97,000

File:RomeArchofTitus02.jpg

Sunday Evening

John 10:22-30

27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

File:Rom, Titusbogen, Triumphzug 3.jpgIt’s hard to know how many people perished when Judea rose in revolt and Titus came to crush the rebellion. Josephus says 1.1 million died in Jerusalem and 97,000 were carried off to slavery. We see their image carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome. They are in chains and the temple treasures held high as booty. It paid for the construction of the Roman Coliseum, where many more Jews and Christians would lose their lives.

When John’s community listens to this set of images about the good shepherd, the thieves and bandits, and the hirelings, Jerusalem’s tragic story is not that many years behind them.

‘Perish’ is a soft translation for a word that typically means to kill or destroy utterly. ‘Snatch’ seems like trying to grab something off my brother’s desk when I was ten, rather than the 97,000 taken away by force.

The hirelings are the Jerusalem elite who saved their skins. The thieves and bandits are the rebels acclaimed as messiahs (or condemned as terrorists) who seized control of the city and led the revolt. And the wolf is the Roman Army that came “to steal, kill and destroy.”

The history is brutal as revolutions often are. Consider the reign of terror in Paris or the ruthlessness of the Russian Revolution or the killing fields of Pol Pot or the ISIS beheadings in the ancient Roman theater in Palmyra. The Judean revolt was not different. But it ended with utter destruction and slavery.

Caiaphas will say that “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (11:50) Yet the truth of the matter is that the path followed by Caiaphas and the nation led to destruction. The path offered by Jesus would have led to life.

And still that path is offered to us every Sunday around a table with broken bread. But the path of wars and crusades seems too alluring. Compassion, mercy, justice, faithfulness – they don’t rouse the crowd like anger, hate and claims of divine approval. But they are life. Imperishable life.

Followers of Jesus where crucified and slain in the chaos of that war. Some by Rome and its allies. Some by their fellow countrymen. But they knew true life. And no one can ever snatch them from Jesus’ hand.

 

Image of the Arch of Titus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARomeArchofTitus02.jpg By Alexander Z. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Closeup of the Arch: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARom%2C_Titusbogen%2C_Triumphzug_3.jpg  By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Now is the time

Clocktower

Watching for the Morning of February 28, 2016

Year C

The Third Sunday in Lent

Repentance, turning and showing allegiance to God, is the center of the readings this coming Sunday.

The prophet cries out in the marketplace like a merchant hawking his wares – except the prophet is offering food for free, the rich fare of God’s word. The promise once spoken to David of an everlasting covenant is extended to all the people and they are invited to return to God who will forgive – for his ways are higher than our ways.

Paul warns his congregation to watch out lest they fall and reminds them that those who passed through the Red Sea turned from God and perished in the desert.

And Jesus calls for his hearers to take heed lest they perish like the Galileans slaughtered by the Romans or those who were crushed beneath broken walls. God is looking for fruit like a landowner from his fig tree and the days for repentance are growing short.

It is the psalmist who provides the counterpoint, yearning to see God, yearning to stand in God’s presence in the sanctuary, finding God’s steadfast love better than life.

We are not used to such cries of urgency. We imagine there is always time to return home to God. But that is not the nature of things. The chance to do mercy comes and goes and can’t be reclaimed if missed. Now is the time to turn and show allegiance to the kingdom of God. Now is the time to live God’s mercy and grace.

Called

HeQi_017-largeThis week we are continuing our congregation’s Lenten series rooted in the Apostles’ Creed. Last Sunday centered on a phrase in Luther’s Small Catechism He has purchased and freed me from all sins.” This week we come to the third article of the creed and the line from the Catechism: “He has called me through the Gospel.”

There are two accents in this line: first, that we are called. We are summoned. God is not the goal of our spiritual search; God is the one who speaks, who encounters us, who calls us to paths untrod. Secondly, it is the word of grace that beckons us, the gospel, the news from the battlefield that our defender’s forces have been victorious and our city delivered: Death is dead and Life summons us to joy. The author of life, the redeemer, the sanctifier, bids us come and dance the holy dance.

The Prayer for February 28, 2016

In the mystery of your love, O God,
you have called us by your word of grace
to lives that are holy and true.
Grant us ears ever open and hearts ever willing to hear your voice,
that your word may bear fruit in our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 28, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – The prophet calls out in the marketplace like a merchant hawking his wares – only the prophet’s food is free.

Psalmody: Psalm 63:1-8
“O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land”
– The poet yearns for, and gives expression to, his intimate communion with God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” – Paul warns the congregation in Corinth to resist the temptations before them, citing the example of Israel in the wilderness when the rebellious perished without reaching the Promised Land.

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.”
– Jesus is challenged to declare himself for or against Rome when the rumor of a slaughter in the temple is put to him. He deftly turns the question back on his challengers, summoning all to turn and show allegiance to the reign of God. With the parable of the fig tree he challenges the Jerusalem leadership and warns that the time for repentance is short.

Called: Though Sunday takes us to the next section of the creed, our daily devotions during Lent are still reflecting on the meaning of the second article of the creed and our theme for week 2: He has purchased and freed me from all sins.” We invite you to join us at the Lent website or through our congregation website.

 

Top Photo credit: C Kittle.
Second image: He, Qi. Calling Disciples, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46099 [retrieved February 23, 2016]. Original source: heqigallery.com.

Righteousness

File:Heavens Above Her.jpg

He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

Friday

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Abraham was 75 when he left Haran, taking his wife, Sarah, and nephew, Lot, and leaving his father behind. He left, according to the narrative, in obedience to God who promised he would be the father of a great nation through which all families on earth would be blessed.

He went to Shechem, then to Bethel, then by stages to the Negev. During a famine he went down into Egypt and eventually returned, moving again in stages from the Negev back to Bethel. Tension between his household and the household of Lot caused them to separate, and Lot to move into the Jordan Valley and took up his fateful residence in Sodom. Lot became the victim of a war between the “kings” (chieftains of city-states) of the region and Abraham went to rescue him. After all this, “some time later” according to the text, we find him still childless.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Three times he has heard the promise of descendants, and three times nothing has happened but the ongoing vicissitudes of life.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

I appreciate the frankness of his conversation. He can see no future but that his steward will end up with the estate. God, however, explains nothing. What God does is simply repeat the promise. And Abraham trusts it.

Trust is not a substitute for righteousness. Righteousness means fidelity to God and to others. Abraham has shown fidelity to Lot. Now he shows fidelity to God. He accepts God’s word.

Few of us have a vision such as Abraham’s. What we have is the promise of God mediated to us through the text of scripture and embodied in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. They are the equivalent of the smoking pots: God’s covenantal promise made visible: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.”

We don’t know how we will get to the fullness of the promise of the world brought into the blessing of God. But we accept and live by the promise. And it is righteousness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHeavens_Above_Her.jpg By Ian Norman (http://www.lonelyspeck.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The LORD reigns

File:Chora Christ south coupole.jpg

Wednesday

Psalm 99

1The LORD is king;
let the peoples tremble!

I’m not sure why some translators render this line as “The LORD is king” while others as “The LORD reigns.” I do not know whether there is some evidence for that decision or it is purely a stylistic choice. The Hebrew text is pointed as a verb, though that pointing was added centuries later.

I prefer the translation “The LORD reigns.” That God is king seems like a static notion. I do not much care who sits on the throne; I care very much indeed who is doing the governing.

It is important to declare that God is king. The world’s turmoil and trouble seems rooted in the notion that we are the masters of the world – a notion that leaves many bodies in the earth and few fish in the sea. If we were mindful that God is king we might act with a little more humility, a little less warring, a little more care of the neighbor and care of the earth.

But, as I said, sitting in the White House is one thing; running the country is something else.

I need to hear that God is actually reigning. I need to hear it proclaimed to me that we are not living in a lawless and godforsaken fringe of the empire. I need the voice of God in the scriptures to declare that there is some accountability happening in this world for those who murder young girls or shoot up a holiday party. I need to be assured that the breath of God is blowing through our affairs to frustrate the plans of the wicked and stir up the compassion of the righteous.

I need the promise that God will reign in me.

I know the psalm has its origin in some great public liturgy where God is acclaimed as king in Israel. But the psalm is also now word of God. It is now not just praise but proclamation. It is a word for us that God does indeed reign.

 

Image: Chora church in Istanbul.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg.  By No machine-readable author provided. Neuceu assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“I am only a boy!”

File:Christ the King Church, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico00.jpg

Malachi, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah. Christ the King Church, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

Saturday

Jeremiah 1:4-10

6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

We have history with certain texts. When an angel greets Gideon with the familiar words “The LORD is with you,” Gideon responds, “Pray, sir, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us?” I remember that text from when I was eighteen and the pastor read it at my brother’s funeral. The text never quite escapes that moment in time. And the promise lingers: though we do not see it, God is with us.

There is a text from the Gospel of Mark that my high school youth group advisors wrote in a small Bible they gave me as I went off to college. It had a profound, almost haunting, influence on my life. There is a text in Psalm 11 that prompted me to risk accepting a call to inner city ministry in Detroit. There is a text in Romans 8 with which I struggled mightily for a paper for my Romans class in Seminary. In that struggle the secret of understanding the scriptures was revealed to me. And then there is this text in Sunday’s reading that was given to me as I headed off to a summer mission in Taiwan after my senior year in High School.

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.

All through the scriptures people try to avoid the task God lays before them. Moses claims he cannot speak. Isaiah is “a man of unclean lips.” Saul demurs that he is from the least clan of the smallest tribe. Gideon is the youngest in his family. Jonah simply refuses and flees. Jeremiah claims no one will listen to a mere youth.

But it is the message that matters, not the messenger. It is about the word God speaks, not the vessel God chooses. God’s words can irritate us like a shutter banging in the wind, or haunt us like the wind through a poorly sealed window. They can sustain us like foundation stones or connect us like a bridge over troubled water. They can be a polished mirror of self-discovery or a whispered shame. They can raise up and cast down nations. And they will do these things no matter who speaks the words. It was a sermon from the most inept preacher I have ever heard that had the greatest impact on my life. It is the message that matters, not the messenger.

The word that Jeremiah speaks is not his own. It lives in him and through him but it is not his own. These are not the words of his passion or rage at corruption of his time. These are not the hopes and desires of his own spirit – there are others who are skilled in speaking in God’s name exactly what their audience wants to hear. The word Jeremiah is commissioned to speak is from beyond him. It is rooted in the tradition and springs forth from the Spirit. His task is to hear and to speak what he hears.

Such words are routinely dismissed – sometimes for some defect we find in the messenger – or simply because we don’t like what we hear. King Jehoiakim takes a knife, calmly slices every few columns from the scroll of God’s words through Jeremiah that is being read to him, and tosses it into the fire. But there is power in those words. They will do their work. They judge and condemn. They will also heal and forgive.

Jeremiah’s age matters not. What matters is hearing truly and speaking faithfully. For the power is not in the speaker; it is in the Word God sends us to speak.

 

Image: By Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca (www.flickr.com/photos/eltb/6221310983) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChrist_the_King_Church%2C_Monterrey%2C_Nuevo_Leon%2C_Mexico00.jpg

Words we do not mean

File:Germinating seedling.jpg

Thursday

Psalm 19

7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

I asked the question yesterday whether we will mean it on Sunday when we say, while reading this psalm, that God’s Word, God’s commands, are “more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.” But we don’t have to mean it on Sunday; we have to say it.

We don’t have to mean these words and others like them; we have to say them. We have to say them again and again. We have to say these words so they can nestle down into some corner of our souls so that, in the day when wealth fails us – for surely it will. Wealth is fickle, and frail, and cannot sustain us in the face of life’s sorrows. No one yearns on their death beds to be reconciled with neglected bank accounts or visited by lost possessions – we say these words so that, in the day that wealth fails us, these words will be there, ready to fill the empty space left by our failed hope in money’s power to bless.

The church is routinely criticized for saying words we do not live. Those criticisms are fair; they just don’t understand the nature of the words we speak. None of us are saints yet (in the common understanding of that term). We are all far from the fullness of the kingdom. We do not love as we ought to love. We do not trust in God as we ought to trust. We are frail human beings limping toward the promised land. So we say words we do not mean, or do not mean perfectly, because we are planting those words in our souls that they may sprout and grow and – in the days when all the other things in which we hope and trust fail us – carry us into the presence of God.

Our parents made us practice saying “Thank you” when we received a gift from Aunt Sarah for which we were not thankful, and to say “I’m sorry” to a sibling we have punched when we were not at all sorry. They were not teaching us to practice insincerity. They were teaching us such words in hopes that thankfulness and compassion would find root and grow in us.

A day will come when God’s promise to me will be more important than the largest lottery prize, but I am not ready for that test yet. There is a reason the devil offered Jesus all the wealth and power of the world. Thankfully, Jesus chose God’s word.

So Sunday we will read aloud the words of Psalm 19, we will sing songs of praise we may not feel, we will pray prayers and hear stories we may not believe in. Not yet. Or not completely. But we will come that the word may be planted in us and bear its fruit in its season.

 

Image: By Dbxsoul (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A box filled with plowshares

File:Old agricultural tools.jpg

Thursday

Ephesians 3:1-12

8This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;

Most modern scholars don’t think Paul wrote this letter to the Ephesians, but that doesn’t take anything away from its authority as scripture. It is part of the canon not because Paul wrote it, but because the community of faith recognized the voice of God in it. It bears witness to the character and work of God.

It’s not my purpose to review the academic argument, only to point out that what we listen for in these ancient writings is the living voice of God. These writings are not dictated by God as an authoritative legal code or historical record; they are inspired, “inspirited,” breathing the breath of God, encountering us with God’s creating and redeeming speech that brought forth the world, reveals the heart of God and draws us into his will and purpose.

Paul is a servant of that word, that message, that living speech of God that calls our name and bids us follow, that forgives our sins and draws us into the realm of grace, that nourishes us through the wilderness of this world like manna in the desert and water from the rock.

Whether these words are from Paul, Paul’s secretary, Paul’s friend, Paul’s disciple, or someone writing in Paul’s memory doesn’t matter. These words have their origin in the Holy Spirit and continue to be a vessel of that Spirit. They bear witness to the mystery of God’s purpose in the world: 6the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

It doesn’t seem strange to us now to think that God is the God of all, that we are – and are meant to be – a single human family. But it was radical news at the time. And we still have trouble with it – not with the concept of one God, Lord of all, but with the reality of receiving all people as sisters and brothers.

We are wired to put things into categories: these are apples, these are oranges, these a bananas. They are all fruits. They are not meat. They are not vegetables. These are edible. These are not. Pennies go in a gumball machine; they don’t go in your mouth. Gum goes in your mouth, but you don’t swallow it. Oak leaves are pretty in the fall, so are poison oak leaves – but they go in different categories.

We are wired to put things into mental boxes. The mystery of which Paul speaks is that there is one box labeled ‘people’. There are not separate boxes for tall people and short people, fat people and skinny people, dark complexion and light. There are not separate boxes for liberals and conservatives, sinners and saints, Christians, Muslims and Jews. There is just one box: all God’s children.

The church is meant to be the sign that there is one box, a community of all kinds of people across language and culture and time. We are also the bearers of the message that there is only one box – a box filled with “the boundless riches of Christ.” A box filled with grace. A box filled with compassion. A box filled with love of neighbor. A box filled with plowshares and pruning hooks.

 

Image: agricultural tools used in Ferizaj.  By Diamant Hetemi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Truly magical

Singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve at Los Altos Lutheran Church (2012)

Singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve at Los Altos Lutheran Church (2012)

Watching for the light of the new morn

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Christmas Eve and Christmas morning are wonderful and magical moments – even though there are no children or family around my tree. As a cultural celebration, I am one of those who finds this season difficult. But as a worship service, I find this night and this morning exquisitely wonderful. They speak to me more profoundly even than the wonderful drama of Holy Week. For this is about the mystery of the God who comes to us. Its focus is not God’s suffering love or life-giving power. It’s not the world’s rejection of Jesus and God’s stunning vindication of all that he said and did. This is about God becoming one of us, of God crossing the great divide between heaven and earth and showing up on our doorstep, in all our human vulnerability and frailty. He is helpless in Mary’s arms. There is no magic that can wave his arms and make their home warm and bright. There is no magic that carries away the stench of the sheep or shepherds. There is no magic that keeps him from soiling whatever was the ancient equivalent of diapers and crying for relief. There is no magic that keeps him from hunger. He is as we are.

God is not a palace god; he is a god of the peasant home. God is not a god of Greenwich, Connecticut or Bethesda, Maryland, he is a god of Baltimore and Ferguson. God is not a god of success and prosperity, but a god who comes to dwell in my living room, with my clutter and torn couch and worn carpet.

God is a god of the peasant home, the god of the exiles far from home, the god of the slaves in Egypt without a home. God is a god of the leper calling out “unclean”. God is a god of the despised Zacchaeus in the tree. God is a god of blind Bartimaeus crying out for mercy. God is the god of the Syrophoenician woman asking only for crumbs. God is a god of the woman at the well shunned by her town. God is a god of the man at the pool of Bethesda with no one to help him get healed.

God is a god of Kobani, and the homeless camps. He sits with the parents of Alan Kurdi. He works as a nurse in the underground bunkers dug in Syria for hospitals. He picks up refuse among the untouchables in India. He huddles with those beneath the overpass on a bed of cardboard.

God makes his home among us, in the places we live, in the places we hurt, in the places of which we are ashamed. He can dwell there because he comes as one of us. Because he throws no stones.

God makes himself flesh and, by doing so, he makes all flesh holy. He makes all createdness sacred. We are capable of bearing the infinite. We are worthy of the divine. To use the metaphor of the Biblical story, as God walked with Adam and Eve in the dawn of creation, he walks with us again. This is not just about the birth of a child; the whole world is reborn.

This is a great and wondrous mystery. I have trouble holding on to it in the press and sorrows of daily life. But every year this day comes and we light the candles in the dark and sing Silent Night and tell the story of the manger and the angel choir singing to shepherds. In the morning we read how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And it is truly magical.

The Prayer for December 24, 2015

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 24, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7
“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”
–We were slaves to our passions but have been freed in Christ by his mercy.

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 25, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with God’s word in whom all things are created.

 

“Come, let us walk…”

File:IRIA soldiers marching in formation (1).jpg

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 2:2-5

5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

This is the concluding line of the beautiful prophecy we sang as our psalm, today:

2In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

It is a beautiful passage, vivid, memorable, timeless in its aspiration for peace. But we miss something of the power of this text because of that timelessness. The prophet was speaking to a specific time – a nation in the run-up to war. Assyria is on the horizon. Fear is rampant. Neighboring kingdoms are assembling against Judah. The king is beefing up defenses, marshaling troops, forging alliances. It is a time of muscular rhetoric and bravado, not unlike our own. The talking heads in the royal court all declare that God is on their side. They possess the temple: God will never let his holy house fall.

Now stands the prophet. He declares that the day shall come when Jerusalem will be the center of peace. All nations will come to learn the way of God. And while everyone is nodding their heads in assent at this acclamation that they are the greatest nation on earth comes the final line, the punch line: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

“Let us walk…”

It is wonderful to hear the promise of peace. But Isaiah lived in a time of war fever. While everyone is marching to war, he summons us to walk in the way of peace.

Isaiah met King Ahaz as he was inspecting the defensive ramparts of Jerusalem and challenged him to put his trust in God’s power not his own. He promises the king a sign, any sign, whatever the king might ask for. But the king demurs. He puts on a polite religious front, but has no interest in the word of the LORD. This is that famous passage where the prophet says, “If you won’t choose a sign, God will choose one for you. A woman shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name ‘Immanuel’.” The king’s trust and hope are in his preparations for war, not the path of peace.

We tend to think that the way to peace comes through conquest: hurt me and I’ll hurt you worse. It is the way of the nations. Take what you can. Give back only what you must. Rule by fear and threat or overwhelming military or economic force. But these very nations, says the prophet, will come to Jerusalem to learn the way of peace. They will come to learn the Word of the LORD, the commands that require justice and mercy.

And what the whole earth will do one day, says the prophet, we should do now: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

 

Image: Islamic Republic of Iran Army soldiers marching during Sacred Defense Week parade. By Reza Dehshiri (http://www.ypa.ir/media/k2/galleries/280/02.jpg) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One Child

Sunday Evening

I needed worship today. I needed to sing the hymns and hear the prayers and feel the presence of the community.   Maybe that’s why I had such a hard time finding the sermon. (“Finding” the sermon is my description of my process of studying and listening to the text to discern what it has to say to us on this occasion. I could always talk about the text, what’s going on in the story, the social context of the narrative, the structure of the narrative, etc, but worship isn’t Bible study. We aren’t there to learn about the text. We are there to hear the text, to let it speak to us, to let it draw us deeper into Christ, to let it shape our worship, to let it shape our lives. Sometimes we have to learn about the text in order to hear it, but the point is to hear God speaking to us through it.)

But I had trouble finding the sermon this week. When I rose to read the Gospel this morning I still hadn’t found it. When this happens to me I find that I need to come down and stand in the aisle. I need to get close to the gathered community. It helps, sometimes, to see real faces. Especially when I don’t know what I’m going to say. But, as I began to speak, I realized the problem was that this had been a very intense and personal week, but the texts were cosmic in scope. This was the feast of Christ the King. We read Daniel about the coming reign of God. We said a psalm about the kingship of God. The second reading from the opening chapter of Revelation spoke about Christ coming on the clouds. And our Gospel had Jesus before Pilate declaring his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world.

But this wasn’t a week in which we were thinking about the grand sweep of history. This was a week in which a boy in our parish had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and rushed into surgery. He posted the brain scan on his Instagram account with the simple words “I have a brain tumor.” It scared the wits out of every adult in the parish.

Nations have been warring this week, and politicians spouting. But this had not been a week in which the nations and the consummation of human history mattered to me. What mattered was one child, one family, one desperate prayer for grace and healing. It has been a week of great international tragedies and fears, but our fear was for one boy.

It was only as I began to speak to the congregation that I found the message of the text for us. Fear is fear. Whether it is fainting with fear at what is coming on the world, or fainting before a very personal fear, fear is fear. And the message that God is God speaks to every fear. History is in God’s hands. And we are in God’s hands. And this child is in God’s hands. To our fear comes the promise that our world – and our lives – are God’s.

Jesus tells Pilate he comes as witness to the truth. The Greek version of the scriptures that was used by the nascent Christian community routinely translates the Hebrew references to the faithfulness of God with the Greek word ‘truth’. Truth is personal in the scriptures. Truth is not doctrine or propositions but the steadfastness, the faithfulness, the firmness of God. He is truth. Jesus is a witness to God’s faithfulness.

So whether our fear is at the roaring of the seas, the warring of the nations, or the very personal crises we face, God is faithful. He reigns. Not like the nations of the world. He reigns in love. And his reign is everlasting.