Being Focused in the Furnace of Exile

Like much of the rest of the world, The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are living in the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts on May 10 included James 1:1-5 and Daniel 3:13-30

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player just below.  Note that a YouTube link for the entire service appears at the end of this post.

Well, here we are.  It’s been 56 days since many of us worshiped together in this room.  55 days ago the President told us to stay indoors for 15 days.  There have been 37 days since Governor Wolf issued his “stay at home” order for the entire state.  How do you measure how long you’ve been adapting to our current reality?

Today is Mother’s Day.  Many of you who are with us this morning woke up to snow yesterday.  On May 9!  Your pastor, who encouraged you to plant seeds at Easter, is grieving over his kiwi blossoms and sweet potato starts today.

What in the blue blazes is going on here?

In the midst of a long day, when there was seemingly one challenge after another, the saintly woman we know as Mother Theresa was frustrated and exasperated.  At one point she let out a long sigh and said, “I know that God won’t give me anything more than I can handle…but there are some days when I wish God didn’t trust me so much.”

Do you know that?  Have you felt that?  Have you been down a road of pain and suffering and frustration and cried out to the Lord?  If you have, then you have learned one of the greatest lessons of the Christian faith.

The last time I preached to you, we talked about the fact that the Book of Daniel teaches us something that goes against our American culture.  Do you remember?  We said that although the culture insists that I am a free agent, I am the master of my own destiny, the captain of my own ship… the scriptures teach that God is in control and in fact God tells me who I am.

Today’s readings are similarly challenging.  Whereas much of our world believes that suffering is evil; or that it is punishment; and that it is to be avoided at all costs – the scripture teaches us that suffering is not meaningless.  In fact, if the Bible teaches us anything, it is in fact that suffering, far from being evil, can be redemptive.  That suffering can be a path to blessing.  Did you hear James?  “Consider it nothing but joy…”, he says!  Seriously?

Do you remember last week when I suggested that the story of Daniel was meant to remind people of the story of Joseph?  Do you remember what Joseph said to his brothers?  “You meant to hurt me, but God turned your evil into good to save the lives of many people…” (Gen. 50:20 NCV)

And now today we walk into the furnace with these three kids who have been taken away from anything that they ever thought was “normal”.  Talk about “out of the frying pan and into the fire!”  And yet the witness of scripture seems to be clear: suffering is not meaningless.

When we started this series of messages, I described for you the context in which the Book of Daniel was first read.  Do you remember?  We talked about the terrible difficulties that the people of faith had already endured: they’d been exiled, quarantined, forced to adapt to different schedules, different diets, living in a climate of political turmoil and fear day after day. And to these people, beset by one trial after another, God reveals the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

As we consider this tale, I need to say that we’ve lost our ability to hear an important part of this story.  Our culture is one that insists upon, and rushes towards, a happy ending.  We know that their suffering will not last – and so we basically skip it altogether.  When we tell our children this story, we don’t dwell in the horrors of the furnace, we skip to the happy ending that we know is coming.  Yet it’s a story about profound suffering that carries with it profound truth.

The Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (15th century icon of the Novgorod school).

What is the place of suffering in Daniel 3? The first thing that we see is that this trial provides an opportunity for these three boys to be faithful to the Lord.  Think: what do the young men say to the King when he threatens them with the furnace? My hunch is that we remember them saying something like this: “Our God will save us from the fire, O king.”  But that’s not it at all.  From the text, it’s plain to see that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have no certainty about their future.

A faithful translation of verses 16-18 might go something like this:  “…King Nebuchadnezzar, Your threat means nothing to us.  If you throw us into the fire, the God we serve can rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king.  But even if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king.  We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” (The Message)  Do you see?  They acknowledge that they don’t know whether God will save them or not – and they don’t seem to think that’s the most important part of the story. What is the most important thing for these boys?  Obeying God!

Do you remember the first commandment?  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego surely did.  What about the second?  That’s what they were thinking.  Nebuchadnezzar was sure that they’d try to save their lives, but all they were thinking was, “Have no gods before me” and “do not worship idols”.  The trial in front of the fiery furnace was a chance for these three young men of faith to demonstrate with their lives that they were willing to obey the commands of God

So, in Daniel, suffering provides a chance to be faithful to God.  But that’s not all.  It also puts us in a place where we can shed the things that are unimportant or even harmful to us.  Look again at the reading from Daniel.  Old Nebuchadnezzar heats up the furnace all right, but what happens when the three boys are tossed in?  Who dies?  The Babylonian guards.

And what actually gets burnt up in the fire?  When these kids are thrown into that fire, the cords that have constricted them are consumed by the blaze.  As a result of being thrown into the furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego become untied.  When they emerge from the furnace, they are freer than they were when they went into it.

Now I want to be very, very careful as I say this, and I hope that you are listening carefully as well.  I am NOT saying that God sends us terrible pain or experiences or death or disease because God wants us to somehow get loosened up because of those things.  That is not what I’m saying at all.  And yet I am saying that the kinds of disruption and disorientation that accompany suffering and trials can sometimes free us to experience things in a new way.

To be crystal clear: Pastor Dave is not preaching that the God sent us the coronavirus to teach us a lesson.  That God unleashed this pandemic in order that we might be attentive and straighten up and fly right.  Nope.  Nope.  Nope.

And yet, here we are – in the middle of this experience that has been deadly for hundreds of thousands, frightening for millions, and inconvenient for billions.  While I’m saying that God didn’t do this to teach us a lesson, I would also say that we would be fools to ignore what may be learned while we’re here.

One of the most disturbing refrains in recent weeks is “Can’t we please just get back to normal?”  As if the experience we shared in February is the nirvana toward which we are all striving, and the measure of perfection that defines the best humanity can do.

Do I need to remind you that in February, an unarmed African-American man was out jogging and apparently hunted down and slaughtered by two white men?  Or that a civil war in Syria was raging, involving not only warring factions within that nation but Israel, Lebanon, Russia, Turkey, and the USA?  That the pace of our lives and our thirst for energy was consuming us and destroying the planet?

Here’s my point: we are in a difficult, difficult place.  Many people we love are far worse off than we.  We want the lockdown to end, the virus to die, and to be restored to our jobs and our friends and families.  But let’s not settle for going “back to normal”.  “Normal” wasn’t the best for us any more than the situation just prior to the furnace was the best for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Let’s use this time of separation and isolation and disruption to imagine a new normal.  To think about moving forward to the next best thing, rather than simply going back to how it used to be.  To think of new ways to be present and attentive to ourselves and our neighbors; to pray for a new imagination; to seek new patterns of shopping, consumption, and growth; to search for new avenues in which to oppose racism and other evils.

What I’m saying is that maybe there is something about suffering and trial that can make us better able to hear the voice of the Lord – something about painful situations and loss that can help us to lose the bonds that have held us back and be free to move – even in the midst of the fire.  How does this happen?  When we realize that we are not in the midst of the fire alone – but that God himself is there with us.

Because that is what happens in our story!  Nebuchadnezzar himself points out that there is a fourth person in the fire.  Now, think about that for a moment.  For some reason, God does not prevent the young men from facing the ordeal of the furnace – yet we must note that God does not allow them to go through it alone.  God is present with them every step of the way.  So much so that when they come out of the furnace, they don’t even smell like smoke!

Beloved, remember that you are not now, and you never will be truly alone. When you feel as though things are so awfully hard to bear, remember that you are not in a position where you are holding them all by yourself.  I believe that one of the reasons we have been given this story is that we might be assured by the promise and the presence of the Holy One in the midst of the crucible of suffering.

Why do we remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego?  Why do we tell these stories to our children?  After all, there’s not a person in this room who has been threatened with death in a fiery furnace.  We are not in the same situation as those boys, nor as the original hearers of the story.

I would suggest that one of the reasons we tell these stories to the people we love is because we want to remind them – and ourselves, that suffering and death are not the worst things that can happen to us.

When I was a boy, and my mother would go to work as a nurse, there would be times when I would hear her talk about her patients.  One day, I remember her saying about a friend, “But what if she doesn’t die?  That might be really terrible…”  And I remember looking at her as if she were crazy – after all, what could possibly be worse than death?  And she read my mind, because she looked at me and said, “You know, David, there are many things worse than dying.”

My mother was right.  Giving up is worse than dying.  Living a life without purpose or meaning is worse than dying.  Refusing to let go of the cords that bind you up is worse than dying.

Are you in the midst of suffering and pain?  Can you cry out to God?  Can you hold onto God?  Will you look for God’s presence in the midst of the furnace that you’re in?  Will you remember that your story isn’t finished yet?

I’m told that a bar of steel weighing several pounds is worth, say, $10.  If you take that same steel and shape it into several horseshoes, the value rises to $25.  Make it into nails, and it’s worth a little more.  Fashion it into sewing needles and the value rises to $350.   Yet if you take that same amount of steel and fashion it into delicate springs for expensive watches, it’s worth more than $250,000.  The same bar of steel is made more valuable by being cut to its proper size, passed through one furnace after another, again and again.  It is hammered, beaten, ground, finished, polished, and manipulated until it’s ready for a delicate task.

What about you?  Are you being heated, pounded, shaped?  You don’t need to run from it, you know.  Just look for the One who calls you.  Look around the furnace for the one who is faithful.  Cry out.  Do your part, and trust the One who made you and who is with you still to do the rest.  Let us look forward, in hope, to a new kind of normal in the months to come.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

An Elegy For The World

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On April 3, we read Lamentations 4 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Walt Whitman was moved to compose one of the most famous poems in the English language: ‘O Captain! My Captain!”  That work is fairly short – 3 stanzas of 8 lines each, and the last line in each stanza reads, “fallen, cold and dead.”

Whitman’s poem is an elegy – a work that is written in order to express some corporate grief and lament; to celebrate the memory of one who had a deep impact, and to provide some assurance that even though the subject of the verse (in this case, Abraham Lincoln) is dead, the world will remember that one’s presence and will be better because of that presence.

As we turn our attention to Lamentations 4, I’d like to suggest that this work functions as an elegy in the midst of a book of poetry that was written to help a community deal with tragedy.  Like the previous three poems in Lamentations, chapter 4 is an acrostic. There are 22 verses, and each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our text for this evening, however, differs slightly from the other three in that it is not as full of emotion as the others. In fact, Lamentations 4 contains a number of phrases that suggest that there is a numbness or a remoteness that is used to describe the suffering that has occurred after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

As we continue to seek to be a community that learns from and about the practice of lament, let us consider that poem now.  It begins with a single word: in our current text it is translated as “Oh!”; it could also be read as “How?”

Oh, no!
Gold is tarnished; even the purest gold is changed.
Sacred jewels are scattered on every street corner.

The same word is used to begin the poems of Lamentations 1 and 2.  It conveys a sense of woe, and intimates that the world has changed drastically.  In fact, as the opening stanza reveals, the world is vastly different – values have changed to the extent that pure gold is worthless and sacred jewels are laying around on the streets.  The elegy deepens in the next three stanzas:

Zion’s precious children, once valued as pure gold—
oh no!—now they are worth no more than clay pots made by a potter.

Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young.
But the daughter of my people has become cruel, like desert ostriches.

The baby’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth, thirsty.
Children ask for bread, beg for it—but there is no bread.

Here is a lament for the children of Zion.  They were once considered to be treasures worth their weight in gold, but they now are dying faster than they can be buried.  Why do they suffer? Because famine has filled the land. Look at the next six stanzas as they offer a description:

Those who once ate gourmet food now tremble in the streets.
Those who wore the finest purple clothes now cling to piles of garbage.

Greater was the punishment of the daughter of my people than Sodom’s penalty, which was quickly overthrown without any hand-wringing.

Her nazirites were purer than snow; they were more dazzling than milk.
Their limbs were redder than coral; their bodies were sapphire.

But their appearance grew darker than soot; they weren’t recognized in the streets. Their skin shriveled on their bones; it became dry like wood.

Things were better for those stabbed by the sword than for those stabbed by famine—
those who bled away, pierced, lacking food from the field.

The hands of loving women boiled their own children
to become their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.

The suffering of the hungry is so great, according to the narrator, that it would have been better for them to have died in the original attack.  In addition to the children’s deaths, the community laments the destruction of every echelon of society.  Even the wealthy, who are often spared the ravages of conflict and trauma, find that they have nothing to eat; there is even a suggestion that cannibalism is rampant.

Earlier this evening I mentioned that this poem could be considered an elegy. As we read the first 10 verses of Lamentations 4, I note the sad truth that the events described here could have happened anywhere.  We know, because we’ve been here for three weeks already, that this poem is in response to a particular tragedy – the siege and defeat of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But I have seen the deaths of children and the trauma of famine far too often in my own lifetime.  As horrible as the events described are, one of the things that makes it even worse is that such atrocities have seemingly become everyday realities in the life of a particular community.  The general lament of the first ten stanzas of this poem becomes a little more specific in the next six. Listen:

The Lord let loose his fury; he poured out his fierce anger.
He started a fire in Zion; it licked up its foundations.

The earth’s rulers didn’t believe it—neither did any who inhabit the world— that either enemy or adversary could enter Jerusalem’s gates.

It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities,
those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.

People wandered blindly in the streets, polluted with blood.
No one would even touch their clothing.

“Go away! Unclean!” was shouted at them, “Go away! Away! Don’t touch!”
So they fled and wandered around. The nations said, “They can’t stay here anymore.”

It was the Lord’s presence that scattered them; he no longer notices them. They didn’t honor the priests’ presence; they didn’t favor the elders.

Do you see that the narrative now gains a particular context.  Although these things could have happened in a number of places, they actually occurred right here in Jerusalem.

In some ways, the opening verses of this poem remind me of a twelve-step meeting.  Everyone has gathered because of a general condition.  This building is full on Monday evenings because there are a number of people with substance abuse issues – that’s a common theme to their lives. Yet each meeting occasions the telling of a particular story: it’s as if each gathering begins with an acknowledgement that alcohol and drugs bring pain and grief in general, and then we are directed to look at a particular case in which that has been true.  In the same way, while the suffering of children and death from famine occur in many ways around the globe, this is the story behind these particular deaths, and this particular pain.  Even though the voice continues to be one of narration from a third-party perspective, it is a particular scenario that is described.

As we lean into the next four stanzas, listen for the change in the voice of the poet:

Our eyes continually failed, looking for some help, but for nothing. From our watchtower we watched for a nation that doesn’t save.

Our steps were tracked; we could no longer walk in our streets. Our end had drawn near; our days were done—our end had definitely come.

Our hunters were faster than airborne eagles.
They chased us up the mountains; they ambushed us in the wilderness.

The Lord’s chosen one, the very breath in our lungs, was caught in their traps— the one we used to talk about, saying, “Under his protection we will live among the nations.”

Did you hear that? Instead of being a dispassionate narrator using the third person voice (they, them, theirs), now we hear from those who have suffered:  oureyes failed, our days were done, they chased us; weused to talk…

When this happens, the reader’s participation in the poem moves from hearing a description of events that took place to a retelling of the horrors that happened to us.  Have you ever noticed that retelling a story of horror and grief is a way not only of reliving the trauma, but of sharing, interpreting or understanding it.  The poet is saying, “Look, not only did this terrible thing happen – but it happened here!  To us!”

Some of you know that a friend of mine died violently some time ago. When I first discovered what had happened, I didn’t have words for it.  I was horrified and wounded.  And yet as time went on, I found myself needing to find some way to speak that story to some other friends. I even took a couple of them to the place where it had happened – because I found that sharing the story in this way allowed me to have some measure of control over the pain and disorientation that had come into my life.  I know that some of you have been in that situation, too – you have needed to tell someone else about the difficulties you’ve lived through, or the terrible thing that has happened.  I believe that’s what’s going on in these verses of the poem – that the use of the first person adds a voice of intimacy to the narration and makes the pain share-able in the community.

Chapter 4 ends with two short stanzas in which the tone shifts one more time:

Rejoice and be happy, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz.
But this cup will pass over to you too. You will get drunk on it. You will be stripped naked.

Your punishment is over, Daughter Zion; God won’t expose you anymore.
But he will attend to your punishment, Daughter Edom; he will expose your sins.

The poet ends with a warning to those who live in neighboring communities: “Listen, friends, you can be happy that this hasn’t happened to you yet, but be aware that it is coming toward you.  And Jerusalem, or Zion – while you have been crushed, you can be thankful for the fact that your worst is already past.

As we contemplate this poem in the first part of the 21stcentury, what are to do with it?  I mean, it’s a horrible sequence of events, all right, but what are the imperatives for us? What is our take-away?

I’d suggest that this poem, perhaps even more than any of the previous three, opens up for us the language of lament in the face of atrocity.  As I mentioned, the general language and the detached voice that comes in the first half of the poem in particular allows us to find a voice that elegizes the horrible things that we encounter.

About fifteen years ago there was a horrific famine that struck the land of Malawi. I went with a team of other Christian leaders and we took stock of the effects of the damage and we sat with those who had been afflicted. One young pastor with whom I met was called Abusa Dennis.  He was in a remote region of the nation, and I asked him, “Dennis, look: is all of this making a difference?  I mean, we’re coming here and we’re trying, but is the suffering reduced at all?”  And right away, he took my hand and he said, “Abusa Dave, it is!  A year ago this time, I was conducting 8 or 9 funerals a week, and they were mostly for children.  It was horrible. But now, I’m only preaching 2 or 3 a week and it’s mostly for old people.”  I had to stop and weep at the thought of doing “only” three funerals a week, and I wondered how I might survive in a community wherein I was burying a child every single day.

These verses may offer you some vocabulary as you name and lament that which is broken in our world.  Look at these verses, and consider what you know about the realities of the Holocaust, or the plight of refugees around the world right now.  Read through them again, slowly, and allow your mind and your heart to summon up images of those who have been slaughtered in schools or places of worship around the world in recent months and years.

Although this lament is written in response to a particular set of tragedies that befell a specific community a long time ago, can you find that some of this language makes your lament a little deeper?  Can you see a connection?  That’s what elegies are for – to help bring people together in times of pain and loss and grief.

But consider this, beloved, and do not lose sight of it.  Remember how the book of Lamentations came to be, and in particular how chapter 4 reached our ears: this is a narrative written by someone who survived.  While many perished, the author did not.  That means something.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is a striking memoir by Frank McCourt entitled Angela’s Ashes.  It is a vivid first-person narrative that begins this way: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.. . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters…”

Page after page finds young Frankie narrating the horrors of his childhood – the deaths of his siblings, the pain of his father’s alcoholism, the grip that depression had on his mother…  As I read that book, I had to keep reminding myself, “Look – he’s telling the story.  HE lived.  It’s horrible, but hegot through it.”  A memoir is like that, isn’t it?  You know that in order to have written the story, the author had to live.  It’s difficult to read, but as you are reading it you can remember that somehow the person passed through the trial.

One of the core lessons of Lamentations 4 is that somehow, the community survived.  In the context of being a community that did survive, they had to learn how to become a resource to others who were in pain.  Those who suffer greatly are, in some ways, able to be more deeply attentive to the needs of others in the wider world. While not advocating increased suffering, the authors of this work would no doubt hold fast to the truth that someone who has lived through a great tragedy, someone who has been shaped by a difficult story, now has the opportunity or maybe even the responsibility to stand with others who find themselves in the midst of great pain.

It was for this reason that a week ago Friday I went to the Islamic Center and found myself standing with dozens of Jews who were handing out roses to Muslim worshipers reeling from the pain of the shooting in New Zealand.  Because the Jews had felt the pain in the Tree of Life slaughter here in Pittsburgh, they found it important to stand with the Muslims in their time of pain. Some of you have known the difficulty of, say, miscarriage; when you find a friend experiencing that loss now, it’s important for you to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there…”

Beloved, the suffering you have experienced and witnessed has shaped your life. And yet, here you are.  You are a survivor.  You and I have survived different things, to be sure, but do not forget that you are changed because of the pain that you have seen, known, and carried.  This Lent, may we remember that pain, and be motivated by the memory of such suffering to share in the plight of those around us in our families, our community, and our world.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of lament and elegy, Amen.

Staying Alive

The people at the Crafton Heights church have been spending this Lent listening to the words of scripture – in particular, the scriptures set to music in the context of Handel’s Messiah.  Many of these ideas are explored in great depth in the excellent Kerygma resource, Hallelujah: The Bible and Handel’s Messiah.  On March 19, our scripture text was The 22nd Psalm.  


I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about the power of music in your life. How does what you hear shape who you are, what you feel, and how you look at things? I would suggest that for most of us, there are some songs that mean so much to us that when we hear even a snippet of them, we are reminded of something that is much larger, much more important than the few bars of music we encounter.

And, at the risk of losing you for the entire sermon, I’d like to show you what I mean.  Click here and listen to the song…  It’s OK.  I’ll wait…

If you know and like these movies, I bet that right now you are aware of the truth that there are no odds that are insurmountable; you know that you have to stay strong even in defeat; and that you can push yourself – you are reminded of these things simply because you heard a couple of lines of music.

Let’s try it again.  Try this one…

Again, some of you are transported to a place where things are not always as they seem, and where innocence matters, and where self-sacrificial love is the most powerful force in the universe… And the rest of you? You’re just Muggles, that’s all. Nothing to be ashamed of.

We could go on, but you know where I’m heading… I can tell a lot about you simply by looking at your playlists or seeing your music collection.

Why does this matter today?

Because we are in the season of Lent – a time of reflection, repentance, and preparation that leads us to Holy Week, where we commemorate the suffering, death, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus. And as we approach that week, we do well to note that both Matthew and Mark go out of their way to tell us that Jesus was thinking about a particular song when he died. In fact, each of these Gospels indicates that the last intelligible thing Jesus uttered prior to his death was “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani”. Those words form the Aramaic translation of the beginning of Psalm 22, which you heard (in English) a few moments ago.

It was customary in Jesus’ time, as in our own, to use a few phrases from a song or scripture text to bring the entire passage to mind. Because Jesus died singing Psalm 22, we often look at that scripture and say, “Wow – that song really is all about Jesus: it talks about his death, and his rejection, and the ways that his clothes were divided…”

And when we do that, it’s unfortunate because if we make Psalm 22 some sort of a magic incantation that predicts specific details of Jesus’ life and death a thousand years into the future, we will lose sight of some important truths in both the Psalm and in Jesus’ life.

Psalm 22 is not about Jesus. Jesus was about Psalm 22. The fact that this prayer, this song, was present to him as he endured such torment and that he chose to make that song present to those who waited with and watched him die makes that song important to us this Lent as well.

Christ in Gethsemane, Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist – more at

Like many other Psalms, this particular scripture is a song of lament. There is a structure. For instance, if you remember anything about poetry, you’ll remember that a Haiku consists of seventeen syllables arranged in lines of five, seven, and five. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem traditionally written in iambic pentameter. The structure of these poems informs the meaning, and vice-versa.

A typical lament has five parts: there is an invocation, a complaint, a statement of trust, a request for God to act, and a brief expression of praise. When you sing a lament, you are right to expect these things in this order.

Psalm 22 is remarkable among the Psalms of lament because there is really no overt expression of trust in God’s power or presence in the moment. The psalmist, going through one of the most difficult times of his life, knows all of the “right answers” that he learned in Sunday school… but he was still afraid that maybe God was not paying attention to him, or worse –that God didn’t want to pay attention to him. He knows that others have trusted God; he knows that he should trust God, but he finds that such trust is exceedingly difficult to come by at this moment.

Crucifixion (2008) by Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist. More at

Could that have been why Jesus was thinking about these words as he hung on the cross? Could it be that maybe he was having a very, very difficult time trusting his Father to see this thing through to completion?

Or was it perhaps that he brought this Psalm to mind for the sake of those whom he loved who were watching him die? In raising this particular lament, was he acknowledging to them that faith and trust and hope are sometimes incredibly difficult to come by?

Do you ever feel that way? You want to trust, you want to believe, but WOW is it hard on some days… If I’m right about some of this, then your struggles to always have faith don’t necessarily take you away from Jesus – they may make you more like Jesus.

The other thing that is remarkable about Psalm 22 as a song of lament is the fact that the praise and thanksgiving section is five or ten times longer than in most of the other Psalms of lamentation.

Moreover, the praises here are not limited only to the singer. This Psalm begins with a deeply personal cry for help but it ends with the declaration that praise is due God from not only all of Israel, but those from every nation, and the ends of the earth, and even those who have already died or who are yet to be born.

What starts off as an individual’s heartfelt cry of pain and isolation (“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”) is somehow transformed in the life of the Psalmist to a song of praise that stretches not only across the entire globe but through eternity as well. In mentioning the dead who will praise God, this Psalm offers us a quick glimpse of resurrection hope.

Could it be that Jesus, in calling this psalm to mind at the moment of his own greatest anguish and pain, held out hope to himself and for his followers that pain, suffering, darkness, and crucifixion are not all that there is? Could it be that as he hung on the cross he needed to know – and he needed us to know – that there is more to the song – but we can only experience that “more” after we come through the suffering or the isolation or the grief?

Many churches, including Crafton Heights, have adopted the practice of “burying the alleluias” during Lent. You may have noticed that we’re not singing, say, “All Creatures of Our God and King”, or any other song that includes the word “Alleluia”. “Alleluia”, of course, is an expression of praise or thanksgiving that is the Hebrew word meaning “praise God”. For many Christians, the word is a spontaneous expression of joy or thanks because of some great blessing that has been received. Churches often “hide” the Alleluia during Lent as a means of saying that there are times of great joy and there are times when our greatest hopes are realized, but there are also times when those things seem so far away. During our Lenten time of reflection and repentance, we practice a “fast” from the Alleluias not because they are not true, but because it’s not time for them right now…

Each of us, at some point in our lives, walks through a season of darkness and pain. We know the horror of betrayal or the anguish of a bad prognosis or the sapping power of doubt and uncertainty… and when we experience these things, the last thing in the world we want to see is some chipper, happy-clappy friend come bounding into the room telling us to get over it, to “turn that frown upside down”, to get busy or distracted and just feel better, gosh darn it…

In each of our lives, there are times when it is all we can do to simply sit in the dark and experience the grief or the shock or the pain. Often, during those times, it’s better if a friend is there to sit with us – not because that person is able to take away the grief or the shock or the pain, but somehow their presence validates our experience of it and offers some sort of mute testimony to the fact that this, too, can be endured.

Psalm 22 is a cry from a dark and painful place that somehow points to a deep hope that, while even though it appears to be hidden or buried, has always been there and will always be there.

Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I mentioned on Wednesday night that a number of years ago I had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem with my daughter. One of the most moving experiences came to me in a place of which I’d never heard: The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. Most of the church is dedicated to the memory of Peter’s denial of Jesus (“gallicantu” means “cock’s crowing” in Latin). The church was built on what is believed to have been the site of the High Priest’s palace. I found it to be a fascinating place…

The upper levels were interesting enough, but it was the basement that got me.  Down below was a dungeon that dated from the first century.  The signs were clear: We have no way of knowing this, but since this dungeon is fairly close to what was the High Priests’ residence at the time of Jesus, there’s a chance that this is where Jesus, and later the Apostles, would have been imprisoned by the authorities.  In a very subdued manner, the signs explained the way that the dungeon was laid out.  And there, at the darkest, lowest, point of the dungeon was a simple stand with the text of Psalm 88 – like Psalm 22, a Psalm of complaint and lament.

Lower Level, St. Peter Gallicantu

In the dungeon, St. Peter in Gallicantu.


The basement of St. Peter’s in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I’d been to the so-called “Upper Room”; I’d visited the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane; and I’d seen at least two places that claimed to be the empty tomb of the resurrection, but I am here to tell you that it was not until I cried out to God in weakness, in darkness, and in isolation did I have some sense that those deep and hidden places are not the end of the story.

Jesus wanted us to sing the song of despair because he knows that the despair is real and true and has power in our lives. It was thus for the Psalmist in 1000 BC. It was brought to life by Jesus on the day that he died. And I suspect that it is true for you, too – at least some of the time. And on those days when it feels as though the pain will overwhelm you and when the alleluias seem buried forever, then please, beloved know this:

It’s ok to be there.

It’s ok to wonder where God is and how things work.

But know this, too: that the song is not over. You have heard the song – but only a part of it. Lent is not forever. Remember that nothing that is buried – not Jesus, not alleluias, not your or me – nothing stays buried forever.

Thanks be to God! Amen.


When The Shepherd is a Lamb

I came to appreciate many of the “classic” scriptures relating to the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus by listening to Handel’s Messiah.  During Lent 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are reading through many of those scriptures on Sundays, even as we study them during the week.  On 12 March, we considered the “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 53 as well as John’s declaration about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:29-34.

St. John the Baptist, El Greco, c. 1600

I’m not going to lie to you. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in the desert. He wore clothes that the Thrift Store would have rejected. When he preached, he called his congregation a bunch of snakes. There’s no doubt about it: the man was different.

And that may be what attracted so many people to him, at least at first. Almost like a car wreck, you know? You don’t want to look, you’re pretty sure that your sensibilities will be offended, but you just can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s just so…so…strange, that’s all.

To those who got past his people skills, his appearance and his diet, John was a wise teacher. More than that, he talked about the fact that he was the forerunner of someone more powerful, more important than he. The Messiah, said John, The Messiah is coming.

And so there he was one day not that long ago, and down the street walks an up and coming rabbi named Jesus from Nazareth. And as much to himself as to his small group of followers, John said, “Look, there! That man is the lamb that takes away the sin of the world!”

What, do you suppose, is the correct response to that? I mean, are we supposed to blurt out an “Amen!”? “Huzzah!”

What do you suppose that the people who were with him thought about that? When they heard John the Baptist proclaim Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, what were they thinking?

The sacrifice of Isaac; Caravaggio (1601-02)

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, they remembered Genesis 22 and the story of Abram’s call to sacrifice Isaac. One man was told, “Take your son, your only son, the son whom you love, and give him to me…” And then, as you know, they got to the top of the mountain and there was an angel who prevented Abram from killing his son. And instead of the only son dying, a lamb was found and the lamb became the sacrifice. One lamb killed, one son spared, one family preserved.

Passover, engraving published in “La Saincte” Bible, 1670.

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, folks remembered the story of the Passover and the Exodus. An entire nation was told, “Each of you take a lamb, and with the blood of that lamb, your family will be spared.” And the dreadful night came and went, and as many people who had offered up lambs in their homes, that many people were spared, and God’s people were spared the apparent wrath of God. Many lambs killed, many families saved.

And could it be that when they hard about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they remembered the custom of the Day of Atonement? On that day, the priest would bring in two creatures, usually goats. One of these would be sacrificed to the Lord as a sin offering for all of the people. And the second animal would be a scapegoat, and would carry, or bear, all the sins of the people. The priest was to place that goat on the altar and confess all the sins of the people. Then a man would lead that goat from the altar into the wilderness and set it free. The goat would carry the sin of the people far away from them. Two animals lost forever, and a community restored to the presence of God, at least for another 364 days. (Lev. 16)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, c.1635/40

Perhaps when John’s friends heard him talking about the lamb that takes away the sins of the world, they remembered the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah had dreamt of a man – not a goat, not a lamb – who would take away the sin of the people. More than this, a man who would participate with God in a decisive act that will release people from the stranglehold of sin on their lives – not for a day, or a season, or year – but forever.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the lamb in Isaiah and the other lambs is this: each of the previous narratives describes an attempt to make things right with God. Each illustrates how humans can cover themselves with the blood or the innocence of another in an effort to somehow be presentable to a God who is very angry.

There is a key difference between Isaiah’s dream and the other sacrifices, however. In the stories of Abraham, the Passover, and the scapegoat, how much choice did the animals have? None. There they were, out with the flock one day and the shepherd picked them and led them to their deaths. They were victims, pure and simple, used capriciously by someone more powerful than they.

But not this lamb mentioned in Isaiah! Oh, it’s killed all right. But it’s killed because the servant walks deliberately into the suffering and death that the rest of us fear. The servant is no pawn, no powerless victim, but rather one who chooses to pour out his own life, who willingly takes the sin of the people not just into the next ZIP code, but away from them altogether.

So here we have crusty old John the Baptizer, complete with his camel-hair robe and his lunchbox full of locusts, and he points to Jesus and he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…” What do you suppose the people were thinking that day?

Were they thinking about atonement? That’s the theological concept here, my friends. Atonement means bringing two sides together. Two parties who had at one point been enemies or at variance with each other are now together; they are now on the same team, so to speak. Is this what the followers of John were thinking? When they saw Jesus, did they do a quick survey of the scripture and think about the fact that the system of sacrifices would never get the job done? Did they realize the truth that animal sacrifice was a sort of endless loop wherein each year, each season, people came before a God who they thought of as angry and did their best to satisfy that anger with a burnt offering, and then felt glad to get out of worship alive?

What I’m asking is this: do you think that those followers of John engaged in a period of theological reflection and critical thinking in which they systematically debated the merits of the ancient system of retributive justice?

We talked a little about that on Wednesday night – that much of the Old Testament understanding concerning participation in the life of God seems to come from a place where everything is cut and dried, and you get what you pay for. Up until the time of Isaiah, largely speaking, the assumption of the people of God was that if you do what’s right, you’ll be blessed, and if you do what’s wrong, you’ll be cursed. It’s not a huge leap from there to the conclusion that if you are blessed – rich, healthy, well-educated – then you must be doing the right thing; and if you are suffering – sick, in pain, in grief – then you must be in state of sin or disobedience.

Isaiah 53 introduces a new kind of theology – one where God’s people are called to enter into difficult places in order that they might a) be closer to the people who are in pain and b) seek to release or remove some of that pain by carrying it themselves. As Christians, we can sometimes fall into the trap of reading Isaiah 53, written 600 years before the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and say, “Wow! Isn’t that amazing that Isaiah was writing all about Jesus so far in the future.” I think it’s closer to the truth to say, “Wow, look at how Jesus was so intentional about living into the truth to which Isaiah pointed! How can I be a part of that, too?”

So I’ll answer my own question: I’m guessing that when John talked about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they didn’t stop for a long theological discussion. My sense is rather than sitting down and examining the theological implications of the statement that John made, they believed him, and they said, “I want to get a piece of this action. I want to have this in my life…” Oh, sure there was theology along the way. There was a time for reflection. But on this day, when they heard that Jesus was the lamb of God, they followed him. They wanted in on it.

Because whether they stopped to think about it for a long time or not, the implications of this are clear: that if success is not by definition a reward, and if suffering is not necessarily a punishment from God, then the suffering that they encountered was not indicative of the fact that God was angry with them. In fact, the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah and the declaration of John and the behavior of Jesus indicate quite the opposite: that sometimes, suffering can hold great meaning. Sometimes, pain can lead to blessing. Somehow, in God’s economy, our wounds can become the instrument of true and deep healing.

Friends, Jesus of Nazareth is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The good news of the Gospel today is that you are not stuck in a binary system whereby everything is either good or bad and you get exactly what you deserve. No, you are free to follow the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

For some of us, some of the time, following the lamb means that we are free to make different choices. Some of us have walked into the room this morning feeling trapped by the choices that we ourselves have made – we feel stuck with an addiction, hounded by a lie, guilty about our behavior, or imprisoned by pride and selfishness. I declare to you the good news that you are free – that you don’t have to do those things. God, in Jesus Christ, is releasing you from that kind of sin and inviting you to a new way of living.

And some of us, some of the time, need to know that following the lamb means that even those situations where we do not have choices are not what ultimately defines our lives. Your parents may have divorced, your boss may be a jerk, your neighbor may be a racist, or your child may deny the Christ. You feel pain even when it does not come from a choice that you’ve made. But I declare to you the good news that this pain, this brokenness, this suffering does not indicate that you have been rejected by God.

When John and Isaiah talk about the lamb by whose stripes we are healed, they open up the possibility that even the suffering we endure can have meaning and purpose. The grief that you have carried, or the loss you have endured, or the scars that you wear… these are not signs of failure or indications of God’s rejection of you. Maybe these are the things that have brought you to this day, to this point of being able to walk with some measure of confidence into God’s future as one whose struggles have contributed to the self that you now are.

Behold, the lamb of God! It is the truth, dear friends. This Lenten season, we celebrate the good news that John was bold enough to proclaim: Jesus of Nazareth has come, and is coming, so that you might know life in his name. Claim that. Hold on to it. And more than that, live in hope and joy today that there is nothing in your life that is so broken or so bent that it cannot be made whole or straight. Remember, Isaiah 53 isn’t about Jesus. Jesus was about Isaiah 53. The call is for you and I to do and be the same. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Life Among the Philistines

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 5, we heard the story of his sojourn amongst the Philistines as found in I Samuel 27-30.  Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in Philippians 4:10-13.


When I was in high school, I looked up to a man who constantly belittled my friends who were not from the church. If I were to miss a church event in order to, say, attend a concert, he would invariably say something like, “So, the children of Israel are out consorting with the Philistines again, eh?”

For a long time, I thought he was just hopelessly behind the times. “Philistines? I never heard of those guys. No, I’m going to hear Blood, Sweat, and Tears.”

biblical_israel_and_philistiaPhilistia is the ancient name for a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Judean foothills. Today, we know that geography better by the Hebrew name, pelesheth, or Palestine. In modern usage, to call someone a Philistine is to imply that he is crude or unrefined and perhaps somewhat oafish – like the giant Goliath, perhaps. The Philistines that we meet in scripture are a group of people who descended from emigrants from one of the Mediterranean islands. They are known primarily for three things: 1) they are called “sea people” and are renowned as sailors; 2) they mastered the use of iron well before the nations around them, and the Israelites were forced to depend on Philistines for help sharpening their tools and weapons; and 3) they produced and consumed an amazing amount of beer. Although we sometimes hear the word as a disparagement, the reality is that in many ways, the Philistines were technically advanced in comparison to the Hebrews and the other cultures around them.

They were, however, the sworn enemies of Israel. In fact, for all of David’s life, the Philistines had been making things miserable for the Jews as they conducted raid after raid into Hebrew territory. In David’s time, any Israelite in his or her right mind sought to avoid the Philistines like the plague.

But there came a time, as you just heard, when David actually sought out the Philistines. Sick to death of the unjust persecution he was receiving from the hand of King Saul, David sneaks across the border into Philistia and applies for refugee status. He and his band of about 600 soldiers, along with their families, approach king Achish with a deal: “Look, your majesty,” David says, “we’ve been providing protection for folks in this area for a long time. We can help you out, too. You hate Saul; Saul hates me; why can’t we be friends? Can this be a win-win situation?”

Achish says “yes” and in fact gives David his own town, Ziklag, to use as a home base. For the next year and a half, David functions as a sort of double agent. He keeps assuring Achish that he is attacking Saul’s troops and positions within Israel, but in reality, he and his men are destroying communities that belong to the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. They are enriching themselves, raising their esteem among the Israelites in the border areas, and managing to avoid the armies of King Saul.

Now, listen to me: there is nothing savory or redemptive about this period of David’s life. He and his men are essentially free-lance mercenary soldiers on seek and destroy missions. David is acting as what scholar Walter Brueggemann describes as a “con man of the first order”. He is ruthless and cunning and calculating and cruel.

And it may be that David would say that he had no choice; if he hadn’t been being pursued by the maniacal king of Israel, he’d have been able to stay home and tend sheep. By all appearances, every single choice open to David at this juncture of the story is a bad choice. And so he lives on the edge for a while…

menofdavid…Until things went south in a hurry. David has made such an impression on Achish that the Philistine King announces to David that he and his men will be needed to take part in a surprise attack on King Saul and the Israeli army. David is in a jam, because he’s depending on Achish’s good will to preserve his life and property in Ziklag, but he’s sworn an oath not to lift a hand against King Saul. The apparent solution comes from an unexpected source: the other Philistine generals refuse to fight if David’s in the mix. They say that David is too faithful to Saul and to the Israelites; he can’t be trusted to work towards their defeat. David and his men return to Ziklag, thinking that they’ve dodged another bullet, but discover that something horrible has happened. Listen:

David and his men reached Ziklag on the third day. Now the Amalekites had raided the Negev and Ziklag. They had attacked Ziklag and burned it, and had taken captive the women and everyone else in it, both young and old. They killed none of them, but carried them off as they went on their way.

When David and his men reached Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. David’s two wives had been captured—Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.

Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelek, “Bring me the ephod.” Abiathar brought it to him, and David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?”

“Pursue them,” he answered. “You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.”

David and the six hundred men with him came to the Besor Valley, where some stayed behind. Two hundred of them were too exhausted to cross the valley, but David and the other four hundred continued the pursuit.

The Capture of Ziklag

The Capture of Ziklag

Things go from bad to worse for David in a hurry. He’s being hunted like a dog in his own country, so he crosses into enemy territory. He spends months earning the trust of his Philistine boss, knowing that at any time he could be discovered as a fraud and killed. He comes home from the day he almost had to choose between attacking his own countrymen or revealing the lie he’s been living for the past year, and when he makes it home, he discovers that everyone he loves has been kidnapped and his home is destroyed. If that’s not bad enough, his own men are finally angry enough at him that they’d like to knock his block off and some of them are talking about stoning David to death.

Have you ever had days like that?

Not only is nothing going right, but everything is going wrong. There are no good choices, and even the bad ones seem to be really, really bad. You’ve been trying your best, but everything you touch seems to turn to ash immediately. More than anything, you just want to go and pound on something or someone, but you have to be careful where to go because there is a growing line of people who are apparently eager to pound on you. Your only choices seem to be crash or burn. You don’t eve have the strength to cry any more.

I know you’ve had days like that; some of you have had weeks, months, or even years like that.

What do you do?

You may have noticed that our scripture readings for today skipped a few chapters of I Samuel. I did that because we’re primarily following David, but it might be helpful to note that I Samuel 28 records a day when King Saul was feeling that way. He was so down that in clear violation of Jewish law, he went to talk to a witch about his problems. The fact that the ruling king of Israel felt the need to do this reveals his isolation, fear, frustration, and spiritual bankruptcy at what’s going on in his life and his kingdom. To make matters worse, the witch informs him that not only is he going to die, but the dreaded Philistines are going to defeat the Israelite army. At the end of that episode, the once-proud, formerly gifted, powerful King Saul is left cringing and crying in the arms of this sorceress. In other words, Saul is simply unable to do anything that will reverse his fortune.

As he views the devastation of Ziklag, considers the abduction of his family, and comes face-to-face with his failure to live with integrity, David must feel the same way. Nothing has gone right.

And yet, somehow, David makes a different choice than did Saul. The best words in this part of the story come from David’s lips as he cries out, “Bring me the ephod!”

Do you remember back in chapters 21 and 22, when David went to get some help from the priests at the temple in Nob, and Saul was so irritated at the men of God for helping David that he wiped out 85 priests in a single day? There was only one man from a priestly family who escaped that day – a young man named Abiathar who fled to David for protection and came to serve as his spiritual mentor and advisor. And he brought along the ephod – the prayer tool used by the priests.

In his time of deep anguish, confusion, anger, and pain, David now says something that he hasn’t said in months: “Bring me the ephod!”

Whereas Saul, on the darkest of days, turned to a witch and sought answers in the powers of sorcery and evil, David sought the wisdom and strength of God even when he had no right to think it would accomplish anything.

Could David have turned to prayer sooner? Should he have? Where had Abiathar been for the past sixteen months? Was part of the problem that David was too in love with his perception of himself as a swashbuckling renegade? Was he so fascinated with his identity as a double-agent, or overconfident in his ability to strong-arm or sweet-talk his way through any problem?


Could David have done things differently in the days leading up to this, the worst of them?

Of course he could have. But on all of those days, he didn’t call on God.

Today, he does.

When he is pressed between the armies of Saul on one side and Achish on the other while looking at the devastation of the Amalekites all around him, David sought to keep himself together by calling on the name of the Lord.

What will you do in the midst of your toughest trial? When you are squeezed flatter than a dime, beaten up, worn down, and pushed around… what will you do?

You can join with David and cry for the ephod. You can look to God for guidance and presence.

And I suspect that some of you now may be remembering that there was a New Testament verse read this morning, and you might think that this is where Pastor Dave pulls the golden cord and Philippians 4:13 comes raining down on our heads.

Having a tough day? Has your best friend’s dad tried to kill you, your boss threaten you, and your neighbors come in and kidnap your family while destroying your house? Just remember, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me…”

Have you heard that verse before? Have you ever thought, “What a load of hooey?”

I’m here to tell you that the way many Christians interpret it, it is a load of hooey.

Celebrity megapastor Joel Osteen, for instance, wrote this in his online devotional:

When was the last time you declared “I can” out loud? It’s not something people think to do every day. In fact, most people tend to magnify their limitations. They focus on their shortcomings. But scripture makes it plain: all things are possible to those who believe. That’s right! It is possible to see your dreams fulfilled. It is possible to overcome that obstacle. It is possible to climb to new heights. It is possible to embrace your destiny. You may not know how it will all take place. You may not have a plan, but all you have to know is that if God said you can…you can![1]

Star athletes show up for games with this verse emblazoned on their bodies or uniforms…as if chanting this phrase will stop the interception or get me the game ball… as if that’s the most important thing…

Do you think that’s what Paul’s getting at here? Do you think that it didn’t occur to David to just “name it and claim it” and grasp the victory and go home as king?

Paul didn’t write this note to the church in Philippi in order to motivate them to go out and beat the world; no, he wrote these words about finding contentment and hope in any situation so that they could have the courage to continue to walk through the tough places while the world was beating on them.

I’m not here to tell you that you are any different than David or Paul; you will face tough times, you will encounter difficult decisions, and some days the only choices you have will be horrible ones.   You will sense pain, or isolation, or frustration. That is not optional – it is the existence that we have been given in this, our life among the Philistines.

But which direction will that pain, isolation, or frustration send you? How will you respond to it?

Thank God for the ephod. Thank God for the encouragement and hope we can find when surrounded by even the most hideous of circumstances. Thank God that the story is not finished yet. Thank God that God has not left us, and promises not to leave us where we are now. Amen.

[1] “Today’s Word With Joel Osteen”, 1/21/2013

It’s the Story of Us

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights looked at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. When Easter Sunday rolled around, we finished our consideration in a two-part sermon series.  Both of these messages are rooted in the fact that our community has a number of people for whom this Lent was filled with significant loss and grief.  That drove me, as a preacher, to explore aspects of our Holy Day that were congruent with themes of suffering, loss, and pain that ring forth from Job.  Our texts for the later service, shared below, were Job 42 (the final chapter of that work) as well as I Corinthians 15:20-28.


Ever since Valentine’s Day, we’ve walked with Job and his friends. That’s not nearly long enough to do anything like an exhaustive study, but we have gotten acquainted with this man, his world, his struggle, and his faith.

As stories go, frankly, there isn’t much action. We’ve met a few characters, most of whom are not developed all that well. By and large, this is a book filled with talking. Like a lot of things at church, Job seems to be populated by a bunch of folks who love to hear the sound of their own voices. We’ve heard Job, of course, and his wife; God and Satan, and more than we needed to from Bildad, Elihu, Zophar, and and Eliphaz.

Yep. Lots and lots of talking.  At church.  Who saw that coming?

And this morning, in the last chapter?

More talking.

But let me tell you something, because I bet you didn’t pick up on this. I know that I didn’t the first eight or ten times I read through Job. There is something profoundly different about the talking in chapter 42 – we have not seen this kind of speech anywhere in the book.

For the last 41 chapters, we have heard a lot of conversations. God and Satan get into a bit of an argument about why Job acts the way that he acts; Job curses the day of his birth, Job’s wife tells Job that he’s crazy, and he replies by saying that she’s not herself and doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Then the friends show up and do their level best to point out how Job and the other friends are mistaken, and Job consistently replies by indicating how wrong they all are. Finally, God shows up and says, “You know what? You’re all wrong. None of you know what you’re talking about – you just don’t get it.”

And here, in chapter 42, Job says, “You’re right, God. I don’t get it. You’re right.”

Chapter 42 contains the only non-combative speech in the entire book of Job. Job does not try to refute, rebut, correct, or criticize God. He just agrees, and confesses, and accepts.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image.  If you can help me find the artist, I'd be delighted to credit.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image. If you can help me find the artist, I’d be delighted to credit.

And because the tone switches from confrontational to confessional, and because it’s the only place in the book that this language shows up, well, it’s worth noticing.

For 41 chapters, we’ve heard all kinds of people talk about whether or not Job is a great guy, and how Job should or should not worship and serve God. In chapter 42, Job actually worships. It’s not language that talks about worship, it’s language that records worship.

Allow me to suggest that in a very deep sense, Job’s story parallels the entirety of scripture. In that way, the story of Job really is the story of us.

There is a beginning – in both Job and in Genesis – and it’s a spectacularly good beginning. Everything seems to be going along pretty smoothly for a while, and then that goodness is interrupted and threatened by something that is incredibly horrible. At first, the power of evil and the work of the Accuser seems to be to be overwhelming. Eventually, God promises to sustain those who struggle, and at the end of the story, in fact, God shows up and brings about renewal and restoration. We see that in the pages of Job, and we see that laid out across scripture from Genesis to Revelation, right? It’s the same story. There’s a great beginning, an incredibly hard and really long middle, and we are promised a fine end. Yay!

Having said that, I feel obligated to point out that as 21st – century enlightened American believers, we are at least uncomfortable with the basic outline of Job, and maybe downright offended by it.

In case you’ve not been here in the past few weeks, here’s a quick synopsis of Job. We meet him and find out that he’s a great guy – super religious, really faithful, and fantastically wealthy. He starts out with 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, many servants, 7 sons, and 3 daughters. Job is sitting pretty, to be sure.

And then all of that goes away – all 11,500 animals, all the servants, and most heart-breakingly, all ten children are killed. Job and his wife are totally bereft.

And it gets worse, when Job is afflicted with a horrible illness and becomes a pariah in his own community. His friends show up and try to convince him that it’s somehow all his fault.

Finally, though, in the reading that we’ve heard this morning, God shows up and seems to say, “You know what, Job? We’re good. It’s all good. So look at what I’m going to do for you: here, at the end of your story, you’ll have 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1000 yoke of oxen, 1000 donkeys, lots of hired men and women, and, of course, ten brand-new children!”

And for 3,000 years people have read Job and said, “Awwww, I love a happy ending…”

But we say, “Hold on just one minute! That’s a terrible story! How do we just pretend that none of that stuff in chapter one matters? Are we saying that the children that Job and his wife loved so deeply in the beginning of the book are so easily forgotten and replaced? Do they have no significance whatsoever? ‘Cause that’s just wrong!”

I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that the pain and grief and suffering incurred by Job, his wife, and their family is insignificant. No one is pretending that these losses did not occur, or were not egregious.

The story of Job, and the story of the Gospel, and the story of us is that no one ever needs to pretend that suffering is not real and is not important. The point is not that we can ignore it, but that we will get through it. We are transformed by it. And it matters.

How do I know that it matters, according to the scripture?

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

Well, think about the body with which Jesus was raised from the dead. What did he have in his hands? Holes. What did he have in his feet? Holes. What did he have in his side? A wound.

Note that, beloved. When our Lord was raised from the dead into a body that Paul says is “imperishable”, it was a body that had scars.

Which means, I think, that something of what happens during our experience of time and space has some eternal importance.

The idea of resurrection is not that what was once is now no more, and all has been erased and re-written. It would appear as though a more satisfactory understanding of resurrection is that we move through pain into something better; we are healed from that which is dead and restored to our intended status and purpose and function and form.

You see, much of the theology in both Job and in our current day seems to be centered around the mistaken notion that bad things happen to bad people and that good things happen to good people. Job’s friends were echoing time-honored thoughts when they said, “Hey, you know what? If you get sick, or if you find yourself experiencing an abnormal amount of loss or grief or devastation, you better look in the mirror. You’ve sinned somewhere. You’ve made some horrible decisions.” They also held to the opposite theory, which states that “if you get rich or experience profound levels of health and joy, well then, shucks, you must be doing something right for God to bless you like that! Congratulations, you clean-living, God-fearing, upstanding, morally-appropriate my-kind-of-guy!”

That brand of theology, not surprisingly, seems to be favored by rich, healthy, employed or endowed people.

It’s also not a biblical philosophy. If so, Jesus, as the sinless Son of God could not have experienced the things that he did. If you follow that line of thinking very far, you wind up thinking that all pain is punishment, that all suffering is not only deserved, but to be avoided, and that love only winds up hurting you.

A healthy understanding of the notion of resurrection, however, brings a different result. The Gospel story is that, yes, pain does occur – but there are times when pain produces fruit. Suffering is not always the result of bad choices or a sign of divine displeasure – there are some times when suffering is the means by which we become transformed.

When Paul was trying to talk about it with his friends in Rome, he used the analogy of childbirth. Having a baby, he says, hurts like nobody’s business. Frankly, from a male perspective, it just seems impossible and against the laws of geometry. It shouldn’t work, and it’s incredibly painful. And yet, at the end, there is a blessing to be found – and one that can only be brought as a result of the path of suffering.

Brene Brown is an author, researcher, and educator who left the church as a young adult, feeling as though it was irrelevant and didn’t meet her needs. Twenty years later, she suffered some incredible pain and she went back to the church, hoping that it would remove that pain. She expected that faith would act like an epidural anesthetic – that it would simply block all the pain she’d experienced. She says, “I thought Faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort’, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’ Church wasn’t an epidural, it was a midwife. It just stood next to me and said ‘Push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit.’” (Click here to watch Brown’s brief video developing this theme)

That’s resurrection thinking. Do not for one second pretend that the losses that Job incurred or those through which you have suffered are inconsequential. Of course your losses, your pain, your grief matter! Yes! But do not resign yourself to the thinking that says that those things are all that exist, either, or that somehow your grief and your losses will wind up as that which ultimately defines you.

This morning, if you showed up to worship on Easter feeling happy, wealthy, and wise, surrounded by good-looking men, strong women, and above average children, then I apologize, because the resurrection probably seems unnecessary to you and I’ve just wasted 18 minutes of your precious time.

But if you’re here trying to make sense of some deep pain in your life and you are longing for hope and healing… If you are wondering how in the world you can get through the challenge that looms in front of you, and what difference any of it makes anyhow… Well, then you ought to know that God’s word is a good word.

Do you think that Job and his wife could ever forget their first, or second, or third-born child? Do you think that when they got to number twelve or thirteen they said, “See, there, that’s not so bad! We’re ok. These kids are just about as good as the other ones…”?

You know that’s not what happened. Do you think that their relationship with the second set of children was shaped by the lives and deaths of the first? Of course it was.

The fundamental truth of Job’s experience of having, losing, and being restored is not “see, good guys come out all right in the end”, but rather that what we can see and what we are experiencing is not ultimate. We are all in the in-between. Where you have been matters – it matters a lot. And everything that is good and right and holy about where you have been – is eternal. Where you are shapes where you are heading – and where you are heading is into God’s ultimate good.

So to the three or four of you who are sitting pretty without a care in the world, have a great day. Enjoy the rest of the service. The last hymn is a real toe-tapper. And good luck with whatever is going so great for you.

And to the rest of us, the message of Easter is simple. You can hold on. You can trust. You can hope. Not because of who you are, but because of the One to whom you hold, on whom you trust, and in whom you hope. He is risen. Alleluia!

When Someone You Love is In Pain

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 March 13, we looked at the second wave of tragedy that besets Job as described in Job 2.  We also considered the wisdom from Paul in Second Corinthians concerning comforting each other in times of difficulty. 


Have you noticed that Christian leaders are saying some hard things about public figures these days? Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, has been all over President Obama for visiting a mosque. The leadership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has criticized Donald Trump for his comments concerning race and immigration. Pope Francis, of all people, has been hard on just about all of the candidates for President with the exception of the Jewish socialist who wants the job. Go figure.

But as tough as some of these comments are, I was flabbergasted when I read what some of the leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ had to say about a woman. One of these pillars of the church called her “the Devil’s accomplice.” Another referred to her as “a diabolical fury” and “an instrument of Satan.”

Who is this woman of great evil and questionable character that has the men of God so up in arms? Some Hollywood trollop? A porn star or morally-challenged athlete?

Nope. These comments came from St. Augustine, the pre-eminent scholar of the fifth century, and John Calvin, widely thought of as the father of Presbyterianism. The target of their scorn was an unnamed woman whom we know only as Job’s wife.

Job and His Friends [detail], Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844–1930)

Job and His Friends [detail], Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844–1930)

This woman, whom Augustine also called “the helpmeet of the Devil” speaks a total of ten words in all of scripture. The book of Job contains 1070 verses, and she speaks in one of them… and somehow, in her speaking, she has really gotten under the skin of these great Christian leaders. Why?

Let’s review where we’ve been with Job thus far. We’ve seen two different Heavenly Councils that point, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to the overwhelming power and authority of God. In addition, these discussions reveal the Satan’s desire to turn the creation against the Creator, and to sow discord and disharmony. Job’s integrity is repeatedly emphasized, as is his wealth. Last week we read where Job suffered an incredible loss: not only did he lose all of his property, holdings, and accumulated wealth, but every single one of his children was killed, presumably along with their families.

And perhaps I don’t need to say this out loud, but I will anyway: there is no loss that Job has suffered thus far that has not also struck to the heart of his wife. Although Job is clearly the leading actor in the earthy part of this drama, we dare not minimize the pain of his bride. So before we even get to the point of considering what she has to say in this book that bears her husband’s name, I will make a motion that we give her a break. We are about to consider a conversation between two people who have just buried all ten of their children and their families. And when you live through the funerals of ten of your own children on top of losing your entire savings account and income, well, you get a pass in my book. If that happens to you, I promise not to quote you for at least a year. So I will say to St. Augustine and to John Calvin, “Simmer down, boys. Give her a break!”

Let’s consider the text for this morning, shall we? Picking up with our reading from Job, chapter 2.

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

The Satan leaves the second Heavenly Council and does his worst, afflicting Job from head to toe with unspeakable pain. There are a couple of things that are noteworthy here. First, it’s as good a time as any to point out that while we often use “Satan” as a proper name, the Hebrew text reads ha-satan, which means, literally, “the accuser”. Sometimes we read of this creature accusing God, and other times he attacks a human or some other part of the creation, but we have come to call him by that which he does. I could be wrong, but I would be willing to bet that most of you in this room have felt the sting of his accusations. The one who asks Eve in the Garden, “Can you really trust God?”; the one who strolls in front of the Almighty here in Job, taunting God by saying that Job only loves God because of all the shiny stuff that God has given to Job; the one who came to Jesus in the wilderness and said, “If you’re just willing to soften a little on your stance concerning idolatry, I could make things so much better for you…” – that one has paraded through your life as well, troubling your heart and mind and spirit with doubt and fear and uncertainty and pain. You know the Satan. You have dealt with the accuser.

And here, the Satan goes out and finishes his work in Job’s life, and then disappears from the story. There are still 40 more chapters to go in the book, but the accuser bows out after verse 7 in chapter two, leaving Job and his community to deal with the disruption he has brought.

And if the pain that Job and his wife had undergone in chapter one wasn’t bad enough, here he suffers anguish in his body and mind. We see him sitting in the ashes – he has already torn off his clothing and shaved his head; now he regards himself as of such little worth that he takes himself out with the garbage. He lays in the dust of the earth and seeks to soothe the itching with a broken piece of pottery. Job is in a horrible place.

And then his wife speaks her only line in this entire drama:

His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”

Job on the Ash Heap: Job Berated by His Wife Jusepe de Ribera (c. 1632)

Job on the Ash Heap: Job Berated by His Wife Jusepe de Ribera (c. 1632)

We’ve often said that when we get to the Bible, it is a beautiful thing to have the words in front of us – but we don’t know the inflection or the intent, do we? When she says that, is it a sarcastic jab? Is she kicking him when he is down, and belittling him for having faith? Is she tempting him into faithlessness?

Maybe. It’s possible, though, that this was not her intent at all. It might be that she was herself so upset by seeing her beloved suffer through this new round of afflictions that she was crying out to him to just let go of life. You’ve seen this before – a person is clearly in so much pain and distress that those who love him gather around and say, “It’s ok! You can go! I can’t see healing from where I sit. I can’t imagine wholeness…just make this pain stop however you can…”

In our previous conversations about Job, I invited you to be attentive to the creational language that comes out of this book. I said that a lot of the imagery and vocabulary sounds like Genesis. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Calvin and Augustine and other scholars have drawn a parallel between Eve’s behavior in the Garden of Eden and Job’s wife’s comments here. They read about Eve, the seductive temptress who led her husband into faithless behavior, and they saw an echo of it in Job’s wife’s comments.

We noted on Wednesday night, however, that one difference is that Eve was tempted by the thought that she would have the knowledge of good and evil – concepts with which Eve apparently had very little experience. Even a cursory glance at Job’s wife, however, will indicate that she knew more about the nature and power of evil than any person should ever have to know.

My sense is that Job does not share the scholars’ low opinion of his wife. Listen to his response to her lament:

He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

Job does not call his wife “sinful” or “wicked” or “evil”. He looks at her, I believe, in love, and says, “You are acting like a foolish person.” In Hebrew, the word for fool is nabal. A fool, according to Psalm 14, is one who does not accept the rule or reign of God – someone who cannot see where God is or what God is up to in the world. So in essence, Job turns to his wife and said, “You’re not acting like yourself today…you are talking like someone who doesn’t have faith…” Job affirms the sovereignty of God and does not lose his integrity.

Our reading for this morning ends with one of the most beautiful images in all of scripture. When they hear of his troubles, Job’s friends come to see him.

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake, 1785.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake, 1785.

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come on the scene to offer what help and encouragement they can. Look at the beauty that surrounds this group of friends: they arrive and immediately enter into the fullness of Job’s reality. They embrace his pain and his anguish. They sit with him in his shame and isolation – right there, amidst the ashes and the garbage – they are present with and for him.

They do not try to cheer him up or distract him. They don’t pretend that he has not just suffered unspeakably. They don’t – praise the Lord, they don’t start talking to Job about what their brother-in-law did when his child died last year and maybe you two should hang out or something… No, they didn’t do any of that. They wept with Job. They sprinkled ashes on themselves. And get this: they don’t try to explain things to Job (at least, not yet). Nobody’s trying to fix anything for Job. Just four men, sitting quietly, feeling the weight of the world on Job’s shoulders.

The Apostle Paul wrote quite a bit to the church in Corinth. His letters there contain all sorts of references to mysterious things: he waxes eloquently about the resurrection from the dead, for instance; he talks about forgiveness and freedom and what it means to be made strong in weakness. There’s a lot in Paul that we have to sit and think about.

But in the reading you had earlier from II Corinthians, he offers some incredibly practical and truth-saturated advice. We are best able to serve those in need, he says, when we are in touch with our own vulnerabilities. We are in a position to offer the greatest comfort and consolation to those who have suffered greatly as we are willing to re-enter, and to share, our own losses.

Someone you love is going to be in great pain. It may be sooner or it may be later, but something is going to happen that will find you walking into a room that is full of hurt.

What will you do?

Be there. Show up and shut up. Sit with them for a while in the ashes of their pain and grief. You can’t fix it, you can’t take it away, and you better not try to explain it. Sooner or later, like Job, you may find the opportunity to remind your friend that we don’t know how everything plays out, and then you can offer some concrete encouragement. When you do that, you become like Christ.

Last week we talked a little bit about the ways that the story of Job is an invitation to consider the suffering of God. This morning, take a look at these three men who come to enter into the reality of the one they called their friend. And then think about the way that in Jesus, according to John, God “became flesh and blood and lived among us”. Thanks be to God, who knows where we are, and how to find us, and who is willing to sit with us in the pain that most assuredly come our way. May we have the grace to offer that gift to each other as well. Amen.


When Bad Things Happen To Good People

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 March 6, we looked at the first wave of tragedy that besets Job as described in Job 1:13-22.  We also considered John’s account of the encounter that Jesus and his followers had with a man who had been blind from birth. 


Healing the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1570

Healing the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1570

Jesus and his friends are on the way down the street and they see a familiar sight – a blind man sitting by the side of the road. Perhaps he was begging; perhaps he was just sitting quietly. Something prompts the disciples, however, and someone asks, “Lord, why was this man born blind? Is it because of his own sin, or that of his parents?”

The disciples see a man with an obvious disability and immediately assume that someone is being punished. The question is, whose fault is it? In that day and age, everybody knew that stuff like this doesn’t just happen, it comes from God. Why?

The disciples, like most Jews of that time, believed that suffering and pain were signs of God’s punishment. After all, they’d read in the book of Numbers that God does not leave the guilty unpunished, and that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. A narrow interpretation of that and other verses leads to a worldview that I might call transactional, or cause and effect. You do this, you get that. If you’ve got that, you must have done this. It’s neat and tidy and it makes sense to us. Good things come to good people. Bad things follow bad people.

That’s the kind of thinking that led people like Pat Robertson and John Hagee to proclaim that when hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, it was the wrath of God being poured out on that city because of its exceptional sinfulness. And while some of us may snicker at that level of theological sophistication, when someone says, “Oh, wow… My dad has lung cancer…”, do you immediately ask, “Was he a smoker?” Because if a smoker gets cancer, well, maybe that person deserves it…right?

To be clear, there is a connection in the Bible and in real life between what we do and what happens to us. Choices have consequences, and often we do experience a great deal of pain because of our actions, or the actions of those who are close to us.

I saw this first hand when I was visiting South Sudan in the midst of their civil war, and often would pray with pastors from that nation who would begin a prayer with a time of confession in which they named to God the human tendencies toward greed and power-mongering and violence that had led this young nation down a difficult path.

But saying that war is a result of human sinfulness is not the same thing as saying your house was destroyed by a missile because you are such a pathetic sinner, isn’t it?

That seems to be Jesus’ point when he says bluntly, “Nobody sinned here. This man’s experience doesn’t have anything to do with an individual’s sin. This man was born to display the power of God.” Sometimes things happen that you don’t deserve.

Job Praying, Marc Chagall 1960

Job Praying, Marc Chagall 1960

This story from John’s Gospel reminds us of our ongoing experience with Job. If there is one thing we have learned in the past few weeks, it’s that Job is a good, good guy. He takes care of his children; he’s smart with his money – heck, even God almighty (someone who ought to know a thing or two about being good) is always bragging on Job.

And yet…horrible things happen to Job. You just heard about some of them. His oxen and donkeys are rustled away by the Sabeans, who also killed the hired men. The sheep and their shepherds were destroyed by a massive lightning strike. The Chaldeans swooped in and carted off all of his camels, killing his servants in the process. And if all of that weren’t bad enough, well, all of his children and their families perished when a great windstorm came and knocked down the house in which they had been celebrating.

And if the facts of these events are not enough, the author of Job emphasizes how bad it is by alternating his description of these tragedies: an invading army followed by a natural disaster followed by an act of war followed by a natural disaster. Job is hammered on every side – both humans and, it would seem, God, have turned against him.

Moreover, there’s another clue in the language of the book. On Wednesday night, we considered the references in the text to words and phrases associated with consumption: in chapter 1 we hear that the children are eating and drinking three times. The donkeys are feeding, and the hired men and servants are all destroyed by the “mouth” of the sword. The fire from heaven “consumes” the sheep and shepherds. For Job, it is as if calamity has been personified and is now coming to devour him.

What will he do?

Job 2, Oldrïch Kulhanek (1940 – 2013)

Job 2, Oldrïch Kulhanek (1940 – 2013)

Look at Job’s response to this outpouring of evil and suffering in his life. First, he embraces fully the grief that accompanies loss and pain. Following the cultural norms, he shreds his clothing and shaves his head. He laments the tragedies that have befallen him, and mourns openly and genuinely.

Remember that, friends, the next time that some horrible thing happens in your life and you feel like you just need to fall down and weep. You can do that. And if some knucklehead comes up to you and says, “Hey, hey, hey… remember ‘the patience of Job’? Come on, now, buck up, things will get better…” You can remind them that the first thing Job did when he suffered the affliction of his worst day ever was to fall to pieces in loss and in pain. There is no reason to feel as though you need to be ashamed of your pain or sorry for your grief. Own it. Express it. And move through it. It’s yours.

And after he cries out in grief and pain, then he falls on the ground and worships. “Naked I came on the day I was born, and naked I will be when I die,” he says. Note here that his first language of worship is subjective – it is about him. It is rooted in his own experience. That makes sense – it is the experience that he knows best. But then he leaves the subjective and moves into the objective realm: “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away… may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Job’s experience (which has changed over the course of his life) gives way to Job’s identity (which is fixed). Job is a child of God. Job is created in the Divine image. Job encounters suffering as he encountered joy – in the company of his heavenly Father.

In fact, I would suggest that in his suffering, Job knows more of what it means to be made in the image of God. Author Gerald Janzen points out that “the agony of Job, in body and spirit, is his participation in the agony of God” that is demonstrated in the first half of chapter 1.[1]

And you say, “Hold on a minute! It sounded like Pastor Dave just said that God suffers in the book of Job! I didn’t see that coming!”

Neither did Pastor Dave. But think about it. Who is the first person to suffer in the book of Job? It’s not Job. By the time that Job has gotten around to putting up “Lost Oxen” posters, cleaning up the ashes of his flock, and planning his children’s funerals, God has already experienced a number of losses.

The heavenly dialogues that we’ve already read tell us of creatures who turn their backs on the creator. They speak of a God who loved that which he had made so much that he was willing to invest it with a measure of freedom – and so the Satan is at liberty to wander through creation and cause disruption, turmoil, and grief. God loved the Satan enough to listen to him; God watched Job suffer; The Almighty opened himself up to questioning and doubt and risk and distrust – from those to whom he had given and for whom he had nothing but love.

Does God suffer in the book of Job? Look at it this way. Job’s children were snatched from him in death. That is horrible – and yet at least Job could console himself by thinking it was a tragic accident. Yet those whom God had created and loved – the Satan and his followers – spit on God and walked away themselves. It was no accident. It was willful disobedience, and surely cut right to the heart of the One who had given them life.

When Job suffered the loss of his livelihood and the death of his children; when Job entered into the deepest pain he might have imagined – then Job knew more of the heart and image of God than he had before. And at the same time, he flung himself into conversation with that God in the hopes of receiving solace and comfort from One who knew what it meant to experience grief and loss.

Why did Job suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? I’m not sure. But I believe that God’s presence is revealed in Job’s suffering just as much as Jesus said it could be revealed in the life of the man who was born blind.

I would further suggest that, at the end of the day, asking “why” bad things happen is not always the best thing we can do. Sure, it makes sense to approach some of the difficulties in your life this way: why did you lose your job? Was it because you were 15 minutes late every day and made crude comments at the holiday party? Then maybe there’s something to be learned.

Why did your girlfriend drop you? Was it the way that you ignored her or the fact you didn’t ‘feel like’ going to her grandmother’s funeral with her? When things in our world hurt, it makes some sense to reflect on them to see whether there may be some causality.

But a more important question is, “Now what?” The job is lost, the relationship ended, the diagnosis received, the funeral is over. What will you do as you look to tomorrow?

Perhaps we can learn from the example of a man called Martin Gray, who was in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and was one of only two people in his family to survive the Holocaust. After the war ended, he married and settled in France. Years later, his wife and children perished when a forest fire consumed their home. This renewed tragedy pushed Gray just about to the breaking point, but he found hope and comfort in creating a foundation that sought to prevent forest fires.

Many of his friends urged him to file lawsuits and seek to hold someone accountable for his grief. He refused, saying that such a course of action would only focus on the past, and on pain and sorrow and blame. Filing suit against someone else or the government would, he said, put him in an adversarial position – a lonely man becoming lonelier by seeking to hold someone – anyone – accountable. At the end of the day, he concluded that life has to be lived for someone and something, rather than against something.[2]

Who sinned that this man was born blind? Why did Job’s children perish? Why did those things happen to your mother, or at his job, or in that class? I don’t know.

But now that these things have happened, what will we do? Can we come together as God’s people in grief and lament, and approach God in worship? Can we learn from our brother Job?

I know that if you have not yet experienced significant loss, pain, and suffering, you will. You are human. Why do all of these things happen? I can’t tell you how to connect all of those dots. But I know Someone who is here to help you through it. Someone who knows something about loss and grief and separation and pain. Thanks be to God, that Someone is as close as your next prayer. Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary on Job (Atlanta: John Knox, p. 41), 1985.

[2] From a story told by Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Speak of the Devil…

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 March 22 came fromLuke 10:17-24 and focused on the day that the seventy (or seventy-two) disciples came back and told Jesus about their amazing trip.

I love Jesus.

I believe that he was the kindest, most wonderful and amazing human being that ever walked the planet. He was a great moral teacher and a phenomenal leader. He was fantastic.

But if I insist on taking everything that Jesus said literally; if I will only accept each word of Scripture at face value, then I have to say that Jesus was flat-out wrong in what he said to the people who came back to give him a report about their mission trip.

Christ Sends out the Seventy Two (artist, date unknown)

Christ Sends out the Seventy Two (artist, date unknown)

Here’s the scene: Some weeks earlier, Jesus took a large group of his followers and sent them into the towns and villages to preach the good news. He gave them instructions similar to those we considered when he sent out the twelve a couple of weeks ago. What’s different, of course, is the number. In Genesis 10, there is a listing of people groups that came to be known as the “table of the nations” from which all humanity descended. In the Hebrew translations of Genesis, there are 70 groups listed; in the Greek, there are 72. In Genesis, this constitutes the “whole world”.

Some of your bibles will indicate that there were 70 that Jesus sent out, while others put the number at 72. The point is not the number – the point is that in this passage, Luke is clearly wanting his readers to think about Jesus as sending his followers not only to the “chosen people”, but to the whole world. Jesus sends the news of God’s kingdom to everyone – and he charges his followers to go out and shake up the world.

And in our reading from today, they return to the Lord and they are on fire! In fact, Luke tells us that they returned “with joy”, or “rejoicing.” The word that’s used here is chairo, and it is the usual word for “rejoice” in the New Testament, showing up nearly seventy times. It means “be happy” or “cheerful”.

Why the broad smiles? Well, “the demons submit to us!” That’s good news! Jesus says, referring to a passage in Isaiah, “I know! In fact, I was watching Satan fall! It was awesome. While you were out there on that trip, doing what I told you to do, you could do anything – you stepped on snakes and scorpions, you overcame the Devil. Nothing can hurt you.” That’s all there in the reading, right?

You see, that’s where I have a little difficulty. Because it seems as though Jesus is saying here, essentially, “Listen up, folks – if you walk where I tell you to walk, and do what I tell you to do, then no harm will come to you.”

That’s simply not true.

Gwen and John have been mission co-workers in Ethiopia since 1974. And on October 1, 2014, after having served the Lord in that place for more than four decades, they were savagely attacked and left to die on the road. Somehow, after each of them was shot in the face, they managed to drive to a hospital and begin a series of grueling, painful treatments to somehow restore form and function that was lost.

And as bad as that was, you may remember last month, when 21 Christians were beheaded by ISIS in Libya.

On a more personal note, I remember the day that the doctor came and told me that it was my job to remove the dead baby from her mother’s arms so that he could provide medical care to the mother in spite of the baby’s death.

Nothing will hurt you? Come on, Jesus, that’s not even close to being accurate. If I read scripture literally, then in Luke 10 Jesus is either sorely mistaken or he is a malicious liar.

Unless…unless this is not what he was talking about at all. With all of my heart, I believe that there is more to this story than Jesus assuring us that we will all be rich, fat, happy, and have no problems.

This is why I think that: something happens in Luke 10 that I did not see the first 40 or 50 times I read this passage. It’s right there in verse 21 – just after Jesus seems to indicate that no problems will ever come the disciples’ way. We are told here that Jesus “rejoiced”.

Beloved, this is the only time in all of Scripture that this phrase is used. Jesus rejoiced. The root word here is different than the one used earlier in the same chapter. Here, Luke uses the word agalliao, which means “to “exult”, or “be exceedingly glad”, or even “jump for joy”. It speaks of a religious exuberance. The only other time that Luke uses this word is when he quotes Mary’s song in chapter 1: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

Listen: when the 70 or 72 come back to Jesus, they rejoice – chairo – at the success they’ve just experienced. The mission trip has really cheered them up. But right away, Jesus says, “Listen, don’t be happy because you were able to witness a few miracles. Be cheerful because your names are known in heaven and you, in fact, are known by God. That’s a great reason to be happy!” Then Jesus goes directly to the stronger and more emphatic agalliao.

Christ Sends Out the Seventy Disciples Two-By-Two James Tissot, 1836-1902

Christ Sends Out the Seventy Disciples Two-By-Two
James Tissot, 1836-1902

And what provokes this outburst in Jesus? The fact that those who follow him “get it”. The 72 should not be happy because they saw an exorcism. They ought to be glad because they were in a position to see the fundamental re-orientation of the entire universe. Jesus says as much to them in a private moment when he whispers, “You know, prophets and kings longed to see and hear what you’ve all seen and heard… but they did not.”

Jesus cannot have been talking about miracles and exorcisms and the like. The Old Testament is full of stories about people who were healed and who knew and saw the power of God’s spirit. You know that Moses and Jeremiah and Isaiah and David and Elijah and Elisha and hundreds more saw plenty of places where God’s spirit overwhelmed the spirit of the world, and where the miraculous occurred. The one thing that none of those people ever saw was the Promise of God’s abiding presence with God’s people being fulfilled.

In Luke 1, Jesus’ mother sings about the fact that the world will be turned upside down because God the Father wants to do it – and here, in the person and work of Jesus, that is happening. And note, please, that it is happening on the road to Jerusalem where the one who said, “Nothing will hurt you” will himself be killed on a Roman cross.

As I said, if Jesus’ words to his followers were a sort of a “Hey, keep your chin up, because you’re not going to have any more problems” kind of comment, well then, Jesus is full of it.

But if his message to the 72 is an indication that the ultimate salvation of the world is coming; that God is restoring what has been lost, and is in fact moving to see that the “hungry are fed, while the rich are sent away empty”, well, that’s another story.

Because that, my friends, is what the 72 saw that the kings and prophets died hoping to glimpse. That’s a cause for rejoicing.

So far as we know, the only time in his entire life that Jesus leapt for joy was on the day that his closest friends were given an insight into the ways that God is reclaiming the creation and bringing all of history into line with God’s eternal intentions. Jesus’ supreme joy was rooted, not in the fact that a few of his friends had a great weekend, but rather in the knowledge that they understood the bigger, broader, eternal thing that God was beginning in him.

Christ the Healer Icon

Christ the Healer Icon

What do we take away from this reading as we continue our discussions about people who come back to Jesus? How can we respond as we live in this world that is too often filled with demons of one kind or another, and where too often missionaries get shot, or believers are martyred, and babies die?

Well, I think that one significant step would be to simply speak of the Devil. That is to say, I believe that the followers of Jesus Christ ought to be attentive to the places in our world that seem to be infested with demons.

Some of these places are cultural, or historical, or political realities. Every day, we have the opportunity to witness the demon of racism, wherein persons of one group, or tribe, or ethnic identity insist that members of another group are not worthy of respect, justice, love, or trust. We see that played out in large arenas, such as in the conflict between certain persons of color and the police in our own country, or in places like South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We hear it when someone shouts that all of “them” are “like that”.

We see these places daily in our media as those in power have found fear-mongering to be a powerful tool to manipulate the behavior of the masses and encourage us to buy more locks or guns or bomb more enemies or dig deeper shelters in order to protect what is ours… We feel it when we wade into a culture that says that life – or, to be precise, that some life­ – is not valuable and can be easily disposed of. These are demons that must be named and opposed.

And while much of the time we look at the evil in broad and public places, there are many demon-infested places that are intensely personal. Think about the young person you know who is racked with intense loneliness and that demon opens the door to its friends, promiscuity and substance abuse – and together, they will seek to destroy that life.

Or what about the man who wakes up every day to find his head, heart, and spirit are not alone, but have already been assailed by the demon of depression, and he is locked in a despondency that things can never get better and he might as well just give up…

Or the family that is falling into a cycle of generational violence, where pain and beatings and abuse are given and received and there just seems to be no way out except to hit harder or take more violence into oneself.

None of these things – or a thousand other examples I could cite – are God’s intention for this world. None are reflective of the way of life that Jesus gives to his people.

I am here to suggest that when we see these demons, or others like them, in ourselves, our friends, our community, or our world, that we simply name them. We identify them to ourselves, to one whom we trust, and to God as enemies of what God intends.

As we name the enemies of God’s intentions, we also are called to look for places where those intentions are expressed with truth and power, and we are invited to point to and seek to bring about the healing and the wholeness that can be found, as the 72 discovered, in the person of Jesus.

I have to tell you, if I said, “You know, this won’t hurt a bit!”, I’d be lying. If you think that confronting the evil of institutionalized racism is painless, then let me buy you a ticket to go see Selma. If you think that dealing with loneliness or abuse is easy, then let me introduce you to a few friends who are holding on by the skin of their teeth.

But the honest to goodness truth is that you were not made to serve these demons. You were not made to live within their clutches. And neither was your neighbor.

In ourselves, we will not defeat fear or violence or depression. But Jesus calls us to rejoice in the fact that we are not in ourselves alone any more, any more than the 70 (or 72) who returned to Jesus were by themselves when he sent them out into the world. We stand and face these evils with a promise from the One who came, who lived among us, was crucified, buried and who rose again… a promise that in him we saw a glimpse of the new reality that has already dawned. Let us not flag in our efforts to name that hope, to identify that reality, and to live into that promise for ourselves and those with whom we share this journey.

Because if we do that – if we name these demons and confront them and trust in Christ to overcome them in a new reality – then I think that Jesus, beautiful, kind, wonderful Jesus, will leap for joy. And so will you. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Hold Fast

Last week, we celebrated the resurrection of Christ.  On this, the first Sunday of Eastertide, we began an exploration of the ways that the first believers lived their way into the Good News.  In doing so, we considered I Thessalonians 1:1-10.

If you were to order the books of the New Testament according to the date on which they were written, you wouldn’t start with Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  You wouldn’t start with one of those big impressive epistles that lay out so neatly what it means to believe in Christ and how we come to saving faith in his name.

Nope, if you wanted to lay out the books of the New Testament in order, you’d start with a little note from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the town of Thessalonica.  Last week, we celebrated the resurrection.  This is the first written record we have of the ways that people in the first century responded to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, and it dates from about 51 AD.  For the next few weeks, we’re going to be spending some time reading other people’s mail – looking at this letter in the hopes that we can grow in our understanding of the faith by considering the example of our earliest brothers and sisters.

Did you ever have one of those days when nobody notices anything that you do right, and when things start to go poorly for you, it seems like nobody cares?  The Apostle Paul was having one of those years.

Paul, as you might remember, was not one of the original followers of Jesus.  In fact, he was out to kill Christians in the days just following Jesus’ resurrection.  He had a vision of the risen Christ, however, that changed his life and he began preaching like nobody’s business.  Everyone he met, from peasants to kings, heard about the amazing power and grace of Jesus.  And if you read the New Testament, you’ll see that he got pretty good at it…but it started rough.  Here’s what happened to Paul right before he wrote this little booklet of I Thessalonians.

Paul's journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

Paul’s journey from Troas (in Turkey) across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece.

First, he was over in Asia – a part of what we call Turkey now.  He had a vision to go over to preach in Macedonia and Greece in Europe.  So he made the journey across the Aegean Sea and wound up in Philippi.  He was beaten and arrested and eventually escorted out of town.  So he headed south a few miles and found himself in Thessalonica, the capital and largest city of the region of Macedonia.  It sat squarely on the highway called the Via Egnatia, a road that connected Rome to the important seaports that lined the Aegean.  Thessalonica was a thriving town that had a population of close to a hundred thousand, including a sizable number of Jews.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008.  The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

I took this photo of the Via Egnatia in 2008. The road is used by pedestrians to this day.

Paul was received well by the community, but after a few weeks, he had managed to alienate some significant leaders in the Jewish community, and when he tried to preach they incited a mob to turn against him.  He was hustled out of town and went a little further south to Berea.  He picked up where he left off, until some of the Thessalonians heard where he was and they sent a mob off to rough him up a bit.  His friends Silas and Timothy figured that he needed to get out of town, and so they shipped him down to Athens and told him to stay out of trouble.


He started preaching in Athens, but became “deeply distressed” by the lack of belief and the number of people who simply scoffed at his appeal.  He left Athens and made his way to Corinth, where he was so disheartened that he was only able to preach with what he called “weakness and fear and much trembling”.  That is hardly a description of the bombastic sort that he is often made out to be!  But when you stop to think about it, for a period of some months, he had been beaten down, figuratively and literally, in every place.  He was sure that God had called him to come over to Europe, but he had seen nothing but difficulty.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul's preaching.  Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul’s preaching. Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

After a few weeks in Corinth, he had a visit from Timothy, who brought news from the Christians in Thessalonica.  Now, remember, the last time Paul saw Thessalonica, he was being dragged out of town by the police.  The last people he saw from Thessalonica were the tough guys who came down to Berea to make sure that he forgot where Thessalonica was.  So what is Timothy’s report going to say?

Maybe the word from Thessalonica is, “You know, Paul, this is great!  Since we began to follow in the Way of Christ, all our problems are gone!  The Romans – turns out they’re not such bad guys.  Those religious people that tried to kill you? They came to the pot luck last night.  Things down at the salt mine are better, we have more money than ever before, our children are better behaved – the Lord is really just blessing our socks off.  Thanks for telling us about Jesus, Paul….”

Nope.  That’s most definitely NOT what Timothy said.

Here’s what he did say – that the believers in Thessalonica can see God at work.  It’s tough going, they say, but they knew that going into it – they’d seen as much in Paul, as a matter of fact.  There is some persecution, there are some significant challenges – but they are carrying on.  The bottom line, they say, is that they are a changed people – NOT because they hit the cosmic lottery or because God has sent them amazing prosperity as a reward for believing the right things about him – they are a changed people because Christ has become real to and among them.

What has happened in the lives of these men and women from Thessalonica is that there has been a complete turnaround.  The God of the Bible – in fact, the Bible itself – was unknown to them.  Verse 9 tells us that the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols” – in other words, it’s not as if they were Jews who knew and accepted the truth of the Old Testament and then saw Jesus as its fulfillment.  No, they had been totally outsiders to the faith, and now have come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

How significant was the change in their lives?  Well, consider this.  In verse 4, Paul uses a little word to describe the believers in Thessalonica: he calls them “brothers.”  In fact, if someone with a lot of time on his hands, say, some preacher in the midst of the “slow week” after Easter…if someone like that was to go through the first and second letters to the Thessalonians, he would discover that Paul uses that word – “brothers” – twenty four times­ in these five pages. That’s more often than Paul uses the word “brothers” anywhere else, with the exception of 1 Corinthians, which is nearly three times as long.

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles, Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles , Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Do you see? Paul is simply overwhelmed.  Paul, this proud old Pharisee with an stellar education and an outstanding lineage, is writing to a group of former pagans and slaves and intellectuals and merchants – those whom he used to see as adversaries or contemptible and unclean…and he can’t stop calling them “brother” or “sister”.  What happened here?  What would change a relationship like that?

The power of Christ revealed in suffering. They were not changed from Paul’s tormentors or adversaries to Paul’s brothers because they hit the lottery.  They were transformed by sharing in the hard times.

How do you act when things get tough?  What does struggling reveal about your character?  In some way, isn’t it the difficult times that make us who we are?

Just think for a moment about a time in your life when you felt as if you grew somehow.  A time when you knew that somehow, you had become a better person.  I would imagine that more often than not, that has been a time rooted in challenge or difficulty – you faced something frightening or daunting, you worked through it, and you came out on the other side better equipped to live the life that God has for you.

When I say that the Bible talks about “faith, hope, and love,” what do you think of?  “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor. 13:13)  That’s from the “Wedding Hall of Fame,” right?  We know faith, hope, and love!  We get a little teary just thinking about them.

But look at how Paul speaks to those three in this letter – the letter that was, need I remind you, written prior to I Corinthians.  He remembers their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.”  These three qualities are not little presents that we find under the tree at Christmas or even in the box of cards at a wedding…in fact, they are not, in this sense, things that we possess at all.  Instead, they are disciplines that we seek to practice.  They are qualities in which we seek to be active.

The Thessalonians were transformed, not because God came and sprinkled a little Jesus Joy on top of them and made everything all better, but because they had learned, from Paul, that it’s possible to stick things out and to see the power of resurrection in the every day trials of life.  And they were able to see this power, says Paul, because they practiced it.  They sought to become better at being people of faith; they sought to grow in their ability to be people who loved; they sought to improve the quality and quantity of their hope.

C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, in addition to dozens of other stories and works of theology, got it right when he said this:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.[1]

We are now in the season of Eastertide – the six weeks following the resurrection where the church not only rejoices in the truth of Christ’s rising from the grave, but actually decide to live as if that resurrection mattered in our own lives.  It is important for us to remember that faith is not a waiting game wherein we watch the blessings pile up because God is just so crazy about us.  The life of faith, the life of resurrection is shown in how we deal with each challenge, each day, and each other.

If we get this right – if we acquire this work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope – then we, too get to be “brothers and sisters”.  We, too, experience a change that comes from becoming the people that God intended us to be. And when we become “brothers and sisters”, then, just as it happened in that little town in Macedonia, God’s name is praised.  And when that happens, then the world really changes.

It started with an empty tomb, and we celebrated that last week.  Today, I need to know, where are the struggles that you face, and whether you think that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is able to deal with the challenges in your life…and whether you will choose to grow in the practices of faith, love, and hope to the end that the resurrection power of God is not confined to a Palestinian cemetery 2000 years ago, but is unleashed in our neighborhood today.

May God bless us as we move into this joyous season of Eastertide, and may he be with us in our challenges and in the ways in which we respond.  Amen.

[1] From Mere Christianity.