Sunday, February 17, 2019

Secondhand Holiness? Sermon on Matthew 3:9-10

Haðubrand felt his bones creak as he stood and knelt, stood and knelt, listening to the priest drone on in Latin in the little wooden church. He didn't want to be there. But he knew he had to reconcile himself to it. It was the dawn of the year 786, and Haðubrand was a Saxon tribesman, living in what today we'd call northern Germany. He hadn't grown up in church – unless you count ones he'd torched. So how had he found himself in one now?

If you'd asked Haðubrand, he might have started the story in his teen years, when Pope Gregory III wrote to his Saxon people. Thanks to the efforts of the missionary Boniface, who in southern Saxony had chopped down a sacred oak after challenging their god Thunær to a fight, some Saxons had already forsaken the religion of their ancestors for this Christianity. Pope Gregory wanted them to “walk in him, rooted and grounded and confirmed in the faith, abounding in the works of grace.” He called on them to “depart … from the service of idols, and come, worship the Lord our God who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and you shall not be ashamed.” Five or six years after the letter, the Frankish king Pepin invaded Saxony and brought some missionaries behind him. Some Saxons had gotten baptized, mainly out of fear. They didn't think much of it.

Almost a decade passed. Haðubrand and his people had gotten fed up. They'd crossed into Frankish territory and burned over thirty wooden chapels. Haðubrand remembered the flames, the smoke, the plunder. It had satisfied him. But Pepin certainly wasn't happy. With bishops and soldiers, he came into Saxony to wreak revenge, taking prisoners and not leaving until the Saxons took oaths of peace with him – and with his God. So many were baptized. Yet, for a while, for much of Haðubrand's adult life, things kept on as they always had been. He lived the life of a Saxon, served the gods of the Saxons, same as before.

Then came one January, fourteen years ago. Some Saxons had traveled north on an expedition, to help burn down a church built by the English missionary Lebuinus four years earlier, around the time the Frankish king Pepin had died. They had no idea what wrath they were unleashing. For Pepin had left the Frankish kingdom to his aggressive son Charles – we know him today as Charlemagne – and Charles retaliated by invading Saxony that year and burning down their shrine, the Irminsul, the great tree trunk that linked heaven and earth. Haðubrand felt crushed. During the coming years, his late forties, when he could still do some fighting, he tried his hand at raiding Frankish turf and defending against Frankish invaders. But they kept losing to King Charles' armies. In 775, one by one, the Saxon tribes sued for peace. The next year, of course, they all turned back to that old-time religion, and tried to retake all their forts and castles. But they failed, and in terror they surrendered and promised to do what the king said – and be baptized into his religion. And many, motivated by political security, went through the motions and did exactly that.

So it went, year by year. But Haðubrand put more of his faith in Widukind, a great Saxon warrior who urged them to fight on, to resist both the politics and the religion of the Franks. Although Widukind had fled for safety to the Danes, still he inspired his people to fight against Charles and the Franks. The Saxons plundered their way onto Frankish land, they burned churches and monasteries – all they could find. The year after that, the Franks returned to Saxony. Charles recruited missionaries to come convert the Saxons. But in 782, when Widukind came back and riled up all Saxony with him, they fled the land.

Still, Haðubrand had little more fight in him; he laid aside his sword and sæx. His people fought hard, but Charles counterattacked and beheaded thousands of prisoners, and Widukind barely escaped. Three more years they fought. Finally, Charles broke them. And Widukind entered negotiations. Which ended with Widukind, the prophet-hero of the Saxon pagans, being baptized on Christmas Day in 785.

So what choice did that leave the other Saxons? As missionaries flooded in and built churches all over Saxony, Charles passed laws saying that any Saxon who refused to be baptized and attend to Christian rituals would be put to death. So Haðubrand surrendered. That same cold day, a missionary priest submerged him in the nearest river, after he'd sworn the vow: “I forsake all the devil's works and words, Thunær, Wōden, and Saxnōt, and all those fiends that are their companions.” And so Haðubrand was baptized and resentfully began to attend the Mass. In his eyes, and in King Charles' eyes, that made Haðubrand – and all Saxony – Christian now.

But what should we say about Haðubrand and those other Saxons baptized by force of law in those days? Was his heart in it? In being dipped in the river, was he truly placing his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Did it begin, for him, a life of discipleship? And if our answer is no, what might that have meant for his soul?

You see, all Saxony was brought to baptism by terror of the Frankish armies during the war or by terror of the Frankish laws after the war. And some, to be sure, had been taught and persuaded by missionaries either before or since. But in the summer of 792, many Saxons, testing the political winds, abandoned their professions of Christian faith and again tried to rebel. One chronicle tells us, “They demolished or burned down all the churches in their land; they chased out the bishops and priests set over them, attacking some and murdering others; and they altogether reverted to idolatry.” Four years later, one of King Charles' top priests, an advisor named Alcuin of York, wrote a letter to a friend and saw what had gone wrong. And here's what Alcuin said:

The miserable race of the Saxons so many times wasted the sacrament of baptism because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart. … Man is able to be forced to baptism, but not to faith.

And so it was. A couple decades later, there was still a need to convince Saxon nobles to really commit their hearts to Christ, to be captivated by him and desire him. So one poet wrote the Heliand: a collection of songs in the Saxon language, retelling the story of the Gospels in a fresh Saxon way, urging them to live 'with a clear mind' free from divided loyalties. But, of course, one of the first characters we meet in those songs is a man named John, who introduces that message. And here's how the Saxons heard John's story:

There in the wasteland, the word of God, the divine voice of God, came to him powerfully and told John that he was to announce Christ's coming and powerful strength throughout this middle world. He was to say truthfully in words that the heaven-kingdom, the greatest of delights, had come to those heroes' sons, to people, to the soil of that country....

“Become clean,” he said. “The heaven-kingdom is approaching the sons of men. Now in your hearts, regret your own sins, the loathsome things you did in this light, and listen to my teaching, turn around in accordance with my words! I will gladly dip you in water, but I do not have the power to take away your sinful deeds so that by the work of my hands you could be washed of your evil accomplishments. … Your minds will long be merry when you forsake the power of Hel and the company of the loathsome ones, and seek for yourselves God's light, the home up above, the eternal realm, the high meadows of heaven! Do not let your minds doubt!”                                                                              
(The Heliand, Song 11, trans. G. Roland Murphy)

Don't let your minds doubt. For the past several weeks, we – like those Saxons, perhaps some of our ancestors, hearing those words twelve hundred years ago – have been trying to grapple with John the Baptist's preaching and example. And it hasn't always been easy. John was a challenging sort of man. He doesn't just tell us what to do. He does more than that for us, better than that for us: He raises questions we have to answer; and in the wrestling, in the answering, we learn what to do in a way that doesn't just pass in one ear and out the other. Because we have to come to it ourselves.

Nowhere is that clearer than in his confrontations with the Pharisees and Sadducees. We heard last week, if you were with us, about how this was probably an official delegation, coming from the Jewish Supreme Court, to inspect John's ministry and decide if any action needed to be taken to crack down on him. These Pharisees and Sadducees assumed that they had no personal need of his baptism, no personal need of what it represented – that they were there to offer a solution to Israel's problem. But we heard, last week, John tell them that they were the heart of Israel's problem – and they needed to radically convert, turn to God as fresh people, and let God begin growing a life of fruitful gratitude out of their hearts (Matthew 3:8). Nothing less would do.

For John told them they were “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7) – a poisonous presence in the bosom of Mother Jerusalem, and imitating their venomous father, the devil (cf. John 8:44). And, needless to say, that did not resonate with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their first instinct is to answer back that they have an honorable father – no one less than Abraham is their father (cf. Matthew 3:9). And in the Pharisees' and Sadducees' eyes, that makes all the difference – and it means they must be safe.

It might at first be a bit hard to follow their reasoning. Why does it matter if they're descended from Abraham? But it helps to know that there were strains of Jewish thought where the merits of Abraham – the goodness and blessing he acquired – was passed on to his Jewish descendants, and served as sort of a buffer for Israel to make God overlook some of their personal unworthiness. So, for instance, one rabbi is recorded as saying that, because Abraham was so faithful that he cut the wood to sacrifice Isaac, God rewarded his faith by one day cutting the sea so that Israel could escape from Egypt. Abraham's faith became merit passed down to the nation. Another rabbi said that, because Abraham was so faithful that he saddled up his donkey to fulfill God's will in taking Isaac to be sacrificed, it counteracted the time centuries later when Balaam the pagan prophet saddled up his donkey to try to go and curse Israel. Again, Abraham's faithful obedience became merit that, when passed down to Israel, became a buffer to keep them safe and in God's good graces (Genesis Rabbah 55.8). Some Jewish traditions held that Israel would have their sins ignored by God out of love for their father Abraham, and one rabbi even said: “Notwithstanding all the follies that Israel commits and the lies that they utter in this world, Abraham is of sufficient merit to win expiation for all of Israel's deeds when they are scrutinized” (Pesiqta de Rav Kahana 23.8).

So that's what John is calling out in the Pharisees and Sadducees – that line of thought, that attitude. They were thinking, in effect, that what John was saying to them didn't matter. Israel didn't need his new fresh start; God's people weren't in any real danger of destruction. Abraham was their shield. And so Pharisee and Sadducee alike didn't feel they had to sweat it so much. In effect, what they were saying to John was that they could get away with outsourcing the faith business to Father Abraham – that, because Abraham was so faithful and they had Abraham as their father, they would be the heirs of his faith, they would reap the benefits of all the merits he earned, and so they could safely skate into salvation on Father Abraham's coat-tails, as it were. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug – look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you...” (Isaiah 55:1-2).

But the problem, as John sees it, is that these Pharisees and Sadducees aren't exactly chips off the old block. If “Abraham [their] father” is “the rock from which [they] were hewn,” nonetheless they don't look different from your run-of-the-mill pebbles you could find anywhere in the world. “If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did” (John 8:39). “Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). A link to Abraham – the very thing the Pharisees and Sadducees were hanging their whole hat on – was something commonplace. And so the Pharisees and Sadducees vastly overestimate their bargaining power; they think they have more to bank on than they do. Isaiah's words on looking to the rock were for Israelites who sought the Lord – but these Pharisees and Sadducees were so convinced he'd been found for them, that they themselves were not seeking. See, they can't get away with outsourcing their faith.

And neither can we. Not any more than the Pharisees and Sadducees refusing John's baptism. Not any more than defeated Saxons reluctantly accepting baptism out of fear. Like Alcuin said, it's all pointless without “a foundation of faith in [our] heart.” Personal faith – faith that links my heart to God, your heart to God – cannot be substituted for trying to tie something else to God and outsourcing the faith business to that thing. And yet 'nominal Christianity' – that is, Christianity 'in name only' – is exactly what we get when we try to outsource the faith business. And it is the greatest plague in the churches of our land today, and maybe – though God forbid it – a danger for some of us here. “Even now, the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10).

Because, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, some of us might try to outsource faith to our ancestry or heritage or upbringing. “I must be a Christian, because my mama was a Christian and my papa was a Christian; grandpa was a Christian and grandma was a Christian. So that must make me a Christian. I was raised that way, so that must be what I am.” Don't you know people who think that way? That they were born into a Christian family, so that makes them Christians; their parents believed, so they assume they themselves believe? I've met plenty. But it just doesn't work like that. Because my dad's faith can't save me, and my mom's faith can't save me, and my upbringing can't save me, and yours can't save you, either. God is able from these stones to raise up kids of good Christian families. There's no safety in that for you. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our environment, to our nationality. “I must be a Christian, because I'm a citizen of these United States of America, and America is a Christian nation, and so as an American, I must be a Christian, and since I belong to 'one nation under God,' I must be safe, I must be okay.” That was the way it was sometimes in the Middle Ages – “I belong to such and such a people-group, like the Franks or Saxons; that people-group is Christian; therefore, I am Christian, and I must be safe, I must be okay.” And you'd think we'd know better, but we still sometimes go around assuming that being an American makes us better Christians than if we were Russian or Venezuelan or French or Liberian. We still hang our hats on America and all its assorted mythologies, as if they were what saves us. But you cannot safely outsource your faith to your country – belonging to a 'Christian nation' (if there were such a thing) would carry no weight in God's sight. He is able from these stones to raise up American citizens. There's no safety in that. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our words and propositions. “I must be a Christian, because I agree with the sorts of things good Christian teachers say. They tell me that God exists, and I agree with that; they tell me that Jesus was the Son of God who died on the cross and rose from the dead, and I agree with that; they tell me that the Bible is from God, and I agree with that. So because I agree with all those sentences, I must be a Christian; and since I agree with those sentences, I must be safe, I must be okay.” That has so often been what we think it means to be a Christian – acknowledging some facts. And, to be fair, you couldn't claim to be a Christian without seeing those truths. But they aren't enough. If you believe those things, “you do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble” (James 2:19). God is able from these stones to raise up people who nod at all the right strings of letters and spaces and punctuation marks. There's no safety in that. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our membership status. “I must be a Christian, because I got wet that one time. I must be a Christian, because I said a prayer one time. I must be a Christian, because my name is on the church records as a member of this congregation. I pay my dues, my name is on the list, I went through the necessary actions to join, so I must be a Christian. And since my name is on the list, I must be safe, I must be okay.” As long as we can truthfully put in our obituaries, 'So-and-so was a member of this church,' we might figure that's what will decide our eternity. But the church record books have no particular standing in God's court – they're pale imitations at best of “the Lamb's book of life” (Revelation 22:17). God is able from these stones to put names on our church's membership rolls. There's no safety in that. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

But then, we might try to outsource our faith to our attendance or our activity. “I must be a Christian, because here it is, Sunday morning, and I'm in a pew, just like most Sundays. I must be a Christian, because I try to treat other people well, I try to be nice and follow all the rules. I must be a Christian, because I want to be told how to be a better person, and then I try to do it, I try to be a good person. And since I'm here in the pew and I try to do nice things in life for my country and my family and my neighbors, I must be safe, I must be okay.” And that's what we do. We put in our hour on Sunday morning, we lead a nice and conventional middle-class American life, and we figure we're good, because why wouldn't we be? It's not like we're sinners in need of a real Savior, right? Or so we think. But attending Sunday worship services can only help you grow when there's something alive in you to grow. And too often, we're prone to assume there's life in us without checking. We assume that activity means life. But it doesn't. The Pharisees had loads of religious activity, but inside were full of dead men's bones (cf. Matthew 23:27). The Saxons submitted to going through the motions of religious activity, but inside nursed paganism and rebellion. And for all our attendance, for all our religious activity, for all our moral contributions to the community, we may be full of nothing but death if we do not personally have Jesus Christ alive in us. If he's alive in us, he'll be active, no doubt. But we can attend and be active and yet have no safety. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”

For here's the thing: Not one of those is a substitute for personally having “a foundation of faith in [your] heart” – not one of them. Not your upbringing. Not your environment. Not your agreement. Not your membership. Not your attendance. Not your activities. You can have all those things and not be okay. Not if the center of who you are isn't linked to Jesus. Not if your trust isn't in him and your loyalty isn't with him. Because what saves us? Nothing and no one but Jesus Christ – “there is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:12). And if each of us is not personally united with him by faith in the heart of who we are, faith that leaches out into all areas of our lives, then what makes our condition any different from the refusing Pharisees or the reluctant Saxons?

For, as Paul the Pharisee came to realize, Abraham is the father precisely of those who imitate his faith – he is “the father of all who believe” (Romans 4:11). So we must have Abraham-style faith: trust in the God who speaks life where only death was possible, trust in a God of resurrection. On such a God, each of us must lean; in such a God, each of us must hope; to such a God, each of us must turn. We must stand in personal union with Jesus Christ through a foundation of faith in my heart and your heart. We cannot outsource it. There is no other way than faith that unites us personally with Jesus and all he's done and all he is. And nothing less will do, for there is no such thing as secondhand holiness, no such thing as safely outsourced faith.

So I ask you, church, each of you: Where is your heart? Do you “seek for yourself God's light,” as the Saxon Gospel poem said? Is it “in your heart” that you take action, and not just in outward motions or outsourced functions? Are you yourself personally committed to Christ – to “walk in him, rooted and grounded and confirmed in the faith, abounding in the works of grace”? Is faith a personal thing to you – not privatized, but involving an encounter between Christ and you, rather than Christ and something else?

I hope that none of us here are outsourcing our faith, like some Pharisees did. I hope that none of us here are reluctantly going through the motions, like some Saxons (and Franks) did. I hope that each of us here is a disciple, personally invested in Jesus Christ from the core of our hearts. Because if you trust in him with all your heart, if you live from a faithful heart as his disciple, then you are safe – and more than safe. So let us be true heirs of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful, and live out our salvation – for “the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Snake-Spawn: Sermon on Matthew 3:7-8

Murmurs rumbled throughout the ornate chamber with the two doorways. It was the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple complex, with one door to the inner court and one to the outer. Within the room, seventy-one elders in their soft, supple robes tried to hew to the rules of decorum as they argued and disputed. In the heart of their arc, high priest Yosef ben Kaiapha – 'Caiaphas' – tried to keep order among his party, while the quite older man, stern Shammai, aimed to do the same among his, with aid from his sometime rival, gentle Gamaliel. The Great Sanhedrin, Supreme Court of the Jews, wasn't always easy to keep working smoothly. So many dignitaries were there. Representatives of all twenty-four priestly courses. Elite scribes and teachers of the law. Former high priests, even, like Yosef ben Kaiapha's father-in-law, Hanan ben Seth. Those two, Annas and Caiaphas, seemed inseparable. The issue that had arisen among the court today was how to handle a particular innovator, an alleged prophet out in the desert, whose popularity was on the rise. Few in the assembly gave much credit to the likelihood of his actual validity, but more to the point was how dangerous he might be, this Johanan of the Jordan – this 'John.'

Clearly, someone needed to investigate – to gain an eyewitness perspective on the affair and report back. But deciding who to send from among their number... well, that was a harder matter. Hence the subdued bickering. For there were two factions perpetually wrestling for control of the court, and had been for over a hundred years. On the one hand were those called the Sadducees. Annas, Caiaphas – their sort. The Sadducees were aristocrats, blue bloods, dealers in the status quo. Moneyed interests, they tended to be. Sticklers for reading the law as-is – if you can't prove it from the plain words of Moses, it's inadmissible. So much of what most Jews expected after death – the Sadducees couldn't find it in Moses, so down the tubes it all went. And then, on the other side, were the Pharisees, carriers of unwritten traditions they claimed stretched through Moses and the other prophets, letting them flexibly apply the law to new situations. They loathed the status quo, under the Roman thumb, but had a vision for purging the nation. If they could build such a broad buffer around every rule in the law that following their program would preserve one from sin, and if they could persuade all Israel to join their program, then a sinless day might come, proving they at last deserved deliverance and blessing from God. All they needed was for the rest of Israel to get with their program.

Well, someone needed to investigate John. And clearly it wouldn't do to have just Sadducees go and return and give a Sadducee take on it. And clearly it wouldn't do to send Pharisees alone. So a tense truce was struck, and a joint commission – Sadducees and Pharisees, not so different from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, bickering and grasping for power endlessly – well, such a joint commission was appointed.

In time, off they went. Out of the temple precincts. Out of the city. Out through the footpaths. Out to the bank of the Jordan River. Slipping in among the crowds. They tried somewhat to blend in, to not be noticed too readily. But members of the Sanhedrin – tall, striking – well, they tended to stand out above the rest. But they had a place to watch John – who by all rights should've been accepting his priestly duties in the temple, as a son of Zechariah and thus a member of the priestly division of Abijah – watch him rave and listen to confessions and take people out across the river and bring them back through, baptizing them by... by what authority? That, maybe, was all the question.

This is where Matthew lets us in on the action. He tells us that, as the crowds from “Jerusalem and Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins,” so John one day noticed “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism” (Matthew 3:6-7). The phrasing is deliberately different. A large group of Pharisees and Sadducees – who were rival factions in politics and religion alike, and probably wouldn't have tended to mingle except on official business – had arrived, not to be baptized, but at the site where he was baptizing others. They had infiltrated the crowd of earnest hearers, so a less discerning person – and maybe quite a few in the crowd were so – might've thought that they were there for the same purpose, with the same motive. But no.

No, these Sadducees, these Pharisees, none of them had come with any thought of actually ever participating in what John, the camel-hair-clad, locust-and-honey-eating renegade son of a priest, was up to. None of the members of this Sanhedrin delegation had a sense of personal need. They were not beggars, not supplicants. They were not seeking such a radical renewal, not out to humble themselves. They came as judges. They came to observe and evaluate, and then to go back home and render a verdict and decide whether action might need to be taken to put an end to John's career.

As we find out throughout the rest of the book, their verdict wasn't a positive one. “John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'” (Matthew 11:18). “John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:32). They didn't place much stock in what John was doing, these elite Sadducees and Pharisees.

Now, for most of us, if the big-shots come to see what we're doing, we might try to make a good impression on them. Might tidy house. Put on our best suit. Keep a firmer grip on our tongue. Put our best foot forward. If you're under observation, that's a common way to react. But John has other ideas. See, the first thing out of his mouth when he sees them is to call them out. These are the men who are there to perform an official evaluation of him – but John insists on giving them a harsh dose of reality.

John yells out that they're all – Sadducees and Pharisees alike, these members of the highest court in Jerusalem – that they're a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). And I'll give you a hint: that was not a gentle thing to say. If little John had said it to the neighbor boy, his parent's might've tried to wash his mouth out with soap. But the insult found its mark. And John wasn't wrong to say it – two times in the next few years, Jesus would call the Pharisees the exact same thing: “You serpents, brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33; cf. also 12:34). Sadducees and Pharisees both prided themselves so much on being good. They both prided themselves so much on being clean. After all, priests had to maintain their ritual purity, and Pharisees anyway were obsessed with spreading strict observance of purity laws even among commoners. Both parties were focused on squeaky-clean living. And John goes and calls them filthy animals, not fit for any lawful use. Snakes were hardly kosher. Instead, they reminded everyone of the one in the garden who slithered on forbidden trees. The Sadducees were proud of their priestly ancestries, and in fact one main function of the Sanhedrin was to scrutinize prospective priests' family trees to prevent any less-than-noble heritage. The Pharisees were proud of their fathers, from whom they handed down traditions linking them, generation by generation, back to the days of Moses. But John says he's sniffed something rotten in their background, Sadducees and Pharisees alike, for it's the Snake in the Garden to whom they bear the most family resemblance. And indeed, Jesus would later say to maybe some of the very same Pharisees, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires” (John 8:44). Of the enemies of Israel, it was said of old, “their wine is the poison of serpents and the cruel venom of asps” (Deuteronomy 32:33). The tribe of Dan, disinherited by Jewish tradition for total corruption, was described by Jacob as “a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse's heels so that his rider falls backward” (Genesis 49:17). And the Sadducees and Pharisees have become such poisonous enemies of God's people.

But what John called these elite inspectors was so much more cutting than that. For he didn't just say 'snakes.' He said 'vipers.' And when most people in that time thought about vipers, there was one popular rumor that always came to mind first of all. A Greek historian, centuries before, had spread a story that baby Arabian vipers were born by chewing their way out of their mama's womb, devouring and killing her in the process at the moment of their birth. So when John – and later Jesus – calls this crew a “brood of vipers,” it's one of the harshest insults there is. It insinuates that these Sadducees and Pharisees are mom-killers. They're spiritual matricides, the real murderers in the bosom of Mother Jerusalem, who devour her guts and leave a corpse in their wake. The Sadducees and Pharisees are all upstanding citizens, the cream of the crop; they have never in their lives considered themselves as having anything to do with whatever's wrong in Israel. But John accuses them of having everything to do with what's wrong in Israel. They are the violence ripping apart God's bride from the inside-out. They are the death of her. So when John comes to point the way to life, he can't point to the programs of the Pharisees or Sadducees, but away from them. For from them flows the poison that outrages God and will call down Elijah fire. Their tradition, their pretense, their pride – it's the new Baal priesthood, the new work of Jezebel, and this whole place is a Mount Carmel waiting to be scorched.

For they are the violence. They are the poison. They are the corrupting impurity that slithers and gnaws. They pretend to be so great, but they're “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28). And so John asks them sarcastically: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7). See, showing up on Jordan's banks, filtering in among the crowds, they look the part of those who know there's fire on the way. They look like they know what's coming. But they're clueless and in denial. If they want a real clue, they need to repent and bear fruit (Matthew 3:8).

The Pharisees and Sadducees would have objected to what John called them, what John told them. After all, the Pharisees and Sadducees both aimed to follow the Law of Moses. They had different ideas of what that meant, sometimes, but they surely considered themselves as devout, Torah-observant Jewish men of the highest caliber. They weren't out drinking and partying, weren't out brawling and vandalizing. Each one was circumcised in the covenant of Abraham, each one kept to a life of moral rigor, each one was religiously scrupulous. They had the best of works just flowing out their ears! So what are all these works, if not good fruit?

But John would've seen right through that. You can have all sorts of pretty finery, you can be upstanding, you can have society-approved achievements... and it can be a pile of splinters of lifeless construction. But fruit is organic. It grows from something alive. In this case, 'repentance.' And we talked the other week about what a strong word that was for John. 'Repentance,' in his mouth, means a radical turn to God, as if meeting God for the first time as a complete outsider and then being drastically converted and brought into the Land of Promise for a fresh start. And to that end, before they could start again and regain healthy covenant standing, people in the crowd had to openly accept responsibility for Israel's problem and give a list of evidence, confessing the sins they themselves had committed that had contributed to the darkness. They had to name their own reflection as the shadow blocking Israel from God's light. And then they had to admit their estrangement, do an about-face, and let John wield the power of God to symbolically exclude and include them.

And none of that was something the Sadducees or the Pharisees were willing to do. Because they could never see themselves that way. They were too invested in how good they thought they were, how pure they thought they were, that the notion of humbling themselves to convert to their own religion was just absurd. But only from repentance, only from conversion, does the right fruit grow. The right fruit has to grow out of a heart that has taken a cold, hard look at itself; realized its desperate need; turned toward God; and called out for grace. The right fruit is the fruit of conversion. And someone who really got John's message, who stepped out and in again, would be overawed. Everything about Israel's faith and life would seem shiny and new. They'd approach everything with a dewy-eyed gratitude, because they'd see more clearly how dank and dark the alternatives are. And for that reason, none of the works of the Sadducees or Pharisees can be “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Because theirs is not a life of gratitude – at least, not for the right things. For what kinds of prayers might they pray? “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). And that's fruitless.

John invited members of the Jewish supreme court, it seems, to renounce their status and their self-conceptions, and to see themselves as the ones who should be on trial. But they couldn't bear to accept that ruling from John. They felt themselves good. They felt themselves confident. They felt themselves apart. So they were there to observe. And they were there to investigate. And maybe they might even softly approve – perhaps, after all, this message could help improve the rabble in need of its help. But they were hardly there to join.

And then we come to us. Ourselves. And too often, professing Christians have continued the legacy of those Sadducees and those Pharisees. We have seen ourselves as upstanding religious consumers who, at the most, just need some management tools. We consider the problems facing the church, or the problems facing the country, and it scarcely crosses our minds that the heart of the problem might be us. We've at times loved to see others get brought from vice toward virtue. But we consider ourselves already virtuous, hence in no need of being converted. And so it's easier for us to judge our neighbors for not measuring up to us. It's easier for us to see others out there as a social contagion – a criminal element in society, or a depraved element in society, or a simply lower-class element in society – and consider ourselves the ones innocently injured – burdened, really – by being tied to them by the social contract.

And so, when it comes to John's message, at times we can stand on the banks of the Jordan... but why? What for? Do we come as participants or as mere observers? Friends, it's so easy to come as mere observers, there to consume and evaluate. Many throughout history have done it every Sunday, after all. It's easy. Sit in a pew, watch the show, instinctively grade it, then go out for lunch. That may be our default setting.

And a Sadducee or Pharisee could manage the same thing. For that's essentially what they did when they came to John. It didn't much matter if they gave him a bad grade or a good grade. What matters is that they left unchanged. They left unrepentant. They left unbaptized. They came as observers, they left as observers, they never became real participants in what had happened. And when we encounter God's work and remain observers throughout, the same is true of us. Do we come as participants or as mere observers? Do we come chiefly to judge or chiefly to join? Are we snake-spawn in the church, snake-spawn in the country, or will we be converted into something fruitful?

It's not enough to be upstanding. It's not enough to be decent. It's not enough to be moral. It's not enough to be productive. It's not enough to show up. The Sadducees did that. The Pharisees did that. And then John called them mother-killing viper-babies in Satan's image, asked them what they were doing there as if trying to escape from the judgment God was sending on their account, and called them to be converted and come to life and bear real fruit for a change. Real fruit – not just the mechanical motions of morality, but the living texture of a life of humble gratitude, like a convert seeing the world with fresh eyes after a clear glimpse of the darkness within, newly committed to “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

No, it isn't enough to come as an observer. It isn't enough to hear a thought and chew on it. “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). We have to come as participants. We have to join and personally apply it. Or rather, we have to come to God again and again as beggars, laying nothing to our credit but what he'll give us, nothing to our credit than the cross and risen life of Jesus Christ our gracious Lord. Nothing to our credit but the good news announced to us. Nothing but the gospel of the grace of God, which comes to us as to a brood of vipers but makes us sons and daughters of God – not so that we can kick back, not so that we can become passive observers, not so that we can be religious consumers, but so that we can come as participants who stand by grace alone, who look at the world with fresh eyes, and who bear fruit from a thankful heart of true repentance. What will you be?

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Desert Life: Sermon on Matthew 3:4-6

When it came to his enemies... one down, one to go. And he hadn't really had to lift a finger. Not that he took a great deal of satisfaction in any of it. He hadn't orchestrated this. He'd only said what his God told him to, and the rest had followed. Over a year earlier, Ahab, the mighty king of Israel, had gone into battle alongside his ally, Jehoshaphat, the king of southern Judah, against the Aramean king. The prophet Micaiah had warned Ahab not to, but Ahab was not one for listening to prophets. That was the problem. And Ahab had gotten himself shot through by an Aramean archer. They'd brought him back for burial, washed his bloody chariot by a pool in Samaria, and just as he'd been warned, dogs had licked up the blood (1 Kings 21:17—22:40).

His wicked queen Jezebel was still around. But she'd become the queen mother. One of her several sons, the hapless Ahaziah, had risen to the throne. But he was loyal, not to everything that made Israel Israel, but to all the things that made Ahab and Jezebel worthless to rule. Ahaziah “served Baal and worshipped him and provoked the LORD, the God of Israel” (1 Kings 22:53). During his days, Mesha, the king of Moab, had gone into rebellion against his Israelite overlords. Served Ahaziah right. And then, one day, pagan Ahaziah took a tumble from his rooftop to the ground below (2 Kings 1:2). Broke some bones, sustained internal injuries, had to be carried into a bed. He'd sent messengers to go seek a prophet's word to reassure him he'd be okay.

But he wanted a prophet for a Philistine god, the kind of god he liked, not the kind of God that had ushered his ancestors out of Egypt or shown them love. He didn't want the real God; he wanted a fly-speckled fraud. He sent his messengers on the way down to Ekron. But they didn't make it. A man intercepted them, scolding them all for abandoning Israel's covenant God. And the man promised that King Ahaziah would die. When the messengers came back, all they could do was say what the threatening man was wearing: “a garment of hair, with a belt of leather around his waist.” And Ahaziah had been around long enough to know it could only be one man: Elijah the Tishbite (2 Kings 1:1-8).

So the injured king, angry and desperate, sent a military unit to go drag Elijah down from his hill and force him to make a personal appearance. Elijah declined. And not politely. No, Elijah declined by promptly calling fire down from heaven, which devoured Ahaziah's soldiers. So Ahaziah sent another unit. And Elijah called down more fire. And so Ahaziah sent another unit. But instead of demanding Elijah's presence like the two who came before him, the third unit captain just begged Elijah to spare his life. So Elijah turned to the nearest angel, got confirmation he'd be okay, and went with them. Just so he could give the exact same message to Ahaziah that he'd given before – nearly word for word. And it came to pass. Ahaziah died (2 Kings 1:9-17).

Not long after that, Elijah took his disciple Elisha on a road trip, as it were. Down south. First to Bethel. Then to Jericho. Then to the banks of the Jordan River. They wanted to cross, so Elijah took off his hairy outer cloak and rolled it up and wapped the surface of the water with it – and just like that, the flow stopped and parted and they crossed over, out of the Land, reversing the journey of Joshua and the Israelites long ago. And then fire fell from heaven one more time – but not to destroy. No, fire fell from heaven like chariots and horses, all ablaze, and they whisked Elijah out of sight, from earth to somewhere else (2 Kings 2:1-14).

Through the years, prophets and rabbis and sages wondered what purposes God might still have for Elijah or for his legacy. The prophet Malachi explained that, before God's return in the fires of judgment to destroy evil on the Day of the LORD, Elijah would be sent to God's people, to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers,” so God would see something in Israel worth sparing (Malachi 4:5-6). In coming centuries, rabbis speculated just what Elijah might do when he came back. Some thought Elijah would use his prophetic wisdom to settle all their thorny questions about the Bible that they couldn't figure out how to answer. Some thought he'd use his prophetic wisdom to judge court cases. Some thought he'd re-establish the tribes of Israel, either sorting out messy marriages or reviving the records of family lines. Some thought Elijah would come to “compel insiders to become outsiders and outsiders to become insiders.” Some thought Elijah would come to establish peace on earth. Some thought Elijah would come to invite everyone to God.

Over eight centuries after the chariot of fire came down in the desert spaces near the banks of the Jordan to pick Elijah up, up, and away, a rather younger man – maybe 32 or 33 years old – came to a place like that. And his name was John. He came as a hairy man, a wilderness prophet, in a camel-hair shirt and a leather belt. In short, he came dressed like Elijah famously dressed (Matthew 3:4). And Jesus explained that this man, this John, was the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14) – the one Malachi talked about. John was the 'Elijah' of Malachi, sent to a wayward nation to call them back from going the way of Ahab and Ahaziah, one and all.

And, you know, John, walking the world in Elijah's shoes and Elijah's demeanor and Elijah's role, seems like he should have been an unattractive figure. Austere. Stern. Gaunt. Shabby-looking. Maybe frightening. What kind of breath do you think you'd have if you ate nothing but bugs and raw honey every day and had never seen a tube of toothpaste before? What aroma do you think you'd have if your only pair of clothes involved a shirt made of camel hair, and you were constantly getting it wet? And if a man were walking around today with that kind of breath and that kind of smell, refusing every meal that wasn't bugs and raw honey, with hair never cut and doubtfully combed, and he applied for a role preaching in just about any church in this country – how many do you think would give his application much thought before filing it in the little bin with the black disposable lining? When I was in college, there was a time some of my peers nicknamed me 'John the Baptist' – after all, I had hair past my shoulders, an austere demeanor, and a fiery and confrontational style. (I hope I at least dressed better and didn't have locust breath.) But if I truly looked and behaved like John the Baptist, what are the odds I'd be in this pulpit right now? Too often, we mentally domesticate John, the shaggy fellow preaching outdoors with a locust leg stuck in his teeth and flecks of honey stuck in his bushy beard. Who wants to listen to that guy – who wants to come close, to do anything but step to the other side of the street from him? The desert life wins no fashion contests, curries no favor, offers no opportunities for advancement.

But, Matthew tells us, John was paradoxically attractive. The crowds flooded out to him, from Jerusalem the great capital city, from the whole land of Judea, and even from Herod Antipas' dominions of Perea and Galilee. And that's very strange. There was something about John that drew people to him. I'm sure some initially went because he was a curiosity, a tourist stop – “Everybody, come get a look at the Astounding Preaching Hairball!” But then they heard his message and were hooked, like they'd forgotten what reality was, had learned to live off of simulations and counterfeits, until John force-fed them a taste of the real deal and their long-dormant appetites and tastes reactivated with a bang (Matthew 3:5).

In a world of pampered religious aristocrats, the priests and elders in their great finery, the Pharisees were well known and respected for their upright simplicity; but John was more self-denying than the hardiest Pharisee or even strict Essene. John was a wilderness prophet, true to Elijah's style. John lived fully 'off-the-grid,' as we say these days. We rely on other people, to some measure. When we want to eat, we go to the grocery store. We buy food that someone else butchered or cultivated or picked, and that still someone else shipped there, and that still someone else stocked there, and that still someone else will take our money in exchange for. Even if just in that, we rely on people – not to even mention the people who paved the roads that take us to the store that people built, using the gasoline that still other people refined from crude oil that yet other people drilled for. If we're paranoid enough, we might try to get 'off-the-grid' – get out into the woods, become self-sustaining on the land, no connections to public utilities.

But John took it so much further. So far that he wouldn't even accept food that he himself grew. Only food that no one provided but God, food that all John had to do was gather, and not a morsel more. And so, for the sake of total reliance on God and total communion with God, John gave up every creature comfort and every life's pleasure that could've been his. He never said every member of God's people would be called to such extremes of asceticism, of self-denial. But he served as a prophetic reminder of how far the range extended in that direction, how possible it is that our call is further in his direction than what we're prone to live, in our fancy connected houses with plenty on the table and plenty in the closet. And in his desert life, in his cashless existence, in his self-denial, he identified radically with the poor and the outcast. There's scarce a refugee or peasant or needy person in the world, be it city or desolate countryside, who owns truly less than John had. He lived like the utmost extreme of poverty, identifying with their pains and struggles. The prophet of the poor.

Yes, John was an ascetic amidst the pampered and the paupers. And, in a world of feel-good pieties, John was a fearless truth-teller – just like Elijah had been. Elijah hadn't cared what Ahab or Ahaziah wanted to hear. He had no interest in what message might be profitable. He took no thought for how to most gently and winsomely couch what he had to say. He was direct and to-the-point. Elijah announced harsh truths. And so did John. His was a message of judgment and repentance, 'turn or burn.' He offered hope, to be sure, but hope discovered on a rough road. Others in his day – they proclaimed messages of self-satisfaction or self-commendation. Some thought that everything was fine as it was, that the status quo was tolerable. Some thought that they had a quick and easy program for making Judea great again, through certain ritual or legal actions, and then God would act in predictable and controllable ways. But John was about the skies and the sands, the flood and the flame.

Today's religious and cultural atmosphere, at least as much so as in the age of Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, is rife with ear-tickling pleasantries. Ours is often proclaimed as a “post-truth culture,” from the halls of power politics to the media broadcast centers to the pulpits of the mass antichristian anti-sanctuaries to the endless cycles of rumors for the rabble. It's all ear-tickling. We hear a tale that we think confirms our preconceptions about how good we ourselves are, or how bad our opponents are, and we accept that as 'true.' We hear a tale that challenges our preferred narrative, and we reflexively denounce that as 'false.' The terms, as we see them, need have no significant relation to reality. It's all about maintaining the narrative. It's all about massaging the ego. It's all about feeding the desires full of advertising and artificial emotion. That's not just a liberal thing. That's not just a conservative thing. It's an American thing. It's a global thing. You'll find it as perilous among self-proclaimed patriots as among hardened anarchists and communists. You'll find it in gossip at the local diner, and you'll find it in the saccharine siren-songs of the trendiest pseudo-church. We have plenty of pundits who deceive themselves into thinking they're truth-tellers. But we have a dearth of honest-to-God truth-tellers.

But John was such a truth-teller, speaking forthrightly about sin and repentance, about damnation and salvation, not exempting himself, not holding himself out above everyone else, but cutting away every temptation to power and making himself a slave of his message – and of the Divine King whose messenger he was. And what was John's trumpet-blast of truth? He could have called down fire, like Elijah did. Elijah seemed to be calling down fire left and right, sometimes. But John said the fire was already on its way down. He wasn't the match. He wasn't the lighter. He wasn't the ignition. He was the alarm. And loud he'd sound, loud he'd sound, 'til all Israel had just one choice to make: knowingly heed or knowingly disregard.

John came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to issue a public invitation: Turn to God, decisively and drastically. He told them there was no other way to do it than by becoming outsiders and then insiders all over again. So I guess you could say he compelled an Israelite remnant of insiders to become outsiders, then compelled these newly minted outsiders to become insiders. And so, like Joshua and the Israelites with the ark of the covenant and like Elijah and Elisha with the rough and scratchy cloak, John the Baptist took a micro-Israel under renewal through the waters of Jordan to the banks of the Promised Land.

John came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, with prophetic wisdom to see into each person's situation and give them counsel. He told tax collectors to scam no one (Luke 3:12-13). He told soldiers to bully no one, extort from no one, gripe about their lousy pay to no one (Luke 3:14). He told the next-to-poorest peasant, a man with two shirts to his name and nothing more, to give the spare shirt to the bare-skinned fellow shivering down the road; and he told those on the verge of poverty to feed the still-hungrier with every morsel they could manage to keep alive without (Luke 3:11). And John had the credibility and moral authority to speak those words, given the desert life he led. For his desert life was a source of power.

John came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to restore whole generations to covenant faithfulness, to a return to the Israel they should've been. He came to restore them by turning their hearts to one another, by giving them a common focal point: the God of Moses, the God of Sinai, the God of the Covenant, who was on his way to do a new thing. And so, to turn generations back to God, to restore them to healthy covenant standing, to make them ready to meet their Maker with a messianic face, he invited people to confess their sins and be baptized.

It sounds so simple. But it wasn't easy. When Matthew describes people as “confessing their sins” and being “baptized by him in the river Jordan” (Matthew 3:6), the word carries the sense of an open declaration. An act done without holding back. No reservations. No resistance. Just an honest admission that they were as guilty and impure and alienated as the most distant foreigner. Just a public statement that they accepted responsibility for Israel's problem. That they, and not the supposed 'villains' of the other factions in public life – they, and not some scapegoat they or their leaders had chosen – they, and not fate or chance or the logic of history – no, that they were what was wrong with their world. And then naming concrete ways that that was so – real things that they personally had done. Not a list of problems of their neighbors, from which the confessor could stand aloof. But their real own dirty laundry, brought into the open, displayed not with pride, not with defiance, but with true contrition. Confessing their sins. Dredging them up to the surface. And then, and only then, getting the bodily surface washed to start society over again from its birth.

In John's eyes, you see, there can be no renewal apart from vulnerability and honesty. And real vulnerability, real honesty, mean confession. Confession is what the desert life is all about. The desert life is the freedom to be unveiled, to be unmasked, to scream our shame in barren places – to hear all the most uncomfortable truths spoken aloud in our own syllables, in the most clarifying air. And so John called Israel to confess their sins. It's a wonder to me that people listened. That people did. But they did. They came to hear John. They felt the impact of his message. They encountered reality at last. They laid aside their pride and their defenses, they spurned the paths of self-satisfaction and self-justification, and they identified their own reflection as the blurry shadow blocking Israel from the light. They named their wrongs, keeping nothing in reserve under wraps, and named them as wrongs to be regretted and repented. They let John cast them as outsiders, treat them as foreign beggars, and then let John seize control and wash them clean and restore them to the Land like days of old. And if the way home meant coming close to bushy hair, disheveled clothes, burning eyes, locust breath, so be it.

And then there's us. Confronted with this wild man, this locust-breath man in the camel-hair clothes, this new Elijah for a new season of darkness – what should we do? What can we possibly take from him? We can learn to appreciate John the Baptist. He cannot be tamed. He cannot be sanitized. We've often tried to do that. But the wild man breaks through. And he points to a wild Christ. So must we. And if we have to get wilder to do it, so be it. If we have to set aside some creature comforts to better point to Christ, so be it. If we have to live more like poor and homeless exiles, so be it. If we have to live in less dependence on the safety net of society and in greater dependence on God, so be it. If we have to spend some time in the desert, so be it. Let our lives and words point to a wild Christ – wild with holy love.

And to do that, we need first to confess our sins. We need to stop pointing so many fingers at the evil out there, and start seeing our own reflection as the shadow. We need to name our own wrongs as wrong, holding nothing back, and admitting that, if we're to stand again after our fall, it can only be by grace. We need to confess our sins. And we need to recollect our baptism. Like those who heard John's message, we once had to be reckoned as full outsiders before, again by grace, we were brought through the water into the land. We had to be born again, regenerated through the washing with water by the word. There was no other way. And the Body of Christ is our new Israel; God is all our promise, and to him must you turn. The decisive act in your life was the day someone took you through the water, stood you back up as a spiritual Israelite in covenant with God through Christ, and told you to go conquer the worldwide land through the gospel. Because that, and nothing less, is what your baptism meant and means. Live by it, in the city or the desert, on the farm or on the road.

And then commit yourself to the truth. Ours is a good truth to tell, though – told well – it flatters none, least of all ourselves, but surely not those who yearn to be married to Death by the ministrations of Sin. But commit yourself to truth and only truth. See and tell, not the news of the hour, not the spin of this or that faction, but truth you've seen and known. And above all, the truth of the gospel – of Christ crucified and risen and coming again, the Christ who yearns to divorce us from Sin and Death so we can find a better Bridegroom in him. The truth, in short, that you confessed at baptism – that truth, do tell, tell always, like Elijah and John, no matter the Ahabs and Ahaziahs of the day. Only repent and live by faith in the Son of God – to him be the glory forever!

Sunday, January 27, 2019

People, Get Ready: Homily on Matthew 3:1-3

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'” (Matthew 3:3). That's how he saw himself. John, who came baptizing. Can you picture John? A shaggy man, unkempt hair and rough clothes, foraging for food in the mornings and evenings, smoking bees out of their hives for wild honey, catching locusts with his bare hands, and by day shouting his message to whatever crowds would come to him? A voice roaring loud in empty places.

He took his cues from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her hardship is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. … Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11).

The message was, God was coming. The people were in exile, the people were in need, but God was coming to take control. God would come to rule, God would come to repay, God would personally be present to be the Good Shepherd of his people, and everyone would see his real value, his glory, put on display. That's what the kingdom of God is all about: God's arrival to rule and repay and shepherd. But things needed to be ready. No one wanted the kingdom to show up and find that they weren't included. Nobody wanted their lives to be a stumbling block in God's path; for God to come to repay, and find that their repayment was payback for their sins.

John wasn't the only one out in the desert trying to live out Isaiah's prophecy. There was another group – maybe John knew them – living at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. And in their writings, they applied the same verse to themselves that Matthew associates with John the Baptist. But when they used it, the idea was that people joining their movement would “withdraw from the habitation of unjust men,” go into the wilderness to Qumran, and devote themselves to Bible study, and that was how they'd prepare the way of the Lord – by withdrawing from society to study the Bible, and leave society to its own devices (1QS 8.13-16).

John had a different thought. He didn't want anybody to be left out – that's why he was preaching out in the open! His whole life was devoted to sharing the message. And when he heard about valleys lifted up and mountains made low, uneven ground becoming level and rough places becoming smooth, so that a straight road for the Lord would pass through the wilderness to the Land, he knew it meant that the spiritual terrain of Israel itself had to be transformed. Study couldn't do that. Sacrifice couldn't do that. Conventional piety couldn't do that. Civility and decency couldn't do that.

And so John called for people to radically turn to God, as radical as if they were foreigners hearing the story of God and his people for the very first time, as if they were strangers meeting God afresh. That's why he had them go out in the desert, on the far side of the Jordan River, and then pass through into the Promised Land all over again. John rewound the clock. And while it was customary for Gentiles converting to Judaism to be baptized, cleansing themselves of impurity, John insisted that Israel needed the same treatment – they'd become dirty strangers in God's sight, and had to be drastically converted into a New Israel, fresh as newborns, sweeping away every obstacle that might resist the kingdom.

That's what John meant when he “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (Matthew 3:1-2). The kingdom was about to start arriving, because God was about to move in, and John insisted they should receive him with honor and be ready to meet him. So they needed to repent, to return to their first love and first calling, to start with a clean slate, even if it meant acknowledging themselves as outsiders and then moving into their own home as guests and tenants instead of rightful owners. They needed to go back to the beginning, needed to undertake the hard work of preparation, needed to break their own society down to the ground and let God rebuild it. Because with God so close to moving in and grabbing the reins, who could afford to not be ready? So John preached tirelessly in the wilderness of Judea, 'til he saw the One of whom he spoke.

What about us? We know that, in John's lifetime, the kingdom of heaven did begin to breach the walls of our world. We know that God did move in. Not in the way anyone expected. He came to rule from a throne of wood and nails, wearing a thorny crown. He came to offer atonement. He came to gently shepherd all those who humbled themselves to be his lambs, forswearing their thoughts of deserving to be repaid with good. He came to begin bringing the kingdom. And now we wait for the kingdom to be uncloaked. But the kingdom hasn't withdrawn. It's just undercover, and infiltrating slowly. Jesus is continuing to move in, through his Spirit inhabiting his Body called the Church. Have we any less need to hear John's message than they did then?

For we might need to repent. To return to our first love and our first calling. To start with a clean slate, even if it means seeing ourselves, not as privileged insiders, as beacons of civility and decency, but as miscreants who need to shape up and move into our own homeland as sometimes unwelcome guests. We might need to go back to the start, to break down the calcified habits and stale traditions we've built up and let God rebuild what we mean by 'church,' what we mean by 'religion,' what we mean when we say our own name. For our spiritual terrain needs to be transformed. The kingdom of heaven is every bit as much 'at hand' now as it was in John's day. And so he says to us, “Repent … Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:2-3).

Are we lifting up the valleys? Are we lowering the mountains and the hills? Are we leveling uneven ground and smoothing out the rough spots? Are we preparing, making ready? Are we preparing our church now, and our neighborhoods now, for the arrival of Jesus in it? Because, ready or not, here he comes. People, get ready! O church, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

God in Unlikely Places: Sermon on Matthew 2:13-15

It wasn't a day much like today. The sun overhead was warm, without much regard to the season. The streets of Pelusium, the 'city of silt,' were bustling – foot traffic from the quays and baths, the workshops and kilns, the temples and theaters, all mixed up together as Egyptians, Greeks, and Jews roamed the city. It was the gate of Egypt, Pelusium was – a fine city, dignified twenty-five years before by the Emperor Augustus when he entered as its conqueror, having bested the armies of Cleopatra and brought an end to centuries of rule by the Ptolemies. And now Pelusium – or, as some locals called it, Peremoun, the 'House of Amun' – enjoyed the benefits of the 'Roman peace,' prospering as a trading post, littered with customs offices, glassworks, brickworks, even tanks for raising fish for making fish sauce, the Romans' favorite condiment.

In the streets of Pelusium that day, a Jewish soldier patrols – as he always does – while a pair of bare-headed priests of Zeus Kassios walk by. They laugh as they suggest he enjoy some nice pork; he jokes back and tells them he'll share it with them if he can add some onions – for the priests of Zeus Kassios infamously avoid onion and garlic. The soldier walks on, and as he does, he picks up the familiar sounds of Aramaic – not a language he hears too often here in Pelusium, with most speaking Greek or Coptic. The soldier leans against a wall and, perhaps forgetting his better manners, eavesdrops for a while.

The speakers are a man and his wife, traveling with one donkey and a toddler in tow; the donkey loaded with a few parcels of supplies or goods, the toddler clinging to his mother. The pair seem a bit on edge, this Yosef and this Miriam – fleeing trouble in the homeland. Herod's doing, from the sounds of it. The soldier isn't surprised – he knows Herod's reputation, not just as a defender of Jewish rights abroad (though he was that) but as a power-hungry beast desperate to rule 'til death and willing to kill whomever necessary to keep his crown secure from threat, no matter the collateral damage; and these aren't the first fellow-Jews the soldier's seen pass through Pelusium looking for a life beyond Herod's grasp.

From the sounds of it, the soldier thinks, the man and his wife are deliberating where to go next. Do they stay in Pelusium? They could, of course – it's a fine trading town – though without too much of a Jewish cultural life for them, other than a few soldiers guarding the road. So a prolonged stay in Pelusium is probably out. So is Migdol – not much there. They'll have to cross the Nile River Delta, but do they then curve back and head south toward Leontopolis and Memphis? They could stay near Babylon Fortress – it's not far from the Temple of Onias, a religious shrine founded over a hundred years earlier by the overlooked son of a Jerusalem high priest, who packed his bags for Egypt with some friends and settled in. But, they seem to be saying, they aren't too convinced that this second temple is legitimate: There should be only one temple on earth, they say, to bear witness that the Lord our God, the Lord is one. So maybe the land of Onias isn't for them. They're still keeping their mind open about the Babylon Fortress, though – three Roman legions are headquartered there, but there's plenty of work for a Jewish craftsman in the area. Or maybe they'll go further south to Oxyrhynchus, 'city of the sharp-nosed fish,' the third-largest city in all Egypt; they've heard there's a Jewish quarter there, and they're sure they'd fit right in. But on the other hand, they say, there are Jewish enclaves in almost every town in Egypt – they could settle anywhere.

Maybe even, if they feel like migrating west for a couple weeks, they could reach Alexandria, the jewel above all Egypt, where two of the city's five massive districts are majority-Jewish, where synagogues abound through the streets, where the Jewish community was self-governing. They knew already of the Alexandrian Jewish community by reputation – after all, the current high priest in Jerusalem, Herod's father-in-law Simeon ben Boethus, grew up there. For any Jewish travelers, and especially those of means looking to thrive in intellectual and religious luxury, Alexandria was the place to be. As the soldier listened in, the couple didn't seem to make much headway on their deliberations, but they had time – just had to stop in Pelusium for the evening to rest, and figure out the rest on the way, secure in knowing that the prefecture of Gaius Turranius over Alexandria and all Egypt was far, far preferable to the terror of the tyrant Herod.

For his part, I wonder if the father of that family – Joseph – reflected scripturally on what was happening. He'd had to uproot his family in the dead of night from Bethlehem – woke up in a cold sweat after an angelic vision, shook Mary awake, insisted they pack up their things and leave within the hour. No one was happy – not him, not her, not the boy. But they'd crept out in the stillness of night, them and their donkey carrying all they had to survive on: the valuable gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, more than enough of a financial stockpile to see them through the next year and, when the coast was clear, to buy a lasting home (cf. Matthew 2:13-15).

It was ironic, this trip to Egypt. So many centuries ago – before Josiah, before Hezekiah, before David, before Moses – the children of Israel had gone into Egypt, seeking refuge from a famine in the land of their promise. And who had led the way? Joseph, the son of Jacob the patriarch – the Joseph who rose to grand stature in the kingdom. And now, all these centuries later, Israel's Messiah – that toddler named Jesus, who summed up all Israel's heritage and destiny in himself – was following their footsteps. And who was taking him into Egypt? His mother's husband – also named Joseph, son of Jacob. A fitting turn. And a few hundred years after Joseph led Israel into Egypt, in the days of Moses, Israel made ready in the dark of night – the night of the Passover and the slaughter of Egypt's firstborn – to flee a land of tyranny for a haven of refuge. And just so, Joseph and Mary now had to take Israel's Messiah in the dark of night – a night of slaughter, aimed at their firstborn son – to flee a land of tyranny for a haven of refuge. Only, in olden days, the land of tyranny had been Pharaoh's Egypt, and the haven of refuge had been the Promised Land. Now, the Promised Land itself had become a land of tyranny under Herod's deranged grip – leaving Egypt to offer itself as a haven of refuge for the oppressed yearning to breathe free. What a twist.

Where in Egypt did they settle, Joseph and Mary and the little boy named Jesus? Truth be told, we don't know. They surely had to pass through Pelusium – the main road from Judea into Egypt led there – but they had their share of options. Some traditions name a few places, but other possibilities are likely. Wherever they went, it may not have been for long. No more than a year at most, and maybe only a few months or even less. Herod most likely died the next March or April. Jesus' stay in Egypt, that sandy land of mystery and magic, was not a lengthy one.

And to onlookers, he was an insignificant boy led around by an ordinary Palestinian Jewish family fleeing for refuge in a strange land – another province under the power of the same empire, to be sure, but a strange land nonetheless – seeking a home and a people amidst a dizzying array of bizarre cults and dusty trails. To onlookers, this trio of travelers was a blip on the radar – one more hungry set of foreigners, hardly worth a second glance in a crowded street, hardly worth extra consideration at a booked guesthouse, hardly worth more than they could barter or trade – reduced to their economic value, judged on how poorly or well they fit in, viewed as one more sign of foreign admixture, a reason for native Egyptians not to feel quite at home in their old country anymore.

But in whatever town or city or district they settled, or down whatever street they walked or rode, there's a bold and dazzling truth no Copt or Greek or Roman or even Jew knew. And that truth was this: That, in the guise of a foreign toddler in the arms of a migrant couple searching for refuge, God had come to Egypt. No one in Pelusium or Memphis or Oxyrhynchus or Alexandria or in all the land of Egypt had the foggiest notion that, for however many months these insignificant strangers dwelt in the land, they had physically smuggled God into the country – the God of galaxies and gravity, of avalanches and atoms, actually present in such a way that any Egyptian could tousle God's hair or say to God, “Uh-oh, got your nose!” God had been smuggled, in the flesh, right into the streets and sands of Egypt. And no one was the wiser. No one in Egypt. No one in Rome. And no one in Judea, who assumed that, if you wanted to approach the presence of God on earth, the closest avenue was either the gleaming temple Herod expanded in Jerusalem, wherein the fragrant incense ascended alongside the smoke of many sacrifices, or else in the virtual temple entered by Jews studying scripture's sacred speech. But for that year, or a part of that year, the nearest approach to God wasn't where you'd expect. It was in a land of pagan mystery, among a scarcely noticed family of Jewish foreigners, in the eyes of a little boy.

The prophets had surely hinted. Isaiah had seen: “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt. … In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts. … In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border..., and the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them” (Isaiah 19:1-21). And Hosea, reflecting on the story of Israel, sang, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1b).

Still, no one would have expected. For the prophet Jeremiah, return to Egypt was forbidden: “As my anger and my wrath were poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so my wrath will be poured out on you when you go to Egypt: You shall become an execration, a horror, a curse, and a taunt” (Jeremiah 42:18). For the prophet Ezekiel, Egypt was a target of judgment: “I will set fire to Egypt; Pelusium shall be in great agony, Thebes shall be breached, and Memphis shall face enemies by day. … Thus I will execute judgments on Egypt; then they will know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 30:16-19). And even for the prophet Hosea, returning to Egypt was a punishment for sin – a “going away into destruction” (Hosea 9:6). Who would have expected that Egypt was the place to encounter God? It was, maybe, the unlikeliest place on earth. But in Jesus Christ, we have a God who tends to turn up in unlikely places. The Pharisees would never have guessed it. The scribes would never have guessed it. The priesthood would never have guessed it. Herod would never have guessed it. The Egyptians would never have guessed it. We would never have guessed it. But there he was – God in the flesh, living incognito in Egypt.

God doesn't always turn up where we expect him. Which can be frustrating. Sometimes we tend to assume that his presence is at our beck and call – we follow our religious duties, and he'll turn up in nice, predictable ways, in just the places we've made ready for him, the places we've duly cleaned and padded and reserved for him. He does, sometimes. But not as often as we can delude ourselves into thinking. We can so quickly figure that God will show up when and where we've prepared for him to, when and where we expect him to – and then become dismayed or discouraged when that's not where he is. He isn't always in the likely places.

And God has a penchant for turning up where we don't expect him. Where do we expect to find God? Where do we expect to not? And what do we do when we have those categories nicely delineated and differentiated, and then God goes messing everything up by getting our categories all confused? Maybe one place we seldom expect to meet God is in the dangerous darkness – out in the slick and heart-pounding roads, out in the sudden falls and shadowy valleys. We don't expect to find God when we can't so much as find our own hands and our own feet, after all. But there, as we grope blindly through the mysteries of life, as we spin beyond control and lose our way, we may just unexpectedly trip over God at the midnight of our souls.

Nor do we expect to find God in the midst of our suffering. Oh, when we suffer, we may call out to God, asking him to call us away from our suffering so that we can meet him. But finding God in the suffering – that's a very different thing. Not at all our preference. Diving into the wound, where it's most painful and messy, digging around in the rawness of it all – that's hardly where we expect to find God pitching his tent. And yet, as we face what hurts most, as we reach out and embrace the torment that dogs us, as we stretch for the breath we can't catch and brace ourselves for the hit – well, we hardly expect to find God there, any more than we would have expected to meet him in Egypt. But sometimes, just sometimes, the middle of the suffering, the break in the bone and the gore of the wound, is where he's hidden himself away, waiting incognito in the pain to meet us.

Nor do we expect to find God when we're caught in our shame. Those are the moments we feel furthest from God – when all our hypocrisies are exposed, when all our secrets are laid bare, when we've messed up and made fools of ourselves, when we're embarrassed and humiliated and can't bear to lean into it; when all we want to do is run away and hide. And yet, sometimes, unexpectedly, the closest approach to God is found in open shame – not in our dignity, but when our dignity is ripped away, when we have nothing to hold onto, then, unexpectedly, does God come bounding in, maybe when we feel least ready to see and be seen, but there he is, when we're caught in our shame.

Nor do we expect to find God in bread broken and shared with the hungry and alone. People who are different from us – they may tend to bother us. The language they speak or dialect they use, the habits they've developed, the hygiene they display, the shade of their skin or shape of their features, all the man-made markers that make up the organization of our society. What Egyptian, two thousand years ago, would have thought that, by tearing bread and passing some to an immigrant family from Judea, a man and woman and child, they'd thereby be having fellowship with the Lord God Omnipotent? And today, we seldom figure that, in reaching across the political aisle, God may show up; that, in singing songs with speakers of a language not our own, God may show up; that there may be no closer approach to God than, unexpectedly, by way of fellowship with the poor and poorly, the foreign and forlorn and forgotten, the hurting and heartbroken and homeless, as with brothers and sisters and beloved neighbors. We have all sorts of excuses – the fear, the distaste, the unpleasantness, the risk – all pointing, at root, to our lack of expectation of finding God in those encounters. And yet, for all our excuses, there might God be found where we least expect him – and more's the pity when we miss the meeting.

No, God doesn't always show up where we expect him, where we've made ready for him. Sometimes, God is best found in the unlikely places, where we least expect. Even Egypt. Even the inner city. Even the trailer park and the country hills. Even the graveyard and the hospice. Even the homeless shelter and the storefront. Even the crevices of a struggling soul beneath the skin-thin self-sufficiency we all wear. What will you do to avoid passing God by when he's so unexpected you don't recognize him? What will you do when he surprises you in a place you didn't think he'd go? For he's a God who ventures to unlikely places. Don't miss him. Meet him, not where you'd like him to be, not where you feel comfortable keeping him, but where he is. Amen.