Who’s In Charge Here?

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On February 28, we from that work (Job 2:1-7) and thought about the ultimate source of power in the universe.   We also considered wisdom from The 46th Psalm.

If you were planning a trip to Los Angeles and Googled “Things to do in Hollywood”, you’d come across a slew of advertisements for a “behind the scenes” tour. My sense is that you’d know what this is, right? Whether we’re talking about making movies or automobiles or factory farming, if I offer you a “behind the scenes” look into something, you’d expect what? A glimpse into the reality that underlies the finished product. Instead of seeing only the feature film or the 1965 Mustang or chicken breasts at 3.98/pound, you’d see what has to happen to make those things possible in our world, right?

Our reading from the Book of Job is one of the places that presents a “behind the scenes” glance into the Divine realm. What does God do all day, we wonder? How does eternal wisdom work?

Satan Before the Throne Of God (William Blake, 1825)

Satan Before the Throne Of God (William Blake, 1825)

Job 1 and Job 2 both contain narratives describing a “heavenly council” – a gathering of Divine or celestial beings at which the affairs of creation are discussed. As we consider these passages this morning, let me remind you that we’re approaching the book of Job as an important story that tells us something that is ultimately true. The point of this story is not so much in the specific details, but rather its attempt to describe for us the underlying reality on which our lives are based.

And having said that, before I consider the story as we hear it in Job, I’d like to mention at least two other stories that point to what happens behind the scenes of the intersection of the unseen eternal reality and our day-to-day lives.

In the world in which Job was written, the ancient Near East, most religions held to the notion that all of the various gods got together once a year – often on New Year’s Day – and determined the fate of individual humans for the year to come. In Mesopotamia, this meant that dozens and dozens of gods would gather in some heavenly location. Each of these gods was associated with a particular city or region, and each of them also had a particular area of expertise or dominance.

The gods of Mesopotamia

The gods of Mesopotamia

For instance, Enlil was the god of air, wind, and storms, and was associated primarily with a city called Nippur. Inanna, who was tied to the region of Urik, was thought to be the goddess of love and war (I wonder why, in ancient religions, these two jobs often fall to the same diety?). Nergal was the god of the underworld who brought famine and destruction into human reality, and was from Kuthu. And perhaps the best known of the lot was a fellow named Marduk, who is often associated with natural disaster and vegetation. Since Marduk was thought of as being the god of Babylon, when that city rose to the status of an Empire, you won’t be surprised to learn that people came to think of Marduk as the most powerful god.

This pantheon, or assembly of gods, reflects a view of reality wherein religion is based in our image, and we create a divinity who is like us – or like we want him or her to be. It also presents us with a “behind the scenes look” at a divine council that is a cacophony of competing voices and claims and counterclaims; a spitting contest full of braggadocio and accusations and conniving – a scene not unlike some sessions of congress or some presidential debates, in fact. In this view of reality, if you were to ask the question, “Who is in charge here?”, the answer you’d wind up with is, “Well, nobody is actually or always in control, really. You just can’t tell with these guys.”

Who's in Charge? I am!!!

Who’s in Charge? I am!!!

So that’s the ancient Near East, or at least part of it. Now fast-forward in history through till today, and let me offer a contemporary American understanding of the divine council. For many of the people in our world, the meeting of the gods looks like those old comics where a person is seeking to make a decision and there’s a little angel on one shoulder and a little demon on the other, each whispering into an ear, urging a specific course of action. Both the tempter and the encourager provide input, but at the end of the day, who is in charge? I am. Because in America, the individual is the ultimate authority.

In Job 1 and Job 2, however, we see a different depiction – one that is at odds with both the ancient Mesopotamian and contemporary American views of divine reality. Each chapter contains the claim that “the angels came to present themselves before the Lord.” That is, heavenly beings come into the presence of One who is clearly supreme and offer who and what they are to that One. This is not a debate; it is not a congress; YHWH is clearly receiving reports from those who, while powerful, are less powerful than he. The very first question that is asked in both chapters 1 and 2 is from God himself: “Where have you come from?” In other words, “Are you doing your job? Tell me about how you have been exercising the authority that I gave to you.

Although this might look really cool painted on a black velvet hanging above your sofa in the man-cave, it never happened.

Although this might look really cool painted on a black velvet hanging above your sofa in the man-cave, it never happened.

There is a huge truth contained in this account of the Divine Council, and one that we oft en forget in our own lives: Satan is not the opposite of God. We do not live in a universe where competing deities vie for power, attention, and ultimate control of the cosmos. Satan is clearly described as a creature who is accountable to God and subject to boundaries that God establishes. If this is true – and I think that it is – that means that good is more powerful than evil; that love is stronger than hate; that hope is superior to memory. Always.

But if we claim that to be true, that presents us with some uncomfortable realities, doesn’t it. We haven’t yet talked about all of the horrible things that happened to Job, but I don’t think that I’m ruining the story for you to tell you that just about everything that Job loves and values is taken away, destroyed, or killed. And in the readings we’ve had this week and last week, YHWH clearly owns the responsibility for this. When Satan presents his report, God holds up Job as an exceptional human being. Satan fires back and says, “Of course he’s good – you treat him like he’s your favorite.” And twice, God gives Satan permission to afflict Job. In our reading for today, after the first round of calamity afflicts Job and his family, God says, “You incited me against him to ruin him for no reason.”

Did you hear that, beloved? God says, “Satan, it was your idea, but the ultimate power at work was mine.” Job is incited against YHWH because Job understands that there is only one ultimate power and authority in all of creation, and it is God. And here in chapter two, as Satan wants to push his theory a little further, he asks God to cause more trouble for Job. In effect, we have a picture of Satan praying to the Lord for horrible things to happen in Job’s life. And in verse 6, we see that God delivers Job into Satan’s hands, although he does set limits – Satan is not allowed to kill Job.

The next logical question, at least to me, is, “Holy smokes? Is YHWH some kind of a jerk?”

If we see the divine only from our experience and only with the facts that we can undeniably “prove” in some fashion, then I’d have to say that it’s entirely possible to conclude that the Almighty is an inconsiderate power-monger who more closely resembles some of our current political figures than the One from Galilee who gave us the Sermon on the Mount.

And yet, precisely because of this man of Nazareth named Jesus, we can see clearly that God’s perspective is not ours, and that our experience of life, of death, of love, of God – of anything, really, is not ultimate. Our experience is limited and therefore faulty. Both Job and Jesus point to a God whose experience and Being and presence is faultless and ultimate and perfect.

The Good News from today’s reading is that there is no such thing as “karma”. While we often use that word as a shorthand to say that “what goes around, comes around”, when we talk about karma in religious language we are referring to the notion that the things that we do and the reason that we do them determine our ultimate fate. To put it one way, karma holds that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. While there may be lots and lots of times where we nod our heads and say, “of course, that’s true”, take a look at the lives of Adolf Hitler or six million Jews or the 2,996 people who were killed on 9/11 or whichever selfish and arrogant celebrity or athlete comes to mind… Take a look at Job, in fact. Everything that we’ve read about Job tells us that if karma were true, then he’d experience nothing but good. And yet this man, who is described by everyone who knows him as unfailingly pious and good and generous and kind, experiences tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. What’s up with that? We’ll talk about that question next week.

My second huge truth for today is that humanity is not doomed to some sort of transactional faith wherein “we get what we deserve”. Instead, the Book of Job presents a reality – seen and unseen – in which humanity experiences evil and trouble and calamity and yet somehow, with God’s help, gets through it.

This affirmation is made plainly and boldly in our reading from the 46th Psalm this morning. God is our refuge and strength. God is for us. No matter what our experience of yesterday, today, or tomorrow is, we can hold to the unchanging reality that “The Lord almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

As we walk through our own worlds this Lent, let me remind you that Job is filled with creational language – that is to say, there are echoes of Genesis that pervade this book. I believe that they are there to remind us that we do not exist in a static universe that is filled with robots or irrefutable forces, and we do not live in a world that is ruled by the selfish whims of competing deities. God invested the creation with a series of relationships and some level of freedom. That leads to some level of cause and effect that is not necessarily tied to our own specific actions, yet is subject to the eternal and ultimate will of the Creator – one whom we believe to be ultimately good, supremely loving, and all-powerful. We do not have the power to know how all of that fits together in our world or in our lives, but the fundamentally Good News that ought to ring forth from every page of the scripture is that God is in control, and that God is with us at all times – even in the midst of tragedy and pain – and that God will bring reconciliation and healing and re-creation that is in line with his eternal intentions and ultimate goodness and beauty.

So know this, beloved: the notion of God’s ultimate power and authority as described here in Job mean that you will never, ever find yourself in a situation of pain or tragedy or distress or dis-ease wherein you call out to God for help or assistance, only to look over and see the Creator shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Jeez, I’m just not sure. I mean, wow – that’s really horrible. I wonder what will happen? I’ll do what I can, but…” The fact that God is in control means that God’s original act of creation – bringing order out of chaos – continues to this day. To your life, and to mine. You are not now, and never will be, powerless or alone. God is with you. God is for you. Thanks be to God!

An Improbable Convert

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for Maundy Thursday, April 2,  came from various excerpts from Mark 14 and 15 and contrasted the actions of Judas Iscariot and the Roman Centurion who watched Jesus die on Good Friday.

Each week during Lent, we’ve been watching the interaction between Jesus and people who have had the opportunity to meet with him on more than one occasion. If you’ve been here in the past month or so, you’ve met John’s disciples, the man who was possessed, the blind man in John 9, and more. Tonight’s readings give us the opportunity to encounter two men who run into Jesus – maybe even on the same night – and they are men who are going in decidedly different directions.

The Kiss of Judas,  Giotto, c. 1305 (Fresco in Padua, Italy)

The Kiss of Judas,
Giotto, c. 1305 (Fresco in Padua, Italy)

Judas Iscariot has, of course, known Jesus for a while. As one of the twelve disciples, he’s traveled with the Lord for some years; he was one of the twelve who got sent out in Mark 6 and probably one of the seventy-two dispatched in Luke 10. Judas has, in fact, just finished celebrating the Passover Seder with Jesus, at which time his feet were washed by the Lord. For Judas, turning and re-turning to Jesus is something that has been second nature for two or three years. Now, however, Judas has apparently decided that Jesus is not who he thought that he was, and so it’s time for him to cut his losses and move on. We’ll talk more about Judas on Sunday morning.

The other man who has captured my attention this evening is the unnamed centurion who watches Jesus die. We have no way of knowing how or when he first met Jesus or if, in fact, they had ever met before. Given the small size of the city of Jerusalem, however, and this man’s place in the Roman army of occupation, it’s hard for me to imagine that he would not have encountered the Lord during Holy Week. In tonight’s reading we see that the centurion, like Judas, has apparently decided that Jesus is not who he thought that he was, and that leads this soldier to stake his claim to faith and see where God would lead him.

The Confession of St. Longinus, James Tissot c. 1890

The Confession of St. Longinus, James Tissot c. 1890

Who is this man that shows up in our reading this evening? A centurion was a member of a special class within the Roman military. The title does not reflect a specific rank (such as lieutenant or captain), but rather a place of honor. Historians believe that most centurions would have held ranks equivalent to anything between a major and a one star general in the modern military.

Centurions were men of significant prestige and power. Polybius, a second-century BC historian, said this about centurions: “In choosing their centurions the Romans look not so much for the daring or fire-eating type, but rather for men who are natural leaders and possess a stable and imperturbable temperament, not men who will open the battle and launch attacks, but those who will stand their ground even when worsted or hard-pressed, and will die in defense of their posts.”[1] Centurions were to be vigilant, strong, capable, and respectable.

Each centurion, in spite of what his title suggests, is thought to have led a group of 80 soldiers. In battle, they led from the front lines. They were easily identified by their distinctive helmets and other uniform features (which included a vitis, or “swagger stick”, a short stick made from rattan reeds), and perhaps as a result of this centurions suffered a disproportionate number of casualties during military engagements.

The centurion mentioned in Mark’s Gospel would almost certainly have been a Gentile – that is, a non-believer. One other item of note about this centurion – and all his compatriots, in fact – is that every centurion mentioned in the New Testament is spoken of in a positive manner. That is surprising, given that these men represented the army of occupation and the power of Rome.

So that’s a little about our centurion. What, or who, did he see when he looked at the prisoner Jesus of Nazareth? Initially, there was probably little to draw his attention to this itinerant Rabbi. After all, there was little in Jesus’ resume to attract much attention from the imperial elite. Peasant messiahs were a dime a dozen (or maybe I should say they were a shekel an ephah?) in those days.

He would not have been impressed with the method of Jesus’ capture. The religious authorities, who challenged Jesus publicly, chose not to detain the man from Nazareth until the crowds died down and they could sneak up on him in the middle of the night. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus had been betrayed by a close friend, an act of dishonor, would have added to the centurion’s belief that this Nazarean was of no concern to him. Initially, the only trial that Jesus was given was before a religious body that would have had no impact on any Roman soldier.

However, it’s reasonable to think that this soldier, or at least others like him, would have stood by as the Roman Governor, Pilate, questioned Jesus and then shipped him off to the Jewish leader, Herod. The centurion would have seen the crowd’s rejection of Jesus in favor of Barabbas, who was known to be a thug and a mercenary.

The dungeon cell from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, which was erected on the ruins of the High Priest's home in Jerusalem

The dungeon cell from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, which was erected on the ruins of the High Priest’s home in Jerusalem

The centurion might have been able to witness the mockery that Jesus endured from the soldiers as he sat in the dimness of his prison cell. Five years ago I was privileged to visit Jerusalem, and was humbled to visit a dungeon in the basement of a church that was built on the site of the high priest’s house. There is no evidence to suggest that the cell I visited actually housed Jesus, but the conditions would have to have been similar, if not identical. Surrounded by damp walls and hearing only echoes from the street, I was struck by how intensely lonely Jesus must have been. The centurion would have seen that, all right. And he may, in fact, have been there. Do you remember the vitis? And how we read that the Lord was struck by “a reed”?

Public toilets from the Basilica in Philippi

Public toilets from the Basilica in Philippi

And we know that he was there as Jesus hung on the cross. He would have watched the taunting and the mockery continue. One particularly gruesome aspect of that mockery became clear to me when I visited some ancient Roman colonies and discovered, of all things, public toilets. We saw a long row of latrines that were constructed over a channel of flowing water. Someone in my group asked about hygiene, and we were informed that in the absence of modern toilet paper, every latrine had a bucket of vinegar close by, and every Roman soldier was issued a sponge and a stick to use for his personal hygiene. Upon learning this, my first thought was of this passage where a soldier asks Jesus if he’s thirsty while holding a vinegar-soaked sponge on a stick… The centurion watched as this kind of scorn was heaped upon the man from Galilee.

A spongia used for bathroom hygiene

A spongia used for bathroom hygiene

And, of course, the centurion saw Jesus breathe his last. It would not have been the first man he’d seen die, nor would it be the last. All we know for certain is that when this respected, powerful leader of the Roman army saw how Jesus conducted himself in his final hours, he was driven to worship the Lord.

Judas looked at Jesus and was disappointed. Jesus was not powerful enough, not strong enough, not gutsy enough, not aggressive enough to suit Judas’ ends. Jesus did not serve Judas’ purposes, and Judas moved on.

The centurion looked at Jesus and saw strength, power, and authority. This man, who served under governors and emperors and alongside of the most capable and fearsome troops that established Rome’s rule, was moved by what he saw in Jesus. The Romans, of course, had made a study of power. For them, power was a means to an end. The centurion and his colleagues were intensely pragmatic and not given much to theory or speculation. As he watched Jesus suffer and die without giving in to anger or self-pity, the centurion saw Jesus as the epitome of all that was good, righteous, and powerful – and therefore worthy of his worship.

Earlier this week, your church staff read the scriptures where the crowd chooses Barabbas instead of Jesus. As we talked about what would make a man like Judas turn his back on Jesus, and what would make the religious leaders incite the crowd to release a terrorist rather than a poor street preacher, we considered these words from James Harnish:

Is it possible that our world still knows better how to deal with a bandit, a murderer, an insurrectionist than it knows what to do with the Prince of Peace? There is a sense in which an assassin’s attempt on the pope’s life is less shocking to our world than the pope’s forgiveness of him. Is it possible that we would rather deal with raw power that rides on a stallion than with this one who comes on a donkey, with the weapons of love, patience, suffering, and peace? Given the choice, isn’t it possible that we would take Barabbas, too?[2]

The truth is, I’m afraid, that given half a chance, we – like Judas – are eager to call on our Jesus to serve our own ends. We seek Jesus on our own terms, and want him to come and take care of us.

Jesus, come on, Jesus, I really need to get an A on this test right now. Please, Jesus, just buy me that jet plane. Get me the job, Jesus. Heal my baby, Lord. Don’t forget, Jesus, the lottery drawing is tonight. Remember my dad in the hospital, Lord…

Listen – it’s not wrong to ask God about the things that are important to you. Jesus said that we were to go to God and open our hearts.

It’s important to remember, though, that we don’t follow Christ so that we get better stuff, or somehow receive better treatment from the Lord at the end of the day.

We come together as followers of the one who washed feet, who shared the loaf and the cup, and who laid down his life for his friends all while he was pointing to God’s eternal purposes of truth and reconciliation in the world. We follow Jesus not because we expect that somehow we will be treated better than he was treated, but so that the world, through us, will get a better glimpse of God’s intentions for healing and wholeness.

St. Longinus  Bernini, c. 1635 St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

St. Longinus
Bernini, c. 1635 St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

The ancient church liked to tell the story that this centurion who watched Jesus die was a Roman officer named Longinus, and that after bearing witness to the humble death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus, he went on to be baptized, leave the army, and tell the world about the power that can be found in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t really know much about Longinus, and whether I trust that story.

The Confession of the Centurion James Tissot, c. 1890

The Confession of the Centurion
James Tissot, c. 1890

On this Maundy Thursday, however, I do know that I can be a selfish, broken, greedy, lonely, scared, violent, angry, suspicious, powerless little person, and that I am surrounded by people who are a lot like me. And like the centurion who watched Jesus die, I know that my best hope is to continue to look to Jesus to feed and clean me as I seek to follow him in humility, service, and love…which is, of course, the most significant power that the universe has ever seen. That’s the power that made the centurion stop in his tracks…and can re-arrange your life, and mine, this evening. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Rise of the Roman Empire, Translated by Ian Scott Kilvert, Penguin Books, New York, 1979, p.322

[2] from What Will You Do With King Jesus, quoted in A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Reuben Job (Upper Room Books, 2006), p. 166.

The Church on the Move: Ephesus

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 11, we visited Ephesus, and talked about the controversy that took place when the Apostles challenged the status quo.  You can read about it in Acts 19.  

I have had the privilege of traveling to Malawi in Central Africa a number of times. Because I am profoundly grateful for that, and because our friends in Malawi have some significant needs, I rarely travel empty-handed: I usually try to bring along some relief or community-building supplies.

Generally, I fly into the airport closest to where our sister church is, and I am met by some sort of a delegation that helps me to sort out my luggage, etc. However, on one trip I was flying alone and happened to be landing in the capital city, a six-hour drive from my close friends. I’d be on my own.

As it happened that day, there was an extremely zealous Malawian customs officer on duty who was very curious about the contents of my second piece of luggage – a foot locker containing sports and medical equipment that was clearly not for my own use. I explained that these were gifts for friends, and she explained that she didn’t care about that, and that I needed to know that I was liable for several hundred dollars in import tariffs and had a long afternoon of government paperwork to look forward to…

I was wearing my collar, I was trying to look kind and compassionate and, well, meek. She was having none of it. She handed me a sheaf of paper and a pen and instructed me to itemize everything in both suitcases and assign it a value. Just as I resignedly took the paper, I heard a voice calling from across the terminal. “Abusa! Abusa Davie Cava! Abusa! Stop right there!” And, looking up, I saw a uniformed police officer sprinting toward me. He had his baton in hand, and he grabbed the paperwork from me and laid it on the table. He smacked the papers with his baton and went to town on the woman from customs. He was talking so quickly and with such animation that all I could pick out were the words “Abusa” (that’s the Chichewa word for “pastor”), “mzungu” (Chichewa for “white guy”), and “Davie Cava” (Chichewa, evidently, for “Dave Carver”). They had a rather energetic discussion, during which point he was placing items back in my luggage and attempting to close it up whilst she was taking items out of my luggage and pointing to the paperwork.

He packed faster than she could unpack, and he slammed the lid on the footlocker, gave it a whack with his baton, and said, “Abusa, come with me.” She started to argue, and he smacked the footlocker again and said, “No!” They were ANGRY!

We went around the corner and he broke into a huge grin, hugged me, and said, “I can’t believe you have come back to Malawi!” I hugged back, a little tentatively, because I had no idea who my rescuer was. It turns out that he had been a member of a congregation in a very remote area that I’d visited about ten years previously. So far as he knew, my family was the first American family to visit his village, and he remembered my preaching in his church – and he was going to be darned if he let someone like me pay taxes on relief supplies that were heading to a village like that! He told me I was famous in Makanjila, one of the most sparsely-populated areas in Malawi.

I realize that doesn’t help me get a discount at Shop N Save or good seats to the Pirate game, but, hey – I’ll take what I can get.

Where are you famous? Who knows you, and where do they know you? I’m thinking about that this morning because our scripture reading tells about the day that Paul found out that he was famous in Hell. Did you catch that? These charlatans are going around trying to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, and the demon says, “Jesus, I know. Paul, I know. But who are you?” and then goes ahead and gives the would-be exorcists a run for their money. Those who would drive out the demon are themselves driven away.

EarlyChurch2As we continue to look at the process by which disciples and followers mature into apostles and those who are entrusted with a ministry of real import, our venue shifts this morning to the town of Ephesus, a port city in what is now known as Turkey. What were the characteristics of the Body of Christ in that place, and what can we learn from them in our attempts to be faithful?

One thing that Luke wants us to know about the church there is that it was a powerful, powerful place. The church in Ephesus came about because of a deep investment by some really gifted people. [1]In fact, we’re told that Paul stayed in Ephesus longer than he stayed anywhere else. His commitment, and that of the rest of the believers, left a profound impact not only on the local population, but, as we’ve seen, on those in the next world as well! The stories of handkerchiefs and aprons are significant because they reveal the strength and power that is attributed to the presence of Paul and the other leaders in that community.

In the same way, I have been encouraged by some real signs of the presence of the Holy in and around Crafton Heights. Oh, so far as I know, we’ve not seen any healings as a result of used handkerchiefs, but we also haven’t had any botched exorcisms, either – so I’ll call that a draw. What we have seen, though, is a community that is growing stronger as people engage in long-term commitment and the intentional practice of ministry – a commitment to a place and a people that is remarkable in our mobile, 21st-century American culture. In fact, one of the things that drew me to this place more than thirty years ago was the depth that I saw in friendships shared between people like Dorothy Larimer and Peg Morse and Margaret Tranter and John McConnell and Beebe Lightell. Prior to coming to Crafton Heights, I’d never really seen a community where people valued long-term friendships like this. If anything good is happening in and through this church, then it is happening at least in part because a group of you have decided that you are called to invest yourselves in each other and in these neighbors. Do not, my friends, underestimate the power of that commitment.

Icon of St. Paul by an unknown artist, c. 5th century

Icon of St. Paul by an unknown artist, c. 5th century

There’s a danger, of course, to that. In Ephesus, we see that the power and strength that comes from the witness of the Christian community leads others to have a certain familiarity with the name of Jesus and the trappings of faith, but no real relationship with Christ or his people. The “Seven Sons of Sceva” see that the name of Jesus is associated with big things, and so they try to appropriate that name without knowing the One it represents. To them, the name is a magical incantation.

I thought about that earlier this week as a few friends and I engaged in a conversation about the ways that sometimes people will look at me and say, “Well, what do you think, Dave…will you say a little prayer about this for us?”

What, exactly, is “a little prayer”? Is it a brief prayer telling God what we think we need and which he already knows? I’m ok with those kind of prayers. Or is “a little prayer” an incantation that we send out when it doesn’t seem like anything else is going to work, anyway?

Prayer is a powerful gift. But it’s not magic. I have to remember that when you shake my hand and tell me that your family reunion is on Saturday and will I please pray for good weather – and then the next person through the line reminds me that she’s planted more tomatoes than ever before, so will I please pray for rain. I can only pray for us to experience God’s best in the place God has given us. That’s not magic, and it’s not a little prayer. It’s recognizing the power that is given in the context of a relationship with the Lord of all creation.

The third thing that I notice about the church in Ephesus is the stark contrast between the faithful, intentional, long-term ministry that the church is seeking to build and the fly-by-night hocus-pocus that the Sons of Sceva are attempting to sell – and the ways that that contrast is an invitation to the church in Ephesus to take a step forward in faith and demonstrate what really happens when a people know not just his name, but Jesus himself.

In our context, I think that begs the question, “How do we create a climate that constantly invites deeper growth and maturity in faith?” To put it another way, are we showing up at worship because we want some of the “good luck blessings” that seem to come to Jesus’ friends to rub off on us? Or are we growing in our ability to trust that Jesus, not chance, rules the world; that service and humility, not fame and fortune, are the hallmarks of successful living; and that obedience, not convenience, is what God wants from us?

I was getting ready to assist in a baptism in Malawi when my friend Pastor Ralph engaged in an animated conversation with the young couple who’d brought their daughter forward. The baby was wearing a lovely little necklace, and Ralph spoke sharply and pointed his bony finger at the parents, then roughly grabbed the necklace and threw it to the ground, grinding it to dust with his heel.

I discovered that the “necklace” was an amulet given to the baby by the local witch doctor, who had assured the parents that if their daughter wore the charm, she’d be protected from all evil spirits and bodily harm. Ralph insisted that when we baptize our babies, we aren’t guaranteeing them anything – we’re insisting that they grow up knowing that they belong to God and are called for his purposes. He said, “Look, you can’t have it both ways – are you going to worship the god of the witch doctor, or learn the Way of Christ?”

In our world, we face a similar choice. Every year at this time, I get a litany of complaints about the fact that the sports leagues schedule their games on Sunday mornings and how we wish that Johnny could come to church, but he made a promise to the team to show up there, too.

Now, hear what I’m saying, people. Pastor Dave is not capping on the folks who have to go to Dance recitals or softball games. And Pastor Dave is not making the world a place where it’s all black and white, and where church is the only place that God’s intentions are revealed. After all, if we act like that, we’re acting as if this place is magical and we’re treating our baptism like it’s the good-luck charm.

But Pastor Dave is (in addition to talking about himself in the third person) saying that we have a responsibility to learn for ourselves, and to help our children learn, that our primary identity is that of being part of the Family of God. How and where and when we choose to work, to shop, to socialize, to engage in the day-to-day aspects of living are reflective of the values that underpin those choices. Seeing ourselves as the family of faith who wear the name and carry the power of Christ in this place means that there will be days when we go for the team event or the family reunion because Christ plays in those arenas, too. But it will also mean that we integrate our spiritual lives into the fabric of those other areas so that we play, shop, eat, and vote in ways that reflect the glory of God.

St. Paul and the Burning of the Pagan Books at Ephesus, Lucio Massari (1569-1633)

St. Paul and the Burning of the Pagan Books at Ephesus, Lucio Massari (1569-1633)

The rest of Acts 19 describes in vivid detail a riot that ensues when the church in Ephesus lives into its call to walk in faith in humility before God. In particular, the local metal workers create a disturbance when they realize that if everyone adopts the Way of Christianity, then the market for their shiny idols will drop and they’ll lose business. The Church, carrying and living the name and power of Christ, represented a real threat to the status quo and the powers of the day. We can do the same thing, you know. In fact, we are called to do so.

What if our embrace of the radical call to follow Jesus prompts us to follow the example of the church in Ephesus?

Listen: the early church was filled with people who believed in Jesus AND in sorcery and witchcraft – until they saw what happened to folks like the Sons of Sceva. Then the believers in Ephesus decided that they needed to purge their homes of the scrolls and books that guided them in that aspect of spirituality. We read where they burnt their libraries – worth 50,000 silver pieces – because they felt as though those libraries were holding them back in their ability to follow Jesus effectively. A silver piece was a day’s wage – so if I do the math right, that’s more than 150 years worth of wages for a single person. It’s a huge number…and it represents the fact that the Christian community was willing to pass on something that was attractive in order to gain that which was eternally important.

Do you need to purge something from your life today? If you are going to be a follower of Jesus in ways that bring forth power and really make a difference in the world, what do you need to set aside?

Maybe you need to trust God to be your comfort, not the rocky road ice cream or the drive-through at the Taco Bell. Maybe you need to quit looking for relaxation and “inner peace” by zoning out with bad television or substance abuse. Maybe you even need to stop spending so much time doing something good so that you can be fully engaged by something great. I don’t know what it is for you – but I know that the Lord Jesus Christ is calling you to drop anything that stands between you and whole-hearted obedience so that his name and power are more clearly seen in your life.

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus

I had the privilege to visit Ephesus about six years ago. I went to the site of the Temple of Artemis – one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” I saw the temples that were built to the local goddess, and the images in stone and marble that had once been incredibly beautiful but now bear witness to decay and death.


The Grand Theater, Ephesus

I served communion in the Coliseum where the riot described in Acts 19 took place, and where Christians later met their deaths at the hands of gladiators or the claws of beasts.

And as impressive as all of that old architecture was, I was more overwhelmed by the power of the Name that was proclaimed in the homes and churches of this ancient city. Scratched into a paving stone in the ancient sidewalk was a small, insignificant shape – it looks a little like a pizza – but it is the coded shape that the earliest believers used to say “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior.” The graffiti has lasted as long, or longer, than the temples to the idols. And the message it represents is eternal: the Gospel of Christ that freed slaves and fed the hungry and drove out demons and unleashed dreams… May we be able to receive the call to purity so that we can focus on that which is most important even as we hope for the transformation of what we see before us.

Using the lines of this shape, you can make the Greek Letters for I, C, T, H, U, S - the early acronym indicating the lordship of Christ.

Using the lines of this shape, you can make the Greek Letters for I, C, T, H, U, S – the early acronym indicating the lordship of Christ.

If we are able to commit ourselves to seeking the truth of Jesus single-mindedly, we probably won’t become famous here or anywhere else. But we’ll be participating in the kind of lifestyle that builds the Kingdom in our children and grandchildren – the only Kingdom that will last forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.

What’s Your Kryptonite?

On February 2, 2014 the saints at Crafton Heights walked through the third and final installment of the Samson story (see the two previous entries for the beginning and middle of this saga).  Our scriptures included excerpts from Judges 16 (below)  and Hebrews 12:1-3

superman_kryptonite11_138My hunch is that anyone who grew up in the USA in the 20th century knows something about what kryptonite is.  Superman, as we all know, was born on the planet Krypton, and miraculously made his way to Earth.  As he grew, he discovered that his body interacted with the elements of our planet in such a way so as to give him super powers – faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a mighty locomotive, and so on.  Yet when Lex Luthor or anyone else brings some fragment of Superman’s home planet into his presence, those powers evaporate and Superman is rendered ineffectual.

Samson and the Lion, Giordano (17th c.)

Samson and the Lion, Giordano (17th c.)

Samson is about as close to Superman as anyone in the book of Judges.  And if you’ve been here the past two weeks, you’ve heard me say that I think that much of Samson’s life was wasted in the pursuit of selfish gratification, and that Samson was, in my opinion, a petty man who failed to lead Israel into faith, and instead acted exactly like the Philistine overlords from whom he was called to deliver Israel.   Last week, we ended with the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson was a judge in Israel for 20 years “in the days of the Philistines.”

Chapter 16, the last chapter of Samson’s life, opens with a rather pedestrian story about the chosen leader of God’s people taking the red-eye over to Philistine territory so that he can meet up with one of their prostitutes. The folks at Philistine Immigration call him out, and in a superhuman feat of strength, Samson tears out the doors of the city gate and carries them halfway home, thus wounding their pride and leaving them with a large gap in their public-works budget.  It is an account of an incident that is thrown into our narrative so that we, and the Philistines, will know that Samson is still Samson.  Twenty years have come and gone, but he’s still ridiculously strong and apparently insatiable.

Samson and Delilah, José Echenagusía (1887)

Samson and Delilah, José Echenagusía (1887)

And then we get to “the main event” in Samson’s life – the part of the story with which we, and Hollywood, are most familiar.  Samson and Delilah – an epic love story.  If by “love story” you mean that he was vain and lustful and eager to use her to his own ends and that she was greedy and willing to sell out Samson for cash on the nail.  Yeah, it’s a real romance, all right.

The narrative unfolds with a rather curious game in which Samson and Delilah engage in a series of lies and deceits to each other.  We might call it “guess my secret”, wherein Samson’s secret is the source of his strength and Delilah’s secret is that she doesn’t really give a hoot about Samson, but only the silver pieces that the Philistines have promised her.

Three times, she comes to him at her sultry best, and pouts, and says, “Come on, big guy, don’t you love me?  Tell me what makes you so big and brave and handsome…”  He tells her that he can’t be tied up with fresh bowstrings or with new ropes, or that if his hair were tightly braided, he’d be out of luck.  With each round of this game, Samson is the apparent “winner”, as he gets to kiss the pretty girl (and, presumably, spend a significant amount of time in other pursuits with her) and she receives only lies.  But finally, after days of pestering, round four brings us a different result.  Listen for the Word of God in Judges 16:

Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.

So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. (Judges 16:15-19)

Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio (1610)

Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio (1610)

Do you see – for Samson, it really is a game.  As an observer, you might think, “Why in the world would he tell her what keeps him strong?”  But the truth is that he had long ago stopped believing that his strength and power were gifts from God. He saw that tremendous strength as something that was simply his by right.  After all, we have noticed that there are three aspects to the vow of the Nazirite: no shaving or hair cutting, nothing to do with grapes, and not becoming unclean by contact with the dead.  For decades, Samson has been blithely ignoring two of those rules – he’s the host at several and the guest at many drinking parties, and he is never far from something or someone who is dead.

Here, he tells Delilah about the Nazirite vows, but it’s just another round in the game.  He tells her about these things the way that my dad told me about Paul Bunyan or the Easter Bunny.

We see this borne out in Samson’s response to the situation in verse 20:

Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”

He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him. (Judges 16:20)

For him, it’s business as usual: “I’ll just get back to my old self here and…what the heck?!?!”  He found that he was as weak as any other middle-aged man who had been lulled to sleep in the arms of a mercenary, yet beautiful female spy…that is to say, he found that he was helpless.

We know that in the case of Superman, it’s kryptonite that causes the loss of his strength. So for Samson, it’s the hair, right?

Wrong. Samson loses his power because he has finally succumbed to the pride, the self-reliance, and the sense of invulnerability with which he has flirted his entire life.  His hair is an outward sign of an inward reality – and the truth is that Samson had long ago stopped believing in the mystical power of his flowing locks…and instead, relied on himself and taken that strength as his due.

For Superman, it’s kryptonite.  For Samson, it’s pride.  What is there in your world that saps your strength and leads you from God’s best in the world?

For some of us, it’s a fear of being known.  Every day, we look at ourselves in the mirror before leaving the house and as we pat down our hair one last time, we think, “OK, looking good. Keep up a good front, because if they found out what I was really like, then I’d be in trouble.”  We say and do this because so many of us are deeply dissatisfied with who we are, but we are not sure how to change…and so we hide behind an image or a mask or a job… We hide from others, we hide from ourselves, and we even try to hide from God.

And when we spend so much energy hiding from God or from each other or even from ourselves, then there’s not much left for seeking God’s best or for acting it out.  This fear will kill us.

Some of us struggle with the burden of regret.  Every hour of every day, we are reminded of some secret guilt that gnaws away at us.  We think of promises that we’ve broken, or angry outbursts directed towards those we love, or choices that we made an hour, a month, or a lifetime ago, and discover that they make for a debilitating load.  Regret is like a sack full of stones that we feel obliged to carry everywhere… it just gets heavier and heavier, and sooner or later, it’s just easier to not try to go anywhere at all, but to stay home, inside, and dwell in the land of “I wish I had never…” or “If only…”  This kind of regret is a waste of energy, emotion, and life.

The despicable twin of regret is the demon of worry about the future.  We look ahead, and of course, we can’t see everything very clearly.  So we become paralyzed, and are unable to move.  We think, “How can I do this, when that might happen tomorrow?  This may be a silly example, but perhaps you can relate:  when I started the tenth grade at Concord High School, I was seized with despair.  Here I was in a whole new system, a new place, with a new hierarchy, set of expectations, and opportunities. And what paralyzed me was the fact that I knew that I’d only be there 3 years.  Well, given my academic prowess, I should say that I hoped I’d only be there three years.  Why should I make friends, why should I try anything, why should I even care when I know that it’s all going to disappear in 3 years?  It all seemed so futile.

A beardless image of me illustrating a sermon about Samson.  Coincidence? Hmmmm.  Bonus points for anyone under 35 who knows what I'm holding in my hands.

A beardless image of me illustrating a sermon about Samson. Coincidence? Hmmmm. Bonus points for anyone under 35 who knows what I’m holding in my hands.

Fortunately for me, a band teacher and a youth group advisor told me that I was being an idiot (in nice, kind, Jesus-y language) and suggested that I enjoy the life that God gave me.  And I did. And I have.  And whereas I went into high school sure that there was no value in making friendships, I actually went on a few dates with a gal named Sharon McCoy that wound up changing my mind about that…

My point is that we know what it means to be surrounded by the worry, regret, or fear that seeks to render us powerless.  None of us comes from Krypton, but all of us know something that would drain the life from us if we let it.  So how do we deal with it?

Back to Samson.  What happened after his shearing and capture?

Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding grain in the prison. But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved. (Judges 16:21-22)

Samson Grinding Grain, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Samson Grinding Grain, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Did you ever think about the stuff that is and isn’t in the Bible?  We never hear about any of Jesus’ hobbies, for instance. Nobody bothered to write down whether the Apostle Paul kept any pets.  But here, someone thinks it’s important that we know that Samson’s hair started to grow after it was shaved.

Really?  Doesn’t all hair do that?  Isn’t it one of the properties of hair?  Why do we need to know that?  I’ll tell you why it’s not there – it’s not a teaser for the reader, so that we can say, “Ha, ha, those Philistines are so stupid, they don’t know that the source of his strength is his hair.  Go ahead, Samson.  Sneak up on ‘em.  Grow that hair.”  No, the faithful reader knows that Samson’s strength is from God, not his hairstyle.

The author of Judges includes that sentence because it’s a way of acknowledging that the Philistines believed that they had won.  Of course they noticed his hair growing, but they didn’t care, because they believed that he was no longer a Nazirite.  Not only did they believe that Samson had been vanquished for good, but that the God of the Israelites, YHWH, was as good as dead, too.  We see that in the worship service that they organize in the temple of their god, Dagon:

Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.”

When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying,

“Our god has delivered our enemy
 into our hands,
 the one who laid waste our land
 and multiplied our slain.”

While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. (Judges 16:23-25)

In a kind of reverse “Minute for Mission”, Samson comes out and offers the crowd “proof” that Dagon has defeated YHWH.

And then, something happens.  Samson finally gets it.  After a lifetime of being proud and arrogant and fierce and stubborn and godless, he is humbled and abused and blinded and mocked.  And he finds himself in the arena of the god who opposes YHWH, the very center of the shrine to all that he has been called to oppose.  And the once-proud and mighty warrior speaks quietly to the slave who is charged with leading him around:

When they stood him among the pillars, Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. (Judges 16:26-27)

He feels the weight of his own decisions and behavior.  For the second time in his life that we know of, Samson cries out to God.

Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (17th C.)

Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (17th C.)

Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. (Judges 16:28-30)

Samson dies in an act of self-sacrifice.  He is strengthened – not because his hair grew back, but because God’s call is for always.  Do you remember when the angel showed up to old Manoah and his wife?  He told the couple that the as yet unborn child would be a Nazirite.  “…for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.” (13:7)

As badly as he had blown it, time and time again, Samson could not escape God’s grace.  God had said that he would be blessed until the day he died, and he found that strength on that day.

This is a tragic end to a horrible story.  I know in the last few weeks I have been pretty rough on Samson.  I am troubled by his story because he could have chosen otherwise – but in the end, he deals with his demons in death the same way he did in life – with violence and destruction.

Beloved, you know fear.  You know regret.  You know worry.

Can you – can we – lay these things aside and cling to the good to which Christ calls us?  Can we choose to live as those who are endowed with superpowers – the gifts of trust, and forgiveness, and hope?

baptismYou are no better, and you are no worse, than Samson.  The things that derailed him can derail you and me – and will, if we give them half a chance.  Samson wound up killing himself as he fought his pride and pettiness and selfishness.  But you and I can claim our baptism and say, “Yes, I have already died to fear, regret, worry, and anything else that weakens me and gets in the way of the peace, faithfulness, and obedience to which I am called.”  You don’t have to live with the kryptonite.  And you don’t have to kill yourself.  We can lean into God’s grace for this day – forgetting about yesterday and trusting for tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

In the Shadow of Herod

This message was preached on the day of Epiphany – January 6, 2013.  Some people call this the “twelfth day of Christmas”.  It is, so far as most of the church is concerned, the end of the Christmas season.  Our friends in the Orthodox tradition are actually celebrating the birth of Jesus today.  For those reasons and more, it’s good to take one last look at the story before we pack up the tree and move back into “ordinary time”.   Our starting text was Matthew 2:1-12, the story of the Wise Men visiting the Christ Child.

When Matthew wants to tell us the story of Jesus’ birth, he gives us some context.  “In the days when Herod was king…”  Well, that makes sense.  You’re telling us about something, and you give us a reference.  I might begin a story with, “When I was in High School”, and you would know that I’m not talking about recent history, perhaps.  Or if I were to tell you about a trip to the airport and say, “Now, this was before 9/11”, then you’d know something about the world of my story.

In the days of King Herod, Wise Men from the East came looking for the King of the Jews.

A model depicting the grandeur of Herod's Temple

A model depicting the grandeur of Herod’s Temple

Well, they went to the right place, apparently.  They ended up in Jerusalem.  They would have seen the Temple that Herod had built there.  That Temple was the largest functioning religious site in the world.  Even today, the Temple Mount remains the largest man-made platform on earth.  If you wanted to find power and glory in first-century Palestine, then starting with Herod made a lot of sense.  All of the power and wealth and riches in the world seemed to flow towards this man.  He was a relentless builder, and constructed a number of cities and fortresses.  Perhaps you know the names of some of them: Caesarea, Masada, Antonia.

Sure, the Wise Men would have stopped in Jerusalem and met with Herod if it was a King that they wanted to find.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem at the time of Christ

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem at the time of Christ

But when they saw Herod, they knew that he was not the one they were looking for.  So they left Jerusalem, and headed south, towards the little town of Bethlehem.

The hill on which the Herodian was perched dominated the landscape.

The hill on which the Herodian was perched dominated the landscape.

Herodian-Fortress-National-ParkWhile they were going there, they’d have passed under the brow of the largest and richest of Herod’s fortresses, the Herodian.  This amazing edifice was the third-largest fortress of its time.  The building itself covered 45 acres and sat on hundreds of acres of land.  There, in the midst of the desert, Herod and his family enjoyed swimming pools and gardens and lived in a tower seven stories high.  The Herodian was a link in the network of palaces built by Herod as an escape route should Cleopatra and Egypt choose to attack – he wanted to save his own skin, and he built a mountain fortress to make sure he could.  The Herodian was, and is, the picture of security, power, and might.

It would have been incredibly intimidating for the Wise Men to have passed right in the shadow of that edifice while looking for a different kind of king.  But they did.

The Adoration of the Magi, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1598)

The Adoration of the Magi, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1598)

And Matthew tells us what we all know – that they arrived at a modest dwelling and met a peasant family and decided that this particular baby boy was the one to whom treasures were due.  The Wise Men walked through Jerusalem and past the Herodian and ended up here, where they worshiped and left their gifts.  And then they simply went home – without stopping in to say goodbye to Herod.

Not long after that, Joseph had a dream:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
 wailing and loud lamentation,
 Rachel weeping for her children;
 she refused to be consoled,
 because they were no more.” (MT 2:13-18 RSV)

Days after the Wise Men had sneaked past the Herodian into Bethlehem, Joseph packs up his family and leads them past the fortress and into Egypt.  There, the only-begotten Son of God would spend time as a refugee, an “illegal alien” hiding from the long arm of Herod’s law.

The Slaughter of the Innocents, mosaic on the floor of the Cathedral in Siena, Italy (14th - 16th c)

The Slaughter of the Innocents, mosaic on the floor of the Cathedral in Siena, Italy (14th – 16th c)

And it was good for him that he was hiding there, because you heard what happened – that when Herod figured out that he’d been schnookered, he went into a rage and killed the babies in Bethlehem in a violent bloodbath.  It was terrible.

Until – until later, when Jesus came back from Egypt, and BAM!  Did he let Herod have it then!  I mean to tell you, Jesus came onto the scene and he really taught Herod a lesson…

Oh, wait, no.  That’s not what happened, is it?  Herod died an old man, most probably of kidney disease and other infections.  His son, Herod Antipas, oversaw the execution of Jesus a few decades later.

When viewed from the perspective of the fortress of the Herodian, the incarnation was a colossal failure.  There was no change in their reality.  Herod sat in his palace, sipping wine from Rome and enjoying the delicacies of the world, secure in his knowledge that he was the strongest, toughest, most powerfully-armed man around.

For a while.  But you may know what happened: that Herod Agrippa died violently.  The Kingdom collapsed.  In 70 AD, the Temple was destroyed and the majestic city of Jerusalem was in ruins.

Christ of the Breadline, woodcutting by Fritz Eichenberg (1950)

Christ of the Breadline, woodcutting by Fritz Eichenberg (1950)

And yet…the church of Jesus Christ continued to grow.  The church that is built, when we are at our best, not with stones, not with mortar, but with lives.  With gifts of love, acts of service, and from a posture of humility.  In weakness, and vulnerability, and risk, and trust.

And twenty centuries later, what do people know of Herod?  That he was a mass murderer.  And Jesus?  He is worshiped as Lord and Savior by billions of people.  Isn’t that amazing?

And yet…and yet some of us, well, we wish Jesus was a little more like Herod.  We get impatient with the meekness and the humility and the love.  We’d like to see Jesus kick a little butt sometimes.  If we’re honest, we want to see Jesus move out of the shadow of the Herodian and into the master bedroom, where he’d use his power and might to straighten a few things out, you bet he would.

Only he doesn’t seem interested in working that way.

The movement of the Spirit is almost always in insignificant places, through people who are not widely regarded. The Spirit of the Lord falls on those who are humble and obedient, and who are willing to give of themselves – to risk.  The story of the past two thousand years is that God does amazing things with what appears to be nothing.

It’s preposterous.  How many of you dragged yourselves in here this morning to sit on hard benches in a cold room because you knew that there would be “The Lord’s Supper.”  Here we have the audacity to call this “the table of the Lord” when it’s set with the tiniest glasses you’ve ever seen in your life and some miniscule bits of plain bread.  Do you think if Herod was in charge of communion we’d put up with this kind of nonsense?  I think not.

But here I am, saying that Christ is present in these mere tokens of simplicity and humility.

Jesus is not Herod.

Herod constructed a vast network of cities.  Jesus was homeless.

Herod used thousands of slaves to literally build a mountain on which to construct his towers.  Jesus died alone on a hill.

Herod developed a system of fortified encampments in a desperate attempt to protect himself.  Jesus said, “greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Jesus is not Herod.  Never was.  Never will be.

And Jesus wants to ask us whether we are willing to live believing that the power and presence of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is stronger than the evils we face in our own lives and culture.  Do we really, honestly believe, that Jesus offers resources of strength and power that are simply unavailable to Herod?  And if we do believe that, are we willing to live in that posture of trust and hope?

The Wise Men came to Palestine.  They saw Herod.  But they worshiped Jesus.  And they went home, says Matthew, “by another way.”  They were changed.

Does Christmas change us?  Or will we continue to live as if Herod is stronger and more powerful than God?

Look, here’s the deal: you are sitting in an insignificant church in a marginal neighborhood of a city whose best days, according to most, are behind it.  To be honest, if somehow these ten or twenty blocks were wiped off the face of the earth tomorrow, not many people would notice.  There is nothing that the Herods of the world value that is here.

And yet…and yet…

If we are willing to live as Christ’s followers…  If we are willing to risk loving our neighbor…  If we dare to hope that God is bigger than we ever could imagine…

Then the world might see something truly amazing emerging from the shadows.  The world might catch a glimpse of a community where children are treasured and nurtured, not slaughtered.  Where the hungry are fed – the hungry we know and love, and the hungry who seem remote.  Where the elderly are honored and mercy is shared.

Can you believe it?

Will you help me to live like that?

When Matthew started his story, he said, “In the days when Herod was king…”

When I started this message, I said that today is January 6, 2013.  January 6, in the year of our Lord 2013.  January 6, 2013 years after the Wise Men found Jesus.

Thanks be to God, we can have the hope to make this statement of faith an ever-increasing reality in the year of our Lord 2013.  As the Old Testament prophet Zechariah said, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zech 4:6).

We will always live in the shadow of Herod.  May we have the courage of the Wise Men, the conviction of Joseph and Mary, and the presence of the Risen Christ to dare to live as though Jesus, and no one else, rules the world.