EVERYONE, COME TO THE FASTING PARTY!

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Mark 1:9-15, Luke 18:9-14

Jennifer Hosler

A Plant Geek

Last week, I was talking with someone about the plants I have in my garden. I mentioned the different herbs that I grow and how my bay leaf tree has survived several years, even though it is not technically zoned for our city. According to the USDA Hardiness Zones (which provide a planting and climate guide for gardeners), most of the District is Zone 7A and Bay Laurel shrubs are technically rated as hardy at Zone 8. This friend was really surprised that I knew this; he had no idea that such zones existed.

While I’m not an expert (nor do I have my degree in horticulture, like someone else in the room), I suppose I have a basic gardening literacy. I can converse about annuals and perennials that can grow in our region and I know a little bit about shrubs and trees. This literacy allows me to make informed choices about what plants to grow and where to put them in my garden. I could spend my whole life gardening and not get to the full depth of all knowledge on the subject. However, I have the tools that I need to function and flourish, producing food and beauty while learning a little more each year.

An Obscure Book, Important Lessons for a Community

Like with gardening, the Bible is an area where there is an unlimited amount to know and learn. There are obscure references and details that pastors or seminary students can joke about or spend hours discussing the nuances or arguments around. While some of us can geek out about the Bible, we don’t all need to know Greek or Hebrew or be able to discourse on ancient near eastern creation stories. You don’t have to be an expert or go to seminary to have functional bible literacy.

Pastors and teachers can highlight the main points and contexts of different books so that we can all be conversationally fluent in church and when doing study on our own. Biblical literacy gives us tools to encounter scripture: to understand a bit about a book’s culture and circumstances, determine the applications to the original audience, and then apply the text to our own journeys following Jesus. The goals of our sermons at Washington City COB are to encourage and challenge each other, while also equipping everyone with skills and tools for working with the Bible on their own.

As part of that, I have both a survey and a confession (since it’s Lent, confessions are appropriate). Let’s start with the survey. Don’t raise your hand physically but, in your head, raise your hand if you’re ever read the whole book of Joel. If you have read Joel, do you think you could give a brief synopsis of what the book is about? I openly confess that I would not have been able to do so before my sermon preparation this week.  In some ways, it’s surprising, since I’ve read it several times, was a Hebrew major, and have taken an Old Testament survey class—where I was required to memorize at least one distinctive word or phrase about every book in the Hebrew Scriptures. I couldn’t remember the keyword on my own in 2018, so I dug out our old textbook. Joel’s keyword is locusts. But, while locusts are certainly distinctive, that doesn’t really tell you much about the prophet’s message.

Joel is a short book, with only three chapters. It’s a little strange, but with important prophetic calls and precious promises that extended from Joel’s time to the future. Our passage in Joel was an alternative Ash Wednesday reading and it’s fitting both to think about Lent (which started on Wednesday) and to provide some guidance for our community discernment process. As you heard during the announcements, we are continuing our post-Brethren Nutrition Program discernment, talking about covenant community, membership, ministry, church roles, and spiritual gifts.

My sermon title today is, Everyone, Come to the Fasting Party! This could be bias, but I think my title is more helpful to remember the context of Joel than just “locusts.” In a pivotal and crucial time for the people of Judah, Joel calls the entire community of faith to join in communal repentance and fasting. Joel speaks on behalf of Yahweh, connecting the hope of community renewal and restoration with an intentional reorientation toward the LORD. In a time of crisis, the people’s hope hinges on the nature of Yahweh and of the promise that Yahweh is not finished working, revealing, and transforming.

Locusts and a Community in Crisis

While I may think “Everyone, come to the fasting party!” is a better summary description of Joel, there are certainly locusts in the book of Joel. They are nasty locusts, not fun, chirpy cicadas or 17-year slumberers. Chapter 1 starts out saying, “Pass this story on to your children! Has anything like this happened before? Locusts came and ate everything we had.” Joel recounts the devastation and the mourning of both people and animals. The people are in crisis, with their survival threatened. While Joel doesn’t say explicitly that sin is the cause of all this ecological devastation, it would have been clear to the prophet’s audience.

In the Law given through Moses (commands written in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), ecological devastation is presented as a consequence of the people’s sins (Deuteronomy 28). Right living in the covenant with Yahweh brings blessing, bountiful harvests, and ecological prosperity. Right living includes both right worship and right relationships, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable. Idolatry and oppressing the poor would result in the land drying up and becoming infertile. The Covenant was an agreement between the people and Yahweh and there were serious implications for breaking the Covenant. In other prophets, we see the effects of sin on the land (Hos. 4:1-3; Jer. 12:4). In both Hosea and Jeremiah, the land mourns as it and the creatures it sustains begin to die.

Here in Joel, locusts devour, “animals groan,” “herds of cattle wander” aimlessly without food, and “even flocks of sheep are dazed” (v. 18). The last verse in chapter 1 says, “Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness” (v. 20). Amid this devastation, it is clear to the prophet Joel what action is required to rescue to community from the brink.

Blow the Trumpet

If this were a play, there would be a cue for the sound of a shofar. A shofar is a ram’s horn used in Jewish rituals, especially the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Inspired by my father-in-law’s occasional use of props during sermons, I had Nate bring in my Kudu Antelope horn from Kenya. [trumpet sound] The trumpet in our text likely would have been a ram’s horn or the horn from another animal, made into an instrument that could send a signal to the people. People groups in Kenya like the Njemp or Maasai have traditionally used this horn to communicate between villages in the Great Rift Valley. Our passage begins with the LORD saying, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” (v. 1). The LORD gives a message that everyone in Judah needs to wake up—to tremble even—and the day of the LORD is at hand.

The Day of the LORD is a motif used throughout the prophets, used to describe when Yahweh is breaking into history to either bring judgment or deliverance against the people of Israel and Judah or other nations. The Day is not like one temporal day (evening and morning), but a cosmic event in salvation history. The Day of the LORD is God at work, making things right through judgment (since people were judged for injustice and idolatry) or making things new through a promise of transformation and wholeness.

The prophet Joel receives the word to sound the horn, the day of the LORD is near. While an impending day of darkness and gloom—not to mention the preexisting locust devastation—sounds harsh and terrorizing, Yahweh really has the people’s interests at heart and wants to keep the Covenant, no mater how many times the people try to abandon it.

The LORD, Yahweh, desires that the people come back with open hearts. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12). God wants relationships with humans. “Return to me, come back to me, come home,” God beckons. Joel calls the people to turn to God, not just with some outward expression, but with true inward repentance and transformation—a genuine reorienting of their lives to Yahweh.

The God that awaits the people is neither a tyrant nor an apathetic or impassive divine being but the “I Am”—the One who has consistently self-revealed as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (v. 13; cf. Exodus 34:6). These words to describe Yahweh are the same as those revealed to Moses in Exodus and then used repeatedly throughout the Hebrew scriptures. In this call to return, God demonstrates proactive love by reaching out, despite the people’s obstinance and attempts at life without God. The LORD says, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,” (v. 12).

A Crucial Spiritual Detox/A Fasting Party

Fasting is mentioned again in verse 15: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, gather the people. Sanctify the congregation, assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy” (vv. 15-16). The trumpets are blown, the people are on high alert, and everyone is called to partake in what could be called a communal, spiritual detox program. A healthy detox eating program might eliminate fast food, junk food, chips, soda, and other empty calories that aren’t good for you and replace them with fruits and vegetables, water, whole grains, legumes, and other healthy options. In this biblical, spiritual detox, the people stop everything that they are doing to focus on Yahweh.

It’s a time to assess where the people have been self-indulgent, self-sufficient, and have worshipped that which is not God. It’s a time to repent of how they have worshipped things, placed profits, personal comfort, or material possessions over people. It’s a time to recognize and confessing of having lived as though they had no need for God. For our individualistic culture, fasting, repenting, and mourning over sin are things that we are generally inclined to do privately. We don’t say, “Hey, let’s everybody come to the fasting party!” partly because our culture assumes that our own lives and decisions are independent from those around us. “You do you, as long as you’re not hurting anyone directly.”  But for the people of Israel, the individual’s relationship with God is linked to the community’s relationship with God.

Individual repentance is linked to the corporate or communal repentance; individual well-being is inseparable from the community’s well-being. The call to return to God goes out to everyone: young, old, men and women. It’s not just the priests, not just the prophets or leader, not just adults—everyone’s faith matters. The whole community is called to “declare a holy fast” (v. 15). The elderly, the children, “even infants at the breast” and newlyweds on their honeymoon: the crisis facing the community required that everyone partake in the communal fasting and repentance.

Looking at the rest of Joel, we see that Yahweh promises deliverance and renewal, a restoration of the land. Beyond that, the people are given hope of a new Day of the LORD, an era where the Spirit of God will fill and inspire people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21). The Apostle Peter cites Joel’s prophesy in Acts 2, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fills and dwells the Jesus-followers.

Individual Vs. Community Well-Being

The particularities of the Mosaic Covenant, the blessings and curses and the connection between sin and the fertility of the land of Israel, those don’t apply to the new covenant in Jesus. Yet, there are certainly other relevant thoughts and questions that this passage raises for the church today. One question is this: how does our own faith affect the faith of the community? How are the health and well-being of our individual relationships with God—our individual Jesus-following—linked to the health and well-being of a congregation? In other words, when I’m not prioritizing my relationship with God, it makes sense that it would hurt me. But does it hurt others?

When I’m distant or aloof from God, it likely affects how I relate to my spouse, my broader family, and also to my church. I imagine that I’m not able to fully be the blessing that God has designed me to be, via my spiritual gifts and talents, if God is not the center of my life. I think for a time of community discernment—like what we’re trying to engage in at Washington City—it’s important to recognize the synergy between our individual spirituality and the state of our community. We need all levels of our lives to be syncing together and seeking after the Spirit.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a time that Christians have used for centuries to prepare their hearts for Easter, to detox from the things that distract from our Creator, and to repent and seek God’s renewing presence. Fasting is an ancient practice and an important tool to be used, whether you are fasting from lunch, chocolate, Facebook or something else. Fasting helps us reorient our lives towards God, creating a reminder or an absence that compels us towards God. Some people don’t cut out things but add a spiritual practice for Lent: they read a Lenten devotional, commit to reading one of the gospels, they add times of prayer to their daily routine, or commit to doing a specific service.

If you want ideas or resources for fasting or spiritual practices during Lent, Nate and I are available to talk through it with you. We’re past Ash Wednesday, but it’s not too late to start something. Our journey towards renewal, toward community discernment, toward the Last Supper, the Cross, and the Empty Tomb all lay ahead.

The call to return, to draw near to God, rang out for the people of Israel and it also echoes to us today in 2018. God is still saying, “Return to me with all your heart.” It’s easy to turn God into an abstraction, an impassive deity. Yet, we see here in Joel and in many other parts of scripture—in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, in Jesus’ general interactions with everyone—that the Creator of the Universe lovingly calls each of us to God’s self.

Where do we find our hope during personal crisis or as a congregation in transition? We find hope in knowing God and being known intimately and deeply by God, in experiencing abundant love, mercy, and God’s purpose for our lives. Sisters and brothers, is God calling you to return, to draw near? What can you do this Lent to prepare your heart for Easter, and to get in sync with God’s Spirit that is moving in our lives, in this church, and in this world? Everyone, come to the fasting party and let’s prepare our hearts for Jesus. Turn, return to God—for God is where wholeness and completeness, steadfast love, fulfillment and blessing will be found. AMEN.

UP AND DOWN

Mark 9:2-9

Jeff Davidson

What was the best day of your life? Was it the day you got that puppy or kitten for Christmas? Was it the day you graduated from high school, or from college? Was it the day you got married? The day your first child was born? The day you got the promotion at work? The day you retired? The day you won the lottery? If it was that one you’ve been holding out on me.

As maybe you could tell from the timeline of my suggestions, you might have lots of best days in your life. What the best day ever is right now could be eclipsed by some other day yet to come. I still remember when I was a kid and we got our first dog, a dachshund that we named Fritzie. I remember waiting in the car with my mom and my sister while Dad went into the house of the people we got her from. I remember how excited I was watching him walk back to the car holding her, and how wonderful it was to hold on to her wiggly little body while she licked my face. That may have been the best day in my life, at least to that point.

Would I trade graduating from college, though, or from seminary, or marrying Julia for that day again? No. But even though it’s no longer the best day of my life, it was a great day.

Sometimes we refer to wonderful days, fantastic events like that as “mountain top experiences.” A mountain top experience is a moment of transcendent joy and happiness, a moment of supreme importance in life. I wondered where that expression came from, so I played around on google for a while and I couldn’t find a firm background for it, but most of what I read said that the phrase came from the number of important things in the Bible that happened on mountain tops.

Noah’s ark settled on Mt. Ararat after the flood, and God made a covenant with Noah there. It was on Mt. Moriah that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, and then provided a ram as a substitute. Mt. Moriah is also where Solomon built the temple, where sacrifices would be offered for the forgiveness of sins until Jesus came.

On Mt, Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. On Mt. Carmel Elijah and the prophets of Baal had their great contest to see whose prayers would be answered by fire. And after the contest when Elijah ran for his life he travelled to Mt. Horeb and God spoke to him in the still small voice. David built up Jerusalem on Mt. Zion.

Jesus taught His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Today’s reading is about Jesus being transfigured on a mountain while Moses and Elijah (who both had their own mountain top experiences) were seen talking with Jesus. And it certainly was a mountain top experience for James and John and Peter too. I cannot imagine what it must have been like.

On April 3, 1968 – the day before he was assassinated – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last public speech. It’s known as “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” because of its most famous section. It’s a great speech, and toward the end of it King says:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That’s a powerful speech. Some of the power, of course, is because King was murdered the next day. Even if that hadn’t happened, though, it would be a great speech. King said that he climbed up to the top of the mountain; what did he do from there? 

I said that I remembered picking up our first dog, Fritzie. What happened next? Well, we took her home. Dad had built a little bed for her, and it went under the sink in the half-bath. It had a cushion in it, and some blankets, and a clock wrapped up because we’d read that the ticking of the clock would remind her of the heartbeats of her brothers and sisters.

I don’t remember the next day exactly – this was maybe when I was in kindergarten. But I’m sure that someone fed her, and someone let her out, and someone walked her. It was probably Mom, since she wasn’t working outside the home then.  After we brought Fritzie home and played with her that first night is when the work of actually owning and caring for a dog really began.

I remember what it was like after my wedding day. We went to Atwood Lake for a few days for a honeymoon. After that we came back home and opened gifts, and then Julia went back to work and I went back to class.

What did Moses do after he went up the mountain? He came back down with the Ten Commandments in hand, only to break them in frustration at the sin and depravity he found. He then went back to the hard work of leading the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness. What did Noah do after leaving the Ark? He came down the mountain and lived another 350 years. He was a farmer and he had a vineyard. He drank too much. He lived his life.

 To answer my earlier question, what did Martin Luther King Jr. do after he had gone up to the mountaintop? He came back down, and continued the struggle even though it cost him his life.

In that, King and Jesus were alike. What happens after Jesus and James and Peter and John go up to the mountain top? They come back down, and Jesus heals a boy possessed by an unclean spirit, and then Jesus discusses his impending death and resurrection.

You can’t live on the mountain top. Sooner or later you have to come back down and get on with the rest of your life. Eventually you have to do your work, earn a living, share your gifts, and do whatever it is God has called you to do.

Even if you could live on the mountain top the rest of your life, would you want to? My wedding was a mountain top experience for me. Do I really want to live the rest of my life in a perpetual wedding? I don’t even have that same charcoal gray suit anymore. Imagine how much sooner it would have worn out if I’d worn it every day after the wedding. I don’t remember exactly what kind of food we had for our wedding reception, but whatever it was I guarantee I would be sick of it if I had eaten it for every meal from then until now.

If I had spent the rest of my life trying to recapture the happiness of that one particular day, I would have missed a lot of growth and a lot of joy and a lot of love in my own life as I have lived it. I would have missed the chance to deepen my love and my relationship with Julia. I would not have become the person that I am, for better or for worse, and would not have touched whatever lives I have touched since then.

In verse 5 of our reading Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Suppose Jesus had taken him up on it. What next? Well, that might have been okay for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but there would have been no shelter there for Peter or James or John, so they would have been out in the cold until they could have gotten some. And would they have had food and drink? Jesus and Moses and Elijah would probably have been fine without wine or fish, but mortal men like Peter? Not so much.

No, Peter didn’t really want to stay up there. He’d have realized that if he’d thought it through for a bit. And if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain top, then that boy would never have had the demon cast out. And there would have been no cross. And no resurrection. And no salvation. No kingdom of God to share, no justice to proclaim. No release for the captives, no food for the hungry, no comfort for the mourning.

It was essential for Jesus’s ministry that if he went up the mountain, then eventually he should come down. It was essential for everyone else that we talked about earlier. Moses went up on the mountain and saw the promised land, but he had to come down before the people could enter it. King went up to the mountain top and echoed Moses in saying that he might not get there, but he came down to continue the journey no matter what it would bring. It is essential for us that when we are on the mountain top that we come down to continue to work that needs to be done, to continue moving towards the goal that we see in the distance.

There’s something else that’s essential that we don’t always think about. We need to be ready not just to come down from the mountaintop ourselves, but we need to be ready when we are waiting on the ground for others to come down from the mountaintop.

I remember a young man who went to the Church of the Brethren’s National Youth Conference or NYC. That’s a nationwide gathering of high school youth in the church. It’s once every four years, and about 3,000 youth gather for fun, prayer, worship, learning, service, and a lot more. It’s usually held in Colorado and it is a mountain top experience for most people who go there both literally and figuratively.

The young man I knew was the only high school aged person in his congregation. He came back from NYC excited, enthusiastic, on fire to share and to serve. His congregation, though, didn’t have any outlets for him to do that. There was no youth group for him to be a part of. There were no college age youth. There were no particular opportunities for service. There wasn’t much institutional support.

I don’t know what ever happened to that young man. I do know that he came down from the mountain ready to serve God, but the people waiting for him weren’t prepared to help him turn that energy and that drive and that fire into positive action.

Maybe you have mountain top experiences yet to come. I hope you do. I hope you’re ready to come back down from the mountain and move towards what you saw while you were up there. Maybe you’re not going up the mountain right now. I hope you’re ready to help those who are coming down from the mountain, ready to equip them and support them and strengthen them as they put their dreams and visions into action.

Sometimes we’re going up, but sooner or later we will come down. Whether we are up or down, we can serve God. We can share the kingdom. We can work towards seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. Amen.       

IF I PROCLAIM

Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

Nathan Hosler

Directly before our passage is Paul’s discussion of meat sacrificed to idols. Though there is freedom to eat, this freedom is qualified by the higher priority of the spiritual well-being of others. Jenn preached on this last week. In this the Apostle considers food sacrificed to idols. Paul asserts that though Christians are not constrained in what they can eat should always have the spiritual well-being of others in mind and as the highest priority. Though you are free in relation to God, you must be constrained in relation to your sisters and brothers who may be spiritually upended by your action.

A commentator writes, “Those who truly know God and are known by him will employ their freedom and knowledge for the sake of building up others in their faith, even when this entails denying one’s own legitimate rights as a believer (Hafemann, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, 166).”  In light of this we turn to chapter 9. Though this may feel like a digression it is part of the same (though somewhat expanded argument). The chapter opens— “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?”

Paul provides an example of this freedom in his giving something up for the sake of others. Paul forgoes legitimate payment for preaching.  In this he demonstrates the absolute priority he gives to others and for his calling in a ministry of proclaiming the Gospel.

He asks rhetorically in verse 18 “What then is my reward?” “Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” We often think of rights in relation to commands to act justly towards the poor and immigrant. This is why our denomination participates with the National Farm Worker Ministry (www.nfwm.org). For example, Proverbs 29:7 “The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding.” Or Deuteronomy 24:14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” In this Paul is referring to rights of a worker that are parallel to his work in ministry. As a worker in a vineyard or field has a right to the material resources needed for survival so to does the Apostle who engages in the work of ministry.

Paul argues that those who labor expect to gain sustenance from it. One does not pay for one’s own service in the military, nor keep a vineyard without eating the fruit. He quotes and then interprets figuratively the command that oxen should be allowed to eat while they work as an example of God’s concern for the human worker (sorry oxen). He makes a strong argument that he has the full and legitimate right to make a living from his preaching and then says—despite this right to pay, I have decided not to use this right. He goes even stronger, asserting, “Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting.”

While we could deduce much from this on the topic of labor, Paul’s main point is as a demonstration and illustration about freedom. Though he is free and entitled to being supported for his work of ministry, he has, for the sake of the community, offered this service free of charge. Furthermore, he asserts, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” (9:19). This sounds very heroic and high-minded, however, he asserted a few verses earlier that “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! (9:16)”

9:17: “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission”.  If done on his own he would be rewarded but since he is compelled—he is “entrusted with a commission” he is simply fulfilling what is required. There is a reward—of sorts—he is able to make the proclamation without charging. This seems like a strange reward but indicates that his greatest concern is for those to whom he proclaims the gospel. He says, (9:19) For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them

There is #1 priority of proclaiming the Gospel 

Paul’s top aim is proclaiming the gospel. This focus is mirrored in Mark. In 1:38 we hear Jesus answer, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” The proclamation of the message is Jesus’ task. This is not only preaching in the form of saying words. Clearly this proclaiming is connected to the healing and in other passages to feeding and setting free. In Luke 4:18-19 at the beginning of his ministry Jesus defines his ministry by quoting from the prophet Isaiah, he reads

“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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Absolute focus on the calling of God. Absolute focus on proclaiming the Good News. All else conforms to this. Of course, this does not mean that our callings are the same as the Apostle’s or a pastor’s or missionary’s or something else that sounds like what we expect the extra-called to sound like, but this calling is definite and not to be taken lightly or as a side hobby.

I’ve heard analysts, and even a peacemaker or so, make an assertion that goes something like—a strongly held spiritual conviction puts one, almost necessarily, in the intolerant and dangerous camp. I don’t doubt that this can be the case but living radical peacemaking in the face of the violence of the world is not for the half-way committed. To live simply. To conform one’s life to spiritual disciplines in the face of infinite pulls on our attention. To live hopefully in face of repeat catastrophes is not for the half-way present and half-way committed. This call requires sharp focus. It requires a thoroughgoing commitment as well as the inner life and community to sustain it.

Proclamation of the Gospel—in all its facets and in all parts of our lives—is the #1 priority

Secondly, proclamation requires Spirit power

Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof intentional communities in Nazi Germany, writes,

“Today we must emphasize it once more: our capacity for work is sure to become exhausted and mechanical—our strength will be sapped at the core—if no deepening is given to the inner life. As soon as inner stillness and quiet are lost, the holy springs of the inner world that bring life-giving water to our spiritual life are bound to fail at the very source (Eberhard Arnold, Innerland: A Guide into the heart of the Gospel, 2).

Isaiah 40:28-31 “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Thirdly, Proclamation requires flexibility

These verses show the Apostle as surprisingly flexible about some major theological and ethical controversies. Jenn discussed this last week in regard to eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He asserts “I have become all things to all people,” In context it reads,

9:20-23 “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” 

In this congregation we more regularly preach and talk about being with people, in solidarity, or challenging injustice as part of joining the struggle for peace, justice, or inclusion of the excluded. We are perhaps more prone to assert with the theologian challenging oppression that:

“Through the praxis of solidarity, we not only apprehend and are moved by the suffering of the other, we confront and address its oppressive cause and shoulder the other’s suffering.… (M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 94).”

Though this solidarity is not excluded here, it is also not quite the same as Paul’s becoming “all things to all people,” This seems like it could be deceptive. A kind of trickery to blend and make an argument. However, when we keep it in the context we see that Paul is forgoing certain freedoms so as to not cause offense or distract unnecessarily.

Here is my one, perhaps obligatory, football reference on the Sunday which also includes the Super Bowl…If you know Jess or have been around here on any of the same Sundays you will likely have noticed that she is a Patriot’s fan. She is a fan in a way that is beyond my comprehension. During the Christmas eve service while she was up front reading scripture, I happen to notice that she was wearing Patriot’s shoes. So, the Apostle not creating a barrier is like me not wearing an Eagles jersey this morning or perhaps even joining her.. (I was going to say that, of course, Paul’s is dealing with things of religious significance…but then I realized that for many, this game, may be of that degree of seriousness).

In these passages we see proclamation as first priority, proclamation needing Spirit power, and proclamation requiring flexibility. In this we place others above ourselves, testifying to the reconciling work of Christ.

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae

 

ADULTING AFTER JESUS (OF JAMES, JACOB, TRIALS AND TEMPTATIONS)

James 1:1-18, Psalm 46, Mark 9:20-27

Jenn Hosler

This is the first sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio of this sermon here: soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/james-jacob-temptations-and-trials-september-24-2017 . *Note* The audio differs from the text. 

Yesterday, I was working on my sermon right up until I had to leave for French class. I realized, at 1:20 when I needed to leave, that I hadn’t eaten anything. I hadn’t even thought about food. Now, I didn’t have any time to sit down and eat the leftovers that were sitting in our fridge (which I wasn’t avoiding, I just didn’t think about). I hastily slathered together a PB&J and threw it in my bag, hopped on my bike, and rode away, eating in the 5 minutes I had before class.

Remembering to eat. Thinking ahead about cooking before supper time. Those are parts of adulting that I seem to struggle with. Adulting, if you don’t know, is a 21st century term for grown up responsibilities. Adulting. Thankfully, I have a partner who loves to cook and is usually quite hungry well before the meal, so we eat, despite my poor adulting skill in this area.

Adulting is hard. When you are not a kid, you need to pay your own bills, figure out transportation, make sure you get places on time, and you are the one responsible for keeping pets and kids alive if you have them. You can’t really opt out of adulting for long and even doing so for a short time has consequences. Dirty dishes must be cleaned some time; binge watching a season of a tv show could feel like a digital hangover at work the next day.

Yet there are good things about adulting. Adulting has rewards! Choice and autonomy, such as getting to paint my walls yellow and my stairs green. We also get the fulfillment of mastering skills and accomplishments, producing things like meals for friends, writing songs, or planning events. Shortly after we moved to DC, I bought a bunch of camping supplies that we needed and put them all in a single tote. Rather than scrambling to find what we need, I knew I could just pull out my camping tote. Camping competently feels like happy adulting. It feels kind of awesome; I understand it might be strange if you don’t find organizing gratifying.

Why James?

Today we start our sermon series on the book of James. I think that one way to describe James could be that it offers up practical ways of adulting after Jesus. Adulting after Jesus is following Jesus in a way that seeks maturity, or growing up in Christ Jesus. James has been referred to as the Proverbs of the New Testament. It both talks about wisdom and is understood to be a form of wisdom literature like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. James’ emphasis on virtues and right action, particularly under times of pressure, is similar to Greco-Roman wisdom literature, but its flavor is more Jewish (Wall, 1997).

James is also understood by some to be like midrash, a Jewish tradition where texts are used to interpret other texts; James appears to engage both the Hebrew scriptures (which would have been his and his audience’s bible) and Jesus’ sayings on the Sermon on the Mount (Wall, 1997).

Why study James together for 10 weeks? Logistically, James was easily broken up into 10 parts. We also happened to have 10 weeks from the date we wanted to start a sermon series until Advent. So that tells us why 10 – but why James? In the same way that the early Brethren loved the Sermon on the Mount for being both profound and practical, the early Brethren also appreciated the praxis (faith that involved action) found in books like James (Bowman, 1995). M.M. Eshelman said that “the Brethren preached the ‘necessity of doing, as well as the necessity of saying’” (Bowman, 1995, p. 77).

Like the early Brethren, at Washington City COB, we prioritize the words of Jesus found in the gospels, and use other NT writings and the Hebrew scriptures to build up our faith journey following Jesus. Our last sermon series was on the Sermon on the Mount, so this time, we thought to prioritize one of the letters to the early church.

Studying large passages of scripture, or whole books of the Bible in a cohesive way, can build up our community, and also increase our biblical literacy. We can build up our knowledge of the historical and literary context, something that really helps our interpretation. Since I am first in the series, I’m going to spend a few more minutes on the literary and historical context of James before I get back to James’ practical guide to adulting after Jesus.

Context and Background to James

So, to recap James is understood to be both wisdom literature, a form of midrash, and a letter. Some people throughout church history have maligned James as not being very Jesus-y and not very theological. One commentator says that James is “among the most neglected books in the New Testament” (Wall, 1997, p. 545).  Martin Luther, the reformer in the 1500s, really did not like James because Luther was all worked up about grace and works. James emphasizes that faith needs to be put into practice; you can’t just say you believe this and that about God—you need to live it. Luther was like, believe! Believe! Believe! So he couldn’t appreciate James very much.

Before Luther’s time, another person in the middle ages changed how English speakers understood the letter of James. Though your bible says James, the book we are studying should be called Jacob. The Greek says Iakubus. Jacob also makes much more sense, since Jacob was a common Jewish name, not James.

How did it happen that the name Jacob became, as one writer puts it, “so Gentilized”? “In the 14th century, John Wycliffe made the first Bible translation into English and translated Iakobus as James. (However, in both the Old and New Testaments he arbitrarily used the name Jacob for the patriarch). In all future English translations, the name stuck, especially after 1611, when King James I sponsored the translation then called the Authorized Version but since 1797 called the King James Bible” (Wilson, 2017). Ask people who speak other languages what this book is called in their language and it will sound more like Jacob than James. During our series, we’ll keep calling it James for simplicity’s sake.

When we think about Jacob/James, we should remember that the audience is Jewish Christians. “To the twelve tribes of the Dispersion,” we read. In that era, Jews were scattered throughout the Roman empire. Jews who followed Jesus as Messiah often still worshipped in a regular Jewish synagogue, until the tension got to be too much. Some Jewish leaders, particularly those under the Sadducees, persecuted Jewish followers of Jesus. This was sometimes violent. However, the persecution most likely during James’ letter was “low-level persecution such as social rejection and economic boycotts” (Davids, 1994, p. 1357). Until part-way through the 4th Century, Christians were sometimes persecuted by Jews, but were largely persecuted by Romans. Jews were also persecuted and oppressed by Romans. After Christianity became the state religion in the 300s, Christians persecuted Jews for centuries.  

Church history and a good portion of scholars think that the author James is Jesus’ brother James (known as James the Just). This James is referenced in the book of Acts. He was the church leader in Jerusalem and he had some big disagreements with the apostle Paul on circumcision and how “Jewish” new believers who were Gentiles needed to become. (For more on that, read the book of Acts 15 and 21).

Because of early oral tradition on who James was and what his teachings were, church leaders in the 200 and 300s continued to affirm that the letter of James was a book that should be part of the church’s scriptures. Thus, it is one of the 66 books in our bible and we are studying it today.

Trials, Temptations, and Perseverance

I said earlier that one way to describe James is that it offers up practical ways of adulting after Jesus. It has instruction to follow Jesus in a way that seeks maturity and growing up in Christ. James’ readers are having a tough go, being socially excluded and economically marginalized. They’re living in a place where societal values laud the powerful, the strong, and those with material wealth or social prestige. The readers know that Jesus taught his followers different values.

Recognizing the struggle, James writes, “Sisters and brothers, whenever you face trials and challenges (since I know that you are), consider it pure joy. Why? Because it makes you stronger in Jesus—the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance have its full effect—keep on moving forward. The spiritual adulting and persevering through the low times, the difficult times, this will bear fruit. Then you will be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

James continues, “If any of you need wisdom in how to get through your struggle, ask God—who gives generously to all without finding fault—and it will be given to you.” Following Jesus, adulting after Jesus, isn’t easy. When we don’t want to adult after Jesus, when we feel like living out the Jesus way is exactly not what we want to do, James says that God is ready. Ask and you will receive (this echoes Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount; Mt 7:7-11).

What stands out for me here is that, when we ask for help, our generous Creator will not find fault, but will provide the wisdom and strength that we need. God’s not going to chide you for struggling! James says, “Ask and God will say, I’ve got you.”

“Ask in faith and never doubt,” James continues. Never doubting—I don’t think that this means never question our faith, but that when we do question, we should look to God in a way that says, like the father in Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief!” When following Jesus gets hard, it is so easy to question, “Why am I really doing this? Why am I trying to not prioritize status or money? Or why am I choosing to engage a person that I’d rather just be angry at? Or, why exactly am I committed to a rag-tag group of Jesus followers called Washington City Church of the Brethren? Lord knows, that the world’s wisdom says none of these are worth doing.” Yep, Lord knows. But we’re following another type of wisdom. Ask in faith, “Lord, I want to believe, help my unbelief.”

Sisters and brothers, we all face challenges in following Jesus’ way, when we’re tired and weary of choosing kindness, mercy, forgiveness, service, and love. We are called to keep going—and to trust that God can use the difficulty to make us more like Jesus.

There will be times when we don’t want to be adulting after Jesus, when it is easier to choose a path that is bitter or greedy or prideful or spiteful. But James says that these challenges are opportunities—good things—and that overcoming them makes us stronger followers of Jesus. When it comes to adulting after Jesus, the struggle is real. Yet, we are not alone and God is ready to give generously to us during our struggle, if we ask. What are you struggling with? Ask and God will generously give you wisdom, without judging you.

An Upside-Down Kingdom

One of the books that I’ve wanted to read for a while, that I’ve heard about since I joined Anabaptist circles, is The Upside-Down Kingdom. And that was even before I met the author, Don Kraybill. I want to read it because the title’s metaphor is quite perfect; Jesus’ values turn our world upside-down. The Sermon on the Mount makes that very clear and so does our passage in James.

James says this audacious thing, “Let the believers who are lowly, or in humble circumstances, or—let’s just say it—who are poor, be the ones who boast. Why? Because God is raising them up! The poor are in the high position.” This upside-down value sounds similar to Jesus saying, “the first will be last, the last will be first.” James continues and says, “The rich among you should boast too, because they are being brought low!” The NIV paints it strongly, “the rich should take pride in their humiliation!” Humiliation isn’t normally what one takes pride in.

I think James is saying, that the community of Jesus followers need to proclaim their upside-down values! There are rich Christians and poor Christians (we’ll hear more about the dynamics between them in later chapters). Both rich and poor Christians need to be boasting that God is on the side of the weak and poor, and that riches are as ephemeral as wildflowers.

James continues with words about temptation. The temptation isn’t specified. What could it be? Temptation to stop persevering in the faith? Temptation to give up on the way of Jesus, which exalts the poor over the rich? It’s not clear. But what James tries to make clear, in a way that contrasts the positively-framed trials that we need to persevere through, is that temptation is our own doing. Temptation involves conscious steps in a direction contrary to what God has designed for our well-being. James cautions the early Christians, “the beloved,” not to be deceived. We oversee our own integrity. If we open ourselves up to corruption (in money, in relationships, or anything else), we can’t blame God. God doesn’t tempt; as James said earlier, when we are struggling and weary in doing right, when we need wisdom, God is graciously ready to provide abundantly—without judging us! 

Adulting after Jesus

Sisters and brothers, adulting after Jesus is hard. Persevering in love, mercy, peace, forgiveness, kindness, humility, and simplicity—these are things that our culture says we should not do. Being concerned with personal integrity is also not highly valued right now. But at Washington City Church of the Brethren, we are following the upside-down way of Jesus.

Whether you are exploring Jesus for the first time or you’ve already committed to Jesus, you might be getting the sense that the struggle is too real and you’re wondering whether you should walk away from this Jesus thing. Sisters and brothers, God is ready to give wisdom, strength, and the courage to persevere; God gives generously, without finding fault, if we ask. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. Let’s keep on adulting after Jesus. AMEN.

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you

 

References

Bowman, C.F. (1995). Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People.” Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davids, P.H. (1994). James. G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. ).  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wall, R.W. (1997). James, letter of. R.P. Martin and P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments (pp. ). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wilson, M. (2017, April 27). James or Jacob in the Bible? Biblical Archaeology. Retrieved from

https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-versions-and-translations/james-or-jacob-in-the-bible/

GOOD TROUBLE: DISOBEYING THE POWERS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Matthew 16:13-20

Jennifer Hosler

A leader stands up and says, “They are taking over. They are ruining our country. They are overrunning our cities. They are plotting, they are seeking to undermine our values and our prosperity. Those people must be stopped, must be controlled, must be contained, so that we can be safe, so that we can continue to prosper, so that we can succeed.” They. Those people.

You could assume that the leader standing up is a present-day leader but our Exodus passage demonstrates that this is a thousand-year old problem. The leader is an ancient one: Pharaoh. Thousands of year ago, it was the Israelites, the Jews, who were “they” and “those people.” Today, people are still fearfully chanting “Jews will not replace us.” We’ve seen that people of today are once again Jews but also Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender folk, and many more.

The Bible is always relevant; but, there are times when the relevance seems to smack you in the face. Our Exodus reading is one of those passages: it seems to be speaking exactly for our present day. Granted, I don’t typically run into midwives or Pharaohs. The setting is different, but the truths that we can extrapolate are pertinent, poignant, and applicable. There are two lessons I want to focus on today: 1) ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants; and 2) women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

Ordinary People Getting into Good Trouble

I recently read a three-part graphic novel written by Congressman John Lewis, called “March!” March illustrates the Civil Rights Movement through the life of John Lewis, starting from his elementary school years in rural Alabama, where he lived on a farm and “preached to the chickens.” Book One shows young John proclaiming the Beatitudes to his hens, which were in his care and he loved dearly. It describes how John Lewis’s uncle took him up to Buffalo, New York, one summer, and young John glimpsed a desegregated neighborhood for the first time. Coming home, John became dissatisfied with how the black communities didn’t have paved roads and with how black children like himself had poorer conditions for their school buses, buildings, and textbooks, compared with the white students.

As John grew up, he saw Brown v. the Board of Education mandate school desegregation, the murder of Emmitt Till, and he saw the boycott that initiated after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Later, at seminary in Nashville, John encountered the teaching of Jim Lawson, who explained how nonviolent protest and civil disobedience can be used to make “good trouble,” to highlight injustice and to bring attention to hatred and evil. Today, when tweeting about the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis often uses the hashtag #goodtrouble. Our passage in Exodus highlights some “good trouble.” There is much the church can learn from John Lewis and two Israelite midwives.

The other week, Nate preached about Joseph’s reunion with his family in Egypt, where–after a being sold into slavery and preyed upon by powerful people—Joseph eventually rose to the top of Egyptian power, the 2nd person only to Pharaoh. Joseph and his family found a safe place to reside during a famine and these descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob get settled into Egypt’s land. Our story picks up after the Jacob, Joseph, and the brothers have died. As was prophesied to Abraham, the Israelites have been fruitful and multiplied (though they’re not yet quite as uncountable as grains of the sand). They’re prospering, the years pass and a new king comes to power.

For this new King, “Joseph meant nothing.” Instead of seeing the valuable assets that the Israelites could be within the Egyptian community, the king gets afraid. He thinks that the Israelites are a threat that need to be dealt with. He’s concerned about the allegiance of the “other” if war breaks out. One, commentator, Freitheim (1991), notes multiple instances of irony in the text and points out that, before the king gets all worked up about “those people,” they weren’t yet named as a people group, but as a clan or extended family. The king is trying to be “shrewd” but he ends up attributing more power to the Israelites than before. Little does he know that this paranoia, this “othering,” and this prejudice will eventually be his downfall.

The king proceeds to enslave the Israelites, forcing them to build cities to store grain. The Egyptians are ruthless and the writing in this passage emphasizes the forced labor several times, using a poetic or chiastic structure in the Hebrew:

“So they made the people serve with rigor,

and made their lives bitter with backbreaking service

        in mortar and brick

        and with every kind of service in the field;

with every kind of service,

they made them serve with rigor” (Freitheim, 1991, p. 30).

Despite their enslavement and brutal treatment, the Israelites—like oppressed people throughout history—still find ways to be resilient, through the blessing of God. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread…” Eventually, the king of Egypt devises another plan, since enslavement wasn’t working.

One notable omission in our text is the name of the king; he has no name. The tyrant is not the star of the story and is not worth naming, even with all the riches and power at his disposal. Poignantly, two Israelite midwives are named: Shiphrah and Puah. They are women. Slave women. We learn later that they are slave women without children. And they are the named heroes (or should I say, she-roes) of this story. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

The king of Egypt calls them to him and says, “You here, when you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” These midwives are ordinary folks who do the important—but typically undervalued—job of ushering life into the world. Despite their low status and their lack of power in the ancient world, even in their own community, Shiphrah and Puah disobey the king’s orders. Scripture says that they fear God, which means that they have faith and trust that Yahweh is the author and giver of life. Shiphrah and Puah care more about protecting the lives of the vulnerable than about obeying the most powerful person in the land.

Jewish baby boys then keep getting born—and living. Pharaoh follows up with Shiphrah and Puah, summoning them to his presence to account for their “wrongdoing”: “Why have you done this and allowed the boys to live?” These Hebrew women do not cower in his presence; instead, they use the opportunity to lift the humanity, dignity, and strength of their people, whom the Egyptians view as beneath them. Hebrew women aren’t below the Egyptians; in fact, they’re stronger. Shiphrah and Puah answer Pharaoh—they flat out lie for the Kingdom of God—and say, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

God then blesses the midwives for this courage, for their defiant and cheeky words, and for disobeying the ruler in charge of their country. Ordinary, creative people can thwart the work of tyrants.

Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation;

While it is important to recognize the ordinariness of the midwives, I also need to raise attention to the fact that they are women. Women doing God’s work. Women getting into “good trouble.” Women metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives. Thank you, Shiphrah and Puah.

Our passage doesn’t end with them. It continues and there are more women getting into “good trouble.” One commentator points that, in total, five different women are present and doing different forms of creative disobedience or resisting the power of oppression (Freitheim, 1991). In v. 22, we read that when Pharaoh can’t get the midwives to perform infanticide, he makes a country-wide pronouncement that all the Israelite baby boys must be thrown into the Nile. We don’t hear what happens overall; our narrator zeroes in to one family. We meet a Levite family who give birth to a son.

The mom hides her baby boy for three months, but a baby is a hard thing to hide in general, but especially when you are enslaved. She rebels by not doing exactly what Pharaoh says—the baby goes in the water, but not in the brutal way he intends. Baby is placed in a papyrus basket and into the water, among the reeds. Older sister watches to see what happens.

Of all people, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who sees the funny basket, gets her servants to retrieve it, and finds a crying baby. While her own dad has ordered these babies to be killed, the daughter sees the baby for what it is—a tiny human—and feels sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she says. Older sister steps up out of the reeds and says, “Oh hey! Should I get one of the Hebrew women to nurse this baby for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and older sister gets her mother, who then takes her child back alive and gets paid to keep nursing. Pharaoh’s daughter then adopts the baby and calls him Moses.

Everything that these women are doing here are in defiance of the man in charge. And the text is very clear that it is a good thing, all this disobeying orders and preserving life. Once again, women are metaphorically flipping the bird to pharaoh while doing God’s work and saving lives.

These women are crucial agents in the work of God. While we obviously have a church with a woman pastor, we still need to teach and preach and proclaim loudly that women can do bold, outrageous things for God and God still says, “Well done.” Women are full agents in God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.

What does it mean for us?

So what does this mean for us? To recap, we see in scripture and in history that brutal, selfish, hate-inspiring leaders always exist. We also see that God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up to violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God uses people like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah and people like John Lewis, who, with his fellow student organizers of that era, integrated lunch counters, took freedom rides, and marched.

In scripture and in history, ordinary people have stood up to be used by God to nonviolently counter hatred and violence. Don’t let someone tell you nonviolent protest is not biblical or Christian: nonviolent protest and civil disobedience have a biblical argument, both in the Hebrew scriptures (Jer 38:1-6; Dan 3) and in the New Testament (Mt 5:38-48; Rom 12:14-21). Civil disobedience is definitely a tool that Christians, women and men, can use to stare down hatred and prejudice and to stand up for the dignity and equality of all people.

During the Civil Rights Movement and during the recent Charlottesville incident, some Christians have criticized the involvement of clergy in nonviolent protest. One of the most famous rebuttals of this criticism is Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was written to white pastors who criticized Dr. King’s involvement in protests and sit-ins. Since it is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it should be obvious that Dr. King got locked up for said protests and sit-ins.

Dr. King (1963) wrote, “…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” 

When asked this week if people should just try to ignore white supremacist marchers, Congressman Lewis answered, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something… You have to speak up, speak out, make a little noise. Whatever you do, do it in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion” (Jones, 2017).

After reading several articles about John Lewis and his witness to nonviolence (see March, 3 books; On Being, 2017), I would summarize that he believes that what we need more nonviolence, more people trained in how to love their enemies, how to stand up for the vulnerable, and how to be immovable in the face of verbal hate and even the threat of violence. We need more “good trouble,” more people being willing to link arms, to look white supremacists in the eye, and to remind everyone that both the oppressors and the oppressed are human and made in the image of God. God uses ordinary, creative people (women and men) to thwart the work of tyrants—and white supremacists.

Doing God’s work—protecting and loving and reconciling people—happens at both the most mundane and the most extraordinary levels. The midwives happened to be well-placed to stand up to violence. Are we well-placed, to stand up in ways big or small, as librarians, accountants, press secretaries, managers, students, researchers, IT specialists, coders, security workers, administrators, policy advocates, and more?  Are we well-placed as individuals, but are we also well-placed as a body together, as a congregation? We are entering a discernment phase for our church, as we are laying down BNP and learning more about ourselves and what is next. I challenge us to consider how we are—or can be—well-placed to equip a movement of nonviolence and to stand for God’s values of love and justice, in a spot where the nation’s eyes happen to be? We are front and center in Washington, DC.

Sisters and brothers, God uses ordinary, average, creative people (women and men) to stand up against violence, to protect the lives of the vulnerable. God can use you, God can use me. God can use us as a church here on Capitol Hill—front and center with a big old building, seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. AMEN. 

 

References

Freitheim, T.E. (1991). Exodus. Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox.

Jones, A. (2017, August 24). Is ‘mass nonviolent action’ needed to fight white supremacists? Civil Rights Hero John Lewis Speaks Out. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/mass-nonviolent-action-needed-fight-white-supremacists-654799

King, Jr., M.L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

*Note: while I have read and cited this work before, I re-read the Letter this week because it was cited by Lamar Gibson, of On Earth Peace, in a blog post on the negative feedback they received about racial justice work and the events in Charlottesville: http://faithful-steward.tumblr.com/

Lewis, J., Aydin, A., & Powell, N. (2013). March: Book One. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions.

On Being (2107, January 26). Love in Action. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-in-action-jan2017/

THE FARTHEST LIMITS OF THE SEA

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Genesis 28:10-19a

Jennifer Hosler

Have you ever run from God? Have you ever felt emotionally and spiritually unsettled, disturbed, not knowing what you needed—and then realized that God is providing exactly what you need? I have. Psalm 139, which we used as a call to worship, is one of my favorite psalms. When I am feeling confused, when I’m feeling distant from God (perhaps because my prayer life or my reading of the Bible have been minimal) or when I’m avoiding sitting down with God because of something I don’t want to face or acknowledge, this psalm somehow comes to mind and brings me back. I might not realize my own emotional or spiritual state—I might be a hot mess running on empty—but, as we see in the psalm, God knows what we need and when we need it. God is with us wherever we go, whether or not we recognize it.

This psalm helps me recognize my desperation, my hunger, my need for God—for the Creator who knows me better than I know myself, who has crafted me with tender care and who is concerned for my life.

Somehow, it prompts me to stop, it takes away the façade, it opens my heart: “What can I say, God?” I’ve been running. Or I’ve been complacent. Or I’ve been consumed with things that are frivolous or I’ve been thinking that I can do everything on my own, without remembering or acknowledging that my strength and peace come from You. You. You with a Capital Y.

The Psalm starts with, O LORD—LORD in all caps, meaning David was using the special name for God, Yahweh, the I AM. He writes, “O LORD, You have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise. You discern my thoughts from afar—You know what’s going on in my head and my heart, what is consuming my mind and energy, my fears and hopes. You, God, are watching my every move”—but not in the creepy way, in the loving and protective parent way. You know what I’ve been doing/thinking/feeling, where I’ve been walking and journeying. You are acquainted with all of my ways. God, You know me better than I know myself. You go before me and behind me, and You put Your hand upon me.

I honestly can’t fathom this, God knowing me so intimately and carefully. It blows my mind. And David says that too: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, is so high that I cannot attain it.” I can’t wrap my head around the fact that the Creator of the Universe is intimately concerned with my life. Can you? Can you repeat after me: the Creator of the Universe is intimately concerned with my life.

No matter how hard we try to flee—flee from facing our need for God, relying on God, following God’s call for our lives, God is still with us. We can’t outrun God. David asks rhetorically, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [the place of the dead], you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

The psalm continues on in this vein. David ends his song with what seems like repentance, or a reorientation to the Way of God. David writes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

We don’t know in what part of David’s life this psalm was written. It could have been after a wayward moment (the Uriah/Bathsheba incident or another one). It could have been that David wasn’t worshipping or praying or talking to the prophets or priests much at the time. Perhaps David is just so caught up in the affairs and riches of his kingdom that he lost his spiritual centering. Whatever the case, David realizes he needs to reorient his life to God.

He recognizes the closeness, the intimacy, and the faithfulness of God—who would not leave him no matter how hard he tried. David understands this and says, “God, I’m Yours. Take my life. Lead me on Your path.” When we recognize God’s pervasive love, it draws us to pivot and to orient or reorient our lives to know, love, and serve God more deeply. [repeat]

Surely God is in this Place—and I didn’t Know It

Psalm 139 describes how God pursues us wherever we go and how the Creator of the universe is deeply concerned with our well-being. Our other passage, Genesis 28, is a narrative that illustrates these truths. It presents the story of the patriarch Jacob, who has a surprise encounter with God. Jacob remarks after this meeting with God: “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I didn’t know it!”

If you’ve been here the past two months, you may know we’ve been popping in and out of Genesis. We heard from Micah about Abraham and Sarah with some visitors, about Abraham and the almost sacrifice of Isaac. Nate preached on Abraham’s servant going on a quest to find a wife for Isaac. There’s a lot of neat and bizarre stuff in Genesis, that can be both perplexing and encouraging. It’s worth your time, even though the Hebrew scriptures can be a little harder to directly apply sometimes, especially with narrative books. The Hebrew Scriptures were Jesus’ bible and are indeed part of our Bible, even if we say things like the New Testament is our creed. It lays out foundational truths about the Creator, about God’s plan to reconcile and restore the world.

Assuming that we all don’t know Genesis cover-to-cover, I’m going to give a little crash course on the context of Jacob’s life, connecting him to some of the characters we’ve heard about in past sermons. We’ve heard about Abraham, God’s promise, and the miraculous conception of Isaac despite Sarah and Abraham’s ages. God commits to bringing forward the promise through Isaac, testing Abraham’s faith. Isaac marries Rebekah, who was willing to water the servant’s camels. Isaac and Rebekah then have problems conceiving, though they aren’t as old as Abraham and Sarah were. Isaac prays and the LORD provides, doubly: Rebekah has twins.

The pregnancy is curious. We learn of an ominous tussling: the babies in her womb are thrashing about and Rebekah is perplexed. She hears a prophecy that her babies will end up as two competing nations, with the older serving the younger. A nice message to welcome you to parenthood. Rebekah delivers her babies and again, things are a bit odd. The first one comes out red and hairy; he is named Esau. The second baby (smooth-skinned) exits the womb while holding onto the heel of his big brother. Named Jacob, or “he grasps the heel, or he supplants,” the rivalry is already starting.

Jacob and Esau are very different kids. Esau is a hunter and farmer who loves the outdoors. Isaac loves Esau especially. Or, rather, Isaac loves the deer and other game that Esau brings and cooks for his dad. The way to the dad’s heart is the belly in this story. Jacob is quieter and is an indoors-type (staying in tents, the text says). Mom loves Jacob more. Parents, child favoritism doesn’t seem to bode well, according to scripture.

In a strange turn of events, Esau gives up his first-born status in exchange for some stew cooked by Jacob. Exactly why Esau was so famished or why Jacob was inside cooking—I don’t know. The stage is being set to paint their characters. Esau is rash and Jacob is cunning. Esau marries two Hittite (Canaanite) ladies and that doesn’t make the parents happy. Papa Isaac gets sick and decides to give his blessing to his oldest son—after Esau cooks up a good meal. Momma Rebekah hears this and crafts a plan to disguise Jacob as hairy Esau, cook a good meal, and get all the blessings. Which happens.

Jacob gets blessed and Esau is left with almost nothing. Esau plots to kill Jacob. Rebekah hears and convinces Jacob to flee, under the guise that he should find a wife from her extended family back home (where the camels were watered). Isaac agrees to this and, interestingly, blesses Jacob again, but with a different blessing. This blessing connects Jacob to the promise to Abraham: “May God go with you and bless you, allowing you to multiply. May God give you the blessing to Abraham, so that the land we are on can be yours.”

And now, with that context of trickery and plotting and rivalry, with the threat of sibling murder and some blessing thrown in, we come to our passage. Let’s say it again: Genesis isn’t boring. We meet Jacob just after he has left home, going to his Uncle Laban’s house in Haran. One commentary says the journey would have been about 400 miles, or 20 days’ journey (Rigsby). Imagine your brother might kill you. Yikes. You’re going to look for a spouse. Yay. Which leads me to think there was a verifiable mixture of emotions on a lonely 20-day journey.

On one of those twenty days, Jacob stops for the night and prepares to lay down. He finds the softest looking rock and uses it as a pillow. If this was a play, the stage directions would say, cue the DREAM SEQUENCE; enter the ANGEL ESCALATOR. Jacob dreams a fantastic dream, with a ramp or a stairway reaching from earth to heaven. Angels of God (probably shiny messengers as opposed to winged creatures) are going up and down. Heaven and earth are connected! While the vision is important, the words spoken are more important than the setting, so don’t get too distracted by the stairway to heaven (Brueggemann). I’m not sure if there were guitar solos.

The LORD, Yahweh, shows up next to Jacob and reiterates the promise that was made to Abraham: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

I’m going with you. I will keep you. I will bring you back. I will not leave you. At that, Jacob wakes up and exclaims, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I didn’t know it!” Jacob is awoken from sleep but also from his inner monologue about his tricks and their consequences.

Walter Brueggemann notes that Jacob encounters God in a vulnerable state—a deep sleep. Perhaps, at other times, Jacob had his guard up. God shows up in a way that can grab Jacob’s attention. Jacob is surprised that God would be present in the wilderness, on the journey.

Jacob proceeds to set up his rock pillow as a pillar, pours oil on it, and has a ceremony to mark the occasion, to remember God’s revelation and promise.

There are several lessons that I see from Psalm 139 and our story of Jacob and the angel escalator. Lesson 1: When you’re wandering, or when you least expect it, God shows up. God showed up for Jacob in a place where Jacob had no clue that God could do so. We saw David the psalmist write that you can’t run from God. No matter where you end up—the deepest part of the sea, the sky, the bowels of the earth—God will find you.

What circumstances or settings do you think are the least likely for God to show up? In your individual life? In your family life? In our church life together? In our neighborhood, city, or country?

Lesson 2: God promises to be faithful. God will not leave us. God will see us through, even if the future is uncertain or bleak. God promised not to leave or forsake a weird, shifty scoundrel like Jacob, who had a death threat against him and a very uncertain future. God took this unlikely protagonist and used him to create a people for God. Jacob’s name eventually gets changed to Israel, he has 12 sons, who became the 12 tribes, and so on. Joseph, Egypt, Moses, Red Sea, Promised Land. God is willing to take you and me and all of us, and walk with us into a future that we cannot imagine, a future where we are witnessing to God’s freedom, deliverance, mercy, and love.

Lesson 3: Recognizing the presence of God, comprehending God’s immense love and care for us, involves a response from us. David asks God to transform and purify his heart, leading him forward into God’s path. Jacob recognizes that God is present, and worships. When God shows up, what will you do? How will you mark it? How will we mark it, as a church? Are you listening, are we listening enough to recognize when God shows up? “Surely God is in this Place—and I didn’t Know It.” How will you respond, when God shows up?

Sisters and brothers, if you’re wandering, or when you least expect it, God will show up. Maybe God is showing up for you today, right now. Maybe it is on your commute or when you are laying your head down on, what I hope is, a softer pillow. Maybe you are running from God. No matter where you end up—the deepest part of the sea, the sky, the bowels of the earth—God will find you. God will show up and God promises to be faithful. God will not leave us. God will see you and me and all of us through, even if the future is uncertain or bleak. When God shows up, when you are confronted with God’s immense love and care for you, how will you respond?

 Benediction: Sisters and brothers, God is seeking and calling you. God is showing up. Can you see it?

Great is Your Faithfulness, O LORD. From ages past, You have shown Your faithfulness and care, revealing Yourself to Jacob, to David, and revealing Yourself most fully—in the flesh—through Jesus. Open our eyes to Your love and care for us. Search us, know our hearts, and lead us in Your way everlasting. AMEN.