Sunday, June 28, 2020

Yesterday, Today, Forever: Sermon on Hebrews 13

The project had been eleven years in the making – ever since that tragic night in Ford's Theater. And now the crowd in Lincoln Square was immense. President Grant and a wide array of government officials were there, and adoring masses, too, to witness the unveiling of the new Emancipation Monument on Friday, April 14, 1876 – and then Frederick Douglass took the stand to speak. Atop the pedestal, what he saw – a twelve-foot bronze of the late President Lincoln, holding his Emancipation Proclamation and welcoming a freed slave to rise – well, it meant a lot to Douglass. For far too long, Douglass and those who shared his skin color had been cast outside the camp of white American society, their rights and even their very humanity denied by unjust law. But now there was freedom, and the statue had been fully funded by those once not legally free but now free indeed. 

“In view, then,” Douglass said, “of the past, the present, and the future, with the long and dark history of our bondage behind us, and with liberty, progress, and enlightenment before us, I again congratulate you upon this auspicious day and hour.” He refused to gloss over Abraham Lincoln's personal shortcomings (“preeminently the white man's president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men”), but insisted that in spite of those (and perhaps, in a way, through them), Lincoln had been used mightily by Infinite Wisdom. And now Douglass' people were “newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom,” so they wished, by erecting this memorial, to share a message with “those of after-coming generations.” Saying that “the sentiment of gratitude and appreciation” they felt “can never die while the Republic lives,” Frederick Douglass declared his hope that statues like this one would “endure forever.”

That was 1876.  This is 2020.  And this month, amidst the general iconoclastic purge engulfing the nation, threats have been made to frustrate Frederick Douglass's hope. Activists demanded its removal and announced plans to tear down the original; and in Boston, where a copy has stood since 1879, after a widespread petition for its removal, the city is discussing whether to keep theirs.  The artistic choices in the design are perceived by some today as showing the freed slave in too weak a posture, and allegedly Douglass himself was not terribly fond of the design. The events of the past month have reminded us that, in the sea of cultural change, no legacy is destined to stand as a constant yesterday and today and forever. Monuments are not likely to endure forever – certainly not with the same meaning they had when first dedicated. As history flows, finding someone who can be the same yesterday and today and forever has proven to be an impossible task.

But the author of Hebrews, whoever he was, has a candidate to submit for our consideration – and, more than our consideration, for our adoration. “Jesus Christ,” he proclaims with a voice like a trumpet, “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)! Yesterday and today the same, and even to all eternity, when monuments to the legacies of mortal men are raised and toppled, Christ cannot be canceled.

Let's take these three times into consideration. We begin with yesterday. The yesterday of Jesus stretches back far, far beyond the pages of history. The yesterday of Jesus is anchored firmly in the uncreated simplicity of God. When God alone existed, Jesus Christ was there. Before matter, before energy, before space, before time, Jesus Christ was there. When the order was given to let creation roll forth, Jesus Christ was that word. When human beings were installed as the living images of God in God's own garden-temple, Jesus Christ was who they pointed to. And when, after a long time of wayward wandering, a nation was formed to bless the other nations, Jesus Christ was the Lord of their Law. In the fullness of time, he stepped into our flesh and blood, took on a name, lived a life, and then was crucified. But our author here connects it to the rituals of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In the Law, on that great day, the high priest would slaughter a sin offering, present the blood in the Holy of Holies, and then “the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp: their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned with fire, and he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp” (Leviticus 16:27-28; cf. Hebrews 13:11).

And just the same, Jesus was crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem, outside the camp, in the place where the bodies of those animals were destroyed. It's because he was a sacrifice that he was sent outside: “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). His own blood, the “blood of the eternal covenant,” bought freedom and emancipated everyday people like you and me into the world of holiness. “For if the blood of goats and bulls... 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)! Jesus Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12). And then “the God of peace... brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20).

And the risen Jesus, in history's yesterday, sent out his apostles to speak the word of God. The people to whom Hebrews is written had heard them, or other missionaries who worked with them. And those prior preachers, the preachers of yesterday, became their leaders in the gospel. The author wants people to “remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). Last Sunday, if you were here with us, we did exactly that by recalling the Church Fathers, those to whom the entire church can look in exactly this way. And here in our congregation we have had past pastors to whom this verse applies. Scripture commands you to remember them well. That may now be countercultural – to remember and imitate someone from the past! But in this instance, we have a thus-saith-the-Lord.

Such was yesterday. Now we stand in today, and we find that Jesus Christ has not changed, his meaning has not changed, because he is alive; and though we who live have to go through development and repentance, Christ is divinely constant. Like the first audience of Hebrews, we at times may be tempted to go back to old ways, to live as if the cross and the resurrection never happened, to go about business as usual. But the author wants us to see that the aspirations of that old world are beneath us. For in the sacrifice he offered at his cross, Jesus made that cross the altar of heaven. Those who live the world's ways, who worship the legacies of changing mortals and the ideologies of one or another age – let them eat what their systems feed them. But as for us, “we have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10). We eat grace, not the outdated diets of the fashions of a past century. We eat grace, not the fads of the present, not the delicacies of utopias never built, not the “diverse and strange teachings” of a world in flux (Hebrews 13:9). We eat from the altar, we eat from the cross and from the nail-scarred hand of Jesus our High Priest. Our food is beyond the law's power to provide and beyond people's power to steal.

The sacrifice made yesterday changes our lives today. We have been made exiles in the world (oh, we've tried to manipulate the culture, make ourselves comfortable, and deny we're in exile, but the veil is being torn from our eyes, and we're seeing our exile anew), and yet our path of exile outside the camp has been sanctified. For if “Jesus... suffered outside the gate..., let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Hebrews 13:12-13). Outside with the lepers and slaves of society, outside with the judged and condemned, outside with the misfits – outside at the cross, outside to Jesus. That's where holiness comes from: from the outside. Not where the world respects – for that will change – but where the world neglects. In the midst of the turbulence in our society today, these words need to be emblazoned in our vision, tattooed inside our eyelids: Here we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:14a). Washington DC cannot be our lasting city. We don't have one. We will not build one, though we can build a better temporary city, a more just temporary city. Yet our inspiration comes from the one we wait for, the city from heaven, the New Jerusalem (Hebrews 13:14b). And its Architect is God (Hebrews 11:10). But we have no lasting city here. Not today.

Which is why today is the time to seek salvation! “Exhort one another every day, as long as it's called 'Today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin; for we have come to share in Christ,” to eat from his altar, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:13-14). Today is the time to live by what Jesus Christ teaches – for what he teaches doesn't change. He tells us not to neglect hospitality, he tells us to place ourselves for the imprisoned and mistreated – have we lived by that, remembered the mistreated and imprisoned in our society (Hebrews 13:2-3)? He also tells us to cling to a high standard of sexual ethics, to “let marriage be held in honor among all, let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4) – certainly something that, should we take it seriously, would set us apart from modern culture. He tells us to release ourselves into financial contentment, grounded in God's promise to never forsake us, but to instead be a helper who frees us from fear of worldly circumstances, “so we can confidently say: 'The Lord is my helper, I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6). A certitude needed for the living of these days!

And, equally counterculturally, he tells us today, in the church, that just as we remember, consider, and imitate the pastors of our past, so he has called the pastor of our present. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17). The author of Hebrews, and God speaking through him, orders obedience and submission to the pastor of the church, warning that if the people frustrate their pastor, the consequences could be spiritually dangerous. Instead, he says, make the pastor's task joyful by cooperating with the pastor, by putting his teaching into practice, by giving him a reason to celebrate as he watches your life and your soul. And, the author writes from afar, “Greet all your leaders and all the saints” – literally, embrace your pastor and each other, give them all a hug on the author's behalf (Hebrews 13:24). Strive to cultivate that sort of affectionate church atmosphere, a place of obedient joy – because that's what points to Jesus.

The reason for all this is that Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday! He's presently ascended, he's exalted at his Father's right hand, he's interceding and saving. The same Jesus who sacrificed his own blood for our sin yesterday is the Jesus who doesn't want to see us tripped up by the deceitfulness of sin today. The same Jesus who opened an altar yesterday is the Jesus who wants to see us scarfing down grace today. The same Jesus who sent out apostles yesterday is the Jesus who works through their successors today. The same Jesus who was outside the gate yesterday is the Jesus who calls us today to worry less about cities that won't last and more about what will – the strangers needing shelter, the abused needing defenders, the imprisoned needing comforters, the honor of marriage, the contentment of our hearts that outlasts the circumstances of our bank accounts. These things last. These things will endure after the fading city and its monuments have fallen. So through Jesus Christ, while it's still called today, “let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God – that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16). Our praises, our good, our sharing – we lay them on the altar of Christ's cross, and at these sacrifices placed there, God smiles.

Some day, this today will fade. Perhaps a fresh today will take its place, as it has many times in the past – the today of a different city, a different civilization, a different cultural atmosphere, that will also be as temporary as the last. It's happened many times before. It will happen again. But one day, what will replace one fading city will not be another fading city, but the lasting city sent down from heaven. That will be, not just a tomorrow, but the ultimate tomorrow of forever. And Jesus Christ, the same today as yesterday, will be the same forever – which means he's the same for each and every tomorrow. Cities rise and fall, monuments are built up and are torn down, meanings roll and change and are reinterpreted, legacies shine and burn, faults are found (justly and unjustly) with our designs and our doings, but Jesus Christ is perfectly the same. He will never fade away into history to make way for the resurgence of some old thing or the emergence of some new thing beyond him. (Unlike us and so much of what we've done and what we commemorate, Jesus Christ will not deserve to fade; our legacies may, but he will not.) His throne is forever (Hebrews 1:8). His priesthood is forever (Hebrews 5:6; 6:20; 7:24). His glory is forever (Hebrews 13:21). Whatever changes, he doesn't.

Jesus Christ is yesterday and today the same, and so shall he be to all ages, to every era, to all eternity. And so whatever shape the twists and turns of culture takes, whatever comes from the events we read about in the news, Jesus Christ is our anchor, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). For every successive today and tomorrow, God is ready to “equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever” (Hebrews 13:21). In American culture as it was in the 1950s, God could equip people with everything they needed to do his will then and there. In American culture as it was in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, God could equip people with everything they needed to do his will then and there – which may have been a somewhat different set of equipment. And in American culture as it is in June 2020, or as it will be by this time next year, God can equip us with everything good we'll need in order to do his will for that time and place. And in each and every case, he equips us through Jesus – the same yesterday and today and forever. Jesus will never be insufficient. Jesus will never be outdated. Jesus will never be obsolete or behind the times. Jesus has been ahead of the times since before time began (and it doesn't get more up-to-date than that).

And Jesus Christ has more than proven to us who he is. He sacrificed himself as a permanent sin-offering for us. It was sheer love that did that. He aims to make us holy. It's sheer love that aims for that. He prays for us every moment. It's sheer love that's doing that. And he will bring to completion all he's ever dreamt of for our lives. It's sheer love that will do that. Jesus Christ is our Great Emancipator, never bogged down or burdened by prejudices or fads. “Rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom,” may our “sentiment of gratitude … never die.” Whatever else can change, Jesus Christ won't. No fading city can topple him, though other heroes may justly fall. No temporary shifting of cultural winds can take him away from us. Let us journey beyond the fading cities that litter history and dream alike; let us join him outside the camp, in the no-man's land sanctified by divine blood and holy flame, keeping memory alive and bearing his reproach until he comes with a lasting city. And as we lay our praises and our obedience of faith as sacrifices on his altar, let us eat the grace beyond what the whims of any age can know. Amen.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

As God Was With Our Fathers

Picture the scene: The king's knees ached from kneeling on the stone steps before the altar of the Most High. He'd been on his knees there quite some time, praying in the presence of the visible cloud of God's glory. Now Solomon stood, stretching his legs. This was the big day, the day he'd been working for, the day his father David had longed to see. David had wished he could be the one to build a house for God. But David had been too involved in making war. His hands were not the hands for the job. So it fell to his son and heir, Solomon, to fulfill his father's dream. And now the dream of the father was a reality in the life of the son. A house for the Lord. The temple. It was fully built, and this was the day of its dedication, its consecration. And God had already moved in.

On his feet, Solomon turned to face a waiting nation. As their king, he knew he was no priest – through priests a-plenty flanked him. But in his own regal way, he stood before the tribal chiefs and elders of all Israel, as they gathered in the temple court. Solomon's eyes surveyed their waiting faces, their imploring eyes, their listening ears. Stretching out his hands, fresh from an encounter with the light of the Lord, the king shouted words of blessing and favor: “Blessed be the LORD who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised! Not one word has failed of all his good promise which he spoke by Moses his servant. The LORD our God be with us, as he was with our fathers!” (1 Kings 8:56-57a).

What can we say about Solomon's faith? Solomon's faith was rooted firmly in history. Shake it loose from that ground, and it would not be the same. Cut it out from that frame, and it would be emptied. You cannot divorce Solomon's faith from the history of those he calls 'our fathers.' Now, earlier, in his prayer of dedication, King Solomon had referred several times to “David my father.” But here, he speaks to all Israel of 'our fathers,' the fathers they've shared. Abraham was one of their fathers – God was with him throughout his journeys, God promised a family and a land, and not one word of that promise failed. Moses and the generation of the exodus were their fathers – God was with them at Sinai and in the tabernacle, God promised a clear-cut roadmap to blessings and curses, and not one word of that promise failed. And Joshua and the generation of the conquest were their fathers – God was with them as they moved into their inheritance, and God made good on his unfailing promises of old. These all were 'our fathers' to Solomon and the nation gathered in the temple that day. This is what Solomon meant as he praised God and hoped that God would continue to be toward them and among them the kind of God the history of their fathers had revealed.

Solomon's faith, Israel's faith, cannot be divorced from the history of their fathers – those who held that faith before, those who passed it down to them, those who stood up and seized the hope held out in the promise. And the same is true of ours today. Just as Solomon's Israel could look back to their fathers' stories of life with God, so can Jesus' Church do the same. The problem is that we don't often do it. The church today has a tendency, I'm afraid, to forget the big family tree. We've so longed for simplicity that we've flattened our faith and neglected our fathers, the fathers whose legacy we share. No wonder we behold the church so divided. No mystery we frequently meet the church so demoralized. It's the consequence of the church being dehistoricized! Just as Israel looked back to its fathers in the day of Solomon, the Church today, especially today, is called to recollect its Fathers.

We look back, of course, to the apostles. After the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – a gift we celebrated a few weeks ago, while we were still ungathered – the New Testament tells us something of the ministries that the apostles held. Paul is a prime example, since Luke's history follows first Peter and then him. Luke's focus is on Paul because Luke aims to trace the spread of the good news of Jesus from Jerusalem to all Judea, to Samaria, and then out to the ends of the earth – represented here by Rome, the heart of Gentile power. Along the way, Paul founded and nourished many churches. And wherever he went, he described his interaction with believers as being “like a father with his children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11). He explained to the Corinthians, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul is our father in Christ, too. Was God with the Apostle Paul? Absolutely! The New Testament screams that loud and clear.

But eventually, Paul's work here was done. He gave his life for the gospel in Rome. How many of us know the story's next step? Paul had plenty of co-workers – he names some in his letters. Timothy we of course know, and Titus. Paul also briefly mentions a young colleague named Clement. And sometime after Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome, Rome became Clement's field of operation. Among the network of Roman churches, Clement became a leader and an overseer and a spokesman, following in Peter and Paul's footsteps. Around the same time that John was on Patmos, writing down that revelation for the seven churches in Turkey, Clement got word that there was trouble in the Corinthian church yet again – that a younger generation there was rebelling against their pastors and causing trouble. So, like Paul would have, Clement wrote them a letter to set them straight. And he said to them:

Let's fix our gaze on the blood of Christ and realize how precious it is to his Father, seeing that it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of conversion to the entire world. … Let's look steadfastly toward the Father and Creator of the whole world, and hold fast to his magnificent and surpassing gifts of peace and kindness to us. … He does good to all, and more than superabundantly to us who've found refuge in his mercies through our Lord Jesus Christ – to whom be glory and majesty forever and ever, amen!

Amen indeed, Clement! Church, Clement is one of our fathers – a father we all share. Our spiritual family tree isn't complete if we don't have his name and his story and his witness on it. Was God with our father Clement? Yes, yes he was. God spoke through Clement to restore a troubled church to order, and to point them back to the good news. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Clement!

At the same time Clement stood up in the churches of Rome and John was still writing to the churches of Asia, the churches in Antioch, the city in Syria where the word 'Christian' was invented, were led by a pastor named Ignatius. As a young man, he'd met Peter and Paul; it wasn't long after they died that he rose to his call of ministry there. He guided and parented the church there for decades. But about twelve years after Clement's letter, Ignatius was arrested and shipped toward Rome, there to be put to death for the gospel. A team of ten Roman soldiers escorted him as prisoner over land and sea. During the long trip, Ignatius received care from churches in the cities of Asia, and he wrote them letters. He reminded the church to “frequently come together to give thanks to God and show forth his praise, for when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed...” And as he drew closer to his destiny of being thrown to the lions, Ignatius announced:

I am the wheat of God, so let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts so that I may be found to be the pure bread of Christ. … Let fire and cross, crowds of wild beasts, tearing, breaking, dislocating bones, amputation, shattering of the whole body, and all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me – only let me reach Jesus Christ!

Church, Ignatius is one of our fathers – a father we all share, as much as Clement and as much as the apostles. Was God with our father Ignatius? Yes, he certainly was. God inspired in Ignatius a mighty yearning for the presence of Jesus at any cost, and God granted him his faithful desire, letting nothing obstruct his way. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Ignatius!

As Ignatius marched toward martyrdom, one of the pastors he met was Polycarp, who led the church in Smyrna. As a young man, Polycarp had been mentored by the Apostle John, and Polycarp had spoken with numerous other Christians who had seen the risen Jesus with their own eyes during those forty days between Easter and the Ascension. And a few years after writing Revelation, John had handpicked Polycarp to lead the church in Smyrna, one of those seven cities. As a student of John, Polycarp carried on the living voice of the apostles, and he became a revered teacher, a father in his own lifetime to the churches throughout all Asia Minor. Defending his faith to a local city councilor, Polycarp declared:

[Jesus is] the Eternal One..., through whom the church is enriched and increasing grace recurs within the saints. This grace bestows understanding, reveals mysteries, proclaims seasons, rejoices over the faithful, is given to seekers, to those who don't break the promises of faith or disobey the restrictions of the fathers. Then respect for the Law is sung, and the grace of the Prophets is recognized, and the faith of the Gospels is launched, and the tradition of the Apostles is maintained, and the grace of the Church abounds. … Don't bring this grace to grief!

After a long ministry, Polycarp was finally arrested by his persecutors, and burned at the stake. His allegiance was pledged all to Jesus, and he died courageously with prayer on his lips. And church, Polycarp is one of our fathers. Was God with our father Polycarp? Yes, he certainly was. God's peace was at work in Polycarp's life, cementing him in a daring commitment to the grace of God that comes through Jesus. Polycarp marveled at the faithfulness of Jesus all his life long. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Polycarp!

About midway through Polycarp's ministry in Smyrna, one of the families in his congregation gave birth to a precious baby boy they named Irenaeus, from the Greek word for 'peace.' Irenaeus loved listening to his pastor Polycarp, looking at him as a father in discipleship. And after Polycarp was martyred, Irenaeus – like plenty of other Greek Christians from Asia Minor – moved to what's now France. Irenaeus became a junior pastor in the churches freshly planted there. But as false teachers started troubling those churches with all sorts of outlandish ideas, Irenaeus was sent to Rome to deliver a letter asking for help. And while Irenaeus was gone, persecution broke out, jailing and then killing many of his fellow Christians, including his senior pastor Pothinus. By the time Irenaeus got back home, he saw a church deeply wounded and had no choice but to step up and fill those empty shoes as the senior pastor of Lyon.

When the persecution died down, he set to work writing a definitive answer to all those false teachers. And as he did that, God used Irenaeus to help the whole worldwide church shape how it understood what it believed. Irenaeus proclaimed the church's faith in “one God, Maker of heaven and earth and everything in them; and in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who – because of his abundant love for the work he fashioned – submitted to birth from the Virgin, in order through himself to unite man to God; and he suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again and was taken up in glory and will come in glory as Savior of those who are saved and Judge of those who are judged...”

And Irenaeus declared that in his own church, he had himself seen demons driven out, had himself heard prophecies of the future, had known sick people healed and even the dead restored to life. Irenaeus rejoiced, “It's impossible to tell the number of gifts which the church throughout the world received from God in the name of Jesus Christ, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and uses each day for the benefit of the nations...” Church, Irenaeus is one of our fathers. Was God with our father Irenaeus? Yes, God certainly was. God spoke through Irenaeus to solidify our understanding of the good news that fills us with hope today. As we continue in that same faith, may the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Irenaeus!

A couple years before Irenaeus finished his time on earth, across the Mediterranean a boy was born in the North African city of Carthage. Cyprian was raised in paganism and became a lawyer and public speaker. The church was a prominent force, but Cyprian just didn't think the gospel was good news for him – “In despair of better things, I indulged my sins,” he remembered. But in his mid-thirties, he befriended and came to live with one of the pastors in his city, and those encounters broke down his resistance to the gospel. Shortly after he was baptized into Jesus Christ, he told a friend, “When the stain of my past life had been washed away with the help of the water of regeneration, a light from above poured itself on my chastened and pure heart. Afterwards, when I had drunk of the Spirit from heaven, a second birth restored me into a new man!”

Shifting gears in his career, the lawyer soon became a pastor; and, by his late forties, he was bishop of the city. But almost immediately after he took office, times got pretty tough. The emperor gave an order of persecution. Some Christians were killed, but a lot of Christians gave in to the pressure, signing statements saying that they'd sacrificed to the Roman gods. Cyprian, nervous what would happen to the people without their bishop, went into hiding, a decision that caught him a lot of flack. And as the persecution wound down, the church ripped itself apart over the question of how to deal with believers who'd stumbled and lapsed in their faith. Some, dissatisfied with the way it was being handled, split off into an alternative church. Cyprian was heartbroken, crying out, “There is no other house for believers except for the one church!”

And while Cyprian tried to deal with this, a familiar situation cropped up: a pandemic. Cyprian had to pastor the city through the disease, and assured Christians who became seriously ill that the sufferings of their symptoms were letting them “advance to Christ by the narrow way of Christ,” that is, conformity to the cross. As the pandemic lifted, the new emperor decreed another wave of persecution, and Cyprian himself was placed on trial. Exiled for a year, he refused to recant his faith, and so he was sentenced to death. When he heard the verdict, he had just one thing to say: “Thanks be to God!”

Church, Cyprian is one of our fathers. Was God with our father Cyprian? Yes, he certainly was. Cyprian faced down just about everything that troubles American churches in 2020, and if we have ears to hear, he bequeathed his spiritual children a strong commitment to the church – “Someone cannot have God as a Father who does not have the Church as a Mother,” he said. And in difficult days of disease and division, Cyprian not only spoke it but lived it. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Cyprian!

While that persecution was still going on, a boy was born in an Egyptian village and given the name Antony. He was still young when Cyprian was martyred, and the two never met. But when Antony was about 19, his parents died. A little while later, going to church, he heard Jesus' words, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Antony's parents had been rich, leaving him with great wealth. But in answer to the words of Jesus that hit his heart, Antony gave away 207 acres of property and sold all his family belongings and gave the money to the poor. He then moved into the desert to learn the ways of God in the wilderness, committing himself to a life of prayer. This put a target on his back, and as Antony prayed, the devil tried to disturb him with memories of all he'd left behind, interrupting his prayers with intrusive thoughts, temptations, even visions and apparitions. But Antony filled his mind with Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. His earliest biographer declares that “the Lord was working with Antony – the Lord who bore flesh for us and gave to the body the victory over the devil.”

It was the first of many battles Antony had with the spiritual forces of darkness. Antony persevered and eventually mentored others who settled in the wilderness. He reminded those who approached him that “all things are in the hand of the Lord, and a demon has no strength against a Christian. … So if we want to scorn the enemy, let's always contemplate things that have to do with the Lord, and let the soul always rejoice in hope! Then we'll see the antics of the demons to be like smoke, and we'll see them running away instead of chasing – they're cowards!” Antony continued lifting up the world in prayer and fighting the good fight in the desert until he died, having passed the age of 100. A few years after he died, his bishop commented, “He was held in affection by everyone, and all asked to have him as a father.”

Church, Antony is one of our fathers. Was God with our father Antony? Yes, absolutely – God was working in Antony to overwhelm the devil's temptations and distractions, a lesson we sorely need today no less than then. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Antony!

As for that bishop and biographer, his name was Athanasius. A generation younger than Antony, Athanasius grew from a bright young boy into a youthful leading bishop. And in the wake of new forms of false teaching that aimed to demote Jesus, Athanasius devoted his whole career to reminding the church – even when the church got confused and misled and bullied – just who Jesus is: not merely the top dog of the creation, but the very presence of Almighty God come to save us. Even as a young man, Athanasius wrote:

God made [humans] out of nothing, [but] turning from eternal things to corruptible things by the counsel of the devil, they'd become the cause of their own corruption in death. … Having invented wickedness in the beginning..., adulteries and thefts were everywhere..., law was disregarded in corruption and injustice..., the whole earth was torn with factions and battles. … Was God to let corruption and death have their way with them? … For this purpose, then, the Word of God entered our world... in a new way, stooping to our level with his love … Taking a body like our own..., he surrendered his body to death in the place of all, and offered it to the Father. He did it out of sheer love for us, so that in his death, all might die and the law of death thereby be abolished … The Son of God, living and effective, is active every day and effects the salvation of all; but death is daily proved to be stripped of all its strength, and it's the idols and evil spirits who are dead, not he!

Sticking to the truth of Christ, Athanasius was sent into exile five different times. His enemies never tired of trying to steal Athanasius' pastorate away from him. Once, they went so far as to put him on trial for murdering a monk for dark magic; Athanasius then brought the alleged murder victim alive into the courtroom. Another time, his enemies tried to arrest him during a church service, but he got away safe. And by the end of his life of perseverance, he had protected the beliefs that all Christians share today. Church, Athanasius is one of our own fathers. Was God with our father Athanasius? Yes, absolutely! May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Athanasius!

Much more could be said about the Fathers of the Church; many more could be named (but this sermon is long enough). Still, we should know them. We should know them because not one word has failed of all our Lord's good promise to establish his church, his new temple, such that the gates of hell have never prevailed, will never prevail, can never prevail! May we walk in the faith like they did, as worthy sons and daughters of the Church Fathers, that all the peoples of the earth might know that the Jesus they proclaimed is still Lord today, still God today, still saving today, and still with us today! Thanks be to God our Father – Father of the Church's Fathers!

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Glory, Faith, and the Justice of God: Sermon on Romans 4:13-25

It was a Sunday morning in Rome, and Aquila was just glad to be back. He and his wife Priscilla had been gone – exiled from the city by the last emperor's aggravation. But now they lived in a decent apartment. It was small for their standards, but at least large enough to cram some other people into. So they were – they welcomed the church into their tight walls, glad to see them, be they Jew or Gentile. They knew that, elsewhere in the city, other churches were gathering too. But this morning, up the stairs comes a familiar face: Phoebe, a well-to-do woman from the port town near Corinth. “Phoebe! What are you doing here?” blurts Aquila. And then how must Aquila and Priscilla feel, to know that Phoebe has in tow a whopping-big letter from their old friend Paul back in Corinth? Because Aquila and Priscilla sure feel like they need some of Paul's famed advice this morning. The Roman churches are all back – the Jews have been restored to the city – but things just aren't the same. There's so much racial division, so much conflict, so much boasting: Jew against Gentile, Gentile against Jew, 'strong' against 'weak,' 'weak' against 'strong,' church against church, church within church! Everything feels so tense.

After their opening hymn, Priscilla and Aquila cede the floor to Phoebe, who begins reading Paul's letter. They hear with excitement about the famous Paul's burning desire to come announce good news right to their faces, right under Caesar's nose – the good news that in Jesus, rescue has come to the world and can come to Jew and Gentile alike, people of any race, on equal footing. Paul reminds them that Gentile cultures all carry seeds of deep destruction. For every Gentile culture has always led to the same place, ultimately – and certainly the emperor's own life is proof! In spite of God revealing himself in creation, “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened; claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Romans 1:21-24), which gave rise to “all manner of unrighteousness,” all kinds of injustice and oppression and chaos in the world (Romans 1:29). That's where Gentile cultures, even mighty Roman culture, would always sink, left to itself. And it all comes down to a refusal to give glory to God, preferring instead lesser aims and lesser things.

But just the same, Phoebe reads, Paul reminds them that Jewish culture brought its own distinctive pitfalls. “All who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” (Romans 2:12), and while his own ethnic people had often positioned themselves as enlightened, civilized, guides to the blind sitting in judgment against other nations, “rely[ing] on the Law and boast[ing] in God” (Romans 2:17-19), they frequently had succumbed to hypocrisy in their law-breaking: “You who boast in the Law dishonor God by breaking the Law” (Romans 2:23), and “if you break the Law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25). And that, too, robs God of rightful glory. Paul admits that Jews have enjoyed the high privilege of God's tutoring through the Law (Romans 3:1-2), but this privilege doesn't give them room for boasting as better – neither Jewish culture nor Gentile culture can save from sin (Romans 3:9). All people and all peoples alike are mired in sin, all fall short of glorifying God (Romans 3:23). But now there's a third way, a way to be set right by the light of God's favor shining through Jesus – the unveiling of God's own justice, in a way that undercuts all our boasts (Romans 3:21-30).

As Phoebe's read these things, Aquila's heard reactions around the room. The few Gentiles present squirmed in discomfort and ground their teeth during the first part, but the tables turned in the second, and more and more people have been grumbling. Now, a man stands up to interrupt Phoebe's reading, and she politely pauses to hear him out. “No!” the man blurts, “we are better, we are! We have Abraham, a more honorable father than Romulus and Remus! For don't the Psalms of Solomon exclaim how God 'chose the descendants of Abraham above all the nations' (Psalms of Solomon 9.9)? And isn't that because of how perfectly Abraham kept the Law of Moses in advance of even hearing about it? For 'Abraham was perfect in all of his actions with the Lord and was pleasing through righteousness all the days of his life' (Jubilees 23.10)! By his merit, Abraham won the honor that covers his children, his heirs – we sons of Abraham are better people than those... other ethnicities.”

Phoebe listened sympathetically to the tirade. She waited for it to play itself out. She knew Paul had seen it all coming, and had written a reply in advance. So she picked up reading where she left off. If the blurting man was going to point to traditions about Abraham, Paul could do the same. Because the same traditions imagined a young Abram living in a land of idolatry, raised in its ungodliness, but rejecting that legacy and distancing himself from his family because he reasoned his way from the grandeur of nature back to the far grander Creator (Jubilees 11-12). And is that not the story the Gentile Christians are themselves reliving – the acknowledgment of their old ways as ungodly, and having their eyes opened by the God they forgot they knew? What set Abraham right, what put Abraham on the good side of God's justice, was not his circumcision or the rest of his doing the works of the Law of Moses. Those things hadn't even entered the picture the first time Moses talks about Abraham as righteousness. No, what's credited on Abraham's account as righteousness enough, as justice enough, is how he believes God's promise (Romans 4:3, cf. Genesis 15:6). His justification isn't so much a payday as a celebratory birthday gift (Romans 4:4-5). “The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Romans 4:11-12).

This Abraham was promised great things – among which, that he and his family would inherit the whole world (Romans 4:13). But who are his family? Just those who look one way, who have one DNA, one history, one skin color? No, he was promised he'd be the “father of many nations,” the father of many different ethnicities (Romans 4:17, cf. Genesis 17:4-5). How'd that happen? He was given the promise, but then “he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), [and] he considered the deadness of Sarah's womb” (Romans 4:19). Two weeks ago today, you heard in the news about the death of a woman named Irene Triplett, famous as the last surviving recipient of a Civil War pension. She was born in 1930, and her father was a Civil War veteran – 83 years old when she was born! Remarkable and surprising, yes – not quite a miracle. But Abraham was sixteen years older than old Moses Triplett, and while Mr. Triplett's wife Elida was just 34 when Irene was born, that wasn't so for Abraham's wife Sarah. No, Abraham looked reality square in the face – and reality was dead. But did a dead reality weaken the liveliness of God's promise? The God Abraham trusted is a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that don't exist” (Romans 4:17)! So when the means and the mechanisms were all dead and all hopeless, Abraham anchored his hope in the promise anyway, certain that he really would “become the father of many nations” (Romans 4:18).

Abraham was “fully convinced,” Paul writes, “that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21). Abraham's reality was dead. Sarah's reality was dead. But he trusted God to make dead things live. Abraham trusted in a God of resurrections. And so no doubt made his trust waver. His faith strengthened. How did it do that? What happened? It happened “as he gave glory to God” (Romans 4:20). Abraham didn't take credit for his virility or for Sarah's fertility. Abraham didn't boast about his deservingness to have children. Abraham didn't take pride in the color of his skin or the artful lawfulness of his behavior or the heritage of his clan. Abraham honored God as the One who, unlike every idol and every force of nature, could and would deliver on the most radical promises. And Abraham bowed to God's gravity, let himself be pulled along from house and home, let himself be pulled along through life to places that looked dead, let himself be pulled into lofty expectations, let himself be pulled over the edge to the wild place where only faith takes flight. Abraham let God's gravity pull him aloft and leave himself behind – let it pull him where he had no footing to boast in, captured by God's gravity and not his own pretended gravitas. Abraham's footsteps were in a resurrection-faith in the God who could raise any deadness in him. The opposite of idolatry and the opposite of boasting, Abraham's resurrection-faith was stretched by glorifying God.

Good for Abraham! But what does it mean for you and me, here and now, in the America of the twenty-first century, living thousands of years since Paul wrote to the Romans, which itself was nearly just as long after the days of Father Abraham? I'd point us to three important things for the moment we live in.

First, there is a God who is greatly faithful. He is faithful to his every word. He is faithful to his every promise. And he has made some daring promises! He promised to make Abraham, body nearly dead, into the fatherliest father who ever fathered. And he did. He promised to send a Savior to Abraham's heirs. And he did. He promised Abraham the land, and more than that, the whole world. And above all, God has promised to make a new thing. He promised to “create a new heavens and a new earth” without “the sound of weeping and the cry of distress” (Isaiah 65:17,19). And so “according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells,” a new creation where justice lives – a new earth where there will be nothing left to protest against, nothing left to weep over, nothing left to fear, nothing left to lament (2 Peter 3:13). And that is the world that those who pursue Christ have the promise of inheriting as our very own home (Romans 8:17). This world may be scarred with injustice, this world may be marred by chaos, but justice will be at home in the new world we're waiting to inherit! The countdown has already begun.

Second, the justice of God breaks into our lives by a resurrection-faith, our family resemblance to Father Abraham. It was by resurrection-faith – faith in the God who gives life to the dead – that Abraham became the father of many nations, the father of all who would one day have that kind of faith. And that kind of faith was written down in God's book as the very justice and righteousness of God in Abraham's life. But, Paul adds, “the words 'it was counted to him' weren't written for his sake alone, but for ours also! It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:23-25). The same God who gave life to Abraham's body and Sarah's body is the very God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. And the same faith Abraham needed to trust a God of Resurrection is the faith that is uniquely and distinctively and majestically Christian: a resurrection-faith.

For Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses.” Brothers and sisters, we've done a lot wrong – as individuals, as a community, even as a nation. That's not a new idea; it's just the basic definition of sin. It's what sin means, that's what trespasses mean: we have done wrongs. And some of those very wrongs are the wrongs working themselves out on the national stage today. Sin finds ways to entrap every cultural heritage and make it a vehicle for ensnaring people in systems of injustice, for dividing us, and for tricking us into boasting. Our past is deeply stained by sin, and its legacy haunts us, in more ways than one. 

But in place of our blood being drained dry to pay for it, Jesus was delivered up and gave his blood for us all. All the stains of our past, all the ways we're still playing out that legacy, all the ways we're still complicit in systems of injustice and outrage and lawlessness and chaos – Jesus was delivered up to end it, Jesus was delivered up to make us clean, Jesus was delivered up to kill the sins we carry. 

And not only was Jesus “delivered up for our trespasses,” but he was “raised for our justification,” he was raised to new life so that we could be set right. Staring the reality of an outraged world in the face, there are many ways we're tempted to obsess with the justice of man. And make no mistake, we are commanded by God himself to work for justice and to live in justice (e.g., Genesis 18:19). But the justice of God can't be brought to earth by more and more anger (James 1:20), the lesson every day's news reveals we still fail to learn. No, the justice of God is brought to earth by Jesus being raised from the dead – that was the most just thing, the most righteous thing that ever happened, the overturning of death's unjust verdict against Jesus the Righteous, Jesus the Innocent. And that great justice of God invades the deadness of our world in the movement of the risen Jesus who already suffered in hopes that we would be set right and would use his life to keep righting what goes wrong.

Third, because Jesus is where our resurrection-faith in God (like Abraham's faith) anchors, this faith undercuts the plague of racial division and racial boasting that afflicts America today. I know this isn't a comfortable topic for us. It irks us, challenges us, shames us – and maybe, with the relentless and all-consuming attention lately, even at times annoys us. But it would be difficult to watch even fifteen or twenty minutes of the news on any day and go on to deny that America has a problem (though we may not all agree what it is). Each of us might wish to exempt him- or herself from that problem, just as Roman Jews and Roman Gentiles wanted to exempt their own racial or ethnic legacy from being vehicles of sin. But the same cycle of boasting that entrapped the Roman churches also pulls at America's seams today – and only surrender to a stronger gravity can pull us back from this precipice.

Whatever privileges or disadvantages our forefathers after the flesh may have passed down for our help or for our hurt, the word we need is the word of a common father whose legacy we can share. We need a common father of many ethnicities – not erasing those ethnic backgrounds, but binding them together. And that's what God gives us in Abraham: a father for all the faithful, for all who walk in resurrection-faith, a father for many nations. This Abraham found no room in his life for boasting before God. Neither can we. In these times of testing, we may be tempted to waver. But like Abraham, we can find our faith strengthened amidst the chaos of the news, even by the chaos of the news. God surveys the chaos and injustice of a deathwish world, and by Jesus he shouts, But I will give life to the dead!

Yes, some of our ancestors once wallowed in grave injustices. Yes, many of our ancestors exchanged the glory of God for a sorry array of pitiful things – including, at times, the worship of the color of their own skin. As the news presses on us, we may be tempted to nurture some form of that in our hearts, and blind ourselves to the cycle of boasting that pulls at our seams. But the good news is that there is a stronger gravity to pulls us back from the precipice. And that stronger gravity is the glory of God. Turn, oh turn, and break the cycle! Break the cycle by giving glory to God! Walk in the wise footsteps of Abraham's faith, an Abrahamic resurrection-faith in the God who works by Jesus, and grow strong in this hour of crisis. Trust the God who enlivens what's dead, and let the gravity of his glory hoist you high!  And persevere: there's a world to inherit where the justice of God fully dwells.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

We're Back! A Sermon on Ezra 3:1-6

Two thousand, five hundred, fifty-six years ago. With a far-stretching caravan at his back and his older friend Jeshua at his side, Zerubbabel catches his first good look – his first good look in all his life – at the broken shards of the city of David. He'd been marching toward it since it first popped above the horizon, but now he could see the crumbled, overgrown fragments of houses great and small, mortal and divine. He'd only heard his royal grandfather's reminiscences of a glorious gleaming city. And now here it was, inglorious and sullied, the haunt of beasts and vines and peasants. Yet the tears it brought to Zerubbabel's eye were tears, not of lament, but of joy. For the sight of the remnants of shattered Jerusalem was the moment a lifetime of exile ended. And as he wept his tears of joy, only one thought could have filled his mind: “We're back! Thank God, we're back!”

Decades before that tear hit Zerubbabel's eye, his grandfather Jeconiah had been king of Judah, until he, enthroned at age 18 and ruling just three months, rebelled against his Babylonian overlord Nebuchadnezzar. But Nebuchadnezzar came, laid siege to the city, and made Jeconiah and his family surrender. And so Jeconiah was taken away to Babylon with several thousand of his people, and Jeconiah became a prisoner. (Beyond the Bible's report of it, we have Babylonian records of the prison rations he was given!) In the meantime, ten years after that, Nebuchadnezzar would demolish Jerusalem, burn God's temple to the ground, and take many more into the captivity of exile (2 Chronicles 36:9-19).

In the destruction of the land, tens of thousands were killed, twenty thousand were taken into exile, and only the impoverished country-dwellers were left behind. But this fulfilled the words of prophecy. For the LORD had said to Moses that the people of Israel were to observe sabbath years and jubilee years, rhythms of time to give peace and rest to the land itself: “Six years shall you sow your field and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD (Leviticus 25:3-4). And this set the stage for all the laws of mercy and kindness and redemption (Leviticus 25:8-55). “You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary,” God urged them (Leviticus 26:2). For if they did, they'd be blessed with peace and health (Leviticus 26:3-13).

But God knew that they'd do evil in his sight, that they'd harden their hearts, that they'd pollute the temple and the land and scoff at his prophets “until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36:16). And so, long in advance, the LORD had threatened to “devastate the land” and to “scatter you among the nations, and... unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. Then the land shall enjoy its sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies' land; then the land shall have rest, the rest that it didn't have on your sabbaths when you were dwelling in it” (Leviticus 26:32-35). And so the Babylonians had been allowed to capture Jeconiah and the people “until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate, it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years” (2 Chronicles 36:21).

But when the land had caught up on its sabbath rests, when the time decreed had been unwound, then the LORD took a pagan Persian king by the hand and gave Cyrus victory over Babylon, so as to reveal his own glory and set free his own people. Whereas Babylon's policy was to rip people from their homelands, Cyrus wanted each nationality in his empire to have a land of their own and a temple of their own, where they could pray to their respective gods for his well-being. And the true God stirred Cyrus' spirit to include the exiled Jews under the cover of that policy (Ezra 1:1). So after so many years of their scattering throughout Babylonia, Cyrus gave an order, giving permission and support to the exilic Jewish community that any who wished could return to their ancestral land of promise, which would now be the Persian province of Yehud (Ezra 1:2-4).

When the decree of this worldly ruler went out, giving permission for the scattered Jews to regather, not everyone was ready. One would have thought that Daniel, taken into Babylonian captivity years before even Jeconiah, would have gone. But he stayed in Babylon. So did the ancestors of Esther. So did a substantial number of Jews scattered throughout Babylonia. And even among those who would return to their homeland, they came in waves. Not all arrived at once. And that was okay.

The earliest wave was the one led by Zerubbabel, who would – due to his uncle Shenazzar's death – act on Persia's behalf as the governor of Yehud, and by his older friend Jeshua, whose father Jehozadak had been taken into exile and whose martyred grandfather Seraiah had been the last high priest to serve in Solomon's Temple. Behind Zerubbabel and Jeshua came over forty-two thousand other Jews with their hearts turned toward Jerusalem, “everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up” (Ezra 1:5). Coming up out of captivity, marching to the ancestral homeland many of them had never seen, “they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town,” the town where each of them, or their parents, or their grandparents, had lived before exile had snatched them away (Ezra 2:1).

What must that have felt like? For the oldest among them, they were returning somewhere not seen since they were teenagers. Only for elders were these places even memories. For the rest, they were just stories – names in lost tales. And yet it was the start of a new life, a life in a homeland, a life that God himself had stirred their hearts to want and to yearn for. It would be hard. It would be a challenge to take these ruins and turn them back into towns. There were threats around, and things seemed unfamiliar – even what they could partly match to a memory or a story.

For a few months, the returning Jews were separated. They found the least-ruined shelters they could, and they began to clean, and they began to live. But then the designated month was approaching. It was September of 537 BC. And, having resettled in their towns, they all left – over forty-two thousand of them – and converged on the ruins of Jerusalem. Zerubbabel and Jeshua, governor and priest, had called for them to come. And so when “the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem” (Ezra 3:1). Talk about a profound unity! When these thousands and thousands of Jewish returnees came to Jerusalem, it was as if there was just one person, the Body of Israel, standing amidst the old wreckage.

But what happened then? “Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brothers the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brothers, and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God” (Ezra 3:2). Now, picture this scene. The once-scattered people, long beaten down and cooped up in exile, have at last come home. They've converged in Jerusalem's wreckage on the first day of the seventh month, acting in unison as the Body of Israel. It was the Feast of Trumpets, and with trumpet blasts had Zerubbabel and Jeshua summoned the people to gather (cf. Numbers 29:1).

Now, all around them is rubble. The rubble of the palace where Zerubbabel's grandfather had once lived. The rubble of the temple where Jeshua's grandfather once ventured into the Holy of Holies before the Glory had departed (cf. Ezekiel 10). The chosen people's public liturgy of worship had always been carried out in the shelter of that temple, or the tabernacle before that. Ever since they left the shadow of Mount Sinai so many centuries before, their principal altar had always been positioned with reference to the Ark of the Covenant that had been the footstool of God's heavenly throne, the place of his presence on earth, our world's visible contact-point with heaven. And here they were, on the scraped slopes of Zion... and there was nothing. No tabernacle. No temple. No ark. No visible contact-point. Just desolation.

But amidst that desolation, their leaders built an altar. On the exact spot where the pieces of the old altar stood, they tore down what was left, and they built a brand-new one. And then, on that untempled hill, the altar of God stood again. And in the presence of the people, they lit the coals. Someone stepped forward, carrying a lamb born in Babylonia, a lamb they'd brought with them. And that someone handed that lamb into the arms of Gov. Zerubbabel. And Zerubbabel brought the lamb to Jeshua. And for the first time in decades, Jerusalem was the scene of a fiery offering to the LORD God Almighty, and the smoke of roast lamb ascended to heaven, entering the presence of the Most High on behalf of all Israel. They built and sacrificed in a state of fear and trembling, fear of the local residents who'd never been taken captive, those who'd be disturbed by what they'd done (Ezra 3:3). But the offerings continued – the bull, the ram, the other lambs, the goat (cf. Numbers 29:2-6). “And they offered burnt offerings on [the altar] to the LORD, burnt offerings morning and evening,” every day (Ezra 3:3). Without the temple, without the ark, with just an altar and an open sky, they sent up their fragrant smoke to heaven, worshipping God outdoors, even where God seemed visibly absent.

Nine days later, and the time for the Day of Atonement came – a day of gathering and fasting, repenting from their sin (Leviticus 23:27). Jeshua, as high priest, should have entered the Holy of Holies that day. But there was no Holy of Holies to enter. It was the day when God had promised to “appear in the cloud over the mercy seat” of the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16:2). But there was no mercy seat. Jeshua's orders in the Law were to wear his high-priestly garments and to “make atonement for the holy sanctuary..., make atonement for the tent of meeting and the altar..., make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly” (Leviticus 16:32-33). There was no sanctuary. But surely Jeshua made the other offerings and did the other rituals, as best as he could. And at long last, after decades of waiting, all the sins of the people could be covered and blotted out. Forgiveness washed over Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the thousands of God's people set free.

Five days passed, and the Feast of Booths began, another festival of gathering and dozens more sacrifices (Leviticus 23:34; Numbers 29:12-16). It was a time to live in tents and huts – hardly a stretch for a people who were scarcely rebuilding their homes (Leviticus 23:42-43). It was a time to present the produce of their fields to the LORD (Leviticus 23:39). It was a time to wave their fruit and their palm branches in rejoicing in the LORD's presence (Leviticus 23:40). And so, however they could, “they kept the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the rule, as each day required” (Ezra 3:4). And so, even without a temple, even without the foundation yet for a temple, with nothing but an altar under the open sky, they resumed their rhythms of gathering to worship, as 'by-the-book' as possible in their circumstances. Israel was back!

And so are we – we're back, we're back! Thank God Almighty, we're back! And these stories of restoration give texture and shape to our own story. Like the people of ancient Judah, we were scattered – not by the armies of Babylon but by a disease outbreak that still stalks this land (67 new cases reported in our county yesterday). In restless patience have we waited, hoping that our land would reclaim some of the sabbaths of which we've deprived it. Whether it has or not, God will let us know. But when the time was right, God stirred the spirits of rulers to pave the way for our return here – here, to the place of our heritage; here, the scene of our worship. You sit here this morning as part of the first wave of returnees to the congregation. Other waves will come, when the time is right for them; but if you are here, you are like those who went with Zerubbabel and Jeshua, those who came to venture a new thing in a fresh way. Like the thousands who came to Jerusalem as one Body of Israel on the Feast of Trumpets that year long ago, you have responded to the summons – may you all be here, not as one Body of (the old) Israel, but as one Body of Christ!

Those who gathered with Zerubbabel and Jeshua had no tabernacle, no temple, no physical signs of the presence of God. Instead, they built a new altar under the open sky for their worship. We are not so deprived as they, but conditions necessitated that we, too, worship under the open sky, in the rubble of our prior customs and patterns. It feels strange. It seems unusual. The things we usually look towards aren't there. The implements we use – hymnals and Bibles, icons and stained glass, pulpit and pew – well, they haven't been rebuilt in our experience yet, any more than the foundation had been laid when Zerubbabel and Jeshua built that altar. For us, we must build our altar here without the customary accompaniments. We must build our altar of hearts and souls in this place, this place of our resumed gathering, our resumed fellowship, our resumed public liturgy of worship. And what rises to heaven now is not the fragrant smoke of bulls and lambs, but the fragrance of our unity and the sacrifice of our praise, being the firstfruit of our masked lips (Hebrews 13:15). Let the songs of God's glory and the shout of the gospel and the trumpet-blast of the kingdom ascend to the heavens this day – the church is back!

For we have been led here, not by great Zerubbabel, but by great Zerubbabel's greater Son – his descendant and heir, Jesus Christ. And our worship is directed, not by Jeshua the son of Jehozadak, but by the Son of God who shares the name of Jeshua/Jesus. For our Jesus was sacrificed as the Lamb at the cross, and he returned from the exile of death, and he entered the heavenly Holy of Holies with his own blood for an Eternal Day of Atonement. He is our Prophet and Priest and King! And the same Spirit who stirred the spirit of Cyrus and the spirit of the people and the spirits of Zerubbabel and Jeshua is the living Spirit whom the risen Jesus has poured out to stir our spirits here, as we faithfully sacrifice and patiently wait to rebuild our worship to its fullest glory! Hallelujah, we're back! Hallelujah, the Body of Christ is gathered! Hallelujah, the sacrifices of our unified praise rise!  Hallelujah, hallelujah, hosanna, amen!