Sunday’s sermon: Expecting the Unexpected

“Water to Wine” by Hyatt Moore

Text used – John 2:1-11

  • There’s a show that I used to watch with one of my roommates during my senior year of college. Friday nights were laundry nights for us, so we’d sit there folding our laundry and watching this show.
    • Show on TLC called “What Not to Wear
      • 2 fashion experts would ambush someone (with the help of their friends and family) and present them with a choice: you can have this $5000 gift card for a shopping spree BUT you have to …
        • Come to NYC with us
        • Bring your entire wardrobe
        • Let us throw away anything we want to from that wardrobe
        • Shop by our rules
      • Before getting to the shopping, though, they would do this part of the show where the person receiving the makeover would put on a couple of their favorite outfits, then stand in what they called the “360˚ mirror” – literally surrounding them with an octagon of mirrors. → hosts would point out things about what they were wearing that were undesirable: poor fit, clashing colors/patterns, clothes that weren’t age appropriate
      • Shopping
        • Short time of shopping with the hosts following their “rules” (mostly about finding the right fit or finding different cuts and styles that flattered that person’s particular body)
        • Short time of the person trying to shop on their own (always ended disastrously)
        • Finished up with the hosts swooping in helping correct some of the mistakes made during the person’s solo shopping excursion all 3 of them finishing out the shopping spree together
          • Clothes that were appropriate for the workplace
          • Clothes that were appropriate for a night out or a special event
          • Clothes that were appropriate for hanging out at home
      • Makeover portion new haircut/color and makeup
      • 1st reveal = person showing off their new look to the hosts
      • 2nd reveal = person showing off their new look at home to their friends and family It was always fun to watch that last part – the looks of shock and amazement on the faces of the person’s friends and family as they showed off their new look and the comments that their friends and family often made:
        • “She looks even more like herself now than she did before!”
        • “It really seems like his appearance on the outside matches his personality on the inside now!”
        • And those comments really get to the crux of it – of why we enjoyed watching the show so much. In the end, it wasn’t about making everyone who appeared on it a cookie-cutter copy of the fashion plates of the day. It was about helping them express their uniqueness and individuality – helping express what was special about them – in ways that made them look and feel their best. In the end, it was always fun to see the people simultaneously the same but changed at the end of each episode.
    • Today’s gospel reading from the beginning of Jn = interesting story of Jesus who begins the story in one way but ends the story changed
  • We’re pretty near the beginning of John’s gospel at this point, so not much has happened yet.
    • Sun. before Christmas read beginning of John – “the story of the Word,” as the CEB Study Bible[1] titles it: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.[2]  This is as close as John gets to any kind of birth narrative in his gospel.
    • Following that = story of John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus culminates in Jn’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River[3]
    • Then story of Jesus calling first disciples: Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael[4]
    • And straight after that calling, we come to today’s story: The Wedding at Cana.
  • I love this story because it’s such an odd little story within all the gospels. I think it presents such a human side of Jesus. begins the story as just another guest at the wedding
    • Come to celebrate
    • Come to enjoy the day
    • Come to be with his community – just another member like any other
    • As far as we can tell, Jesus doesn’t come to this wedding with any miraculous, divine intentions. As far as we can tell, this was a pretty normal wedding. – text: On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration.[5]  There are so many spaces left for wonder in this story – so many places I want the gospel writer to pause and fill in some details for us.
      • Whose wedding was it? A cousin, perhaps? A neighbor? Or a friend from Jesus’ childhood?
      • What was the celebration like? Was it a days-long affair of hospitality and dancing, feasting and blessing?
      • Were Jesus and his disciples having fun?
      • I know these aren’t necessary details. The gospel writer’s task is to move the story along to the “good part” – the miraculous part – but when we open our imaginations into this Scripture story, we still have to wonder, don’t we?
    • The problem of this story – the main issue or conflict that our main characters are up against – is presented in short order. Just after telling us that Jesus, his disciples, and his mother are all present at this wedding celebration, we’re also told that the wine has run out. Sure, this sounds like a problem at any celebration – running out of refreshments.
      • Have to remember what a big deal this would have been in that culture – culture that places the highest emphasis and importance on hospitality Yes, running out of refreshments at a wedding before the night was over would be sort of embarrassing today. But back then, it would have been shameful. It would have been dishonorable to your guests – an insult, even. It’s an oversight that would have been unforgivable – one of those occurrences that would have haunted the entire family for generations to come, that people would have talked about and talked about and talked about.
      • Brings to mind for us all the times we have “run out”
        • Run out of something physical that we’re trying to provide, sure à run out of food or drink at some sort of gathering or event
        • Run out of ideas or inspiration in the middle of a project
        • Run out of energy or drive in the midst of some large undertaking story of Jen and I walking the 3-Day almost 7 yrs. ago and running out of stamina after the 2nd day
    • Text makes it plain that even in the face of such a social catastrophe as this host who has run out of wine too soon, Jesus doesn’t expect any sort of out-of-the-ordinary experiences at this wedding Jesus’ mother (who’s never actually called “Mary” throughout John’s gospel) approaches Jesus and informs him that the wine has run out, and Jesus’ response is more disinterested than we are used to hearing from Jesus
      • No proclamations of who he is
      • No promises of God’s goodness and faithfulness
      • No lesson wrapped in the narrative folds of a parable
      • Just a simple dismissal: “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.”[6]
        • Important to note that, while this may seem like an odd response to us – even disrespectful in the way that Jesus speaks to his own mother – it is, in fact, a fairly colloquial way for the two to converse This is one of those bits of Scripture where the nuance has been lost to us through the work of translation and the passage of time. Jesus addressing his mother in this way is not nearly as disrespectful and dismissive as it sounds.
        • And yet … pastor, author, and scholar Rev. Gibson “Nibs” Stroupe puts a finger on the challenging aspect of this exchange between Jesus and his mother: There definitely is tension in this conversation. Jesus’ mother … has an idea about her son’s power, and she is hoping that he can rescue the situation. Jesus seems hesitant or irritated (or both) at this request. Perhaps he wants his first sign to be a bit more glorious or controversial … Maybe he is even beginning to imagine how long the list of requests for action will be, once the word gets out that he has special powers. His answer to his mother – “my hour has not yet come” – indicates that this miracle is a bit premature for Jesus.[7]
    • But despite Jesus’ reluctance, his mother’s faith never waivers. – text: His mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby were six stone water jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each able to hold about twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water,” and they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some from them and take it to the headwaiter,” and they did.[8]
      • The expectations (or lack of expectations) of those around them didn’t matter to Jesus’ mother
      • Even the lack of Jesus’ own expectations didn’t matter to Jesus’ mother
      • All that mattered to her was that she believed in her son. She believed in his ability to bring aid in the midst of a difficult situation. She believed in his purpose to help and to provide and to embody the goodness of God. She believed in all that her son was and all that he would be. Jesus’ mother believed, and her believe was met with breathtaking abundance.
        • 6 stones jars that held 20-30 gallons each
        • 6 stone jars that, even when empty, would have taken more than one person to move them
        • 6 stone jars that the servants filled with water all the way to the brim
        • 6 stone jars that Jesus turned to wine à Without a word. Without a gesture. Without any recorded movement or hint from Jesus, all that water was suddenly and inexplicably turned to wine. And not just any wine, but the best
          • Abundance of quantity
          • Abundance of quality
          • Abundance that left even Jesus changed – a different man, at least in perception, than he was when he and his disciples walked into that wedding
          • Abundance beyond expectation … well, almost all expectations, anyway. – scholar: The mother of Jesus is a woman of remarkable faith and insight. Her words to the servants indicate her own trust in the words of the one who is the divinely-human Word. They are words for us today to hear and to ponder: to build our lives upon.[9]
  • And so, friends, let us look to Jesus’ mother in this story. In the face of all that appears and feels and is lacking in the world around us and even inside ourselves, let us hold tight to the faith of Jesus’ mother.
    • Not a directing faith
    • Not a conditional faith
    • Not a faith restrained by caveats and “what ifs”
    • In preparation for the abundance, Jesus’ mother doesn’t give the steward contingencies – no Plan B or Plan C. She doesn’t micromanage either his actions or Jesus’ actions with her own ideas or directions or micro-expectations of what is to come. Her faith in Jesus is open-ended and full and sure: “Do whatever he tells you.” And that is our call still today. To come before God. To kneel before Jesus. To open ourselves up to the workings of the Holy Spirit with the words of Jesus’ mother as our surest hope and motivation: “Do whatever he tells you.” It’s daunting. It’s uncertain. It’s full of the unexpected. But through that openness, miraculous things can happen. Amen.

[1] CEB Study Bible. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), 170 NT.

[2] Jn 1:1.

[3] Jn 1:19-34.

[4] Jn 1:35-51.

[5] Jn 2:1-2.

[6] Jn 2:4.

[7] Nibs Stroupe. “John 2:1-12 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: John, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 47.

[8] Jn 2:5-8.

[9] Dorothy A. Lee. “Commentary on John 2:1-11” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/wedding-at-cana-2/commentary-on-john-21-11-7.

Sunday’s sermon: Good News: Then, Now, Always

Text used – Matthew 2:1-12

  • Stars are fascinating, aren’t they?
    • So many stars in the whole of the sky that we can see that we can’t even begin to number them … let alone the vastness of the universe that even our most powerful space telescopes can’t capture!
      • Illustration from Facebook[1]: On Sept. 3, 2003, the Hubble Space Telescope began pointing its camera at a small area in the night sky …
        • “The area, about a tenth the size of the full moon, appeared to be complete blackness with no stars visible to the naked eye.” → PICTURE: full moon in a black sky full of stars with a tiny, completely black box of sky highlighted
        • “Hubble kept its camera pointed there for over 4 months, taking in all the light it could. This is what Hubble saw …” → PICTURE: I’m going to walk this picture around so you can see it for yourselves. And for those of you at home, I’m just going to pop it up instead of our video feed for a few minutes.
          • Each dot in this image is an entire galaxy ENTIRE. GALAXY. full of stars!! Up to 1 trillion stars each, to be more precise. And if our galaxy is any indication, each star may have a system of planets around it. In this photo alone, there are over 10,000 galaxies.
          • There’s a particularly large galaxy. In the picture, it’s in the bottom right corner. It’s yellowish in color and sort of spiral-y looking. Scientists have figured out that this single galaxy contains 8 times as many stars as our Milky Way Galaxy. “It’s so large, it technically shouldn’t exist according to current physics theories.”
        • And just in case your mind isn’t blown enough already, “These are the most distant objects ever photographed. They’re more than 13 billion lightyears away.” → Imagine for a minute just how old the light from these stars is. Think about it. The light from our own sun takes 8 minutes to travel from the sun to earth. Light travels at 3 million kilometers per second, and the sun is 150 million kilometers away from Earth.[2] So the light from the Sun is already 8 minutes old when it reaches Earth. And while looking back in time 8 minutes may not be quite so exciting, when we apply that same principle to the rest of the stars, things get really interesting.[3]
          • Arcturus, one of the brightest stars that we can see from Earth (located just off the handle of the Big Dipper) is just under 37 lightyears away → So the light that we’re seeing when we find Arcturus in the night sky is just under 37 yrs. old. When we look at that light, we’re looking back 37 yrs. into the past.
          • Betelgeuse (makes up the upper left shoulder of the Orion constellation) = 642.5 lightyears away → So when we look at Betelgeuse, we’re looking 642½ yrs. into the past.
          • Rigel (makes up the right foot of the Orion constellation) is just over 864 lightyears away
    • It’s easy to understand why space … the night sky … the heavens … whatever you want to call it has fascinated so people for so long – millennia, really. It’s both concrete and mysterious. We can see space with our eyes. We know that it’s there. That it’s real. With the help of first rudimentary telescopes and eventually infinitely more complicated apparatuses, we can see what’s out there in greater detail. And yet, we also know that even the mind-boggling vastness that we can see is nothing compared to what’s truly out there. We know that there’s so much more that we can’t see. And thinking about space like this – as both concrete and mystical … as seeming to exist, at least to some extent, outside the normal bounds of time – sheds a whole new light on the celebration of Epiphany and Matthew’s story of the magi, doesn’t it?
  • Now, I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to read a fairly large passage from one of the commentaries that I was looking at this week.
    • Commentary: Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1[4]
      • Explain what a commentary is – BASIC
      • Explain why I like this particular commentary series
    • This passage: written by Rev. Dr. Susan R. Andrews, now honorably retired in the Presbyterian Church (USA) but served multiple churches throughout her more than 4 decades of ministry as well as serving as the moderator of the 215th General Assembly in 2003 → Dr. Andrews did such a beautiful, eloquent job of highlighting the mystery and the majesty of this Epiphany passage that I wanted to share it with you.

         When I was in college I fulfilled my science requirement by taking astronomy. Our main assignment for the semester was to study the stars, to carefully draw the changing heavens over a four-month period. So every night, with a flashlight, mittens, and my dog-eared notebook, I would climb to the roof of my dorm and gaze starward. Soon the close and holy darkness began to pulse with wonder. It became clear to me how reasonable the skies are, how predictable the patterns, and how logical the language of those glowing gases inching themselves across the sky night after night after night. It also became very obvious when something did not fit the pattern – a falling star or an airplane light or a meteor streaking across the sky.

          Those wise men from Arabia would have easily spotted the strange star so long ago, and having exhausted the reason of nature, they would quickly have turned to a second kind of reason: the reason of knowledge. What would other wise seers in other parts of the world know about the stars, and what was written down about the truth of the heavens? This is how they ended up in Jerusalem, picking the brains of Herod’s scholars. …

          In order truly to follow the star, the wise med had to move beyond reason to intuition. They had to move beyond science to faith – trusting the journey even though they did not know where they were going, trusting a wisdom beyond their own to take them where they needed to go. Yes, the wisdom of the wise men was a wondering, wandering kind of wisdom that ended up in worship, in their offering homage to the wider and more wonderful Wisdom of God.

          In these postmodern times, many within the younger generations are moving away from the rationalism of their parents and grandparents. Through incense and meditation and experience and beauty, they are seeking mystery and embracing wonder. Rather than doctrine, they seek delight. Rather than ideas, they explore imagination. Rather than rationality, they yearn for relationship. Like the magi, they are willing to take risks and explore the unknown in order to find the Holy. Ask and keep on asking. Seek and keep on seeking. Find and keep on finding. Their faith is a Jesus faith – a journey faith – and like the wise men, their intellectual curiosity and spiritual hunger give them courage to leave behind all that is familiar.

          Biblical scholar Ken Bailey has opened our hearts to a fresh understanding of the Christmas story, based on his own experiences living and studying in the Middle East. Jesus was not born in the cold stink of a barn, rudely marginalized by an insulting innkeeper. Instead, consistent with the ethic of hospitality ingrained in the cultural DNA of Arab and Semitic peoples, Mary and Joseph were warmly welcomed by their relatives in the countryside of Judea. They were invited to sleep in the warmth of a big family room – a gracious, but well-used space commonly shared with the animals of the family. Yes, Jesus was born in a living room – and continues to dwell in the living room of our lives.

          What this means, of course, is that the wise men followed their intuition and their hearts to this same living room – discovering the meaning of the star not in the corrupt halls of Herod’s power, but in the swaddled heart of everyday life. So, in the fullness of time, wholeness was born. Mind and heart, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, powerful and simple: they all meet in the living room of God’s imagination – God fully alive in the fragile familiarity of flesh. Incarnation can be understood only through intuition and imagination, through the real stuff of real living. …

          Albert Einstein captures the necessity of wonder: “The most beautiful emotion was can experience is the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science. The one to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” – Susan R. Andrews. “Matthew 2:1-12 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 14, 16, 18.

  • Today, friends, I encourage you to remember to hold space for the mystery of faith – for that “beautiful emotion of experiencing the mystical,” as Einstein put it. Too often, we find ourselves feeling like we have to explain everything – every belief, every action, every decision, every movement – in such exhausting detail. We forget just how powerful mystery can be. We forget how moving the unknown can be. We forget how freeing it can be to be completely without all the answers … or even any More than 2000 yrs. ago, a light shined down on a brand-new family in the little, backwater, nothing town of Bethlehem. Knowing what we know about stars, I have to wonder how old that light was. Light from the beginning of time, perhaps? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word, nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.”[5]
    • The Word … past, present, and future … then, now, always → The Word that spoke to people then … that speaks to people now … that will always speak to people ready and open to listen.
    • The Light … past, present, and future … then, now, always → Light that drew people to the Savior then … that draws people to the Savior now … that will always draw people in need of and seeking a Savior.
    • The Good News of the Gospel: that God’s Love Incarnate came into the world in Bethlehem that night more than 2000 yrs. ago to make us all children of God, to bridge a gap that we as humans couldn’t bridge on our own → the Good News of the Gospel … past, present, and future … then, now, always. → Good News that changed lives then – the lives of shepherd, the lives of magi, the lives of a simple woman and her husband, the lives of disciples and those seeking healing and those yearning for a new way. Good News that changes lives now – the lives of those seeking hope and those yearning for a new way, the lives of those who have had a relationship with God from birth and those who find their way into that relationship later (sometimes much later) stumbling, crashing, aching, and rejected everywhere else. Good News that will always change the lives of those with willing hearts and eager spirits. Amen.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/Lovebyabhisar/photos/pcb.4144558385647954/4144556648981461.

[2] https://www.scienceabc.com/pure-sciences/are-you-looking-into-the-past-when-you-look-at-the-stars.html.

[3] https://www.google.com/search?q=how+far+away+is+the+star+rigel+from+earth&oq=how+far+away+is+the+star+r&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j0i512j0i22i30j0i390l3.7678j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.

[4] Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2013.

[5] Jn 1:1-5.

Christmas Eve message

  • I have to admit, friends, that I’ve started this message about 15 times in the last few weeks.
    • Tried to write some of the image-conjuring poetry that I’ve written in the past à But I just couldn’t get the words to come this year.
    • Tried a couple of different illustrations that I thought I could carry throughout the sermon à Only to find out that they’re illustrations I’ve used in the past. (Hey … at least I’m consistent, right?)
    • Tried a lot of different things
    • But I seemed to keep ending up staring at a dauntingly blank page and a maddeningly blinking cursor. This year was just a struggle. This year … was just … a struggle. In all the ways. Right?
  • But tonight, we’re still here. Here in person or here virtually in our hearts. And the angels’ ancient good news is still our good news: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”[1] And on hearing that joyful declaration, friends, the shepherds dropped everything and made their way to the side of the manger. They went immediately. They went eagerly. They went with haste, as Scripture tells us. And they went as they were.
    • Didn’t pause to consider the implications of their impromptu journey
      • Political implications
      • Career implications
      • Social media implications
      • Expectations (their own or anyone else’s)
    • Didn’t stop to pack anything – not the things they would definitely need … or the things they’d probably need … or the things they might need … or the things they probably wouldn’t need (but decided to pack anyway … just in case)
    • Didn’t stop to freshen up or change their clothes or make themselves “presentable” (whatever that means) → They arrived in the presence of the Savior dirty, road-worn, tired, and unsure of what exactly they were encounter. But still, they came. And tonight, friends, still … we come. We come seeking the Wonderful Counselor the guide us through the immense and overwhelming complexities of this world that we live in. We come seeking the Mighty God to bear our burdens when our strength fails us and we can no longer lift our foot … or our head … or our heart. We come seeking the Prince of Peace to wash our worries and anxieties and looming fears with peace everlasting.
      • Don’t come because we’ve done enough
      • Don’t come because we have enough
      • Don’t come because we’re prepared enough
      • With the shepherds, we come to the manger because God is our enough. When we’re out of words … when we’re out of trust … when we’re out of prayers … when we’re out of ideas … God is our enough. Tomorrow. Two weeks from Thursday. Six months from yestertime. Everyday. Always. God is our enough. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Lk 2:10-11 (NRSV).

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in the Word

Text used – John 1:1-18

  • Increasingly, friends, it seems as though we live in an “either/or” society.
    • Either something is right or it’s wrong
    • Either you are with someone or you’re opposed to them
    • Either you’re for something or against it
    • Either you do something all the time or you would never dream of doing it
    • Increasingly, we are drawing bold, jagged lines between ourselves and those “opposed.” Or, if we aren’t necessarily drawing the lines ourselves, we’re passively allowing others to draw them for us.
      • Either you vote this way or that way
      • Either you pray this way or that way
      • Either you speak this way or that way
      • Either you believe this way or that way
      • And never the twain shall meet, right?
      • In part, the gospel of John that we read this morning was born out of a world of dangerous dichotomies.[1]
        • Written roughly 100 yrs. after Jesus’ birth
        • Gospel born out of religious turmoil
          • Persecution of Christians by Roman empire
          • Intra-religious struggles btwn. different factions of Christians at the time → different groups trying to decide exactly what they believed about who Jesus was in relation to humanity and in relation to God
        • Gospel most heavily influenced by Greek philosophy (extensive use of sharp dualistic, “either/or” language throughout Jn: dark/light, good/evil, flesh/spirit, etc.)
    • But how often is the starkness of those “either/or” choices true to reality? Logicians call these “either/or” dichotomies false dilemmas or either-or fallacies because they assume a certain problem (or belief system or experience or even simple choice) has only two potential answers or outcomes and that those outcomes must be mutually exclusive.
      • Blatantly obvious false dichotomy = offering either chocolate or vanilla ice cream doesn’t exclude every other fabulous ice cream flavor out there
    • Reality = most problems and experiences come not with one or two obvious choices but with a multitude of options and possibilities → More often than not, the answer to some problem or the choices that lie before us are more “both/and” choices than “either/or” choices.
  • Scripture reading this morning = “both/and” sort of Scripture → Most of the time, we talk about God as Divine – holy and sacred and unequivocally “other,” so far beyond us … so much greater than us … so much more than us that even within our deepest imaginings and our wildest dreams, we cannot even begin to wrap our frail and feeble human minds around the reality that is God.
    • Certainly have this reinforced in Scripture
      • Reading from Is last week: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.[2]
      • Passage from Ps 139: There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t know completely. You surround me – front and back. You put your hand on me. That kind of knowledge is too much for me; it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.[3]
      • Paul’s words in 1 Cor: Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? … The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.[4]
      • Naming God’s innate, divine “otherness” is even a part of the prayer that we pray every Sunday: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name → “hallowed” = holy … sacred … revered … set apart … beyond me
      • Truly, friends, we cannot deny that the God we gather to praise and to worship every Sunday … the God to whom we offer our prayers and our longings and our hearts and our very lives … the God who calls us and names us and knows us inside and out … Truly, we cannot deny that our God is sacred and “other” and wholly awesome.
        • “Awesome” in the truer, older sense of the word (as opposed to the 1980s California surfer dude sense): extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear → Indeed, as Michael W. Smith’s popular praise song declares, our God is an awesome God.
    • Awesomeness and sacred otherness = woven throughout this morning’s prologue from the gospel of Jn: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.[5] → Clearly this God of whom this gospel speaks is set apart … is more … is beyond. And since John tells us that the Word was with God and the Word was God, we can say that this Word is also set apart … more … beyond … wholly and holy “other.”
      • Clearly Gr. “Word” is more than just a couple of simple letters strung together → Gr. “Word” (logos) = word that carries an idea or expresses a thought[6] → This is word with a purpose. This is word laden with meaning and motive. This is word that has its own way of being in this world.
        • Rev. Dr. Sharon Betsworth (ordained UMC minister, NT scholar, director of Wimberly School of Religion in OKC): Logos is commonly translated as “word,” but it has a broader semantic range including “that by which the inward thought is expressed.”… The Christ is not just a “word” from God, but an expression of God’s own being. By the end of the Prologue this will be fleshed out as Christ being the beloved child of God.[7]
    • Encounter the mystery and majesty of this sacred otherness in the last verse, too: No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.[8] → No one has ever seen God … but through this Word – this sacred expression of God’s own being – God has been made known to us.
  • But then, in the midst of extoling this mystical awesomeness of God, we encounter God doing a whole new thing! – text: The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God. The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.[9] → “The Word became flesh and made his home among us!” Or, as the Message translation puts it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Suddenly, it’s not the overwhelming divinity of God that we’re talking about but the flesh-and-blood humanity of God! In one night – in one night fraught with overfull inns and drafty stables and the blood, sweat, and tears of human birth – in one night, God went from an either/or God to a both/and God … both divine and
    • Not the first time in ancient story that a deity interacted with a human to bring about another being or even the first time that a deity took on human form → lots of that scattered throughout the pages of Greek mythology
      • Plenty of instances of Greek gods taking the shape of humans BUT those are always instances of those gods taking human form for their own personal gain as opposed to for the good of humankind
        • For revenge
        • For love
        • For sex
        • For the purpose of manipulation or blackmail
      • Also plenty of demigods in Greek mythology: Greek beings who were part mortal, part god → But for demigods like Hercules and Perseus, they were always considered less than the Olympus gods – considered less specifically because of their humanity.
    • But in this incarnation – in the tiny, vulnerable, divinely-conceived and human-born baby for whom we wait – our God Almighty did, indeed, do a whole new thing. A “both/and” thing.
      • Foretold by God through the prophet Is: Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.[10]
      • New thing in that this was not about the possessive love of Greek mythology (not about God’s selfish, self-serving love for one specific human) but about the salvific love of God for all of God’s own children (for humanity, broken and striving as we are) – text: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given to Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.[11]
        • Late Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day (ordained UCC minister, college and seminary educator, and prominent/prolific NT scholar): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” These two claims are the foundation on which the rest of [John’s] gospel is built: Jesus is the incarnate word of God. … It is as the Word made flesh that Jesus brings God fully to the world. Jesus’ revelation of God is thus not simply that Jesus speaks God’s words and does God’s works, although that is part of it. It is, rather, that Jesus is God’s Word. No line can be drawn between what Jesus says and what he does, between his identity and mission in the world. Jesus’ words and works, his life and death, form an indissoluble whole that provides full and fresh access to God.[12] → “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood!” Our human neighborhood, imperfect and messy and beautiful and ragged as it may be. Our human neighborhood, full of love and laughter, hope and hesitancy, worry and warring, pleasure and pain. Our human neighborhood … all because God so loved the world. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Gail R. O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction” from The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 493-511.

[2] Is 55:8-9.

[3] Ps 139:4-6.

[4] 1 Cor 1:20, 25.

[5] Jn 1:1-5.

[6] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/john-11-18-a/.

[7] Sharon Betsworth. “Commentary on John 1:1-18” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/word-made-flesh-2/commentary-on-john-11-18-3.

[8] Jn 1:18.

[9] Jn 1:9-14.

[10] Is 43:19.

[11] Jn 1:16-17.

[12] O’Day, 495.

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in Abundance

Text used – Isaiah 55:1-13

  • Julia has been asking about snow and dying to make a snow angel since before Halloween.
    • Not really sure where the idea came from or who reminded her about snow angels
    • Been practicing on various floors and patches of ground (grass … cement … gravel … doesn’t really matter what) for weeks
    • And then, on Tuesday, it finally snowed. By the time I left my office on Tues. afternoon, there were at least 3 inches on the ground, and the conditions were perfect for snow angels.
      • Snow wasn’t so deep that she’d have trouble getting up or moving her arms (not like the snow we got on Friday!)
      • Snow was fluffy and soft → easy to sweep aside as she moved her arms and legs back and forth
    • But you know what? She didn’t even wait for the afternoon. Because our daycare was sick this week, Julia was at home with Peter on Tuesday, and not even an hour after the snow started, Peter texted me picture: Julia all dressed up in her snow gear (boots, hat, coat, mittens, snow pants) making a snow angel on the driveway → There was barely an inch of snow on the ground, but for that little girl who had been dreaming of making a snow angel for so many weeks, it was enough. The saying goes that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but I think we can make a slight adjustment to that. I think we could say that “abundance is in the eye of the beholder” as well, and for Julia, just that little bit of snow was enough – enough for her creativity, enough for her joy.
  • Need to seek out abundance – to find that “enough” = situations Isaiah’s hearers were well accustomed to
    • Background we’ve already discussed: Is was written during the time of the Babylonian exile → Isaiah himself was part of the contingent of Jews who were captured and transported from Jerusalem to live in Babylon
    • Other background for this particular passage from Is
      • (commentary from RevGalBlogPals) Rev. Julia Seymour, pastor at Big Timber Lutheran Church in Big Timber, MT: In Isaiah 55, the people of Israel have been exiled a little over two generations. Since the prophecies Second Isaiah are generally considered to be contemporaneous with Ezekiel, these words are likely coming after the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the death of many who believed God no longer favored God’s first people.[1]
      • Dr. Stephanie Mitchem, professor and chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies at the Univ. of South Carolina give further insight into the theme of this portion of Isaiah: Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah are grouped together as the Book of Consolation. This Book of Consolation had a significant place in the life of the Israelite community because it developed during the exilic period, speaking words of hope and consolation to people cut off from their homes and caught in political situations. This consolation defies the oppressive situation of their lives.[2] → Remember, the general role of prophets like Isaiah was to deliver God’s word to the people, and nearly every prophet (with the exception of Jonah) was called by God to deliver that word during a time of difficulty in the lives and history of the people of Israel.
        • Usually delivered during a time of “falling away” – a time when the people of Israel had turned to other deities and cultic practices from other cultures to satisfy their spiritual needs instead of to God → words of the prophets were a call to return to following and worshiping God
        • Usually delivered as part rebuke and part promise → There were the kind of words that we would probably try to spin as “constructive criticism” today, but let’s face it: no one likes to be corrected, especially when they don’t really think they’re doing anything wrong in the first place right? So the job of a prophet was often a difficult, thankless, and unpopular job.
          • Certainly is plenty of that rebuke – that “constructive criticism” – throughout the book of Is → But today’s passage is the other side of the coin – the promise and the reassurance from God that balances out the rebuke.
            • Promise of God’s provision for the people
            • Promise of God’s presence among the people
            • Promise of good to come in the midst of the bad
    • And through Isaiah, God frames that promise in the celebration and community of a meal – text: All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts.[3]
    • From there, God moves into the language of true promise and covenant – a promise of relationship and God’s own steadfastness to the people in return for the people’s devotion to God and God alone. → powerful section full of redemption, forgiveness, and hope
      • Recalls the grandness and righteousness of the people’s past by referencing King David – their greatest king, the king who brought them together as the united kingdoms, the whole people of Israel – text: Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples.[4]
        • All those times that God implores the people to “listen” – Heb. = listening with attentiveness, with discernment, with intelligence, with obedience → God is asking the people to listen with their whole hearts and their whole minds, their whole lives and their whole being. This is active listening at its most truly active – listening that changes who you are and how you go about being in this world.
        • God is also reminding the people of the abundant, saving, eternal nature of God’s own promise
          • Heb. “everlasting” = particular word for time that is cyclical and unmeasurable → This is a word for time that is more drawn out and boundless – a word for time that has no beginning and no ending. And God uses this word in relation to God’s own covenant with the people, promising them a relationship that is immense and boundless and wholly inexhaustible.
          • Heb. “faithful loyalty” = two very special words combined into one phrase
            • First part = word with no true English equivalent but most often gets translated as “steadfast love” or “loving kindness” or “mercy” → word almost exclusively applied to the relationship that God has with God’s people – scholar: God’s loving-kindness is that sure love which will not let Israel go. Not all Israel’s persistent waywardness could ever destroy it. Though Israel be faithless, yet God remains faithful still. This steady, persistent refusal of God to wash his hands of wayward Israel is the essential meaning of the Hebrew word which is translated loving-kindness.[5]
            • Second part: amen = word that we’re probably actually too familiar with – Rev. Dr. Matt Schlimm (from 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know): We say [“amen”] at the end of almost every prayer. Functionally, it means, “The prayer is over. We can all open our eyes now.” The Hebrew has several shades of meaning. “Amen” comes from a cluster of words that refers to what’s true, trustworthy, reliable, and faithful. … Truth implies a commitment to reality, and faithfulness implies a commitment to others. … When we say this word at the end of prayers, we’re signaling not only that we agree with the prayer but also that we’ll do what’s needed on our part for the prayer to come true. We commit to living in a way that helps see the prayer reach fruition.[6]
            • These two words combined together put a powerful, wholehearted, authentic, desperately loving emphasis to the promise that God is extending to the people in this passage. God is offering never-ending love. God is offering God’s own presence and provision.
    • God goes on to make it clear that this is a two-way relationship. In fact, despite having been rebuffed and ignored time and time again by the people, God invites them into this blessed relationship of sacred abundance. – text: Seek the Lord when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the Lord so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness.[7] → passage rich with promise[8]
      • Heb. “found” = word that implies togetherness → promises the people that finding God means being in relationship with God
      • Heb. “near” = all-encompassing – physically near, near in time, and near in connection/allied → promises the people that God will be near to them in every way possible
      • Promise contingent on one thing: repentance – text: Let them return to the Lord so that [God] may have mercy on them. → Heb. “return” = same word as “repent”
        • Dr. Schlimm fleshes this idea out for us (again, 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know): [The Hebrew] gives people concrete images that teach them about the dangers of sin and how to get back into a right relationship with God. Instead of making religion something abstract, it’s about getting in “the zone” of a covenant with God. When we pass through God’s covenant and find ourselves in sin, we need to turn from wickedness and return to our Creator.[9]
    • Passage today ends with God’s reminder that while that promise and provision may not always take the form that we want it to take, God is with us, working and loving and healing and teaching and saving among us and through us – text: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans. Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend. Yes, you will go out with celebration, and you will be brought back in peace. Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you; all the trees of the field will clap their hands. In place of the thorn the cypress will grow; in place of the nettle the myrtle will grow. This will attest to the LORD’s stature, an enduring reminder that won’t be removed.[10]
      • Rev. Julia Seymour: Poised in this liminal and hopeful state, between exile and homecoming, God is clear. The people are in a safe space to perceive the possibilities of God’s blessings and promises. Leaning into God’s faithfulness will help them to step out in trust, to return to their land, but to that their strength is in the Lord. … The space that is here and now, the life we have, is the arena in which we learn, truly, that God’s ways are not ours. God’s words and deeds bring life, light, and love. Advent is the season, the time, when we are prepared (before being distracted) to re-focus our minds and hearts on God, especial God in Christ. … If the message of Ezekiel 37 was that nothing is too dead for God, surely the message of Isaiah 55 is that when God brings life, it will be (is) beyond anything for which we would dare to hope, much less ask.[11] → Salvation has come … is coming … will come again, friends. As we wait and wonder, question and worry, ponder and hope this Advent season, may God open our eyes to the abundance of the salvation – the “enough-ness” of that salvation – in all the circumstances we face. Amen.

[1] Julia Seymour, https://revgalblogpals.org/2013/12/09/narrative-lectionary-what-ho-edition-isaiah-55/.

[2] Stephanie Y. Mitchem. “Proper 13 (Sunday between July 31 and August 6 inclusive) – Isaiah 55:1-5, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 290.

[3] Is 55:1-2.

[4] Is 55:3-4.

[5] Norman H. Snaith, http://www.bible-researcher.com/chesed.html.

[6] Matthew Richard Schlimm. 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018), 16, 17.

[7] Is 55:6-7.

[8] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/isaiah-551-13/.

[9] Schlimm, 69.

[10] Is 55:8-13.

[11] Seymour.

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in the Breath

Text used – Ezekiel 37:1-14

  • When I was a kid, we used to listen to a particular cassette tape in the car all the time: Anne Murray’s “There’s a Hippo in my Tub.” (If you have kids or grandkids and haven’t tried out Anne Murray’s music, I highly encourage it. You can find them all on YouTube.) On that album, there’s a particular song I’ve been thinking about this week. It’s a song called “Why Oh Why.”
    • Premise: adult trying to get a child to go to sleep → child is full of questions
    • Starts off innocently enough:
      • Q: Why does a camel drink water? → A: Because a camel gets thirsty just like you and me and everybody else does.
    • Devolves from there:
      • Q: Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar? → A: Because a mouse’s stomach isn’t big enough to hold a streetcar.
      • Q: Why can’t a cow have kittens? → A: Because … well, uhhh … because cows have little calves and cats have little kittens, and besides, dear, it’s easier that way.
    • Unanswerable questions, right? They certainly come from more than just kids.
      • Silly ones
        • Which came first – the chicken or the egg?
        • Why is the objective of golf to play the least amount of golf?
        • Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar?
        • Mom, kids, and I came up with a really fun car game for this while we were up north last summer: What’s the opposite of _____________? (something that doesn’t have an opposite) → What’s the opposite of cloud? What’s the opposite of train? What’s the opposite of purple?
      • Serious ones
        • How big is the universe?
        • What is heaven like?
        • What’s my purpose here?
        • How long, O Lord?
    • The question posed in our Scripture reading this morning seems to be just such a question: “Human one, can these bones live again?”[1] Can these bones live again? [PAUSE] A seemingly-unanswerable question, right?
      • Hear the unanswerable nature of that question in the response given in Scripture: I said, “Lord God, only you know.” → The Biblical version of “God only knows,” right?
        • Said with exasperation?
        • Said with confusion?
        • Said with resignation?
        • Said with hope?
        • Said with faith?
        • Another unanswerable question. But how does God’s seemingly-unanswerable question continue to impart answers about God’s hope for us today?
  • To move that particular questions into the “answerable” category, we need to first understand a little bit more about Ezekiel, both the prophet and the book.
    • Greatest context comes from the beginning of Ezekiel – text: In the thirteenth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.[2] → You may have caught that word “exiles,” and if you did, you might have also guessed that Ezekiel is yet another one of those prophets who spoke God’s word to the people during the Babylonian exile. So Ezekiel is a contemporary of both Isaiah and Jeremiah (though we have to remember that the Babylonian exile spanned an entire lifetime, so being contemporaries doesn’t mean that Ezekiel actually knew either Isaiah or Jeremiah). → a few differences
      • Ezekiel’s role in society (from the intro to Ezek in The CEB Study Bible): Though known to readers as a prophet, Ezekiel was first and foremost a priest in the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem. As a temple priest, he belonged to a select, privileged, educated class in Judah’s ancient society.[3]
      • Tone of Ezekiel → Ezekiel is unwaveringly blunt and even harsh in his words of judgment for the people and the nation of Judah. The God portrayed in the book of Ezekiel is not a kind and compassionate God at all.
        • Rev. Dr. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr (author and Prof. of Hebrew Scripture at Boston University’s School of Theology): Ezekiel’s oracles of judgment are filled with passion and utterly devoid of sentimentality. The God we witness through Ezekiel’s words is consumed by wrath, bent on violence, and hungry for vengeance.[4]
      • Form of Ezekiel: As we’ve seen over the past few Sunday, Isaiah and Jeremiah are more accounts of conversations between the prophets and God while Ezekiel’s prophecies come more from visions and oracles. → scholars break these into 3 general section[5]
        • chs. 1-24: sign acts and oracles of doom against Judah and Jerusalem
        • chs. 25-32: oracles against foreign nations and rulers
        • chs. 33-48: oracles concerning Israel’s future restoration → And it’s in this final section that we find our Scripture reading for today – Ezekiel’s infamous vision of the valley full of dry bones.
  • So let’s dig into that vision a little more.
    • Significant that in his vision, God places Ezekiel “in the middle of a certain valley”
      • Makes it fairly clear that Ezekiel himself is right there in the midst of the strain and brokenness, the lostness and sinfulness of the rest of the people → God didn’t set Ezekiel on the rim of the valley so he could look down on all those dry bones. God didn’t hover Ezekiel over the whole scene. God placed Ezekiel smack dab in the middle of the valley in and amongst all the rest of the dry bones, including even God’s own prophet in the deficiency and parchedness.
      • Being placed in the center of the valley also ensures that Ezekiel will be able to see it all – that Ezekiel will be able to witness and attest to the full extent of all that lies in the valley → From the center of the valley, Ezekiel cannot miss a single bone or dust cloud. He will be fully exposed – physically and visually – to the arid nature of the valley and the desiccated state of the bones. No matter where he looks, Ezekiel cannot help but see. He cannot help but witness.
        • Element of longevity/endurance to this placement – Heb. “set me down” = settle, remain, camp, wait[6] → implies that this is more than a brief visit – that God is doing more than breezing Ezekiel through this scene → There is purpose to Ezekiel’s visit to this valley of dry bones, and here he will remain until God’s message is delivered in full.
        • Just to be sure of this, God takes Ezekiel on a little tour through the valley – text: While I was in the Lord’s spirit, [God] led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. [The Lord] led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.[7]
          • Again, we see in the Hebrew just how important it is that Ezekiel fully witness the nature and state of his surroundings. → Heb. “hinneh” (that little, attention-grabbing word) = untranslated before both the phrase “there were a great many of them on the valley floor” and the phrase “they were very dry”[8]
    • Come to our seemingly-unanswerable question – text: [The Lord] asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?” I said, “Lord God, only you know.”[9] → But instead of giving Ezekiel a simple answer that he could take back to the people, God chose to enact an answer instead.
      • Answer that comes in three phases, each set in motion by God
  • First phase = reassembly
    • Ezekiel prophecies to the bones as God commanded → bones come together → sinews cover the bones → flesh covers the sinew → skin covers the flesh
    • But at the completion of this first phase, there’s still something missing – text: There was still no breath in them.[10]
  • Second phase = BREATH
    • God to Ezekiel: [The Lord] said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”[11]
    • Ezekiel does as God commands → breath enters the throng of bodies before him → text: When they breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.[12] → need to take a step back for a minute and talk about this breath because this is The Key
      • Heb. “breath” = ruach – word for wind, air, breath, and spirit → So those dry, lifeless bodies that populated the valley all around Ezekiel were devoid of God’s spirit. The spirit of God was not in them. Hold onto that nugget for a while in your mind.
  • Final phase = rising up – text: [The Lord] said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people.”[13] → concludes with God’s promise and reassurance that God will, indeed, do this
    • But none of this could happen without the breath … without the spirit. Without the spirit of God, these bones would remain lifeless. Dry. Scattered, broken, and incomplete. But with God’s breath … God’s spirit … within them, it’s a whole different story.
      • Rev. Dr. Lisa Thompson (author, ordained Baptist minister, and Assoc. Prof. of Black Homiletics and Liturgics at the Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School): The restoration will not stop with breath; it will attend to the fleshiest matters of this situated reality from muscles to skin tissues. These bones are to become upright, Spirit-filled flesh once again. And the Holy One is the acting agent who offers the word that life can come again, precipitates the reassembly of the bones, brings forth the breath from the winds, and restores muscles and flesh.[14]
  • So what do we do with this idea of God’s spirit?
    • More often read this oracle from Ezek on Pentecost – the day when we celebrate the Holy Spirit – God’s Spirit – alighting on the disciples after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension back into heaven → We say that’s what we celebrate … we say that’s what we believe … and yet in the mainline Protestant church in particular, we seem to have forgotten about the Holy Spirit or, worse yet, intentionally neglected the person and work of the Holy Spirit altogether.
      • From Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power by N. Graham Standish: Many of today’s mainline members fear the Holy Spirit because of what they see in the Pentecostal movement, which tends to focus mostly on the Holy Spirit. … Unfortunately, too many of our churches, by ignoring and remaining closed to the Holy Spirit, have developed respiratory failure. Since we no longer breathe with the breath of the Holy Spirit, we neither aspire to become open to the Spirit nor allow ourselves to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. As a result, our churches eventually expire. We suffer such chronic respiratory failure – the failure to breathe in the Spirit and life – that our churches eventually take their last breath and die.[15] → Friends, especially in this time in which we find ourselves feeling dry and depleted, utterly spent and discarded on the valley floor, it is essential – literally, the essence … the very intrinsic nature of our faith – that we remember the power of God’s Holy Spirit with us and among us.
    • In our churches and in our lives today, we find ourselves in this time of Advent – this time of waiting.
      • Waiting for the birth of the Savior – the birth of Salvation … waiting for Salvation to come … and to come again
      • Waiting so often involves waiting in the midst of unanswered questions … questions that feel scattered around us as prominent and devastated as those dry bones
        • Rev. Dr. Thompson: As we end this calendar year, we may survey the places in our world that lay waiting for an infusion from the holy-life-force. We are living in a global pandemic. We’ve had continual racial unrest, migration crises and border struggles, wildfires, and oil spills. Ongoing social and personal upheaval are not foreign conditions in our immediate neighborhoods or across the globe. The vibrancy of life sustained eludes us daily. And yet, the mysterium tremendum of the passage is: the presence of death, loss, and grief do not thwart the uncertain but emboldened participation in the tangible possibilities of life renewed. This may be an invitation to imagine these places of participation in very concrete ways for our contemporary contexts, even as we hope against hope in a full forward-facing recovery to come.
          • Spirit that raises dry bones to new life and purpose
          • Spirit that is aching to bring about the birth of the Christ-child in our midst and in our hearts
          • Spirit that can breathe new life and new hope into even the most desolate waiting … Amen.

[1] Ezek 37:3.

[2] Ezek 1:1.

[3] John T. Strong. “Ezekiel: Introduction” from The CEB Study Bible. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), OT 1315.

[4] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr. “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 1085.

[5] Ibid, 1089.

[6] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/ezekiel-371-14d/.

[7] Ezek 37:1-2.

[8] Levy.

[9] Ezek 37:3.

[10] Ezek 37:8.

[11] Ezek 37:9.

[12] Ezek 37:10b.

[13] Ezek 37:11-13.

[14] Lisa Thompson. “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/ezekiel-valley-of-dry-bones/commentary-on-ezekiel-371-14-10.

[15] N. Graham Standish. Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power, 2nd ed. (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 33.

Sunday’s sermon: Salvation Comes in the Waiting

Text used – Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

  • 5 years. 5 whole years of your life. The average person spends 5 years of their life … waiting. Waiting in lines, to be more specific. And roughly 6 mos. of that 5 years is specifically waiting at traffic lights.[1] → more fun “waiting” facts[2]
    • Spend nearly 20 months of our lives waiting for our partner and/or children
    • Spend almost 7 whole years just waiting around for things like
      • Food being cooked
      • Technology
      • Boiling kettles or brewing coffee pots
      • Being on hold
    • Things that we tend to do while we’re waiting
      • Silently curse (maybe sometimes not-so-silently)
      • Lots on our phones/devices
        • Scroll through social media
        • Shop
        • Play a game
      • Spend time with loved ones (friends, family)
    • Silly, right? And yet, also a little sobering, maybe. I mean, sure, a lot of the waiting that we do is trivial waiting.
      • Think of children waiting for Christmas now
        • Excited waiting
        • Seemingly-endless waiting
        • Waiting that can be helped along and measured by fun, colorful paper chains or chocolate-filled Advent calendars
      • Even some of our less-fun waiting, though it may not feel trivial in the moment (especially if you’re waiting at a stoplight when you’re already running late), really is trivial when we look back on it. But on the other hand, there’s also the harder waiting.
        • Waiting for medical results
        • Waiting for critical appointments
          • Medical
          • Legal
          • Interviews
        • Waiting to hear from people we’re worried about
        • Waiting for a looming date – e.g.: a funeral
        • Often, these more difficult times of waiting can feel lonely and interminable – like we are bearing the weight of the unknown all by ourselves. Even if there are others waiting with us – physically beside us or joining us in our vigil waiting from afar – there seems to be something intensely isolating about waiting.
    • It cannot be denied that, whether we like it or not, waiting is a part of our lives. Always has been. Always will be. No way around it. And here in the season of Advent, we are reminded that even our faith comes with a built-in waiting component.
      • (like we talked about last week) Advent = season of waiting for the coming Messiah
        • Waiting to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ on Christmas Eve
        • Also waiting for the return of Jesus to bring God’s Kingdom to earth
      • Scripture reading for today = beautiful and poignant reminder that we are, in fact, not alone in our waiting
        • Reminds us God is with us in the waiting
        • Reminds us that God can even bring blessings in the midst of the waiting
  • Context for Jeremiah → Once again, we find ourselves in the greater historical context of the Babylonian exile – around the late 7th to early/mid-6th BCE.[3]
    • Makes Jeremiah a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah
      • Major difference btwn. Jeremiah and Isaiah = Isaiah was taken with the contingent of captured Israelites to Babylon while Jeremiah was left in the city of Jerusalem
    • Life for Jeremiah after the exiles were taken away
      • Even after the majority of the Babylonian army has taken the captives back to Babylon, they leave a remnant behind to rule Jerusalem → So even though Jeremiah and the others were still in their homes, they weren’t free.
      • Growing anti-Babylonian sentiments that boiled over into violence, political intrigue, and danger
        • Growing faction of people wanted to flee to Egypt → In fact, it was a pro-Egyptian rebellion that spurred the Babylonians to destroy the Temple nearly a decade after the initial invasion and that contingent of Israelites had been taken to live as captives in Babylon. So unlike the people that had been taken captive and whisked off to Babylon, the remnant that were left in Jerusalem had to wake up every day confronted by the violence and devastation of their holiest place – of God’s own house. Imagine how heartbreaking that must have been! And yet despite that swift and horrific retaliation, there was still a large group of the population left in Jerusalem who believed their only refuge lay in allying themselves with Egypt
        • Babylonian-appointed governor, Gedaliah, counseled the people to stay in Jerusalem → Gedaliah is murdered by a political rival → fearful of yet more Babylonian retaliation (because the leader they had appointed had been killed), the remaining leadership fled Jerusalem and settled in Egypt → And when they fled, they took the prophet Jeremiah and his scribe, Baruch, with them. So Jeremiah finds himself in a different kind of exile. Like Isaiah, he has been forced from his home. Like Isaiah, he has words of reproach and a call to repentance for the people that are also far from their homeland. But whereas Isaiah’s word was spoken for the people who had been forcibly removed to Babylon, Jeremiah’s word was spoken for the people that had willingly fled the land and the promise that God had given them.
          • First ⅔ covers Jeremiah’s time in Jerusalem
          • Last ⅓ covers Jeremiah’s own exile in Egypt
          • Scholar about Jeremiah: Jeremiah’s laments provide a glimpse into the inner struggle of those figures who were called by God to an often demanding and, indeed, terrible task. … But not other book so vividly portrays that inner anguish created by a burden imposed that cannot be laid down. … As much as anything, therefore, the overall presentation of the prophet, which centers in his frequent conflicts with false prophets, with kings, with the religious and political leaders of the community, and finally with his God, provides important material for understanding and interpreting the prophetic role in the [First Testament].[4]
  • So let’s dig into what we read in Jeremiah today.
    • Today’s passage (part of that first ⅔ when Jeremiah’s still in Jerusalem) = interesting section from the book of Jer that’s written as a series of letters back and forth between Jerusalem and Babylon → clear in 1st verse of today’s passage: The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.[5]
    • Reading picks up again in v. 4 w/God’s word for the Babylonian exiles → not a word of condemnation and rebuke but a word of hope, a promise of God’s continued presence and even blessing in the waiting – text: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.[6] → I think this is a really interesting directive from God that covers both the welfare of the people and the welfare of the city in which they’ve been exiled.
      • First and foremost, God directs the people to not just survive but to thrive in the midst of their waiting
        • Get settled in: build houses, cultivate gardens, get married, have children, help your children to find spouses so that the generations may continue
        • Clear directive (text): Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. – Heb. “dwindle away” has connotations of getting smaller in number but also in effectiveness[7] → So basically, through Jeremiah, God is encouraging the people to remain strong not just in their numbers but also in their particular identity as God’s people and in their faith.
      • God also includes instructions on the welfare of the city that they’ve been exiled in: Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare. → This is such an interesting, particular little turn of phrase.
        • Heb. “promote” = seek, ask, inquire, care for[8] → There’s a distinctly active and positive element to this word. It’s a word that encompasses dedication and a concerted effort.
        • Heb. “welfare” = unexpectedly familiar word: shalom → We often translate “shalom” as peace, but it goes much deeper than that. It also includes ideas of welfare and prosperity, not in terms of excessive wealth and overabundance, but in having enough.[9] And God is speaking these words – this directive for peace and welfare and prosperity – for the city … of the captives?
          • More insight from late Rev. Dr. Patrick Miller (prolific OT scholar and former professor at both Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA and Princeton Theological Seminary): Those who live in Babylon can find their possibilities for life only as Babylon is a viable place to live, secure and at peace. So seeking the peace and welfare of Babylon is not simply altruistic; it is a safeguard on the possibility of the deportees’ finding their own well-being in a difficult situation.[10] → So even there, in the exiles’ painful and difficult waiting, God is there among them, encouraging them into spaces of both finding blessedness and being a blessing.
    • Moves to short section of warning against false prophets
    • Finishes with section reassuring the people of God’s presence and promise in the midst of their waiting – text: The LORD proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the LORD; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be present for you, declares the LORD, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the LORD.[11]
      • Cannot read this passage without addressing the declarations about how God brought the people to this difficult and distressing place of exile – text (from last verse): I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the LORD. → I know that this follows the line of the popular theology of “If God brought you to it, God will bring you through it,” but I also find that to be a bit of warped theology.
        • Implies that God brings bad things to us – that God wishes us ill → How do we square that with what we pray every Sunday (maybe even every day): “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”? Do we just say that sometimes God abides by that petition but sometimes God feels like flinging mud in our path?
        • Dr. Miller gives some much-needed insight here: The saving work of God is what God has “planned” and purposed. That is the whole point of these verses. What is happening is fully the Lord’s doing and is quite intentional, purposed ahead of time. … At the same time, it is equally true that what happens is very much shaped and affected by human acts, human decision, human words. … What God intends to do is significantly affected by what human beings do. … None of that may be quite logical, but it is that peculiar biblical claim about human freedom and divine will, or, if you will, divine freedom and human will. They are conjoined. … God’s will and freedom do not run rampant over human words and deeds – good or bad – nor does human intentionality so control what happens that God is unable to effect the divine purposes. What “happens” occurs within that tension. So we count on God to be God and pray to God in order to bring that about.[12]
      • And truly, we hear those prayers in the midst of the waiting, and we hear God’s reassuring response: “I will come and fulfill my gracious promise” … “I know the plans I have in mind for you … plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” … “When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me” … “I will be present for you, declares the Lord.” It’s all comforting. It’s all a glimmer of hope even in the most oppressive, isolating periods of waiting.
        • Recognizes the difficulty of that waiting
        • Extends that hope even in the face of that waiting
        • Sentiment encompassed in poem “Wait” by Galway Kinnell [READ POEM]. Truly, God is with us in our waiting. Amen.

[1] https://www.thefactsite.com/how-much-time-people-spend-doing-stuff/.

[2] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7362505/Survey-reveals-spend-hours-lives-waiting-food-cook-partner-ready.html.

[3] Patrick D. Miller. “The Book of Jeremiah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 555-563.

[4] Miller, 563.

[5] Jer 29:1.

[6] Jer 29:5-7.

[7] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/jeremiah-291-4-14/.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Miller, 792.

[11] Jer 29:10-14.

[12] Miller 796.

Sunday’s sermon: The Promise to Come

Text used – Isaiah 9:1-7

  • Does anyone else feel like we’re hanging out on the edge of something … of a lot of somethings?
    • Feels like we’re on the edge of both fall and winter
      • Weather seems to have one foot in the warmth of fall one day and another foot in the biting wind and snow flurries of winter the next day
      • Waning daylight hours and lengthening darkness of the night definitely feels like an edge
    • Liturgically on the edge of another year → liturgical year begins with Advent next week, so this week is the last Sunday of the current liturgical year
    • On the edge of another holiday season
      • Thanksgiving this Thurs.
      • Christmas right around the corner
    • On the more sobering side, it feels like we’re on the edge of a lot of pivotal moments in history … not many of which are good.
      • Feels like we’re on the edge of another COVID surge (at best … for some of us, it probably feels like we’re already in the thick of that surge)
      • Feels like we’re on the edge of human decency and dignity → so many ways in which human decency seems to be deteriorating and human dignity is being torn apart one microaggression and one social media attack at a time
      • Feels like our planet is on the edge of a major climate shift
        • “Storm of the Century” every few years
        • Massive wildfires
        • Drought across much of the U.S.
        • Sea levels rising
    • And after the last 21 months of pandemic living, political divisiveness, social injustice, and so much other personal stress and strain, I know a lot of us feel like we’re teetering on the edge of holding it together. If ever we were in need of a Savior, friends, it feels like that time might be now.
  • Feeling that Isaiah’s audience knew well → Remember, Isaiah was delivering God’s words of prophecy – God’s words of both difficult truth and hope-filled promise – to the people who had been taken from their home in Jerusalem to live in captivity in Babylon.
    • Only the best and brightest – those who made concerted contributions to Jewish society – were taken: government officials, temple officials, artists, law experts, teachers, and so on. → meant that some families found themselves divided
    • People who were taken captive were forced to live in Babylon – to assimilate into Babylonian society – for an entire generation
      • Some who were taken ended up dying in Babylon
      • Some who were taken ended up growing up in Babylon
      • Some who were taken ended up marrying in Babylon
      • Some whose families were taken ended up being born in Babylon – a whole generation who never knew the beauty and sacredness of their people’s home in Jerusalem
    • Surely a time of living on the edge → We don’t have any historical records to indicate that Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who captured the Israelites, nor any of his followers every gave the people of Israel any indication of how long they would have to remain in Babylon or if they would ever have a chance to return home again. Truly, Isaiah was delivering God’s word to the people living on the edge.
      • Hear that interwoven throughout our Scripture this morning
        • Beginning: Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted.[1] → Heb. “exhausted” = really complex word[2]
          • Only appears 3x in First Testament – twice in Job and here in Is
          • Connotations of pressing on and pouring out … not in a positive, up-by-the-bootstraps kind of way but in a depleting, giving-beyond-your-capabilities kind of way
          • Also includes this element of narrowness and constraint
          • Feeling depleted – completely poured out. Feeling severely restrained and confined. Does that sound like the exhaustion you’ve been experiencing lately?
        • Other element of Scripture reading that indicate the people of Israel have been dwelling on the edge
          • Is calls the people of Israel “people who walked in darkness”[3] → Think of how hard and uncertain it can be walking through your house in the dark. Even when it’s a house you’ve lived in for years – even decades! Even when you haven’t moved the furniture in who-knows-how-long. Even when you just glanced at the room before you turned the light off. When it’s dark, you still step tentatively because you’re unsure.
            • Happens in our house a lot – turning the living room lamps off at night means walking across a dark living room → And in a house with 3 kids, you never know what’s going to be on the floor … what you’re going to find with your bare feet.
            • Uncertainty captured in 2nd half of that verse: On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. → Heb. “pitch-dark” = same phrase that we find in Ps 23 when it says, “Even when I walk through the darkest valley” or, in more traditional translations, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”[4]
          • Is speaks of God having cursed the land “at an earlier time”[5]
          • Is speaks of the “yoke that burdened [the people], the staff on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor”[6]
          • Is references warriors and garments rolled in blood[7]
          • Clearly, the people of Israel are living on the edge.
  • Into that edge-dwelling, Isaiah speaks words of hope-filled promise – promise of a Savior, a Messiah.
    • Promise is woven throughout this whole section of text just as the uncertainty and edge-ness is
      • Is affirms that those people who walked in darkness “have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned[8]
      • Despite being formerly cursed, Is also affirms that God has “made the nation great; you have increased its joy. They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice.”[9]
      • That yoke and that staff and that oppressor’s rod that Is mentions have been “shattered” by God
    • Also a hope-filled promise boldly and unconditionally declared at the end of our passage this morning: A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be vast authority and endless peace for David’s throne and for his kingdom, establishing and sustaining it with justice and righteousness now and forever. The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this.[10] → This is the promise of salvation, of deliverance, of someone who is coming to relieve the people of the stress and strain of life on the edges forevermore. This is the promise of a Messiah: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
  • Good news of the gospel = two-fold this morning
    • FIRST: a Savior born not into center of things – the golden thrones of royalty or the hallowed halls of governmental power or even the learned podiums of the temple priests → No, this coming Savior – this Wonderful Counselor, this Prince of Peace – was a Savior born on the edges. This coming Savior was a Savior who lived on the edges, who called disciples on the edges, who taught and healed and ministered on the edges. This coming Savior was a Savior who loved and died and rose again and saved people on the edges.
      • Wasn’t looking for perfection
      • Wasn’t looking for power
      • Wasn’t looking for people who had it all together
    • SECOND: this same Savior of the edges is the same Savior that we still wait for → I know that in mainline traditions, we don’t often talk about the returning of Christ. We don’t often talk about how the resurrected Jesus will return someday to bring God’s peace and God’s kingdom to earth. And there’s a good, Scripturally-based reason we don’t spend a lot of time preoccupied with this idea of the Second Coming.
      • Jesus in Mk (in a conversation with his disciples): They will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven. … But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows.[11] → Jesus makes two things pretty clear here. 1) The Human One (Jesus himself) will return … someday. 2) Only God knows when that day will be. The angels don’t know. Not even Jesus himself knows. Only God knows when that return will be, and we are certainly not God!
      • So when we celebrate the season of Advent in the church, we are celebrating the coming birth of the Christ child on Christmas Eve, yes, but we’re also holding sacred space for the return of Christ to bring heaven and earth together. We’re holding out hope for the everlasting grace and peace and unconditional love of God to in-dwell every part of this world – every community, every society, every heart.
        • Dr. Don Saliers (theologian, liturgical musician, retired prof. of Theology and Worship at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, father of Indigo Girls’ member Emily Saliers): Isaiah here speaks of future events in the past tense, but this is how the eternal intention to save comes to this temporal world. … This “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” is for all time and will be the light until all manner of things will be well.[12]
        • Further reading of that same conversation btwn. Jesus/disciples in Mk: Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. … Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert![13] → Again, Jesus is clear: be ready for the promise to come again. That’s where we find the 2nd element of our good news this morning: while we continue to wait for the coming again of our Savior, we have work to do. We have hearts to prepare. We have good news to share. Because of that 1st coming with the baby and the manger and the angels and everything else that followed, we once again have access to a relationship with God that we can continue to develop and deepen … even from the edges (whatever edges we’re currently inhabiting), even as we await the return of the promise to come. Yes, God waits with us in the edges. Yes, God’s love surrounds us in the edges. And yes, God calls us to witness to the good news of the gospel – of the coming Savior, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace – even from the edges. Because we never know who else may need the light of that good news to brighten their own edge spaces. Amen.

[1] Is 9:1a.

[2] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/isaiah-91-7/.

[3] Is 9:2.

[4] Levy.

[5] Is 9:1b.

[6] Is 9:4.

[7] Is 9:5.

[8] Is 9:2 (emphasis added).

[9] Is 9:3.

[10] Is 9:6-7.

[11] Mk 13:26-27, 32.

[12] Don E. Saliers. “Christmas Eve – Isaiah 9:2-7, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 102.

[13] Mk 13:33, 36-37.

Sunday’s sermon: If Water is Essential, Then …

Text used – Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24

  • Water is essential.
    • Essential to our planet
      • Supports cell structure for every living thing
      • Polarity of water molecules necessary for all sorts of other chemical reactions that are happening all the time
      • Required for photosynthesis
      • We’ve seen just how crucial water is as we’ve experienced drought conditions in so many parts of the country. → according to the National Integrated Drought Information System: 40.25% of the U.S. and 48% of the lower 48 states are in drought this week (Nov. 3-9) which puts 30 states in the “moderate drought” category and affects nearly 80 million people[1]
    • Essential to our bodies
      • Helps regulate temperature
      • Protects tissues, spinal cord, and joints
      • Hugely elemental part of our blood
        • Plasma = 90% water
      • Human body can survive more than a month without food but can’t even make it 3 days without water
    • Essential to our faith
      • God created water in the very beginning first light, then water
      • People of Israel’s deliverance through water
        • First in infant Moses being plucked from water of the Nile
        • Then in their final escape from Pharaoh’s army across at the Red Sea
      • Life-giving and welcoming water of baptism that brings us into the family of faith usher us into the promise of life eternal
      • Jesus calls himself and the salvation he brings the Living Water
        • Water that quenches all thirst forevermore
        • Water that cannot and will not run dry
    • I don’t think anyone would argue that water is not Water is such an essential element to life that, in its quest for extraterrestrial life, NASA’s motto is “follow the water.” Water is essentiual. Water is essential. Keep that in mind as we talk about Amos and our Scripture passage this morning.
  • Background for Amos
    • Scholars in unanimous agreement that Amos is the chronologically the earliest of the prophetic books of the First Testament – Rev. Dr. Donald Gowan (biblical scholar and prof. emeritus of Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary): As such, it marks the beginning of a unique tradition in the history of religion: prophecies of the approaching end of the existence of God’s people based upon God’s judgment of them for failing to live according to the divine standards.[2]
    • Not part of our particular reading today, but Amos is also the only one of the prophets to include prophecies against foreign nations as well (chs. 1-2): Damascus, Gaza and the Philistines, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab in addition to his prophecies against both Israel and Judah
    • Historical and cultural setting of the book itself
      • Directly from Amos’ own words
        • Amos = a shepherd: one of the shepherds of Tekoa (near Bethlehem)
        • Text: He perceived these things concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, in the days of Judah’s King Uzziah and in the days of Israel’s King Jeroboam, Joash’s son.[3] dates the book of Amos around 760-750 B.C.E.
          • Earthquake that Amos refers to (from Donald Gowan’s work): The earthquake must have been severe, since [Zechariah] 14:5, written several hundred years later, refers to it. Evidence for substantial earthquake damage at Hazor [the largest archaeological mound in Israel], which excavators have dated to 760 B.C.E., correlates well with other evidence for the dates of Amos.[4]
    • And really, that’s all we know about the history behind the book of Amos. As far as we can tell from the text of the book itself, the nations of Israel and Judah are experiencing a period of relative peace and prosperity, though from the witness of history, we know that time won’t last much longer. But that presumed context allows us to also guess that Amos’ words of what is to come – the coming judgment and fall of the nations – was a less-than-popular message.
      • From the introduction to Amos in the Common English Bible study Bible: The basic message is that Israel (the northern kingdom) will come to an end as a nation, even though it has had a favored place in God’s plan. Amos was a stern advocate for justice and righteousness, but he found Israel full of injustice and oppression.[5]
  • Justice and righteousness … injustice and oppression. And so we come to the crux of the matter. – wholly and fully the point of today’s text
    • First portion of ch. 5 = Amos’ call to the people to justice and righteousness – his reminder to them that that is what God desires: Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of heavenly forces, will be with you just as you have said. Hate evil, love good, and establish justice at the city gate. Perhaps the Lord God of heavenly forces will be gracious to what is left of Joseph.[6]  Good … not evil. Good … not evil. Amos is pretty clear, right? Seek good, not evil. Hate evil, love good.
      • Really important element in the Heb. here that we can’t miss: Heb. “seek” = more than just simply finding something but also includes this element of caring for what you’re seeking – of remaining involved with and invested in what you’re seeking
        • Not the kind of seeking that my 3yo does when she’s looking for a toy, finds it, plays with it for 2 mins., then decides she wants to find something else to play with or something else to do
        • Heb. word used specially to mean “worship” This is a seeking and finding and treasuring. Seeking and finding and entrusting. Seeking and finding and enduring. This is the way Amos tells the people to pursue good. This is the way Amos tells us to pursue good.
      • Interestingly, as pointed and specific as the word for “seek” is, the Hebrew word for “good” is oppositely broad and all-encompassing. – Heb. “good” = all kinds of good: welfare, joy, kindness, sweetness, graciousness, ethically good and enjoyably good There are many ways to “seek good.” There are many forms that that “good” can take. But it’s clear what God desires from us. We are to seek after and dedicate ourselves to what is blessed and kind and good.
    • Second portion of ch. 5 = Amos calling out the people In this time of relative peace and prosperity, the people’s worship has become extravagantly empty. It is lavish and grandiose but for the benefit of the opinions of others, not God. Clearly, this must be the case because even while the people continue to frequent the sanctuaries and offer the sacrifices, they also continue to fail to seek good and not evil. To put it colloquially, they are talking the talk, but they are not walking the walk. And through Amos, God makes it clear that this sort of empty worship is unacceptable. – text: I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food – I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.[7]
      • Dr. Charles L. Aaron, Jr. (Assoc. Professor of Supervised Ministry at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas): [This passage] presents a devastating critique of the worship of the people of Israel. The critique does not comment on the form of worship, but rather that worship had no connection to the treatment of people within the society. The people who come to worship allow/commit the injustices condemned [earlier in the text]. The worship itself may have followed the proper procedure … Nevertheless, the oracle proclaims that the Lord will not respond to or accept the worship. … The injustices of society have repulsed the divinity, who will not engage in what should be the mutual joy of worship.[8]
  • And then, in the face of this rebuke, we hear the words of Amos that are probably the most well-known – text: But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[9]  Remember what we affirmed at the beginning of the sermon: Water is essential. Essential to the function and continuation of life on our planet. Essential to the function and continuation of life within our bodies. Essential to the function and continuation of our life of faith. Water is essential. And here’s God, through Amos, calling for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Justice like waters. Justice like waters. Justice like waters. So if water is essential … then so is justice.
    • Amos makes this point abundantly clear
    • God makes this point abundantly clear
    • But in society – in our country and our world and even in our faith today – these waters have been muddied beyond recognition.
      • More than 37 million people in the U.S. lived below the poverty line in 2020[10] wealth gap between the wealthy and the impoverished has been steadily growing for years
        • All of the other essential parts of living that are affected by poverty: nutrition, adequate housing/homelessness, education, medical care/insurance, child care … the list goes on and on.
        • Also encompasses the economic injustice of the wage gap
          • Men paid more than women
          • White people paid more than people of color
          • Citizens paid more than immigrants
          • the list goes on.
      • Environmental injustice
        • Despite all the talk that happens in places like Washington, D.C. and at conferences like the one happening in Scotland right now, carbon emissions are far from “in check,” causing the global temperature to continue rising to catastrophic levels
        • Plastic in our oceans = growing problem
          • 5.25 trillion macro and micro pieces of plastic in our oceans today 46,000 pieces in every square mile 269,000 tons
          • Great Pacific Garbage Patch (giant floating mass of plastic in the middle of the ocean) = 1.6 million square kilometers (bigger than the state of Texas)
          • U.S. alone contributes 38 million tons of plastic to the oceans every year
          • More than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals are killed by plastic pollution every year
      • Injustice against our neighbors We live in a time when violence against non-white people, against non-Christian people, against non-straight and non-gender-conforming people is distressingly high. The amount of hate and anger and prejudice expressed openly in society – accepted openly in society – is appalling.
    • And friends, clearly all of this injustice is not the way of God. There is nothing good about it. There is nothing loving about it. There is nothing kind about it. There is nothing hopeful about it. There is nothing of God in it. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” If water is essential, then so is justice. Amen.

[1] https://www.drought.gov/current-conditions.

[2] Donald E. Gowan. “The Book of Amos: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 7. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 339.

[3] Amos 1:1.

[4] Gowan, 352.

[5] J. Andrew Dearman. “Amos: Introduction” from The CEB Study Bible. (Nashville: Common English Bible, 2013), 1454 OT.

[6] Amos 5:14-15.

[7] Amos 5:21-23.

[8] Charles L. Aaron, Jr. “Commentary on Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/amos-justice-rolls-down/commentary-on-amos-11-2-514-15-21-24-3.

[9] Amos 5:24.

[10] https://www.statista.com/statistics/233138/number-of-people-living-below-the-poverty-in-the-us/.

Sunday’s sermon: Wilderness (Un)Rest

Text used – 1 Kings 19:1-18

  • Anthony of Egypt. Paul of Thebes. Arsenius the Great. Macarius of Egypt. Syncletica of Alexandria. Theodora of Alexandria. Sarah of the Desert. Paula and Eustochium. These are just some of the names of a group of highly influential ancient Christian teachers and monastics known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers: “early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the 3rd C.E.”[1]
    • Men and women who sought to live out their faith and deepen their relationship with God out on the farthest margins of society, both literally and spiritually
    • Came about after Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and elevated it to the sanctioned state religion in 313 C.E.
      • Remember, before Constantine himself converted to Christianity and then declared it the official religion of the entire Roman empire, Christians were persecuted throughout the empire. This hostile atmosphere lent a certain gravity and potency to the lives and witness of the early Christians. “Being a Christian” was something that took serious commitment and intentionality because being a Christian had the real potential of getting you killed!
      • Trevor Miller (in a talk titled “Understanding Desert Monasticism” that he gave to the Northumbria Community in the United Kingdom): After 3 centuries of ‘being homeless in the world’ Christians began to find themselves in favour, rather than persecuted. The result was confusion and bewilderment in those who had accepted themselves as aliens and strangers in this world. … Constantine’s edict of toleration … resulted in the cutting edge of the Church’s life being blunted as for the first time nominalism took root (believers in name only) further resulting in mediocrity, accommodation and compromise as social standing became the reason for faith and not love of Jesus Christ. It was at this point, when Christians began to find themselves at home in the world, where those who had previously persecuted the Christians were putting out the welcome mat and sitting in the ‘same pew’, that the response to the ‘call of the desert’ began to gain momentum, beginning at first with a few, and then a multitude.[2] → So when they saw the way that cultural acceptance was watering down the Christian faith, these Desert Fathers and Mothers decided to remove themselves from the influences of the culture and take to the wilderness. And in that wilderness, they found God. Absolutely. Profoundly. Reverently. They found God. God found them.
        • Followed the example of so many throughout the Bible who found God in the wilderness
          • Those who went seeking God in the wilderness
            • In their exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel followed God into and throughout the wilderness
            • John the Baptist spent all sorts of time living out his faith in the wilderness
            • Following his baptism, Jesus followed the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days
          • Also those who found God unexpectedly in the wilderness
            • Hagar and Ishmael’s encounter with God after being thrown out of Abraham’s house
            • Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush
            • And today’s Scripture reading – this story of the prophet Elijah fleeing into the wilderness to save his own life – is just such a story.
  • Background for where today’s story falls in the Grand Arc of God’s Story
    • Last week: talked about Solomon building the Temple → point at which the kingdom of Israel was settled
      • Time of peace → peace within and peace with neighboring kingdoms/nations
      • Time of stability in the monarchy
      • Time of prosperity for the people of Israel
    • But, as seems to always be the case, this peace and stability didn’t last.
      • Following Solomon’s death, kingdom of Israel splits into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah
      • Line of corrupt and unfaithful kings lead the kingdom of Israel further and further away from God → culminates in the rule of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel – text (1 Kgs 16): [Ahab] ruled over Israel in Samaria for twenty-two years and did evil in the Lord’s eyes, more than anyone who preceded him. … He married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, who was the king of the Sidonians. He served and worshipped Baal.[3]
    • Enter Elijah the prophet – the one that God calls to bring God’s word of condemnation to King Ahab and God’s call of repentance to the people of Israel to try to bring them back to the Lord their God. → does it in just about the most drastic, theatrical, jaw-dropping way possible
      • Elijah challenges 500 of the prophets of Baal to a competition: create a giant bonfire but do not light it → whoever’s god can light the pyre is the true God → prophets of Baal spend all day calling out to their god … nothing happens → Elijah first calls for the giant pile of wood to be doused with gallons upon gallons of precious water (made even more precious because the land of Israel is in the midst of a severe drought and famine), then calls up on God → fire streams down from heaven and lights the wood → God’s fire burns so hot that the wood, the water, and even the stones and the dust are consumed[4]
      • And if Elijah had stopped there, he might have been fine … but he didn’t. → Elijah instructs all the people watching to seize the 500 prophets of Baal → Elijah slaughters them on the banks of the Kishon Brook[5]
  • Brings us to today’s story: Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal’s prophets with the sword. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.” Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life.[6]
    • Like so many before him, Elijah finds himself in the wilderness, not by choice, but by necessity. Jezebel is ready to kill him, so he throws some clothes in a bag and flees.
    • Heb. makes it clear just what a dangerous and desperate situation Elijah is in
      • Jezebel’s threat: she calls the vengeance of her own gods down upon herself if she doesn’t repay Elijah in kind for the death of her 500 prophets “by this time tomorrow” – Heb. word that she uses for “time” = definitive and definite → There are multiple words in Hebrew that get translated as “time” in English. Some are more open-ended and imprecise, more like “eternity” or “some time” or “eventually.” But that is not the word that Jezebel uses. She isn’t threatening Elijah with retribution someday. She’s very clearly threatening to repay him death for death now.
      • Heb. also makes it clear that Elijah is fully aware of just how quickly and seriously this situation has become deadly – Heb. “terrified” (“Elijah was terrified”) shares same root as word “see, perceive, know, understand” → So the Hebrew makes it clear that Elijah’s fear over Jezebel’s threat is far from a blind fear. He knows exactly what awaits him if Jezebel gets a hold of him. He understands fully and completely. And so he runs.
    • Runs into the wilderness because the wilderness is vast à figures it will be impossible for Jezebel to find him there
    • Runs into the wilderness because the same vastness that hides him also provides Elijah with a place to pour out all his fear and vulnerability – text: [Elijah] finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m not better than my ancestors.”[7] → Heb. here is very revealing as well
      • Text says Elijah “longed for his own death” → Heb. “longed” = both an inward expression and an outward expression of emotion
        • Component of inward longing, desire, deep-seated urge
        • Component of vocalizing that longing – asking, begging out loud
  • But even here, in this most desperate, most desolate state, Elijah encounters God not once … not twice … but three separate times.
    • 1st time: Elijah falls asleep under that same broom bush → awoken by one of God’s messengers (angels) and given food and water → Elijah eats, drinks, goes back to sleep
    • 2nd time: Elijah is again awoken by one of God’s messengers à more pointed message this time – text: “Get up!” the messenger said. “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.”[8] → This passage is really interesting because of the different ways it’s been translated. Some versions read the way ours read this morning – some minor variation of, “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.” But other translations, like the New Revised Standard versions, read more along the lines of, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
      • Heb. here is a little murky/difficult (hence the varying translations) = “get up” and “eat” are clear → But the rest is a challenging combination of words with a somewhat complicated sentence structure.
      • What is clear: God’s way of preparing Elijah both bodily and spiritually for what lies ahead → And clearly, God spoke the truth! – text: Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God’s mountain. There he went into a cave and spent the night.[9]
    • Brings us to Elijah’s 3rd encounter with God in the wilderness – text: The LORD said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the LORD. The LORD is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the LORD. But the LORD wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the LORD wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the LORD wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”[10] → This is such a fascinating interaction because it is God coming to Elijah in the wilderness in a way completely outside the realm of the way God usually comes to people throughout Scripture!
      • Dr. Nancy deClaissé-Walford (author and prof. of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta) points out: An appearance, a manifestation, of God to humanity is called a theophany, a moment when the sovereign God physically interacts with the human realm. In the Old Testament text, God interacts with humans in dreams (Abraham: Genesis 15; Jacob: Genesis 28); in seemingly human form (Abraham: Genesis 18; Gideon: Judges 6); in fire and smoke (Moses: Exodus 3; Sinai: Exodus 19); in wind and earthquake and unexplainable phenomena (Sinai: Exodus 19; Isaiah: Isaiah 6; Ezekiel: Ezekiel 1).[11] → I think this is the most powerful part of Elijah’s story this morning. We know that he has fled into the wilderness out of necessity – as a way (the only way!) to save his own life. We know that he’s feeling desolate and vulnerable. He’s afraid. He’s uncertain. He’s discouraged. If he has any hope left, it’s barely a spark. And yet into that place of wilderness – both the wilderness landscape that surrounds Elijah and the inner wilderness that has engulfed his spirit … into that place of wilderness, God comes down and interacts with Elijah in a whole new way. A way that grabs his attention. A way that speaks to him not with the flash and flourish, the bluster and grandeur, the bombastic power that God has used before, but a stillness. A silence. A whisper. A word and a way of being to calm Elijah’s raging and comfort his fear.
  • Friends, we rage. We fear. We find ourselves in times of uncertainty and vulnerability. We have times when, like Elijah, we cry out to God, “God, this is too much!” I know that Christian pop culture likes to doll out well-worn platitudes like “God will never give you more than you can handle” and “If God brought you to it, God will bring you through it,” but in the moment – in those wilderness moments full of pain and anxiety and doubt and fear – have those platitudes ever brought comfort? Generally, no. But when we find ourselves caught in the vast emptiness of those wilderness moments, we can hold tight to Elijah’s story and the assurance that God is there in our wilderness, too, reaching out to us.
    • Maybe not the way we want
    • Maybe not the way we’ve prayed for
    • Almost definitely not the way we expect
    • But God is more familiar with wilderness wanderings and wilderness unrest than we can even begin to imagine, and God will not leave us in that wilderness alone. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_Fathers.

[2] https://www.northumbriacommunity.org/articles/understanding-desert-monasticism/.

[3] 1 Kgs 16:29b-31.

[4] 1 Kgs 18:1-38.

[5] 1 Kgs 18:40.

[6] 1 Kgs 19:1-3a.

[7] 1 Kgs 19:4.

[8] 1 Kgs 19:7.

[9] 1 Kigs 19:8-9a.

[10] 1 Kgs 19:11-13.

[11] Nancy deClaissé-Walford. “Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-4 [5-7] 8-15a” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-3/commentary-on-1-kings-191-45-78-15a (emphasis added).