A New Thing

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Isaiah 43:16-21

Sports fans are familiar with the concept of “tanking.” In baseball the Baltimore Orioles are actually a good example of this right now. The Orioles have been a good team for several years. Last year they were not a good team, even though they had a lot of the same players they’d had when they were good. But some of those players had gotten a little older and weren’t as good as they used to be, and weren’t likely to get better again. If the Orioles were going to get back to being a contending team they needed to get rid of these older, higher-priced players. This would give them room on their roster to try out a whole lot of younger players, players who both might develop to be better than the older players and who would be a lot less expensive to pay than the older players. This would free up money to invest in finding and signing even more good young players.

The downside of all this is that it means that for the next two or three years, the Orioles are likely to lose a lot of games. They aren’t necessarily trying to lose these games – the players are playing as hard as they can and trying to win. But they aren’t good enough to win, at least not yet, and

that means that they will lose more games in the short term, which gives them better draft choices of amateur players, which means that in the long term they are likely to get better and contend again. Does that make sense?

That’s what is meant by tanking. Putting together a team that is young and cheap and not likely to win now, in hopes that they will develop and that you can find and sign some better young players and be a good team again in a few years. It is very difficult and very frustrating for fans to watch a team that is tanking, but the fans usually understand what’s going on and are willing to put up with losing now in the hopes of winning in the future. It has become a part of the regular cycle for sports teams.

In Psalm 126, our Call to Worship today, we see this interplay of hard times and of good times, of struggle followed by joy. In verses 1 and 2 it says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;” The laughter and the joy comes after Zion’s fortunes are restored, which means the laughter and the joy come after something bad and difficult and hard. The laughter and the joy come after a time of turmoil and a time of desolation. You see it again in the prayer captured in verses 4 through 6, particularly in verse 6. “Those who go out weeping, bearing the

seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” With faith in God after pain comes rejoicing, after risk and work comes reward.

I preached a sermon here several years ago about being adopted. I don’t remember if it was after Nate and Jenn started worshipping with us or if it was before then when I was doing pulpit supply around 2005 or so. To sum that part of it up, I’ve known ever since I was a little child that I was adopted. When I was around 40 or so my doctor recommended that I see if I could find out anything about the medical history of either of my birth parents, as things related to that can start to develop more as we get older.

I asked my parents if they knew anything, and they had a possible name, and they said they would see if there was anything more that they could find out. I took the name that they gave me and played around on Google a little bit and found a couple of other names, maybe, but not really enough to do anything with or about.

A while later when I was visiting my parents they gave me an envelope with all kinds of information about my birth mother. They learned that I had been named Derrell Gebhart at birth, and they had learned who my birth mother was. They had visited a couple of her sisters, one of whom was related to a family that we knew. They had found some pictures of my

birth mother, including a high school graduation picture and others that her sisters had, and they had recorded some stories and information from her sisters. They told me that I had four brothers and sisters. They’d learned that my birth mother had died of ALS several years ago.

I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do with all of this information. I’d just wanted to know a little bit about my medical history – I wasn’t trying to do any genealogical research or anything. I couldn’t process all of it and so I mostly didn’t do anything with it. I let it sit.

A year or so ago my sister-in-law Gaye bought a package of Ancestry.com DNA kits for family members. She had one left over, and wondered if I would be interested in using it. I was – I’m a little bit interested in history and I’d heard stories about my Davidson ancestry being German/Irish, and I wondered if that was true. It didn’t occur to me at all that this test would not trace my Davidson ancestry; it would trace my Gebhart ancestry, my birth ancestry.

When the results come back on these things, there are different pages to click on that give you different information. The first one that I looked at was about geography, and I learned that based on this DNA sample they estimate that a large percentage of my ancestry is from England, generally speaking – Great Britain, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.

A smaller percentage is from the Scandinavian countries and Western Europe.

Then there was a tab for possible DNA matches with other people. I clicked on this tab, and then I knew. The first name it showed was a possible first cousin, and I realized that it was a match from my birth family. I recognized this person’s maiden name as the same as my mother’s last name after marriage. I knew it was possible we were first cousins, but I don’t know if I had considered that we were a closer relation than that.

I wasn’t ready to do anything with the information. I’m not sure if I even told Julia about it – I thought I did, but she says I didn’t. Anyway, I just let it sit.

A few months later this person I matched with wrote to me asking if I knew how we could be connected. She couldn’t figure out how we could be cousins and couldn’t find the connection. I still wasn’t ready, and still didn’t do anything.

A week or two ago it occurred to me that I should probably write back to her. I thought that it wasn’t fair for my own uncertainties to leave her with questions about herself or her family that she couldn’t answer. I wrote back that I thought we might be connected through my mother and shared what information I could remember. The material my parents prepared is still

boxed up somewhere after our last move, I think, so while I could remember her maiden name was Gebhart I couldn’t remember her first name for sure.

She wrote back with her mother’s name and wondered if we might share the same mother. I replied that since I wasn’t sure about my birth mother’s first name I couldn’t say based on that, but that there was one piece of information I remembered that might settle it. My birth mother died of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

She replied that so had hers. I was pretty sure We were brother and sister.

I’ve spent the last few years withdrawing from people emotionally I think. My work takes a toll on me, and my coping mechanisms for the stress of work are to eat mindlessly and watch TV or play games on the Internet mindlessly. My sister Lori, who I grew up with and was also adopted, died a couple of years ago. I got closer to my parents during the year or two that they lived with us, but then they moved back to Ohio so there is a lot more geographic distance and the various issues they are dealing with can create some emotional distance sometimes.

All of that is to say that while this wasn’t totally unexpected once I’d seen the DNA results, I still wasn’t sure how to feel about it. My sister

shared that she was struggling with mixed feelings too. Her first message after we confirmed our relationship said near the beginning, “It’s almost more than I can grasp and at this point I feel kind of numb” and said near the end, “…despite the pain I am thankful our paths have crossed.” While I worked with and through the pain of never having known my birth mother, she had a pain that was almost the opposite: the pain of thinking you knew someone and finding that they had a secret or hidden past and maybe you didn’t know them after all.

Over the last week or two we’ve both made strides processing our feelings and reaching some conclusions. Her last message to me ended saying, “P.S. As time goes on and the shock of all this wears off I have to tell you I am so excited to have another brother.” I feel the same way about her and the three other siblings I haven’t met yet.

The theme of great joy coming after great pressure or pain or worry or stress is a common one in the Bible and in life itself. We talked about how it shows in our Call to Worship, Psalm 126. Our scripture reading from Isaiah opens with a reminder of the bravery it took to have faith and trust that God would part the waters so that Israel could escape from Egypt. We see in nature examples of butterflies that come from cocoons, or flowers that grow from bulbs.

One of the most famous sermons of the 20th century is called “It’s Friday, But Sunday’s Coming.” It was made famous by the sociologist Dr. Tony Campolo, who adapted it from a sermon by the great African-American preacher the Rev. Dr. S. M. Lockridge. (Shadrach Meshach Lockridge.) Lockridge was a pastor for decades in San Diego, and wrote a sermon around the darkness of Friday, when Jesus was on the cross, dying. The disciples were discouraged. Peter had denied Jesus three times. The man they believed was the Messiah, the Son of God, had died on a cross like a common criminal.

But Lockridge’s message was to not be discouraged. It was Friday, yes, but Sunday is coming. The resurrection is coming. We should cling to our faith in God, because the blood of redemption, pouring out of the broken places of Christ’s body, truly redeems on the Sunday that is to come. Easter Sunday when Jesus is risen from the grave and his followers see his victory over the grave.

We are going through something of a Friday as a congregation. We’ve had families who were important and active members of our body move away. We’ve seen our attendance at worship go up and then back down again, and we have difficulty sometimes in finding people to fill the spots that need to be filled in our administrative structure.

It’s easy to be discouraged, but Sunday is coming. God is doing a new thing. I don’t know what it will look like, but I know it will be wonderful whatever it is.

We’re going through something of a Friday as a denomination. Along with a lot of other denominations attendance and giving are down, evangelism in multi-cultural settings is a challenge, and we are facing differences that seem like they may be impossible to reconcile around certain issues. The denomination may end up splitting.

It’s easy to be discouraged, but Sunday is coming. God is doing a new thing. Whether that means a Spirit-led renewal within our own denomination or two new denominations no longer arguing over various issues but each moving forward with God’s Spirit and God’s leading as they discern it I don’t know, but I know that whichever of those happens it will be wonderful.

We all have pressures and doubts and pain in our own lives. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday is coming. God is doing a new thing. I don’t know what it is for you, but I know that God will lead you through it and that you will end up in a much better place as a result.

In my situation, I know what at least part of the new thing is. I have a new relationship with a sister and at least a couple of nieces. I spoke on

Facebook yesterday with a new brother. I have some new family to be connected with, new stories to learn and to share, new memories to make. I know what the new thing is, although I still don’t know what all it will look like, but I know that God is in it and it will be wonderful.

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.” Thank God for the new thing. Amen.

(Embodying Hope) A baby, a girl, a body

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-17, Luke 1:36-38, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, 1 Timothy 4:12

You probably recognize our texts in Isaiah and Luke as scriptures we read in Advent, but they are also from a church feast day held on March 25th, called the Feast of the Annunciation. Hands up if you typically celebrate the Annunciation, or if you’ve ever celebrated it. I didn’t think there would be many—or even any. In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t typically mark the Annunciation, though I’d like to change this, at least for our congregation. The Annunciation is the announcement from Gabriel to Mary that Jesus would be born.

I stumbled upon the Annunciation passages in the Lectionary and thought they would complement our Lenten theme, the start of April (which is Earth Month), and Tori’s report about Christian Peacemaking Teams. Within today’s passages, there is a broader theme about embodying hope, about God bringing hope through those whom society says cannot contribute, through people whom we would not expect, in ways that rulers and leaders would not imagine.

Our passage in Isaiah shows someone with the opportunity to ask God for a sign. If I was in trouble and the Creator of the Universe says, “Ask me for a sign that everything is going to be okay,” I hope I would actually ask for something. Whether it would be good or smart or witty or pious is another story. I think I would at least ask for something.

In our Isaiah text, the people of Judah are facing calamity. The Lord gives King Ahaz the opportunity to ask for something cosmic to signal God’s deliverance. It’s implied here that God will rescue them, if Ahaz is just willing to ask. The Lord says, “Ask me for a sign—let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” In other words, God is saying, “Ask for something as metaphysically unfathomable as the place where souls go, or as cosmic as the sky or the place where God dwells. I can help you through this coming calamity, but all you need to do is ask. For something.” Yet Ahaz says, “No, no, no. I’m okay. I don’t want to test God.” Ahaz is trying to look pious, but really doesn’t want God’s involvement – probably because it would mean he’d need to change how he lived or worshiped. Rather than trusting God, he’s putting his hope in some wheeling and dealing with another ruler (the King of Assyria). Lots of money, big armies—that’s a bit more comforting than a God you can’t see.

Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign is not what God wanted. Isaiah sends this message, “You’re trying to act religious here? Do you realize you’re playing holier than Thou with the Capital T Thou. You don’t want to ask for a cosmic, transcendental sign? Well, God is going to give you one anyways, something cosmic and miraculous: a baby, born to a young woman. The baby will be the sign that God is with Us and he will be named that—Immanuel.”

The baby is a sign that God is trying to work against all their wayward, idolatrous intentions, and is trying to bring about hope. God ends up delivering Ahaz and Judah from the nations who threaten the country, but also ends up promising judgment on Ahaz and the people for their ongoing idolatry and injustice. The baby is a sign of hope—but the presence of hope does not mean the people can just sit idly by. God still requires that people reckon with their failures and their consequences, God still requires that people transform their lives to work for the healing of relationships and the healing of our whole created world.

Babies bring hope. When there is ecological devastation, when species are threatened or endangered, the birth and growth of offspring are signs that the situation is turning around. I follow a few different Smithsonian Instagram accounts and I’ve seen recent postings of baby cheetahs or baby pandas born and growing—making a future of these vulnerable species a little less bleak, thanks to countless hours and dollars of research and ecosystem conservation. The furry little ones born give hope—and their cuteness often prompts people to donate and, I hope, to act in ways that guarantee their future.

My son is 10 months old. As my husband and I were preparing to have a child, we discussed what it means to bring life into the world when injustice and violence seem to be growing, when governments are chaotic and not caring for the common good. Theologically, we believe in a solidified outcome—that God will redeem and restore all things. Thus, we can bring new life into this world knowing that the Divine hope and reconciliation will overcome the chaos. Our baby is sign that we believe God is making all things new (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). The presence of life brings hope—and gives us the vision we need to do what God calls us to do. When we want children to live in a world of God’s wholeness, it can help us focus on our tasks and calling: To love our neighbor. To love our enemies. To heal this earth and this soil and the oceans and these rivers that we destroy with our consumption.

Our passage in Luke is the Annunciation passage itself. And in it we hear that God is acting in a way we’ve never seen. Not in a whirlwind, not in a burning bush, not in a pillar of fire or a cloud. God is acting through a young woman and a baby. Again, of all the cosmic ways to give a sign, of all the possibilities to manifest and deliver salvation, the LORD does not choose the depths of Sheol or the heights of heaven. Of all the cosmic possibilities for a noncorporeal cosmic ruler to be manifested, God chooses to enter a womb. The womb of a young, unmarried woman—a girl, many would call her—who bravely says yes to God. God chooses to enter our journey of cells multiplying and organs growing, with arms and legs wiggling and kicking, squishing a bladder, kicking a rib. God chooses to enter our world with a tiny, helpless body. Hope is found in a baby, a brave girl, in a body. Hope is found in bodies.

The story of the gospel is that hope is found in babies, in girls, in bodies. God’s hope is not ephemeral but tangible. The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message). God works through babies, through girls, through bodies, through people.

God works through people the world does not expect and that the world thinks little of. We read 1 Timothy 4:12 this morning, “Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” God works through youth who sue the government to try to address climate change. God works through students who organize a strike around the globe, who use their bodies not in class to make a statement: the health of our planet is serious, and we need to act.

God acts through bodies. God acts through bread shared together, cups of tea drank, through relationships and accompaniment. God embodied hope through Jesus. Jesus has tasked us to embody hope in this world. To love our neighbor. To love our enemies. To heal this earth and this soil and the oceans and these rivers that we destroy with our consumption. Hope is in the baby born, the brave girl, the youth striking, the tea shared. We see hope in Jesus Immanuel: God is with us. AMEN.

Come to the Waters (embracing bounty)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-9, Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

In the book of Exodus, the once inarticulate Moses faces the Pharaoh backed by the power of God first appearing to him in a burning bush in the desert. As the Hebrew people head into the wilderness, they are followed by the Egyptian army which is driven by the recognition that their emancipated slaves are not coming back—that the subjugated people who had done their work were perhaps too easily set free. Up against the Red Sea and certain destruction, Moses led them through the sea. The cloud of the presence of God veiled them while a great wind was sent to divide the waters.

The Apostle Paul picks this up and reads it Christologically—that is, through Christ. In this passing through the waters of the sea, the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians are saved. The Apostle reads the water as a baptism. A passing through Christ’s death into life. For in Romans we read, Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)). They were saved by passing through these waters.

Come to the water.

Paul writes “all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”

Not only was the water of the sea a baptism but the rock in the desert out of which a sustaining water flowed was Christ. The Christ which appeared centuries later but whom the Gospel of John asserts was present and participating in the creation of the world, the Spirit hovered over the waters—this is the one whom Paul proclaims as the fount of water in the desert—in the time of need this one is the living water. Come to the waters.

The prophet Isaiah exhorts,

“everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

This sounds like a great deal. It isn’t even buy one get one 50% off. This is like a free fancy think tank reception where you not only get hear an interesting talk about policy but get nice food while on a BVS budget. However, my dad, who is a very practical fellow, used to say some variation that “nothing is free.” Which is, of course, true. Someone picks up the cost because they care about something or have an interest in you caring about it.

In Luke we read, At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

There is a persistent notion that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people—at least when we observe others. So, when something bad happens we assume that they did something bad and if something bad happens to us or our friends we ask—why me? Certainly, the Galileans who were defiled by Pilate must have sinned. Certainly, those on whom the tower fell must have really ticked off God.

Jesus, however, disconnects a negative occurrence from that of punishment. Those who suffered in this way are no worse than you! However, he also seems to reattach it. Those who died in these tragedies were not being punished for their particularly heinous crimes. Rather, all deserve a harsh retribution and it is only by a particular grace and mercy that we make it through. He seems to imply all of us should die in a tower collapse but don’t by God’s mercy—this is a type of comforting. It also feels like it could be ominous and threatening. The intent is rather to get us to focus. Because of the gravity of our action or inaction and intentions we should take this seriously. Though God is radically graceful we must not be presumptuous.

A commentator writes, “Luke does not destroy severity by infusing grace, nor does he destroy grace by infusing severity. As a theologian he knows that any mixing of severity and grace or any attempt to average them will result in neither severity or grace” (Craddock, Luke¸167). It is not that grace and mercy balances out justice or punishment in some sort of neutral middle—like white and black paint make grey or green and red make a muddy brown. Rather, they both exist.

The passage continues with a parable of a fruit tree—a fig fruit tree.

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Here the issue of fruit is ventured. A fig tree, not unlike our own likely dead fig tree, does not produce. The only reason it exists is to produce fruit for its owner. The owner is persuaded to have patience when it doesn’t produce as anticipated. This picture of divine patience follows the teaching which presents both grace and punishment, mercy and justice. The Apostle exhorts, “We must not put Christ to the test.”

He continues “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful… [you will not] be tested beyond your strength.

Come to the water! This water is free (for you). For God it is a costly gift. A gift that requires patience and as we will discover in Holy Week a great sacrifice. The water of life is not free so that we can muddy it and abuse it—note here the parallels between both the gifts of physical waterways that we humans often damage or destroy and the spiritual water of life that we muddy through distractedness and injustice. The season of Lent invites us to focus. The movement towards Easter and the pain of Holy Week beckons us towards abiding with God, the source of life. The imminent death of Jesus will provide the greatest challenge to the false theology that the Galileans who were defiled by Pilate or those 18 who died in the collapsing tower were worse than us.

The water of life is given to us in abundance. While it isn’t earned, it requires much of us. This is part of Kameron Carter’s critique of white theology in Race: a Theological Account. It says we can do theology separately from the realities of the world in which towers collapse and kill people because those supposed to be responsible cared more for their money or power than the people. This is artist Ai Wei Wei’s documentation of the collapsed school buildings in China which thousands of school children died.

Our enjoying the abundant water of life is not somehow separate from the racism that allows communities of color in this country to be poisoned by their water which is polluted by others. The question that the crucified Holy One of God will bring is not “what did the suffering ones do to deserve this?” but what did those with any power do or neglect to do that caused their suffering?

“everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”

Come to the waters! Come to drink from the abundant water of life. It is free but it will turn your life upside down!

Come to drink from the abundant water of life. It is free but it will turn your life upside down! You may no longer live for yourself. The water of life that rushes from the Christ in the desert

revives you to be a conduit of life and justice and mercy. The God of mercy is the source, but you have the privilege participate in this good work. Come to the waters!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Come to the waters! Come drink from the abundant water of life.

Seraphs (each with 6 wings), Fishes (so many)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8(9-13), 1 Corinthians 15;1-6, Luke 5:1-11

Isaiah, when facing God’s majesty, said “I am not worthy”

An angel came and touched his lips with a coal to purify him and take away his guilt.

Paul, when considering his call as an apostle, said “I am unworthy because I persecuted God’s people.”

It is through God’s grace that he was given this ministry.

Peter, when Jesus instructed one more cast of the net after a long night of empty net—which resulted in so many fishes that the nets just about broke, said “Go away from me for I am sinful.”

Encountering the power of God, these three recognized their deficiencies, their guilt, and perceived their unworthiness—they were then purified, absolved, and empowered to launch into the work that God called them

Encountering the power of God, these three recognized their deficiencies, their guilt, and perceived their unworthiness—they were then purified, absolved, and empowered to launch into the work that God called them

This was not simply a subjective lack of self-esteem or timidity or fabricated humility. It is not someone on stage saying they are “humbled” at the point of great success or an award. It is not my overwhelming introversion when I arrive at an event that the only reason I am attending is to network for my job.

Paul was called to proclaim Jesus after he had hunted down and thrown people who followed Jesus into prison. Paul, who was formerly Saul, oversaw the stoning of the first martyr of the church. He then took up the attack of the Jesus followers with terrifying zeal. In Acts 8 we read, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria… Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison…[and in the next chapter]… Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9).

So when the Apostle Paul (the one formerly known as Saul) says that “I am unworthy “to be a proclaimer of Jesus except through the grace of God he means it literally. He isn’t just saying this because it the correct and humble thing to say. The transformation and renewal are profound. But it is not just so that he can have a comforted conscience—he is given serious work to do. In fact, he says that he does it more intensely than everyone else. Which is hard not to hear as bragging (which may be why I don’t think in the earlier section he is being falsely humble).

The prophet Isaiah, when faced with the dazzling and terrifying presence of God initially shrinks in fear. The scene is dramatic:

“Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.”

While this might just sound kind of cool to us—I mean the “pivots on the thresholds” shaking basically sounds like Jake and I am a War in The Chapel studio or an evening at the Black Cat. While I don’t know Isaiah’s music of choice, he certainly was well aware of the danger of seeing God face to face. There was a precedent of this being an experience unlike others.

Facing God was not a normal Tuesday meeting. For example, though Moses interacted with God more than most he was also afraid to see God—”And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” This is THE Moses. The God spoke through a burning bush to him Moses. The lead the people out of Egypt Moses. This Moses hid his face. When Moses receives the 10 commandments, receiving them from God…he glowed. We read in Exodus 34 “29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant[f] in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.” Even the residue of facing God struck fear.

And Peter. We know Peter as the first to speak—not shy and timid. Peter eventually received the “keys” to the kingdom from which the tradition of succession of the Pope was built and was a disciple—a star—a least a significant character of the story of Jesus. Before Peter was “Peter the theologically glamorous,” he is the Peter we have today. Peter was a fisher. Though it seems he owned the means of his production and labor—the boats and nets—he was one whose work was manual and stinky. Likely not the most prominent. Peter was young. Peter lived under occupation. Peter was not, it would have been guessed, a soon to be leader. Not only this but on this particular day Peter had been up all night unsuccessfully trying to catch fish. This was his profession and not only was it likely a source of professional pride, but it was a matter of survival. Peter and his colleagues in fishing had ended the excursion without fish.

In this context Jesus, the newish popular teacher asked to borrow a boat to use as a pulpit. At the conclusion of what was a teaching that didn’t manage to get recorded, Jesus instructs them to cast out once more and lower their nets for fish. The result is fish, so many fish. It is at this point that Peter cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Three people. Three cases of recognizing unworthiness. When faced with the presence of the divine they rightly recoiled but were brought near by the mercy of God.

But there is more.

They are given work.

Jesus says to Peter the fisher of fish, you will be catch people. Does Peter know what this means? When I thought about it, it seemed less clear. I grew up with the song, “I will make you fishers of men…” The interpretation that we assumed was Jesus was calling them to be evangelists or preachers who would tell about Jesus and this would lead people to salvation. When I read this passage, however, I wondered what exactly Peter thought this meant when he left everything to follow Jesus. The analogy is actually not all that clear. Peter caught fish to sell them so that people could kill them and eat them. He wasn’t saving fish, he was destroying them. The fish weren’t drowning in the water in need of saving but thriving where they were supposed to be. Clearly the metaphor is limited. As we will see through the Gospels and Acts that it takes

several years for the Peter and the other disciples to get clear on exactly what this calling was calling them to. Peter was called and given work.

Isaiah is given the undesirable work to proclaim destruction.

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12 until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13 Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.”

But within the destruction there remains hope for the future. The holy seed is its stump.

And Paul (formerly Saul) goes from a well educated (and probably successful leader) to a transient self-supporting (he made tents), ship wrecked, and oft-imprisoned preacher. Which, admittedly, sounds like a bad deal.

It is such bold action, however, after seeing God, that that both leads to faith and is a result of faith. For as we read in James, belief without action is dead. And in Hebrews 11 it is the faith shown by the “cloud of witnesses” that is the result of the grace of God and a sign of this. “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

“Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith[a] our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible…. (Hebrews 11)

It is to such faith and to such work that we are called. To proclaim with Paul the reconciling grace of God. To proclaim with Isaiah that even amidst destruction there is hope. And with Peter that Jesus has come near.

Epiphany

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

As a child my family always had a Christmas celebration with extended family. My grandparents would have meal at their home. This included, as one might expect, a meal and gifts. It also included riotous beat-up golf cart and mini-bike riding through their meadow and a Christmas reenactment. The kids were the stars of the show. While we did this as young children, what I remember most is the later years. While this marked the Christmas story—if we are honest—it probably was also a little irreverent (a later rendition may have had me wearing sheep ears and biting people with my younger (but old enough to be bearded) brother playing baby Jesus. Our costumes came from a collection of dress-up cloths that my mom had gathered. It included a gold and burgundy glossy velvety robe—perhaps a bath-robe? This, of course, was the garb of a wise one—a Magi. Today, Epiphany, we mark the coming of the Magi to worship the Christ Child.

There is a theological point—that is a point that asserts a truth about reality as it relates to God. Theologians have historically asserted all truth is theological. There are not neat and separate spheres as if the world were divided by academic disciplines. Geographers have their rocks, botanists their botanicals, mathematicians have their numbers….but how do arborists count their trees or why is it that we happen to live on this particular rock? This is why in Psalm 19 the heavens and trees join in the praise of God—

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. The Gospels are not simply a dispassionate recounting of the so called “facts” but are an argument via story that the baby named Jesus is the appearance of the all-powerful God in not only human form but baby human form. The helpless baby is the long-expected savior. The one who sees the dim stable light for the first time was the creator of that very light.

Just before what we read, chapter 1 of Matthew ends with an understated record of the birth of Jesus. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him that though the baby isn’t his, he should carry on the marrying Mary as planned. The final 2 verses read. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” The next line is—

“In the time of Herod…”. There isn’t any other indication of time passing but we gather by later events that it may have been 2 years after the birth.

A commentator writes, “ ‘ In the time of King Herod’ may seem like a return to reality. Apocalyptic time, creation time, the time of Jesus’ conception—given the way we assume the world works—may seem unreal. But apocalyptic time intersects with everyday time, the time of Herod, creating a political crisis. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, is born into Herod’s time” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 37).

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

Wise men, or Magi, arrive from the east. These mysteriously named ones arrive by a mysterious means of navigation. They could be magicians (as the name refers to in other texts) or astrologers. The later Christian Christmas tradition that they were “kings” (We three kings…) may arise from Isaiah 60:3—

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Hare, Matthew, 13).

The Magi are an affirmation of Jesus. Again, like the shepherds, this is unexpected. The shepherds were looked down on, lacked refinement that would be expected for such a task as receiving and then pronouncing the news of divine intervention and arrival. The Maggi are foreigners, almost certainly from a different religion and not from the local religious establishment experts that should have known. God’s people who had been waiting for the coming Messiah missed it—at least in part.

St. Hilary of Poitiers, writing in the 4th century, writes, “And now the Magi come and worship Him wrapped in swaddling clothes; after a life devoted to the mystic rites of vain philosophy they bow the knee before the Babe laid in His cradle. Thus the Magi stoop to reverence the infirmities of Infancy; its cries are saluted by the heavenly joy of angels the Spirit Who inspired the prophet , the heralding Angel, the light of the new star, all minister around Him” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).

While he felt it necessary to take a swipe at their “vain philosophy” it is of note that they were just about the only people who picked up on the arrival of this king. Not only this but they seem to have traveled for 2 years and only were working from a mysterious cosmic sign. Sure, they went to Jerusalem on the false but reasonable assumption that a new king would be born in the capital city but that is pretty close (just under 10 kilometers though presently more difficult because of the checkpoints and separation barrier…). The shepherds got not one angel but a heavenly host singing and only had to walk into town. Both a hometown advantage and angelic booster.

The multiple (maybe 3 because of the three gifts?) seekers of the king of the Jews show and up and ask where this new king is. The asking causes a stir—a stir of fear and not joy.

3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

The seekers of Jesus with a little extra guidance then set off again.

“…they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

Though no longer a newborn and no longer sleeping in a feed trough, this child and this family, we can safely imagine, remained unassuming. While these searchers were looking for a king no one else had recognized this reality. It is all still rather normal seeming. The gravity of the presence of this child was easy to miss.

“The inward reality is widely different from the outward appearance; the eye sees one thing, the soul another. A virgin bear; her child is of God. An Infant wails; angels are heard in praise. There are coarse swaddling clothes; God is being worshiped. The glory of His Majesty is not forfeited when he assumes the lowliness of flesh.” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).

The purpose of this text is affirmation via mysterious travelers that the baby is the awaited Messiah—the awaited saving one. Magi don’t just show up, give gifts, and worship anyone. They give gifts worthy of the coming king. Though the main life events of Jesus will happen decades later, this unusual Epiphany marks this child as the expected Messiah. Much doesn’t match the expectations of God’s people so many miss him. Even his eventual disciples, those who witnessed in person, even these often miss the way Jesus is the arrival of the kingdom of God—And that this was a different type of kingdom.

Both the unexpected child showed up in an unexpected way—or rather, to most, was too expected. He was just born. In obscurity. With no accruements of power. Both the child was unexpected but also the first proclaimers were unexpected. This is both an observation from the narrative texts but also is a broader theological statement. God often speaks through the unexpected. This means that we may both be the unexpected proclaimers and that we must watch and listen for God speaking in unexpected places.

I almost started to say that God likely shows up in the person or place we don’t expect. So, if your theological and political orientation are such it is no surprise that God may speak through X ______. And if your theological and political orientation is such then God may speak through Y___. This isn’t quite correct. For certainly it is the case that some people are more formed to hear God more clearly than others—for example Jesus clearly affirmed those who were humble before God. The challenge is that we usually assume that we are the ones that hear correctly. We should recognize that we may not be the best hearers. It is not a general rule that God is tricky in always choosing the surprising speaker or messenger—however, the shepherds were

unexpected, the Magi were unexpected, a baby was unexpected, a donkey speaking was unexpected—we, if we happen to proclaim a word from God are probably unexpected, and we need to watch for the unexpected heralds of a mighty word from God.

The Magi were so confident in their ability that they traveled a long way. And they were correct. From the vantage point of the expected hearers of God this was unexpected. For them it was on point.

The lectionary passage stops with the heroic success of the wise men. They succeed and worship and are filled with great joy. There is, however, an ominous and terrible part 2. The fearful Herod, a king holding tenuous power on behalf of an occupying force, shows interest in a new king—when this happens we can’t expect something good. This king asking, apparently innocently and out of curiosity for the “exact time” hints at ill intent. Verse seven reads “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.” He masks potential motives by saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

We think that Jesus may have been 2 years old at this point because based on the Magi’s response to the appearing of the star, Herod, the fearful tyrant king kills all boys under 2 in Bethlehem. Hauerwas writes of this, “Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants” (Hauerwas, 41).

This is a downer. From “overwhelming joy” at seeing the Christ child to overwhelming grief of the parents of occupied Bethlehem. Children lost at the hands of a leader they didn’t choose who was afraid of a baby that was barely walking, much less overthrowing regimes. This, however, is the nature of the world. Joy next to sorrow. Pain next to healing. Hope next to despair. It is not that these need to be “held in tension” or in balance or that one redeems the other or cancels the other out. In the Matthew narrative, the Christ child comes as God’s definitive action in a world where kings can force parents to travel while pregnant and kill babies. God’s saving action—God coming near to heal humanity happens because humanity needs healing, needs justice, needs peace. The presence of real evil in the context of overwhelming joy forces us to focus—focus! We must watch for the coming King. We must proclaim the unexpected word that the Creator has come near to heal, has taken the lowliness of humanity. That we can be reconciled, and that God has broken down the separating wall between us (Ephesians 1-2).

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;

but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Where the Joy Meets the Vipers

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

What’s your favorite part of preparing for Christmas?  Is it the tree, the ornaments, the decorations? Is it the Christmas music on the radio, or maybe humming a Christmas tune to yourself throughout the day?  Do you like seeing the lights? Do you appreciate the Salvation Army folks ringing bells outside stores, or seeing kids lined up to visit Santa? Is it the vipers?  How about shopping for gifts for other folks, or even receiving gifts yourselves?

What?  Oh yes, the vipers.  I didn’t mean to overlook the vipers.  Overlooking vipers can get you into trouble.  The vipers always catch me a little bit by surprise when we run across them in our scripture readings at Christmas time.

We have four scriptures today, including the Call to Worship, and three of them fit what we would consider to be a traditional Christmas kind of a theme such as Joy.  Zephaniah 3:14 – “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Isaiah 12:5-6 – Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.  Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

All of those explicitly mention “joy” or “rejoicing.”  All of them are upbeat and happy and, well, joyful. All of them kind of lift your spirit and raise your heart and hopefully make you want to smile, and then to shout, and then to praise, and then to rejoice.

Who, however, rejoices at vipers?  People will rejoice and cheer for lots of things.  I went to Tippecanoe High School, where the team name is “Red Devils.”  I don’t know if it’s true, but it is said that the team name grew out of a reference to Native American tribes in the area as opposed to a reference to Satan, and if true that’s not an appropriate reference.  The current reference for the name is a devil. A picture of our mascot features a long face, goatee, horns, evil-looking grin. I don’t know if there’s a costumed mascot at ball games or anything, but if there is it’s probably someone in a red suit with a pointed tail carrying a pitchfork.  I cheered for them a couple of times every week starting in elementary school all the way through high school – Go Devils! C. S. Lewis would probably like to have a word with me.

On a national level there are other teams with similar nicknames – the Duke Blue Devils, the DePaul Blue Demons, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.  I’m not sure that demons have deacons, but if they do they train at Wake Forest.

I did find a minor league hockey team, the Detroit Vipers, a minor league baseball team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and a few amateur sports clubs named Vipers.  There’s also the sports car the Dodge Viper, but aside from that I don’t think there are too many people who cheer for or look forward to vipers.

The big thing that gets me about John’s “viper” line is that it isn’t directed at people who oppose him.  It isn’t aimed at the Romans, or the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the priests, or anyone like that. Who is John talking to?  Verse 7: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  John is talking to people who agree with him, people who like him. John is talking to people who want him to baptize them.

I find that a little scary.  In some ways, I find it scarier than a real viper.  Listen again to what John says in the beginning of the passage through verse 9:  “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Like me, the folks who hear this are startled, surprised, even scared.  They want to know how to escape this terrible judgment. They don’t want to be vipers.  They don’t want to be worried about God’s wrath. They want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what that is.  So they ask John directly, “What then should we do?” The tax collectors ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?” And even soldiers ask him, “And we, what should we do?”

Scott Hoezee puts it in a very interesting way.  (https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel)
Well what did you expect John would say?  His preaching was getting through to the people.  Bigly. His “in your face” approach to getting a message of repentance across was succeeding and before you knew it, John’s got people of all sorts asking “What should we do?”  And in response to this earnest query, what do you think John would suggest?

Should he tell people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere so as to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives?  Should he tell folks—especially the soldiers who were armed in the first place—to go launch a revolution and found a political movement (“The Messiah Party” or some such thing)? Should he tell ordinary working folks—carpenters, bakers, tax collectors—to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day?

Let’s admit that any of those possibilities would have some merit.  No one should want to knock the meditative life, those who try to do good for society through government, or those who reach out to the poor.

Mostly, though, John recommended no such grand things or practices.  He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.”  Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said.

In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!”

That’s an interesting rhetorical switch, isn’t it?  You start out calling people vipers, and end up asking them to be nice.  But that’s where the joy comes in, or at least where the joy meets the vipers.

Vipers represent evil.  I know it’s not fair. I know vipers and snakes get a bad rap.  I know that vipers really aren’t evil; they’re just doing the things God made them to do.  Nevertheless, in this context vipers represent evil, and vipers represent us.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. There is the possibility for goodness – even for greatness – within each of us, but each of us are also people who sin regularly and often.  Sometimes big sins, sometimes little sins. Sometimes the sin something we do or say that we shouldn’t, and sometimes the sin is something that we don’t do or say that we should.

We are evil.  We are fallen.  We are sinful. We are vipers.  Where is the joy in John’s response?

The joy is that we can do it.

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.