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.

UP AND DOWN

Mark 9:2-9

Jeff Davidson

What was the best day of your life? Was it the day you got that puppy or kitten for Christmas? Was it the day you graduated from high school, or from college? Was it the day you got married? The day your first child was born? The day you got the promotion at work? The day you retired? The day you won the lottery? If it was that one you’ve been holding out on me.

As maybe you could tell from the timeline of my suggestions, you might have lots of best days in your life. What the best day ever is right now could be eclipsed by some other day yet to come. I still remember when I was a kid and we got our first dog, a dachshund that we named Fritzie. I remember waiting in the car with my mom and my sister while Dad went into the house of the people we got her from. I remember how excited I was watching him walk back to the car holding her, and how wonderful it was to hold on to her wiggly little body while she licked my face. That may have been the best day in my life, at least to that point.

Would I trade graduating from college, though, or from seminary, or marrying Julia for that day again? No. But even though it’s no longer the best day of my life, it was a great day.

Sometimes we refer to wonderful days, fantastic events like that as “mountain top experiences.” A mountain top experience is a moment of transcendent joy and happiness, a moment of supreme importance in life. I wondered where that expression came from, so I played around on google for a while and I couldn’t find a firm background for it, but most of what I read said that the phrase came from the number of important things in the Bible that happened on mountain tops.

Noah’s ark settled on Mt. Ararat after the flood, and God made a covenant with Noah there. It was on Mt. Moriah that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, and then provided a ram as a substitute. Mt. Moriah is also where Solomon built the temple, where sacrifices would be offered for the forgiveness of sins until Jesus came.

On Mt, Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. On Mt. Carmel Elijah and the prophets of Baal had their great contest to see whose prayers would be answered by fire. And after the contest when Elijah ran for his life he travelled to Mt. Horeb and God spoke to him in the still small voice. David built up Jerusalem on Mt. Zion.

Jesus taught His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Today’s reading is about Jesus being transfigured on a mountain while Moses and Elijah (who both had their own mountain top experiences) were seen talking with Jesus. And it certainly was a mountain top experience for James and John and Peter too. I cannot imagine what it must have been like.

On April 3, 1968 – the day before he was assassinated – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last public speech. It’s known as “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” because of its most famous section. It’s a great speech, and toward the end of it King says:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That’s a powerful speech. Some of the power, of course, is because King was murdered the next day. Even if that hadn’t happened, though, it would be a great speech. King said that he climbed up to the top of the mountain; what did he do from there? 

I said that I remembered picking up our first dog, Fritzie. What happened next? Well, we took her home. Dad had built a little bed for her, and it went under the sink in the half-bath. It had a cushion in it, and some blankets, and a clock wrapped up because we’d read that the ticking of the clock would remind her of the heartbeats of her brothers and sisters.

I don’t remember the next day exactly – this was maybe when I was in kindergarten. But I’m sure that someone fed her, and someone let her out, and someone walked her. It was probably Mom, since she wasn’t working outside the home then.  After we brought Fritzie home and played with her that first night is when the work of actually owning and caring for a dog really began.

I remember what it was like after my wedding day. We went to Atwood Lake for a few days for a honeymoon. After that we came back home and opened gifts, and then Julia went back to work and I went back to class.

What did Moses do after he went up the mountain? He came back down with the Ten Commandments in hand, only to break them in frustration at the sin and depravity he found. He then went back to the hard work of leading the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness. What did Noah do after leaving the Ark? He came down the mountain and lived another 350 years. He was a farmer and he had a vineyard. He drank too much. He lived his life.

 To answer my earlier question, what did Martin Luther King Jr. do after he had gone up to the mountaintop? He came back down, and continued the struggle even though it cost him his life.

In that, King and Jesus were alike. What happens after Jesus and James and Peter and John go up to the mountain top? They come back down, and Jesus heals a boy possessed by an unclean spirit, and then Jesus discusses his impending death and resurrection.

You can’t live on the mountain top. Sooner or later you have to come back down and get on with the rest of your life. Eventually you have to do your work, earn a living, share your gifts, and do whatever it is God has called you to do.

Even if you could live on the mountain top the rest of your life, would you want to? My wedding was a mountain top experience for me. Do I really want to live the rest of my life in a perpetual wedding? I don’t even have that same charcoal gray suit anymore. Imagine how much sooner it would have worn out if I’d worn it every day after the wedding. I don’t remember exactly what kind of food we had for our wedding reception, but whatever it was I guarantee I would be sick of it if I had eaten it for every meal from then until now.

If I had spent the rest of my life trying to recapture the happiness of that one particular day, I would have missed a lot of growth and a lot of joy and a lot of love in my own life as I have lived it. I would have missed the chance to deepen my love and my relationship with Julia. I would not have become the person that I am, for better or for worse, and would not have touched whatever lives I have touched since then.

In verse 5 of our reading Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Suppose Jesus had taken him up on it. What next? Well, that might have been okay for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but there would have been no shelter there for Peter or James or John, so they would have been out in the cold until they could have gotten some. And would they have had food and drink? Jesus and Moses and Elijah would probably have been fine without wine or fish, but mortal men like Peter? Not so much.

No, Peter didn’t really want to stay up there. He’d have realized that if he’d thought it through for a bit. And if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain top, then that boy would never have had the demon cast out. And there would have been no cross. And no resurrection. And no salvation. No kingdom of God to share, no justice to proclaim. No release for the captives, no food for the hungry, no comfort for the mourning.

It was essential for Jesus’s ministry that if he went up the mountain, then eventually he should come down. It was essential for everyone else that we talked about earlier. Moses went up on the mountain and saw the promised land, but he had to come down before the people could enter it. King went up to the mountain top and echoed Moses in saying that he might not get there, but he came down to continue the journey no matter what it would bring. It is essential for us that when we are on the mountain top that we come down to continue to work that needs to be done, to continue moving towards the goal that we see in the distance.

There’s something else that’s essential that we don’t always think about. We need to be ready not just to come down from the mountaintop ourselves, but we need to be ready when we are waiting on the ground for others to come down from the mountaintop.

I remember a young man who went to the Church of the Brethren’s National Youth Conference or NYC. That’s a nationwide gathering of high school youth in the church. It’s once every four years, and about 3,000 youth gather for fun, prayer, worship, learning, service, and a lot more. It’s usually held in Colorado and it is a mountain top experience for most people who go there both literally and figuratively.

The young man I knew was the only high school aged person in his congregation. He came back from NYC excited, enthusiastic, on fire to share and to serve. His congregation, though, didn’t have any outlets for him to do that. There was no youth group for him to be a part of. There were no college age youth. There were no particular opportunities for service. There wasn’t much institutional support.

I don’t know what ever happened to that young man. I do know that he came down from the mountain ready to serve God, but the people waiting for him weren’t prepared to help him turn that energy and that drive and that fire into positive action.

Maybe you have mountain top experiences yet to come. I hope you do. I hope you’re ready to come back down from the mountain and move towards what you saw while you were up there. Maybe you’re not going up the mountain right now. I hope you’re ready to help those who are coming down from the mountain, ready to equip them and support them and strengthen them as they put their dreams and visions into action.

Sometimes we’re going up, but sooner or later we will come down. Whether we are up or down, we can serve God. We can share the kingdom. We can work towards seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. Amen.       

IF I PROCLAIM

Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

Nathan Hosler

Directly before our passage is Paul’s discussion of meat sacrificed to idols. Though there is freedom to eat, this freedom is qualified by the higher priority of the spiritual well-being of others. Jenn preached on this last week. In this the Apostle considers food sacrificed to idols. Paul asserts that though Christians are not constrained in what they can eat should always have the spiritual well-being of others in mind and as the highest priority. Though you are free in relation to God, you must be constrained in relation to your sisters and brothers who may be spiritually upended by your action.

A commentator writes, “Those who truly know God and are known by him will employ their freedom and knowledge for the sake of building up others in their faith, even when this entails denying one’s own legitimate rights as a believer (Hafemann, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, 166).”  In light of this we turn to chapter 9. Though this may feel like a digression it is part of the same (though somewhat expanded argument). The chapter opens— “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?”

Paul provides an example of this freedom in his giving something up for the sake of others. Paul forgoes legitimate payment for preaching.  In this he demonstrates the absolute priority he gives to others and for his calling in a ministry of proclaiming the Gospel.

He asks rhetorically in verse 18 “What then is my reward?” “Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” We often think of rights in relation to commands to act justly towards the poor and immigrant. This is why our denomination participates with the National Farm Worker Ministry (www.nfwm.org). For example, Proverbs 29:7 “The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding.” Or Deuteronomy 24:14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” In this Paul is referring to rights of a worker that are parallel to his work in ministry. As a worker in a vineyard or field has a right to the material resources needed for survival so to does the Apostle who engages in the work of ministry.

Paul argues that those who labor expect to gain sustenance from it. One does not pay for one’s own service in the military, nor keep a vineyard without eating the fruit. He quotes and then interprets figuratively the command that oxen should be allowed to eat while they work as an example of God’s concern for the human worker (sorry oxen). He makes a strong argument that he has the full and legitimate right to make a living from his preaching and then says—despite this right to pay, I have decided not to use this right. He goes even stronger, asserting, “Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting.”

While we could deduce much from this on the topic of labor, Paul’s main point is as a demonstration and illustration about freedom. Though he is free and entitled to being supported for his work of ministry, he has, for the sake of the community, offered this service free of charge. Furthermore, he asserts, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” (9:19). This sounds very heroic and high-minded, however, he asserted a few verses earlier that “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! (9:16)”

9:17: “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission”.  If done on his own he would be rewarded but since he is compelled—he is “entrusted with a commission” he is simply fulfilling what is required. There is a reward—of sorts—he is able to make the proclamation without charging. This seems like a strange reward but indicates that his greatest concern is for those to whom he proclaims the gospel. He says, (9:19) For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them

There is #1 priority of proclaiming the Gospel 

Paul’s top aim is proclaiming the gospel. This focus is mirrored in Mark. In 1:38 we hear Jesus answer, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” The proclamation of the message is Jesus’ task. This is not only preaching in the form of saying words. Clearly this proclaiming is connected to the healing and in other passages to feeding and setting free. In Luke 4:18-19 at the beginning of his ministry Jesus defines his ministry by quoting from the prophet Isaiah, he reads

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Absolute focus on the calling of God. Absolute focus on proclaiming the Good News. All else conforms to this. Of course, this does not mean that our callings are the same as the Apostle’s or a pastor’s or missionary’s or something else that sounds like what we expect the extra-called to sound like, but this calling is definite and not to be taken lightly or as a side hobby.

I’ve heard analysts, and even a peacemaker or so, make an assertion that goes something like—a strongly held spiritual conviction puts one, almost necessarily, in the intolerant and dangerous camp. I don’t doubt that this can be the case but living radical peacemaking in the face of the violence of the world is not for the half-way committed. To live simply. To conform one’s life to spiritual disciplines in the face of infinite pulls on our attention. To live hopefully in face of repeat catastrophes is not for the half-way present and half-way committed. This call requires sharp focus. It requires a thoroughgoing commitment as well as the inner life and community to sustain it.

Proclamation of the Gospel—in all its facets and in all parts of our lives—is the #1 priority

Secondly, proclamation requires Spirit power

Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof intentional communities in Nazi Germany, writes,

“Today we must emphasize it once more: our capacity for work is sure to become exhausted and mechanical—our strength will be sapped at the core—if no deepening is given to the inner life. As soon as inner stillness and quiet are lost, the holy springs of the inner world that bring life-giving water to our spiritual life are bound to fail at the very source (Eberhard Arnold, Innerland: A Guide into the heart of the Gospel, 2).

Isaiah 40:28-31 “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Thirdly, Proclamation requires flexibility

These verses show the Apostle as surprisingly flexible about some major theological and ethical controversies. Jenn discussed this last week in regard to eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He asserts “I have become all things to all people,” In context it reads,

9:20-23 “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” 

In this congregation we more regularly preach and talk about being with people, in solidarity, or challenging injustice as part of joining the struggle for peace, justice, or inclusion of the excluded. We are perhaps more prone to assert with the theologian challenging oppression that:

“Through the praxis of solidarity, we not only apprehend and are moved by the suffering of the other, we confront and address its oppressive cause and shoulder the other’s suffering.… (M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 94).”

Though this solidarity is not excluded here, it is also not quite the same as Paul’s becoming “all things to all people,” This seems like it could be deceptive. A kind of trickery to blend and make an argument. However, when we keep it in the context we see that Paul is forgoing certain freedoms so as to not cause offense or distract unnecessarily.

Here is my one, perhaps obligatory, football reference on the Sunday which also includes the Super Bowl…If you know Jess or have been around here on any of the same Sundays you will likely have noticed that she is a Patriot’s fan. She is a fan in a way that is beyond my comprehension. During the Christmas eve service while she was up front reading scripture, I happen to notice that she was wearing Patriot’s shoes. So, the Apostle not creating a barrier is like me not wearing an Eagles jersey this morning or perhaps even joining her.. (I was going to say that, of course, Paul’s is dealing with things of religious significance…but then I realized that for many, this game, may be of that degree of seriousness).

In these passages we see proclamation as first priority, proclamation needing Spirit power, and proclamation requiring flexibility. In this we place others above ourselves, testifying to the reconciling work of Christ.

JESUS, MEAT, AND VEGGIES

Deut. 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28; 1 Cor. 8:1-13

Jennifer Hosler

How do we show love? Sometimes, it’s by holding back on the meat. Across the US, traditionally, meat and potatoes or meat and some other starch, are ubiquitous on the table. Many of our folks in this congregation come from places like Missouri or central Pennsylvania—traditionally meaty places. We also have several people in our congregation who are vegetarian or vegan. If you are or have been vegetarian (or have close family members who are), you’re aware that it can be an adjustment for some folks to recognize and understand your dietary restrictions.

For some cultures in the US or around the world, it’s unfathomable that a person would not eat meat. Here in the US, I’ve been to family gatherings and formal church conferences where the vegetarian “options” were just a pile of cooked vegetables, without a single source of complete protein. “Oh, they can eat the salad!” is a common refrain. When Nate and I lived in Nigeria, one of our colleagues from the US was a raw food vegan. She typically didn’t tell Nigerians this and just stuck with, “I don’t eat meat.” She kept it simple because that itself was astounding: “but what about chicken?” was one response I heard.

My sister-in-law eats vegetarian and it has been an adjustment for some of our Hosler family. This situation allows for love to be shown in a somewhat unique way: by trading ham loaf for an acorn-squash-quinoa-and-cranberry dish and by making sure that our camping food options include black bean burgers along with the hot dogs and bacon. Considering someone’s needs and conscience is a part of love.

Our main text this morning (1 Cor 8:1-13) talks about food, but it has a very foreign context from our own dietary concerns of today. Today, people who decline meat likely have other reasons than that the meat was used as part of ritual idol worship.

While we don’t have the same context, by exploring how and what Paul taught the Corinthians, we can learn how to handle difficult and controversial issues in the church. Three themes come out of our texts today: 1) Following Jesus involves wading through grey water; 2) To quote Paul directly, “knowledge puffs up, love builds up;” 3) Wrestling is an important part of Christian community.

Following Jesus involves wading through grey water.

We read three texts this morning. While I’m going to spend most of our time on 1 Corinthians 8, I think the texts together help us to understand various perspectives on discerning God’s truth throughout history. In Deuteronomy, we arrive at a very specific time point for the Israelites: Moses is about to die, and the people of Israel are finally going to enter the Promised Land after 40 years in the Sinai desert. The risks for the community are high. The people of Israel have seen Yahweh do great things in delivering them from slavery in Egypt, but they’ve also seen the destruction that happened when they were tempted to tame Yahweh into a golden calf. With a recently delivered Mosaic law and the people’s faith being so new, Moses commands the people that speaking for God is not to be trifled with. Interpreting the Law and leading the people’s faith was to come from a clear leader, a prophet, who would follow in Moses’ steps.

Our passage in Mark is set more than a thousand years later. After experiencing kings, priests, prophets, exile, and return to the Land, Jewish interpretation of scripture had moved to local community settings, to synagogues. People could follow rabbis as they traveled or spend time in the synagogues, doing readings from the scrolls that held the Torah, Prophets, or the Writings, and hear scholars interpret the text. In our Mark passage, Jesus is in the synagogue in Capernaum at the start of his ministry. He teaches and is interrupted by a person “with an unclean spirit.” Jesus releases that person from the unclean spirit and the congregation astounded. The people murmur, “A new teaching—and with authority!” Jesus is not necessarily teaching new content; rather, he is interpreting the Hebrew scriptures in light of a new era in God’s history of salvation. The demonstration of God’s power in healing serves to authenticate Jesus’ message. Seeing God working underlines Jesus’ teaching as being from God.

In 1 Corinthians 8, we see another perspective on discerning truth and interpreting scripture. We’re reading someone else’s mail (as one commentator describes it) and entering this pastoral application and extrapolation of biblical truths to various ethical dilemmas. What I find very profound in the lectionary pairing of these texts is how the arc of salvation history also brings with it a transition of biblical interpretation. We go from interpretation being in the hands of prophets like Moses or his prophetic descendants, to Jesus doing midrash and interpreting texts in new ways in the synagogues, and now to a spiritual leader like Paul saying, “ya’ll—it’s not about just eating or not eating.”

What’s striking about this is that church leaders in Jerusalem have already prohibited eating idol meat (Acts 15:28-29). In Acts, when Gentiles, with all their questionable eating habits, get welcomed in by Jewish Christians, the Jewish church leaders draw a strong line next to idol meat. Yet not much later, here to the church in Corinth, in the context of church life and muddling through on how to follow Jesus together, it’s not so black and white. Paul indicates that things are grey.

Now that the truths of who Yahweh is, who Jesus is, have solidified (generally speaking)—the early church starts wading through the grey water of how to apply Jesus’ teachings in their everyday lives. It’s murky and complicated. This, sisters and brothers, is the place where we are. Following Jesus involves wading through grey water. It’s not clear or easy—and it can sometimes be a bit icky and uncomfortable, figuring out how to apply two-thousand-year-old scriptures to our 21st century lives. Guiding this murky and complicated process is one important ingredient: love.

Knowledge Puffs Up; Love Builds Up.

Before we get to love, we need to talk about arrogance. Arrogance is everywhere: it is in our homes, in our churches, in our work places, on social media, and most certainly in our political discourse. While it is a given that people—we all—should have convictions and beliefs and even want to share or discuss them with others, the common tendency of today is to speak arrogantly. We state things so forcefully and derisively, just off the bat. We speak in ways that assume (even if we don’t say it aloud) that those who disagree with us are idiots. We also denounce the intentions of those who disagree with us without actually having a face-to-face conversation. Most of us (all of us) could admit to “knowing” that we are right and to stating things so definitively that there is not even room for a conversation. Have you done that recently? With your partner, with a friend or colleague, within this church, on facebook or some other social media?

The apostle Paul, brother Paul, is writing to a church that is having issues with arrogance. Paul has heard word from some church members that there is a lot of conflict. The Corinthian church themselves have also written a letter to Paul with some theological questions that are tearing their church apart. 1 Corinthians is Paul’s way to pastorally address these issues from a distance.

In chapter 8, Paul deals with the hot topic of food sacrificed to idols. He knows that everyone has an opinion. “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge’” or, we “know that we know that we know.” I imagine Paul dictating this letter and using the Greek equivalent of finger-quotes around “knowledge.” We know that all of us possess “knowledge” – but let’s face it, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up.

One of my favorite lines in a mewithoutYou song sounds like verse 2: “those who really know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know.”  Paul says, “Ya’ll who think you know something really don’t know; you’re missing the point of all this (sweep around, indicating church). While you’re going to have different consciences on this issue, what is most important is that love is clothing all your conversations and how you treat one another, in light of your convictions. What’s important is us loving God and being known deeply by God, to the core of our intentions.”

Paul then goes further into the idol discussion and to understand what he’s saying, it’s helpful to have more background context. The church in Corinth was mostly Gentile, with some Jewish Christians who had initially started the church. Class and social status were a big problem for the congregation, which is something that comes out later in 1 Corinthians when talking about the Lord’s Supper. According to one commentator, the mix of social and economic classes found within the church was something unusual for their time (not found in other settings) and even probably for ours (Hays, 1997).

A common cultural practice was to host meals in Roman temples. Meat would be sacrificed within the temple and served at the meal. Though the ritual and the meal were not necessarily together, these were social events in places that also had religious connotations. Apparently, the Christians with “knowledge” were taking part in these meals and the “weak” Christians believed that it went against the conscience of their devotion and worship of God alone. Paul says that the important thing here is not whether one eats or doesn’t eat, but whether the knowledge about faith is building up the community in love. 

Paul explains that yes, the “knowledge” people are right, in that while there are many “gods,” but for Christians, there is only one. He says, “for us, there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (v. 6). Paul explains that while this is the case, people within the church are coming from different backgrounds.

Some have been used to worshipping idols, so eating the meat is hard to separate from the religious practice. It makes them feel like they are betraying God by eating; forcing them to eat goes against their conscience. Paul is worried that the “freedom” or “liberty” of some will lead others down a path away from allegiance to Jesus. Paul says that he himself would not eat meat if he knew that it could lead a sister or brother down the wrong path. It’s not about being right or wrong here, but about loving those in the community and walking together. Paul asks, this “freedom” that you have—what does it do to the community? Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Even though we don’t have to deal with this specific issue of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols, there are several secondary applications that are relevant for us today. The first and loudest message from this passage is that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Paul tells the early Christians that their actions and discourse can negatively affect the church community.

I’m not on facebook much, but I recently saw a fellow COB brother in another state write this, “I’ve drafted three political posts today and decided to delete them each time.” Our culture is rife with arrogance, know-it-all-ness, and the need to proclaim our “knowledge.” But even if we “know,” do we really? Is it really building up? It’s likely that some or a lot of what we say or what we post (or want to post) do not align with the values of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Knowledge puffs up, but love is gentle, kindness turns away wrath, self-control and patience prevent us from building angry walls with our words.

Sisters and brothers, are we wasting too much time displaying our “knowledge,” whether interpersonally or online? How have we—each of us—been puffed up in ways that harm the church community, or other relationships? How have I? How have you?

Wrestling is an important part of Christian community.

Another principle that I think we can draw out from this text is that wrestling is an important part of Christian community. I don’t mean leg wrestling or thumb wrestling, though those could certainly be added to our community life and be beneficial in some ways. What I mean, of course, is wrestling with murky, grey, ethical issues like eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. The church in Corinth needed to talk about issues of conscience, discipleship, and faithfulness in relation to a practice so everyday like eating! Basic living in their society and in ours have serious implications for where our allegiance lies. The question for them was, “can I eat this and still be worshipping only Jesus?” What are our questions, our “can I do this and still be worshipping only Jesus?” The church today should be a place to examine what else might constitute idolatry. We need to be able to wrestle with ethical conundrums about power, status, wealth, arrogance in speech, and more. 

Doing this well requires relationship, requires gentleness, requires an abundance of love, authenticity, and transparency. Having conversations about money and power and status can keep us from slipping into worship of that which is not God. The fall bible study was one place to have some of these conversations and, in the past, Sunday school potlucks and the young adult gatherings also provided safe and authentic spaces where we could wrestle together. How can we continue to make these spaces and build these relationships in our community? What leadership can you give to help schedule or facilitate or host a gathering where we can wade through the grey water together, clothe ourselves with love, and wrestle with the ethical issues of 21st century life? What leadership can you give to foster these settings?

Sisters and brothers, following Jesus involves wading through grey water; it’s not always clear or easy—and it can sometimes be a bit icky and uncomfortable, figuring out how to apply two-thousand-year-old scriptures to our 21st century lives. Guiding this murky and complicated process is one important ingredient: love. Knowledge puffs up, but love is gentle, kindness turns away wrath, self-control and patience prevent us from building angry walls with our words. Love is what guides us and should cover us as we wrestle together about how to ensure our allegiance is to Christ alone. AMEN.

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