Matthew 4 tells us a story which finds its source in the wilderness testing of Israel. His forty days fast in the wilderness mirrors Israel’s forty years journey. While his test is similar to the challenge that the people of Israel faced, unlike Israel, Jesus does not fail.
4Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
To start with, it was the Spirit that led Jesus into the desert to fast for forty days and forty nights so that when Jesus was at his weakest the Devil comes to tempt him. At the end of the fast Jesus is weak and hungry. Some would argue that Jesus, as the Son of God, could have used his special powers to miraculously provide food for himself. But another reading suggests that Jesus, as Son of Man, a title he used from himself, would have set such powers aside. In the context of the wilderness the question is: will God supply the needs of one of his children during a difficult spiritual journey? Life, in its fullest sense, comes by relying on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”. Unlike the children of Israel, who constantly failed the test of faith Jesus relies on God’s promise to sustain him through his wilderness journey. It is a safe thing to assume that when we’re at our weakest and in that part of our lives in which we are most vulnerable we will face the greatest challenges in our spiritual life.
The tempter takes Jesus to a projecting part of the temple. “I tell you what I’m gonna do…” the tempter tells Jesus. “We’ve this promise that He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up“. Do you really believe that? If so, If you are the Son of God, take the big leap and throw yourself down. The devil’s test is that Israel’s acceptance of the Jesus as messiah can be guaranteed by a powerful sign. But for the messiah to rest on signs and wonders is to question God’s way. Jesus response was Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” In the wilderness (Num.20) the people of Israel failed the test both trust and of testing God. But Jesus does not fail.
Deuteronomy 34 describes how Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali and the load of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. That’s like the view Jesus sees, the world laid out before him, over which Satan offers Jesus dominion, but on Satan’s terms. All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Israel had long ago compromised their faith and looked to the Golden Calf and their own devices to help attain the promised land. Was this an offer too good to refuse? In recent weeks some have expressed the belief that much of the Christian church inked such a contract with the tempter to ensure access to high government officials. Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus did not fail this test, but rather, he chose the way of faith rather than rely on expedience and capitulation.
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Surviving the tests the aid that Jesus was unwilling to ask for himself was then provided by attending angels.
Does the Lord support his servants as promised, or is self-help necessary? The people of Israel weren’t all that different than us and like any modern day congregation they grumbled and doubted their way from Egypt to the promised land. The Lord had promised to provide all their needs for the journey, yet time and again they doubted. Unlike them, Jesus did not doubt, rather he rested totally on God’s provision for his vocation.
We modern day wilderness sojourners have our calling and we are bound to rely on the provision of the Lord. For example, Jesus asks us to communicate the gospel to our broken world. His word tells us that this gospel is the “power of God unto salvation for all who believe.” So, we don’t have to rely on selling techniques, psychological manipulation or group dynamics, to achieve results. Doubting God’s promise is to court disaster.
Is the Lord’s mission self-authenticating, or does it need promoting? Other than Christ, Moses was probably the greatest of the leaders of faith but even he felt the need to authenticate both God’s plan and his place in it. The sign of water from the rock was his downfall. Jesus faced a similar test, but did not fail. The need to authenticate the church is with us today, as it was all those years ago. There are those who look to miraculous signs and there are those who look to a more subtle authentication. We put the Lord to the test when we forget that God’s program when it is actualized, is self-authenticating.
In a recent conversation with some folks from Boundary County I learned that while the community was struggling with the threat of snow collapsing the roofs of schools and public buildings thirty Mennonites had come up to quietly provide assistance. You have to look no further than our foyer three days a week and see volunteers from local churches, most from Assumption Parish – they are not there to authenticate the church – they are at work because Christ’s Spirit is at work within them. But, in their obedience provide the very authentication that seems important.
One thing to take away from this passage is that, like the tempter, sincere people can quote scripture to support in a way that supports their distorted point of view. In this instance Satan was not entitled to his own interpretation. It was wrong; it was not an alternative truth.
Temptations appeal to natural human desires. Nothing wrong with desire in itself… no sin in having desires. But to twist into an recognizable form God’s way for humans to treat humans is sin. Satan could not create within Jesus the willingness to even consider violating what he knew to be God’s will in order to satisfy his desires. Why did Satan fail? Because of Jesus’ perfect moral excellence… there was no darkness in Him… not even a momentary confusion about whether He would violate God’s command or not (1 John 1:5; John 1:1-4,9). The nearer we get to that same perfect moral excellence, the more successful we will be.
Jesus possessed great power, but did not use it improperly. Just because one has the ability, opportunity or power to do a thing does not make it the right thing to do. Jesus understood this, but many, like Herod, Judas or Pilate; do not. Just like us, Jesus was tempted in all things.
Is the victory the Lord’s, or does he need help? Israel sensed their vulnerability and were quick to look nostalgically to the symbol of Egypt and its might, the Golden Calf. Jesus faced the same test. Rather than submission and sacrifice, the kingdom could be his if only he would submit to dark powers. We are most clearly faced with a similar temptation today as individuals and as the church.
The Christian church has often feared for its very survival so there is nothing new in the withering away of visible aspects of contemporary Christianity. Yet, to build our security on the systems of this age, on structure rather than substance, or relevance rather than reality, is a disaster. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Ps.127:1
LET OUR SONG BE HEARD-ROMANS 6:1-14, sermon by Jon Maroni
Spokane Friends Church February 17th 2017.
Good morning, once again I am thankful to be preaching this morning. Many of you know that it doesn’t take very much for me to get excited about something, and preaching is certainly one of those things.
Preaching is more than just something I get excited about. I consider it a true honor and a humbling opportunity that I’m able to open God’s word with you this morning. Recently I’ve been thankful for so many of you, how you have offered Krista and I your advice, wisdom encouragement, and above all else your friendship. Something I have learned about our community here at Spokane Friends is that it is a place where you can be truly known, and welcomed. I have loved sharing with our friends here in Spokane how awesome it is to have found a church home. I just feel like I can be me when I’m here, and that is a difficult thing to find.
By that I mean that this is a place where you can feel safe allowing people to see who you really are. Here we have grasped the reality that Christ calls all people to himself, that everyone is welcome in the kingdom of God. This is something we should celebrate about our church community. When people ask me about my church one of the first things I tell them is that at Spokane Friends you don’t have to put on your Sunday best. For people who have been a part of a church they immediately understand what I mean. For those who haven’t, I usually explain it like this “at my church you can allow the person that you are on the inside to show on the outside, you don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not.” I don’t feel the need to act a certain way here and I’m so thankful for that. Genuineness is something that we do very well here, it is one of our strengths and something that we should celebrate. That is what my sermon is about this morning, celebrating our relationship with Christ, celebrating our communal life together and letting our song of faith be heard in the places we work, go to school, and in our neighborhoods.
One of my favorite professors from my time as a student at George Fox is a man named Irv Brendlinger.. He is perhaps best known for driving an old diesel Mercedes which he runs off of used veggie oil. If you have ever ridden behind a car like that you have experienced the odd sensation of driving behind a car that smells distinctly like French fries and Fritos.
We all have people in our lives that have helped form us into who we are today, and Irv is certainly one of those people for me. If there is something that I have learned from Irv it is that our best friends are also the people who challenge and push us most, and it is important to cultivate those honest relationships. Irv also has the interesting tendency to refer to some of his favorite authors as friends. If you didn’t know Irv you would assume that he has lived for hundreds of years. He will talk about getting to know people like Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis, as if he hung out with them on Sunday’s after church. What he means is that he has gotten to know them by reading their written works. Irv introduced me to many new friends during my time as his student. This morning I want to introduce you to one of my very good friends, his name is Calvin Miller.
Calvin Miller is best remembered for writing The Singer. This book retells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with a distinctly musical focus. In Miller’s stories Jesus is known as the Troubadour and the Singer, a great travelling minstrel who sings wherever he goes. His song is the star song, the gospel. When he sings his star song there is healing, wholeness, and salvation, it is a song which he teaches to others, and invites them to sing themselves. The star song heals the sick, raises the dead, brings forgiveness for sin and frees the oppressed. God the Father is known as Earth Maker, the one who formed the world and who first called Jesus as the Troubadour to sing his star song, the song of the gospel that brings freedom to the world. Satan is known as World Hater, he plays a silver pipe and plays a song of hate wherever he goes. His song brings agony, torment, oppression and anguish. It is this star song, the gospel, which our great Troubadour Jesus wants us to sing. The truth that Jesus as the son of God, came and lived among us as a human, he was crucified, buried and resurrected on the third day in order for us to have forgiveness from our sins and a restored relationship with God. If that isn’t something worth singing about I don’t know what is. This is the song that Jesus taught each of us when we chose to commit our lives to Him. Each of us brings to it a unique note, melody, or timbre, and the one you bring is essential. It is the song that we sing where there is darkness, anger, fear, prejudice and hate. It is this song which we must sing to the world, this song which must be heard. Now more than ever, this song must be heard.
I want to share with you one of my favorite passages from The Singer:
The Singer stopped. Beside the road he saw a brown eyed child. Her mouth was drawn in hard firm lines that could not bend to either smile or frown. Her sickness ate her spirit, devouring all the sparkle in her eyes.
Her legs misshapen as they were lay useless underneath the coarsest sort of cloth. The Singer knelt beside her in the dust and touched her limpid hand and cried. He drew the cloth away that hid her legs. He reached his calloused hand and touched the small misshapen foot.
“I too was born with scarred feet. See mine!” he said, drawing back the hem of his own robe. She seemed about to speak when the music of a silver pipe broke in the air around them. He had heard the pipe before.
Above them towered the World Hater. “I knew you’d come,” he said. “You will, of course, make straight her twisted limbs?”
“I will, World Hater… but can you have no mercy? She’s but a child. Can her wholeness menace you in any way? Would it so embarrass you to see her skipping in the sun? Why hate such little, suffering life?
“Why chide me, Singer? She’s Earthmaker’s awful error. Tell your Father-Spirit he should take more time when he creates.”
“No it is love which brings a thousand children into life in health. It is hate that cripples each exception to eternal joy. But why must you forever toy with nature to make yourself such ugly pastimes of delight?”
Switch to Slide #5
“I hate all the Father-Spirit loves. If he would only hate the world with me, I’d find no joy in it again. You sing. The only music that I know is the cacophony of agony that grows from roadside wretches such as these.”
The child between them lay bewildered by their conversation. The Singer spoke again: “I’ll bring my song against your hate, against the bonds of human sins. And human tears will all subside when the Ancient Star-Song wins.”
The Hater raged and screamed above his crippled joy:
“Sing health! If you must. Sing everybody’s but your own. I soon will have your song, likewise your life. Your great Star-Song is doomed to fall. You’ll groan to my kind of music. When I meet you at the wall.”
Switch to Slide #6
The Singer scooped the frightened child into his arms. He sang and set her in the sunny fields and thrilled to watch her run. The world was hers in a way she’d never known. The butterfly-filled meadows danced her eyes alive and drew her scurrying away.
And others came!
Untouchables with bandages heard the healing song and came to health: The crippled and the blind. Sick of soul, Sick of heart, Sick of mind. Everywhere the music went, full health came.
I love the interaction between Jesus and Satan in this section, especially where it says “I’ll bring my song against your hate, against the bonds of human sins. And human tears will all subside when the Ancient Star-Song wins.”
This is the song that must be sung in our time. The reality that Jesus Christ came as a human was crucified and on the third day rose again offering all of us the chance to have a relationship with Him and in doing so conquering death and the power of sin over us. How awesome is that? Can I get a come on? All throughout the year, we participate in singing this song, in sharing our faith and relationship with Christ with others. Christ is changing and transforming us and we need to let our lives show that to the people around us. The work of God within us should be evident to others. The gospel is a song worth singing, and a song that needs to be heard. Our world is in desperate need of our song. We must sing it to those in power who will not protect the vulnerable. We must sing it to those who wish to divide the community of faith.
The book of Romans builds a wonderful metaphor for how we are to offer ourselves as instruments of righteousness who sing and play out God’s presence in our world. Romans 6:1-14 from the NIV reads:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
The apostle Paul exhorts us to offer ourselves as instruments of righteousness, because we have been made alive in Christ, and because we are free. That is something worth celebrating, and worth showing others. All of you are instruments of God’s righteousness, who participate in playing the song of the gospel in our world. Now some of you may say, Jon how can I be an instrument of righteousness? if I’m an instrument I’m one who has quite a few dents and dings, I’ve been through so much hardship how can God play his song through me? I miss notes, how can I be worthy of allowing Christ to work through me? To all of us I would say, God isn’t looking for perfect instruments, God is looking for you exactly as you are. Christ needs you to sing the song of the gospel, even if your voice cracks, or if you forget a note, or sometimes sing out of key. In the body of Christ there are no perfect members, everyone belongs and brings their own sound to the song. We at Spokane Friends know this better than most!
We sing this song when we choose to serve one of our neighbors, who we know needs a helping hand. We sing this song when we share with another person how Christ has made a difference in our life. We sing this song when we allow our actions to reflect our faith in Christ. We sing this song when we choose to see our work as ministry, rather than just a place we collect a paycheck. We sing this song when we allow our relationship with Christ to permeate all aspects of our being, and others see and witness it.
As I was preparing for this Sunday I began to think of the people who first introduced me to Jesus, and who taught me how to sing this song of the gospel. The person who taught me most about being a follower of Christ was my high school soccer coach Mr. Marshall. Mr. Marshall was a person whose faith was so evident in everything he did. His whole life seemed to sing “Jesus cares about you.” He saw me as Jesus saw me, a person who was made by God, a person who had value, meaning, and purpose. His faith was evident in his work as a middle school P.E. teacher, it was evident in his work as a soccer coach, and it was evident in his role as a mentor for so many young people like me. I’ve shared this before but I was never the most gifted athlete. But he saw something within me, the potential that could be. I owe much of who I am today to him.
I wonder, for each of you who is the person who first noticed that potential in you? Who first noticed that you were not just a dinged up instrument.
Friends, as we journey through these challenging times, I want to ask each of you who do you know who needs to hear the song of the gospel? Will you choose to be the person to sing it to them? There was someone who at some point in your life shared this song of the gospel with you; will you choose to follow their example? Will you sing about your relationship with Jesus only on Sunday mornings or will you take the truths that we sing about here into your week, sharing them with people around you who desperately need to hear them? Will you let your life cry out “I belong to Jesus, come and experience the freedom that is found within him!” When we declare this we do not condemn others, we liberate them.
Who may Christ be asking you to extend a simple invitation “would you like to come to church with me?” For some of you your relationship with Jesus began with that invitation. Let us go forth this week in boldness sharing Christ with our world, letting our light shine before all people and letting our song be heard.
I think we need to start were we left off last Sunday, at Luke 7:14 where it says that Jesus “… came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him (Jesus) spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
So after Jesus healed the centurion’s slave and restored the life of the widow’s son, the news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding area. No Fox News, MSNBC or CNN. No Spokesman Review, Twitter or Facebook. Strictly word of mouth, people telling people, the news about Jesus and what he was doing became a hot topic.
As you recall, Luke told us back in the third chapter of his Gospel, John the Baptist was in prison. We read that “…Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him (John the Baptist) because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote that John the Baptist was imprisoned in the palace of Macherus and was there put to death. The castle was located about 15 miles southeast of where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, almost 200 miles from Capernaum.
Yet the news about Jesus’ miracles reached John’s ears. It disturbed him. From his earliest childhood John was aware of the relationship his mother had with Jesus’ mother and believed Jesus to be the Messiah and beyond that he considered Jesus divine. He said, “He existed before me.” John would not have declared that Jesus was “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world” if he was not convinced that Jesus was on a divine mission. But after hearing about the miracles that Jesus was performing John was apparently either more confused or had real doubts. Is Jesus the Messiah that was expected? The Biblical texts we have to rely on set out a “job description” of sorts for the Messiah — and Jesus fails the test, horribly. Jesus fails to free his people from the Roman yoke. He fails to setup a new kingdom like that of David and Solomon. As one in prison, it was clear to John that he certainly hadn’t set the prisoners free. Those things didn’t seem to appear on his to-do list. John seems to have expected an active and vigorous cleansing, more repentance and sin stuff. Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing that either.
Remember, John proclaimed that another was coming, one who would be greater than John, one who will change the world. John must have started wondering if he had made a mistake. As many of us do when things do not go as we expected, he may have started having “second thoughts.” He must have thought, “Why am I still in prison?” “When is Jesus going to start the kingdom?” “When will I be released from my prison?” “How does the forgiveness of our sins fit into Jesus’ plan?” “Why isn’t something important happening?” “Is Jesus really the Messiah?”
Luke tells us that the disciples of John reported all these things to him. But being in prison he has no first-hand knowledge? So he sends two of his disciples to Jesus in order to discover the answer to his burning question: “Are you the one I was waiting for?”
When the men arrived to where Jesus was working they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” 21Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
On the face of it it is a straight yes/no question. However Jesus does not answer the question directly. Instead he puts it back on the questioners “Tell John what you have seen”. He tells them to witness to God at work. He challenges them, and John to whom they will (presumably) report, to see things differently. The answer to John’s question is going, in the end, to depend on John. Can John overcome his very specific expectation and his disappointment to see that Jesus is the one, just in a way different than he had imagined?
Any of us can become prisoners to our expectations of how God is at work in the world. Are there times we miss what God is doing because it is different from what we hoped for and what we had expected? Are we like John, desperately hoping to see one thing, hearing about something wonderful, and wondering what to make of it?
Or maybe we are like the messengers sent by John. Are there people in our lives asking what God is doing, if Christ is present somewhere and the only answer we can give is to tell them what we see, we what hear, what we experience? It is often true that we see Jesus, we see Christ, we see God more clearly when we are open to see something other than what we expect. Sometimes that is based on what we experience, sometimes it is based on what we hear from others. But rarely is it actually a straight-forward yes/no question.
Fascinating, isn’t it, how we set limits on Grace because we’re convinced that someone is outside the embrace of their creator?
The music group Orleans, in 1976, released a song with these words:
You’re still the one — that makes me strong
Still the one — I want to take along
We’re still having fun, and you’re still the one…
With John the Baptist, and with us, the message Luke has for us is Jesus is still the one.
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. Luke 5:1-11
I love the idea that Jesus, desperate for a little space from which to speak to the crowds pressing upon him, simply commandeered Peter’s boat. And I love that Peter just lets him do it. I mean, Peter had been fishing all night and probably wanted to finish cleaning up and get home to bed. But he takes Jesus out anyway. He was just that kind of a guy, the kind of guy who would push out from shore even though he was dead tired just because you asked. He just does it. And I love that.
I love that when Jesus is all done teaching he isn’t actually all done. And that Peter again does something that doesn’t make sense, letting down his nets after he’d been fishing all night and caught nothing. And I love to imagine the expression on the fishermen’s faces as they struggled to haul in this catch, and called their friends to help, and barely get their nets to shore.
And I love what Jesus says to Peter: “Do not be afraid.” It’s the hallmark of Luke’s gospel; maybe the hallmark of the gospel. Jesus comes so that we don’t have to be afraid anymore. I love that. And then Jesus gives Peter something to do, something bigger and larger than anything he’d ever imagined. And I love that, too.
Of course, the story’s not quite done. Because after these words, the fishermen give everything up – their professions, their livelihood, their family and friends, everything – in order to follow Jesus. And, quite frankly, I can’t say I love that. I’m not sure, to be honest, how I feel about that. For what would I give up everything? Would I do it for this? Would I do it for Jesus?
In our text for today we find the metaphor “fishing for people.” For some this has to be one of the Bible’s worst metaphors! Imagine a fish, happy and swimming free in its natural and nurturing environment being unwillingly emancipated from it’s watery environment to one in which she can’t breath and then, usually, becoming someone’s supper. From that point to view a caught fish is a dead fish. Obviously, when Jesus says we’re gonna catch people, he doesn’t mean that they’d be cut up and put sauteed in a nice white wine sauce. But, being caught by Jesus, some would argue, suggests that something dies, right? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship wrote that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” But we need to be reminded that metaphors serve a contextualized rhetorical point.
In Romans 6 the Apostle Paul makes a great deal of this metaphor. He asks: 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Then he says: 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. And he then ends the passage saying: 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Benedictine Monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, penned: “The fact that you are not yet dead is not sufficient proof that you are alive. It takes more than that. It takes courage–above all, the courage to face death. Only one who is alive can die. Aliveness is measured by the ability to die.” And then he adds: “It is fear of death that prevents us from coming fully alive.”
A dozen pages into Isaac Penington’s “The Holy Truth and People Defended,” a polemic written from Reading Jail in 1672. Penington’s anonymous detractor claims that we may sit down in Christ “in a state of rest and reconciliation, heavenly and divine, before and without the consideration of any works of righteousness which we have wrought…” but Penington rebuts this as “directly contrary to scripture,” which teaches in various places “that persons do not sit down in eternal blessedness in Christ, before or without consideration of any works wrought by them.” Prior to this sitting down comes a state of discipleship, in which none can dwell and abide in Christ, “but he that can dwell with devouring fire and everlasting burnings: for the pure word of life is a fire, and he that sits down in the heavenly place in him, must sit down in that fire.”
Quakers have held that the Refiner’s Fire is a difficult and usually painful element of one’s spiritual journey. It was used by many early Friends to describe the process by which the Light of Christ reveals and melts everything within that resists God and God’s ways. Gradually sin, temptation, and disbelief are cleansed away, as well as overriding cravings for comfort, pleasure, and social status.
They are not intended to be taken literally or pressed beyond the rhetorical point. And the reality is that, in this context the Greek verb that is used in the text means to catch alive, not to kill. Net fishing is quite different than fishing with hook and line. Net fishing is indiscriminate in that it hauls in everything within its take. It’s not selective, at least in the initial haul. I like that part of the image. As a child I remember laying out a long net from a row boat on the beach at Galveston and then pulling it to shore. Caught in it were sea creatures of all sorts from croakers to dog fish.
Of course it wouldn’t have happened had the fishermen not demonstrated a faith that freed them to move from the shallows to the deeper water, where the catch is abundant and Jesus is realized.
Something is disclosed in Simon Peter’s reaction to the stunning catch of fish, that moment as he witnesses the dramatic reversal of his experience of fishing all night with nothing to show for it. It becomes immediately clear to him that Jesus is the one who can create abundance from scarcity. The one who can turn failure into success. The one who can, ultimately, create something out of nothing.
And that recognition makes Peter…what, exactly? Aware of his shortcomings, of his inadequacies, of his failure? In some measure, perhaps. But I think it’s even more that Peter realizes he is in the presence of the holy and eternal and he, Peter, knows just how far he is from that. “Sinner,” in this sense, doesn’t simply designate Peter as a moral failure; rather, it signifies his new born awareness of not yet being what God created him to be and the One who is precisely and fully what God created him to be.
At heart, the word “sin” itself is a metaphor which means “missing the mark,” not necessarily a moral wretch and certainly not one despised of God or all of the other things we sometimes think “sin” designates. So I think that what Peter is most keenly aware of in this moment is that he has missed the mark. His life is not what it could be, not what it should be, not what God hopes and intends it to be. To use Quaker imagery, he finds him self sitting in the fire.
Framing “sin” in this way is valuable because it helps us to imagine God as more than a cosmic judge and eternal rule-enforcer. Rather, God is the one who loves God’s creation and people, even when we miss the mark. God wants the best for us. God wants us to know that we are loved, that we enjoy God’s favor, and God wants us to live into that identity and future.
That’s why, I think, after Peter’s exclamation Jesus doesn’t respond by saying “Your sins are forgiven.” But at this moment Jesus responds to Peter’s confession not with forgiveness but with comfort and with purpose. “Do not be afraid.” This isn’t judgment, it’s mercy. And, “From now on you will be catching people.” Jesus doesn’t deny what Peter is – a fisherman – he enlarges it, meeting Peter where he is and, rather than condemning him, expanding his vision, drawing him into God’s kingdom vision of who and what Peter might be.
And guess what? Jesus is doing the same with us. Wherever you are right now, at this moment, you also have missed the mark. But rather than hear that as a word of condemnation, hear it instead as a word of love and invitation: Do not be afraid. From now on you will be drawn into a mission and purpose larger than you can imagine.
But we can’t leave this passage without recalling the import of verse 7 which says, “So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them.” Ministry is not a solitary journey it is always corporate. Later Luke will tell us that when Jesus sent some seventy two disciples into ministry none went alone. Solitary can be defined as individually alone, congregationaly alone, or denominationally alone. We are not called to do ministry alone. We have to embrace our partners in faith to work together to meet the needs of our communities, our nation and our world. Yes, we need to answer the call to follow Christ individually, but as we do we become part of a much larger community, that is ‘The Body of Christ.”
Inaugural addresses are important. Typically a new President announces the priorities of their administration. But of course it’s more than priorities, it’s also a vision, a vision for what the country can and should be. President Abraham Lincoln used his second inaugural address to name the evil of slavery, the toll it had exacted in human flesh and warfare, and the need to stay the course and resolve both the war and its cause.
Luke treats us with the first recorded words of Jesus. It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Jesus’ sermon offered from the desk in the synagogue in Nazareth which we find in Luke 4:14 and following. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke’s rendition has this as the first explicit public event of Jesus’ ministry. What makes this scene very important to understanding who Jesus is and what he is up to is that this is Jesus’ inaugural address. Here Jesus launches his ministry from his hometown synagogue.
Our text today is often called, “The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth.” The remarkable thing is that in the first half of the story there is no indication of rejection. At the outset we hear that Jesus is returning from his wilderness sparring with the devil “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” and that he is “praised by everyone.” It reports that his listeners “all speak well of him and were amazed at his gracious words.” Rejection? Hardly, at least not in this first half of the story.
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
We Christians love how Jesus combined passages from Isaiah 61 and 58 and then proclaimed that the scripture is fulfilled at that moment. And why wouldn’t we, given that it is an announcement of the year of Jubilee that arrives with Jesus, the time in which we will see the hungry fed, the imprisoned released, the blind healed, and the oppressed lifted? Jesus’ hometown audience loved the quote and the sermon, too … at first.
So what kind of vision do we hear in Jesus’ address? It is an announcement of his mission. It is a description of the kingdom of God. It is a promise of God’s aid and presence. And all of this and more is summarized by the words good news. But it is not “good news” in general. If we listen closely we will hear that this good news is only good if you are willing to admit what is hard in your life, what is lacking, what has been most difficult. It is good news for the poor. It is not just release, but release to those who are captive, sight to those who are blind, freedom to those who are oppressed. Jesus’ words challenge us to choose to hear that he has not come simply to save us individually, apart from one another, or privately, through our personal belief, but he comes for us all, and is revealed in us and through us, as we reach out to embrace one another’s needs.
Reaching out to embrace the needs of others — that’s where things turned ugly. With the balance of Luke’s story the adulation evaporates.
23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
After the crowd praises Jesus, he, in a sense, tells them, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean you. The day of Jubilee isn’t for you.” For Luke, salvation is understood primarily in social and not individualistic terms. To be more specific, for Luke that salvation is a reversal of the social order. Thus, for example, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus not only pronounces blessing on the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated, he also pronounces woes on the rich, the filled, the laughing, and the respected (Luke 6:20-26). Those on the bottom of society experience this salvation with rejoicing while those on top experience it in the form of God’s judgment and justice.
In the second half of the story Jesus challenges the hometown crowd’s view about who is on bottom of society and who is on top. He reminds the crowd that even when there had been great need in Israel, God sent the prophet Elijah to the Gentile widow in Zarephath and the prophet Elisha to the Gentile leper, Naaman. By implication, the prophet Jesus is not sent to the synagogue in Nazareth but is sent from there to Gentiles. The crowd’s reaction to Jesus changes so rapidly and so radically it almost makes our head swim.
Not unlike Jesus’ hometown crowd, we too want to claim Jesus as our own. We profess faith in Jesus as the Christ and strive to follow Christ in our individual and corporate lives. But this text pushes us to expand our view and push us out of our comfort zone in claiming Jesus’ allegiance to us over against others. Jesus doesn’t accuse the synagogue of such. He does not imply that he turns to the Gentiles because those in Nazareth reject him. They reject him because he turns to the Gentiles.
Can we learn from the ancient crowd in the text and embrace Christ in this turn to those outside the usual boundaries of the sacred community? Indeed, the church can follow Christ into contemporary “Gentile” territory offering aid and acceptance to the widows and lepers of the world. In other words, as this text delineates Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ mission, it can also serve as our own inaugural statement defining the mission of the church today.
Never before have we as a nation been as deeply divided as we are in our responses to refugees, the poor, and minorities. Ancient as Jesus’ words are, and belonging as they do to a culture almost completely unfamiliar in our world, we still hear in those words a ring of truth, that these are the priorities we too must embrace, and the Holy Spirit of Christ anoints us all to this ministry.
Douglas Wood wrote a wonderful story called, Old Turtle and the Broken Truth.
One night truth fells from the stars. And as it fell, it broke into two pieces—one piece blazed off through the sky and the other fell straight to the ground. And then one day a man stumbled upon the gravity-drawn piece and found that engraved on it were the words, “You are loved.” It made him feel good, so he kept it and shared it with the people of his tribe and it made them feel warm and happy. It became their most prized possession, and they called it “The Truth.”
Over time those who had the truth grew afraid of those who didn’t, those who were different from them. And those who didn’t have it coveted it. Soon people are fighting wars over The Truth, trying to capture it for themselves.
A little girl who was troubled by the growing violence, greed, and destruction in her once peaceful world went on a journey—through the Mountains of Imagining, the River of Wondering Why, and the Forest of Finding Out—to speak with Old Turtle, the wise counselor. Old Turtle told her that the Truth was broken and missing a piece, the piece that shot off into the night sky so long ago. Together they searched for it, and when they found it the little girl puts the jagged piece of truth in her pocket and returned to her people. She tried to explain it but no one would listen or understand. Finally a raven flew the shard of broken truth to the top of a tower where the other piece had been ensconced for safety, and the rejoined pieces shined their full message: “You are loved / and so are they.” And the people begin to comprehend. And the earth began to heal.
Among the four canonical gospels, John doesn’t mention Jesus’ baptism. Mark’s Gospel actually begins with a very brief description of the event. Matthew summarizes the event in four verses. Jesus comes to John who demurs then consents. Once Jesus is out of the water the heavens open, the spirit of the Lord descends on Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven and a voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Luke takes over twenty verses, sets the stage with dates, people and places. But let me read it. Luke 3:1-22
3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
What John says next to the gathered is truly important:
8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
That’s a most interesting question. “What then should we do?” Is there some ritual we should perform, some sacrifice to prepare and offer, some special set of words to repeat, some belief to be pronounced? Listen to John’s reply:
11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
It’s an interesting collection of people: those who had clothing and food beyond their own needs but also Soldiers and Tax collectors – most hated among the population and all had come from the same river, the same river from which Jesus will soon reportedly come.
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
That’s been a pretty important verse in Quaker history – the strongly held position that the Baptism of Christ is that of the Holy Spirit whose fire will burn away the chaff of our lives. That Quakers have not employed water baptism has been cause for some to deny that we are Christian.
17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
That sounds like a conclusion but then comes two sentences that seems out of sequence with how we understand things to have played out.
19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
And then Luke goes back to his narrative:
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven,
Matthew is clear that Jesus was out of the river before the divine proclamation of God’s being pleased with Jesus is heard but Luke intimates that it was long after – after all the people and Jesus had been baptized and John was locked up in Herod’s jail – while Jesus was praying the Holy Spirit, descended on him in bodily dovelike form and the voice from heaven says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
John made real political enemies, especially irritating Herod’s second wife, Herodias, (Luke 3:20). He called Herod’s marriage to his half brother Phillip’s wife an abomination. This priest-prophet baptizer took the Torah seriously: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness” (Leviticus 18:16). Because of John’s condemnation of Herod he was imprisoned, effectively removing him from public life. We don’t hear about John’s execution until much later in Luke’s narrative (see also Luke 9:9).
Luke interpreted John’s baptizing mission in light of Isaiah’s image of “a voice” who prepares “the way of the Lord.” Indeed, John enters the story as any Israelite prophet would: “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah.” We see the same pattern with Jeremiah 1:4; 33:1; Ezekiel 1:3; Jonah 1:1. This priest’s son grew up in the wilderness and entered public life as a prophet. Furthermore, as a prophet he scolded those who came calling them: “You brood of vipers!” (John 3:7). John challenged the special “covenant” Israel had because of Abraham, as if that spiritual heritage was all that mattered (3:8-9). John questioned what people did. Jesus, too, will provide a prophetic voice and action, as he baptizes “by fire,” which will be utilized for the removal of the “chaff” (3:17).
Repentance isn’t associated with religious ritual or belief, it is associated with “acts” of repentance: specifically, John told the crowds to share their goods (Luke 3:11; see also Acts 2) and be fair in one’s profession (3:12-14). Unlike his Gospel counterparts, Luke names “tax-collectors” and “soldiers” as people who received John’s baptism . The Baptist did not tell “soldiers” to lay down their weapons; he highlighted theirs as well as the tax collectors’ desire for greed.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia John’s baptism is to result in holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God. This thought is expressed in the well-known passage in Josephus in which he speaks of John the Baptist: “The washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” John symbolized the call to repentance by Baptism in the Jordan; and the same measure for attaining holiness was employed by the Essenes, whose ways of life John also observed. Josephus says of his instructor Banus, an Essene, that he “bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day”, and that the same practice was observed by all the Essenes.
Despite imagining John waste deep in the river he declares that the one who would come after him would not baptize with water, but with the Holy Ghost. A semblance of that notion is expressed in the Talmud that the Holy Spirit could be drawn upon as water is drawn from a well (based upon Isa.12: 3). And there is a somewhat Jewish tinge even to the prophecy of the evangelists Matthew (3: 11) and Luke (3:16), who declare that Jesus will baptize with fire as well as with the Holy Ghost; for, according to Rabbi Abbahu, true Baptism is performed with fire. According to the Christian writer Justin, the expression that the person baptized is illuminated has the same significance as is implied in telling a proselyte to Judaism, after his bath, that he now belongs to Israel, the people beloved of God.
While the balance of the chapter is on John’s mission, the climax is still Jesus’ baptism. And God’s announcement of Jesus’ identity (as “God’s son”) was the significant event of the event, the identity the angel had claimed in Luke 1:35. And then, for some reason, Luke doesn’t place “John” at the scene. In Luke’s telling the story he names no baptizer. In the narrative story-line, just before Jesus’ baptism, Luke described Herod’s imprisonment of John. In narrative time John’s imprisonment seems to occur before Jesus came to be baptized. It is an unusual set-up.
For Luke, By the time of Jesus’ baptism, John’s voice in the wilderness (3:4) was replaced by a heavenly voice (3:22) and John’s body was replaced by the Spirit’s “body” in the form of a dove. John’s absence from the baptism scene emphasizes the Spirit’s “baptism” or empowerment of Jesus and God’s acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son (3:21-22).
As Isaiah announces, the coming Messiah will reveal the “salvation of God”. Many contemporary readers of the Gospel narratives usually associate the story of “salvation” with the coming and dying of Jesus. But the language of “salvation” meant much more for first century Jews when we recall Simeon seeing God’s “salvation” in the baby Jesus (2:30). For ancient Jews, Zechariah’s words are representative: “(God) has raised up a mighty savior for us … that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (1:69, 71). (1:74). Let’s hear that again: The Messiah’s salvation would affect their political realities so that their religious ones would also be unhindered, “that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear”
Jesus’ public mission initiates a new stage in God’s plan of dealing with humankind. Repentance implies a preparation of one’s heart, mind, and entire attitude that God desires to engage God’s creation. Then, the Spirit will also prepare the way of the Lord!
As we begin this new year with new challenges and as the Holy Spirit comes first to burn away the accumulated chaff of our lives we too ask with those baptized by John: “What then should we do?” John’s reply is: Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Heavenly Father, With joy and awe we praise you for claiming us as your sons and daughters, and for pouring your Holy Spirit upon us. Help us to prepare this earth for your glory, and shine your light on all your faithful children, for the sake of the one whose birth and baptism brought renewal and transformation to this world, Jesus Christ. Amen
In A.D. 46 followers of Jesus were a persecuted minority in Jerusalem, forced underground and became a nearly invisible community of faith. Many fled, as immigrant refugees, to other places throughout the Roman world. James, arguably the brother of Jesus and acknowledged head of the Jerusalem Church, wrote a general letter to these scattered believers. Regardless of tradition relegating the Letter of James to a place near the end of the New Testament, it having evidently been written before the first Jerusalem Council, it seems highly likely that it was the first of the New Testament books written. It is our best source for understanding the substance of the faith of followers of Jesus before the Apostle Paul.
That Jame’s letter has been included in the canon of the New Testament has been a matter of contention for hundreds of years principally because it so clearly contradicts the primary assertion of the Apostle Paul and much of the Christian Church which appropriated a theology of salvation by faith alone. It is a perspective most of us have grown up with and never challenged. It is typically articulated that when a person “accepts the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place we are justified, at peace and spared from the penalty.” This is the theory of substitutionary atonement. Though it is by far the theory that is most familiar, it’s not found in James and we don’t find it in the Gospels. What is found in James (1:12) is “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him”. Along with the Gospels and the whole of the Old Testament, James evidently doesn’t embrace the notion of universal human depravity, an essential element in a substitutionary atonement.
Jewish scholarship attests that prior to the Jews return to Palestine from their forced detention in Babylonia, which occurred in 538 BC there was no basis in Jewish tradition for a belief in retribution for the soul after death; this was supplied to the Jews by the Babylonians and Persians and received its Jewish coloring from the word “Gehinnom” (the valley of Hinnom), made detestable by the fires of the Moloch sacrifices practiced by the evil Kings Ahaz and Manasseh,the latter of whom made a burnt offering of his own son. According to one tradition it is in this place that the smoke from subterranean fires come up through the earth. Enoch said of the place that “there are cast the spirits of sinners and blasphemers and of those who work wickedness and pervert the words of the Prophets.”
The place serves a double purpose, annihilation and eternal pain and we find that it has seven names: “Sheol,” “Abbadon,” “Pit of Corruption,” “Horrible Pit,” “Mire of Clay,” “Shadow of Death,” and “Nether Parts of the Earth.” It has seven departments, stacked one beneath the other. There are seven kinds of pains. According to rabbinical tradition, thieves are condemned to fill an unfillable tank; the impure sink into a quagmire; those that sinned with their tongue are suspended by it; some are suspended by the feet, hair, or eyelids; others eat hot coals and sand; others are devoured by worms, or placed alternately in snow and fire. The punishment of those who led others into heresy or dealt treacherously against the Law will never cease. This is the punishment to which Paul refers in his statement that when we “accept the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place we are justified, at peace and spared from the penalty.”
You can see how effective such a tool this threat would have been to Ezra and Nehemiah as they struggled to restore Temple worship and community compliance with the Jewish law when the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile.
We’ve been told that it was at Antioch, one of those far flung places to which first century converted Jews fled, that believers in Jesus were first called Christians. And like Antioch, the places to which these people fled, and to which James is addressed, were not conducive to righteous living. It can have rich meaning for us as we are reminded that genuine faith transforms lives. James encouraged his readers, and that includes you and me, not so much as to put our faith into action but to live out of the faith that is within us. It is easy to protest that we have faith, but true faith, especially in communities that are resistant the message of the Gospel, results in loving actions towards others.
James wants us to make sure our faith is more than just a statement of belief – it is about action. Matthew, Mark and Luke all find it important to present Jesus articulating a special commandment that came from the heart of Judaism: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. It is in keeping the law of love that our faith is vital and real.
James also wants us to know that while we encounter trials and temptations in the Christian life God will supply all that we need to face persecution or adversity. Overcoming these challenges produces maturity and strong character. James insists that God will give you patience and keep you strong in times of trial.
James reminds us that we are responsible for the destructive results of what we say. Your words are to convey true humility and lead to peace. While we are cautioned to think before we speak the bigger challenge and the promise is that God will give you self-control.
He says we should not show partiality to the wealthy or be prejudiced against the poor. We are accountable for how we use what we have. We should not hoard wealth but rather be generous toward others. Christians should store up God’s treasures through sincere service.
James writes: 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. In 2:14 we read: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
After five chapters of guidance, challenging his readers about their judgment of others, how they speak of others, how they do are do not respond to the need of others – in 5:7 he says: Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Traditional themes for the Sundays of Advent are Love, Joy, Peace and Faith and the underlying purpose is to prepare Christians not for the birth of Jesus, but for a long awaited second coming of the Messiah, similar to the Jews, while rejecting Jesus, continue to wait for the Messiah to come. James simply picks up on another theme: Patience.
But this patience isn’t focused on a Messiah who is yet to come in some future. It is having patience with ourselves as we respond to Christ living within us. He says that the coming of the Lord is near, that the judge is standing at the door. Our challenge is to open that door, as did the obedient prophets, and live fully as Christ calls us to live. That is good news to me. James recognizes that becoming the person Christ intends for us to be isn’t at a flip of a switch. Hearing and obeying Christ is a process of learning to let God rule our hearts, our tongues and even our bank accounts. And it isn’t premised on a fear of punishment rather on delighting in living in relationship with Christ himself.
Jame’s advice is to be patient, until the coming of the Lord. For us, that doesn’t speak of an end of the world, but of Christ’s spirit invading our life. The Holy Spirit’s first task on being received is to examine our lives and show us the trash we’ve accumulated that needs to be discarded – and that can be painful indeed, especially when some of our grumbling and judging others is connected to our limited understanding of what it means to be a good person, a good Christian. “You must be patient” and I take that to mean both with our selves and with others.
Today’s passage is the climax of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the 8th verse he describe the mission of Christ. He indicates that Christ “has become a servant of the circumcised.” By the ‘circumcised’ he meant the Jews. And then, in a striking parallel, Paul describes himself as a servant or officiant of Christ to the nations, that is the rest of the whole non-Jewish world (15:16). What Christ came to accomplish for the Jews, Paul now parallels in his work with the nations, as an envoy of Christ. He writes in Romans 15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
For Paul the scriptures recall God’s promises, given to the Jews and now extended to the nations. In his day the scriptures were called the Mikra, a Hebrew word for “that which is read” in the synagogues which was the way most people knew anything of them. It was also referred to as the Tanakh which is a Hebrew alliteration for the three sections of the Hebrew scriptures with which it consisted:, the Torah which is the first five books of Moses, the Nevi’im or the Prophets and the Ketuvim, the writings. In Paul’s Rabbinical studies he would have learned the Hebrew scriptures in this form. His Greek speaking readers however would have been more familiar with the Koine Greek Septuagint which had been translated some two hundred years before in Alexandria, Egypt.
So he writes: that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
Steadfastness coupled with the encouragement of scripture gives people hope. There is a traceable thread of hope throughout Paul’s letter to the Romans: He tells u that Abraham, the model of faithfulness, “hopes against hope” that God will make good on the promise of an heir, despite his and Sarah’s barrenness and advanced age. Just preceding our passage for today Paul writes that through Jesus Christ we also “rejoice in hope of sharing the glory of God…” indeed, our suffering in the present, far from dashing our hopes, disciplines us in patient endurance, building a character capable of hope (5:2-5). Again, in Romans 8:18-25, the present is a time of suffering, but we live in confident hope of the redemption of our body, the liberation of all creation from futility, decay and death. This hope, says Paul, is for something that cannot be seen at present, “for who hopes for what they see? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
So he continues: May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul establishes that the basis for hope is the character of God. And the goal of the encouragement and steadfastness is so that we, the community to which Paul writes, the Church, will live in harmony with one another and our living in harmony has an outcome, a purpose: it is that together with one voice we glorify God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. What does that say when the church becomes known for dissonance, incongruity and disagreement?
Paul instructs the Christian community of Rome to: 7Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the nations might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the nations, and sing praises to your name”; 10and again he says, “Rejoice, O nations, with his people”; 11and again, “Praise the Lord, all you nations, and let all the peoples praise him”; 12and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations; in him the nations shall hope.”
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul declares that Christ has welcomed us, all of us, and brought us home to God and to each other. To open our arms to those who otherwise are strangers and even enemies is nothing short of a miracle of grace. The experience of that welcome is the way we learn that “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
So by the time we get to this grand finale of Romans we have learned that hope and steadfastness are inseparable companions, and that through the activity of the Holy Spirit God is the source of both. Paul finds reason for hope in the way he sees God working through his own ministry, by bringing the nations to faith in Christ the Messiah of Israel. Just as the scriptures which brought hope were of Hebrew origin, so is the concept of the Messiah of Israel, the anointed one, Christ Jesus. Paul is declaring that such salvation is not limited to the Jews – but to ‘the gentiles’ or, as the Greek more correctly says “to the nations.” Such universal worship of God shows that God is keeping the promises found in scripture. This is so important because in it we see how Paul is intent on spreading it beyond the culture of birth of Hebrew ethical monotheism. In v. 12 he says the nation’s, that is the non-Jewish world) also hope in the Messiah from the line of David, and in v. 13, the final and familiar blessing sums up the passage, and indeed, the letter as a whole with a wonderful benediction: “May the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
In the communities he has founded or with which he communicates, he hopes to make real what has only been promised in scriptures and aims to create an environment where nations and God’s people can worship the God of Israel together, “with one voice” (Romans 15:6). The last quote (Isaiah 11:10 LXX) indicates how the Messiah will rule over the Gentiles and how the Gentiles will be included in the hope given to God’s people by the God of Israel. This inclusion also means that the nations can now rejoice alongside God’s people (15:9 and 15:10).
Paul reminds us of the scripture’s witness to the truthfulness and faithfulness of God. Second, he turns our attention to God’s presence in their midst, precisely and especially in the experience of mutual love and service between people who previously were enemies. “Welcome one another,” Paul writes, “as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God”
For the community in Rome, this means concretely that the Christ-believers have to embody an ethic of hospitality towards each other (Romans 15:7). At the heart of the identity of the community, there needs to be an attitude of welcome and openness. In Romans 15:5, Paul’s wish for the community describes the content of this life in community marked by hospitality: it is about “thinking the same thing.”
The purpose is unity of thought, but Paul adds that this unity of thought happens “among each other,” according to Christ Jesus.” The unity of thought does not mean that the diversity (“among each other”) disappears. However, the criterion of unity among diversity is Christ Jesus. If Christ remains the decisive factor for the community, then the community can reach unity through its diversity and thus glorify God (15:6). Glorification is important but has to be done as a community.
The house churches in Rome, mixed communities comprised of Jews and non-Jews, it meant that the pagan members of the communities have more value than the Jewish members, that the uncircumcised are any less recipients of God’s grace. Unity according to Christ does not mean that differences are erased. Members do not have to conform to one particular pattern of behavior, but they do have to realize that the essential and defining character of their identity is now Christ. In like manner we too are called to this hospitality. This hospitality is not a lukewarm sort of welcome that would translate in letting anyone come in as long as they adapt to what is considered the “strong” position in the church (Romans 15:1), conform to the customs of the established church, or follow the agenda established by the ones in charge inside the community.
Rather, the welcome Paul has in mind threatens the status of the ones who offer it. It pushes them to the threshold of the community and forces them to accept those who come as they are, without seeking to first transform them so that they adapt to the dominant practice. The criterion is the ethos of Christ, and this criterion is one that does not seek to change those who come to Christ.
How do we experience and proclaim the hope that Paul proclaims? How do we answer the question posed with such intensity by those battling intractable disease and disability? How do we speak to the doubts voiced by those who face tragedy and mystery, oppression and injustice?
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.