It is Finished! So, Get to Work! – An Ascension Sermon

GOODBYES SUCK

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.

WHAT ABOUT THE ASCENSION?

Is the Ascension of Jesus Christ, then, just another awful goodbye?

I mean, think about the emotional rollercoaster Christ’s followers must have ridden in those days. Rising hopes of God’s coming kingdom dashed to the ground at the Crucifixion – only to rise once more at the Resurrection!

“Jesus, you’re alive! Surely, surely now’s the time when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel, right?!

“I mean, you had us worried there for a minute, what with the whole executed like a common criminal thing… but SURELY now’s the time!

“Seize the day! Take the throne! Kill these Romans, won’t you?! Won’t you?!”

… Now, I’m sure that the Ascension was glorious. After all, Luke tells us that the disciples worshiped and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

But the Ascension was still a goodbye.

And I’m sure that, eventually, the glory faded as the disciples gazed into heaven. And they needed the angels’ reminder:

“Men of Galilee, who do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” [Acts 1:11].

OK, so maybe it’s fairer to say that the Ascension was a “see-you-later.”

Fine.

But doesn’t the Ascension still leave things hanging?

Doesn’t it still leave our story – and the story of the Gospel – unfinished?

Well, yes…and no.

If I might paraphrase the angels’ message in Acts 1 as the title of my sermon, here it is:

“It’s finished! So, get to work!”

And here’s my main point:

The Ascension completes the Gospel and compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPLETE THE GOSPEL?

How does the Ascension complete the Gospel?

Well, that requires knowing what the Gospel is, so here goes:

THE GOSPEL

In the beginning, God created the entire universe to be his temple, his kingdom – the place where he would dwell and rule.

And he created human beings – his image-bearers, his ambassadors, his “middle-management” – to extend his rule and reign throughout creation.

Instead of doing this, however, human beings rebelled against God.

Instead of bowing the knee to the King, they tried to steal his throne.

And this rebellion brought Sin and Death into the kingdom – breaking the relationships

  • between God and humanity,
  • between humanity and itself,
  • and between humanity and the rest of creation.

Where once there was perfect fellowship and communion, there was now distance and Exile.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, God was not going to let Sin, Death, and Exile have the final word! No!

He would pursue his people, he would buy them back from their slavery to Sin and Death, he would cleanse them from the inside out, and he would – one day – bring them back home.

The story of God’s rescue mission, then, is the Good News – it’s the Gospel.

In the Old Testament, the story of Israel is the beginning of this rescue mission.

In the Old Testament, God draws a people back into covenant relationship with himself.

And yet, the story of the Old Testament is left hanging on a tragic note.

Despite God’s continuing goodness, faithfulness, and salvation, his people prove stubbornly faithless.

And, even though they technically dwell in the geographical Promised Land, they are still in Exile.

They are still ruled, in the halls of power, by their political enemies. And they are still ruled, in their hearts, by Sin and Death.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, in the New Testament, God HIMSELF goes into Exile INSTEAD OF his people, in order to bring them back home.

I’d like you to picture this as a capital letter “V”.

Up here, you’ve got the eternal Son of God – fully divine.

Down here, is us. Drowning, as it were, in a cesspool of Sin and Death.

And instead of abandoning us…

(Heck, even instead of somehow saving us at an arm’s distance, after we start to clean up and get our act together.)

…Christ dives headfirst into the muck – into the cesspool of sin-stained human existence.

We call this the Incarnation.

So, great! God’s with us! In..this…cesspool! …Great?

At the Crucifixion, Jesus goes all the way to the very bottom point of that capital V.

He goes all the way into the furthest, farthest Exile – Death.

So, great! God’s dead.

How is this good news?!

Well, the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, he went into the farthest Exile, so that we wouldn’t have to.

And he didn’t stay in the grave. No no no!

There’s another side to the capital V!

We can’t forget the Resurrection!

Jesus arose from the grave – he walked out of that tomb on Easter morning AAAAANNNNND…..

Well, we don’t know.

He appeared to some people. And then, well, we’re not really sure what happened to him.

We’re not really sure what it all meant.

The story would have ended there, left hanging between tragedy and triumph, were it not for the Ascension.

HOW THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL

Brothers and sisters, we can’t forget the Ascension!

The Ascension COMPLETES the Gospel!

The Ascension is the final step in Christ’s return from Exile.

And, if we are united with Christ as a part of his body, the Church, the Ascension is the completion of OUR return from Exile as well!

The Ascension demonstrates that the Crucifixion and Resurrection were the final victory over Sin and Death.

Furthermore, the fact that Christ is not only crucified, and not only risen, but also ascended, and glorified, and seated on his heavenly throne means that he is the LORD.

Jesus Christ, though still fully human, though still fully acquainted with our many griefs, is not your buddy.

He’s not your pal that you can ignore at your convenience.

No, the Ascension reminds us that Christ is our King.

He is our Lord. And he is to be obeyed.

But, hey, since the capital V is finished, and Christ is on the throne, that means that we can all just sit around and do nothing, right?!

As long as we’re not doing something horrible?

I mean, the story’s OVER! I thought that’s what you just said, Josh.

No, not quite!

The Ascension does complete the Gospel – as its goal and culmination.

We will all one day be with Christ at the Father’s right hand in glory.

But the story’s not over, because the Ascension also compels the Church.

The Ascension completes the Gospel, and it also compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPEL THE CHURCH?

How does the Ascension compel the Church?

Well, the Ascension gives the Church

  • its global mission,
  • its enduring hope,
  • and its enabling power.

Everyone with me so far?

We’ve talked about the Ascension’s theological significance, how the Ascension completes the Gospel.

Now let’s talk about the Ascension’s application to our lives – how the Ascension should both challenge us and encourage us.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS GLOBAL MISSION

Here’s the challenge of the Ascension: it gives the Church its global mission.

As Luke told us twice today – in the book of Acts and the Gospel which bears his name – Jesus commissioned his followers as witnesses who were to proclaim the Good News across cultural and ethnic boundaries.

“to all nations” – that word, “nations,” ethnoi, more properly refers to people groups, to cultural and ethnic groups of people, than to modern nation states.

That is, there are plenty of ethnoi represented right here in the United States – including those that haven’t yet heard the gospel!

You remember what I said a minute ago about Jesus not being our buddy?

He’s our King! He’s to be obeyed!

And he wants us to proclaim the gospel to the entire world.

Which, let’s be honest, is easier said than done.

Why?

Because God’s global gospel runs counter to the nationalistic, tribalistic, and individualistic “gospels” of this earth.

The Good News of God’s global kingdom – won not through self-promotion or military conquest but through self-sacrifice and loving one’s enemies – this gospel runs counter to the false gospels of this world, including the false gospel of the American Dream.

And that cuts right across the grain of the entire political landscape – red state and blue state.

Now to be sure, hear me!, there is a difference between globalism and God’s global gospel.

But there is also a stark difference between the United States of America and the Kingdom of God – between American culture and Kingdom culture.

Let us, then, take heed, lest we American Christians make assimilation to American culture an unofficial prerequisite for the nations of the world.

There is no prerequisite.

There is no response of the world that gives the Church an excuse to abandon its global mission.

In light of the Ascension, the Church’s global mission is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ across all cultural and ethnic boundaries – obeying its Ascended Lord, who once said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” [Matt. 5:43-44].

OK, so this transcultural, enemy-loving gospel stuff sounds great hypothetically, but

  • what about when people blow themselves up to kill children at a concert in Manchester?
  • What about when people open fire on a bus full of Coptic Christians on their way to pray?
  • What about when they go on shooting sprees in shopping malls, movie theaters, schools, and churches?
  • Or what about when people are just so different, so unfamiliar, so awkward, that we just don’t know what to say?

What then?

Do we throw up our hands in despair?

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENDURING HOPE

Here’s the encouragement of the Ascension: it gives the Church its enduring hope.

Without the Ascension, we are left wondering whether the good news of Christ’s resurrection will extend to us.

We are left wondering whether the chaos in the world around us will ever cease.

How long, O Lord? How long before you stay the hand of the wicked?

How long before you destroy the earthly powers and dominions and authorities that divide us and destroy us?

Friends, we can still ask these questions today, but it makes all the difference in the world that Christ has ascended.

It makes all the difference in the world that Christ has been enthroned over all earthly powers and dominions and authorities.

Why?

Because the Ascension shows that Christ has triumphed over his enemies.

The way of the Cross has won out over the sinful ways of this world.

And the Ascension also anticipates the second coming of Christ.

Just like Jesus did not stay in the grave, he will not stay at a distance upon his heavenly throne – present in the Church only sacramentally.

No!

And just like he did not let Sin and Death have the final word, he will not let the servants of Sin and Death have the final word, either.

Instead, he will one day stay the hand of the wicked.

He will one day disarm and destroy those who have decided to persist in rebellion against him.

Christ is enthroned over all earthly powers! This is our enduring hope!

There’s no reason for us to hedge our bets, as it were, by bending the knee to any earthly power – friend or foe.

Instead, the Church can freely exist for the sake of the world, because we know that the world is in the hands of our ascended King.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENABLING POWER: THE HOLY SPIRIT

So, you know, just get out there and try harder to love people and let them know about Jesus, no matter how different they are!

Right?!

Wrong.

We’re not fooling anyone. We can’t do this on our own.

Sure, we’ve got a global mission. And sure, we’ve got an enduring hope.

But we still need enabling power.

And the Ascension gives the Church its enabling power: the Holy Spirit.

At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples:

“And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” [Luke 24:53].

And, at the beginning of Acts, Jesus

“ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” [Acts 1:4-5].

A few verses later, Jesus says:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” [Acts 1:8].

Now, I know I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

After all, it’s still a week until Pentecost!

But, brothers and sisters, we can’t make it, not even for a week, without the Holy Spirit!

We are only gathered here this morning, some two thousand years since the Ascension, on the other side of the world, because the Holy Spirit has empowered the Church to fulfill its global mission.

And, even though we live in a divided, divisive, and terrifying world, the Holy Spirit can empower the Church today.

So, thanks be to God that the Ascension and Pentecost go hand in hand!

THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL AND COMPELS THE CHURCH TO FULFILL ITS GLOBAL MISSION, CLINGING TO ITS ENDURING HOPE, EMPOWERED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.

So, Father, we thank you for your persistence and patience to rescue us from Sin and Death.

Jesus, we bow the knee and worship you, our Ascended Lord. And we ask you to come again soon and make all things new.

And Holy Spirit, we ask you come. Give us the strength to love our neighbors and our enemies by proclaiming and living the gospel.

Amen.

Maundy Thursday Sermon: The Lasting Supper – Luke 22:14-30

There is something special about last meals, isn’t there?

I’d like to show you a series of photographs. These photographs, except for the last one – which I added, are from a piece called “No Seconds,” and they were put together by Henry Hargreaves.

I don’t want to belabor the artwork with my commentary, so I’ll give you a few seconds to take each slide in.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

The Meal

First, let’s look at the original meal itself, the “Last Supper,” as described in our Gospel lesson (Luke 22:14-20).

Passover: An Interpretive Celebration

Now, as expected, the Passover was an interpretive celebration, because it looked back to the Exodus event – when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt – in order to explain what salvation looked like.

That is, if you asked any respectable Hebrew what it meant to “be saved,” you would much more likely hear “it’s like when God saved us from Egypt” than “you get to go to heaven after you die.”

Although Passover originated with Exodus 12’s instructions for a hasty meal, eaten while standing a fully dressed, by Jesus’ time the meal had evolved into an elaborate affair.

As best we can tell, in Jesus’ day the meal was structured around four cups of wine. According to New Testament scholar Joel Green, the meal had the following outline:

  • The head of the family would pronounce a blessing over the first cup of wine, which was then shared.
  • Before the second cup, the youngest son would ask the father questions about what made this night special.
  • The father would reply by telling the Exodus story, focusing on the summary given in Deut. 26:5-11.
  • The dinner party would then sing Psalm 113, and then drink the second cup of wine.
  • The father would then bless, break, and distribute the unleavened bread, followed by the main meal.
  • Finally, they would consume two more cups of wine, before singing Psalms 114-118.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we need to realize that the Passover was no ordinary meal.

Instead, it was an interpretive meal. Words went right along with the food, in order to situate the dinner party in the midst of God’s ongoing Story of Salvation.

Especially given the combination of the Exodus story with the prayers and praises found in Psalms 113-118, the Passover was

  • a remembrance of God’s past deliverance,
  • a celebration of God’s present faithfulness,
  • and an anticipation of God’s future deliverance.

The past, the present, and the future came together in one meal.

Here’s the framework, or the timeline, if you will:

  • The original Passover meal (Exod. 12)
  • The Exodus from Egypt
  • The establishment of the Covenant
  • Yearly remembrance of the Passover
  • In hope of future, final redemption

Got that?

Passover, Exodus, Covenant, Remembrance, Hope.

OK, so this is really important: Israel didn’t merely remember the Passover each year to know something but in order to change.

In other words, Passover was supposed to be a transformative remembrance.

Remembering God’s faithfulness was supposed to transform them into God’s faithful followers. Remembering God’s faithfulness was supposed to transform them into God’s faithful covenant partners.

So much for the expected aspects of the Last Supper: it was an interpretive Passover.

An Unexpected Paradigm Shift

What is unexpected about this meal is how Jesus shifts the paradigm! He takes the whole “Passover, Exodus, Covenant, Remembrance, Hope” timeline and makes himself the center of it!

As the “head of the household,” it’s not strange that Jesus would be the chief speaker during this Passover Meal. However, in vv. 15-16, things start to get weird. Jesus frames the meal as his last meal, prophetically looking forward to his suffering and death.

And yet, perhaps it’s better to say his “second-to-last meal,” because in verses 16 – 18, he predicts that death will not have the final word. Instead, he will partake of the full and final Passover again in the coming kingdom of God!

Remember, we’re expecting Jesus to give an explanation and interpretation of the Exodus story. When Jesus takes the bread and the wine, we expect him to say: “do this in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt…do this in remembrance of the Covenant.”

Instead, he says: “do this in remembrance of ME!”

This shifts the timeline forward, from Israel’s transformative remembrance of the Passover to the Church’s transformative remembrance of the fulfillment of the Passover, the Lord’s Supper.

Passover points to the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion.

New Exodus, New Covenant

What about the Exodus and the Covenant? Do they point to anything?

They do!

Both the Exodus and the Covenant are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, through the New Exodus and the New Covenant!

In the original Exodus, God saved his people, through Moses, from slavery in Egypt.

In the New Exodus, God saves his people, through Jesus Christ, from slavery to Sin and Death.

In the original Covenant, God gives his people the Law, through Moses, written upon tablets of stone.

In the New Covenant, God gives his people the Law, the Gospel! through Jesus Christ, and writes it upon their hearts.

We see this first in Jesus’ unexpected words about the bread, interpreted as Christ’s battered body.

Look at verse 19. Instead of the expected words about the Passover lamb at this point in the meal, Luke speaks only of Christ’s body, sacrificially “given” for the sake of his disciples.

Then, in verse 20, there are Jesus’ even more shocking words about the cup, which is interpreted as New Covenant blood!

Because the Jews were strictly prohibited from consuming blood (Deut. 12:16, 23-4), there were probably quite a few audible sputters when Christ declared: “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20)!

Jesus is claiming that, just as the Old Covenant was ratified by blood (see Exod. 24:8), his impending death will ratify the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34. The sacrifice will be God himself, upon the Cross!

And, according to Jeremiah 31, the New Covenant will bring

  • knowledge of God,
  • loyalty to God, and
  • forgiveness of sins.

Yahweh says:

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.

For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:33-34).

Passover and Holy Communion: An Expanded Timeline

So, to review, the previous timeline was:

  • Original Passover
  • Original Exodus
  • Establishment of the Covenant
  • Israel’s Remembrance in Passover meals
  • Hope for future, final redemption

Now, the church’s timeline builds upon the previous one:

  • Original Last Supper
  • New Exodus (accomplished at Cross)
  • New Covenant (accomplished at Cross)
  • Church’s Remembrance in Holy Communion
  • Hope for future, final redemption

In Holy Communion, we Christians are called to the transformative remembrance of what Christ has accomplished at the Cross.

But we don’t just look back to the Cross. We also look forward to what Jesus will accomplish at the final redemption. You know, when he returns to judge the living and the dead, to right every wrong, and to wipe away every tear!

When we take Holy Communion, we await the heavenly banquet that will fully fulfill both the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.

Everyone with me so far?

Just as Passover was designed to be a transformative remembrance, to shape the Israelites into faithful followers of God, so too Holy Communion is a transformative remembrance.

It’s meant to transform us into faithful followers of Jesus Christ, faithful members of Christ’s body, the Church!

What Does Transformative Remembrance Look Like?

But, what does that look like?

Sure, I’ve mentioned that the New Covenant is meant to result in

  • knowledge of God,
  • loyalty to god,
  • and the forgiveness of sins.

But seriously: What does that look like?

Let’s take a quick look at the rest of our passage, Luke 22:21-30.

Is anyone else confused by how quickly the scene seems to change?

I mean, one moment (v. 20), Jesus is saying the words of institution, and then the very next moment (v. 21-22) Jesus is predicting his betrayal!

In v. 23, the disciples are understandably confused. But then (v. 24) they immediately start bickering about who’s the greatest disciple!

So, Jesus has to remind them (vv. 25-30) that, in his kingdom, true greatness and authority come only through sacrificial service.

What in the world is going on here?

I think that these final scenes in our passage offer us a challenging reminder of how the Lord’s Lasting Supper should shape us.

They show us, albeit through the failure of Judas and the disciples, how the remembrance of Holy Communion should transform us into sacrificial servants of Jesus Christ and one another.

Servants? Or Traitors?

Let me put it to you this way:

When you come to the Lord’s Table, you either come as a servant or a traitor.

You either live a life of serving as you are served by Jesus, or you live a life of grabbing glory and honor and power for yourself.

In our New Testament lesson from 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul said the following:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.

Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:27-28).

Now, you can ask yourself many different questions during this process of self-examination, but here’s one for your consideration: do my “table manners” match Jesus’ table manners?

Here are some of the last words of exhortation Jesus gives to his disciples:

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.

But not so with you.

Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.

For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves?

Is it not the one who reclines at table?

But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).

I’ve got good news, friends: Jesus is still among us today as the one who serves.

Like always, he gives us his very self, for the sake of our salvation.

Will we follow his example? Will we gratefully accept his service, and – in joyful response to his salvation – serve others in Jesus’ name? Or will we come in betrayal, seeking honor for only ourselves?

Foot Washing

Now, during our service of Holy Communion, we are going to have a service of Foot-Washing. During that time, I’d like you to remember that the same Lord who washed his disciples’ feet – the dirtiest parts of their bodies – now washes away even the dirtiest parts of our lives with his blood.

And I’d like you to ask yourself: are you living a life of Christ-like service?

Sure, maybe you don’t wash other people’s feet all the time, but are you willing to sacrificially serve others, as you yourself have been served by Jesus?

The answer, by the way, is NOT “try harder! Be better! Serve more!” No!

INSTEAD, it is to surrender your entire life to Jesus. Only when you’ve accepted his salvation and his lordship will you be able to serve others out of the overflow of Christ’s love in your life.

The Lord’s Table

And of course, in addition to the foot-washing, we will come to the Lord’s Table. And, during that time, I’d like you to remember that the same Messiah who so frequently ate with outcasts and sinners now welcomes us outcasts and sinners to come to his table and receive the saving benefits of his broken body and his shed blood.

Friends, do our table manners match Jesus’ table manners? Are we reaching out to outcasts and sinners and welcoming them to our tables at home? Are we letting the hurting, the lost, and the broken around us know where they can find food and drink that lead to true, everlasting life?

Remember: the Lasting Supper is an ongoing meal, with profound implications for our past, our future, and our present.

When you come to the Lord’s table, you either come as a traitor or a servant.

Thanks be to God, who invites us all to the table of our Lord Jesus Christ, where he is the gracious host and we are the rebellious traitors who are transformed into faithful servants.

Amen.

Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

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.


Introduction

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

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. 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!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…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 wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 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.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. 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
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • 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 gently refuse 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. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation 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

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

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 instructive challenge 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.

SO,

  • 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
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • 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!

Want to read more about what the Bible has to say about these kinds of issues? Read this book! (Affiliate Link)


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.

Abortion

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.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

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.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

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, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would 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, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Disappointing Christmas Homily

Good morning! And Merry Christmas!

Together, let us pray:

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.

Have you ever had a disappointing Christmas?

I have. Continue reading “A Disappointing Christmas Homily”

Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon

(A chapel message in a Christian school.)

There are a few things you should know about me:

  • I am a student at a Christian seminary.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian college.
  • 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…

It was the people still cheering for the team that lost. Continue reading “Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon”

The Groom’s Big Day

READINGS

  1. Ephesians 5:21-33 – Wives and Husbands
  2. Psalm 67 – May God Be Gracious to Us and Bless Us
  3. Revelation 19:6-10 – The Marriage Supper of the Lamb
  4. Matthew 25:1-13 – The Parable of the Ten Virgins

HOMILY

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 good wedding if the bride is 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?

Well, no.

Heavenly weddings are all 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.

Amen.

 

Son of Man, Can Your Bones Live?

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:

When?

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.

Amen.


(Sermon preached on Easter Vigil, March 26, 2016. For an idea of the readings which preceded the homily in this service, see here.)

Sermon: The Challenge of Christmas Light

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.

I  preached this sermon on December 27, 2015 at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Mountain Brook, AL, as we celebrated the Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist.

My sermon text was that day’s Gospel lesson, 1 John 1:1-9, expanded to include 2:1-2. But I also reference the Old Testament lesson, Exodus 33:18-23.

You can read the sermon manuscript here: The Challenge of Christmas Light Sermon Manuscript.

And you can listen to the audio here (note: it begins just as I finish reading the collect for the Feast of St. John and the collect for the First Sunday after Christmas):

Finally, you can read/listen to my other sermons here.

Grace and peace,

~Josh

 

The Prodigal Son, Part 2: Introduction to Romans

An apocryphal introduction to my sermon on Romans 1:1-17.

What a relief, to get out of that house.

Ordinarily, Jude would have scoffed at his father’s request to purchase farming equipment from the next city – a three-day journey! But ever since Ethan, that rascal (you might even say that prodigal) brother of his, had returned, Jude could not stand to be in either man’s presence for long.

So he relished the chance to forget about his family tension on this farming errand. But now he was almost home, and the painful thoughts came rushing back.

“Dad has changed. Perhaps it was early-onset dementia that caused him to forget the blessed closeness of our years together, alone, when I was not just the firstborn, but the only son.

Sure, I had never been perfect, but I thought that my father was finally proud of me. That, after years of hard lessons learned, I had become the man he wanted me to be.

And then Ethan threw it all away.

Actually, you know what, as it that weren’t bad enough, dad threw it all away…for Ethan!

He received much more love than I ever did. I used to get punished for much slighter infractions than throwing my entire life (along with our hard-earned savings) away! I never got a banquet when I broke Sabbath…I got a beating!”

At this point, Jude’s unpleasant thoughts were interrupted by the sight of the homestead on the horizon.

The first thing he noticed was the amount of trash bags on the front porch. Not much later, the smell hit him. Odors he’d only ever experienced in faraway marketplaces, and therefore that much more memorable.

Barely believing his eyes and his nose, Jude took a closer look at the trash.

Grilled pork chop remnants.

Crusty booze bottles.

Bacon pizza fragments.

Ashen cigarette butts.

The slimy shells of shellfish.

His blood pressure rising, Jude spit on the refuse-pile and stormed in the front door.

“Dad! Where are you!? He’s done it again! Brought his dirty Gentile friends into our home! Dad?!”

A very obviously hungover Ethan stumbled into the main room, nibbling on a piece of bacon. “Jude! You’re back…”

And Jude broke:

“Damn you, Ethan! You ethnoi, you Gentiles! How can you continually scorn our father’s, the Father’s, righteousness!?

First, you go and throw away your life and our life-savings to run away with swine?! Then, after the Father somehow took you in – adopted you like some bastard, orphaned children – you bring the swine back into this house?!

You think you’re so strong, so powerful, but you’re weak! You think you know who the Father is, what he’s like, but you’re wrong!

We’re strong! We’re the firstborn sons of God! Who in the hell do you Gentiles think you are?!

If you really loved God, you would follow the Law and keep the traditions…

How can the Father love you people? It’s embarrassing, really.

We never should have allowed you back into this house.”

By now, Ethan was boiling over as well:

“Damn you, Jude! You judaioi, you Jews!

How can you continually forget our father, the Father’s grace?!

Don’t you realize by now that all your stupid rituals, all your hard lessons learned, were a complete waste of time!? We Gentiles and God have moved on into the age of grace!

You Jews have forgotten the point of God’s grace, and so He’s practically forgotten you! We’re the firstborn, best-loved sons now. We’re the strong ones, and we outnumber you all at least three to one, so shut up and deal with it!

You’ve screwed up so often, you got kicked out of your land! And you didn’t learn any lessons then, because you got yourselves thrown out of Rome!

How could Nero have let you people back into this city? It’s shameful, really.

We never should have allowed you back into this Church, you…”

[KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK]

Someone at the door.

The Roman Christians – Jew and Gentile alike – froze in fear.

Ethan looked at the other Gentile leaders.

Was it a centurion? Had their gathering been reported? Would they be asked to bow the knee, to offer a sacrifice, to the new emperor, Nero? If they weren’t willing to do so, would this be the end?

Jude glanced at his wife, their children, and the other Jewish families.

Had they already outstayed their recent welcome back to the city? After exile, they’d spent four hard, hard years rebuilding their life in Rome. Would they again be driven from their homes? Where would they go?

The slaves in the room – and there were many – anxiously retraced their steps throughout the day.

Which one of their fellow slaves had discovered their secret? Had followed them to this meeting? Had told their master? Would they merely get whipped again? Or had their master’s patience run out?

Jude whispered to Ethan, “You’re in charge here, get the door.”

He trudged to the threshold and pulled it open.

A hooded figure stepped through, walked to the middle of the room, and pulled the hood back. Long brown hair flowed down.

The woman said “Christ is Risen!”

“…He is…risen…indeed,” they all stammered in reply.

She smiled: “He is risen indeed. For twenty-five years now, in fact! Greetings. My name is Phoebe of Cenchreae.”

Rummaging in her pack, she began to explain:

“I bring something for all of you from Paul, the apostle… It’s in here, somewhere. No, not this theology textbook. No, not this to-do list… Ah! Here it is, a letter.”

Morning Prayer Homily: Mark 8.11-21

A homily on Mark 8:11-21 (ESV):

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

In an interview, published in 1974, with famed thinker Bertrand Russell, Leo Rosten asked Russell the following:

“Let us suppose, sir, that after you have left this sorry vale, you actually found yourself in heaven, standing before the Throne. There, in all his glory, sat the Lord—not Lord Russell, sir: God.”

Russell winced.

“What would you think?”

“I would think I was dreaming.”

“But suppose you realized you were not? Suppose that there, before your very eyes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was God. What would you say?”

The pixie wrinkled his nose. “I probably would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’ “

In Numbers 14:11, YHWH says to Moses:

“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”

As we return to consider our passage from Mark 8, keep in mind that in the region of Tyre, Jesus has just performed a long-distance exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (7:24-30). He has just healed a deaf mute in the region of the Decapolis (7:31-37). He has just fed at least four thousand people with just seven loaves of bread in a desolate place (8:1-10).

And yet, in the region of Dalmanutha, the Pharisees have the audacity to demand a sign from heaven, to test Jesus in a manner not unlike the Adversary tested him in the wilderness (Mark 1:13).

Why does this demand exasperate Jesus? Surely, given his recent actions, he is not averse to the supernatural in-breaking of God’s kingdom as demonstrated in his miracles. Instead, he astutely recognizes the incompatibility of this sign-seeking pharisaical power-play with true trust, true faith.

As Catholic scholar Mary Healy rightfully observes:

“to insist on irrefutable evidence is really a demand for control, as if to say ‘Force us to believe, so that we will not have to trust you or change our hearts.’ But faith that is compelled is not faith at all” (The Gospel of Mark, 153).

I am here reminded of the twin-error of fundamentalism and liberalism when it comes to biblical and theological studies: the insistence that we will only believe what is scientifically verifiable according to the standards we have inherited from Enlightenment Rationalism. The former group thinks everything can be verified, the latter group, very little.

Sure, OK, but we’re not fundamentalists or liberals, at least not on our good days. But, following the example of the disciples in the second half of our passage, don’t we often pine for various other kinds of bread while we misunderstand and ignore the true bread of heaven among us?

Will we be satisfied by God’s faithful provision of Word and Sacrament to nourish our faith? Or will we long for the more extraordinary manifestations? (As if Word & Sacrament were ordinary!)

Now, can we, should we long for miracles, for healing?

Yes.

Can God, will God continue to work wonders, heal sickness, and reverse death in our midst?

Yes.

But we must be constantly vigilant, first, that we do not begin to value the healing more than the Healer, the wonders more than the One who works them.

And, second, that we do not, like the Pharisees (and even the disciples, for a time!), close our eyes, ears, and hearts to the miraculous things that God, in Christ, is already and always doing.

Whether we can discern it or not, God is making the world right again. He will not be thwarted in this mission.

Friends, God knows that we need some sort of sign, that we cannot keep the faith on our own, unaided. So he has given us sign-seekers His very self, His very Son!

He will not bow down to our demands for verification, but he will graciously meet our every need. He will give us enough to trust him along the road to cosmic redemption, even when that road passes through the deepest, darkest valley of doubt.

So, as we rightfully pray that God’s Kingdom would come, that His will might be done, let us pray to be satisfied in our King, in God’s Son.

Amen.