Sermon for Christ the King, C Nov. 21, 2010 on Luke 23:33-43

Luke 23:33-43

Messiah and Monarchy

"King of the Jews"

 

The text from Luke which we have read may sound out of place today.  On the week that we are all anticipating Thanksgiving, this text sounds like we have jumped ahead to Good Friday.  The reason this was chosen was for the ironic inscription that Pilate had nailed to Jesus’ cross.  Thinking that he was mocking a failed revolutionary, he wrote for all to see, “the king of the Jews.”  He had no idea how true that sign was, and today, at the end of the church year, we joyfully celebrate the Sunday of Christ the King.

Israel’s Demand to become a Monarchy

Those of you who come to Bible Study or my Sunday School class know that I have a strong interest in the ancient Israelite monarchy – specifically about how bad it was.  I make a big deal out of the fact that the biblical story tells us that the Israelites came out of Egypt as a collection of tribes – a tribal confederacy.  Later on they demanded a king so that they could be like all the other nations.  They went to the prophet Samuel, and he was displeased with the idea, but God consoled him saying, “Don’t take it personally Samuel, they are not rejecting you, they are rejecting me as their king.”  The monarchy was a rejection of God as king, in favor of a human king (1 Sam 8).

That’s a huge statement.  If the very idea of having a human king is the rejection of God from being king, then the dozens and dozens of chapters that follow from 1 Samuel all the way to the end of 2 Kings is the story of a tragic mistake.

Everything Changed

The move from tribal confederacy to monarchy changed everything.  The whole nation was re-structured from a land of equals who were bound together by covenant to a kingdom which now had opulent state buildings to build and maintain and a lavish court to support.  Of course, the man at the top, the king, would make sure he had a huge palace and temple, and would start acting like all the other kings did – as its chief priest (which is exactly what Solomon did).

Remember the story: the Israelites had come out of slavery in Egypt ready to stop being

his highness the king

slaves.  Moses gave them a design for being a community connected by covenant relationships and obligations.  In that great vision, everyone was supposed to have his own land, his “inheritance” on which to be a responsible, productive member of the community, producing enough for his family after he had given his first fruits and tithes to God. A portion of his tithe was designated for support for the poor, for widows and orphans.   In this covenantal community there was to be justice in the courts, no special treatment for wealthy persons, no neglect of the rights of the powerless.

 

There is this odd paragraph in the Torah, in Deuteronomy, that seems to make allowance for having a king (Deut 17).  In it Moses says that if, in the future, they want a king, they can have one, but that he cannot be above anybody else, or become wealthy or have a harem, and that he should have the Torah read to him every day to let him know who is the boss.   Of course a king like that would not be a king at all; it’s meant to be ironic.

The Covenanted Community with God as King

Israel as a covenant community was supposed to have God as her king.  God was the one who created each person, male and female, in his image.  He was not like the nature gods of the surrounding nations who acted on their whims to be good or bad or completely indifferent.  The nature gods did not care at all who you lied to, stole from or cavorted with, as long as you kept them fed and honored correctly.

By stark contrast, Yahweh, the God of Israel, as described in torah, was morally good, and cared about everything.  Israel’s God cared about stealing, lying, murder, adultery corruption, and favoritism.  He was personally concerned about justice, especially for the weak and powerless.  God was Israel’s king – that is until he got rejected in favor of a human king.

So Israel became a monarchy and it did not take long for them to literally become like all the nations around them.  Things went from bad to worse, the nation split in two, and each part was eventually conquered by a neighboring empire, Israel, the Northern 10 tribes by Assyria in 721 BC, and Judah, the Southern 2 tribes by Babylon in 586 BC.  Along the way they lost sight of their covenantal bonds and mutual obligations.  The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, family land was permanently lost, and the king and his court lived off the rest (see especially the book of Amos).

Israel in Exile: re-thinking it all

So when it had finally come to an inglorious end and the survivors were sitting in Babylon, some of them began to reflect on what had happened.  How did we get here?  What went wrong?  Is there any hope for us now?  If there is hope, if somehow God would allow us to start over back in our land again, how should we live as a people?  What about the monarchy?

During that time, most of the books that we now call the Old Testament were organized into the form that we are familiar with today.  Israel collected and re-told their collected stories of the past – starting with the story Creation; of the One God, the Creator who made the world, and people and blessed them.

Letting the Psalms sing

As they were collecting and editing the documents of their past, they included a huge collection of poetry that we call the Psalms.  They organized the Psalms methodically to help answer those questions: what kind of people were we made to be?   If we ever go back home from Babylon, what kind of a  people should we be?

At the center of their perspective was the assertion that Yahweh is Israel’s rightful  king!  We translate it into English “The LORD is King!” Repeatedly that refrain rings out: “The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice” (97:1), “God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.”  (47:8)

The Prophetic Imagination

The prophets who spoke the Word of the Lord to the people in that time of exile in Babylon helped them to imagine a future day in which God would return to Zion as King.  He would return in and through his anointed Messiah who would come in the Spirit of the Lord to proclaim that their time of exile had finally come to an end.  He would come to announce that the Kingdom of God had come!

The Upside-down Kingdom

What would this kingdom of God look like?  Well compared to the rest of the world, it would

justice for all

look upside down.  The blessed people would not be the rich, the famous, and the powerful, but the blessed would be the peacemakers, the pure in heart, the meek.  In the upside down kingdom, the first would be last and the last first.  In the Kingdom of God, instead of seeking vengeance, people would seek and give forgiveness, even 70X7 times a day.  In the kingdom of God, people would not run around like mad seeking material wealth and power, but rather they would seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, being confident that if they did, the God of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air would take care of them (Matthew 7).

 

In this kingdom, every act of kindness would be highly valued – in fact every compassionate action would be taken as an act done directly to the Lord, the King.  Every time you fed the hungry, every time you provided clothing, even a cup of water given to a person in need would, in the Kingdom of God, be taken as an act done directly for the King himself (Matt. 25).

In this kingdom, you may still hear it said “you shall love your friends and hate your enemies” but that was the past.  Now the rule is “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44)

In this kingdom, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” but the rule now is “Do not resist an evildoer… if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matt 5:38-39)

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

This is exactly what Jesus understood was happening.  He knew that God had given him the vocation, the calling, to be his Messiah, his anointed one, the new king, to announce that God’s kingdom had come.  He came to throw open the doors of the kingdom to everyone – to sinners and to the unclean, to lepers and to Samaritans, to tax collectors and prostitutes, to Roman soldiers and Canaanite women.  All were invited to leave behind the old way of living and to put their faith and trust in God who makes all things new, who forgives sins, and who gives life in abundance, as it was meant to be from the beginning.

This is exactly what led Jesus to the cross as he accepted that he was taking on himself the suffering due the nation.  It was on that cross that he announced forgiveness to the people who put him there saying “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”  Maybe looking up at the sign that read “the King of the Jews” on Jesus’ cross, the criminal next to him said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Lk 22:42)  Jesus assured him “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  (v. 43)

Christ is King!

Today we celebrate Christ the King.  We pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth” (here and now) “as it is in heaven.”  The only question that remains to us is where we find ourselves in relation to the king and His kingdom.  Today we ask ourselves, am I seeking first “the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” or am I seeking the kingdom of self, or wealth or power or pleasure?

Today is the day we re-assert that it is not the kingdom of God, but the world that is upside down in relation to God.  We will be citizens of the Christ’s Kingdom.  We will join him in extending the welcome of God to everyone in Jesus’ name.  Christ is King!  Amen.

 

Sermon for 33rd Ordinary C, Nov. 14, 2010 Dedication Sunday, Isaiah 12:1-6

Dedication

Offering

Isaiah 12:1-6

1 You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.

2  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

3  With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.

5  Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.

6  Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

I spent a summer in Africa living with a local pastor, Rev. Ogada and his family.  I never got over it.  He had one of the nicer places in the village: instead of a thatched roof, which needs constant maintenance, his mud hut had a tin roof.  While we were there, his infant son died.  They had taken him to a clinic, but it lacked the medicine he needed.  He had lost other babies too.  That’s Africa.

I did nothing clever to be born here in America instead of Kenya.  Neither did I have anything to do with the fact that I was born into a two-parent, white, middle class family, who loved and cared for me every day of my life.

I did not create this country’s educational system that I have benefited from, nor its freedom nor its vast opportunities.  I did nothing to deserve our legal system which, though not perfect, at least seeks to be free of bias based on race, class, or inside-connections – unlike so many places in the world today.

Our response of gratitude

We all are the recipients of blessing after blessing for which we can take no credit.  We are here this morning to show the extent of our gratitude.  We are here to dedicate ourselves to God for the coming year.  We have already sung songs of praise and worship, we have lifted up our hearts in prayer.  Soon we will all come with our pledge cards and our time and talent surveys and bring them up to the front of the church to dedicate them and ourselves to God.   What we bring will reveal and celebrate the extent of our gratitude.

Jesus told us, without any hesitation or fear of offending us that where our treasure is, there our hearts are also.  We will dedicate today the treasure of our precious time, the treasure of our experience and skills, and the treasure of our limited resources.   The motivation that brings us here is simply gratitude to God because we understand that everything we have, all that we have become, all that we possess and all that we are able to do is a gift from him.

Isaiah’s lesson in Gratitude

The text we read from the prophet Isaiah is a fire-hose torrent of gratitude.  We will look at it together and let those ancient words guide us and form us as people of faith, people of gratitude.  We will see that our reasons for gratitude will expand and deepen as we reflect on the scripture before us.

The text of the prophet Isaiah imagines a future day in which God has acted in powerful ways on behalf of his people.  Isaiah, in the voice of poetic verse sings:

1 You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.

Anger Turned Away: gratitude

The Lord we worship and serve is not distant or uninvolved.  What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas, what happens in Washington, and in Montgomery, and in Bay Minette and in Gulf Shores and under my roof does not stay there.  The Lord who created me and us and them and all of us knows, and cares.

He is morally good, and he is perfectly just; he is in opposition to evil in all its destructive forms.  So yes, he has cause to be angry.  Just look around.  If the wrongs of the world get you  upset, think how God feels.  We too must take our place among the guilty; we do not love the Lord nor our neighbor to the degree he requires; he does not believe our excuses.

But as the prophet proclaims, “your anger turned away, and you have comforted me.”  Anger is never the last word.  God’s final goal is not to punish, but to redeem, to restore, to transform sinful people like us into people of faith and gratitude.

Unlike the millions of people who think that God is perpetually upset with them, unlike those miserable souls who believe they have to earn God’s mercy and always fear that they have not done enough, we are here to celebrate the knowledge that God’s anger has turned away, and he has comforted us!

The prophet sings of the intervention of God and of our response:

2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

God, instead of being the Grand Inquisitor, has become the source of our salvation.  If Isaiah had cause to be grateful, we have more.  We understand that Jesus Christ, God’s Son came to redeem us from sin and evil.  We know that he died and rose for us: God has become our salvation.

Response: Trust

dedication

 

What could our response possibly be other than, as Isaiah says, to “trust, and not be afraid”?  Grateful people trust that God who has saved them in the past is able to sustain them in the present and to provide for their future. We gladly affirm, with the prophet: “The LORD GOD is my strength and my might” We are people of trust.  Trust opens our hearts to generosity because a heart that trusts God has been set free from slavery to self, to fear, to avarice.

How does Isaiah express this?  From the ancient middle east where the most precious liquid commodity, even today, is not oil, but water, the prophet turns it into a symbol of God’s grace:

3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name;

make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.

God is not only all knowing and morally good, God is not only the source of our salvation, he is also available day and night to the call of his people.  Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name.” The sequence here is not accidental: when we approach God to call on his name, we come first with thanksgiving.  Gratitude is at the heart of our prayers and is the first thing out of our mouths when we call on the name of the Lord.  If we understand that he is there, and listening, then we have a reason to give thanks, regardless of what else happens.

Public Acts, Public Praise

There is something necessarily public going on here.  God’s saving actions are both personal and also public.  He set the Hebrews free from slavery in Egypt.  He led them into the promised land.  In our day he has broken down barriers of discrimination and oppression here and around the world.  His people have built schools, hospitals, taught people how to read and write.  He has restored broken addicts and brought hope to people by the millions.  His work in the world is public, and so his praise is fittingly public.

The prophet boldly proclaims:

4 make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.

Public worship, specifically through singing praise is our response to his enormous blessings.

5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

In Our Midst

in our midst

 

That last phrase is perhaps the most powerful: “great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” God is God – not a mortal; he is one whose face no one can see and survive; he is the essence of divinity – or as the ancients said, “holy.”  The New Testament affirms that God “dwells in unapproachable light.”  (1 Tim. 6:16)

Something inside of all of us longs to make a connection with the  infinite, eternal, invisible God – but how could we?   Our story of the original Garden of Eden gave us a glimpse of what we long for: Adam and Eve in communion with God who would walk with them in the Garden, in the cool of the evening; a vision of perfection.  But it didn’t last long.  Now we feel that yawning gulf of separation.

But God has bridged that gulf and has come to live among his people.  God is not on a distant cloud or shut up in a temple.  Isaiah sings: “ great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”  He is here, right now in our midst – and always is.

Isaiah’s text  has deepened our gratitude from the material to the utterly spiritual.    Now is our time to demonstrate the extent of our gratitude to God!  Now is our time to renew our dedication.  Now is our time to assert our faith and trust, and to proclaim in public and with joy: Great in our midst is the Holy One.

Let us praise him by bringing our pledges and time and talent surveys in an act of gratitude and praise.

 

Sermon for 32nd Ordinary, C, Nov. 7, 2011 Haggai 1:15b—2:9

Haggai 1:15b—2:9

Everything is Gift

it's all gift

Haggai looked around at the people, working to rebuild their homes after so many years away.  These were the ones who returned to the Promised Land from their 70 year exile in Babylon.  Times were difficult.  No one had too much.  Everything had been destroyed by the Babylonians all those years ago and now the effort to put it back together was slogging along.

The prophet Haggai understood that what was happening, the rebuilding, was part of a larger story.  He wanted to put the picture of their efforts in a lager frame, bigger than the individual efforts of each one.  He wanted his people to see that they were actually part of a story of God’s promise and faithfulness that started long ago – all the way back to the promise to Abraham and the miracle of the exodus from Pharaoh’s Egypt so long ago.  Haggai knew that this community was experiencing the blessings of God’s grace, even though times were difficult at present.

And so his message is a message of hope and encouragement – but with a specific intent.  He knew that in order for the community to come together, it had to come together as a worshipping community.  The temple too had been destroyed by the Babylonians 70 years ago.  It was not enough for everyone simply to rebuild their own homes.  Haggai called them to rebuild the place of worship, the temple.

Haggai’s message of encouragement and hope is completely relevant for us today.  These are not easy times; perhaps the glory days seem past.  But even though difficult, these are time in which we too are experiencing God’s blessing.   Let’s review a bit.

Everything is gift

Everything is gift; everything has been given.  Let’s think about this for a moment.  This

source: Pink Scarf

Thursday is Veteran’s Day: veterans know better than most that life itself is a gift.  To be among those who came home from the battlefield is to be the recipient of the gift of the sacrifice and courage of many whose final resting place is on foreign soil.

 

Freedom is also a gift of God.  What if we had not won the “Great War??  What a gift it is to live where no one is either forced to worship nor prevented in any way from worshipping God.

None of us choose the nation of our birth, but what a gift we have received on the first day of our lives, to take our first breath on free soil in such a prosperous place.  We love to complain about our nation’s problems, but most of the people of the world would trade places with us in a heartbeat!  Life here and now is a tremendous gift.

Intangible, Powerful Gifts

Some people are fond of thinking of themselves as achievers whose present prosperity is the reward for many years of discipline and diligence.  Of course if we had not studied well, worked hard, applied ourselves, even sacrificed we would not have achieved as much, but let us think about this a bit deeper.

Every aspect of our present success involves receiving many gifts.  We were blessed by the gifts of dedicated teachers from grade-school all the way to our final courses.   We grew up surrounded by books in our homes, libraries in our towns, and educational resources galore.  Most of us received, through no achievement of our own, an appreciation for the value of that education.  Our parents cared (that’s why sometimes we had to hide our report cards) and their caring made us understand that even though we were often bored in school, learning mattered.

Most of us had families who were able to take care of us, put food on the table and a roof over our heads, and a Turkey on the table at Thanksgiving.  Deeper than that, we received gifts of learning things we didn’t even know we were learning.  As Dad or Mom, or both went off to work and waited until pay-day to be rewarded for it, we learned the value of delayed-gratification.  We cannot take credit for understanding that today as if we figured it out on our own.  It came as gift.

When they disciplined us for telling lies or taking what belonged to someone else and making us share what we owned, they were giving us the gift of  moral values: honesty, loyalty, courage, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, hope; these were not our own accomplishments; we received the gift of positive moral formation from others.  Even our respect for hard work and our fortitude in the face of calamity were  given to us as gifts as we grew up observing others who modeled for us a life of goodness.

Probably most of us are here in church today because we received the gift of a spiritual formation over many years, first from our families, then from our churches; we have been surrounded by people of faith who have taught us, nurtured us, encouraged us, and who were our role models of Christian living.

We could continue this all day: everything we have is gift; we are blessed!  And so we are people of enormous gratitude to God.  To top everything off he has given us the gift of himself.  He wants to be our God, and wants us to be his people.  He gave us his Son who gave himself to us, even to the point of death on a cross to redeem us from sin and death, and now daily, and even moment by moment, he gives us the gift of his present Holy Spirit.  Everything is gift, and we are grateful.

The Gift of Torah

What is more, we have received, as Jewish people say it, the “gift of Torah” – God’s guidance

from Jade M. Sheldon

and instruction, the Bible.  Let us spend a moment with the gift of this wonderful passage from the prophet Haggai.

 

It was to a group of discouraged people that Haggai wrote these words:

4 …take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.

Haggai gave to his worried, stressed-out, disheartened countrymen the gift of hope;  there was a future that God had for them.  How could they be sure that a future hope was real?  They could remember the past.  They could remember all the gifts God had given them throughout their years; they could remember all the way back to their time of slavery in Egypt hundreds of years ago.  The God who promised to be with Moses and to lead them in to the promised land had proven his faithfulness: they were not slaves of Pharaoh, they were in their land.

That promise must certainly be in effect because they had experienced a second exodus more recently.  They had been captured and carried into virtual slavery by the Babylonians.  But the Babylonians were no more.  They had been conquered by the Persians.  The Persians had allowed the Jews to return to their land and rebuild homes and temple.  Haggai reminds them that he is writing during the reign of Persian king Darius who would not stop them from rebuilding the temple so that they could resume the daily sacrifices that had been snuffed out 70 years earlier.

Haggai gave his people the gift of hope, reminding them of God’s promise:

5  “…my spirit abides among you; do not fear.”

Listening to his message were people who were old enough to have seen the temple before the Babylonians destroyed it.  They were understandably discouraged.  Perhaps some of you can identify with them; they had seen the glory days which made the present look ominous.  They were trying to rebuild, but times were hard; it was not easy.

Looking Beyond the Present

Haggai gives them even more cause for hope.  He invites them to look beyond their own limitations.  God is the God of the whole world.  God is the source of every good gift. He is not short on cash this week.  He is not in a sweat about the budget.  He looks at the whole world and says:

8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts.

I wish we had time to look at the whole little book of Haggai – it is a gift indeed.  It goes on to tell of how the people received the gift of hope in his message and began to rebuild the temple.   They laid the foundation just a few months after Haggai’s encouragement.  And what happened?  They were blessed even more.  As they honored God with their generosity, he blessed them with greater prosperity.

We are here as people of hope.  We have even more history, more evidence of God’s faithfulness to his promises from which to receive encouragement than they had.  We who gather here today are the recipients of generations and generations of people who have borne witness to God’s faithfulness to his promises of old.  We receive all of it as pure, unearned gift.

And so, just like the people of Haggai’s day, we respond with generous giving out of grateful

from janoid

hearts.  This is, as we know, simply part of our growing relationship with God.  We live each day with new evidence of God’s faithfulness, and therefore, we grow in our ability to trust him with tomorrow.  We grow in our ability to trust him with our “gold and silver” because we recognize that all of it is his anyway, and what we have been given is simply his gift.

 

We believe in giving of our means to the Lord.  We believe in responsible giving which is planned and which is in proportion to our means.  And we believe that God blesses generous, faithful giving.  We believe that the first recipient, when we give, is the one giving.  It is all gift!  We are people of gratitude!  The only question left is, how much is God calling me to give in order to show my gratitude.