Sunday, April 18, 2021

Blessings on the Mountain: Sermon on Matthew 5:1-20

Have you ever seen a news segment where a reporter goes out and interviews people in the street about things everyone assumes they should know? The footage they get is seldom encouraging. I've seen people flustered about what causes a rainbow; people uncertain who fought in World War II; people unable to point to any country on a map and name it. “Education these days!” Right? Well, sad to say, but this isn't new. In January 1889, reporters spread out through St. Louis, Missouri, to quiz the population of the city as to whether they could recite the Ten Commandments. Most people believed they knew how – after all, this was when the Ten Commandments were learned in school. And some actually could. But most were wrong.

One man they interviewed, a certain M. Klute, refused to try, offering the excuse that, for all he knew, the Ten Commandments had changed since his school days. (I want to know how old that guy was!) The local street commissioner, George Burnett, said the Ten Commandments had been crowded out of his head by learning math. A young doctor named Henry Jacobson, son of German Jewish immigrants, said he didn't know the Ten Commandments but would be happy to recite definitions out of the medical dictionary. Philip Lanham, a popular though elderly judge known as an auctioneer and hunter, would only say that his way of keeping the sabbath meant going fishing. A stockbroker in his early thirties, Joe Davidson, said that there was only one commandment he observed: “Thou shalt not buy wheat unless thou hast it already sold.” Six years later, Joe got drunk, accosted a friend at his house one night, and put a gun to the man's head, demanding payment of a $50 debt. He eventually lost a fortune in the stock market and froze in the street one winter's night in early 1903.

Local lead dealer Richard Everett, when asked, was convinced that one of the Ten Commandments was “Lead me not into temptation.” Another local broker, 45-year-old George Henry Small, said there was only one commandment he cared to remember – and that one was, “Mind your own business.” A month after saying that, he'd be appointed to the Board of Police Commissioners, and eventually would become an Assistant United States Treasurer. Still another fellow, 48-year-old Col. Henry W. Chandler – local merchant, Civil War veteran, and a committed believer in his own ability to read minds – was asked to recite the Ten Commandments, and began by saying: “Now I lay me down to sleep...” Col. Chandler later became president of the electric company but was sued by his former friend, president of the silk company, who caught Chandler in bed with his wife. And finally, 34-year-old William Hobbs, the city recorder of deeds and a reporter himself, said that when he wanted to know anything about the Ten Commandments, he just asked his wife, because, he said, “it's easier than keeping all of them continually stored up in my brain.”

On the whole, 90% of residents of St. Louis in 1889 were unable to say what the Ten Commandments were. As the newspaper reported on the results of dozens of street interviews, they ran their findings under the line: “Isn't this awful?”1 A good thing to remember any time we get too despairing about our generation today, or the next – our ancestors weren't exactly the swiftest either, sometimes.

Still, I suspect that what was true in St. Louis 140 years ago would not have been true in Jerusalem or Nazareth 2000 years ago. Jesus would not have been caught off-guard by the question or flubbed it, and neither would Joseph or Mary, or likely any of their neighbors. See, growing up, Jesus would have been taken by Joseph and Mary several times each year to Jerusalem, to attend all the pilgrimage feasts for which Jews were ideally meant to go to the holy city. And during these multiple yearly visits to Jerusalem, the young Jesus would, like so many others, have been exposed first-hand to the liturgies of worship in the temple. Each and every morning and each and every evening, Israel had been commanded to sacrifice: “One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight. And with the first lamb, a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering” (Exodus 29:39-40). And so each morning, at the Temple in Jerusalem, the priests on duty held four lotteries in the Chamber of Hewn Stone to decide things like who'd clear away the ashes from last night, who'd actually butcher the meat, who'd carry the parts to the altar, who'd burn the incense, and so on. Once the eastern sky had been lit up by the dawn, a priest would unlock the large gate, allowing people access to the temple courts; and a loud voice would call priests to their service, Levites to their platform, and all Israel to their watch. And so the people would gather.2 Every time Joseph and Mary took young Jesus to Jerusalem, each day they were there, they'd listen for that call after dawn and come to see and hear. And then, after the lamb was slain, nine priests would gather into the Chamber of Hewn Stone, which was accessible also to the people. And they would recite the opening prayers of the day, as a blessing. And the first words that these nine priests would recite every day? The Ten Commandments.3  Each and every morning, the people who went to the Temple to attend the morning sacrifice would hear the Ten Commandments spoken over them, all over again.

Of course, most of the time, young Jesus wasn't in Jerusalem. He was at home in Nazareth, as was his family. There, instead of the Temple, there was the synagogue, where everyone in town would come to gather each and every Sabbath. And each and every Sabbath, someone in the synagogue would read first a passage out of the Law, the five books of Moses, and then a passage from one of the prophets (cf. Acts 15:21). Over the course of every three years, Jesus and everybody else would've heard the whole Law read. That meant that, every three years at minimum, the Sabbath reading would have included the Ten Commandments, making them familiar.

But as if that weren't enough, each and every morning, committed believers among the Jews had prayers that they'd pause to recite several times a day, at fixed times: morning, noon, and night. Jesus would later go on to criticize some of the Pharisees for timing their errands so as to make sure that the call to prayer would catch them at an intersection so more people would see how devout they were and be impressed (Matthew 6:5). But Jesus does assume that the people hearing his Sermon on the Mount are already observing these fixed times of prayer. Joseph and Mary would have taught young Jesus the prayers to recite each morning in Nazareth at the same time the priests were reciting their blessings in Jerusalem – and we have evidence that tells us that devout Jews living far from Jerusalem were adopting the same prayers.4 In Nazareth, Jesus would have begun each and every day of his earthly life by reciting the Ten Commandments first of all. So even from a purely human point of view, the Ten Commandments cannot have helped but leave an indelible mark on the way Jesus lived and the way Jesus thought during his time on earth.

But, of course, we do not see Jesus only from a human point of view. Because Jesus is not only human. Jesus Christ is both fully man and fully God. He is the Eternal Word made flesh. And when Moses gathered the people at the foot of Mount Sinai that fateful day we heard about last week, and when the storm and flame came down on the mountaintop – Jesus was there. The Old Testament never uses the phrase “Ten Commandments” – what it actually calls them are the “Ten Words,” the Ten Words of God, which he spoke in fire from the summit of the mountain. But every word that God speaks is, at its heart, the Word of God which is indivisible, who can be expressed only partially through the medium of frail human language.

In other words, God has been continually speaking his one unique Word, the Word that became flesh; and all the times we find God speaking, he's speaking Jesus – only expressed, in different partial ways, in human language. In some way, each of these “Ten Words,” these Ten Commandments, is Christ himself, the self-revealing Word of God. When God opens his mouth on the mountain, so to speak, what comes out is Christ. Each of these commandments, each of these declarations, just is Jesus, but seen through a pinhole, heard in slow motion. In being the Word of God made flesh, you could say that Jesus is therefore the Ten Commandments made flesh. And that makes sense of why St. Irenaeus, our friend and mentor from the second century, referred to “the Ten Commandments, which, if anyone does not observe, he has no salvation.”5

So, as the Ten Commandments made flesh, who grew up reciting the Ten Commandments each morning, Jesus clearly values and cherishes the Ten Commandments. Later in his ministry, when a rich young man came to this rabbi and wanted to know how to live well, Jesus told him, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). And when the rich young man asked which ones, Jesus started rattling off many out of the ten (Matthew 19:18-19). But quite some time before that, Jesus sat down on a hilltop in Galilee, turning it into the new Mount Sinai. Those gathered below him, seated in the fields, probably had little idea that they were in the same position as their distant ancestors who'd stood at the foot of the desert mountain and heard the words of God proclaimed in fire and fury. But when Jesus comes to the mountain, with the crowds down at the foot and his disciples approaching him, these apostles are like Moses and Aaron and the elders of Israel, approaching on the mountain the God who is Jesus. Jesus, for his part, is both the Prophet Like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18) and the fresh face of God to the world – all these things rolled into one. And so, in a new way, he's come to teach the Law all over again – which is exactly what he does, in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1).

If we understand the posture Jesus is taking here, then we can understand why some people might have thought that Jesus had come to replace the Law with something different – that he was smashing the tablets all over again, so that he could write in their dust. And we can also understand why Jesus makes very clear that that isn't what he's doing. He hasn't come to cancel out the commandments, hasn't come to demolish the Law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets! I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus says that not even one single letter will fall out of the Law until everything has happened (Matthew 5:18). Jesus says that loosening even one of the minor commandments, or teaching other people to ignore it, will forfeit honor in the kingdom of God; but living out the commandments and teaching others how to do the same – that's the path toward honor and greatness (Matthew 5:19). And in that way, Jesus announces, our righteousness – our faithfulness to these commandments and to their Giver – should go beyond the way they were performed by even the most committed Law-abiding people of the day. It's a mighty tall order: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Because to do that, isn't just about the Ten Commandments. By the time Jesus was speaking, many had come to understand the Ten Commandments as something like a table of contents for the whole Law. Each one was broader than what it literally said, and covered many different kinds of circumstances. And so, as we begin exploring the Ten Commandments for ourselves, we're going to take that into consideration.

Jesus is emphasizing the importance of the Law. He didn't come to do away with it, or to teach anybody not to keep these commandments. Rather, what he wants to do is to crack them each open for us, so that we can see how he's written all over it, and how each commandment can write Jesus on our lives, as we meet him there and hear his loving voice. And by meeting Jesus in the commandments, we can be shaped into a people of blessing. Because we love the commandments, we will refuse to fight our way through life with the tools of sin – and that refusal is a blessing, because the spiritual poor who cry out to God will be citizens of God's kingdom (Matthew 5:3). Because we love the commandments, we'll take more and more notice of the gap between our world and God's vision for the world. And that gap, that gulf between the two, will sadden us. It'll make us lament, and it will make us mourn. And that sorrow is a blessing, because Jesus promises to comfort such mourners who grieve that gap (Matthew 5:4).

Because we love the commandments, we'll learn the value of restraint – having power to do certain things, but gently choosing not to. And that's a blessing, because the meek, those who gently restrain their power, are destined to inherit not just the land from river to river but the whole of the earth (Matthew 5:5). Because we love the commandments, we'll hunger and thirst for justice to be done on that earth – and that's a blessing, since Jesus promises to satisfy that hunger, to quench that thirst (Matthew 5:6). Because we love the commandments, we'll lean into their challenge for us. And as we understand how readily we ourselves fall short, we'll know that we're gravely in need of grace and mercy. We'll understand that the same obstacles we ourselves face are faced also by others. And in that understanding, we'll show mercy to them. That's a blessing, because Jesus promises to show mercy to the merciful (Matthew 5:7).

Because we love the commandments, we'll use them to examine our conscience. And these commandments will become God's scalpel to perform surgery in our hearts, scraping out the roots of sin that stain. And that surgery, that scalpel, is a blessing, because it will make us pure in heart, and Jesus promises that those purified in heart will finally be able to see God (Matthew 5:8). Because we love the commandments, we'll encourage others to love them too, so that they can have great peace – for as the psalmist says, “Great peace have those who love your Law” (Psalm 119:165). And that's a blessing, because Jesus promises that peacemakers will be counted as God's very own children (Matthew 5:9). And finally, because we love the commandments, we'll be dreadfully unpopular by the standards of a rebellious and lawless world. And that's a massive blessing, because Jesus tells us that those who are persecuted for the sake of this justice and this righteousness will have the kingdom of God and that those who are slandered for clinging to Jesus have an unthinkable reward in store (Matthew 5:10-12).

We want all of those things! We want each and every one of those blessings! And that life of blessing begins by learning the commandments, learning Christ in the commandments, and living Christ in the commandments. God's word, God's commandments, are a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105). And as we lean into God's commandments and keep them in Christ, then that light will radiate throughout our lives. Our whole lives will shine with that light, which no basket or bushel can be allowed to hide (Matthew 5:14), and no part of the house of this world will be able to hold onto its darkness (Matthew 5:15). As people see our “good works,” our lives that fulfill everything these commandments mean and everything the Law was trying to accomplish, our lives that hew closely to God's will, then observers will “give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

So to do that better, we're going to spend most of the rest of this year on a journey through the Ten Words which God spoke at Sinai – which are really just his one Word, who is Christ. But under the forms then given and the history that followed, we're going to learn the Ten Commandments and apply the Ten Commandments to our lives today, to shine that light on them. We don't want to be like those people in the St. Louis streets who didn't know them. We're going to know them. By the end of this year, I dare say each one of us, if asked the Ten Commandments, will have no problem scoring 10/10.

But even more importantly, we're going to see how to live them – or, rather, how we can yield place for Christ and his Holy Spirit to fulfill them in us by his love. For these commandments were spoken by Jesus no less than any other words you'll find in the Gospels or anywhere in the Bible. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn't do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand,” but “everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:26, 24). These tablets of stone – they're a rock worth building our house on – and our hope on. Amen.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Fire on the Mountain: Sermon on Exodus 19

What do you think it was like to be there? Put yourself in their sandals this morning. You're one of the Hebrew men or women who grew up in the house of bondage – in Egypt, where you or your husband spent the day making bricks for the Egyptian government or building their cities for them. All your life, you knew you were second-class. But then Moses came – one like you, sent by the God of your ancestors, the God you'd nearly forgotten, sent with power to confront and confute the gods of Egypt. In judgment after judgment, devastation fell on the land for your sake, until finally, for the tenth plague, you sacrificed a lamb, you coated the lintels of your house with blood, brushing it over the etching of your name, and you ate a meal inside, while that night, death came to the land (Exodus 12:1-30). Your house was spared. Your freedom was granted. It was time to run, with all the treasure your neighbors could give you as a bribe to just go away (Exodus 12:33-36). You traveled for days toward the edge of the sea (Exodus 13:17—14:2) Then came the pursuit (Exodus 14:5-9). Your back was to the sea. You were terrified, cornered (Exodus 14:9-12). Then the sea split for you, and you ran across with your family and your goods (Exodus 14:21-31). On the other side, you sang and danced for joy (Exodus 15:1-21). On a day in early April, this God saved you! You're a slave no more, you'd been redeemed – how you loved to proclaim it!

Then continued your journey into the desert. Uprooted from your settled lifestyle in your old house, now you and everyone with you was a nomad, pitching tents at campsite after campsite. In the nights and days you'd move, you'd march fifteen, twenty miles at a time. From the night when death passed over your house until you reached where you were headed, it'd be six weeks. It was a three-day march south into the desert of Shur along a ridge to the place you called Marah, 'bitter.' You relied on finding water, but here it was tainted with magnesium sulfate – a bitter mineral. Thirsty, you complained, and then Moses threw in some wood and, by a miracle, purged the minerals from the water, making it good to drink (Exodus 15:22-25). Praise God! Soon enough, moving on from there, you came to an oasis with twelve springs and seventy palm trees, Elim (Exodus 15:27; Numbers 33:9). What a relaxing place, so good to be at. You were sad to eventually move on. But you did, and reached the next desert a month after the night you set out. Initially, camping by the seashore, you could dig holes and wait for them to fill with fresh water (Numbers 33:10). But then you all turned east through a dry riverbed (Exodus 16:1; Numbers 33:11). You got hungry and complained (Exodus 16:2). You started to long for the way you were fed and kept in your slave days (Exodus 16:3). So through the night, God began to send something flaky – you weren't totally sure what it was – to coat the ground by morning; and as evening fell each night, flocks of confused quail, pausing to rest on a long journey, became easy prey for meat (Exodus 16:4-36). Finally fed, you passed through the turquoise-mining district of Dophkah (Numbers 33:12) – it was the off-season, it was safe, and you picked up some nice supplies – and then began to turn through a few more dry riverbeds like Alush (Numbers 33:12). At one riverbed called Rephidim, there was an oasis – but you couldn't go there. A strong tribe, the sons of Amalek, were jealously hoarding access, and you could not drink. You were so thirsty, and began to complain (Exodus 17:1-7). Then Moses tapped his staff on a rock, and water began to gush forth. You drank with gladness. So jealous were the Amalekites that they attacked, but you fought through all the day as Moses lifted up his staff in both hands, blessing you with power and victory, until at last you drove them out (Exodus 17:8-16). You stayed at Rephidim for a while, long enough for Jethro to come and bring Moses back his wife Zipporah and sons Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 18).

After some stay there, you finally came out onto the plain from which you could at last see the mountain more clearly – the mountain you'd glimpsed in the distance. You pitched your tent by the light of a new moon (Exodus 19:1). It was about the middle of May. You suspected you'd be here for a while, and it felt like a relief for this leg of your trip to be over and done with. All this way, this God of your ancestors had rescued you and was feeding you and watering you and fighting for you. You were here to worship him. Not only that, but to find him – to find his presence. In the land of Egypt, dotted with temples, your old neighbors had no trouble finding the presence of their failed little gods. You'd never had that. But this mountain, Moses had said, would be the temple soon. Here, this plain, this would be the outer court; the mountain slope would be the holy place inside the temple; and at the summit, the holiest place of all – once God would come to be there.

And why had you come? You'd come to cut a covenant with God (cf. Exodus 19:5). You had some awareness that, all through the world, small nations and big nations made treaties, defining the duties of little kings to great kings. At this mountain, you and each of your friends and family would be the little kings, signing on to the treaty this great king called God was about to put in front of you. It would be for you, for your children, for your grandchildren, for all who'd come after you. And just like there'd been ten plagues with which God had judged your captors, so there would be ten words spoken, ten basic principles as the basic stipulations of the treaty – ten, so that even your littlest children could learn them by heart on their fingers as you raised them in responsibility and dignity. That was what you were ready for. That was why you'd come. Moses explained to you and the crowd that God had brought you all to himself here for this purpose. You felt ready. You joined the general cheer, telling Moses, “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do” (Exodus 19:8).

Moses, going back and forth from the mountain to the camp, relayed the words of instruction. That very day of the new moon, the day you'd arrived on the plain, he said a fence needed to be put up, a boundary marker between the plain and the mountain. You helped carefully to put in the stakes. Beyond that limit, you could not go, your animals could not go, nothing must go – if it does, you must kill it from afar (Exodus 19:12-13). Before ever a law was given, a zone of special purity was said to be off-limits, just like that tree in the garden in the old stories. You were safe in your tent, safe on the plain, but the mountain – that was dangerous. You had to be very clear on that. And before you could approach even the border of the danger, you'd have to prepare yourself. Moses consecrated you – a first day, a second, into a third, he said. For it was the third day when you'd have the encounter (Exodus 19:11). Until then, you would wait. You would wash your garments in the water supply of the area, restoring them to the condition they had before you sweated six weeks in them and got them crusted with desert sand (Exodus 19:10). You'd take a bath. You and your spouse would have to abstain for a few days, resisting temptation to live out your married life as normal in your tent (Exodus 19:15). Ritual purity was demanded of you. Consecrate yourself. Because this God, you're finding, is not simple to approach. This purpose and mission, of being bound to him by a treaty, of becoming his covenant partner – it isn't easy to take on. This was serious business. You could not approach this casually or lightly. That's why you were being assigned several whole days of just waiting, time to reflect very thoughtfully on the immense ramifications of what you were about to see and hear and say. Think very carefully about this high calling.

You wake up on the third morning. You rise on the third day. It hadn't been easy to sleep – your mind raced as you thought about what the day might bring. You had scarcely any idea what things would look like. Yawning, you get dressed and wandered out of your tent at daybreak. Moses is waiting. It's not a sunny morning, when the dawn comes. It's actually rather gloomy. The sky is dark. You're still not too far from your tent as the sky begins to darken. Clouds, thick and black, begin to gather over the mountain. A violent storm, but you feel no rain. But you hear the low rumble of thunder. You see the flashes of lightning. And then you hear what no storm had ever brought: a sound like the blast of a trumpet in the sky. And it's so loud, much louder than the thunder had been, and it catches you off your guard, it frays your nerves, it makes you quake in your sandals. You wonder if maybe you made a mistake – if you're meddling with powers you can't bear, if perhaps even a drop of this God is a flood you'll drown in (Exodus 19:16; cf. Hebrews 12:18-19).

Moses leads you and the thousands of trembling others outside the camp, in the direction of this fierce storm. You leave your tent behind. You leave your property behind. You leave your animals behind. Your family alone is with you, and your friends. You're all dressed in your clean clothes. You've consecrated yourself. You've gone through the preparations. But you wonder how anyone could be prepared to withstand this. You'd come to worship. And now is the time. This is the day of the assembly (cf. Deuteronomy 9:10). It's the first time you've ever gotten to gather with others for an organized encounter with God, and you won't return to your tent – if you somehow live to – until you've met him. You've hungered for this, thirsted for this. All the travels and travails of the past six weeks have been to get you here, that you might gather in the outer court, and worship God in his storm. So now you stand, at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 19:17). And in the storm, you see something burning. From the heights of the sky, fire pours down in the heart of darkness, and smoke pours forth like an oven, cascading down the slope and rising to the heights of heaven (Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 4:11, 36). The mountain visibly shakes. The earth shakes. You feel the ground move beneath your feet, vibrating, trembling as if terrified. You can relate. You wince as the sound of the trumpet is growing louder and louder and louder, and your ears hurt, and the glow of the fire glows through the darkness, and you're so close to the action, it almost feels as though if you reach out your hand, the smoke will swallow you up. You can smell the burning. You can taste it on your tongue, like scorched incense, sweet and bitter.

Just when the trumpet seems loudest, Moses stands in front of you, leaning against the barricade, and shouts up to the mountain. You can barely hear what he says. But evidently God can hear him just fine. For God shouts back in a piercing crack of thunder that cuts off the trumpet (Exodus 19:19), and when this thunder roars in its sevenfold depth, the ground under your feet winces and shakes – the whole earth does (Hebrews 12:26). But as the echo of the thunder fades, you realize that everything is quiet. No birds sing. No donkeys bray back in the camp. You don't hear the wind. You don't even hear the crackle of the fire. All creation has paused. God, the Lord God, the Omnipotent Maker of all things, has invaded his creation, has come into her midst, has seated himself in fire on the mountain, wrapping himself in darkness and smoke for the world's protection. He is about to speak. Creation is listening.

And so, for the first time, you hear with your own ears the voice of God – and see it, somehow, with your very own eyes. Later legend, as it tells the story, will have it that the words were traced out in flame that poured forth from God, that each was accompanied by torches, that word by word, this speech flew over your head, hovered over you, circling around before returning to God. Those legends will also have it that each utterance, as you heard it spoken, translated itself into all the languages spoken by humans. And some legends will even imagine that, as you listened to the languages and saw the words etched in fire, angels came down and crowned you with glory. (And if those stories sound at all like how Luke writes the story of Pentecost, good catch!1)

That morning, confronted with the God you came to worship, you receive those ten words. Hearing them, you realize that perhaps you aren't cut out yet to hear God directly, which is why you'll soon be begging Moses to be the intermediary who listens to God's voice and relays it to you. Patient as he's been, you trust him not to distort the message. He'll relay it faithfully, and in hearing him, you'll know what God wants to tell you. But you feel the need for some distance, to retreat back from the edge, to insulate yourself a bit more from this God.

And yet the reason why you're here, the reason why your tribe is here, the reason why all the associated tribes and their members are here – it's because God made you an offer, which you accepted. God has a marvelous plan and purpose for your people. Moses told you a few days ago – these are the words you've been meditating on while you consecrated yourself. God said through Moses that you'd seen what he'd done to the Egyptians for your sake, and how God in his care had carried you to the edge of his presence, to meet you as face-to-face as you can handle (Exodus 19:4). He is the owner of everything in the earth, all of it is his. But, that said, if you'll obey his voice, if you'll uphold this covenant he's making with you, then out of all the peoples on the earth, you'll be special. You will be his secret treasure, gained and gathered through his effort and reserved exclusively to his personal purposes. Your whole nation will be this God's special servant. Your nation will be separated from all other nations by this unique way of life – it will set you apart, it will purify you, it will make you holy, an earthly mirror of your God. Each and every one of you will be to all other nations what priests are within a nation. Each of you will, to the world, communicate God's will; each of you will, to the world, show what it means to be sacred; each of you will, to the world, intercede and minister and guide. “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Step forward over 3200 years, and land in a pew here. What does all this mean for us? You, no less than they, have passed through the sea. For in those days, “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:2), but we now have been “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3). They camped where the wood purified the water; we camp where the wood of the cross purifies all things. They camped at the oasis of twelve springs and seventy palm trees; we camp in the nourishment of twelve disciples and seventy apostles. They, reaching a new desert, were fed manna and quail – they “all ate the same spiritual food” (1 Corinthians 10:3). But we feed on the Greater Manna: the flesh and blood of Jesus, “the Living Bread who came down from heaven” (John 6:51). At Rephidim, they back then “all drank the same spiritual drink, for the drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4) – and so do we. The gift put them in conflict with the envy of the Amalekites, and the gift puts us in conflict with the powers of darkness; but as long as the cross is lifted high, Christ on heaven's throne will give us the victory. After the new moon, they then gathered for the day of assembly. And so do we, for that word 'assembly' that Moses applied to them, Jesus gives to us – it's 'church.' You aren't so different from those who stood beneath the mountain.

And in Christ, we are now his treasured possession, gained by the purchase of his blood and valued highly as his special treasure. We are now his holy nation, set apart from all the peoples of the earth, set apart even from the United States of America – and our responsibility here is to live differently than the American norm. So too, we are his kingdom of priests, called to pray for and teach and guide the entire creation to what we've found already in him. And how do we know this is true? Christ tells us by Peter: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

So let us go to the foot of the mountain. “Let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Hebrews 13:13). For we have come to this place to worship. And we are preparing to hear the words of the covenant that the Lord our God will speak in our midst. In coming weeks, we will begin to hear and understand the voice of God who spoke in thunders. “Keep listening to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth” (Job 37:2). For ours is a high and holy calling, to live these ways and to teach the entire universe to live these ways through our example and guidance. But it is for no less a dignity and no less a duty that we have been chosen in Christ.

Therefore, over these next few weeks, let's consecrate ourselves all over again, washing the garments of our faith white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). Let's bathe ourselves by returning with tears of repentance and joy to our first love. Let us keep back the beasts of our vices from the mountain to which we are summoned. And let us abstain from setting our minds on mere earthly things, that we might meditate instead on our heavenly calling. “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is … Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). “You who share a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all his house” (Hebrews 3:1-2). He leads us from the darkness and the gloom into the blazing light of glory – hallelujah! Amen.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Eating the Proof: An Easter Homily from Luke 24

It had been a long few days, no doubt thought Cleopas, as he and his friend hit that first mile outside the city limits of Jerusalem. Certainly it had been an odd morning. For the Teacher they'd followed, the one they'd held out hope for as the Messiah promised to Israel, had a few days ago been hanged on a tree, cursed by God. They still believed, somehow, he was a prophet. But their hopes were dashed, and not all the curiosities of the morning – reports by hysterical women that they'd had a vision of angels, and the words of that hot-headed Simon and that impressionable kid John that they'd found his grave unsealed and vacated – not even those could restore joy. They only created a confusing fog of unproven half-hints. Cleopas would need time to sort it out.

Cleopas and his friend journeyed on – until they stopped. A stranger fell in with them, somehow ignorant of all that had happened. Cleopas filled him in on the death of the prophet, on his betrayal by the priesthood and his condemnation by the Gentile overlord and his shameful crucifixion that obliterated their hopes. Cleopas was astonished as the stranger rebuked them for their lack of faith, and began to walk with them the remaining miles toward the village Emmaus. The stranger insisted that the Law and the Prophets were filled with patterns and promises making it utterly clear that the true Messiah would indeed suffer shame and death and bear the curse – that not only did these things not serve as grounds for giving up hope, but that they were grounds for clinging to hope, because the Messiah would indeed be glorified, would indeed live and flourish.

For hours this stranger, whose name they never managed to get out of him, walked them not only down the road but through the ancient testimonies of prophets and saints and sages. And as he did, Cleopas' heart yearned with red-hot longing tinged with hope, that little light once extinguished and hardest to revive. For the first time since the darkness fell, hope seemed so plausible, as this stranger wove his pretty words and fit the pieces all in alignment. But could they bring themselves to take the leap and believe? If only there were a conclusive proof!

Cleopas and his friend reached the village of Emmaus, and the prospect of parting from this peculiar stranger, who had a further journey to walk into the night, pained them. “Stay with us,” they insisted, “spend the night – it isn't safe on that road after nightfall. Come on, get a nice meal and some warmth.” And this stranger agreed. He came in. Made himself comfortable. Reclined at the table. And just as the homeowner prepared to bless and break the bread, this audacious stranger stretched out his hand. Cleopas was intrigued, perplexed. But the stranger took over, as if it were his house. He began to rip the bread. And as the bread parted, behind it they saw his face as if for the first time, as if waking from a deep sleep – and it was the familiar face of Jesus, with the marks of the thorny crown glistening in splendor! Their eyes were opened – the proof was staring them in the face! And as they took the bread he handed to them and placed it on their tongues, as they bit down and chewed, in an instant Jesus could no longer be seen. Wowed with wonder, Cleopas and company grabbed their dinner to go, racing through the waning sunlight the miles back to Jerusalem as fast as their weary legs, fueled by adrenaline and awe, could carry them. They now believed to the full. For they'd eaten the proof.

In the sustenance they received from the hands of a stranger who revealed himself to be Christ, Cleopas and his fellow-disciple found proof they could eat. The evidence fell on their own lips. The testimony was uncovered in their mouths and maws. And so might it be with us, when we come to this feast. For all this year so far, if you've been with us, we've learned the explanation of our faith in the ancient words of the Apostles' Creed, words we've begun this morning the practice of reciting together – the summary and substance of our faith.

We confess one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. And the proof is here fed to us. When we prepare for this meal, grain that did not make itself is ground by the effort of hands that did not make themselves, and becomes “bread from the creation.” And grapes that did not make themselves are pressed and fermented by the effort of hands that did not make themselves, and poured into “the cup from the creation.” At this meal, none of these things could exist – not the bread, not the wine, not the table, not us – unless there were a Creator of them, who is Almighty God. So even in these bare elements, we taste proof of the faith we confess.

We confess that the Son of God, the eternal Word of God, is our Lord Jesus Christ. And the proof is fed to us. We have come to a royal banquet, and the host today is not me but the Son of the Great King. The Great King is God, and his Son Jesus hosts us. For it is his meal we come to eat – it is the Lord's Table and the Lord's Supper. And when we eat it, we receive food from Jesus, and his lordly hands place it in ours. When we come to this royal banquet, then, we find proof to taste of the faith we confess.

We confess that this Word of God became flesh, this Son of God became a Son of Man, when he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And the proof is fed to us. For if the Word had not been made flesh, then no material thing could mediate his presence to us. He couldn't be touched, couldn't be embraced, couldn't be tasted. But when we sit at this table, the bread we call 'body' is the body of the Word-made-Flesh, and the cup we call 'blood' is the blood of God Incarnate, in all his virgin-born simplicity and purity. When we encounter God through this material meal, we find proof to taste of the faith we confess.

We confess that this Jesus Christ suffered under the rule of Pontius Pilate, and that he was crucified and killed. And the proof is fed to us. For it isn't in an intact loaf of bread that we recognize him – it's when the bread is broken. And it isn't in the bottled wine that we recognize him – it's when the wine is poured. “When you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord,” Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 11:26). We could not eat this meal of bread ripped as his broken body and wine poured out as his shed blood if Jesus Christ had not suffered, had not been crucified, had not died. “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7); “through him, then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15). When we see this broken and poured, we have come to the very cross, and so taste proof of the faith we confess.

But we confess with joy that this same Jesus who was crucified to death was then raised from the dead on the third day, and is alive forevermore! And that is the cornerstone, that is what we're all about! And that is exactly what the Emmaus disciples found in the breaking of the bread from Jesus' hands. So do we, whenever this feast is truly tasted. In the breaking of the bread, we – like them – recognize our living Lord. In the cup we drink, we discover our risen Redeemer – now. For he lives in victory! And we taste the proof of the faith we confess.

We confess also that Jesus thereafter ascended into heaven where he has become seated at God's right hand, and the proof of this is fed to us here. Because the hands that hand you the bread and the cup this morning will not bear the marks of the nails. The nail-pierced hands of Jesus will be working through the unscarred hands of a man of his appointing. And the reason for that is that the nail-pierced hands are not on earth. He left the earth so as to extend his presence on the earth, by forming for himself a Body out of many. So when we receive this food, the very way it is brought into our midst, and the authority by which this grace takes place, are edible proof that Jesus is indeed on heaven's throne.

We confess that Jesus will one day return again as judge of the living and the dead, and proof is fed to us today. That Jesus is the Judge, this meal proves, for “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body,” says St. Paul, “eats and drinks judgment on himself: that is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died..., judged by the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:29-32). This meal has the potential to be the judgment seat. But we eat it and drink it “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26), when he will eat and drink new with us in the kingdom of his Father (Matthew 26:29). He has promised to come again, and is already active to judge – we taste the proof.

We confess also our faith in the Holy Spirit, and proof is fed to us today. For, since time immemorial, it is the Holy Spirit who has been invoked, called down upon these gifts, to change them from ordinary bread and wine into something altogether uncommon: the very presence of the living God. We receive this food, not as symbol to be toyed with, but as a holy thing and a spiritual reality, made so as only the Holy Spirit of the Lord can do. Hearing the word with ears of faith, seeing the altar with eyes of faith, receiving them with the tastebuds of faith, we know that it's true: the impact made on our souls is the activity of the Holy Spirit in this feast. And we taste the proof of the faith we confess.

We confess also our faith in the Holy Church, and proof is fed to us today. For Paul reminds us that this meal is eaten precisely “when you come together as a church” (1 Corinthians 11:18), and to mistreat this meal would be to “despise the church of God” (1 Corinthians 11:22). When we eat this meal, we eat in the Church, and we eat from the Church, for it is the Church who “feeds with the eucharist” her children. This is the new Passover sacrifice, and just as the old one was to be eaten by the family in one house without being taken outside, so it has long been seen that “the flesh of Christ and the holy things of the Lord cannot be carried outside, and there is no other house for believers except the one Church.” We would not take this meal if we did not trust the Church, for we cannot make it on our own. And so we find proof to taste of the faith we confess.

We confess, moreover, the prospect of forgiveness of sins, and proof is fed to us today. Didn't Jesus himself announce the cup as his “blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28)? And so when we worthily receive this sacrificial gift, the power of sin actually is shattered, the guilt of sin is freshly obliterated, forgiveness becomes a present fact in our hearts, and we taste the proof of the new covenant, we taste the proof that we are forgiven.

And we finally confess our hope in resurrection and eternal life. Today we are fed the proof. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood,” Jesus said, “has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51). When we eat this feast, we know from experience the promise of the resurrection and the eternal life of Jesus dwelling in our very bodies – a life which a puny thing like death could not possibly conquer. In this meal, we taste proof of our hope for the future.

So what are we waiting for? I invite you, this beautiful Easter morning, in a few minutes, to eat and declare that Jesus, once crucified, is the Christ risen indeed! Let us all eat the proof of our faith, and taste and see that the Lord is good, for the Lord lives! Thanks be to God! Amen.