Sunday, May 28, 2017

New Prayers on the Throne: Sermon for Ascension Sunday 2017

Jaws dropped. Mouths hanging open. Eyes wide in wonder. He'd told them all along he'd go – but did they really have this in mind? There he goes, there he rises, up from the earth, up toward the blue sky, up toward the sun! Their eyes weren't playing tricks on them; but yet they'd never seen anything like it, not even close. It was like a scene from the scriptures, like when the fiery chariot came for Elijah – but this, this was beyond comprehension. Was he flying? Was something lifting him? Was he riding on something, anything? And no sooner had the question appeared than he disappeared, hidden behind a cloud... and when the cloud moved, he was gone. If they squinted hard enough, could they still spot him, even at a great distance? With all their might, they strained to scan the sky (Acts 1:9).

And suddenly, out of nowhere, while their faces are turned upwards and their eyes transfixed on the clouds that papered over where their Lord had just been – well, in that moment, two human figures arrayed in white robes are standing next to them, announcing the inevitability of Christ's return (Acts 1:10-11). You know, angels showing up out of nowhere – that can't be something you ever get used to, it just can't. I imagine that, in between those words and the return to Jerusalem described in the next verse, probably at least one apostle was on the verge of needing a defibrillator! And I wonder if any of the apostles was relieved that these angels didn't have four wings, four faces, bodies of fire, and wheels-within-wheels!

In that sense, you could say that, compared with the prophet Ezekiel, Peter and James and John all got off pretty easy! And yet if you've been with us for all the Sundays since Easter, you know that we've been spending some time exploring the lessons Ezekiel can teach us about why the resurrection of Jesus matters – just what, exactly, kind of difference does it make in our lives? Back in April already, we considered Ezekiel's visions of the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD on a throne-chariot supported by intensely bizarre angels accompanied by wheels-within-wheels – a throne-chariot that could fly or roll anywhere, and yet the rolling throne went to be with the people of God in exile. The truth is, no matter how much Babylon may have viewed God's invasion as unwanted, that couldn't stop God from being there for his people. All the gods of Babylon couldn't stop him. And neither could death stop God's Word-Made-Flesh from invading the realm of the dead or from soaring back up again to invade the world of the living forever. When God is on the move, as God was and is on the move in Christ, no tomb, no stone, no guards, can do anything to stop him from rolling on.

Earlier this month, then, we looked at Ezekiel's prophecy against the bad shepherds – kings and other leaders throughout Israel and Judah's history – whose failure to tend the people as God's flock, whose outright abuse of God's flock, had led to them being scattered in exile. And we know something about what it looks like – in the nation, in the home, even in the church – to labor under bad shepherding. But Ezekiel predicted that God himself would come to be our Good Shepherd, to restore us, to seek out the lost and the strayed, to keep order within his flock with compassion and justice for all. And thanks to the resurrection of Jesus, that promise is true! The Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep, but he lives again to lead his flock.

And then, last week, we looked at Ezekiel's exposé of the human heart – how the people weren't just innocent bystanders sent into exile by bad leaders, but how a heart defect we all share is what sent them there – Israel had a heart of stone. But God, speaking through Ezekiel, promised that there'd be a day when he would take away that heart of stone and replace it with a tender heart of flesh that's ready to do his will and can live up to God's holy name written on it. And thanks to the resurrection of Jesus, that promise is true! Our hearts may need a trimming now and then, but new life for Jesus means new life for what's dead in us.

And now we don't just have the Resurrection to grapple with. There's the Ascension, too. If the Resurrection makes possible a new shepherd over the flock and a new heart in our chest, and if the Resurrection sets the stage for the Ascension, what does the Ascension mean? Well, we know where to turn to learn how the Ascension happened, or at least what it looked like – for that, we go to the Acts of the Apostles. But if we want to know what it means, then I don't think there's a better option than the Letter to the Hebrews. Because really, there are some great parts of Hebrews that tell us about what the ascended Jesus has been up to since then.

I mean, right from the beginning, we find out that Jesus, God's Son, is no ordinary guy. He's the heir of all things, he's the agent of creation, “he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:2-3a). Isn't that totally wild? Jesus is an exact stamp of everything that makes God 'God'; he's a perfect overflow of his Father's glory. Look to him, and you aren't getting anything second-rate. You're getting God and nothing less – no doubt about it.

What's more, everything holds together in him, by his powerful word. During the days of Cain and Abel, the earth only orbited the sun because Jesus said so! During the days of Moses, the galaxies only kept their cohesion because Jesus told them to! On the night when Bethlehem's bedraggled shepherds came to tell Mary and Joseph what they'd seen, the baby in the manger was the one telling their hearts to keep beating!

When he was hanging on the cross, blood trickling from his many wounds, his body writhing in agony, and the crowd and soldiers making a mockery of him, the only thing that protected the soldiers and the scoffers and Herod and Pilate and Caiaphas, the only thing that kept the atoms in their body from flying apart, the only thing that stopped their wicked jeers from ending in a bunch of pint-sized mushroom clouds all over Calvary, was that, in each moment, in the divine recesses of his mind, Jesus deliberately whispered to his mockers' bodies' atoms: “No... stay together, that they might live.”

And on that first Easter morning, and during the Ascension, and every moment since then, the ultimate explanation for why the universe runs in an orderly way, why any of it holds together, why quarks stay in baryons and mesons, why the strong nuclear force holds protons and neutrons together in atoms, why any of the four fundamental interactions happen at all, why your mitochondria can keep powering your cells and the synapses in your brain can keep firing and your muscle fibers can keep responding, and why there's even such a thing as oxygen available to you in the air, is because Jesus insists to the universe that it keep holding together so that you and I can exist. And that is the word of his power!

Hebrews goes on to tell us that Jesus had made “purification for sins” – meaning that, on the cross, he acted as both sacrifice to be offered and priest to do the offering. That's a major theme in Hebrews; there's no getting around it. Jesus, by offering up his own life to God in sacrifice, provided the means for sins to be wiped away. But after he'd done that, and after he'd gotten up again, something pretty wild happened: the Ascension. And while Acts continues the storyline on earth, Hebrews continues the storyline in heaven. It goes like this: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3b).

Have you ever really thought about what that means? In all the days from Saul to Zerubbabel, no priest ever sat down on the royal throne of Israel. There was never any overlap between the Levitical priesthood and the Davidic monarchy. But now the priest is on the throne in heaven, seated with God in the position of utmost power – so much so, Revelation actually talks about the throne as jointly theirs, “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1-3). Jesus is heaven's priest-king – something that no priest descended from Aaron, no king descended from David, ever had been on earth – but “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tabernacle that the Lord set up, not man” (Hebrews 8:1-2).

This priest on the throne is like other priests in a lot of ways – he was appointed by God's call, he was chosen from among men, he acted on behalf of humans in relation to God, he offered a sacrifice for sin as well as other gifts like prayers, and so forth (Hebrews 5:1-4). But he's also unlike other priests. Israel's priests under the old covenant got their qualifications from the Law, but he gets his from a promise straight from the Father's lips (Hebrews 7:20-21, 28). Israel's priests had sin of their own to deal with first, but he was sinless from the get-go (Hebrews 7:27). Israel's priests kept dying off, so there had to be a non-stop chain of them, but he has an indestructible resurrection-life, so he's the only one we need (Hebrews 7:23-24). And Israel's priests had to keep doing sacrifices over and over again, because they were only a Band-Aid on the problem; but Jesus offered his atoning sacrifice once-for-all: “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12-14).

That's a big deal! That's a huge deal! Thanks to Jesus, there's no need to keep making blood sacrifices to God as a way of trying to patch over our sins. Jesus is enough. With Jesus, you don't have to ever worry about who will replace him – nobody will. You don't have to worry that he screwed up and botched the job – no chance of that. You don't have to worry that God won't accept his sacrifice as enough to fix you – the Resurrection and the Ascension are one-trillion-percent proof that God accepted Jesus' sacrifice as purifying you in full. Isn't that a big deal? Isn't that beautiful? Jesus is enough! Let go of guilt, let go of shame, let go of anxiety and fear, let go of any thoughts of impressing God or earning anything from him – Jesus is enough!

And so after he'd presented his priestly sacrifice, he sat down on the throne, right next to his Father, in the place of honor. The author tells us that he's waiting until all his enemies – everything that resists his vision of life for us – are subdued and beaten and tamed forever. That's a wonderful thought; that's a wonderful hope. But does it leave Jesus passive, sitting quietly on a chair watching the hands on the clock? Well, what do you think? Not a chance! Jesus has perfect access to his Father; there's no gap between them, no distance (spatial or relational) to separate them – that's perfect access. And here's how he's been using his perfect access within the true Holy of Holies in heaven: “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

Did you catch that? Did you hear that? There's what he's been doing all this time: praying. From Ascension to 2017, Jesus has been talking his Father's ear off about us. From Ascension to 2017, the heavenly Holy of Holies has been the scene of an uninterrupted prayer meeting, an unrelenting marathon where Jesus, acting as priest, prays to the Father for us. Jesus prays for me. Jesus prays for you. And Jesus doesn't pray at a distance. Jesus never has the feeling like his words of prayer float away in the air; there's not enough space between his praying lips and the Father's listening face! Isn't that good news? That's what the Ascension makes possible – that's the beauty of it.

I know that, for many of us in this congregation, for some who are here this morning and for some who aren't, what we're seeing here on earth is a rough season. Some of us are incredibly stressed out, feeling lost and alone, wondering how the bills will get paid. Some of us are frustrated, angry, broken-hearted in the face of a world of injustice, whether here in America where unjust judges have sway and an outraged nation can't come together, or in the world at large, where stadiums of children are blown up and busloads of young believers are martyred. Some of us are in danger of losing our homes. Some of us already have, and are wondering what to do, where to go, where to turn.

Some of us are remembering those whose lives were stolen by war, one of the most devastating corruptions wrought by sin against God's good world, but who yet marched into an earthly simulation of hell so others wouldn't have to. Some of us are grieving tragic loss, wondering how we can ever feel complete again with our heart ripped in pieces and divided by death. Some of us are watching the sand in life's hourglass get awful scarce, hear the tick of the clock grow louder and more foreboding as our earthly time runs down, as our bodies wear out. Some of us are wrestling with feelings of betrayal, with feelings of abandonment, with feelings of futility like we're beating our heads against the wall, we're stumbling in circles and can't break the cycle of sin, of monotony, of failure and tears and pain.

And if you're in those shoes, maybe you're wondering if God even notices. Maybe you're wondering if God is even listening. Maybe you're wondering if your prayers are just shattering against the clouds, or if they fall too short to reach. And here's the message you need to hear: Jesus is praying for you! Whatever your situation, whatever feelings you're processing, whatever grief or turmoil you're trying to hand over to God, Jesus is setting it before his Father's face. His prayers always reach home, and God is not prone to reject the prayers of the Son who triumphed over the cross. So take encouragement from this: even if you can't shake the feeling that your prayers aren't good enough to reach, Jesus' prayers for you always reach the heart of a receptive God. So what, in the big scheme of things, is left for you to fear?

Or maybe, this morning, you feel distant from God. You feel like God is a million miles away, far removed from your life. You feel like you can't approach – that you're not good enough, that you're unworthy, that you're too lost, too alone, too unlovely. I know – I've been there, I've had those feelings, too. But here's the message that you and I need to hear: “We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh; and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19-22). We can “draw near to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25). If you feel too unlovely, if you feel too unworthy, if you feel like you aren't enough – have confidence, have assurance! You're entering through him – in his flesh, in his body, clothed in him; and there's nothing more lovely and worthy and sufficient than Jesus.

What's more, if you feel distant from God, think about this: the Bible says that “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). It repeatedly describes believers as being “in Christ.” What does that mean? It means a lot of things, but one of them is this: where Jesus goes, you go. Where Jesus goes, your life goes. As a believer, the maximum distance between you and God is the distance between Jesus and God. And so when the Bible tells us that Jesus is seated with God on God's throne, that Jesus sits at God's right hand, that Christ is “in God”... well, come on! Believe it! Thanks to the risen and ascended Jesus, the maximum distance between you and God is squashed down closer to zero than you can possibly imagine! If that's not an incentive for confidence, what is?

And you never have to worry about losing this.  Abide in Jesus, keep being near to God through him, trust him as priest and follow him as king. So why would you ever even consider running anywhere else? Why would you even think of bailing on him, jumping ship on heaven's throne room and the Advocate you have there? “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23)!

Jesus isn't going anywhere; Jesus will never go AWOL; Jesus will never desert his post on the throne – he's our anchor within the veil, he's the guarantee of every Yes to God's every promise, he's the prayer for every question and the answer for every prayer. And when we gather, we are especially then with him – so “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together (as is the habit of some) but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). For that, too, our Prayer Warrior and Priest is praying on the throne. Keep on praying with him, and obeying the word of his power whereby he tells us, “Just like the atoms... stay together.” Amen.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

New Heart in the Chest: Sermon on Ezekiel 36

There he sat... with his people in the land of exile. It had been years now since he'd gone there. Ezekiel wasn't the first. He also wasn't the last. He knew now that God was with them in Babylon – that's what the vision of the throne chariot, the rolling throne, was all about. And God had given him many oracles of judgment against the sin that led the people there in wave after wave after wave. Now it was finished. All but a few stragglers were in exile. The former temple, abandoned by its God when it became too polluted to tolerate, had been burned and broken. The city of God was demolished. Up until then, it had been possible, through contorted reasoning, for the people of Jerusalem to still claim that it was only a temporary setback. But now it was painfully obvious that the judgment of God had come. And why was it so difficult for them to see it? “Because,” the prophet said to himself, “their hearts were so hard.”

It had been the story of the people for a long time. They once thought it was only for Pharaoh, whose heart was made hard, tough, resolute against God's call (Exodus 7:13). They thought it was only for pagan kings like Sihon of Heshbon, whose heart was likewise hardened against God and set up for a fall (Deuteronomy 2:30). But it proved to be the story of Israel, too. It was a perennial temptation for Israel to harden their hearts in the face of poverty and need (Deuteronomy 15:7), to harden their hearts in the desert as opponents of God and Moses (Psalm 95:8), to harden their hearts time and time again and resist God's way of life (Isaiah 63:17).

Isn't that heart-breaking? And I mean that almost literally – because that's exactly what Israel needed: for their hearts to be broken. Because their hearts had, as it were, turned to stone. Which is just so far from what God had ever intended for them! Israel had been created for the sake of God's holy name. Their purpose was to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, marked out as God's special project, an example of what society could look like under his supervision and guidance. It's like they were God's commercial, God's marketing campaign, to the rest of the world: “Turn to me and be blessed like this!” So they were specially designed to bear his holy name; there was a space reserved just for him on their hearts. And inevitably, in the world they lived in, other nations would look at them and associate their conduct and their welfare with the God whose name their hearts were designed to bear.

And if their hearts had been soft and pliable to God's instruction, if their hearts had glowed warm in the light of God's love, if their hearts had been obedient and clean, that would have been great! God would have blessed them as he did in the days of David and Solomon, and the nations would have been drawn to them and inspired by them and maybe, over time, would have surrendered to the beauty of their quiet witness and been converted.

But that wasn't how the story went. Israel's heart turned out to be nothing special, nothing above the ordinary. Israel's heart wasn't soft and pliable. Israel's heart didn't glow warm. Israel's heart wasn't, in fact, even alive at all. Through neglect, through little acts of resistance, through a studied campaign of stubborn rebellion, their heart had “died within [them], and [it] became as a stone” (1 Samuel 25:37). Their heart was hard – a heart of stone. And that heart of stone betrayed their very reason for existing – it made them a total marketing failure, an advertising flop, a mockery.

Nothing less than exile from the land would make them even start to get a grip on that. Israel was so defiled that they couldn't stay; their blood and their idols were a pollution (Ezekiel 36:17-18). So God sent them away from their land, piece by piece; he scattered them throughout the nations, and the provinces of Babylon (Ezekiel 36:19). That was what had to happen. There was no other way, because God couldn't tolerate their abominations in the promised land forever. But when other nations looked at Israel's behavior, they asked, “Oh, so is that what your God wants? Is that the example he wants to set? Some God you have!” And when they looked at the consequences of that behavior, they scoffed, “Oh, your God can't even protect you! He can't save you from us! He can't bless you – he's too weak! These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land – what a joke!” (cf. Ezekiel 36:20). And so Israel's heart of stone brought the God of Israel into public disrepute.

And it would be easy to judge them, in light of all the prophets rightly say. But the problem with that is that the truth Israel belatedly discovered about themselves is a truth bigger than themselves. Israel's heart of stone isn't unique to them. It's not as though they were worse than all the other people. They were a case study. Their heart of stone is common to all the sons and daughters of Adam, common to every human community, every project we undertake. You ever see the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray's character gets stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over and over? It's like that, only the day we're repeating is the Tower of Babel. Inexcusably, our light-deprived “foolish hearts” were no less stony than theirs (Romans 1:21). And what else can you call that but “an evil and unbelieving heart” (Hebrews 3:12)? John Calvin was right about this – yes, you heard me – John Calvin was right when he called the stony human heart or mind “a perpetual forge of idols.” Look within at the rocky, craggy landscape you've seen there, and you've scoped out an idol factory, a veritable idol assembly line, deaf and dumb and dead to God's call.

But our hearts were not made for that. They were not made to die and be fossilized. They were meant to live! No less than Israel's, all our hearts were made for God's name, for God's word to be written there, for God's love and mercy and holiness to shine brightly there. Our hearts were all made to be a perpetual advertisement to one another, to the heavenly host above and to all creatures here below, of the beauty of loving the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, our triune God from whom all blessings flow. That's what they were made for.

But dead hearts of stone, hearts claimed and twisted and petrified by sin, don't do that. Sin isn't merely a mistake, isn't merely a moral failure. Sin is every dark infectious power, every demonic whisper, that scars and deadens the heart, that leads to a fundamental mismatch between God's holiness and the hearts he made to bear his name. And no less than Israel, we've all experienced that. Every nation, every people, every person, has experience with the fundamentally calloused heart within, the heart that's hopelessly mismatched with the name divine for which it was made. And so without radical grace, we are hopeless, and our hearts will always betray God's name. Now that is a sobering thought. Especially since a “hard and impenitent heart” is doing nothing else but “storing up wrath for [itself] on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

But here's the good news: Jesus Christ is risen! And is there any act of grace more radical than resurrection? Is there any word that better encapsulates the essence of hope than that? Because if resurrection is a reality, then there's hope of life for the dead... even what's dead in us. Earlier, when Ezekiel saw God on a rolling throne by the banks of the canal, and when he glimpsed God's rolling throne flying away from the Jerusalem temple to go into Babylonian exile with his people, God told him that the rolling throne meant that he was like a portable sanctuary to them out where they had been taken (Ezekiel 11:16). And he said it was like a downpayment on a future reality – a promise that exile was not forever (Ezekiel 11:17). And neither, he said, was Israel's dirtiness or their heart of stone (Ezekiel 11:18-19).

And in this morning's passage, taken from later in Ezekiel's ministry, God picks up that theme yet again. In the face of Israel's relentless hard-heartedness, in the face of the hard-hearted nations' persistence in mocking God for what Israel's hard-hearted exile seems to suggest about his lack of goodness and power, in the face of the way Israel and the nations have all treated God's holy name and the hearts that were made to bear it, God is here determined to “vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes” (Ezekiel 36:23). That means Israel's return to the land, which vindicated God and his people in the face of exile (Ezekiel 36:24). It also means the resurrection of Jesus to the land of the living, which vindicated God and his Messiah in the face of death. And it portends the resurrection of the whole body of Christ, which will vindicate God, God's Son, and God's Son's Bride in the face of death and sin and all else that stains the good world God had made.

But as Ezekiel hears this prophecy, here's what God promises. First, God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25). It's like in Numbers 19, where the rare ashes of a red heifer were kept by the priest, but they were taken with water to be sprinkled on the congregation of Israel to cleanse them from impurity (Numbers 19:9). God had told them to use that kind of supercharged water for the priests to sprinkle on Israel to cleanse them from anything that made them dirty; and here God promises, just like that, to wash away everything their idol factory has produced. And “if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13-14) – a truth we come to experience in baptism, the supercharged water that connects us with Christ's cleanness. The leprosy of our souls is in desperate need of nothing less.

But, in fact, we're in need of a great deal more. See, as long as our heart is stone, as long as our heart is dead, as long as the idol assembly-line keeps chugging along, we'll end up right back where we were. We'll continue, in our conduct and in its consequences, to communicate to the world, to each other, to ourselves a misbranded, misconstrued portrait of God. We'll continue to drag his name through the mud... as long as our heart is a heart of stone. And all along, the prophet had been exhorting the people to turn away from death, to turn away from sin, to get the stony layers circumcised off of their heart, to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” and live (Ezekiel 18:31).

But what should be painfully obvious is that self-surgery of the heart is not exactly in the human repertoire. And so through Moses long ago, God had foretold a day when “the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring” (Deuteronomy 30:6). And through Ezekiel, God now takes the initiative for a heart transplant: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

Israel was in desperate need of nothing less! Not only did they have to return to their land, not only did they have to be made clean from their idolatry, but they needed a real change of heart. Instead of having a stone-like heart that resists God's will, that's stubborn and recalcitrant to his hands and immovable to his voice, what they need – what God promises to give them – is a tender heart, clipped of any callouses, that's soft to his hands and responsive to his voice, tender in his presence and ready to do his will. That's the purpose of the circumcised heart, the new heart, just like Moses said: “so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live … and you shall again obey the voice of the LORD (Deuteronomy 30:6-8).

Toward the end of the Old Testament and beyond, though, we see that Israel wasn't exactly there. They'd been returned to the land, but they remained under foreign domination; there was a sense that they were almost exiles even in their own home. They'd been freed from the obvious idolatry of pagan gods, but managed to snare themselves in subtler idols like power, money, and even their own traditions in the way they handled God's Law. They hadn't yet received the new Spirit. Nor, for that matter, had their hearts really been softened. They still displayed hardness of heart, still were stubborn and resistant to God's mercy, still unbelieving and immovable to his voice (cf. Mark 3:5; 8:17). There was more to be done. And because Jesus Christ is risen, it has been!

Through the risen Christ, God has performed a heart transplant for every believer, and for his people as a whole. And the New Testament tells us a lot about this heart of flesh, this new heart we've been given. Where the old heart was calloused and tough, always putting up guards and roadblocks and walls, the new heart isn't like that. It's described by Peter as a “tender heart,” one that goes along with love, sympathy, and humility (1 Peter 3:8). It's described by John as open – “if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother [or sister] in need, yet closes his heart against him,” that's not the way the new heart behaves. The new heart isn't closed; it's open (1 John 3:17).

Where the old heart was defiled, unclean, “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9), the new heart isn't like that. The author of Hebrews speaks of “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience,” leading to “a true heart [with] full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22). That's what the new heart is like. That's the heart God has given you. It's full of truth. It's clean. Paul calls it “a pure heart” (1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:22). Peter does, too: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

What's more, where the old heart was a purely human – really, subhuman – sort of thing, the new heart isn't like that, either. The new heart is radically open to God. The author to the Hebrews speaks of the new heart being “strengthened by grace” (Hebrews 13:9), and grace comes from God. God is the source of the heart's strength. Not only that, the new heart is a receptacle of God's love. Paul tells us that “hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts” (Romans 5:5). God is the source of the new heart's love. And not only that, the new heart is under the dominion of the Prince of Peace. Paul writes that, too. He urges believers to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body, and be thankful” (Colossians 3:15). God, in the person of his Son, is the source of the new heart's strength, love, and peace. The new heart is open to God because it's fueled by God.

What's more, the new heart belongs to Christ. It's his for worship. Peter tells us that. Drawing on a passage from Isaiah about the Lord GOD, Peter writes, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy,” or “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15). That's what the new heart is for: it's a shrine, a sanctuary, where Jesus Christ reigns as God alone. It's a chamber of his vast temple.

And the walls are inscribed with his words. That's why Paul can call his converts “a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of fleshly hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3). And it's why the author of Hebrews twice quotes the prophecy of Jeremiah, where God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33; cf. Hebrews 8:10; 10:16). The new heart is Christ's for worship and for witness: he reigns there as God and declares his word there as the Wise King of Glory.

And because of that, whereas the old heart was hard and unyielding, stubborn and resistant to God's will, the new heart isn't like that. The new heart is soft and pliable in his hands and responsive to his voice. Paul says it best when he talks about the new possibility of “doing the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:6). This new heart is able to practice the will of God, and even to trust God like putty in his hands: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The new heart is the organ of salvation; it's the organ of Christian life and Christian living. It's essential – there can be no church, no Christian, without it!

But now the sad truth is, sometimes our heart ages. Sometimes it toughens up too much. Sometimes it gets too calloused, and the callouses calcify, and it gets a stony outer layer. That's a common truth among Christians, we who bear God's holy name. Too often, we're lacking in mercy. Too often, we're lacking in purity. Too often, we're lacking in love. And when that happens, it's a problem. Because the nations will look at us, and just like Israel in ages past, we bring God's holy name into disrepute. You see it all the time – people rejecting God, rejecting Jesus, rejecting the fellowship of the saints, because they trip over the stony bumps and lumps on our hearts.

And so we need God to vindicate his holy name again in us. What we need is heart surgery. God is still in the business of heart transplants for his creatures and heart surgery for his wayward, calcified children... even if it be with a hammer and chisel. That's no light thing. Probably some of you here this morning have had heart surgery. Was it an enjoyable process? Was it fun? Was it an easy and painless recovery? I'd venture to say not. And the same is true when God carries out spiritual heart surgery on us. It may not be enjoyable, it may not be fun, it may not be easy and painless. As a general rule, it won't be.

But for all that, it's no less necessary, often – sorry to say – on a regular basis. We can thank God that the Good Shepherd is also the Good Physician, the Surgeon of our Hearts. So once again our heart can be freshly healthy and lively, clean and true and pure, strengthened with the grace and peace and love of God, soft and tender and ready to do God's will. And because of that, hope does not disappoint. So may God carry out heart surgery on us as needed, to renew in us a new heart, a heart like the heart of our risen Lord. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Mother's Love and Faith: Sermon for Mother's Day 2017

Here they came, over the hill. The Complaint Brigade. Always looking for a party to ruin. Always looking to inspect and evaluate and, if they had their way, find fault. Scribes and Pharisees had come all the way from Jerusalem to look into whether this 'teacher' Jesus fit their standards. And when they saw that his followers were eating freely in the fields without carefully purifying their hands, the Pharisees knew they needed to set Jesus straight. His disciples, after all, were out of step with the holy traditions passed on from one generation of wise teachers to the next. And so they confronted Jesus about it in a public place, chiding him for not caring more for the detailed strictures of purity that would safeguard the holiness of the meal (Matthew 15:1-2).

But Jesus lambasted them as hypocrites – hypocrites! His students, he said, were only flouting man-made rules of no consequence – after all, the purity that matters most in God's sight is the purity of the heart, which is seen not by what enters your mouth but what leaves it – but the Pharisees, he charged, were themselves misleading their students to disdain the very commands of God himself through their traditions! God had sternly warned the Israelites long ago to show careful respect for their mothers and fathers, to honor them and love and cherish them, to care for them; and yet if a Jewish man declared his property qorban, a gift for the temple once he died, he could use it however he liked and preserve it as off-limits to his parents in their old age – and the traditions of the Pharisees did nothing to cancel that vow. And so the Pharisees had effectively rendered God's actual commandment a moot point, given it only lip-service – all in the name of their precious tradition, for which they dared to rebuke his disciples.

And as he said those words, Jesus was, I'm sure, righteously indignant. He thought about the mothers of the Pharisees, the mothers of their followers, wasting away in old age, forced to beg while their children enjoyed plenty – and they took his Father's name in vain to excuse it! And perhaps Jesus thought about his own sweet mother Mary, a woman forever dear to his heart, a woman who had raised him from his human infancy, who had given him love as best she could, and whom it broke his heart to think of leaving uncared for. And so Jesus decried the Pharisees' neglect of mothers everywhere, and the honor that God had carefully specified they were deserving of (Matthew 15:3-11).

But his own disciples approached him, after his sharp denunciations knocked the wind from their lungs. They were worried. Did Jesus realize, they wondered, how badly the Pharisees were offended by the way Jesus had deconstructed their whole religious system, by the way Jesus had dared speak to them? Didn't Jesus understand that he'd never win their approval now – that the Pharisees would pursue a vendetta? Didn't Jesus care that the Pharisees were offended by him? Matter of fact, no – his Father hadn't planted the Pharisees; they were blind through their stubborn pride, and the blind would follow them, but for his part, he'd challenge their blindness, not coddle it. And he questioned Peter and the others on why they just didn't get it (Matthew 15:13-20).

The truth is, though, that Peter and the disciples were exhausted. They're still traumatized by near-death in the recent storm (Matthew 14:22-33). They badly needed a vacation. They were in dire need of a retreat. Every time it seemed like they would get a break, another crowd was pressing in on them with demands. They needed some time away from it all. Peter's brain was extra sluggish. James and John were on an even shorter fuse. Matthew and Simon were having explosive political arguments at the drop of a hat – more than normal. Thomas was starting to mumble and look sullen and talk about death a little more than was comfortable for the rest of the disciples. Some of the others were twitchy, irritable, fatigued. They were at their limit – their limit for dealing with people, their limit for dealing with puzzles and parables and Pharisees. And they'd never get any rest in any of the villages of Galilee. So Jesus led them north – north, for the first time crossing outside the borders of the land of Israel, out to the Phoenician countryside near Tyre. They settled in a little farm house, where Peter, for his part, desperately hoped no one would know they were there (Matthew 15:21).

Meanwhile, in the city weeps a woman. A mother. Draped in fancy purple finery, she sobs tears into her hands. There's something badly wrong with her little girl. It had been this way for months, and she didn't know where to turn. Her daughter would seize and jerk in unnatural ways, would glare with anger then weep with agony, would utter the most obscene things, would wake up battered and bruised. She was sick all the time. And it tore the little girl's mother's heart to pieces. She didn't know what to make of it. Until one day, passing through a Jewish neighborhood in the city with her girl, she kept overhearing those words. “Unclean spirit.” “Demon.” “Possessed.” In the beginning, the mother thought it might be a good thing, a touch from one of the gods of her people – maybe a little household god, maybe even Ba'al or Melqart. But this... this was no way for a little girl to live. This was no life for her daughter. This was torture. In the child's more lucid moments, free from fever, she'd cry out, “Mommy, mommy, help me, it hurts!” But this spirit just wouldn't go away.

The teary-eyed woman reached into a bag, pulled out a handful of silver coins. On one side, they bore an eagle; on the other, they bore the face of her god Melqart, King of the City. Her ancestors had been worshipping him for well over a thousand years now. This was a long and esteemed history, stretching back long before these Jews invaded the land. At first, in the days of Hiram, they were friends. At some points in time, they were enemies, even oppressors. During one season of friendship, the Tyrian king even gave his own beautiful daughter as a wife to the Jewish king – and Israel's prophets repaid the kindness with anger and rage, and then the next king had her assassinated! These Jews had never appreciated the people of Tyre or their gods.

Down through the years it went. Alexander came and conquered the city, broke it to pieces, introduced some Greek settlers to mingle with the native Canaanites. The woman could trace some of her family to both. For centuries, the descendants of his general Seleucus governed them. When one of those kings, Antiochus, cracked down on the Jews, made their religion illegal, the people of Tyre cheered! In time, though, they tired of being under anyone's rule, and declared their independence again. Almost a century ago, the Romans took over Tyre – or, at least, the Romans thought so. The proud people of Tyre never quite admitted it. They had plenty culture of their own, had produced poets and philosophers of renown. In the woman's parents' day, they had invaded Galilee, only to be stopped by a petty tyrant named Herod. But Tyre, the woman often mused, would always endure.

And yet... She looked down in her hand at the coin, blurry through her tears. She saw the face of Melqart, and she wondered, “Well, where is Melqart in all this? Where is he when I need him? I've cried and I've cried, and he's been no help to drive this thing out. For all I know, Melqart is the one causing my little girl's pain – maybe Melqart is the demon!” She gasped in horror at the blasphemous thought, but she couldn't shake her suspicions that perhaps the gods of her fathers were either powerless, in cahoots with this kind of darkness, or implicated more directly. She looked back at the moneybag, filled to the brim with silver. She'd gone through the streets of Tyre, tried paying any half-promising quack to chase this thing from her home, from her daughter's body and soul and life. And all her money couldn't do a thing.

But she remembered a rumor she'd heard on the street in the Jewish quarter just this morning. Out there in the countryside, at a local farm, there was a Jewish teacher. She didn't catch the man's name, but whispered words had it that he was a miracle-worker, that he could do anything, that there was no challenge too great, no problem beyond his reach. Some, in fact, were calling him the Messiah, the Son of David – the rightful king of Israel and of all nations. In desperation, the woman wondered, if her gods were frauds, if the prosperity of her people was trivial, could the answer, the real Lord, actually be found in the house of Israel – among the people whose historic privilege she found it so hard to forgive? Would help for her little girl be possible if only she swallowed her civic pride, threw everything away, and entrusted her loyalty and her very life and heart to this stranger from Galilee?

She took another look at her daughter, convulsing on the floor next to her bed, and sobbed the sob of a broken heart. This was the child she'd borne from her womb in great travail. This was the child she'd fed and reared. The child she'd taught how to walk. The child she'd taught how to talk. The child whose soulful eyes, gazing up at her with a smile at bedtime, had once cleared all the clouds from her mind and filled her with the joy only a mother can know. And to see her now, like this, in such pain, was the greatest agony this mother had ever felt, ever known, like a sword slashing her heart to ribbons. And so, as their little dogs howled and whimpered at her burning tears, she dashed out the door into the streets. Every Jew she saw, she begged for a hint, even just a rumor, of where she might find this teacher, whose name, she learned, was Jesus.

It took a couple hours, but finally she was locked on to his coordinates. She was at the right place. Standing at the gate, she screamed out, “Lord! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” She repeated it over and over again, hoping against hope that he and his followers could understand Greek. “Have mercy, have mercy! I need your help, I'll do anything! My daughter has an unclean spirit! The demon has her in its clutches, and she's suffering so badly, so severely oppressed by the foul thing! Have mercy, O Lord, Son of David!” She cried at the top of her lungs, her words breaking down into incoherent sobs. She listened desperately for any sound of movement in the house, any touch at the door that might suggest he would come out to her – he was her only hope. If hope for her girl meant rethinking the history of her own people, throwing Ba'al and Melqart and the rest to the wayside, submitting to the Son of David, hoping he'd be a merciful master, no price was too big. But there was only silence. So she kept screaming for him (Matthew 15:22).

Inside the house, beyond her hearing, the disciples were agitated. They were so utterly burnt out. Drained of energy. They didn't want to deal with people. They didn't want to leave the house. All they wanted was a quiet day inside. They wanted to hide with Jesus, just enjoy his company without being interrupted by crowds. And if this crazy woman kept babbling on in Greek, the neighbors would surely hear and swarm their hideaway, and they'd never get any peace! You can just picture Thomas muttering under his breath, “Just our luck.” You can see Peter wondering if she'd go away if he threw rocks at her. Judas is sitting in the corner, quietly wondering how much money she'd give him to convince Jesus to go talk to her.

But most of the others are just getting antsy. They're looking at Jesus, but Jesus is just looking back at them, as if daring them to make a decision, give an answer (Matthew 15:23)! So they ask him, “Won't you go out there and tell her to go away? Won't you go deal with it?” And all he says to them is, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:23-24). Which they already knew – the other month, when he sent them out to preach in the villages, he warned them that it wasn't yet time to go preach in Samaritan or Gentile towns (Matthew 10:5-6)... though of course that hadn't stopped Jesus from blessing a Samaritan woman (John 4:7-42), or speaking words of healing for the servant of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13). And, they'd heard, Jesus is the One who proclaims justice to the Gentiles and in whom Gentiles will hope (Matthew 12:18-21).

So the disciples looked at him. James thought to himself, “Well, if you're only sent to lost sheep from the house of Israel, would you get out there and send her away?” But Jesus didn't budge like they wanted him to. He just sat there... looking at them. Well, if they couldn't send him out, they supposed – and they said this with the utmost reluctance – they'd have to send her in after all. So they opened the door and waved her in.

The woman wasn't privy to any of this. She barely even noticed the looks of irritation on the disciples' faces when they waved her into the house. She ran in, tears gushing from her eyes, and fell at the teacher's feet. Sobbing on her knees, she begged him again to leave this house, leave his disciples, and come tend to her little girl, her precious daughter, who was tormented by some foul breath of hell. She begged him to overlook who she was, overlook the centuries of bad blood. “Lord, help me!”, she cried in her distress (Matthew 15:25).

The teacher looked at her with compassion, but his words were a challenge, a test. “It isn't right to take bread from the children and throw it to the pups” – the word he used, mercifully speaking Greek to her, reminded her of the puppies nipping and whimpering at her feet as she left the house that morning. As his disciples heard the words, they thought in the grand scheme of things – it wasn't right for Jesus to prematurely abandon his mission to the Jews and desert them to feed the Gentiles en masse yet. As she heard the words, though, she heard Jesus telling her it wouldn't be right to steal his care from his disciples to go to her house to feed her (Matthew 15:26).

And like the Pharisees, she could have been offended by his challenge. She could have stormed out in rage. She could have gotten her hackles up, could have let slip an anti-Semitic slur, could have insulted the disciples, could have scorned Jesus. But she didn't. As she looked into his eyes, she saw love. She saw compassion. She saw the Lord... the Son of David... the healer for the house of Israel and for her people too, in their time. And so in his words, she saw an invitation.

It's true, even in her house, she didn't go feed the puppies before she'd made a meal for her daughter. But since when do puppies sit quietly and patiently in the corner to wait their turn? (Carl, Grace, does McDougall do that? I know in my house, like clockwork, before we even sit down at the dinner table, my cat Sampson is already seated on a chair of his own, stretching out his paw on my mother's arm to beg.) So even in this woman's experience, the puppies are always frolicking under the table, pawing at this leg or that leg, begging for a morsel that the children might drop their way before the puppies even get their official feeding time.

So the woman humbles herself. If she's in the role of one of those puppies, she can deal with that. She won't demand feeding time. She hasn't come to steal Jesus away from his disciples, or from the Jewish mission. He's right, she says, that would be wrong. But what's right is for Jesus to feast his disciples so sumptuously, to feed them with such abundance, that there's more than enough to fall over for a pesky pet who otherwise won't stop pestering the children at their Lord's table (Matthew 15:27)!

She believes – she believes now with all her heart that Jesus is the one, Jesus is the Lord, Jesus is the Son of David, Jesus is the Master of Mercy. Jesus can bless with greater abundance than she can imagine. If he speaks a simple word here, her daughter will be set free. What others in Tyre saw as a feat beyond their capacity, to Jesus would be the tiniest scrap – the Son of David has authority! She doesn't need to drag him away from his disciples, doesn't need to burden them, doesn't need to monopolize Jesus to get what she needs. Jesus is more than enough to relax his disciples and help her at the same time. She sees such power in Jesus that she begs him to bless all who come to him with even greater abundance – such abundance for the children that mercy-morsels spill over to persistent puppies like her well before the appointed time!

And you can almost see the grin on Jesus' face as he sees the woman's great faith – she trusts him more than his own disciples usually do – and he says he'll gladly knock a scrap over for her: “Be it done for you as you desire.” She'll get her wish – no, she's already gotten her wish, already had her prayer answered, whether or not she's yet laid eyes on it. She doesn't need to keep begging. She doesn't need to worry she's letting her little girl down by stopping short. The mercy-morsel has fallen to her. So she dries her face and walks confidently out the door, her fears allayed by faith, knowing that she'll find her daughter at home, resting peacefully in bed and living in freedom at last, to wait for the day of the full feeding for puppies and children alike (Matthew 15:28).

This woman loved her daughter – loved her with a mother's love. In the face of this mother's love, no obstacle could stand. There's no price she wouldn't pay, no distance she wouldn't go, no humility she wouldn't assume, no independence she wouldn't surrender, no potential offense she wouldn't overlook, to see her daughter well again. Had she had to walk a thousand miles, she would have. Had she had to spend her last half-shekel, she would have. Had she had to spend years toiling as a slave, she would have. Had she had to deny every last thing about her heritage, everything she held dear, she would have. That's what a mother's love looks like – willing to go to any lengths for the real welfare of her child, in whom she delights.

In this case, it's also what a mother's faith looks like. She's scarcely even met Jesus, but she knows he's the one. She trusts this foreign teacher to be the True King. She trusts him to be, not just the Lord like Caesar is a lord, but a Lord who can win a war with one word a world away. She trusts that behind this frowning providence there is indeed a smiling face. She trusts him to be too good not to help her, too good not to look on her with mercy, too good not to spread such a feast that any persistent puppy is guaranteed to find rich, delicious morsels plopping left and right ahead of schedule, only by begging 'round the Lord's table. Because she loves her child and trusts Jesus, no darkness, no demon, no unclean thing, can infect their home forever – not for a moment after the table spills over.  And to us, the Lord's table is open on equal terms.

To the mothers of this congregation, who are mothers to those they bore, to those they adopted, to those they raised, or even became spiritual mothers to those younger in the faith – to all who have loved someone enough to come in faith to Jesus' table for them, thank you. Bless you. May you and your love never be deterred. May the abundance of the Lord, the Son of David, reward your love and your faith with plenty. And may your children always appreciate and emulate the love and faith you model. Amen.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

There Was Eden: A Wedding Homily

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of Almighty God and in the presence of these witnesses to attend the uniting of P.L. and S.C. in the solemn covenant of holy matrimony. The marriage covenant is not one to be assumed lightly. It was ordained in the beginning by God himself as a lifelong union, bringing a man and a woman into an exclusive bond of faithfulness, commitment, and love. And so this day we have come here to witness as God works a miracle in our midst by joining this man and this woman in one and the same covenant. I understand that two of the lovely bridesmaids have a poem to share with us today, “The Art of Marriage,” by the late American essayist Wilferd Arlan Peterson:

Happiness in marriage is not something that just happens.
A good marriage must be created.
In marriage, the little things are the big things....
It is giving each other an atmosphere in which each can grow.
It is finding room for the things of the spirit.
It is the common search for the good and the beautiful....
It is not only marrying the right partner; it is being the right partner.
It is discovering what marriage can be at its best,
    as expressed in the words Mark Twain used in a tribute to his wife:
       “Wherever she was, there was Eden.”

I'm appreciative for the poem that the bridesmaids, at S.'s request, has shared with us today. The line at the end, the quote from Twain – and here I mean Mark, not Shania [who's playing in the background as I speak] – is the closing line of his book Eve's Diary, a quote put on the lips of Adam but often thought to be a tribute by Twain to his own late wife Livy. “Wherever she was, there was Eden.” It's such a beautiful line, it's no wonder our poet Peterson chose to quote it.

I'm here this afternoon as a minister of the gospel, a story that begins and ends in the shade of the tree of life we find in Eden. It's because we remember that story that we can understand the beauty of Twain's words, the beauty of Peterson's poem, which both lead our hearts back to Eden.

The gospel, the Christian message, is all about that beauty. In the Christian understanding, the history of the whole universe will turn out, in hindsight, to have been a love story all along. When we open the action, we see the love of God introducing man and woman in the garden and beginning the first marriage. The story goes on to God's own courtship of his wayward bride Israel throughout the Old Testament, on into the happier engagement of Jesus Christ and his Church in the New Testament.

And at the end of the last book of the Bible, there's a prophecy where all things reach perfection at a wedding between the already-risen Christ and the then-risen Church – don't forget to RSVP for that party!

The story of the gospel in the meantime is just the Bride making herself ready with works of faith and sending out the invitations. The story of the world, from beginning to end, is the Big Love Story.

So it's really no surprise that the book showing us all this would have some useful advice for the little love stories we savor during our time on earth, like the love story between P. and S.

I bring you today some words of advice from that book. In the fourth chapter of the holy Apostle Paul's letter to the Philippians, it's written:

Rejoice in the Lord always;
    again I will say, rejoice!
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.
The Lord is at hand:
Do not be anxious about anything,
    but in everything
       by prayer and supplication
    with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God,
    which surpasses all understanding,
       will guard your hearts and your minds
          in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters,
    whatever is true,
    whatever is honorable,
    whatever is just,
    whatever is pure,
    whatever is lovely,
    whatever is commendable,
    if there is any excellence,
    if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things … practice these things,
and the God of peace will be with you.”                                [Philippians 4:4-9]

What made me think about that passage today was another line from the poem the bridesmaids read, about how a good marriage is “the common search for the good and the beautiful.” To me, that sounds a lot like the Apostle's message here. What would it look like for P. and S. to do that?

A common search for the good and the beautiful” means a mission to rediscover and restore, in the world and in each other, traces of Eden. “A common search for the good and the beautiful” means a quest to bring out, in these two lives soon to be joined as one, a clearer reflection of Jesus Christ, who himself is the Love that once walked in the Garden in the cool of the day.

P., S., we're inviting you today to spend the rest of your lives in this “common search for the good and the beautiful.”

Focus on things that are true –
    and remind each other of them.
Focus on the things in each other that are pure –
    and seek to multiply them.
Focus on the things in each other that are lovely –
    and savor them.
Focus on the things in each other that are excellent –
    and celebrate them.
Focus on the things in each other worthy of praise –
    and praise them.

Pray to the God of Peace for each other. And in times of stress and anxiety, give thanks for each other and make your requests known to God. Let your reasonableness, your gentle fairness, show through in what you say and what you do – especially toward each other.

Now, that won't always be easy, of course. The Apostle Paul admitted that he wasn't yet perfect – that he hadn't yet arrived – and neither have I, and neither have you. He said that he faced times of ease and times of trial. He had to learn how to hold love strong during both. And he said the secret he discovered was relying on strength from Christ – the God of Peace, the God of Love.

So press on, P. and S. – press on, friends gathered here this afternoon – press on through better and worse, riches and poverty, sickness and health, 'til death do you part... and 'til Christ raise you up again for his Wedding Day.

In the meantime, by the grace he gives you, by your faith that worketh in love, do what you can to make each other be able to say, at the end of the day, “Wherever P. was, wherever S. was, wherever Christ was with them... there was Eden.”

Sunday, May 7, 2017

New Shepherd for the Flock: Sermon on Ezekiel 34

It's been a few years since he saw it... the angels, the wheels-within-wheels, the crystal firmament, the blazing fire, the rainbow light, the rolling throne – the throne that proved that God went into exile with his people so that they could sing his songs even in a foreign land. And now the years have passed. If Jerusalem isn't already fallen, it's on the verge of falling. The bulk of the people have either already joined Ezekiel in exile, or are in grave denial that they'll be on their way soon.

And now Ezekiel, a more seasoned prophet than he once was, sits and meditates on just what happened. He looks back over the long line of kings they've had since David died – looks back on Solomon, who had such promising wisdom but acted a bit like Pharaoh; looks back on Solomon's kid Rehoboam, whose promise to be harsher drove the northern tribes away under Jeroboam's rule; looks back on the string of northern kings of Israel, none of whom were good; looks over a string of southern kings of Judah, most of whom did evil in the sight of the LORD.

Ezekiel had been born in the days of one of the few good eggs, Josiah, the faithful reformer. But before him, there was his dad Amon, and his dad Manasseh, and a whole line of terrors. And ever since? Jehoahaz, and that puppet Jehoiakim, then Jehoiachin, and finally the stupid puppet Zedekiah who's been running Jerusalem into the ground, him and all his blasphemous priests and dreadful officials.

And where does that leave the people of either house? Lost in the lurch, with the agenda set by abusive, neglectful leaders whose example leaves so much to be desired and who just don't do their jobs. As Ezekiel thought about the people, running to and fro in their lives, he thought about sheep lost in the desert, escaped from incompetent, self-serving shepherds but now stranded and helpless.

Eureka! The Word of God came to Ezekiel, expanding on the thoughts he was thinking. That's exactly the problem that got them into this mess – the kings of Israel and Judah, and the officials and priests even in the recent days of Zedekiah's pitiful rebellion, were like shepherds whom God had tasked with caring for his flock, a mixed flock of rams and ewes and even some strong-willed goats for good measure.

But the problem is, the shepherds were more concerned with feeding themselves than with feeding the sheep. They've been living off their rightful gain – clothing themselves in the sheeps' wool, God says, and feeding themselves – but the sheep have been going unfed, neglected (Ezekiel 34:2-3). What's more, they've been slaughtering some of God's flock for their own meat, treating them as food to be enjoyed at the shepherds' pleasure (Ezekiel 34:10).

And did the shepherds keep order and justice within the flock as it stood? Hardly – they let the stronger rams and the goats trample down the fields, stomp mud through the water supply, and damage the rest of the pasture even after they'd had their fill, leaving only meager and defiled food and drink for the rest of the flock – and the shepherds did little to nothing about it (Ezekiel 34:18-19).

And they cared nothing for the health and life of the sheep: “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:4). All the things any decent shepherd does for a flock, they failed to do; and all the things a shepherd should never do with a flock, they did.

And in the process of this neglect, these lousy shepherds have put the sheep in mortal danger: “They were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. … Surely my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:5-6, 8). The sheep have been scattered – exiled to Babylon and its lands. That was why Ezekiel was here – he was one of those sheep, out in the wilderness because his shepherd was selfish and incompetent. Centuries later, when Jesus said that those who came before him were “thieves and robbers,” shepherds like these are what he meant (John 10:8).

But the sad truth is, it's not just a historical reality we read about in the Books of the Kings and the Chronicles. We're familiar with bad shepherding, aren't we? We're familiar with bad shepherding as a nation. Look at the state of political leadership in recent years and even now. Presidents, governors, legislators, judges – think of them as shepherds. What kind of leadership are they providing? Are they keeping the pasture clean for the rest of us to feed on? Are they preventing the strong from traipsing their muddy feet through the creeks? Are they acting in our interest, feeding us? Are they bringing back the strayed, strengthening the week, tending to the wounded, ruling with a gentle touch even while fending off wild beasts on the attack? Are they bringing a sense of unity to the flock? Are they setting a good example? For my part, I can't think of too many who've had their day in office who quite fit that bill.

But we know about bad shepherding in the home, in the family, too. Maybe some of you grew up with one or both of the co-shepherds of your household absent. Maybe a shepherd just abandoned you entirely. Maybe a shepherd was weak, failing to fend off beasts, failing to come look for you and guide you when you were lost. Maybe a shepherd was unwise, failing to lead you to good pastures where you had enough to get by. Maybe a shepherd was downright mean, cruel, vicious, more concerned with feeding himself – or herself – than with tending you when you were injured or imparting strength to you when you were weak. Maybe the shepherd who was supposed to care for you even sated his or her desires at your expense. And now that you've grown, now that many of you have tended a little lamb or two or three of your own, maybe some of you aren't sure that you shepherded well, either.

But what's more, we know about bad shepherding in the church, too. Some of you, I'm sure, could tell me some horror stories about things you've seen. Maybe you've been part of a church flock where the shepherd didn't lead you to the good pastures of the word of God. Maybe they fed you instead on a mishmash of thin teaching, or even the poison plants of false doctrine. Maybe they didn't defend you well against wild beasts like that hissing serpent who came whispering unhealthy notions in the ear of your heart. Or maybe they took more than the wool for their wages – started living high off the meat as well, hurting and exploiting the flock. Maybe they neglected you when you were hurt, failed to ever come bind you up when you were wounded by life's woes, failed to help you recuperate while you were ill with grief or sin, failed to come seek you when you were lost in life, failed to bring you back to a good pasture again. Maybe you've seen a church setting where the shepherd didn't lead in love, didn't bother to build you up from weakness to strength.

Oh yes – we have a sense of what Ezekiel meant. We have a sense of what Ezekiel felt. Because in our own lives, we've become sadly acquainted with what it looks like for a shepherd to fail – to be unqualified and to put his own gain, his own wants, over the real needs of the flock. And if that were all that this chapter says, well, it would be a stirring and somber meditation on the injustice of life. It would move us to tears, maybe. It would at least fill us with a sense of melancholy. And we might just kick the dust and mutter, “Well, ain't that life for you? That's just the way it goes.”

But this prophecy is filled with so much more. We live in a world where Jesus Christ is risen! Amen? And because he lives, we have hope. Because he lives, he offers us a new thing! Just look at what Ezekiel shares with us – take a gander at this, check this out, hear these words: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD (Ezekiel 34:15).

Isn't that good news? The God of heaven and earth, the God who built mountains and carved valleys, the God of justice and mercy, looks at the wreckage of mismanagement that the kings and priests have left his chosen people, and he looks at the hurt and pain that you and I have suffered at the hands of bad shepherds, and he says, “I myself will be the shepherd” – he'll tend to us personally, tend to you personally.

But then he goes on to say, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them – he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken” (Ezekiel 34:23-24). And when Ezekiel writes the name 'David' here, you should understand he means the Greater David Who Was To Come: the Messiah, the promised Son of David and David's Lord, who would be a better shepherd even than the historical David was. Jesus tells us flat out that he's the one Ezekiel meant: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).

God will shepherd us personally, but Jesus will be our Shepherd – you can't separate the two, can't drive a wedge between them. And this is no failed shepherding here – Jesus, through whom God shepherds us, is the Good Shepherd – he's able, he's competent, he's no fool like the thieves and robbers who came before him; and he's good in the sense of being unfathomably good to his flock. We catch a glimpse of his shepherding style in the Psalms, where he wields an iron rod to keep us in line and maintain our defense (Psalm 2:9), but also in the words of Isaiah, where we read, “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 40:11). Strong and nurturing – that's the Jesus I know. Do you know him, too?

What's more, God our Shepherd tells us, through the Prophet Ezekiel, that he won't be content to leave his flock scattered over all the mountains and on every high hill, over all the face of the earth. He would come and take them back from their exile: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. … I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy [or, 'watch over']. I will feed them with justice” (Ezekiel 34:11-16). And as a fact of history, God did seek out his people who were scattered in the provinces of Babylon's rule – he did bring them back to their own land – but under the thumb of the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, things didn't turn out so rosy. There must be something more.

But we know that God's message isn't just for Ezekiel's band of refugees. It's for us, too. If we're God's flock, he won't be content to let us scatter. Jesus, through whom he shepherds us, will seek the lost and bring back the strayed. Jesus told us that himself – remember? “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, doesn't leave the ninety-nine in open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15:4-5). “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

When you're lost in your sin, he comes looking for you! When you're lost in life and unsure where to turn, he comes looking for you! Stop running and watch for his approach; let him lift you on his shoulders and carry you in your time of need. When you're injured, he'll bind you up; when you're weak and don't know how you can make it, he'll lend you strength. He's the Shepherd who seeks the lost and brings back the strayed.

What's more, God our Shepherd tells us, through the Prophet Ezekiel, that he will judge between the different elements in his mixed flock: “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. … Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep” (Ezekiel 34:17-22).

In the writings of the prophets, community leaders within Israel, the relatively powerful, were often nicknamed 'rams' or 'goats' – animals that are strong-willed, that have leadership potential within a flock, but also have a tendency to disobey, to push the rest of the flock around, and to trample carelessly over the whole pasture. But God says he'll come to the defense of the weak. God says he'll come to the defense of the lean, those who haven't gotten enough to eat, who never seem to get first dibs.

Is that you? Then this is good news. God our Shepherd will hold accountable those in his flock who've pushed you around, or who've eaten up more of the blessings that were meant for you. And Jesus, through whom God shepherds us, told us that when he returned in glory with his angels, he'd sit on a throne of judgment over his mixed flock of all nations, “and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:31-33).

To the goats, who hoarded the resources of God to themselves rather than leave abundance for the lean and the weak, he'll render punishment alongside the devil (Matthew 25:41-45). But to the sheep, most especially the sheep who lived peacefully with other sheep, who shared the resources of God by consuming only what they needed and being kind to the lean and the weak, the Shepherd on the Throne will welcome them into everlasting pastures that grow without end (Matthew 25:34-40).

And what's more, God – through the One Shepherd, Jesus, who solves the problem of a whole line of many bad shepherds who came before him like thieves and robbers – will tend his flock with incomparable love, care, and blessing. Pay close attention to some of the words, some of the ways Ezekiel portrays what's coming, what we have access to. “I will feed them with good pasture” (Ezekiel 34:14). God will not let us stay forever in desert lands, where the growth of life is hard to come by. No, God will feed us with all we need. “I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, … I will feed them with justice” (Ezekiel 34:16). We will have God's tender care, directly, personally.

I will … banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. … They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid” (Ezekiel 34:25, 28). What an image of safety! There will come a day when you won't be downtrodden any more. There will come a day when you won't be in danger any more. Even in the night forests, you can sleep in safety. Physically, financially, emotionally, we'll be there some day. Spiritually, when we're in our Shepherd's presence, we're already living that life. He says that he'll make us “lie down in good grazing land” (Ezekiel 34:14; cf. Psalm 23:2) – when we come to Jesus, he'll give us rest (Matthew 11:28).

And God goes on to say, “I will make them and the places all around my hill a blessing, and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land” (Ezekiel 34:26-27). Doesn't that sound beautiful – showers of blessing, bountiful fields, fruited trees, and everywhere around a safe haven and blessing? That's in store for us, but spiritually, when we're in our Shepherd's presence, his showers of blessing are already falling down on our souls.

God sums all these things up with this phrase: “I will make with them a covenant of peace” (Ezekiel 34:25). All these things are covenant-of-peace things – they're the promises of a covenant better than the old one, more powerful, more unbreakable. Without a covenant of peace, an agreement between the Shepherd and his sheep, we'd never have this. We'd never know rich pastures. We'd never see tender care. We'd never dwell in safety. We'd never feel showers of blessing come rushing down on us. Because we'd be scattered and lost and alone – without the covenant of peace.

And the covenant of peace is the new covenant – the one Jesus called, “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Without the sacrifice, there'd be no covenant of peace. The covenant of peace couldn't begin until the Shepherd had laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). Showers of blessing couldn't come 'til the cry from the cross tore the sky. Rich pastures weren't open 'til he gave his broken body for us to graze on. Healing was a lie 'til he bore the suffering – “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed,” we the sheep who had “gone astray” and “turned, every one, to his own way” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

But if the Shepherd stayed in the grave, we'd still be scattered with no one to seek us. If the Shepherd stayed in the grave, we'd be sheep without a shepherd. So this Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep – but he lives again to lead his flock. The Shepherd is risen! And because the Shepherd is risen, he can say to us, “You are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God” (Ezekiel 34:31), “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

So maybe we've seen bad shepherding in our nation, in our homes, in our churches. But God's judgment against bad shepherds is already passed, and the Good Shepherd is alive and well! He's alive to seek, alive to heal, alive to feed, alive to bless; and even if he leads us through shady valleys on the way to the “something more” awaiting us in the pasture-land of the kingdom, he's got a hefty rod of justice and a guiding staff of wisdom in his hands, and that's all the comfort we need (cf. Psalm 23:4). He banishes beasts by resurrection might! And he's gone ahead of us to make ready the “renowned plantations” whereof the prophet spake (Ezekiel 34:29).

Each of us, each of you, can say, “The LORD [Jesus] is my Shepherd … He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:1-3a). So when you're lost, when you're hurting, when you're weak and facing wolves, when the stream is dirty and the goats are uppity and you hunger and thirst for more – don't lose hope... and don't scatter away from a Shepherd as good as this. For his name's sake, follow the Good Shepherd's guidance wherever his paths of righteousness may lead (Psalm 23:3b). Amen.