The following is a sermon preached on Ascension Sunday, 2017. You can listen to the sermon here:
You know, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s goodbyes. Anyone else here hate goodbyes?
Yeah, and the fact that I hate them so much means I’m not really very good at goodbyes.
Sometimes I get awkward and silent. Sometimes I get awkward and really chatty! Heck, sometimes I get awkward and I make poor choices, like the one time when I was getting ready to say goodbye to my family when they dropped me off at college.
They were looking forward to a final dinner with me, in the school cafeteria, before they left. But I was worried about the awkwardness of saying a tearful goodbye between packed tables and chairs, so I suggested that they just leave.
Let’s just say that my family wasn’t very happy. And me? Neither was I. I ate my first college meal all alone.
Goodbyes suck. And I often suck at goodbyes.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, for one thing, this is my “goodbye” sermon here at St. Peter’s, and I wanted to give an excuse for this sermon, if it sucks!
In all seriousness, I do want to thank this congregation for being such a good place for Rachel and me to serve and grow alongside you. Thank you for loving Rachel and me as our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will miss you all very much as we move to Illinois this week.
Anyways, I don’t want this goodbye to get TOO awkward, so I’d better keep on preaching!
I think that goodbyes are bad because they so often leave our stories unfinished.
And we humans tend to hate unfinished business. It’s so much better when the story has an end! Sometimes, even a bad ending is better than no ending at all!
Think about it, if you’re watching an important game on TV – say, Alabama vs. Auburn – would you rather see the ending, even if your team loses, or have the power go out and completely miss the final minutes?
Stories without endings are frustrating. And that’s why it’s so hard to say goodbye.
That’s why Death – the ultimate goodbye, if you will – is so horrible.
It’s not really an ending, not for those of us who go on living, anyways. Instead, Death leaves our stories hanging, with words left unsaid and promises left unfulfilled.
I think here of parents in Manchester this week who were forced to say goodbye to their children all too soon, thanks to the suicide bombing. Or the Coptic Christians in Egypt forced to say goodbye to their loved ones too soon, thanks to the bus attack.
Goodbyes suck, because they leave our stories unfinished.
I don’t want to belabor the artwork with my commentary, so I’ll give you a few seconds to take each slide in.
Now, I don’t know about you, but those pictures affect me deeply. The whole idea of a criminal’s last meal affects me deeply. Why?
I think it’s because these last meals combine the familiar with the unfamiliar. They combine the expected and the unexpected. I mean, on one hand, you’ve got comfort food. On the other hand, heinous crimes. The stuff of life right next to life’s untimely end.
While Jesus of Nazareth was no common criminal, his so-called “Last Supper” with his disciples was a poignant combination of the expected and the unexpected. And when you take a look at the Last Supper, focusing on its unexpected elements, you find out that it’s really a Lasting Supper.
That is, the Last Supper is not just a one-time event, some two-thousand years ago. Instead, Holy Communion, the Lasting Supper, is an ongoing meal, with profound implications for our past, our future, and our present.
God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:
promote your justice
embody your steadfast faithful love
and humbly obey Your will,
even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.
I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?
Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?
I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?
I know I do.
In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!
Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.
Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.
Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.
ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?
But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?
I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?
Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!
Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.
Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.
In order to get ahead,
you have to know the context,
you have to know the rules,
you have to know the goal.
Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.
So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.
The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.
The Main Point
In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:
Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.
God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)
1 Corinthians 1:18 says:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.
You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!
I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.
However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.
Sounds great, right?
So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?
Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!
This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”
In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.
The world expects
and we receive instead a
as a political criminal.
We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.
We receive a CrucifiedSavior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.
Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.
You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.
You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!
For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!
Climb the ladder!
Take no prisoners!
…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!
That’s where the world’s ways get us.
Where every human is
an egotistical island,
competing with God,
alienating other humans,
and abusing creation.
Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],
the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.
Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”
Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.
Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.
Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12
And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.
(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)
Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.
But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.
First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!
That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”
But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”
These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].
Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”
To the poor in spirit
Those who mourn
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
The pure in heart
And the reviled
And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.
Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.
That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”
Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.
The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation
Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.
Jesus is saying:
(1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
(2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
(3) Take heart! If you humbly and gentlyrefuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
(4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
(5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
(6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. Butyou will experience God’s glory and presence.
(7) Take heart! If you pursuereconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
(8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.
Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.
God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.
However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?
What if we’re NOT
who are persecuted?
What if we’re
How should we respond to the Beatitudes?
While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,
I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructivechallenge to followers of Jesus.
There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.
It’s almost like Jesus is saying,
“OK, you want to follow me?
You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.
It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.
You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.
Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.
if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
then you better show concrete concern for
and the weak!
And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”
Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse
Brothers and sisters, remember:
Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.
But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!
That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.
Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
Because you’re scared of losing your job,
Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.
But let’s not kid ourselves!
FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!
Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees
So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?
We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.
First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.
Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.
As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.
Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.
Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.
Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.
Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.
I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.
However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.
We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.
I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.
Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.
Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?
We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.
However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
You know, they say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. I’ve even heard it said that it’s the “hap-happiest season of all”!
But, can I take a poll real quick?
Please raise your hand if you’ve ever had a disappointing Christmas.
I mean a Christmas that didn’t live up to your expectations. You wanted it to be filled with love, happiness, and peace, and instead all you got was stress, anxiety, and loneliness.
Before that, I went to a Christian high school, and a Christian middle school.
Before that, I was home-schooled, and I grew up in a Christian home.
Oh, also: I’m the world’s worst sports fan.
I’m serious. The students in my youth group give me a hard time about it. Every week, they’re like, “Josh, did you see the game?!” “Josh, are you going to watch the game?”
And I’m like, “Game? What game? I don’t even know which sport’s season it is!”
World’s. worst. sports fan. I’m telling you.
The one redeeming quality about my sports fandom is that I’ve stuck with one team through thick and thin: the University of Michigan Wolverines. Go Blue!
Now, I know that the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes is but a pale imitation of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn down here. But up North, this rivalry was and is a big deal.
And it was really interesting, back when I was in middle school and high school, to observe what would happen each year in November when the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went at it.
I’m from Toledo, OH, which is on the border with Michigan, so the fan split was about 50/50 – Wolverines on one side, Buckeyes on the other.
And each year, on the day after the big game, you could tell who the true fans were…
Like so many other feast days – scheduled, as they are, on the days of the namesakes’ deaths – the feast day of St. James the Apostle is a strong rebuke to our aspirations. To our aspirations as human beings, and especially to our aspirations as ministers of Christ’s Church.
James & John: Fishermen No More?
You see, James started off as a mere fisherman. An admirable one, to be sure, because he and his brother John answered Jesus’ call in Mark 1. They left behind their father, their family, and – they grew to hope! – their family’s fishing profession.
James was off on a new adventure, hopeful and headstrong. So much so that, along with his brother John, he earned the nickname “Son of Thunder”! Coming from the Son of Man, that’s no small compliment!
But their headstrong passion proved to be a weakness as well. In Luke 9, after getting rejected in Samaria, the Sons of Thunder offer to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan village! This earns them a stern rebuke from Jesus.
And, even more famously, they approached Jesus with the following request in Mark 10:37:
Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.
Princes? Or Fishermen?
Now, their request is, in effect: “O King Jesus, would you please make us princes?”
And, granted, this is Apocryphal, but I imagine Jesus putting his arms around them and saying the following:
“Princes? Princes?! Boys, if I had wanted princes, I would have called princes! But, I don’t need princes!
No, no, no. What I need are new fishermen! And that’s why I’ve called you!”
You see, James had been hoping for a new position. And instead he received his old profession – transformed!
James was no longer to be a mere fisherman, but a fisher of men.
And not even just a fisher of men like Jeremiah 16 spoke of – for there the fishermen and hunters are instruments of judgment and exile.
No! Instead, James was to go fishing with, go fishing for Jesus, to bring people back from exile.
Now, undoubtedly, this is a step up from fishing for literal fish.
Or is it?
Not necessarily. At least, not in the world’s eyes.
The Death of St. James the Apostle
Here’s Jesus’ actual answer to the “prince” request:
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
And they said to him, “We are able.”
And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Now, granted, this isn’t one of the assigned lectionary passages for today, but I’d like us to look at the beginning of Acts 12:
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.
Swept aside, in just one verse! I doubt that sort of an abrupt, violent end awaited most of the fishermen working for Zebedee’s family business.
Was it worth it?
Was it worth it? Did James receive any sort of a promotion, after all?
Of course, we know the right answer. But do we live it out?
Are we thankful, are we satisfied with our roles as servants within Christ’s Church?
Are we willing to be “just” fishermen, even if it costs us our ambitions? Even if it costs us our lives?
By God’s grace, I hope so.
By God’s grace, may we – with the Apostle James – be able to confess the final words of Psalm 34 with open eyes, and open hearts. Perhaps it will help to imagine the following words on the dying Apostle’s lips:
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
Revelation 19:6-10 – The Marriage Supper of the Lamb
Matthew 25:1-13 – The Parable of the Ten Virgins
What makes a great wedding?
Is it the fragrance and color of the flower arrangements? The particular grandeur of the venue?
Is it the number and camaraderie of the guests? Or the quality and sound of the music?
Is it the menu at the reception? Or perhaps the selection at the (hopefully open) bar?
I hope it’s not the quality of the sermon!
But, really, what makes a wedding great?
Surely (gestures toward bride and groom) these two have something to do with it.
Is it, perhaps, their physical appearance? His rugged handsomeness? Her stunning beauty?
What about their relationship? Is the wedding great because of the intensity of their love for one another? Their glorious dreams for the future? The optimism of this moment between them?
What is it that makes a wedding great?
I guess, if most of us had to pick, we’d say that a wedding is great if the bride is happy. Right? I mean, even if the weather stinks, the singers are off-key, and the sermon is just absolutely awful – if the bride is happy, everything is OK. Right?
Which is a great reminder that weddings are about people, not performances.
However, I’m here today to tell you all that, sure, you can have a goodwedding if the brideis happy.
But, if you want a really great wedding – if you want a really great marriage – then it’s really all about the groom.
Great weddings, might I even say heavenly weddings, are all about the groom.
Now, either you’re not listening or I’ve probably upset you!
Really? Has the preacher lost his mind? Is he some sort of chauvinist pig?
This is the bride’s big day! That’s why her outfit is more impressive! That’s why we all stand when the bride walks down the aisle!
Are we really going to take this moment away from her and say that it’s all about this handsome chump here?
Heavenly weddings areall about the groom, but you (gestures to the groom) better not use this sermon as an excuse for anything resembling male chauvinism!
Because, for one thing, I’m an egalitarian!
And, for another, I’m not talking about you (gestures to groom), her (to bride) bridegroom, but rather to Christ, our (gestures to everyone) bridegroom.
Great weddings, and great marriages, are all about Christ, our Bridegroom.
Take a glance at the Bible readings on your order of service everyone.
Did you catch the names on the wedding invite in Revelation 19? We’re not invited there to this wedding, of this woman to this man, but the wedding of the Church to Christ himself!
This is the same marriage Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5. In both passages, the Groom, Christ, takes center stage.
You see, in the ancient Jewish culture out of which the Bible came, weddings were done a bit differently.
Modern weddings often center around the arrival of the bride to her groom, but these ancient Jewish weddings really hinged on the arrival of the groom to his bride.
First, what would happen is the groom would pay the bride’s father her bride price.
After this, the couple was betrothed – legally joined together, although not physically, for they still were not fully married.
Instead, they went their separate ways. He went to prepare their future living quarters as an addition to his father’s household. She went back to her father’s household to prepare herself – including the preparation of her beautiful wedding dress.
After the groom had completed their home, he would gather his friends to go and get his bride. She and her companions would have a ballpark idea of when he would come, but the exact hour was a surprise. So, the bridal party had to stay ready.
This is the scene we read in Matthew 25, where things went wrong. Five members of the bridal party were ready for the bridegroom to arrive, but the other five were not ready to join the evening’s lamp-lit procession.
Ideally, the bride and all her friends and family would be awake and ready to join the groom on the journey back to his father’s household and their new living quarters. Once there, the real party began!
Which, by the way, if things have sounded real intense up to this point, let me assure you: these people knew how to party! The wedding celebration would go on for days and days, launching the couple into their new life together.
Now, why in the world am I telling you all this? I mean, first I steal the bride’s thunder, and then I give you a Jewish history lesson?!
Here’s why (looks directly at bride and groom): your wedding, and your marriage to each other, finds its true meaning and glory as a part of Christ’s Bride – the Church – preparing herself for the Bridegroom’s return.
Great weddings and marriages are all about the Bridegroom.
What does that mean for you? Well, as we read in Ephesians 5, it means you are to love each other sacrificially and humbly.
After all, our Bridegroom died for us. He cleanses us from sin. And he sets us apart as his holy people. Will your marriage be an image of this kind of love for each other?
Look around the room, you two.
Now look at each other.
I think it’s safe to say that you will each bring the other more joy than anyone else in this room. However, I think it’s also safe to say that you will cause each other more pain than anyone else in this room.
Because you are sinners.
You each, like us all, have fallen short of the glory of God. And marriage is about to make you especially aware of your spouse’s sinful flaws!
Thankfully, though, that’s not the end of the story. Thankfully, your marriage can point beyond itself, and therefore be truly heavenly.
For you both have been bought by the very blood of Christ – a steep bride price if there ever was one!
You have both been betrothed to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who is preparing a place for you both in his Father’s household.
And you are therefore both called to prepare your wedding garments through holy living – especially in how you love one another as husband as wife.
Should you love each other as Christ loves his Bride, your marriage will be a powerful witness – through both laughter and tears – to a world which desperately needs the Bridegroom. It desperately needs the Bridegroom to return and wipe away every tear, to right every wrong, and to make everything new.
Do you know what that’s going to be like?
It’s going to be like a wedding banquet.
In Revelation 21(:2-4), John writes:
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Now, we can anticipate that joy and celebration at the reception later today!
But we also get a glimpse of what’s coming when we partake of the Lord’s Supper.
Just as God has not left the two of your alone, but has blessed you with each other’s companionship, Jesus has not left his Church on her own, but promises to be with her in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine.
Therefore, every time someone comes into contact with you as a Christ-centered couple, I pray they are reminded of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And every time the two of you, and all of you, partake of the Lord’s Supper, I pray you’ll remember that heavenly weddings, and the very best marriages, are all about the Bridegroom.
What would it have been like, on the first Holy Saturday?
What would it be like, tonight, if Jesus has been dead for almost 33 hours?
All the hopes and dreams of tonight’s readings – shattered. Blown away by the cold winds of death. Jesus of Nazareth lies in a dark grave, and we, his shell-shocked followers, gather to make some sort of sense of this week’s events – to salvage some sort of hope from this week’s wreckage.
And so, some sorry snots get up to try and encourage us. They open up the Hebrew Scriptures and read about our great God.
Remember, when He made the heavens, earth, and humans?
Remember, when He rescued Noah?
Remember, when he stayed Abraham’s knife-laden hand?
Remember, when he rescued us from Egypt?
Remember, when he promised to bring us back from exile, restore our fortunes, and open our… graves?
It’s too much, too soon. Shut up and sit down! Leave us mourn and weep awhile! Jesus is dead! The one we thought would save us is dead!
It’s been over a day. It’s been almost 2,000 years.
Can these bones live?
Can these bones live?
The question haunts us. The answer is so obviously “No! Of course not! They’re bones! No flesh, no breath, no life!”
And yet, God asks Ezekiel. And He asks us. Can these bones live?
And sure, we know the answer, but sit with this awhile.
Can these bones live? Can Christ’s bones live?
Surely this question must have flickered in someone’s mind on the first Holy Saturday. And, yes, we know the answer, but sit with this awhile.
Look at the world! Dealing in death, day by day. Wars. Famines. Floods. Diseases. Droughts. Death.
Can these bones live?
Look at the Church! Claiming with her lips to follow Jesus Christ, and yet so often proving with her life that she wants no such thing. Scandal. Hypocrisy. Idolatry.
Can these bones live?
Look at yourselves! I’ll be honest, the question “can these bones live?” is put to every preacher facing a congregation! If the Spirit doesn’t move, I’m throwing hot air at dry bones!
Can your bones live?
But then, look at me! Just as scandalous, hypocritical, and idolatrous as any – and yet here I stand, presuming to proclaim the Word of God to you.
Who do I think I am? Can my bones live?
Can all these dry, dead bones live?
Friends, there’s a reason why we’re here, though it’s so dark, so late. Sure, it’s to bring in, bright and oh so early, the celebration of Easter.
But it’s also because keeping vigil is what the Church does every day. We keep vigil for the sake of a suffering and dying world. We keep watch for our bridegroom to return and wipe away every tear, to right every wrong. We stay awake at the world’s late hour, surrounded by so many dry, dead bones.
Can these bones live?
Yes. They can. But, what do they need in order to do so?
First, they need some WATER. Did you notice how often water has appeared in tonight’s readings?
The waters of creation, out of which God called the dry ground – out of which He formed human beings.
The waters of judgment, through which God saved Noah and his family in the Ark.
The waters of redemption, through which God rescued Israel from the Egyptian house of slavery.
And the waters of cleansing, by which the Lord promised in the prophets to wash away His people’s guilty stains.
Water, water, everywhere! Except the dry valley.
I think the dry bones need some sort of water.
They also need some sort of SPIRIT. You know, God’s Spirit, His breath, His wind, who hovered over the waters at creation.
Who filled the first humans with life.
Who led God’s people.
Who inspired and preserved the words of Scripture we read this evening.
Who rushed upon the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision – making them into a great army, alive!
Dry bones need the Spirit.
But, the question isn’t “Can these bones get wet and windy?” It’s “Can they LIVE?!”
And, if they’re going to live, they’re going to need a RESURRECTION.
They need the defeat of their most ancient enemy: Death!
They need Death’s reversal! They need Death’s death!
They need exactly what God promised Ezekiel: to open their graves, and lift them up, living!
Amen! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
But, if I hear Ezekiel’s glorious vision read at the first Holy Saturday, I’m tempted to lose it at this point. To bitterly ask those gathered:
“When?! That sounds great, but when?! When is God going to do this?!
For over five hundred years since Ezekiel, we’ve been falling into our graves over and over again – and staying there! Sure, it’s no longer in Babylon, but we’ve been invaded and harassed and dominated here in Judah ever since!
Is it really that much better to fall into the grave under Rome’s heavy heel, like Jesus?
Why not Babylon’s?
Why not Assyria’s?
Heck, why not Pharaoh’s?
When is God going to turn things around?!”
Thankfully, I wasn’t in the audience back then. But we’re here, tonight. And maybe you’re similarly tempted to lose it and freak out sometimes in church!
All this pretty Jesus-talk, when for over 2,000 years the Church has travailed in the midst of a deadly and dying world.
We thank Jesus for our oversized meals, cars, and houses, while thousands fall into their graves around us – tired, hungry, destitute, and alone.
So, on the first Holy Saturday and the 2,000th, the question is roughly the same:
When?! When is God going to turn things around?!
And the answer is likewise the same. We sang it, earlier:
THIS IS THE NIGHT.
When did God open the grave?
“THIS IS THE NIGHT, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”
So, can these bones live? Yes!
Can Christ’s bones live? Yes! For on this night, some 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ got up from the tomb. He was alive. He was dead. But he is now alive again.
Can our bones live? Yes!
How? Because Christ has provided the resurrection, the Spirit, and the water we need.
Because, through the waters of baptism, we receive the Spirit and the resurrection.
Now, we aren’t going to baptize anyone tonight. We’ll have to wait until later this morning to do so. But we are about to renew our baptismal vows.
Through our baptism, we are preserved, like Noah, from the waters of Sin and Death, in the Ark, the Church.
Through our baptism, we are ransomed and rescued, like Israel, through the waters of the Red Sea.
Through our baptism, we are cleansed with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, as God promised through Isaiah and Ezekiel.
Through our baptism, we are buried with Christ in his death, and are raised with him in newness of life.
Through our baptism, we are empowered and emboldened to proclaim the good news to a desperate world that JESUS CHRIST IS RISEN.
So, we can assure the world that their bones can live, because Christ has died.
We can rest assured that our bones can live, because Christ is risen.
And we can keep watch for the sake of a suffering world, because Jesus Christ will come again.
(Sermon preached on Easter Vigil, March 26, 2016. For an idea of the readings which preceded the homily in this service, see here.)
It’s been a grueling past few weeks at Beeson. Our Spring Break happens to coincide with Holy Week this year, and it can’t come quickly enough!
Part of the hard work has been preparing to preach three sermons for class. However, the opportunity to study and preach God’s Word is a joy that outweighs the burdens of preparation!
I have preached twice in the past month on Psalm 32. First, I delivered a sermon (“The Refreshment of Forgiveness”) designed for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C, for Dr. Doug Webster’s Preaching Practicum.
Then, I preached/presented on the same passage for Dr. Allen Ross’s Exegesis of Psalms (“Psalm 32: Psalm 1 for Screw-Ups”).
Preparing and preaching these very different sermons on the same passage was a good reminder of the inexhaustible richness of Scripture.
Most recently, I got to compose a “crisis sermon” for Dr. Webster’s Preaching Practicum (“Lamenting into Worship”). One of my classmates preached a post-9/11 sermon. Another, post-Pearl Harbor! These were great sermons, but I chose a different route: preaching to a congregation after the death of a well-known church family’s baby.
This was a stretching experience, to say the least. I pray I never have to preach this sermon in real life, but it was a good reminder to preach the good news to myself that God hates death more than we do.
You can listen to and/or read “The Refreshment of Forgiveness,” “Psalm 1 for Screw-Ups,” and “Lamenting into Worship,” along with my other sermons at the Sermons Page of this site.
Now, there are much better preachers out there in the world, so if you’re short on time, go listen to them preach! But, if you’ve got the time to give these sermons a listen, I would greatly appreciate your feedbackas I try to improve as a preacher and teacher of God’s Word!
There are better preachers out there. So, if you’re short on time, go and listen to them! However, if you’ve got 26 minutes to spare, I offer “The Challenge of Christmas Light” to you, and would love to hear your feedback.