This three-part series has been updated from 2017.
It may come as a surprise to you that Jesus was friends with Pharisees. Back at the end of chapter eleven of Luke’s gospel, Jesus was invited to a Pharisee’s house for dinner on the Sabbath. This might seem like a small detail, but it’s actually pretty significant.
Being invited to someone’s house for dinner was a way to climb up the social ladder, but being invited for the Sabbath meal meant you were almost family. We usually think of the Pharisees as ‘the opposition,’ but Jesus didn’t always behave that way. Continue reading
August 19, 2018
Watch a video of this sermon here.
How would our lives change if we lived like everything belongs to God?
I grew up in cattle country. Whenever we would drive anywhere, we could see cattle grazing. And if those cows happened to be grazing on a hillside, my mother would invariably break into song. Do you remember the little chorus, “He owns the cattle on a thousand hills?” Great song. But do we really believe it? And do we live as though we believed it? Continue reading
November 5, 2017
Watch a video of the updated version of this sermon for 11/1/2020
We’ve been reading through Matthew’s gospel over the past year, and the story is nearing its conclusion. Jesus has been teaching us the way of discipleship. This is more than stewardship of our resources, something the church often brings into focus at this time of year. It is a commitment to become as much like Jesus as possible, and to let that transformation show through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. It’s a promise to do everything through Christ, who strengthens us. Continue reading
August 14, 2016
I have had a crazy week – how about you? There have been meetings, and we started a new worship service at Ridgeway on 23rd, plus the County Fair, with our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station, and Thursday night’s concert with 7th Time Down and Bob Lenz… it’s been busy, busy, busy around here! The constant hum of busy-ness fools us into thinking we have everything under control, as long as we can keep checking things off our “To Do” lists.
And then Jesus shows up and wads up the list and calls us nasty names. Just when we think we know what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace lashes out at us and calls us hypocrites – just about the worst thing he could possibly call us. You think I’m making this up?
Jesus said to his disciples (that’s us, by the way):
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12:49-56
Not a very cheerful passage, is it? Remember that Jesus and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem. As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him. There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule. They were still looking for a Messiah who would be a military champion, someone to bring down Rome in a great show of armed strength. They were looking for a king who would restore the throne of David. They were not looking for a King reigning on the throne of heaven, or a king who would be a servant, or one who would be tortured and executed. They were not expecting that kind of king.
It must have been very frustrating for Jesus. Here he had been teaching with stories and parables about the way the Kingdom of God works, and they still didn’t get it. Once in a while, there would be a glimmer of understanding, but it would quickly fade, as the disciples who knew Jesus best kept trying to put him into the box of their own expectations. Can you hear the exasperation in his voice, as Jesus starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?
Earlier, Jesus had rebuked James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them (Luke 9:51-56), and now he declares that he cannot wait to bring down fire himself. Can’t you just hear James and John complaining, “How come you get to when we don’t?”
There is a difference between cleansing fire and fire that consumes. James and John were eager to destroy, but Jesus is talking about cleansing, purifying fire. He knows what lies ahead for him, and for his disciples, and he wants to be sure they have been refined and tested, so that they can remain strong when the time comes.
And that time is very near. Very soon, Jesus will ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds shout “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” A few days later, these same crowds will cry out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and he will be led to the place of the skull, hung on a cross, and crucified. There isn’t much time left before the prophets’ words will be fulfilled.
Against this image of cleansing fire, Jesus throws another image, one we normally associate with water. He speaks of his own baptism, not as water to extinguish the flames, but as an example of what purification by fire prepares us to endure. He knows he will be put to the ultimate test.
The Jesus we see in this passage doesn’t seem much like the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor. No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace. His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes.
This Jesus is fed up with the way people keep insisting that their rules are more important than God’s love. He didn’t come to endorse the status quo. Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world. The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission. That mission is to redeem a broken world.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus pits “peace” against “division,” treating them as opposites? We often think of the opposite of peace as war, and the opposite of division as unity. But here Jesus turns the dial another notch. It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without unity.
Yet he knows that his own mission and ministry will cause division, even between family members. Jesus describes how following him with undivided hearts can set children against their parent or parents against their children, if those we love do not follow Jesus, too. It isn’t that Christ intends to cause ruptures just for the sake of disruption, but he knows that being his disciple carries with it the cost of forsaking everything else, and not everyone will make that kind of commitment.
Did you notice that all the divisions Jesus lists are between generations? Jesus is telling us that family ties no longer determine a person’s identity, loyalty, or status. Instead, what marks us is whether we accept or deny Jesus as Lord. What ties believers together is not our ancestry, but Christ. Jesus overturns the world’s priorities, causing division and clearing the way for God’s divine plan for peace to come to its fullness in the Kingdom of God.
God’s divine plan for peace is not always welcome. Those who benefit from the status quo, who hold positions of power at the expense of the powerless, will oppose any who come alongside Jesus to bring peace and justice to others. It is a sign of our times that political and military power struggles are escalating throughout the world, not just here in the United States. That sign, Jesus says, is something we need to pay attention to.
Even those of us who aren’t farmers will check the weather report before we go to bed, and again first thing in the morning, so we can order our lives accordingly. This week, as the temperature and humidity levels rose, I was watching the radar pretty carefully on my phone’s weather app. I was grateful when concert organizers used the same tools to determine we should move Thursday evening’s concert indoors, instead of risking a violent thunderstorm hitting the grandstand during the performance, or someone being overtaken with the heat.
Jesus is saying that it is nothing less than hypocrisy when the same skills are not brought to bear on recognizing that the day of the Lord is near. In Luke 11, Jesus chastises the crowds because they keep asking for a sign that he is the Messiah. Now, he chastises them for their complete inability to interpret the signs they are given.
The problem is not so much that we are unable to interpret the signs of the times, but more that we are unwilling to do so. It’s interesting that Jesus uses this word “interpret,” because the root word of hypocrite – that nasty name Jesus aims in our direction – also refers to an actor, or interpreter. Just as an actor puts on a character different from his own and interprets a role, so a hypocrite interprets the weather but not the more obvious current state of affairs. This kind of interpretation is superficial, not authentic, just like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup. It is hypocrisy.
So what does the weather look like today, here in New Ulm? What time is it getting to be? What are the current concerns of the Kingdom, which Jesus is so eager to bring to completion? How are we being hypocrites, acting out our own short-sighted interpretation of “the way things are,” and missing the point of the way things ought to be? On the surface, like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup, we look fine. But are we really paying attention to what time it is?
As I listened to Bob Lenz speak at the 7th Time Down Concert on Thursday night, something was troubling me about his message that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until later. I realized that, for all his talk about claiming resurrection power in our lives, he never once said anything about repenting of our sin or how that resurrection power transforms us into people who love more.
Earlier in the day, I had talked with Cathy Townley, who is consulting with our “Boost Sunday Morning” team to help us look at ways we can make worship more meaningful and rich. During our conversation, Cathy said, “You need to look at what makes your church unique in your community, and live into that identity. Don’t try to be the Cool Church or the Hip Church, if that is not in your DNA. But figure out what it is your church is offering that no other church in town offers, and live into it.”
Well, I thought, we have identified that. We are forming our identity around hospitality, because that’s what we’re good at. In a moment, Jerry is going to share with you some of the ways we are already beginning to make changes to help us focus on that identity.
But as I struggled to identify what it was about Bob Lenz’s presentation that didn’t sit right with me, I realized this was also the very thing we need to be sure our identity as a church makes clear to the whole community around us. Bob talked about claiming resurrection power, but it isn’t just any resurrection we are talking about. It is the power of Christ’s resurrection, offered to all who believe in him.
I’m also not just talking about life in heaven after we die. I’m talking about being resurrected from our current state of sinful death into a new life that begins immediately when we decide to turn away from living in ways that are killing us, and begin to follow Jesus into life that is rich and full and filled with joy and peace.
This church isn’t just about hospitality, because you can find that at any of the local restaurants or bed and breakfasts around town. We are about extending Christ’s hospitality to people no one else wants to welcome. We are about showing love to people no one else wants to love, in the name of Jesus. We are about helping people no one else thinks they can help, because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.
Jesus holds division and peace in tension, and asks us to interpret the times through God’s clock. What time is it? The same time it was 2000 years ago. Time to wake up. Time to take off the blinders and see what God sees. Time to repent of our complacency, our hypocrisy, our willingness to act one way in public and be something else in private, our willingness to maintain the status quo instead of moving radically into the demands of Kingdom living. It’s time to take a good hard look at who we are, and what we do, and recognize that Jesus calls us to be more – not in our own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It’s time to realize that the weather is shifting. In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6:2)” It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ. The time is now. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
August 7, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus continues to teach us what the Kingdom of God is like, and how different that Kingdom’s priorities are from the priorities we set as sinful human beings. Let’s join Jesus and his disciples as they travel toward Jerusalem.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” – Luke 12:32-40
Three years ago, as I began my appointment to this congregation, I talked about not being afraid, storing up treasures in heaven, and being ready for the Kingdom of God to come in its fullness. I could probably preach that same sermon again, and all the things I said three years ago would still be true. But today, I’d like to focus on just one verse in this passage, because I think it sums up the whole reading pretty well. It’s the first verse we read: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.“
DO NOT FEAR…
We hear the opening phrase, “Do not be afraid” throughout scripture, whenever people encounter God directly or through a heavenly messenger, like the angel Gabriel. You probably know by now that it is one of my favorite phrases in the Bible.
I’ve shared with you before that the Greek phrase for “Fear not,” or “don’t be afraid” really means “Stop being afraid.” We aren’t talking about hypothetical fear that might occur sometime down the road here. This isn’t even a warning against becoming afraid. We are talking about real fear that is already present, fear that has been with us for some time already, fear that won’t let go of us. And Jesus says, “Just stop it. Stop being afraid.”
We live in a world that runs on fear, it seems. We fear what we can’t see, what we don’t know. Our imaginations see threats to our community and nation on every side. As individuals, we fear losing control of our lives, making ourselves vulnerable to someone else. We fear getting hurt. We fear what others might think of us.
We fear shame and embarrassment.
We may try to escape our fear by ignoring it, or by building elaborate fantasies to hide from it. We may even try to escape our fear through self-medication in various forms. Maybe we overeat. We might try to accumulate comfort to offset our fear, buying things we don’t really need, in the hope that they will provide some kind of security.
None of these things will take away our fear.
Yet Jesus says, “Stop being afraid. Your Father in Heaven knows what you need.” In fact, it gives God pleasure to give you what you need.
… YOUR FATHER’S GOOD PLEASURE…
I have a sister who loves to give presents. She would much rather shop for gifts than for groceries. It’s her nature to give things away. She loves to be generous. It gives her pleasure.
In ancient Rome, gifts were given to create a sense of obligation for repayment. It was the way one climbed the social ladder – making sure others were in your debt and owed you favors.
But in Kingdom Economy, God lavishly gives away his entire Kingdom to us, and when we, in turn, give without expecting anything in return, we participate in that Kingdom and receive even more from God. More love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more faithfulness, more self-control, more, more, more.
More … treasure.
Your treasure is the Kingdom of God, which he has already decided it is his pleasure to give you. What stands at the core of this Good News is not the fear of shame, but God’s amazingly tender concern for us, his own little flock. This is an invitation to trust that our future rests in the gracious promises and presence of God. The Gospel invites us to put first things first. The Gospel says, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).
Because it was God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom in the first place. Have you ever thought much about what gives God pleasure? The movie Chariots of Fire follows a couple of English runners through the 1924 Olympics. One of those runners, Eric Liddell, is torn between his devotion to serving as a missionary in China, and his desire to run. In one scene, he tells his sister, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
What gifts or talents do you possess, that can be put to use for the benefit of the Kingdom of God?
What do you do that gives God pleasure?
This is the same good pleasure (or “delightful decision”) that the angels announced at Jesus’ birth when they sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14). It is the same good pleasure God announced at Jesus’ baptism when he said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
And this good pleasure, or “delightful decision” has already happened.
…TO GIVE YOU THE KINGDOM
The Kingdom of God is not just eternal life in the sweet by and by; the Kingdom of God’s active and current reign over heaven has already begun in Jesus’ ministry, and continues to the present time. It is here, now.
God has already given us the Kingdom. We respond by carrying out the values and standards of that Kingdom, which include getting rid of possessions, giving to the poor, and making purses that contain ultimate, inexhaustible, heavenly treasure. Instead of getting rich by accumulating human treasure, our hearts are set on what God ultimately treasures, which is compassion and mercy for those in need.
Since God, in his own good pleasure, has already given us the Kingdom, we are called to be prepared for its fulfillment when Christ comes again.
While Jesus is certainly talking about the end of time, when he will come again in glory to reign over a new heaven and a new earth, we should not be distracted by attempts to pinpoint the day and the hour this will happen. We should also not be lulled into passively twiddling our thumbs while we wait for Jesus to return. Luke offers the certainty that Christ will come again, and the uncertainty of when that will be. This certain uncertainty reminds us that, instead of passively waiting or living wildly because the end is near, we need to be faithful and alert.
Being ready for Jesus’ coming is less about any actual time and place and more about recognizing Jesus’ activity in the world when and where you least expect it. In other words, waiting around for further instructions doesn’t cut it. Fearlessly claiming your identity as a child of God allows you to immediately participate in the Kingdom that it is your Father’s good pleasure to give to you.
Karoline Lewis writes, “Jesus is asking us, what is it that encapsulates the Kingdom of God for you? What is the one thing that if someone asked you about it, you would be able to give witness to your faith in God, your belief in the work of Jesus, your confidence in the presence of the Spirit? … Jesus says that the treasures close to your heart are those you can actually clarify to another in a way that the other gets what you mean, can sense that it matters, and that it matters deeply. … This is not a call to recite proper doctrine, but to be able to express in your own words, close to your heart, what your faith means to you. … confessing what matters.”
What matters is this, dear friends. Christ calls you to let go of your fear, and accept the gift of the Kingdom of God, which it is your Father’s good pleasure to give to you. Will you receive it? Will you accept this precious gift? As we approach Christ’s Table, I invite you to drop your guard, to let go of your concern about what other people might think, and simply receive the assurance that you are God’s own beloved child, redeemed through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.
July 3, 2016
A newer sermon on this text can be found here.
After this the Lord appointed seventy [or seventy-two] others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ …
“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” – Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Jesus sent an advance party to the places he planned to go himself. He told them to offer healing and peace, and to announce that the Kingdom of God had come near. But he didn’t send these disciples out alone; they went in pairs, to give each other encouragement and to hold each other accountable. A couple of weeks ago, we sent out some disciples from this congregation to offer healing and peace to the East Side of St. Paul. Through their work and their witness, they made it known that the Kingdom of God has indeed come near. I invite the UrbanCROSS team to come and share with us some of their experiences.
[SPECIAL REPORT: Mission trip team on UrbanCROSS]
It started with just 70 or 72 people, this movement of trusting and following Jesus. Seventy or so people who were given the task of spreading peace, healing the sick, and announcing the Kingdom of God. This year’s Annual Conference Session in St. Cloud was just one example of how Christ continues to call us to offer peace and healing while we proclaim the Good News. Sue served as our conference lay delegate this year, and she is going to share with you some of her observations.
[SPECIAL REPORT: Annual Conference Session]
The kingdom of God has come near to you. This is the only sermon Jesus gave his disciples to preach. Heal the sick, spread peace, and say these words over and over: the Kingdom of God has come near to you. Practice saying this to yourself for a moment: “The Kingdom of God has come near to me.” Go ahead, whisper it to yourself out loud!
You have just heard some examples of the Kingdom of God drawing near, of being sent into the world in the name of Jesus to heal brokenness and spread peace. Sometimes we may think that the Great Commission from Matthew’s gospel is the only call to discipleship Jesus offered. But here we are, traveling toward Jerusalem with Jesus through Luke’s gospel, and we see that Jesus has always been sending his followers out to heal, to offer shalom, and to remind this crazy world we live in that it is not our final destination. The kingdom of God has come near to you.
When Jesus sent out the seventy (or seventy-two, depending on which version you favor), he warned them that the work they were to do, this Kingdom work, might not always be easy. We might think that he made it even more difficult with the instructions he gave: take nothing with you, accept whatever hospitality is shown to you, and don’t go looking for the softest bed or the best cook in town. In other words, allow yourselves to become vulnerable, and trust in God to provide for your needs. When people welcome you, receive their hospitality with grace. Know that sometimes, your message will not be received very well. When people don’t welcome you, move on. Either way, the Kingdom of God has come near, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God has come near, he says “near,” not “soon.” Theologians like to talk about the “already and not yet” of the Kingdom of God. God’s kingdom has already been introduced to this world in the coming of Jesus, God’s own Son. This Kingdom is not something you have to wait for. It is now, it has already come near in the person of Jesus Christ. You can reach out and touch it, it’s so close to you. But it is not yet completed, not yet fulfilled. Christ calls us to participate fully in God’s kingdom, to help bring it to full reality when Christ comes again in glory. There is still work to do. There is still a harvest to gather in.
Maybe you noticed an article in the New Ulm Journal (Friday, July 1, 2016) this week about the wheat harvest in Kansas. It’s been described as a once-in-a-lifetime harvest. Yields in some fields are well above 100 bushels an acre. That’s a lot of wheat. One custom cutter brought in four combines to harvest a particular farm, and had to park one on the side of the field, because the trucks couldn’t keep up with the amount of grain coming in. Remember the piles of corn we had around here last year? They are piling wheat at the Co-Ops in Kansas, because all the storage bins are full to bursting, and there is nowhere else to put this bumper crop.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Harvest time is when you bring in all the help you can find, because there is only a short window of opportunity to get the crops in while they are at their peak. Cousins and in-laws and neighbors work diligently together from early morning into the night to bring in the harvest. They understand the urgency of the situation.
Jesus reminds us that our situation is just as urgent. In the passage we heard earlier from Galatians, Paul writes, “Let us not grow weary of doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) It is this urgency, this need to persevere in doing the work of the Kingdom that brings us to one more realization: we cannot do this work alone.
We need each other to fulfill Christ’s call on our lives. Jesus sent out his followers two-by-two, not to echo the animals entering Noah’s ark, but because he knew how important it is to have partners you can depend on in ministry. A partner holds you accountable for keeping the work going, just by being present. You don’t want your partner to see you goofing off, do you? And a partner offers encouragement when you need it most, when you feel weary, and especially when your message is rejected and you feel like your work is in vain. A partner helps you keep focused on your mission: to offer healing, to spread peace, and to share the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near.
We are called to be partners in ministry together. Jesus sends us out into the world like sheep in the midst of wolves. He gives us authority to act in his name, encouraging one another, so that, when the Kingdom finally comes in its fullness, we can rejoice that our names are written in heaven, where we will feast at our Lord’s Table with all the company of saints. As we anticipate that joy, Christ invites you to this Table.
Come to this sacred table, not because you must, but because you may; come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ and desire to be his true disciples; come not because you are strong, but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on the grace of God, but because in your weakness and sin you stand in constant need of God’s mercy and help; come, not to express an opinion, but to seek God’s presence and pray for his Spirit. Come, for the Kingdom of God has come near to you, and Christ invites you to be part of it.
June 14, 2015 (You can view a video of this sermon here.)
A high school friend posted on Facebook the other day that wheat harvest has already begun down in southern Kansas. While our harvest up here in Minnesota might be a few weeks out yet, my friend’s comment reminds me that the cycle of planting, cultivating, and harvesting follows a predictable pattern. The steps in the cycle follow the same order, year after year.
Lots of variables can affect the final outcome of each year’s crop: weather conditions, seed quality, disease, pests. But the cycle of planting, growing, and harvesting is still the same cycle that’s been in place since God created plants. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses the very familiar process of plant growth to teach some important lessons about the Kingdom of God.
Whoever has ears to hear, Jesus says, listen to the Word of the Lord as given to us in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 4, beginning at verse 26. Jesus is already talking:
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “”With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:26-34)
Jesus told lots and lots of parables. These stories that drew on familiar, everyday events and circumstances were his primary teaching tool. On the surface, a parable might seem to be the same as a fable – a story that has a moral, like “slow and steady wins the race,” in The Tortoise and the Hare. But they aren’t exactly the same thing. Continue reading
All Saints Sunday A November 2, 2014
An updated version of this sermon for 2017 can be found here.
Artwork from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
What do The Rolling Stones, the Temptations, Dusty Springfield, and Marvin Gaye (with the Supremes singing back-up vocals) all have in common? At some point over the span of a year, they all recorded “Can I Get A Witness?” – a gospel-style hit that got its start in 1963. While the song didn’t have remarkable lyrics, and the melody only consists of about three notes, it put Marvin Gaye on the Billboard 100 top songs list. The hook that inspired such popularity was the refrain that sounded like a revival preacher’s chant, repeated over and over: “Can I get a witness?” In other words, can anybody out there affirm that I’m telling the truth? Are you with me here? Can I get an Amen? Will you say it with me, over and over? Can I get a witness?
As Jesus talked with his followers in the days after the resurrection, he found himself repeating the same words over and over for them, too. As we heard a moment ago, in the story from Acts, they still didn’t fully understand how his reign was supposed to work. “Okay, Lord, we get it that you had to die, and be raised from the dead to prove that even death has no power greater than yours. We get it that you came to offer forgiveness of sins. That’s great. But now that you’ve done all that, isn’t it about time for you to overthrow the corrupt Roman oppressors? Can we get on with the revolt, Lord? Isn’t it time for you to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The disciples were still trying to make Jesus into a military hero. They still didn’t understand that Jesus had come to save the whole world. Time was growing short. Jesus knew he would not be with them much longer. But the only way to help them see the truth was to tell them again and again, over and over. So, just as he had done before, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus started at the beginning.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:44)
Last week, as we witnessed our confirmands declaring their faith, and as we welcomed them into the full life of the church, we recited the ancient words of the Apostles’ Creed. The creed is organized around God’s identity as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the central part of that creed focuses on the work of Jesus Christ, from the moment of his conception through his ascension and heavenly reign. As often as we say those words, I wonder if we really pay attention to the mystery they describe. I wonder if we realize how each element of the life of Jesus affirms both his divine and human natures, how each phrase we repeat when we say, “I believe” connects the earthly life of Jesus to everything that had come before, and everything that would follow. That narrow band of time when Jesus walked on earth was the turning point of salvation history, and this final moment Jesus shares with his disciples falls into a similar pattern: a narrow band between what was, and what will be.
First, Jesus repeats what he has been telling them – and us – all along: since the beginning of creation, God’s plan has been clear. Jesus is the culmination of the whole story up to now. Every bit of his life and ministry is the answer to Old Testament questions, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. It all comes down to this: Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
Like the disciples, we might say, “Yes, Lord. So what now? Now that you have topped every miracle in the history of God’s people, now that you have even defeated death itself, what are you going to do now? Are you finally going to restore the kingdom?”
But Jesus lifts up his hands as Moses did when he blessed Joshua as the one who would lead God’s people into the promised land. He lifts up his hands in blessing, as Elijah did when his successor, Elisha, asked for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit. Jesus lifts up his hands, with the marks of the nails still showing, and he blesses his followers. Then he says, in effect, “It’s up to you. You are going to be my witnesses.” And he’s gone.
I don’t know about you, but if I had been standing there, looking up at the soles of Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds, my gut reaction would probably have been something like, “Wait a minute! What?! How can we possibly do that?” Just like Thomas in last week’s reading, when he blurted out, “We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?” I would be dumbfounded. How could Jesus expect so much of me, when I am so clueless?
But that isn’t what the disciples did.
Instead, “they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (vv 52-53).
Every time I read this passage, I wonder about the transformation that happened to the disciples between Easter morning and the ascension. They have become completely different people. This is even more amazing when you realize that in this version of the ascension, Luke still has us gathered with the disciples on Easter night, not 40 days later, as we find in the Acts version of the story (Acts 1:3). We have scarcely made it back to the room where the disciples have gathered, we have only just heard Cleopas and his friend, who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We have barely just seen Jesus reappear in our midst and ask for a piece of fish to prove he isn’t a ghost.
Now I know this version of the story doesn’t agree with the other gospels, or even Luke’s own later writing, and scholars can’t agree on why Luke might have collapsed all the events between the resurrection and the ascension into less than 24 hours. To me, it isn’t really the timeframe that matters. It’s what happens to the disciples, those followers of Jesus who were scared out of their wits on Easter morning, and here we find them worshiping Jesus, returning to Jerusalem with great joy, and continually blessing God in the temple. They had already lost Jesus once, on the cross. And their sorrow at his death is completely understandable. But now, when they lose him a second time, they rejoice! What happened to them in the meantime?
They became witnesses.
They knew they had seen God.
When Luke says they worshipped Jesus as he ascended, he doesn’t use that word lightly. In fact, this is the only time in Luke’s entire gospel when the disciples worship Jesus. These were good Jewish kids, remember. They knew that first commandment backwards and forwards. “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3; Deuteronomy 5:6-7) They knew that only God deserved their worship, their praise, their adoration. So when Luke says, “they worshipped Jesus” he’s really saying, “they finally knew Jesus was God.”
This new understanding that Jesus is God required a completely new understanding of who the disciples had become. Not only did the disciples become aware that God was redeeming all of Creation through Jesus, they also realized they had a role to play in that redemptive work. “You are going to be my witnesses,” Jesus tells them. You are going to show the world what you now know to be true.
“But how can we possibly do that?” you may be wondering. Well, notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Go do witnessing.” He said, “You will be my witnesses.”
God is not asking you to add more things to your To Do list. God is asking you to make a new To Be list. Not that you need more items to check off, but that each item on your To Be list makes you more like Jesus.
So, instead of going to more Bible studies or reading more chapters and verses each day, Christ calls us to be more hungry for the Word of God.
Instead of signing up for more projects, participating in more programs, and doing more work, Christ calls us to be more aware of the needs we see around us.
Instead of attending more prayer circles or reading more devotional books, Christ calls us to be more present with God, and more attentive to God’s still, small voice throughout the activities and routines of our day.
Instead of doing more work for the church, serving on more committees, teaching more classes, organizing more events, Christ invites us to be more of who God created us to be.
Instead of doing more for Christ, we are to be more like Christ.
And that is our witness.
But we cannot be witnesses on our own. In fact, we can’t be Christ’s witnesses under our own power at all. If we depended on our own strength and will, we would only be witnessing to ourselves, not Christ.
Jesus told his followers they would be “clothed with power from on high.” In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate that initial baptism in the Holy Spirit that came like a mighty rushing wind on Pentecost. The same power that Luke ascribes to God, Jesus, and the Spirit throughout his Gospel becomes evident in the lives of the apostles in Luke’s second book, Acts. Remember last week that I told you, “becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work.”
This is the central theme of Ascension: Jesus has completed his work on earth. Now it’s our turn. He leaves, but not without saying a proper Goodbye. He leaves, but not without reassuring us that this is not the end, but the beginning. Just as our confirmands last week affirmed that they are at the beginning of a life of faith and faithfulness, so the church is at the beginning of a new age of ministry.
Christ calls us to live into our faith, willing to share good news, certainly, but aware that our very lives are the witness we bear. How we live shows Jesus to others. We have not been given this grace to keep it locked up inside this building, despite the sign on the front door that says, “do not open this door.” Despite the stained glass windows that prevent us from seeing out into our community unless we go outside, we are called to be witnesses. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are witnesses to what we now know: that Jesus is the Son of God, who calls us to repentance and forgives our sins.
So the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple, blessing God. Isn’t than an interesting way to put it, “blessing” God? Jesus had blessed them as he left their sight. Now they were blessing God in the temple, as they waited to be clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit. That narrow band of time, the bridge between what was and what will be, has come to completion. What lies ahead is the Kingdom of God, in which we all participate, to which we all belong. As our lives bear witness to this good news, we are called to receive Christ’s blessing, to accept the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, changing us as it did those first disciples. And we are called to worship Jesus, the only Son of the Living God.
Can I get a witness?