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.

O THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS AND COME DOWN

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.

But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.

In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

THEY ALSO SERVE

James 5:7-12

Jeff Davidson

This is the ninth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/they-also-serve-november-19-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

If you are a fan of English literature then you may have already recognized from the title that I am going to talk about John Milton. Milton was an English poet and politician. He’s best known for writing “Paradise Lost.” Milton began going blind around 1651, and was completely blind by 1654. Being a poet, one of the ways Milton processed his experience of blindness was by writing about it. The date of his Sonnet XIX is not certain, but it is after he began losing his sight and it is his way of working through his blindness and his feelings about it.

I’m not going to try to explain the whole poem because then it gets to be too much like a college lecture, but I will read the poem and I will say that in the third line it talks about “one talent that is death to hide.” There, Milton is referring to the parable of the talents, where the third servant buried and hid his talent instead of investing it and was punished for it by the returning master. Here’s Milton’s Sonnet XIX.

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

I’ve never felt like Milton in terms of being physically blind. I have felt like him, though, in terms of feeling useless. I’ve felt like I had no gift to share, no wisdom to offer, no support to give. I’ve felt like I was without worth, without value, without benefit in a given situation. We’ve all felt that way at one time or another. We’ve felt helpless. We’ve felt hopeless.

Milton deals with these feelings first by owning them. He confesses his doubt about whether or not he has anything to offer, and wonders why – like the man in the parable who buried his talent – he has been cast into darkness. There is a sense of the “Why me?” about Milton’s words that we often ask when we are faced with hardship or suffering of some kind.

James recognizes this feeling. That’s why he writes to be patient. As Jenn said back when we started this series, James is writing to Christians who are being persecuted. Not persecuted in the sense of mass crucifixions or the slaughter of innocent people or anything like that, but more the kind of persecution that involves economic boycotts or social disapproval and ostracism. 

When we recognize that’s the kind of persecution we’re talking about here, and when we remember that in the verses that come just before today’s reading James has called out the rich and wealthy as oppressors of the poor, then the call to patience makes more sense.  As Susan Eastman has written:

This context is important, because without such warnings addressed to the “haves,” exhorting the “have-nots” to be patient can be a form of continuing oppression. Imagine, for example, telling the refugees in Darfur to be patient while they are being slaughtered. Or recall Martin Luther King’s response to the clergy of Birmingham, who counseled more patience on the part of Black people fighting segregation. It matters a great deal who counsels “patience,” in what context, and to what end. James first pronounces God’s judgment on greed and exploitation, before he encourages those who are suffering, with the promise that “the day of the Lord is at hand” (5:8).     (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=11)

In times of pain or worry it’s easy for people to turn on each other or be harsh with one another. It’s easy for people to withdraw from one another. It doesn’t have to be persecution – it can be any kind of crisis, any kind of trauma, any kind of difficult life change. James warns us about this, too. This is a part of patience – not just waiting out whatever the persecution or difficulty is that we are facing, but doing so while staying in touch with our brothers and sisters in faith. Verse 9 of our reading says, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” 

That part about the Judge standing at the doors reminds me of the admonition to ask yourself what you would do if you knew that Jesus was watching. Would you visit that website if Jesus was watching over your shoulder? Would you laugh at that joke or turn your back or make that Facebook comment if Jesus was with you? I admit that I don’t always pass that test, and I need to work on it. We all do. We all need to work at treating people in general more kindly, and treating people who are a part of our faith community more kindly. We need to remember not to grumble against one another, because Jesus is standing at the doors where he can hear.

James gives a couple of examples himself of the kind of patience that he is talking about. He mentions farmers, who have to be patient. It’s not like you plant the crops on Monday and harvest on Friday. There is a lot of waiting in farming. 

But the waiting doesn’t mean doing nothing. Even in a small garden, there is watering and weeding. There are pests to be dealt with, whether birds or bugs or squirrels. When we had a garden years ago we got only two tomatoes out of all the tomato plants we put in. We weren’t sure what was happening to the tomatoes that we would see when they were little and green and would disappear by the time they were big and red, until we saw a squirrel running up the driveway with a tomato in his mouth. I had not known until then that squirrels would eat tomatoes.

A small garden is a lot of work, let alone the kind of work that is involved in a farm. Even in the midst of all that work, though, the farmer has to be patient. The farmer has to wait until the time is right to harvest the crops.

James also talks about the prophets. This would have spoken deeply to the Jewish Christians who were the original audience for this letter. Time after time after time in the Bible you will see someone referring to the Jewish people and their struggles or to the prophets and their faithfulness or to the prophets and their judgment of the Jewish people in the name of God. These Jewish Christians would have grown up knowing the stories of the prophets, and the ways in which they were persecuted, and the ways in which their prophecies may not have come true during their lifetimes. The prophets had to be patient. The prophets had to trust in God. The prophets had to have faith that their prophecies would be borne out, if not in their lifetime then in the fullness of time.

At first, verse 12 doesn’t seem to fit in with what has come before. It feels like we move very suddenly from a discussion of patience and farmers and prophets into swearing oaths. But it’s not that sudden a transition if we remember the overall theme of persecution.

As Brethren, we have traditionally taken this verse fairly literally. Ideally we will not swear oaths in court. I was a witness in a court hearing once, and when I was asked if I swore to tell the truth, I replied that I affirm. That’s been the approach of the Brethren since their founding. Not just Brethren, of course, but other faith traditions as well.

But this verse has to mean more than that to make any sense in this particular context. In general, when we swear an oath we are talking to God. We may be talking to the court or the government or the House Intelligence Committee at the same time, but we are talking to God. An oath is a fancy way of saying, “May God punish me somehow if I don’t tell the truth.” So when we do that, we’re talking to the court, but we’re also talking to God. We’re telling God that we expect God to take some sort of action if we don’t do whatever it is we are sworn to do.

George Stulac suggests that here, James is talking about swearing an oath not for God to punish, but for God to save. He writes that facing persecution:

(These Christians) would be tempted to strike bargains with God, swearing to do one thing or another if only God would deliver them from their persecutors. Religious people have tried this kind of bargaining all through the centuries. Animists who live in fear of their gods are driven to make such promises. The unconverted young Martin Luther made his famous promise to become a monk when a bolt of lightning terrified him in 1505. James has been saying, “Be patient in your suffering. Remember the Lord is coming. Remember the example of the prophets. Remember the perseverance of Job. Remember the Lord’s full compassion and mercy.” Now he says, “Above all, don’t fall into swearing, as if you could manipulate God by your oaths. Instead, speak honestly and directly, and rely on God in prayer.”

 https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Jas/Do-Not-Swear

Now, that part of the passage seems to fit for me. It’s not just about refusing to swear oaths in court, although that’s part of it. It’s not just about promising that God will take some action or other, although that’s part of it too. It’s also about being faithful and trusting God by not trying to bargain with God. It’s about being patient in the midst of suffering and persecution.

John Milton lived for another twenty-odd years after his blindness. He wrote many political and religious works. He went into hiding when his particular political group, the Republicans, fell out of favor and the monarchy returned to Britain. He married twice more. Even after his blindness, Milton had a life more full, more eventful, more influential than many other people.

That is because despite his blindness, he was willing to be patient. He was willing to stand and wait. Wait for what?

G. Campbell Morgan provides an answer. “Waiting for God is not laziness. Waiting for God is not going to sleep. Waiting for God is not the abandonment of effort. Waiting for God means, first, activity under command; second, readiness for any new command that may come; third, the ability to do nothing until the command is given.” 

Through his blindness, Milton learned how to stand and wait. When it is time to act, may we act. And when it is time to wait, may we be numbered among those who also stand and wait – waiting for God’s command, and preparing to act on it in faith. Amen.

YOU ARE MISTY

James 4:13-5:6, Job 38:4-21

Nate Hosler

This is the eighth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. Due to technical difficulties, there is currently no audio for this sermon.

Writing this, I was sitting on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Below me closer to the water on my left and right are spots that mark many significant points in Jesus ministry. The ancient village of Capernaum, a chapel marking the Primacy of Peter, and a chapel with the famous mosaic of two fishes and 5 loaves from the year 480 marking the spot where Jesus multiplied these meager foods and fed the crowds. In Capernaum there is a house that then became the site of a church in 5th century. The house is thought to be that of the mother-in-law of Peter where Jesus would stay and where the mother was healed. It was also the site of one of the earliest house churches. Maybe 50 yards away there is the remains of a Synagogue for the Byzantine period. This synagogue is built with stone imported from Jerusalem but built on an earlier foundation of local basalt stone—Some archaeologists assert that this earlier synagogue is from the time of Jesus.

To my left (to the north) 20 miles is Syria whose civil war and refugee crisis requires no introduction. Back south is the West Bank of the Palestinian territories. Most of the week to this point has been hearing from an assortment of political, religious, NGO, and peacebuilding workers struggling in a situation of conflict that feels rather intractable. The significance of the land both present and past is of incomparable magnitude.

Along the way I have been reading and meditating on our passage in James.

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.

Narrowly, this and the following verses are about wealth. I think however, that money stands in for the assumption that we are in control or our desire to be in control. Though God (and the world with its histories and cultures) are big, you are misty—mist-like, ephemeral. This assertion is not negative, not an insult, it is simply honest. Though those of us who are at least relatively well-off may forget this, our lives are indeed contingent. Our lives are dependent. They are based in God. James addresses the one who confidently says they will do this or that. The hearers of the letter of James were likely not the well off—or the overly wealthy. So, it may not be that this or the next portion are as directly applicable to the immediate crowd. The general assertion, however, is very applicable, hence its inclusion. To those who are well confident that their plans will succeed, James asserts—you are mist—misty—mist-like in the fleeting quality of your life. Because you cannot know what will happen you should always acknowledge that even the best laid plans rest in God. The habit and practice that James exhorts is to, in all things, acknowledge that one’s life is held in God.

Your existence is in God

As I’ve been reading James I have also been thinking about a similar passage in the Sermon on the Mount. Given my writing location if felt particularly relevant to note this. In the 6th chapter of Matthew, Jesus teaches. Why worry about your life?—about what you will eat or drink or wear. Are not the flowers of the field more splendid than Solomon, the most extravagantly dressed of all kings?

The sign by the entrance says, “We refuse to be enemies.” The Tent of Nations (http://www.tentofnations.org/ )  is a Palestinian farm on a hill top in area C. Area C is part of the West Bank, the land of the future Palestinian State. It is also the site of many settlements, which are illegal in international law, undermining the possibility of a future state, and more like towns or cities than anything makeshift that is indicated by the term “settlement.” To get to the Tent of Nations we left our van and climb over boulders that have been place on their road a few hundred meters from their farm in order to impede access. The farm is on a hill top. Every other hill top surrounding has a massive settlement.

We met with Daoud Nasser whose family has lived there for generations. Unlike most Palestinians whose land is at risk they have a clear line of documentation of land ownership going back to the Ottoman Period in the early 1900s. Since the land is documented but still deemed very desirable they have been fighting in courts since the early 1990s. The case keeps getting passed back and forth between the Supreme Court and Military courts. They must keep fighting and filing because if they don’t they will be forced out. They can’t build any new structures and the structures they have—even the tent like structures—have demolition orders on them. Daoud Nasser, though, seems to be full of joy. He told of their struggle just to keep their family’s land. He demonstrates a trust in God and in others to continue on.

Again, your existence is in God. You are mist-like but God is steadfast.

Unsurprisingly the rich also have this problem. They also easily forget that their existence is in God.

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

James doesn’t discuss if there are righteous ways to be rich. Certainly, our congregation isn’t rich compared to much of Capitol Hill. Because of this and certain prophetic inclinations we may find it easy to speak critically—to speak “prophetically.” However, though we are not that rich we are comparatively rich in relation to much of the world. And as such may be indicted. The rich people that James addresses have built their riches on the backs of others. For white America the legacy of slavery of Africans and genocide of Indigenous communities is a clear example. But also, immigration, trade, and foreign policy often continue this pattern.

What we don’t know is if James has certain rich folks in mind or assumes that all those who are rich have earned it through injustice. It is also unclear if the “rich” are those who meet a certain income bracket (which seems unlikely) or if it is short-hand for those in power.  This call is a call to repentance. It is a call towards being rightly oriented toward God and others. The call to repentance and to acknowledging that one’s existence is based in God rather than in one’s own might or smarts or good looks or cunning is not against but for the one being challenged. Only when you care about that person or entity can you fully embrace the uncomfortable confrontation. Repenting of this is in the interest of both the oppressor and the oppressed.

Let’s suppose that riches and power are somewhat interchangeable. During the past two weeks the question of power and who is criticized in what manner has been close at hand for me. For Palestinians living under Israeli occupation the restricted rights, living under military law, limited ability to move freely, and lagging infrastructure is clearly unjust. For many Israelis their existence as a small country surrounded by the much bigger and often hostile Arab world, history of the Holocaust, and repeated abuses throughout history lead to a strong emphasis on “security” at any cost. Many wars in the past decades as well as an enforced separation which does not allow interaction with Palestinians in normal life keeps these fears alive and well.

One morning on this trip we met with Defense for Children International. They explained that there are 500-700 cases of Palestinian children being convicted in Israeli military courts. Many times, the kids (usually but not always boys) are arrested from their beds at night. Regularly they are beaten on the way. Harshly interrogated. And sign confessions written in a language which they can’t read in order to get out sooner. Rarely can they see their parents or actually meet with a lawyer to know their rights. Because of this work of documentation and exposure DCI is declared an enemy and traitor of the state of Israel because it highlights these abuses. Many Christians in the US would harshly criticize me for repeating these things—claiming that the Old Testament commands me to “Bless Israel.” However, as noted earlier, criticism is not the opposite of blessing. Criticism may be part of blessing.

Even as I recount these few notes from an hour long meeting I think back and begin to feel overwhelmed. And this was only one meeting out of the whole week. It is easy to feel the mist-like character of my life when held up against the enormity of the world. The enormity of the ancient stones and places of Jesus. The enormity of Syria just down the road. The enormity of the so called Israeli and Palestinian conflict. I’m not sure that this is what James intends, but getting to the point of realizing our mistiness—our mist-like nature—is half the struggle. The second half is recognizing that our existence is in God. We are mist but our existence is sustained by the God who has mysteriously created us and called us. Our existence is in the God that has created and called us beyond ourselves.

THE 15TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST or THE WEASEL, THE MOUSE, THE GREAT LIZARD ACCORDING TO ITS KIND

The audio version may differ from the transcript of this sermon, but can be found on Soundcloud at: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/15th-sunday-since-pentecost-september-17-2017  

Exodus 14:19-31, 15:20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Nate Hosler

As many of you know we went camping last week. My family has gone camping most every year for more than 20 years. My mother has typically has made a scrapbook documenting these adventures. About 20 years ago she documented that my brother proclaimed that he was powered by tasty cakes and Spam (my memory might not be entirely correct on this). Around 15 years ago my mom discovered her severe headaches were caused by a gluten allergy. 10 years I married someone who likes spicy foods (and myself became so inclined). A few years ago, my one brother married a vegetarian and my other brother married someone sensitive to spicy foods. Needless to say, our camping cooking has gotten more complicated.

Our Romans passage addresses the topic of dietary restrictions of a different sort. In Jesus, we see an expanding of scope of ministry. While Jesus, at times said that he was here to preach to his people—the people of Israel—he none-the-less regularly went beyond this community in acts of healing and preaching. Though laws were set up for religious purity and to define the community these were never impermeable or meant to definitively exclude. While these laws limited certain types of interaction and eating certain types of food, there was also a significant and prominent theme of “caring for the resident alien.”

Jesus regularly transgressed established religious and ethnic borders as well as made the religious law secondary to acts of compassion and healing. (For example, with the Canaanite woman; Matthew 15, Centurion; Matthew 8). Jesus gives a final word of commissioning to his disciples instructing them to go to all nations [Matthew 28:18-20 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”]

Once Jesus departs after his resurrection and reappearance, the disciples wait with uncertainty but in prayer in Jerusalem. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit comes down and rests on them in the form of flame and linguistic innovation. (we’re only 15 weeks past). The multi-language display allows for preaching to Jews from all over who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost. [Aside: I am not into doing dramatic productions or skits. However, while in Germany with Eastern Mennonite Missions after high school my team was asked to do a dramatic rendering of Acts 2 while it was read for an ecumenical Pentecost service. I don’t remember exactly what we did but the section which includes a long list of places initially lead to us pointing in every possible direction.]

Further along in Acts, as the disciples and Apostles are still working up to breaking beyond their religious boundaries, Peter has a vision of unclean animals lowered down in a sheet as a way to show him that he needs to go and preach to the Gentiles. Peter didn’t do this lightly—it took three times. In the vision he sees the sheet lowered and then hears (Acts 10:13 “.. a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 

In this context, we read our Romans passage. Romans is written by the Apostle Paul to Christians in Rome. It is one the earliest extended Christian theological reflections. Paul was originally Saul and a zealous persecutor of Christians. He then identified his mission as reaching out to the Gentiles. Paul did not start the church in Rome. A commentator writes,

“The fact is that we simply do not know how Christianity began in Rome and who, strictly speaking, its founding apostle were. We do know, however, that there was a large Jewish community in Rome in the first century (estimated at between 40,000-50,000).”(Dunn, 838, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters). Overall population was around 1 million. (Reasoner, 851, DPL). Of the 24 people named in greetings in the last chapter, at least 14 are slaves which would have descended from Jewish captives brought to Rome following Pompey in Palestine in 62 BC. It is likely that the Christian community began among the synagogues but included Gentiles (Dunn, 839, DPL). This, along with differing assumptions on religious practice led to tensions. Hence, our passage’s pastoral nature.

Our passage begins,

14 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.

There was a legitimate discussion over what was ok and not ok to eat: In addition to passages in Leviticus (on the first page in Leviticus I opened at random) 11:29 “These are unclean to you among the creatures that swarm up on the earth: the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard according to its kind…” and the reality that meat purchased in the market was likely sacrificed to pagan idols.

Though Paul himself is in the eat anything camp he says that forbearance and welcome should be exercised towards those who in a sincere desire to follow God do things different.

 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.

God has welcomed them is in this case, however, framed by the question of abstaining or not abstaining from particular foods. There are, of course, many other things which we are more likely to argue or shun each other over these days. We seek to be a welcoming congregation. We have a sign in front of the church and many of you have it in your window or front lawn “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” This phrase is repeated in Arabic and Spanish. The Mennonite church that first made these was responding to a climate which was not welcoming.  Our welcoming, moreover, is based in a biblical, theological, and faith-rooted commitment. Because of this we easily might be attracted to this “God has welcomed them.” God has already welcomed so we are not so much initiating the welcome than enacting what God has already done. While this attractedness to this phrase is legit we must also not simply pick up and fixate on a word we like. What is the surrounding flow of the argument? Is it hermeneutically and theological sound to extrapolate this beyond the issue of purity laws and food?

The passage continues,

 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Here we begin to see that it is not that there is no judgement but that it is God’s task rather than ours.  Romans 12:17,  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;” for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

 So, this makes us feel better. At least God will push the car off the road that pushed me and my bicycle off the road. God, after all, will probably be better at getting even than me anyway. If you can’t beat up the bully it is better to have the omnipotent God take care of it. However, we remember that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, that Jesus instructs to turn the other check and not have it in for our enemies because we are children of God and this nonretaliation is based on the character of a God who sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike—which is of course true in meteorological terms but may feel less fabulous in terms of vengeance and injustice and unfairness (soon George will notice that things aren’t fair—probably relating to trucks).

We are not to judge. It is up to God. God is both just and merciful.

The difference of practice observed is based on conscience and conviction.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.

This is extremely interesting. Is the appropriateness of the action really based on conviction? Certainly, people can be wrongly convinced. For example, it would seem that Pharaoh and his army are very convinced that they should catch the Israelites. God doesn’t say—well they thought they were right so all is well—nope, in the text the chariots malfunction and the water rolls in and that’s all.  15:20-21 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. In this case the people of God, led by the prophet Miriam, attribute the destruction of the Egyptians to God.

However, in our Matthew passage there is a definitive instruction to forgive.

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Action point # 1 Vs 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

It is God’s task to judge, not ours. God is both just and merciful.

Action point #2. In addition to not judging we should “resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Though we may be free we must, in all things prioritize the wellbeing of our sisters and brothers before ourselves.

 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.

Action point #3

Vs 19  “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

We are seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the Gospel of Jesus.

LISTEN TO HIM!

 

I studied in a Spanish-language institute, rapidly improving my ability with the language and immersing myself in Mexican culture. I lived with a local family, experienced my first earthquake, and explored Cuernavaca, a city made famous by the conquistador Cortes, who set up a palace there after his victory over the Aztec Empire.

On the weekends, I took a lot of trips. Together with my fellow BCA students, I visited cities and historical sites throughout central Mexico. One of the sites we visited was an ancient Olmec city, Cacaxtla. Cacaxla was built on top of a high mountain, overlooking a vast landscape below. The archeologists told us that the residents of this city were very powerful and demanded tribute from all the peoples living in the valley below.

Today, the city is just a tourist attraction. But the sense of majesty and power remains, if only because of the incredible view of the countryside below.

I still remember how I felt sitting on the edge of the mountaintop, looking out at the horizon. There’s really nothing like being 19 years old. At least for me. I don’t know what late adolescence was like for the rest of you, but for me it was deeply challenging on a whole lot of levels. I was confused. I got angry a lot. I didn’t know where the future would lead me. I still didn’t really know who I was, but I desperately wanted to find out. There was so much life ahead of me, but everything felt so urgent, like I might not make it through tomorrow.

But as I looked out over that vast horizon, as I observed the fields and valleys below, all of that fell away. I could feel the power of the mountain, the peace in the air at those heights. Somehow, for a moment, I had left my anxiety down below.

While I was sitting there on the edge of that mountaintop, someone snapped a photo. They titled it, Micah y el Horizonte – Micah and the horizon. They got it exactly right. That’s exactly what was going on in that moment. It was just me and the horizon. And, in retrospect, maybe God, too.

All my problems and worries and insecurities were still waiting for me when I came off that mountaintop. But for a few minutes, I was able to get outside of myself. I escaped the chaos of my own head. I heard the silence that sometimes only seems possible at such great heights.

I don’t know how old Jesus’ disciples were. Many of them were probably teenagers, just like I was when I first studied abroad in Mexico. And from the gospel texts, it seems like they were full of the same kinds of anxieties that impact all of us, but perhaps especially the young. Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Where do I belong? What is truth? How can I live a life that is full of meaning, power, and authenticity?

At this point in the story, things are really ramping up. Jesus has just sent the twelve disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. King Herod is taking full notice of Jesus and his followers now. Jesus is attracting huge crowds of people eager to hear his words, and Jesus feeds them, both with bread and with loaves and fishes.

The crowds hope that Jesus might be the Anointed One that God promised to save his people Israel from Roman oppression. And the disciples closest to Jesus are becoming increasingly convinced that he is indeed the One. Just before our reading today, Peter identifies Jesus as the “Messiah of God.”

But in response to this, it says that Jesus sternly commands the disciples not to tell anyone. Why? Because, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“Don’t tell anyone what you know about me,” says Jesus. “Don’t tell them I’m the Anointed One of God. That will just give people the wrong idea. Because my way is one of suffering, rejection, and death. That’s not something the people are ready to hear.”

I’m not sure the inner circle of disciples were ready to hear it, either. But there it was. The authorities were closing in. Jesus was about to make his way to Jerusalem, the center of power where big moves could be made and terrible things could happen. And now he was telling his closest followers that the way of the Messiah was not to be one of conquest, but rather of suffering and loss. This wasn’t what these hopeful, confused, anxious young people had signed on for.

In the midst of this growing pressure and confusion, it says that Jesus took his closest friends – Peter, James, and John – up with him to a high mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Jesus looked like Moses did when he met God face to face. Moses’ face was so bright and overwhelming that he had to cover it with a veil, so as not to overwhelm the people.

But Jesus didn’t cover his face for Peter, James, and John. They saw his glory and didn’t turn away, as terrified as they were.

As if all this weren’t enough, suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, talking there with Jesus! I imagine it must have been a scene like out of Return of the Jedi, at the end of the movie, where Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda appear to encourage Luke. Except these guys aren’t ghosts. They’re really there with Jesus, talking with him about the “exodus” that Jesus is about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

At this point, the disciples’ minds are blown. What in the world is going on here? Peter is kind of a doer, so he butts in – “Uh, excuse me – Jesus? I couldn’t help but notice that you, Moses, and Elijah are having a really great conversation. What do you think about prolonging the magic? We could build a tent for each of you, so you can camp out here as long as you like.” The scripture says that Peter “didn’t know what he was saying.” No kidding.

While Peter was still talking, a cloud came and overshadowed them. It was just like the cloud that covered the mountaintop when Moses talked to God so long ago. It was like the cloud that led the Israelites in the wilderness. It was the same cloud that filled the tent of meeting in the desert, and the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God was in the house.

And God spoke out of the cloud, saying to the disciples: “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!”

Listen to him.

Peter and the disciples were running around in confusion and anxiety. They couldn’t figure out their own lives, much less what Moses and Elijah were doing there with Jesus on the mountaintop. Before they got to the mountaintop, they were full of worries. How they’d feed the five thousand. How they would preach the good news in the villages of Israel. How they were going to lead an insurrection against the Romans. Their minds were so fully of anxiety, they had left little room for divine intervention.

The disciples weren’t expecting God to actually show up, Old Testament-style, and start speaking to them with a booming voice out of the cloud! When Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain to pray with Jesus, they had no idea that they were stepping onto the new Mount Sinai, the holy dwelling place of God.

Listen to him.

The disciples were busy freaking out about everything, except the most important thing. Moses and Elijah stood there representing the Law and the Prophets, the whole tradition of Israel. But even they weren’t the stars of the show. When the cloud descends and the Father speaks, it’s to remind the disciples of what John the Baptist’s disciples already heard at the river Jordan, when Jesus was baptized and covered with the Holy Spirit. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Listen to him.

Peter and the others are so dazzled by the light show that they miss the point. When they were down in the valley, they were distracted by the things of men. Now on the high mountain, they’re confused by the things of God. Moses, Elijah, bright lights – it’s all too much for them.

The voice of the Father comes from the cloud, to cut through the confusion. He reminds them that only one thing is needful:

Listen to him. Listen to Jesus, the living reflection of God, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Center yourself on him and cease to be blown to and fro by the wind and waves of daily ups and downs, political pressure, and mystical experiences.

Listen to him.

I wish I could tell you that I came down from that mountaintop in Mexico a transformed young man. I wish I could say that I found the same kind of clarity that was given to the disciples that day on the mountain with Jesus. At most, I got a few moments of openness and receptivity before I descended back down into the valley below. It was a beautiful moment, and I believe it prepared me for greater depth and maturity. But it was just a moment.

We see the same thing in this story. Even after something as amazing and show-stopping as the transfiguration, the next day Jesus was down among the people. Just like Moses, he came down from the high mountain and re-entered the tensions and fray of everyday life.

It says that the disciples kept quiet about what they had seen on the mountaintop. They didn’t tell anyone until after Jesus’ resurrection. They were obedient in that; Jesus had told them to keep silent about the miraculous visions they had experienced.

But the disciples had received the message. They knew what God required of them: Listen to him.

My experience in Mexico was literally a mountaintop experience. But most of my most profound encounters with the holy have happened at lower elevations. Throughout my life, I’ve occasionally found myself in a special moment with God. In seasons of trouble or moments of joy, sometimes God just shows up in ways that are hard to explain.

But, at least for me, these holy moments are the exception, rather than the rule. They serve as encouragement and reminders of the Spirit’s presence and power in my life. They are oases in the desert. There are times that I would have died of thirst without these moments of refreshment and remembrance with God.

All too often, though, I am just like Peter. In my joy and confusion, I want to preserve the holy moment through sheer force of will. I try to build tents for Moses and Elijah. I want to camp out on that mountaintop forever.

The scripture this morning reminds me that the goal of the spiritual life is not to live on the mountaintop. It’s not to win the struggles going on in the valleys of human society, either. Rather than mystical escapism or pragmatic realism, God calls us to obedience to Jesus, the one in whom the Father has revealed himself.

This obedience can hold us steady and keep us faithful as we navigate both peaks and valleys. Through obedience, our lives can become so transfigured that the Kingdom of God is incarnated in our own face. Listening to Jesus, we can shine like Jesus. Listening to Jesus, we take up the cross as he did. Listening to Jesus, we can experience the life of the Spirit and dwell in the Father’s love.

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.