COME TO THE LIGHT

Numbers 21:4-9   Ephesians 2:1-10   John 3:14-21

Jeff Davidson

The comedian Norm MacDonald has a shaggy dog story that he sometimes tells. I’m going to do a very, very shortened version of it here.

A moth visits a podiatrist’s office. The podiatrist says, “What can I do for you today?” The moth says, “Doc, my life is a mess. I’ve been married for 20 years and things had been going pretty well, but then I lost my job. I didn’t want to tell my wife so I kept leaving the house every day and then just hanging around in the park. Eventually we ran out of savings and my wife found out what I’d been doing, and now she wants to divorce me.”

The podiatrist says, “That’s terrible.” The moth says, “I know, doc. And my son hates me. He’s taking his mom’s side in all this and he doesn’t want to speak with me and I don’t know how to reach out to him. I don’t have any job, I’ve burned through all of our money, all of my family is mad at me, and I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror in the mornings.”

The podiatrist says, “I’m sorry to hear all of that.” The moth says, “I know, doc. I’m staying in a cheap motel down on the strip and I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bill for the next week. I get up in the morning and I go into the bathroom and I look in the cracked and wavy mirror and I think about how futile life is and how everything I’ve done has turned to crap and I wonder whether it’s even worth trying to go on with life any more or not.”

The podiatrist says, “I really am sympathetic and I really do want to help, but it sounds like you need a psychologist or a therapist. I’m a podiatrist. Why did you come in here?”

The moth says, “I know doc, but the light was on.”

Light attracts. Light doesn’t just attract moths – it attracts people. If you’re looking for a place to stop at night, whether it’s a store or a restaurant or a motel, do you pick the one that’s dimly lit with some neon lights out and large pools of shadow in the parking lot and the lobby area, or do you pick the one that has bright lights that you can see down the block and where you feel safe walking from the car to the entrance?

One of the things that light does is, obviously, to make things visible. It makes things easy to see. A recurring theme throughout the Bible is how that which saves the people, whatever that means in the immediate context, that which saves the people is something that the people have to be able to see so that they can take advantage of it.

Our Old Testament reading talks about how the people are complaining about the food they have to eat. This is in Numbers 21. What food is it, I wonder, that the people are complaining about? Let’s look back to Exodus 16:2-5. “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.”

This bread that the Lord is talking about was manna. The people of Israel are complaining about manna. They don’t have to hunt, they don’t have to sow seed, they don’t have to weed, they don’t have to gather, they don’t have to do anything but go out and pick up their food. Not only that – they only get enough for the day, so they can’t overeat and there’s no need to find space to store the leftovers. 

But still the people complain. Their complaints don’t actually make any sense. It reminds me of Yogi Berra, who said “That restaurant’s so crowded that no one goes there anymore.” That’s the level of the Israelites’ complaints. “There’s no food, and the food tastes awful.” No wonder God is perturbed. 

So how are the people to be saved from the punishment of the poisonous serpents? By looking at a bronze serpent. Did they have to wander around looking at the ground to find the bronze serpent while poison was coursing through their veins? No. The bronze serpent was on a pole. All you had to do was look, and there it was. It was easy to see. 

In our Gospel reading John implies that the bronze serpent raised up on the pole to save the people from the poison of the snakes is kind of a preview of Jesus, raised up on a cross to save people from their sins. That brief introduction leads into what is almost certainly the best known verse in the New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible, John 3:16. I don’t usually use the King James Version, but that’s how I learned this verse and it’s still how it is most comfortable for me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

John goes on starting in verse 19 to talk about why people might perish: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

We all have dark and hidden places in our lives. We all have things that we keep hidden from others, things we hate to admit even to ourselves. We all try to live in darkness from time to time. But we can’t. To live in darkness is to live in death. To come to the light is to find life. To come to the light, to abandon the darkness and expose the hidden places of our lives to the light, is to know mercy and forgiveness and grace. It is to know Christ, and to be able to live in the light of Christ’s love and sacrifice.

In our reading from Ephesians Paul doesn’t talk about light, and he doesn’t really talk about the bronze serpent or about the cross either – at least not directly. He does, though, talk about being lifted up. In verses 4 through 6 he writes, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”

We are not yet seated in the heavenly places with Jesus, but when we come to the light we are raised up. When we come to the light we become a visible symbol of Christ who saves people from their sin. When we come to the light we become like that bronze serpent. We become like that well-lit place in the night. We become the thing that attracts and invites people to know more about God, to know more about Jesus, to know more about what life in Jesus means and how it affects the way we live. When we come to the light, we invite others to come to the light as well.

There’s something else that I think is noteworthy here that I hadn’t really thought about before. In his blog “Left Behind and Loving It” Mark Davis point out that in verses 14 through 18 in our reading from John the images of the serpent and the cross are particular. In other words, you had to look at that bronze serpent on that pole in order to be healed. I don’t know if there were other serpents on other poles, but if there were they weren’t any good. It was that particular serpent and pole that made a difference.

Likewise for those who know of Jesus it is faith in Jesus that saves. There are lots of other wonderful Christians in the New Testament, and you may have your own favorites. Peter, Paul, Tabitha, Stephen, Mary Magdalene, Phebe, Timothy, and many many more. Faith in them doesn’t do you any good. It is faith in Jesus in particular that offers salvation.

But then in verses 19 through 21 things broaden out a little bit. John starts talking about light and darkness, not just about a particular historical place and time. This is what lets us into the story.

It is not possible for us to personally know the historical Jesus, the flesh and blood man who walked the shores of Galilee a couple of thousand years ago. That flesh and blood man, that particular person, is not around anymore.

But Jesus is more than a specific flesh and blood person who died. Jesus is the Word, as John puts it at the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus is the Word made flesh, who has existed since before the beginning of the world. Jesus is the light of the world. We cannot see the particular bronze serpent, and we cannot see the particular flesh and blood man Jesus. But we can see Jesus the Light of the World. We can see the difference between light and darkness. We can walk in the light. We can live in the light. We can know the certainty of salvation and the joy of grace. We can know the love of God, who gave his only begotten Son that we might have eternal life.

Other people can know that too. How? They can know it through us. They can know it through our lives. They can know it by seeing us walk in the light. You and I are bronze serpents lifted up on a pole. It’s not that we can save anyone – we can’t. It’s not that looking at us automatically helps someone – it doesn’t. It’s that if we are walking in the light people will see the light reflected in us. If we are walking in the light we become a beacon that attracts others. If we are trying to continually come to the light, continually trying to move toward the light, continually seeking to live as followers of Christ, filled with grace and mercy and truth, then others can follow us and come to the light as well. Others can become a part of the kingdom of justice, of love, and of mercy, the kingdom of which we are citizens. Others can know the salvation that comes only through Jesus Christ.

Lent is a time where we examine our lives and think about how we live. Where are the dark, moist places in our lives where sin grows like mold? Where are the places in our lives that need fresh air and light?

Open the windows and doors of your life. Be transparent. Come to the light, and as you get closer and closer to it the light will shine through your life more and more, and more folks will see it. They, too, will be lifted up. They, too, will be able to walk in the light. They, too, will come to Christ. Amen.

NO CROSS, NO CROWN

When I first read through the scripture readings for this Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how our gospel reading relates to the passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah seems to be all about God bestowing unconditional blessing and abundance on two old people who had no hope at all for the future of their family.

The story of how God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations is one that, at first glance, seems very human and not supernatural at all. All of us want to leave a legacy. No one wants to see their name die out, to be forgotten by future generations. On its face, the story of Abraham and Sarah seems like a case of divine wish-fulfillment – a very human story with very human motivations. I can relate to it instantly.

On the other hand, there’s this story about Jesus and his hard-core insistence on embracing torture and death. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples. He says Peter’s mind is set on human things, rather than on the things of God. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his suggestion that Jesus should avoid the cross.

Peter and the other disciples didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in the path of self-emptying and dying to ego that Jesus was teaching them. Such things are incomprehensible to the human mind. Every one of us can understand a story about God granting new life, vitality, and progeny to an old man and his wife. Is it miraculous for an old woman to bear a child? Absolutely. Does it challenge our conception of the good life? Of who God is and should be? Probably not.

We want a God who guarantees our own survival and prosperity. We want a God who makes us fathers and mothers of many nations. Successful careers, happy families, public acclaim, and personal prosperity. We want the God of the good life, a God who promises joy, not suffering. We want the triumphant and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, not the whipped and crucified God that Jesus introduces us to.

But there is only one God. The God of the promise is the same God who endures the cross and invites us to walk in his way of self-abandonment. The God who provides us with a hope and a future is the same one who asks us to suffer for truth.

What is the relationship between these two faces of God? How do we reconcile the apocalyptic, bone-shaking God of Golgotha with the reassuring, sustaining God of the Promised Land?

For the apostle Paul, the answer is clear: It’s the resurrection. In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, Paul draws a clear line between the promise that God gave to Abraham and God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead.

Believe it or not, I find it easy to forget about the resurrection. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m a little more captivated by the fire and brimstone. When Jesus issues his challenge to the disciples, warning them about the suffering and persecution that he and his followers will face, that challenge seems like everything to me.

But the cross is not the end of Jesus’ story. The end of all the challenges that we face as friends of Jesus is not the grave, but victory. The message of Jesus one of life, truth, peace, and joy. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the very word “gospel” comes from the Greek term for a victory announcement. It is very good news.

From Genesis to Revelation, we discover a God who heals, guides, and protects us. God’s character doesn’t change. God was not first generous to Abraham and then hard-hearted towards Jesus. God demands the same thing from each one of us. He calls us into a kind of faith that brings us into conflict with the world as it is. And this same faith promises unconditional joy, growth, and wholeness as we choose to follow Jesus.

In our passage from Romans this morning, Paul teaches that God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t based on following a legal code. It wasn’t based on genetics, either. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations – not just his own biological descendants, but all those who share in his faith. It is Abraham’s faith made this promise from God possible. It is the righteous living that comes from faith that allows those who live in the spirit of Abraham to inherit the world.

I said that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget the resurrection in the midst of Jesus’ suffering. In the same way, I tend to ignore how much challenge and suffering Abraham and Sarah endured to receive God’s promise and blessing. Abraham and Sarah left home and family, wandering to an unknown land in the west. They did this on nothing more than a promise from God, that Abraham would be made into a great nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah took an enormous risk based on a promise from a still, small voice that whispered in the night. Abraham and Sarah ventured out into the unknown. They took a leap of faith.

It all could have gone so badly. But God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. Even when times were hard and they were on the run – even when Abraham got scared and did things like try to pass Sarah off as his sister! – God didn’t waver in preserving their lives and their marriage.

God was just as faithful to Jesus and his friends. Jesus suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death on a cross – but on the third day, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, this faith has the power to birth children from the barren elderly and to raise the dead to life.

Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples simply couldn’t fathom how powerful this kind of trust could be. They couldn’t imagine how the path of pain and darkness could ever lead into the light. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with boldness, joy, and power. The apostles, who before the resurrection had been so clueless and frightened, found courage to share the good news throughout the world. They accepted the many challenges and hardships that came with this ministry. All but one is believed to have been murdered for their faithful witness.

In a world without the resurrection, this would seem a great tragedy. Why throw your life away when you could lead a safe and comfortable existence? But the faith of Abraham and Jesus teaches us a new way of living. Through the resurrection, we are rooted in the power of God, who is not constrained – even by death – in the ways that he blesses us.

We all have access to this resurrection power. Those of us gathered here this morning have been touched by his salvation. In large ways and small, we have experienced many spiritual baptisms into his death. We know darkness and suffering, the kind that requires trust to endure. We know the power of Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, which can raise us into new life.

We experience God’s call to yield ourselves, to embrace the challenges of righteous living. It’s a kind of life that draws us out from the mainstream culture and into the vibrant and risky counter-culture that is the kingdom of God. We know from experience and from the testimony of scripture that God calls us to take great risks. Through his resurrection power, God can overcome any adversity.

The world doesn’t understand this. Our own human minds can’t comprehend it. That is why Jesus rebuked Peter. He just couldn’t believe that Jesus was serious about submitting himself to death on the cross rather than leading a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Peter was only able to conceive of victory in the world’s terms. But in Jesus, God has revealed another way of conquering the world: with love, restoring wholeness and peace to the creation.

Most days, we’re just like Peter. We’re not capable of understanding God’s way of conquering love until we receive the faith of Abraham. We have to set our mind on the things of God, not on the human fears that hold us back from faithfulness.

There’s good reason for our fear. It’s rational to be afraid. Because God is calling us to a way of life that seems to threaten our very existence. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our wealth, our comfort, even our lives, to bless our neighbors and show love to our enemies. As the Lord Jesus tells us in our reading this morning:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus asks us, What does it profit you to gain the whole world – of comfort, wealth, status, and acceptance by worldly authorities? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life?

Only the God of Abraham, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, holds that kind of power. The power of life. Our God will defend you and bless you in the presence of enemies. He will walk with you through the pain and darkness. He will give you victory through the cross of Jesus.

Through faith, Abraham was able to see this. Now, through the resurrection, we can, too. God is the master of life and death. We can trust him, even when his word is totally out of sync with the wisdom of the world around us.

What are the areas of your life where God is inviting you to embrace the faith of Abraham? What are the challenges that seem insurmountable? What is the death that you’re afraid of? What does it mean for you to live in the power of the resurrection?

EVERYONE, COME TO THE FASTING PARTY!

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

Jennifer Hosler

A Plant Geek

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

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

An Obscure Book, Important Lessons for a Community

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

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

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

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

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

Locusts and a Community in Crisis

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

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

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

Blow the Trumpet

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

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

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

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

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

A Crucial Spiritual Detox/A Fasting Party

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

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

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

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

Individual Vs. Community Well-Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.”

Reflections by Members of the Congregation

James 4:1-12, Colossians 3:12-17

This is the seventh sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/reflections-november-5-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

Will Morris
This passage has particular resonance with me because it speaks to an on-going, interior
argument of sorts that constantly goes through my head, where I try to reconcile the Christian humility discussed in the passage with my life here in our power and material obsessed society. The writer speaks of submission to God and opposing ‘friendship with the world.’ I take ‘friendship with the world’ to mean adopting values where we prioritize our own security and comfort over others’ well being, where we justify our own excess on the meritocratic grounds that we earned and deserve all that we have, and further, though we might not admit it to ourselves in these terms, that one’s worth is determined by the wealth we display and positions of power that we hold. We are called instead to submit with humility, to God and one another, to temper our individual ambitions and build the kind of community that raises up “the spirit made to dwell in us.”

The question I often wrestle with is how to submit when I spend so much of my time
trying to figure out how to get ahead in my career and improve my family’s economic position. After all, is it wrong for us to want to get out of debt now, avoid being a burden on others when we’re old enough to retire, and have enough when the time comes to give our hypothetical children as much opportunity as possible? Is it wrong to have a lifestyle that supports flying across two continents regularly to visit family? I don’t have a clear answer for you, but I am wary of how I can use those questions to justify unhealthy ambition in my career. I feel like the world around me is telling me that I should be “killing it” all the time, that it’s up or out, that I should be full of pride (or walk with ‘swagger’ as the company emails put it) and that my number one purpose is satisfying my client – even when my client’s goals conflict with my own core values. Having friendship with the world is being successful in the sense of the wealth I
accrue for myself and my firm’s partners. It’s hard to submit to God and seek humility when I’m looking for approval from the people and institutions around me in that context.

The thing is, I can sense how self-destructive it is to get caught up in all of that even as it
occurs. It’s impossible to find personal satisfaction in those things, and it’s impossible to build meaningful relationships with others when I view them as my competition and rivals. I want to draw near to God and build meaningful relationships with those around me, and to an extent I’m able to when I stop worrying about my performance metrics and stop angling for position. I’m constantly re-learning that our society is structured to reward the proud and gain from conflict, which goes against the Jesus way.

Turning from the world isn’t easy though – the passage even says “let your laughter be
turned into mourning and your joy into dejection” in verse 9 before the promise that God will exalt you. I know ultimately there is greater joy in closeness to God and neighbor that can only be realized through submission to him. I’ll keep trying to figure it all out day-to-day, but being humble with others, recognizing that we’re all beloved of God and equally in need of his grace, is a good first step.

Jennifer Hosler

Full on Zombie Mode (the war within you)

Being in a PhD program, my intellectual oomph gets maxed out with school, so I don’t have the mental energy to read literature. After a very think-y type day, what I like to do is watch something entertaining. One of the shows I’ve watched involves zombies, but not in the gory horror movie sense. In one show, there’s a main character who just happens to be both a medical examiner and a zombie.

Her job as a medical examiner gives her access to the ethically-sourced brains that she needs to remain like a normal person, and not go staggering around, gasping for brains from peoples’ skulls. The morgue brains give her visions as a side effect, which are helpful in solving crimes with a police detective. A mix of a zombie, comedy, and crime show.  One catch is, if her life is threatened (as can happen solving crimes), her eyes turn red and she enters what she calls “full on zombie mode.” An inner zombie rage comes out. It is difficult to manage, because her red eyes and enormous strength will give away her secret that she’s actually undead.

James writes about a war within us, with forces and cravings that lead us to do rather despicable things. While none of us go into full-on zombie mode, there are times when our impulses lead us to do things that we are not proud of. Seething with anger or frustration, our inner animal can be ready to verbally abuse, ridicule, put down or put someone in “their place” with our sarcasm and biting “wit.” Or maybe we don’t wield words, but we wield guilt, using it as an emotional tool to achieve the ends that we seek.

James says that this war within ourselves even leads us to murder. But none of us have gone that far… or have we, if James is referencing Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus says, you think murder is wrong, but hating someone in your heart will equally make you susceptible to judgement.

Have you ever been so angry with someone that you just really crave to hurt them? Physical pain isn’t usually what I’m tempted to partake in, but to verbally wound someone, to hurt them deeply, to say the words that seem so perfectly suited to shut that person down and put them in “their place.”

Last week, I spoke about the fruit of the Spirit and the gentleness and pure-hearted mercy that characterizes wisdom from above. The fruit of the Spirit and the wisdom from above that James describes – these all seem to build on one another, in ways that complement each other. Gentleness, it seems, is linked to self-control. Peace—working through conflict in a constructive way—is linked to these too, as well as love and kindness. While these fruit, this wisdom from above, are what we are aiming for as Christians, we must be realistic and even blunt in acknowledging that sometimes, we just want to tear someone’s head off and eat their brains.

In the zombie show, there are moments when the main character is in “full-on zombie mode,” in the heat of the moment responding to some type of life-threatening situation, that she seems so close to continuing down the zombie path to attacking and eating her friends. In her zombie rage, somehow her human remnant needs to find a way to take back control and live out her human morals of not eating living people. Somehow, a spark of humanity awakens her back to the way she truly wants to live. Her human-self triumphs over her zombie-self.  

There are times when I’ve been in arguments or frustrated situations where I am thisclose to tearing someone apart, or saying something that I might regret for a long-time, maybe even forever. And this small, creeping thought, whispers that I’m entering a danger zone. This momentary Spirit-whisper provides an opening to resist, to I remember what I am, or to remember whose I am – a child of God, redeemed and reconciled, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

This moment allows me to pivot and turn back from the relationship-damaging brink. The Hebrew word for repentance means literally “to turn.”  In that whisper, there’s a softness, a turning or pivoting, which allows me to submit to the wisdom of Jesus. It’s a wisdom that steps away, cools down, recognizes wrong, apologizes, reframes, and tries again at a better way.

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (vv. 7-8).

What is the war that happens within you? Is it responding wrongly in anger and verbally beating someone to a pulp? Is it a temptation to actually use physical force? Maybe your war is different. The monster raging can involve many things. Maybe it involves sexual fantasies about someone who is not your partner, getting too close with someone who is not your partner, watching pornography, crossing proper boundaries on social media or in person that constitute sexual harassment, maybe it is lifting things from the office, or cheating figures in your finances. Or some other monster. There are monsters that lurk within us, sisters and brothers, and temptation is real. What is yours?

In the midst of temptation, there will always be a moment where – if we can hear it – the Spirit whispers for us to resist, to turn back, and gives us an opening (maybe momentary) to choose a way that better reflects the wisdom of Jesus. James says that if you take this moment and remember whose you are, God will draw near to you and bring you out of that temptation. If you’ve already gone there before, you don’t have to keep falling into the same trap. Repentance and confession are just as real as temptation; God is gracious. God is jealous for you (in the good way), that is, God earnestly seeks you. God wants you to live in the wisdom of Jesus as a redeemed and forgiven child of God.

Jerry O’Donnell

Everyone could use a healthy dose of humility. Some people could probably use a few.

Do any of you have a friend or know someone who always “wins” or always has the highest score in whatever they do? Well this was me as a kid, as I, believe it or not, struggled with humility.

I’m chalking it up more to immaturity, though, not so much a desire to disobey God. Finishing first and winning was everything to me, and in the unlikely event I fell short—I’m kidding, it happened a lot—I refused to accept it. As a preschooler or even into my early elementary years, I would get physically upset when I didn’t win. Probably worse was how I reacted when I did win.

I didn’t care about sportsmanship at all. I had no compassion for whom I may have just defeated or how they might have been feeling. All I cared about was how good winning made me feel and how I must have looked to others around me. Again, as a little guy obsessed with winning games, sporting events, academic competitions, what have you, my drive was not to displease God and exalt myself, but I was clearly seeking the ways of the world.

Our passage in James talks about how being a friend of the world, choosing worldly desires, makes us an enemy of God. James goes on to say God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. I don’t know if I first received this lesson in humility in James or whether it was Philippians 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”

What I do know is that as I matured, I began to understand the importance of humility—both how one appears to others and also how one feels about oneself. I could feel the change within me as I cared more about the people I interacted with in areas of competition. No matter what the end result was, I felt a sense of joy because of the fellowship/companionship with all. In the same way, other people have affirmed this change, as it has been outward as well. Now many people will say things to me like, you’re such a good sport, or wow, you don’t care who gets credit? To which I reply, hah! Look how good I am at not caring who wins! Just kidding.

It’s a daily challenge, as humility continues to be undervalued in a world of exploitation of so many for the gain of so few. I will continue to do my part in my life in this church, in my place of work, and in my circles of family and friends to promote teamwork, and doing things together to make sure everyone is loved and respected. I hope you will join me in drawing near to God in this endeavor so God will draw near to us.

Carolyn “Care” Nestman

Have any of you ever done something that you felt God specifically told you not to do? I have! When I was 17 I dated my high school’s “golden boy”. You know the guy. The one who gets straight A’s and is the drum major of the marching band, but is still super cool. We actually had a teacher say that she wished her daughters would have dated my high school boyfriend. It was ridiculous.

Anyway, when we started dating, I felt God telling me that this was a terrible idea. It got to the point where I had a prophetic dream about how I should not be with this person, but I refused to listen. I was 17, I obviously knew better than God. To make an EXTREMELY long story short, in the 4 years that we dated we managed to plan a wedding, and I lost myself. The happy peppy person that stands before you didn’t exist when I was in this dysfunctional and controlling relationship. During this time I had also stopped going to church and spending time in the word.

After I broke up with him, I felt like this huge weight had been removed from my shoulders. No longer bogged down by my disobedience, I had this joy that I didn’t realize was missing. I spent more time in church, and eventually started doing my daily devotionals again. And I’ve been much better at listening to the voice of God as the Spirit continues to direct my path.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t completely over, and I’m not magically fixed now that I’m spending time with God again. 5 years later, I’m still healing. I was visiting the city where he lives, this past weekend, and I realized that I am still REALLY ANGRY. But even in this, there is something so utterly comforting knowing that I can turn to God in my anger, and say “I made a huge mistake, and I need help to fix the brokenness.” And as I draw nearer to God, I can feel and see the Holy Spirit continue to work in my life and continually wraps me life in her joy and love.

THE UPSIDE-DOWN or SOWING IN PEACE

James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37; Galatians 5:13-26

Jennifer Hosler

This is the sixth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio for this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/sowing-in-peace-october-29-2017. *Note* The audio differs from the text.

For science-fiction and fantasy lovers—or people who just generally swoon over a 1980s visual aesthetic—this weekend was highly anticipated. The series “Stranger Things 2” was released on Netflix this Friday, meaning that the continuing saga of Hawkins, Indiana, is finally available to stream, or binge watch if you are so inclined. In season one, we met an endearing crew of four 12-year old boys named Will, Lucas, Mike, and Dustin. They love dungeons and dragons, science and radios, talking to each other with walkie-talkies, and riding their banana seat bikes through the woods on adventures. One night, Will goes missing. As the whole town searches for their friend, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas encounter a mysterious girl called Eleven, who has secret powers. She eventually reveals that Will is trapped in a parallel dimension. This parallel dimension looks like an upside-down version of our world, one that is dark and full of decay. In it lurks a creepy, faceless monster. From what I could tell by the season 2 trailer, forces from “the upside-down” are slowly invading the regular world. I haven’t started watching yet, since I’m dutifully waiting for Nate to return home, so we can watch it together. Exercising the fruit of the Spirit called self-control.

Thankfully, we don’t have an alternate reality of darkness and monsters lurking in another dimension quite like the folks in Stranger Things. However, our passage in James does describe two realities, two ethics, two wisdoms, which are like night and day. In my last sermon on James 1, when we kicked off our series, I spoke about how Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God illustrate an upside-down kingdom. In this upside-down kingdom, the poor are lifted up and the wealthy are brought low. James encourages both the wealthy and the poor to boast in God’s alternate reality. That is, the reality that God is on the side of the weak and poor, and that riches are as ephemeral as wildflowers.

In James 3, we are yet again confronted with an alternate reality of what is valued, what is wise, what is good. This section in James, along with our readings in Mark and Galatians, presents the upside-down wisdom of Jesus. The world says, “Strive to get as far ahead as possible, seek as much status and wealth as you can, talk about how important you are, and try to get ahead of everyone else.” In contrast, God’s followers are called to be sowing in peace, living out a love-your-neighbor-as-yourself ethic defined by gentleness, generosity, and kindness.  

Gentleness born of Wisdom, Sowing in Peace

I think that our three scriptures today complement each other, so I’m going to unpack each of them one by one. Let’s start with the book of James. What have we seen in James so far in our sermon series? James has spoken about trials and temptations, encouraging the early church that if they need wisdom to face these trials, God is able to provide. James also discussed the need for faith to be accompanied by action, that we must not only be hearers of the word but also doers of the word. True religion does not involve slandering others, but caring for the most vulnerable.

Throughout the book of James, there is a thread focusing on dealing with conflict in the church. Social class conflict is a running theme. As I mentioned, James states that the poor are being lifted up by God, while the rich are told to boast in being brought low by God. God’s wisdom inverts what the world says. James also instructs that followers of Jesus are not to favor the rich and powerful. Partiality is not for God’s people; the poor are equally welcome in the church and the rich should not be given special status. Beyond social class, James also talks about communication. God’s followers are to be careful with their speech, since careless words can cause conflict to ignite and can poison relationships. Following the section on speech, we come to James’ discussion on wisdom from above and earthly wisdom.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13). What is this gentleness born of wisdom? James tries to first define it by showing what it is not. It is not envious and self-seeking. James writes, “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” Remind me next time to call bad character devilish. The NIV actually says demonic here. The antithesis of Jesus’ wisdom is having bitter envy and selfish ambition.  James explains that they are the source of divisions and destructive conflict: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” In contrast, Jesus’ followers are called to another way: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (vv. 17-18).

I remember coming across this sowing in peace verse (verse 18) in Nigeria, and it was very salient because we were trying to build up the local church’s capacity to do peacebuilding, trying to plant seeds of peace. The NIV is a bit more poetic than the NRSV, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” At that point, I was designing a logo for the EYN Peace Programme. We asked around for indigenous cultural metaphors of peace, since the peace sign and the dove are common Western images. Rev. Toma Ragnjiya, our boss, heard from some elders that they thought that Guinea corn was a symbol of peace. It’s a staple crop, the main traditional grain in northeast Nigeria. The elders said, “Where there is Guinea corn, there is life, there is peace.”

Guinea corn looks like an unbelievably giant version of maize (what we call corn). The grain grows in the tassel, rather than as an ear, and the Guinea corn in our village was often around 15-20 feet tall (check it out on our church Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/washingtoncitycob).  Peacemaking—building healthy and strong relationships, engaging in constructive resolution of conflict—requires committed effort and gentle perseverance, like farming or gardening.

James teaches us that God’s wisdom is defined by pure intentions and honest, willingness to work through conflict. Gentleness or gentle are used twice. Gentleness is one of those words that I need a few more synonyms and antonyms for, to unpack what James is saying here. Gentleness also means sympathetic, compassionate, with kind intentions, not harsh. God’s wisdom is also defined by a “willingness to yield,” to consider others’ viewpoints and negotiate to find common ground. James ends his laundry list of goodness by saying that wisdom from above is also “full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17).  Jesus’ wisdom, the wisdom from above, is other-focused, kind and gentle, and aims to build strong, healthy, and just relationships. Earthly wisdom is self-seeking and envious; it leads to destructive relationships and disorder. Following the wisdom of God involves sowing peace; God blesses this sowing so that it leads to a harvest of righteousness.

Who is the greatest?

It’s poignant to me that James says envy and selfish ambition are the source of all disorder and wickedness. A self-centered focus, materialism, or an approach that prioritizes me (or my family) above all else: James says that these will inevitably lead to a toxic and painful mess in human relationships, communities, and societies. One could read into what James is saying and conclude that envy and selfishness are source of all sin.

Putting “me first” is a universal human tendency. A variant of that is, putting me and my family first above all other people (especially those I don’t know).  It could sound valiant: “I just want to protect my family’s interests and my children—that supersedes everything else.” But it still is self-seeking, prioritizing what affects me or the people I love over the needs or interests of others. Me first or my people first. “Me first” can lead to a literal or figurative clawing over people to compete for resources, for the top spot. In “me first” wisdom, it makes sense to talk yourself up as the greatest or the most important. But this is not the Jesus way.  

In our second scripture, found in Mark 9:30-37, we find Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has been teaching and healing and loving, in ways that have put his life at risk. Jesus predicts his death and teaches about his upcoming trials, but the disciples do not understand. They’re also afraid to ask exactly what Jesus means. They all travel back to Galilee, in secret, because Jesus knows he might be killed.

When they arrive at Capernaum, Jesus asks the disciples, “What were you all arguing about along the road?” He is met with silence. The disciples, presumably, had thought that Jesus was out of earshot. It turns out, they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest among them all. Jesus sits down and calls everyone over. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must put themselves last and be the servant of all.” Jesus then brings over a child, maybe one of the disciples’ kids or one of their hosts’ children. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Weak people, small people, vulnerable people. Following Jesus requires that we stop arguing about who is the greatest, put others’ needs first, and welcome those without power.

Considering this passage, the question that came to me is this: what do we say when we think that we are out of Jesus’ earshot? How do we speak when we think we’re out of Jesus’ earshot? How do we talk or think about others? How do we talk or think about ourselves? Are we arguing that we are the greatest? What are we striving for? Our own success, or Jesus’ definition of success—that looks like humble service and radical welcome?

Love as You Would Love Yourself

Our final passage is in Galatians 5:13-26. It’s a famous passage, highlighting the fruit of the Spirit. I chose to pair it with James because the discussion about wisdom from above reminded me of spiritual fruit. The lists are somewhat similar. Paul starts out by reminding the church in Galatia that they have been set free in Christ—freed from sin! But this freedom isn’t open license to be self-serving. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (vv. 13-14). Paul continues, and it seems like, again, the human problem can be distilled down to selfish ambition and envy: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

Paul then contrasts earthly wisdom and wisdom from above, but he chooses to use the words flesh and Spirit instead of James’ motif. The flesh and the Spirit are antithetical to each other, upside-down from one another. “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (vv. 19-21). Dang, Paul. This laundry list of bad is exhausting. Importantly, none of us is off the hook, since the list is long. We had a similar conversation this week about Romans 1 at Bible study.

But, thankfully, we’re not bound to this list of despair and sin; we’ve been set free. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (vv. 22-26).

In our James passage and this passage, when I read through the wisdom from above or the fruit of the Spirit, it’s like a breath of fresh air, a Spirit of peace washes over me. This is what we’ve been waiting for, what we’re living for, what God is doing. What I want to see in me, in you, in us together, as what we demonstrate to our community and world.

I am also struck by the fact that Paul here references Jesus, the ultimate commandment, the other-oriented “love your neighbor as you would love yourself” love. Poignantly, we see James and Paul are step-in-step here. The opposite of the love-your-neighbor Spirit-led life is being conceited, competing against one another, and envying one another.

Love as I would want to be loved. How do I want to be loved? Thought of kindly. Assume my intentions are good but have my weaknesses treated with grace and encouragement. Be willing to forgive me and engage me if I do something hurtful. Kind helpfulness. Laugh at my jokes. Laugh with me and find me amusing rather than lame. Speak gently with me.

How do you want to be loved? The call to love your neighbor as yourself is a call to an other-oriented gentleness, to generosity, to kindness.

I think of these 3 scriptures as meditations that can easily speak to us at the personal and interpersonal levels. And they should. How do we sow in peace in our friendships, our families, with our coworkers, in this church? But more broadly, how do we sow in peace, practice loving our neighbors through gentleness, generosity, and kindness, at other levels? How do we engage or regard (or not engage and disregard) our actual neighbors, our neighborhood, our city (whether that city is the District or Arlington or a town in Maryland)?

Where do you need to sow in peace? Where do we, as a church, need to be sowing in peace? As we discern how to live our mission after laying down BNP, James’ and Jesus’ and Paul’s calls should be the meditations that we carry with us as we discern. God’s followers are called to be sowing in peace, living out a love-your-neighbor-as-yourself ethic defined by gentleness, generosity, and kindness.  Sisters and brothers, let us seek wisdom from above as we live this out as individuals, families, and as a congregation in our community and world. AMEN.