Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Hope of the Messiah: From Barren to Blessed

On this last Sunday of Advent, we move into the New Testament - the Gospel of Luke. Luke is of two books, Luke and Act, that are an attempt, as the gospel writer says at the very beginning, to set down an orderly account of the events for Theophilus, Translated “God-lover.” So that you may know the truth concerning the things that have been handed onto us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word.

And so, today, God-lovers, we read from the holy gospel according to Luke.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. 
--Luke 1:26-56 (NRSV)

"Barren. That’s what we both were, Mary and I. Barren. Mary, a teenager, having never known a man, a virgin, without child. Barren. And I, old. Having known a man, also without child. Barren. It is this that perhaps connected Mary and I most. Our barrenness. Our emptiness. Our disgrace - well, mostly my disgrace.

I had prayed for a child during all of my child-bearing years. Like Sarah. Like Rebecca. Like so many other women in our history, in the stories of our faith, who had prayed to God for a child as much as I prayed for a descendant for my husband, Zechariah, and I. We lived righteously before God. Followed and observed all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. Yet, unlike Sarah and Rebecca, I remained barren. My disgrace before others.

Yet, Mary and I would not remain barren. It was nothing that we did - everything that happened was from the Lord, announced by the angel, Gabriel. God’s messenger who came, first, to my husband, and then to Mary. Announcing these miraculous births. My child, who would be another messenger of God. Of the long-promised Messiah.

But, Mary. The announcement she received was different. The angel called her “favored one.” Favored one? Mary? First named in the story without a name, but only that she was engaged to Joseph. This was the status of women in my time, connected only to the men in our lives. And only important based on our ability to bear children. Especially, to bear sons. Mary, favored? Perhaps it was this title that perplexed her. Made her wonder. Made her ask the question how she might become pregnant without having known a man. Not that she doubted the possibility. But, that she was simply curious how this was to happen. Do you notice she never asked for a sign? Unlike my husband. Unlike so many prophets called throughout the history of our people, Mary never asked for a sign. 

But, then, the angel Gabriel gave her a sign. Me. Pregnant in my old age. I was to be her sign that God would descend on her womb in the way God had descended upon the tabernacle at Sinai. And how God had descended upon my womb. Because nothing is impossible with God.

And so she came to visit me. In my sixth month, with my pregnancy showing. When I saw her I felt my unborn baby leap within me. The Holy Spirit moved me, a woman, to prophesy what had already been spoken to her. That she would be the God-bearer. The Theotokos. The one who would bear the Messiah, the fulfilment of God’s promise to King David. And to us, from across the ages. 

No longer barren, either of us. But now blessed. Mary, the Alpha, and I, the Omega. From young to old, beginning to end, both of us, blessed. Not simply vessels to bear children, but Spirit-filled, prophetic, profound people, created by God. Blessed by God. How profound this was in our time! How profound this is for your time!

How could Mary do anything other than singLike Hannah, like Miriam, like Deborah of old, how could Mary do anything other than sing of the freedom and liberation that God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in our world, through her son, Jesus? The Anointed One. Son of the Most High. Emmanuel - God with us

May you, like Mary and I, know and believe the truth concerning the things that have been handed onto you by us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word. May you, like Mary and I, know and believe that God comes to set us free, to liberate us and our world from all that holds us captive. And may you, like Mary and I, know and believe that, even in the midst of our deepest darkness, God is doing a new thing. For nothing will be impossible with God. Amen."

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Hope of the Messiah: Freedom and Justice

Each month, in our council meeting, we spend time at the beginning of the meeting to dwell in God’s Word. To be centered in it before conducting any business or addressing any of the practical aspects of the ministry of our churches.

Over these months, I have to say that I’ve grown more and more impressed with the way in which the leaders of our congregations are becoming theological thinkers. Noticing things in the texts. Wondering and asking questions. Drawing the connections to other aspects of God’s Word or to our own Lutheran theology.

Today, we’re going to spend some time digging into this text from Isaiah in a similar way. Asking questions. Noticing things in the text. And making connections to help deepen our understanding of God, of God’s ways, and, particularly, of Jesus. The Messiah.

We read today from Isaiah, chapter 61 in three parts. Here is the first, beginning in verse 1. 

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
--Isaiah 61:1-4 (NRSV)

One of the first things we do when we read scripture is to consider who is speaking and what is the situation.

This reading comes from what is often considered Third Isaiah. Isaiah is believed to have been written in three different historical time periods. First Isaiah is generally considered written in the pre-exile period of Israel. The 8th century BCE. It brings harsh words to the people of Judah and Jerusalem - words of warning - to those who have become estranged from Yahweh. The prophet desperately and urgently calls out for the world to listen. To see their hypocrisy. To turn back to God. To seek the well-being of all.

We know that this call failed. Jerusalem fell. The people were captured by the Babylonians and spread far and wide across the empire. Separated from their families, the temple, their homeland. It is in this post-exile period where Second Isaiah was likely written. To give people hope. To convince them of God’s activity to free them from captivity. The efforts of this second writer, considered by some to have been a woman because of its many feminine images of God, do not convince many. It is hard to have hope when everything seems lost.

Then we come to Third Isaiah (56-66), the source of our text today. Written 2-3 generations later, after the ancestors of Judah’s exiles have begun to return home. And have found that the reality doesn’t live up to what they had hoped for. The reading begins with a dramatic self-introduction. Who the speaker is, we’re not sure. But, his or her identity is as important as the role to be played. To inform the community how it will survive and thrive. Words of consolation and encouragement in this new time of trial. 

This prophet or prophets will not preach punishment, but salvation. Salvation that is from God. God, who brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the broken-hearted, proclaims liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. 

Do you notice that these words of consolation begin with the body? That salvation begins with the body? With the freeing and the healing of the body? 

It’s also hard to miss the direct reference to the Year of the Lord’s favor - the year of Jubilee as outlined in Leviticus 25. That was to occur every 50th year. When those in debt would be forgiven of their debt. When those who had lost their ancestral land would be returned to it and to ownership of it. The Year of the Jubilee was to be a reboot year. A year of reset. When the unequal distribution of resources was to be reversed. The Year of the Lord’s favor was about economic justice. And the restoration of community. Because God’s salvation is not solely about the individual, but about freedom for everyone and the restoration of dignity and justice for the whole community. 

God’s way is the way of reversal that is particularly captured in the next part of our reading, continuing with verse 5.

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
    foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
    you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
    and in their riches you shall glory.
Because their shame was double,
    and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
    everlasting joy shall be theirs. --Isaiah 61:5-7 (NRSV)

God’s intent to reverse injustice begins with the enslavers themselves, who will serve Judah. Who will aid Judah’s restoration. Who will help them resettle, rebuild, and restore their land. 

It is a reminder for us that those with privilege need to be the laborers mentioned here, working to bring about justice for those who have been exiled and oppressed. Not because justice is the people’s idea, but because justice is God’s idea. Which is clear in the third part of the passage today, which continues with verse 8.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. --Isaiah 61:8-9 (NRSV)

This is God talking now. God speaking to the divisions in the community. God, who will ensure the fairness of the economic system. Who will restore a people formerly exiled, but a people who will now be known. And who, when others look at them, will see God’s covenant of justice with them. God’s glory and our relationship to God are seen in economic systems that are whole and just. Where everyone may live as full members of the community instead of just the few.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. --Isaiah 61:8-9 (NRSV)

This is God talking now. God speaking to the divisions in the community. God, who will ensure the fairness of the economic system. Who will restore a people formerly exiled, but a people who will now be known. And who, when others look at them, will see God’s covenant of justice with them. 

Do you notice who is the one doing this? “I will give…” “I will make…” God will be the one working to ensure that economic systems are just. Where everyone may live as full members of the community, instead of just the few. We are invited to come alongside God and to work for these just systems. In which God’s glory and our covenantal relationship - a one-directional relationship - will be seen.

And, then, once again, the tone and speaker changes, beginning with verse 10.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations. --Isaiah 61:10-11 (NRSV)

The passage is not clear on the speaker’s identity. Perhaps it is the prophet who has been called to preach that God’s Word will be fulfilled. Perhaps it is Judah herself, moving from mourning to joy, assured that the promise of restoration will be fulfilled. That just as the earth is trustworthy in bringing forth her fruits or the garden springs up its produce, so too the faithful can trust the God who makes these promises: of a body freed, of a community restored, of a creation regenerated.

What if this is our Jubilee year? A reset year. A time when, even in the midst of the rubble of our world and the rubble of the lives of many, God calls us to trust in God’s promise. To bind up our grief and move us to something else. Restoring dignity and justice for everyone. Bringing economic wholeness to all people. 

In fact, these are the fundamentals that are claimed within the ministry of Jesus himself. Our Messiah, who we heard in our first reading today from Luke. Who walks into the synagogue. Takes the scroll. Reads these very same words from Isaiah. And then turns to the people, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus, the embodiment of God and of God’s promise. A promise of restoration. A promise of economic justice. A promise of freedom.

May we, in this time of Advent, recognize that we cannot be a follower of Jesus and avoid this understanding, this aspect of Jesus’ own ministry. May we recognize that our salvation is tied to the salvation of all people. And may God work in our hearts to accept God’s invitation to work for economic justice in our own world. In this time. In this place. 


Preached December 13, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 3
Readings: Isaiah 61:1-11; Luke 4:16-21

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Hope of the Messiah - Return, Rend, Restoration

Our text this morning comes from the prophet Joel. As you hear the reading, it may seem odd to hear these words during the Advent season. We more typically hear the first part of our reading on Ash Wednesday. And the second part on Pentecost Sunday. 

Our reading this morning is from Joel, chapter 2.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
    rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
    and relents from punishing.
Then afterward
    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
    in those days, I will pour out my spirit. --Joel 2:12-13, 28-29 (NRSV)

The first chapter of Joel, preceding today’s lesson, opens with a lament. It describes a country overrun by a horrible infestation of locusts. The swarm has completely devastated the countryside, leaving it in ruins. The situation is dire. Not only is there environmental calamity and devastation, but the people are experiencing famine and starvation. There is no food. Not even enough to offer a sacrifice to God. There is nothing with which to worship.

Then, in the second chapter, the prophet Joel switches the metaphor. To an invading army that in the same way as the locusts that preceded it. These images of invasion and destruction are a familiar story for the readers of Joel. The people of Israel have lived this story over and over again. It goes like this…

In Genesis, God promised Abraham and his descendants that they would inhabit this land called Canaan. Canaan is sandwiched between the vast Mediterranean Ocean to the west and the desolate desert to the East. After years of being enslaved by Egypt, God frees Israel and makes a covenant with them in Exodus. Here, God promises to be with them. And that they will become a holy nation. A royal priesthood.

God gives them instructions to build a tabernacle that will represent the Garden of Eden and God’s relationship with all humanity. King Solomon will eventually build a beautiful and magnificent temple to replace the Tabernacle and will establish it in the city of Jerusalem. This temple was to remind the people that the Spirit of God filled their covenant with God. That they planted like a vineyard so that the world could taste the love of God. Through them. 

This relationship with God was to be the source of the rivers of life for all nations, for all humanity.

Things went fairly well, at first. Under King David, the twelve tribes of Israel were united into one kingdom. But, then, King Solomon built the temple. And he did it by over-taxing the people and by using slave labor. The kingdom was torn apart. A civil war led to two separate nations: Israel in the north. And Judah in the south. 

Immediately, Israel repeated the story of the Golden Calf from Exodus and established two golden calves to replace the temple. Judah wasn’t much better. The majority of her kings led like tyrants: oppressing the people, driven by greed, gluttony, and violence. They brought the gods of Canaan into the very temple itself. 

Eventually a series of invading armies destroyed the nation. The people of Israel, in the north were completely destroyed by Assyria. The people of Judah, in the south, were carried into captivity by the Babylonians. Solomon’s beautiful temple lay in ruins.  The people lived in exile - torn apart from their land, their communities, from the temple - the center of their worship, and from everything they knew. 

Yes, the readers of Joel knew the story of the invading locusts all too well.

Things were bad. Devastated. Left in ruin. The people far away. And yet...

...even now…Even in the midst of all of the betrayal and corruption, God stands ready to receive them. Return to me with all your heart, God says through the prophet. Return to me with fasting, with weeping, with mourning. Rend your heart and not your clothing.

You see, the traditional symbol of mourning in Israel and even today was to tear one’s robe open or to rip one’s clothing. Like wearing black to a funeral or having ashes smeared on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. These outward symbols are good. But, they can become meaningless acts. What matters most to God is not the outward ritual - the ways or the places in which we worship. What matters most to God is our hearts. What God desires is hearts that are rendered. That are broken wide open in all honesty. In all of our anguish and grief. Hearts torn open, revealing the pain, the sorrow, the regret, the shame that each one of us carries deep inside. To rend our hearts is to break them wide open and pour everything out to God. 

To God. Who is gracious. Merciful. Slow to anger. Abounding in steadfast love. A god who relents from punishing. A God who is good. Who desires to be the center for us. To be the source of our well-being, our shalom.

This verse in Joel is a quote from Exodus 34. It’s one of the most repeated verses in the Bible. It’s the way in the Exodus story that God describes God’s very self to the people who have just betrayed the covenant at Sinai. God is not some cruel tyrant who wants oppressed servants to obey his every whim. God is a loving parent - father and mother - who longs to be in relationship with God’s children. Who longs to see God’s children thrive in God’s beautiful garden, created just for them.

When we allow our hearts to be opened by the Spirit and allow ourselves to be turned back to the grace, mercy, and loyal, never-ending love of God, our hearts, broken and hurt as they may be, connect with God’s heart. And, then, the love begins to flow...

...the Spirit of the LORD flows freely through our lives. Flowing through everybody, not just the elite or the chosen. But, through all flesh. Anyone who’s heart resonates with the heart of God - the heart of love - can flow in the spirit of God.

The readers of Joel longed for the day when the Messiah would come to restore the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. We, on this side of the Advent, know that this Messiah is Jesus. This is what Peter proclaimed in Acts 2. That Jesus was God in the flesh. That Jesus was the picture of what it looks like when humanity fully resonates with the heart of God. 

Jesus. Who spoke truth to power. Who called out corruption and the abuse of the weak. Who touched the poor, the sick, the exiled. And who reconciled all things with his own self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Who inaugurated God’s kingdom here on earth. Who promises restoration that begins with the rebuilding of the natural world, which is where the story of creation first began - restoration and re-creation. 

And then the outpouring of the spirit and the embracing of all nations. All humanity. Living in abundance and well-being, with silos full of grain and no worries for anyone about where their next meal will come from. This was what the people of Joel’s day dreamed of. This is the unfolding vision in which we live, in this post-Advent world even in the midst of what may seem to be the darkness of the present time. So, come, people of God. Turn back to God. Here. In this place. In this time. Break open your whole heart. Pour out all the anguish, all of the sorrow, all of the confusion, all of the anger that has characterized our world and our lives in this time. Your lament is welcome before God, who is waiting there for you with a promise of new things and new possibilities. That there will be a future. And a future future. And, when you do, know that the Spirit will not be withheld from your broken heart. She will bind up your wounds, replace your doom with visions of what can be, and help us hear each other into being and into continuing to do the work of God in building up the kingdom of God here on earth. This is God’s promise in Joel. A promise for you and me. A promise for everyone. Amen.

Preached online Sunday, December 6, 2020 with Grace & Glory/Third Lutheran churches.
Advent 2
Readings: Joel 2:12-13, 28-29; Luke 11:13

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

God Sightings - Part 3

Sometimes ordinary words just won’t do, will they? Ordinary words can’t capture immense fear, the beauty of a magnificent sunset, or the love for a child. Ordinary words could not capture the experience of Isaiah when he received his call to be a prophet for Yahweh.

The time is roughly 742 BC, the year that King Uzziah died. Uzziah had reigned in Judah, the southern kingdom, for more than 40 years. And by most standards, he had been quite successful. He had repaired the defenses of Jerusalem, reorganized the army, and secured many trade routes running through Judah. He was a strong king, but he died, as the book of Chronicles tells us, because he was punished by God for his proud power. It was in this same year, when the country was mourning his death and wondering what the future would bring, that Isaiah saw his vision. Found in the first part of today’s reading in Isaiah, chapter 6.

In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!
All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”

The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.

I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”

Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”

I said, “Here I am; send me.” --Isaiah 6:1-8 (CEB)

The place is the temple. We aren’t surprised by this - we expect things like this to happen in the temple - this magnificent building. We might not expect, perhaps, to see visions of thrones or winged seraphs - those fiery beings who sing about the holiness and the glory of God. We might not expect to experience the shaking of the temple’s thresholds or smoke rising to the height of this extraordinary building. These are not ordinary words that describe ordinary things. But ordinary words often cannot be used to describe one’s encounter with God.

Isaiah is standing in the temple, when he sees the vision of Yahweh sitting on a throne. Yahweh is high and lift up. The seraphs are singing to each other words that we have often sung: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord…” The building shakes. The smoke rises. Then, Isaiah speaks.

It’s not a response to God’s call that we hear, for God has not yet called Isaiah. Instead, his first words come in response to the remarkable vision he has experienced. So overwhelming that his first words are words of despair. “Mourn for me!” he says. In contrast to the greatness that he has witnessed, Isaiah feels small. In contrast to the glory and holiness he has experienced, he feels unworthy. That he has no place in the presence of One who is as awe-some as this.

This sense of fear and awe is not new to the Israelites. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, they have asked the question, “Can one see Yahweh and live?” Yet, Isaiah seems less preoccupied with death here as he is with how he has lived life. He has unclean lips. He is part of a community with unclean lips.

It’s the seraph who first responds to Isaiah’s outburst. Immediately, it flies to Isaiah holding a live coal and touches his lips. Isaiah’s lips are not burned. Instead, his confession is acknowledged, his uncleanliness, his unworthiness is seared away. His guilt departs and his sin is blotted out. 

Perhaps you, too, have experienced something similar to Isaiah, when something you have done wrong, a mistake or a word you have said that has caused harm to someone, has been forgiven and reconciliation has happened. There is that life-giving moment when we exhale, recognizing that, despite our past, we can indeed begin anew.

It is then, after Isaiah has had this life-giving experience that he hears the voice of Yahweh. Yet, the words are not directed only to Isaiah - they seem to be directed to the community, to each and everyone who might we willing to hear them. “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?” Were there others there who might have come forth to answer? Perhaps. But Isaiah has been prepared and made ready for his mission, even as it has yet to be defined. 

Without even knowing what God is calling him to, Isaiah responds, “Hineni. Here I am. Send me!”

What is it that happens between these two outbursts of Isaiah? He first cries out, “Mourn for me!” Then, later his cry is “I’m here. Send me!” One can only wonder if what happens in between is this remarkable transformation that we feel when we have truly experienced grace. Amazing grace.

Now, as your pastor and as a storyteller, it would be my choice, my easy choice, to end the story here. It is important for us to hear the stories of these courageous people - these men and women in scripture and in the history of the church who have, in their own lives, said, “Hineni. Here I am.”

But to be true to the story of Isaiah, we must continue on in chapter 6, beginning with verse 9.

God said, “Go and say to this people:

Listen intently, but don’t understand;
    look carefully, but don’t comprehend.
Make the minds of this people dull.
    Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind,
    so they can’t see with their eyes
    or hear with their ears,
    or understand with their minds,
    and turn, and be healed.”

I said, “How long, Lord?”

And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” The Lord will send the people far away, and the land will be completely abandoned. Even if one-tenth remain there, they will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, which when it is cut down leaves a stump. Its stump is a holy seed. --Isaiah 6:9-13 (CEB)

To be true to Isaiah’s story, we must hear the overwhelming challenge that God presents to him. We hear Isaiah’s sadness as he hears the words the Lord speaks. “Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see or hear or understand and turn and be healed.”

Isaiah has been called to deliver a word that will lead people not toward life, but toward death. The words given to him to speak to the community were harsh words, words of confrontation about the emptiness and desolation of a people and a land that Yahweh deeply loved. To be true to the story of Isaiah we cannot end with the words, “Hineni. Here I am, send me!” We must hear the last words of Isaiah as he stands there in his frailty, completely forgiven, when he asks, “How long, Lord? 

Recently, I listened to one of Leonard Cohen’s last interviews where he spoke about one of the last songs he wrote, entitled, “You Want It Darker.”  Throughout the chorus of this song, we hear the very word that Isaiah spoke in response to God’s call. Hineni. Hineni. Here I am. 

When asked about this song, Cohen commented that we are all motivated by deep impulses to serve, even though we may never fully identify that which we are being called to serve. That this is part of our nature to offer ourselves at the moment, at the critical moment, when the emergency becomes clear. 

Perhaps this is our hineni moment. Perhaps God is calling us into a mission for which we do not know the ending, just like Isaiah. Who didn’t know the ending either, but knew that this was the moment. The emergency to which he was being called. And who trusted that God would somehow bring new life from the stump. The holy seed mentioned in the very last verse of this chapter. The stump of Jesse. From which would come an ancestral branch. A King. Upon whom the spirit of the Lord would rest. And from whom would come life and light for all people. 

As we wait in this time of transition and upheaval. As we bear witness once again to hospitals overflowing and increasing numbers of infected and dying - when all we want to do is to throw off our masks, emerge from our cocoons and hug our friends and loved ones - is it possible that, like Isaiah’s, this is our hineni moment? When we are being called into selfless service in this time of emergency? Not knowing how long or what is to come, but trusting that out of the stump, out of the holy seed, will come new life and new purpose for us as the remnant people of God?

How will you respond?

Preached November 15, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
24th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Isaiah 6, 1-13; Luke 5:8-10

Monday, November 9, 2020

God Sightings: Jonah

Our story today is about Jonah. Jonah was a prophet of God to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. 

Let’s just say that Jonah is not the best prophet. 

The only other place in scripture where we meet him is in 2nd Kings under the reign of Jeroboam II, one of the worst kings in the history of Israel. Here, Jonah prophecies in Jeroboam’s favor, promising that he will win a battle against the Assyrians and regain all this territory on Israel’s northern border. This is contradicted by God through the Prophet Amos, who challenges Jonah's prophecy and promises that Jeroboam will be overthrown by God because he is such a horrible king.

Let’s just say that Jonah is not the best prophet.

As today’s story opens, God is calling Jonah to go into the heart of Assyria, Israel’s enemies to the north. And to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to call the people there to repentance.

We read in Jonah, chapter 1.

The Lord’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”

So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! 

He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. 

They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.

Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”

Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”

He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”

Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord, because he had told them.)

They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)

He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. So they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.”

Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.

Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. --Jonah 1:1-17 (CEB)

What the heck was Jonah thinking? That he could get away from God? We’ve talked before about the relentlessness of God. When God has a plan, there is no getting away, no escaping from God. 

Here, God has a plan. A plan of salvation. A plan to save the people - or at least to attempt to save - the people of Nineveh. That great capital of Assyria. Israel’s most hated enemy to the north. 

What the heck was Jonah thinking? 

My guess is that, in part, he was terrified of going into Assyria and of “calling out” the people of Nineveh. Telling these evil pagans to repent of their sins. 

The irony of this first chapter of Jonah is that, as Jonah is attempting to escape God’s call to convert the pagan people of Nineveh, Jonah ends up converting the pagan sailors. By the end of this chapter, they are worshipping God for what they have seen. Their God sighting has changed them.

And Jonah? The chapter has ended with him in the belly of a great fish. With time to think. By the end of the second chapter, Jonah has repented. Sort of. 

In the closing lines of his prayer of repentance at the end of chapter 2, Jonah prays, “When my endurance was weakening, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy. But me, I will offer a sacrifice to you with a voice of thanks.”

“Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy.” Remember these words. As we continue in chapter 3.

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.

The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. 

(Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)
Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.

When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.

God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it. --Jonah 3:1-10 (CEB)

One day. One day is all it took for Nineveh to repent. Jonah wasn’t even able to finish his walk across the city - a three-day walk - before Nineveh repented. But it wasn’t just the people of Nineveh who repented. Their king, on hearing the word of Jonah’s prophecy, put on mourning clothes and sat in ashes - a dramatic sign of his own repentance. And leadership. Then, he issued a decree that, not only would the people repent, the animals would, too! The entire city and everything and everyone in it. This wayward prophet, this not-so-great man of God has, once again, almost unintentionally, converted an entire pagan city.

Our reading continues in chapter 4.

But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?”

But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.

Then the Lord God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. 

He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”

Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”

But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” --Jonah 4:1-11 (CEB)

“Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy.” Remember those words? 

Although it’s hard to tell exactly from our text, it would seem that Jonah’s anger is less about the shriveled shrub and more about God’s mercy on the pagan people of Nineveh. 

“Those deceived by worthless things lose their chance for mercy.” That’s what Jonah prayed, wasn’t it? 

Don’t we pray this, too? That those people who follow other gods, who don’t think the way we do, who don’t vote the way we do, who “follow worthless things” lose their chance for mercy? 

We, in this country, have just gone through an election. Elections are, by their very nature, divisive. This one even more so. In this election period, as we, myself included, have demonized those who have different opinions than we, demeaned those who have supported a different candidate than ours, disparaged those whom we have identified as followers of "worthless things" (or candidates), aren’t we a little like Jonah? Self-righteous? Sanctimonious? Holier than thou?

Perhaps we need a leader to call our whole nation to repentance. 

We have a such a leader who calls us to repentance. Who sees the bigger picture and has a broader plan. Who has created all people in his own image. And who acts compassionately and with great patience that all people (and not just us) might receive redemption.

We have such a leader in God, whose knowledge is so far beyond us and whose acts of love extend way beyond our own imagination. Who has redeemed us through God’s very own Son, Jesus Christ.

May we follow our leader as the people of Nineveh followed theirs. May we repent of our thinking, like Jonah’s, that others are beyond God’s redemptive powers. And may we, as the church, freed in Christ, find a way to emulate the same acts of love and mercy in our deeply divided world.

May God grant this, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Preached Sunday, November 8, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 24
Readings: Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10, 4:1-11; Luke 18:13

Sunday, November 1, 2020

God Sightings: Elijah and the Widow

As we often do in beginning our story today, we need to catch up on the action in-between - from last Sunday's story to today's. 

We heard, last week, about King David. About his desire to build God a house. And how, instead, God abundantly poured out more grace upon David, with a promise that his house - his ancestral line - would live forever and ever. Even with his mistakes, David was deeply loved by God. He was a humble warrior, a servant, and a king. One could say that David has a golden heart. 

King Solomon - David’s son, succeeded him on the throne. Solomon’s reign began well as he asked God for a discerning heart, so that he might have the wisdom and understanding to govern God’s people with fairness. Under Solomon, Israel experienced a “Golden Age” of peace and prosperity. 

But, this did not last. One might say that Solomon externalized the gold. He forgot that the gold that God desires for God’s people is the golden shrine of a surrendered heart - not the gold shine of a big building. Solomon violated the rules for kings that had been established in Deuteronomy. He amassed for himself great wealth, great military power and, most troubling, a vast harem of foreign wives who wooed him with their pagan gods. The gold became tarnished. Solomon abandoned Yahweh, following after the gods of his wives. And he would be cut off from the blessing of God.

After Solomon’s death, his son, Rehoboam, took the the throne of David.  Things went from bad to worse. His stubbornness and detachment from the plight of the lower class in Israel led to the rebellion of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The nation would split in two. In the south, Judah would remain, under the rule of David’s line, centered in Jerusalem. In the north, Israel - the rebelling tribes - would be ruled by Jeroboam, eventually centered in Samaria. He would build two temples to complete with the temple in Jerusalem. One at Beth-el. A second at Dan. In each temple, King Jeroboam would place a golden calf to represent the God of Israel. 

From this point on, the story goes back and forth between the two kingdoms. Each has about 20 successive kings. Scripture tells us that, in the north, none of the kings followed God’s will. They were zero for 20. In the south, Judah would have 8 of 20 identified as “good” kings. 

Which brings us, today, to Ahab. In the verses that just precede our text today, we read that Ahab “did evil in the Lord’s eyes, more than anyone who preceded him.” He had married a foreign wife, Jezebel. A Phoenician princess from Sidon. Ahab served and worshipped Baal, her Phoenician god, making an altar for Baal in the temple constructed in Samaria for this purpose. He did more to anger God than any of Israel’s preceding kings. 

It is here where our story opens this morning. But, not quite yet.

In last week’s story, one of the characters we met was the Prophet Nathan. 

We really haven’t talked about the role of prophets - these key figures in Israel’s history. They weren’t fortune-tellers, predicting the future. Instead, they spoke on behalf of the God of Israel, playing the role of covenant watchdogs, calling out idolatry and injustice among the kings and the people. 

And constantly reminding Israel of their calling to be the light to the kingdoms and to keep the covenant as it had been established in the Torah.

So, today, in our lesson consisting of three small stories, we meet the Prophet Elijah. 

We begin in 1st Kings, chapter 17.

Elijah from Tishbe, who was one of the settlers in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As surely as the Lord lives, Israel’s God, the one I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain these years unless I say so.”

Then the Lord’s word came to Elijah: Go from here and turn east. Hide by the Wadi Cherith that faces the Jordan River. You can drink from the brook. I have also ordered the ravens to provide for you there. Elijah went and did just what the Lord said. He stayed by the Wadi Cherith that faced the Jordan River. The ravens brought bread and meat in the mornings and evenings. He drank from the Cherith Brook. After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land. 1 Kings 17:1-7 (CEB)

Perhaps the biggest mistake Ahab made was to marry Jezebel. It wasn’t her ethnicity that was a problem. Instead, it was that she came from a nation that worshipped idols. Soon, Israel and Phoenicia would become allies. And, together, Ahab and Jezebel would lead Israel to worship Baal and engage in other pagan customs. Ahab encouraged the Israelites to blend these customs with their worship of God, despite very specific commands given in Deuteronomy to not mix pagan worship with true worship of God.

Idolatry had become a huge problem in Israel.

Enter the Prophet Elijah. He relays a message from God. There will be a drought in the land until Ahab repents. This does not make the king happy. 

Soon, God instructs Elijah to leave - to get away from Ahab, to flee Samaria and the angry king, and to go east, back toward his homeland. He heads to the Wadi Cherith, a brook that feeds into the Jordan River that is often full of water when it rains. But, then, quickly dries up. It is here, beside the Wadi Cherith, that God sustains Elijah - sending ravens to deliver food, morning and evening. Day after day. 

Our story continues.

The Lord’s word came to Elijah: Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. Elijah left and went to Zarephath. As he came to the town gate, he saw a widow collecting sticks. He called out to her, “Please get a little water for me in this cup so I can drink.” She went to get some water. He then said to her, “Please get me a piece of bread.”

“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.”

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. This is what Israel’s God, the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t run out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.  1 Kings 17:8-16 (CEB)

The wadi where Elijah was staying runs dry. 

So, God directs Elijah to Zarephath, only a short distance from Sidon, Jezebel’s hometown. He meets up with a widow - someone promised by God to help sustain him while he is on the run. This widow, who is not named in our story, is a Phoenician. A pagan. She and her son have been hit hard by the drought. When Elijah asks her to make him bread, her response is that she ingredients enough for one remaining loaf. 

But Elijah persists. So, she makes a small loaf for him first, then a second for her and her son. And then she discovers the provision of God - that God will sustain all of them through this. Providing just enough flour and just enough oil for a loaf of bread. Day after day. 

Our story continues.

After these things, the son of the widow, who was the matriarch of the household, became ill. His sickness got steadily worse until he wasn’t breathing anymore. She said to Elijah, “What’s gone wrong between us, man of God? Have you come to me to call attention to my sin and kill my son?”

Elijah replied, “Give your son to me.” He took her son from her and carried him to the upper room where he was staying. Elijah laid him on his bed. Elijah cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, why is it that you have brought such evil upon the widow that I am staying with by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself over the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, please give this boy’s life back to him.” The Lord listened to Elijah’s voice and gave the boy his life back. And he lived. Elijah brought the boy down from the upper room of the house and gave him to his mother. Elijah said, “Look, your son is alive!”

“Now I know that you really are a man of God,” the woman said to Elijah, “and that the Lord’s word is truly in your mouth.” 1 Kings 17:17-24 (CEB)

It isn’t long before things take a tragic turn for this woman. Her son gets ill and stops breathing. 

Her natural inclination is to strike out at Elijah - this stranger who has brought this on her household.

But Elijah, in a dramatic scene, cries out to God and then stretches himself out on the lifeless child. Three times. Crying out once more.

God hears him. God listens to Elijah’s voice. The child lives. It is then that his mother knows God.  


On this All Saints Day, I can’t help thinking of all those ancestors in faith who have gone before us. They, like Elijah, like the widow, in our story, have struggled and been challenged with many difficult experiences and hard times. Just as we are challenged in our own lives. 

Yet, as we listened to the first two stories, we witnessed that God sustained Elijah and the widow. First, God’s created beings - the ravens - cared for Elijah each day. Then, we witnessed how the widow, her son, and Elijah, living on the edge of death each day, just getting by, were provided with just enough flour. Just enough oil for one day.

When we mourn. When we are suffering. When we are living on the edge of death and despair, God provides. Just enough for us to get through each day. To have just enough to get through the next. Perhaps this is as miraculous as the miracle story at the end - that resurrection story that is a foretaste of the resurrection we anticipate when God’s kingdom through Christ comes in all its fullness. This is the hope we cling to in this moment. This was the hope that our own ancestors held onto. Trusting that the God who gave them just enough grace, day after day, will also give the grace and hope of that resurrection to come. And the dramatic restoration of life where before there was only death.

In this time, when it may often feel as though God is silent, may we, on this day and always, remember these saints. May we, like Elijah, cry out to God in our anguish. And may we trust, as all of them did, that God will climb into our hurt and our pain, our struggle and our grief, and will restore all things, inviting us into life - a life that they have already received. A life that will go on and on. Without end. Amen.

Preached November 1, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
All Saints Sunday
Readings: 1 Kings 17:1-24, Luke 4:24-26.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Promises Made, Promises Broken: God's House

Over these past many weeks, we have been moving through the Hebrew scriptures under the theme, Promises Made, Promises Broken. We have learned about the great promises that God has made to humanity. And ways in which humankind has made and often broken promises, both to God and to one another. 

This idea of promise - or covenant - is one of the most important themes in the Bible. The covenants in scripture are the background upon which the entire narrative of God and of God’s story of redemption are built. They’re like the backbone of the Bible. 

From Genesis on, God enters into a series of formal, covenanted relationships, one after another, in order to rescue God’s world. Understanding these divine-human relationship stories are central to our understanding who Jesus is. That for us, is pretty important, isn’t it? So, we’re going to remember, for just a few minutes, these key biblical covenants. 

We began the fall at the beginning. Creation. God made this beautiful world and placed humankind in it to care for it and to partner with God to bring more good out of it. But the humans don’t want to partner with God. They rebel and try to create a world on their own terms. It’s this broken partnership that the Bible gives as an explanation for why we’re stuck in a world of corruption and injustice and death. So God selects a small group of people and makes a new partnership with them. God’s purpose is to use this covenant relationship to renew God’s partnership with all humanity.

There are four central covenants in the Hebrew scripture through which God is forming a covenant family into which all the world will be invited. In the first covenant with Noah, God promises him, his family and all living creatures that God will never again destroy earth. No matter how evil it becomes.

In the second covenant with Abraham, God enters into a partnership with him. And promises Abraham a huge family that will inherit a promised piece of land in Canaan. And that through Abraham and his family, all humanity will be blessed. 

The third covenant is with this huge family that eventually became the nation of Israel. God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt and promised to make them God’s treasured possession. A holy nation. Set apart. And with whom God would personally dwell in their midst and bring into the land originally promised to Abraham. God would be their God. And they would be God’s people - a kingdom of priests that would show God’s goodness and glory to all the nations. 

Today, we come to the fourth covenant. Beginning last week and continuing today, we find that Israel has entered Canaan, the promised land. Eventually, to be like the surrounding nations, they demanded a king. God appointed Saul. Yet, he fails to obey God. And so, God chooses another king for Israel. David. Son of Jesse. From the tribe of Judah. King David becomes a successful leader, overcoming Israel’s enemies. Uniting the tribes. And establishing Jerusalem as the political center of Israel, where he builds his palace - a “house of cedar.” Then, in the chapter before today’s reading, David restores the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Making it, not only the political center of Israel, but it’s religious center, as well. It is here where our story begins. In 2nd Samuel, chapter 7.  

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. (2 Samuel 7:1-17 NRSV)

One of the first things we notice in this story is that the narrator does not refer to David by name. Instead, he is always called “the king.” This is to underscore that David - and not Saul - is now king. It also underscores his role as the leader of the nation Israel. Yet, when God speaks, beginning in verse 5, God always refers to him as, “my servant, David.” God knows him by name. 

It isn’t long before David gets a grand idea. He has a house to live in. It’s time to build a house for God. Something stable. And permanent. And secure. 

Now it’s not entirely clear here what his motivation is. Was he simply coming from a place of gratitude for all that God had done for him and for Israel? Or maybe this was a way to stay in God’s good graces? Or maybe, just maybe, it was a way for this earthly monarch to attempt to contain the heavenly monarch. To put God in a box. To control God.  

But, whatever David’s motivation is here, it is clear that he does not fully understand the nature of God’s grace. Whatever God has already done for David, God will continue to do more. To make for David a great name. To give him rest from all his enemies. And, for Israel, to plant them so they may live in their own place, secure. Where they will no longer be disturbed or afflicted by evildoers. 

But, the promises don’t stop there. It is in the next verses where God pivots on David's use of the word, “house.” Promising unconditionally to make a new kind of “house” for David. Not a dwelling place of cedar, but a dynasty. And from this dynasty, from this royal line, will come a descendant. A Messiah who will rule God’s kingdom. Forever. And ever. And ever.

As we hear this story, I’m struck by its similarities to the Reformation. One of the main catalysts for action at the time of the Reformation was the desire of the church to build a bigger and better house. It was the selling of indulgences to collect funds for this newer, bigger cathedral that set the Reformation in motion. As if God can be contained in a building. 

The story of King David. The story of the Reformation. All of these are stories of God’s great reversals. God recentering the direction of the action, putting God’s promises once again, front and center. And driving the question, “What is God doing?”

In this year 2020 with all the terrible things that have happened and the chaos that seems to surround us. As we have been pushed beyond the walls of our churches into this virtual place is this perhaps, another of God’s great reversals? God recentering us, once again, to ask the question, “What is God doing?” And, as God is once more being placed at the center, how might our own imaginations be reshaped for how we are, in fact, seeking to live out God’s will in our world today? 

What we do know, though, from the stories we have heard this fall is that God keeps God’s promises. It is this that we, as God’s people, cling to today. God keeps God’s promises. And God will find a way - a surprising new way - to be faithful. And, as with David, to shower us with grace upon grace upon grace. 

And so I end this now, where we began this morning. In Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge. Amen.

Preached October 25, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Reformation Sunday
Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Luke 1:30-33

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Promises Made, Promises Broken: Fear and Idols

Before today’s reading, we have both some catching up to do from last week’s story. Plus, a little remembering.

When we left off last week, the Pharaoh had finally agreed after the tenth plague and the Hebrew Passover to let God’s people go. In the intervening chapters, we read the story of Israel’s journey to freedom. Their passage through the Red Sea and God saving them from the Egyptian army.

Israel is led by Moses into the wilderness and eventually to the foot of Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai is also known as Mount Horeb, which, coincidence or not, is where Moses was first called by God to lead Israel out of slavery. It is on Mount Sinai where God comes down to be with God’s new people, Israel.

Now before we move on, we need to remember back to Genesis and to the Garden of Eden. It was in Eden that humanity was in the presence of God -  in a close and good relationship with God. Access to God’s presence, though, was eventually lost because of the rebellion of humanity. It was then that God came to Abraham and made him a promise - that through him God would bring blessing to all of the nations. But, there was a second promise to Abraham. That through him the relationship with God would be restored along with access to God’s presence. 

Which brings us back to Sinai. God come down to the top of Mount Sinai. But God’s presence is anything but comforting. So, the people send Moses up the mountain to meet with God. 

Up until now, God hasn’t asked anything of Israel. But now, God invites them back into relationship - into covenant. And with this, God is going to ask them now to do something, giving them a whole set of laws, beginning with the ten commandments. The idea is that if Israel obeys the terms of the covenant, they will be so shaped and formed by God’s laws, teaching and justice that they will become a kingdom of priests to show all the nations what God is truly like. The people accept this invitation eagerly. 

So, Moses goes up a second time to meet God and to receive all of these laws, along with lengthy and detailed instructions on the building of a tent. It is this tent that will be the tabernacle, where access to God will be restored and Israel and God can live together in peace.

But, then, something goes seriously wrong, which is where our story today picks up.

The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”

Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate.

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are. Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”

But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, whom you yourself promised, ‘I’ll make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And I’ve promised to give your descendants this whole land to possess for all time.’” Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.  Exodus 32:1-14 (CEB)

It’s interesting, isn’t it, what happens when fear kicks in. Up to this point, Moses has for the people been the representation of God. But, as he is delayed in coming back down from the mountain, the people begin to be afraid. As they wait at the bottom of the mountain, their anxiety builds. These people who have been traumatized by lives lived under slavery, who have been liberated in an amazing, yet terrifying, way by God, begin to be afraid. Then, when Moses doesn’t return, day after day, one can only wonder what they are thinking. That this God had brought them out of slavery, that Moses has abandoned them, and that they will simply perish in the wilderness. 

So, they turn to the one remaining representative of God in their midst. Aaron. Our English translation doesn’t give it justice. In fact the language in the original Hebrew suggests that they confront Aaron angrily and demand that he do something. Israel had just agreed to the rules and they immediately mess them up. Even as Aaron tries to bring them back in, it is impossible. Because the fear has taken hold of them.

I wonder how often this happens to us. How often fear takes hold of us and we allow it pull us away from God and from who God wants us to be. And if you say that this never happens to you, perhaps you are the one most living in fear.

Up on the mountain, we see a God who is angry and who wants to destroy the people. “Your people,” God says to Moses. “Your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt - they are ruining everything.”

God then proposes a backup plan - that God will destroy the people and make a new nation from Moses. It’s not clear whether God is completely fed up with Israel or whether this is just some kind of test for Moses. But, then, God tells Moses to leave - to give God some space so that God’s anger can burn hot.

It’s an uncomfortable image of God for us, isn’t it? It messes with our concept of a God who is tender and compassionate and reframes it to remember that there is this ferocious side to God who doesn’t abide people doing things in violation of God’s covenant. It makes us a little uncomfortable, doesn’t it? But, isn’t it true that, if we have tamed God then we, too, have begun to worship a false god like Israel? And, perhaps, need to be reminded that God is a power that is not to be trifled with?

Moses responds. His approach is interesting here - perhaps a little bit of reverse psychology. He figures out what will matter to God and then helps God remember. First, he appeals to God’s reputation. “This will look bad for you. You brought Israel out with such power. How will this look to all the nations?” Then, Moses appeals to God’s character and reminds God of God’s obligation under the covenant. “Remember the patriarchs and your promise to them? Do you want to break that promise?” 

Then, our story tells us, “the LORD changed his mind.”

This entire mountaintop scene may make us a little uneasy.  It may make us struggle between a biblical understanding and a philosophical understanding of God. Isn’t God, after all, unchangeable? Steadfast? Faithful? 

Yet, the twist to this story is that, by its end, Moses has helped God to remain unchanged - by keeping God’s covenant with Israel. By sticking with the original plan. God was about to change, but Moses has talked God into keeping God’s original promise. Unchanged. Steadfast. Faithful to God’s own promises. 

This is the God we know, the God we trust. The God described just a couple of chapters later: The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in covenant faithfulness. Forgiving sin, but not leaving the wicked unpunished. (Ex. 34:6-7)

Perhaps that’s the most important message for us in this text today. We, who are followers of Jesus, God’s Son sent to us to redeem us. To restore us back into relationship and into the presence of God. No matter how many times we mess up. No matter how often our fear drives us away to other gods. God continues to seek us out. Relentlessly. Steadfastly. With covenantal faithfulness. 

May this give us comfort in times of fear. In times of anxiety. And at every time in our lives.  Amen.

Preached October 11, 2020, online with Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Exodus 32:1-14; Luke 22:33-34