Sunday, May 27, 2018

Fellowship in the Trinity: Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2018

Maybe you've been in a situation somewhat like this before. In my case, I took a vacation to upstate New York so as to spend time with my girlfriend's family. She's the third of five sisters, so even though not everyone was there, there were enough. And one thing she warned me long before this was that one way she and her siblings always bonded was through playing games. Card games, tile-based games, domino-based games, all sorts. It's something they love to do – and it can get heated, since she and her brother-in-law are both fiercely competitive. And that sure did come out in New York on that trip!

For me, of course, raised as an only child, I never had much experience with that particular sort of family life. Competitive card games with multiple people – that wasn't really a big fixture in my house. She had to give me a crash course on plenty of unfamiliar games in the weeks leading up to the trip, let me tell you. But here's the big thing. For her and the others, these games have been a staple of family gatherings for years – longer than I've known her, for sure. It's a long-running and recurring tournament. I was being newly introduced to the family – initially an outsider, not yet integrated into their family life, not yet bonded with them. Or I was. But I could see I was included in their life, I got to really bond with them and share life with them, when they dealt me in on the gaming traditions that had been going on since long before I was ever around. Inclusion in their life, with all its traditions, was what I got when they asked if they could deal me in, and I said yes, and I sat down with them and joined the tournament and played their game.

Keep that thought in mind as we begin today to approach the God the apostles knew. Paul's God, Peter's God, Matthew's God, John's God – what kind of God is this? The passage we've chosen to take up today isn't a long one. A couple short verses, tacked on to the backside of 2 Corinthians. And let's be honest: Pastors don't often preach from the last few verses of any of the New Testament letters. Maybe if we're preaching through a whole book, then we have to. But they're usually filled with all sorts of personal greetings: So-and-so sends greetings, make sure you say hello to such-and-such, and oh yeah, I'd love to have what's-his-name bring me this and that. Not as readily applicable as the doctrines, the exhortations, the magnificent sweeping arguments and inspiring visions that saturate the bodies of the letters.

But 2 Corinthians is different. It ends with some very familiar words – so familiar, many churches use them without remembering they're adapted and altered from Paul. The benediction I say at the end of each service – here's where it's from. Listen to the way Paul ends this letter: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). What kind of God is Paul talking about? What sort of God does Paul want them to know?

Focus in on that middle phrase: “the love of God.” We say that all the time. But what does it really mean? We know that another apostle, one of Jesus' personal disciples, famously said, “We have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us: God is love” (1 John 4:16). “Anyone who doesn't love, doesn't know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). And that's more than just a statement about what God does. It's more than just a description of our fleeting experience within the confines of time and space. It's a statement about who God is eternally, who God is in the very core of his being, what God's inner life is all about: love, love, love.

And for centuries, here's something theologians have realized. There are many kinds of so-called gods you just couldn't say that about. Obviously, the gods of most pagan religions – you could never say that they were love, because they weren't even especially loving. The pantheons of civilizations from Egypt to Canaan to Babylon, from Greece to Rome to the barbarian lands of old – they were full of myths pitting god against god in fierce and frequently self-centered competition. Those gods weren't even consistently loving, and they seldom gave a consistent devotion to any human, let alone humanity in general. So they won't do.

But also the so-called gods postulated by other major religions or by heretics who tried to water down the faith we share. The vision of the fourth-century heretic Arius (shared today by Jehovah's Witnesses) was all about a sole supreme God who, in the depths of eternity, was alone; Arius believed that the Son and the Spirit were created, that there was a some prior state when they didn't yet exist; there was some pure point, he believed, when God the Unbegotten stood outside any relationship. Centuries later, an even more radical vision surfaced in a new religion called Islam. God as described in Islam neither begets nor is begotten: an eternal lone deity, who stands from eternity above all relations. And such is also the god of generic American civil religion.

You might be able to see how, once creation happens, gods like those may or may not choose to be loving. But 'love' doesn't eternally characterize who they are. Alone from all eternity, they can't love, they can't be love, because there's nothing to love. Love is relational, it requires relationship. A god existing outside all relations is a god who has no chance yet to love, let alone be love. And gods like these – including the generic 'God' so many Americans speak of in sentimental terms, abstracted from any particular religion – well, the thing is, you cannot say about them, “God is love.” For God to be love, God has to have relationships in his inner life.

So here's what theologians saw a long time ago. St. Augustine said when he loves, it requires three things: “I myself, what I love, and love itself. … So there are three things: the Lover, the Loved, and the Love.” What kind of God have the apostles known, what kind of God have they taught the church to know? In deep eternity, where there was no creation, where there was no time or space, where there was nothing except the only God, God was love. God was so much love that there had to be relationships within God: the Father's love had to overspill to someone, and their shared love had to overspill to a third. The Father's love required an object, the Son eternally begotten, the Word eternally present with God before the very beginning. And the love they shared would be incomplete if it weren't fruitful, and if there weren't a bond of love between them. Their love is eternally fruitful in the Holy Spirit, who is the bond of love. Each is eternally relating to the other two. This is no play-acting. This is real. This is eternity. This is love.

A solitary god could never be love. The conflicted pantheons of the pagans certainly fell far short. And even if you give credit to the infinite recesses of Mormon cosmology, the infinite gods evolving from bare intelligences – even if they love, it's love between one intelligence and the next, one spirit and the next, one god and the next. No one such god is himself love; no one such god has relationship, has love, as the definition of his inner life. But the God of the apostles does. The real God does. This God is eternally relationship in action. This God is love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we call them, or Lover, Loved, and Love, St. Augustine says. God is eternal, and this is eternally who God is, deep down in his inner life, so love is an eternal reality.

In this God, John's God, Paul's God, the Church's God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally face each other – they don't turn their backs on each other, don't give each other partial attention. The Father is eternally giving his full attention to the Son and the Spirit, and vice versa. They look on each other eternally with favor. They celebrate each other, take joy from each other's eternal presence. Because they face each other with a favorable view, they're constantly giving to each other, constantly generous to each other, constantly open-handed and free with each other. They're active, they're energetic, they're in an eternal dance of favor and generosity and joy, the free exchange that flows eternally and infinitely. And the word for that is 'grace,' the name of their eternal dance – favor, generosity, celebration, that's grace. God is eternal, and this is eternally who God is, deep down in his inner life, so grace is an eternal reality.

And in this God, Paul's God, the Church's God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit so eternally love each other, so eternally show grace to each other, that there are no barriers in, say, the Son to keep the Father and the Holy Spirit out. There is no limit in the Son's self past which Father and Spirit cannot go. The theologians used the word perichoresis, 'rotation,' but usually meaning 'interpenetration': the Father and the Spirit are fully in the Son – didn't Jesus say that the Father was in him, and he in the Father (John 17:21)? With no barriers, each is fully in the others, each fully shares with the others and fully shares in the others, each is fully filled with the others. They share in each other, they participate in each other – and the word for that is 'participation,' 'sharing,' even 'fellowship' or 'companionship.' God is eternal, and this is eternally who God is, deep down in his inner life, so fellowship is an eternal reality.

We who believe have seen this love, this grace, this fellowship, all play out on the stage of world history. We know how the Father's love sent the Son to graciously and generously give his life to us, and how they sent the Holy Spirit to us as our companion. We encounter them in history: “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). And “the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I..., for all the promises of God find their 'yes' in him” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20). “And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). “The love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them … We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). And “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17), for he is “the Spirit of the living God” (2 Corinthians 3:3). On the stage of history, on the stage of our life stories, that's love, that's grace, that's fellowship.

But this is eternal love, eternal grace, eternal fellowship – they describe, not something God decided at some point to do, not even something God happens to always enjoy, not even his favorite hobby. Love, grace, fellowship – that picture describes God from the inside. This is God's inner life we're talking about. The inner life of God, from everlasting to everlasting, just is the Father, Son, and Spirit eternally in love, eternally gracious to each other, eternally in full fellowship with each other – that's God on the inside, eternally. Their pouring, their dancing, their sharing, this 'game' they play – it's both eternal and internal.

Since early times, the great theologians wanted to help the whole church find a good shorthand for saying that. So they did. They eventually came up with one word to summarize all that deep truth about who God eternally is on the inside. And that word is... 'Trinity.' Today is more than Memorial Day weekend. Today is Trinity Sunday. There are churches with 'Trinity' in the name, and we all confess the 'Trinity' in our creeds, our articles of faith. But too often, we think that the Trinity is a theological puzzle, a big question mark, a headache waiting to happen, an irrelevant paradox, a matter for eggheads in the seminaries.

But 'Trinity' is just shorthand for what the church has been blessed to know about God's inner life. And God shared that with us for some very powerful reasons. See, 'Trinity' is not just an abstraction, not just theological jargon. 'Trinity' is the deep reality, the inside scoop, on the God who saves. 'Trinity' means that we don't have to induce God to love us. 'Trinity' shows that we don't have to convince the Lord into grace. 'Trinity' says we that we don't need to badger the Holy Spirit into fellowship. Because what 'Trinity' tells us, this great word, is that love and grace and fellowship were never out of God's way. It was what God was already up to before the first stars were lit; even before the first proton and the first neutron were made and introduced, God's inner life was already active with love and grace and fellowship, had been from all eternity – that's what 'Trinity' is all about. And that's crucially important for us to see, for us to get!

See, our idea of salvation is chronically so small. We are so content to imagine salvation as such little things – oh, big to us, maybe, but not big to big eyes. What do we imagine our salvation is all about, really? Well, we think our salvation is all about having our debt paid off. We think our salvation is all about having the prison gate swing open. We think our salvation is all about having our name cleared. We think our salvation is all about soaring high. We think our salvation is all about receiving a trophy. We think our salvation is all about living forever in a paradise or a golden city. Those things all loom big to us. And those things are surely true. But they don't come close to the half of it.

Put all those things on the backburner. Full salvation is so much more than all that, than all that put together. To be saved, fully saved, is for God to 'deal us in' on his eternal love, eternal grace, eternal fellowship. What's been going on inside God from all eternity, whatever 'game' you could imagine that being, full salvation, real salvation, our salvation, ultimately means joining that, being 'dealt in' on that. The Father pours out his love in an endless royal flush of hearts – our hand is full of victorious love that never dies. The Son generously drops his chips onto our stacks – 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 by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9), and thus “he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4). And the Holy Spirit puts his arm around us, embraces us, pulls us close and tight, pulls us into the bear-hug of complete acceptance that never lets go. Full salvation is God dealing us in on all that. This is salvation. This is why the 'doctrine of the Trinity' matters, and matters completely. See, only a God who is Trinity could deal us in on the 'game' that is God's inner life, eternal and internal.

The gods of other religions can promise – and, of course, fail to deliver – on so many other things. A paradise in heaven. A paradise on earth. Prosperity galore. But they can't or won't seat you at their table. Or, in some rare few religions, they'll give you a seat at some table, but the game you'll play is one they just took up, a divine hobby at best, but keeping the barriers where they always were; a game that can begin and end, a game that can matter some or matter little, but not a game that defines divinity, not a game, not an encounter, that expresses who God is on the inside.

But that's exactly what our God offers. Our God is Trinity – our God is the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God in three persons, world without end. And a God who is Trinity can invite us, not just to a place or a thing or an experience or a feeling, but to a permanent seat at the table eternal. And a God who is Trinity can invite us, not just to play around with a divine hobby, but to be dealt in on the divine inner life.

In truth, that God is – thank God – the only God there is. There are no other gods strutting around with any power to make other legitimate offers. No divine hobby is on the table. No real paradise can be paradise if it's outside of God's own life, because in him is life, he is life. There was a Russian theologian who once wrote, “Between the Trinity and hell, there lies no other choice.” And that's right, Vladimir Lossky had that right. The only kind of salvation that ever really saves is the kind of salvation that gets us dealt in on what's inside God, salvation that lets us join the eternal game, that brings us into the heart of God's own life and makes us participants with him, of him, in him.

That's what Paul wants for us: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all(2 Corinthians 13:14). Paul's impassioned prayer, his closing words here, the benediction we receive after every worship service, week after week, is a desperate request and urgent blessing for us to actually have this, for us to actually get there, for us to actually be dealt in on the eternal love and grace and fellowship that are who God is in himself. Paul doesn't just want us to get some thing from God. Paul does not just want to see us talk with God, walk with God, from a distance. Paul wants us to get so close that we get an inside view; having peeked in through Jesus already, Paul wants to see us actually admitted into God's inner life. All along, God made us because he wanted to share his inner life with us, wanted to pull more chairs up to the table. And only he can. Only he can show us this eternal love, only he can bestow this eternal grace, only he can open up the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, only he can deal us in. But that's exactly what he made us for.

What we can do is say 'yes.' That's what we did when we became Christians. We trusted that the invitation was real – that's faith. We turned aside from our old hobbies and the personal make-believe rules we used to play by – that's repentance. We declared ourselves open to the love of God and the grace of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; we pledged to receive. We've done that, we've said yes, we've started on that road. Our actual admission to the table – that's an act of God. It's for him to actually give us that eternal love, grace, fellowship.

But what else is to be done, as God draws us to the table? We can't earn a place there, and don't have to. This isn't a championship to qualify for. It's invite-only, and we already got it. But what we can do is practice – we can practice amongst ourselves for the game of God's table, the game that marks God's inner life. It'd be better, so much better, to get some experience under our belts before we get there. We can practice amongst ourselves. The name of God's game is love. And so Paul tells us, “Put things in order” – you could also translate that, 'aim at restoration' – and “Comfort one another,” or 'entreat one another' (2 Corinthians 13:11). Let the eternal love of God reorder your priorities, so that those priorities cherish your eternal tablemates. The Corinthian church still hadn't overcome the divisive culture Paul denounced in his first letter. They played brutal games that left everyone feeling sore. They weren't in it, weren't in this whole 'church' thing, to enjoy and bond; they were in it for bragging rights over each other. But that ain't how the game's played in God's house. In God's house, there are good rules – put things in order, prioritize them by God's values – and the chief such value and rule is love, so comfort each other, exhort each other, encourage one another, and accept Paul's gospel of love and grace.

'Grace' – that, too, is the name of God's game. So Paul tells us, “Greet one another with a holy kiss; all the saints greet you” (2 Corinthians 13:12-13). Paul adds, “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice” (2 Corinthians 13:11). We need to greet and be greeted; we need to rejoice and celebrate. That's what grace is all about. To practice for what's ahead, we receive and give and celebrate favor; we face each other full-on, not flinching away; and no matter what we see on the surface when we look in each other's eyes, we face each other with happy faces and hearts of welcome. That's grace. That's grace. That's the name of God's game.

And lastly, Paul reminds us of fellowship. “Be of the same mindset; be at peace” (2 Corinthians 13:11). Paul urges the Corinthians to practice God's game, and they need to overcome their aggressive competitive streak. They need to open their lives to each other. They need to be so consumed by enjoyment in God that it becomes their sole rule for living. They need to see how to share and share alike. That's how we, too, have to practice. We practice by all adopting the mindset we saw on display in Jesus, and setting aside whatever disputes we have to admit just wouldn't matter to him. We practice by living at peace with each other. We practice by sharing freely and generously, by celebrating God and those who are in God.

That's how God lives. That's how God's always lived, from everlasting to everlasting. In deep eternity, before creation, in a timeless tournament, God already lived like that: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, living in fellowship and love and grace. That is God's inner life, the 'game' he aims to deal us in on. That is what the church believes, that's what the church confesses under that simple word 'Trinity.' All the explanations, all the formulations, all the articulations and elaborations – they're ways of protecting us from missing out, ways of keeping us from mis-seeing and badly misunderstanding. This is our holy doctrine.

And today is Trinity Sunday. Today of all days, we're called to accept no substitutes. Today of all days, we're called to not neglect it. Today, especially, of all days, we're called to believe it: “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” But let's not just believe it. Let's be in awe. Let's celebrate. Let's practice to join in the game, in the love and grace and fellowship of the Trinity. Let's prepare ourselves and each other, with clear vision and eager excitement and plenty of practice, for when we're all dealt in on that. For that, and nothing less, is the salvation we're aiming for. Thanks be to the God who opens up his inner life to us, who calls us to his eternity, who deals us in. Thanks be to our Triune God! Amen, and amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Blessed for a Purpose: A Pentecost Sermon on Exodus 31

A young man stood in a still desert, hands at his hips, lost in thought. A mountain loomed overhead not so far away. But he stood toward the edge of the encampment, in a clear enough space for his work. All around lay heaps of raw materials: piles of gold trinkets, silver brooches and earrings, bronze rings and utensils; spools of colorful yarn, yards of linen, goatskins and rams' skins; thin cords of reddish-brown timber from the many shrubs and low trees dotting the landscape; small assortments of gemstones; pouches of spices; and so much more. All, at the young man and his assistant's direction, had been sorted into piles.

And with a team of willing volunteers under their command, plenty of work had been done already. The ten curtains, about forty-two feet by six feet each, woven of fine linen with blue and purple and scarlet yarn and angelic designs, were maybe the most challenging and most important. But they were done. Loops on the edges, linked by gold rings, fastened the ten curtains into a unit. Eleven larger curtains, forty-five by six feet each, of goat's hair had a similar design and arrangement, and a massive skin covering was underway to keep everything safe from the harsh desert sun. Meanwhile, craftsmen were arranging wooden frames and bars, and he'd started teaching another team the art of metallurgy to produce a gold covering for it all.

But his fast-paced mind was already racing and dancing over the next project – one he'd handle personally, from beginning to end, if he had his way. A wooden crate, not too large – about 3'9" long, 2'3" wide, and just as high as wide – overlaid outside and inside with purest gold, with gold rings for support by gold-overlaid wooden poles. But it was the more intricate goldwork on the top – this model throne and cherubic flanking – that would really excite his talent. He wanted it perfect in every detail; he yearned to see them as lifelike as possible, as if they could fly from his workmanship to heaven and back. What he was about to make was no ordinary artwork. It would be indwelt with power and flame and brightness. If the tent he'd woven was a universe in miniature, he was about to remake the heaven beyond the stars. With his own hands, Bezalel thought, and with his very own fingers and his very own tools, he would craft a covering of such beauty that the Consuming Fire of the Almighty would touch and caress it, that it should be a portal to God's eternity. The whole project of this ark of the covenant and this tabernacle seemed too vast, Bezalel thought, and he was so young, so fresh from Egyptian slavery. But then he felt a breeze. And in the breeze, somehow, Bezalel felt his heart thrill, his blood pulsate, his soul waken to the light. He felt a wind raging inside him, a tempest of action waiting to be unleashed. And so, with all doubt blown away like dust in the wind, he steeled himself for the work to which he was driven.

When we think of the Book of Exodus, more likely than not, we think about the familiar story of the actual exit from Egypt: the burning bush, the call of Moses, the confrontations with Pharaoh, the ten plagues, the passage through the sea. Or maybe we're in less of a story mode, so we think of the lists of laws, starting with the Ten Commandments we read in chapter twenty. But we're less likely to remember that basically the last entire third of the whole book is a continuous treatment of one key project: the plans for, and production of, the Tabernacle and all its accoutrements. Everything needed as a place for God to dwell with his people, which is exactly the climax of the book: when the glory-cloud takes up residence in this well-furnished tent, and Moses no longer has to go mountain-climbing every time he needs to mediate between God and the people. But for that to be possible, and for the whole sacrificial system to begin, they need all the physical pieces to make that happen. Those don't just appear out of nowhere. They don't drop from the sky. They need to be made, and they need to be made well.

Like any major construction project, it'll take a team. But at the head of this team are two men, standing in for the whole nation. One man, Oholiab, is from the far-back reaches of the encampment, as the tribes are to be arranged; he's from the tribe of Dan. But the other man is from Judah, from the vanguard of the Israelite march through the wilderness. Bezalel, the real leader of this enterprise. He's probably not a biblical figure you think of very much. He doesn't have the name recognition of an Adam, a Noah, a Moses, a David. He's got no book named after him; he has to settle for my cat being named for him. But Bezalel the man, Bezalel the Judahite, was responsible for the holy project that consumes the last part of Exodus and makes possible everything that follows. And he's far from uninteresting.

See, the Bible names for us Oholiab's father Ahisamach (Exodus 31:6). That's not uncommon – we often get a father's name for various biblical characters. A grandfather's name is unusual, but we hear that Bezalel is the son of Uri, and that Uri himself was the son of a Judahite named Hur (Exodus 31:2). And if we've been reading closely, that name should ring a bell. In Exodus 17, during the Battle at Rephidim when the Israelites were being harassed by the Amalekites, Moses stood on a hill with arms raised up in blessing and his staff uplifted, to ensure the army's victory. But he couldn't keep his hands up by himself. So he sat down, and his one arm was held up by his brother Aaron. And who held up the other arm? Hur. The Bible doesn't bother explaining where he came from. Later Jewish tradition says he was either the husband or the son of Moses' older sister Miriam – a natural counterpart to Aaron. And then, when Moses and the elders ate a covenant banquet in God's presence, and when Moses was called up into the cloud to receive the Law, whom did he put in charge while he was gone? “Behold, Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute, let him go to them” (Exodus 24:14).

It was while Moses was on the mountain, communing with God and beholding the pattern for the tabernacle and its contents, that the Israelites down below were rebelling. Deciding Moses was a goner, they demanded new gods they could actually see in their midst: a golden idol shaped like a calf. Aaron, one of Moses' deputies – we hear about his part in everything, how he gives in to their demands and makes the idol as asked. Where has Hur gone? He never shows up again. Jewish tradition suggests he stood in the way of their idolatry, and the mob killed him, making him one of the first martyrs. The faithful grandson of a man like that – well, he couldn't be very old when it happened. His early thirties, at most; and later rabbis suggested that Bezalel may have only been a teenager – that it was a teenager, grandson of a godly man, whom God chose to be responsible for the holiest construction project of that generation.

That seems strange, doesn't it? That's not a choice you or I would make, to take the most important work and hand it over to somebody that young, who's probably never had a chance to even try his hand at something remotely like it. What practice is he likely to have had, growing up doing hard labor in Egypt? And yet God chooses him. In fact, the Bible tells us, God says, “I have called by name Bezalel” (Exodus 31:2). God has singled him out, appointed him personally and specifically. And you know, the Hebrew phrase here, calling by name – that's not a common one. Who else gets 'called by name' in the Old Testament? Usually, it's God himself – when people “call upon the name of the LORD (Genesis 26:25, etc.). Once, it's the stars, which God “brings out … by number, calling them all by name” (Isaiah 40:26). And then, once, it's Israel, to whom God says in Isaiah 43, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). A list with the LORD God Almighty, the blazing stars in the sky, God's elect and holy nation as a whole... and this one young man Bezalel. Bezalel is important enough to belong on that list. Bezalel is important enough to have his individuality singled out by God like that. One Jewish tradition says that Bezalel was chosen and had his name written down in a heavenly book even before Adam was created. Now that's some calling! Bezalel is the very definition of a man with a calling on his life, as much so if not more than any of the prophets.

But Bezalel has something else going for him. When God lets Moses in on his plans, God adds, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God” (Exodus 31:3). Now, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the LORD, was plenty active in the days of the Old Testament. Sometimes the Spirit is said to be 'upon' someone – the Spirit 'was upon' judges like Jephthah (Judges 11:29). The Spirit 'came upon' Levites like Jahaziel and Gentiles like Balaam to make them prophesy truth (2 Chronicles 20:14). The Spirit 'rushed upon' warriors like Samson and David (Judges 14:19; 1 Samuel 16:13). The Spirit 'fell upon' prophets like Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:5). The Spirit was even present 'in' Joseph (Genesis 41:38). We're even told that the Spirit 'clothed' the priest Zechariah in the days of King Joash – Zechariah, who was stoned to death for speaking out (2 Chronicles 24:20). But do you know how many times a person in the Old Testament is said to be 'filled' with the Spirit, the most radical term yet? Not many. Micah, the prophet, announces, “As for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (Micah 3:8). Maybe Joshua was, because once Moses laid hands on him, he was “full of the spirit of wisdom” (Deuteronomy 34:9). But before either of them, twice Bezalel is said to be “filled with the Spirit of God” (Exodus 31:3; 35:31). We should take special notice of Bezalel today: he's the very first Spirit-filled believer in the Bible!

Others are moved by the Spirit, touched by the Spirit, even indwelt by the Spirit, but Bezalel is all but unique in being “filled with the Spirit.” And if the Spirit gives gifts, well, Bezalel has them in abundance. Just look at all the qualities he has. God himself describes them. Through being filled with the Spirit, Bezalel is filled with “wisdom.” He receives a special gift of skill to apply what he sees and knows in making decisions. Bezalel is filled with “understanding.” He receives a special gift of ability to logically reason through what he can't yet see. His brainpower is amped up. Bezalel is filled with “knowledge.” He receives a special gift of awareness of and familiarity with God, and not just with God, but God's creation. Whole fields of science, math, art, what he's surely never had the chance to study – he's supernaturally familiar with them. He's even filled with “all craftsmanship,” or “all works.” All this doesn't have to stay within the confines of Bezalel's head. He receives a special gift of hands-on practical achievement of what he knows, understands, and applies. Bezalel is Tesla, Einstein, DaVinci, and the Wright Brothers, all rolled into one (Exodus 31:3), the gift of God (Proverbs 2:6)!

But there are specific forms of work, specific kinds of craftsmanship, Bezalel is equipped with. He's filled with this abilities “to make artistic designs” – literally, to think thoughts or plan plans – and “to make in gold, and in silver, and in bronze, and in cutting of stones to fill, and in carving of timber – to make in all workmanship” (Exodus 31:4-5). With those gifts, and complemented by Oholiab's God-given gifting as “an engraver and designer and embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine-twined linen” (Exodus 38:23), Bezalel is more than competent in every sort of artistic endeavor and every sort of crafty construction that's set before him – all gifts given by the Spirit of God who fills him, rages like a creative tempest inside him.

All this is necessary for them to make what God describes: “the tent of meeting, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy-seat that's on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin and its stand, and the finely worked garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the Holy Place” (Exodus 31:7-11). Bezalel has to engage in those tasks because he has a tabernacle complex to make and fill and furnish, and he has the qualities he has because the Spirit is filling and gifting him to equip him for those tasks.

And the tabernacle, like the temple after it, was designed to be something like a scale-model of the universe – but put back in order with God at the heart of everything. That's why the blue and purple are so prominent: the colors of the evening sky. That's the point of the way the tabernacle is designed, and the point of its being consecrated on the first day of the new year (cf. Exodus 40:2).

So if the tabernacle is a model universe, what does that make of the man who builds it? Think about the role Bezalel is playing in this! What three gifts did the Spirit fill him with? Wisdom, understanding, knowledge. In Proverbs, we read what qualities God used to make the universe: “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open and the clouds drop down the dew” (Proverbs 3:19-20). And when the Spirit fills Bezalel with “all works” (Exodus 31:3), that's the same phrase Genesis uses for the six days of creation: “all his work” (Genesis 2:2-3). Bezalel does in miniature what God did in making a universe. Bezalel is equipped by the Spirit to follow in God's footsteps and create a model universe that unwinds the Fall. And that's why Bezalel and his project get such top billing in Exodus. That's why Bezalel is given so many virtually unique blessings, why he's called by name from the start, why he's filled with the Spirit of God in ways never said of Adam, Noah, Moses, Aaron, or David.

If his grandfather Hur did die for opposing a false way of making God near in a golden calf, Bezalel lived to accomplish a true new way of having God near: by building the tabernacle through which his presence would be in our midst. I almost wonder if it would be fair to call Bezalel the Mary of the Old Testament! Mary was “overshadowed” by the “power of the Most High” (Luke 1:35), and through her came the human body of Jesus – and in this flesh, John tells us, the Word “pitched his tabernacle among us” (John 1:14). Mary was overshadowed by God to conceive through the Spirit and produce a tabernacle of skin and flesh and blood for the Word of the LORD. Bezalel's name means “In the Shadow of God,” and that same Spirit filled him to produce a tabernacle of skin and fabric and wood for the Glory of the LORD. Bezalel is filled with the Spirit of God, and that means a special blessing, a special gifting. But the reason why is because he has tasks to perform that add up to a mind-blowing mission. Bezalel is greatly blessed for a great purpose.

Bezalel was almost alone in the Old Testament in being “filled with the Spirit.” But the New Testament is a different story. John the Baptist and both his parents stand out, of course (Luke 1:15, 41, 67). But then a big thing happens. On the anniversary of the day Moses came down from the mountain with the Law, the followers of Jesus are gathered in one place (Acts 2:1), and “suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house” (Acts 2:2). And the house isn't all that gets filled. On Pentecost, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). Later on, again and again, we hear that the early believers were “all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:31), that Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8), that Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17; 13:9), that the disciples on the whole were “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). After Pentecost, Bezalel wasn't so alone.

Why were they filled with the Spirit? Because they had a mission to take up. And in this mission, there were various tasks to be done. And just as Bezalel and Oholiab had tasks assigned to them, and just as the various volunteers given wisdom and skill from God had subtasks assigned to them, so we read of a case where two early Christians were assigned a special task: “In the church at Antioch..., the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3). Barnabas and Saul, like Bezalel and Oholiab, were filled with the Spirit and equipped for tasks that furthered the broader mission. It's undeniable that Barnabas and Saul were mightily blessed. But the mighty blessing came with and for a mighty purpose. That's the pattern of Bezalel.

What does that mean for us? Where do we fit in all this? What does Bezalel have to teach us, God's people living in a post-Pentecost age? Well, look at it this way. If Bezalel was “called by name” (Exodus 31:2), the Lord tells us that we are “called by [his] name” (Acts 15:17), that there is an “honorable name by which you were called” (James 2:7). If Bezalel was chosen from before the days of Adam, like Jewish tradition suggested, well, Scripture reminds us that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). If Bezalel had the Spirit, we have the same Spirit: “God's Spirit dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16), and “you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). And if Bezalel was special in being “filled with the Spirit of God” (Exodus 31:3), Paul urges us, too, to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). And if Bezalel was filled with God's world-making qualities of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and 'every work,' so Paul prayed for us to be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work (Colossians 1:9-10). Whether you're as young as Bezalel or as old as Hur, the very same special blessing given to Bezalel is available to each and every one of us, each and every one of you!

Why? Because you are greatly blessed for a great purpose! God aims for you to be blessed like Bezalel for just as great a purpose as Bezalel. That's the wonder of Pentecost! God did not pour his Spirit on you, God did not put his Spirit in you, God did not invite you to be fully filled with the Spirit, for just no reason – for us to just sit around and waste away, for us to complain and whine and do nothing, for us to fritter away our blessings on our own little golden calves and on arks to store our own private trinkets. He has blessed and gifted you for bigger, larger things. We have one clear mission: to know Christ and make him known, to disciple the nations, to be the church as a scale-model new creation and a sign of God's kingdom, and through this to heal the world. For the aim of that mission, some tasks we share in common; other tasks may differ. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” Paul writes, and “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. … All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). But make no mistake: ever since that first-century Pentecost, you, like Bezalel, have been greatly blessed for a great purpose. Don't turn away from it. Today, on Pentecost, I pray for God to not only fill you with his Spirit, but to rage in you like a tempest, driving you with a gale-force “mighty rushing wind” to your work that suits the purpose of God for this his people on this very day. Remember Bezalel. Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother of the Heirs: Sermon on Galatians 4:26

A man stretches out his body across the cool grass in an open field in the countryside – and feels silly. He's been camping out there – minus the tent, minus the campfire, minus anything – for seven days now. His stomach should be grumbling – he's eaten nothing but wildflowers all week. It was an odd situation. But that's what you get when you arrange a rendezvous with an angel, he mused. The longer he stayed, the more his heart stirred, heaved. The man couldn't get the plight of his people out of his mind. He couldn't forget the massive hurt that had been done to the holy city Jerusalem – how pagans had charged in and destroyed the temple, toppled the altar, silenced their songs, polluted the holy things, burned the priests, abused the women, slew countless numbers and taken so many into captivity. Ezra wrestled with the the glory of the Law, the justice of God, and the fate of Jerusalem. He sat up and bowed his head in prayer.

Lifting up his eyes again, he saw he wasn't alone anymore. Turning to his right, he saw a woman standing there in the open. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. Clothes tattered and torn. Forehead smeared with ash. Hair all a mess. And she broke down crying. Putting his theological conundrums from his mind, Ezra asked her why she'd come out there, what was wrong, what was hurting; he wanted to know what he could do. And the woman sobbed him her story. She said she'd been married for a long time. But for the first thirty years, there was a problem. She couldn't have children. She waited every day to find herself with child, but nothing happened. And so every day, she prayed; hour by hour, she hammered heaven's door with cries. And then, thirty years from 'I do,' came 'It's a boy.' Her one and only son, a gift from God above. She raised her baby with all the care pent up for decades, and it was a lot of love. She changed him and burped him, took him by the hand and taught him, fed him, loved him, watched him grow into a man. She arranged his wedding to the loveliest girl. It was the proudest day of her life. And then, there in the wedding chamber, he collapsed. And he was no more. The loss, the grief, the pain only a bereaved mother could know – it wrecked her. And so, she told Ezra, she'd withdrawn to a lonely field to waste away.

Ezra begged her not to starve herself, pleaded with her to go back home and take up life again. And then, when he'd said his piece, there was a flash of light. And he didn't see a woman any more. Nor did he see a wide open field around him. Instead, where the woman had stood, now stood before him the gates of a vast city. Ezra was perplexed. When his angel finally arrived, he explained: the woman he'd met was Mother Jerusalem – empty of life for so long, 'til the temple stood in Solomon's day and the feasts and sacrifices began. She'd tended the children dwelling within her, around her, until the judgment fell. And on that day, Jerusalem had become the grieving mother.

That's a scene from a story – a story from a popular Jewish book written a few years after Revelation. We call it 4 Ezra. In the first century, the temple and city had been laid waste again by the Romans, so the author wished to comment with seven visions supposedly seen by Ezra in the wake of the first destruction by Babylonians. This was the middle one – the fourth of seven – his glimpse of Mother Jerusalem (4 Ezra 9:38—10:50).

That notion didn't pop out of nowhere. The Old Testament sometimes described Jerusalem, Zion, as being a mother. The psalmist sang, “Let the children of Zion rejoice in their King” (Psalm 149:2). Joel urged “the children of Zion” to sing and rejoice. Isaiah heard God say to Jerusalem that the nations would “bring your sons in their arms, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders. … I will save your children” (Isaiah 49:22-25). He spoke of Jerusalem and “all the sons she has borne,” “all the sons she has brought up” (Isaiah 51:18). The prophet sang that “as soon as Zion was in labor, she brought forth her children” (Isaiah 66:8). A later prophet, in the midst of destruction, lamented the death of “the precious sons of Zion” (Lamentations 4:2). And another psalm, in Greek translation, imagined people saying outright: “Zion is my mother” (Psalm 87:5). Later Jewish traditions took up the same theme. Jesus himself addressed the city's women as the “daughters of Jerusalem” (Luke 23:28). In the story of Ezra and the grieving mother, he refers to “Zion, the mother of us all” (4 Ezra 10:7) and says that “we are all sorrowing … we, the whole world, for our mother” (4 Ezra 10:9). And another Jewish book, written a few decades later, imagined a witness to the destruction asking God, “Have I therefore come into the world to see evil things of my mother?” (2 Baruch 3:1).

And so when another new band of missionaries traipsed into the mountain villages of Galatia, years after Paul had passed through and announced the good news, they surely knew those traditions. But these missionaries were not the kind Paul liked. They came from Jerusalem. Theirs was an ethnic faith. Paul called them 'Judaizers,' and declared their good news a fraud. They told the Gentile converts there that they needed more – more besides just faith in Jesus. And I can imagine the sort of thing they must have said, and I think it went something like this:

Oh, you foolish Gentiles, so narrowly snatched from your pagan ways! You are but sojourners among the people of God. To belong truly to God's people, to become members of God's family, means to be adopted into Abraham's seed – for no other family has God taken but the line of Abraham. To belong to God's people, really and truly and permanently, is to claim citizenship in Israel, the holy nation, our people. It is to take upon yourselves the covenant made through Moses at Sinai, when he received the Law; it is to be circumcised as true Jews, as the people of God, and to keep this Torah which Jesus kept. To belong truly to God's people is to look to the city of the temple of God as your capital, as your holy place, as your mother; it is to be a son or daughter of Jerusalem, from whence we have come to teach you the right way. This renegade Paul may have told you you're heirs of God and co-heirs with his Christ – but we tell you, you are yet outside the inheritance 'til you add this one thing more: that you have Jerusalem, holy Jerusalem, for your mother.

Probably something like that is what the Judaizers had been saying to the people. And when he hears that the Galatian Christians are falling for it, he writes a sharp, furious letter – we have it to this day. And he – Paul, who spent half his life in Jerusalem, was trained in Jerusalem by one of Jerusalem's greatest and holiest scholars and became a Pharisee par excellence – he retorts that these Judaizers have it backwards. They forget there are two branches to Abraham's family tree. One line involved Abraham's dalliance with the fertile Hagar, a slave woman. It was Abraham trying to accomplish his desires with his own ingenuity and his own prowess, putting his own flesh to use. He thought he could help God along by adding his own efforts. The fruit was Ishmael, who moved to the deserts of Arabia and inherited nothing. And that's the branch of the family the Judaizers will really put you in – the branch that's all about what happens in the desert (like the giving of the law), the branch that's born through mistrust and fleshly abuse and human engineering. All the Judaizers can turn people into are Ishmaels – disinherited children of a slave mother (Galatians 4:22-24).

The other line involved Abraham's marriage with his barren wife Sarah, a seemingly hopeless case. Fruitfulness came when Abraham stopped trying to pour his fuel into God's tank and just trusted in a promise. The fruit of the union was Isaac, father of Israel. But Paul says he stands for Paul's gospel. Isaac stands for freedom and a faith that just trusts a promise and knows God will make it work. That's how the Galatian believers were born again – as Isaacs in the freedom of God's promise, and so that makes them heirs (Galatians 4:28-31).

Just the same, Paul says, there are two cities. One, the Judaizers call their mother: “the present Jerusalem,” the one with GPS coordinates in the Middle East. The capital of first-century national Israel, the direction Jews turned when they prayed, the center of their teaching. The Judaizers forget her history and are blind to her future. Jesus warned the present Jerusalem would soon be the past Jerusalem – judged, overthrown, fractured, exposed; and even now, she languishes in slavery – she's on the verge of bereavement (Galatians 4:25).

The other city is a different Jerusalem – “the Jerusalem above” (Galatians 4:26). Paul isn't alone – there was a Jewish tradition of seeing the earthly city as modeled after a heavenly reality. The book with Ezra's visions has a prophecy of a day when “the city which now is not seen shall appear” (4 Ezra 7:26). A later rabbi described heaven as having a level “in which are Jerusalem and the temple, and an altar is set up, at which Michael the great prince stands and offers sacrifice” as the heavenly worship in a heavenly Jerusalem (b. ag. 12b). One Jewish book offers the blessing, “May God guide you with his light to the city above, Jerusalem!” (4 Baruch 5:35).

It's in the New Testament, too. The author of Hebrews says that Old Testament things like the tabernacle and so on were “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, 'See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain'” (Hebrews 8:5). The earthly shadows, he says, were just “copies of the true things” (Hebrews 9:24). He hints that the patriarchs all along were “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). And then he announces, “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22).

Such a heavenly reality, the true metropolis built where God stores his future blessings, isn't subject to the flaws of its earthly imitation. She isn't under oppression, and she isn't rendered obsolete by the march of salvation history. Actually, she's where the arrow is flying! That's where the Bible ends up. In the last book, John sees “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:1). Paul insists she “is free.” What's more, Paul adds, she “is our mother” (Galatians 4:26). We have a Mother Jerusalem, but she's a different Zion than the one the Judaizers heeded and hailed. She can't be partitioned, can't be conquered. For all her seeming earthly irrelevance in the Judaizers' eyes, Paul promises: “The children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband” (Galatians 4:27, quoting Isaiah 54:1) – the sons and daughters who call the heavenly Jerusalem 'mother' will suddenly outstrip those who look to an earthbound city that rises and falls with the vicissitudes of history.

But what is she – this 'mother' Paul tells us about? What heavenly reality stands behind Paul's words? This week, I read over three dozen interpretations over thousands of years. The earliest Christians don't say much that's clear. One of John's disciples suggests she's the Christian faith itself; then his disciple stresses she's the model for the earthly city. But as Christians started working systematically through whole books of the Bible, a different idea took shape: the notion that when Paul speaks of this “Jerusalem above,” he's talking about the Church. In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage circulates a saying: A person “can't have God for his Father who doesn't have the Church for his Mother.” So the earliest commentaries all identify the “Jerusalem above,” this “mother,” as “Mother Church,” as “the church which is assembled from the nations and is the mother of the saints.” And even today, pick up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, read the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, hear them call their institution “Holy Mother Church. Listen to Pope Francis preach, and he'll tell you, “The Church is our mother in faith, in supernatural life.”

I admit, I've always been uncomfortable with that image of 'Mother Church.' I've seen it used - I think abused - to badger Christians who don't see eye to eye with Rome. In the heat of the Reformation five hundred years ago, I would've expected the Reformers to run away as fast as they could from that understanding of Paul. I was astonished to find this week how wrong I was. Martin Luther said outright, “The heavenly Jerusalem above is the church. … Jerusalem, our free mother, is the church, the bride of Christ who gives birth to us all,” who “teaches us, cherishes us, and carries us in her womb, her bosom, her arms.” John Calvin saw it the same way: “With this church, we deny we have any disagreement. Nay, rather, as we revere her as our mother, so we desire to remain in her bosom. … There is no other way of entrance into life, unless we are conceived by her, born of her, nourished at her breast, and continually preserved under her care. Outside her bosom, there can be no hope of remission of sins or any salvation. … Anyone who refuses to be a child of the church, desires in vain to have God for his Father.” And from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, I found almost perfect unanimity among the heirs of the Protestant Reformation. So I guess I have to get over my discomfort, and so do the rest of us.

It's no stretch to somehow identify the “Jerusalem above,” this mysterious heavenly reality, somehow with the church. After all, an angel showed John the heaven-sent New Jerusalem as “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:9-10), and Paul says that the mystery of marriage points to “Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). So let's bite the bullet and call the Church our 'Mother.' The Church conceives us, for our Father makes her pregnant with “imperishable seed,” which is “the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). The Church gives birth to us. The prophet spoke of Zion being “in labor” and “bringing forth children” (Isaiah 66:8). Jesus said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Paul calls this birth a “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

And then the Church nurses and feeds us. The prophet calls us to “rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her..., that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance” (Isaiah 66:10-11). Peter writes, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). And that milk, Paul and Apollos tell us, involves the basic teachings of the gospel (Hebrews 5:12; 1 Corinthians 3:2). And then, after moving us from milk to solid food, the Church lovingly disciplines and disciples us, aiming to train and raise us from childhood into “mature manhood, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

So if the Church is our Mother, what do we owe her? On a day like today, Mother's Day, we know we each owe our own individual mothers; and for those of you who are mothers, your children know they owe you. At least, they should! It's why we celebrate the day. What does a mother deserve? I can see at least five things.

First, a mother deserves gratitude. Any good mother, any decent mother, has contributed to her children's lives in profound ways. She not infrequently went through the labor and pain of giving birth to them. She held them close at their most vulnerable. She nursed them from her own substance. She heard their cries and answered. She suffered for their well-being. She invested her time and love into their upbringing, into a relationship with them. She offered them gifts. From before her children were even born, she was serving them, investing in them – and she didn't stop 'til they were grown and could stand on her own, and even then, she still loves them, still knows them as her children, still finds ways to care for them and provide for them and give them gifts and blessings. So of course they owe her gratitude. Of course they owe her thanks for all these gifts and blessings she gives them. Of course they owe her a right and good use of her gifts, rather than to squander them.

And if the Church is our Mother, doesn't that mean we owe her gratitude? St. Augustine extolled “the womb of Mother Church: see how she groans and is in travail to bring you forth and guide you on into the light of faith!” Shouldn't we be grateful for that? Shouldn't we be grateful for all the milk she nursed us with, all the solid food the Church fed us with, all the love and care that the Church – considered in its heavenly perfection – offered us and offers us still as we hopefully grow up well? Yet how often we complain and grumble against her! How often we think of her, talk of her, as expendable, or even a detriment and a hindrance! But as the Church gives us gifts week in and week out, bankrolled by our Father's abundance, don't we owe it to her to have an attitude of gratitude, and to put those gifts to good use? As you thank your earthly mothers this morning (even if those earthly mothers currently call heaven home), are you thankful toward the mother called the Jerusalem Above?

And then, second, a mother deserves her child's time and presence. On Mother's Day, if it's at all possible, we want to spent time with our mothers. I know I'm eager for lunch with mine. I want to be present with her, spend time with her, cultivate a relationship with her, not just today on a special holiday but each week. As my mother, she deserves no less than that expression of love. A child owes a mother not to neglect her, not to stand her up, but to show her value through time spent with her – a precious opportunity to recognize while we can.

And if the Church is our Mother, doesn't that mean we owe her our time and presence? Doesn't that mean that, when she expects to see us, when she expects to get together with us, we should be there? Doesn't it mean we should want to cultivate a relationship with her, to be with her more often? And yet how often we seem to find the flimsiest excuses to neglect our Mother the Church! How often we neglect her! How often we avoid her! What a son it would be who, on Mother's Day, didn't give his mother the time of day. What a daughter it would be who, the rest of the year, treated her mother as an outsider. Today, or the rest of the year, does your Mother the Church have reason to complain, “You never write, you never call, you never visit”? Your Mother loves you – won't you think of your Mother and spend time with the Church?

But, of course, today is Mother's Day. I got my mom a modest little something, and I'm sure she's eager to see just what it is. Other people I know also went shopping to find gifts for their mothers. If your mother is still on earth with you, I hope you did, too. That's what dutiful children, grateful children, do. We give Mother's Day gifts, birthday gifts, Christmas gifts. We do favors for our moms. Yesterday, my mom asked if I could stop by today and maybe help her move a couple pieces of furniture inside. I made time to do it yesterday afternoon. As needs arise, we care for our mothers' needs, provide for them, knowing how many years they provided so drastically for us.

And if the Church is our Mother, doesn't she deserve the same? Doesn't she deserve our gifts, our provisions, our tangible expressions of love and filial care? Doesn't she deserve our favors, especially when she asks for something that's so simple and so within our power? And yet how much readier we are to hold back our wallets in getting gifts for our Mother the Church than we ever would think of being on Mother's Day when it comes to our earthly mothers! Not that she asks us to break the bank – our Mother, like our Father, enjoys it when her children are cheerful givers of gifts (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:7). And how much more reluctant are we to do favors when our Mother the Church asks than when Mama Cindy, Mama Linda, Mama Thelma, Mama Gladys, Mama Gloria, earthly mothers of any name, do the asking? If the Church is our Mother, what Mother's Day gift have you brought her? What will you bring for her birthday next Sunday on Pentecost? What will you say when she asks a favor of her son, her daughter? If God's your Father, she's your Mother – what will you do?

Fourth, a mother deserves to see unity among her children. Family strife hurts her. It hurts a mother when her children bicker, fight, divide. A mother wants to see her children getting along. She doesn't like it when arguments keep them from sharing the same dinner table in love. She wants to watch them cooperate together in good things. She wants her children to find ways to really enjoy each other's company, because she loves them all. I'm my mother's only child, but most of you come from larger families, and plenty of you mothers had more than one kid. You know what I mean. A mother loves all her children and wants them to get along. And she deserves to have that wish.

And if the Church is our Mother, doesn't she deserve the same? Doesn't family strife offend her when we bicker and fight and divide? Isn't it a grievous thing when her children refuse to sit down at the same table, to “partake one holy food”? Isn't it awful when her children refuse to cooperate in what's good, when her children reject each other's company? Isn't that an offense against her love, when we ignore her pleas, “Please, please, stop fighting”? Why are we so insistent on turning her other kids away? Why do we keep up the argument when she asks us to drop it, to embrace in forgiveness, to let the estrangement melt away into family unity? Isn't that what the Mother of God's Heirs deserves?

In addition to one more thing. Fifth, a mother deserves for her motherhood to be celebrated. That's what today is all about, isn't it? On Mother's Day, we celebrate our mothers' motherhood. And just the fact that she's a mother, just the fact that she's your mother, would be enough cause to celebrate. But for those of you from larger families, those of you who weren't last to come, do you remember what it was like when your mom had another child? When your mother has the joy of entering motherhood all over again, bringing another child to life, doesn't she want to celebrate? And wouldn't it make her glad if her older children got caught up in her celebration and excitement with her?

Well, the Church is our Mother. And Paul quoted the prophet's song: “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who aren't in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband” (Galatians 4:27, quoting Isaiah 54:1). Our Mother above, our Mother Jerusalem, our Holy Mother Church, is more fertile than we can imagine. She's adding children to the family all the time. Our Mother's got motherhood like none other! And we're meant to get caught up in the excitement and celebrate her motherhood, celebrate her fertility, as the gift of the God who loves her. Do we celebrate the Church's motherhood today, bless her fertility today, give thanks for the onward expansion of her family today?

There is indeed a “Jerusalem above,” the holy and heavenly city somehow behind what we know as 'Church.' And she “is free, and she is our mother” (Galatians 4:26). Today, this Mother's Day, let's listen to the words of the prophet and do them: “You who remember the LORD, take no rest and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem” – that is, our Mother above – “and makes her a praise in the earth” (Isaiah 62:6)! Amen.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Heirs with Christ: Sermon on Romans 8:12-17

I think I've probably known the story for years and years. I couldn't for the life of me tell you where I first came to know it, it's been so long. But had I seen it with my own eyes? Not until last month. Because last month, I took my seat in an auditorium in New Holland, at the high school. And for their fiftieth anniversary, Garden Spot Performing Arts, using a cast of middle school and high school students, showed me the story. I was wowed by their orchestra, captivated by the young actors, singers, dancers. I don't think I can even imagine in my mind a better performance of the classic 1977 musical Annie than the one they staged for us. The plot just burst off the script and into life!

Maybe you were there, too, at one of the six shows. I hope you were – it's good to support our community, after all; that's why I put it in the April newsletter. Whether you were there or not, do you remember the story, the plot of Annie? Based only loosely on Harold Gray's classic comic strip Little Orphan Annie, the musical opens in 1933, the throes of the Great Depression, at the New York City Municipal Orphanage, where an eleven-year-old girl named Annie is convinced, by a note left with her when she was dropped off as an infant, that her parents are out there and coming back for her. But the orphans all languish under the stern, disgruntled, alcoholic caretaker, Agatha Hannigan, who uses them for sweatshop labor and pockets their profits. Things change when Grace Farrell, secretary to acclaimed billionaire Oliver Warbucks, arrives, looking for an orphan to spend the Christmas holiday with Oliver at the Warbucks Mansion – and chooses Annie. In spite of her own ambivalence, in spite of the Hannigans' scheming, in the end all obstacles are cleared away and Annie can be adopted on Christmas morning.

With catchy songs and an uplifting message, it's no surprise Broadway couldn't keep this one contained. It's hardly a wonder it's become a cultural phenomenon. But more than that, it's a story that hits home. Or, at least, it should. The musical Annie should hit home for each and every one of us in a special way. It's far from an unrelatable story, least of all to those of us who've been there ourselves. You see, Paul and other biblical writers remind us what our lives were like before Jesus, before the Holy Spirit. Slaves – we were “slaves to sin,” Paul tells us (Romans 6:20). Fear – we “through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15; cf. Romans 8:15). “We have become orphans, fatherless,” the prophet wrote (Lamentations 5:3). In Roman adoption procedures, the adoptee first had to be thrice sold into slavery to release him from his birth father's authority. Slavery, which could enact legal orphanhood, was a prerequisite for Roman adoption. And Paul paints an ugly picture of what that's been like for our lives: the inner ambivalence, the inward strife, the shockingly irreversible trajectory in a downward spiral through death by indwelling sin (Romans 7:7-24).

This musical hits home because we, too, if we're conscious of our spiritual state, know what it's like to be in her shoes – to be orphaned, forlorn, abandoned to slavery and fear. The one thing that keeps Annie going is that note, telling her she won't be left an orphan forever. And just the same, Jesus during his earthly ministry left us with a note: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). Just so, Paul wants us to know that, when we were justified, that wasn't just God ruling on our case as a judge, giving us a favorable verdict, and then releasing us back into the world. Nor did God simply haul us from the ditch and then drive off. No, God did more than that. The psalmist long before had praised “God in his holy habitation” as the “Father of the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5). And so this same God, this same Father, chose to become our Father – chose to pour out his “Spirit of adoption” on us (Romans 8:15). The Father had and has one perfect eternal Son – and yet he chose to “bring many sons to glory” and to give his Son “brothers” (Hebrews 2:10-11), making Jesus “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). We have been adopted into God's family.

How'd that happen? Well, we just said it, didn't we? Through “the Spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15). When we received the Holy Spirit, that was an adoption ceremony, taking place right under our noses. The adoption went through. That's made clear because, like Paul says, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). Paul wants us to remember here the story of the exodus. Israel used to be a slave in Egypt, if you remember. But that wasn't Israel's destiny forever. God said to Egypt's pharaoh, “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, 'Let my son go that he may serve me'” (Exodus 4:22). And the proof that that was true was when “the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” (Exodus 13:21). In this way, Moses wrote that the LORD was “seen face to face” (Numbers 14:14) by those he chose as “his children” (Deuteronomy 32:5). And this fiery, cloudy pillar never led them on a retreat to their starting point. The pillar never led them back to Egyptian slavery, to where they had to fear every tragic misfire in the pharaoh's sick brain, did it? Paul says that, just like the fiery, cloudy pillar, the Spirit leads God's children onward – not backward – through a desert that has an end.

Still, how do we know that's our story? And how can we know that's what it means? After all, the desert can be a confusing place. The Israelites constantly doubted that God had chosen them for anything but a disaster (cf. Exodus 14:11; Numbers 21:5). Well, maybe we turn our memory back to the day of our conversion, if we can remember it. Maybe we reason through what the Bible tells us. Maybe. But that's hard to stay focused on, hard to see ourselves in. The Law says that “only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15). Our own opinion isn't enough. Our own memory isn't enough. When our doubts arise, when our forgetfulness arises, our own witness isn't enough to prove who we are – not even to ourselves, much less to a world so critical. What's worse, in a Roman court, adoption was taken so seriously, it took seven witnesses to establish its truth, which is way beyond traditional Jewish law. Our own spirit needs to testify, but its testimony ain't enough! My spirit, your spirit – it can't meet the burden of proof for our adoption!

But here's the thing. Over and over again in the Bible's last book, the Holy Spirit is described in a perplexing way. “The seven spirits who are before his throne” (Revelation 1:4), “the seven spirits of God” (Revelation 3:1; 4:5), “the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). That's the Holy Spirit – not one among seven, he is the whole seven. This sevenfold Spirit who bears a ninefold fruit comes down and, as “the Spirit of adoption,” he adds a sufficient testimony that, coupled with our own spirit's testimony, can triumph over any test. Neither Jewish nor Gentile law set a burden of proof high enough that our spirit plus God's Spirit, both bearing witness, couldn't clear it. The Spirit was present to ratify the adoption, so the Spirit is qualified to attest to its validity – and so “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).

So then there's the question: How does the Spirit bear witness, or how do we know that the Spirit bears witness? In times of trouble, in times of doubt or distress, in times when we see the high burden of proof and see clearly that our own spirit isn't making a convincing enough case for us, how is it that we can know that we're children of God? How do we know that, when life falls apart? And Paul tells us: “You have received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'” (Romans 8:15). There's that word: 'Abba.' Maybe you've heard it before. It shows up in the Gospels. Paul was writing in Greek, but it's not a Greek word. Certainly isn't an English word. It's Aramaic – the language Joseph and Mary taught Jesus. And so when he was in deep distress in the garden, he prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you” (Mark 14:36). 'Abba' isn't a distant and clinical term. It's tender; it's personal; it's intimate. It's the word that Jesus characteristically used to talk to God – the God who sent him, the God he knew as his Father. In his time of deepest distress, that's the word that spilled out of Jesus' mouth: 'Abba.'

And the same is true for us. Being led by the Spirit means internalizing a new way of thinking and praying. To be led by the Spirit means to cultivate a radical sense of God's tenderness, his intimate closeness, his personal connection and commitment, his very real fatherly care. That's not so much a feeling we have – well, maybe we feel it on our good days. But Paul's talking about a relationship, a deep awareness of a relationship, so deep that even when we're dried up and dried out, damaged and demolished, the Spirit screams in the wreckage, 'Abba!' When we pray in those darkest moments, when we put aside all pretense, when the fancy elocution drops to the dirt and we get real and vulnerable, the sign we're looking for is this: the language that blurts out is the way a hurting child cries out for daddy. Because of this “Spirit of adoption” at work in us, the testimony is seen and heard in that 'Abba'-cry, that desperate whimper or attention-grabbing shout of prayer to a Father we need. And it tells us all we need to know about where we are. By the end of the musical, there was no more “Mr. Warbucks” – he's suddenly Annie's dear father, “Daddy Warbucks.” Once the adoption's gone through, it's not “Mr. Almighty” to us – it's 'Abba.'

So what does that mean for your life? What does it mean to us if we've been adopted by God? What does it mean to have God for our Abba? I think Paul has four things to tell us on that front. First, to be adopted by God is to go through a position shift, an identity shift. Paul can say outright, “We are children of God” (Romans 8:16). Whoever you used to be, close the book. You are not who or what you were before. You have a new family, a new tribe. There's a new allegiance that has to come first now, before any flag, before any country, before any friends, before any clan, before any ideology or faction. You have a new identity: 'Child of God.' And you know that because the Spirit pokes and prods, stews and stirs, 'til you call God 'Abba.' So you can't look at God the same old way, and you can't look at you the same old way. You aren't that same old you. The network of allegiances that used to be yours – a new family has taken their place.

Second, to be adopted by God means that there should be an attitude shift. Paul makes it clear, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” (Romans 8:15). The Spirit is not leading you back where you came from. The Spirit is not beating a retreat to Egypt. The Spirit is not rolling dice with you. The Spirit is not drafting contingency plans. Before the adoption went through, yeah, Annie dreaded, Annie feared the prospect of her impending return to her old slave-like status in Miss Hannigan's orphanage. That was where she'd come from, and her holiday was just that: a vacation, a break, before once more falling back into slavery and fear. Legally, that was where she belonged. Until she was adopted. And then she didn't have to fear being sent back. She didn't have to have the dread of the orphanage hanging over her. I'm sure any real-life Annie would have the occasional nightmare about being back there – but when she wakes up, she could remind herself it was just a dream, and that she's secure.

Being adopted is a secure thing. Annie could choose to keep living in fear, could choose to believe she's at great risk of being disowned, could choose to keep thinking of herself as an outsider – but wouldn't that be such an insult to Daddy Warbucks and his generosity if she did? Far better for her, and far better for us, to leave fear and dread in the past! Fear and dread of returning to the past, that is; fear and dread of being abandoned to our B.C. status as orphans forlorn; fear and dread of being left on our own, to our own devices, to make it through a cruel world. Far better, then, for Annie – and far better for us – to accept a new life, the adopted life. That doesn't mean deserting her quest for answers, unraveling the mystery of how and why she ended up where she was; but it does mean accepting and receiving the gift of a new life in full, which puts every question and every answer in its rightfully smaller place. Far better to learn to just enjoy our Abba and his welcoming grace.

Third, to be adopted by God means that there is an obligation shift. Annie would've gotten that. For over a decade, really all her living memory, Annie had lived under Miss Hannigan's rule. Annie, like a slave to a harsh master, was used to having to obey Miss Hannigan. She was conditioned to it, habituated to it. Obeying like a slave was just what little orphan Annie was used to. She'd never before had a choice; she was bound to it, at the very least by the petty law of might making right, for whatever that's worth. But then Oliver Warbucks adopts her, and Agatha Hannigan and her scheming brother are under arrest, at the musical's closing scene. Suddenly, because of her adoption, Annie has no more obligations to Miss Hannigan, no debts to repay. She's under a new authority that cuts away those former chains. So if, after that final scene, Miss Hannigan made a jailbreak, if she accosted Annie in the street and ordered her to go scrub the orphanage floors and start sewing in the sweatshop, Annie might well be tempted – not because it's desirable, but because it's reflex. But while Annie might be conditioned to do it, she's got no reason to do it, no obligation to do it! She has no debts to repay there and no obligations to fulfill there.

And the same, Paul writes, holds true in our case. He tells us, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to walk according to the flesh – for if you walk according to the flesh, you'll die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you'll live” (Romans 8:12-13). Just like Annie Warbucks and Agatha Hannigan after the musical's done, we have no obligation to gratify the flesh, no obligation to cater to the flesh, no obligation to kowtow to the flesh, no obligation to let the flesh push us around and bully us. Resuming our own orphan lifestyle of poverty and slavery out of habit isn't healthy for adopted children. It's bad for us – lethally so, mortally so, Paul says. To go back and toil like an orphan, acting like our adoption's null and void, will do a number on our health and make us miss out on all our Father's big plans. That's what we're doing when we opt to “walk according to the flesh.”

But there's an alternative. It's being led by the Spirit, who breaks us away from all those things we used to have to do. Letting the Spirit guide us, prompt us, direct us, and actually following the Spirit through this present wilderness – that opens up a whole new world of life on the horizon, Paul wants us to know. As we journey with the Spirit, he brings out our growing family resemblance to our Abba and his Firstborn. We are not under the slightest obligation to do otherwise. No one has a right to tell you otherwise. There is no power in this world or outside of it that will ever have the right to tell you to be less like your Abba. There is no power that has the right to treat you as a poor little orphan any more. Nor is there any power with the right to boss you around like that – only the Spirit, whose power is to lead you into slaying all that held your spirit down.

And finally, speaking of our Abba and his Firstborn, one more thing: Being adopted by God means even more than just an identity shift, an attitude shift, an obligation shift. It also means a destiny shift. It doesn't just matter that we're adopted; it matters by whom. When Annie was adopted, she wasn't taken in by a pig farmer, a mechanic, a clergyman, a con man, or any of the myriad possibilities. She was taken in by Oliver Warbucks, billionaire tycoon. When Annie was adopted, she didn't just gain a family; she gained a fortune and a future. No more Annie, last name unknown. No more Annie Bennett. Annie, daughter of Oliver Warbucks. She lived a new lifestyle. She hobnobbed with President Roosevelt, played with all the rich toys, befriended and was ministered to by Warbucks' staff. When she was adopted, she became heir to the Warbucks estate. She became entitled to the respect and honor due a Warbucks, she enjoyed all the tangible benefits of being a Warbucks. She gained a future so radically unlike her past.

And so do we. Annie got to hobnob with a president, but we get the King of the Universe for family. Annie got to share in the Warbucks fortune, but “our Lord Jesus Christ … for your sake became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). That's why Paul can write that his calling was to “preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). And the “unsearchable riches of Christ” are so much better treasure than the Warbucks fortune! Annie got to be ministered to by Oliver Warbucks' large and well-coordinated staff. But the Bible describes angels as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14).

You see, in olden days, Israel was chosen as God's son. Israel was brought from slavery, led by the fiery, cloudy pillar – but what was Israel hoping for? If Israel was God's son, would Israel get anything, inherit anything? Yes! God told the patriarchs long beforehand, “All this land that I have promised, I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever” (Exodus 32:13). And so God said to Israel, “You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Leviticus 20:24). Big chunks of Numbers are obsessed with the proper division of Israel's inheritance, the promised land (cf. Numbers 26:56). The land was their inheritance.

National Israel, as it turns out, wasn't exactly successful as God's son – the wilderness generation to whom God said those things found that out, which is why Moses announced, “They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5). But then we meet Jesus, the Messiah, the Truest Israelite who gets called God's Son. What promised land is left for Jesus the Son to inherit? The psalmist tells us that the Father said to him, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:7-8). 'All nations,' even to 'the ends of the earth' – the entire planet, nay, more than a planet, a whole new creation – that's what Jesus the Son of God will rule as his inheritance!

Where does that leave us? Does it leave us outside? Does it leave us second-class in God's household – given room and board, and told to shut up and be happy? That's not how the Spirit sees it. Because, speaking by the Apostle Paul, the Spirit tells us “that we are children of God; and, if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17). See, if we children share Jesus' prayer as the Son, then why should we children not share Jesus' rule as the Son, Jesus' inheritance as the Son? We aren't just there in the house – we get to be his joint heirs! We co-inherit all his inheritance, which is bigger than all the world! Each one of you, if you've received the Spirit of adoption, is destined to share a fortune bigger than you can wrap your mind around – a fortune that includes, at minimum, the entire world and everything in it, to “reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12; cf. Revelation 20:6). And not just the broken world as we know it, but a new world, a world of glory! (More on that in two weeks.)

That is what God has in store for you: to stand tall as his very own child, adopted into his family, and given full rights to share Jesus Christ's world-dwarfing inheritance of glory and dominion. That is so much bigger and better than the Warbucks estate. That is so much bigger and better than a few plots of Middle Eastern real estate – even if it flows with milk and honey.

How's this all to happen? How do we get there? Well, look back to Israel again. How did they reach the land of promise they were to inherit? They had to follow the Spirit's leading as the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night – we already know that. But follow the pillar through what? The wilderness. That “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). Israel, as God's son, could only inherit through the trials and tribulations of their wilderness journey. And since they buckled under, they never fully saw what God had in mind for them (cf. Hebrews 3:7—4:11).

So Paul can then write to us that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Israel had to inherit through the wilderness. Jesus inherited through the cross. And we inherit through taking up a cross and following him (Mark 8:34), and so “suffering with him” with the aim of then, when we receive our inheritance, being “glorified with him.”  We carry a cross through this dry and weary land, but our inheritance of glory with Jesus is just across the border.

Hard to believe all that was packed into this morning's passage! But what a tremendous vision, what a radical reality! Adopted by God, given family warmth and legal standing, made the Father's heir alongside Jesus the Son himself, led by the Spirit who attests to the truth of what we thought was too good to be true, even in our darkest hours.

What difference would it make this week if you really got it? if you really understood it, accepted it, believed it, trusted it? What difference would it make in your week if you really knew God as your Abba, if you dreamt where the Spirit is leading you, if you heard the witness loud and clear, if you glimpsed the adoption certificate in its permanent ink of indelible grace? What difference would that make? Meditate on that. Listen for the Spirit who tells you who your Father is. Follow him. May the plot burst off this script... and into your life.