Church on Fire: What I Have I Give

Scripture: Acts 3:1-10

Last week on Church on Fire:

As the disciples prayed and waited in the Upper Room, the day of Pentecost arrived.  The Holy Spirit rushed in like a mighty wind and tongues of fire rested on each of them, and they preached in multiple languages they didn’t speak, much to the surprise of the wide-eyed onlookers below, about the day of the Lord.

This week, the mission begins.

But first things first.  The new fire burning in the disciples’ bones doesn’t immediately drive them out as witnesses to the far corners of the earth.  The first thing that fire does is bind them together with all the other new believers and make them the church.  And so, Luke tells us in Acts 2, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.  A sense of awe came over everyone.  God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.  All the believers were united and shared everything.  They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.  Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes.  They shared food with gladness and simplicity.  They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.  The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

It is a beautiful picture of church that has made people for centuries ask what happened.

Today, though, Peter and John are venturing outside this heavenly community, on their way to afternoon prayer at the Temple, when they encounter a crippled man outside the entrance called the Beautiful Gate.  His friends had dropped him off there knowing it was a strategic panhandling location – after all, they can reasonably assume that the people going in and out of the Temple to pray might be, if not actively inspired to give, at least guilted into it.  So as Peter and John are entering the Temple gate there is this man, hands outstretched, asking, “Can you spare any change today?”

And all of a sudden our reverie of this nice, idyllic, joyful church is shattered, and instead we have the church as it bumps up against the raw pain and brokenness of our world.  Which is, of course, the point.[1]  So what now?

I imagine many of us might be able to imagine ourselves in the apostles’ place, here, though some of us might identify more readily with the crippled man, and perhaps some of us a little of both.  I know I find myself in the place of Peter and John sometimes when I go to Safeway.  Or when I walk along Lynn Street deciding what I’m going to have for lunch.  Or when I get off the Metro in downtown DC.  Or sometimes, when people come to my church office: we even have a fund set up for times like that.   Sometimes I respond generously, though often less generously than I might; sometimes I don’t respond generously, and then feel guilty about it; sometimes I say no and the person is persistent enough that I pay them to leave me alone; sometimes I stand there awkwardly trying to decide whether I am being taken advantage of.  I think of all the different opinions there are about how Christians should respond when people ask for money, and I am already interested in which one Peter and John will choose.  Will they in fact give him what they have?  Will they tell him they have already donated to the Jerusalem Foundation for the Disabled, and direct him there instead, thinking that that’s ultimately better stewardship of their funds?  Might they not give him money directly, but instead offer to buy him dinner at a nearby falafel cart, knowing that that way, he won’t spend the money on booze?  Will they give him an apologetic look and say they are sorry, they can’t help today, knowing they have to save their change for the Temple offering?  Or, in a hurry not to be late for prayers, will they simply avert their gaze and keep on walking?

This isn’t just a question isn’t about giving money to panhandlers.  What is the answer of the early church when it faces need and suffering out in the real world?  I would like to know.

So, we read on.  First Peter says to the man, “Look at me.”  We have our first answer: he will not avert his gaze and keep walking and pretend that this man, this child of God, does not exist.

“We don’t have any silver or gold,” says Peter, and that rules out option #1, just hand over some cash.  Remember, though, that the reason they don’t have any silver or gold is because no one in this early Acts church had any property of their own; it was all held in common.  So I suppose one way to get out of giving at a time like this, if that is ever your goal, is to have already given everything away.  OK, no money, they can keep walking.

But they don’t keep walking.  “I don’t have any silver or gold,” Peter says, “but what I do have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk.”

It wasn’t exactly what the man asked for, but he does: he gets up and walks.  In fact, he doesn’t just walk, but leaps in the air and praises God.

So I admit that as I’m sitting here reading the story looking for the early church’s answer for how to respond to the world’s need, this presents a bit of a conundrum.  Because mostly as I go about my life encountering the pain of the world around me, this is not really an option I consider.

“In the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk?”  I wish I could do that.

I know that we here have different beliefs and experiences regarding whether this kind of healing miracle is still possible today, or whether it was ever even quite like the story tells it.  I don’t presume to say what is possible for God, but I have personally never physically healed someone in the name of Jesus (or otherwise) and I am challenged by this text.  I’m not sure if it is telling me that as someone with faith in Jesus I should, actually, be able to do such things; and I’m not sure where it leaves us as the church if we cannot.  If we can’t respond as the apostles did, are we back, then, to deciding whether to share or withhold the spare change in our wallets?

Once I was on a trip with my college campus ministry and as our group walked along to wherever we were going, someone did stop us and ask us for money.  We were actually in Jerusalem, or somewhere nearby in the Holy Land.  I don’t remember whether anyone gave him some, but what I do remember is that two students got in a debate about whether you should give money to people directly like that or not, and the student who thought “not” said, “I believe we are called to care for that man in a radical way.”

It sounded like a really good answer, and from my place a few steps ahead of this conversation, I felt convicted in my own heart, only as we walked on a little farther, I thought, “How?”

We were on a 10-day trip.  We were never going to see that man again.  It was probably a couple of shekels or nothing.

But what if we could have given that man something more?  What if we could have looked him in the eye and said, “No, I’m not going to give you money today, but in the name of Jesus Christ, you are made better.  Whatever your real, underlying problem is; whatever your pain is, whether what you need is housing, or a job, or mental health, or a re-established connection with your family and community: whatever that real, deep need is, that is what I give you in the name of Jesus Christ.”  And it would be so?

I wish I could do that.

Of course, Peter is careful to let everyone know that it isn’t him doing that at all. Later in Acts, a guy takes credit for some miraculous act that God does, and then he falls down dead and gets eaten by worms.  So when Peter gets a chance to preach his second sermon, after the crowds have attracted the attention of the local officials and the apostles have been taken into custody, he makes sure to tell everyone that it is not by his own power but by the power of Jesus Christ that this man has been healed.

And even so I admit I wonder what I have to give.

This is, again, about more than just people begging.  As the church, what do we have to give to the world around us?  When war rages across the world from us, what do we have to give?  When people the next county over are dying of their addiction to opioids, what do we have to give?  When our neighbors are alone and hopeless, what do we have to give?  How do we speak the name of Jesus Christ into these situations in a way that is neither dismisses nor tries to slap a Band-aid on the world’s problems, in a way that brings the Gospel to life for people where they are?

I don’t think the answer is always cut-and-dry, but here are a few things I think we can learn from Peter and John, miracles or not.

First of all, Peter and John don’t ignore this man, and they don’t ignore the real, immediate cause of his pain.  They don’t say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, repent of your sins and receive Jesus into your heart and have eternal life.”  Now, I’m certainly not trying to knock eternal life, and I think it’s clear that this man’s healing points him to something bigger– the story doesn’t just end with healing, but with him praising God and clinging to Peter and John, becoming part of their community.  But this man’s first problem is that he is crippled, and that is the problem Peter and John address when they heal him.  As Desmond Tutu once put it, “The good news to a hungry person is bread.”

And at the same time, they are clear that what they are doing is in the name and by the power of Jesus.

I have a friend from seminary who was talking about her church the other day, and all the good things they do: their food bank, their community garden, the shelter they help run, the apartment they are getting ready to house a family with no place to go.  “Now,” she said, “they do have some serious work to do to be able to say ‘Jesus’ out loud without apologizing.”  I am sure there are more than a few of us here who resemble that remark.  How easy is it, sometimes, to separate the nice things we do – sandwich making, collecting supplies for health kits, even repairing houses in Appalachia – from our faith in Jesus completely (or if not completely, we’re at least really, really quiet about that side of things?)  When we do these acts of service, do we allow them to point beyond us and our own general goodwill to the power and call of the one who sent us?

I do have to wonder – what if Peter and John had just had some money?  Would this whole thing have gone down differently?

Of course, when we think we have something of our own to give, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for God to do even greater things through us.  Maybe the point is, that when we are driven by the fire of the Holy Spirit, we have more to give than we might think.

In the Gospel of John (ch. 14), Jesus at one point tells his disciples that they will do even greater acts than he did.  That’s an eyebrow-raising promise coming from a guy who not only healed people but also raised people from the dead.  And that promise might give us one more reason to look around at this thing we call church and wonder if we’re doing it wrong.

But maybe our response doesn’t have to be overtly miraculous to be miraculous nonetheless.  When as the church, as Christians encounter the pain of the world around us, what do we have to give, that’s beyond just some spare change?  Is it relationship?  Community?  Ongoing commitment to a person or a cause?  Is it prayer – not just an “I’ll pray for you” but fervent, consistent prayer that might bring about healing in ways we never would have guessed?

When we encounter the pain and suffering of this world, does our response say, “We are nice people” or “What I have, I give – and what I have, I have because God has given me?”  Does our response say, “We want to do good things,” or “In the name of Jesus, we believe that God is at work here and God has more for you than whatever this is?”

The point, of course, is not to not be generous.  It’s to be more than generous, to be ready to give even more than we ourselves have.

Now I’ll warn you that the disciples do end up in jail for the night, for the first but certainly not last time, which doesn’t tend to happen when you just give someone the dollar crumpled up in your pocket or hand them a granola bar.  So it might be that we need to be ready for that, too.

But here’s the thing: Jesus might not be bodily, tangibly here anymore to do things like heal people and make them walk or to tell the demons that plague them to take a hike or to multiply loaves and fish until everyone eats and is full.  That’s the whole point of the book of Acts: someone else has to do these things instead.  This is our call as the church, the Body of Christ on earth, the hands and feet of Jesus, the heart of God.  This is our job, now.

And so we gather, and we pray, and we sing hymns, and we break bread, and we share this portion of our lives together.

And then we march out those doors and into the pain and the brokenness of the world around us and we say, “We may not have a lot but what we have we give: in the name of Jesus Christ, world, be well.”

 

[1]     Cf. Will Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, p. 43-44

Church on Fire

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Do you know what it feels like to be set on fire?

When the day of Pentecost had come, the story goes, they were all gathered in one place: the Twelve, some women, and some other unnamed followers of Jesus.   As we left off with the disciples last week in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus had just ascended into heaven promising that he would be with them always, and they had gathered back in that infamous Upper Room, praying and waiting for God to make the next move.  But the thing about waiting is that sometimes it’s time to wait and sometimes it’s time to get up off your butt and do something for Jesus.

Today, that’s what it’s time for.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all gathered in one place.  Jews from all over the known world once again flooded the streets of Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot – Pentecost in Greek – to celebrate God giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  Who knows if the disciples woke up that morning thinking “Maybe today’s the day,” or if they thought it would be too obvious a move.  Who knows if they woke up with a certain sense that it was time, that God was about to do something big, and nothing would ever be the same.

God was, and it wasn’t.

Because, there gathered in that Upper Room, as the disciples are waiting and praying, all of a sudden the wind begins to pick up.

The disciples look around and raise their eyebrows, silently acknowledging to each other “Wow, it’s kind of gusty out,” but it doesn’t let up.  Instead the wind begins to howl.  It rushes in the windows and the disciples hold their hands in front of their faces and in the midst of trying to catch their breath maybe one of them says something along the lines of, “Guys, I think this is it.”

And then there is fire, fire coming in the windows too, tongues of flame hurling and curling toward each person huddled there, only like the Burning Bush from those days on Sinai, they are not consumed.

This wasn’t the kind of fire that burns a person alive, but the kind of fire that gets into your bones and drives you forward.

Do you know what that feels like?

The prophet Jeremiah once spoke of his mission to speak God’s word as a “fire shut up in his bones,” and I know what it feels like.  I remember going as a teenager to a youth rally called, appropriately, Acquire the Fire, and coming back and telling my mom (much to her alarm) that I wanted to go on an international mission for Christ.  Though that particular fire was short-lived, I remember being in college and encountering for the first time sermons preached by religious leaders who fought against apartheid in South Africa, and how when I read them at night they kept me awake because I knew that, though apartheid had ended a decade ago and I was not in Johannesburg but Colonial Williamsburg, those words had a bearing on my life that I would not be able to shake.  I remember telling my once-again-skeptical mother that I was going to seminary and while it would be nice if I got a scholarship, it didn’t matter if I didn’t, because this is what I was called to do and God would make it happen one way or another.  It felt like accepting a daring invitation to a radical life.  It felt like embarking on an adventure.  It felt like falling in love.

Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt that fire in your bones?

Have you ever felt like you had a mission and for once in your life, even just for a moment, you were so completely sure of who you were and what you were doing here?  Have you ever felt just once like it was all coming together, like God was present here and now and opening up a way for you just ahead?  Have you ever felt like you were ready to step up to what was demanded of you and ready to take risks and ready for whatever God had in store? Like there was nothing that could stop you?  Like you were compelled by a force outside of yourself –a force you might even call holy?

As those tongues of fire came to rest on the disciples they felt their own tongues begin to move, but the words that came out were strange and unfamiliar.  Still, they leaned out the windows and flooded the balcony and let those strange words flow, attracting the attention of the pilgrims flooding the streets of Jerusalem below.  These people heard their words but they weren’t unfamiliar to them, they were the languages of the places they had traveled from: North Africa, Persia, Asia Minor.  In those words the disciples proclaimed the story of Jesus and the amazing things that God had done.

Fishermen from the backwater of Galilee were not the kind of people you’d expect to hear preaching in Persian, but this was the kind of fire that meant that you could do things you never could have imagined yourself doing before.  This fire was the power of God working through your own weakness.  Do you know what that’s like?

More importantly, though, than any linguistic miracle, it was on this day that that ragtag group of disciples huddled in an upstairs room became the church.  It was that day that they became not just followers of Jesus, but the Body of Christ present doing God’s work on earth.  It was from there that they set out on their mission to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, enduring arrest and prison, risking rejection and death, knowing not just that they could do it, but that they couldn’t not.  Have you ever been there?

I remember being 23 years old and just having completed my first year of seminary and enrolling in a chaplaincy program in a planned community that used to be the worst projects in Atlanta, the next step in my plan to save the world in the name of Jesus.  I was the youngest student in my group and the rest of them thought that I was hopelessly naive, and I remember that as we sat and read our evaluations of each other at the end of the summer, one woman named Sue said of me, “She really believes in the power of one person to change the world,” and then she cried, because she used to feel like that, too, and she didn’t know what had happened.

Maybe it’s because old age has made me cynical, but most of the time now I think I’m probably closer to Sue than I am to myself back then.  I don’t really know, anymore, if one person can change the world, and frankly, it’s exhausting even to try, and you have to worry about the politics of it all, and not saying something that will cause someone else not to come back to church.

Do you ever feel like maybe once you had that fire, but you don’t anymore?

Fire can be hard to sustain.

But do you remember how it felt?

Well, church, it’s Pentecost and it can be that way again.

Or have you never felt that way, not yet?

Church, it’s Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit has the power to set even you on fire, for the first time ever or once again, because what God’s church needs is people who have been set on fire.

What is it that sets or once set you on fire?  Did you have an immediate, unmistakable experience of the grace and holiness of God, and had to tell others?  Was it a person you met or a story you read on the news that made you say, I know what God’s work for me is?  Was it a mentor who made you want to be just like him or her, or a ministry you knew you wanted to be a part of?  A subject, even, that you fell in love with and knew you would spend your life devoted to?  Do you remember?  What did God want to do with that?  What does God want to do with that now?

Do you remember what it felt like to fall in love with Jesus for the first time?

What did you do with that fire?  Did you allow God to fan that flame, even if it became less a roaring fire and more of a slow, controlled burn after a while?  Or did it burn bright and burn out?

Might our God of resurrection want to resurrect that fire in your heart?  Might the Holy Spirit be ready to visit you again, sending you on a mission, giving you work to do, whether it takes you to the ends of the earth or takes place right here?

That day as the wind howled and the tongues of flame swirled and the lips of the disciples made new and strange and exciting sounds, Peter told the crowd that was gathering below – some out of the sense that God was doing something new, some out of pure morbid curiosity – that this was what the prophet Joel had prophesied, this was the day that God had promised when God would pour out God’s Spirit on all people, men and women, young and old, slave and free, and everyone who called on the name of the Lord would be saved.  This was what Joel prophesied, no doubt having felt that same fire in his bones, that God’s Spirit was for everyone, that God’s church was open to everyone who felt or wanted to feel that fire.

As the church here and now, what is that fire in our bones?  What has God given us to do that we can’t not do, even if it’s dangerous, even if it’s risky, even if people think we might have gone crazy?  What has God empowered to do together that we can’t do on our own?  Have you felt that fire?  Do you remember?  What does God want to do with that now?  To feed the hungry?  To heal the hurting?  To create a family out of strangers?  To set the oppressed free?  To stand up for justice?  To speak God’s truth into a world that may or may not want to listen?

We are the church, and God has work for us to do.  God has work for you to do.  Maybe you remember what it was like to feel that way.  And if you haven’t, or if you’ve forgotten, the promise of Pentecost is that it’s not too late; these things happen in God’s time, and perhaps our job now is simply to say Come, Holy Spirit.  Set me on fire.  Set us on fire.

But maybe, if you listen closely, you can feel the wind beginning to pick up.  Maybe you can feel that heat, that burning, that begins in your bones and won’t let you sit still.

It’s Pentecost, and before the story goes on, God needs a church that has been set on fire.

Church on Fire: Ready Isn’t a Question

Scripture: Acts 1:1-14

A few years ago I had the chance to take a trapeze lesson.  One thing you should know about me is that I’m pretty afraid of heights, so this is not the kind of activity that it would normally ever occur to me to do.  But we happened to be in Puerto Rico on vacation, and my friend Jenny happened to be there at the same time visiting her brother, who happened to be a trapeze instructor in San Juan, and we got the lesson for half price.  I may be afraid of heights, but I’m not going to turn down a half-price trapeze lesson on my friend’s brother’s trapeze.

So there we were at this trapeze place in San Juan, but before we actually got to fly, an instructor told us what was going to happen.  First we would climb up the ladder, where someone else would meet us on the platform.  They would get us hooked in to the safety harness and tell us to move our toes to the edge of the platform.  We would hold on with one hand and reach out for the bar with the other.  Then they would hold us by the back of the harness as we held our hips out over the platform and reached for the bar with the other hand.  They would say “Ready,” and we would bend our knees.  They would say “hep,” and we would jump.

“When we say, ‘Ready,’” the instructor told us, “that isn’t a question.”

The instructor told us that the trapeze was a metaphor for life and if we could jump off that platform we could face any of ours fears, and honestly I really don’t know about all that, but I did think he was right about that one part, that when big stuff is about to happen in life, ready a lot of times isn’t a question.

I’ve often thought of that experience when I think of the disciples here at the very beginning of Acts, on the precipice of something new and big.  Over the next couple months we’re going to be following the plot of Acts and the apostles, especially Peter and Paul, and the early church.  This story we just heard, which we call the Ascension, is the opening scene of Acts, and picks up where its prequel, the Gospel of Luke, ended.

At this point in the story, it’s already been a whirlwind couple weeks for the disciples.  Jesus is executed then rises from the dead and appears to them over the course of forty days.  They’ve gone from the ultimate low to the ultimate high to, as they begin to process it all, probably just a lot of what is going on here and what does it all mean.

And then one day they are eating together and Jesus says to them, don’t leave the city.  Stay here and wait because something big is about to happen.

And the disciples say, oh, it must be the Kingdom of God being established on earth, the culmination of everything, right, Jesus?   Is that now?

And Jesus tells them not to worry so much about that, but to worry about the work that is ahead of them, because in a few days they will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and go out to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem – right where they are – and Judea and Samaria – a little further afield – and to the ends of the earth.  (If you read Acts you’ll see that it basically follows that geographical plot.)

Anyway, remember that just about forty days ago these guys were locked in a room waiting out the hysteria that had led to Jesus’ crucifixion, and now apparently they are about to sent off on some global mission to tell people about Jesus and to start doing the work of the Kingdom of God right now.

I’m not sure they were ready, but then again, ready wasn’t a question.

With that, Jesus leaves, disappearing into a cloud that lifts him back up into heaven, from which he came.  It’s best that we don’t take this description too literally or else we might really be caught in the mechanics of where exactly Jesus went and how he got there, but the point is that Jesus enters another realm, one where he is not immediately, tangibly accessible to his disciples, though of course his promise is that they will not be left alone.  Jesus, who has died and risen again, is now exalted as Lord and reigns from heaven with God the Father.  The disciples, for their part, are left staring into heaven with their mouths hanging open.

And with that, the opening scene of Acts changes our focus from Jesus and the things he did and taught to the disciples and the adventures they will go on.  They are now the Body of Christ on earth, and the spotlight is on them, ready or not.

Of course, they still have to wait for a couple days for the Holy Spirit to come and give them the power to do all of the things they are about to do.  So in the meantime, there the disciples are, kind of in limbo, suddenly without a leader, suddenly with a lot of risky work ahead of them, suddenly on the precipice of something big that hasn’t quite started yet.

What would you do if it were you?

What do you do when you sense that your whole world is about to be set on fire?

I think I know what the right answer is, and in fact that story will tell us in just a second, but honestly, I don’t know.  I think I might spend a lot of time trying to work out nervous energy, maybe distract myself if I could. If there were such a thing, I might want to read a book, like “How to Be A Witness for Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the Ends of the Earth.”  I might start to pack, or try to put together an itinerary, even though of course I would know I wouldn’t end up following it.  Or maybe if I thought my time in Jerusalem was coming to a close I might want to spend a little time enjoying it.  And probably, in the midst of all of it, I would try to make myself take some deep breaths.

It would seriously drive me crazy not knowing exactly when to expect the Holy Spirit, or what to expect when she got there.

Well, Luke tells us what the disciples did.  Once their reverie is broken by two men in white robes who tell them to stop staring into heaven and get on with it, they return to Jerusalem proper from the nearby Mount of Olives, enter the city, go back to that upper room where they had locked themselves in after the crucifixion, join the others, and are “united in their devotion to prayer.”

What do you do when life is about to send something big your way?

You pray.

It’s the kind of thing that we know is yes, definitely the right answer, and yet I suspect for most of us it’s a lot easier said than done, not only because we might be busy trying to distract ourselves, but because in my experience it’s actually pretty hard to feel very prayerful when you are a bundle of nerves waiting for something big to happen but not knowing exactly what or when.  How do you even pray in that situation?  What does prayer look like in that upper room with all the disciples huddled together?  I imagine that “Dear Jesus help me” uttered over and over again, while a perfectly good prayer if you ask me, is not exactly what Luke means by “they were united in their devotion to prayer.”

How you sit down and meditate when the Holy Spirit might be shooting tongues of fire your way at any moment, I don’t know.

I tried to think of a time in my life when I’ve been waiting for something big to happen and how I responded in the meantime, and what came to mind was last year at the very beginning of maternity leave while I was waiting for Evelyn to be born.  I started maternity leave two days before my due date, and Evelyn ended up coming, with the help of induction, at exactly one week past my due date, so I had just a little over a week at home to do basically nothing but wait for what promised to be probably the biggest overhaul to my life, ever.

I watched a lot of Netflix that week.  I cleaned the house, as much as you can at 40-and-a-half weeks pregnant.  I tried to get together with friends as much as possible, hoping they could help keep my mind off of other things.

Also, I tried to take a long walk every day, and this was partially in hopes of getting labor going, but also just for exercise and for time to be quiet and breathe.  And I tried to use this time as prayer time.  I prayed to God for my safety and my baby’s.  I prayed for patience.  I prayed that Evelyn would grow up strong and good and that God would help Jon and me to love her well.

The truth is, though, that I was distracted and nervous, and I doubt this time really counted as “devoting myself to prayer.”

Still, imperfect though my prayer may have been, I hope that it did something to prepare me spiritually for what was to come, in the midst of all the logistical preparations.  I hope it did me some good to be reminded that what I was about to embark on as a parent was, in fact, a spiritual endeavor, one that would and does and will require me to continually return to God in the midst of it, no matter how chaotic life may be.

What do you do when something new is coming your way and life will never be the same and  you have absolutely no idea what you are doing?  You pray – even if you don’t do it very well.

And yet what would it have looked like to devote myself to prayer during that time?  What must the disciples have done in that upper room?  How did they pray?

I think it’s important, for example, that they were gathered together, and they didn’t do their waiting or their praying alone.  After all, the big new thing that was about to happen in their lives would require them not to be solitary actors, but a community.  They might go off on their own missions, but they would have to make decisions together and support each other along the way.  They were preparing to become the church, and they had to prepare for that together.

What do you think?  Did they read Scripture and discuss it together, allowing it to instruct them for this new time in their lives?  Did they read the words that told them to “Fear not; be bold and courageous” and repeat those words over and over to themselves like a mantra, or a breath prayer?  Did they recite Psalms together, letting those ancient words speak their modern prayers?  Did they talk about Jesus and try to keep everything he had taught them and shown them at the forefront of their minds?  Did they lift their fears and their doubts and the questions they had no answers to up to God and allow God to take those burdens, at least for a little while?  Did they sing songs of praise that recentered them on what was important – not their own poor qualifications for the job, but the power and goodness of God?   Did they spend time in silence and allow God to speak through it, quieting their own thoughts just for a while?  Did they ask for God to keep their eyes and ears and hearts open for this arrival of the Holy Spirit – and then did they do their best to practice those things for which they asked?

Or maybe all of those things?

I don’t how many of you may have something on the horizon that promises to turn your world upside down.    It could be a graduation or a transition at work or a move or a change in your family or personal life.  No doubt you are preparing in a lot of ways.  Is devoting yourself to prayer one of them?

Of course, maybe there isn’t anything, at least that you know of.  In that case I will say two things: 1) This period between the Ascension and Pentecost wasn’t the beginning of disciples’ prayer life. They may well have learned how to pray better or differently because of it, and they may well have felt its urgency in a new way, but it’s been a long time since the point in the Gospel of Luke where the disciples say to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”  Prayer is of course not just for times of transition or big things, but it is to imbue our ordinary and mundane days with a sense of the sacred and open our eyes to God’s presence and ask for God’s help in those times, too.   And 2) we don’t always know when our world is going to be set on fire, for better or worse.  The disciples had some warning here, but we don’t always, before everything changes.  Better to be prepared for whatever comes.

I think of Rick Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, the two men stabbed to death this weekend on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon, trying to protect two young Muslim girls from a white supremacist who was harassing and threatening them.  Did they think they were heading off that morning to do something heroic?  Probably not.  Probably they just thought they were going to work, coming home, wherever they were headed.

I have no idea what the prayer lives of those two men might have looked like, only that something more was demanded of them that day.  And I also know that if I would ever be able to do something similar – and if I’m perfectly honest, I’m not really sure – it would only be because I knew who I was and what God wanted of me in that moment, and I believe that’s the kind of clarity that can come from a life of prayer.

What do you do when life is the same day after day and nothing seems to change?  You pray. Maybe that will change things and maybe it won’t (and maybe you want them to and maybe you don’t) but you do your best, though of course it will be imperfectly, to keep that connection with God going in the ordinary days knowing that that’s what will sustain you in the earth-shattering ones.

The disciples, for their part, are about to leave ordinary days behind.

Prayer’s not all, of course.  When Pentecost comes and for the rest of the book of Acts Peter and Paul and the rest of the disciples will have plenty of time for going places and doing things to make a real and tangible difference in the world – but the journey starts in prayer.  Neither will prayer end when the adventures begin – because throughout it all, the disciples will need to stay attuned to the will and open themselves up to the power of the God who sent them.

Next week is Pentecost, when Holy Spirit comes as promised and sets this nascent church on fire, and the disciples go out to do all the things God has given them to do.  In the meantime, they pray.  And I’d like to invite you to spend some time with me this week “devoting yourselves to prayer.”  Pray in some of the ways we mentioned the disciples might have.  Pray for our world, our country, our community, our church.  Pray for the needs of those around you and pray for yourself, that you would know the work of God’s Holy Spirit when she comes, that you would answer God’s call when it comes.

Who knows, but God could be about to do something big in your life or our lives together.  What if we really believed that?

When God says ready – it isn’t a question.

Meeting People Where They Are

Preacher: James Armstrong

Scripture: Acts 17:16-34

My sermon today is an introduction to a series of sermons on Acts called Church on Fire that Pastor Allie will begin next week.  Acts tells the story of the early church and reveals much about the ministries of Peter and Paul.  This morning, I will be talking about Paul’s visit to the city of Athens in Greece, who and what he encountered there, and how he responded.

But before turning to the sermon text, I want to ask if you often feel that we live in a post-Christian society, a society where Christianity is no longer considered relevant and important.  I do.  People don’t take God and God’s Word seriously as they go about their daily lives.  The message of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice falls on deaf ears.   This is particularly true in a cosmopolitan city like Washington.  The story of Paul in cosmopolitan Athens has a lot to tell us about how we as Christians can carry the good news of Jesus to a world that is reluctant to hear what we have to say about God.

Athens wasn’t on Paul’s original itinerary through Greece.  He was brought there by believers who wanted to keep him safe from harm.  His preaching had caused unrest in the cities of Thessalonica and Beroea, and he needed to get out of town.  So Paul found himself in Athens, and he did what he normally did when he came to a new city.  He went to the synagogue and brought the message of Christ to the Jews and other devout persons who worshiped with them.  He also walked around the city.

Now, if I were able to visit ancient Athens, I would be excited to view the Parthenon and the famous statues that define the classical style.  I think it would be a real pleasure to see a culture that is foundational to Western civilization.  That’s not what Paul saw, however.  His eyes did not take in the beautiful art; instead, he saw idols, and the idols were everywhere.  He was not excited by what he saw; he was distressed and outraged, and that led him to the marketplace.  This was the famous Athenian Agora, where he argued and debated with those he met.  Now among those he encountered were some Epicureans and Stoics.

I bet you think you already know what the Epicureans believed.  They were hedonists, right?  Followers of pleasure for its own sake.  In fact, that’s not the whole truth.  Epicurean philosophy was far more serious, and it is surprisingly modern.  It was based on science, on what could be known for certain.  For the Epicureans, what could be known was what could be experienced through the senses.  Their philosophy was materialist, much like the materialism that dominates Western culture today.  They believed that the gods, if there were any gods, had nothing to do with human existence.  Humans were on their own in the universe.  And most importantly, this life was all there was.  Death was final, and there was no life after death.

The Stoics, too, sound remarkably up-to-date.  They frequently referred to their god as Zeus, but they didn’t believe that this god was personal.  Rather, their god was a spirit that was present in everything there is.  To use the theological word, their god was immanent.  Today we would call them pantheists, people who believe that god exists in and through all things.

These were the people Paul was arguing with in the market.  Some called him a “babbler.”  Others said that he seemed to be proclaiming foreign divinities.  Note the plural – they misunderstood what Paul was saying, apparently thinking that he was talking about two new gods, named Jesus and Resurrection.  In any event, Paul made an impression, and they took him to the Areopagus, the Council of Athens, to give him the opportunity to make his case more clearly.  They addressed him politely, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”

Paul’s speech before the Areopagus is the heart of this morning’s message.  I want you to especially notice how he addresses his audience.  He opens by saying, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”  He’s talking about all those shrines and idols, of course.  But where’s his outrage?  Paul, we know, was distressed to see that Athens was full of idols.  Where’s the word of judgment and damnation?  Where’s the list of all the Athenians’ sins?  No, Paul begins with a compliment.  Based on all their shrines, they seem to be very religious.  Despite his distress, Paul sees that, behind their idols and their modern-sounding philosophies, the Athenians are searching for something real; they are searching for God.

Among all the altars in the city Paul has found one dedicated “To an unknown god.”  With this inscription Paul seizes the opportunity to introduce Jesus: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Do we recognize that among the people around us, there is a lot of searching going on for something real, something true?  How do we approach them with the gospel?  Paul’s example may be helpful.  Like him we must begin with where people are now and seek to find common ground.  For example, you might ask a person who says they are non-religious, “When you see the myriad stars at night, do you ever wonder what or who is behind the vastness of the universe?  Do you ever wonder where you fit in all that immensity?”  If the answer is yes, you have created a way to introduce the message of Jesus.

Notice that Paul uses language familiar to his audience.  I do not have the time to explain in detail, but Paul utilizes Stoic ideas.  He quotes two Greek poets when he says, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “For we too are his offspring.”  Paul knows Greek philosophy and Greek poetry.  He knows his audience, and he’s prepared to talk with them in ways that are easy for them to understand.  He does not begin with the Old Testament, as he would in a Jewish synagogue.  The Old Testament means nothing to his audience.  Still less, does he tell them that they need to come to the synagogue to hear him preach there.  He meets with his listeners where they are, in the marketplace.  And he begins his message where their hearts and minds are.  We would do well to copy his example.

Now, if Paul ended his message at this point, the Stoics would be happy, but we’d have a problem, because Christianity is not Stoicism.  Yes, Paul is willing and eager to meet his listeners where they are.  As he says in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel . . .”  But as he looks out upon the lost citizens of Athens, he is compelled to move on to the heart of the gospel.  And we must follow Paul there as well.

Unlike the Stoic god, our God is not only immanent, but is also personal and transcendent.  As Paul says, God is the “Lord of heaven and earth,” and “Does not live in shrines made by human hands,” and “. . . we ought not think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”  Paul also tells his listeners that God is actively involved in human history:  “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places they would live.”  He is speaking here especially to the Epicureans, who believed no such thing.  Paul certainly risks giving offense, but it is necessary for him – for us – to tell the whole truth about God.

Paul also introduces the concepts of repentance and judgment, ideas alien to Greek philosophy:  “. . . now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a date on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.”  The “man,” of course, is Jesus, the Son of Man.

And finally Paul talks about the resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that what he has said is true:  “of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  Till now the Greeks have apparently listened politely to Paul’s words, but when he mentions “the resurrection of the dead” they can no longer keep silent.  Some, probably Epicureans, who didn’t believe in life after death, mocked Paul and his teaching.

In this Easter season, we need to remember that the resurrection is central to the Christian faith.  And we, like Paul, cannot pull our punches.  Jesus rose from the dead, and that must be part of what we tell others about him.  He was not just a great teacher and an intensely moral man.  We need to be clear about this:  Jesus is the Son of God, and his resurrection is our assurance that this is true.  However, we should not be surprised if we get a negative reaction when we make this claim.

Ridicule was the first reaction of the Athenians to Paul, and if we follow Paul in telling the truth about Jesus, we also must be ready for the rejection of our message.  This is hard to experience, but notice that scoffing wasn’t the only response Paul got.  Some said, “We will hear you again about this.”  Whether a second meeting took place, we don’t know.  But we should be prepared for this response, as well.  These are big ideas and need careful thought.  Serious people might well require more time and more conversation to understand fully the implications of the gospel.  Finally, there were some who “joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”  Even in cosmopolitan Athens, where people scoffed at the gospel, there were some who believed.

Several of the commentators I consulted consider Paul’s appearance before the Areopagus to have been a failure.  I don’t agree.  We see a faithful Christian ministering to people who didn’t think they needed to hear what he had to say.  Does that sound familiar?  The Stoics and Epicureans already had their answers to the mystery of the universe, and Paul was challenging their beliefs.  This was a tough crowd.  But the response was not uniformly hostile.  People listened, and some believed.  I count that a success.

However, the success is God’s, not Paul’s.  Paul was serving as God’s instrument to reach out to the Athenians.  The success or failure of the undertaking was not Paul’s responsibility.  He did his best, and that is where his responsibility lay.  So, too, with us.  Like Paul, we are instruments – we are messengers carrying a message on God’s behalf.  So don’t worry about success or failure.  Our call is to be faithful to God and to love God’s children.  Such faithfulness and love compel us to minister and to carry God’s truth to those who need to hear it.  And as Paul shows us, the best way to do this is to meet people where they are.

Paul’s message to the Areopagus serves as an excellent model for us to follow.  He did not carelessly or unwittingly offend his listeners.  He complimented them and used the best examples from their own lives in order to encourage them to listen to what he had to say.  He was not judgmental; he did not focus on their sins.  His focus was squarely on the good news of Jesus and the resurrection.  He used language and cultural references – in this case poetry – that the people were familiar with and understood.  And when the time came, he clearly and decisively spoke the truth about Jesus.  Paul tried to be “all things to all people,” but never at the cost of watering down the gospel.

We need to listen carefully in order to understand Paul’s approach to bringing the gospel message, but there may be some of us here today who need to hear the message itself, that Jesus died for our sins and rose again as the assurance of our salvation.  Do you want the life-changing certainty that God will always be with you?  Then, if you have never done so before, I invite you to accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord.  If you would like to talk further about this, it would be my privilege to meet with you after the service, or you can speak with Pastor Allie when she returns next week.

As “we go out to be God’s people in the world,” let us commit to sharing the good news of Jesus – and it is good news – with those who need to hear it.  God will certainly give us opportunities to share, but it is up to us to take advantage of them.  And, like Paul, may we, “for the sake of the gospel,” meet people where they are and minister to them where we find them.  Amen.

I’ll Build You a House

Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1-17

Last week after worship we had a charge conference to vote on some things related to the potential redevelopment of our church building.  If you’re new to this, we’re exploring the possibilities for redeveloping as the whole neighborhood of Rosslyn redevelops around us.  It will probably mean something like a 18-or-19-story residential building on this site of which the church retains a few floors.  In any case, the likelihood is that nothing will happen for 10-15 years or so, closer to when the gas station lease downstairs runs out, but these things take longer than you think, so we are starting our research and filing very preliminary drawings with the county now.

We had a good meeting last Sunday, and I was struck by not only the interest that I sensed from you all but also the excitement.  Which is great!  Sometimes I get a little stressed out about everything involved in beginning a project like this, and forget what an exciting opportunity it is to be able to re-vision our ministry in this place and create a new space to house it well into the future.  But when I feel your energy, my energy about that is renewed, too.

If you were at the meeting last week, and were excited about our future building potential, or probably even if you weren’t (either of those things), I don’t have to tell you that buildings are important.   Our current building, for example, makes us a bit of a local landmark here in Rosslyn, the church over the gas station.  Of course, it also means plenty of people in the neighborhood who know the gas station don’t actually know there’s a church on top of it, or how to get in even if they know it’s there.   Buildings are in many cases the first impression we have to offer someone who might be interested in what’s inside.  They also say something about what those who design them value.  How big do we make our worship space compared to our fellowship space?  Do the seats face forward or are they more in the round, and what does that say about our worship?  They shape the programs and events that take place inside of them, which is why we’re asking questions like could the sanctuary and fellowship hall be on different levels of the church if necessary, and how would that affect whether people are likely to stay and gather over coffee after worship?  And as most of you know, our building here is more than just a space that lies dormant throughout the week and comes alive on Sundays.  Throughout the week the doors are open, welcoming our homeless and hungry neighbors, AA attendees, and people working nearby who stop in to pray, among others.  It’s hard to do all those things if you don’t have a building.

Sometimes, though, I do feel like it’s easy to get caught up in planning a building for the future and not give enough thought to what God is doing and calling us to do right here right now.

Some of us, responding to a challenge issued by our bishop, are reading the whole Bible together this year, and as all of this stuff about buildings was swirling around in my mind around our meeting last Sunday, I was also working my way through 2 Samuel and came to the passage we heard this morning.

In it, David has recently become king after the death of Saul.  Actually, it’s been a couple years and a couple things have happened in the meantime: first, David is anointed king over the territory of Judah, which he comes from, and makes his capital in the city of Hebron; but Saul’s surviving son Ishbaal becomes king over the rest of Israel.  There is a minor skirmish between David’s army and Ishbaal’s army which escalates quickly into an actual war, which ends in Ishbaal’s assassination by some of his own officers.  After that, all the tribes of Israel come to David and ask him to be their king, and he chooses Jerusalem as his new capital, which is strategic because it’s on the border between the northern and southern tribes and hasn’t belonged to any one of them before.  He does have to go to war against the Jebusites who live there first.  The king of Tyre recognizes the Davidic administration by sending him cedar wood for a new palace, and David has the covenant chest, which is traditionally seen as God’s footstool, the place where God lives, brought to Jerusalem along with the tent of meeting that has surrounded it since the days of wandering in the Sinai wilderness.

So as we meet up with David today, both he and God are finally settled in the new capital city.

But now that David is securely in his new palace and not at war with anyone for the time being, he looks around and begins to realize that something doesn’t feel quite right about all of this.  He is in this shiny, impressive-looking new house – and God is still living in a tent.

David is a guy whose humility has been consistently stressed throughout the books of Samuel, so he’s not going to just accept that – instead he says, “I’m going to build God a house.”

Of course, it might not have all been about humility.  Ancient Near Eastern kings did tend to build temples as a way to show the rest of the nation and the surrounding nations that their rule had divine legitimacy.  I guess you can decide whether you think David’s motives were selfless, selfish, or a mix of both like most of our intentions usually are.

Either way Nathan, the court prophet, says, “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

It’s not clear if Nathan spoke hastily or if something changed, but God shows up to Nathan that night with a message for him to pass on to David.

“What’s this about a house?” God says.  “I’ve never lived in a house.  Never in the last 400 or so years since my tent was constructed have I ever asked anyone to build me a house.  I don’t even like houses.  They’re very confining, don’t you think?”

By the end of this message, though, God seems to come around.  “OK,” God says, “I’ll live in a house, but your son will be the one to build it.”

Buildings are important, after all.  There is a lot that a temple can do and represent that a tent just can’t.  It can honor God in a new way through its architecture.  It can communicate the reverence with which God’s people hold God’s covenant chest, along with their reverence for God.  It can be something lasting, showing the chosenness of a particular place, which God’s people will make pilgrimages to and psalms will be written about.  Buildings are important, so God will concede that there will be a new one, in the future, that David’s son Solomon will build.

But meanwhile, God says to David, “I’m going to build you a house.”

David meant a temple, as we know; God means a dynasty, one that God promises will be forever – but it’s the same word in Hebrew, bayit, repeated multiple times throughout this passage.  David thinks he’s going to build God a house?  Think again.  God is going to build a house for David.  God will make David’s name great, and God will make the people of Israel secure in their land, and there will be rest from their enemies.  God is at work through David, providing leadership, strength, peace, and hope for all of God’s people.

In other words, buildings are important – but what’s more important than this future building is everything God is doing in the meantime, and will continue to do, building or no building.

Over the next 10-15 years I am sure I, or someone, will have the occasion to say this many times, but after last week’s meeting as well as several months of church leadership meetings focusing on our future building, I thought it would be worth coming back to what God is doing here and calling us to do here that goes beyond the brick and mortar side of things.

So I thought I would ask this and solicit your response [either now, spoken, or via index card]:

What if we didn’t have a building?

Some churches don’t, by the way, these days.  I guess I shouldn’t say “these days,” since the first churches met in people’s houses, not separate church buildings.  But it does seem like many churches are starting to feel like God did at first – that having a house might confine them rather than strengthen them.  I continue to believe that a building is important.  Those churches without buildings still need places to gather, and some of them use our space.  I continue to believe that sacred space is an important thing, especially in the midst of this busy corporate environment here in Rosslyn. But a building isn’t what makes us a church.

What would make us church – a community of God’s people, in whom and through whom God is at work – if we didn’t have a building?

I’m not looking for a very theological answer here.  I’m sure one of you will say “Jesus,” and you are correct.  It’s the Holy Spirit that makes us the Body of Christ together, and if we don’t have that, no structure we meet in really matters at all.  But I want to be practical about it.  What would make us the Body of Christ together if we didn’t have this physical space?  How is God at work here in ways that don’t depend on a building?

How would people in our neighborhood know what God is up to here in Rosslyn if we weren’t the church over the gas station, but a church without a building?

Here’s maybe another way of looking at things: what if our building was destroyed somehow, and the congregation dispersed, but some of us came together to build – if not a church, immediately – a community, from the ground up, what would that community look like?

These are, actually, the questions the people of Israel had to ask themselves when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians around 400 years after Solomon had it built.  What made them God’s people, with a distinct identity, if they didn’t have their land and they didn’t have their Temple?  How did they worship God then?  How did they live out their relationship with God then?

We presumably have a long time before we are actually in that situation, while stuff is being torn down and constructed here, and that’s not really what I’m thinking about.  I do wonder – and this is far from specific to this congregation – if we as Christians, especially mainline Christians, sometimes get lazy and try to let our building do our work for us.

We let our building do our evangelism: its very presence here represents God’s presence in the midst of workaday Rosslyn.

We let our building do our outreach to the community: its open doors provide a place where hungry people can be fed and addicts can find a path to recovery.

We let our building, even, do our worship, which we know will go on whether we are here or not.

We have a building and we might someday have a new one, but what makes us church?

Again, I love the things that our building makes possible, and I’m certainly not using this question rhetorically to suggest that we don’t have anything without it.  I know we do – I just want it to be back at the forefront of our minds, and I also want to hear it from you.

If we fast-forward another 600-ish years from the destruction of the Temple, we come across a couple of New Testament images about what it means to be the church.  By this point, the promise of God that a descendant of David’s will be on the throne forever, though it took a long hiatus, has been fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus, who is part of David’s line.  The Temple has also been rebuilt, and either destroyed again by the Romans, or will soon be.

Ephesians describes the church as God’s “household, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord” (2:20-21).

This church may be called Arlington Temple, but the building isn’t the Temple, we are.

1 Peter speaks of God’s people as “being built like living stones into a spiritual temple.”  We are the bricks that build a church, with Jesus as the cornerstone and the Holy Spirit as the mortar that holds us together.

A physical building is important, but not as important as the spiritual building that we build in worship and fellowship and ministry together.  That’s a house that God can live in.  That’s the house God wants to build for us.

And that’s the question I want us to keep coming back to, no matter what our zoning requirements are or architectural drawings we have drawn or proposals we submit to the county – what does our real Temple look like?

Ears to Hear, Eyes to See

 

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-13

 

As you know from the past few weeks, I’ve been taking requests – Bible passages or topics or questions that you’d like to hear me preach about.  This was one of the requests I got:

I would like to hear a sermon on Isaiah 6, particularly verses 9-13. [That’s the part that goes “Make the minds of this people dull; make their ears deaf and their eyes blind….] This is one of those passages where I want to know why God would ask for hearts to be made calloused, ears dull, etc.

Like last week when we talked about the existence of evil, there’s a lot to struggle with here, and like last week, I don’t promise that you’ll be going home with a definitive answer.  But I do, as always, really believe in struggling with the hard questions the Bible poses openly and publicly and together.  I tend to think God would want it that way.

If you’ve been a churchy kind of person for long, there is a good chance you know Isaiah chapter 6.  It’s one of the famous call stories of the Bible, in which Isaiah is commissioned to do the prophetic work that God has for him, as well as the inspiration for several well-known hymns (we’ll sing one of them a little later.)  In it Isaiah has a vision of God in the Temple.  He looks up to see the hem of God’s robe filling the Temple, while the winged creatures the Bible calls seraphim flying around God, and as these creatures call to each other the sound of their voices makes the doors shake and the room is filled with the smoke.

“Holy, holy, holy,” they sing, and Isaiah is overcome, with the greatness and holiness of the God who is before him and his own sinfulness, smallness, nothingness in comparison.

If you’ve ever been overcome with a sense of God’s holiness, you may know that it’s not a fundamentally peaceful experience. Instead, it’s too much, it’s unsettling, it’s scary; for Isaiah, it seems to be even anguish-inducing, as he cries out “Woe is me!” He knows that he is not worthy to be in God’s presence.   But a seraph takes a pair of tongs, and takes a burning coal from the altar where sacrifices are made, and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, purifying him.

Once Isaiah’s lips have been purified, God speaks, and God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And Isaiah responds, with his famous words, “Here I am.  Send me.”

As much as we love and identify with Moses for his reluctance to accept God’s commission, we love Isaiah for his enthusiasm.  Here I am.  Send me.

This is where the Sunday School version of Isaiah’s call story generally ends.

But the passage goes on.

Here’s a good life lesson for you: never volunteer for something when you don’t know what it is.  I used to teach that lesson when I substitute taught in elementary school classes a lot.  Apparently, though, Isaiah did not learn that lesson.  He’s just volunteered himself for God’s service, and he has absolutely no idea what his assignment is going to be.

“Go,” says God, “and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend.  Make the minds of this people dull.  Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so that they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn and be healed.”

Ah.  Maybe that wasn’t quite what Isaiah had in mind.

Because that’s not really how prophetic commissions are supposed to go, is it?  God is supposed to send prophets to God’s people to get them to repent, not to…get them to not repent.

Do you remember the story of Jonah?  In it God sends Jonah, the most reluctant of all the prophets (and that is saying something) to the people of Nineveh to tell them to repent.  Jonah runs in the exact opposite direction because he doesn’t want those people to repent; they’re his enemies and he would rather see them burn than be redeemed.  But God is pretty insistent, even putting marine wildlife to use in hunting Jonah down and making sure Jonah goes and shares this message with the people he is supposed to share it with.

I read Isaiah and I think, where is that God?  I like that God.

Do you remember the story of how when the Israelite slaves were on the cusp of escaping from their captors in Egypt, and Pharaoh was considering letting them go, but then God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he didn’t and God could get in a few more plagues?

That’s the God we seem to meet again here in Isaiah 6, and to be honest I am less sure about that God.

Who is this God who wants to make it harder for people to repent and be saved?

I do want to back up here a little for a little history lesson.  If you were hear for the series we did on The Life of a Prophet back in the summer, and if you were paying attention, you might remember some of this.  This part of Isaiah takes place, we are told, in the year King Uzziah dies.  That’s somewhere right around 740 BCE, when the Assyrian Empire is gaining power in the Ancient Near East under its ruler, King Tiglath-Pileser.  The Assyrian army is on its way east, and it’s pretty clear that this is going to mean bad news in some form for God’s people, both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.  When Israel is destroyed, the prophets will blame this on the people’s lack of faithfulness to God.  They have failed to execute justice and righteousness; they have ignored and even exploited the poor and needy in their midst; they have given into the temptation of worshiping other gods.

This impending danger is the context in which God gives Isaiah this message.

That doesn’t really do much to answer the question, though, of what we do with that.  Even if God’s people are doing the wrong thing – even if they are exploiting the poor – even if they are ignoring the needy – even if they bow down to an idol every once in a while – doesn’t God want them to repent?  Doesn’t God want them back?  Doesn’t God always take us back?

Because the reason the message is so discomforting is because it’s not just about the people of Israel and Judah in the year 740 BCE, right?  It’s about us, and whether God wants our broken selves back, and whether God is going to make it easy for us, or hard.  And, perhaps, it’s about who that God is, and whether or not we feel compelled to return to God at all.

If you like to read the Bible from a historical point of view, maybe you will like this way of looking at things: that this passage of Isaiah, written long after the death of King Uzziah and the entrance of Tiglath-Pileser and the Assyrian exile, is a way to justify the fact that Isaiah’s prophetic message did not, in fact, cause the people to repent of their wicked ways and return to God.  They, instead, went on their merry way oppressing the poor and praying to whatever God seemed useful to them that day, and Tiglath-Pileser eventually blasted onto the scene and destroyed the kingdom of Israel.  So if the message God had given Isaiah was to tell the people to repent, we’d be contending with the fact that Isaiah failed.

That’s helpful in one sense, but for those of us who read this story as part of our sacred narrative, it’s really not enough.

We could call the words that God gives Isaiah a strongly-worded warning.  Maybe, paradoxically, it’s only telling people that it’s too late that will give them the wake-up call they need to straighten up.  In that case, we might say, God doesn’t really mean it.  It’s a rhetorical device.

Or, I think, we could accept that the judgment God tells Isaiah to lower onto his people is really a judgment they have already lowered onto themselves.

“Make the minds of this people dull,” God tells Isaiah.  But they already are.  They haven’t been engaging in discernment and truly seeking God’s will for their lives and community for a long time already.

“Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind,” God says, but they already are.  It’s been a long time since they truly opened their eyes to the presence of God in their midst.  If they had, they might have seen God among them in the orphans and the widows they passed by.  And it’s been a long time since they really listened for the voice of God telling them what it meant to live a life of righteousness and justice.   If they had, they might have heard it and responded and not gone off to look for other gods who didn’t demand as much, gods who they thought could do something for them.

If you think about it, we only ever hear of God hardening the hearts of those whose hearts were already rather hardened.

I sometimes think of this time one summer when I was at my aunt and uncle’s lake house as a kid, riding my bike down the street, and for some reason that day I thought it would be fun to try riding with my eyes closed.  I opened them what was probably a few seconds later with my face about six inches from a mailbox.  Sometimes, when we’re headed in one direction for long enough, it’s just really hard to turn around.

Really, it would be better not to wait that long.  Because maybe at this point, even if God’s people began to look and listen, they wouldn’t have any idea anymore what they were looking and listening for.

I don’t know, though.  Isaiah’s message does seem to say that if the people turned it around they would be healed, and that’s what it’s Isaiah’s job to prevent.  And again, I don’t have a good answer for that, except to maybe say that sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.  Maybe God’s people have to hit rock bottom before they can realize their total and ultimate dependence on God and start living in response.

The easy example here is the addict who has to lose his job and family and wake up in jail before recovery and healing can begin.  In some cases, nothing short of that is enough.

But I also doubt that for most of the people Isaiah would be speaking to the situation seemed quite so dire.  Those people were, like many of us, going about their lives generally trying to do their best, keeping it together on the outside, at least, not heading down any discernible path from which there was no return.

But imagine this: you live a life where it is uncomfortable to be confronted with the need of people around you.  So, slowly, you find ways not to see.  You change the channel when it’s too much.  You take another route to work to avoid that one person who is at the same intersection every day.  You avoid eye contact with the ones you do pass.  You do this every day, until you live in a world with people you simply don’t see, much less care about their stories or their futures.

Or imagine this: you attain some degree of worldly success.  And it feels good, for others to congratulate you and look up to you, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But then you start arranging your life so that that’s always the goal.  Eventually it doesn’t really matter what you’re giving up; you’re following the path that the world thinks is good, and not necessarily the one God does.

Those are also paths that it may be hard to come back from, especially if we don’t even realize they are leading us away from God.  But we may also ask what they are leading toward.

And so what I take from this passage is not that all is lost – but that the time to open my eyes and my ears and my mind and begin to be healed is now.

This may be a disturbing passage in the Bible, but it’s also only one.  I’d say that the whole narrative arc tells a different story – one where God gives God’s people almost infinite chances.  One where each time God leaves God’s people alone to face the consequences of their own actions, God hears their cries of anguish and relents.  One where God keeps sending prophets with messages of judgment, yes, but also grace and hope on the other side.  One where God finally takes the decisive action of becoming one of us, taking all of our brokenness on himself, of finally bridging that divide between God and humans that could never quite be closed before.

Even here at the end of Isaiah 6, as God is describing the utter destruction of the land, God says the people, if they were once like a mighty oak, would be no more than a stump.  But then, it goes, “Its stump is a holy seed.”

All is not lost.  With our God, all is never lost.

But may our eyes be open, now.  May our ears be attentive, now.  May our hearts be softened, now.  Let’s recommit to be God’s people again – before we’ve forgotten how.

 

Is the Devil Winning?

Scripture: John 9:1-7 (plus others below)

A few weeks ago, before Easter, I asked you all for help with some of my post-Easter worship planning.  I asked you what you’d like to hear a sermon on, whether that was a favorite passage, a question you had, a certain topic, or just an attempt to stump me.  Here is one email I got in response to that:

Hi Rev Allie, it said,

Here’s an idea:  “Is the Devil Winning?”

Of course our doctrine says he cannot, but when you look around the world and see evil everywhere–chemical weapon attacks in Syria, mass starvation in South Sudan, terrorism anywhere and unspeakable crimes near to home–it is not an empty question.  If God is all-powerful, why does He allow evil to flourish?

It’s an age-old question, so familiar as to maybe seem cliché, and yet I’ve been reminded in conversation in the past couple weeks how much of a sticking point it still is for many of us in our faith, and how much it has at times been a breaking point for others.

So by the end of this service, my hope is that you will go home with a solid, definitive answer to this question.

No, seriously, obviously nothing I say in 20 minutes here today is going to definitively answer the question of why a good and all-powerful God allows evil.  My best hope is that you leave here today with maybe one new way to think about things.  You may leave here more confused than ever, and that’s OK, too.  I think confusion can be holy, sometimes. I kind of like to think that God looks at us askance if we are too confident in our answers to any question like this.

I did actually preach on this topic once before here; it was about three years ago.  When I got the email, I figured it was a question worth revisiting.  I also thought I would do so in a slightly different way – that we would look at a few different ways Scripture itself responds to this age-old, very existential question.  And I thought we’d do so with a little conversation.  So as you hear each passage being read, I want you to think about what it says about God, evil, and whether the devil is winning.

Just to get things going – what are some of the things that make it look like the devil is winning?  The email I read you listed a few.  What are some other examples of evil and suffering that might evoke the question of how God can allow these things?

With that, let’s go to our first reading.

 

Genesis 3:1-6

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

What do you hear in this that gives some insight into why God allows evil to exist?

This is what we might call the classic free will response – God gives us the choice to do the things God wants us to do or not do the things God wants us to do.  Evil, we could say, exists because God lets us choose, and sometimes bad people choose to do bad things, following the devil’s lead instead of God’s.

But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?  All of us sometimes give into temptation.  All of us somethings make the choice that God wouldn’t want us to make.  We would readily, at least in theory, acknowledge these choices as sinful: things like laughing at a racist joke.  Cheating on your spouse.  Ignoring someone in need.  That’s hardly the kind of evil that is the subject of existential questions, like terrorism, or genocide.

Where’s the line?

I’m not someone who thinks all sin is equal, as if God is just as mad about someone doing work on the Sabbath as God is about someone bombing and gassing his own people.  I’m also not exactly sure where the line is.  Is it evil when Assad bombs Syrian people but not when we bomb Syrian people?  Is it evil when we look the other way and let it happen?  Do people who do evil things perhaps actually think they are the right things?

Because when we talk about evil, we are always talking about what other people do, right?

If so, if we can readily separate good people from evil people, then we might ask the question of even if God sees fit to let us choose, for better or for worse why doesn’t God at least send down some lightning bolts on the people who choose badly and spare the rest of us?

But then who among us would that leave?

Now, that might still not address the question of so called “natural evil” – things like disease, or earthquakes that kill millions of people.  I’ll get to this a little in our next passage, but for now I’ll simply say that it might sometimes be that humans are more involved in the creation of natural evil than we think.  We may contribute to environmental problems that end in disaster, for example.  Or, as one blogger pointed out – the earthquake a few years back wasn’t so much stronger than other earthquakes; but the poverty in Haiti is so great that the effects were felt so much more.  Not all instances of “natural evil” can be blamed on human contribution like this, but, it’s something to think about.

So, what then?  Is God up in heaven, just passively watching all of this happen?  That brings us to our next passage…

 

Romans 8:28-32

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

What do you hear in this Scripture that responds to the question?

I want to put this together with the passage from John we heard at the beginning as two responses that take us in a similar direction, though they are not quite the same.  Both, along with many other passages, claim that there is in times of suffering some good that we can’t see yet.

In John, Jesus tells the disciples that the man was born blind so that “God might be glorified through him.”  We see suffering (and we can definitely debate about whether blindness is suffering, but the disciples at least thought it must be a punishment for something) but God has a higher purpose, one that will hopefully become clear in time.  This is echoed by Paul in Romans when he says, despite any present suffering, “All things work together for good for those who love God.”

We might come back to the question of “natural evil” here, because one thing we could say in response is that God created our world with a certain order that God called good, even if it doesn’t always seem good to us.  Natural phenomena such as earthquakes and typhoons may be part of our earth working as it’s supposed to, even if they sometimes leave suffering in their wake.  (Others might say that they are part of all of creation’s fallenness and need for redemption, instead.)

Either way, here’s the thing: I do not recommend applying this idea, that what we see as evil is really somehow good, to anyone but yourself.  I think most of us can look back to a time when we suffered and some good came out of it (though we may also be able to think of times that make us say, “OK, the good has definitely not been revealed yet.”)  Please don’t look at a picture of a Syrian mother weeping over her child who died as they were trying to escape the bombs and say that God has a higher purpose for that.  I don’t happen to like what that would say about God, but even if it does turn out to be true in some cosmic sense, it’s just kind of poor form, especially spoken from a place of privilege.

What I do find more helpful is the idea that God can work even in the midst of bad, even evil things to bring good out of them.  That’s how I read the passage from Romans: not that God has a plan that specifically included this thing, but that God is ready to work with what we hand God. Mr. Rogers used to tell children when bad and scary things happened to “look for the helpers.”  I think of people like doctors who are risking their lives to go into Syria and help, or people in other places who are pulling refugee boats to shore and welcoming people in need to live among them (a lot more than we are.) God may let us choose to descend into chaos, but God also doesn’t leave us there.  God is winning, but God can be a lot more subtle than the devil can.

I’m also not sure that if I were that Syrian mother, this answer would be enough for me.  Would any good that God managed to pull out of me losing my child be enough?  So that brings us to our next passage…

 

Job 38:1-11, 40:1-5

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Then Job answered the Lord: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”

 

If you recall, the book of Job tells the story of a righteous, upstanding man who loses everything, and gets covered in boils to boot.  It is the part of the Bible that most directly addresses the question of unjust suffering.  Job spends most of the book complaining to God, saying he wants a lawyer, etc, until God finally appears to him in a whirlwind and says the words we just heard.  So what do you hear in this as an answer?

You could put this in the category of “God has a higher purpose that we don’t know,” but God doesn’t exactly say that here, either.  Basically, the answer seems to be that there is no answer.

If I’m stuck in Syria, that might not be a very satisfying answer, but on the other hand, it feels honest.  Why does God allow this kind of suffering?  In the end, there’s not much we can say to that.  Is the devil winning?  Well, we still want to say no – but perhaps our justifications pale in light of what is going on in the world.

Maybe one way we can respond to evil and suffering in the world is to learn the biblical art of lament.  You can find a lot of lament in the Psalms.  They ask, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  They ask, “How long, O Lord?”  They ask, “How long will your anger burn like fire” (79)?  They say, “Get up, God!”  “Wake up, God!”  Notice this evil and injustice all around you!

It is part of our sacred tradition to not have an answer, and to cry and yell and complain to God when things aren’t as they should be.  Sometimes I think we get so caught up in defending God and making sure things work out just right theologically that we forget that.  But when suffering really comes, I think it’s only this that is enough.

The Psalms of lament, however, do usually end with an expression of trust in God.  And that brings us to the final reading…

Mark 16:1-7

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

 

This reading might sound familiar to you.  What do you hear in here that speaks to why a good God would allow evil, or whether the devil is winning?

Here’s the thing: this is the story of Easter Sunday, when God wins.  But two days earlier, right in the previous chapter of the Gospel, it really, really looked like that wasn’t the case.  When Jesus was executed, it really, really looked like the devil had won.  Anyone would have said that.

They would have been wrong.

Jesus himself, I think, doesn’t answer the question, but he reframes the question.  What is God’s ultimate response to sin and evil and brokenness in the world?  God doesn’t send down lightning bolts; instead God comes into the world to bear that sin and evil.  To take it on.  To literally know our pain and suffer with us.

And then to show us that isn’t the end of the story.

Christians didn’t stop suffering and contending with evil after the resurrection – but they did know because of their faith in the risen Christ that evil could not ultimately win.

Is the devil winning?  Maybe.  Is he ultimately going to win? No.

And again, maybe it doesn’t quite answer the question.  But so much of being a Christian is having hope in what we can’t yet see.  Hope that there is more than just this suffering.  Hope that there is good, if not in it, on the other side of it.  Hope that the resurrection is real not just for Jesus but for us and for all people and all creation.

I’d venture to say that that’s actually kind of the point of our faith.  We look around us and we at times may see no evidence that God is winning.  But we believe God is, and we live as if God is.

And that’s key: to live as if God is.  Because then, I think, in small ways, other people will begin to see it too.  And what is held in faith becomes a reality, little by little, by the power of God.

Is the devil winning?  I don’t know.  But I believe that God is good.  I believe that God is working for good.  And I believe God wants me to choose good.  And I will stake my life on that.