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?


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.


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)


God’s Graciously Stubborn Refusal to Give Up

Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church in New Berlin, Wis. 

Text: Ezekiel 2:1-5


“Does God ever get too fed up with us?” The question came to me.

As the question was asked, I could see concern, maybe even worry, come across Sharon’s face.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Does God ever get tired of forgiving…and then…just stop?”

It was obvious to me that Sharon had given this some thought. And really, it is an honest question, and likely a question that many of us have asked, want to ask, maybe are asking right now. Because at its core, I think that it is a question that weighs on us.

The state gives you three strikes…even parents can hit a breaking point…but what about God? Does God ever give up on us?


Our text this morning brings us to the exile. The time when the Babylonians swept in and burned the city and carried off everyone who was wealthy or had power or status. This way they could keep their defeated peoples weak and relatively powerless, and it makes them much easier for the Babylonians to control. So not everyone was taken off into exile, but many people were left, trying to pick up the pieces of their former lives.

The exile was a pivotal point in the history of the people of God. After this, the people of God will no longer be centered in one place, but rather, scattered across the world. Yes, there was a return, and yes, many did return, but not everyone did. Many stayed where they had put down roots, and they learned what it meant to follow God in a foreign land. But we are not there yet. We have not yet gotten to ways to follow God in a foreign land.

The wound is still raw, the people are still hurting, and similar to how some children feel when they move around Christmastime (how will Santa find me?), I can imagine that there was a similar sentiment amongst the people of God who were taken off into exile. After all, it was not just their home, but it was the promised land…the land that God had promised to their ancestors. This was their inheritance. This land was a sign of God’s promise to them, this was the sign of God’s favor toward them. Even more than that, it was in this place, in the temple, where God actually lived. And for those who were taken off into exile, they were not just taken away from their homes, that would be hard enough, but they were taken away from God, and that must have felt almost unbearable.

It was at this time, that God’s call came to Ezekiel. He was already a priest, and already in the service of God, but it was not just a priest that this people needed right now, they also needed a prophet. They needed someone who would speak God’s words to the people, and someone who could speak the people’s words to God. It was during this difficult time that Ezekiel, himself taken into exile, was called by God to serve God and the people in this new way.

Seeing a strange and magnificent sight, Ezekiel falls on his face, and God says to him, “O mortal, stand up on your feet and I will speak with you.” But Ezekiel doesn’t stand up on his own strength, on his own accord, but we are told that a spirit entered him, and set him up on his feet.

The voice, says to him, “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn…” Not necessarily a great way to begin one’s charge. Chances are that he already knew much of this, after all, he was a priest and had a public role already, but just to be sure that Ezekiel knew what exactly what was going on, God makes it oh-so-clear to him the exact state of the people.

We are told that Ezekiel was told that he is to go to them and speak the word of the Lord GOD, such that whether they hear or refuse to hear, “they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”


I’ve said this before, but I think that it is worth saying, prophecy is not primarily telling the future. Fortune tellers do that. Soothsayers do that. While there is often a future element to the words of the prophets, predicting the future is not primarily what they do. They speak God’s words to the people, and they speak the people’s words to God. The ancient people of God didn’t have a nice book all bound together as we have it. The ancient people may have had a few things written down, but much of the early parts of the scriptures were in oral tradition, and were not written down until now, the exilic period.

So how do they experience God in this foreign land, in this foreign place? The prophets speak God’s words to the people. These people who are rebellious, who have transgressed, these people who are rude and stubborn, it is to these people that God sends Ezekiel, not as punishment, but because these are still God’s people, and even with all of their faults, God is still committed to this people, and God continues to reach out to this people, to embrace this people, to comfort this people, even when this people may not know how to reach back.

This is not just here that we see this story, but all through scripture. Already from the time that Adam and Eve decided that they wanted a snack, and why not that fruit, and they hid, God called out, “Where are you?” through God liberating the ancient people from slavery in Egypt, to God sending prophets to God’s people in exile, to sending Christ to become flesh and dwell among us, to tabernacle among us, to share life with us, God has been reaching out to a rebellious, rude, and stubborn people, people like the ancient people of God, and people like you and me, the modern people of God.


Today we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. When we celebrate this, it is not simply a somber memory of Jesus’ death, remembrance is part of it, but we cannot forget about communion — are lifted up into heaven in this moment, and we commune with Christ and with all the saints of all times and all places — and hope, when we look forward to the time when restoration and redemption are completed and creation is renewed.

It is in this sacrament that God takes elements of bread from the earth and the fruit of the vine — God works through these things that we can see, and taste and touch, and smell — and through these ordinary elements, confirms and strengthens and feeds our faith, indeed, the sacraments are another example of reaching out to us, rebellious and stubborn as we are. Even when we cannot reach out to God, even when we feel distant from God, even when we feel as though we are separated from God, God reaches out to us, draws us close, and assures us of God’s abiding presence.


And it was because of this, that was able to look Sharon in the eyes, and tell her, “No. God never gets fed up with us. No, God never tires of forgiveness. No, God will not withhold forgiveness from those who come to God seeking forgiveness and redemption.”

God has far more patient than you or I or anyone else. God does not have a three-strikes policy. God is even more gracious than you or I could even imagine.

This, sisters and brothers, is the good news. That God is gracious, even when it is not fair. That God’s grace knows no bounds, that God never tires of forgiveness, and that all those who seek grace will receive it.

The people of God then and now, the people of God across the world, and those sitting in this church on the hill are rebellious, rude, stubborn. But this is not the point of this story. This is simply the fact of what is. The point of this story is that God is faithful even amidst our unfaithfulness, that God is gracious even in the face of our undeservedness. That God, too, is perhaps stubborn, to stubborn to give up on God’s people, and God’s commitment to God’s people, even when the people’s commitment wanes.

This is the good news for Sharon, this is the good news for you and me, and this is the good news for the world.

The Tragically Unfinished Work of Reconciliation

A Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church on June 21, 2015. 

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:13


From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation… (2 Cor 5:16a, 17-18).

Reconcile. verb.

  1. to find a way of making (two different ideas, facts, etc.) exist or be true at the same time
  2. to cause people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement


In the beginning, there was no need for reconciliation as there was no division, no hostility, no separation, no enmity or animosity. Perfect harmony, perfect union, perfect communion. This, however, ended when Adam and Eve fell for the song of the serpent, and came under the enchanting spell of the fruit, and broke the only rule, only law, that they were given.

With this, for the first time, they hid from the Creator in the garden, filled with shame. Division between humans and God comes here into existence. They were sent away from the home that they shared with God, and were sent to the East to make their own home, in exile of sorts. Adam and eve did make a home and bore children, two boys to start, Cain and Abel. Abel kept livestock, and Cain was a farmer. The two brothers came to bring their offerings before the Creator. Cain brought some of his crop as an offering, and Abel brought the first-fruits of his livestock. We are told that the Creator regarded Abel and his offering, but had no regard for Cain and his offering.

Cain became angry and later called his brother to come out with him in the field and then he murdered his brother Abel. It is at this point that division and animosity between peoples comes into existence. And from this, the universe would never be the same. Still later we are told that the various languages came into existence at Babel, when everyone spoke one language and was in one place, and God confused their languages and the people scattered. Here, divisions became ever more apparent.

And then, one day, a Tuesday afternoon when the sun was beginning its downward trajectory, after reaching its pinnacle at new, and as the afternoon breeze began to blow, slowly cooling into the evening, a man named Abram was sitting in the shade of his tent, and God called to him.

‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Gen 12:1b-3).

And it was at this moment that things shift. Rather than people simply living separately, dispersed throughout the world, we are shown the revealing of God’s ongoing and cosmic plan of reconciliation. Reconciliation between God and humans, and reconciliation between peoples, which will culminate in the reconciliation of God’s creation to the original glory of the created order.

The call to Abram was about God reconciling humanity to Godself, through Abram and his descendants, but not just this, but also so that they, too, can be a blessing to all peoples all over the world. All of scripture is the unfolding of this. God reconciling people to Godself, and God calling God’s people to be reconciled with one another. Slowly this calling unfolds, and slowly God’s people begin to get a taste of this calling, and with Jesus the people of God is so greatly expanded to include not just a particular people in a particular nation, but is to include all peoples of all nations.

Not long ago, we celebrated Pentecost, which is when we remember the undoing of Babel. At Babel languages were confused and peoples were scattered, but at Pentecost comprehension was present and the peoples were gathered. Whereas Babel divided, Pentecost united and reconciled. Reconciliation is the ongoing work of God, and this is the work to which God calls us, as the people of God, as the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way (2 Cor 5:16).


This letter comes from the context of striving for reconciliation. The church in Corinth had a lot of problems. They were divided against each other. Between what we have as the first and second letters to the Corinthians, some people had apparently come and planted the seeds of division and mistrust between their church and Paul. The Corinthian church was a fertile place for growing the seeds of division and they grew. There is a letter, lost to time, referred to in 2 Corinthians as a letter of tears, a sorrowful letter, a letter which brought great sorrow to Paul in writing it and the Christians in Corinth in reading it.

Here, he reminds them that in Christ, they have been reconciled to God, and that Christ’s servants have been given the ministry of reconciliation. Paul implores them “not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 6:1) and later, to open their hearts wide (2 Cor 6:13b). In this, Paul is trying to find reconciliation between him and the church in Corinth. This letter is, of course, rooted in a specific time and place and circumstances. However, the essence of the message transcends space, time, and circumstance.


Division, enmity, separation was not part of God’s original design, but has filled the world and we suffer from it as well. But just because it is doesn’t mean that it fits with God’s desires. Reconciliation was, is, and will continue to be the work of God in Christ. Even before we can seek God out, God calls out to us. But this is not enough, as God also calls us to reflect that grace to others, to be reconciled with one another because of what God has already done for us. After all, while we were strangers, while we were enemies, while we were distant from God, Christ died for us.

We have seen, again, in the past week, the fruits of division, of enmity, of separation as a 21 year old was welcomed into a historic and culturally significant Black church, sat with them while they studied the Bible and prayed, and then killed them. His coat bore the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, and proudly donned the Confederate flag — all symbols of separation, of division, all symbols of things that God abhors, all symbols of the very thing that we as Christians are called to work against.

Far from an isolated incident, this is a symptom of a deeper sickness, the sickness of a world in desperate need of reconciliation, but which still lives as if Babel was the final word.

We, in the United States, have a poor history of race relations. While codified racism is no longer, racism and racial tensions still exist, but it is more insidious because it is pushed down, out of sight out of mind. So often we identify the terrorists in situations like this as lone wolves. But these are not necessarily isolated, but they arise from a cultural pathology which infects us all, whether we recognize it or not. After all, it was not long ago since almost the same situation happened when another white supremacist opened fire at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek.

While the massacre in Charleston is a long way from us, we cannot wash our hands of it or think that it doesn’t impact us. After all, “if one member [of the body of Christ] suffers, all suffer together with it…” (1 Cor 12:26a).

And further, we can see already that we have more work to do in the ministry of reconciliation. This is central to who we are as Reformed Christians. The Reformed have never held to an individualistic salvation, or the false belief that Jesus came to save souls. After all, Jesus didn’t come to save souls, but came to change lives and to restore and redeem the cosmos. Thus, the Reformed have always had a social perspective and consciousness. Here is a part of one of our constitutional statements of doctrine, the Confession of Belhar:


We believe

  • that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Cor. 5:17-21; Matt. 5:13-16; Matt. 5:9; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21-22).
  • that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world (Eph. 4:17–6:23, Rom. 6; Col. 1:9-14; Col. 2:13-19; Col. 3:1–4:6)

  • that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity

  • that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.

This, then, is in our DNA, and we must pay attention to it.

This past week we have more evidence of how the church, not just us, but the church across the United States, has still not fulfilled its call to be reconcilers, and too often we have been complacent in the face of sin. So this ought to propel us forward to do our part in our lives and in our communities to work for reconciliation. We don’t have to fix the world, we cannot fix the world. But if we do our part, and if everyone does their part, with the power of the Spirit, reconciliation can become more than simply a nice idea.

Reconciliation is hard work, especially when we think about the type of reconciliation to which we are called: without regard to language, gender, color, culture, income, nationality, immigration status, and to a degree, even religion. We are called to be reconcilers, and no power, no ideology, can override this call of God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

Our job, as followers of Christ, is not to save souls, but to reconcile. To help people see the reconciliation affected in Christ, and how that flows through us to others.

So what do we do in the face of such evil? We ought not despair, nor ought we simply become complacent, shrug our shoulders, and brush it off. But in all things we are called to trust in God who is the true agent of reconciliation, and trust that God can and does work miracles, even today, and trust that with God’s leading and strength, we, too, can live into this ministry of reconciliation given to us by God.

Knocking in the Night

A sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin

Text: John 3:1-17

Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645

I’m not much of a night person, but I wish that I were. Night time is enchanting. While the day-dwellers go to sleep, another world awakes, both people and animals. While we often think that it is only malice that is active at night — after all, I was always told that “nothing good happens after midnight” — this is not necessarily the case.

After seminary and before I came to Wisconsin, I worked third shift at a grocery/general merchandise store, comparable to Walmart. It was an interesting collection of people who come in the middle of the night.

Those who work second shift would run some errands before going home.

Weary parents come for cough and cold medicine for sick children who struggle through the night.

Those who could not sleep, those who are lonely, those who worry.

Regularly through the weeks, the common prayer was continually in my mind,

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep…

Not just for me, but for all those who passed through the doors.

Night is a time of secrets, of concealment. Night is when crimes are oft committed, but so much more. Night shrouded the underground railroad so that they could continue to move escaped slaves from places of bondage to places of freedom.

Nighttime provides a degree of strength and safety for those escaping abusive relationships. Night provided an opportunity for the ancient people of God to escape from slavery in Egypt.

Night is the place where the waking world and the dream world meet, and it is at this time that a man, a teacher of the law, a religious scholar, a rabbi comes to Jesus. We don’t know why exactly he comes at night. Maybe he is afraid of repercussions if people see him, maybe he was afraid of judgement, perhaps he finally was able to work up courage or strength to do something like this after the sun faded and the shadows grew. When we read about the Jews in the New Testament, particularly the gospels, so often we assume bad things. We assume that there is always malintent, and perhaps we can even have this tendency with Nicodemus.

However, nothing at all suggests that he had any malintent at all. In fact, I think that Nicodemus was quite genuine.


In this space, surrounded by darkness, a single lamp casting a dim light throughout the house, the two men leaning toward one another, not quite whispering, but keeping their voices down as so often happens at night even when there are no prying ears.

Nicodemus looks intently at Jesus, this teacher who has already caused so much upheaval, at least in John’s account of the good news of Jesus, the flame flickering, and not quite knowing how to put his questions into words, takes a deep breath and the words come out,

“We know that you are teacher who has come from God, we can see it from the things that you do, no one can do them without the presence of God.”

But before he could get his whole thought out, before he could get to what he was truly getting at, before he could reveal the reason for his visit, Jesus responds somewhat enigmatically.

“…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Interestingly, in the still darkness of night, Nicodemus did not ask about entering the kingdom of God, in fact, he didn’t ask anything at all. So why would Jesus respond in this way?

Perhaps Nicodemus came to Jesus seeking after that which Jesus had, that which he exhibited. Perhaps Jesus could see in his eyes that which he truly desired, the reason that he came knocking in the dark.

This statement appears to perplex Nicodemus. After all, who, after being born and old, can go back into their mother’s womb to be reborn again? In this late-night discussion, they appear to be missing one another in the conversation, speaking past one another.

Jesus then goes on and speaks of nature, and how the whole person, not just a part of a person, how the whole person, body and mind needs renewal and restoration. And if this isn’t confusing enough, Jesus continues,

‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

Jesus, of course, is not trying to argue for the existence of God, which we so often misuse this scripture for, but he is speaking too about the fact that the movements of the Spirit can be seen in the renewal and transformation, not of souls, but of lives. Rather than trying to argue Nicodemus into believing something, he is trying to help Nicodemus to understand what he is saying. But rather than bringing clarity, it simply brings more confusion.

The old man nicodemus, still not quite understanding, furrows his eyebrows,  and rubs his forehead as he tries to understand the dialogue that is in progress. Until finally, he looks up and responds, with, essentially, “Wait…what?”


I love to picture Nicodemus, someone was pretty sure that he had things figured out, this well known and well respected person, who went to visit Jesus at night, and was left scratching his head.

It is wonderful because, even though we like to think of ourselves as more enlightened than Nicodemus (after all, we throw around the phrase “born again” so often with so little explanation that it means almost nothing by this point), but I think that his response wonderful because it is the response that we, so often, find on our lips.

Today is is the day known by the church in the West as Trinity Sunday. So often on Trinity Sunday, ministers attempt at explaining away the mystery of the Trinity, that we worship one God in three distinct but unified co-eternal persons. So often we resort to common but grossly inadequate analogies, which often teach the old misunderstandings that the church declared to be not okay.

You know what I’m talking about. Water is liquid, solid, and gas. An egg is made up of a shell, an egg, and a yolk. I’m, at the same time, a husband, a son, and a pastor. And the analogies to on. So often, however, these serve to further confuse the issue rather than bring clarity, and no real understanding of the Triune God is gained.

But here, here we do not have neat and tidy explanations. Here we do not have an egg or the three states of water. Here we are surrounded with the mystery of the divine, with that which is beyond our abilities to comprehend. And here is the irony. Learning is important, we are to love God with our hearts and our minds. We cannot be satisfied with an uninformed piety. However, we cannot become so confident in our learning that we think that we have figured things out, that we have figured God out. The moment that we find ourselves in this place, we become like Nicodemus, shifting in our seats, scratching our heads, and trying to understand what is going on.

This is the freeing, and at times frustrating, thing about faith, that we are to learn, we are to study, and to grow in our knowledge of God and the things of God. But we are also to always be ready to sit in awe and wonder before the mystery of God, always being willing to be challenged in our understandings.

And so we are called by the triune God, we are called to a renewal, a restoration. We are not called to “accept Christ as our personal Lord and savior” whatever that means, we are invited to a complete and total renewal, inside and out. Water and Spirit, Jesus says. Outside and in, visible and invisible.

But how does this happen, we ask? It is a mystery, Jesus says to us, with one of those reassuring and comforting smiles.

But the beauty is that we don’t have to ultimately figure out the entirety of this mystery with our minds, we don’t have to be able to wrap our minds around it. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night, in the space between days. And it is in this dark that he has a close encounter of the divine kind. And perhaps we find ourselves in a similar space. A place that seems dark, a place where we cannot see. A place where we may feel alone, and we too can be confident of the presence of God in that space.


Up from the grave


The Three Marys at the Tomb (Van Eyck)

Sermon originally delivered on April 5, 2015 at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 28:1-10

So often we find ways to sanitize death. Often times, death happens in a hospital or some other facility. The family may or may not be there and may or may not witness the death itself. But for the ancients, death happened at home. Everyone saw it, saw the events that would precede and accompany death.

Death was a reality for the ancients, even more than it is for us.

Death was, and is, inevitable. Death is a result of decay. The world decays. Bodies decay. Death is often not something intentional, it just happens. In the end, decay seems to always win. No one can escape the looming shadow of death which, in our experience, consumes everything. Even Jesus did not escape the reality of death.

In the gospels, Jesus died. It was not that he appeared to die, it is not that the human side of Jesus died. Jesus died. Dead. In the tomb for a couple of days. Rigor mortis had already set in as his body began decomposing.


A few days before, the heart monitor went flat with the long steady tone which signals the ending of a heartbeat. Breathing stopped. Had be been in a hospital, a physician would have called the time of death to be written on his death certificate. He was placed in a tomb and the tomb was sealed.

Yet, he had previously told them that he would die and rise again. Although, I can imagine that they would have believed it in such a way that we would believe it if someone told us that they will die and then rise from the dead. Sure. Nothing — nothing — escapes the grip of death.

But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. In Mark’s and Luke’s version, they brought spices, but no mention of this is made in Matthew. We are simply told that they went to see the tomb, their eyes still red and puffy from crying, the taste of the salty tears still on their lips. Why did they want to see the tomb? Perhaps as with Mark and Luke they came to anoint the body with spices. Perhaps they were coming to grieve and pay respects as we often do in cemeteries. Perhaps they came to see if this words were true, that he would rise from the dead. Making their way out of the city limits of the day they came to the place where he was buried.

But suddenly, the earth shook, they could see an angel appear, roll back the stone, and sit on it, his work being completed. His clothes were so bright, they shone like the sun, they could barely look at the angel. I can imagine that perhaps they didn’t even know what that bright light was. The Roman guards who were placed there, probably to ensure that no one would steal the body and claim he rose from the dead, they were so surprised, so shocked, so afraid that fainted. The women, however, did not have the same experience.

And as they shield their eyes with their hands, peering through a crack in their fingers, the angels speaks to them with the familiar, comforting, and confident words of God’s messengers. “Do not be afraid.”

“I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

The angel offers an invitation and an instruction.

Come and see, the angel invites. Come and see the place where he lay. Come inside the tomb. Come inside the place from which people are not supposed to leave. Come and see the place that houses death, come and see the place where the door is to only swing one way, but has swung both ways. Come and see the place where he lay, the place which is now empty. The angel invites them to come and see, to have an experience.

But this is not it. The angel then tells them to go and tell. Go from this graveyard, go from this place of the dead. After all, they no longer have a purpose there, they no longer have a reason to be there. No longer are they to look for Jesus in the place of the dead, but amongst the land of the living.

Go and tell the disciples what has happened, go and tell them that he is not here. Go and tell them that death did not have the final say. Go and tell and decay is not the ruler of creation, go and tell them that the inevitable is not necessarily the inevitable. Go and tell them what has happened and that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, and there you will see him.


This is an old story, an old, old story. One which many of us have heard all our lives. Others of us have heard this story for many years. We are all familiar with it. So why do we tell it over and over again? Why do we tell it clearly every year at this time, and who do we speak about it so often?

This is about one person, but it is not about one person. This is about Jesus, but it is also about all of creation.

What is so amazing about the resurrection of Jesus is not just that one man who was dead became alive again, the amazing thing about this is that it shifts the whole created order. Perhaps the earthquake was symbolic of the shaking of the foundations of the broken order.

Death is a door which swings one way, the tomb is a place from which there is no return, decay is the force that nothing or no one can stop or thwart. But with the resurrection of Christ, these things which are constants, do not seem to necessarily be constant any longer. No longer does death or decay write the script or run the drama of life. Indeed, God writes the script and directs the drama of life. Death does not have the final word, decay is not the final movement, the tomb is not the place from which there is no escape.

Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of the resurrection which we shall experience at the end of all things, when Christ returns to redeem all things, when the broken order is returned to a perfection which even exceeds the original order.

Even though we experience death, death does not have the final answer. Jesus experienced death, and death did not have the final answer. In our experience, there is no return from death, but there is more to existence than our experience. Death is not ultimately the end point, but on the final day, God will raise us, too, from the grave, just as God raised Jesus from the grave.

The rules are different, that which is assumed is to be questioned. Not only was Jesus not there, but he was going on ahead of the disciples to Galilee, and there he would meet them.


The resurrection is the sign that creation has begun its process of restoration and redemption. The resurrection of Christ ushered in the kingdom of God which starts small and slowly begins to encompass everything. It is a transformation which begun at this moment and will continue until the final consummation when all of creation will be redeemed, and God reaches out God’s hand and raises up the faithful to the glorious rest after a life well-lived.

But this hope is not just something for after death, it is something which impacts our lives here and now.

The Marys were not just told to come and see, they were not just told to think and believe, they were told to come and see and then go and tell. Go and tell the disciples what has happened, and that I will be going ahead of them into Galilee.

Jesus was going ahead of them, and he will meet them there.

And we find ourselves in this position too. Christ has been raised, but this is not just something that we just think about and use to cheer ourselves.  Truly this is good news, we must remember that. Christ has conquered the powers — Christ has conquered death. Christ has overcome decay.

And because Christ has been raised we can continue to heed Christ’s call to follow, while Christ goes ahead of us. Christ calls us to follow along the way, loving God and loving others. Showing forth grace and mercy. Living into the redemption which God is effecting.

Come and see, go and tell. I’m going ahead of you.


We have journeyed through the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the death of Good Friday, the silent emptiness of Holy Saturday, and now life on Easter Sunday.

Far from simply just focusing after-death, today is the reason that we can wave our fists in defiant protest in front of death and proclaim with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Death has been swallowed up in victory. We, then, are called to live like it, and Christ goes ahead of us.


The unfair mercy of God

Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s not fair!” I would protest.

I am the oldest of three boys, and as is typical for siblings, and perhaps especially older children, I was hyper-aware to perceived unfairness.  It is almost this primal preservation instinct, that we have to compete in order to gain the things we need to survive. Of course, I was not arguing for something crucial for my survival, it was always something comparably trivial. 

This often happened when the two of us would fight, and we would both be punished. “But I didn’t start it!” I would say. “It takes two to fight,” they would reply. “But it’s not fair!” I would protest. “Life isn’t fair” would come the reply. 

These words would come to me regularly, “Life isn’t fair.”

As a child I never really understood what they were getting at, but as an adult I understand, and I am learning more and more with each passing year. We like to think that the way that we do things is fair. If you do the right things, you will be successful. If you are good at your job you won’t find yourself unemployed. Except this isn’t the way things work. Fantastic workers find themselves unemployed. People with college degrees find themselves in living a homeless shelter. People who live within their means can still find a foreclosure notice come through the mail. But we live in a society that has the illusion of fairness, and we hold up fairness as the peak virtue. But life isn’t fair, as my parents reminded me so often. Life isn’t fair.

And here we have a story which, if we are honest, rubs us the wrong way. It is a story which is unfair, incredibly so.

Jesus begins his parable with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who went out early in the morning to the town square, the marketplace, the place where day laborers gathered to wait for work. 

This story reminds me of John. John was a day laborer. Every day he would get up at four in the morning so that he could catch the bus, if he was able, or walk the few miles to the agency so that he could be there at five to try to find work that day. He would never know if there would be work, some days he would work. Other days he would go home without work. It is a true hand-to-mouth life. In many ways, this is not that much different today as it was then. Day laborers would gather at a central location and hope that someone would come and hire them.

So this landowner needs helpers, so he goes and finds some to work. The day goes on and he sees that he will need more workers and so he goes back, and finds people who had still not been hired, and so he hired them as well. He does this again, and again. He goes back in late in the day, one hour before the work day was done and finds more people there. “Why are you here?” he asks. We cannot see the world “idle” and think lazy.

These people needed work so badly they stayed there in the off-chance that someone would come and hire them. “Why are you here?” he asks them. “Because no one has hired us,” they reply. So he hires them and they come to work in his vineyard.

As is typical, by the time that the day is over, it comes time to get paid. It would have been typical to begin with the people who were there first, and pay them first, as it is only fair. But the landowner does not do this, he starts with those hired last, and he gives them a Denarius, a full day’s wage. I can only imagine how excited the people down the line must have felt. Perhaps they were calculating in their head. Maybe I would get five, six, maybe even ten denarii. 

He moves to those who had been there a few hours, and gives them also a denarius. I can imagine at this point people would begin to wonder exactly what is going on.

By the time that he came to the first to be paid, and he gave them also the day’s wage.

But it’s not fair! they protested. They only worked an hour and we worked all day in the heat and the sun, and you paid them the same as us! The landowner reminds them that he paid them what he promised, and that he chose to pay others the same. After all, they too have families to feed and mortgages to pay. 

You see, from the perspective of those trying desperately to find work but no one hiring them, but for the last hour of the day, this landowner was being merciful. But from the perspective of those who had labored all day, he was being unjust. They had worked longer, they deserved to be paid more. It isn’t fair. And it is true, it isn’t fair.

And I think that this is what bends our noses about this passage. Even though the first ones hired were paid what they were promised, no less, this fundamentally isn’t fair. People should get what they deserve, and what they receive should be in proportion to what they do, right? 


 This parable, like so many others, functions as a mirror for us. When we think we are on top we plead for fairness, but when we think that we are an underdog, we plead for mercy. When I’ve put in the long day under the sweltering heat, I want fairness, but when no one wants to hire me, and the weight of providing for my family weighs on my shoulders and I stay out, desperately hoping that someone will hire me, I prefer mercy.

I wonder, where might you see yourself in this parable? Are you one of the first laborers hired who worked long hours under the hot sun. Perhaps you are the one who found themselves fortunate enough to be hired, even as it seemed as though there might not be a place.

Perhaps you compare what is given to you with what is given to the others and find that you are left wanting. Perhaps you are so overwhelmed with gratitude at the mercy of the landowner.

Perhaps you can see yourself in both groups of workers. In fact, this is often the case, that we can find ourselves in not only one character but several, and from those different perspectives we can see things a bit differently, and we can learn more about what it says about who we are and who God is and who we are in relationship to God.


The most shocking lesson that we learn from this is that God isn’t fair. We like the idea of a fair God. We like the idea that we can choose what to do, or not to do. We like the idea that God will give us what we deserve, and reward us in proportion. But God is not fair, and this is a good thing. Why is it good? Because if God gave to us what we deserve we would be in trouble, we would never enter the kingdom of heaven, we would be lost. God is not fair, and this is the best news that one can learn. God is not fair, but God is merciful and gracious.

This landowner did not have to pay everyone a full day’s wage, but he chose to. Those who worked the longest were not cheated or shorted, they were given what was due to them. But the wideness of the landowner’s mercy showed when he gave to everyone what they needed.

The kingdom of heaven is like…a vineyard where God calls so many people and provides for their needs. This is a marvelous view of the kingdom of heaven, isn’t it?

But this is not just for that some point in the distant future. Indeed, Jesus preaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we know that the kingdom of heaven began with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and is slowly unfolding, slowly continuing its progress of renewing and redeeming all of creation until the final consummation, when all things will be made right.

So, Jesus is not telling this parable to tell people about heaven, Jesus is telling this parable to help them understand about their lives here and now as well, and what God desires of their lives. And so I wonder as well if there is a third role in which we can find ourselves, that of the landowner.

Jesus was not about saving souls but redeeming lives. Jesus is not interested in getting people into heaven when they die, but about transforming creation to reflect the original created order, and perhaps the land owner is a role for some of us to consider, to not be so concerned about fairness, but about mercy and grace. As a culture we are obsessed with fairness, because this is what we think to be the highest virtue — and we cannot even do this. But for followers of Christ, fairness is not the goal, fairness is the beginning point, fairness is crawling. Mercy and grace — this is what it is to walk. Mercy is fairness-plus-plus.

So, sisters and brothers, let us remember that God is merciful beyond comprehension, thankfully not dealing with us the way that we deserve, but dealing with us out of God’s immense love for us and for creation, giving us far more than we deserve or can earn. And let us remember that we, as the church, are called to be a foretaste for the kingdom of heaven, and that we, too, are called to show forth mercy and grace, and through our actions, others can see God.