Psalm 118: “A King to Follow”

Psalm 118 begins with a call for the community of faithful to worship.  “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love endures forever!”  The worship of the community is grounded in the covenantal, everlasting, ever-enduring love that God has demonstrated to God’s people time and again.

From the formation of Creation, to the promise and covenant with Abraham, to the deliverance from Egyptian bondage, to the renewed call given to the freed slaves, God has tangibly demonstrated love by taking the “least of these” and weaving them into the fabric of God’s redemptive purposes for the whole Cosmos.  Worship begins in the recognition that God first loved us.

“His steadfast love endures forever” is repeated four times by the various persons gathered together in adoration of the Lord.  “The different groups of those who take part in the offering of thanksgiving are called upon in turn to join in singing the refrain attached to the testimony: first of all ‘Israel’, the people of the Covenant, then ‘the house of Aaron’, that is, the priesthood, and finally ‘those who fear God’, that is the proselytes of non-Israelite origin… By their testimony they set themselves without distinction under the everlasting grace of God of which they have once more been able to gain assurance in the celebration of the festival” (Artur Weiss, 725).

This love they proclaim is so profuse, so abounding, so overflowing that it cannot be mentioned only once.  It must be recounted… again and again and again.  God’s love poured out upon God’s people reminds us of Psalm 23’s remembrance of God’s blessing: “My cup overflows.”

As the old hymn’s poetry aptly captures:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky (“The Love of God”).

Even after all of these centuries of life as the Church, we still have not exhausted our communication, reflection, remembering, and embodying the love of God which has changed us and our world.  We still find ever new ways to give voice to the affirmation that “His steadfast love endures forever.”

This statement is the greatest theological ground upon which we wrestle.  We may disagree about the various nuances of what God’s love means.  But, this theme has been the central theological truth that God’s people have continued to reflect upon, to sing about, and to conform their lives around.  “His steadfast love endures forever.”

The Psalm shifts in perspective, recounting a king’s march into battle.  The nations have rallied against him and his city.  The foes are many and vicious.  Bloodthirsty and vengeful.  The enemies surround him on all sides.  The night is falling, the light is fading.  To any onlooker, all hope appears lost.  The enemies swarm like bees that have had their nest disturbed.  Like a torrent of fire, swept along by the wind in the brambles, the enemy threatens destruction.

The imagery brings to mind a scene from the book, Lord of the Rings.  King Theoden is trapped in his mountain fortress with his people, where they have been forced to flee for refuge.  The hordes of evil minions stand outside their gates, crashing against the gates and walls like a surging ocean tide.  King Theoden looks upon the scene, despondent.  “What can man do against such wreckless hate?” he questions.  I can imagine the king in the Psalm understands these kinds of odds stacked against him.

Yet, the king does not fear what any mortal can do to him.  Fear, which would surely be the most natural response to being surrounded by impending doom, is not his response.  Ironically, and against the evidence, the king voices hope.  The king holds on to trust.

It is noteworthy that the king does not place his hope and trust in mortals or princes.  Hope is not directed at his own power, or the power of his army, or the power of a political alliance.  In fact, the king does not arrange his vision on anything in the Creation with which to combat the enemy.  Instead, he proclaims that it is better to take “refuge in the Lord” than to misplace one’s trust in nations, political parties, military might, financial systems, or anything else that might take the place of God – in one word, idol worship.

Artur Weiser writes, “Genuine faith can grow only where man has completely ceased to trust in men and hanker after earthly power and temporal means of power, only where every human support has broken down and trust in God has become the only living force.  This is the spiritual atmosphere in which the courage and the clarity of such an attitude of faith can be gained and preserved” (The Psalms, The Old Testament Library, p. 726).

Despite the king’s affirmation of trust, he teeters on the edge of oblivion.  Destruction looms near, even after proclaiming his hope in God, the king seems precariously and dangerously close to failure.  The Psalm says that the king was “pushed hard, so that he was falling.”  The king even admits that the nations rising against him has been the means by which God is punishing him.

It is this recognition of his own sin and brokenness before God that the king is also able to see God’s salvation open up to him.  “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.  This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.  I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.”  The king’s repentance, by God’s gracious act, has restored to him righteousness by which he (and the community) may enter into the presence of God, may pass through the “gate of the Lord.”

The king further acknowledges that it is all God’s doing.  God is his “strength and might.”  It is God who works salvation.  The king’s deliverance spills out and over into the “tents of the righteous.”  It is personal deliverance for the king, yes.  But, it is also deliverance for the community of the faithful.  Much like Moses had experienced God’s salvation in the desert, the same salvation becomes the experience of Israel being brought out of Pharaoh’s land and into a new place of promise.  The faithful know the power of God because they have experienced God’s deliverance first hand.

The king promises to recount the deeds that God has done in and for them.  “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  The king calls for others of the faith community to join him in telling the story.  As they remember God’s saving deeds, they are re-membered, put back together as God’s covenantal people.  They shout, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes!”

The worship even recalls the king’s diminished state.  He was “the stone the builders rejected.”  He was disdained and with no honor.  The king was a “stone” unworthy to hold the building together.  The king was a “stone” that was better tossed in a ditch than used for a more glorious purpose.  And, yet, what the world would discard, God uses to build upon as the cornerstone – the chief cornerstone.  That which seemed worthy to be thrown in a rubble heap would be the very means by which God will rebuild God’s people.

The gathered faithful sing: “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  We bless you from the house of the Lord.  The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.”  The king, the one that the world rejected and scorned, is now called the “blessed one of the Lord.”  Celebration ensues and breaks out because if God can take a broken king and restore him to blessing, then it surely can happen for the community, too!  If God can take the rejected stone and restore it to a place of honor, then it is possible that God’s people will also be restored.

Psalm 118 hangs thick over the air during the Jewish Passover week.  It is suggested by most scholars that this Psalm would have been sung during the week of the Passover.  The king, the lineage of David, they prayed, would be restored.  There was no king of Davidic lineage now.  Psalm 118 points to a messiah, the blessed one, who would come and restore the future of God’s people.  Psalm 118 is the community’s prayer that reaches back to the Egypt exodus and hopes for God’s deliverance in a similar fashion now.  No more Egypt, no more Babylon, no more Rome.

Rumors and stories and hopes swirl around Jesus.  He is a man of many talents.  One who teaches with authority, not like their scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus heals the sick, restores people back to life from the dead, gives sight to the blind, binds up the  broken hearted, forgives sins, calms storms, changes water into wine, and enacts justice and hope for the needy in society.  Surely this is the messiah, the one sung about in the Psalms.  Surely this is the anointed one of God come to restore the fortunes of Israel.

The festival of Passover week is nearing upon them.  Jerusalem is packed with those observing this holy week, preparing for the most holy time of the Jewish calendar – a time for remembering the deliverance of God’s people from Pharaoh.  Whispers reach the corners, vendors, and street urchins.  Jesus is riding into town.  This can only mean one thing… deliverance!

Caesar’s armies would march into the city on occasion to display their military might and remind the people, by sheer force of numbers, who was in charge.  Caesar is king.  Any opposed to him will meet untimely deaths.  The Maccabean family had once overthrown Rome, but those days were long gone.  Now, moving Rome out would be like trying to remove a full-grown oak tree by hand – impossible and futile.  The parade of military might would stream through the city to serve as a visible reminder to all of Jerusalem that they may worship Yahweh, but they served Rome.

Jesus enters the city atop a donkey.  The crowds begin to swell around him.  One cannot miss the counter to Caesar’s power that Jesus is enacting.  Those gathered along the street corners grab their coats and palm branches, laying them on the ground before Jesus.  It is a red carpet for royalty, of sorts.  The people yell and shout with glee, waving their giant, foam fingers that sport the words: “Jesus is #1.”  They can almost taste the freedom that will come from the ensuing revolt.  Perhaps Jesus will march straight into Pilate’s home and kick him out right now.  Tears stream from faces, happiness bursts into dancing and song.

They sing together:

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!

Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

They are ready, anticipating the inauguration of their king, the branch of David.  Finally, God’s salvation has come into their midst.

Jesus has in mind deliverance as well, but not what the people imagine.  The parade does not go to Pilate’s palace, nor does it turn to overthrow Herod’s household to enthrone Jesus as the proper king.  Rather, like Psalm 118, the palm branches lead Jesus to stand before the altar in the Temple.  Jesus begins the work of deliverance and the reign of his kingdom by cleansing the Temple, overturning money-changer tables and scattering worshipers with corded whips.

His words ring with condemnation: “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations’; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Lk. 19:46; Mk 11:17; Mt. 21:13).  In other words, Israel has failed to live out its call to be the means by which God will make God’s Self known to all the nations.  It has faltered in demonstrating God’s way of living in the world so that the world might know God.

Artur Weiser comments about the scene of palms around the altar in the Temple: “The phrase ‘Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar’ probably means that as the festal bouquets and branches of palms or willows touch each other, as well as the horns of the altar, its quality of holiness will be imparted to the dancers; other commentators translate ‘ropes’ instead of ‘branches’ and see in this the widespread custom of using ropes to mark the congregation off as a holy people, thus separating them from what was regarded as profane” (The Psalms, The Old Testament Library, p. 729).

Jesus triumphal entry, which brings him into the sanctuary, is a call to holiness for God’s people.  They are to be set apart for God’s purposes.  This means not merely being set apart from the world, but set apart for the sake of the world.  Jesus’ kingship calls into question Caesar’s claim to authority, yes.  But, more importantly, it enacts judgment upon God’s people for their willingness to settle for the gods of Roman power and economic security.

Jesus drives out those gathered for worship because they have excluded the poor, the vulnerable, and the nations from gathering to worship Yahweh.  Jesus denounces the kind of worship that understands itself as the exceptional recipients of God’s blessing but refuses to extend that same blessing to others.

What started out as a grand ticker-tape parade ends with questions about what kind of king Jesus is going to be.  The people hope for deliverance, but they didn’t expect judgment.  They rejoice in the messiah who comes to reign as sovereign, but they didn’t think their power would be compromised in the process.  They sing songs of exaltation about God’s rule, but they thought they would be the lone recipients of that kingdom come.  They never dreamed they might be the ones to come under God’s judgment… that they might be left standing outside the gates.

The parade ends with one man in the midst of a sea of enemies, surrounded on all sides like the king of Psalm 118.  Rome and Caesar will not tolerate another claim to kingship.  The Sanhedrin and Jerusalem won’t abide a challenge to their power.  The powers that be surrounded Jesus to silence him, to put out his light.  Yet, Jesus did not despair of life nor place his hope in mortals or princes.  His hope remained in the God whose “steadfast love endures forever” and is able to deliver from death and destruction.

As one of my good friends wrote today, “It was easy for the people of Jerusalem to welcome Jesus, but not so easy for them to follow him.”  The crowds began the day by singing: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel… Look, your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt!”  By Friday, the crowds will scream: “We have no king but Caesar!”

Should the king ride into our midst, we may pick up the palm branches to welcome him.  But, the better question is whether or not we are willing to follow him to the tree on Friday.  We may celebrate the king of glory coming into our world to reign, but are we willing to submit to his authority – even when all of our allegiances are brought under question.  We may sing songs that tell of God’s deliverance, but are we willing to receive God’s judgment and discipline that is meant for our own benefit.  Would we be willing to give up those idols, those powers, those hopes and dreams that vie for our loyalty to Jesus?  Would we follow the king riding in on a donkey?

Idols That Won’t Stand – 1 Samuel 5:1-12

Israel had marched out to war against their foe, Philistia.  The Philistines routed them, killing four thousand troops.  Israel retreated and re-grouped.  What could have gone wrong?  Why were they defeated?  Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s sons and fellow priests, surely gathered the army leaders together to instruct them on warfare.  They had neglected to bring the Ark of the Covenant with them.  That was why they tasted the bitter sting of defeat.  After all, if “God is for us, who can be against us?”

The troops run and grab the Ark.  As it enters the camp, the Israelites are thrown into a Pentecostal frenzy.  Victory is in their grasp now that they have God there.  With God on their side, victory is sure to come.  The hollering is deafening, so much so that it travels to the Philistines’ nearby camp.  Fear grips their hearts because “gods have come into the camp.”  The Philistines recall the stories of Egypt’s destruction by these gods.  The “gods’” might had been displayed against the greatest military might in the known world.  It seemed the writing was on the wall, but it was better to go out and die like men than run like cowards and become slaves to Israel.

They clash on the field of battle.  But for Israel the battle is no closer to victory than it was before.  In fact, many more of their soldiers fall to Philistine blades.  Hophni and Phineas are killed and the Ark is carried off into Exile, into Philistine territory.  The glory has departed…

The Philistines march home, carrying on about their feats of strength and courage.  When faced with the terrible god of Israel, the future looked bleak and grim.  Yet, they had emerged the victors and heroes.  They pat each other on the back and laugh at their good fortune, toting home their trophy of conquest – the Ark.  They had captured the gods of Israel.  The only appropriate way to celebrate was to give offerings to Dagon, the god of grain, and to place YHWH in Dagon’s house as a servant god.  Thus, the Ark came to rest in the presence of Dagon, lord of the Philistines.

The irony of this story is that Israel, due to its disobedience, has forgotten the story of its salvation and rescue from Egypt by YHWH.  It is the Philistines who are able, more or less, to recite the story of Israel’s “gods.”  The theologians, those who speak of God, are not God’s people.  Instead, they are the outsiders to the covenant community.  It’s sad to think that outsiders might know the story better than those whom God has redeemed and saved.  The response of the Philistines is one of fear and respect (even if misguided).  The Israelites have become flippant, assuming, and proud.  Their pride results in their destruction and the glory departing.

Of course, we noticed last week that even the “glory” is misunderstood by Israel.  Ichabod’s mother names him “glory departed” because Eli and his sons have died.  In other words, the reign of greed, lust, and abuse that has lined their pockets and brought them power ended decisively.  That is what Israel understands “glory” to entail, but now it’s gone.

As the market crash of 2008 demonstrated, it is easy to get wrapped up in a society that worships security, power, and money that is so fleeting.  The market crash of 2000 and 2008 were often couched in terms that bemoaned the “glory” departing our systems of governance and commerce.  Gone were the glory days.  It seems Israel is not the only one to misunderstand the nature of glory.

Israel has treated the Ark, and by extension God, as a piece of “spiritual technology,” as Eugene Peterson calls it.  God becomes a tool that we manipulate to get what we desire while tagging God’s “approval” on our agenda.  Israel marches out to war backed by the Ark, but never actually addresses God.

God is reduced from being a Person (Subject) who has called Israel into being and transforms God into an Object that Israel can control: God-in-a-box, like a personal genie.  It is the subtle move of talking with God to talking about God.  When God ceases to be Subject and is made into an Object, we have effectively silenced God.

Well, God may speak, but it tends to be our words in God’s mouth.  In essence, we have made God in our image rather than remembering that we are made in God’s image.  And, as such, a God that we have objectified (made into an idol) cannot make demands upon us; only we can make any such demands.

The Philistines march YHWH into the city of Ashdod and into the Temple of Dagon.  They seem to have little more understanding than Israel, even though they do recall the story of Israel’s Egypt exodus.  YHWH is treated like a trophy displaying Dagon’s power over the gods and his favor upon Philistia.  YHWH becomes another magic talisman or god-in-a-box which will bolster their power and help them maintain the security of the nation.  They have no problem with YHWH being a part of Dagon’s retinue, as long as, YHWH does not take the place of Dagon, the god of grain.

Dagon is the god of economic security.  He is the one, according to the Philistines, that keeps the market economy flourishing, as demonstrated in their military conquest of Israel and other surrounding neighbors.  It is an economy based upon power and competition.  Limited resources can only be stretched so far.  The market demands that those resources be hoarded so the Philistines have plenty.

Of course, the Philistines’ plenty is the absence of basic necessities for their neighbors, but that’s the name of the game.  Dagon is the god of commercial and economic success, achieved through the power of politics and military might, but always at the expense of the neighboring communities.  YHWH is placed next to Dagon, symbolizing the Philistines’ hope that YHWH would bless their enterprise though remaining subservient to Dagon, to the economy.

Although the Philistines seem to be more adept theologians than the Israelites in this story, it is obvious that they still lack clarity.  The story of the Exodus is remembered, but it is also quickly forgotten by the Philistines.

God had dethroned Pharaoh, a proclaimed god, whose economic practice made slaves out of people.  Pharaoh’s insatiable desire for more created an environment of amassing great wealth at the expense of the poor and the weak – in this case, the Hebrews.  Pharaoh did not allow anyone to challenge his system, his kingdom.  Pharaoh represents a system of scarcity that must always build more storehouses for his grain and do so by demanding more “bricks” and more productivity from those who do not enjoy the benefits of their labor.  The Philistines neglect the story of Pharaoh, failing to recognize their own similar practices of oppression, dominance, and extortion.  And, as such, they fail to remember the radical call of YHWH to cease the economics of scarcity that grasp and hoard YHWH’s abundant provision in the Creation for all.

The next morning the Philistines go to worship Dagon but find him face down before the Ark.  Thinking that it was merely a fluke, an accident, the people raise up the idol to its proper standing position.  Notice the god cannot help himself.  The people prop up Dagon, expecting him to stand – this god is too big to fail, after all.

The next morning the people return to the Temple of Dagon.  Again, they find Dagon prostrate before the Ark.  This time, however, Dagon’s head and hands have broken off.  Dagon is dead.  YHWH will not play second fiddle, nor be coerced into blessing that which is counter to God’s character and nature of Holy Love.  Dagon, patron of manipulative economic practices, falls apart before a God of abundant generosity.  Dagon is found to be no god at all, but a visible reminder of a broken system of exploitation that results in death and destruction.

Chaos breaks out in the community of Ashdod.  Their practices of taking advantage of their neighbor now comes back upon their head.  Just as Pharaoh’s attempt at genocide by waters comes crashing down upon him and his army, now, the Philistine’s practices of greedy grasping through any means necessary implodes.  To their credit, they recognize that God is acting against their way of politics and economics – represented by Dagon.  God’s “hand is heavy against them.”

But, instead of ridding themselves of Dagon, they rid themselves of YHWH.  They oust YHWH from their halls and send YHWH on “down the road.”  If YHWH cannot be controlled and part of their way of life, then they don’t need to change but must send God away.  God is too dangerous because God might very well expect us to live differently… there’s just too much to lose by leaving Dagon on the floor.  To leave Dagon on the floor might mean changing the way we treat our neighbors.  It might require that we don’t exact violence against them or compete against them.  It might honestly require that we live on less so that others can share in the bounty of Creation.  But, following Dagon is just so… well, it’s just so comfortable and we can’t forsake “the Dream.”

So, regardless of how patched up Dagon looks, we brush him off, pick him up off the floor, and try to cement him back together as much as possible.  It’s easier to ignore what has happened than to truly consider that we have misplaced our hope.  We like the idea of YHWH being in our house… so long as YHWH doesn’t shake things up too much.  But, as soon as YHWH begins to challenge our allegiances… “That’s it, YHWH, please leave!”

Ashdod and its inhabitants aren’t sure where to send the Ark.  The city of Gath decides to give the Ark a try.  Perhaps Ashdod simply was ignorant and didn’t understand how to properly use YHWH.  After all, you can’t use a hammer like a screwdriver.  YHWH, in the proper hands, could be wielded as “spiritual technology” to champion the nation’s cause.

Try as they might, Gath discovers the same thing that Ashdod did.  YHWH will not be “boxed in.”  Tumors and something like the plague breaks out in Gath.  The people are in panic.  Gath plays “hot potato” with the Ark and sends it to Ekron.  But, Ekron doesn’t want it for long because they have seen the devastating effect of allowing YHWH to come into their midst.  YHWH is far too disruptive of their lives to be welcome there.

The five Philistine lords convene to decide what to do with the Ark.  They conclude that it would be best to “’Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; those who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven” (1 Sam. 5:11-12).

God’s judgment falls upon the nation of Philistia, as it had upon Israel, due to its economic, political, and military practices that preyed upon vulnerable neighbors.  One can recall the story of Gideon threshing grain while hiding out of fear that the Philistines would attack and take what little food they had.  Now, those very systems that live off the backs of those it has enslaved (namely, the poor and those without power) are brought under judgment.  The walls erected by practices of greed and competition buckle, crumbling down.

The Ark is packed up on a cart pulled by two heifers.  The collective sigh of relief by the Philistines can be heard as the Ark disappears over the ridge, headed back to Israel.  YHWH proved too difficult to control and unwilling to bend.  It was too risky for YHWH to remain where YHWH might disrupt life as it was.  The Philistines were relieved when the glory departed.

The glory of God was something that would not be compromised for any nation.  It was a glory that demanded entire allegiance – nothing else was to be in the place of honor that belonged to God.  God would not be used, coerced, or manipulated as a seal of approval for systems and politics that created death and destruction for the weak and needy of those societies.  God’s glory would not bow before the market.  Rather, it was the economic system of grabbing and grasping that finally had to prostrate itself before God.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes: “The good which God does to us can only be experienced as the truth if we share in performing it… we must do the truth in love… not only in order to perceive the truth of the good but, equally, in order to embody it increasingly in the world… This is possible because it is already a reality for God and through God” (Theo-Drama: Prolegomena, 20).

Both Israel and Philistia fail to comprehend the good God is doing because they refuse to live out God’s way of being in the world, which is about life-giving, life-blessing, and life-sustaining.  To live otherwise is to create an environment of death, both for our neighbors and for ourselves.

To hold tightly to our idols is to hold tightly to our own lives.  Jesus cautions that “those that hold onto their lives will lose their life.”  Eli’s empire crumbles under the weight of its own greed (1 Samuel 4).  Now, the Philistine community is rupturing from its oppressive economic practices.  If we believe that we can bring YHWH into our lives without also cleaning house, we will be extremely surprised when YHWH begins to shake things up.  YHWH will not turn a blind eye to the idols that we continuously erect.  We very well might find them smashed, laying on the floor in a rubble heap.  God desires our entire lives, our entire devotion, all of our love.  Holding onto “God and (insert any name)” is idolatry that betrays where our hope really lies.

We can respond as the Philistines, though they know the story of YHWH, and try to prop Dagon back up on his feet.  We can ignore God’s claims as the rightful King that calls for our loyalty and love.  Or, our response might be to sweep Dagon up off the floor and throw him in the trash bin where he belongs.

A young man that was a little troubled attended church one morning.  The community was a little wary of him because you never knew what he was going to do.  The pastor preached a powerful sermon on smashing the community’s idols.  That’s all that idols are good for – smashing them!  The church service ended and everyone went home.

However, the young man took the sermon quite literally.  Idols should be smashed.  He later returned to the church with a sledge hammer and destroyed a statue of an angel sitting in one of the flower beds.  The young man had lived out the sermon.  The pastor had figuratively meant that idols should be smashed, but one could hardly say that the young man had not live out the sermon – even if misunderstood.  It may have appeared wild and crazy to the church-goers, yet the young man had demonstrated in a tangible way what it means for us to smash those idols that we hold dear.

The community of faith has time and time again been tempted to follow the gods of economic prosperity.  We have been tempted to bow the knee at the shrine of personal gain at the expense of our neighbor.  We have even willingly validated violent means for holding on to our economic and political security, sometimes while naming God as the one who goes before us to fight our battles.

Would it be fair to say that like Gath, Ashod and Ekron the divisive, destructive nature of politics in our culture might actually be God’s hand against us?  Might we have mistaken just how much God is on our side when we fail to live out God’s call to be a “blessing to all nations?”  Has the death and destruction, blaming and fighting among us sufficiently demonstrated that God will not be pressed into service for any nation or system?

The Scriptures remind us that there will come a time “when every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and below the earth and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord.”  There will come a time when we will “cry out to heaven” in recognition of the part we have played in living counter to God’s Kingdom.  But, I pray that we will not wait until we are watching the presence of the Lord disappear over the horizon beyond our sight, saying “the glory has departed.”

Lent is a time of repentance, turning away from our broken and sinful ways.  It is a time of recognizing our idolatry, the things that we worship beside God.  And, it is a time of dying to our selfish desires and practices and replacing them with God’s love that overflows as love to our neighbors.  In other words, we pick up our cross and follow Jesus.

We crucify the deeds of the flesh that are death and receive the Spirit of life while we “work out our salvation.”  Lent calls for us to smash our idols and give singular focus to God as the only One worth giving honor, praise, and glory forever.  It is the call to embody God’s holy love, for that is the only way to comprehend God’s good truth.  It’s time to recognize that our idols won’t stand.

“When the Healing Comes” – Mark 1:29-39

The woman’s hands lie motionless next to her body.  The pain is a constant reminder of her aloneness, for it is her only companion.  The skin is peeled, cracked, and bleeding.  Sores lie open, some scabbed while others pucker with pus.  The skin is scaly and ashen, resembling sandpaper under her touch.  The stench of rotted flesh hangs over her like a specter.  It is the smell of death though she still breaths in shallow gasps.

Eyes closed tight to seal out the light, to bar the disease out of sight, she can barely recall the last time somebody was willing to hold her hand, to embrace her with the loving warmth of a hug.  After she was diagnosed, an invisible perimeter seemed to set itself around her separating her from friends and family.  Nobody dared venture too close for fear of contracting her disease.  The throb of loneliness nearly drowns out the pain of the sores.  Her hands sit empty, aching for another’s touch.

Would you grab that hand, risk contact?  Such a question might cause us to shudder in hesitation, fear, and caution.  We see her agony and anguish and possibly can’t imagine putting ourselves in her place.  Why would we put ourselves, our loved ones at risk by holding her hand?  If the world has taught us anything, it’s to take care of ourselves, measure the risk, and act accordingly.

We’re good at that – risk management.  We buy insurance for this purpose.  In the event that something unforeseen might happen, we should have our bases covered.  We buy house, car, medical, and life insurance to make sure that there is minimal, if any, risk that we might have to endure.  We insulate ourselves from risking too much for fear of losing anything, possibly everything.  The question remains: “Why would we risk reaching out and taking this woman’s hand?”

READ Mark 1:29-39

The Temple was a place of purity, of cleanliness.  To be part of the community, to be granted entrance into the Temple, a person had to be clean.  To be defiled or made unclean carried with it serious repercussions – even possible banishment from that community.  Being part of the life of the community required that holy people avoid the possibility of being polluted or tainted.

As an extension of the Temple, synagogues were no less stringent in their call for purity.  It was important to be set apart and to remain clean, but there was always the threat, the risk of becoming unclean.  Dead bodies, diseases, improper relationships, violating dietary laws, wearing clothes made of the wrong kind of material.  The list was endless.  The world is full of things and people that desecrate the sacred and tarnish the holy.  Holy people avoid those places and people that might contaminate.

There were a lot of things to consider, but rabbis and priests were cautious to avoid coming into contact with the unholy and impure.  In fact, if they happened upon a man mugged on the road, they might even cross over to the other side to avoid any possibility of contact with a dead person or, at the very least, a bleeding person.

Jesus, a rabbi, walks from the synagogue, a holy place, to the home of Peter’s mother-in-law.  The door swings wide to allow the group entrance – James, John, Peter, Andrew, and Jesus.  Others are in the room, lines of worry crease their faces.  One of them notices the rabbi that enters and immediately steps toward to him.  “Rabbi, Peter’s mother-in-law is deathly ill.  Her fever hasn’t broke and I’m afraid she may not have much longer.  I wouldn’t come in, if I were you.  You don’t want to become ceremonially unclean.”  We don’t know if that was the conversation starter, but I can imagine the conversation going in that direction.

Perhaps other voices join in, granting Jesus permission to leave, begging him to leave before it’s too late.  It is too risky to stay or to go in to see her.  Jesus shouldn’t risk contact with that which is diseased and unclean.  Maybe they thank him for coming as they try to usher him out the door.

There are always voices that caution us about getting too close to those who are considered contagious and diseased by our society.  Sometimes the voices are from people around us and sometimes it’s our own voice.  These voices tell us to proceed through life with caution, keep those that are diseased, defiled, and desecrated at a distance.  Don’t get too close.

The woman with the diseased hands and skin reminds us that there are just some risks that are too big.  We are compassionate people, but we have our limits.  We are compassionate within reason, as long as there is no great cost to ourselves or to our loved ones.  We don’t mind helping others as long as it isn’t too burdensome, tiresome, or demanding.

In the mid-1800’s, the Kingdom of Hawaii created “a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Moloka’i” (www.wikipedia.com).  It was a quarantine designed to isolate the people suffering from Hansen’s disease, sometimes known as leprosy, so that they wouldn’t infect others.  The people suffering from Hansen’s disease were eventually left on their own with little care given from the outside.  They were neglected and avoided.  It could be deadly to be in contact with these individuals.  The voices of society spoke loudly, “Don’t get too close; don’t risk contact.”

We’re not sure what happens in the conversation between Jesus and those gathered in the house, but we do know that Jesus goes to see Peter’s mother-in-law following this dialogue.  If those gathered in the house caution him about the risk of seeing Peter’s mother-in-law in her current state, Jesus does not heed their warning.  Instead, he draws close to her and raises her up.  He grabs her hands, he risks become ceremonially unclean, and he raises her.  It’s resurrection language – death to new life.  She is healed, her fever is gone, life has come.

The woman, now healed by Jesus’ touch, begins to “serve him.”  The word for serve is diakoneo, the word from which we derive “deacon.”  The word creates a web of connection for us.  The woman receives healing for her disease and her grateful response is to begin serving Jesus in return.  The Kingdom that Jesus has been proclaiming on the beach, in the synagogue, and now enacting in this woman’s life, is in turn embodied in her loving service to Jesus.

The act of humble service the woman offers back to Jesus enacts and embodies the freedom which God’s Kingdom proclaims.  The Kingdom manifests itself, reveals itself, in the self-giving action of this peasant woman.  It is easy to presume, as we often have, that service to Jesus is without danger, without risk.  We don’t see risk in this woman’s act.  It appears simple and easy.

Fast forward to Jesus’ crucifixion outside the city walls, the place reserved for those accused of sedition and acts against Caesar’s kingdom.  Mark’s Gospel tells us that a group of women were standing there at the time of Jesus’ death.  It was dangerous to be associated with political criminals.  You might end up hanging with them.  But, wouldn’t it be a beautiful picture to think that Peter’s mother-in-law is among those women, watching, and weeping?  Wouldn’t it make sense that service to Jesus inevitably leads her to the Cross with Jesus?

Serving, giving up our very selves for the sake of others, is risky business.  It’s difficult and dangerous because it leads us to those places of intersecting the lives of others, sometimes even those that are deemed unclean, impure.  It’s quite possible that Peter’s mother-in-law stood at the foot of the Cross because that is exactly where her humble service to Jesus led her.  In living out this grateful response to Jesus, she unfolds before our eyes what it means to be a member of the Church – humble servants.

Mark’s Gospel tells us that word slips out about Jesus.  Peter’s mother-in-law has been healed by this rabbi.  When the sun sets, people begin bringing those who need healing to Jesus.  In fact, it says that the whole city comes to the door to find healing, to find Jesus.  All through the depth of the inky blackness of night, Jesus heals and sets people free from their afflictions – from disease, death, and the demonic forces that dominate their lives.

All night… perhaps it felt like the dawn would never break.  Perhaps in giving and giving and giving, it felt like the night would never draw to an end but endure forever.  When we confront the brokenness of the world, it always feels overwhelming and over-large!  God, will the night ever end?!  Serving others can feel like the night that never ends as we are bombarded by wave after wave of those who are hurting and helpless.

Perhaps that is what the Kingdom of Hawaii experienced in the mid-1800’s with the leper colony.  The problem was so overwhelming, heartbreaking, and difficult that it was just easier to ignore it, to hide the problem away, and to maintain silence about the pain.  Rather than serving those that were afflicted, it was more convenient to avert their eyes from the suffering.  When the night will not end, sometimes we feel the only option is to run from the problems or to ignore that they even exist.

Mark’s Gospel says that while it was still dark, Jesus left the house.  He left the people.  He went to a secluded place.  Is Jesus running from the darkness, turning his eyes from the hurting people?  Perhaps he has had enough, and who can blame him?  Except for a little phrase that alerts us to something else – Jesus praying.  Is prayer an escape?  Is it a way to ignore the world’s deep pain?  Does it resemble our quick remark to another’s pain, “Yeah, I’ll pray for you,” that allows us to save face while avoiding entering into their pain and sorrow with them?

We might think this is what Jesus does – prays like we sometimes pray to avoid being bothered by the problems of our world.  But, the story continues.  Jesus’ time of prayer does not cause him to remain secluded, removed from the world’s hurt and pain.  Instead, prayer draws him back toward it to proclaim the Kingdom’s healing for those who draw near.

When the disciples find Jesus praying, they alert him that “everyone is still looking for him.”  His response is not to run from the needs that press but says, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.”[1]  If prayer draws Jesus away from the world’s pain, it is a temporary respite so that he might be re-energized to go back into the darkness as light piercing the shadow.  He continues his preaching of the Kingdom throughout Galilee, willingly risking his life to be brought into close proximity to those deemed unclean.  The unclean, in Jesus’ presence, are made clean, whole, and empowered to serve.

Recall the story about the leper colony.  John Ortberg writes about a surprising end to the tale: “Father Damien was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers.  He moved to Kalawao – a village on the island of Molokai, in Hawaii, that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony.

For 16 years, he lived in their midst. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built 2,000 coffins by hand so that, when they died, they could be buried with dignity.

Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.

Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance. He did nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. He got close. For this, the people loved him.

Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: ‘We lepers….’  Now he wasn’t just helping them. Now he was one of them. From this day forward, he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin. First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died. Now they were in it together.

One day God came to Earth and began his message: ‘We lepers….’

Now he wasn’t just helping us. Now he was one of us. Now he was in our skin. Now we were in it together” (John Ortberg, God Is Closer Than You Think).

Intersecting the lives of others is dangerous and messy, it is difficult and risky.  Service inevitably leads us to the Cross, to self-sacrifice for the sake of others.  To touch the hands of the lepers of our world means that we might suffer as they suffer.  Yet, by entering into their suffering, we both might find the healing of Jesus that raises us up and gives us life.

Jesus is willing to get himself dirty for the sake of others; he enters into life with us and for us.  He is willing to share the pain, the hurt, and the sorrow because that is the beginning of healing.  In response to such extravagant love, Jesus heals us and empowers us to be His servants for the sake of the world.  That entails suffering alongside the world, entering into its darkest places, and offering a word of hope through our presence and loving touch in their lives.

The question, I think, for us is: Who are today’s lepers?  Who are those most desperately needing the healing Jesus offers?  Who are those most neglected in our world, isolated, hurting, and sick?  Is it the widow without a family living in a nursing home waiting for visitors?  Is it the “illegal” aliens that cross the border seeking hope for a better life?  Is it the destitute couple whose medical bills are piling up, but have no way to pay their debt?  Who crosses our path that is like the leper and what would Jesus’ healing touch look like for those people?  Now, as Jesus’ hands and feet, go and serve them in this way…

[1] Revised Common Lectionary. (2009). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

“The Church Possessed” – Mark 1:21-28

Our initial glimpse into Jesus’ ministry places him in Galilee, the home of the ruling tetrarch, Herod Antipas.  Openly Jesus calls for disciples to follow him, proclaiming that a new kingdom is now being established.  It’s dangerous work, to be sure.  Caesar and the Herods were not exactly known for their willingness to tolerate other claims of authority and power.  They weren’t likely to reprimand you over a cup of coffee either.

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t bother giving us the details of Jesus’ childhood.  Instead, the narrative moves right into the thick of the tension which eventually leads to Jesus’ crucifixion – Rome’s way of dealing with those who were deemed un-patriotic.

Like two locomotives riding the same tracks destined for a head-on collision, Mark’s Gospel helps us to see that Caesar’s authority stands in total opposition to Jesus’ authority.  The course is set.  The battle lines are drawn.  We await to see if God’s Kingdom will be overcome by Caesar’s way in the world.

With all of this riding on the line, one might imagine that the confrontation between God’s Kingdom and Caesar’s kingdom might occur in Herod’s palace or some similar political venue.  Perhaps the city council or community philosophers and leaders would be the most appropriate audience to address.  Instead, the confrontation happens in the Jewish synagogue.

The synagogue was the local place of worship for faithful Jews.  It was the place to be reminded of who they were – God’s people – be being reminded through prayer, song, and scripture of the great narrative of God’s redemption of God’s people throughout time.  The synagogue served the community of faith as an arena of identity formation and counter-formation.

Worshiping communities have long played a significant role for calling into question the arrangement of power structures that benefit those in authority or positions of affluence.  The Psalms challenge this kind of power that is typically employed by Israel’s monarchy.  Over and over again, the royal monarchy’s certitudes are questioned by the community’s poetic songs of praise and lament.  Kings that have forgotten or neglected their role as spiritual guides and leaders are confronted by a God that judges and brings low the proud but exalts the humble.

All of this is brought to fruition through God-centered worship.  The ideology of power founders and crumbles in light of the community’s doxological imagination.  In other words, power is turned upside down by God’s power that is manifested as servanthood.  That is, after all, the point of God’s call to Israel in the wilderness: “You shall be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation.”  God’s people embody God’s rule in the world be practicing dominion, not domination, of the world through self-giving service to it.

Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, a day wholly devoted to God, and begins teaching.  Those gathered to worship are astonished at his teaching because he taught “as one having power and authority, not as the scribes.”  It’s intriguing that the community is shocked, astounded because Jesus teaches with power, unlike their leaders.  Why is it that Jesus teaches with power while the scribes do not?  That is a troublesome question, but not one that we are unfamiliar with ourselves.  It should trouble us when the Gospel seems to lacking in power.

The word for scribe in the Greek in this passage is grammateis.  It is the same root-word from which we derive grammar.  In other words, the scribes were those members of the community of faith that majored in words – particularly those of scripture.  They were the keepers of the community’s language of worship.  Understanding the grammar of a language is to understand its life, the way it works and functions.

In saying that these scribes’ teaching lacks authority or power indicates that they truly don’t comprehend the grammar of scripture.  Their teaching lacks power because it has been divorced from the very thing from which its power is derived: God’s Spirit.  Jesus, it seems, preaches with a proper grammar.

Language is essential for our lives.  It shapes the way we live, how we think about the world, and how we understand our part in it.  Language is always a part of worship because worship is also trying to shape our vision of the world.  How destructive it is when our words are separated from God’s Word and our language is co-opted for another purpose.  When our worship-language is separated from God or re-directed for another purpose, our language is hi-jacked and often used in opposition to God.

Our words may still resemble the language of faith… but it has become a grotesque mutation.  In a very real sense, this kind of language, which possesses us, grabs hold of our very imagination through which we view the world, becomes demonic – that which is opposed to God.  And, when our imagination is gripped by something other than God, the results are usually devastatingly destructive for both individuals and communities.

It is perhaps very difficult to imagine being possessed.  In our rational, scientific culture, we are often suspicious of those things that cannot be directly observed through the senses, least of all demons and the like.  Yet, we often use the language of possession to talk about individuals or groups of people acting in destructive ways.  “He was beyond talking sense to, it was like he was out of his right mind.”  Or, “Such an uproar was whipped up in the auditorium that they lashed out at each other as if possessed by something, like a wind carrying a leaf in its grasp.”  Even if we don’t want to spiritualize it, speaking of “being possessed” is not out of our ordinary use of language.

One of my good friends, we’ll call him John, lives in this kind of reality.  His life revolves around work and football.  He works the night shift (so that he can get overtime) six days a week for 12 hours each day.  During football season, he travels to watch the Dallas Cowboys play every time they play at home.

Watching his Facebook status gives a fairly clear indication what drives him.  Money and sports.  That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make an effort to be a loving husband and father.  He does.  But, you can see what is valuable to him because that is the very thing he hands on to his daughters.  The market economy has swallowed him whole.

If I were to leave the story there, you might be led to think that he doesn’t profess faith or attend church.  Quite the opposite.  But, his choices don’t seem at odds with his faith for the very reason that this kind of life is validated by the church he attends.  This particular church is every bit as possessed by consumerism, gaining more money and stuff, as he is.  The language of worship in this community has been manipulated to reflect the culture rather than a language reflective of God’s self-giving love.

Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue is interrupted by a man possessed by an unclean spirit.  He cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”  Us?  Wasn’t it just one man that had the impure spirit?  It’s possible to read this as the man having more than one spirit, although the word is singular in its usage here.  We have no idea who the man is, other than he appears to come from the congregation itself.  To speak of “us” seems to indicate, perhaps, not multiple spirits, but that this spirit which possesses this man, who has no identity outside of this synagogue, is the same spirit which possesses this worshiping community.

This community is amazed at Jesus’ powerful, authoritative teaching about God’s Kingdom.  The unclean spirit voices a question that asks what kind of power it is that Jesus wields.  “Have you come to destroy us?”  In other words: “Have you come to use your power like Herod and Caesar – to destroy us?  Have you come to fight fire with fire, sword with sword, power with power?”

The impure spirit follows this by saying it knows who Jesus is: “The Holy One of Israel.”  God, King of Israel and all Creation, stands in their midst in the person of Jesus.  How is God going to wield God’s power in establishing this new kingdom?  Will it resemble the kingdoms of Pharaoh, Babylon, Caesar, Herod, and Pilate?

Jesus immediately commands the unclean spirit: “Silence!”  Mark’s Gospel regularly has Jesus telling people to be silent, not to tell anyone about his identity.  In each of these situations, it’s typically because Jesus doesn’t want his identity to be misinterpreted.  In this case, Jesus doesn’t want the unclean spirit to give testimony, to give shape, to define who and what Jesus is to the community of worship.

Oh, this synagogue isn’t the first community of faith to wrestle with these kinds of issues.  As the old joke goes: “God made us in His image and we returned the favor.”  Too often we have allowed our language of worship to be re-tooled and re-oriented to define God on our terms.  It’s interesting that when this happens, God begins looking a lot like us.

Look down through art history for a perfectly good demonstration.  Whenever a culture picks up a paintbrush and pictures Jesus, oddly enough he typically doesn’t look Jewish.  He resembles the culture that paints him.  God, I’m afraid, doesn’t fare much better.  Jesus silences the unclean spirit so that the Kingdom Jesus proclaims is not re-framed as merely another kingdom, another power like those already operational in this world.

Again, in response to the kind of power Jesus would wield as coming King-Messiah, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man.  Simply put, Jesus utilizes his power to set those who are captive to the powers of this world free.  This kind of freedom in the worshiping community means that its language can once again be aimed toward its proper goal: God and His coming Kingdom.  To be brought out of slavery, a new Exodus, means that this worshiping community can begin to embody God’s new way of power in the world: self-giving love that denounces power used to oppress, to enslave, and to destroy.

It’s interesting that the loudest voice among the worshiping community that Jesus encounters is the man with an unclean spirit.  Sometimes those that offer the loudest opposition to God’s coming Kingdom are those who have the most to lose because they have become so deeply entrenched in our culture’s way of life – or, more appropriately, way of death.  Jesus’ Kingdom comes as a challenge to us all.

In fact, the community that witnesses Jesus casting out of the demonic is quite amazed by his power yet again.  It’s hard to tell if they are awed in such a way that they are drawn to follow him and become citizens in God’s Kingdom rather than Caesar’s.  Or, possibly they are awed but wary of what this might mean for them – they too might have to be cleaned of that which is unclean.  It’s difficult to say what happens because the story doesn’t tell us completely.  It’s open ended.

But, the story does suggest what is possible in our condition of being possessed by the narratives, the language of this world.  Jesus is able to free us, to draw us out of that which stands opposed to God’s way of life.  Jesus is able to speak a new word in our midst that breaks the chains, breaks the silence.  Jesus breaks the power of the demonic over this community, so that they might be possessed by God’s holy love.  Which is not to say that God controls us like marionette dolls, but that we are inspired, energized by God’s love.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:13-21: “If it seems we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God. And if we are in our right minds, it is for your benefit. 14 Either way, Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. 15 He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

16 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

18 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

When God confronts us with those things that have taken hold of us, pulling us from God, our first reaction should be to find ourselves in a posture of prayer – seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.  I know my own reaction has been like that spirit in offering loud counter-arguments, deflections, and justifications to God’s convictions.  Sometimes my worship reflects how deeply I have been enslaved by the world.  Yet, it is precisely in the worshiping community where Christ Jesus speaks a liberating word of new life possibilities that can set me free from my enslavement.

The unclean spirit takes many forms.  It can be like my friend that has become so consumed with entertainment and acquiring more money and stuff.  The spirit of violence that causes us to lash out against those that are not like us because we feel threatened by their ideas or presence.  The spirit of greed which hordes needed resources without sharing them with those that cannot afford basic necessities.  The spirit of busyness which keeps us so pre-occupied that we have no time for God or God’s community (which should include our family).  There are many others that I could name and some you could probably add.  The unclean spirit takes on many forms but all lead to the same place: Death.

Jesus desires to cast out those things that have become so important to us and to replace it with God’s holy love, which can purify us through and through.  A love that empowers us to live as fully human, fulfilling our God-given call to be a reflection of God’s self-giving love.  A community of worship whose language reflects God’s character in this way will surely offer a better world, a new way to use power in serving one another.

Jesus still speaks with power today, calling us to “follow him.”  To be led out of our bondage, even as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.  God desires to deliver us from the things that have such a powerful grip on our life as both individuals and a worshiping community, so that we are no longer possessed by the kingdoms of this world but gripped by God’s life-giving Spirit, enabling us to live as God’s Kingdom-people.

“Fishers of People” – Mark 1:14-20

I love fishing.  Some of my favorite memories growing up are stories about fishing with my cousins on their family farm.  One such instance, we caught a catfish using a stick, fishing line, a hook, and some chewed bubble gum.  We fastened the stick into some mud, tied the line and hook on, and molded the gum around the hook, throwing it into the pond while we went to dinner.  When we came back, we found a fish on the line and began dragging it to shore.  My cousins ran with the stick up the hill, while a friend and I pulled the fish into shore.

Finally, the fish popped up onto the bank and immediately slipped off the hook, flopping perilously close to the water, threatening to waste our perfectly good bubble gum bait.  My friend and I jumped onto the fish and pinned it down in the mud, finally wrestling it into a bucket with water.  We were proud of our catch, so we took it to the house and got pictures together with the fish.  After that, we released the fish back into the water.

That’s always been my kind of fishing – catch and release.  I’ve never really acquired a taste for fish.  But, I love the sensation of hooking a fish and reeling it into the boat on a warm summer’s day.  It’s satisfying, fulfilling, and requires very little thought on my part.

In the past, that is how I have imagined fishing in the story of the gospels.  Jesus comes along the shore, sees some rugged fishermen, and says, “Hey, come follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.”  The fishermen put their reels down and head off behind Jesus to win the world, to save some souls.

It’s a beautiful, serene picture of a call to evangelism, matched by immediate obedience.  That’s, perhaps, how many of us read this story, especially as people that spend any amount of time fishing around nearby lakes.  Thus, we might look at this call from Jesus as a call to hook people to bring them into heaven.

But, in reading Jesus’ call to the disciples in this way, we have done great damage to the power of this story.  In essence, we have altered it beyond recognition for what the initial disciples would have heard.  This seems to me to be the reason that the Gospels have become so powerless.  Discipleship has been minimized to getting people into the boat, counting the number of decisions that have been made for salvation, and thinking that this is the whole purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry – getting people to heaven.

But, you may recall the Lord’s Prayer: “May Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The whole purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry, culminating in the cross and resurrection, is bringing together heaven and earth in a sort of marriage, so that heaven and earth are “one flesh.”  In other words, God’s will and way would be embodied on earth as it is in heaven – perfectly!

If the Gospel is about Jesus being crucified that I might go to heaven, we relieve ourselves of any responsibility for what happens in this world.  It suggests that the whole point of Jesus coming to earth is to zap us out of here, allowing us to escape this prison.  We have de-politicized the Gospel because we have taken it out of its Jewish context.  In other words, we have not connected the stories of Scripture to their Jewish background.

So, let’s go back to the story at hand.  Jesus shows up in “Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14b-15).

  1. Scott Spencer gives us insight into the political situation of Galilee, writing: “While the fishermen themselves might profit from their toil, fishing revenues in Herodian-controlled Galilee were severely siphoned off by a tightly regulated political monopoly. Buoyed by his opulent new capital city Tiberias, dedicated to the emperor on the western bank of the Galilean sea, as well as by the booming demand for Galilean fish sauces and stews throughout the empire, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, seized the opportunity to make the small inland lake of Galilee into a real “sea,” his own private “little Mediterranean” pond.

The Roman client-king developed his own microcosmic version of Caesar’s claim to own all the oceans and waterways of the realm and everything in them.  At every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus’ disciples, were caught in Antipas’s conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping” (F. Scott Spencer, “Follow Me”: The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, 144-45).

Herod Antipas owned not only the sea, but everything in it.  He also owned everyone that made a living from those waters.  The fishermen, even those that were moderately well off, were vassals to Herod and, by extension, Caesar.  Antipas had his hooks in the people, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to escape.

This is the cultural landscape in which we find Jesus strolling along the beach, proclaiming the kingdom, and telling fishermen to “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  Here we see Jesus enacting politics, quite bluntly.  He calls these fishermen, those participating in the kingdom of Herod and Caesar, to come be part of this new kingdom and to fish for Jesus instead of Herod.

The Jews had longed for deliverance from Exile for so long.  In fact, Josephus, the Jewish historian for Rome, said that this is the reason that the Jews revolted against Rome in the middle of the first century.  The Jewish people had calculated that the time had arrived in which they would finally be delivered from Exile.

This stems from the prayer in Daniel 9.  Daniel prays to God asking when they would be delivered from captivity.  After all, Jeremiah had said it would be 70 years.  God responds, saying that God has heard Daniel’s prayer.  There is good news and bad news.  The good news is that God’s people will indeed be delivered.  The bad news is that it won’t be 70 years but 70 weeks of years.  Or, 70 times 7, which is 490 years.

The vision in Daniel’s writings describe four kingdoms, represented by various beasts arising out of the sea to power.  Because of Israel and Judah’s disobedience to God, these kingdoms will keep the people in Exile.  But, then, this wonderful vision turns.  Daniel sees one like a son of man sitting next to the Ancient of Days, establishing God’s kingdom forever and dashing to pieces the kingdoms that were opposed to God’s way in the world.

This is the tension that the Jewish people are living under, anticipating the establishment of God’s kingdom.  Jesus’ call to these fishermen is to follow him as members of God’s kingdom, even now being established in the midst of the kingdoms of the world.

Jesus goes even further by using the metaphor of fishing for the task that the disciples will be doing as his followers.  Again, we think of fishing that isn’t extremely messy and difficult work.  But the reality is it was extremely hard work.  The mending of nets used to drag bottom to pull in large amounts of fish.  The wild weather that could quickly whip up a storm on the sea in which those boats could easily sink.  The smelly task of gutting and cleaning the fish.  As Spencer puts it: “In a word, fishing was taxing business, in both the physical and financial sense” (F. Scott Spencer, “Follow Me”: The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, 144). 

Not only that, but the image of fishing is used as a metaphor for judgment in the scriptures.  Jeremiah 16:16-18 reads: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.  For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight.  And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with the abominations.”

As fishers of men, Jesus’ disciples are the agents through whom God will judge the world and its false kingdoms of power, manipulation, and oppression – or, idolatry.  In essence, the disciples are the primary agents that begin to proclaim to all that God, in fact, is now King over all.  This is what is commonly known as Theocracy – God reigns and rules.

Such a violent image of fishing and hunting for the disciples’ task is a little terrifying.  We are distrusting of the notion that the disciples, and by extension the Church, is the agent of judgment against the world.  After all, one need only look at the various abuses of power that the Church has wrought down through the centuries to be skeptical.

The Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, and other historical actions by the Church have wrought serious destruction, which seems no different than Rome, Caesar, Herod, or any other king or nation.  Point taken.

But, this is precisely the point in which we must ask what kind of God is this, whose agents enact judgment against the world.  Would we not confess it to be the God of Genesis that brings the world into being and blesses it and also takes a wondering nomad and promises to make him the father of nations?  It would most certainly be the God in Exodus that delivers slaves from Egypt and makes them His people.  It is the same God that promises to give the people a heart of flesh rather than stone.  It is the very God that tells Israel they are engraved on His hands.

And, what does that look like?  It looks like a Jewish peasant that came proclaiming God’s kingdom, enacting freedom for the oppressed, sight for the blind, and release for the captive, proclaiming Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s Favor, and the forgiveness of sins.  This coming of the kingdom stands in total opposition to the world’s use of power.

We see this quite clearly in John’s Gospel as Jesus is standing before Pilate, the kingdom of God confronting the kingdom of the world.  “They argue over kingdom and truth and power.  Pilate sends Jesus to his death and Jesus wins” (N. T. Wright, Kingdom and Cross).  Jesus even tells Pilate that if his kingdom were like the kingdoms of this world, his followers would defend it.  Jesus’ defeat of the kingdoms of this world comes through sacrifice, not tanks.  Rome’s peace (pax Romana) was maintained by the sword; God’s peace is won through costly forgiveness

In this way, Jesus is the climax of Israel’s story.  And, for Jesus to call disciples to follow him is to say that he believes that they can do what he does in fulfilling that very story – to be agents of reconciliation!  After all, it is no accident that there are 12 disciples and 12 tribes of Israel.

God is re-constituting Israel through Jesus and his disciples.  And, even as Israel was intended to embody a community upon whom God had a particular claim, one that called for total allegiance, the disciples are invited to live as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth.  Now.  To live as those that embody judgment of the world by “daily taking up their cross and following Jesus.”

As Jesus walks the shore proclaiming the kingdom; he also calls for repentance.  That is – Jesus calls all those who might hear him to turn from the false kingdoms of this world and become fully fledged citizens of God’s kingdom, whose way of ruling this world is through Jubilee, forgiveness.

So, here we stand in the boat, hearing Jesus’ call.  We can stay in the boat, remaining in the security of what is familiar and potentially beneficial politically, financially, or socially.  The Church has sometimes opted for the safety of the boat of culture.  The German church that refused to stand against Nazi Germany and collaborated in great atrocities against other nations, the Church that remained quiet while African Americans were abused and oppressed; the Church that acts out violently, both physically and verbally, against its enemies both far and near; the Church that turns a blind eye to the poor and oppressed, perhaps even benefitting from their labor while giving them insufficient wages to help build profits.

When we cease to call the world’s way of power into question because we are part of it or are silent, we are no different than those kingdoms and fail to live as God’s kingdom people.  Without repentance, without turning from those kingdoms, we inevitably cease to be disciples of Jesus and choose to remain in the boat.

Or, we can opt for the insecurity of following Jesus.  It’s dangerous and difficult to follow Jesus, not least of all in the Church.  We will be confronted by kingdoms that use power to threaten us with death and destruction, both physical and otherwise.  To be a people of the Kingdom is to be a people marked by the cross, which is a new way of utilizing power in the world.  It is learning to forgive even mortal enemies.  It is sharing generously with those who don’t have resources and networks of support to weather the storms of life.  It is embodying non-violent resistance, like Martin Luther King, Jr., to those who implement violence as a means of getting what they want.  It is living as a vessel of blessing through which God may bless others.  Stepping out of the boat is scary because it demands “our life, our all.”  But, thank God, “those who lose their life find it.”

Jesus calls, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news… Follow me and I will make you fish for people!”  Living as an alternative to the kingdoms of this world as God’s agents of judgment, fishers of people, means that our lives should call into question the ways this world employs power.  God uses power to extend love and mercy; the world uses power as a means to domination.  In talking about this very tension, Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best: “You cannot drive out darkness with darkness, only light can do that.  You cannot drive out hate with hate, only love can do that.”

Hearing Jesus’ call to follow him, let’s move out of the boat together and engage the world as God’s Kingdom people!

Micah 4:1-5 – “Swords into Plowshares: Reimagining Power in a Violent World”

Ask an American to tell the story of America and they will begin, perhaps, with the story of the American Revolution where freedom from tyranny was secured.  It will progress to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.  Naturally, the story will weave its way through World War I and II, where the tyrannical powers of the world were halted by our military might.  Vietnam and Korea.  The Cold War, Desert Storm and the Iraqi War will all make their appearance.  Our imagination, our identity as a country has been shaped by the marking of our history – a history littered with violence.  Some have gone so far as to say that the ethos of our dominant narrative is war. 

        Of course, our violence is not limited to national warfare.  Our history includes the dark shadow of slavery, sexism, and colonialism.  The poor have always and continue to be oppressed by unethical financial practices… just ask Wall Street and Wal-Mart.  Manifest Destiny was thinly veiled genocide hailed as progress.  This fails to mention human trafficking, child and spousal abuse, school violence, and political mud-slinging.  If we have only mentioned our human relationships, what list might we build if we considered violence done to the environment and to the rest of Creation?

The prevailing praxis flowing out of our ethos of violence is necessary to understand.  Our conceptions of power are built on the notion that “might makes right,” no less if by majority vote.  Power is used to attain what one desires and to maintain what one has acquired.  And, if something should be desired or my possessions threatened, then force, violence – even war – are deemed acceptable options to our desired end, no matter who or what might be destroyed.  This “will to power” objectifies the Creation, which includes other humans, for manipulation and exploitation for personal gain, pleasure or benefit.

From this perspective, everything is a commodity to be consumed.  Our consuming is never satisfied.  Our demand continues to climb higher while those commodities becomes fewer.  It is the crisis of the market.  Supply and demand create scarcity, which produces fear, which turns into violence to grab those precious resources.  That’s only one reason nobody wants to be a Wal-Mart door greeter on Black Friday.  Violence is a natural outcome and by-product of consumerism because it is based upon competition for limited resources.  All of Creation suffers as a result.  We are a culture characterized by violence.

The American church has been significantly impacted by this prevailing cultural narrative.  We have engaged in our own methods and forms of violent behavior.  Schism and division.  Proclaiming “truth” without tempering it with love.  We enforce our “rights,” using our power (both individually and corporately) for political posturing and the securing of our “freedoms.”

We have rendered people as commodities to be counted to bolster our attendance numbers to reach the next plateau of growth or what they can do for our ministry until they are used up and discarded, instead of seeing each person as inherently valuable as God’s creation.  We exercise violence through our words against our enemies, by demonizing our opposition.  We do violence to the Gospel when we make it about us.  We do violence to the name of God when the Church cannot be distinguished from the murderous world.

Because our dominate narrative is violence, it is difficult for us to imagine a world otherwise.  After all, how is it possible for our world to change when there is such an extensive history of violence?  Plus, if everyone is looking out for themselves, who’s looking out for me?  The answer, it seems, is obvious.  Kill or be killed.  It’s about survival.  If someone puts out your eye or knocks out your teeth, then it is your right, not only to get even, to exact revenge.  Violence begets violence… and the cycle continues.

Micah, a prophet during the height of Judah’s power, lives in a world filled with violence.  Micah paints a picture of his contemporaries: “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Mic. 2:1-2).

The leaders of the community are unfamiliar with justice.  Micah testifies against them saying, “[you] tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones, [you] eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron” (Mic. 3:2-3).  The prophets are also culpable.  Micah says they proclaim “’Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths” (Mic. 3:5).

God’s people do not look much different than the Assyrians, who had recently destroyed Israel.  They take advantage of the poor, do violence to one another, and misuse the gifts that God has given to them.  Neighbor mistreats neighbor.  The weak of society are trampled under foot.  The powerful and the affluent hoard and oppress to the detriment of the community.  As such, they misuse God’s name.

Micah, however, imagines an alternative script for the ways in which Judah might faithfully live as God’s people again.  Hear what Micah says, “[God] will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths… They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.  Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”

Weapons of violence are re-shaped as instruments of cultivation.  Power is re-oriented to the sustaining of life and the protection of the weak, not for the exploitation of the poor and the elimination of our competition.  Power is re-directed from “might makes right” to purposefully seeking the “good of all.”  Micah invites a new world into their midst, not as a pipe dream… as an open invitation to live into God’s future now.  It is a future where power no longer resembles the warrior garbed in battle attire.

Rather, it is a future where they are empowered to live in right relationship with one another, enjoying the fruits of Creation which they help cultivate together, and where fear is but a memory.  No longer is their identity to be found in being a warrior, using power for their own security.  God’s people will be those that till the soil, utilizing their power to add value back into the Creation and into the lives of others.

But, of course, it does seem like a pipe dream.  Israel and Judah both fail to live into this future that God is providing.  Several centuries after Micah, Jesus shows up on the scene.  Things haven’t changed much for Israel.  They live under the pax Romana, peace maintained with the keen edge of a sword.  Power politics rule the day.  Rulers, like Caesar, Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, all play by Rome’s rules.  Some placate more than others, but Rome dominates the landscape and the way of life.  It is Rome’s way or the proverbial highway.  Violence is the basis for this so-called “peace.”

Jesus begins preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”  He offers an imaginative alternative to Caesar and Herod, to the prevailing violence of politics and religion and business-as-usual.  Fortunate are those who are pure in heart, the peace makers, the meek, the merciful, the poor in spirit, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  The world claims that power is for the fortunate.  Jesus re-arranges power and what it means to be fortunate!

Jesus challenges the violence that neighbor committed against neighbor.  He even calls for everyone to love their enemies!  But, in a culture and world where imagination is dominated by violence, it is nearly impossible to see God’s light dawning in the midst of such darkness.  The world’s violence against one another turns to violence against the Creator.  Though the Word  became flesh and tabernacles among us, we do not know him and want to put out his light.  And, so, Jesus is crucified.  The world takes up sword and spear against the Creator and slays him upon the cross.

Yet, that was not the end of the story.  By the power of God, Jesus was raised from the dead.  Death is crushed to death.  Light pierces the darkness, scattering it.  Sin and death are defeated foes.  When confronted by the violence of the world, Christ lays down his life… “[He] was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:5).

Christ transforms the cross, the world’s instrument of violence, into God’s instrument of peace.  Beating swords into plowshares.  The cross which was the world’s means of violence, became the very means by which God cultivates and prunes the Creation… readying it for the harvest of salvation.  Jesus, like Micah, wasn’t offering a pipe dream… He is calling us to re-imagine the world, to see God’s future that is even now breaking into our present… offering hope in the midst of violence, offering life instead of death.  And, calling for us to live into that future hope.

St. Francis of Assisi penned a well-known prayer that is very appropriate.  May it be our prayer.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, truth;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are confronted by our own propensity toward animosity, hatred, and violence.  Yet, it is at this Table that we are offered a new way, God’s way of being in this world.  Jesus breaks bread with his disciples.  He breaks bread with his betrayer.  The Risen Christ stands among us with pierced hands and feet, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

The Eucharist reminds us that Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us… precisely because it is a conquered foe.  At this Table, we remember that “on the night that Christ was betrayed, he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.’  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

Assessment of Sermons by David Busic, Dan Boone, and Fred Craddock

Sermon 1: Dr. David Busic on the Lord’s Prayer

Dr. Busic integrated a couple of different styles throughout his moves.  He employed narrative preaching, implementing stories from his personal experience.  The sermon was primarily inductive.  Initially, Dr. Busic began with the general conclusion: God is Father.  Then, looking through the window of human experience, Dr. Busic weaved the sermon back to our conception of father experienced through our earthly fathers.  After addessing the congregational blocks, the sermon then went back to the original assertion of God as Father setting the standard for fatherhood.  Roughly, the pattern of sermon plotted: trouble in the text, grace in the text, response called for in the text.  Thus, the message moved the audience to experience each move, followed by a call for response to that movement.

The big idea of the sermon is God is Father.  God is relational and desires to have relationship with us as God’s children.  God’s character is that of a loving Father that goes beyond the love of even the best earthly father.  In fact, God defines fatherhood, not humanity.  God is not distant, but continuously draws near.  As we trust God, we are drawn closer to the Father.  The Kingdom breaking into the world means God is near and among us.  As such, we can speak to the Father as children, not as “professional religious leaders.”  God doesn’t need His ego stroked but genuinely wants us to be in intimate relationship with Him.

The theological strength of the sermon was in the image of father.  In our context, we often view God as cosmic, transcendent, and omnipotent.  In other words, God is distant and cold.  However, the sermon brought God into our world and made God accessible and loving.  It broke the barrier of believing that God keeps us at arm’s length.

This sermon can be powerful because sometimes earthly father are distant and relatively unengaged in the relationship.  It creates dissonance in understanding God as Father.  The sermon reminded me that God really does care and sets the standard for earthly fatherhood.  It helps me to see that God values me as a dearly loved child.  It’s really not a matter of making myself good enough or acceptable enough to God.  Instead, I am loved for who I am.  The same is true for others that I come into contact with.  The prayer reminds us of this fact because it is not simply “My Father” but “Our Father.”

I think I benefitted from this style of preaching because it felt like I was being led, not pulled, to a different understanding of God that opened up a new possibilities in my relationship with God.  Also, the form was not rigid but was utilized like a painter’s brushes.  Different brushes created different effects.  Seeing how the congregational blocks were given weight while being addressed with the Biblical text reminded me that these are always important elements to address in the sermon.  The preacher must be able to listen to the audience before speaking to the audience.

Sermon 2: Dr. Dan Boone on Exile in a Postmodern World

Dr. Boone utilized narrative preaching primarily.  Essentially, he set up two windows or parallel worlds.  The first world was our world and the resulting sense of Exile that had occurred between generations of moderns and postmoderns.  The second world was the world of Isaiah in the Babylonian Exile.  Drawing parallels between the two allowed Dr. Boone to walk back and forth between the windows with the audience.

The big idea was surrounding the idea of exile.  There is a sense where people that lived in “Yesteryear” or Jerusalem before the Exile want to go back to those days of security and back to where “home” is.  The culture assaults us at every front and threatens our identity.  Those that have grown up in the Exile don’t remember the “good ‘ole days.”  They are more likely to be syncretistic and follow after the false gods.  Despite these real threats, God is moving Israel forward into a new future… not back to “Yesteryear.”  God is doing a new thing and it may be in ways that make us uncomfortable (Cyrus).  Rather than reacting in fear, we need to trust in God’s ability to bring us into His future.

The image of God was Creator and alive!  God is able to create new realities for the people and God is quite capable of defending Himself and taking care of God’s people.  We don’t need to defend God, like the gods of Babylon need defending.  God is described as a Potter.  God is shaping Israel and us as we move into this new future and uncharted territory.

The theological strength of this sermon was showing God to be strong, capable, and intentional.  God is able to do what God sets out to do.  God doesn’t need us to carry Him or defend Him.  God carries us!  God was also shown to be caring.  A potter’s work is a work of love and careful attention.  God works in a similar manner in bringing God’s people into this new future.

This sermon really impacted me because I am dealing with some of these same tensions in the church I serve.  There is a great deal of fear from older members and there is very little serious reflection from the younger members.  This creates a divide rather than a unity that is characteristic of God.  The sermon instilled hope in me because it gave voice to my frustration with both sides and allowed me to see how God might be working to move us toward a new future… uncertainties and all.  In the midst of that, I don’t need to carry God, God is carrying us.

The narrative style that was utilized really helped to diffuse the potential conflict or tension that might otherwise have characterized this topic.  Dr. Boone was able to open up the congregation for self-reflection while doing so with a “gentle hand.”  The creative imagination that permeated the sermon helped me to see how narrative is more than simply telling the story.  It allows us to enter the story in our own world.

Sermon 3: Dr. Fred Craddock on Lazarus and the Rich Man

Dr. Fred Craddock uses the inductive style of preaching.  It utilizes narrative by creating pictures and images that invite the congregation to explore and engage the text.  It is like wondering thought that leads somewhere, which is not to say that it is aimless.  It is intentional, but it is done in a stream-of-thought mode.  In this way, Craddock leads the congregation from what is known in their world back into the text to understand better what is happening.

The big idea of the sermon was that shock tactics will not convince people of their need for salvation.  If people will not believe the Scriptures, then even someone raised to life from the dead will not convince them.  It also affirmed the idea that having Scripture alone does not save us.  Obedience is a necessary response to the God we encounter in Scripture.  As such, knowledge alone does not save.

The image of God in this sermon is a God that does not force us to believe and come into proper relationship with Him.  In fact, God seems to allow us the freedom to choose or reject Him.  God is a God that continues to try to communicate without violating our freedom.  God desires relationship and communicates it through the Scriptures as we are saturated in its pages.

The theological strengths of the sermon revolve around a God that is just, yet is trying to extend mercy to us by calling to us.  God empowers us to understand and hear God’s desires for us as communicated through the Spirit in the Word.  However, God does not force feed it to us, but invites us.  The text also reminds us of God’s justice, which will eventually make all things right.  The poor will be comforted and the unjust will receive the consequences of a life of greed and injustice.  In other words, God is on the side of those that are weak and disadvantaged.  In Scripture we are confronted by our own lack of holiness, while being drawn toward a God that desires to make us holy.

Craddock’s style is very conversational and humorous.  His use of humor was appropriate, poignant and timely.  It did not distract from the message, but helped people to stay engaged overall.  Because his style was conversational, it was accessible.  His use of language painted a vivid mental image.  Also, his overall sermon strengthened my view of the importance of Scripture in life and in preaching.

I will benefit from his preaching style by seeing how humor can be utilized in helpful ways.  This is a better alternative to sarcasm.  Also, you could tell he had done his homework on the passage and there was a deep care and commitment to the text.  However, he was not using lofty theological language but was communicating in a way in which anybody could have understood and related.  We are not merely communicating information but are looking for transformation.  As such, it is important that we are not explaining the text as much as we are evoking a response to the text.

Preaching the Story that Shapes Us by Dan Boone

The bibliographical content is packaged with noted scholars, theologians, pastors, and preachers. However, it is not limited to that alone but incorporates writers, poets, and communicators of other genres. Boone also implements content from the female perspective on preaching, which supplements a different viewpoint. He includes perspective on preaching from those of other cultures, as well. But, the sources could potentially be strengthened by adding further perspective from other ethnic groups.

We are first introduced to the concept of narrative and calling. Pastors are called to participate in the narrative of God by communicating that same narrative to others and inviting them to join in as well. Through stories, Boone weaves the narrative of his calling and early introduction to preaching and pastoral ministry. We are reminded that preaching isn’t just a task that others expect us to perform. Instead, we are called to preach as a response of love to God. Next, we dialogue with Scripture.

Through dynamic interplay between human and divine, God has communicated the story of salvation. It is a means of God’s grace in the life of the community. If the words on the page are not enlivened in believers, then these are little more than quaint stories. However, when we allow the Spirit to breath through the texts, new life can happen in profound ways. As such, we have to be careful with the text and allow the text to read us rather than merely reading a text and assuming we have understood correctly.

Our first step is not to consult commentaries but imagination. We attend to the text through our senses and ask questions that go beneath the surface of the text. We look for trouble in the text, which will help shape our understanding of the plot of the narrative. We name the images and human experiences in the text, looking for connections in our world. We allow the text to shine light on our “shadows.” Next, we dialogue with scholars. Finally, we exegete the congregation and address competing narratives opposed to God’s narrative.

There are many options for sermon form (i.e., Lowry’s Loop, Episodic, Straw Man, etc.). The form implemented should not be noticeable, but should move the plot along to its intended response. We are also commended to watch our body language in preaching, while keeping in mind audience expectations for a sermon due to setting or calendar.

Boone also lists several things not to do during a sermon. He suggests not making the sermon overly complex but simple, not making yourself the exemplary model at the end, not explaining what you can evoke, not allowing the text to dictate the most important idea, not trusting too much in your own skill, not using fill-in-the-blank sermons because of distraction, not reciting homework in the sermon, not preaching grace equally with the judgment of the passage, and not having a life outside of the pulpit.

The Plot of Worship should also narrate the story of God through the service. We are gathered together, experience the bad news, hear the Gospel, respond to God’s grace, and are blessed as we are sent back out into the world. In this way, we become storied people that enact and embody God’s story. Part four of the book contains several sermon examples.

Overall, I thought this book was fantastic. Boone writes in such a way that it mimics his style of preaching. His writing demonstrates carefulness with the Scriptures, as well as, guiding the reader through steps to build the sermon that engages the text and lets it speak. I appreciated Boone makes it clear that preaching is more than making a series of points or even telling stories. Rather, preaching is a means of communicating the life of the text so that people can enter into the story of God.

Jonah 1:1-17 Sermon

          Ken and Dana had been married for a little over 30 years.  On the outside, they seemed to have a strong marriage.  But, on the inside, it was a different story.  Ken was emotionally and mentally abusive to Dana and their children.  Fear was a normal part of their everyday existence.  Dana and the children never knew when Ken might get angry, even over the smallest thing.

Dana constantly had to make sure everything was in order, clean, cooked, and prepared whenever Ken would get home.  She would often hide their financial situation from him for fear of inciting his wrath.  Ken was a compulsive spender.  Switching from hobby to hobby, Ken would splurge large amounts of money on the latest equipment.  Dana tried keeping the check book balanced, but Ken would become quite upset when the bank account was low.

Ken had even been caught in an affair.  Although Dana had left with the children for a short time, she eventually reconciled with him.  Shortly after this point, he decided to go back to college.  Dana worked to put him through school and support the children.  After only two years back in the work force, Ken decided to quit his job and remain unemployed.  Shortly after, Dana found out that Ken was again having an affair.  After 30 years of trying, she had had enough.

The divorce was anything but cordial.  Ken was going to make sure Dana paid.  She didn’t have a college degree and couldn’t afford much of anything.  Ken had taken the money out of their savings account, so she was at his mercy to survive month-to-month.  Dana had no money, had lost her home, and the lawyers cost more than she was making each month.  Despite treating her like dirt for so many years, it seemed like he was coming out on top.  To Dana, Ken embodied wickedness.          

In Jonah’s day, wickedness had a name: Nineveh.  It was a city of atrocities.  The capital of Assyria, it was a brutal and vicious enemy to both Israel and Judah, Jonah’s people.  In fact, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian army and Judah nearly faced the same fate.  The Assyrians would destroy cities and lead their captives away with hooks in their cheeks.  They weren’t exactly the type of neighbors you wanted to loan your lawn mower.

The prophet Nahum (3:1-4) noted just how evil and cruel the Ninevites were.  He prophesied against Nineveh and described it in this way:

Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! 2 The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! 3 Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses — 4 all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft.

 

In Jonah’s mind, there was absolutely no worse place to be than in Nineveh!  It was absolutely evil!

The Word of God comes to Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”  The son of Amittai, meaning “truthfulness” or “faithfulness,” is called to proclaim the Word of God against Nineveh’s evil.  God is concerned with the disaster that will befall Nineveh, if it continues down its current path.

Jonah was not thrilled to have received this assignment.  God was calling him to go to the city of his mortal enemy!  Jonah wastes no time in “going.”  However, he begins traveling in the exact opposite direction: Tarshish.  He runs from God’s call and tries to escape the responsibility that has been given him.  In Jonah’s mind, the “grass was greener” in Tarshish.  Tarshish was a paradise, an attractive alternative to God’s command.

Thinking he has come up with a brilliant plan to escape God’s call, Jonah goes down to the port in Joppa and goes down into a ship.  The ship sets off across the Mediterranean.  Displeased with Jonah’s decision, God hurls a mighty wind at the sea.  Chaos engulfs the sea, threatening the very ship Jonah is riding.  The sailors are greatly distressed and begin sacrificing the cargo to appease the gods.  Despite the danger, Jonah is in the belly of the ship sleeping.

The captain finds Jonah fast asleep.  “Are you out of your mind!?”  The captain can’t believe Jonah is not praying to his god.  He commands him to begin praying so that the gods may yet have mercy.  Isn’t it a bit ironic that the one acquainted with the true God of the universe is found fast asleep while everyone is in peril?  Jonah had been lulled asleep and it is only after the captain wakes him up and the sailors question him that Jonah begins to proclaim YHWH as sovereign Lord of heaven, sea, and land!

Perhaps we have all journeyed to Tarshish.  We have heard God’s call, but we ignored it and turned to run in the opposite direction.  Our way seemed more exciting, more in line with our desires.  The Church is all too familiar, we are all too familiar, with having been lulled asleep in the ship of convenience, comfort, and consumerism.

Like Jonah, we often don’t realize the disaster that has befallen us and others.  Our eyes are closed to the world around us as we do our best to make our way to Tarshish.  After all, it is easy to love those who love us.  It is manageable to forgive those who are most like us.  It is possible to give our resources to those who are trying to help themselves.

But, in the same breath we dismiss the call to love our enemies, to do good to those who persecute us, and to bless those who curse us.  Like Jonah, we just as soon let our enemies get what is coming to them.  We can recite Jesus’ command to love our enemies, but we celebrate the death of known terrorist leaders.  We hear God’s call to serve the poor in our communities, yet churches move to “better” neighborhoods so that we might be appealing and safe.  We know God has called us to be light… and that often entails walking into the darkest regions of our world that most need that Light!  When we hear the command to “go,” we sometimes react like Jonah… we board the nearest ship for Tarshish.

Recall our friend Dana.  Nearly six months after her separation with her husband, Ken became extremely sick.  He was experiencing excruciating pain in his back and was rendered nearly immobile.  Nobody was there to take care of him; his friends were more interested in his money than helping him.

Dana still felt great anger toward Ken.  Who could blame her!?  Yet, God placed it upon Dana’s heart to take care of Ken.  It was one of the most difficult decisions she ever had to make, especially as everyone else was telling her that she was crazy for helping him.  Dana, however, felt sure that God was calling her to do this difficult task.  For the next few months, she cared for Ken, making sure that everything that needed to be done was done.  In this, she hoped that God’s message of love would finally find root.

We like to think we might be faithful to God’s call, like Dana.  Yet, if we are truly honest, many times we more closely resemble Jonah.  When faced with a call that is distasteful or difficult, we turn the other way.  We are fine with doing the bare minimum to call ourselves Christian, but we like doing so without the Cross.  Dying to self is not a popular option.

Jonah’s decision to run away from God’s call led him down to Joppa, down below deck, and, finally, down to the belly of a great fish.  Chaos had ensued and impacted more than just Jonah.  There’s a trend here.  Jonah’s disobedience leads him down, down, down… it is the place of God’s judgment.  Yet, even in God’s judgment, mercy is extended to Jonah.  God’s vehicle of judgment becomes Jonah’s way of salvation.  He is swallowed by the fish and remains there for three days and three nights.

Wake up, O Sleeper!  Wake up, O Church!  We may have been headed on the way to Tarshish, but God is pursuing us.  The boat we are riding may be tossing and turning.  It may seem like we are sinking fast, waiting for one more breaker to capsize our ship.  Our running has brought chaos into our lives and the lives of others… we might think that we are beyond saving.  But, praise God that God’s judgment is not the final word.  God’s judgment intends to bring salvation!

Although our story follows Jonah, he is not the model of faith for us.  Rather, it is the pagan sailors that set us an example.  In response to God’s judgment, the sailors greatly feared the Lord, offered sacrifices to the Lord and made vows.  They are the model for us from this story about an appropriate response to what God is doing among us.

We may find ourselves wrestling with a difficult call that God has given us.  It may be that we are running from that call.  Tarshish may be luring us in the opposite direction.  We may be experiencing the storm of God’s judgment.

Wherever it is that we find ourselves this morning, let us respond in faith and trust in the One, True God.  Entrust ourselves to God’s direction and calling.  Sacrifice our lives as a living sacrifice to God Almighty; offer our whole selves to God.  Finally, with God’s help, let us commit ourselves to God alone.  Let us devote ourselves to the Lord’s call upon our lives, both as individuals and as the Church.  Let us pray.