Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Living One: Sermon on Revelation 1:9-20

The sun hadn't even yet risen. The dazzling blue of the Aegean Sea remained yet cloaked in black. But a man in his early eighties, his gnarled fingers gripping his staff, cautiously but with familiarity felt his way through the darkness up the mountainside path. A younger man walked with him, supporting him on his way to ensure he didn't fall. The elder was thankful. The pair made their way to a small cave in the rock, where two or three others awaited him. The elder struggled to adjust. He was used to overseeing whole districts, gathering with dozens and hundreds, not this tiny band of those he'd reached in just the few months he'd been stuck here. He felt sidelined, reduced, frustrated, idle. He was itching for freedom. But – he sighed to himself – he must have work to do here, else here he'd not be. He just hoped that he'd get some visitors from the outside world again soon. Being relegated to this isle of the sea – a penalty meted out for his 'stubborn' refusal to never lie about what he knew, his insistence on speaking divine words of truth and testifying to the One with whom he'd been privileged to walk – well, the relegation felt, at times, a bit like being hamstrung.

But no matter. It was the eighth day of the week – the day of new creation, the day that burst all bounds of all they'd ever known. Candlelight lit the cave, flickering, toying with shadows and glimpses across the faces of the little cell. They were there to worship a God whom governors and emperors knew not, a God for whose sake the elder had been punished by civil authorities like Bradua the proconsul – or was it Paetus? They all blurred together after a while, at his age. No matter. The elder welcomed his followers, announced the good news. They sang, hummed, bursting the silence of their dark cave with music. Having no texts to read, it fell to the elder to recite the holy words. He chose, for that day, to recall what the prophet Daniel had seen. A series of four beasts, rising from the sea as heavenly winds stirred them up – the grand empires of the earth, with the last being monstrosity of monstrosities. But then, the Ancient of Days – the Holy One, the Eternal – sat on a throne, with clothing white as snow, hair like pure wool, and beneath him flames for his seat, and a stream of fire before him as attendants hailed him. Court was in session, to judge the beasts that ruled the earth. Then approached a man, rising on clouds into the Ancient of Days' court. And the verdict was, this Son of Man would rule – the glory of humanity, not the ghastliness of beasts, would lead the earth, forever and ever, amen.

The thoughts stuck in the elder's mind as he turned to the cave wall, leading his little band in a chant to the Lord Jesus Christ, their God. The elder called; the disciples responded. The elder called; the disciples sang. But the elder's mind stayed on that beautiful prophecy. His heart swelled within him as he chanted, the words taking up every nook and cranny of body and soul; a sensation like lightning rushing down lit the synapses in his brain. His mind wandered, and it took a moment to realize that the responses of his disciples sounded muffled, distant. The elder paused, straining to hear them – and regretted it when they were silenced by a crashing crescendo of sound, a flurry of words, a voice that split eardrums and threatened to split earth.

Whipping around as fast as his aching knees would allow, the cave was gone, candles gone, faces gone, but he found himself – where had he found himself? It seemed like a vast field of mist, pulsating, roiling, stretching out beyond where the rock walls should be. Beneath his feet... he couldn't tell on what he was standing; blocked from view, it felt like crystalline clouds. He peered through the mist, or tried, but found it impenetrable, thick as the veil of old in the holy place, a denser blanket of fog than ever he'd stumbled into. Throbbing, gleaming, living, as if each molecule were an angel of light, dancing in chorus as they swirled round his shins and hid his very hands from his face.

Then a cutting wind started to blow, lashing his cheeks with a cold breeze. And in the stiff blowing of wind, the turbulent mist began to thin. First silhouettes, then light began to emerge. The stunned elder began to see... menorahs. Lampstands, tall, tall almost as he, with their seven branches each. How many menorahs? He knew ten had stood in Solomon's Temple, flanking the sanctuary five by five. But here, at least within reach, he could count... one, two, three, four, five... six... seven of them. Solid gold but bigger than he recalled, with branches with buds and blossoms, topped with seven lamps. And the wicks were ablaze – flames flickered, wavered, lit up the mist that seemed to give way for them, swirling around their lights. The elder was mesmerized. He'd not dreamt he'd see such lampstands again. But here they were, in the ethereal mist.

And then, the elder froze. There was motion in the mist. Behind and between the menorahs, he saw a figure looming, lurking. A human figure, striding with purpose. The elder at first could see no more than the shape, the form. But those clothes... As the mist cleared, the elder could catch glimpses of an ankle-length robe bound by a golden sash and an ephod and the glimmering breastplate of twelve gems. It made sense. Among the menorahs of the temple, there had to be a priest to tend them. But what high priest could this be?

Then the mist split open, cracked like the sky on Judgment Day, recoiled in awe and terror from the luminosity of the priest, and the elder's jaw dropped, his eyes bulged, his heart raced. Here was the man – dare he think of him as 'a man'? – but the man from whose voice that thunder of words crashed, like the collapse and resurgence of a billion oceans. The elder struggled to look that man in the face. His hair was white, like snow on the peak of the mountain, like wool on the purest lamb – it was the hair of the Ancient of Days, the hair of Daniel's God. Above his flowing beard, the elder saw eyes that burned like a furnace, eyes that crackled, eyes that smoldered – and the elder tore away his gaze as his knees buckled and he sank. How could he bear to look into those eyes – those eyes that surveyed the proteins in his cells and the contours of galaxies, those eyes that no seraph dared meet, those eyes that melt mountains, those eyes that lit the spark of creation with their heat? How dare the elder count the hairs that bespoke antiquities of eternity when yet every nebula was a newborn?

The elder tore away his gaze before the radiance could burn him out his body. But where to look? Every inch was overwhelming. The flesh of his hands, flesh of his bare feet, was like living metal, like burnished bronze of highest quality, glowing and molten and polished and perfected and glaring and beautiful. And the elder, the elder wept tears of joy and terror and agony and confusion and bliss. His ears were ringing, still aching from the boom of the voice – that voice that flashed bright, that pierced the mist, that split the air like a broadsword with every divine roar this priest spoke like a crashing ocean and howling tempest – this priest, Ancient of Days and Son of Man in one, whose whisper of command shook the fabric of space and time like an earthquake. The elder felt dizzy, felt sick – his vision pulsed white, fading from overstimulation. Features of the... the man... leapt forth to his view, discombobulated, jumbled, as if every twitch changed the whole picture – the elder felt like a dot, a speck, a fragment of a line trying vainly to comprehend all the unfamiliar dimensions of a meteor.

The elder struggled, from his knees, in a daze, to look up again. He glimpsed, if only for a moment, the priest's right hand. Swirling, spinning, a solar system of flashing light, the sun and moon and planets in their courses, all seven that dictate the nations' fates, were clutched in the man's grasp, nestled in his palm, brushed by his fingertips. The elder's vision sank into those stars, plummeted, toured the vast reaches of cosmic space – all within the man's hand. As the man raised that hand, the elder's sight tracked it almost involuntarily – until it came near the face. That face! That face, bright beyond compare, that face streaming rays of light, that face to which the burning noon is pale, to which the heavens are but a dirty mirror! That face was stronger and brighter than the sun at its height, unobscured. And the vision was too much. The light pulsed, and the elder's sight would have given way to blindness, save that the strength of the vision held his eyes captive against their will, against their protest, as he felt them itch and dissolve in their sockets, compelled to function beyond possibility.

The elder had seen what was impossible to see – had seen a man, a portrait of humanity far beyond anything the elder had ever dreamt humanity could be. But once he'd seen such a man, nothing less than this could ever seem human again, could ever measure up again, could ever make sense again. The elder's world was shattered by the encounter. Traumatized, shaken, overwhelmed, he swooned, he gave up his mind to the gulf, he surrendered consciousness, let go, and his body went limp as tattered rags. He collapsed, helpless and hopeless in imitation of death, at the burnished-bronze bare feet of the Everlasting Man.

And there he lay. His story closed. The book slammed shut. Transported to a lethal vision, lethal because too great for human sight. Paralyzed by grandeur, stricken by beauty into a coma, sapped of strength by a vigor so vital tornadoes seem lazily listless in compare. And so fell John, the elder exiled to Patmos, frightened by the sight for which he'd so long longed. Any pretensions of sufficiency, any illusions of competence, any will to achieve and accomplish, any self-concern – they lay slain, dashed to bits on that crystal-cloud floor. If only it could be so for us, who, for seeing and knowing less, can still feel ourselves strong in ignorant twilight!

But then the action goes on. The book is reopened in the Ancient of Days' court. The Son of Man stretches forth his starlit hand and touches the dusty skin of the catatonic elder. A booming whisper of thunder crashes through the elder's paralysis, shatters his chains, heals his hearing and sight and makes them able to bear itself. And the first words that revive the deadened elder to life are these: “Don't be afraid.” The trumpet of truth was commanding, compelling, irresistible, undeniable. It was the whip of an exorcist's words, and fear itself, like vermin, fled the elder's heart as from flame. The inward implosion of his psyche froze; every fragment of his soul stood in place. With a touch, the Everlasting Man restored the elder to himself, gave him back the gift of Johnhood, revived him to perfect peace and stillness, enabled him to stand under the unbearable weight of glory.

The elder's lost eyes and scourged ears became one with the Spirit of the Lord; through the Spirit, he could hear and see the Everlasting Man, look him square in the dazzling face unflinching, hear the surge of a universal ocean in his voice and yet make out the finest tones of heavenly melody. But still he did not understand. This great high priest, tending the seven menorahs – John the Elder could see some of them half-lit, some of them flickering, some of them glaring and blaring, some of them struggling 'gainst the breeze – but this priest who tended them, who dredged out the old and spent, who trimmed and pruned their wicks, who poured new oil into them, who touched them and bade each lamp be lit – this priest, this Everlasting Man: who? what? how?

And to the elder, the Everlasting Man explained. He explained that he knew what it was like for the elder to lay there on the floor, limp and lifeless. He knew because he, the Everlasting Man, had died once. On a chilling spring day, on a hill outside a city, stretched between dirt and sky, robe stolen, caked with gore had he died. He himself had been there. But look, look! The Everlasting Man is dead no more! He is alive again, alive again, and terminally so, interminably so! “I died, and behold! I am alive forevermore!” Forever and ever, forever and ever, lives the Everlasting Man – humanity beyond death, humanity beyond conquest, is he! And so gained the Everlasting Man his new title, new name: “The Living One.” The One who is himself Life itself.

This Living One – the elder was stunned by the revelation. He knew this Living One, had walked with him and talked with him before that chilling spring day, and after, too. Could it be? Could this priest of heaven, this tender of the lampstands, this holder of the stars, be the very Jesus who'd broken bread into his hands? Jesus, the Living One! Jesus, who effortlessly steers fates and destinies with a flick of his finger! Jesus, whom no law of decay can touch, whom no raging eon can wear down, whom no shadow can dim, no chance relativize – the Living One forever and ever! First before the dawn of creation, Last beyond the limits of all infinity, in himself he spans, encompasses all things; as God Most High he dwarfs the universe as the universe dwarfs a dust mite.

With his burning sight, he surveys the true state of all things. Every person – you and me – his fiery view sees. Every collective, every society, every structure – his flaming eyes behold how they really are. The Living One speaks sharpness, striking down all that's unworthy, surgically separating reality cell from cell, atom from atom, quark from quark. His outcry instills and relieves fear, binds and looses the hearts of men and angels. And in his clutches, he's stolen away the very keys of Death and Underworld. No Caesar and no bandit can wield death as a weapon of tyranny forever – they go only so far as the Living One unlocks the doors, and when he locks death and grave against his servant, no power in creation can force them through. No dark chthonic demon, no petty idol, no binding necessity of nature can keep any hemmed in death and grave and netherworld, should the Living One unlock the door and proclaim release. To ferry soul or star or society from upper realm to lower or from lower realm to upper, from death to life or life to death, is to the Key-Holder effortless – and the keys are in the Living One's hands, and no one can steal them away from his grip.

And where does the elder see him? Ministering as a priest between the menorahs, the lampstands. Trimming the wicks. Cleaning out the spent oil. Supplying new oil of his Spirit. Bidding them receive him and burn with bright life. And what are these seven lampstands? He himself – the Living One, the Everlasting Man – tells the elder: They're churches. They're the witness of whole communities of believers, of disciples. Not all are lit up brightly. They flicker. Some have big flames soaring high; others sputter and smolder on just a few branches; some scarcely emit dim puffs of smoke.

But still, to these flickering, flaming, sputtering, smoldering lives, he reaches out his touch, he voices his speech. Even to the small lives, buffeted by stiff winds, choked and spent, he actively ministers, bidding them only receive and burn with bright life. Yet as they flicker still, he does not leave. He has not left. The Living One, the Everlasting Man, the Priest of the Lampstands, in all his splendor and majesty, is ever present among them. He walks between them, never far from the smallest and most misshapen branch, never distant to the brightest or dimmest flame. The Giver of Life, the Presence of Life, is never far from our lampstand here, never absent from your life, no matter how smoky or deadly the breeze.

When we're far from outselves, still he stays near. When we're few, still his starlit hand tends to us as much as to the tallest and most polished. When the hostility of a dark world makes our light seem pointless, still the Living One shines brighter than noonday. When the fashions of a restless world scoff at his antiquity, still he is First before them and Last after them, relevant unchanged for longer than the sun can burn. When the hemming and hawing of an uncertain choir peddles truth softly, still his voice slashes beyond the confusion and speaks a clear word. When the stars above seem dizzy and all fate seems up for grabs, still he nestles the spinning worlds in his hand as they dance from sign to sign. When the seismic shifts of modernity and tragedy threaten to overturn all things, still his burnished-bronze feet stand firm forevermore, and he stabilizes our lampstand if we rest on his hand. And when we swoon in helplessness and hopelessness, still his starlit touch can cast out all fears and raise us up to life and strength again, for every key is in the Living One's hands. All glory to the One who died and is alive forevermore, the Priest of the Lampstands, the Everlasting Son of Man!

Why do I bring you this message? Why do I recount this vision? Why do I share such things to the place from which a lampstand rises? Because I want you to see him. The Living One said to John, “Write, therefore, the things that you have seen” (Revelation 1:19). Write it down. Send it along. Make a record of this vision, that others might catch a glimpse through you. So, through John's obedient writing, may you, too, hear him, see him, know him. Encounter the Living One whom John, caught up in worship on the Lord's Day, saw amidst the lampstands. Find what the elder found. Grapple with a Jesus who is not tame, who is not simple, who is not dull or discountable. See the Jesus John saw, hear the Jesus John heard. Behold him for who he is; let his glory conquer you, yield beneath his starlit hand, allow him to raise you up and make you able. Then write, speak, share the Jesus you've seen faithfully among the lampstands. He is not far. He is not dead. No, no – never dead again. The Living One holds the keys, he holds the stars, he holds us all. Behold him, and be cast down and upheld. All glory to Christ the Living One, far as eternal ages run! Amen!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Truth in Politics: Sermon on Revelation 1:1-8

A crisp, chilly November wind breezed through the streets of Pennsylvania's state capital: Lancaster. Among the 4,300 residents there at the time, two of them – the Barton brothers – had plenty on their minds. Sons of an Episcopal priest who'd abandoned his family to flee the Revolution, William and Matthias Barton had both gone on to success. William, 46, the new county prothonotary, was a well-known lawyer who'd reached his greatest fame in co-designing the Great Seal of the United States of America – the one you'll see on every dollar bill in your pocket. His little brother Matthias, 38, also a lawyer, had been in political office for seven years now – first three one-year terms in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and now just re-elected to a second term in the Pennsylvania Senate.

But it was election time, and the Barton brothers found themselves at odds. Governor McKean had called the feuding Senate and House to the Lancaster Courthouse for a special session to take up the monumental task that could shape the destiny of an infant nation – the task of choosing a method for picking Pennsylvania's fifteen Electoral College voters, which could make or break a close presidential race. William was a vocal supporter and speechwriter for the Democratic-Republican Party; Matthias was one of the thirteen Federalist senators standing resolutely in their way. I wonder how it affected the brothers' relationship.

It had been an ugly year, ever since the governor's election, in which Federalists in Lancaster tried to thwart Thomas McKean, the Democratic-Republican candidate, by spreading rumors among voters that he'd died. The present year had started with the new register-general Samuel Bryan charging the old register-general with having embezzled public funds; the whole thing got Bryan into heated conflict with members of the State House and his complaint about “gentlemen... asserting malicious falsehoods on the floor of your honorable house.” For that comment, he nearly got arrested, and one representative accused him of “a false, infamous libel.”

But the current presidential election was hottest of all. Democratic-Republicans fretted that Federalists, if they stayed in power, would gut the United States Constitution, turn the country into a monarchy, and virtually enslave the people to arbitrary government power. Federalists, on the other hand, said that if the Democratic-Republicans took over, a tidal wave of atheism would result in destroyed churches, the neglect of public morals, and lead even to widespread plunder and assassination. Both parties told their followers, “Your dearest rights are at stake!” It was a heated election, and the partisan political strife tore friend from friend, brother from brother. The candidates at the heart of the conflict? For the Federalist party: President John Adams. And for the Democratic-Republican party: Vice-President Thomas Jefferson.

Earlier, in May, Jefferson financed a scandalmongering journalist, James Thomson Callender (who infamously slurred George Washington as “twice a traitor”), to publish a pamphlet savagely attacking John Adams as war-mongering beast from hell. Abigail Adams denounced “all the host of Callender's lies”; John Adams likewise called Callender a “liar.” And Jefferson was Callender's sponsor. Throughout the year, newspapers filled with charges of deception and prevarication – here in Pennsylvania, Democratic-Republicans accused Federalists of maintaining “corrupt presses,” while Federalists denounced Democratic-Republican writings as “poisonous publications..., false and malicious..., misrepresentation so gross.” Lies and accusations of lies were both rampant. One letter-writer pleaded with both parties, “You sacrifice even truth to support your opinion.”

It's been over two centuries since the fierce election of 1800. But it still rings a familiar bell, for the ugliness of American public life has outlasted the march of time. Some of the great howling lies of twentieth-century politics, we remember. Johnson pledging not to send American boys to Vietnam while the Pentagon was planning out exactly that. Nixon vowing his personnel had nothing to do with the Watergate Hotel break-in. I won't bog us down with more recent examples, but suffice it to say that, while I've certainly preferred some presidential administrations to others in my lifetime, I wouldn't dare characterize any of them as renowned truth-tellers. And today, things aren't any rosier than they were in the days of Adams and Jefferson. It seems to be the rule in American public life that truth has to be checked at the door. In fact, one political philosopher in the 1960s wrote, “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other.”

I'm sure the matter didn't look much better nineteen centuries ago, from the standpoint of Roman Asia Minor. For over a hundred years, an infamous handbook on electioneering, attributed to Cicero's brother, advised that good political candidates always tell people whatever they want to hear, since “broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances.” The handbook warned, “Politics is full of deceit, treachery, and betrayal.” How seldom truth and politics mix – now, or in early America, or in the Roman world!

But embedded in that world of political corruption and untruth, an alternative order existed, buried in the fringes of many cities, large and small. An alternative order existed in the form of small, sometimes struggling, maybe even compromised groups who nonetheless gathered each week to talk and sing and eat together. And what they called themselves is interesting. 'Ekklesia' – the Greek word for what we today might call the borough council. We tend to cover that up by translating it, when we find that word in our Bibles, as 'church.' But that's what churches called themselves: 'ekklesia,' the town council.

And these alternative town councils had come into existence because of a story that's taken up residence in their midst, not merely in words but in power. And that story centered on a Pierced Man who stepped in to take the brunt of all humanity's hatred and violence and wrongdoing, allowing it to literally penetrate his body, so that he could carry it down where it belonged. And in doing that, he had given them an immense gift. They called him “the One who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5d). Their Lover and their Liberator. But he did not stay down. No, he achieved great fame among them by returning as “the Firstborn from the Dead” (Revelation 1:5c). Having lovingly freed his adherents by allowing himself to be pierced, he had been the first to defeat death. And now, “behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Revelation 1:7). His name? Jesus Christ. He was the reason alternative town councils, ekklesiai, had started popping up in town after town after town, even in Roman Asia Minor.

And to them, living where they do, a prophet writes a message encouraging them to keep living as an authentic parallel society: “John, to the seven ekklesiai that are in Asia: Grace to you, and peace...” (Revelation 1:4). He wants to remind them, and lead them deeper, into some of the truths that give them reason for being. And one of those truths is this: that, amidst all the propaganda of Roman politics then, and amidst all the propaganda of American politics now, the highest political authority is this very same Jesus, whom John calls “the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth” (Revelation 1:5c). He sits above every Asiarch. He sits above every governor. He sits above every senator. He sits above every consul. He sits high above the emperor in Rome or the president in the District of Columbia. The United Nations meets only as a crabbed batch of hasty stick figures beneath his sweeping banner overhead. All those who jet from nation to nation, who enter rooms to the tune of “Hail to the Chief” or “God Save the Queen” or what-have you – they may be “the kings of the earth,” but Jesus Christ is “the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.” There is no higher political authority in all the world than this Jesus. Even those who oppose Jesus operate only within the boundaries that Jesus sets. Everything they do, he has the authority to review. Everything they say, they're accountable to him. Ultimately, he governs, he presides, over every action “the kings of the earth” take. For John, Jesus is at the heart of politics.

And in light of that, it should maybe surprise us how else John describes him. For John, the highest political authority is also “the Faithful Witness” (Revelation 1:5a) – “the Faithful and True Witness” (Revelation 3:14), in fact. John's drawing on the imagery from Psalm 89:37, where God vows that David's throne will “endure … as long as the sun before me. Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.” As constant and reliable as the sun and moon in announcing God's providence, so the Messiah's rule would last forever, and so Jesus would tell the truth forever, live as a witness for truth forever.

This is exactly the opposite of everything we've come to expect from politics, isn't it? This is the contradiction of how we ordinarily conduct public life. Jesus didn't become Ruler by tricking people. Jesus didn't become Ruler by flattering the masses and currying favor. Jesus didn't become Ruler by playing other contenders off of one another. Jesus didn't become Ruler by being loudest and most obnoxious in denouncing his foes. Jesus did not become Ruler by reciting a litany of one-sided factoids. Jesus spoke and lived relentless truth. He proved himself trustworthy in the name of a trustworthy Father God. And in love, Jesus persisted in his truthful and faithful witness all the way to the tomb and beyond. That was his campaign. And for it, God voted him into office as “the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.” Faithful witness unto death was Jesus' election strategy – none of the bickering nonsense of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans was found in him – and now in office, he keeps his every campaign promise flawlessly. Because Jesus, even now as Ruler, is still Faithful Witness.

It makes you wonder: what would a world look like where even one candidate for high political office looked like that? What would it look like if even one contender for the American presidency, or some other position, honestly pursued the path of Jesus? What would it look like if they took him as their political example? But John has a message for the churches, for the ekklesiai, for these alternative borough councils, these alternate boards of township supervisors. He sees them, first and foremost, as those who have gathered around this Truth-in-Politics Jesus. And because of that, Jesus has chosen them to be raised up as a new political mode of being. Jesus has selected them, these ekklesiai, to be the new political order of the world. John says to them, Jesus has “made us a kingdom, priests” (Revelation 1:6). The Kingdom of Priests is what authentic politics must forevermore mean – that is the government which Jesus, Ruler of the Kings of Earth, prefers.

As such, these alternative political bodies and their members are bound to new ways of living. They – we – have to be relentlessly scrupulous in truth-telling. We cannot afford to traffic in rumors, accepting every story because it confirms their biases, passing along every speck of partisan gossip and gobbledegook. We must not twist facts to their advantage or play games with reality. We must not hide behind semantics and diversions. We must be relentless in valuing and telling truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We must also be committed to love, never contempt, as our political motive: love for each other, love for others, love for God, love for their neighbors and neighborhoods. We must be driven by seeking the benefit of all those we encounter, even if it's a benefit that a hateful world doesn't recognize. This love cannot drive us to deny the truth and to become unfaithful witnesses, but it must drive us to display the truth as also the good and the beautiful. And since Jesus' grand political act was to liberate us from the powers that chained us down, so our political work must focus on freeing our neighbors and neighborhoods – freeing them from oppression, freeing them from injustice, freeing them from addiction, freeing them from pollution, from violence, from idolatry and greedy lusts and all false things. Truth, love, liberation – the political manifesto of the ekklesiai.

These ekklesiai and their members – our ekklesia and we as members – must exalt Jesus as the highest political authority and the greatest political example. Because he is the highest authority we recognize, we must be prepared to encourage and to rebuke lesser political forces in his name. Because he is the greatest example we recognize, we must be prepared for faithful witness to mean political life by way of the cross. The real political heart of earth is not what you'll see on C-SPAN or MSNBC or FOX; you'll seldom hear about it from Rachael Maddow or Rush Limbaugh. The real political heart of earth is where you are right now. The political decisions that bear ultimate importance are the ones we make here together, as we declare truth, as we baptize into heavenly citizenship, as we commune across divisions, as we turn to the Ruler of the Kings of Earth to rule and lead and guide us, as we welcome the Faithful Witness to teach us, as we implore the Firstborn from the Dead to revive and heal and liberate us anew. That – what we do here – is the public life of humanity. The politics section of The New York Times is small potatoes next to political coverage in the Pequea Proclaimer!

And as we bear faithful witness to the rule of Jesus the Pierced One, Jesus the Firstborn from the Dead, Jesus our Faithful Witness who Rules the Kings of the Earth – that is how the highest political authority on earth is wielded – right here, right now. As we bear faithful witness to 'the kings of the earth,' to all lesser political authorities around us, we aim to retrain them, disciple them, integrate them into a higher order – or, if they resist, we overcome them by remaining faithful to our witness, and the exposure of their deeds against us seal their overthrow. But faithful to our witness we must remain. Whenever you're discouraged by the division and deceit of the political and social order that today is unraveling beneath our feet (much as it seemed in jeopardy to the Barton brothers in 1800), remember this: Above all, Jesus the Faithful Witness rules, and his footsteps mark where we must tread. “To him be the glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen” (Revelation 1:6b)!

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Nets From Another World: Easter Sermon on Matthew 4:18-25; 28:16-20

One chilly Saturday in Boston, a forty-one-year-old mailman and NAACP board member from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, rests with his eyes closed in the offices of Dr. Benjamin Simon, psychiatrist. It's three months to the day after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But that isn't why the patient, Barney Hill, is there. His anxieties seem to go back to something else, something he suspects happened on a night twenty-nine months ago. And so, softly, Dr. Simon hypnotizes Barney, prods him to narrate his full story for the first time.

As the story went, Barney and his wife Betty, a social worker, had been driving home from vacation in Montreal – traveling down U.S. Route 3 over the White Mountains in New Hampshire, with their dachshund Delsey in the back seat. It had been a long day, and now it was night – the night of September 19, 1961. And as the story went, they see a bright light moving erratically in the sky. As it approaches, Betty hands Barney the binoculars to take a closer look – and what he sees terrifies him. He sees the light now as a spinning pancake-shaped object, and through its blue-lit windows, he thinks he sees figures in black uniforms walking around. And it gets closer, and closer.... Barney, hysterical, gets back into the car, yelling about being captured, and begins the drive to escape. But he hears beeping sounds striking the trunk of their car.

Such was his tale even before he reached Dr. Simon's office. But the rest of the story, he presents only once under hypnosis. Approached by a team of figures, who bid them close their eyes and follow. Being dragged up a ramp at the heart of the orange glow where the pancake has landed. Inside, medical tests in a sky-blue hospital room. Barney says, “If I keep real quiet and real still, I won't be harmed. And it will be over. And I will just stay here and pretend that I am anywhere and think of God and think of Jesus and think that I am not afraid.” And with closed eyes, he's guided down the ramp, walks back to his car, waits for Betty's return from the same place, and they drive away. Such is the story Barney told Dr. Simon. And toward the end of their session that day, Barney remarks: “I believed that we had seen and been a part of something different than anything I had ever seen before.” Such was the story of Barney and Betty Hill.

Now, before any of you start getting worried at where this message is going: I do not believe that the events the Hills recounted in Dr. Simon's office, or at their many speaking appearances before and afterwards, are what actually happened that night. I believe there are better and quite ordinary explanations available. But the story they told was turned into a book in 1966. That book became the first mass-marketed account of an alleged alien abduction. And as such, their story has been the template for countless stories of so-called 'close encounters' ever since. It says something about our culture: we're desperate to think that we're not alone in the universe.

So some people in our culture are obsessed with these fantastical stories: UFO sightings, Area 51 conspiracies, extraterrestrial influence in human history. One man who got swept up in some of that cultural interest was a man I knew well: my stepdad. Some of you here this morning worked with Randy at CNH. When he wasn't with you on the job, he was at home reading book after book claiming evidence for ancient alien visitors to the earth. And he devoted our family computer's downtime to helping process data from a project called the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. That was just a common thing in my house, growing up in those years.

But while claims of actual contact remain somewhat fringe, the whole world is still abuzz any time the slightest hint of even the mere possibility of life on other planets comes up. Back in 1977, the news cycle was filled with sensation when some scientists concluded that a radio signal they picked up from space could be an intentional transmission from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. And even just last July, the world was rocked by news that an underground lake still exists on Mars, and with it the potential for microscopic life. NASA still maintains an Exoplanet Exploration program. American culture is searching, hopeful, for the shocking news of life on other planets – the story told by the Hills is one trendsetting example of that broader trend.

And yet, if the headlines tomorrow morning were filled with reports like “Life on Other Worlds Proven,” “News from the Stars,” “First Contact Established,” – if all of that were confirmed tomorrow, that would, in fact, be positively dull 'news' next to an established fact we already know. For you see, one morning long ago, the first close encounter took place with a living being, a living body, not merely from a planet beyond our solar system, not merely from a star beyond our galaxy, but from a universe beyond the universe that surrounds us, a universe beyond the one we know. And that living body was the body of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

We know the story, or we tell ourselves we do. A couple days earlier, Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah, had died on the cross. It was a public death. It was a gruesome death. It was a shameful death. It was a death of which no one could conceivably be in doubt who was in the area at the time. And before it had taken place, Jesus had predicted he would be arrested and executed. But although no one understood him at the time, he'd announced that his execution, his crucifixion, would be the key to removing dark powers called 'sin' and 'death' from this world, piece by piece. And not only would his death do that, but his death would open up the possibility of a new kind of world, the kind of world that this was always meant to become but never had.

And then, in the black early hours of the next Sunday morning, soldiers trembled, a stone rolled away, and Jesus emerged from that rock-cut tomb in which his cadaver had been placed. Death had only gotten the barest taste of him before it lost him. Death did not have the final word over Jesus. Because death is a property belonging to this cosmos we know – but Jesus no longer did, no longer does, belong to that same cosmos. “Jesus who was crucified,” as the angel said, becomes Jesus who has risen” (Matthew 28:5-6).

And when that happened, Jesus did not rise as a mere unwinding of the tape, throwing death into reverse and backpedaling out of the grave. Jesus did not rise as a simple resuscitation, the result of divine CPR. Jesus did not rise as a return after a long pause, resuming the earthbound and thisworldly life that had been his for a prior three decades. That would be too low an estimation of what happened. No, Jesus rose from the dead as a living body, a living soul, drastically foreign to anything that the study of any chemistry, any biology, any physics from earth to the farthest nebula could identify. Jesus rose from the dead as a living being from a realm beyond the universe we know, a realm we'll call the “new creation,” a realm with its own physics and a determination to invade our present cosmos and take it over and rewrite everything.

And so, on that Easter morning, there transpired a string of close encounters of the biblical kind. In these close encounters, we see Jesus as tangible, yet he appears suddenly in locked rooms. He bears open wounds, yet they have no blood flow. He's able to metabolize our broiled fish, but he doesn't require it to sustain the cells of his body in chemical reactions. We cannot begin to imagine what a medical team, what a biochemist, what a physicist would say on examining the living body of the risen Christ. But that body seen on Easter morning was clearly not playing by the rules of our physics, the rules of our chemistry, the rules of our known biology. Jesus had risen from the dead as a new and otherworldly kind of human, alien but familiar, certainly more celestial than terrestrial. And in fact, Paul explained the phenomenon of resurrection by saying that “star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41).

And what we learn from such teaching, and what we learn from reading the accounts of eyewitnesses to the body of the risen Jesus, is that so much of what plagues and antagonizes us in the days of our existence is bound to the forms of the universe around us. But there is another universe, the new creation, of the matter of which Jesus' risen body is the first example ever encountered, the first ever instantiated. And this new creation's physics function without allowance for death, without allowance for pain, without allowance for grief and harm. This is the Jesus we meet on Easter morning. And we meet him as the “firstfruits” of a new universe being born (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20). And so “we know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). The physical processes that make us susceptible to death, that make us so vulnerable and fragile and bend us toward decay into our basic constituent components again – those simply are not a part of the new-creation physics according to which the risen Jesus lives.

And that is an absolutely astonishing fact. Not just another planet, but life from another reality has been found! Not only found, but first contact has been established! That alone would be enough to merit all the headlines, and would relegate anything merely interplanetary to small print. The implications are utterly staggering. But here's the real kicker: Jesus aims to assimilate us to what he has become. When we through faith are linked to him, united to him, when we assimilate and absorb his new-creation life through that faith-union, he begins to actually transform us into beings of this other universe, too – beings of the new creation, beings of another world. “We shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51).

One day, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” the physical fruit of that will be made obvious – our bodies will function by new-creation physics, completely powered by divine Spirit, with properties beyond our imagination. But even now, beneath the surface that scientific instruments can probe, beneath that, “our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16), being transformed into a “new creation” kind of being (2 Corinthians 5:17). And so, even in advance of the final take-over, we are authorized to represent the new universe. We are suddenly rendered “strangers … on the earth” – that's what Hebrews 11:13 calls us.

To borrow Barney Hill's words, we have become “a part of something different than anything [this universe] has ever seen before.” And if we belong to the risen Jesus, what happens to us here every Sunday should be more shocking, more jarring, more jaw-dropping, more awe-inspiring than what the Hill family came to believe had happened to them. And just so, what we go forth and do should be just as shocking, just as incredible. Because we have been commissioned to draw others into something not native to our earth below or our skies above.

See, stories like the Hills' do point to a truth... but the truth is that the invading otherworldly presence on earth is now us. There is something beyond-earthly happening – and we are it. Didn't Jesus tell us? Didn't Jesus say to us, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men?” (Matthew 4:19). Isn't that a phrase the Hills could well have used in their taller tale? And so, rising from the dead and giving us his Spirit, Jesus sends us out as just that: an otherworldly invasion force, fishing for human beings, capturing people with nets from another world, abducting people from the realm of death to the realm of life, from the universe we see to the new one that's got an Easter birthdate. For that's precisely what we're doing when we baptize those gathered out of every earthly tribe and teach them all that Jesus taught us. Because, in doing that, we capture and disciple people into ways alien to all this world has to offer (Matthew 28:19).

Have you ever given thought to that? How alien the method, how alien the message, how alien the truth? Do you realize what you yourself have been swept up in, snatched up in, caught up in? To nothing less, to nothing mundane, to nothing thisworldly have you been called. In Christ, you are becoming something non-native to the world you once knew. You are receiving otherworldly gifts from an otherworldly power for an otherworldly mission. And that power is the risen Jesus Christ. What you are now a part of, if you've been united by faith to him, is something that makes black holes and galactic superclusters look small and provincial, like dust in the air, like droplets in a puddle. We come bearing good news of another kingdom (cf. Matthew 4:23), we come embodying good news of the invasion of a new universe, an invasion that landed decisively one Sunday morn almost two thousand earth orbits ago with the body of the risen Christ – a body, a man, utterly “different than anything [this universe] had ever seen before.”

The invasion from another world is now underway, not in unidentified flying objects, but in Spirit-identified discipling churches, crafted in the ever-growing likeness of the King-Beyond-the-Heavens who is Resurrection and Life. And our churches may not flit from star to star, but we still “shine like the brightness of the sky above..., like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). What we now are is far less mundane, far less typical, far less pedestrian, far less explicable than anything the stars and planets of all the galaxies around us could ever have to offer. And what fuels this life of ours is no less transcendent.

If spacecraft really did zip between the stars, I shudder to think what manner of rations would be consumed by life from other planets. But for we beings belonging now to a far more exalted cosmos, the kind of food that fuels us is nothing other than the new-creation meal of Christ himself, given for us, given to us, to speed us on our way. And he is set before us this very morning, raising our table above the heavens, and giving himself to us here and now as more-than-heavenly food, under the guise of elements the world knows. So now let us eat, and now let us drink, and let us assimilate and absorb his new-creation life. And then may we fly forth with nets from another world, and 'fish' for humans in the Risen Lord's name. Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Light for the Darkness: Palm Sunday Sermon on Matthew 4:12-17; 21:1-15

I reckon it was a long walk back. If you were with us any of the last few Sundays, you remember that we were talking about how, after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit took Jesus into the desert where, after forty days and forty nights of fasting, he was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-10). And then, at his command, the devil left him, and ministering angels came to restore Jesus' strength (Matthew 4:11). But what happened next? A long, long walk. For days and days. From the desert, he walked back toward the place where John had been baptizing. But when he got there, no John! And he heard that, while he was in the desert those forty days, John had been arrested by Herod Antipas, who was in charge of both Galilee and Perea where John was baptizing on the east bank of the Jordan. So we're told that “when [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee” (Matthew 4:12). And from the place where he was baptized up to Galilee, to Nazareth, is about eighty-one miles. On foot. That's going to take a while.

But he has to go. See, when Jesus hears that John's been arrested by Antipas, he knows what else the devil has been up to in those forty days and forty nights. The devil's been spreading darkness. The devil's been infecting even Galilee's political ruler, making him grow more and more into his father Herod's uncouth image. So Jesus hurries back to Galilee in as few days as he can, so he can reach Nazareth. His hometown. The little place he grew up. Just a couple hundred people, clustered in a few dozen houses. And one he's always called his. He's been the man of the house since Joseph passed away. But now he has to go back to Mary, to his brothers and his sisters – and Jesus has to have an awkward conversation with them. Jesus has to tell them he's moving out of the village where he's lived most all his life. That he's giving up the carpentry business he inherited from Joseph to support the family. That he's heading to the bigger village of Capernaum, out by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, so that he can preach about the end-times. Yeah, how well do you think that conversation went over?

But off he went. We read: “Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:13). Nazareth was in the old tribal lands of Zebulun, tucked away in rural obscurity; Capernaum, in the old tribal lands of Naphtali, was about a three-days' walk from there. The trek would've taken Jesus through Cana to the edge of the lake, then clockwise around it, away from Tiberias where Antipas ruled. Another solid trip – three days on foot. I wonder what Jesus did that first night after he reached Capernaum. Did he look for a place to stay? Did he sleep out in the open? “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Why did he go there? Why did he go back to Galilee, closer and closer to Antipas' center of power after John was thrown into prison? Because Jesus was Light. “I am the Light of the World,” he said. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And the Light needed to go where it was darkest – to Capernaum, in Galilee but not far from Gaulanitis or the Decapolis. The Light needed to go where it was darkest so he could make the most of his brightness. That's what Isaiah had said.

Isaiah spoke in a time when the people of Zebulun and Naphtali were the most exposed to foreign influence – tempting them constantly with idolatry and compromise – and at risk of invasion. And in that constant struggle, they became so afraid that they fell into sin where “they have no dawn” (Isaiah 8:20). Isaiah said that in times of hardship, “they will be enraged and speak contemptuously against their king and their God” (Isaiah 8:21); that the whole land will be “distress and darkness” (Isaiah 8:22). But Isaiah said the day would come when the “contempt” of Zebulun and Naphtali would be no more – when God would glorify Galilee by shining his light there (Isaiah 9:1). “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy” (Isaiah 9:2-3). It would happen when a true Son of David came to be the Light, to be the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

And Matthew says that's what sent Jesus back to Galilee, that's what took him to Capernaum, that's what started his ministry of preaching from city to city, town to town, village to village, hill to hill (Matthew 4:14-16). “From that time, Jesus began to preach, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!'” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus continued John the Baptist's message (Matthew 3:2) – only he'd come to put it into action, announcing good news and casting out sickness and injustice and trauma and weakness and demons, and teaching that a new light was dawning (Matthew 4:23-24). For to say that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” was to say that “a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16-17).

Now, fast-forward three years. Jesus has left Galilee behind. His time is drawing near. He's approaching the big city, Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 21:1-7). There he is, riding down its slopes toward the city gates – riding on the colt of a donkey, with his disciples' cloaks for padding. But all around are pilgrims, streaming to the city for the upcoming Passover celebration. Only they can see this is no ordinary Passover. Jesus is a prophet, come at last to teach a fresh word from God (Matthew 21:11). Jesus is “the Son of David,” the one given David's throne to rule, the Messiah who “comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:9). So the crowds hurry to lay branches from trees across the road (Matthew 21:8), they wave palm branches in the air (John 8:13). And the crowd starts to sing: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). And it causes a great stir in the city (Matthew 21:10).

Where did the crowds get the words they were singing? From a classic pilgrim song – Psalm 118. “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Hosanna, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar! You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good: his love endures forever” (Psalm 118:19-29).

This crowd of pilgrims has sung the song, hummed its notes, mumbled its words, many times. But now they sing loud, because they see it unfolding before their eyes. They see the Righteous One coming to enter the gate of the LORD. They see that the LORD their God has answered them, come down to be their salvation. They see the Stone whom Israelite society's builders rejected is becoming the Cornerstone of a New Temple. They see that the LORD's Day is dawning, bringing the good news of joy. The time has come when their hosannas – their prayers for salvation now – are being answered. They see the King who comes in the name of the LORD, journeying into the temple, the House of the LORD. They know in a new way now that the LORD is God, and that God has caused his Light to shine upon them. Once again... “a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16). When the crowds sing that song, they confess they're in need of salvation – they need to be rescued from the darkness. When the crowds sing that song, they celebrate that, in a world of darkness, God's Light has broken through. And now they see it, they see the Light, they see him. They see Jesus shining for them. And they are so excited for all their hopes and dreams to come true in him. That was the excitement of Palm Sunday.

But when Jesus reaches the House of the LORD, from which he was supposed to be blessed, he doesn't find it to be a refuge for the righteous. He doesn't like what he sees at all. He comes to the temple and finds the house of light to be dark. The temple itself, the place where God was supposed to live, is plunged in moral darkness and blindness and confusion. It's been turned into a place of crime and deceit, a place of profit and exclusion. The courts are designed to keep certain classes of people further away than God ever designed them to be. The trade of the animal-sellers and coin-exchangers is geared toward taking advantage of the poor who come to bring their hearts of devotion to God. Their thievery crowds out the real meaning of the temple as a house of prayer where even foreigners can be drawn to the light and encounter God. But instead, like swarms of locusts blotting out the sun, the layer upon layer of corruption is a thick cloud of darkness filling the temple and choking its air.

So when “Jesus entered the temple” and saw all this darkness, he “drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, 'It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer' – but you make it a den of robbers!” (Matthew 21:12-13). What does the Light do when it encounters darkness in God's house? The Light overturns the dark! The Light casts out the darkness, wrecks it, throws it to the curb!

Now, only then – after they've heard all the commotion, after they've caught wind of Jesus' protest, after they've learned what kind of stand he'll take – only then, after all that, do we read that in those temple courts, people with various disabilities begin showing up. It wasn't a safe place for them before. But now a space for them has been cleared. Now they know that Jesus is champion of what's right. Jesus does not side with the darkness. Jesus will not tolerate the choking cloud. Jesus will not abide the interminable shadow. Jesus will shine, Jesus will shine. And so “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple” (Matthew 21:14a).

To the blind, everything was darkness. Wherever they turned their faces, what loomed before them? Darkness. What filled their heads? Darkness. What consumed their eyes? Darkness. The darkness they carried around to any place they went. There was no escaping the darkness. Even once Jesus had cleared the darkness from the temple, even once Jesus had acted in society, still they carried darkness with them. Every night. Every day. In their very faces, their very heads. But they had a thought. If Jesus is the Light who casts out the darkness out there, isn't it worth asking if he could cast out the darkness in here? And so, leaning on canes or on the arms of friends, they make their way toward Jesus. There in the temple courts, making their way tenderly over scattered coins, over upset baskets and cages, with loose pigeons and sheep and oxen running amok; there in the temple courts, trying not to bang their shins into or trip over one of the upset tables – there they make their way to Jesus in the heart of the chaos, in the eye of the storm, in the uncomfortable silence after the rage of the Son of David thundering judgment against the corrupt. And there they beg the Light to be their hosanna from the darkness. They trust him as their last and best hope, turn over the fate of their eyes, their bodies, their souls to this Man who brightens all he touches and enlightens all to whom he speaks. “And he healed them” (Matthew 21:14b).

He was the Light of a dark land when he went back to Galilee and began to preach the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 4:12-17). He was the Light of the pilgrims' hope as they went down to the city, hailing him with palm branches, singing the song of those marching to redemption (Psalm 118:27; Matthew 21:8-11). He was the Light of a darkened temple cluttered with injustice and false order (Matthew 21:12-13). And he was the Light of men and women who crept to him needy and blind and walked away seeing his face in the daylight (Matthew 21:14). He was the Light of the World (John 8:12), saying, “I have come into the world as Light, so that whoever believes in me” – whoever trusts Jesus, leans on Jesus, sticks close to Jesus, depends on Jesus – “may not remain in darkness..., for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:46-47).

As for us, we know we so often let ourselves slip into darkness, blindness, confusion. We shroud our lives in the choking cloud, we stumble under the shadow, we feel hemmed in by the demons of night at midday. But we need have no fear! Jesus is the Light that his Father made to shine on us in a place of refuge. Jesus is the Light who overturns the darkness of our ignorance, the darkness of our perplexity, the darkness of evil, the darkness of despair, the darkness of desolation, the darkness even of death and grave. Jesus is the Light who restores our clarity and lets us walk in life abundant. Because when the pilgrim song sang to “bind the festal sacrifice” (Psalm 118:27), he surrendered himself to be that sacrifice. The Light of the World was offered on the altar of the cross, so that unending dawn could shine down when the Sun of Righteousness rose forever to pierce the night. All so the Light could make his triumphal entry, not merely into Galilee, not merely into Jerusalem, not merely into the temple courts, but into my heart and your heart, my soul and your soul, my life and your life!

And for all that, some people were angry with Jesus for bringing light back to dark places. Can you believe it? “They still did not believe in him,” for the eyes of their heart were made blind (John 12:37-40). “When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things he did..., they were indignant” (Matthew 21:15). But the part that really got to them? They saw “children crying out in the temple, 'Hosanna to the Son of David!'” (Matthew 21:15). What really scared the priests and scribes was that children were singing to Jesus for salvation. Children were singing for Jesus to be their Light. Children were singing for Jesus to keep away the dark. Children had sight to see who he was, and to call on him as their Savior. And that was what most scared the darkness: When children sing to Jesus for their salvation, sing for the Light to keep away the dark. Highest hosannas to the Light of the World! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven's in reach! Open your eyes and see the good news! Oh give thanks to the Lord Jesus, for he is good: his love endures forever and ever, amen!

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Hope for the Tempted: Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11

It was a warm day in Corinth as Secundus, a local tradesman, made his way through the forum. And everything seemed difficult. He'd been a Christian for seven months, and the transition had not been easy – especially after the apostle's letter arrived the other week. Secundus hustled past the temple prostitutes of Aphrodite, and memories flooded back of wanton nights spent there. In the marketplace, peddlers hawked meats from animals sacrificed to the gods at local temples – gods Secundus used to worship, until the message of Christ turned him from them to the living God. Still, it was hard not to dine in the temple restaurants like he used to. It was hard to attend his trade guild meetings, when so many of them included pinches of incense to the gods, prayers to the gods. Aphrodite this, Zeus that, Caesar such-and-such. Secundus could hardly go to the theaters or the taverns. He had to turn down invitations and offend some of his closest family and friends. He wasn't used to the conflict that becoming a Christian had created in his life. And Paul's recent letters had urged him not to compromise with the life he used to lead. But instincts built up over years of doing what came naturally – those were hard for Secundus to break. Everywhere he went, the familiar idols and temples, the familiar women and boys, the familiar entertainments and luxuries, the familiar financial dealings and political institutions – they all called him back, all pressed him, pulled him, tempted him. Secundus knew only one place to turn.

He knew that, a couple decades before Paul had passed through Corinth with “the word of the cross,” Jesus Christ – “the power of God and the wisdom of God” – had himself endured a time of deep trial in the desert. It was just after Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan, when the heavens had opened and the Holy Spirit had descended and the voice of the Father had proclaimed Jesus the beloved Son of God (Matthew 3:17). And then the Spirit had led Jesus into the desert, so that, at the close of forty days and forty nights of fasting, he could be challenged by the Tempter (Matthew 4:1-10). But in all this, Secundus knew, Jesus was only retracing and replanting the footsteps of Israel. For Israel had been in Egypt but had been “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2). And God had acclaimed Israel as the son of God: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1).

And then, Israel the son of God was taken from baptism and led into the desert by God's presence in the fiery, cloudy pillar, which went before them all their way. God's Spirit led them through the desert for forty years, where they faced temptation time and time again. They were showered with God's resources – “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink,” Paul had said (1 Cor. 10:3) – but when temptation came, they seldom passed the test. “With most of them, God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Cor. 10:5). Some succumbed to the lures of idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7). Some indulged in “sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 10:8). Some “put Christ to the test” (1 Cor. 10:9). Many did nothing but “grumble” and complain (1 Cor. 10:10). To Secundus, it didn't sound like ancient history. Change the backdrop from a barren desert in the Sinai to an urbane Greek city on a hilltop, and it sounded like his own Corinth. It sounded like his own lived experience, even just that very week. It was as contemporary as his diary, as relevant as the latest breaking news proclaimed in the city forum. It still is in Lancaster County in 2019.

But this was the chain of stories Jesus came to break. He, the baptized Son of God, went into the desert to show a new path for all the sons and daughters of God who were to enter God's family through him. We've spent time over the past several Sundays exploring each of the three temptations Satan threw out him – teasing out what they really meant, how they pressed him to act according to Satan's theology of what it means to be a child of God, but how Jesus overcame those temptations with his own better understanding of what it means to live as a faithful child of God in the desert. And from him and the example, he set, Paul and Secundus and you and I can draw ten excellent lessons that will help whenever we face temptation.

First, you will face trials and temptations. There is no such thing as a life, stretched our through time within the confines of God's good but broken creation, where no trial comes. And there is no such thing as a human being bearing God's image who is not a target of the devil's envy, which is the motive behind the tempter's wiles. As Paul says, temptation is “common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13). It is not an accessory, not an add-on; it's just part of the base package of human experience. You buy into the human race, it comes included. A life beyond it is on the offer someday, when the new creation arrives in full. But as long as there's still an inch of dirt that hasn't been transformed, the seeds of trial grow there. And until the Tempter and all his allied spiritual powers are consigned to the Pit permanently, the prospect of temptation will lurk in the shadows and shimmer in the light.

Temptation is real. Trials are real. Just like Israel, just like Jesus, just like Secundus and other first-century Corinthian Christians, we will be put to the test. And it is not as gentle as it might seem to us. As Paul says, temptation overtakes us – literally, it “seizes you” (1 Cor. 10:13). That's what temptation does sometimes. It seizes you, grabs you in its clutches, like a hawk swooping down on an unsuspecting bunny in the field. The hawk snatches it in its talons. Temptations have talons, too. And when you're lifted off from terra firma, when you've got no paw left on the ground, when temptation surrounds you and has you hemmed in and away from the environment where you can regain your bearing, that's when you feel like you've lost control and have no means and no reason to resist. And that is being deep in temptation's clutches. Usually, we aren't that deep – usually, temptations deal us a glancing blow here, a strike there – but the fact remains: you will face them.

Second, the temptation you are facing is not abnormal. The hawks of temptation were not just born. They have flown the skies of earth since before the childhood of Cain. No figure in history – no king, no priest, no scholar, no farmer, no craftsman, no peasant – ever lived before the hawks of temptation winged their flight. And not a single hawk of temptation is a newborn, as much as they adapt to the inventiveness of the times. When you're in a season of temptation, you may sometimes think that you've encountered something new, something as of yet uninvented, something that comes against you with no precedent. The Corinthians thought that. And yet the sorts of temptations that swoop down on our heads are, in the main, no different than the ones that had swooped down earlier on the Israelites over a thousand years before that in the time of Moses. And the same ones are the ones still swooping down to grab at you and me. These are not new. They are not unique to your era. They are not unique to your environment. The hawks of temptation flying over the rugged expanse of vacant sand are the hawks of temptation flying over the shining urban architecture of Corinth are the hawks of temptation flying through spacious skies over amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, and all the fruited plain. Not one is fundamentally new. What tempts you is, whatever disguise it wears, something that has been faced before.

And what's more, even this very day, your temptation is not your exclusive prerogative. Your temptation is not unique to you right now. Those hawks of temptation have not abandoned all the rest of the world to all circle over your head. People from the Americas to Australia, from Africa to Asia, are right this minute struggling valiantly – some falling, some standing – against the very same temptation that is swooping down and grabbing at you today. The same was true yesterday. The same will be true tomorrow. Whatever you are facing, it is not uniquely yours – not compared with other ages, and not compared with other places. You are not alone. “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13a).

Third, the temptation you are facing is not beyond what you can bear, with the help of God. We know because Jesus bore that same temptation, and he was “made like his brothers [and sisters] in every respect(Hebrews 2:17). Scripture tells us that. He did not bear up under temptation because he was superhumanly strong. Oh, he could have done it that way. After all, Jesus was and is the Incarnate Word of God. All that properly belongs to God, belongs to Jesus. He is necessarily morally perfect. As such, he could not have sinned – but that was not what prevented him from sinning in the desert. It's like a tightrope walker above a well-woven net, where there's no way for the tightrope walker to actually hit the ground. But if the tightrope walker never falls, the reason for not hitting the ground isn't the net; it's that he kept his balance on the tightrope. And while Jesus' divine perfection served as the net between him and sin, he never had to fall back on that in the desert. As one of us he resisted, as one of us he bore the tempter's wiles. And so Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). And you are not made of stuff so weak that you cannot do as he did.

And so, like Paul wrote, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Cor. 13:b). We can suffer beyond our ability – Paul admitted that when he later wrote to the Corinthians about a season when he and his mission team “were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself; indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:8-9). That can happen. “But,” he says, “that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Cor. 1:9-10). And that is what he means when he says that a faithful God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability to endure, if we are relying on God's endurance. It does not take superhuman strength. It just takes your humanity coupled with God's faithfulness. You can bear up under the magnetic allure or crushing strength of that temptation, that trial – relying, not on yourself, but on God who raises the dead, the God who puts a resurrection around a cross.

Fourth, the temptation you are facing is not unending. It is not boundless. By the grace of God, it has limits. It will not be part of your life together. It has a time limit. Why? Again, because “God is faithful” (1 Cor. 10:13b). We have a faithful God. Without a faithful God, temptation could be unrelenting. Without a faithful God, it really could be an infinite onslaught, pummeling us at every turn. Without a faithful God, the temptation could be an unbroken continuum, eventually becoming part of us, poisoning us, consuming us. Had we no faithful God, the temptation would ultimately dehumanize us – the temptation would reduce us to mere puppets of instinct and passion. Which, come to think of it, sounds exactly like what hell is: the infinitude of temptation chosen to be endured eternally while rejecting the faithfulness of God.

But that is not our necessity today – nor, for those who belong to Christ, does it ever have to be. We have, we know, a faithful God, whose faithfulness we can only strive to answer with our own – we love because he first loved us. And because he loves you, he does not want to see you fall. God wants to see you ace the test. God wants to see you survive, not perish. If you belong to God, he aims to keep you. And so he has issued a decree in the face of every temptation you face. He has tamed that temptation, put it on a leash, and affixed a timer. The temptation can only harass you for a season before it must subside.

Think again of Jesus in the desert. The measure is set by Christ's command. After the third temptation has risen and failed to persuade Jesus, he thunders it out: “Be gone, Satan!” (Matthew 4:10). And what happens? “Then the devil left him” (Matthew 4:11a). What excellent words those are to repeat! “Then the devil left him.” That was the end of the season of desert temptation. That was what issued from Christ's decree that the timer was up. And that is true for every temptation: it cannot be of unrelenting intensity indefinitely. It must subside when we endeavor to endure. As we cling to Christ in faith, we will always hear those relieving words boom past us: “Be gone, Satan!” And then the devil must leave. That's not to say he'll never be back. Often he will. He may bring another temptation, or he may try the same old tricks again. But, at least for a time, he will have to leave.

And when the devil left Jesus in the desert, what happened? He was still starved half to death. He was still dehydrated. He was still exhausted – more exhausted than ever, no doubt, after time spent up-close with the Tempter. Which is how we often feel, when we've withstood and outlasted a season of temptation. So what then? “And behold!” Oh, you know what comes is going to be good when God himself smacks those words against your ears, saying, “Hey, wake up, pay attention, check this bit out!” So “behold! Angels came and were ministering to him” (Matthew 4:11b). Once temptation's moment had come and gone, ministering angels came to provide Jesus with relief. They restored his health, they led him beyond the trauma of the past month, they offered him comfort, so that in the strength he recovered, he was able to undertake the trek all the way back home to Galilee where he could begin ministering to others out of his own restoration (Matthew 4:12). And what Christ enjoyed, Christ wants to share with you. On the other side of temptation and trial, once the devil leaves for browner pastures, God will supply your exhausted soul with refreshment to keep you going. In resisting temptation, you don't need to ration out your willpower. Because you will not crash-and-burn once the temptation has faded. There will be ministering angels – some earthly, some heavenly – to refresh you and tend to you and pick you back up. Be faithful and wise, and God will take care of you.

Fifth, the temptation you are facing is not inescapable. “God is faithful, and … with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13c). By God's decree, there will be an escape hatch pre-installed in every temptation. You just have to find it. This was news to some Corinthian believers like Secundus. Falling time and again to temptation, they had a rationalization: these were the end times, they said, and in the end-times were supposed to come tests and trials, tribulations and temptations, that were literally impossible to get out of; so no wonder they couldn't escape. Today, we might put it another way. We'd talk about the ubiquity of advertising, our immersion in modern or post-modern culture, and all that; we'd say that it's a new kind of world, that we're so surrounded by temptation that it's already a natural part of it. But to all this, God's answer is that there's an escape hatch. The stories of Israel and Jesus were passed down as lessons “for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). And so the same ways of escape they had then, are still installed in temptations now. There is a way back to terra firma. It may be over rough terrain. It may be hard and exhausting. But there is a way to escape each temptation. Find its weak spot.

Sixth, any temptation can be prepared for. We know that Paul described his own life of preparation. He told Secundus and the Corinthians about how he chooses to “exercise self-control in all things” (1 Cor. 9:25). We know that Paul said, “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Cor. 9:27). But he was only following Jesus' example. Jesus, throughout the so-called 'silent years' of his teens and twenties, had been striving week in and week out to cultivate the kind of life where the hardships of the desert wouldn't seem so out of place. Even as an infant, Jesus was uprooted by Herodian tyranny and violence from Bethlehem and forced into exile in a foreign land. When his parents brought him back to Galilee and once again settled in Nazareth, they did so at a time when, literally in the countryside beyond their door, a terrorist gang was ravaging and pillaging Galilee. Jesus' childhood was not a peaceful idyll of blissful meadows and serene sleep. It was a challenge.

What's more, we're told that, in his life there in Nazareth, Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). The same verb Luke uses in saying that Jesus 'became strong,' Paul uses in telling the Corinthians to “be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). Jesus undoubtedly, during his time in Nazareth, developed both physique and psyche – body and mind, made resilient through experience. We can be sure that, as devoutly observant Jews, his parents would have trained Jesus in fasting since his teenage years. Those forty days in the desert may have been intense and extreme, but they were not the beginning. Jesus had spent years and years training for them. Before he ever went to be baptized by John, he already had God's favor, already was filled with wisdom, already was becoming strong, already was training so the desert would be less of a leap. The desert of temptation can be prepared for.

Seventh, the word of God is sufficient to answer any temptation. When Jesus was in the desert, pushed to the point of human fracture, and was then subjected to the strongest temptations the devil could muster, the ways in which Jesus responded are instructive – what he did and didn't do. He did not merely assert himself. He did not merely repeat 'No.' That would not have been enough. Instead, Jesus went beyond himself. Jesus invoked a rationale for why he would not give in to each of these temptations. When you know why you shouldn't give in, when you recite that reason out loud, that's what refortifies your resolve, helps you see clearly.

And where did he get that rationale? Not from his own self-assertion in the moment. Not from popular trends in his neighborhood. Not from pragmatic weighing of pros and cons or a cost-benefit analysis. No, he appealed to the authority of God. He reached right up to the top of the chain of being, to the Supreme Good. And to find that unimpeachable authority, that ironclad armor, he turned straight to scripture. He did not approach scripture with an attitude of doubt – “Maybe I can rely on this, maybe I can't.” He went to it as the publicly available locus of the authority of God his Father, the open warrant for all legitimacy. And in so doing, that man Jesus anchored himself at every turn in an accomplished fact: “It is written” (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10). He trusted his Father, so he trusted the word. On that rock, when temptation comes, you can stand.

But Jesus also knew how to apply the scripture. He did not prooftext. He did not play games with it. He did not lazily recite a few words here, a few words there. As we've spent the past few weeks studying how he used scripture in the desert, I hope you've picked up on how Jesus was exorbitantly attentive to the context of each verse he quoted, how he entered into the narrative it was from and chose to apply exactly those words that were designed for his particular circumstances. Jesus didn't just have bunches of strings of scriptural syllables memorized. He had studied the plot inside and out, so much so that he could read all books, see all sights, hear all songs in light of every word that comes from the mouth of God. By that, and nothing less, did Jesus live. In this case, it was from Deuteronomy's early chapters – Moses' sermon on the lessons of Israel's desert temptation – that Jesus found the authoritative wisdom of God for the times of desert temptation.

And let me be clear: If someone else had found himself standing where Jesus stood, tempted by Satan in the desert; and if that someone had not read and studied and internalized Deuteronomy – well, that person would very likely have been rendered completely defenseless against the temptation. Without scripture, they simply would not understand what was happening. Letting the words and patterns of scripture invade our hearts and minds, studying it day after day after day, is what allows us to think of the world in light of God's wisdom, and to see past the glitz and glamor and through the smoke and mirrors.

And that living weapon is more available to you and to me than it was ever available to Secundus, or indeed at just about any moment in human history before now. I have a Bible, and you have a Bible. You can get a Bible just about anywhere. You are literate; you yourself can read it. Commentaries and study aids are published by the hundreds and by the thousands. Sermons declare, explore, and expound these words every week, and we have technologies that can let us listen to entire audio libraries of sermons 24/7. There is nothing stopping any one of us from learning what scripture says about anything. There is nothing stopping us from letting scripture work its way into our heart, storing it up there like Jesus did to use against temptation. You can resist temptation, not with a mere human 'no' that's prone to fail and fall, but with the word of God that stands forever.

Eighth, the Spirit of God stays with us in the desert of temptation. That was how both Israel and Jesus found their way into the desert in the first place, of course. Israel followed the Spirit of God in the form of that pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. The Spirit visibly hovered over, or dwelled within, the tabernacle once it was constructed and consecrated. The Spirit led them into the desert, and the Spirit led them through the desert, and except to the extent they had asked the Spirit to quarantine himself for their own protection and had tasked Moses to be their go-between, the Spirit was never absent during even one moment of Israel's time in the desert. Never inaccessible. And when Jesus saw the Spirit descend on him like a dove, and then when Jesus followed the Spirit's flight into the desert, the Spirit did not fly the coop once the River Jordan faded into the background. The Spirit of God had anointed Jesus, and remained upon Jesus always. Otherwise, he would have ceased being the 'Christ,' the 'Messiah,' the '[Spirit]-Anointed One.' The Spirit of God had stayed with Israel in the desert of temptation, and the Spirit of God stayed with Jesus in the desert of temptation. So how could we ever think that the Spirit of God would fly away from us in the desert of temptation? Nothing of the sort happens. The Spirit of God stays with you in that desert, even if the dry heat makes it hard to feel his divine breeze. There is grace for your day of temptation. There is grace for your hour of trial. You continue, in the midst of temptation, to have the resources of God's own Spirit to call upon, to support you through the battle and make you endure. Use the word of God, and rely on the Spirit of God.

Ninth, the family of God is a help Jesus has given us even beyond what he had available in the desert. When he went, he went alone. He had to be a one-man Israel. But we don't, because now the body of Christ has many, many parts. We travel together. Or, at least, we're supposed to. It would be smarter to. But still we so often choose not to. Some of us forsake gathering together entirely, isolating ourselves by our own stubborn choice. But even for those faithfully gathered each Sunday, we then separate and lead atomistic lives Monday through Saturday. But we can do more. We can travel together in the desert. Instead of always insisting on our rights and our privacy, we can care for each other, lean on each other, encourage each other. We can share each other's sufferings and each other's comfort (cf. 2 Cor. 1:5-7). We can enter each other's temptations and trials to gain a shared victory. You dare not let yourself or your brother or your sister go it alone. In facing temptation and trial, you can use the word of God, rely on the Spirit of God, and keep company with the family of God.

Lastly, the Lord God is sovereign over your temptation and your trial – and in the deepest moment of it, you can trust him. He is not absent. He has tailored the trial to you and equipped you for the trial. He is still the God who is faithful. He is still the God who delivers from deadly peril. He is still the Father of all mercies, the God of all comfort, the Abba whom Jesus knows and invites us to know and love like he does. Our faithful God is still, today, Hope for the tempted. And with hope like that, who needs excuses? Thanks be to a faithful God, who comforts us in affliction and charts our way beyond temptation! Amen.