Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Strange and Dreadful Strife: Sermon for Easter Sunday

Christ is risen! Let all God's people shout, “He is risen indeed!” Isn't that wonderful? Isn't it beautiful? The resurrection of Jesus isn't just some pretty story we tell ourselves. It's the truth of history – he really did die on the cross, he really was buried in the tomb, he really got up again with new life, he left the tomb behind, he appeared to his disciples, he appeared to his unbelieving siblings, he appeared to hundreds of people, he went back to heaven, and he even appeared one last time to a persecuting Pharisee to change a life around (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). 

Friends, if that isn't true, then everything we do here on any Sunday morning is completely pointless, and we're the most foolish of all who've ever lived, wasting our lives on a fantasy (1 Corinthians 15:14). But if it is true – and that's where the evidence points with great, big neon signs – then it changes everything (1 Corinthians 15:20)! Because it means that two thousand years ago, Jesus snapped the Grim Reaper's scythe like a twig. It means that, in the war between Life and Death, Jesus wins! It means that, though he tasted death, he de-fanged Death and walked away. And Jesus is free permanently – like Paul writes, “Since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has any mastery over him” (Romans 6:9).

Early in the 300s, there lived an Assyrian monk named Aphrahat – yes, the Persian Empire had its share of believers, too. During Aphrahat's later life, he saw his emperor, Shapur II, begin to persecute the church, putting thousands of Christians to death. In times like that – times that, sadly, have once again come to the turf Aphrahat called home – it seems like it would be easy to despair, like the disciples were thrown into despair on Good Friday. In a series of sermons, Aphrahat tried to reassure believers that the violence, the chaos, the fear all around them wasn't the end of the story. In short, he wanted them to remember Easter. And this Easter morning, I really feel led to share with you a short passage this “Persian sage” wrote in the year 344, nearly 1700 years ago, imagining what that face-to-face meeting between Jesus and Death must have been like. Here's what Aphrahat has to say:

The upright, the righteous, the good, the wise, neither fear nor tremble at death, because of the great hope that lies before them. And they are always mindful of their death, their exodus, and the last day when the children of Adam will be judged. … When Adam transgressed the commandment whereby the sentence of death was passed on all his children, Death hoped that he'd bind fast all the sons of man and would be king over them forever. 

But when Moses came, he proclaimed the resurrection, and Death knew that his kingdom would be made void. … From the hour he heard God saying to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,” Death trembled and feared and was terrified, for he learned that God is King of the dead and of the living, that that it was appointed to the children of Adam to come forth from his darkness and arise with their bodies....

And then Jesus, the Killer of Death, came. He clothed himself in a body from the children of Adam, and was crucified in his body, and tasted death. And when Death saw that Jesus had come down to him, he was shaken from his place, and was agitated to see Jesus. And Death closed his gates and was unwilling to receive him. 

Then Jesus burst Death's gates, and entered into him, and began to plunder all Death's possessions. When the dead saw light in the darkness, they lifted up their heads from the bondage of death, and looked forth, and saw the splendor of Christ the King. Then all the powers of the darkness of Death sat in sorrow, for he was degraded from his authority. Death tasted the medicine fatal to him, and his hands dropped down, and he learned that the dead would live and escape from his clutches. 

And when Jesus had afflicted Death by plundering him, Death wailed and cried aloud in bitterness, and said, “Leave my kingdom!” … He had no power over the Holy One. … And Jesus left with him, as a poison, the promise of life – that, little by little, Death's power would be done away. … So Jesus, who died, was the annihilator of Death – because through him, life rules supreme, and through him, Death is abolished – the one to whom it's said, “O Death, where is your victory?”

Hallelujah! Centuries later, Martin Luther wrote a hymn – we'll sing it in a few minutes – based on a Latin chorus used in the church. It's a strong, defiant hymn, and the fourth verse goes like this: “It was a strange and dreadful strife / when Life and Death contended; / the victory remained with Life; / the reign of Death was ended! / Stripped of power, no more it reigns; / an empty form alone remains: / Death's sting is lost forever!” 

Amen? That's biblical stuff, right there! That's what Jesus really, truly did: he “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). All death's power was tied up in sin and the curse it brought down on us; but for those who believe, whose sins are buried in Christ's vacated tomb, death's grasp is broken (1 Corinthians 15:56-57). So believers don't so much 'die' as take a long nap: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). “If we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8).

The war against Death is won in advance – it's a sure thing! “The reign of Death was ended” that first Easter morning. Only “an empty form alone remains,” without its sting (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Jesus told us that he came so that we “might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). The Life of God has invaded this dark mud-ball of ours – all that's left is clean-up in the here and now and the final coup de grace at Christ's return, when he raises the dead to bodily life that never ends. Now, that's good news if ever I've heard any!

But here's the truth. If we want to 'get in on' the victory of Life, we have to 'get in on' the kingdom of God – and Jesus is the Door (John 10:9), and Jesus is the King (Revelation 19:16). We can't muscle our way in with the merits of our works. We have to trust the King. We have to stoop down, let him unload our sins and deal with them, and humbly shuffle through the Door. 

That means faith – but I'll share with you this promise: “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9)! And that salvation means the sovereignty of God's Life in your life, breaking Death's power. “God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

I'd like to challenge you this morning. Do you believe? Do you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and does your heart latch onto the truth and power of resurrection – the beauteous light of Easter's dawn? If so, the hand of salvation is outstretched to you – trust and follow him. But what does this mean: “follow him”? It means to “live a new life” (Romans 6:4) – to live an Easter life, the kind of life that Jesus Christ died and rose again to win for you in his “strange and dreadful strife.” On the other side of death – the death of our old selves in his death – we live in his resurrection, which means being “set free from sin” and from all the places in our days and hours where we let Death boss us around.

Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11)! “If Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:10-11). “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). 

God calls us to live an abundant life by following the Spirit of Life. After we refuel this morning with the true Bread of Heaven, the true spiritual food, let's get out there – let's live the abundant life Jesus opens for us – let's win our little battles against sin and death, in the light of Life's victory – and let's share the news, in word and in deed, that the Prince of Life is risen indeed!  Amen and amen!

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Seventh Word: Homily for Good Friday 2016

It was now about noon,
and darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon,
for the sun stopped shining.
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
Jesus called out with a loud voice,
'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.'
When he had said this, he breathed his last.
(Luke 23:44-46)

And so the scene draws to a close. We've heard already about the six other sentences Jesus uttered while suspended on the cross. They all lead here, to this moment, this climax. And I'd like to suggest this afternoon that there are four key truths we need to see about this last sentence, this string of eight words – four things Jesus wants you to know.

First, Jesus knew death was not the end of the story. That seems like such a simple point, but it's an important one. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, when he thought about what it meant to die, he knew that the story continued on – that the Gospels would not end with the words, “He breathed his last” (Luke 23:46) – literally, “he expired,” he exhaled and didn't inhale. No, such a Gospel would be no gospel at all. Jesus knew there'd be plenty more to tell, that he would breathe again. 

In today's pop culture, death is usually treated as a mystery: “Ooh, is it the end, or isn't it? Nobody can know!” Well, Jesus knew: It isn't the end. His “spirit” does not disappear; it does not dissipate; it does not die out. He sends it to the Father for safekeeping – and so the story continues. Nor, when the cross was hoisted off the ground, was it the last time the warmth of his feet would meet the coolness of this earth. Death was not the end of his earthly story. Jesus's plan wasn't to shift permanently from earth to heaven; he knew he'd return in resurrection, bodily resurrection, and ultimately would be back to stay someday. 

Nor is death the end of our earthly story. When we breathe our last, when our bodies return to dust – well, start the countdown! “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven … and the dead in Christ will rise first. … For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16).

Second, Jesus displayed his deity by exercising sovereignty even over his own death. In these last words from the cross, Jesus does not say, “Oops, I guess I'm dying now.” He says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). He takes an action – that, at this particular point in time, he chooses to enter the state of bodily death. Nailed to a cross, that isn't a choice we'd get to make. We would die when our body gives out. Not Jesus: he dies when he says he dies, not a moment sooner or a moment later. 

Remember what he himself said earlier? “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17-18). Jesus has that authority, because he's the divine Father's divine Son – he does the things that only God can or should do, says the things that only God says, is what God is. You cannot point to God, cannot try to identify God, without Jesus in view. And so, after hours on the cross, with his atoning work complete, the worship-worthy Jesus chooses to lay his life down – for now.

Third, Jesus cherished the Bible. Jesus had a deep and profound love for the Scriptures – so much so, he quoted them with literally his dying breath. Did you know that? This line actually comes from Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God” (Psalm 31:5). Think about that for a moment: the very last thing Jesus said on earth before being taken to the tomb, and he chose to make his last words a quote from the Bible – not something new, not some deep thought, not some aphorism or proverb all his own, but a verse sung by Jews for nearly a thousand years – because Jesus literally loved the Bible to death.

Can we imagine that Jesus loves the Bible less now than he did on the cross? And yet how does our attitude to the Bible stack up? There are church leaders, Christian celebrities, even whole denominations, where the Bible is treated more as an inconvenience or an embarrassment than an authority. It needs to be demythologized, or deconstructed, or corrected, or brought up to date, whenever it gores our sacred cows, whenever it ignores the lines of today's cultural orthodoxy. 

But that's not the mindset of Jesus toward the Bible! Jesus, the living Word of God, didn't share our modern or postmodern disdain for the written word of God. The Bible is relevant in life and death, all on its own terms.

Those of us from churches that extol ourselves as “Bible-believing” – we might be tempted to pride ourselves on this point. “Oh yes, we're plenty better than them,” we might say. But hold your horses! Jesus meditated on Scripture day and night (cf. Psalm 1:2). From youth to adulthood, Jesus went regularly to the synagogues where he could hear the words of the Bible and talk about them with people. Jesus quoted the Bible in every circumstance, and handled its words faithfully – unlike Satan in the wilderness, who twisted them out of context. And Jesus lived every aspect of his life in conformity with what the Bible says. 

For so many of us, the Bible is a dust-collector to keep on the shelf, or to read alone, or to keep for Sundays, or to project our fantasies ontoloved in theory, neglected in practice. But in these words, Jesus shows how highly he prioritizes the Bible in life and in death. May we do likewise.

And fourth, Jesus trusted God even when God seemed most absent. Hanging there on the cross, Jesus entered our darkness. He took upon himself the burden of our sin and its consequences – including our frequent sense that God is distant. When Jesus quoted Psalm 22 in his fourth word from the cross, he meant to evoke a message of deliverance – that, in the end, he'd be rescued and restored to life; that he'd be vindicated from humanity's judgment leveled against him. But Psalm 22 begins with an outcry against God's absence for a reason. Sometimes, we do go through those dark places, where we look for God and can't find him – when, in a practical way, from our perspective, we live as though God-forsaken. On the cross, Jesus went to all those places with us and for us – into the valley of the shadow of death, where faith meets its breaking-point.

And yet – and yet Jesus didn't lose faith, not even in his darkest hour. He didn't say, “God, I give up on you.” Even when God seemed most estranged, Jesus didn't address him as, “Stranger.” Jesus called him “Father.” The relationship, obscured with the hidden sun, drowned out by the roaring mob, was not over. In the most trying time, when Jesus was stripped naked and held up for mockery and reckoned as nothing, when Jesus was at death's door and facing the grave – still, to him, God was “Father” – the same Father he's always been. 

The Father who loved him from eternity past, the Father who sent an angel army to announce his birth, the Father who was pleased at his baptism, the Father who met him in the spoken words of Scripture, the Father who was in constant communion with him on Hanukkah and Purim and Shavuot and Yom Kippur, on Palm Sunday and Spy Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, was still the same Father amidst the lethal agonies of Good Friday!

And Jesus willingly – not out of desperation, but out of a Son's love – trusted himself into his Father's hands. The wording here suggests the image of placing something closer to someone than it is even to us. Jesus puts his spirit in the Father's safe-deposit box and tosses the key at the foot of heaven's throne. He entrusts his spirit to the Father – completely, without reserve, without hesitation. Jesus has faith even when everything visible before his human eyes seems so godless. 

I'm not saying it was easy to have that kind of faith. I'm not saying it feels natural to exercise that kind of faith. But it was the kind of faith that led Jesus to the cross, and that was his constant theme on the cross, and that could not be extinguished by the cross. That kind of faith – not faith in ourselves, not faith in our faith, but faith in the Father – is Psalm 31 faith.

Psalm 31 isn't about giving up hope, about resigning ourselves that God is forever distant. Psalm 31 is a patient cry for help. Listen: “Keep me from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. … As for me, I trust in the LORD. I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul. You have not given me into the hands of the enemy, but have set my feet in a spacious place. … They conspire against me and plot to take my life. But I trust in you, LORD; I say, 'You are my God.' My times are in your hands … In my alarm, I said, 'I am cut off from your sight!' Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help. … Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD (Psalm 31:4-8, 13-15, 22, 24).

Psalm 31 is about trusting God – even at that lowest point – to set things right. Jesus wasn't bitter over the cross, over what was happening to him. He entrusted himself to the Father's care in faith, trusting that the cross and the crowds would not have the last words. And as we'll all celebrate this Sunday, Jesus was right! He really was and is the Son of God. The Father didn't reject his Son's spirit. The Father hadn't surrendered the Son into the hands of the enemy; the Son ended in the Father's hands, not the crowds'. The Father did hear the Son's cry on the cross – and answered it, for our sake, on Easter morning, when the gloom of the grave gave way to the unquenchable light of life.

But for now, suffice it to leave the story where it pauses – with the surrender of Jesus' spirit up to the Father. It pauses, not to hold a doleful note of defeat and loss, but with the suspenseful certainty of hope. “And hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5). Jesus faced his suffering with a faith that refused to lapse into hopelessness or turn away from the Father. 

And in that, he provides a model for us. That's why his disciple Peter could later encourage Jesus-followers by telling us to celebrate when we face “the fiery ordeal,” and that those suffering in obedience to God should “commit” – same word Jesus used – “commit their souls to the faithful Creator in doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). In ease, in suffering, in wealth, in poverty, in sickness, in health, into the Father's hands we too commit our souls, through the reconciliation Jesus made possible on the cross, with the same hope of deliverance in the end: the hope of Easter.

This afternoon, if you find you aren't free from the trap sin has set for you – if you realize you aren't trusting in the LORD, and you haven't been serving him as your God – if you don't know that God is your Father through your union with Jesus Christ – if hope and life seem far away – if you haven't been committing your soul to the faithful Creator in doing good – then whatever you do, do not leave this sanctuary until that changes! There are plenty of pastors here this afternoon who can meet with you, listen to you, talk with you, pray with you – provide whatever help you need to commit your heart, your soul, your whole life to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Don't put it off to some other day. “I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).  

This day, Good Friday, Jesus submitted to the whip, the crown of thorns, the nails, the rough wood, the mockery and shame, even the cup of the wine of God's wrath – for you. So that he might bury your sin and shame in his tomb, and leave it behind when he rises Easter morning. Don't let the third day's dawn find your life and soul in your own safekeeping – which ain't at all safe. Commit yourself to the Father through the cross of Christ – today.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Don't Drop Your Branches: Sermon for Palm Sunday 2016

Can you hear the roar of the crowds? Can you feel the excitement in the air? Think of that scene from the first Palm Sunday! Have you ever wondered what this meant – why the crowd got palm branches when they heard Jesus was riding toward the city for Passover (John 12:12-13)? I mean, of course what Jesus does is a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Zechariah – riding into town on a donkey, at all (John 12:14-15). Jesus wants them to know that, yes, he's the one they've been waiting for. But to really understand the scene, let's turn back almost two hundred years.

In the second century BC, a Greek kingdom based in Syria held power over the Jews. For a variety of reasons, the king Antiochus – the great-great-great-grandson of Alexander the Great's general Seleucus – decided that the Jews needed to stop practicing their religion. So he banned circumcision, commanded the Jews to eat pork, banned ownership of the Law of Moses, and slaughtered a pig as a pagan sacrifice in God's holy temple in Jerusalem. 

A band of brothers – sons of the priest Mattathias – took up arms and led a revolt. They were called the Maccabees. Judah was their first leader: he took back the city of Jerusalem and had the temple purified – remembered each year ever since by the festival of Hanukkah. Antiochus died, but his nephew Demetrius kept fighting, and Judah died in battle. 

Judah's clever brother Jonathan took up the fight and pressured the Greek general into a peace treaty. Jonathan went on to become high priest. Years passed, he fell into a trap and was executed, and his brother Simon took the lead. Simon secured the Jews' freedom from Greek meddling. The book recording these things tells us that Simon – now deemed high priest – set his sights on Jerusalem all over again. It tells us:

They entered [the citadel] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. (1 Maccabees 13:51)

There it is – the palm branches. That's what may be in the crowds mind here, as they see Jesus riding their way. Their song means, “Jesus, be our new Simon! Set us free!” They cry out, “Hosanna – save now, save now!” Simon's descendants down throughout the Hasmonean Era claimed to be both high priests and kings, holding power until a new David might come. 

Well, here he is! Jesus is on his way: “Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Finally, no more Greek rule, no more Roman rule – finally, no more oppression – finally, the king who can turn back the tides and set the world at peace – finally, the promised Messiah! Jesus is the king in triumph, the king in victory – Jesus is Savior and King, coming in the name of the God of all Israel! “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (John 12:13; cf. Psalm 118:26). Here is Jesus – “the king of Israel” (John 12:13). 

That's the word the crowd is spreading – this is Jesus, who raises the dead; this is Jesus, who works wonders we've never seen, never even dreamed could happen; this is Jesus, the true Son of David, the King long foretold – let's welcome him, let's celebrate him, let's be on his side (cf. John 12:17-18)! No wonder the Pharisees fret and worry: “Look, the whole world has gone after him” (John 12:19).

Now, fast-forward five days. Jesus has come into the city and stirred things up. His greediest disciple sold him out for a slave's price. At night in the garden, soldiers come to take Jesus away. He doesn't resist – we know that (John 18:1-12). A show trial before the Sanhedrin goes the only way show trials ever go. The next morning, the priests and nobles of the people haul Jesus to the courtyard outside Governor Pilate's fortress (John 18:28). Pilate investigates, but he doesn't see a threat in this Jesus, who proclaims a different kind of kingdom (John 18:36).

So Pilate goes back out and calls everyone back – the chief priests, the rulers, and now the people, the crowd. Pilate proposes to give Jesus a slap on the wrist for the sake of peace, and then set him free (Luke 23:13-16). Herod agrees – there are better things they can be doing with their Friday morning. This is no time for nonsense. 

You might expect the crowd to cheer. “Blessed is the king of Israel,” after all. But that chant is gone with the wind. That was five days ago – get with the times! His fifteen minutes of celebrity are over, they say. No, Jesus isn't the one they want back. Jesus is no longer “king,” in their eyes – now, he's “this man” (Luke 23:18). “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!”, they cry. Barabbas is a rebel leader (Luke 23:19). The Romans would call him a terrorist, and with good reason. To the Jewish crowds, he's perhaps a freedom-fighter – the kind of leader who'd fight the Romans – who might be bloody, but he'll get the job done, if you don't care what gets lost along the way.

Pilate doesn't like the thought. “Please, here, Jesus is no real criminal – he's one of you, take him back, he doesn't deserve to die this way.” The crowd has turned dark, malicious, cruel. “Crucify him!”, rings out a cry from somewhere in the crowd – maybe the instigation of one of the priests. It catches on. “Crucify him!”, we hear again (Luke 23:21). The shout travels like a virus, infecting the whole crowd, everyone swept up in the chant. “Crucify, crucify, crucify!” 

Pilate tries to shout over them, pleading as a voice of reason, insisting that Jesus go free (Luke 23:22). But the crowd can't be appeased by anything but bloodshed. “Crucify, crucify, crucify, crucify!” They won't stop until Pilate gives in. He doesn't want a riot on his hands. What the crowd wants, the crowd gets – and the crowd wants a crucifixion. So Pilate sends Jesus toward the cross (Luke 23:23-24).

What happened to the loud hosannas? Where did all the palm branches go? Left by the wayside in some back alley? Tossed in the trash can? Stored on the shelf? In less than a week, the crowd turned from “Hosanna” to “Crucify” – from, “Blessed is the king of Israel,” to, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). How can that happen? How could the crowd turn on Jesus so fast – from adoring worship to froth-mouthed condemnation – from waving the palm branch and calling him king to wanting him flogged, beaten bloody, harsh nails hammered through his hands and feet, thorns slicing his forehead to ribbons, and hung naked 'til his heart gives out or he suffocates under his own weight?

But this is Jerusalem, not Athens. As Chesterton said when paying a visit there a century ago, “This is not a university town full of philosophies; it is a Zion of the hundred sieges, raging with religions; not a place where resolutions can be voted or amended, but a place where men can be crowned and crucified.” And crowned and crucified he was, thanks to the turning hearts of the mob. And I can think of four main reasons why this happened – why the crowd handed Jesus over to be crucified in Barabbas' place.

First, Jesus proved to have a different idea of what a Messiah looks like. When he came to them, they thought, “Now here's Simon Maccabeus all over again, but with power to work miracles.” They wanted a Messiah who'd give them what they wanted: rule by Jews for Jews (and over everyone else), so they could turn the tables on the Romans – have Romans wait their tables, have Romans clean their floors, have Romans look on them with servile awe. They wanted to lord their worldly supremacy over the Romans, as the Romans had done to them. “Do to others as they've been doing to you” – that's not the Golden Rule, but it is what the crowd is hoping for. But that just isn't Jesus' style.

In fact, do you know the first thing that happens after Jesus gets welcomed into Jerusalem with all the palm branches? “Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. 'Sir,' they said, 'we would like to see Jesus'” (John 12:20-21). Yeah, Greeks – as in, the people of Antiochus. As in, the people Simon kicked out. And now here they are, and Jesus welcomes them in. 

The crowd wanted a messiah like Simon – a warrior-king who'd make 'peace' at the expense of the nations. But Jesus is a king who wants peace for the sake of the nations – peace, not through war, but through worship. He insists that the corrupt temple regime topple: what's now a “den of thieves” was meant to be “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17; cf. Isaiah 56:7). The crowd realizes that the problem with Jesus is, he doesn't hate all the people they hate. He doesn't sign onto their agenda. He makes radical demands – if they want a messiah in him, he gets to define what that looks like. And so they drop their palm branches, and they stop singing hosanna.

Second, the crowd turns their back on Jesus because, in their disaffection and weakness of faith, they let their usual leaders lead them away from him. They buy into what the Pharisees and the chief priests and the scribal class say – and they say, “Don't trust this Jesus, you never know what he's up to.” The crowd lets themselves be talked out of blessing Jesus as king, because they listen to all these other voices – not just give them a hearing, but they give in to them. They deny what they've seen, what they've heard, what they've experienced, what the Voice of Truth has told them, all for the unreason of those in power.

Third, the crowd turns their back on Jesus because, once enough people are doing it, everyone else feels the need to go with the flow. Imagine being in that crowd on Good Friday. To your left, to your right, in front of you, behind you, people shout, “Crucify! Crucify!” You could speak up and shout out, “No, hosanna! Hosanna!” But will it make a difference? And at what cost? What's the price of breaking lockstep with the angry mob all around you? Will they turn violent? Will they shun you? It's safer to go the path of least resistance: to shout, or at least mumble, “Crucify! Crucify!”

And fourth, the crowd turns their back on Jesus because the crowd is fickle. That's just what they are – fickle, deceitful, prone to waver with the shifting of the winds. That's the mob mentality. And crowds are fickle because we're fickle – all of us. We like to give in to our impulses and desires. Self-denial is hard and unpleasant. We'd much rather do what we want, when we want, how we want. So we teach our children for generations, “Just follow your heart.” Do what feels right. Never mind what Jeremiah says: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). The crowd follows their impulses, first to crown a king, then to get rid of him on a cross.

For all their failings, the crowd starts out by doing the right thing – maybe not in thinking the right way, but doing the right thing when they wave the palm branches and shout their hosannas. The priests, the Pharisees, Pilate – they didn't shout hosanna in the first place. But that crowd did. Can you imagine if they'd clenched their palm branches tighter? If they'd stuck it out with Jesus, shouting hosanna on his terms and not theirs, resisting the priests' influence? See, that's where they failed: the moment they dropped their palm branches.

We may not have physical palm branches in our hands this morning. But our hearts still wave them, all the same. If you're a believer, with hearts and hands and voices we, as God's holy crowd of his very own children, are waving palm branches, welcoming Jesus into our lives as the one and only Savior-King. He's the one who sets us free! He's the one who makes real peace! And all authority in heaven and on earth has been given into his hands, and his kingdom will have no end. 

Every day of our lives, we're called to sing our hosannas: “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” We look around at danger and evil, we look at the avalanche of our sin rolling out of control – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” We're blind to our own pride, our greed, our selfishness – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” We lay our loved ones six feet under topsoil – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” The world is broken, twisted as a tornado, breaking all we hold dear and leaving debris scattered messily through our lives – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” We're sad, we're angry, we're scared, we're alone and desolate and desperate of heart – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!”

In the face of it all, it might be tempting some days to give up hope that Jesus will ever answer that prayer and make all things right. Instead of singing hosannas in faith, we surrender to fear and despair. Instead of clinging to our palm branches and waving them high 'til he comes, we set them aside. Maybe we go looking for our salvation in some other name (though “there's no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [Acts 4:12]). Maybe we resign ourselves to having no salvation, no rescue, no liberation at all; we just settle for where we are. 

Throughout the centuries, professing believers have tossed aside their palm branches in all these ways: by giving up hope, by leaving the faith, by trusting in other kings, even by imagining that “religion” is just a nice compartment of life for Sunday mornings, and we can check our palm branches at the door when we leave.

If there's one lesson to learn from the crowd in the Gospels, it's this one: Don't stop singing hosanna! Don't drop your branches! Keep waving them, loud and proud! Hold fast, cling tight, to what's good! Our hearts may be fickle and deceitful in this sinful world, but disciples discipline themselves to wave the palm branch, no matter what their hearts whisper. And as King Jesus is welcomed deeper and deeper into our lives, well, God sends “the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6), and so “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). And we live for “singing and making melody to the Lord in [our] hearts” (Ephesians 5:19) – putting hosannas there to stay.

If the larger crowd of culture insists on shouting “Crucify!”, still we sing, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 19:13). “Hosanna to the Son of David! … Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9). We refuse to be peer-pressured or manipulated out of our commitment to celebrating Christ. 

Don't drop your branches. Keep them waving, even when Jesus does what you don't expect. Keep them waving, even when Jesus takes up his whip and causes a ruckus, knocking over tables left and right. Keep them waving, even when the kingdom makes demands and when the King tells you to die to self and store up treasure somewhere less earthly. Keep them waving, even when King Jesus tells you to love and welcome your enemies. Hail King Jesus on his terms – even when his salvation comes in the shape of a cross, beyond which lies resurrection. Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Lent Is For... Sharing Bread

Walking the cobblestone and brick streets of Thessaloniki, there are a lot of sights you'll see. The slope of all the streets downward toward the sea. Little shrines with icons and candles. Graffiti on nearly every building you'll pass. Thousand-year-old churches, still standing tall, still inviting people to come worship God. The rubble of ancient ruins, blending with modern apartment complexes and storefronts. Shop after shop after shop in the shopping district. 

But one of the most common sights you'll see – one you can't avoid downtown – are beggars. Some are young women, kids in tow, trying desperately to sell individual packages of Kleenex. Others are old women and old men, sitting by the side of the road, hand outstretched and murmuring imploringly to anyone who walks near. It's an overwhelming experience, to be bombarded with so many cries for help, so many people visibly presenting a depiction of homelessness and poverty and desperation. But you know the cautionary tales that spin through your head at the same time, don't you?

When I was there last month, I have to say, I felt profoundly torn. I knew what the Bible teaches about generosity, about mercy. When I was in seminary, I pledged before God that I would try to move in the direction of a simpler lifestyle, owning nothing that isn't needful or at least useful in ministry. That's why, the next time I move, I plan – I hope – to divest myself of most of my belongings. Just get rid of it, sell it off, and learn to live on less. 

With that in mind, you'd think I would've been eager to give to every beggar I saw, or at least most. But on the other hand, objections kept surfacing in my mind. Now, there may be good reasons not to give money to a Greek beggar on the streets of Thessaloniki – many of them, I'm told, are victims of human trafficking and are coerced into begging to make money for their slavers, and others are working for organized crime rings – but I sure didn't know that. And the confession I have to make this morning is that, while I was there, God confronted me with the tremendous gap between my heart and Christ's heart.

And that's really the goal of Lent, isn't it? That's what we've been talking about these past couple weeks. By driving us beyond our usual limits and into the realm of self-sacrifice, by pushing us to where we're at our weakest, Lent opens our eyes to that distance. It's not so that we can feel bad. It's not so that we can moan and groan and say, “Woe is me,” and that's it. It's so that we can quit standing on our own so-called strength and fall down on Christ's. 

If you've been here the past couple of weeks, maybe you remember the gist of what we've been learning together from Isaiah. At the close of February, we opened up a question: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?” (Isaiah 58:5). Is it just about rituals, and then back to life as 'normal'? Or is God looking for something more from all our religion? 

And we found that the kind of fast God chooses means he's looking for us to forsake weighted scales, to speak up for the vulnerable, to abandon all violence, and to spread liberty to those now under oppression. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6).

But Isaiah keeps going on from there. Sure, like last week, Lent is still for combating “structural evil” like fraud, violence, and oppression – still a catalyst for challenging those aspects of law and culture and society and especially ourselves that run directly counter to God's kingdom. But Lent is for more – for things more directly in our personal power, ways we can change society that have nothing to do with changing the government and everything to do with our own actions. Lent is for personal action, to charitably and mercifully do good to people directly and make our neighborhood a healthier place.

So Isaiah continues: “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). That's not something we can leave to others. It's something vital to our own souls. If we ignore the need all around us, we're turning away from our own flesh and blood – and, says Paul, that makes us “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

It isn't as though God ever said, “Generosity would be cool, if you happen to feel like it.” The extent of our generosity depends on what we've got and on the Spirit's leading, but the fact of our generosity is a matter of obedience and of sharing God's vision for life. It's true that “there will always be poor people in the land,” but God tells us to “give generously to them, and do so without a grudging heart.” He commands us to “be openhanded toward [those] who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:10-11). 

God reminds us that “the wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously” (Psalm 37:21). And didn't Jesus outright tell the Pharisees: “Be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41)? God wants us to “be generous on every occasion” (2 Corinthians 9:11) – that's in the Bible, I didn't write it.

For those reasons, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, wrote: “Mercy to the full range of human needs is such an essential mark of being a Christian that it can be used as a test of true faith. Mercy is not optional or an addition to being a Christian. Rather, a life poured out in deeds of mercy is the inevitable sign of true faith.” 

In other words, the fast God chooses – Isaiah's Lent – is just what Jesus-followers do. Like Paul wrote to an earlier Tim: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

But maybe you'll say, “Hold on, wait a minute.” Maybe if you saw a scruffy man by the side of the road, maybe if someone came to you for help, you'd have a list of reasons to keep your wallet firmly in pocket. I know I did, when I was in Greece. Maybe you'd think, “This person must be so lazy, to not be working productively for society. His whole life must be a string of bad decisions. Let's leave him to the consequences of his own actions. Every man for himself.” Not that we know his heart. Not that we know whether the trauma of military service, or robbery, or some other tragedy drove him here. Not that we know whether he's trying to hold down a job but has trouble getting there without a car.

Or maybe you'd think, “If I even start a conversation, he'll hit me up for more and more, and then I'll never be rid of him, and I'll be uncomfortable.” But real mercy is open to a life-changing relationship – one that cuts through our culture of complacency and their culture of poverty; one that calls us both deeper into the life of Christ. Why should we want to be 'rid' of someone made in God's image? Why should we look at our brother, our sister, our neighbor as an inconvenience?

Or maybe you'd think, “I'd like to give, I really would, but I just can't afford it. I'm saving up for something.” But which will last longer: what you're saving for, or the soul of that man, woman, or child in desperate need with outstretched hand? In that moment, we show what we really value and whom we truly serve. Is it the image of God, or the image of Mammon? There are valid things we really need – we do have to take care of ourselves and our families, because they're at the core of our field of stewardship – but we need far, far less than we as Americans have tricked ourselves into thinking we do.

Or maybe you've walked past a panhandler and thought to yourself, “Why should I give him this money? Who knows how he'll use it? Probably to get drunk.” Not that we can see inside his heart, but we might think it anyway. We worry about misuse. Of course, there are ways to deal with that: we can find out what we need and take care of that need ourselves, by giving in kind rather than in cash, or by dealing with their creditors directly. 

But even so, I remember a story. Who here – a show of hands, now – has ever heard of C. S. Lewis? Not just an Oxford professor, but a wonderful Christian author in his day: Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, A Grief Observed, and of course the Chronicles of Narnia series.

I heard this story from his stepson a few years ago. One day, Lewis and a friend were walking down the road, and they came across a beggar. Lewis reaches into his pocket and pulls out all the money he has on him, and gives it to the beggar, and they walk on. His friend – maybe it was Tolkien, maybe another of the Inklings – is astonished, even dismayed, tries to reprimand him. “Jack!”, he says – his friends called him “Jack,” because, come on, would you want to go by “Clive”? – “Jack, what did you do that for? That beggar is probably going to spend every last penny of that on booze!” And Jack looked into his friend's eyes, and he says, “Maybe, maybe not – but if I'd kept it, I know that's how I would've spent it!”

C. S. Lewis was brutally honest in that. We can be so concerned about the potential irresponsibility of the poor that we're blind to our own actual irresponsible stewardship of God's gifts – so consumed in judging others for the speck in their eye that the log in our own keeps thwacking the doorframes and bounces off all the pews. 

Our attitude toward our money and our belongings is meant to look less like a game of Tug-of-War and more like a game of Hot Potato – it isn't about holding on with all our might; it's about tossing our excess away before it burns us, and trusting that God will take care of us in his service.

Isn't it great that, during his darkest night in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Lord Jesus didn't voice all our objections to showing mercy? Can you imagine a world where Jesus says to the Father, “I'm not giving up all I have for them – I'm not going to the cross – because it's too much to ask! I can't afford it, and I don't want to get hurt. Besides, look at how lazy they are! Look at how useless they are! They'll never change. And besides, many of them don't want to help others; they just want a handout. If I give them this one thing, they'll just keep coming back for more whenever they need something, and I'll never hear the end of it. That's so annoying, Father. And if I give them this life of mine, think how they'll squander it, think how they'll misuse it! That's it, that's the last straw – you can forget the cross.” 

What a dark world that would be. Thank God that his Son has a heart better than ours! He showed mercy, he showed generosity – and he calls us to be like him and help others, even in our own midst as well as beyond it, with their material, social, and spiritual poverty.

In Greece, I couldn't communicate with the beggars I saw – I didn't speak Greek, they didn't speak English. I couldn't get a sense of their sincerity, couldn't assess whether they were really hungry, or really in need of clothing or shelter or any of the other things Isaiah names. I couldn't find local charities that care for those needs in constructive ways, avoiding relationships of perpetual dependence. 

But I don't have those obstacles in America. Here, if I apply myself, I absolutely can speak with people in need – get to know them, learn about their lives and their situation; I absolutely can provide for their needs in concrete ways by buying them meals, helping them find work and get to work, funding their shelter, helping them in body and spirit. And when that gets overwhelming, I absolutely can find charitable organizations that equip people in need to reach self-sufficiency, so that they can begin to experience the joy of helping those with less. 

I may not have much by middle-class American standards, but I can do those things! And so can each of you – even if it's just pennies to start. And so can we, as a church. But one thing we can't afford to do is hoard all our wealth to ourselves, like the rich young ruler who “went away disappointed” (Mark 10:22).

You might be wondering, “Isn't this supposed to be a sermon about Lent?” You're right – it is. “What on earth does this have to do with Lent?” I promise you, it does. What biblical theme is Lent mostly about? Search for “Lent” on Google, and there's one word you'll see again and again: “Repentance.” Lent is all about repentance – that change of mind, that change of heart, that change of lifestyle, that turns us away from our old patterns and points us in God's direction again. John the Baptist was a fiery preacher of repentance “to all the people of Israel” (Acts 13:24). And he lived it – he was no hypocrite. In fact, you could say that John's whole life was Lent! He wore camel-hair clothes, he lived on locusts and wild honey, he fasted – he must have, to live like that, and the Bible outright tells us that “John's disciples often fast and pray” (Luke 5:33).

John the Baptist lived Lent from childhood to the chopping block, and repentance was his theme all his days long – after all, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness,” writes Mark, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). And when he castigated the crowds, he told them to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). They couldn't rely on their ancestry, their background, to keep them in the covenant: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). 

That's why Lent is so important – because Lent is about repentance, and repentance is a matter of life or death! So it's no surprise that the crowds asked – just like the crowds asked Peter on Pentecost – “What should we do, then?” (Luke 3:10).

And do you remember what John said? “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none. And anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11). That's amazing! If you have just two shirts in your closet (I must have a couple dozen, at least), and you meet somebody who hasn't got a single one, go down to one yourself for their sake. When John thinks about what repentance looks like for the crowds – people with lives back in the city, back in their villages, back in their country huts – it looks like sharing. It looks like generosity.

John the Baptist thinks with Isaiah's brain. What John means by repentance is what Isaiah means by fasting: share what you've got with the hungry, the homeless, the have-nots – even if what you've got is so little you don't know how you'll get by, repentance means sharing. 

The kind of fasting God chooses is for us to fast from the pretense of possession – to set aside our bizarre belief that our so-called “ownership” is more than stewardship, that our “rights” over all of “our” things take precedence over God's command to share what we have. 

That's the fast that God has chosen – and it's not just outward, but stems from a real reshaping of our hearts to see in each needy person (including those with small needs from time to time) the image of God and a chance to love as Christ loved us, without condescension, without condemnation.

So this message is for Lent. But it isn't only for Lent, as if repentance and fasting were confined to a season, and then it was back to business as usual. That's exactly Isaiah's criticism of Judah's “spiritual superheroes” (cf. Isaiah 58:5)! Lent is a reset button – a time to take up new patterns of living, not so that we can go back to 'normal' after it's done, but so that we can find a new 'normal' in its aftermath. Lent makes us one step more generous – and we carry that throughout the rest of the year and into the next, until Lent comes around again.

And what does Isaiah say will happen if we observe this kind of fast the LORD approves? “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say, 'Here am I.' If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (Isaiah 58:8-10).

That's what a good Lent will do! The Lent of the “spiritual superheroes,” who were all about ritual, all about 'doing church' without a change in heart – that kind of religion puts no wings on their prayers. It earns them no favor in God's sight. But this kind of Lent is different. It's not about earning God's favor or deserving his attention, though. This kind of fasting is only possible within the realm of his grace to begin with. It asks us to “spend ourselves in behalf of the hungry” – a real sacrificial generosity, but one made possible because Jesus Christ was generous first to us: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). 

 And because it comes from Jesus, because it does as Jesus does, it comes with such a great gift: “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9). “Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to” (Deuteronomy 15:10). Lent is for loosing the chains of injustice, and Lent is for sharing bread. The whole gospel leads to sharing bread together at the Lord's family table, after all.

This fasting will be a sacrifice, but it comes with a promise – a promise that God will see our reflection of his Son and be pleased, a promise that he'll bring new light into our lives, a promise that he'll pour out the Spirit of revival on us if we truly follow that Spirit into transformation of the head, heart, and hands. 

That's what this message is for. It's not for guilt-tripping anybody, not for hammering you down, not for convicting you and challenging you and making you exhausted. It's not about tiring you out: his yoke is easy, his burden is light, he will give you rest, so go labor for Jesus Christ in his field (Matthew 11:29-30). 

Let's be a church of mercy. Let's be a church whom people will see and say to themselves, “Yes... Jesus is risen, and Jesus is there.” “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” beyond all measure, who has “enriched [us] in every way so that [we] can be generous on every occasion” (2 Corinthians 9:11, 15). Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lent Is For... Loosing the Chains of Injustice

We opened an important question last week – or rather, Isaiah opened it for us: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (Isaiah 58:5). 

The religiosity of Judah's “spiritual superheroes,” those Pharisees in the making, was all about rituals and not about the heart; all about Sunday pretense, and nothing about Monday-through-Saturday reality; all about performance, not about grace-fueled transformation. They humbled themselves outwardly for a day and went straight back to their lives of deceit, violence, and oppression by the end of it. “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4). 

But then what kind of fast doesn't get in the way? What kind of fast, what sort of religious life, stamps “expedited shipping” on our heaven-bound prayers?

We've been wondering that all week, and now Isaiah opens up the answer. Here's what Lent is about: “To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). That's not how we would've expected the next verse to go, is it? It seems so strange. What are the chains of injustice? Why are they so tight? Why is loosening them up something fit for Lent? If last week's Question of Lent was confusing, the Answer of Lent seems no better! 

Well, I'd like to suggest the chains of injustice spiritually and socially keep people tied down, restraining them from living the quality of life God wants us to live. And when I read the passages we picked out for this morning, it seems to me that there are three major types of the chains of injustice.

The first set of chains are deceit and unfairness. Ezekiel tells us all about this, because even writing a few generations after Isaiah, he still had to address dysfunctions from before the exile. Ezekiel dreamed of a new Jerusalem with a massive “sacred district.” And he prophesied that, in this ideal Jerusalem, the land around the sacred district and city – land to the east and the west – would belong exclusively to the Prince, as his own personal possession. “And my prince will no longer oppress my people” as in the days of the wicked kings before him, who let the powerful get away with whatever crimes they pleased; “but [he] will allow the people of Israel to possess the land according to their tribes” (Ezekiel 45:8). And we know who the Perfect Prince of Israel is – Jesus Christ, the generous Son of David.

But other sons of David born from below – they weren't so humble. “You have gone far enough, princes of Israel! Give up your violence and oppression” – we'll get to those two next – “and do what is just and right. Stop dispossessing my people, declares the Sovereign LORD. You are to use accurate scales, an accurate ephah and an accurate bath” (Ezekiel 45:9-10). That was a major problem in Judah as Ezekiel remembered her. The kings and the nobles looked around and saw people enjoying the land God promised to the tribes. And they couldn't abide that sort of prosperity in the hands of mere commoners. So they schemed. When it came time to make deals or assess taxes, they used miscalibrated scales – one set for buying, another for selling. Joe's come to sell three pounds of grain? Let's bring out scales that say it's just two-and-a-half pounds – we'll cheat him out of that extra half-pound. Julie's on her way to buy three pounds of grain? Let's bring out scales that say our two-and-a-half pounds is three pounds – she'll pay for more than she gets. And with that fraud, the merchants impoverished the nation and stole the land.

If you read the rest of what God told Ezekiel, you'll see why that was such a problem. In cheating the tribes, the king was trying to cheat God. All because he and his minions refused to use accurate scales the way God already said in the Law: “Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight, or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:35-36). But those kings of old didn't listen – they wanted to cheat and chain those without power to resist; they wanted to bend the truth to their own advantage.

And that happens today, doesn't it? There's plenty of fraud in the world. We have laws against it, but for anything “too big to fail,” the consequence is a slap on the wrist, and we forget all about it, even if people have gotten hurt. Now, I'm sure none of us, in the lines of business we've pursued, has ever defrauded a customer or an employer like that. But what about our personal lives? 

Think about it this way: those who worked for the king used their sets of skewed scales to gain an advantage that wasn't theirs. The standard they'd apply to themselves was very different from the standard they'd apply to anybody else. And ah, that hits home a bit more. Because that kind of hypocrisy, that sort of inconsistency, is more familiar. It's one of the favorite sins of American Christianity, just as it was with the Pharisees.

Here's the tough truth: Any time we “weigh” our own sins on scales we wouldn't use to “weigh” the sins of others – any time we pretend our sins weigh less, simply because they happen to be ours – any time we make excuses for ourselves and want the benefit of the doubt – well, then we've done what the princes of Israel did. We've dispossessed our neighbors of their standing before God and pretended to an advantage in righteousness that isn't ours. We've used inaccurate scales. And we do it all the time. Oh, I got upset and shot my mouth off in the heat of the moment? Something came over me – that's not me, I swear! You have to understand! But that guy across the street dared do the same thing to me? What a rude person! So that's what he's really like on the inside! We all do it sometimes. It's second nature to justify ourselves and not our neighbors – not if their sin is against us or betrays our values. And in doing that, we tighten the chains of injustice around them.

So how do we loosen up those chains of injustice? We make a commitment to holding ourselves to the very same standard we hold others. In fact, if anything, we should take our own sins more seriously than the sins of anyone else. Their sins are between them and God – we should correct them when we can, but always see our sins as a log and theirs as just a speck. (But don't despair: Jesus is an expert at extracting specks and logs alike – and his grace outweighs all our sins on God's scales, when we follow him in faith.) 

And we also need to make a commitment to always doing our due diligence with regard to the truth. How often do we pass on stories, rumors, claims we haven't vetted, haven't researched, just because some website or magazine or friend told us it was so? I see this all the time. We read something, we don't think critically about it, and we pass it along – because we care more about its convenience than its truth. If we want to use accurate scales, that habit has to die. Because the Jesus we serve calls himself the Truth – not the Custom, and certainly not the Convenience.

Here's a Lenten challenge for you – and for me, just as much: In every “measurement” you make, ask yourself if you're using the same standard to yourself or your 'side' as you're using or approving for others. Ask yourself if it passes the review of God's word, not just of our personal tastes and our moral intuitions. It's not easy, but it's what Lent is for. Remember from last week: Lent is all about stripping away our self-deceptions, our illusions about the world and about ourselves. And that includes our double standards – our illusion that there's something about our first-person perspective that privileges us and our needs over the well-being of others.

Back to the chains of injustice. The second set of chains is violence. Remember, Ezekiel told the princes to stop their violence. But what is violence, from the Bible's point of view? Let me make a bold claim and then dig a little deeper. The Bible never once describes God as doing anything violent. The Bible never once says that the righteous Israelites do anything violent. The Bible absolutely condemns violence in every form, every type, in every situation. The Bible commands that we be completely and entirely non-violent. 

Now, that should give you questions. Doesn't the Bible say that God is a warrior (Exodus 15:3)? Doesn't the Bible record the Israelites going to war against the Canaanites and the Philistines? Jael drives a tent-peg through Sisera's skull, David hurls a stone into Goliath's head, Elijah orders the butchering of all Baal's prophets – doesn't that prove that the Bible is full of violence, that the Bible endorses violence? No. It shows that not all lethal force is violent, and not all violence is physical force.

The Bible records all these things, but is emphatic in refusing to call them “violence.” When the Bible portrays God using force, or commanding his people to use force, that isn't something that arises from the anger of their hearts. It's a cleansing action to scrub violence away from the land. It's God's judgment against violence, not an act of violence itself. As one biblical scholar, Peter Leithart, observes, “violence is unjust and sinful use of force.” Just punishment after due process doesn't count as violence – but it can be, if it isn't just or if it's pursued out of wrong motives. The same's true for military service – it can be forceful without being violent, even though, sadly, it often has been violent throughout history. 

And yet not all violence is physical force. For instance, the Bible false testimony in a courtroom “violent” (Exodus 23:1). Overly harsh words are violent – Job protests that his accusers, with just their words, are doing violence to him (Job 19:7). “The mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (Proverbs 10:11) – violence is in what passes out over their lips. Bad government is called violent (Psalm 58:1-2), exploitative commercial practices are called violent (Ezekiel 28:16), deception is called violent (Micah 6:11-12). Not all force is violence, and not all violence is physical force.

But violence was a problem for the prophets. They saw it everywhere they looked. Isaiah describes those “spiritual superheroes” of his day as being violent – as “striking each other with wicked fists” (Isaiah 58:4). And Jeremiah after him names it outright and shows how it targets the most vulnerable. Again, in an oracle given to the king of Judah, the prophet commands the king and his officials: “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3). Some people are especially vulnerable to violence because of the resources they lack or the position they have in society.

For instance, some people are made vulnerable due to natural circumstances. Not necessarily through their fault or the fault of anyone else, they've just gotten to a precarious place. The main biblical examples are orphans and widows, just like Jeremiah said. Now, thanks to the influence of the church over a couple thousand years, the situation has gotten steadily much better than it was during biblical times – and now, even plenty better than during the Industrial Revolution. (Remember Oliver Twist? Remember “Little Orphan Annie”?) This is not a patriarchal society where only landowning adult men have a voice and all others are left defenseless. 

Even so, the Red Cross still lists “unaccompanied children” and “widows” as two of the world's major “potentially vulnerable groups.” And we instinctively know that in today's society, don't we? Studies show that the most stable sort of home for raising a child is typically one with with a mother and father both alive and present.And others besides orphans and widows are made vulnerable by natural circumstances – think of those with disabilities, those with mental illnesses, those who live to an advanced age.

And then others are made vulnerable due to the actions of others. That's why Jeremiah mentions “the one who has been robbed.” Some people have their security taken away by being victimized. Maybe they've been the target of identity theft. Maybe their houses have been burgled. Maybe they've been assaulted. Maybe they've been hit with frivolous lawsuits. But in any case, some people need their neighbors to rally around them in support as a result of the harm that someone else has already done.

And finally, some are made vulnerable by their social distance – and so Jeremiah talks about “the foreigner,” as in the immigrant, the refugee, or in our global world, literal citizens of other nations. And that's a hot button issue today, how we should think about immigrants and refugees (especially for those from troublesome places or for those who didn't have the luxury of waiting for our immigration system to help them). 

Now, we might debate endlessly what immigration policy is the most just, the most fair – what policy is most loving to both natural-born Americans and those in desperate need who come from elsewhere. Politicians will argue that 'til the cows come home (and then confiscate the cows). There are almost no issues where the Bible lays out a specific policy proposal for you, saying that this and no other is the clear mandate of God in practice. Whatever you hear from the Right or the Left, the Bible generally doesn't do that. 

But through the Bible, God does teach us what he values and why. And in the Bible, God embeds us in a story where the chosen people were immigrants mistreated in the land of Egypt. They escaped as refugees, and for the rest of their national existence, their public policy was supposed to be a reflection of their life as immigrants and refugees. And in the New Testament, hospitality is held more highly than security, and believers are depicted as migrants passing through the present world (Hebrews 11:13). Like in Derek Webb's one song, “We're all migrating to a place where our Father lives, / because we married into a family of immigrants.” Whatever the right policy is, we who believe don't have the luxury of telling our neighbors of other ethnicities, faiths, or birthplaces that they're unwelcome to live beside us, work beside us, come to Christ and worship beside us.

But what do all these vulnerable groups have in common? What made them so vulnerable in Jeremiah's Judah? One common factor: They didn't have an effective voice in the courts, nor in the court of public opinion. Think about it: Orphans, widows, foreigners – they all had no one legally responsible for their care, responsible for personally speaking up on their behalf. And the victimized weren't in a position to do much about it. 

Jeremiah is totally clear on one thing: Those in a vulnerable place are to be treated with special consideration, and not – as King Jehoiachin was doing – to be taken advantage of. The Bible portrays them as being under God's personal protection: “The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” (Psalm 146:9). “He defends the cause of the orphan and the widow and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). And God places his curse on those who withhold justice from anyone who falls into one of these vulnerable groups (Deuteronomy 27:19).

So how do we loose this chain of injustice? We can remember that one of the three biblical tithes – yes, there were actually three of them – and one of them was reserved to benefit exactly these people, as well as the tribe of Levi, which was vulnerable by divine calling and dependent on the others for physical support, just as Israel was dependent on them for spiritual life (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). Because Israel's law recognized that God owns everything and it's just on loan to us, their law reserved a “sacred portion” of everyone's property for maintaining those who needed that 'safety net' of protection.

And with that in mind, we can consciously advocate for anyone whose human dignity is degraded or whose rightful claims are ignored. Now, that doesn't mean that we take the side of the seemingly disadvantaged in every case. God's Law taught Israel, “Do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit” (Exodus 23:3), just a few verses before God adds, “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits” (Exodus 23:6). 

In other words, give them due consideration – keep the scales of justice balanced – but without twisting justice either for or against them. And this also doesn't mean that, in those cases where sin puts someone in a vulnerable position – think how vulnerable ex-felons and those involved in drug abuse, prostitution, or same-sex sexual sin can be, especially in today's youth culture – it doesn't mean that we endorse or ignore those sins. But we are still to stand up for their dignity and to defend their rights; we are to lovingly embrace them and gently help them to turn from their sin and to be healed by Jesus.

We are exhorted to actively intervene, where we truthfully can, in favor of those who otherwise would have no voice. “Defend the oppressed; take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10). “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless” (Exodus 22:22). “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed” (Psalm 82:3). That's four biblical books, four authors. How many times and in how many ways does God have to say it before we get that there's no such thing as a Jesus-follower who stands against justice for the vulnerable?

So here's a second Lenten challenge: Replace all the violence in your life – let the Spirit guide you in noticing it, identifying it, whether it's in word or deed – with self-sacrificial peacemaking, including being reconciled with and speaking up for the vulnerable. Again, that's not easy. But it is what God says Lent is for. Lent is a special season for mortifying our passions, and our passions so often tug and pull us inward. When we're safe, when we're in power, they whisper to us that the margins don't matter – that if the system hasn't hurt us lately, the system must be healthy. Our passions get inflamed when the system turns against us, but stay cold when we aren't the ones being hurt. 

Remember Martin Niemöller's famous poem? “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.” 

Lent is a time to stand in solidarity with all victims of violence and with all who are at special risk. And I'm sure we'd be surprised if we knew just how many people in our own community were, in some way or another, deprived of a voice or a defense. Lent is a time to decide that we'd rather be broken ourselves than to break anyone else – just as Jesus preferred to be broken on the cross than to break us all for good at the Last Judgment.

The chains of injustice again – the third set (and I'll be brief here) is oppression. Ezekiel mentions it, and also Jeremiah mentions it, and so does Isaiah himself. The true fast, the authentic Lent, is “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free” (Isaiah 58:6). Oppression was a problem then, and it still is today. Sometimes, we're oppressed by lawlessness. Crime is oppressive! Crime is violent! When there is no law, when each man does what's right in his own eyes – well, you watch the news. Seldom a Sunday goes by where someone doesn't mention to me a story they heard that sickens or saddens them to their core. So sometimes, we're oppressed by lawlessness.

And yet, sometimes we're oppressed by an excess of law, which can be no better than the law's absence. Think of the Pharisees. What did Jesus say about the way they treated the Law of Moses, to which they appended all their oral traditions like a fence? “And you experts in the law, woe to you, for you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46). In their system, an excess of law oppressed the people by chaining them to so many rules. 

And look at modern America. With as many laws are on the books, every single one of us is probably rendered unknowingly a law-breaker – giving the state the power to find a suitable pretext to punish anyone at any time. As the law becomes more and more intrusive in the name of new political orthodoxies, we've begun to see the progressive creep of horror stories – normal people whose lives are turned upside down for seeking to live a quiet and peaceful life in the way their parents and grandparents did before them – or, more dangerous yet, for daring to obey God rather than man (cf. Acts 5:29).

But the greatest oppression of all isn't from criminals, isn't from the media, and it isn't from any government. The greatest oppression of all is from sin itself. “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, / fast bound in sin and nature's night.” What does Jesus say? “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). And what does Paul say? The unbeliever is “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Romans 7:14), and being “slaves to sin … leads to death” (Romans 6:16). Sin creates slavery. Sin oppresses. Pharaoh was just a shadow of sin's tyranny. We need freedom, and Jesus offers it. If any of you haven't been “set free from sin” (Romans 6:18), you need to turn to Jesus – “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

But still, all this talk of unbalanced scales, violence, oppression – doesn't so much of it seem foreign to our church right now? And yet it's all terribly relevant, even for us, nestled out here in the countryside beneath our broken roof. To begin with, every time we vote for any office-holder, from the bottom all the way to the top, we have a hand in choosing whether the chains of injustice will loosen or tighten. 

It's a mess this year. In both parties, plenty of candidates fail miserably when it comes to consistency – to measuring others with the same standard they'd seek for themselves. That's politics as usual. And in both parties, candidates actively endorse physical and verbal violence, whether against the wealthy and the unborn in one party or against immigrants and refugees in the other. And the front-runners of neither party have a track record of seeking, in the words of the pledge we all grew up with, “liberty and justice for all” – a Christian sentiment before it ever was an American one. 

I can't tell you how to sort out that muddle – what ballot box might loose the chains of injustice most. I can't tell you, and not just because we'd have the IRS breathing down our necks. The gospel isn't about handing down a new law like the old one; it's about being led in dialogue with the Spirit deeper into the heart of the Lawgiver – the Lawgiver who tells us to forsake weighted scales, to speak up for the vulnerable, to abandon all violence, and to set the oppressed free.

But beyond participating in the political process, we can put these biblical truths into practice here and now in our lives. We can follow through on those Lenten commitments – we don't have to wait the fifty-one days until the Pennsylvania primary. We can loose the chains of injustice in Salisbury Township and the other neighborhoods around us. And we can start with our own lives: devoting ourselves to the fairness of the truth; replacing the violence of our lips with words of peace and comfort; and spreading the good news that “whom the Son sets free is free indeed” (John 8:36). Amen.