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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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?
Can God, will God continue to work wonders, heal sickness, and reverse death in our midst?
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.
And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her.And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons.And the whole city was gathered together at the door.And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.And Simon and those who were with him searched for him,and they found him and said to him,“Everyone is looking for you.”And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once,and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go,show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
Today’s Gospel lesson consists of at least three distinct episodes.
In Mark 1:29-34, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law before a night-long, town-wide round of healings and exorcisms.
Then, in Mark 1:35-39, Jesus absconds to a desolate place in the early morning hours to pray. When Peter and the others find him, he reaffirms the preaching focus of his ministry, before taking the disciples along with him as he proclaims the kingdom in Galilee, and demonstrates the kingdom by casting out demons.
Finally, in Mark 1:40-45, a leper courageously and somewhat scandalously approaches Jesus, asking to be made clean. Jesus, moved with compassion, grants his request, makes him clean, charges him with silence, and – partially because the request for silence went unheeded – is forced to remain in desolate places to avoid the growing attention his ministry is receiving.
Now, what to make of these things? As ministers within the Church, as followers of Jesus, I think we naturally (and rightly) tend to place ourselves in the place of Christ’s disciples when we work our way through Gospel texts.
However, with today’s episodes, I’d like us to consider what we can learn about our vocations from Peter’s mother-in-law, from Jesus himself, and from the leper. These, I believe, demonstrate the importance of service, prayer, proclamation, and worship
First, as with several of Jesus’ miraculous healings, Peter’s mother-in-law is raised from her bed as a foreshadowing of Christ’s resurrection. And although the use of the verb diakoneo to mean “to serve, to wait upon,” is perfectly within the term’s semantic range, we should not fail to notice that the woman provides an apt example of the Christian life: just as she was raised from her bed and began to serve Christ and the disciples, we are raised from our sickness of Sin and Death for a purpose, unto a life of service within Christ’s Church.
Secondly, after an eventful night of healings and casting out demons, Jesus demonstrates for us the sustaining importance of prayer, even and especially in the lives of ministry big shots, by retreating to a deserted place in the early morning hours to pray to the Father. This lifestyle of prayer is what sustains his healing ministry, and also, thirdly, it sustains his preaching ministry.
Jesus does not lose focus in the midst of growing crowds. He takes time to be alone, to pray – and he relentlessly proclaims the coming Kingdom of God to the people. May we strike the same balance as our Lord in our ministries today.
Service. Prayer. Proclamation. And finally, Worship.
Notice the leper, condemned to a life of painful illness and perhaps even more painful social exclusion. Taking the risk that Jesus might recoil in horror at his presence, like countless others would have, the leper boldly asks, notice, not primarily for physical healing, but for restoration to the worshiping community!
We must keep the biblical, and not the clinical, meaning of “clean” in mind here: acceptable and ready to worship the living God! Jesus reverses the normal contagion movement, transferring his cleanliness to the unclean man, restoring the leper to a life of worship. A beautiful exchange, one which Christ is still willing to make with us today! However, are we as eager as the leper to be healed in order to worship God? To serve God? To pray to God? To proclaim God’s Kingdom?
Let us not make healing a self-centered occurrence. Christ offers us healing and restoration for this fourfold purpose: service, prayer, proclamation, and worship.