REPENT, AND BELIEVE IN THE GOSPEL

 

Our culture’s present state of imbalance and disorder is fueled by a whole class of public intellectuals: TV news personalities, members of think tanks, and partisan strategists. They have orchestrated and engineered the toxic soup that we as a society have been drinking in for years. We’re all caught up in this. Regardless of our political commitments, social class, or religious affiliations, we’ve all become disconnected from reality to some degree. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into identity- and ideologically-based tribes. We’ve been lied to, bamboozled by the rich and powerful for so long that it’s often hard to tell which way is up.

Can you feel it? Anxiety is gripping our country. The government shutdown is just a symptom. We live in a society with no shared sense of moral commitment, or even historical reality. There is no longer any solid foundation for us to cling to. We look out on the world, and what we see is so overwhelming. “What can I do? What difference can I possibly make in the face of this level of confusion and mayhem?”

In times like these, our membership in the body of Christ is revealed to be so important. As friends of Jesus, we have access to a source of truth that reaches beyond our present state of confusion. Through Jesus, God is reaching into history and speaking directly to us. Regardless of what we see on TV or Twitter, the Holy Spirit is available to us as a trustworthy source of guidance.

We are participants in a tradition that spans back thousands of years. We are part of a people and a community that has survived even worse evil than that which we see in our present context. The church of Jesus Christ is a community capable of living truth boldly, speaking into times of hatred and chaos. In this community, God binds us together in the spirit of love, even in the face of this world’s rancor and blind hatred.

We’ve just passed through the Christmas season. Christmas is a time that we tend to sentimentalize. We think about the joy and wonder of the star and three wise men. We focus on the love of the mother Mary for her infant son. On the sweetness and vulnerability of the Christ child, lying in a manger. Star of wonder, star of light; star of royal beauty bright.

And the light of that star is real. There is joy in the season of our savior’s birth. But we are also cognizant that God had to send that starlight for a reason. That dim light could be so clearly seen in the night’s sky, because it was indeed nighttime in Israel. The age of Jesus was a time of deep darkness, sorrow, and loss.

It was a time when a petty dictator like Herod could slaughter all of the infant children in a town just to eliminate a possible rival. A time when thousands of Jews were crucified by the sides of the road, a testimony to the futility of rebellion against the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire. Only in retrospect can we perceive that the days of Jesus were ones of hope and promise. For those who lived them, it was deepest darkness.

People knew they needed a savior. The common people of Israel flocked to Jesus, because they knew just how desperate their situation was. And not just Jesus. The people of Israel were desperate for healing and liberation, and they were looking for God’s love wherever they could find it. That’s why they came to John by the thousands. That’s why they joined this wild man in the desert, by the side of the river Jordan. That’s why they sought John’s baptism – immersion in water as a sign of repentance.

This is where Jesus began his ministry: immersed in the waters of the Jordan; emerging from the river and seeing the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. This is where Jesus received his call to ministry. A call to be light in the darkness. To take the ministry of John, the call to repentance, and take the next step.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.” This was Jesus’ first sermon. This is the foundation and core of Jesus’ ministry. The announcement of the reign of God on earth, coming now and immediately. Repentance: turning away from the darkness and wickedness of this present world and throwing our lot in entirely with God.

It can’t be overstated how foolish this message must have seemed to those in the centers of worldly power at that time – in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and in Rome. The domination of Rome’s empire seemed just as absolute and unquestionable as global capitalism and nuclear-armed military powers seem today.

The idea that a little nobody like Jesus, emerging from a region that even the Jews considered a backwater, could represent a real threat to empire was preposterous. For him to declare the empire of God in the midst of Roman occupation was almost as unbelievable as preaching an economy of love in the midst our culture’s economy of wealth accumulation and income inequality.

But, as implausible as Jesus’ message was, there were some who did believe. Those who were so desperate to see the light that they were ready to die to darkness. Women and men who flocked – first to John, and later to Jesus – immersing themselves first in the waters of the Jordan and later into the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite the darkness of the world around them, their lives were transformed. They became a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome them.

Are we light in our present darkness? Are we repenting like Jesus calls us to? Are we surrendering our lives to the love, life, and power that Jesus wants to reveal in us?

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.

Paul is exhorting the church to become fully repentant, fully given over to the life of God’s kingdom. To be transformed by God’s love, justice, and spiritual power. He invites us into a journey of faith that utterly breaks down the facade of normalcy that we live in. Paul writes that the age of darkness and wickedness is coming to an end. We can no longer act like it’s business as usual.

Do you believe that? Do you feel it in your bones? Can you sense that this present order is passing away? That in the midst of this darkness, the true light that enlightens every person is coming into the world?

Repentance is a tough word. It’s a word that has been severely damaged by two thousand years of human religion. We’ve turned it into a moralistic, goody-two-shoes word that is mostly focused on personal sin and feeling bad about our naughty deeds. But the original meaning of repentance is far deeper than that. It’s not just about changing our behavior and doing fewer bad things.

Repentance, in the biblical sense, is about a total transformation of character and perspective. It is about becoming a member of the revolutionary God movement. It’s about being baptized into death, and emerging into another life altogether. It’s about awakening from the slumber of this numb and stupefied world, to see reality as God sees it.

Repentance means we have to stop in our tracks and refuse to participate in the everyday evil that surrounds us. Even if it costs us greatly. Even if it puts us out of step with everyone around us. Even if it means discomfort, being socially ostracized, losing our jobs – or worse. Repentance means that we have left the kingdoms of this world and entered into the sovereign power of the crucified savior.

This kind of repentance is not mere pietism. Repentance is not a matter of sentiment or emotional catharsis. It is the very mechanism by which the gospel can be enacted and experienced in our lives, and in our shared life as the people of God.

We learn from the prophet Jonah that repentance is essential to survival. For as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

The wrath of God is real. In the face of violence, oppression, deceit, and abuse, God’s anger is real and justified. Just as God sent Jonah to proclaim judgment on the city of Nineveh, he is sending prophets to our own city. God is sending the prophets to preach repentance, before it is too late.

Because this path we’re on as a nation, it leads to death. The wickedness of our city, of our nation, cries to heaven. We’re no different from Nineveh, or Sodom, or Rome. In his very great love, God is sending his prophets to call us to a different way of life. God is calling us out of the death-ways of Babylon and into the beauty and love of the New Jerusalem. As the apostle writes in Second Peter:

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

The day of the Lord is coming. Darkness will give way to the light. What has been hidden will be revealed. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Will we be like the people of Nineveh, who heard the judgment of God and turned from their evil ways? Or will we be like the people of Sodom, who tried to abuse and humiliate the angels who were sent to warn them? Will we cling to the comforts of complicity and silence, or will we become instruments of transformation so that our city might be saved? God promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if he could find even ten righteous people in it. Are there ten righteous among us today?

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” This is an invitation to a radical new way of life. “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We have an opportunity to embrace a kind of love and joy that is presently unimaginable.

What would it look like for us to be a fearless, repentant people in the midst of an empire even greater than Rome? What does it mean for us to repent and proclaim the gospel message to the culture around us? Could we be the prophets that God wants to send?

We must not underestimate the urgency and reality of this call. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The power and justice of God is present with us, and he will judge us. He will judge us, and he will judge this society that we live in. Are we ready to stand before him and receive that judgment? Is our city, nation, and world ready? How does God want to use us to ensure that every person, every power, every institution will hear the gospel message and have an opportunity to repent?

God is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but that all to come to repentance. But have no doubt: without repentance, we will perish. Without God’s love, we will self-destruct. Without the light of Jesus, we will drown in the darkness.

Will we become the light?

KEEP NO SILENCE

1 Samuel 3:1-20 & John 1:43-51

Jeff Davidson

 

Sometimes God leads us into remarkable moments of serendipity, moments of happy coincidence. Early Wednesday morning I sent Care my sermon title and the two scripture texts we just read. On Thursday, President Trump made his infamous racist and vulgar remarks about not accepting immigrants from certain countries or continents.

The reason that is serendipitous is that in our reading from John, Nathaniel says essentially the same thing as President Trump. John 1:46 – “Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.”

That’s just a boring regular translation. It’s the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The Revised Presidential Version of Nathaniel’s question is, “Can anything good come out of that s-hole Nazareth?”

The interesting thing to me about this is that the Revised Presidential Version of that verse is probably closer to what Nathaniel meant, and maybe even what he actually said. People in the Bible were real people, with real strengths and weaknesses. They were sometimes rude, sometimes kind, sometimes vulgar, sometimes sweet, and sometimes inappropriate, just as we all are. The dismissal in Nathaniel’s question is a dismissal not just of Jesus, but of an entire group of people, and it’s rude, it’s judgmental, it’s racist or classist in the same sense that calling someone a redneck is or making fun of people from some other city or state is, and it’s wrong.

The hopeful thing from Nathaniel’s story, and we should hope and pray the same for President Trump, is that he grew to see the error of his ways. He started to view Jesus on his own merits, and not judge Jesus because of where he came from or how he spoke or what his educational level was. He learned that good things can come from Nazareth, just as they can come from Haiti or Africa or anywhere else. He came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, as his Lord and Savior.

What got me to thinking about the scriptures that I shared this morning was a remembrance by a man named Bob Stuhlmann. I don’t know anything about Stuhlmann besides the fact that he has a blog that hasn’t been updated in a year or two. I ran across this blog entry called “Remembering Martin” from January of 2014, and it struck a chord with me. Let me share some of it with you.

Martin was working on his sermon when I entered the sacristy. I had come to meet the great and diminutive Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I extended my hand and stuttered, “r-r-r Rabbi Heschel I am honored to meet you.” Martin did not look up from his text.

He died a year later. His sermon that day…began, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Those words rang out for me and our generation as surely as the words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial four years before…

Martin broke his silence about the war in Vietnam that day. What silences do we keep in the face and memory of injustice, abuse, brutality?”

Some family systems harbored a code of silence. That loyalty to the family perpetuated emotional illness. I believe much of our addictive society is because we have nowhere to go to talk with some wise other about how this code of secrecy has affected us…

Our secrets are some of those crosses from which we need to get down. So look at the news, our history, your history. Sometimes silence is betrayal. What silences do you keep that prevent your painful and necessary healing? What do you and I have to look in the eye in order to fully live again, sing, and rise on wings?”

https://storiesfromapriestlylife.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/remembering-martin-january-152014/

It’s hard for me to hear that in some ways. I want to speak truth to power. I want to be prophetic. I want to rail against the principalities and the powers of this world. I do not want to keep silent against injustice and evil wherever I may believe that I find it. I want to proclaim release to the captives and good news to the poor.

But before I can do that I need to be aware of the words that I need to speak to myself. I need to know and name the places where I am broken, the places where my wounds hold me back or make me weak. I need to hold myself to the same standard that I wish to hold other people to. I need to speak to myself and let God speak to me about the pain and brokenness within me.

In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen shares the following thoughts.

A Rabbi asked Elijah, ‘When will the Messiah come?”

Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?”

“Sitting at the gates of the city.”

“How shall I know him?”

“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”

The Messiah is sitting among the poor, binding His wounds one at a time, waiting for the moment when He will be needed. So it is with us. Since it is His task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, He must bind His own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when He will be needed. He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after His own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.

Because He binds His own wounds one at a time, the Messiah would not have to take time to prepare himself if asked to help someone else. He would be ready to help. Jesus has given this story a new fullness by making His own broken body the way to health, to liberation, and new life.

Proclaiming justice, speaking truth to power, all the brave and bold things that I want to do, have their root in the interior life of prayer, confession, and self-awareness. We must listen for and look for God’s leading in our hearts, and always be working to stay ready to follow that leading when it comes to us.

God’s word came to Samuel, but Samuel didn’t recognize it. Samuel was just a boy. He was learning the trappings of faith, the exterior parts of faith, but when the word of God came to him he wasn’t prepared to act on it at first. He didn’t know what it was he was hearing. It took the wise counsel of Eli to allow Samuel to understand that it was in fact God who was speaking to him, and that it was God who was giving him a message that he needed to share.

Even then, though, Samuel was scared. He knew that God had given him a message, but he kept silence about it because he was afraid that it would hurt or anger his mentor Eli. 

And what was the message that God sent through Samuel? That Eli had kept silent when he shouldn’t have. That Eli was aware of the sins and the blasphemies of his sons, and had not said anything. It’s fascinating to me that Eli was wise enough and spiritually mature enough to know that God was sharing a message with Samuel. Eli was insightful enough to know that Samuel did not want to share the message with him, and so Eli was probably smart enough to know that it was a negative message of some sort. Despite his wisdom and his insight, though, Eli had kept silent when he shouldn’t. He had let his sons go on unchallenged, and had not spoken out when he should have. And Eli’s family suffered horribly because of Eli’s silence.

I am not saying that you should just speak whatever it is you believe you should speak whenever you think you should speak it. That’s why the interior work, the self-examination and self-care that Stuhlmann and Nouwen talk about is so important. Eli’s sin wasn’t just that he kept silence; it’s that he kept silence when he should have spoken. He kept silence when God had led him to speak. The Old Testament is littered with the names of so-called prophets and priests who committed exactly the opposite sin – they spoke when God had not given them anything to say.

The words that God gives us to speak are not always brave words. They aren’t always words of judgment. Sometimes they are words of invitation. In our reading from John Jesus calls Phillip to follow him. Phillip does, and then calls Nathaniel, and Nathaniel responds initially with the words we started off with from John 1:46.

 Philip invited Nathaniel to follow not on a whim, not because it was trendy to follow Jesus. Philip invited Nathaniel because Jesus had spoken to something deep inside Philip, and because Philip was self-aware enough to recognize that and brave enough to act on it.

It takes bravery to speak out as Martin Luther King, Jr. did but it also takes bravery to speak out in other ways. You don’t need to respond, but how many of you have invited someone to church? How many of you know somebody who is interested in justice, interested in peace, interested in what Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called the seamless garment of being pro-life, including everyone from the unborn to the poor to soldiers to all people near and far, young and old? 

I know some people like that. Have I invited them to church? Have I talked to them about what this group of people mean in my life? Have I shared with them what Jesus means to me and how Jesus’ teachings influence my life? Obviously we don’t always do that with words. The best witness to what Jesus means to you is to live as Jesus lived. But even if we live as Christ-like a life as possible, do other people know that our life is grounded in faith in Jesus Christ? How would they know that if we do not at some point tell them?

I know some people like those I described. I have not always told them. It’s hard. It takes courage. It takes faith. It takes an awareness of our interior strengths and weaknesses. It takes sensitivity to others and to the leading of God in our own lives.

It doesn’t take any bravery for me to stand here this morning and denounce President Trump’s remarks as wrong and divisive and racist. Lots of people are doing that. I run no risk by doing so. In fact, I would probably run more risk if I kept silent about those remarks.

It does take courage to look inside myself and deal honestly with what I find there. It does take courage to share my faith with others. It does take courage to speak to other people about the things that are the most important and the most deeply ingrained within me, because in doing so I risk rejection and damage to my feelings. I risk losing a relationship.

Look inside yourself and listen to what God is telling you. Keep no silence as you speak with yourself about what needs to change in your interior life, what needs to be healed, what needs to be discarded, what needs to be forgiven. Keep no silence as you speak to God in prayer about how you are being led and what you are being called to do.

When you hear what God is calling you to share, keep no silence. Rather, speak the words that God gives you to speak. Speak them certainly with your actions, but speak them also with your mouth when that is what God is calling you to do.

When you see someone else in need of aid or comfort, keep no silence. Speak the words that God has put in your heart, words of compassion and love, words of faith and forgiveness.

When you know another person is in need of right relationship with God, keep no silence. Speak to them of your faith with the way you live your life. Listen for when God leads you speak to them with words of invitation, both to this community of faith and into a deeper relationship with the risen Christ.

When you see injustice and wrong, whether on an individual or a global scale or anywhere in between, keep no silence. Speak as God leads. Be prophetic. Be bold. Be brave. And be compassionate, for you are speaking of real people with real feelings. Like Samuel, you may in some way be proclaiming God’s judgment on them.

When God leads you to speak, keep no silence. Amen.

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD

The Spirit of God hovered over the waters. The voice of God spoke light into the darkness. By his Word, God divided the day from the night. He created the dry land. He made the seas teem with life, and filled the earth with beauty. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

All things came into being through him. Without him, not one thing came into being. Not the trees and grass. Not the stars in the sky or the rumbling furnace beneath the earth. Not one thing came into being without the Word. This word that was with God in the beginning.

Everything we see, all that we know, the entirety of who we are – none of it exists except through him. The love, the creative power, the living presence of God’s Word is the author of all creation. “Let there be light!” said God. And there was light. And God saw that the light was good. A reflection of the light of his Word.

What came into being in him was life. And this life was the light of all people. The Word of God speaks in and through the whole creation. In every solemn stone, in every living thing. In every human heart, the Word of God is here – alive and active. He’s still creating us. Growing us. Teaching us.

This is the true light, who enlightens everyone that comes into the world. The Word of God speaks within each one of us. He is our ground and our foundation. It is through him that we came to have existence at all. He knows us intimately. We are what we are, because of the Word who formed us.

The light shines in the darkness. The Word of God, this light, is no stranger to the darkness. He knew Stalin, and Hitler, and the Columbine shooters. God has seen the way hatred and fear have twisted his good creation. And again he has sent his Word to us, this time with the ministry of reconciliation. To untwist the twisted, heal the broken, and restore the earth.

God loves us because he truly knows us. He knows everyone you’ve ever hated, more intimately than they could ever know themselves. God loves the people that you hate. Of course he does. He created them. He knows them with the care and affection that a parent has for a child.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The love of God is so full. His creativity is so expansive. God understands each one of us to the very core of our being. God knows and understands the darkness we carry inside.

Though it seems terrifying, the darkness isn’t that powerful. It shudders, trembles in the presence of the light. Darkness resists – with lies, and rage, and arrogance, and violence – but it will never understand who the light truly is. The burning, searing love of the Word of God is a mystery.

The Word of God is powerful, like a two edged sword. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, God’s Word cuts for the sake of love. He is the sword that heals. He is the light that exposes and cleanses.

Yet this world, in it sickness, doesn’t want to be healed. Our thoughts and deeds of darkness don’t want to be exposed. So we have resisted the light, just like our ancestors did. We’re part of a very old story.

The light and Word of God has always been in the world, speaking to us in the creation, and in our hearts. Yet the world did not know him. We despised and rejected him. We preferred our world of darkness and confusion to the health, humility, and challenge that the Word of God demands of us. We turned away from the light.

But there is power in the name of Jesus. There is a change that comes for those of us who have made the decision to turn our lives over to the light of God. To all who receive him, he gives us power to become children of God. Living in his light, allowing his Word to speak in us and fill us, we discover a a whole new life that we never imagined possible. We are born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

But this is all so abstract. We can talk all day about the light. About the Word of God and what he did and is doing in the creation of the cosmos. We can talk about darkness and sin, and the power of the light to overcome death and heal the world. But it all easily starts sounding like just more mythology. Good stories we tell ourselves to order our society and treat one another decently, maybe. But nothing that could possibly topple empires and economies. Nothing that can raise the dead, heal the sick, and preach good news to the poor.

God knew we needed more than a good story about light and darkness. We’ve gotten ourselves into so much trouble, he knew that we needed even more than the quiet whisperings of the Spirit. We needed to get beyond mountains, and temples, and goats’ blood, and the law. We needed a new mediator and a new covenant. We needed to see the face of God for ourselves. We needed to meet the Word face to face.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He moved into the neighborhood. We have seen his glory. We say together with the Apostles that we have seen his glory. We witness the glorious presence of God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus we see God’s grace and truth, the loving relationship that is only possible between father and son, parent and child. Before, we could have said we did not know God, we had never seen him. But now we have no such excuse. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

We learn from the Hebrew scriptures that no one can ever see God and live. Knowing this, God came to us. He took on human form – he became a human being, just like you and me. The invincible and sovereign Word of God – the one who created black holes, supernovae, and photosynthesis – became a little baby boy. Utterly helpless. Dependent. Weak.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The law was given through Moses, on top of a mountain with fire and smoke, with dreadful awe and power. But the ultimate revelation, the final word on who God really is, came through Jesus – God with us in the most real and tangible sense imaginable.

Jesus wasn’t some mythological demigod. He wasn’t a sort of blended god/man. In Jesus, God took on all our limitations. He was no different from you or me, except that he was without sin. It’s quite possible that some of us have a better grasp on mathematics than Jesus did. That’s the kind of character that God revealed in Jesus – a God so powerful, so full of love for us, that he was willing to limit himself. He became weak and poor. He suffered shame and death on a cross. Because we hated the light and chose to crucify the light rather than surrender our darkness.

It is time to stop resisting. The light has come. It is time for celebration. Jesus is here! The Messiah child is born! The Word of God, all-powerful, all-creative, all-loving, has come to live among us! Nothing can ever be the same again.

There is a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. God has sent the spirit of his son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” We are children of the light. We are sons and daughters of God, walking in the footsteps of Jesus. He is our brother, our friend, our sovereign lord and teacher.

We are children of the light. In the midst of all this darkness, this light in us can never be defeated. We are children of the light. Sing and rejoice, you children of the day and of the light. For the Lord God is at work in this dark night that can be felt.

Trust him. He’s been here a long time. Before the sun ignited and the planets formed, he is here. Before the earth’s crust cooled and the seas filled with life, he is here. In the beginning was the Word. He is our past, present, and future.

The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus. In this little fellowship gathered together in his name. In all creatures great and small that hear his voice. When we remember that he is powerful, present, and leading us. Even in this deep winter season, the Word is alive.

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

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

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here am I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

 

JUSTICE IS COMING (IT IS JESUS)

Human Rights Sunday

2 Peter 3:8-15a, Isaiah 40:1-11

 Nate Hosler

The second Sunday in Advent

Anticipation. Waiting. Agonizing? Uncertain. Advent—waiting for the promised One. On Thursday we rose early for our 3-4 hour drive and hit the road. Rutted. Through dry, mostly flat land with low trees except for the palms. Security checkpoints with men with big guns and barricades. Road blocks of barrels or tires or logs at checkpoints which jut, maybe half way, into the road. These alternate—one from the left, right, left, right—which slows traffic. This traffic slowing strategy is also used through villages which are lined with market stands. This works-sort of- but at times it generates a certain careening as cars coming opposing directions navigate as quickly as possible. While we barreled through one such obstacle course a gas tanker kept pace with us leading our way, weaving wildly, looking a little like the Joker in Batman driving the tractor trailer. Then, passing Gombi, we tighten a bad sounding wheel before engaging the long smoother straightaways (regularly hanging at 85 miles an hour) to Yola and the airport. As a mere passenger rather than driver, I wait. Bracing myself, observing, talking—but waiting.

 My last 5 in-country flights have been delayed but just in case this one isn’t we get there early enough. They aren’t boarding yet and aren’t even checking us in. So, I wait. It’d be nice to be productive, but the uncertain waiting is distracting. Once the check-in begins, it will be a scramble. Anticipation. Sort of poised, ready. No word on the delay, but that the harmattan dust in the air from the Sahara is too thick. Another flight arrives…hope is sparked. The airport assistant guy, Abdul, suggests I might want to get a seat on this flight. Wasn’t sure, but they were filled anyway when he checks. Maybe an hour or so later it is starting to get uncertain if we will get out before they shut down flights. I text him and ask for my paper ticket print-out so that I have it if he leaves. Not minutes later, they begin checking in. He makes a mad dash towards me across the empty room to retrieve the paper and dives into line. Our hope is restored. Anticipation. Checked in. Through security. Waiting. One hour. Maybe another. Text the Ambassador to say I’ll probably miss our meeting.

Then high above, through a strangely garbled PA system, something is announced. Through deciphering or sleuthing we learn that the flight will arrive from Abuja by 5:50 pm (flight was to depart by 12:15). Relief. Hope at the first bit of information passed on to us in 6 hours—the masses who wait. 5:45. 5:50. This is the story of Advent. Of the waiting and expectation of the coming Messiah who will free the captive, heal the blind, cast off the oppressor, and proclaim reconciliation with God.

Another slightly less garbled but still incomprehensible announcement. A young messenger of doom walks around and confirms. The flight has been canceled. Which means I also miss my flight home.

At the time of writing parts of this I remain in the anticipation of both Advent and getting a flight home. Though we are still weeks from the coming of Jesus, we may remember from last year that we will not be disappointed. The messengers will not be my young airport messenger of doom but the angels to the shepherds. But that is getting ahead of where we are today. Today we wait.

Our passage is 2 Peter 3:8-15a.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 

The passage begins by challenging our notions of God’s time and patience. If 1000 years = a day for God, then what does that break down to per minute? Per second? However, if a day is like a thousand years then what does that mean as the reverse? This sounds less like a common math problem (unless of course this is what one learns if one majors in math) and more like the Matrix or Inception, movies in which time and space bend in unusual ways. This is not simply asserting that God experiences time in a very accelerated or very slow manner.

 This number 1000 came back to me this week while I was at the daily—that is every day at 5:00 at the Unity Fountain next to the Transcorp Hotel in Abuja—vigil marking the abduction of the school girls from Chibok. This past Monday was 1330th day. Today, Sunday December 10th, is 1336 days. How has God experienced these days? There is some old-timey philosophy that Christians have occasionally been influenced by that states that the divine must be above change and above being influenced by the merely human. Our God, however, (which is most scandalous), becomes incarnate and joins us in our existence and joy and pain.  

That Jesus is coming (since we are in advent we refer to it in the future) and will show up in this world as God incarnate—God having taken on flesh and blood and pain and joy—that this is our God then means that God has not been distant from us nor the school girls of Chibok these 1336 days. Jesus came healing and serving and feeling and calls us to the same—or should I say, will call us to do the same once he is born.

Jesus, and thus God, is not above pain and the agony of the kidnapped and their families but with them. God is with us. God is with you. This is a type of hope. The passage continues on, expounding on the timeliness of God.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,[a] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 

The Lord is not patient out of lack of concern but as an act of mercy. The act of mercy which allows for repentance. This call to repentance is both urgent and marked by delay. Delay for repentance and turning. There are many horrible things in this world. I noted the Chibok Girls. There have been many others. Dr. Rebecca Dali has, during her work of humanitarian relief, collected some 4,000 names, dates, and locations of people abducted.

On my flight back from Maiduguri I was wearing my Office of Public Witness t-shirt. On the back is our tag line—“Seeking to live the peace of Jesus publicly.” The man sitting beside me said he liked it…it turned out that he was EYN. We talked for the whole flight to Abuja about his research in public health and how people cannot access it. Towards the end I learned he has 4 children. The youngest is a boy and named after his father. Even later in the flight he revealed that his father had been kidnapped and killed. Not by Boko Haram but by the Nigerian military.

So, when the Office of Public Witness works with the Nigerian Working Group which we convene on military accountability and human rights, raising concerns about the sale of weapons by the US, it is not an abstract thought. It is not a sterile appeal to theoretical legal frameworks, which are useful and regularly used, but it is because we follow a God who feels the pain of people and calls us to a ministry feeling this pain—and then acting in response. God’s patience is for repentance. God’s patience is for repentance. Jesus the one whose birth we anticipate in advent is the embodiment of this justice.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Note that this dissolving is not simply destruction but a process of revealing. It is a disclosing of acts done. Because of this we should live accordingly. Because of this we can also trust that acts of injustice will be brought to light.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening[c] the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Where righteousness is at home. Righteousness can also be translated justice. “We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where justice dwells”

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Because of this being made known—this revealing work—we recognize that that this is good news for those on the side of justice. However, it is concerning for those who are not. Advent is the marking of the coming of Jesus—the justice of God. This is the good news that the angels will proclaim. While this is concerning for some—which may be us—we should consider the patience of the Lord as our salvation. So, this coming and revealing is good news for both the just and unjust for both the righteous and unrighteous.

The patience of God leaves room for repentance. This is not the same as those clergy whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rebukes. It is not patience in the face of wrong. There is both a patience leading towards repentance and an impatience with abuse. “everything with be disclosed” in the last day–God reveals what is hidden and brings to justice.

 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God….

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed..

O THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS AND COME DOWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TANGIBLE FAITH (OIL, SONG, AND PRAYER)

James 5:13-20; John 9:1-12

Jennifer Hosler

This is the tenth and final sermon in our sermon series on the book of James.

 Since it is Thanksgiving weekend, it would be rather appropriate to start my sermon with some gratitude. I’m thankful for many things but one which came to mind is my fantastic and caring neighbors. When we lived in Chicago, our home was in an apartment building where we only once saw the back of our neighbor across the hall. The only person I got to know in our building, in the 9 months we lived there, was a lady who got on and off the bus at the same time as me. The bus stop was 2 blocks away and it took a few months for us to start talking and a little while longer to learn that we lived in the same building. Our neighborly experience in DC is quite different.

Many of you have met our neighbors, who are often keen on talking. Our neighbors often care for us in tangible ways. Sometimes, the caring comes via the lending of an onion or vanilla extract, or in the safe-keeping of a package from our porch. Recently, one neighbor insisted that he drive me all the way to National Airport in his truck, instead of letting me walk to Metro. While it wasn’t “far” per se, we all know that 8 miles can feel like forever when it involves crossing a bridge over the Potomac. Another neighbor, when Nate was recently away in the Middle East, both had me over for dinner and sent me home with leftovers for the next day. From what I’ve read, our neighborly experiences are becoming a rare occurrence in modern U.S. life.

Researchers say these kinds of relationships are becoming less normal in our society. Robert Putnam’s (2000) book entitled, “Bowling Alone,” highlights the decay of social ties or social capital. Social capital is the term used by sociologists to refer to “the networks—together with shared norms, values and understandings—that facilitate co-operation within or among groups” (OECD, n.d.). Social capital involves social reciprocity, a give-and-take that might be formal or informal, but provides power and resources to meet one’s own or the community’s needs. Putnam called his book “Bowling Alone” because he found that, while Americans were bowling more than ever, bowling had shifted from being primarily a group sport where people competed against each other in leagues (like how our church used to have its own bowling league) to bowling individually. Changes to how our society functions (in work, family structure housing, entertainment, commuting, and other aspects) have led to a decrease in social capital: people are joining fewer organizations, knowing fewer neighbors, getting together with their families and friends less.

In our sermon series on James, we’ve spoken extensively about how the ethics of Jesus are upside-down from society’s values and practices. Social status, money, dealing with conflict, and more: following Jesus involves being counter-cultural. I think today’s passage in James 5 illustrates how our approach to social capital is also transformed when we follow the Jesus-way. We are not bowling alone after Jesus, but walking together after Jesus, making our faith in God tangible and concrete. One of the main purposes of the church is to make tangible our faith in Jesus, which we share together.

Hear, Touch, and Smell

How many of you have been to an Orthodox Christian worship service? The Orthodox Church worships in ways that are very different from our service. Some Protestants like to deride them as all “smells and bells” (not an ecumenical approach, clearly). While we have theological differences, I believe the Orthodox Church does a very good job of captivating human senses and using sensory experiences to lift people up to the Divine. The shape of the building and the paintings on the ceiling draw your eyes up. Icons to gaze upon can prompt prayer and reflection. Bells are used to signal the proclamation of the Gospel message throughout the world. Incense symbolizes both the presence of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the people wafting up to heaven. When I first attended an Orthodox service, the richness of the sensory experience was very spiritually moving. 

I found myself thinking of Orthodox churches this week while studying this passage, because our passage presents early church practices that are tangible and sensory. The way that James teaches the early church, it’s an auditory faith. It’s a tactile faith. It’s a scented and oily faith. In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another.

Tangible Faith

James 5:13-20 is the conclusion of James’ letter. According to scholarship on typical Greek letters from that era, most letters would end with a wish for good health from the gods. James takes a different approach because he knows who is the source of our health, strength, and well-being. Rather than looking to the Greek gods to curry favor, James declares that—whether in trials, joy, or sickness—in all things, we look to Yahweh. What I want to stress here is that the cultural context implies that we do this together. In all things we look to God and, whether praying, singing, or asking for healing, we do it together.

Our section starts by James writing, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” Suffering likely refers to the trials and social persecution that were referenced in earlier parts of this letter. Those who are facing challenges, trials, and temptation, they are urged to seek strength by praying to God.

It’s important to note that, in the era of the early church and for the specific group of Christians whom James was writing to, prayer was less likely an individual supplication and more likely a corporate time of intercession. One commentator explains, “In Diaspora Judaism, Jews were characterized by their commitment to times of community prayer (see Acts 16:13, 16). The synagogue and temple were places Jews gathered to pray. We find that the early church was a distinct entity gathered [regularly] for prayer (Acts 1:13-14; 2:42), while at the same time they carried out the traditional times of prayer individually (Acts 10:9) and at least at the beginning attended the temple at the prescribed hour of prayer (Acts 3:1; cf. Acts 2:42, 46, ‘the prayers’)” (Wilkins, 1997, p. 944).

Because James is writing to Jewish Christians, it is highly likely that they heard this admonition to prayer as an urge for group prayer. James is saying, “If you are suffering, you should bring your suffering and experience with hardships to the community of faith.” Praying for one another, praying together, is how the church supports one another. But it involves vulnerability, saying, “I need help. I’m struggling. I am discouraged.” It requires the sisters and brothers around a person to be attentive, to refrain from judging, and to lovingly present these requests to God.

While praying to God on your own behalf when alone can still be comforting, communal prayer—having someone pray out loud for you, together—allows our faith to be felt more tangibly. Perhaps you’ve felt that during joys and concerns, which is an important (and I believe, biblical) part of our worship service. Being prayed for is a powerful experience. Beyond the tangible words that we hear that can strengthen our hearts, asking for prayer in community often also brings the tangible comfort of a hug or a hand on the shoulder.

Following Jesus together makes our faith more tangible, through voice and touch. This is true for when we are struggling and is also to be true when we are rejoicing. James continues and says, “Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Not only are the early Christians instructed to pray together when times are hard, they are also called to rejoice and sing when times are good.

We do call it Joys and Concerns, but sometimes people have mentioned that it’s heavy on the concern end. This might be because we feel sheepish sharing our joys when we hear that others are struggling. It may also be linked with the fact that humans are bent to look for a higher power when things are difficult, but that we’re somewhat self-focused when we’re doing well. James stresses that whether we are in trials or joy, our response should be to look to God as our hope and strength. For those who are experiencing good times, James instructs them to recognize the source and origin of all goodness—the Creator God—by singing songs of praise.

Lifting our voices together in thanksgiving, in joy, praising God, strengthens our faith. Singing together is a spiritual experience that allows us to give our voices as an offering and to be moved by the combined voices of many sisters and brothers in Jesus. By singing, we make our faith more tangible—or at least more sensory. We use our vocal cords to make our gratitude manifest, in the audible richness of tune, rhythm, and harmony.

Oily Faith

Beyond prayer and song, James also mentions oil. Oils are kind of a big deal for some people today, with multi-level marketing companies trying to sell us oil for everything that ails us and for a better, wholesome life. I don’t know about the health claims they purport…but I do know that the oil mentioned in James has a different sort of application and benefit. 

James asks, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:13-15). James continues, urging the sisters and brothers to confess their sins one to another, for healing and forgiveness. While confession and sin are mentioned alongside healing here, I must caution that this is not implying that all physical illness is caused by sin. In our companion scripture in John 9, we see Jesus explain to his disciples that the illness they see is not connected to the person’s character.

For some of us, anointing with oil has been a normal part of church life for as long as we can remember. For some of us, anointing is weird and we’re not really sure how to understand it. In the Church of the Brethren, anointing is one of our ordinances, together with baptism and the Love Feast (communion). We see these things as rituals, or tangible practices, that can be used as symbols to strengthen our faith or help us practice our commitment to Jesus. Of course, rituals can be warped and used in ways that cause spiritual death instead of spiritual life. A lot of things are like that – things that are good but can be abused. They are risky of becoming ends in themselves, so we need be careful that we understand their meaning and that our hearts are in the right place when we do them.

Why do we anoint? A Church of the Brethren resource on anointing describes it this way: “We anoint one another by gathering with people who are ill, hurting, struggling with decisions, or beginning a new phase of life. Our presence, together with the oil and prayers, represents the healing and comfort of Jesus. By anointing one another we trust that God hears our prayers and works for the good of the one we lift in prayer” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

Oil was used in ancient times for many different purposes. Oil was “one of the best-known ancient medicines” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 2007). In the Hebrew scriptures, it was used in rituals to dedicate priests and items used in worship, setting them apart as holy. It was also used for other leaders, like kings or prophets. There is even an anointing oil recipe in Exodus 30:22-33, with olive oil as the base, accompanied by the essential oils of myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, and cassia. In the New Testament (Mark 6:13), we see Jesus’ disciples going about the Galilee countryside, visiting the sick, anointing them with oil, and bringing healing by the power of God.

The oil mentioned here by James likely would have been fragrant—and one commentary explains that people in the ancient world “were keenly aware of the presence and suggestive powers of odors” (Kaiser & Garrett, 1996, p. 1746). Good odors could signal a spiritual act or invocation. However, the references in James or in the gospels don’t place any weight in the oil itself. In our passage, “What is clear is that James attributes the healing power not to the oil but to the ‘prayer of faith’ and the action of God. This removes the activity from the arena of magic and places it squarely in that of prayer and miracle. Thus, the anointing is done either because Christians believe that is how Jesus taught the disciples to pray for the sick or because it is itself a form of prayer” (Davids, 1997, p. 49).

It is helpful to be clear on what this use of oil means and what it doesn’t mean. Unfortunately, James doesn’t say that everyone anointed will be physically healed and restored. What it does say is that God will save them, deliver them. Faith and trust in God may bring physical healing in this life, but that may not be God’s plan. The healing that is guaranteed is the full healing of our souls, transforming our hearts and allowing us to be reconciled to God. Anointing oil is a way to make tangible this assurance of faith, transformation, and deliverance—especially in times when we feel alone, confused, lost, or when we need affirmation of God’s abiding presence. “Putting a touch of oil on someone’s head prayerfully assures us of God’s healing, constant presence with us as followers of Jesus” (Church of the Brethren, n.d.).

In James, we see that the early church advocated sensory support: words of communal prayer, the joy and laughter of singing praises to God, the touch and smell of anointing oil for healing. Being the church involves being the tangible presence of God to one another. It requires vulnerability, sharing, singing, and touching.

How can we experience our faith together more tangibly, here at Washington City Church of the Brethren? Perhaps it looks like more intentional sharing that provides opportunity for communal prayer. God has not designed us to walk alone, but to walk together, being the tangible presence of God to one another. Can we be vulnerable with a few people about some needs or struggles that we are having difficulty sharing?

Perhaps our lives our going well—but we don’t often think to praise or give thanks to God for what we’ve experienced. How can you add more songs of praise to your life? How can you share your joys and thanksgiving with our community, so that we can sing praises to God with you?

Perhaps you need a tangible sign of God’s presence today. Do you need assurance that your sins are forgiven? Do you need your faith strengthened? Do you need healing and wholeness? If so, I invite you to come forward and seek God’s presence today through an anointing with oil.

Anointing Blessing: Sister/Brother _____, you are being anointed with oil in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, for healing and wholeness in accordance with God’s grace and wisdom. The love of God abides with you. Amen.

References

Davids, P.H. (1997). Anointing. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 48-50). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Church of the Brethren (n.d.). Anointing. Retrieved from http://www.brethren.org/discipleship/documents/ordinance-annointing.pdf

Kaiser, Jr., W.C. & Garrett, D. (2006). (Eds.). NIV archaeological study Bible: An illustrated talk Through Biblical history and culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

OECD (n.d.). Social capital. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/insights/37966934.pdf

Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling alone. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wilkins, M.J. (1997). Prayer. In R.P. Martin & P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (pp. 941-948). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.