Sunday, April 30, 2017

Rolling Throne: Sermon on Ezekiel 1-11

It didn't always used to be this way, he thought as he sat by the canal under the hot sun one late summer morning, the thirty-first of July. He hadn't always lived here. He wasn't always a refugee, living in a camp of weather-worn tents and ramshackle huts. He used to live in Jerusalem, the city of God. His father Buzi was a dignified priest, who served in the temple of the Lord. But then, five years ago, they came – not for the first time, but with grave wrath they came. Laid siege to the holy city for three-and-a-half months.

And finally, on the sixteenth of March, they came pouring in – the sneering soldiers, the armies of Babylon, under King Nebuchadnezzar's command. Oh, they ransacked the temple – took all the holy silver vessels, all the gold. They kidnapped the new king Jehoiachin, just eighteen years old then, and replaced him with his contemptible twenty-one-year-old uncle Mattaniah. Jehoiachin only reigned three months and ten days – though everyone still considered him the real king, even now. The invaders took his mother Nehushta; they took the elders of the city; they took the palace officials; they took thousands of smiths and craftsmen – and some priests. Ezekiel, son of Buzi, was among them.

He remembered the long march they made in chains, up and around the Fertile Crescent, down toward Babylon. He remembered screaming for home, the only home he'd known. He remembered the first moment Jerusalem faded entirely from view. He remembered mourning the loss of his future, his longed-for career as a priest – he was still a few years away from beginning service. He was twenty-five years old then. It's been five years now since the great deportation. Some of the exiles, like Jehoiachin and Nehushta, were kept prisoner in Babylon. But most ended up in places like this, downstream along the Euphrates. Ezekiel had been settled outside Nippur, a great pagan city largely owned and operated by Ekur, the “Mountain House,” the massive ancient temple of the Sumerian god Enlil.

In particular, their refugee camp sat atop a desolate mound of silt called til abubi, not far from the wide ka-ba-ru irrigation canal. It was there that they, and deported members of other conquered nations, were assigned the menial task of clearing salt deposits out of the canal, all under the supervision of a few Babylonian overseers. That was life now, for these nobles taken far from home, far from the city they loved. It was demoralizing, the gross loss of their prestige. It was demoralizing, the humiliation they endured. It was demoralizing, the feeling that they had been abandoned by God; that their God, way off in Jerusalem, couldn't reach them here. They were, after all, in a foreign and unclean land – one that ritually defiled them constantly, making them scarcely able to lift their eyes to heaven.

That was one prevailing sentiment over the past five years: that worship is impossible in a place like this. One of Ezekiel's neighbors, a few tents away from his, was a former singer from the temple, and he wrote a song about it – about the tears they cried, about the pain of their souls, about the shame of being mocked by the pagan fellow-refugees who toiled alongside them. As he sat by the banks of the canal, Ezekiel sang it to himself in a low, wavering voice:

By the waters of Babylon
   there we sat down and wept,
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
   required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
   “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the LORD's song
   in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
   let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy!    (Psalm 137:1-6)

It was one of the only songs they ever still sang – a song of lament, a song of sorrow. They doubted that there could be any hope – but their desperation made them eager for any glimmer of it. Many in the camp speculated that their stay here would be short-lived – that their God would raise up an army to destroy Babylon and set them free any day now. They heard rumors of prophets in Babylon who spoke about this – Ahab and Zedekiah and Shemaiah. A year and a half ago, some of the elders became agitated in speaking out against Babylon, and lost their lives.

A few months ago, there came to Tel-Abib news of a letter from Jerusalem – it had reached Babylon last year – from a forty-seven-year-old prophet Ezekiel remembered hearing his whole life, a man named Jeremiah. He'd predicted that Ahab and Zedekiah would be executed by roasting; and, sure enough, that had happened. He warned them that their exile would not be over so quickly – that it would take seventy years, give or take. And he encouraged them to settle down where they'd been settled – to not be content with tents, but to build houses, to plant gardens, to marry and have children; to identify, in a way, with Babylonian society, not hoping for its downfall – their fates were one now. And there came promises that God had not forgotten them; that they could worship where they were, that they could pray and God would hear them, that they could seek and find God, that there was hope of being restored and brought back home – after seventy years (Jeremiah 29:5-14). Most of the Judean refugees didn't know what to believe – whether to trust Shemaiah or to trust Jeremiah, whether they'd return home now or in decades, whether to live by hope or surrender in despair. The refugees often vacillated between the two feelings.

For Ezekiel's part, he was feeling rather melancholy that hot summer day, sitting by the canal. He was thirty years old now (Ezekiel 1:1-3). If he were back home, this would be the year he began serving in the temple. The year he would offer sacrifices to God. The year he would see the abundant traces of the LORD's glory there, and listen to the choirs and the people and join them in their lofty psalms of praise. But here he was, exiled far from the house of God, surrounded by pagans in an unclean land – and what's a defiled priest to do there? And so he sat by the canal. And soon the skies grew cloudy overhead, and the wind picked up. And he thought to himself that he might as well mingle his tears with the rain.

And that's when he felt it. That's when he saw it. That's when everything changed. Did the air start to shimmer, I wonder, when it happened? But one of the storm clouds grew larger, and light began to pour out, and then it cracked open – at least, that's what Ezekiel saw. And what he glimpsed next? It well nigh broke his brain like eggs on asphalt. He caught sight of things no one could understand, his mind couldn't even process, could only fumble pieces of pictures of distant analogies. But, he said, he first saw four creatures, with four faces and four wings – two wrapped around their bodies, two lifted high and touching tips to their neighbors' – and between them there flashed fire and lightning, and they glowed like polished metal, and the sight of them made him want to pass out. And beneath or beside them hovered wheels within wheels, covered in brilliant gems that looked like eyes. And they moved with the swiftness of lightning, and the undulation of their wings sounded like loud crashes of thunder.

And as the wheels touched down to earth, Ezekiel saw that what they carried above their heads was filled with even greater light – there was a platform of gleaming crystal spread out, and over it was something like a blue throne carved from sapphire or lapis lazuli, and on it sat a figure like a man, but his legs were fire, and he was circled by rainbows beaming out every which way, and his torso was like amber or like super-heated metal filled with even more fire, and the light around him was hopelessly blinding, and Ezekiel's eyes began to burn and itch, and who could even bear to see it for one second longer? And Ezekiel, perspiration streaming from his pores, his heart pounding faster and faster and faster, his sanity stretched beyond its limits, plunged himself into the dirt, scarcely catching himself from rolling into the canal, as some dark recess of his mind pieced together who exactly was riding this vast chariot down from heaven – that he had seen the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD (Ezekiel 1:4-28)!

It was on that day that Ezekiel saw the glory of God – or, at least, that his eyes managed to perceive its appearance, that his mind managed in retrospect to cobble together a sense of its likeness. (His account reads like some of the visions in Babylonian epic poetry, but so much more vivid!) It was on that day that a voice thundered from within the inapproachable light, bidding him to rise. And though the weight of God's glory was too heavy, though Ezekiel found he couldn't stand on his own, yet the lively wind that passed between the unfathomable creatures rushed into him, filling his lungs with life, electrifying him with holy fire, and yanked him to his feet. And he heard himself addressed as thou son of Adam, heard his appointment as a prophet (Ezekiel 2:1-3). Was he dreaming? Was he awake? Was he even still in the mortal world? A hand stretched out from one of the four strange creatures, looking at him from the faces of a lion and man and ox, and presented Ezekiel with a small scroll, which God bade him choke down – and though the words he saw on it were full of sorrow, it was sweet like honey to his tongue (Ezekiel 2:9—3:3).

And when the chariot took off again, lifting up from the earth, so too was Ezekiel lifted up. And, filled with this strange Spirit that made his soul hot, feeling the bitterness of the scroll as it soured in his belly, feeling the pressure of being in the grip of an infinite force beyond his comprehension, he didn't even know how it was he came to his tent in Tel-abib. But he was utterly stupefied – all he could do for a whole week was babble in awe, sitting on the ground, as his senses slowly returned to him, as he began to process the unimaginable he'd endured (Ezekiel 3:12-15).

And as he did, as he tried to come to grips with it, one question kept returning to his mind, over and over again: “How could this be?” As in, “How could I see God out here in the shadow of Nippur, in an unclean land under Nebuchadnezzar's thumb? God should be in Jerusalem – why isn't he there? God certainly shouldn't be in Babylon – how can he be here?”

It would be fourteen months before he finally understood the answer. In the meantime, he prophesied, whatever the Word of the LORD came to him and told him. He built miniatures of Jerusalem and lay siege to it. He bound himself to lay on his side on a regular basis. He ate food cooked over repulsive fuel. He shaved his head and chopped at his hair with a sword. All these things that the stranger, mysterious Word told him to do. But in the meantime, he'd also built himself a small house – he knew now that Jeremiah's letter was the truth, that houses and gardens were God's plan for his people even out here by the canal. And on the eighteenth day of September, fourteen months after his vision, with the local elders gathered around in his house, suddenly he felt himself once again in the Lord GOD's grip. And he saw a figure grab him by a lock of his grown-back hair. In one Babylonian story, a god grabbed a prince by the lock of his hair with the intent to kill him; but Ezekiel was grabbed out of mercy and grace, to be lifted up between heaven and earth (Ezekiel 8:1-3).

He traveled in vision to Jerusalem – and what he saw there was utterly horrifying. In the presence of the glory of God – the same glory he'd seen descend from the storm – he saw an idol statue raised outside the north gate of the temple (Ezekiel 8:5). He peered through a hole in the wall, and saw engravings of snakes and scorpions and other creepy-crawling things, and the elders of Israel offering up incense to them (Ezekiel 8:10-11). He saw the women of Jerusalem worshipping the Babylonian god Dumuzi – or rather, performing the Babylonian ritual of mourning his annual departure to the underworld (Ezekiel 8:14). They cry out, “The orchardman has been killed in his grove, the irrigator among his waterworks. We weep bitterly, we weep for our orchardman!”

And in the inner court, Ezekiel saw men facing away from the temple, bowing toward the sun, passing gas toward the Holy of Holies (Ezekiel 8:16-17). And in response, Ezekiel saw the glory of God slowly ascend to the sapphire throne-chariot, and the chariot of cherubim – that, he realized, is what the strange four-winged creatures really were – rose up from the earth (Ezekiel 9-10). And as he watched judgment begin to fall on Jerusalem, as Ezekiel cried out in anguish of soul, as the Word of the LORD comforted him with promises to change Israel's stony heart and deadened spirit, he saw the chariot fly off toward an eastern mountain – and that's the message he related to the elders in his house that day (Ezekiel 11:1-25).

What Ezekiel saw is that the temple – the place where he would have served, had he remained in Jerusalem and begun serving as a priest there – had become hopelessly corrupt, filled with idolatry of the most repulsive kind. One may wonder how to sing the LORD's song in an unclean foreign land, but they didn't bother singing it any more in Jerusalem, either. And so, in these visions, Ezekiel comes to understand why God has absented himself from Jerusalem, why he isn't found there at the temple any more – his throne gets further and further from the temple, from the land itself, because the abominations of Judah have driven him away. And that's why God's glory is no longer stationary; he's on a soaring, rolling throne!

That answered half of Ezekiel's question – why God's glory was seen outside Jerusalem. But I wonder whether Ezekiel realized right away the answer to the other half – why God's glory was seen in Babylonia. When he left the temple, he could have gone anywhere. The throne-chariot could have flown north, to the chilly climate of Scandinavia or Russia. The throne-chariot could have flown south to Arabia. The throne-chariot could have gone west, far west, to lands still unknown far across the sea, where we reside today. The throne-chariot could have ascended into space, gone to the moon, gone to Mars, gone anywhere in all creation. And yet the throne-chariot went to the eastern mountain. The throne-chariot was seen, when Ezekiel had eyes to see it, rolling in the dirt outside a refugee camp not so far from the temple of Enlil. God had invaded Babylon already – and not Enlil, not Dumuzi, not even Babylon's patron deity Marduk, in whom Nebuchadnezzar so vainly trusted, could keep the LORD God at bay.

But why was the rolling throne here? Why would those whirling wheels plant down firmly in unclean, foreign soil? And if Ezekiel thought about it for long, there's only one reason. The glory of the God of Israel could have gone anywhere, but he went to be where his people were – this first wave of deported Judeans. For their sake, he moved to Babylon. For their sake, the God of Israel became an exile, too. He chose to be with his exiled people in their distress. And because of that, the words of Jeremiah's letter are true: the LORD really can still be sought and found, even in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:13) – because he's exiled himself there, too. And so the people can sing the LORD's songs in their foreign land – even in a refugee camp by the Chebar Canal. Because the glory of the God of Israel has gone there.

It's a startling realization – that the glorious God Ezekiel saw would go into exile with his people, would have his astounding throne-chariot's wheels trudging through Babylonian dirt, just so he could be near his people. But it fits with what we know. Because we know that the God Ezekiel saw would again touch down to terra firma with human feet; that the shining rainbow face would gaze at a crowd from a cross; and that the cherubim of the wheels would sing for joy on the third day, beholding their God's conquest of death. The cross, the nails, the thorns, the tomb, the stone – they can't stop this throne from rolling on out. And they can't stop the mighty wind of God from blowing in our hearts.

Maybe you feel like Ezekiel felt, that hot summer morning. Maybe you feel like he felt on the long march away from Jerusalem. Do you feel like you're in a foreign land? (Maybe that land's name is stress; maybe it's loss; maybe it's injustice or poverty or ill health or strife. Are you there?) Are you finding yourself in uncharted territory, dire straits, with your dreams dashed? Do you sit and weep in an unfamiliar place? Have you hung up your instruments of praise, just given up? Does it feel like the world is mocking you, asking you to sing joyful songs when everything has gone wrong? Do you feel like everything's in upheaval, that you've got no stability, like you're living in a tent by the canal? Does it feel like nothing you do has meaning – that it's all pointless labor for your captors? Do you feel like God must be a million miles away, and that he doesn't remember you, and you don't know how you can sing his songs in the place your life has gone (cf. Psalm 137:1-4)?

Then this message is for you this morning. Because the glory of God's on a rolling throne, and his wheels are in the dirt right where you are in life now. If you're in exile, he's in exile with you. No matter how far you've gone away from him, he's closed that distance. There is nowhere you can go, nowhere life can take you, where the rolling throne won't go. In your trouble, in your distress, in your exile, God is near. Trust in him, reach out to him – your exile won't last forever. Call upon him, come to him, pray to him – he'll hear you (Jeremiah 29:12). Seek him, and you'll find him (Jeremiah 29:13; cf. Matthew 7:7). You may have to endure plenty – exile may be long and hard – but God's on his rolling throne, and he's there in the thick of it with you. So go with God – because God goes with you. The throne is rolling on! Hallelujah. Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Distant Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that's the message for today. Now, I want to be clear: I'm not telling you how you should have voted in the last election, and I'm not telling you how you should vote in the next one. There are a lot of issues at play, and your decision should be between you, the Spirit of God, and the living witness of his church. But I can tell you that earlier this year, the National Association of Evangelicals – of which our denomination is a part – released a statement that said this:

...in pursuing the goal of security, we must not betray our deepest values, by disregarding the sanctity of human life or by closing our doors to the persecuted who seek protection. The Bible is clear that God blesses nations and individuals who uphold justice and righteousness and defend the vulnerable. The call to love our neighbor always entails a degree of risk, but the risk to our souls, and to our national character, is much greater if we fail to do what we can, and what we know is right, to help those who are in desperate need.

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

All Things New: Homily for Easter Sunday 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

Loved to Completion: Homily 6 for Good Friday 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thirst of God: Homily 5 for Good Friday 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Deceitful Above All Things: Sermon for Palm Sunday 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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