God Doesn’t Need Your Religion – Love Is All That Matters

Preacher: Micah Bales
Scripture Readings: Ruth 1:1-18; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Jesus spent all of his ministry preaching the arrival of the reign of God. All of his words and actions revealed the presence of God’s power, love, and justice. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom of God has drawn near.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus says this to one of the scribes. One of the Pharisees. A member of a group that Jesus criticizes a lot. The scribes and Pharisees, middle-class people who could read the Torah and write dense legal theories about how to follow it correctly.

Jesus fought so often with the scribes and the Pharisees not because he was so different, but because he had so much in common. In fact, if you were going to categorize Jesus in terms of the ideological camps of his day, you could be forgiven for numbering him among the Pharisees.

Just like the Pharisees, Jesus had an extremely high regard for scripture. In fact, just before our gospel reading this morning, Jesus had been publicly debating with the Sadducees – a highly conservative, priestly party that denied the resurrection of the dead. When Jesus rebukes them, he does so on the basis of two things: the Torah – the written testimony about God – and the power of God himself.

He says to the Sadducees, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?”

Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus didn’t accuse the Pharisees of being ignorant of the Bible. Jesus was with the Pharisees in his respect for the scriptures. They had that in common. Where Jesus parted ways with the Pharisees was their lack of responsiveness to the power of God. The God who inspired the scriptures is far beyond, far greater than the scriptures. God won’t be held hostage to human legal theories derived from the Bible. Just as Jesus is lord of the sabbath, the Holy Spirit is lord of scripture.

This is really important. We get lost whenever we forget this. Because, if history has taught us anything, it’s that our sacred texts are almost infinitely malleable. European Christians have used the Bible to justify the crusades, manifest destiny, and slavery. We’ve also used it to build the theological basis of the civil rights movement, anti-slavery societies, and nonviolent action for peace.

This may sound scandalous to some, but there is no “clear meaning of scripture.” Our fallen natural minds simply can’t comprehend the love of God, regardless of what is written down in a book. We’re not qualified interpreters. We’ll twist those holy words to justify our worst impulses. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

The scriptures, of themselves, can’t save us. Without the Holy Spirit to guide us in our reading, we are utterly blind and lost. In fact, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, in the absence of the Spirit, the words of scripture can become death to us. Without the power of God, the scriptures can be used as a dangerous weapon. The good news is that, guided by God’s love and wisdom, the scriptures can be a force for healing and liberation.

So when Jesus rails against the Pharisees he’s not railing against their respect for scripture, or the intense study they devote to understanding it. When Jesus gets into his Epic Rap Battles of History with the Pharisees, it’s not about the letter – it’s about the Spirit. It’s about the power of God to move mountains, change the rules, and scandalize us by valuing mercy more than correct religious practice.

Our scripture readings this morning are all about this dynamic power of God to change structures, relationships, and all the moralistic rules that hold us back from being truly moral beings. From Jesus’ dynamic and radical teaching from the Torah, the wisdom of the Book of Hebrews, and in the story of Ruth and Naomi, we hear of how God transcends and upsets all our expectations about what holiness should look like.

In these stories, we discover a God who cares more about love than about rules, more about justice than correctness. We encounter a God who we can trust, because he doesn’t think in the same categories we do. God won’t be boxed in by our limited minds and legalistic straight jackets. And if we’re willing to listen and pay attention, he will free us from our slavery to rules and forms. He’ll bring us into the real life and substance of the gospel.

This gospel of liberation is available in the most unlikely times and places; it emerges in the lives of the most unlikely of people. Ruth was a person like that. A person who lived on the margins in every way. She was a widow in an age where, for a woman, who your husband was determined everything. She was childless in a time when childbearing was the measure of a woman. And from the perspective of the Jewish people, she was an outsider. A Moabite. A descendent of Lot’s incestuous affair with his daughters. As a Moabite, Ruth was unclean and unfit to enter the congregation of Israel.

And let’s be realistic. Even if Ruth were a Jew, she’s married into the most marginal family she could have picked. Naomi and her boys fled famine in Bethlehem, selling their land and abandoning their heritage in Hebrew society. These were not fancy people. These were people living on the edge.

As if things couldn’t get any worse for this family, Naomi’s husband dies, leaving her alone with her two young sons – who are apparently both very unhealthy, probably from living as poorly-fed refugees for most of their lives. Somehow, these two manage to take wives from the local Moabite people – Orpah and Ruth. Despite this bit of good luck, things don’t end well for Mahlon and Chilion. Not too long after they get married, they both die, leaving Naomi alone with her two widowed daughters-in-law.

Naomi had lost everything. She was probably in her forties – too old to expect to find a new husband, as her childbearing years were soon to be behind her. The only shred of hope she had left was to head back to her homeland of Israel and see if she could beg for food there. Word on the street was that the famine had ended and there was enough grain to go around. For Naomi, it was time to go home.

As she began to make her way back to Bethlehem (which was maybe 50 or 60 miles from Moab), Naomi released her two daughters-in-law from any responsibility they might feel towards her. Naomi knew that she was headed back into a very hard situation in the land of Israel – poverty and begging. As an older, childless woman, she didn’t have much hope of integrating back into Hebrew society. Orpah and Ruth, at least, had their youth. Naomi urged them to stay in their homeland – to return to their mothers’ houses and seek out husbands who could provide for them economically and give them the chance to bear children.

Orpah weeps at the thought of leaving Naomi to face their cold and dangerous world all by herself. But she sees the wisdom in Naomi’s decision. After a tearful farewell, Orpah returns to her mother’s house and to her people.

Ruth is a different story. Ruth stubbornly refuses to leave Naomi’s side, no matter how much Naomi tries to convince her. “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth isn’t interested. She says,

Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!

This is a remarkable scene. One of the most beautiful and memorable passages in all of scripture. These words could be wedding vows, couldn’t they? But they’re not. They’re the words of a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. People who have probably only known each other for a couple of years at most. Ruth is ready to sacrifice everything to stand with Naomi, to abandon her people, land, and gods, and to adopt Naomi as her true family and the Lord of Israel as her true God. All of this, even as Naomi’s situation looks impossible. This commitment may very well cost Ruth her future.

This is unnatural – supernatural – love. This is love that breaks the rules. This is covenantal love that defies the divisions between people, that flies in the face of danger, poverty, and death, to show solidarity and commitment to another. This is love that breaks the written rules of Hebrew tradition in order to demonstrate the life, power, and spirit of the God of Israel.

The love and courage of Ruth is remarkable in every way. As a poor, widowed, foreign woman, she reveals the character of God in her commitment to Naomi. And as we will eventually see by the end of the story, she becomes the great-grandmother of King David, and an ancestor to Jesus himself. From the story of Ruth, we learn that God uses the stone that is rejected – the widow, the orphan, the poor, the foreigner – as the cornerstone of the kingdom of God.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

We human beings like to make things complicated. With all our texts and translations. Our rituals and rules. Our notions of who’s in and who’s out. We like to feel in control.

But that’s not what the gospel is about. The good news of Jesus – the good news from A to Z, from creation to the Red Sea to the cross to the end of time – that good news is very simple, and utterly challenging. When the scribe asks Jesus “which commandment is the first of all,” here’s what Jesus says:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love God. Love him with everything that is within you. Love him with your whole body, your whole mind, all the passion that is within you – love him. And love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

OK, got it!

We like to make things complicated, so that we can make them easy. But reality is simple, and much, much harder. Love God with everything we are, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Our immigrant neighbor. Our gay neighbor. Our Muslim, atheist, Republican neighbor. Love them as we love ourselves. Love God, and love even our enemies, with everything we’ve got. There is no command greater than this.

Religion tends to be about how to follow the rules correctly. How to feel justified, and know that we are on the right path. That’s the kind of religion that Israel had in the Temple. Through their sacrifices and burnt offerings, they sought to be at peace with God. But how did the scribe respond to Jesus?

“You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

God doesn’t need our sacrifices. God has already provided us with the ultimate sacrifice – his son Jesus. And as the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus himself is present forever as our high priest, offering intercession for us in the heavenly realms. It is written, “[Jesus] entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”

That is our sacrifice: Love. The Love who was nailed to a cross for our sakes. The Love who intercedes for us and offers us peace – with God, with one another, even with our enemies.

Love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love neighbor as much as we love ourselves. There is no greater commandment than this.

Let us walk in the footsteps of Ruth, who risked everything to become a living expression of the love of God. Let us demonstrate the faith and courage of the scribe, who – despite all his religious and scholarly training – was open to the radical truth of the gospel – beyond rules and rituals. Let the Spirit of love, life, and power enter into us, so that our God-loving, enemy-blessing lives may become the fulfillment of the law.

Blessed

Preacher: Nathan Hosler
Scripture Readings: Job 42: 1-6, 10-17; Hebrews 7: 23-28; Mark 10:46-52

We often speak about or at least read our scriptures in light of the injustices and pain of the world. We often seek to embrace Jesus’ hard words of discipleship.

This Sunday’s lectionary texts seemed to gather around the theme of blessing. So I thought I’d go with it—hence the title, “Blessed.”

A few hours after finishing and getting back to some house projects and family time I learned about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. So, to finish the day I helped draft a statement for the Church of the Brethren’s General Secretary. The statement reads:

“We mourn and lament the loss of lives taken Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, we recognize that this violence affects not only this congregation but sows fear in Jewish communities across the country. As the Church of the Brethren, which has committed to following Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, let us commit ourselves to bring healing and working for a world in which God’s shalom is ever more evident for all people.”

On waking this morning, I struggled to know what to do with sermon that seemed inappropriately themed. “Blessed” seemed the wrong direction. However, I decided to go with it. But with these caveats that were always implicit anyways—God’s blessing was never a wish list or design your own utopia. It was also never something to be received or flaunted over others. What we receive is never for us alone. Everyone has something to offer to others. At least for those of us who are American or white or Christian (at least in America) or male, the things we often count as blessings may very well be things we or our ancestors gained through suppression of others.

With those qualifiers I’ll begin with Mark. Mark’s writing tends to be sparse, perhaps austere. It may be the Hemingway of the Gospels. Certainly not Annie Dillard’s rich and poetic description in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. [A randomly opened page to a randomly picked Hemingway book (The Sun Also Rises) produced, “When I woke in the morning I went to the window and looked out.” In Dillard this exercise produced: “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.].

Our passage in Mark begins. “They came to Jericho.” (Definitely more Hemingway). The next sentence, “As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho…” Somewhat inexplicably the detail of location, without commentary or description is included. This could be incidental. Simply a notation. In verse 32 he notes that Jesus and his disciples were going up to Jerusalem. This is two story units before the healing which we read. In our passage, beginning in verse 46, it notes that “they came to Jericho. After verse 52 they came to Jerusalem.

Next story unit they are in Bethany. The following, “approaching Jerusalem.”
For Jesus and the disciples with other companions talking and walking between Jerusalem and Jericho—this would easily take a full day. So, the whole was at a minimum a two day round trip. The only thing that gets reported is this, what seems to be chance encounter with Bartimaeus. At least in this Gospel, the only thing that made the cut was this afterthought of an action. What happened walking to Jericho? in Jericho? and then returning? Did Jesus get to Jericho and say “oh no I forgot my wallet, let’s go back for it”? Was Jesus telling jokes? Was he teaching but being repetitive, so it wasn’t necessary to record? Perhaps it was recorded but got edited out? Trying to figure out the consciousness of the writer is not my work nor is determining the rationale.

However, the geographic notes mark time. They mark time and emphasize that it is the highlights that get documented. This is even more so the case for Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.

Bartimaeus son of Timaeus (his friends called him Bart) was blind. Because he was blind he was a beggar in order to survive. We don’t know how long he was blind nor how long he was sitting by the side of the road begging. It is safe to assume it was more than a few hours. Quite possibly it was for years. So, what is for Mark the highlight of two or more days of ministry is Bart’s highlight of a lifetime. Bart recognized the power of Jesus, called out, sprang up, was healed, and followed Jesus.

From this I make two observations:

God provides. Jesus’ healing is a provision, a blessing, to Bartimaeus

And secondly, while there are many provisions and blessings throughout our days that we often take for granted or don’t think about, the appearance of highlights that are likely to be recorded is more irregular. This is both for the hours and days of ministry and teaching that Jesus did before and after healing Bart—the time marked by the walk to and from Jericho. But also Bartimaeus’s waiting by the side of the road.

So, #1 God provides and #2 We should not assume that God’s providing entails uninterrupted bliss or uninterrupted noteworthy ministry.

I think I posted to Facebook twice this week. The first was from our ART! Night here at church. This included several pictures: George (the toddler) without his shirt painting an old table top sitting on the floor. Jacob painting with his fingers. The surrealist leaning works in which Tori clipped phrases from an old commentary on Joshua and fastened them to a background to create strange new texts. The other was of a smiling Ayuba, Scruff (our cat), and I all sitting on a chair together.

If I were to tell you about my work week, I could mention providing the welcome at a reception for a Churches for Middle East Peace event along with representatives of the National and World Council of Churches or having coffee with an academic from the UK or making new connections at an invitation only event the Council on Foreign Relations. These are all true and sound very positive. You could say they were a form of blessing. However, my telling of this wouldn’t reveal the fact that for much of the week I felt emotionally terrible and at times overwhelmed. That going to meetings and interacting took a great deal of resolve most of the time. I assume that actual depression is much worse but I have had bouts of this struggle for years. My highlights reel looks much different than the week as a whole did.

In Mark we see the highpoints and notable. As in the Gospel of John we recognize with the writer that, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them had been written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would have been written.” (John 21:25). However, it is clear there are many gaps in what is recorded. A risk of the highpoints is in part the criticism of Facebook. Posts on Facebook create a narrative arc—One not necessarily in line with actual life. From the outside this gives the appearance that is not nearly as mundane.

#1 God provides and #2 We should not assume that God’s providing entails uninterrupted bliss. (And when we don’t feel great we don’t need to feel like we are failing—as is my tendency)

Our second text is from Job. The basic outline of Job is: Job is righteous and well-off. Satan suggests that Job is righteous because God has provided so much for him materially. These things are then taken from Job in a series of tragedies. Job’s friends arrive and say “look, obviously you’ve sinned and are being punished.” This is the false theology that there is a direct correlation between wealth and God’s blessing. Job says I’ve done nothing wrong…which is kind of correct. God then responds in a swirling and beautiful reminder of God’s place in relation to creation and Job’s place within it.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?…..
“Look at Behemoth,
which I made just as I made you;
it eats grass like an ox.
16 Its strength is in its loins,
and its power in the muscles of its belly.
17 It makes its tail stiff like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are knit together.
18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,
its limbs like bars of iron.
19 “It is the first of the great acts of God—
only its Maker can approach it with the sword.

Then Job answered the LORD:
2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

12 The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning
This is also about blessing but complicates it. Blessing is from God but not in the ways that we may assume.

God provides but this doesn’t entail uninterrupted bliss nor is it directly and necessarily connected to our merit. God is the source of life. God has set the foundations of the world. God has created the Behemoth.

And then we turn to Hebrews which describes Christ’s work as a priest.
23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

Christ is an advocate on our behalf. Christ intercedes.

God provides. This provision is consistent, but we should not assume that God’s providing entails uninterrupted bliss. Through this, perhaps particularly during the interruptions, Christ continues to intercede for us.

Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

A beginning is a very delicate time. At the start of a long journey, it seems like any route is possible. In a story’s introduction, the reader can imagine any outcome. But as we walk further down the road we begin to discover what the journey really looks like. Slowly but surely, our story becomes less about what we imagined it would be, and more about what is actually happening.

Jesus’ first disciples were very young. Quite possibly teenagers, or at most in their early twenties. Jesus, the man they looked to as teacher, lord, and future king, was just barely in his thirties. The Jesus movement was a young people’s movement. A movement quite literally fresh off the boat. A movement of people with very little past and an enormous horizon for a future.

It is a wondrous and fearful thing to be a young adult. Just out of school. In that first job. Or out on the road. Exploring the world. It seems like anything is possible. Young people have no idea what’s coming, but the world of their imagination fills in the gaps. The future is so wide-open, anything is possible.

The disciples were ready for anything. They were primed for adventure, to become the heroes that Israel so desperately needed. To break the yoke of Roman occupation and restore the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. To make Israel great again.

The disciples didn’t have much in the way of personal history or life experience, but they had tradition. They had a cultural context to draw on. They had the shared story of the Hebrew people. And this story told them that they should expect a new king, a messiah, a strong man like David to emerge and to restore Israel to its former glory.

They believed that they had found this man, this new king, in Jesus. These young disciples gave up everything they had – walking away from family, friends, and jobs – to follow Jesus wherever he went. In retrospect, this seems very brave and self-sacrificial. But at the time, it was probably a whole lot more self-interested. They believed that Jesus was the messiah sent by God to restore the fortunes of Zion. Jesus was going to be the big man in charge, and the disciples were going to be his inner circle.

It’s kind of like joining an early stage startup, if you can imagine that. Sure, you’re expected to work long hours for low pay. But you’ve got equity. You own a part of the company. And if the company takes off, you get rich. All that hard work will be worth it, because you invested your life into the shared project.

For these early disciples – who we see from today’s text were really quite ambitious people – the Jesus movement was a lot like that. It was a startup, and the disciples were basically equity partners. Sure, Jesus didn’t look like much yet. Just another Rabbi wandering through the Judean countryside. But when he became king of Israel – oh, boy! Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the others were going to be sitting pretty. They’d get to command armies, serve as top officials, and generally be very important people. That initial public offering was going to be huge.

In this morning’s gospel reading, we see that the disciples really have the wrong idea about how this startup is really going to work. They’re still at the beginning of the road, and imagine it can lead exactly where they want to go. They’re still reading the novel’s prologue, imagining the happy ending that must lie at the end of the story.

They don’t understand yet. They don’t realize what it means that they’ve been given equity in the Mustard Seed Startup. They can’t wrap their heads around how this story really ends. They still think they’re going to be lords of the earth alongside their king Jesus.

They’re all thinking it. All of the disciples have their youthful ambitions and imaginations, pushing them forward into a glorious destiny. And as with any group of ambitious people, there’s a fair amount of tension within the community as the internal pecking order gets established.

All of this unspoken jostling for preeminence comes to a head in the tenth chapter of Mark. Most of the chapter is about Jesus trying to get the disciples to understand what this movement is really about. The empire of God isn’t what they expected. It’s nothing like the empires of this world, based in relationships of domination and submission, the rule of the strong over the weak.

Jesus teaches the disciples that only those who become like little children will enter the empire of God. He reveals that it is almost impossible for the rich to enter the empire of God; only by surrendering everything can they hope to enter it. These two teachings, one right after another, upended all the common wisdom about who was good, important, and worthy to rule.

Even more so than today, children had virtually no rights in the ancient world. They were at the bottom of the pyramid – better seen and not heard. The vision that we get from Isaiah, that “a little child shall lead them” was almost too ridiculous to be believed. Leadership was for the strong, not for the weak.

The rich, on the other hand, were supposed to be blessed by God. In the ancient world – including in the house of Israel – there was always a strong strain of prosperity gospel teaching. The idea that if someone was rich, it was a confirmation that God was on their side. Those who are on top of society are there because they deserve it somehow.

Today’s society has pretty much the same idea, even if we use different words. Maybe we’d say that the rich worked hard, made good choices, and were really smart – so maybe that means that one percent of the world’s population deserves to own half of the earth’s wealth. In ancient society, it was common wisdom that the wealthy were rich because of God’s favor. The world is as it should be, and rejecting the rule of the strong, the rich, the powerful, was fighting against the divine order.

In just a few short lines in the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-lenders at the heart of establishment religion. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” It says that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. So he repeated it, to make sure they understood. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This isn’t what the disciples signed up for. They joined up with the Jesus movement in order to be part of the new Judean 1% in the empire of God. They were ready to be rich, powerful – people blessed by God.

So even when Jesus told them all these things directly, the disciples were having a really hard time hearing it. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Perhaps even more importantly, it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their hopes, dreams, and worldview depend on them not understanding it. The disciples were so full of their ideas about how the story should end – about the triumph and glory that should be theirs as charter members of the Jesus movement – that they just couldn’t wrap their heads around what Jesus was actually saying to them. So Jesus tried again. Mark says:

Again [Jesus] took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

And it’s right after this – after Jesus has told them to be like children. After he’s told them that it’s the bottom rung in society, not the top, that will enter the empire of God. It’s after he’s tried to shatter the disciples’ startup mentality and wake them to the trials and suffering that are coming, that James and John approach Jesus to ask for a bigger share of the company.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“And what’s that?” asks Jesus.

“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I can just see Jesus face-palming at this point. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

You don’t know what you’re asking, because you still think that this path is about glory. You still imagine that the road of discipleship ends at power, honor, and prestige in the eyes of the world. You still don’t understand suffering. You don’t know what it means to give up everything to follow me. You haven’t surrendered your naive ambitions and lust for control.

James and John think they do understand. “We’re ready,” they say. “We can be baptized with your baptism and drink the cup you’re going to drink.”

And then Jesus says what are probably some of the most ironic words in the whole Bible: “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

The disciples came to Jesus asking for the best seats in the house, but Jesus knows what it means to sit at his right and his left. Those aren’t seats. They’re certainly not thrones. They’re crosses. Those who will sit at Jesus’ right and left are those who will be crucified on either side of him. The disciples still can’t imagine it, but the inauguration of the empire of God is Jesus’ execution. His throne is the cross. His crown, of thorns. Jesus reigns from a throne that is completely opposite and diametrically opposed to the throne of Caesar. The king of Israel reigns from the cross.

In our reading this morning, Jesus calls us out of our youthful foolishness, out of our enthusiasm and imagination of what grand deeds we can accomplish, what heights we can ascend. The gospel invites us to join Jesus in the Desert of the Real. We discover victory in surrender, redemption in suffering, glory in submission and service to others – including our enemies.

This is not the path any of us signed up for. Just like the disciples, we haven’t been ready to hear it. But Jesus is telling us now, clearly. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to embrace the savior that Isaiah talks about, whose life was made an offering for sin – whose sacrifice wipes away our transgressions.

This same Jesus, this crucified king is inviting us to join him. To become like him. To allow our lives to become a sacrifice that, together with Jesus, redeem the world and usher in the empire of God.

This is good news. The simplistic, selfish minds of our youth may reject it, but the way of Jesus is one of hope, liberation, and joy. The gospel of the cross requires us to experience two seemingly contradictory realities at the same time:

First: The way of God is marked by suffering and loss.

Second: The way of God is one of triumph and peace.

These are both true. And we can’t have one without the other. No cross, no crown. No loss, no victory. No suffering, no peace. The prophet Isaiah describes this double reality so beautifully:

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to surrender our will to power – our insatiable desire to be the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most honored. Becoming like Jesus, we are invited to bear the sins of many, to make intercession for the transgressors, to become priests of the new covenant – cleansing the world through the life blood of Jesus.

As we enter into a time of waiting worship, let’s ask God to uncover all the ways that we use our religion as a mask for our own unexamined ambitions. Holy Spirit, come be in our midst. Show us our hidden darkness and bring us into the light. Make us people who are like your son Jesus – able to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism. Make us people who bless the world through our obedience, sacrifice, and love.

Lower Than the Angels

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

I’ve always had a soft spot for Psalm 8, our Call to Worship. Back in high school one of our choir pieces set Psalm 8 to music, and then in the middle of it was a spoken adaptation of part of the Psalm. I had the speaking part, and I still remember my lines exactly. “Thou hast made man a little lower than the angels, and hath crowned him with honor and with glory. Thou has put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!”

I’ve remembered that reading ever since I learned it over forty years ago, and I think it’s a good psalm to use on a Sunday where we are washing feet and celebrating communion.

What strikes me is the hierarchy that’s in the Psalm. There’s God, then the angels, then humans, then animals and birds and fish. It’s not stated, but I guess that nature itself in terms of mountains and trees and things would fall just under animals, birds, and fish.

The writer of Hebrews catches exactly what it is that makes this such a good psalm for today. God’s at the top of the organizational chart, and then nature at the bottom. There’s five parts to the chart, and humans are right in the middle with two things above and two below. Then in Hebrews 2:9 it says, “…but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

In other words, God, in the form of Jesus, steps down off the top rung of the chart right down into the middle with us. Lower than the angels and you know what? Actually, lower than us.

That sounds strange to say, but it’s true. Jesus was fully human and fully divine, so how can he be lower on our chart than us? If you look at it that way than I agree. But consider: Jesus didn’t just become a human, he became a servant. He ate with outcasts. He called tax collectors down from trees. He forgave adulterers. He knelt and washed the feet of sinners.

If Jesus had been the Messiah people expected, a king or military leader or ruler, then he would have been above us on the revised chart, just as the President or those the world calls successful are perhaps a little above us in such a ranking, and he would have been just a little lower than the angels.
Instead, Jesus went straight to the bottom of the human hierarchy. He became a servant of servants. He allowed himself to suffer the degradation and mockery and death of a criminal. Jesus became that which others looked down upon and disdained.

And it was only then, after the death, that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and resumed his rightful place as Lord and Ruler of our lives.

As the writer of Hebrews knows, it is in servanthood and suffering that Jesus demonstrates God’s love for the world. We now enter a time where we will symbolically be one another’s servants. If this time remains merely a symbol, though, then it’s not worth it. Jesus calls us to take the servanthood that is symbolized here and to live it in every part of our lives. Amen.