shepherding Jethro's sheep, he leads them to the foot of Mount Sinai and sees an odd sight: a bush on fire. And it burns, and it burns, but it doesn't burn up. And Moses swings by to see what's up – and then he hears a voice, the voice of God – and he's scared.

And that's when God gives him a job. God explains that he's not just any God, like the plethora of animal-faced freaks the Egyptians worship. He's the God of Moses' ancestors, the God of Moses' people, the God they cry out to from their aching chains and bruised bodies. And now he's here, and he wants to set them free and take them to a land of their own, the place where many tribes now live: the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. And the agony of the Israelites, turned into fervent prayer, is too much for God to ignore any longer. The time to act is now (Exodus 3:7-9). And so, he says to Moses, it's time for you to do something: “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). Moses is God's pick for the job, whether Moses likes it or not.

As it turns out, Moses is more on the 'not' side of the scale. He explains to God all the reasons why he's the wrong choice. First, it's “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). In other words, Moses says, he's not up to the task, because he's got no credentials: he's nobody special; he's just a lonely exile, a persona non grata, with nothing to his name but a distant childhood and the stench of unworthiness. He's a simple shepherd with no authority, no reason for anybody to listen to a thing he says. He's not up to the job. But God doesn't accept that excuse: “But I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). God says Moses doesn't need worldly credentials to do this. Having God for an ally will be enough.

Moses isn't satisfied. He has another excuse: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?', what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13). Moses is running the scenarios in his mind. He's catastrophizing, thinking of all the ways this could go wrong, all the ways he could embarrass himself, all the opportunities for failure. He's thinking, “What if somebody asks a tough question, and I don't have an answer? What if I don't know what to say, or how to explain it?” That's his new excuse: he's liable to get caught in a question he can't answer. But God doesn't take that excuse either: “Say this to the people of Israel: 'Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Exodus 3:15). God equips Moses with an answer to the toughest question he feared he'd face. And now Moses can't say he isn't ready for it.

Moses still isn't satisfied. He's got another excuse. “But look, they won't believe me or listen to my voice, for they'll say, 'Yahweh didn't appear to you'” (Exodus 4:1). There goes Moses, catastrophizing again – thinking of how things can go wrong. His new excuse is that he's got no proof. Nobody will believe him; they'll think he's just some lunatic. And who wants to be looked at as crazy? No, no, better if he just not bother; better if he keep this story to himself. But God doesn't accept that excuse either: God shows him miracles, then and there – turns the staff into a snake, the snake back to a staff, gives Moses leprosy and then heals it – because God is more than capable of giving reasons to believe (Exodus 4:2-9).

Moses still isn't satisfied. He's got another excuse. “Oh, my Lord, I'm not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4:10). In other words, Moses says, he's just not much of a talker. He isn't good at it. Speeches aren't his forte. He's liable to get tongue-tied, and there's just no getting out of it. Whether it's public speaking or just one-on-one, Moses isn't the man for the job. It doesn't line up with his skill set. His mouth isn't up to the challenge, you see. But God doesn't accept that excuse either: “Who has made man's mouth?”, God shoots back (Exodus 4:11). Can't the God who crafts our mouths in the first place loosen up Moses' tongue and give him the words to say? “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Exodus 4:12). In other words, enough with the excuses, Moses; it's time to get moving.

All Moses' excuses are stripped away. Finally, he has to come to what he really means: “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13). Now he's being honest: “I hear you, Lord, but, the thing is... I just really would rather not. Thanks, but no thanks.” And now God is pretty ticked: “You want somebody else? Oh, fine, you can have a buddy – your brother Aaron, and he's a good talker. But you are not getting out of this, not for a moment. You can talk through him, but you are going, whether you like it or not. Now get going” (cf. Exodus 4:13-17). And so, at long last, he does (Exodus 4:18-20). And all Moses' excuses were needless; you know how the story turns out.

And then, a long time later, the people of Israel are living in the land, and things are going haywire. The people have forgotten God. And the Midianites – Jethro's people, but the pagan sort – have power over them for seven years, ruling ruthlessly over the Israelites, just like the Egyptians once did (Judges 6:1-5). And so finally, “the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD (Judges 6:6). And so God sends a prophet to explain to them why they were suffering (Judges 6:7-10). And then God sends the Angel of his Presence to an obscure village in the territory of Manasseh, six miles southwest from Shechem, and to the property of a local man named Joash the Abiezrite (Judges 6:11).

And so God has a chat with Joash's youngest son, Gideon, a fearful man trying to do his chores in secret so the Midianites won't catch him and steal the family's food away. And he says to him, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian. Do I not send you?” (Judges 6:14). And just like Moses, Gideon has excuses. “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Look, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house” (Judges 6:15). In other words, Gideon says, “I'm not up to this. I'm too weak. I'm too unimportant. I've got no leadership skills. I'm not up to this.” But God doesn't accept his excuse: “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man” (Judges 6:16).

Like Moses before him, Gideon isn't satisfied. He has another excuse. “If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me” (Judges 6:17). Gideon wants proof. He asks for it again, and again, and again. And God supplies it again, and again, and again. Fire from a rock eats the meal Gideon cooked up (Judges 6:19-21). The fleece of wool gets wet while the ground stays dry (Judges 6:36-38), and then the opposite happens the next night (Judges 6:39-40). Gideon's plausible deniability is gone.

But Gideon has one more unspoken excuse. He never quite says it out loud, but it's there. God tells him to pull down the local altar of Baal and the pole of Asherah – critical items in idol worship – and replace them with the instruments of true worship, and offer a sacrifice to the LORD, Yahweh, the true God (Judges 6:25-26). And to his credit, Gideon does it... “but because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night” (Judges 6:27). That's Gideon's last excuse: fear. He'll do what God says, but he'd rather do it in secret, out of fear. But Gideon gets found out, and it's only his dad coming to his defense that saves him – thanks be to God (Judges 6:31). And when the real danger breaks out, and the Midianites and Amalekites come near, “the Spirit of the LORD clothed Gideon, and he sounded the trumpet,” and he leads the tribes into battle and rescues his people (Judges 6:34f.). Gideon's excuses were, in the end, needless. He didn't have to look down on himself as too weak, he didn't have to get lost in his doubts, he didn't have to hold back in fear. He just had to surrender to God's call.

The centuries passed. The tribes united into a kingdom, the kingdom split, and there were good kings and bad kings. And in the closing days of a very bad king, King Manasseh, there was born a baby in a little village near Jerusalem – so near, you could see Jerusalem from there, from Anathoth. And that little baby began to grow, and soon was a young man – maybe fifteen years old. And in the year 627 BC, just like the Angel of the LORD came to Gideon, the Word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, child of a simple village priest. And in that pivotal year, as Judah's 21-year-old king Josiah watched the great Assyrian Empire begin to come undone, young Jeremiah heard what the Word of the LORD had to say. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

Jeremiah had a ready-made excuse, like Moses and Gideon before him: “Ah, Lord Yahweh! Look, I don't know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). In other words: “God, do you know who you're talking to? You can't possibly mean me. I mean, I'm just a kid! What do I know about being a prophet? I'm too young for this job! I'm too young to know what I should even say. You'll have to find somebody else. I'm unqualified.”

But God didn't accept Jeremiah's excuse. Jeremiah had been chosen before he was born, after all! We heard that last week. And maybe you've heard the saying that God doesn't call the qualified; he qualifies the called. That was true here, too. God says to Jeremiah, “Don't say, 'I'm only a youth.' For to whomever I send you, you shall go. And whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:7-8). And then the LORD – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who thundered at Moses from a burning bush; the God who sat beneath Joash's terebinth tree to talk to Gideon; the God whose robe packed the temple and overwhelmed Isaiah with his glory; the God who one day would walk the dusty roads of Galilee – that LORD reached out his hand and touched Jeremiah's lips, to fill them with the word of God (Jeremiah 1:9). And you know the rest: how Jeremiah's excuse was torn away, how he prophesied in the face of constant danger, but had God's presence with him to deliver him.

Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah were all reluctant in the face of God's call on their lives. All three had excuses why they couldn't do it. All three gave reasons why God should just go ahead and pick somebody else. But all three were God's choice. And to all three, God gave them the gift of ripping their phony-baloney excuses to shreds. God equipped them with what they needed – and above all, the divine promise: “I will be with you.” All three learned the lesson that God's call isn't exactly a suggestion.

I learned that the hard way, too. I know how Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah felt. I went through it, too. I still remember the day when the Word of the LORD came to me, to me personally, with a call. I was no older than Jeremiah. Younger, actually. I'd only been a believer for a couple years, at the most. I remember that day. I lived in Akron, at the time. That was my Anathoth. And I was standing outside, out in the backyard, beneath a tall tree. And I lifted up my eyes toward heaven, and I started to pray. The future was on my mind. I knew I wanted to serve God – I knew I wanted to give God my life, to help his church, to further the mission of his kingdom. I knew he was tugging at my heart to do that. But patience has never exactly been my strong suit, you know? So I wanted to know how I was going to do it. I wanted to know what God wanted me to do, what career path God was asking of me, how I could best serve him.

And the Word of the LORD came to me. I didn't see anything. I didn't feel any fingers brush my lips. I didn't hear an audible voice. But I heard the Word of the LORD. And his message was short and simple. Really, just one word: “Pastor.” That was the call of God. That was my appointment. That was what he was sending me to do, eventually. That was where he saw my future. And that's when the excuse factory cranked into business. I couldn't be a pastor. It wasn't in my temperament. I'm no good with people. And while I wasn't sure what skills you needed to be a pastor, I was pretty sure that I didn't have them, and that I had an abundance of others that would just go to waste in the pulpit. I was in love with God's work in creation – fascinated by the intricate way he'd made every little piece of matter, enraptured by how he held it together with the word of his power. I wanted the world to know that there is a God, that there are reasons to believe, that the great mysteries explored by modern science only amplified the declaration of God's glory from the tiniest quark to the grandest galaxy supercluster. And so I suggested to God – actually, 'suggested' is too mild a word – that I had improved on his plan. I wasn't meant to be a pastor; I was meant for a God-honoring career as a particle physicist. That was my excuse – and when it came to pastoral ministry, I said, “Please send someone else.”

And then, well... here I am. So you can see how effective it is to make excuses in the face of God's call! But the truth is, we're all more in Jeremiah's shoes than we'd care to admit. Maybe you haven't been called to a specific career. But you have been called. We all have been called, with the same calling. And what God said long ago to a boy in Anathoth, he's said to each of you and to me, and to all of us together as the church of God.

To whomever I send you, you shall go.” That's what he said. Not just to Jeremiah, but to us. We don't have the option of not going (hence the word 'shall'), and we don't have the option of being picky about where or to whom we're sent (hence the word 'whomever'). That lesson, Jonah learned the hard way! There's no running away from God's call, and there's no rearranging it. So to whom are we sent? “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We're sent into all the world.

Now, before you sell your house, remember that right here, Salisbury Township (or wherever you live now), is part of that world. Maybe God really does want you to go to a different part of it. Ask him. But for most of us, we're geographically where he wants us – almost. God is calling us to go into our neighbors' lives – be involved, be the flesh-and-blood presence of Jesus there, bearing the word of God to heal and transform. That's not just a bunch of pretty words. That's our genuine job description. That's what God is calling you to do. Have you done it? Have you gone into your neighbors' lives, bringing the word of God to where they're lost or needy, discipling them for Jesus? God has called you, just the same as he called Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah.

And whatever I command you, you shall speak.” Again, that's what he said. We don't have the option of polite avoidance – pretending that 'religion' is something 'private,' something meant to be kept to ourselves, and that we're better off keeping our mouths shut when the time to speak rolls around. We don't have the option of subtracting from it, turning his message into something less, lowering God's call for us to live pure lives or to welcome the stranger as Christ welcomed us or to meet together faithfully. But we also don't have the option of burdening people with our extra opinions – how they should dress, how they should talk, what they should be doing or feeling or thinking, beyond what God has actually said. As we go, as we make disciples, we're “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has commanded us]” (Matthew 28:20) – not leaving anything out, not adding to it more than Jesus has said through his prophets and apostles, as received by the living witness of his church.

Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” Again, that's what he said. That's the promise that ties it all together. And what the Word of the LORD said to Jeremiah, that same Word-Made-Flesh said to his disciples, in whose shoes we stand: “And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The same promise that went with Moses, the same promise that went with Gideon, the same promise that went with Jeremiah, the same promise that went with Peter and Andrew and Matthew and Thomas and Simon and the Jameses and John and Philip and Bartholomew and Jude Thaddeus – that promise goes with you, too. God is with you always to deliver you, so do what he says and don't be afraid.

But maybe, when you think about that, you've got one of Moses' excuses: you have no credentials, you wouldn't know what to say, you've might get caught in a question you can't answer, you're bad at talking, you just don't want to do it. Maybe you've got one of Gideon's excuses: you're too weak for the job, you're not convinced, you're scared. Maybe you have Jeremiah's excuse: you're the wrong age, and you're too untrained to give the message. Maybe you've got my old excuse: there's something else you'd rather do. Or maybe you've got one of the other excuses we can come up with: You're too busy. You don't have time. You don't have the energy. You don't know anybody who needs to hear it. You're just not ready. “Please, Lord, send someone else.”

But you can count on this: You're ready. And you can get readier along the way. We are ready and readying here. So “gird up thy loins; arise, and say to them everything that [God commands] you” (Jeremiah 1:17). This week, by God's grace, let's turn our excuses over to God, lay them down at his feet, and do what he's called us to do – be intentional about going out and sharing his word with somebody this week. Don't be afraid – God is with us. Hallelujah. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Before You Were Born: Sermon on Jeremiah 1:1-5

“Science and religion – two things at constant war; you can't have both.” Or at least, that's what some people say. Have you heard that? The idea that science and religion don't get along, that they're somehow opposite and incompatible? I've heard people say that. To me, nothing seems further than the truth. This whole “conflict thesis” was brewed up 140 years ago, and it's bad history. The old skeptic Ingersoll lied when he said that “when science was a child, religion sought to strange it in the cradle.” That's just not true. In fact, Christian teaching gave rise to modern science by saying that the world was made and ruled by a reasonable God who could've done it differently, so you need to actually look at creation to understand it.

And once you do, you'll have even more reason to praise God. God always invited us to look closely at his creation and see his glory spelled a trillion different ways there. And then we take another look, we learn more, and now suddenly we see the trillion-and-first reminder of God's glory. And that gives even more depth to what the Bible already says. For instance, you all know the verse that reads, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Think for a moment about the first, second, third, even fourth generation of Israelites who sang that age-old Psalm of David. How much more do we know about the heavens now? They had no idea what a light-year is, much less that the stars they saw were thousands, even millions of light-years away. They said the heavens declare the glory of God, and since then our telescopes have counted at least a hundred billion galaxies that we can see, each of which might have a hundred billion stars, each of which is vastly larger than the earth on which we live. We can see the glory of God written that much clearer, we can hear the skies' proclamation that much louder, because God's handiwork keeps surprising us with beauty and truth beyond our wildest imagination.

And it isn't all just out there. Ecclesiastes uses the formation of a child in the womb as the ultimate mystery on earth (Ecclesiastes 11:5). The Bible says that God is the one who sustains what's in the womb and brings us out of the womb when we're born (Psalm 71:6). And the Bible describes that process of being formed in the womb as being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Think about the first few generations in Israel who sang that psalm. They didn't have an inkling how deep it goes! And now we have insight into that mystery. The psalm talks about our “unformed substance” (Psalm 139:16). Now we know that life begins when two microscopic specialized cells come together, each filled with packets of a large, twisted molecule we call DNA, which by the arrangement of the nucleotides making it up contains a library's worth of information. And when they come together and form one new cell, there's a chemical reaction that emits a burst of light. And the one cell formed at that moment, even modern embryology textbooks consistently admit is “the beginning of a new human being,” “the initiation of the life of a new individual,” “the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”

And with that beginning, various proteins help to break down the barrier, so that the chromosomes can pair up and recombine. And during just the first week, that first little cell cleaves, clings, multiplies, forms membranes. And then forms a disk and features by the second week. And then in the third week after conception, structures are forming, laying the groundwork for what will become the spinal cord, the brain, and the heart. And then comes the fourth week, and already in the fourth week, the first form of the ears start taking shape, and there are buds that will become the arms, and others that will be the lungs, and another bud that will be the pancreas, and the first forms of the liver and gallbladder and spleen, and even the rupture in the buccopharyngeal membrane that will form a mouth. And then in the fifth week, as the heart pumps blood, the eyes and the nostrils start to form, and buds that will be legs, and paddles on the arms that will be hands, and the first form of the kidneys, and the brain starts to divide, even though the whole embryo weighs just 40% what this penny weighs. And then there's the sixth week, when the lungs really get forming, and the brain develops more, and you can start to see fingers and toes. And then by the seventh week, the arms and legs are moving on their own, and if you listen close, so close, you can hear a heartbeat. And that's just the first seven weeks of life, not even yet the end of the first trimester!

And how can anyone know all that and not just be staggered at the astounding impact of the words: “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made!”? If it was a testament to God's faithfulness, his expertise, his craftsmanship even in ancient Israel before they knew any of this, how much more should we be overwhelmed by God our Creator now that we know even the few details we do – and there's still so much more to learn! The more scientists can uncover about the process that God has ordained for new life to take shape in his creation, the more we flesh out in our understanding what truth there is to the psalmist's words:

Even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
       for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
       you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
       my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
    when I was being made in secret,
       intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
    in your book were written, every one of them,
       the days that were formed for me
          when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:12-16)

But you know what else I find interesting about how the psalmist describes it, how God inspired him to describe it? When the psalmist reflects back on the process of being formed in the womb, before his birth, he always and consistently uses words like 'I,' 'me,' and 'my.' He's saying: “They were 'my' inward parts. It was 'me' who was knitted together. It was 'my' frame. 'My' unformed substance. 'I' was being made in secret. 'I' was the one who was intricately woven.” And it isn't just this psalm. There's another psalm where the singer says to the Lord, “Upon you I have leaned from before my birth” (Psalm 71:6). There's that 'I' again. And the psalmist isn't some special person; he wrote this, God provided this, for all of us to sing about ourselves.

God, in the Bible, wants to make it clear: Before you were born, you were already you. The baby in the womb is not a 'potential person'; the baby in the womb is a 'person with potential.' And in the case of each of your mothers, the baby she once carried in her womb was you – not something else that would later turn into you, or give rise to you, or generate you, but just you. A sonogram is no less a picture of you than a baby picture or a graduation picture or a picture of you from last Tuesday.

And if that's all true, then it means we need to rethink how we think and talk about the baby before birth, in the womb – because if that baby is a human being, is a person, is an 'I' alrerady that we can identify with the 'I' said later by someone grown up, then the Bible has a lot of things to say. First of all, what the psalmist already said: The baby in the womb, whether we call him or her a baby, a child, a fetus, an embryo, a zygote, whatever, is God's precious handiwork, no less than the artistry of the heavens or the colors of the sunset. And what decent person would deface the careful work of a Master Artist? The baby in the womb is already, and is still being, “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God – just as we're all still being “fearfully and wonderfully made” as God continues to grow and develop us during our journey on the earth and beyond.

Second, the baby in the womb is being fearfully and wonderfully made by God in God's own image. When that phrase was first written in Genesis about Adam and Eve, the point there was that, what ancient kings used to claim for themselves, that they and they alone reflected the glory and authority of the gods on earth, was in fact true of all of us. We were put on this earth to represent God here – to be a living emblem of his glory and his authority and his character, and to rule the earth like he would. And the same is true of the baby in the womb: no matter how many cells she has, she's made in God's image, she's a living pointer to God, she's made to rule the earth along with the rest of us, and so she's sacred. There's a sanctity to her life, because an attack on her is an attack on God, just like an attack on any of us is an attack on God. An attack on anyone made in God's image, whatever their age or wherever they live, is treason and blasphemy.

Third, the baby in the womb is our neighbor. You remember the story in the Gospels, how the lawyer stood and asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He really meant, “Where can I draw the line? Where can I stop having concern for anybody on the outside of it? Who can I exclude from my neighborhood?” And so Jesus told the story of a man beaten half to death on the road to Jericho, a dangerous road. And the priest passed by, and the Levite passed by, but along came a Samaritan. And the Samaritan had nothing to gain and everything to lose. If you had asked this injured man a day before if he loved Samaritans, he would've spat at your feet. But now the Samaritan is the one taking care of him at great expense, and treating him like a neighbor. The Samaritan is the one to imitate here: “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. The Samaritan is proved to be a neighbor, even though the Samaritan was an unwanted neighbor to most of the Jews of that age.

But the baby in the womb is already our neighbor. Before you were born, you were already a neighbor to your mom, to your dad, to those who lived around them. And even now, whenever you see a pregnant woman, the child she's carrying is already your neighbor, and you're his or her neighbor, too. And the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates how we're to treat our neighbors in their time of need. We're meant to love them. We're meant to heal them. We're meant to protect them from further harm and violence. That's how neighbors behave – that's what the Good Samaritan did.

Sadly, throughout history, sin-stained societies have often endorsed violence or exclusion against neighbors they viewed as 'unwanted' or 'unvalued' – or, just as bad, valued only as a commodity and not as a neighbor. The Old South before the Civil War endorsed violence, exclusion, and injustice against some neighbors based on the color of their skin and the role they were forced to play in that society. In Germany in the 1940s, there were plenty of neighbors who suffered extreme exclusion and methodical violence, because the Germans in power saw them as 'unwanted.' And today, our society routinely endorses violence against the most innocent and most vulnerable neighbors who are seen as 'unwanted' while yet in the womb.

The gospel tells us that we are not free to dismiss any neighbor as 'unwanted.' We are not free to view any neighbor as disposable. The gospel tells us to love our neighbor – period. To love our Samaritan neighbor. To love our immigrant neighbor. To love our unborn neighbor. The gospel reminds us to cherish them as made in God's image, to look on that Samaritan, that immigrant, that unborn neighbor as intended to be a representative of the God we claim to worship. And the gospel urges us to opposite violent injustice against any neighbor – including our neighbors currently growing in wombs. The church, from its earliest days, was against the way Roman culture routinely used violence against their womb-dwelling neighbors. That's why maybe the earliest Christian book we have outside the New Testament says, “You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor shall you kill one who has been born” (Didache 2.2).

Practices like that are not part of a healthy and just society; practices like that are what God instituted governments to prevent in the first place. And for us especially, they're forbidden by the way the Bible portrays the baby in the womb – our neighbor, God's handiwork, God's image, God's beloved. The Bible depicts unborn children standing in a special relationship with God. Remember, the psalmist looked back on his beginnings and said, “You, O Lord, are my hope; my trust, O LORD, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother's womb” (Psalm 71:5-6). A baby in a womb is dependent – dependent on his or her mother, obviously. Though really, all of us continue to be dependent; none of us are 'viable' to live on our own in this world.

But more than that, a baby in a womb is dependent on God, relies on God, in some way implicitly trusts God and has faith in God. From the story of John the Baptist, we know that a baby in a womb can be indwelt by God's presence, just the same as we who are grown can (Luke 1:15). And as we remembered during the Christmas season, when God stepped into the human condition, he did so by becoming a zygote, who grew to be an embryo, who grew to be a fetus, who was then born, and then on the eighth day given the name 'Jesus.'

And with all that, it's no surprise when the Bible depicts unborn children being called by God. That's the picture we get the first time we meet the prophet Jeremiah ben Hilkiah. Born into a minor priestly family in a simple village three miles northwest of Jerusalem, you can just imagine how Jeremiah felt one day, in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah. Jeremiah couldn't have been more than fifteen or sixteen at the time. But the Word of the LORD came to him (Jeremiah 1:4). And what did God say to him? “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

In other words, this was not their first encounter. Although God's purposes for Jeremiah had been decreed in eternity past, God says to him here that, when Jeremiah was still what the psalmist called an “unformed substance,” God already knew him, already was establishing a relationship with him. And while Jeremiah was still just a baby in the womb, linked to Mrs. Hilkiah by an umbilical cord, God was there. God was there knitting Jeremiah together. God was there weaving him intricately. God was there giving form to his substance and shape to his frame. And God was there to consecrate him – to set him apart as holy and special. When was Jeremiah ordained? In utero – in the womb – is where God ordained Jeremiah and gave him his orders as a prophet. Which is why Jeremiah's objections don't amount to much. The story underway had begun in the womb of Hilkiah's wife.

Already, from the womb, Jeremiah had a call on his future. God had already claimed all Jeremiah's days, all the days written for him in God's book before they came to be (cf. Psalm 139:16). God was already making his purposes for Jeremiah's life known. And so it was too late to back out on his calling, difficult though it proved to be. Where could he go? “Where shall I flee from your Spirit, or where shall I flee from your presence? … If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:7-10). Already, from the womb, Jeremiah had a call from God upon his future.

And, I'd like to suggest, the same is true for you. Before you were born, you were you. Before you were born, you were God's incredible handiwork. Before you were born, you were fearfully and wonderfully made in God's image. Before you were born, you were already part of the great human neighborhood. And before you were born, there was a call from God upon your future. God had a purpose for you, God had chosen you, God had set you apart, putting into action the decisions he'd made from all eternity. Before you were born, God was calling you to faith, to lean on him and display his glory. It's too late to back out now, as much as all the world tries. This week, celebrate the God who fearfully and wonderfully made you, the God who knew all your days and all your ways, the God who called you to faith and life... before you were born. Hallelujah. Amen.