Category Archives: Sermons

Sarah Laughs and Hagar Weeps

Genesis 21:8-21

Before there was a child, there was a promise. A promise which required a child to be fulfilled, but to two people advanced in years, unable to bear children, this promise nonetheless came. At some point, after he was done travelling, Abraham, then Abram, looked around, and considered the fact that the promise that was made to him required children and he did not have any. In a vision, God came to him, and Abram mentioned the problem. He doesn’t have any children, and Eliezer of Damascus was his heir…is this what the plan is? 

God responded that, no, Eliezer is not to be the carrier of the promise, but Abram’s own child will be so. God asked him to step out of the tent, directed Abram to the stars in the sky which reached all the way down the the horizon, and said to Abram, “Count the stars, if you are able…So shall your descendants be.” We are told that Abram believed. ‘

And yet, there was no child. And especially at the time it was assumed that anytime there was a problem with bearing children, the woman was always at fault. And so Sarah, then Sarai, did not want to stand in the way of God’s plans and purposes. And she knew that she could not bear children. And if not her, than someone must in order for him to have a child. So she and Abraham decide to take matters into their own hands to try to bring about God’s promise, and she offers her servant Hagar to be used. 

And so Abram listened to her and Abram and Hagar conceived a child. But soon problems came between Hagar and Sarai. Whether it was real or perceived contempt, we are told that Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar, and Hagar ran away. But God spoke to Hagar and told her to return, for the child that she carries will be the patriarch of a great people, and here God told her to name the child Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And she returned and she gave birth to a son. And Abram named him Ishmael. 

God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son, and Abraham laughs, because it’s a crazy thought, but there will be a second child brought into the world in a home in which no children were supposed to come. But regarding Ishmael, God said, “I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” Yet, even with this blessing that God will grant to Ishmael, the promise will come from Isaac, who will be born to Sarah.

And into the world came this child, this impossible miracle child born to parents both over ninety years old. 

The narrative moves forward sometime, because we enter the story here when Isaac was weaned, and Abraham prepared a feast. And we can feel the narrative change a bit. No longer is Ishmael named, but he is “the son of Hagar the Egyptian.” And yet while he is not named in this narrative, it is all about him.

***

At the time of the feast we are told that Sarah saw “the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son — literally, she say the son of Hagar laughing. The irony, of course, is that Isaac’s name means laughter. Abraham laughed, Sarah laughed. But at this point, laughter is not acceptable for this, not young man. Perhaps we want to attribute some sinister motive to Ishmael, something that would make him deserving of this fate. But that cannot be inferred here. 

What is unknown is what pushes Sarah over the edge. Perhaps she sees Ishmael and it dawns on her that he is the oldest son of Abraham, that this boy will be his heir, that this boy will be the bearer of the promise, that this boy, this boy who was brought into the world by her handmaid, this child will be the child. And for some reason, Sarah can no longer stand his existence. She cannot have this boy in her house, she cannot have this boy in her life, she certainly cannot have this boy along with her son. Because this boy is Abraham’s son, but now that she had Isaac, he’s not her son. 

And so she goes to Abraham and asks him, instructs him, really, to cast out “this slave woman with her son,” and she won’t use Hagar’s name here either, it’s almost like for Sarah, neither of them are humans, just objects. And Sarah had to know that this would be a death sentence. In the time, a woman had to be under the protection of a man. So where would she go? There is no way that Hagar and Ishmael could survive in the desert alone. But she didn’t seem to care, her hatred of Ishmael burned ever hotter. But Abraham cared for this boy. He was his son, after all, and this was distressing to him, indeed, it was evil in his sight to do such a thing to a mother and child who hadn’t done anything to deserve it. 

But God tells Abraham not to be distressed. Which, I don’t know about you is troubling to me, and here even God doesn’t speak their names, but God says to do as Sarah tells him, and that because Ishmael is his son, that God will make a great nation of him. Indeed, the promise follows Abraham’s descendents — all of them. 

And so early in the morning, before dark. Before the light of the sun shone upon them, and I wonder if Abraham was still ashamed of what he was about to do, he packed a few provisions for them, knowing that this would never be enough to sustain them, but he couldn’t send them off with nothing. In fact, he gives them the very basics. He took bread, a waterskin filled with water, and gave it to them, and he cast them out. To wander in the wilderness, in the desert.

In the dry wind of the desert, it does not take long before dehydration sets in. And a waterskin does not last all that long. And we are told that Hagar cast Ishmael under one of the bushes and sat a ways off. And while this may seem like abandonment, it resembles funeral practices, and so we may infer that he was very near dying of dehydration. And what is a mother to do? She is supposed to provide for him, to protect him, to ensure that he has a life, yet she is not able to do any of this. And so she goes off a bit, out of desperation for her son, whom she is sure is about to die, and she weeps. Sarah laughs, and Hagar weeps. 

But this is not the end of the story. Because God heard the voice of the boy. Laughter could not exist beside the boy whose name means laughter, and now the boy whose name means God hears is heard by God. And Hagar returned to him, held him fast, and God provided a well to sustain them. 

***

And so we have this story about Abraham and Sarah, although it is really about Hagar and her son, her son who is never named in this story, her son Ishmael. Ultimately, this story is about the grace of God that extends far beyond anything we could imagine. 

Because there is this boy who was cast out because he was not the child who was supposed to be the bearer of the covenant. This child which was brought into the world because Abraham and Sarah were unsure of God’s plans and decided to get a jump start. This child who would not carry on the covenant. This child who was born of a foreigner. This child was heard by God. God heard this boy. 

This boy would be cut out of the family, but not out of the promise. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a great nation, and that promise is also fulfilled for all of Abraham’s descendants. That even in these two people, these two people who were otherwise inconsequential, these two people who were powerless and had no rights of which to speak. And yet, God turns God’s ear two these two people. Because God has not forgotten God’s promises to this son of Abraham, favored son or not. The story for Ishmael could have ended here. But it didn’t. It did not play out the way that anyone intended, but God showed favor on this servant woman and this young child. 

And while we are used to holding Abraham and Sarah in favorable light, they are not so here. Here they are not the heroes. Here Hagar and Ishmael are the heroes. 

God was with the boy. And this is the thing about the Scriptures, the heroes are not always heroes, and the righteous ones do not always act righteous. Indeed, as in this case, those who are supposed to be the heroes turn out to be the villains, and those who are supposed to be disposable, weak, and nonessential are still so very important to God. Because even though the boy and his mother were cast out from Abraham’s house, kept from passing on the covenant, God was with the boy. 

***

Indeed, it is this other son of Abraham that the Arab people trace their heritage back through. Indeed, they are the great nation which was promised to Ishmael. And yet, God was with the boy. And not only in this particular instance, perhaps God’s grace and mercy is bigger than we would imagine, and perhaps ours ought to be as well. 

And just as Ishmael, near death, and Hagar, distressed and unable to watch her son die, just as Ishmael, who was removed from the house of Abraham so that he would not inherit along with Isaac, just as Ishmael who was weak and otherwise forgotten, cast out to die or never be heard from or seen again, this boy, Ishmael was heard by God. And so, we, in the wilderness, forgotten, alone, scared, near death, we too are not kept from God, we too are heard by God in our state. And so even in these moments, we are not abandoned, left to our on devices, or forgotten. Things may not work out the way that we intended, but that does not mean that we are abandoned. 

***

Before there was a child, there was a promise. And then there were two children, both sons of Abraham. And these two sons of Abraham were both part of the promise, both were heirs of the promise that God made to Abraham and his descendants. God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants will be numerous held for both of his sons. Scripture tells us that “God was with the boy.”

So how can we, the descendants of Isaac, think and speak ill of the descendants of our half-brother, Abraham’s other son? After all, God was with the boy. Who are we not to be?

Laughable Hope

Genesis 18:1-15; Romans 5:1-8

Finished. This is what Abraham’s line was to be. Ended. Cut off. Sarah couldn’t have children, and their best hope was Ishmael, the child of Abraham and Sarah’s servant. But God says, “No, Sarah will bear a child,” and Abraham says, “Yeah, sure, bless Ishmael.” And so here we have three visitors showing up to visit Abraham and Sarah in the heat of the day and Abraham and Sarah prepare provisions for them to refresh and nourish the body, while they provided conversation to refresh and nourish the spirit. 

But the men come with news that they’ve heard, but they probably haven’t really heard before. News that Sarah would give birth to a child. Now, Abraham was a hundred and Sarah was ninety and while many things may seem to be different from the world of Abraham and Sarah and our world, one thing that is pretty consistent is that there comes a time when one is no longer able to bear children. There is a point of no return. And there is no indication that Abraham and Sarah were particularly distressed about their lot in life. Children were far more important, practically, than today. But I would imagine that they would have dealt with the future and the shape of it. Sure life probably wasn’t what they intended or expected, but this was what they had, and they have had many years prior to grieve the reality. 

But now God has told them that they’re going to have descendants, and Abraham also had a little difficulty with this, because, it’s obvious they are far too old for children. And then these visitors come and they say something similar, that Sarah was going to have a child. Sarah laughs and we think, how could she laugh? Well, it is a laughable proposition. It’s ridiculous, really. 

And yet we know that even in her old age, Sarah had a son and they named him Isaac. 

And even with this, no doubt life wouldn’t have turned out the way they would have intended. Parents, both about centenarians chasing around a child. 

And yet, as Paul writes in Romans just before our passage, Abraham was “as good as dead,” yet out of this comes a new creation, comes new life, comes an unexpected turn. 


Life comes from a valley of dry bones, the dead comes back to life, and new life comes from this couple from whom no new life was supposed to come. This new life didn’t quite come as intended, it didn’t work the way they expected. But even for people who had given up hope, hope was still not something which eluded them. Of course, the hope that was given to them probably wasn’t the hope that they, at least initially, held out. 

 ***

And we read in the Letter to the Romans. This was toward the end of Paul’s life writing to this church that he did not start, and wishing to visit with them. And I could imagine that Paul, pen and parchment spent a bit of time reflecting on where he had been, and the life that did not turn out the way he would have expected. He had been through great suffering. Beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, threats, and the like. And yet, somehow out of this seeming wreckage of a life, new life came forth. 

And the apostle doesn’t sugar coat it, either. He doesn’t skim over suffering. He doesn’t gloss over it, ignore it, try to make it seem easier or less like suffering. No heretical prosperity gospel here. But while he doesn’t try to gloss over it, he does strive to give a meaning, a purpose within it.

suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Now, let’s be clear about this. Suffering is not something which is good, it is never something which should be sought out, it is never something which should go unhealed. There is so much suffering in the world, we should seek to alleviate it whenever possible, for there is so much suffering that we cannot fix. When I served in the inner city, I would speak to people from the country who would say some variant of, “Oh they must be so much more connected to God, being so clearly dependent on God for everything.” Which is a nice middle-class way of rationalizing and spiritualizing the horrors of poverty. And I would always respond with, “No, poverty is terrible, and we need to eliminate it.” Suffering is not good. However, suffering is something which can be redeemable. It is something which can be used by God to bring out something good, something life-giving. Indeed, new life can come from that which is supposed to be dead, barren, fruitless. 

And so he doesn’t just speak of suffering, and not even primarily, but he mentions it in order to get to hope. 

Hope is one of those words which is so often used that it has largely lost much of its spiritual and religious depth. We use “hope” in a similar way as wish. I hope the sun is shining tomorrow. I hope this summer will be less humid. I, ordinarily, hope the Brewers win the World Series. But these aren’t really hopes, these are wishes. Hope is something that runs deeper. The writer of Hebrews speaks of hope as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” 

And hope is not just a wish for the future but it is an anticipation, and expectation. We can hope for the future because we know of what God has done in the past. We know that the road for Abraham and Sarah was supposed to end. Except it didn’t, God brought new life from a place from where it was not supposed to come. We know that Paul suffered greatly and found himself executed, and that should have been the end of it. Except it wasn’t and the message of Jesus continued to spread all over the world not only because of Paul, but he had no small contribution to that. 

And so it is this hope, this anticipation, this confident expectation, that allows us to face the world, to face whatever the world may bring. 

***

And this same hope holds true for us today. And this hope is not just wishful thinking, it is not just a desire for things in the future, but it is a hope that God’s desires will come to fruition, the hope that things will be made right. And this is what the world needs most, and this is what the people of God can most provide for the world. In a time when things are increasingly hopeless, when hope seems to be an extremely rare commodity, the people of God are given an abundance of hope. 

More than anything, the people of God are a people of hope. We are people of hope not because things always work out the way that we want or the way that we expect or the way that we plan. We are a people of hope not because we do not experience hardship or suffering. We are a people of hope not because we are optimistic or always have the ability to look on the bright side of things or to search out and find the silver lining in a cloud. No, none of these things. 

We are a people of hope because God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We are a people of hope because Christ lived, died, and rose again for you and for me and for all of us, and not only us, but for the whole world. We are a people of hope because the same God who was faithful so many times in the past will remain faithful.

But to what does our hope point? Our hope points to the sharing of the glory of God. Our hope points to the fulfillment of the promises of God. This is the ultimate object and foundation of our hope. 

And this is not just for the things of the end times, but it is hope that God’s desires and God’s purposes will, in some way, be worked out though life, as well. So often this doesn’t happen the way we expect, or the way we want, certainly not the way that we plan. But we can have the confidence that God can redeem it, God can use it, and that God’s purposes will be accomplished. 

Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, none of these are ends in themselves, they are useful insofar as they lead us to hope, and this hope, this expectation, even confidence, which is far more than simply wishful thinking, this hope does not disappoint us not because of our own abilities to be hopeful, not because our ability to be optimistic, or anything of the like. Hope does not disappoint us because our hope is rooted in what God has done, and because we know of what God has done, we can be confident of what God will ultimately do. 

And so if God can bring forth new life from people who were “as good as dead,” think about what God can do with the likes of us. 

The Creative Space of Chaos

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Hendrik did not pay attention in the childbirth class. I know, I know, he wasn’t born yet, but still. We paid attention, we had books, I learned about timing contractions and when to call the doctor, and what to report to the doctor. We had a mental note of things to put in the bag to bring to the hospital. But he came three weeks early, and all the steps were out of order. It was rather chaotic. I think I remember telling Marie just as things were starting to snowball that this is not very orderly. And then things proceeded rather chaotically. Things were moving fast until they weren’t, and then they started to, and then there was a lot of beeping from different machines, and nurses and doctors looking rather serious, and people moving rather quickly. But it was out of that chaos that a new life came. It was that chaos that provided the space for a new life to enter the world. 

I don’t think I’m the only one who likes order. I like order, I like structure. Order and structure does not necessarily mean legalistic or rigid, though it can, but that’s not why I like order or structure. The human body is quite flexible, but it is the structure that makes it flexible. Without a skeleton, a body is just a lump of flesh.  

We are living in a time where disorder is more prevalent. Protests and marches, and some riots. It almost seems to be an uprising of sorts. We also see tear gas and pepper spray and rubber bullets, and riot gear. The nation is a powder keg right now, and even the smallest of sparks is able to ignite it, it seems. If you watch a place where the protests turned into riots, it looks like chaos. And when you look around the nation, it can seem as though we have descended into chaos. And we assume that chaos is bad. Order is good, chaos is bad. At least, this is the assumption. 

***

The first chapters of Genesis are not a science or history book, at least as we understand history or science. What we have in the first chapters of Genesis is poetry and mythology. It is far more concerned with meaning, with Truth, with a capital T, than with simply facts. What we have here before us, is poetry. 

Origins have always been a matter of intrigue for peoples, and this stretches throughout history. Every single culture has a story of origins. Where we came from, and how we got here. And this story here, for those who grew up hearing it, is so well known that we kind of move through it, “yes, yes, I know this.” Or, because this serves as a lightning rod, either we read it as scientific fact and insist all sorts of things about it, or we understand that they didn’t have a scientific understanding, and they certainly didn’t in the way that we understand science, and then we kind of gloss over it.  

But precisely because I don’t think that this is neither science nor history, it is precisely this reason that I think we need to look closely, here. 

And so it starts with God. It is also an expansive vision, here. This is not a national origin story, or the origin story of a particular region, race, ethnicity, or anything else. What we have is the origin of all things, “heavens and the earth” is shorthand for everything that exists. The earth was what we stand on, the heavens were everything above that. Everything that we see, those are “the heavens.” Of course, they had no idea of solar systems and planets, much less galaxies or a universe, but no doubt had the ancients known about these, they would have included them as well. 

And so the first action that is reported in the sacred scriptures is God’s action. In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 

We continue, the “earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Here we have five words that are piled up: formless, void, darkness, the deep, the waters. These words are all used individually or in combinations throughout the scriptures to indicate chaos. Here it is an empty, arid, unfruitful, unproductive chaos. We tend to understand chaos to be mad, as if it is a result of sinfulness. But there’s absolutely no moral judgement given here to this. Whereas in other creation stories, there is a struggle between gods of order and chaos, but here, there is no struggle. Chaos is not personified. It exists neutrally. Rather, what we have here is a painter’s palette. 

I’m no painter, but I know painters, and the palette holds paints, and it is the place where the artist mixes colors that will eventually go on the canvas. But before the painting begins on the canvas, the artist has what appears to be a mess on the palette. It doesn’t look like anything, it doesn’t look like anything that could ever become something. It is chaos. It is, however, chaos with a direction, with a purpose. The chaos is necessary for the creation of something new. You need stuff, stuff that is all mixed together, and out of that, order and structure can come. 

And this is what happens. In a really fascinating way. 

The first day, light is created and there is a separation between day and night. Light and darkness, seeming opposites, put together in a harmonious whole. 

The second day, the waters are separated, for the ancients, the sky was a dome, and rain was water above coming through the dome. And so this is how they understood it, there is water, which is often understood to be the symbol of chaos for the ancient people, and a dome is placed there, and the sky is separated from the waters. Two things which are understood to be opposites, put together in a harmonious whole. 

The third day, dry land appears, and there is a separation between the sea and the dry land and plans are put on the land. Sea and land, seeming opposites are put together into a harmonious whole. 

And then beginning on the fourth day, we see the each are given their cognate. Whereas day and night were distinguished on the first day, on the fourth day we have the sun and moon. To lights, a greater and lesser, one for the day and one for the night, placed in harmony. 

Whereas the second day, sky was created to separate the waters, on the fifth day, birds and sea creatures are created, and placed in harmony. 

On the third day, dry land and plants were created, and a distinction between seas and dry land was created, on the sixth day, land animals and humans were created.

And finally, on the seventh day, God created the sabbath, almost like a lintel to hold a structure together. 

—-7—-
3 —->6
2 —->5
1 —> 4

An all of this, came from that which was described just a few verses earlier as formless, void, darkness, the deep, the waters. The epitome of chaos. 

And all of this makes me wonder if chaos, or what we understand as chaos, is not inherently bad. I wonder if chaos would also be the space out of which something new is created. Here, we see order being brought out of chaos. We tend to assume that chaos is, by nature, bad. That chaos must be avoided at all costs. And similarly, that order is always good That order must always be sought and maintained at all times. 

But even when a birth goes more according to plan, it is always somewhat chaotic. But it is that chaotic moment that brings forth something new into the world. 

Rather than being a scientifically historical account of origins, this speaks a lot about us, and about God, and about life. It is about God bringing order out of chaos. Taking something which is unfruitful, unproductive, and transforms it into something fruitful, something productive. 

I wonder if God can bring something new out of the chaos that we are experiencing now, too. Perhaps chaos is not necessarily bad, perhaps it can also be the space out of which something new can be born. 

The Light that Follows the Darkness: A Funeral Meditation

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” writes C.S. Lewis. The Cambridge Professor and writer lost his wife to cancer after only four years of marriage. His reflections written during that time were later published in a book titled, A Grief Observed. Lewis continues, “I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness…”

Grief is an experience that is hard to name, and even harder to describe. This is the nature of the human condition. This uncomfortable and confusing mixture of emotions is not something to run from, but to allow it space to dwell.

Grief involves both mourning our loss, but also remembering all that was good. And so today, we grieve his absence from us. We mourn his loss and we celebrate all of the light that he brought into the world.

And grief is so hard, it is so confusing, it is so messy, because we know in our heart of hearts, we know in our spirits, in the deepest parts of our being, we know with a deep knowledge that this is not how it is supposed to be. We know that this isn’t right. And it is okay to name that. It’s good to name that.

This is why we gather together. We do so not to avoid looking at death, but to stare it down. We look into the grave not because the grave has the final word, but so that we can stand over it, defiantly shaking our fists, and proclaiming with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

We look death straight in the eyes, because it is only by doing so that we, eventually, we might see through death. That we might see that the grave is not simply a pit of darkness, but that we might, eventually, see the light breaking forth in the darkness of the depths, that one can see the light of a new day. That even in the deep depths of death, the light of Christ can break through, even there.

***

And it is only when we look at the source of our grief, when we look at death, when we look at the grave, when we stare down the darkness as we wait for the light to shine forth can we say with Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It shall be well not because we ignore the pain, not because we turn away from it, not because we ignore it, but it shall be well because we trust that even in the midst of this, that God joins us where we are. That God experiences what we experience, that God feels what we feel, that God suffers alongside of us, and that, eventually, God will help us past this grief, past this suffering, past this pain. That God will lead us from darkness into the light.

All manner of thing shall be well because we do not grieve alone and we do not pick ourselves up alone. All manner of thing shall be well because death does not have the final word and the grave is not the most powerful force. All manner of thing shall be well because we have hope that life follows death just as the dawn follows the darkness of night.

We have hope because we trust that God is doing something beyond our vision. We have hope that God can bring good out of bad. We have hope that, as we read in the Psalms, “those who go out weeping…shall come home with shouts of joy.”

“Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus, “for they will be comforted.”

The night brings darkness. But when you look into the darkness, you will, eventually, see the morning light breaking through as a sign that a new day has dawned.

Wait…Where are we going?

Sermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Genesis 15:1-18.

It is one thing to hear about the promises of God, or to read about the promises of God. It is another thing altogether to really feel and understand the promises of God. Especially when you are in a difficult place. It can be hard to think that God has a purpose when it seems like you’re just moving this pile of bricks from here to there and back again, or when you are facing seemingly endless health problems, or when you feel trapped. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when you look around and see the sparse sanctuary. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when this world seems to only tear itself apart.

It is easy to read about the promises of God, it is easy to hear about the promises of God, but when things don’t seem to be working, when things don’t seem to be turning out, it can be really hard to truly believe the promises of God.

But surely this is just a problem for us? Right? Surely this didn’t happen with the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith? Right? Well, maybe not.

Abram — later to become Abraham — is the perfect example of faith, I would always think. You see, when God told him to get up and move out of his country, away from his home, and move to the other side of the world — at least what he would have understood to be the world. What did Abram do?  Genesis never reported him ever saying a word, just that he got up, packed up his tent, gathered his flock together, loaded his camels, and he and his wife Sarai headed off to a new land that they did not know, filled with people that they did not know, who spoke a language which he did not know. At the command of God, Abram just packed up and went. The perfect exemplar of faith.

Abram goes up and settles in what would be the Promised Land. There was a famine, though, and so he moved to Egypt, a major world power, where he would have access to food and resources. He did well there, although he had a little run-in with the Pharaoh — the ruler of Egypt — who sent him away. Abram went back to settle in Canaan, the land that God Promised to his descendants, while his nephew, Lot, settled elsewhere. God told him to get up again, and to walk the length and breadth of the land. So Abram got up, and he wandered all around, and finally made camp.

Up until this point, the relationship between God and Abram had been pretty straightforward. God speaks, Abram listens. God commands, Abram obeys. Abram, the perfect exemplar of faith. But we must keep reading, because the story of Abram doesn’t end there, and there is certainly more than what we have seen thus far. Abram, gets to a point where he says, “Wait…I don’t quite understand this.”

***

Twice in our passage today, we see Abram asking God some overdue questions. All this time, God has been telling Abram that he will be the father, the patriarch of a great nation. Abram, at this time, is very old, he is tired, and he knows that he likely doesn’t have a huge amount of time left. I can imagine Abram would begin to be concerned, after all, he didn’t have any children. So if he didn’t have any children, and he was going to the father of a great nation, it obviously couldn’t be his children, but it must be a servant in his house. I mean, it surely wouldn’t have added up to Abram.

“Uh…God?” Abram responded, “You keep telling me about all of these descendants that I’m going to have, but I don’t have any children…so how, exactly, is this going to work?” To answer, God points up to the sky and tells him, “Look up and count the stars. This is how many your descendants will be.”

And Abram believed. This is what is interesting, is that Abram believed. Abram “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

God then told Abram, “I am the God who brought you from your home, and gave you this land for your descendents.” God reminded Abram that he has followed God so much already, reminding Abram of what God has done, and what God has promised.

Now, we are told that Abram believed, but he is not yet done asking questions.

“But how do I know this?” Abram asked.

Suddenly this Abram that I had mentioned in the beginning of this message, this Abram who is the perfect example of faith because he never asked questions, this Abram is gone. We’re left with another Abram. We are left with an Abram that believes, but yet has questions. Abram doesn’t really do anything that exciting or earth shattering himself, Abram is just another guy who sometimes does great things, who other times makes great mistakes and has been given an inkling of faith, who has simply been shown the immense grace of God. Abram is replaced with, well, a human being who is not that different from you or I.

We are left with this Abram who wonders how all of this is going to be accomplished because things just aren’t making sense.

You see, Abram believes, but he also seems to be wondering, can I trust God? Can God really do this? Is God telling the truth?  Abram believes, but this doesn’t mean that all of his questions or uncertainties vanish. Abram has questions for God, and God gives him some answers, but not quite the answers, or in the form, that he was expecting.

Does this sound familiar? God says, “Go!” and we go. At some point, though, we begin to ask, “Wait…where are we going and how are we getting there?”

So Abram asked this question, and how does God respond?

God tells Abram to get a cow. Rather than telling Abram, God decides to show him something.

Now in the ancient world, a covenant — which is like a contract — was made in several different ways, one of them was to take an animal, cut it into pieces, and each of the parties would walk between the animal pieces. The unspoken message, then, is that if one of the parties breaks the covenant, they will end up like these animal pieces. Pretty gruesome, I know, but also very powerful. We’d probably take our commitments a little more seriously if we had to walk through animal pieces.

So Abram gets a cow, as well as several other livestock, and goes beyond what was told of him and he cuts them in two. Abram knows what’s going on here.

Abram them falls into a deep sleep and he has a vision and a torch and a smoldering pot pass through the animal pieces. It’s a common covenant ceremony, except Abram didn’t pass through the pieces, this covenant was one-sided, that is God promised these things to Abram, and God takes on the responsibility to fulfil them.

I think that this part of the story is quite telling. Abram, the person on whom God chooses to lay all of the promise for the world. The person that God chooses to carry on that promise. God chooses to put all of God’s chips into one person, and that person is Abram.  This person suddenly begins asking questions about what is going on. “How is this going to work?” Abram asks. “How do I know that you’re telling the truth?” Abram asks.

This isn’t surprising, after all, Abram is human, human like you and I.  This is not really that insightful at all. What is insightful about this is how God responds. God not only tolerates his questions, God is open to his questions, God responds to his questions, God seems to welcome his questions. God could have become frustrated with Abram, and decided to start over with someone else, someone who wouldn’t ask questions. But God doesn’t do this, not in the slightest.

***

And it is in this story that we are able to see the developing relationship between God and God’s people. God is not just a deity who commands, but does not otherwise involve Godself, no, God is deeply connected with God’s people, relationally so.

And while it would have been much easier for Abram if God would have just given him a vision that would clearly show how things would have played out, that’s not what happened. God gives him a little bit, and a little bit. Look at the stars, see me make a promise to you in a way that you understand. This does not take the place of faith, but it confirms faith.

As the writer of Hebrews tells us,

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:8-16, NRSV.)

So when the promises are hard to believe, when they seem distant and unfounded, when you look around and you don’t see a path forward, remember Abram. Remember his questions, his conversations, and remember our gracious God who welcomed his questions and interacted with him.

So take heart, brothers and sisters, for you are in good company. And keep watch for those glimpses of the promise. Perhaps they won’t be obvious as a smoking pot and a flaming torch passing through split animals, but God continues to give glimpses of God’s promises to be viewed and accepted in faith.

Take heart, brothers and sisters, and let us remember the story of Abram, and let us gaze upon the steadfast promises of the Divine in faith.

The Redemptive Wilderness

DesertSermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
Text: Luke 4:1-13.

 

The other day, I went out for a walk, as I often like to do in the winter, on the lake behind my house. It is shallow, and it freezes over quickly, solidly, and smoothly. For someone who cannot swim, this may seem to be an odd thing to enjoy. But for some reason, I find it enjoyable, almost cathartic. As a child, one of my favorite things was when my folks took me to the Holland State Park in the winter, when the shoreline of Lake Michigan was frozen, and I could go exploring on the ice.

And as I walked out there, the snow crunching under my boots, the hairless parts of my face stinging from the sub-zero wind with no houses or trees to break it, I looked around at the frozen landscape with houses a bit in the distance, smoke and steam curling up from their chimneys, I began to wonder, as I sometimes do, why do people live here? Not necessarily me, I know why I live here, and I love living in the north. And not necessarily the European immigrants who came here, I know why they did, but before that. Why would people settle in a place that, for nearly half of the year, becomes an icy, harsh, and unforgiving landscape?

In the second year of seminary, as part of our formation, we went on an intercultural immersion trip, to experience and learn about another culture while immersed in it, and I was a part of the group that went to Oman. Oman is a wonderful nation on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to the northwest, the United Arab Emirates to the north, and Yemen to the west. We spent time there with one of the RCA missionaries there. The RCA has had a continual mission presence since the late 1800’s. We were there in winter and it was still in the mid-to-upper 70’s and sunny. There are areas good for cultivating crops, but much of the landscape is a rocky, mountainous desert.

We spent a day and night in the desert, and for how hot it was during the day, it gets quite cold at night. It is a place of extremes. You can easily become dehydrated without even realizing it in a relatively short period of time. And while we were in the desert, we were visited by a group of bedouin who were selling their handmade goods. The bedouin are nomadic herders who live in the desert, and as they were there, I also began to wonder, why would anyone settle here in the first place? Why would they make their homes in this arid, hot, and unforgiving location?

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this region of the world is the cradle of the three distinct, yet related, Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And it is not just that they are from this place, but this geography is engrained into the spirituality of these faiths as well. When you can have an understanding of the landscape it is a bit easier to enter into the biblical world in your imagination. The geography is harsh, the climate oppressive, and drinkable water relatively scarce.

Throughout the sacred scriptures, the wilderness is a place of trial, a place of temptation, a place of faith-formation. Most of all, it is a place where one learns, through experience, what it means to completely trust in and rely on God.  It is a place where it is obvious that people are not self-sufficient, and where it is clear that they rely upon God for even the most basic needs.

The ancient people had a long lesson where they learned to rely on God for guidance, food and water, and healing when vipers were sent to the camp. After his conversion, Paul spent three years in the desert of Arabia as part of his formation, and here we see that a significant part of Jesus’ formation took place during these forty days in the wilderness — the desert.

***

After Jesus was baptized, we are told that he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He was not just picked up and dropped and left to fend for himself like some sort of a reality TV show. No, he was led by the Spirit who remained with him. And it was to this sparse landscape that he was driven, not to a Wisconsin-style wilderness lush with vegetation and flowing water.

We are told that Jesus didn’t eat anything during those days and at the end we are told that he was famished. After all, he was fully divine, but he was also fully human, both at the same time, two natures inseparably united in one existence. And as he was human, he needed to eat, just like you and I.

And it was at this point, he was tired, hungry, his body and spirit was likely at its weakest, and at that point that we are told that the devil shows up. How often do we have an experience like this — that the tempter, the accuser, shows up when we are at our weakest, when we are tired physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and presents us with a path that is particularly appealing to us in whatever weakened state in which we find ourselves. And so the Tempter comes to Jesus and before him lie two paths. On the one hand is the path that is consistent with his mission, the path that is self-sacrificial, the path that shows power through weakness, the path that is tough but that ultimately leads to restoration and redemption. And there is a second path that the Tempter invites him to. The path of comfort, ease, and power and authority without sacrifice. It is a path that trusts in the illusion of certainty rather than the uncertainty of divine providence.

He was tempted with the ability to make bread from stone, and therefore not having to trust in divine providence. Throwing himself off of a high building to test the Divine, and the promise to give him all of the kingdoms of the world without suffering or sacrifice.

The appeal is to his base impulses. Hunger, safety, power. And in many ways this is not that much different than us. Because it is not just about these three things — it is about something more significant, something much deeper. The temptation is, “Can I depend on God?”

***

These are temptations that we all face as well. Can we depend on God? Can we rely on God? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our lives? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our church? Or in our country, or in our world?

As we have learned from Scripture, the wilderness can be destructive, but it can also be redemptive. The wilderness can consume, but it can also purify. The wilderness can cause us to get lost, but it can also help us to find our direction.

And I cannot help but wonder if this is the gift of Lent. It is traditional, during Lent, to give something up. The root of that tradition is to try to, in some way, relate to the sufferings and of Christ, and relate to the denials that Christ went through in the desert when he ate nothing and denied those very real temptations. But I often question the value of giving something up for Lent, because so often it has lost focus.

We give up candy, or chocolate, or ice cream, or television or red meat, or other things in which we feel that we should not indulge. It becomes yet another self-help practice. But this misses the point. Or, we can deny ourselves something to prove to ourselves that we can do it — mind over matter and all that. But this also misses the point. The point of Lenten discipline is to bring us back to a point of focus and dependence on God.

We so often imagine the devil in this story the way that we typically do — bright red skin, black hair (with a widow’s peak), horns, and a forked tongue. The problem with this image is that the devil is clear. It is easy to resist evil when it is clear and in plain sight, and in the way that we expect to see it. However, so often it is not so clear. So often the lies and temptations do not come from our culturally conditioned view of the devil, but rather in faces that look less sinister, in voices that sound less distinctly evil. Often the tempter takes the form of a face that seems more friendly, a voice that seems more genuine. Perhaps the face that we see wears a business suit and makes great promises to us, perhaps the face we see is the one that looks back in the mirror and the voice that we hear is the one that we hear inside of our minds when we are alone.

And it is so often at our weakest moments, moments when we are afraid, tired — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — or otherwise weakened. It is these wilderness experiences in our lives that we, too, face temptations. Unemployment, sickness, fear, struggles with finances, with difficulty seeing the way forward, difficulties hearing God’s voice. It is at these times that the tempter can come with a familiar voice and face and tell us that there is another way, there is a way that is easier, that seems safer, a way that we can have everything now without having to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus the Christ.

***

And now, we have insulated houses with central heating systems that can keep us warm, and we have air conditioning when the heat is dangerously high. We don’t have the same experiences in the same ways as our spiritual forebears. After a while on the lake, I came home stoked the woodstove. But still, we are not exempted from wilderness experiences. We are not exempt from the feeling of being lost in alone in a hostile atmosphere. Sometimes it is less obvious, but just as real. And just like the ancient people of God, and just like Jesus, we are not exempted from the lies and temptations from the Tempter.

And we need preparation to be able to face the tempter with a clear head, and not fall for the lies which sound often sound so appealing. And it is this what Lent offers us. It offers us the opportunity to refocus our lives, to reorient our lives, to place God and God’s desires as the center of our lives, and to grow in our ability to depend on God rather than on mortals or horses or chariots.

And so this year for Lent, don’t worry about giving up something but do something that will bring you closer to the Divine. Maybe it is a book, maybe it is regularly reading scripture, maybe it is a spiritual discipline of study, fasting, prayer, or service. Maybe it is to take a walk amidst the cold and ice and snow to understand that, regardless of our illusions, we are never self-sufficient or self-sustaining, but rely completely on the Divine hand.

So whatever your wilderness — our wilderness — we, too, are presented with a couple of paths. On the one, we can seek escape from it. And on the other we can lean into it, and discover what God may be helping us to learn.

Not Always Calm and Bright

Massacre of the Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens

A sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Matthew 2:1-23 | Oremus Bible Browser

The Magi have come and gone, it has been an unremarkable two years for the young child, but now, things are going to become challenging once again. It was a messy entry into the world for Jesus. Unexpected, painful, controversial, scandalous. Things have calmed down for this family in Bethlehem, a family who have found a home to begin their lives. The chances are great that Mary and Joseph still didn’t exactly know what was going on, not only because they have a child and no one is fully prepared for a child when the first one comes, but also because of the odd and difficult way that this child came to be.

While the visit of the Magi may have seemed like a welcome surprise of joy, with them comes unbelievable tragedy and fear and hardship not only for the family but also for all young boys in the region. You see, the Magi didn’t just come to visit the baby Jesus, but they also visited Herod, and brought to Herod’s attention a new king who was born in Judea. Herod didn’t know exactly who it was, but suddenly he is told that this new king was born.

So Joseph has a dream to flee to Egypt, to safety, to live as refugees because Herod is going to seek out the child and kill him. Egypt, of course, was the place of slavery, the place of danger, the enemy. But in a strange twist of events, Egypt becomes the place of safety, the place of refuge, while the promised land is the place of danger. I don’t think that this is just for shock value, but I think that this is significant to show that those who were assumed to be hostile were hospitable, but those who were supposed to be hospitable turned out to be hostile.

It is another act in the story of Jesus turning the world upside down and inside out.

This is not the story of Christmas that we like to imagine, we like to think of peace on earth, but there is no peace in this, in fact, what we have here is the exact opposite of peace.

Here we see a scared and insane Herod who is so afraid of the threat that this child poses to his rule that, when not able to find him, orders all the young boys to be slaughtered, in order to ensure that this child was also wiped out. An angel appears to them yet again to travel south to Egypt in order to flee from Herod’s wrath. So, not only did Jesus come into the world in a family of turmoil, he lived out his first years as a refugee in a foreign land. This certainly isn’t the image of Christmas that we like, or think of, and this certainly isn’t what is supposed to happen to the family chosen by God to bring into the world God-in-human-flesh.

We can truly see in Matthew’s account that Jesus truly did and continues to upset the broken order of the world. People are afraid, upset, frustrated by Jesus’ coming, and this will continue through his life and ministry. Jesus really upset the world. Far from the nativity scenes that we all have around our church, our homes, and other places.

We don’t have the same kind of experience of fleeing a mass slaughter of the innocents, but I wonder if the story is not so far removed from us after all. People have to flee their homes in Syria because of the ongoing war which gets closer and closer to home. Palestinian Christians are continually harassed and threatened by Israeli soldiers simply while they are trying to go to work, and home, and to visit family, and to the market, and other activities of daily living. There are people fleeing war-torn areas of Iraq and Syria and yet many of our politicians are openly refusing to offer refuge to these people in need, these people who are not that different from the situation that Jesus found himself in. Again we see the place that is supposedly hospitable turning out to being hostile. 

Even closer to home, we have to deal with children which are disappointed because we could not afford to purchase for them what they truly wanted, we have to deal without disappointments when our Christmas celebration was less than picturesque, when the family was fighting, Christmas dinner was not the spread that we wished it was, with another year of our lives seeming to continue to unravel. We deal with the deep sadness when a loved one is missing from our Christmas celebrations and no Christmas wish can bring them back. We have unarmed children-of-color killed and no one is held accountable.

You see, Jesus didn’t immediately eradicate sin and hurt and pain from the world. Jesus is part of God’s ongoing plan to do this, little by little. Whereas Herod seeks power and might and violence in order to retain power, Jesus chooses weakness, a family who was able to cross a border and live for a time as a refugee, as a stranger in a foreign land, in order to survive. But as we know, Herod died and Jesus lived. Herod faded away and Jesus took the spotlight, far greater than even the great Herod could imagine.

I think that this is one of the reasons why Matthew told this story, this story of fear, and worry, and insecurity, and unsettledness. I think that this is why Matthew told about all the troubles that Jesus was born into and that his family and he went through. You see, Jesus was born a king, but not the type of King that you and I think of. He was not born in a palace, he was born in a stable. The announcement of his upcoming birth was not heralded with great fanfare, it was whispered in the dark and almost caused a divorce. Jesus was not born privileged to rule, but he was, for the first years of his life, raised as a refugee in a foreign land.

You see, Jesus was not immune from the troubles that we face. Neither Jesus nor his family were kept from hardships or trials. Their life was not cushy, nor was Jesus born with a silver or gold spoon in his mouth. No, Jesus’ birth, in fact, brought about the slaughter of so many young boys throughout the kingdom.

This also gives us another piece of hope and comfort as well. Jesus came in the midst of confusion and turmoil, and difficulty, and if Jesus was present in all of that then, Jesus can be present in all of that now.

So many times, bad things happen, trials happen, and we wonder, why us? Why is this happening to us? Perhaps we may even fear that God hates us. Does this sound familiar? But here is the interesting thing, the circumstances surrounding his birth and his first years were very difficult and challenging. It may not seem that significant to us now, but these are issues of children out of a marriage relationship, infidelity, contemplation of divorce, fleeing for one’s life, and living as refugees.

I can imagine that none of this was really the Christmas gift that they really wanted, but it was the gift that they received. It was not what they planned for their lives, but it was what life dealt them. This is not what they signed up for, but is is what they received. It is like one of those terrible gifts that you just want to give back to the sender, but you cannot.

I wonder if there is something significant here. You see, Jesus came into the middle of a messed up world suffering the pains that it threw at him and his family, Jesus was not spared any of the ugliness of the world, but endured it just like us. But the thing here, is that isn’t not just a he-did-it-so-we-can-too, thing. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize without weaknesses, but was tempted in every way as us, but yet without sin. I think that Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is that we also do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our problems and messed up lives, because he was, from his birth, subjected to the very same problems, and the same messed up life. The beauty of this is that, through this, we are not told simply to keep our chin up, but all of this helps us to understand that Jesus is right with us through our points of trial and turmoil, Jesus is right with us in our anger and sadness and fear and disappointments and insecurities. Jesus is right with us because he wasn’t sheltered from this in his life, but he was put into the thick of it.

Jesus was not just with these people in the ancient world, but is with us today. Even when things are difficult, hard, and seem almost impossible, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent from us, but it could mean that Jesus is right with us.

This is the good news of Christmas, that Jesus came into the world, that God took on human flesh to live with us, and through the holy Spirit, he continues to live with us and in us and through us. This is the promise that God offers to us today, that Christ promises to be with us in our times of fleeing, in our times of fear, in our times of insecurity, in our times of danger, in our times of despair. Christ promises to be with us. The church year starts with Advent and Christmas, and Christmas starts with a baby, but the story doesn’t end here. The story continues as Jesus grows, faces the Devil face to face, teaches, and heals, and shows grace, and calls to faithfulness, and sacrifices himself only to die and rise from the dead three days later. It is this grand story of redemption that we celebrate this year and every year, and this is why we do this each and every year and we ought never grow weary of it. Because God has taken on flesh, not simply out of curiosity or as an experience, but to live and dwell with us in the mess and muck of our lives in order to break us out of our circle of destruction and sin that we are caught in and from which we are unable to free ourselves.

So life contains happiness and joys and celebrations, but it also includes sadness and tragedy and pain and unjust rulers who slaughter young children. But God, in Christ, did not stand at a distance from all of this, but entered right into the midst of it, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. This is the promise and the hope that we have for Christmas. The call to us is to stay on this path that Christ has blazed, to keep the faith, and to join Christ in his redemptive work, and to be a foretaste of redemption for the world. We do this not because we are strong enough to do it, but we do it because we are weak, but Christ is strong, and it is through Christ that this all is able to happen.

Finding Hope Amidst Tragedy

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

A sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Mark 13:1-26.

How do we make sense out of tragedy? It seems that we have to deal with this with increasing frequency. If not a bombing, then a school shooting, if not a school shooting, then a massive natural disaster, and if not this then a movie theater shooting, if not this, then perhaps a series of attacks throughout Paris which left 128 people dead and at least 180 people injured. In lesser known news, roadside bombs also rocked Baghdad with at least 21 killed and 60 injured. There were also bombings in Beirut that killed at least 43 people and injured at least 200. All of this in the span of a couple of days. In our own nation, racial tensions continue to boil and it seems that, at any time, things could boil over. So how do we seek to make sense out of this?

Despair is the easiest and fastest response.  We can throw our hands up, give up. Stop caring. We can wonder if God is punishing us, or if God has abandoned us. Some will surely proclaim that this is a punishment for sin, that somehow this is God’s wrath being poured out on the world. These are easy responses. They are easy to understand, they are easy to find meaning. These are relatively neat and tidy.  Or, it is easy to blame an entire religion or people group, as we in the United States are so wont to do. But we are the people of God, and we must strive for what is faithful, not for what is easy or simple, or what fits with the cultural narrative which is fed to us.

So, while this is an easy response, I wonder if it is faithful, I wonder if it is hopeful. The answer to both is no. Our text today invites us into another way to seek to make sense of this, to seek to find meaning in this, to find a way to try to process this.

***

Today’s reading is from the so-called little apocalypse in the Gospel According to Mark. Apocalypse is a difficult genre. It is difficult because many of us have encountered gross misiuse of this genre. It is warped and sensationalized in popular works such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, and more recently in the Left Behind series. These are so popular and they are exciting, and we begin to focus much of our faith on these relatively few apocalyptic passages, and then we attempt to do all sorts of spooky, mystical things with the Bible to find out when the end is coming.

And, to be honest, I am always hesitant to preach or teach on these apocalyptic passages, largely because of the broad acceptance of this warped view amongst fundamentalist evangelicalism. But these passages are in scripture and we must allow them to invite us in. And I think that on a day like today, with the shock still fresh, with the blood still warm, with the confusing mixture of emotions still raw, on a day like today, a passage like this is fitting for today, not because it allows us to prognosticate about the future like some cosmic groundhog, but it invites us into hope. And this is what the popular warped interpretation is missing. It is missing the main ingredient in these apocalyptic passages: hope. 

***

Indeed, we cannot forget that the Greek word from which “apocalypse” is derived actually means unveiling or revealing. So while we tend to link apocalypse with death and destruction, this is not actually right.

The literary genre of apocalypse was inherited by Christians from the Jews. We see an example of apocalyptic literature in the Book of Daniel, and we see literature which leans apocalyptic in the prophets. The Dead Sea Scrolls include a fair amount of apocalyptic literature that are not part of the scriptural canon. We see little apocalypses in the Gospels and most famously in the Revelation to John.

In fact, apocalyptic literature is not really about the end of all things. The word that we read as “end” in verse 7 carries with it a sense of completion, of perfection, of accomplishing, it refers to the end goal to which a movement is being directed. It does not at all carry the sense of destruction, which we all tend to assume.

***

And this is the background of apocalyptic literature, why it is written and why it is engaging. This experience is universal to the human condition. Apocalyptic literature is often the result of external chaos, pressure, the sense that the world is falling apart. This is why the apocalyptic genre has continued into the modern world, with film series like The Matrix, or Mad Max, or films like Waterworld, or The Book of Eli. It continues today with books turned into films like Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games, or The Postman. This continues because we see the nature gone astray, we see poverty on the rise, we see insane people running countries, and wars that never seem to end, we see bombings and shootings which appear suddenly and leave wide swaths of devastation in their wake.

The world seems to be caving in on itself and we find it hard to make sense of this. What is the meaning in this? What is the point? And this is likely what Mark’s community was struggling with as well. The first century in Palestine was a tumultuous time, it began to pick up again in the early 20th century, but the first century was a time of great conflict between the Jewish zealots and the Roman Empire. Even beyond the biblical narrative, there were a series of wars between the Jews and the Romans, the Jews striving to gain independence. Both revolts were failures, and the result of the first Jewish-Roman war was the destruction of the temple.

So you take this tumultuous context, mix it with the fact that around this time, Christianity was beginning its split from Judaism, it must have seemed like the world was imploding. Wars and rumors of wars, claims of messiahs to turned out to be failures, famines — it must have seemed like fire was raining down upon them from the heavens as their cities and their homes were burned and destroyed.

The temple was supposed to stand forever, especially this one which was far grander even than the first. This was probably the most amazing thing that they had ever seen. Not long after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Romans come in and destroy the temple. Did the Romans defeat God? Was this all a hoax? How could this happen?

And so, this is the soil in which apocalyptic literature grows — it seeks to provide a meaning for the sufferings that one is going through, and it places it in the context of a conflict — a struggle — between good and evil. Every modern-day apocalyptic work also follows this. The Matrix, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, and so forth. There is a cosmic struggle between good and evil and that is the reason for the sufferings and struggles which we experience.

And this, I think, is the gift that we can glean from apocalyptic literature. This is not something in which we are abandoned and lost, this does not mean that we have necessarily done something wrong, this is not necessarily signs that God is angry with us. This also does not simply mean that we are on a long march to destruction and oblivion. Because when we become taken away by all the sensational things in passages like the one that we read this morning, we miss two key things.

Lets listen to the first part of verse 7, “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed…” (emphasis added). Do not be alarmed. Do not be disturbed. This may be the cognate of the common biblical line, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be alarmed, Jesus tells us. Secondly, verse 26, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” You see, this does not lead up to a destruction, but to the coming of the Christ who will bring restoration and redemption to all creation, who will set things right, where evil will finally be destroyed and where the good will reign.

So perhaps apocalyptic literature isn’t so much about the future, as it is about the now. This helps us us to try to place our experiences within a meaningful framework, to help us to make sense of it. To help us to see that our experience does not mean that all is lost. This allows us to continue to operate in the world, to continue to follow Christ, to continue to live into the calling that God has placed upon us, while the world seems to crumble around us. It helps us remember that ultimately God is in control, that ultimately God’s purposes will prevail, and that we need not be disturbed or alarmed, or afraid, by what we see around us.

Perhaps it is big things like the wars which never seem to end or the famines which continually plague the earth. We can continue to work for peace and justice and wholeness even in the midst of this turmoil because we can trust that there is more at work that we can see, and that God is not absent from the world. And this is the problem with seeing apocalyptic literature about the future. That we spend so much time looking to the future that we forget that the point of this is to help us to live in the present.

So perhaps our alarm, our disturbance, is large scale. But perhaps it is small scale. Perhaps this can help us in our church as well. Most of you are well aware that our church is but a shell of what it once was. It seems to be crumbling. Many have left, some have felt that we should allow it to crumble. But what are we to do? Are we to fear? to be alarmed? to be disturbed? Or, are we to trust that our church, our lives, our world, is not headed for destruction, is not left to flounder, is not meaningless or pointless, but we are all within the grand narrative of the life of faith. We ought to stay awake, yes, we ought not slip into a hopeless and disillusioned state. But we are to continue to live into our calling, to be transformed in mind and body, in heart and action — indeed, in all of life — because this is not random, this is not pointless, this is not meaningless. Things don’t always make sense, things don’t always seem right, things don’t always happen as they ought, but we can trust that ultimately, all things will lead to the redemption and restoration of all things.

In the year 66-70, when the Romans finally destroyed the temple, did they defeat God? No way. Was that all a hoax? Of course not. And we can know that the difficult life of discipleship does not mean that God has been defeated by the enemy, nor that God is not powerful, but rather, perhaps something else is going on that we cannot see or understand.

And so, Jesus comes to us and counsels us not to be alarmed, not to be disturbed, not to be afraid. Do not be led astray, but continue on the narrow path, through the wicket gate. Because it is in this that all of creation will find its completion, its goal in cosmic restoration and redemption.

And it is this hope, that allows us to continue to live faithfully in the world. To continue to work for justice and peace even when it seems like a lost cause. Hope allows us to grieve, to feel shock and pain and sorrow, and it allows us to remember that “[t]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

***

A couple of days ago, I watched an interview from a few years ago between Bill Moyers and the theologian James Cone.

JAMES CONE: So, you can look anywhere. There’s always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word?

BILL MOYERS: And?

JAMES CONE: It does not. There is always hope. Anybody who loses hope and gives up in despair, they die.

And this is that into which this text invites us. It does not invite us to fear or to despair, or to closing our eyes to avoid the pain of the world. No, our text today, with all of the scary sounding stuff, invites us into hope.

This is the root of such apocalyptic literature. This is the way that we are to make sense of tragedy. We are to look to the light that shines in the darkness and remember that the darkness has not, will not, cannot, overcome it.

The Voice That Wakes the Dead

Paradiso by Gustave Dore

A Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church on November 1, 2015.
Text: John 11:32-44

“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

“If you had been here, [he] would not have died.”

Have you ever uttered words similar to this? “Lord, if you had been here, things would have been different.” Of course, few, if any, of us would readily admit this, even to ourselves, but think about this from the perspective of your darkest moment. Maybe that was a long time ago, perhaps that is now. “Lord, if you had been here, things would have turned out differently.”

The words are strong, they are heavy. But they are not wrong. If Jesus had been there sooner, things may have very well turned out differently. The beginning of this story is one that plays out even today.

Word came to Jesus that his friend Lazarus was ill. Jesus was close to this family. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus spends some time at the home of Martha and Mary, and at the beginning of this story, the writer looks ahead to when Mary will anoint Jesus with perfume and wipe his feet with her hair.

Their brother, Lazarus, was ill and Mary sent word to Jesus that the one whom he loves is ill. From this, we can see that Jesus had a rather close relationship with Lazarus. The word simply came that Lazarus was ill, no indication as to the severity. No indication as to whether he ought to jump on a plane or simply driving was sufficient.

But before Jesus gets to where his friend is, he has already died. Martha goes out to meet him, “‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’”

Mary hears that Jesus is coming, and she goes out to meet him, tears streaming down her face, filled with a mixture of sadness and anger, denial and confusion. She throws herself at his feet. She spoke, we would like to think, calmly and with great reverence, but I think that her voice was filled with desperation and sadness and anger, “‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’”

And Jesus saw her weeping, and everyone else with her weeping, we are told that he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” and from this we may infer that he was likely feeling a similar mixture of anger and grief. Perhaps he was feeling in similar ways to when he wept over Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel. And Jesus wept. We ought not over-sentimentalize this, but we cannot also think that Jesus was somehow immune to the emotions of humanity. Indeed, Jesus was sinless, but save this, he was human in every way, and this would include emotions. “‘Where have you laid him?’” Jesus asked. “‘Come and see,’” Mary replied.

And the whispers arose amidst the crowd, “This man can bring sight to the blind, could he not stop this man from dying?” Why did he do anything? Why couldn’t he do anything?

***

Death is a reality of life. We can do great things to extend life and to stave off death, for a while, but we cannot eliminate it. The paradox of this is that death causes so much sadness and grief and anger and paint. We experience this when a pet dies, and even more significantly when loved ones die. Everyone dies but each and every time it feels like a punch in the gut, like the rug has been pulled out from under us. Even for those of us who have the strength of the hope of restoration, the death of a loved one is painful.

I have to wonder, though, if this may be because deep down we know that it is not right. I wonder if in the deepest recesses of our beings we know that this is not the way it is supposed to be. We can almost feel the fact that death was not a part of the creation that the Divine proclaimed to be “good.” And so we struggle against death with every ounce of our being. While we do not have to face death with fear, but it is not a friend. Death is an enemy and our spirit knows it.

***

Jesus came to the tomb and the stone at already closed it, and Jesus requested the stone to be moved. Perhaps Martha thought that Jesus wanted to look upon his friend one last time. Perhaps she wondered if one of his miraculous acts was on his mind. But she cautions him, “‘already there is a stench, because he has been dead four days.’”  The subtext is clear. He’s dead. Tradition was clear that by this time the soul was gone and he had passed the point of no returned. But hadn’t Jesus raised others? Yes, but never after this long. Immediately after death anything is possible, but four days? His soul is gone, his body is decomposing. He’s undeniably dead and nothing can be done to change that.Jesus replies but he does not scold. He reminds her that she would see the glory of God. I am sure that still not quite understanding, she had the stone taken away, and no sooner than this happened, the stench of death began to escape from the dark portal to the realm of the dead. Jesus looked upward, and I can imagine that for a moment time stood still, the breeze may have seemed to abate and the ambient noise faded into the ether. Scripture records Jesus’ prayer, but who knows if everyone — or anyone — could hear it. After he finishes he continues to stand for a moment with his eyes closed and lifted up, bathed in the light of the afternoon sun.

He then shifts his gaze to the cave-turned-tomb and stares intently into the dark. And glaring down into the darkness, Jesus cries with a loud voice, commanding the darkness and shaking the stones so that all could hear — “Lazarus, come out!”

At first there was nothing, and then into the light steps Lazarus still wrapped in the burial cloths. What a sight! I imagine the crowds would have been in absolute awe — shock really — and that Martha and Mary would have been beside themselves with what they had just witnessed. When he had fully emerged, Jesus ordered, “‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

And this  is all that we see of Lazarus. We know knowing of his reaction or his experience. We know nothing of what the remainder of his second life looked like. He just fades away into the annals of time.

But, you see, this story is not really about just Lazarus. This story was really a dress rehearsal of sorts for a similar, but far more significant event, that was to happen not long after when we will see another death, another tomb, and another person emerging from the door which is only supposed to swing one way. Indeed, in the raising of Lazarus we have a foretaste of Easter, and Easter is, itself, a foretaste of the great and final resurrection when Jesus will once again stare down into the darkness of death and call forth no one person, but all of the saints of all times and places, whom we now know as the great “cloud of witnesses.”

***

So why are we spending so much time talking about death? Today is All Saints’ Day — a day when we remember those who have been taken from us and a day that we can give thanks for those who have been given the gift of seeing God.

All Saints’ Day is not just for remembering saints with names like Augustine of Hippo, or Francis of Assisi, or Paul of Tarsus. But also whose saints with names like Victor and Donald and Jay. Saints who may not be known beyond their own communities, but saints whose names are nonetheless prominently engraved on the stone rolls of the Kingdom of God. And as with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, we do not come to praise those who have gone before, to to praise the One who as called them out of darkness and into his marvellous light.

And so it can seem that death always has the final answer, after all, we are all headed for the grave at some point. But here we see a disruption in this narrative in calling Lazarus back to this side of the veil.

So, let us give thanks for all the saints, extraordinary and ordinary — those known to the whole church of Christ, and those who may only be known to us. And we know that for them, the grave is not the final word, but the final word comes from the One who calls to us and frees us from that which binds us, and sets us free.

And it is because of this that we can live into our calling here on earth, that we can live into the desire of the Divine to be a blessing to the world, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to give sight to the blind, to release the captive, to clothe the naked, and to bring forth justice and peace in a lost and broken world which is so loved by God. This assurance does not bring us out of the world, at least it ought not, but it should drive us into deeper engagement with the world. Because truly, what do we have to fear? This gives us the power to shake our fist with the Apostle and proclaim, “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” And it grants us the confidence that not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We can have the confidence that Jesus does not just have the ability to save souls or hearts or minds, but Jesus has the power to break even the seemingly unbreakable bindings — as William Barclay notes, the voice of Jesus is the voice that wakes the dead.

Amen.

Pierced with Grace

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa Bernini

A sermon originally delivered to Calvary (Community) Reformed Church in New Berlin, WI. Texts were Job 23 and Hebrews 4:12-16.

 

Job presented us with some difficult words, and truly, Job is a difficult story. The writing of Job was a way to try to come to terms with suffering and the age-old question: why do bad things happen to good people? And as a whole, the Book of Job does not so much give an answer to the question, but rather is an invitation to a journey, a journey which is not neat and tidy and simple, but a journey of wrestling, striving, and struggling, because as it is, we only see through a glass, dimly.

But today, we found ourselves in the context of the depths of Job’s despair. Job was just admonished by this friend, Eliphaz, and our reading today was the response offered by Job.

“If I go forward, he is no there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” (Job 23:8-9).

Job looked north and south, east and west, and saw no sight of God. Difficult words, but perhaps you can relate.

***

We don’t know exactly was was going on in the community to which Hebrews was written, but we do know that they lost some of the intensity which had indelibly marked the first generation of Christians, and the exciting and intense story from Acts. They have become sluggish and lax in their faith, perhaps disillusioned and discouraged, and it is clear that they were at least thinking about returning to Judaism.

We know that they have suffered in the past, and perhaps some of this pressure is compounding on their discouragement and disillusionment with the current state of things. Perhaps like Job, they found themselves looking forward and back, left and right, but in doing so, were finding it difficult to perceive God’s presence.

The Book of Hebrews is essentially a long sermonic epistle arguing that the Christian faith is better than other options because Jesus is better, and we ought to keep our eyes on Jesus. The writer has argued that Jesus is greater than the prophets of old, Jesus is better than the angels, and in the third chapter, the writer argues that Jesus is greater than even Moses, Jesus is greater than the greatest.

It is here that the writer discusses some history with them, not just for information, but to make it meaningful for their lives now. You see, through Moses, God brought the ancients out of slavery in Egypt. God brought them out, and prepared them for a journey and promised them rest when they reached the land that God was giving to them.  But, the writer pointed out, they did not enter their rest. They rebelled against God, despite all that God had done for them, they were filled with unbelief. But unlike the father of the tormented boy that Jesus healed, the ancient people did not ask God for help with their unbelief.

They were rebellious, they turned from God, and they did not enter into the rest that was prepared for them. And there is a rest prepared for us, too, but this is not just a temporal rest, this is not simply a rest from wandering through the dry and barren places of the world, it is an eternal rest, a rest from wandering through the dry and barren places of existence. It is a rest far greater than the rest of our ancestors.

It is a warning to the hearers not to stray into unbelief.

Now, unbelief is not doubt. Doubt can be faithful. Doubt which is faithful drives us toward God, it drives us toward confronting God, toward arguing with God, toward wrestling with God. It drives us to accept the offer to put our fingers in his hands and our hands in his side, it drives us to accept the invitation to “taste and see that the LORD is good”. Faithful doubt invites us to reach out toward God, even if we are unsure if God is there, faithful doubt allows others to believe for us even if we do not think that we have the capacity for belief. But unbelief, as we saw in the ancient people drives us away from God, to turn back and return the way whence we came. God brought the ancients out from slavery into freedom. But the people preferred slavery and turned back to return.

It is this sort of unbelief that the author of Hebrews cautions the hearers. It is with this stern warning that the author of Hebrews tries to uphold and sustain the community.

***

[T]he word of God is living and active, we read, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him ho creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

These, too, are difficult words. The word of God, the truth of God, is living and active. We are given an image of piercing, and cutting, disassembling, even dissecting. The truth of God reveals all, it takes all apart, it examines all. God examines the deepest recesses of our being, the secret places where we harbor our deepest thoughts, so deep that perhaps we don’t even fully know.

We are naked and laid bare, completely exposed, completely on display, being able to hide nothing. The writer seems to be telling them, in effect, “you cannot hide your sluggish faith, your neglect, your inattention to your faith.” The truth of God pierces deeply, it cuts, it dismembers.

***

But from this, the writer makes a shift. We need not be ashamed as Adam and Eve in the garden and seek to hide from the Divine and we need not fear. The truth of God is living and active, sharp, piercing, and separates all, but “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.”  Not only do we not need to be afraid of God, but we can hold fast to our confession, hold fast to our hope.

You see, the job of the high priest is to represent the people to God. But our high priest, Jesus, is more than just a high priest, because has passed through the heavens, he is not just on earth, but he is in the very divine presence. Not only this, the writer continues, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” that is, Jesus, the mediator between us and God the Father, is not removed from our experience, is not completely alien to our experience. Indeed, Jesus suffered with us, that’s what sympathy means, to suffer with. Our high priest is able to suffer with us in our weaknesses, “we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

***

And this, I think, is the essence of our faith, and this is the beauty of it. While it is true that nothing can be hidden from God, it is not the threat that calls us into faithfulness, but the promise. The promise that Jesus can suffer with us in our weaknesses, that Jesus was tempted in every way as us, that Jesus understands — understands — what we are going through. God is not only transcendent, but also immanent. God is other, but God is also near.

And this is the hope that we grab hold of for dear life and never let go. That when we find ourselves like Job, and we look north and south, and east and west and we can find no sight of God, we can hold onto the hope that we are not alone, that even if we have difficulty perceiving it, that Christ is suffering with us, and that we can boldly approach God’s throne so that we can receive mercy and find grace. Indeed, the word of God pierces, but it is not a piercing for destruction, it is not to kill or maim or harm or damage. After all, the eternal Word of God made flesh found himself pierced and torn, but it is through that that he was able to give life to the world, and it is this promise to which we hold, to which we grasp, to which we cling.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea;
a great High Priest, whose name is Love,
who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on his hands,
my name is written on his heart;
I know that while in heaven he stands
no tongue can bid me thence depart,
no tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair
and tells me of the guilt within,
upward I look, and see him there
who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died,
my sinful soul is counted free;
for God the Just is satisfied
to look on him and pardon me,
to look on him and pardon me.

Behold him there! the risen Lamb,
my perfect, spotless righteousness;
the great unchangeable “I AM,”
the King of glory and of grace!
One with himself, I cannot die,
my soul is purchased by his blood;
my life is hid with Christ on high,
with Christ my Savior and my God,
with Christ my Savior and my God.

(Charitie Lees Bancroft)