Ezekiel 37:1-14: Gibes & Gambols

Our text comes from the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 2, verses 4b-8

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

We continue with chapter 37, verses 1-14.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

Gibes & Gambols

In 597 BCE Babylonian troops, under the leadership of mighty Nebacanezzer, laid siege to Judah and Jerusalem. They left in the holy city the poor and peasants, the fortresses and the Temple, but carried to Babylon just about anyone worth their salt: government officials, scribes, landowners, and a horde of priests. Among them a young man, 27 at most, married and relatively well off: Ezekiel.

Five years after he was carried away, by now comfortably settled in exile, Ezekiel starred to feel a madness come upon him. 3,000 Jews had been taken to those strange Babylonian rivers. The exile was understood to be the Lord’s punishment for their idolatry, their turning toward other gods. It was, they believed, the ultimate, and only, punishment. But God told Ezekiel that there was more to come. And so the prophet started his spitting and spinning and eating scrolls and having visions. In them the young priest saw the Holy City, Jerusalem, the seat of the former Empire and the present House of God, utterly destroyed. And for five years he carried on with his pronouncement: the Temple, the one manifestation of God’s faithfulness to the Jews in exile, would be destroyed.

Unsurprisingly, word traveled quickly about the strange priest. Rumors of madness spread. It was an odd time.

But first, a digression: Many of my summers as a child (and then a certainly delightful teenager), were spent traveling from one major-spot-in-American-history to another-major-spot-in- American-history. My father could name just about every skirmish in our young nation’s story, from the cannons at Fort Sumter to fights in Tammany Hall and every destiny that was manifest in between. We’d park in front of one of those ubiquitous brown signs announcing the site of a battlefield and, as a teacher is trained to do, my father would begin the quiz.

In Montana:

“Leigh, briefly, what happened here?” A protracted silence followed. “Hint: Little Bighorn. The Sioux and the Cheyenne. A major American figure died. The 7th Cavalry.” It is difficult to imagine reading as an act of rebellion, but, sitting alone in the back seat of a rental car, it was all I had. I gazed down in defiance. More. Silence. It was during that particular trip to Little Bighorn that I developed the ability to read a book in just about any type of chaos, a skill for which I am immensely grateful. But I can tell you that it is one my father did not much appreciate. To break the tension, my mother, herself a long-suffering social studies teacher, would whisper hints over her shoulder. “Come on. You know this. We talked about it yesterday, for goodness sake. His name sounds like a dessert.”

There is a particular infinity that can only exist when family members find themselves in a stand off in the middle of Montana in a rented Isuzu Rodeo. Finally, and sarcastically, I answered: “Custard. Custard’s Last Stand.” And from the front seat an exasperated “close enough.” We got out of the car and walked the perimeter of the battlefield. As he went along my father would describe in vivid detail the scene: the various advances and retreats, the players and participants, the camps and consequences. It was as if the battle played out before him. I offered acquiescing grunts, having long-before developed the ability read while walking

But before we get too far from Babylon…the rumors were true. Something incredible was happening to Ezekiel, but he wasn’t mad, he had a message from God. Where my father saw the past, Ezekiel saw and felt and smelled the inevitable future. And, not unlike my father, when Ezekiel walked the shores of Babylon making his pronouncements he was met with utter disinterest, as if to teenager in a summer standoff in the middle of Montana.

Ezekiel must have been utterly exhausted, having taken God’s word so fully into himself yet everywhere surrounded by ambivalence. For years he had prophesied the destruction of the Temple. The Jews in Babylon shut off their ears to his madness because such a thing seemed utterly impossible. It was as if Dabo were taken from Death Valley, planted in Williams-Brice, and given a word that Howard’s Rock and all the surrounded it would be destroyed. Indeed, the end of the Temple would mean the End of the Faith. There could be no Jewish people without the Temple because the Temple was the house of God.

But then…

Ten years after part of the population was carried away, five years after the word came to Ezekiel, 37 chapters into the book that carries his name, Ezekiel’s prophecy came true. The Babylonians laid waist to Jerusalem. The house of God, and almost all who had been left in Jerusalem, was destroyed. And in Babylon the 3,000 found nothing but despair. Once ambivalent, the exiles now found themselves in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of faith. God had surely abandoned them. Tiger-town was rubble. The end was nigh.

And just then, when all of Ezekiel’s prophecies were manifest and therefore confirmed, the young priest was given a new word (albeit a strange one). Not destruction, restoration.

So it was that young Zeek found himself surrounded by bones. Dry bones, long ago having lost their identities, their flesh, their breath, their scent. Long ago left to history. He walked the perimeter. Bones as far as the eye can see. A multitude, soldiers cut down in battle, left to time’s ravages. No life. No breath. Only death.

And then, from the one who had brought him to the valley, a question: “Mortal,” (God addresses Ezekiel as if to remind him of his ultimate fate), “Can these bones live?”

Anyway, we carried on with our summer vacations. Rohld Dahl became Jane Austen and then Leo Tolstoy. And then, only a few summers ago, I found myself back in South Carolina from Princeton. We drove up to Gaffney on a whim. Deep in Saluda Forrest my father took me to an old family cemetery. There buried was one Major McJunkin, my great-great-great grandfather. He’d seen battle at Camden and Kings Mountain, Cowpens, and Ninety-Six. And here he was, alongside his wife and children, laid to rest beneath my feet. The graves were long forgotten, never mind the people who inhabited them. We lingered a moment, paid our respects and set off to Cowpens. The sun was setting over the battlefield, amber-and-pink and blood-red at the horizon. And, as he had a million times before, my father began to call forward the ghosts. To orchestrate their advances and retreats, name their generals and majors, build their meager camps and count the unimaginable consequences And for the first time I saw it.

I stood among the thousand dead. I could see them, see their lives drift away, see the ground beneath my feet change from clay to the color of blood. I could see their tents and fires, their comrades and nurses, their bullets and bayonets. And I understood that these ghosts, these bones, had once truly lived. Where they formerly existed only as figures and fictions, not possessing of lives as rich, as varied, as complex as my own, I now saw their families, their homes, their people, their places. I saw them.

If you remember anything from freshman English it is probably Young Prince Hamlet in a graveyard. The caretaker has set aside the contents of a grave to make room for another funeral procession. Hamlet, seeing the skeleton, is struck by the brittle bones that surround him. He begins to imagine what…who it might have once been:

Jokingly: “Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?”

On hearing that it was his old friend, the court jester Yorick, Hamlet takes hold of the skull, examines it, feels its contours and, finally, understands how temporary, how fragile life is:

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him […]: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times […] Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.
Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your
songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? …

That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. This might be the pate of a politician

Or of a courtier; which could say ‘Good morrow sweet lord! How does thou, good lord?’”

Poor Yorick and all the others. All of the saints, the faithful. Hamlet saw them as well as my father can, as well as I did that moment on the battlefield. They once had sinews and bones and flesh and life. God’s questions bellows. Can they now live? Or is the content of our faith, the central fact, nothing but wishful thinking?

Ezekiel answers the only way a faithful man can. Doubtful, these are dry bones…yet: this is the one who created us from dust drier than even this valley. Ezekiel speaks: Lord, you know.

And from the dust of creation the Lord issues a command: “Prophesy to these bones”. Zeek does as he’s told. There’s a rattling, at first far off, but then surrounding him. Bone on bone. Flesh and sinew, form and shape.

But still the question rings: can these bones live? Well…perhaps. Sinews, flesh, and skin do indeed encase the dry bones. The bodies are given texture and complexity, they are constituted. But they do not yet live. For they are body as yet without Spirit. “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

For a second time, faithful Zeek does as he is commanded. From far off a vast exhale. The wait is over: the lungs of the multitude fill with air, and there is life.

From here on out God does the preacher’s job. In the middle of the vision Yahweh starts teaching. “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

In captivity Israel was without Spirit, therefore they were without hope. Yet from the dust of death God spoke, for God is not and was not held by human tombs or even human hope, and neither, anymore, by human Temples. God is utterly free. And where God could leave Death its reign, God freely chooses restoration and life. God rolls the stone of the tomb away and breathes into hopeless Israel’s lungs. And that is only prelude.

Blink and you’ll miss it—there at the very end of the passage, the future tense!: “I, the Lord, have spoken and will act”. Bringing up the body is prelude to true living. There is the body, yes. And breath. But the denouement, the climax, is God’s revelation of God’s self, a revelation, a knowledge that is for us the only true living.

The question at the heart of all our toil and trouble, our sleepless nights, our quantum mechanics, and our great philosophies is simple: can these bones live?

Well not on their own they can’t. Whether by sword or sleep, whether in flesh or, perhaps more familiar to many of us here today, lost in hopelessness, anxiety, and fear: we will taste the dust from whence we came. But God remains. And by God’s gentle breath, death, the place of loss, becomes the place of life, of resurrection.

That day at Cowpens I found myself identifying with those dry bones—with a fear of unfulfilled futures, of hopelessness. And I realized that the question “can these bones live?” belongs not only to Ezekiel or Hamlet or Yorick or Major McJunkin. It belongs to me. And to you.

Do your bones live? Has God revived your Spirit, given you breath? Do you believe that God has spoken, that God will act? Not only in some far off valley but here and now. We have bone and sinew and flesh and and marrow, but do we have life? Do we have the knowledge of the God who has already done all of this for us? Who speaks into our hopelessness and gives resurrection to our dry bones.

It is an impossibility as profound as the dry bones given life. It is the most important question. And the only answer is an empty tomb, the stone rolled away. And that, this Lenten season, is the best of news.

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Isaiah 58:1-12: As If.

Our first text comes from the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 58, verses 1-12. 

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, and to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fall.  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall rise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.

As If.

Any of you who has, at any time, been a teenage girl will recognize the pleading tone that lies behind Isaiah 58. It is the imploring of a self-righteous 15 year-old who just. has. to. go. out. tonight, Mom, because I’ve done everything you asked and I love you and you’re the best mom and COME. ON. And any parent will recognize the rhetorical device that Isaiah reports straight from the mouth of God:

Is this not the obedience that I choose? To loose the mugs in the dishwasher? To undo the chaos of your room? To let your laundry be folded? Is it not to contribute to the well-being of my household, and to be kind to your brother, when he inevitably does something absurd? Then my house shall be clean. Then order will be restored. Then the neighbors will see that I have done it! You shall call and be able to stay out till Midnight.  You shall cry for allowance, and I will provide. 

We have in Isaiah the story of a petulant child, Judah returned from Babylon, who having time and again refused the right ordering of God’s household, fails nonetheless to understand God’s perceived absence in their lives. All the signifiers are there: they have cleaned the dishes, the rooms are neat-ish, and no one is screaming. But the thing signified, the true ordering of the household, which for Isaiah is worship that extends into the social economy, is missing.

To be fair, the Judeans, like most 15 year old girls, had undoubtedly legitimate complaints. After all, theirs was a community in turmoil. Only recently rescued by the Persian Emperor Cyrus, the people to whom Isaiah made his pronouncement have lived in a perpetual state of threat from which they were only partially delivered. It was enough to question God’s commitment to his people.

Why! they cry, do we fast but you do not see? 

God’s response bellows.

The sign petulant Judah presents to God, their fasting, does not correspond to the reality, to the spirit of God’s desire for community. They fast because they have to and because it’s the “right” thing to do, not because there is any value, any good in the fasting. And God…well, God is fed up.

“Shout out”, calls God to Isaiah, “do not hold back! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

God’s righteous anger seeps off the page with satisfying clarity, but the pronouncement that follows should set preacher folk like me, and church goers like y’all, on edge. God’s target is not the unreligious, those for whom God is far-away. No, it’s the hyper-religious, the spiritual, the seekers and the everyday pew fillers: “day after day they seek me” and “delight to know my ways”.  They are showing up. Showing up to the synagogue. Fasting, confessing, humbling themselves in prayers of contrition and acts of penitence. They seek and delight. They want to know God, to see God in their lives day by day.

And don’t we? How often have we, too, from our seats in the sanctuary cried out: Have we not done all we can? Fasted on the feast days, humbled ourselves before the table? Tithed our 10% , served our Session appointments, read the bulletin cover-to-cover? Where are you? Though it may not be the threat of the Babylonian Captivity, we have seen our economies fail and flail, our houses of government co-opted by self-serving politicians and lobbies, and our access to affordable health care and education dwindle. We have seen prices inflate as jobs are lost. We have seen our own families disrupted by death and depression and anxiety and terminal illness and divorce and a myriad of maladies. And, as if that is not enough, the world around us crumbles. Syria is under threat, the Ukraine is under threat, Muslims in France are under threat, Christians in China are under threat. The sword of Damocles looms high, strung by a thread, over us all.

Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?

We are not so far from those petulant teenagers. We for whom worship is all too often an act of self-service, a place to see and be seen, a thing to check off the to-do list. We who believe that God might can be bought by fasting and flattery. We’re showing up. But we, like the Judeans, are looking only inside our symbols. We want to know God in the walls, God confined to the idea, the image. We want the praise and the pomp—easy on the righteousness and the mercy. And God, channeling Alicia Silverstone-as Cher Horowitz in the 1996 masterpiece “Clueless” shouts back: AS IF. As if. As if you practice righteousness, as if you did not forsake, avoid, turn your backs on my ordinances, my laws, my people, my desires for a rightly ordered, peaceable Kingdom. God is measuring the gap between intention expressed in worship and conduct outside of worship. And the gap widens with each act of penitence in the sanctuary that does not correspond to an act of mercy outside the sanctuary’s walls. So when, from our pews, we cry out that God is nowhere to be found God cries back with a resounding “Look elsewhere.”

God is not in the walls, in the box, in the ideas. Or at least not only there.

Lent is a season all about penitence. The ashes we wear today signify not only our mortality, but our frailty. We admit to God and one another that we have not done all we can. So during Lent we give something up or take something on. But the empty fasts which God admonished in Judah are all too often the selfsame empty calories of our own self-serving Lenten diets.

Isaiah spells out an unfortunate truth for us this season. Penitence, whatever form it takes, not done with an eye toward the world it is better left undone. If our fasting does not also feed the hungry, if our moratorium on shopping does not clothe the naked, if our clean homes do not house the homeless, then our earnest acts are done in vain.

We begin this season sure of the story’s end. Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, who in baptism clothed himself with the mantle of sin, has been walking resolutely toward death. And that death, like our own, is certain. Jesus will die. But on the 3rd day he will rise. And the terrifying, liberating truth for we who populate the pews is that God, in Jesus Christ, is on the move. The God who became human will no longer be confined by our beautiful sanctuary. That God is surely here, but not only here. That God walks the long road to Emmaus through Nickeltown and Sterling, through Detroit and Compton and through Augusta Circle and McDaniel Avenue.

You look for me in symbols. I am in the streets.

God is calling us to reckon with the reality of the Kingdom he has intended. Not some pollyanna utopia—God is calling us to imagine the world as it should be, as it can be, as it was created to be. God is calling us away from ourselves and toward the Divine, but between God and us stand the poor, the orphans, the despondent widow, the naked, the homeless. Between God and us stand folks fighting for civil rights and equal opportunities. To get to God we must walk alongside God’s people.

What good does our worship and our fasting do if it does not carry us outside of these halls into the streets? For whom, then, is our fasting? For us? For our Facebook feeds? For another member to see and envy?

Or truly for God and therefore for all of God’s people? It is not that the worship, the fast, the Lenten Discipline is to be disregarded. God calls us to worship, but in worship we are called to sacrifice. And if our worship, our piety leads to a discipline that does not affect our world it is a sign without a signified. If it does not drive our feet toward the places of deepest need in our community it is an empty vessel, and, worse yet, it is meaningless to God. We must gather for worship. But that’s just the beginning. Our worship and our sacrifice ends not with the benediction but with the coming of the Kingdom.

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”

From their pews God heard the Judeans. God heard them and called them to a greater good. And God will hear you. But you gotta get out. And in responding to God’s call you will be given a mantle that will change the world. Not moralizing, but mercy—this Lent you can become a light, a repairer, a restorer of this broken world. People will come to this place because you have been out, in our world, in God’s place doing the work that God has required. Not the petulance of a teenager, but the satisfaction of the grateful child.

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Acts 1:1-11: Wade in the Kingdom

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven?’”

Wade in the Kingdom

I struggle with this text. As it turns out, I don’t have a lot of stories about defying gravity and ascending, with the help of a cloud elevator, to the realm of God. In fact, I don’t particularly like flying at all, so this story strikes in me a sense of horror. I am well accustomed to the ground, I like for my feet to feel the earth, I’d rather look straight ahead than up above or down below. So, given my gravitational limitations, I’ll begin this morning with David Foster Wallace, and his (dare I say it) parable of the fish: “This is Water”

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’

Now the disciples have grown accustomed to their upside-down reality. They’ve encountered Jesus, followed him about, despaired at his death and rejoiced at his resurrection. And after those three horrible days they found in all of the subsequent days a insatiable craving for Jesus’ presence, challenging and curmudgeonly though he could be. He’d been preforming miracles since that day and teaching too. As with his life before his death, his life on the other side of death was centered around the Kingdom. He’d told them to stick around Jerusalem, which was strange given how haunted, how heavy the place was. This was, after all, the place where he’d been flogged and tortured, where he’d been crucified. It was the place of his grave. But he’d commanded them to stick around, and this time they’d paid attention. So the disciples listened and followed and watched and waited.

They’d gotten used to this strange pattern. They enjoyed Jesus’ presence. It was comforting. I imagine not a few of them had considered that his resurrection might mean something for their own lives beyond the grave or, perhaps even their continued lives without a grave at all. So they’d gladly wait with him, remain in Jerusalem with Jesus forever and ever amen.

“The point of the fish story”, suggests Wallace, “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to talk about.”

They heard Jesus talking about the Kingdom in those 40 days, talking about the coming of the Spirit and the need to witness, but they’d heard him talk Kingdom before, so they weren’t surprised. Their world was this man, and his absence, a second absence, a long absence, was outside of their imaginings. But on that particular day Jesus, the old, wise fish, swam along: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now […] you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”

They weren’t getting this new talk of Kingdom. Deaf by perceived familiarity with the subject, they missed a distinctly post-Easter spin: when Jesus spoke of the Spirit he spoke of empowerment to witness, empowerment to go out to the corners of this big wide world and proclaim a reconciliation achieved. And if they were going out to the wide world empowered by the Spirit, then that meant Jesus wasn’t with them—at least not as he had been.

The disciples were wading on the Kingdom’s shores, about to be flooded by the Tide of the Spirit and they didn’t even know it.

The Ascension is a turning point in the history of salvation. It formally closes the time of Easter, and, as such, it is the culmination of the Incarnation. It is as important as Christmas, as important as Good Friday, as important as Easter. We would not properly understand any one of these things without Jesus’ returning, in his human body, to the realm from whence he came. Yet Ascension is almost entirely overlooked—perhaps because it is so foreign, so absurd to modern sensibilities. Or perhaps it’s fear, fear that Jesus has left us, fear that stops our feet to the ground and leaves our necks craned and aching. Because we, too, are swimming neck deep in the Kingdom and, like the disciples, it seems that we aren’t quite sure what to do about it.

In the event of Easter we gazed into the empty tomb. Behind it we saw the void of Hell, emptied through Jesus’ redemptive death. In the Ascension our gaze shifts again, from the God in flesh who once walked the earth to the buzzing heavens above. For only there will we find the Incarnate Son, returned to the Father from whence he could govern the world.

Now that’s no easy thing to comprehend. It is, I’d wager, nearly incomprehensible. For goodness sake, Jesus up and floated to heaven in the middle of a sentence. He floated until a cloud came and obscured him from the disciples (whose ears were still strained to hear that incessant Kingdom talk).

Clouds have a history in Israel. When the Hebrews were fleeing from Pharaoh they were guided by the Lord, shrouded in a cloud. When Moses goes up the mountain it is haloed by clouds. Clouds serve the dual purpose of shrouding God’s form and signifying his Presence. Clouds contain within them the promise of glory—the anticipated breaking open of what is within. And this cloud is no different. The cloud that obscures Jesus buzzes with promise. Yes, he is gone now. Gone definitively. Jesus, who was just here—he isn’t here anymore. But, as those two strange men remind us, he will return again.

And in the meantime he does not leave us alone. For that mid-sentence promise was one of profound presence. Jesus was not resurrected for the disciples alone. He did not just come for them, for their time and place and benefit. He came for the world, for all of the times and places and spaces that he ordained in the time before time. And the means of that proliferation of good will, that gift of salvation in the absence of the Savior, is none other than the Spirit. The Spirit binds the Father to the Son and the Father and the Son to the world they created.

Now when those disciples, toes already in the Kingdom, heard about baptism in the Spirit, they assumed that the coming of the Spirit would inaugurate Israel’s longed-for reign. They thought “Kingdom” was all about acquisition of territory and military dominance. The Spirit would bring Israel’s Kingdom and usher in the end of the world.

But Jesus, whose world ever expanded outward, had no view for earthly powers and territorial principalities. “‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” It turns out the Kingdom, the Kingdom inaugurated in Jesus’ baptism by John, isn’t about military power, it’s about the power of the word, the power to proclaim, the power to preach an already-achieved forgiveness and reconciliation to a far-off world.

So our gazes must shift one final time. From the buzzing cloud of the ascendent God we we must ever look outward. To Jerusalem. And Judea. And Samaria. And the ends of the earth.

The ascension inaugurated the time of discipleship, and discipleship is marked by mission. The disciples, still wading in the Kingdom’s water, must’ve realized in that ascendant moment that the Empty tomb was not just for them. It was theirs first, but no less for the world. And it conferred a responsibility, a call to live outwardly, and the promise of accompanying power. “He may be a hearer of the Word”, wrote Barth, “to become a doer”.

We’re sinners, all of us. We fall short of God’s glory. We don’t live up to the great gift given in Christ Jesus. And we know it. So we remain silent, afraid that to witness to the faith that changed our lives because we have failed to live up to its promise. But in the ascension, and in Pentecost, we are given power that transcends all of our doubting. We are given the Spirit.

So the disciples suddenly noticed to men, like the ones at the empty tomb, that other confounding absence. Jesus is gone, and with Mary and Martha and the 11 aren’t sure what to do about it. 2000 years later, neither are we.

And the men tell us simply “‘This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’”. That’s the promise. Just as he left he will return. As the Incarnate Son, as the Redeemer, Jesus Christ will return. But for now, we must rest in faith. Rest in the promise of the ever-present Spirit. Rest in the power that compels us to testify to the Kingdom, with its mercy and kindness and love and forgiveness, with its justice and righteousness and peace here and now. Rest in our doubts and in our certainties that somehow, someday he will return and the world will be reconciled once and for all.

The disciples waded in the Kingdom until the fire of Pentecost plunged them into its depths. And we’ve too’ve been floating in that pool, vaguely aware of our own Power, having experienced hints and winks of Kingdom glory. And while we don’t have Jesus in the flesh we have the promise of his presence in faith and the seal of the Spirit in power. And until he returns, in this in-between time, we are to be his witnesses. We’re to swim in this great Kingdom, boundless and ever-expanding, inquiring as we go, “Morning, how’s the water?”

Eph. 2:11-22: Good Fences

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Good Fences

You have, perhaps, heard Robert Frost’s excellent poem “Mending Wall.” Snippets are quoted with some frequency, namely its bookended “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” In the poem the narrator surveys the fence dividing his property from his neighbors. In the off season he patches holes caused by freezes and hunters. Then, come Spring, he calls his neighbor over to fix the thing altogether, to “set the wall between us once again.” As they walk along the fence, the narrator becomes wary of its implications. There’s a natural boundary caused by their trees, his apple trees, the neighbor’s pines. Perhaps they should tear the thing down?

The neighbor responds, without hostility or anger, “‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” “Spring is the mischief in me,” recalls the narrator, “and I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: / ‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it / Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. / Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense. / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down.”

Every time I see a wall I remember that line. I sort of huff and puff, “something there is!” There’s an instinct to distrust walls, a sort of libertarian streak, a childlike urge to trespass,  to go beyond what is acceptable in the hopes that some incredible thing is being held within. But for a people who distrust walls, we’ve done an excellent job of erecting them. We’ve seen the Berlin Wall which, though no longer standing (except of course as memorial), still reminds us of the vast differences between East and West. And the Iron Curtain, that spectral wall built of mutual distrust and suspicion that remains today. And of course the Great Wall. And the proposed and extant border walls between the United States and Mexico. The tall, high gates that protect the Governor’s Mansion from the hooligans of Princeton and the perimeter around the White House. And the little white picket fences that populate our nostalgia.

When I was young I went on a vacation with one of my closest friends. It was a delight until about the third day, when there was a property dispute over a piece of clothing. It resulted in a line drawn right down the middle of the room and, confoundingly, continued in pillows down the middle of the double bed we shared. We were so concerned with the structural unity of our makeshift wall that we slept without pillows that night—it was more important that we be separated than that we sleep. She was a thief and I honorable. She belonged on the outside of the perimeter and I on the inside. It was the right thing to do.

The truth is that we are a people who love boundaries and walls and the categories they silently announce. We learn who we are by the boundaries we create and, negatively, by the categories in which we find ourselves bounded by culture. Some of them are geographic. I am a Southerner, and according to everything I learned when I was growing up, each and every one of you are Yanks. But there are identity markers far more profound, and the author of the letter to the Ephesians has spent some time noting them by this point in chapter 2. Recall: you were children of wrath, sinners or, conversely, you were adopted, chosen, inheritors. These identity markers define who we are. They help us understand who our people are and who they aren’t.

The interesting thing about the letter to the Ephesians is this designation “Gentiles”. By the time this letter was written, the energy around the Jesus movement had shifted from pockets of Jewish disciples in Palestine to non-Jewish communities in the Mediterranean. Strictly, these communities were Gentiles, goy, people of “the nations” who were neither geographically nor ethnically Jewish. Now when I moved to New Jersey I learned that “Yankee” means something different here. Ask a native New Jerseyan to identify a Yankee and they’ll either point to a baseball club or a New Englander. Ask a Brit and they’ll point to any American. Addressing this community in Ephesians as “Gentiles” makes about as much sense as my calling you all Yanks from this pulpit. For though it’s true that in my context every person above the Mason-Dixon is a Yank, it is not a marker by which you would identify yourself. Likewise, time and space and tradition removed the people who heard originally heard the letter from the primary identifier “Gentiles”. It was a meaningless term.

So Paul, or whoever, reminds the hearers (and by extension, us) of a heritage they may have forgotten. Their congregation is rooted in an irrevocable, mysterious promise to Abraham and his descendants to which they, the Ephesians, have no necessary claim. Salvation first belonged to the Jews. So when Paul reminds them that they are Gentiles, two things are happening. First, he is creating a unity out of this multiplicity. He’s calling a bunch of folks together and giving them an identity, in so doing, reminding them of a wall. You, all of you, Mets and Red Sox, damnable Braves and, yes, Yankees, you’re all this other thing—Gentiles. Italians and Irishmen and Poles? You’re still (and as far as salvation goes, primarily) Gentiles. You are all this one thing, so hear this accordingly. United in non-Jewishness you are not inheritors to the promise given to the Jews by the God of Abraham. The secondary purpose is thus theological, to draw the hearers into the orbit of strangeness where, by virtue of their ethnicity, they are outside of the promise of God.

From this devastating twofer things only escalate.

You’re uncircumcised, the uncircumcision (imagine the worst thing you can call someone outside of your ethnic group, that’s what Paul means to convey). Separated bodily from the promise of God. That not enough? You’re aliens from the commonwealth, strangers from the covenant. Separated geographically from the scope of salvation. Still not enough? You are without hope. You are atheos, literally, without God. God-forsaken. Separated existentially, fundamentally, ontologically from the reality of the God event. Remember that. Paul expands the language from the specific cultural identity of the Jews outward, first employing language of religious distinction (uncircumcision), then of citizenship (aliens and strangers) and, in one final blow, language of primordial lack (atheos).

The Ephesians may not have understood what it meant to be “Gentiles” but they knew well what it meant to be “aliens”, non-citizens of the empire. Writing concurrently with the little letter, Dio Chrysostom, a Greek philosopher and historian, suggested that “to the disenfranchised, life seems with good reason not worth living, and many choose death rather than life after losing their citizenship.” To be an alien within the Roman empire, was a death-wish, a disgrace. The Ephesians know that, they’ve seen it the same way we Gentiles have seen the vitriol surrounding illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States. It’s the way things were, and are, in the kingdom. And their relationship to God’s promise stands in comparison, Jews::Gentiles, Citizens::Alien-Sojourners, Real Americans::Itenirant Mexican farmers. God’s promise was as far from Gentile Ephesus as the hope of a fruitful life was to a non-Roman living in the bounds of the Empire. And without that promise, they were without God entirely. And without God, they were without hope.

Remember that this is who you are: you are not, by virtue of birth, or goodness, or anything else, one chosen by God. From Ephesus to New Jersey, the promise is rightly elsewhere.

Paul (or whoever) builds up a mighty wall. He weatherproofs it and puts an electric fence around it. He brings in armed guards to stand watch on the towers.

But then, strange for a mason, he brings in a bulldozer. And, just like last week, he begins his work at this one mighty conjunction: but.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Jews and Gentiles. With and without God. Alien and citizen. With and without hope. Paul builds up this wall, a historic wall, a meaningful, material, real wall. And for what purpose? To tear it down. You are a Gentile! Remember it! But. It doesn’t make a lick of difference.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one  and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Paul widened the scope of our alienation from God only to pull us back in in this one, sweeping, impossibly beautiful affirmation: you have been brought near. Because we are indeed what God has made us, and God, from before the foundation of time, destined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, therefore we have, over the course of history, according to the promises made first and always for the Jewish people, been brought near.

All divisions, divisions then and divisions now have been erased. Because Christ is already our peace, our unity, our bond. Jews and Gentiles. Republicans and Democrats. Americans and Mexicans. Rich and poor and poorest. The LGBT community and the defenders of “traditional” marriage. “Welfare queens” and urban farmers. Christians and Jews and Muslims. Christ is our peace. A peace that has been achieved already, a peace born of gruesome violence. A peace that tears down walls, leaving their pieces in an otherwise empty tomb. It is an astounding, empire-shaking, paradigm-shifting reality. Christ is our peace.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” We define ourselves by our walls. I’m Southern, you’re Yankees. I’m English, you’re Irish. But here’s the thing: God has transcended all that with this one divine category: adopted. Thereby chosen. Thereby destined. Before all time and eternity. One and for all Jesus Christ has done this. For we Gentiles, for they Jews. For all of us.

And that thing in us, that thing that wants only to cross every dividing line, to take a hammer to every wall, it is perhaps the Spirit, seeking only to manifest the work already accomplished. In the Kingdom of God there are no walls, no moats, no dragons. No fences, no guard posts, no railings. It is not a boundary by which we define ourselves, but a membership accomplished on the cross for all. 

Good fences may make good neighbors, but we aren’t just talking about being good, we’re talking about love. And love, when it’s modeled after God, never excludes, never builds up division, never closes off but is always open to becoming and being that thing for which we have been created—the dwelling place of God.

Love itself has called us together. Not for our own sake, but that we might become a dwelling place. And not any dwelling place, but a house for God. Chapter two ends with an admonition to become a house, to fit ourselves together that God might dwell among us. It’s not just ending hostility. It’s standing side by side with those we once hated, those “them” to our “us”. It’s not tolerance, it’s collective action, spiritual upbuilding. Friends, Yankees, countrymen: God has brought us near. And God will not tolerate a wall. Amen, hallelujah. 

 

Eph. 2:1-10: We Are What God Has Made Us

This has been a dark week. A seemingly God-forsaken week: the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the horrific explosion in West, Texas, the failure of the Senate to act meaningfully for gun control (despite the overwhelming will of the populace) and a 7.0 earthquake in Sichuan, China. A child is dead, a police officer is dead, a college student and a young woman are dead. Scores of others have died. The master of death has collected a mighty ransom this week, and from those of us left behind, he has exacted a tax on our faith, our sense of security and our trust in the goodness of this world.

This has been a week of Good Fridays, and inasmuch as Ephesians has something to say about death, it has something to say about Good Friday. But not just Good Friday. God won’t leave it there, Ephesians has something to say about Easter Sunday, too. “Evil,” writes Markus Barth, “is incidental, not essential. It is disorder, not order.” God has created the world good and God has created we humans very good. The evil that pervades the world is not God’s, but God, through Jesus Christ, has entered its very heart and is everywhere enlivening what sin has put to death.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today’s text comes from the letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, verses 1-10:

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

We Are What God Has Made Us

The following obituary appeared in the Vallejo Times-Herald. “Dolores had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. I speak for the majority of her family when I say her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing […] There will be no service, no prayers and no closure […] So I say here for all of us, GOOD BYE, MOM.”

The first verses of Ephesians 2 read like a postmortem. Time of death: unknown. Cause: sin, both hers and the world’s. Known associates: the ruler of the power of the world, whoever that is. And the obituary, our obituary, ignominious and callous reads thusly, “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” That’s it. That’s our postmortem and our obituary. And here you thought old Dolores had it bad.

Ephesians 1 proclaims unequivocally that we have been chosen. God, who is exuberant and overflowing with love, has destined us for adoption through Jesus Christ. There’s not a thing in this world that can stop up God’s love. That’s at the core of the church’s word. But our being chosen is not some antiseptic that leaves us “neutralized” (a word I heard all too often on Friday evening). We’ve got a past to rekon with. And that’s the content of the “despite all of this”. Despite our sin, we were chosen, adopted, called. Because if we’re honest, we have to admit that things aren’t good with the world and they aren’t good with us. In fact, we’re dead. Dead as a doornail. Dead as a coffin nail? If we’re going to take resurrection seriously, resurrection here and now in our own lives, and if we’re going to take the work of Jesus Christ seriously, then we have to come to terms with what we’ve done and with the consequences of our actions.“You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically,” like Marley the Ghost we find ourselves dead.

There’s a scene in King Lear where the old king, mad from grief and hubris, stands on an English heath in the middle of a wicked rainstorm. He’s stuttering and spitting and cursing the wind and finally, in a moment of inverted insight at the end of a nonsensical monologue, Lear shouts “I am a man / More sinn’d against than sinning.” The readers recognize a truth in it, but he’s proven himself a mighty sinful man. Yet still the world has prevailed against him. The powers, the internal structures of feudal life have sinned against him.

When the author of Ephesians talks about “the ruler of the air” we might be tempted to see a little red devil and his minions, but it’s far more pertinent that we see the sins of the structures in which we participate. We are bound up in systems that sin against us and our world. We participate in a cycle that perpetuates poverty and racial injustice. We participate in an economy that overwhelmingly benefits greed and self-interest. We participate in a society that legislates and restricts love and fosters hatred toward those we consider “other”. CNN, Fox News demand that we turn our attention anywhere but the human beings in front of us. The atmosphere, both literal and figural, is toxic. We are a people sinned against.

But we are also mired in our own sin and we can’t forget that. Certain groups have co-oped the term “flesh” as something inherently evil. There’s none of that here. God created us in the divine image as very good. Our enfleshed experiences are not sinful in themselves. “Flesh” here points to something deeper, to a truth about our profoundly self-centered lives. We follow what suits us and advances our position. We are sinned against, yes. But we are also sinners. And those two things have stripped us of the life for which we were created.

Now here’s where I start to get nervous, because there’s a tendency in fundamentalist circles to focus so heavily on this death that we forget the life that everywhere precedes and follows it. Fundamentalists forget that before there was death there was creation, which God proclaimed without reservation to be good. We should take joy in that proclamation, but we must also take stock of the world at our feet. That’s where fundamentalists got it right. “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.” Where the fundamentalists go wrong is the unrelenting focus on death in order to guilt us into some realization about Jesus Christ. Where they have it wrong is the failure to recognize that we are not trapped in cycles of sin but everywhere freed from them, and everywhere expected to fight them.

Ephesians 2 isn’t about guilt. It carries within it that same hymnodic joy of Ephesians 1, the joy of having been chosen, the glory of offering praise and thanksgiving to the God who has given us life and bid us live. Indeed, right after we read of our death, we have this one great conjunction, a conjunction that changes everything: but.  But God is rich in mercy. God, out of great, immeasurable love has resurrected us, has lifted us out of the domain of the “prince of the air” and into the world for which we were created. 

But changes everything. Yes, we are dead. But God will not settle for our death. We have sinned, yes, but God, who in Jesus Christ experienced the unimaginable death of being, has made us alive. This isn’t about guilt, it’s about recognizing an incredible, impossible act of salvation. It’s about realizing the all-inclusive, everywhere-encompassing love of God that chooses, adopts and calls every one of us.

And here come some of the most recognizable verses in the canon: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

“We are”, says the author, “what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” We are what God has made us. God has made us in the divine image to enjoy, to participate, to engage life. We are what God has made us, co-creators in the divine image that every Spring renews itself and the world with it. We are what God has made us, and God has made us in love for love. We don’t deserve it, we don’t even want it half the time, but it has been made ours, because God is a God of unrelenting mercy and overflowing love.

And we too (and we must hear this in light of the unimaginable events of Friday evening) are called to be a people of unrelenting mercy and overflowing love. We are called to bear witness to this great act of God’s by living into the life of good for which we have been created. We have been made for the good, for good acts, for good works, for good living.

If you read carefully that might seem contradictory: “For by grace you have been saved through faith […] not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” When I’m talking about the works for which we were created, I’m not talking salvation by works, I’m talking about the stuff of life. I’m talking about participating in the world’s redemption. Redemption from forces of evil, redemption from injustice, redemption from hatred. I’m talking about works of love emanating from a life resurrected by God.

What’s the difference between the “works” that parrot salvation and the “good works” that bespeak true living? Well, we’ve seen politicians stage photographs at soup kitchens and women’s shelters when they aren’t open, and we’ve seen anonymous men and women run toward a bomb to bind up the wounds strangers. What’s the difference between the “works” of v. 9 and the “good works” of v. 10? Well, I’ve seen folks standing on the corner yelling damnation in the name of an unfamiliar God and I’ve seen brothers and sisters of different faiths and tribes and ethnic groups offer comfort in times of trouble.

Evil is incidental; God is purposeful, overflowing, brimming with love. We needn’t be burdened under the yoke of sin because God has entered into history in the person of Jesus Christ. God suffers alongside the suffering, God rejoices with the rejoicing, God prays with the angry, God consoles the lost. God does not encroach our freedom, oppressing us with as rulers of the air, but transforms us from death to life by the sole power of the unfolding, unfurling, living Good.

Patton Oswalt, a hilarious comic who is not, to my knowledge, particularly religious, posted a moving response to Monday’s attacks. I won’t quote it in full, but it ends thusly:

“So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.'”

This has been a hell of a week. But it’s Sunday. And we’re here, together. God has created us for better things than bombs and guns and hatred. God has created us for life and love, and nothing, no power in the air, no society on the earth, can halt that very good creation. “The good outnumber [the evil], and,” and here I’ll amend Mr Oswalt, by the overflowing, resurrecting, transforming grace of God “we always will.”

Eph. 1:3-14: You Are Chosen

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

You Are Chosen

This is a whopper of a text. It buzzes, jitters, explodes with language. It’s dense, one long sentence with clause after dependent clause. It doesn’t flow according to our expectations. And the author gets repetitive, focusing almost exclusively on what it means that God acts through Christ or in Christ or with Christ.

And it’s theologically dense. Election. Predestination. Adoption. Inheritance. In a few short verses a host of bamboozling tenants are laid out. And what should we do? Perhaps study Karl Barth, argue with John Calvin or struggle with Augustine? A quick three year program in theology? We could, but it seems to me that this text might be more accessible than it appears. Why? Because Ephesians 1 is us. It is our narrative, the most fundamental reality about who we are, how we got here and to whom we belong.

So at the beginning of the text we hear that God is the one who blesses, the one who chooses, the one who destines, the one who adopts and the one who rejoices. But God’s many verbs are not abstracted from us, from this present moment. They are, once and for all, now and forever, for us and for our salvation, as the creed says. God’s acting, never flippant or reactive, has been ordained from before the foundation of time and now, in these days after the resurrection, God’s choosing has been achieved and accomplished in the life of Jesus Christ.

So here’s what I, and Ephesians, have for you: you have been chosen. That, too, is the Easter message. Before you could do a thing about it, before you could succeed, before you could triumph, before you could protest or act out, before it all: you were chosen. Through the obedient life, suffering death and transforming resurrection of Jesus Christ, through his determined agency you no we have been chosen. 

So what do we do with that? The text begins with praise, “Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.” Bless the God who has so richly blessed us. “Spiritual blessing” is a sort of lofty concept, but it seems to me to point not to some richness beyond our lives here and now, but rather to God’s profound action in history, God’s action in sending Christ, God’s action in redeeming and reconciling. God’s spiritual blessings are given to we physical folks here and now. God’s spiritual blessings are the choice, the destiny, the adoption, the inheritance that transforms the stuff of our lies in the present. It’s not money or power. It’s not material in that way. It’s the stuff of the Spirit. It’s a mantle. A name. A claim.

But, lest we get too full of ourselves, mind this caveat: God has chosen us in Christ. Before the foundations of the world God the Father chose God the Son to reconcile the world. Before sin, before time, before it all, God chose Jesus Christ. And by choosing Jesus Christ, by ordaining him to full humanity, God chose each and every one of us. When the church talks about predestination it often gets stuck on who’s in and who’s out. God has chosen me and, of course (naturally!) dammed everyone I don’t like. Clemson Tigers, for instance. And the Atlanta Braves.

But there’s none of that here. Here there’s only pure joy in God’s choice.

This is as simply as I can put it: before the foundation of the time God chose Jesus as the one through whom he would redeem the world. And Jesus was born and in his baptism, in his life, in his never-ending work for justice, Jesus pursued and achieved that reconciliation. That is the “yes” of God. But the “yes” was not only for Jesus, not only for his glory, but for the world. The “yes” that echoed from the waters of the Jordan into the desert of temptation has carried through to the steps of Pilgrim Covenant. Jesus Christ is the one, the one who is chosen. And for Jesus’ sake the gracious choosing, the adoption, is opened up to each of us.

God has chosen that we would belong to the Chosen. God has chosen, not from lack or constraint, not from necessity, but from living, electric, abundant love.

And what has God chosen: God has chosen us for adoption.

Now I don’t have any siblings, but I’ve heard this story a million times. The eldest child, jealous of the attention her younger sibling receives, leans in close with a secret: “you know you were adopted, right?” It’s about the meanest thing a child could say. You don’t belong here, you’re not one of us and when the time comes, you’re out. “Adoption” is often coded as a pejorative. You may hear one person say that they have a “real” sister and an “adopted” one. “Adoption” stands in for the facke. There’s something less about being the adopted one. The adopted child is less deserving, less authentic, less “us”.

You’ll hear the same thing from many adopted children—the internalized feeling that they were fundamentally, primordially rejected, that they didn’t have a fighting chance in the world, that they were alone (this is why I can never get behind double predestination). That they were undeserving, unlovable. It’s a hard thing to overcome, this deep-down feeling of not-good-enough-ness, and though perhaps more palpable in adopted children, I imagine it’s something most everyone feels.

We all worry, don’t we, about our own unworthiness. We worry that we’ll be exposed for the impostors, the fakes that we know ourselves to be. But here’s the thing about being destined for adoption. It doesn’t matter. We were adopted, called and chosen in spite of our blood, not because of our talents, not to carry on a gene, not because we deserved it. We were adopted because God, in Jesus Christ, lives in overflowing, abundant, electric love. We have been destined for adoption because the love that pours from the Godhead covers all the earth. Every last bit of it.

In abundant, rejoicing love, God has destined us, not for hell, not for damnation, but for love. We needn’t worry about having been rejected. God has called us children, and given us all the rights and privileges accorded thereto. God has chosen us according to his good will, the text says. On top of that, our being chosen, enabled through the obedient life of Jesus Christ, is one in which God delights. God does not begrudgingly choose us because we’re the only ones left in the huddle. God chooses us because God has chosen Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ has chosen the world.

It is God’s great joy to gather all things, all things in heaven and on earth, into himself. There is nothing God has not done to accomplish this choosing, nothing God will not transform to make it so. We have been chosen! Jews and Gentiles. Catholics and Reformed Protestants. Gang members in Camden and victims of gun violence in Chicago.

Now to be clear: God’s adoption does not thus erase our identity. I am a proud Southerner, and it’ll likely stay that way till I die. I’m stubborn and jealous and often too lazy for my own good. And “adoption” doesn’t simply erase the things about us that have estranged us from God and one another in the first place. But it does cover them. It covers them in a web of acceptance and love and forgiveness that connects a doorstep in South Plainsfield to a stoop in Lowcountry South Carolina.

It’s a beautiful thing. God’s blessings in Jesus Christ don’t depend on us, on our brains or beauty or brawn. Our blessings, our being chosen, our being adopted depends solely on the wild mercy of God in and through the impossible reality of  And all we are asked to do, all we are commanded to do is offer glory and praise and benediction. There will be concrete things that come out of that: practicing justice, feeding the poor, clothing the homeless, taking in the widows. Transforming tax codes and rethinking corporate “ethics”. Eating better and treating folks better. God’s grace will change us into the kind of people who, recognizing our unworthiness, take joy in helping transform this already-blessed unworthy world. But for now, as the Shorter Catechism implores, our “chief end”, our foundation and our future, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.”

Some folks think this passage is about relinquishing control, about realizing that God has done everything and we can just sit back and watch it unfold. I don’t think that’s right. This is about being chosen, about being adopted before we could do a dang thing about it. This is about God’s extravagant love, not God’s calculating foresight. And for us it’s about living into that love. This is the best news. It’s now. It’s extravagant. It’s work has already been done, before the foundation of time and in that horrible moment on the cross. So for now: rejoice in the God who joyfully chooses us! Amen, Hallelujah.

Luke 10.27-37: Encountering Jesus along Jericho Road, or Your Neighbor is an Event (Lent 1, alt)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Encountering Jesus along Jericho Road, or Your Neighbor is an Event

My uncle is a lawyer—not a man prone to giving free advice, but there’s one thing he’ll tell anybody: never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. There’s a reason witnesses rehearse—surprises are never good. An unexpected reversal can ruin a case.

So Jesus is moving towards Jerusalem. And all along the way he’s teaching and healing and garnering attention. And this lawyer—he’d of been an expert in the Jewish legal system—he heard that Jesus sent out 70 folks to exorcise demons and to “tread on snakes and scorpions”, whatever that means, and now, just before this passage, he’s hearing that these 70 were successful in their strange mission. And to be frank, Jesus is getting a bit preachy for the lawyer’s liking.. He’s talking about how the Father has given him all things and woe to this and that. And the lawyer, seeing his chance to trip up this wandering madmen, stands up among the 70 and he starts asking questions he already knows the answer to.

I imagine Sam Waterston as D. A. McCoy, because I’ve watched more Law & Order than I ought to. There’s a look McCoy gets when he knows he’s trapped a witness, when he’s leading this poor duped fellow on the stand to a conclusion whose implications the witness has not yet worked out. McCoy’s genius is his ability to trap witnesses in their own logical systems, forcing them to admit to some lie or inaccuracy, some piece of incriminating evidence or a fundamental misunderstanding of the law. I’m going to call our young lawyer Ancient McCoy. Now Ancient McCoy is testing Jesus. Ancient McCoy knows well the answer to the question “what must I do”, for it is the clearest message of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus agrees and dismisses Ancient McCoy with an admonition to act accordingly. There’s of yet no misunderstanding of the law on either man’s part.

But Ancient McCoy wants a rise out of Jesus. He wants Jesus to admit that he’s right, that he knows. So he presses Jesus further. He doesn’t ask about God or love, maybe because he doesn’t know that set of answers. Ancient McCoy goes for another easy one: and who is my neighbor? Luke tells us that this is his attempt to justify himself. In the face of this wild teacher, his disciples and his odd cadre of followers, Ancient McCoy needs to establish a sense of authority and inquiring about neighborhood regulations will provide him the opportunity to do so. He prepares his answer, and it is, strictly speaking, right according to law and “morality”:

Neighbors are your people. Jewish folks who can trace their roots back to the Babylonian Captivity; who, those many years ago, were carried away by foreign rulers to a foreign land.  Neighbors are the ones with whom I share DNA markers—with whom I share customs and language and preference and skin tone. And, lest we forget the simplest answer, neighbors are the folks who live next door.

At the bottom of it neighbors are “near” (the words are related), they are assigned by proximity to your home and by likeness to your way of life. Non-Jews are not “neighbors” in the traditional sense. They are aliens. Strangers. Illegal immigrants. They are never to be despised, but neither are they invited over for the annual Fourth of July party.

It’s a good, safe, understandable position. For the way of the world is inward. It’s self-preservation. It’s looking after your own. Binding up your children’s wounds, feeding the neighborhood kid when he comes over to sweep your front porch. The world is self-sustained and self-sustaining and if you want to get ahead, nay, if you want to survive, you’ve got to prioritize you. Because God knows no one else will. That’s the world. The lawyer knows it. The religious leaders know it. The crowds know it. Everybody knows it.

Except, it seems, for Jesus. Ancient McCoy must’ve been totally blindsided, because Jesus doesn’t simply answer, oh: your neighbor is this or that or everyone or no-one. And neither does he turn the microphone back to the young questioner, as he had previously done. Jesus decides to tell a story.

Now Jerusalem is 2500 feet above sea level. And it can be cold. And Jericho’s is warm. 700 feet below sea level. Balmy. Israel’s #1 vacation getaway, especially for church leadership, folks like the Priest and the theologian-Levite who need to get away from all the holy hubbub every now and again.

“Imagine that you could get from West Chester to Key West in just under four hours. Travel Jericho Road!” 

But robbers got wise to all of these priests and Levites and rich folks always passing through. And the Highway became a hotbed for criminal activity. Somebody was always getting robbed or beaten up—best not to make eye contact, best to just hurry along, hope the sun’ll stay out for a bit longer, tuck away your money in a secure fanny pack, safe from pickpockets, safe from whatever criminal tomfoolery all these other naïve schmucks are finding themselves caught up in.

You gotta look after #1, after all.

Perhaps the lawyer thought that Jesus had forgotten the question. Because “Jericho” is most certainly not a part of the neighborhood. But Ancient McCoy knows better than to stop a rambling witness—better to let him talk himself in circles till everybody realizes just what a fool he is.

Jesus continues.

There’s a man who’s severely beaten. He is stripped of his possessions, left for dead. Unsurprisingly, a priest comes by. He sees the man, tightens his fanny pack and picks up the pace. After all, this could well be a trap. Go help that man and soon find yourself in his position! And what kind of man is he?! I’d help him I’d get sued! No good deed goes unpunished, after all. He’d likely claim my horse gave him whiplash. I’ll be left with nothing. Better to get on to Jericho, I’ve got dinner reservations, after all.

Then there’s a levite, a learnéd man. A good, holy man, he, too, sees the fellow in the ditch. But like the priest he’s got somewhere to go to. On top of that he doesn’t much like the sight of blood, it makes him faint, and it’s certainly unclean. Better to walk on than to risk some infection, some nasty thing which would leave him impaired, unable to complete his duties in the temple and therefore unable to provide an invaluable service to the community. Why it might even kill him! Better get on to Jericho, have a swim in the refreshing salt water pool before the sun goes down.

The lawyer starts to recognize in Jesus’ story a rhetorical pattern frequented in his own arguments, though he must’ve still wondered if Jesus had forgotten the original question. Because this story, it seemed, was shaping up to be about hypocritical church leaders, not an unfamiliar topic in those days. Ancient McCoy would have expected the next traveler along the road to be a simple Jew whose bold assistance to the man would shame the priest and the levite and expose their hypocrisy. That’s how the pattern went: a corrupt priest, an insensitive levite and a good Israelite.

How shocked, then, must Ancient McCoy’ve been when Jesus sends a Samaritan down the road. Now we’re used to hearing “good” alongside “Samaritan”, but it would’ve been a mighty shock to just about every good Israelite listening to Jesus that day. Samaritans were not good. They were unclean, threatening foreigners. Jesus may as well have sent a good member of the Taliban down that road. The two terms were thought to be mutually exclusive.

This awful Samaritan came near that dangerous body in the road and what he saw moved him to mercy. Without the slightest hesitation, without even a trace of doubt this Samaritan—this hated man—acts. And his action is generous beyond imagination: he dresses the injured man’s wounds with expensive, fine medicines, he bandages him and carries him to his horse. And then he walks the horse to the nearest inn where he takes care of the man. He misses his dinner reservations. And later, in the inn, he notices that he’s covered by the same mud and dirt and blood that once caked the poor fellow. But he doesn’t seem to care.

And the poor lawyer hasn’t even recovered from this nonsense story when Jesus turns the table once more. For the question is no longer who is my neighbor?, but rather who was a neighbor to this man?. It’s a simple reversal with profound consequences, for Jesus has taken a question of legal obligation—i.e. what are the fixed boundaries to the entity “neighborhood”?—and transformed it into an opportunity for hospitality, an event of mercy that breaks open the tidy, self-contained boundaries of the world.

The poor lawyer is reeling and we should be too. This is an overwhelming task! An impossible demand! Because we can never be as good as the Good Samaritan. We cannot save the world. We cannot bind up every wound when we barely have ointment enough for ourselves.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a time when we turn our attention to Jesus’ atoning work for us and for the world. This is an unusual reading to begin our season but I think it’s particularly appropriate, because who is the Good Samaritan if not Jesus Christ? God’s love for us is not saccharine sentiment. It’s not a “feeling”. God’s love for us is the concrete reality of the Good Samaritan: it is free movement of mercy that in Jesus Christ picks up we broken humans and carries us alongside Jericho Highway. Jesus Christ is the despised outsider. In the midst of all our posturing, all of our assurances that we only need ourselves, that, despite our bruises and broken bones, we can carry ourselves through this life, Jesus Christ comes and breaks open our small, self-contained world and heals us. In violation of the our personal space, in violation of our selfish autonomy, of our self-reliance; in Jesus Christ God has encountered our brokenness, lavished us with the finest medicines of mercy, and taken us down Jericho’s dark road. Not out of some necessity, certainly not because it was owed us, but out of freedom, out of the always outward-moving and abundant grace that brims over from the divine life onto every Highway and Street Corner. God has not asked repayment, only that, until he returns to the inn along side the road we go and do likewise.

Go and do likewise. For Jesus has indeed called us to this impossible thing. We, the church, even these many years later cannot respond to Jesus’ overflowing abundance with neutral ambivalence. We have been called by the Good Samaritan to be good for the world so that the world, in knowing mercy, might know God. We have been called to love, and it is better to fail in our attempts to bind up this broken world than to pass by on the other side of the road, afraid of what damage the wounded world might do to us, or how much worse we may make it if we try.

There will likely be days when, despite our best intentions, we pass by the other side, we lower the bills of our hats, avert our eyes, grab our purses and quicken our pace. It’s human instinct to want to protect ourselves. But Jesus Christ has not called us to safety.

He’s called us to Jericho Road. Not in some metaphorical sense, not as a thought-project, but in reality. Here and now. In this world today. Jesus acted in love. He came to this world and lived as one of us. And he walked alongside the road healing and exorcising demons and preaching the good news. And he died for it. Go and do likewise. In our worship and our prayer, we must always look beyond ourselves. And when we leave these pews, it must be with eyes wide open and a heart truly ready to encounter the other. Truly ready to preach and teach and bind up the world’s wounds.

The church has too often passed by the other side (we are rightly called Levites for our silence in civil rights debates across the country, for our failure to call for prison reform and social conservatism). In an attempt to justify ourselves, we have asked of God’s gospel that it limit mercy, that it contain its wild, unruly movements outwards. That’s the lawyer in us. The worried Priest. The jealous Levite. That’s the way of a world that doesn’t recognize its redemption. But we’re called to be Samaritans, to identify with the dregs, the hated of society, and we have that very Good Samaritan as our guide. We’re called to the Kingdom, the on-the-move world ruled by Love. And Mercy. And when we turn our heads, embarrassed of God’s lavish mercy toward all these riffraff and hoi polloi and rabble rousers, we will be forgiven our temporary failure. But we will not be excused from future encounters. We will not be excused from the neighbor forever. Jesus walks to the cross and we walk behind him. Binding up wounds. Praying. Preaching. All that he asks? Go and do likewise.

Luke 9:26-42: Here’s Jesus!

Today is Transfiguration Sunday—as with many annual feast days, the passages associated with the transfiguration are well known to many of us. But before we go into the story itself, I want to offer a few contextual notes. Our story begins eight days “after these sayings”. Luke is referring here to one of Jesus’ many discourse on discipleship, a discourse that includes such gems as:

  • “The Son of Man must undergo great sufferings” and
  • “If any want to become my followers they must deny themselves” and
  • “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

Remember those.

One more thing: that this encounter takes place on a mountain is hugely meaningful.  Mountains are the place where earth touches heaven. Moses went up on the mountain to see God and he came down face aglow. When he went up again he received the commandments. Mountains are a place where one goes to meet God, an encounter that will always end in transfiguration of one type or another.

Luke 9:28-43

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!‘ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.‘ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

Here’s Jesus!

Two scenes come to mind when I think of the transfiguration—and remember, these have no correspondence to reality, this is pure word association. The first? The Shining. There’s something that terrifies me about Jesus up on that mountain (Luke gets it, too). Jack Nicholson’s character is slowly transformed by the haunted hotel where he finds himself living. His metamorphosis gives that most climactic and iconic scene of American cinema: Jack chopping through a locked door, his wife shrieking in horror, and then, in the small frame of hollowed wood: Here’s Johnny! Up on the mountain one world meets another, and the first image I have is of a manic, dressed-in-white teacher: Here’s Jesus! 

Ditto Oprah, though with considerably less terror. I imagine the glory and radiance of Oprah’s set, the anticipation that all there have of the incredible thing that’s probably about to happen. Up on the mountain it’s Oprah’s week of favorites. And then Oprah comes out and it’s all look under your seats! You get a Moses! And an Elijah! And everyone gets a Jesus! Jesus for You! And You! 

So I oscillate between an ingrained sense of terror at meeting Jesus in glory and a sense of warm-and-fuzzy-Oprah-glory, glory whitewashed of discomfort, struggle or, well, reality (not that such an Oprah actually exists, after all, she’s spent much time in the trenches—in her own life and the lives of others).

But the picture Luke paints is rather more dull, at least initially. One imagines the disciples, “weighed down with sleep” dragged up the mountain by their ears. They’ve just heard about sufferings that the Son of Man must undergo and the cross that disciples will bear and the glory that some might see. And their heads hurt. And they’re ready for a good sleep. But Jesus has taken these three up some mountain. Once there, as if further inviting Peter and James and John to sleep, Jesus simply begins to pray. Reading about the poor disciples I was reminded of Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Pip is a good, simple soul, a hardworking orphan who dreams of becoming a gentleman. One day a lawyer appears in his life and announces that he has been sponsored by a generous benefactor, that Pip will be educated and monied, but that such privileges come with “great expectations”. Thrilled, dumbfounded, Pip steps outside and “found that I had slumberously got to the turnpike without having taken any account of the road.”

I like that: “I had slumberously got to the turnpike without having taken any account of the road.” The disciples have got up this mountain without having any sense of the going. And now Jesus is praying, and…weighed down with sleep. But this is an essential moment, a turning point in the gospels. And before they can slip into unconsciousness, they see Jesus’ glory—his clothes are dazzling. And his face looks somehow different. And, if that’s not enough: it’s Moses! and Elijah! 

Peter and James and John are good and awake by now. They’re awake enough to hear the strange chatter passed between Moses and Elijah. Something about an Exodus, but not that one those many years ago. This one has yet to be accomplished, but it’s on the verge. And Jesus, who will remain silent throughout the scene, is the man for the job. Jesus, it seems, has some great expectations of his own. Expectations for him, expectations for his disciples. It sounds rather ominous for being rather glorious.

And Peter, poor, sleepy, Peter, he doesn’t want to think about great expectations. Peter wants to stay. It’s a good party! Why not keep on for the next few days? Peter will set up the tents—he doesn’t even need one—and the honored guests can sleep there with Jesus.

Have pity for poor Peter! Look at this scene—it’s an incredible one. Who wouldn’t want to stay, to contain this moment in time and space, to hold the great figures of one of the great world religions in tents forever and ever and ever? Or at least until tomorrow?

Peter, he was looking. He couldn’t think past his eyes and he closed up his ears. Because that “Exodus” that Moses and Elijah spoke of, that liberation, it was lot more than a token reminder of things past. As with Moses, Exodus will mean suffering. Exodus will mean death. And it’s hard to hear the reaper when you’re staring at a glorious gaping hole in heaven.

In the midst of all this glory the reminder of the Exodus-to-be-Accomplished calls our attention to Jesus’ very real future sufferings. This is the man who will be tortured, betrayed, flogged, beaten and suffocated. This man of such beauty, of impossible light-beyond-light, he will bleed. And weep.

But Exodus isn’t all about the wilderness, that’s a means. Liberation is the end, Canaan’s future land will burst open from an empty tomb, and the mantle of sin Jesus took on in his baptism will suffer its death blow.

And from this moment of glory, Peter and James and John are given a glimpse of glory further still. With Elijah, Moses and Jesus they are taken up into the cloud where a voice from heaven announces the incredible news: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Peter was looking. He couldn’t think past his eyes and he closed up his ears. But he was meant to listen. What Jesus heard in the Jordan is now confirmed before these witnesses—in this man we have to do with none other than the Son of God. At the baptism he was proclaimed beloved, and now he is proclaimed as the one chosen. Chosen. For this. For the road. For the suffering and the rejection. For all that he said and for all that Moses and Elijah feared.

He was chosen to live as one of us and now must die like one of us, not in glory, but in anonymity. In disgrace.

Transfiguration over. Roll the credits, pull the curtains.

The four descend the mountain and the first thing they hear is the tortured cry of a a father “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”

They could not. Now at the beginning of chapter 9, before Jesus said all those sayings, he commissioned his disciples. Jesus gave them “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.”  — They could not. “Don’t you wish we’d built those tents now, Jesus?”

I remember very clearly learning to tie my shoes. It was a sunny summer day, not oppressively hot, but steamy nonetheless. My mother was tanning in the yard (she claimed to be doing yard work). I asked her to teach me and she bent down patiently and showed me the pattern. I could not figure it out. So, shoes untied, I asked to be excused to the restroom. Inside, I found my father, from whom I promptly requested help in tying my shoes. I ran outside to my mother. Good news! While in the bathroom I figured it out! 

The disciples, as long as they have Jesus, don’t need to worry about their shoes. Their inability to preform miracles bespeaks not faithlessness, but rather despair: how could Jesus leave us?  Their inability to preform miracles was their own tabernacle: their own attempt to hang on to a world where Jesus doesn’t have to suffer and die, to a world where Jesus lives in perpetuity teaching and preaching and healing. A world where they can hold him and grasp him and keep him.

And Jesus is angry. Despite his patient instruction, despite the mantle of power he has passed on to them, the disciples are unprepared for the dirty work of the kingdom. The covet the glory of presence.You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I carry this alone?” It’s anger, to be sure. Exasperation. But Jesus will act. Full of compassion, he calls for the boy. He rebukes the spirit that ails him and returns him to his rightful place.

The nine back in the village are stand-ins for us. We have not seen the mount of Transfiguration, but we have been given the mantle of power with which we carry out the work of the kingdom. We have been called to bind up this broken world and to exorcise demons and to heal the sick. We have been called to fight for equality and justice, to fight for the poor and the despised. But we can’t get it. We can’t figure it out. We trip over our untied shoes and fail time and again to act. And we may say it’s because we’re waiting to see the glory. We’re waiting for our Johnny moment, we’re waiting for Oprah or Moses or Elijah.

In coveting after sight we’ve stopped up our ears to the hearing. Because the Spirit that descends on Jesus in baptism, the Spirit that speaks in the cloud of transfiguration, that sends the angel of comfort in Gethsemane, that same Spirit speaks to we who eagerly await transfiguration. God’s transfiguration does not depend on us—God will work wonders before our sleepy eyes! God will redeem and transform this broken world, not from the tabernacles of safety on high holy perches,  not from acts of sheer power or blasts of glory, but from places of suffering. God will break open our tabernacles, will pierce the darkness with blinding light and with a voice: this is my Son, listen to him. 

“And what if the kingdom of Christ had been confined in this way to the narrow limits of twenty or thirty feet?”, writes John Calvin, “Where would have been the redemption of the whole world? Where would have been the communication of eternal salvation?”

Jesus has told us where he’s going. He’s got his eyes fixed on Jerusalem. We’ll follow him there. Through the suffering, past our places of comfort, outside of our parties and affiliations. Listen for him. The world may not always recognize him, but we’re here, and while we await another transfiguration we’ve got work to do. Amen.

Luke 4:14-30: Home is Out There

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three year and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and lead him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Home is Out There

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

So quoteth my father, often, citing Robert Frost. With a nudge, and a wink, invoking a code beyond his control, my father recalls his own duty to welcome me home, “they have to take you in.”

The scene wouldn’t have been much different for Jesus. Jesus, a child of the congregation, would have been expected, as he passed through Nazareth, firstly, I assume, to lunch with his mother and secondly, I know, to observe Sabbath worship at the local synagogue. And that there wasn’t an all-out riot when Jesus got up to read from the Scroll suggests that the folks gathered recognized some authority in him. For indeed, one cannot simply read from the scroll—as with my own church, the Presbyterian church, there are protocols that dictate participation in certain worship rites! That he can understand and translate the scroll, written in Hebrew, suggests that Jesus had some training in Jewish schools. That he rises to speak suggests that he is in good repute with the congregation, that he has been recommended by a Temple leader. And that he has authority to interpret, that is, to proclaim in the ancient words a word applicable to his Nazarene family, suggests implicit trust. Luke tells us that he had been teaching in synagogues around Galilee, that he had been well received in other synagogues, among other gathered communities. Jesus, standing before the community, is acting like a good Jewish boy. He is living and working and speaking according to custom and tradition, according to expectations.

Now, if you were here last week you’ll remember that Jesus has, in his baptism and temptation, been confirmed as one in whom the Spirit dwells. The Spirit appears at Jesus’ baptism, proclaiming God’s pleasure at his submission to sin and then drives Jesus into the wilderness where his righteousness is tested and, ultimately, proved. Likewise, in his time in Galilee (a time of itinerancy about which we know nothing), Jesus has been “filled with the power of the Spirit”. There’s a grassroots energy about him, folks all around Galilee are jazzed about Jesus.

So you better believe that the good folks in Nazareth were proud. They heard the buzz about their boy. And they were ready to join their voices to the chorus, to proclaim loudly: this is Joseph’s boy, our boy, and in him we are well pleased!

Now I have preached many times before my home congregation. And I will tell you that I could stand in that pulpit and tune my banjo and, as long as a string didn’t pop and I remembered to read the Scripture lesson, my people would be proud. Just the very act of standing, of assuming some authority over that pulpit, would light up my mother’s face. And my old Sunday School teachers, astounded that I somehow graduated college, would delight in my being able to form a sentence. People want to take pride in their own. Y’all know this better than anyone—this is New Jersey, after all, home of The Boss. How wonderful it is when a community gathers to celebrate the success of one of its own children.

So the good folks at Nazareth, they are ready to hear Jesus. Luke plays on this expectation by dramatically slowing the narrative. Jesus goes up to the synagogue, as was his custom. He stands up, walks to the front of the assembly, and takes from one of his play mates the sacred, delicate scroll of Isaiah. He unrolls it, slowly, taking care not to crease or smear the blocks of script. With his left hand he scans the roll….searching….searching…there is a passage he’s looking for. A word he has been given by the Spirit to proclaim to his mother and father and brothers and sisters and teachers and comrades in arms. And finally, un-rushed, he finds it. It’s (mostly) from chapter 61, with a bit of 58 for added emphasis:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The reading now complete, Jesus reverses the process. He rolls up the scroll, working a bit more quickly now, and hands it back to the boy he recognizes from around the block. And then he assumes the posture of a teacher—he sits. He takes his time, cracks his neck, considers carefully his next words.

Everyone, every single one of them, is fixed on him.

He’s done everything so well up till now! Mary’s friend, the one she goes to lunch with every other Tuesday, looks at her and smiles. One of Joseph’s customers smacks him on the back, grunting, good kid. Jesus isn’t rushed or pressured, he isn’t fidgety or unsettled. He’s calm. He’s read the Scriptures, now all that is left is the interpretation. And he’s a man full of the Spirit! This should be easy.

Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. 

That’s it! And everyone is proud, because synagogue is going to get out on time! And Jesus did so well. And they weren’t surprised at his bizarre proclamation, today, today, because they had experienced being transfixed by the man. They must’ve felt it was true, after all, they, better than anyone else in Galilee, knew that Jesus was special.

He did so well! Jesus took this Scripture and, succinctly, proclaimed that the time of Jubilee and Justice was fulfilled in his person, that it was made manifest, this very day, before this very congregation. He proclaimed that everything the Nazarenes had been waiting for was now on the horizon, was imminent and physical and real. And they were astounded, for this was Joseph’s boy! One of their own! Amazing, they must’ve confirmed in one another

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus, because Jesus, our boy, has been anointed by God, our God. A prophet like Isaiah, like Moses. Perhaps even our Messiah?! He will bring good news to the poor—yes, yes, there are many poor among us, right here in Nazareth. And he will proclaim release of our captives—yes, yes, there are many among us imprisoned, and the memory of the long Babylonian captivity looms heavy in our minds! Yes, he will heal the blind! All the infirm! My aching knees, my uncontrollable tremors, this man has come for me and for us! And he will free the oppressed—we who labor under a Roman tyrant, all we faithful who controlled by pagans and gentiles! From their yoke he will release us! And he will proclaim Jubilee for us! That long-ago promised year of forgiveness when our debts will be pardoned by the bankers, our planters returned to their crops and all our iniquities forgiven! For us he has come! Certainly this is what Jesus will do for us!

Hometown Jesus has done good by his people. They are astounded.

For all of the slow, intentional plotting of the first verses, the next come as a quick, disjointed assault. For Jesus has not yet spoken his benediction. And he seems to anticipate in the crowd a longing for proof—for a hint of his power.

Now remember, this is the Jesus who has rejected the crown of power offered by the Tempter. This is the Jesus who has proved himself as one who acts according to the will of God. This is the one in whom God is well pleased, this is the one who rejects the crown of self-sustaining power and embraces instead the mantle of sin, the cloak of a foreign man.

In the electricity of the moment Jesus anticipates a request for him to act as he has in Capernaum: for him to work wonders and miracles: Cure yourself, doctor! We’ve heard you did it elsewhere. Show us a little something, Jesus. Make it so! Our faith will be ignited and we will follow you!

But the man who has just read (with such care, such earnestness and delicacy) from the holy prophets now recalls (from memory) long-forgotten stories from Kings. From Elijah he recalls the hungry Gentile widow, who was fed by the great Jewish prophet, despite her being a gentile and a woman and, more profoundly, despite there being a number hungry folks from among his own. So too with Elisha who, in a town full of lepers, offers cleansing to a Syrian! 

This is Jesus’ benediction: The word is fulfilled in your hearing, but it’s not just for you.

And these folks, doting, adoring, folks, they get angry. Jesus, everybody’s favorite hometown boy, the man who is doing everything right, is now proclaiming a new, shocking thing. In the sacred space of the Synagogue, using the sacred texts of the community, Jesus is forcing the gaze of the Nazarenes outward. A quick reversal of expectation and now a reversal of mood: excitment becomes wrath. Perhaps the Devil’s third temptation will today be realized, because that man who worked with Joseph, that woman who lunched with Mary, every single one of Jesus’ classmates: they’re fixin’ to throw him right off of that cliff.

I have to admit some sympathy with the Nazarenes. What in the world is wrong with taking care of your own?! What’s wrong with the hometown boy fulfilling the expectations which he has set for himself?! Save yourself and save us! Then maybe, time permitting, after dinner, then let’s go to Capernaum.

It’s not the request itself that provokes Jesus, and it’s not out of cruelty that Jesus will not work wonders among his own. It’s that all these folks are reducing Jesus the prophet Messiah only to that which he can do and, worse yet, that which he can do for them. Their amazement is not faith. Their eyes, open to their needs alone, cannot see the righteousness which he claims for us all and its ethical component, its demand for universal justice. They cannot see past the potential for the exercise of raw power to the Word that lay at its heart: in Jesus’ coming the World will be transformed for God!

Jesus is reversing hometown expectations. He has not come for them alone, but also, perhaps even primarily, for the other—his is the work of the poor (he means it literally, by the way: poor, economically depressed folks), his is the work of the oppressed, his is the work of the forgotten folks on society’s fringe. Jesus has come also for Capernaum, the other town. And remember—2000 years later it’s we who occupy the seats in the Nazareth synagogue. We are the in crowd. We are the ones who, in claiming Jesus as our own, place expectations on him and, all too often, who use him as a weapon for self-indulgent promotion. 

And to us in this church, and to the Nazarenes, Jesus proclaims: I am not truly accepted here! Unless, perhaps…Look to Capernaum! Look to Trenton! Look to Newark and Elizabeth! Look to Harlem, because that’s where I’m going. That is where the Spirit leads! And you can stand up to follow me, or you can stand up and follow the wrath begot of unmet expectations.

Home, home. Home is indeed the place where, when you go there they have to take you in. But Home, when Jesus is our prophet, when Jesus our messiah, is the Kingdom. And the Kingdom’s Out There. The Kingdom is expanding boundaries and reversing expectations and existing for everyone in our world who is considered lowly, unclean and reviled. The Kingdom is for the riffraff and the rabble rousers and the hoi polloi, those with whom Jesus waited for baptism. Those for whom Jesus takes on the mantle of sin and the crown of righteousness! Make no mistake: home is here too, it’s in your houses, it’s where your family is, it’s between whatever walls bring you the most joy, the most comfort, the most peace. Jesus will meet you there! But he will not be confined within our walls. He will expand the Kingdom whether we like it or not!

In reversing Nazareth’s expectations, Jesus does not reject the Nazarenes, and neither will he ever reject us! He simply reorients—them and us. And they don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not reality. Look to Capernaum! That’s where the Kingdom’s going! That’s the shape of our world! And when we proclaim with the confession that Jesus came for us and for our salvation, we better be looking out the door to the folks in the street, because that’s where Jesus is going. Fix your eyes on Jesus and he’ll pass through all our wrath and lead us there. And there, together, we’ll work to make the Kingdom real. We’ll work to set the captives free and cure the blind and heal the lepers. Amen! Let it be so!

Home is Out There, by A. A. Stuckey / Luke 4:14-30 / 20 January 2013 / for Pilgrim Covenant Church, South Plainsfield, New Jersey

Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-13: Overheard on the Jordan: The Baptism & Temptation of Christ and the Salvation of All Mankind

I’d like to spend the next few weeks with y’all dissecting the stories of Jesus’ early ministry as told in Luke.

We’ve just celebrated the birth of our Lord. Soon enough we’ll be mourning his death and then, shortly after, proclaiming his resurrection. So why not dwell for a while in the in-between? The hugely significant moments that we so often overlook in favor of big miracles like birth and death and resurrection.

Remember: we don’t know a thing about Jesus’ life till now. We don’t what he knows about his birth or his vocation. We know that the Spirit has been with him. And at this moment something has stirred within him, calling him from Nazareth, calling him from his shop and his tools and his mother and father and brother and sisters. Something calls him to the Jordan.

Something new is about to happen; a history is about to unfold. So let’s listen for it. Our text today comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter three, verses 21-22 and chapter four, verses one through 14.

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” […]

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’ Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”, and
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Overheard on the Jordan

If we’ve learned anything over the past two thousand and thirteen years it’s that Jesus is exceptional. He worked wonders and calmed nature and defeated death and had some pretty good ideas. There’s something special about Jesus.

So it should shock us to see Jesus come down the line to the Jordan. Amongst all the other rabble rousers and the riffraff and the hoi polloi—here comes… Jesus? Now we know quite a lot about him, but no  one there did. And Luke tells us that there were lots of folks there, rich, poor, tax-collectors, soldiers. John might’ve known but Luke registers no recognition on his face. Jesus is there, in the crowd, one among many, jostled and jolted until it’s his time to go under.

I hadn’t thought much about Jesus’ baptism until earlier this week. Now, when I think about salvation, when I think about salvation history, my mind (understandably, and partially rightly) goes to the cross and the empty grave. More broadly, of course, I think of the birth. One thing, I can assure you: I never think about his baptism as having any real importance. That seems pro forma, a necessity, a show. An early rite that the authors of the Gospels wanted to get in there in order to justify its later Sacramental use. Because—honestly—why does Jesus need this? Why does Jesus need cleansing? Or new life? Why does extraordinary Jesus need to prostrate himself before the riffraff, the rabble rousers, the hoi polloi, and declare himself one of them Un-extraordinary. Unexceptional. Just a normal guy.

Now this is where I’m going to say something that may sound bad at first—but hang with me. Jesus comes before John and, without anyone knowing, inaugurates a new history. Jesus’ birth was his election, his coming onto the scene, then his baptism is his inauguration. It’s the beginning. And it’s the beginning because in this moment Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, affirms his humanity. He takes on humanity and all that comes with it. ALL that comes with it. Not just the everyday annoyances: traffic jams, bad hair days, loss. fragility, back aches. All. Another way to say it: he takes on sin. In all freedom he, as one fully God and fully human, confesses before John and God and all the world his own sin. It’s a shocking thing.

If Jesus doesn’t earnestly take on sin, then his baptism is nothing but an empty sign. A sign without signifier, without meaning, without coorespondence. But Jesus’ baptism is not simply an empty sign. Jesus is not masquerading. He is not putting on the costuming of a human. If Jesus is truly human, it means that in this moment, not just on the cross, Jesus takes on our sin. As God for us and as us before God, Jesus begins the work of reconciliation. Having heard John’s message, Jesus submits himself to baptism and in so doing takes on the mantle of one who has sin. And with the rabble rousers, the riffraff, the hoi polloi, as the rabble rousers, the riffraff, the hoi polloi, he is baptized.

Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the baptism. All we know is that Jesus, having been baptized with the others, prays. And on this unexceptional history-launching day, another remarkable thing happens:

The sky opens up. And a voice, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased”. God is pleased with Jesus’ act of submission. And Jesus, who in the cleansing waters of the Jordan took on the mantle of sin, now takes alongside it the mantle of righteousness, for in him God is pleased.

I don’t know if John heard it, if the rabble rousers and the riffraff and the hoi polloi heard it. But we hear it, these many years later. And Jesus hears it. And we stand in awe because we know how far removed we are from Jesus at this moment.

We carry the sin without the righteousness. We make our New Years resolutions, we try for betterment and self esteem and improvement. But a suspicion haunts us: we can never be the ones for whom the sky opens and a voice proclaims: I am pleased. Nothing we can achieve or learn or work toward will ever set us in those waters.

The scene quickly changes. Jesus is filled with the Spirit and it’s time for his inaugural parade. And, strange thing, his parade route, the place His Father demands he go, is to the Wilderness. The empty, dead place.

So he fasts. And prays. And prays and fasts. And then, fresh on the heels of his baptism (only a little more than a month has passed): the Tempter appears. No one’s here with him. No rabble rousers, no riffraff, no hoi polloi.

Strange, isn’t it, that God’s good pleasure does not lead straight to a Lexus or a Swiss Bank Account, or even a nice shopping spree at Target, not even a Lazy-Boy. God’s good pleasure, God’s will, to which Jesus so humbly submits in baptism, leads him straight to the wilderness.

The temptations are well-worn territory. Bend the laws of physics and turn stone into bread. Take on the mantle of emperor!

And, finally, in the holiest of holies, the city of David, in the temple of God: throw yourself into the abyss. This is the temptation that interests me most. For would this not be a supreme act of faith in God? It seems barely different from baptism—do this thing and God will come once again and save you, and in saving you will by act confirm that he is indeed well pleased! But Jesus will have none of it.

Because in throwing himself from the Temple, or in turing stone to bread or becoming a political power, Jesus would act against the will of the one in whose name he was baptized. In throwing himself from the Temple, Jesus would step out of the line of ordinary sinners and into the line of extraordinary wonder workers. In throwing himself from the Temple, Jesus would disrobe of vulnerable flesh and take instead a crown of invulnerable, raw Power. And the crown of raw Power is incompatible with the humble mantle of righteousness. The crown of raw power is rusted in the waters of the Jordan. Jesus, in succumbing to the Tempter, would cease to be for us. And though the cross would be averted, so too would our only chance at reconciliation, at righteousness, at a true, ordinary Kingdom of God inhabited by the rabble rousers and the riffraff and the hoi polloi.

In baptism we have the inauguration. And now we have the term agenda. Jesus is not the King of the Shadow Empires or worldly courts, he is not the one who will save himself from hunger by acts of raw Power.The temptations tell us many things: many things for many other sermons. But at their heart they tell us what kind of a man Jesus Christ is, and therefore what kind of God he is. In the temptations we have to do with the very identity (not the idea, the theory, the thing), no the very identity of the very unexpected God.

In Jordan we meet the God who comes to us and takes on our sin, takes our deepest, darkest places into his very being. And in the wilderness this very same God, carrying our sin and his hunger, shows himself as one whose interest is righteousness—and the redemption it will bring.

And we look on in awe, with a sinking feeling that our last chance to stand in the Jordan has passed us by. By now we’ve broken our New Years resolutions, we’ve misplaced our self-improvement books.

But here’s the thing: when Jesus stands as human before God, when Jesus begins his reconciling work, he invites us into the river with him. All of us, all of the ones with whom he waited, jostled and jolted, he invites them and us to wade alongside to see and hear with him: you are my sons and daughters and in you I am well pleased.

It’s not self-help. It’s not self-esteem. It’s not making yourself good or any other thing. It’s submitting to righteousness, as Jesus did in the dessert. It’s praying and working out our salvation. It’s repentance and obedience. It’s doubting and arguing and weeping and rejoicing. It’s facing the wildernesses of our lives, wherever they may be, and trusting that God’s will will carry us even to our last moments, that God will never abandon us. “Bidden or not bidden”, Carl Jung posted above his office door, “God is present.” Jesus has taken on our sin, he carries it. He will carry it to the cross where it will die with him. And three days later when he leaves the tomb, our shame, our estrangement, it is gone. The end of the wilderness will be the cross, where Jesus, this man, this God, will die in order that all unrighteousness may die. Will die in order that we, all of us, the rich, the poor, the high and mighty, the forgotten and unclean, in order that we may once again recognize the face of God.

However estranged, in whatever wilderness, however insignificant we may feel, we have been baptized with Christ—we share with him that one essential thing. Christ withstood every temptation for us so that, in our own struggles for righteousness, justice and mercy and my goodness, for love, so that we could hear and go into the world knowing that we, all of us, are the ones in whom God is well pleased. And so that we could live according to that awful, beautiful promise!

Overhear this—we are called, by the image of God, an image innate to every single one of us—to righteousness and to justice. And we will likely fail. But Jesus did not! And God is well pleased once again.

Overheard on the Jordan, by A. A. Stuckey / Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-13 / 13 January 2013 / for Pilgrim Covenant Church, South Plainsfield, New Jersey