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Sermon: They Need No Light of Lamp or Sun

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 22, 2022, Easter 6C

Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5

They Need No Light of Lamp or Sun

The problem with the whole “skip to the end of the book” idea about reading and hearing from the book of Revelation in this season is that inevitably things happen out there that drag us back to the dark places of this world, the things that drove us to look for that good ending in the first place. 

The news of mass shootings last Saturday and Sunday – one in Buffalo, NY, and the second in Laguna Hills, CA – gashed through the headlines and consciences of readers and watchers like a blast of cold air on a hot day, a wake-up call that has had to be sounded too many times for too many years now. As more news emerged about each attack, it became clear that both of them were acts of hatred: the Buffalo shooter, was an all-too-familiar figure, a white man killing blacks out of racial hatred; the California shooter, while fewer details are clear yet, was apparently of Chinese background and apparentlyacted out of hatred against Taiwan in attacking the members of a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church housed in the facility of a larger PC(USA) church in Laguna Hills. 

If we ever needed a reminder that we have not drawn all that near to the Holy City of John’s vision in these final chapters of Revelation, there’s one for you.

While the reading for today continues in describing this new Jerusalem, much of the more detailed stuff is omitted from the lectionary selection – detail about the measurements of the city and the specific precious stones that parts of the city were made of. These had meaning to John and his immediate readers, but are less significant for our modern understanding of this passage, frankly. 

The arresting detail is introduced in 21:22, one which provides the thematic backbone of the whole reading. In surveying this Holy City coming down from on high, the vision-receiver John sees no temple. 

In that age gods lived in temples. No matter what religion or cult you spoke of, one could point to some kind of temple, whether a place in nature or a human-built edifice, gods lived in temples. Even among the people of Israel the capital-T Temple in Jerusalem had come to be regarded as the earthly dwelling place of Yahweh, God Most High, even if God’s own self sometimes protested against this in their history. That particular interpretation of the Temple suffered a tremendous blow in the year 70 after the Roman destruction of that Temple. To borrow from Psalm 42, “where is your God now?” 

Instead of any building, John reports, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” To borrow a phrase from Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, “God’s promise is not place; it’s presence.” The point of this new Jerusalem is not a building to which we go and perform all our religious rituals; the point is living directly, without mediation or obstruction, in the presence of God. 

The next verse amplifies this one: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The direct presence of God, it seems, is without darkness; the light of God pervades everywhere, in every place in this new Jerusalem.

Chapter 22 introduces more features of this city, one of which helps fill in references earlier in the book such as 7:17 or 21:6; we now see the “river of the water of life,” the same river that provided the inspiration for the last hymn we’ll sing today. The tree of life, with its multiplicity of fruit and leaves “for the healing of the nations,” is also there. At the absolute minimum these do remind us that just because we’re in the Holy City and not the Garden of Eden doesn’t mean that creation has no place in it. They also remind us of the harmony of humanity and creation that was meant to be, before human fallenness and corruption spoiled that harmony, and creation with it. 

Amidst all these scenes of splendor there are a couple of cautionary notes sounded. Back in 21:27 we are instructed of this city that “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood…“. Then, in 22:3, we see that “nothing accursed will be found there any more…“. This is the kind of passage that some preachers might be tempted to use as a pivot to a lengthy discourse on Hell or something like that, but here in this reading we are told nothing of what becomes of “anyone who practices abomination or falsehood“; we simply learn that such cannot enter the Holy City.

This probably sounds like warning enough, but in fact to John’s readers this also serves as reassurance. Remember, we are speaking of John’s audience as people who live under the increasing threat of oppression, either from Rome directly or from their own neighbors seeking to prove their allegiance to Rome. Either way, this word comes as reassurance that the oppression and persecution looming now will not be able to enter the new Jerusalem. One can safely interpret that those of later times and even our own time who faced such trials can take the same comfort from this vision. One might also suppose that those who practice such persecution or oppression (those who seek to bind and punish others based on their own religious beliefs, for example) would be among those who cannot enter the Holy City. What is unclean, what is accursed or abomination or falsehood, simply cannot exist in the direct, unmediated presence of God.

What we read here in the remainder of this passage recapitulates some of the greatest glories of John’s vision so far. God’s servants see God’s face and worship God, with nothing in the way, with no temple to hold in God’s glory. Night is no more; “they need no light of lamp or sun,” as John describes with great poetic flourish. “The Lord God will be their light,” John tells us. 

So is the glorious hope awaiting us, the ones who endure and (as we were reminded in chapter 7) keep bearing faithful witness, not dissuaded or distracted by the pressures or the lures of the empires around us vying for our worship. 

Amidst the darkness and abomination around us, amidst the falsehood glorified in everything from our politics to our leisure to, frankly, our practice of Christianity in far too many cases these days, we are called to bear witness. That’s what gets into the Lamb’s book of life that comes up in 21:27. It is not about going out and conquering anything; it isn’t about being warriors or conquerors or any of that stuff; again, it is about bearing witness. And we have hope for what awaits us when we do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #403, Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty; #375, Shall We Gather at the River

Sermon: The Holy City and the Missing Sea

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 15, 2022, Easter 5C

Revelation 21:1-6

The Holy City and the Missing Sea

While our short visit in the book of Revelation has not included much of the strangest material in the book (the stuff that would take more time to unpack than a sermon allows), know that it’s there; seven seals and seven trumpets and seven bowls, all bringing about hardship on the earth; various beasts or dragons rising up out of the sea, with highly symbolic numbers of heads and horns; and ultimately the vanquishing of those various beasts and their allies. By the time we get to chapter 21 and today’s reading, it’s all over but the shouting – in this case, shouting of praises and glorification. We really are at “the end of the book,” where we see that all does get made right at the last despite all the horror that came before. 

Even so, those basic rules about reading Revelation apply – nothing is straightforward, everything is in code. That said, there are some interesting aspects of this part of John’s vision that are potentially illuminating for us modern readers, once we sort through John’s colorful metaphors.

One of these is right there in the first verse, something that must seem very strange to those of us who live in a state mostly surrounded by water. “A new heaven and a new earth,” sure, particularly if as he continues “the first heaven and earth had passed away“; but what is this business about how “the sea was no more“??? What’s that about?

There are a lot of different potential levels to this description. The history of the people of Israel had included a lot of enemies who came from over the sea. In current times and all across the Mediterranean, the sea was largely the domain of – you guessed it – the Roman Empire, and much of the trade in goods and precious rarities – and yes, slaves – happened across the sea. In short, it was the scene of a lot of bad things besides the ordinary ship-wrecking storms that any traveler faced. Perhaps on account of these perils, John’s vision of all those beasts and dragons tends to indicate that they come from the sea. The sea was, in this vision, a place of turbulence and threat.

God isn’t playing out some vague animus against oceans here; to speak of the sea being “no more” becomes a coded message that those things that threaten the faithful are gone. No more Roman Empire. No more slave-trading. No more oppressors coming out of or across the sea. Those things that threaten are removed from the world. 

This aspect of the vision is amplified in verse 4. When the loud voice from the throne of verse 3 declares that “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away,” it reinforces the release and rescue suggested in the passing of the first heaven and earth and, yes, the absence of the sea. “Mourning and crying and pain will be no more” because the things that cause mourning and crying and pain will be no more. 

To be sure, the missing sea is not the highlight of this vision; for John and for those reading or hearing, it’s all about the Holy City, the new Jerusalem.

The rest of chapter 21, after our reading is completed, is devoted to a description of this city as seen in John’s vision. It’s full of precious gems and stones as building materials, and streets of pure gold that were also translucent like glass. Next week’s reading will pick up in verse 22, so we’ll save that part for then. But even right here in verse 2, there are two highly significant aspects of this Holy City that we should not miss. 

One such thing that seems to be overlooked often is that this new Jerusalem comes down in all its glory. Notice that in this passage there isn’t anything about anybody “going up.” Much as verse 4 amplified verse 1, so verse 3 fills in the implications of verse 2: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…” 

Note several things here: the use of the plural “peoples,” which fits nicely with that multitude of every tribe and language of last week’s reading from chapter 7; the echo of the tabernacle that moved with the Hebrew people on their exodus from Egypt; the use of the word “dwell,” with was often used of that tabernacle as the “dwelling place of God” and indicates that the one dwelling – God, in this case – is there to stay. 

God comes down to dwell with God’s people. This is, as this vision has it, the shape of eternity. 

Now let’s not overlook that other aspect of verse 2; what comes down, this home of God among mortals, is in fact a Holy City. And even this has implications that we might not expect.

There is sometimes a tendency to think of “paradise,” or whatever term one uses for the blessed kind of eternity, as some kind of restored Eden, some manner of bucolic garden setting. Even on a more earthly level, think of how often someone’s “dream vacation” somehow involves “getting away” not just from the mundane life of work and home, but also “getting away” from, frankly, other people. Then we end up all disappointed when where we’ve chosen for this “dream vacation” turns out to be even more crowded than back home. There’s a part of us that wants to get away from other people sometimes. 

That’s not what happens in a holy city. The implication of living in a city is that, inevitably, others are unavoidable. Unless you’re going to hole yourself up in your house or apartment and never ever ever leave at all, you’re going to encounter other people. It can sound pretty awful for an extreme introvert, to be sure, but city life inevitably involves negotiating some way to live with one another. 

Even at the last, life in Christ, under God’s reign and supported by the Spirit and all those other ways we describe it, is in community. Remember that Jesus didn’t walk the earth alone; the community of disciples (twelve and otherwise) were his constant companions. Even in eternity we don’t live in isolation. God’s dwelling place with mortals and all the peoples is going to be, well, crowded in the way a city can be. Paradise is not a personal retreat away from everybody else. The children of God will remain a plural entity for all eternity. Even here at the end of scripture, the principal pronouns are “us” and “we,” and frankly, we’d better get used to it. 

God comes down to dwell with us.

God comes down to dwell with us.

God comes down to dwell with us

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #—, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling; #517, Here, O Our Lord, We See You; #—, See the New Jerusalem

Personally I’m still fond of the sea…

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Sermon: Shepherd and Lamb

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 8, 2022, Easter 4C

Revelation 7:9-17

Shepherd and Lamb

A couple of weeks ago, in starting this series of texts selected from the book of Revelation, I suggested that in doing so we were skipping ahead to “the end of the book,” so to speak, to make sure all comes out alright in the end. It seems that John, the elder credited with writing this apocalyptic visionary text, had the same idea in mind; today’s reading represents John doing something similar with his account, “skipping ahead” to this scene of joy and redemption in the midst of a dark passage in his apocalyptic vision.

Chapter 6 contains an account of the breaking open of seven seals on a scroll, which released upon the world what some call “apocalyptic devastation.” To give some sample of what happens as a result, the breaking of the first four of those seals on the scroll is the source of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” motif one hears about incessantly in some renderings of the End Times. Read from the perspective of those who suffer oppression in the world, those seven seals come across as the powerful and oppressive rulers of the world finally getting their “just desserts,” facing the consequences of their oppression of the world at long last. After the sixth such release, which sets the kings and rulers of the earth running and hiding, that account is interrupted by the vision of chapter 7, in which we are taken back (or forward, technically) to visions of heavenly praise and glorification, one of which begins in verse 9.

The vision unfolds here of a “great multitude no one could count.” John specifically points out that this great multitude is not limited to one kind or race or nation; “all tribes and peoples and languages” are represented in this number. They stand robed in which and carrying palm branches (the echo of Palm Sunday is probably not a coincidence), and shout aloud “Victory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” The Lamb in question first appears in chapter 5; in a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, that Lamb is first introduced as “the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the shoot growing from David’s stock” who is worthy to break those seals on the scroll. If that sounds like a reference to Jesus, especially that talk about the tribe of Judah and David’s line, you’re catching on. However, even though he is proclaimed as a Lion, the one who appears is this Lamb. This isn’t the last bit of identity-shifting we’ll see in regard to this Lamb. 

After the praise of the great multitude, the host of heavenly beings introduced earlier in the book let loose their exclamation in song, echoing the praises heard in chapter 5, touched upon briefly two weeks ago. The elder who has been serving as John’s guide through this vision engages John with almost a taunting question, asking John what he very well knows John does not know; when John wisely demurs, the elder launches into the description that makes up the rest of the chapter. 

At this point we need to remind ourselves of two things about Revelation; one is that, as with the epistles of Paul and others that make up much of the New Testament, we are reading somebody else’s mail. The second is that, due to the circumstances of exile in which John writes, it’s a coded message. Remembering this is how we begin to make sense of this passage, especially verse 14. 

The “great ordeal” of verse 14 does not need to be tied to any specific event; the persecution John and others are now facing, and which John is sure is coming for those to whom he writes, is a clear enough reference here. The reference in this case can be expanded for those who face persecution for their faith in all ages. Revelation scholar Brian Blount (1) points out that the Greek of verse 14 is structured in such a way that each clause about this multitude is not narrating a sequence of events but offering clarification of one event. He offers as a modern phrasing “These are the ones who went through the great tribulation, which is to say, they washed their robes; that is, they made them dazzling in the blood of the Lamb.” 

And what was it that those of this multitude did? What do these phrases mean? The very thing that John was encouraging his readers to do in the seven letters of chapters 2-3; they bore witness, not just in word but especially in deed. They did not accommodate to Roman lordship or pay religious homage to the emperor. They did not seek to cling to the economic or social or political benefits of imperial power. Their allegiance, their worship, lay only with God and with the Lamb. For that, they suffered great trial but continued to bear witness, remaining loyal to God and to the Lamb despite whatever Empire or Commerce or even Social Harmony demanded of them. There were sacrifices, even martyrdom, that happened because of that witness, yes; but John’s message from this vision is not “be martyrs”; it is “bear witness, whatever happens.”

It is for this faithfulness of witness that the great multitude is called to stand in the presence of God without end, worshiping both day and night, and protected in the presence of God. It is this faithfulness of witness that means no more hunger or thirst or scorching of the sun or any such trouble. 

Here comes that other identity shift, in verse 17;

…for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

This is the promise for those who keep on bearing faithful witness, whatever happens. 

Even Psalm 23, with all of its “the Lord is my shepherd,” doesn’t contemplate a shepherd who is also a Lamb. Psalm 23 has become an almost universal text of comfort and reassurance, but it seems that Revelation’s Lamb as shepherd/shepherd as Lamb image is harder for folks to bear. 

Quite a few self-proclaimed Christians, over the centuries and very emphatically today, don’t seem willing to be led by one so humble as a Lamb. They prefer the trappings of empire, the power of unchallenged rule. They lay claim to the governing apparatus of their time – monarchies or parliaments – and our time – legislatures and courts – to enforce their will upon others, stripping away the essential human dignity of every person – every child of God – to enforce dogmas without scriptural foundation and strictures of their own fancying. Far from being the ones who go through the great trial, they become the persecutors; in banning or restricting the work of others based on their own religious dogma, for example, they engage in religious oppression. 

John would be aghast at such behavior, and to say that this is not behavior that puts one at the throne of God and of the Lamb, worshiping continuously day and night in God’s protective presence and led by the Lamb who shepherds them. If anything, that kind of oppressiveness seems a good way to wind up on the business end of those six seals that were released back in chapter 6.

There are those who continue to bear witness. The news came this week of a PC(USA) missionary in the Philippines, Rev. Cathy Chang, who was “red-tagged” by the regime in power there. In the Philippines, “red-tagging” is a form of blacklisting, reserved for those who are deemed insufficiently supportive of that regime. Rev. Chang’s “crime” was apparently to meet with a person who was seeking office there in a political party deemed insufficiently supportive of that regime. A “red-tagged” person can be arrested without charge and gunned down for “resisting arrest” whether they actually resist or not. Some have been gunned down in the street without any pretense of arrest, with no legal repercussions against those who commit the murder. Some have been forced to leave the country. Rev. Chang was scheduled to be part of General Assembly in Louisville this summer; if she does return to the US to participate, she will almost certainly not be permitted to return to her work in the Philippines. 

There are those who continue to bear witness, whatever happens. Let us seek to be among them, and not among the oppressors.

For those who bear witness, whatever happens, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal); #327, From All That Dwell Below the Skies; #274, You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd; #295, Go to the World!

(1) See Brian Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 149ff. Actually just check out the whole commentary.

Sermon: Every Eye Will See

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 24, 2022, Easter 2C

Revelation 1:4-8 (5:11-14)

Every Eye Will See

When I was younger and reading a book in which the plot was going less than wonderfully, I was the type who occasionally would skip ahead to the end of the book, just to make sure things were going to turn out all right and I wasn’t setting myself up for some huge crushing sorrow or disappointment.

If you do that with the Bible, you end up in the book called Revelation. 

This book has acquired over the years a reputation as a deeply strange book, and that reputation is not unwarranted. However, it has also become the object of manipulation for a particular class of preacher or wannabe leader who sees the interior sections of the book, with those dark monsters and major battles and whatnot, as a prime opportunity for currying fear among Christians and ginning up unneeded warrior mentalities and hostility towards, frankly, anyone who could possibly be portrayed as an “enemy.” On the other hand, preachers not of such a mind tend to avoid the book altogether, with the possible exception of one or two passages deemed suitable for funerals.

This is a shame, because actually Revelation is exactly what one is looking for when one “skips to the end of the book,” as in my youthful reading habits. There may be monsters, but there is also, and most importantly, a God who reigns above it all, and to put it mildly, wins in the end. God will not be overthrown; if we take nothing else from Revelation, take that much.

Our reading from chapter 1 is more or less the author’s greeting to his readers or hearers, not completely unlike the openings of all those letters Paul write. This author John (who may or may not be the one who wrote the gospel of that name; scholarly research increasingly suggests he was not) is in a different situation than Paul, though, sent off to exile on a remote island called Patmos and under tight scrutiny in terms of what his letters might containing. Writing around thirty years after Paul’s death, John writes in an age where the church wasn’t quite yet under full-fledged persecution from Rome, but the pressures were increasing, and one who might get “ratted out” by others under Roman rule might suffer John’s fate, or worse. The full-fledged suppression wasn’t quite there, but it was close. 

As a result John writes this missive in metaphor, creating all those monsters and such as a thin veil for the principal villain of the story: the Roman Empire itself. Wrapped around those scenes, though, are episodes of ecstatic praise of God and of the Lamb, the clear reference to Christ, and scenes of the final coming of the Holy City at the book’s climax. Today’s introductory note sets the scene for all that is to be portrayed and introduces two most significant statements about God and God’s doing that are meant to provide the reader with something to hold close while working through the thornier parts of the book.

The first point to be gathered from this greeting is what might called the immutable eternity of God. It’s so significant to John that he cites it twice in this brief greeting, and he does so in a way that delivers a clear shot across the bow of those worldly rulers with pretentions of divine power.

A common attribution to the power of Rome or of its emperor or of the deities to whom its power was attributed was to speak of “the one who was and who is and who will be.” You can see how John’s statement is similar in verses 4 and 8, but the differences are highly significant.

First, John forwards the immediate presence and preeminence of God now. By bumping up the “who is” statement to the front of the attribution John makes clear the importance of the immanence – the presence with power – of God. God is not relegated to mighty deeds of the past, nor is God confined to an unformed hoped-for future glory. God is, and that’s most important of all. God is present now, and God is as much in charge now as God was in that glorious past (which, like in most cases, wasn’t always particularly glorious) and as much in charge now as God will be in that final triumph. John is urging his readers to grasp this now and hold on to it for the rest of the story.

The other difference is also significant. You might note that John’s final clincher in this attribution is not simply the traditional “will be,” but God is “the one who is and who was and who is to come.” God does not merely exist; God acts, and specifically God will come to the people of God, a coming that is described most vividly in verse 7. God isn’t static, and God isn’t finished with this world yet.

Verse 7 also makes another of the key points of this introductory note: this coming of God won’t be quiet. You might remember that after the resurrection of Jesus, the number of those who saw the resurrected Jesus was pretty slight; the disciples and followers of Jesus, mostly. There is that quote from one of Paul’s letter to Corinth that Jesus appeared to five hundred people after his raising, but even that is a fairly small number against the population of the time.

Not so in this future coming. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him…. Even those who put Jesus to death – a first reference to the Roman Empire already – will see the one who they killed returning in glory and power. No secretive stuff here: the whole world will behold. Whether they behold in joy or behold in fear, you might say, is up to them. We’ll get a lot more of this glorious return at the end of the book. 

One more statement worth noting is the now-famous “I am the Alpha and Omega” attribution. Even those for whom the Greek alphabet is, well, all Greek to them have mostly picked up enough to know that those are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God is the beginning of all things, and God is the end of all things – the One to which all is directed and will come at the last. That is fitting for “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”

A little summarizing now, to make up for the fact that I won’t be in this pulpit next week: what follows this introductory section is a set of mini-letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, a region that is now part of western Turkey. The letters are exhortatory in nature and sometimes rather pungent, as John has something rather harsh to say to most of them about their conduct and faithfulness in the increasingly perilous time in which they live. If a preacher gets brave, teaching through those seven letters becomes a stiff and provocative challenge, both to the church and to the preacher. Perhaps at a future time, we’ll see.

After the seven letters comes the heavy visionary part of the book. John’s apocalyptic vision doesn’t dive directly into the monsters and battles, though, The first stop in John’s vision is nothing less than the throne room of God, and scenes of tremendous praise and glorification of God upon the throne. Next week’s reading, which would have been from 5:11-14, gives a flavor of that praise, in words glorious and ecstatic enough to catch the attention of one Charles Jennens, the librettist who created the text for the wildly famous oratorio Messiah by George Friederic Handel; these verses contribute the words for the final chorus of that work, fittingly enough.

The darker stuff begins in chapter 7, and we will touch briefly on that in two weeks. But for now the part on to is what is being made clear from the very beginning: we are here to worship “the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come,” the first and the last, the beginning and the end; the one whom “every eye will see,” and the Jesus who is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of earth.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ is Risen Today; #360, Christ is Coming! #260, Alleluia! Sing to Jesus

Sermon: An Idle Tale

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 17, 2022, Easter Sunday C

Luke 24:1-12

An Idle Tale

As we arrive here at the climax of Luke’s account of the earthly life of Jesus, let us just for a moment return to the opposite end of his life, to the night of his birth. The story as told in this same gospel is intensely familiar; Joseph and Mary having to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no room in the inn, the infant Jesus laid in a feed trough among the animals. Then remember to whom, outside of Mary and Joseph, the news of this birth is first announced. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” You remember, right?

We might not remember that shepherds were, by the standards of society, not the most reliable witnesses. They were necessary, yes – somebody had to watch those sheep. You might even say they were “essential workers,” but you didn’t want to invite one to your home or have one speak up for you in court. “Bottom of the latter” was the typical view of shepherds. For all that, shepherds were the first ones – the only ones, as far as Luke tells us – to receive the announcement of the angels. They went to Bethlehem and saw child and parents, and they returned, presumably to their fields. We don’t know that they ever told anyone else. Given the low status and credibility of shepherds in that culture, any such announcement they might have tried to make would probably have been dismissed as an idle tale.

Of course Jesus grew up, came down to be baptized and then returned to Galilee, something like backwater country compared to Jerusalem. Some of his closest followers were fisherman – again, another group not highly ranked in society. Another follower – one of the twelve – was a tax collector, outright loathed in that society. He didn’t get all bothered when an unknown woman – a “sinner” according to 7:37 – interrupted a gathering to anoint his feet. Much of his time was consumed in being grilled or tested by some religious authority or another. Women composed a significant part of his inner circle, which was another blow to credibility in the eyes of some.

And now, here at the climax, the big surprise ending, the plot twist, the first ones to receive the news of Jesus were some of those women; Luke names Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James among them. The heavenly messengers make their announcement, the women (unlike, say, in Mark’s gospel) eventually “get it,” and they return to the rest of the body of followers to tell this good news. 

And the disciples? Well, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Peter, perhaps still recovering from his denial of Jesus just days before, at least has the decency to go check out the tomb, where he found things just as the women had described. Then he … went home. 

The story does continue from here; we get next the account of Jesus catching up with two followers on the road to Emmaus – not two of the big names, but disciples nonetheless. After the two had returned and told their story, Jesus finally shows himself to the fuller contingent of his followers. 

Finally, it wasn’t an idle tale anymore.

The good news, the greatest news of all, was dismissed by Jesus’s main disciples at least partly because it didn’t come from the right people. Neither the heavenly messengers nor Jesus made their appearance before Peter or James or John, largely the “big three” of the disciples. A few women and a couple of “lesser” disciples. Not the important folk.

Not the pastors of the big-steeple churches, or the pastors of the megachurches, or the political party leaders or the big-money folk. The risen Jesus, just like the Jesus of his earthly ministry, chose to reveal himself and show his power to folks who that society would have considered fringe-dwellers, unimportant, easily ignored or overlooked. 

When we decide that some of the folks around us can be dismissed or overlooked, disregarded or forgotten, we put ourselves at risk of missing out on the greatest news of all. We risk missing out on the doings of the risen Lord. We miss seeing the resurrected Christ because that Christ keeps gravitating to those same marginalized or forgotten people. 

It’s on us to listen to those who bear witness to the resurrected Christ. That’s uncomfortable. We might find ourselves among those who frankly make us nervous or who don’t seem like “our kind of people.” They might even seem like “the least of these,” to borrow from Matthew 25. But that is where the risen Jesus shows up over and over again, and that’s where the good news is, just like on that first Easter day. We’d best listen to the margins.

For witness from the margins, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: #248, Christ is Risen! Shout Hosanna!, #233, The Day of Resurrection, #239, Good Christians All, Rejoice and Sing; #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today

Sermon: The Colt, the Cloaks, and the Crying Out

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 10, 2022, Palm Sunday C

Luke 19:28-44

The Colt, The Cloaks, and the Crying Out

Here we are again, time for another iteration of an extremely familiar story out of the gospels. Each one has its own quirks, as is generally true of any event that is covered in multiple gospels, and yet the fundamental outline and thrust of the story is immediately recognizable, perhaps to the point that we don’t always catch the differences and nuances of each gospel’s account, and therefore we might miss the particular and specific things that each gospel writer is being moved by the Spirit to convey to us.

So, let us pay particular attention to Luke’s account this morning, even if – in defiance to everything that has come to represent this particular occasion on the church calendar – Luke gives us a “Palm” Sunday without any actual palms of any kind. Go back and read it again if you don’t believe me. No palms mentioned.

You could divide this story into three decidedly unequal parts, at least unequal in terms of length. The account of the two disciples fetching a colt is the longest part of the story by number of verses, longer than the actual processional part of the story and substantially so. The section at the end, added to the appointed lectionary reading for the day, is also quite substantial. 

Luke begins this account, after a couple of challenging parables earlier in the chapter, with the dispatch of two unnamed disciples to fetch a colt, for reasons we don’t yet know if we’re following Luke’s account without all that we already know about this story. Jesus’s instructions are almost painfully specific: which town to go to, a colt that has never been ridden, what to say if anyone catches you in the act. Sure enough, everything plays out exactly as Jesus seems to have scripted it, down to telling the owners of the colt “The Lord needs it.” 

Why so specific? In John’s gospel Jesus “found a young donkey” – none of the elaborate scheme found in Luke. Matthew, on the other hand, has the disciples fetching an older donkey and her foal, while Mark at least includes a promise that the colt would be returned immediately. 

One could suggest that Luke, even though he doesn’t include the specific reference, is alluding to the same prophetic source as his fellow gospelers Mark and Matthew. Zechariah 9:9 describes the entry of a king into Jerusalem, in a time of judgment on God’s enemies, with the description” “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” While Matthew actually quotes from this account in his description, it’s pretty clear that this snippet of prophetic oracle figures heavily into how this processional account is reported, and perhaps it’s also on Jesus’s mind. 

One could also argue that there’s a certain amount of parody going on. Jerusalem was fairly well accustomed at this point in its history to large, rather bombastic processionals into the city heralding the arrival of whatever important Roman official was coming into town for whatever occasion. Given the impending observance of Passover and the Roman tendency to suspect an uprising might break out during that festival, it’s quite possible that such a processional might be taking place this same day as Jesus’s entry.

Whatever the case, we move from the carefully prepared procurement of the colt to what at first looks like a rather haphazard start to the processional itself; Jesus’s followers are first found placing their cloaks on the colt for Jesus to sit on, and then spreading more cloaks on the road as Jesus rode along on the road. Again, no palms in Luke’s account.

While this might seem a bit out of nowhere, even the cloaks have precedent in Hebrew scripture. 2 Kings 9 contains an account of the prophet Elisha appointing one of his company to go to a man named Jehu, a commander in the military, and anoint him as king of Israel, finally removing the house of the notorious king Ahab from rule. The prophet does as he is told, and when Jehu’s fellow officers learn what has happened, verse 13 of that chapter records that the commanders “all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.'” Again, what looks a bit random turns out to be a marker of a king’s arrival. While can’t be certain that everyone in Luke’s intended audience would have automatically known these references from Hebrew scripture, for those who did, the signs are clear. 

More scripture references come into play in the cries of the followers of Jesus who accompanied this processional. The first part of their proclamation takes us to Psalm 118:26, heard in today’s first reading. There is a difference, though; here, the disciples are making explicit what has been implied so far, in proclaiming “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The next part sounds recognizable without reference to Hebrew scripture; one can simply think back to the angelic proclamation to the shepherds in chapter 2 of this very gospel to remember why this sounds familiar. Again, though, there is a difference; we now hear “peace in heaven” instead of “peace on earth.” 

But there is more crying out to come. When some of the Pharisees who are in the crowd, probably fearing Roman retribution, try to prevail upon Jesus to quiet this chant, he responds that the stones would cry out if they did not – suggesting, on the surface, that all of nature would be in on this praise. Again, though, Hebrew scripture gives us a reference to think about. Habakkuk 2:9-11 describes those who “get evil gain for their houses” for their own gain at the expense others; the prophet proclaims that “the very stones will cry out from the wall and the plaster will respond from the woodwork” at the shame those have brought upon themselves. Maybe the stones would be crying out if the disciples were silent not in praise, but calling out the shame of not acclaiming Jesus as king here?

There is one more bit of crying out to hear. Jesus himself weeps as Jerusalem comes within sight, lamenting how that city, so long favored of God, had never truly lived up to what God had called it to be. The description of the destruction of the city in verses 43-44 indeed recalls prophetic accounts of the city’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, as found in Isaiah (29:3, 37:33) and Jeremiah (6:6, 15).

For Luke’s readers, though, there might be a more immediate image in mind. Luke’s gospel was likely written years after the burning of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in the year 70. Quite likely the stones of those buildings and streets still bore the burn scars from that event. Indeed, even in Luke’s own time, one might say the stones were crying out.[1]

What to make of this web of seemingly random scripture somehow being knitted together in this odd story of Jesus’s ride towards Jerusalem? Simply this: this is no random cute story. If anything, this is a quite subversive action, full of pointers to this Jesus as nothing less than a king; not just some random rabbi from the Galilean hinterlands, but a king. Those Pharisees weren’t wrong about the potential for the Romans to be ticked off by such a thing, if they saw and heard it. And of course, those claims of Jesus as king would indeed come back into prominence by the end of this week, when Jesus is arrested; when he is tried before Pilate, who asks him “are you the king of the Jews?“; when at his crucifixion an inscription was posted on his cross, just above his head, proclaiming “This is the King of the Jews.”

What happens on this day reverberates all through this week, this last week in the earthly ministry of Jesus. And the claims that this day makes are strong; though they may be scorned and mocked and ultimately punished by the end of this week, they are irreversibly and unmistakably redeemed by what happens on the first day of the following week. 

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #196, All Glory, Laud, and Honor; #504, Soul, Adorn Yourself With Gladness; #199, Filled With Excitement

[1] William Loader, “First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Palm Sunday,” (accessed 9 April 2022). 

Sermon: Loss, Gain, and Pressing On

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 3, 2022, Lent 5C

Philippians 3:4b-14

Loss, Gain, and Pressing On

Honestly, there are times when Paul can be quite infuriating with his way of tossing off seemingly impossible challenges and instructions to his readers as if they were nothing.

Back in the first chapter of this letter to the church at Philippi, we read Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel,” with Paul seeming to toss that off as if it were no big deal. The following instructions in chapters 1 and 2 continue in that vein, with Paul tossing out such instruction as “be of the same mind” and “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” remembering that “it is God who is at work in you.” Seriously, Paul, do you have any idea what you’re asking for? 

As we come to the next step through this epistle, there is a slight shift in Paul’s address to this church. As would be expected in rhetorical practice of the time Paul puts himself forward as an exemplar of the instruction and exhortation he is giving. (Yes, in modern speech this would sound like pretty awful bragging, but not in first-century Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition; it was almost a normal expectation.) One result is an answer to that last rhetorical question; to our exasperated do you have any idea what you’re asking for? comes the answer from Paul yes, yes I do, and here’s how it works

A second, perhaps unintended result is that we get a moment of insight into Paul’s own view of his rather notorious past. Paul’s story takes up much of the book of Acts, including his first introduction as Saul, persecutor of those deceived followers of that scandalous crucified rabbi Jesus. The story of his Damascus Road conversion into one of the most fervent of followers of that same scandalous crucified and resurrected Jesus, and his subsequent life of missionary travel and preaching, takes over the book of Acts after a certain point. We can’t know for certain how much of this story the Philippians have learned by this time, but if they don’t already know they’re finding out.

What provokes this reflection is a warning from Paul (back in verse 2) about “the dogs … the evil workers … those who mutilate the flesh.” This refers to an ongoing dispute in the church over whether the Jewish practice of circumcision needed to be continued in this fledgling faith. Addressing this dispute prompts Paul to observe that, based on “a human point of view” if you remember last week’s message, Paul carried plenty of clout to address this issue:

  • circumcised on the eighth day” – raised and nurtured in the tradition from his birth;
  • a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” – you might imagine someone in this country boasting that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower for a similar effect; 
  • as to the law, a Pharisee” – not merely an average person, but sell-studied and well-taught in the whole corpus of Jewish law, and scrupulous about keeping it;
  • as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” – he was so passionate about his faith that he sought to “correct” those who deviated from it (and “correct” is an extremely mild way to put it!); we have a lot of that going around today in the modern church…and;
  • as to righteousness under the law, blameless” – all that law he had so studied? He kept it, down to the letter. 

Remember what we heard about “a human point of view” last week? Paul, in short, needed to defer to no one in terms of having “lived right” according to the law those claimed who insisted on the circumcision of converts. He had them beat. And to him, all of that was nothing to him anymore. That “human point of view” no longer carried any weight for Paul. 

Verses 7 and 8 use a pair of different words in translating what Paul writes here. First we read Paul has “come to regard as loss” all of those things, and then that he counts all those things as “rubbish.” This is far too mild a word for what Paul actually says. This is one of those cases where the old familiar King James Version comes closer with its word choice: “dung.” Yes, Paul really does use a word for what we moderns flush down the toilet to describe all that old righteousness. 

The only righteousness that matters anymore to Paul is the righteousness that is Paul’s strictly through faith in Christ – a “divine point of view,” you might say. Paul has done nothing to earn it (it comes by grace, though the word is not used here). It is no less than the gift of God, manifested in the love of Christ and ministered through the working of the Holy Spirit. And that is all that counts to Paul. What matters is to know Christ, to share in the suffering of Christ, to become like Christ even unto death, and (by the grace of God) to share in the resurrection of Christ. You might even describe it as being an ambassador for Christ.

And to that end, Paul describes, “I press on to make it my own.” He’s not there yet and he knows that. He can only say even this, as he says, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Even that is not of his own doing; he wasn’t looking for anything like what happened when the risen Jesus accosted him on that road to Damascus. He freely acknowledges he can do none of this on his own. All he can do, he says again, is “press on towards the goal.” Keep going.

Even as we can see that Paul is making this claim for himself, we can’t help but feel how challenging such a declared goal is. Particularly at this moment, the idea of “pressing on” feels perhaps more like a death sentence than a promise of life. Living in a time of a pandemic that only seems to get worse every time we yearn for a glimmer of hope, when cries for justice are met repeatedly with violence and threats, when it can become impossible to keep track of what day of the week it is and when six months ago seems like six years ago, “pressing on” just feels brutal. I’ll be honest with you; it feels an awful lot of the time right now as if I’ve lost my mind just trying to keep up with the routine things. 

But in the end, what else is there? Perhaps we’ve lived long enough to know that any righteousness we think we’ve earned is even less than the stuff we flush down the toilet. Perhaps we’ve been reminded how little our own efforts really mean in this time.

Perhaps, if nothing else, living in this overly extended moment reminds us that the righteousness we have in Christ, solely by the grace of God, is the only thing worth boasting about. Perhaps we can now understand that only in this righteousness that is in Christ will we find the means to live even in this seemingly unending Lent in which we have found ourselves for more than two years now. 

Still, it’s hard. Giving up on the idea that our own efforts – anything we can earn – will save us is frankly offensive if we’re honest about it. But that is the challenge that is laid before us. Still, to learn to count it all as loss and to seek only Christ? That’s how all this works. That’s how we represent Christ. That’s how we prepare ourselves in this season of self-examination and reflection. That’s how we press on, keep going, understanding what to hold on to and what to let go. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #645, Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above; #523, You Satisfy the Hungry Heart; #216, Beneath the Cross of Jesus

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Sermon: Ambassadorship

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 27, 2022, Lent 4C

2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:11b-32


The church in which I grew up – which was not a Presbyterian church – had two programs for elementary-age children, separated by gender. To be perfectly honest, the programs were basically knock-off Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts programs, without the fancy uniforms and such (we could actually get badges, however). Girls got to be part of a program called Girls in Action, which you have to admit sounds kind of cool, or GAs for short, which still confuses me any time some Presbyterian starts to refer to the denomination’s next General Assembly as GA. Anyway, Girls in Action had their own song and everything, which again sounds kind of cool. 

Boys were placed in a program given the name Royal Ambassadors, or RAs. As befitting a Boy Scouts-but-just-for-us program, activities ranged from outdoor games to crafts and building projects. (I still have a bookshelf at our house from one of those RA building projects.) Anyway, if you asked what that name Royal Ambassadors was about, you most likely got some verbal fumbling and stalling, and finally you would get pointed to verse 20 of today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. 

In the intervening period between 1 Corinthians and what we have recorded in scripture as 2 Corinthians, things had actually gotten worse between Paul and the Corinthian church. Different teachers had started to tickle the ears of the Corinthians, teachers who cut a more impressive figure than Paul, who spoke more loquaciously than he, and whose teaching flattered the Corinthians more than Paul’s bluntness. There was apparently at least one more letter from Paul to this church, not preserved in New Testament canon and apparently lost, with much more tears and anger about it, and even in this letter (which may contain portions of two still different letters) feelings are still raw. 

In chapter 5 Paul has been pleading for reconciliation with the Corinthians, and this talk of reconciliation leads Paul to expound upon God’s reconciliation with us. That telltale word “therefore” in verse 16 clues us in that we are coming to one of his climactic summaries, here speaking of what reconciliation – not merely “making up” with one another but being reconciled to and by God – looks like. 

We judge no one any longer, in this reconciled state, “from a human point of view.” Other translations read “according to the flesh.” The Revised English Bible rephrases the verse to read “With us therefore worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of anyone…”, which might help us here. In the state of being reconciled to God, “worldly standards” are not how we value other people. We don’t go by a person’s appearance or loquaciousness or wealth or social standing. 

Just a few verses earlier, in verse 12, Paul remarks about answering “those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart.” There’s an interesting echo here of 1 Samuel 16, in which God is directing Samuel to find and anoint a new king of Israel. Samuel has been impressed by the physically handsome and imposing older son, but God says no: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Paul isn’t just pulling these thoughts out of his hat in self-defense; what he is saying here has a long and important history in Hebrew thought and teaching. Things look different from a divine point of view, and when we are reconciled to God, when we truly live in the “new creation” that comes of being “in Christ,” that divine point of view is our point of view.

This reconciliation is done by God; God, in Christ, is the one that tears down the barriers and swats away the sins that we have accumulated and draws us back to Godself. It is in this reconciliation that we become those “ambassadors for Christ” that verse 20 names. God chooses to represent Godself to the world through us. Verse 21 ups the ante even further; in Christ’s living and dying he took on our sins; God “made him to be sin who knew no sin,” to achieve that reconciliation and to make us representatives of God and even more “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (emphasis mine). Being an ambassador for Christ is no small thing.

Note how Paul says “we are ambassadors for Christ.” This isn’t an instruction or exhortation; it’s not “we become ambassadors for Christ” or “we strive to be ambassadors for Christ“; it’s the simple statement “we are“. “We are ambassadors for Christ.” We don’t get any swanky embassy to live in, but we are representing Christ in the world nonetheless. And that’s whether we think we are or not; if we call ourselves church, we are representing.

You ever heard anyone talking about a relative gone bad, one who “brought shame upon the family”? In the eyes of that family, that “bad sheep” was indeed representing them, though not in a good way. So it is with us in being Christ’s ambassadors in the world; sometimes the church brings shame upon the name of Jesus more than respect. 

Speaking of a relative representing his family badly provides a useful segue into the famous parable in today’s Luke reading. It’s fair to say that the runaway son did not bring glory to his family in his debauched life in that far country. His idea of “coming to himself,” or coming to his senses, didn’t require him to reconcile to his father; he simply planned to catch on as a hired hand. But he couldn’t even get his prepared speech out before his father had run to him in the road and embraced him and gotten him all dressed up and started up a big feast. The father was reconciling his son to himself, yes?

Funny thing, though, about how this story ends. For one, we never really hear how the runaway son responds to all this. We don’t get any indication that he ran away again, but neither do we get any indication of how much he truly embraced or accepted or even understood what his father had done. For all we know he sat through the feast being perplexed at what was happening around him, and still not knowing reconciliation to his father.

For another thing, there’s the matter of the older, stay-at-home son. When he sees what is happening, he blows a gasket and refuses to come in. Even when the father explains himself, we never get any indication that this older son gets it at all. By the end of the story, it looks like both sons are alienated, not reconciled.

Sisters and brothers, you don’t want to be either son in that story. You want to heed Paul’s call and be reconciled to God. You want to be so reconciled to God that you even end up being the righteousness of God. You want to be in Christ. You want to be in a new creation. It’s not even about doing anything yourself; it’s not “reconcile with God,” it’s “be reconciled to God.” In all seriousness, our main job is to get out of the way. Be reconciled to God and bear the message of reconciliation to God – be ambassadors of Christ. That’s what we are here to do; indeed, that’s what we are.

For being reconciled to God, and being ambassadors of Christ, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #804, Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart!; #23, God, You Spin the Whirling Planets; #821, My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep from Singing?)

Sermon: Cautionary Tales

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 20, 2022, Lent 3C

1 Corinthians 10:1-14; Luke 13:1-9

Cautionary Tales

It was a year ago this past week that a man went on a killing spree at a number of spas or massage parlors in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, mostly of Asian descent. In the time since the murders, we have learned (among other things) that the man claimed to be waging a “war” against the “sex worker industry” and to “eliminate” temptation; that upon entering one establishment he shouted “I am going to kill all the Asians” before he began shooting; and that before the shootings he had sought treatment at a “Christian rehab center” for his supposed addiction to sex. 

While there’s a lot going on in these various reports and claims, one thing that becomes clear is that there’s a serious misapprehension about how the business of “temptation” works. The Apostle Paul has something to say about that in his letter to the church at Corinth, but he gets there by a somewhat circuitous route through the account of the Exodus, and some cautionary tales about the responses to temptation among the Hebrew people on that journey.

Paul’s descriptions are not always easy to relate to the Exodus account as we have it in the book of that title, but clearly one episode involved the notorious golden calf the people prevailed upon Aaron to make while Moses was on an extended trip up Mount Sinai. The outbreak of debauchery that followed likely constitutes much of what Paul is describing, but there are other episodes noted as well, such as the instances where the Hebrew people took to grumbling and complaining against Moses and against God over the inconveniences they faced. 

Paul reminds the Corinthians that the Exodus participants enjoyed many blessings and protections of God (such as cloud and pillar to lead through the wilderness, water from the rock, manna from the sky) – which Paul likens to such Christian sacraments as baptism or the Eucharist – and yet so displeased God that the generation involved did not live long enough to make it to the Promised Land; only their descendants did. Paul also makes clear that the sins they committed – idolatry, sexual immorality, putting God to the test, and all that complaining – was their own doing. No one in the wilderness was luring them to worship an idol or to go wild or to grumble against Moses; it was their own doing. 

Even if that had been the case, though, there would have been no excuse for their behavior. No matter what someone else is trying to do to get you to sin – even the Devil, if we remember the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness – you aren’t required to respond by being tempted, much less succumbing to temptation. The Hebrew people in the wilderness were too eager to indulge in their own desires and appetites, and they destroyed themselves in doing so. The Atlanta spa shooter, far worse, destroyed others over his own temptation. 

Paul is eager to warn the Corinthians away from such indulgences and offers these accounts of the fate of the Exodus generation as a set of cautionary tales (as he admits in verse 11), meant to warn the folks in Corinth that they were subject to the consequences of their choices and actions, and that indulging their own desires and wants was quite likely to lead them to a similar result. 

Apparently, some of the folks in Corinth thought it was no big deal in participating in some of the rituals of the various temples to the various deities patronized in the city, as if they were somehow still regulars at those temples as opposed to part of the body of Christ. Paul had already spilt much ink in arguing that eating meat that had previously been offered to those idols was not an issue unless it caused a sister or brother to stumble, but actively participating in temple rituals was a different matter altogether. Paul expends a lot of rhetorical energy trying to persuade the Corinthians against this and pointing out that the “blessings” of being part of the body of Christ (like the divine blessings that had followed the Exodus travelers) did not mean they could not destroy themselves by such indulgence. 

[Short digression here: Jesus’s dialogue with his questioners in Luke 13 offers a needed clarification here. Not all such calamities are the result of such indulgence. Those “whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices” did not die from their own giving in to temptation, but from Pilate’s crime. Nor did those who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell die of their own fault. Bad things do happen. Not all such calamity is self-induced.]

But back to the Corinthians, and one last bit of instruction. In verse 13 Paul makes three interesting statements about the nature of temptation itself, and how specifically God is involved in such dealing. Each of these are meant to point the Corinthians away from that temptation to idolatry, but they also point us away from any impulse we might have not only to give in to temptation, but to claim that we had to do so.

  • God “will provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” You are not hopelessly penned in; there is a way to not give in to the temptation you experience. God does not leave us abandoned. (Sing v.1)
  • There will be no temptation you face “that is not common to everyone.” You’re not unique in your temptation experience. Countless hosts have faced it before you and walked away from it. (Sing v.2)
  • There is no temptation you face, in God’s support, that is “beyond your strength.” Of course, the trick here is to realize that your “strength” is not in yourself. To whom are you committed? Who do you follow? Are you in fact trusting in the triune God for “strength“? (Sing v. 3)

God is faithful. Temptation is not a thing to be blamed on any other; temptation is not a thing to be fought off under your own power. Being in the body of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, following the lead of Christ, under the kingship of God; this is how one begins to reject temptation even before one faces it.

(Sing v. 4)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #739, O For a Closer Walk With God; #438, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me; #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

Sermon: Citizenship

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 13, 2022, Lent 2C

Luke 13:31-35; Philippians 3:17-4:1


One has to wonder what Jesus was about in this short reading from Luke’s gospel, when one reads it in isolation like this.

It seems that in the midst of Jesus’s teaching and occasional healing on Jesus’s part, some friendly, or at least not unfriendly, Pharisees (that itself sounds like a contradiction on the surface) are warning Jesus that Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of Palestine, was seeking to kill him. In the face of this warning, Jesus … doesn’t really seem to care. He more or less tells those Pharisees to tell Herod to come and get him, or better yet to save his energy as Jesus will be coming to Jerusalem himself. He then turns and launches into a lament, not for his own fate, but for the fate of the city in which he fully expects to meet his death.

This must have seemed strange at the minimum to those Pharisees, if not outright reckless. A petty ruler with little restraint on his power is out to eliminate you, and you’re going to walk right into his home base? Again, Jesus doesn’t seem to care, more interested in lamenting the city’s history of killing off prophets and generally failing to be what God had formed and called it to be. 

What does all this tell us about how Jesus sees Herod and his threat? “Irrelevant” isn’t quite the right word, as Herod will play a role in events to come. But in Jesus’s eyes, Herod emphatically is not in charge of those coming events.

Herod is, in modern slang, a tool – one more human with delusions of grandeur who will simply play one small part in the grand design of the final days of Jesus’s earthly ministry, days that culminate in Jesus’s arrest, trial, crucifixion, and ultimately resurrection. This is all done in service to Jesus’s role as a part of the kingdom of God; while Herod’s actions will play a role in all of the above, Herod’s reign and authority is, to put it bluntly, irrelevant. Jesus does not care.

This edges us towards a thorny and tangled subject that is addressed in the reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. It takes a moment to get there, though, and there is this strange seeming detour about people whom Paul makes bold to label “enemies of the cross.” 

The satirical online “news” site known as The Onion has, like almost any online presence, a shop for merchandise themed around their brand. A recent advertisement that popped up for that shop carried this line, in The Onion’s typical satirical style, that Paul would find too true to be funny, when it comes to these “enemies of the cross”. The ad read: 

Our merchandise is suitable for any and all lifestyles that center around empty material possessions.

The Onion is not a thing that Paul would understand at all, but that line? He’d know exactly who it was talking about; it’s a pretty darned apt expression of how those “enemies of the cross” live, all centered on the pleasures of this earthly life and headed toward a disastrous end. The idea of “taking up their cross” and following Jesus was the farthest thing from their minds, even if they were the type to give lip service to being a Christian.

No, it isn’t trying to tear down or destroy or besmirch the cross that makes them enemies, but trying to avoid it at all costs. In Paul’s description, that isn’t what a citizen of heaven does. 

Paul has alluded to this concept of “citizenship in heaven” a couple of times already in this letter, and it’s particularly interesting for him to do so in writing to the church in Philippi. That city, you see, was not like most of the other cities to which Paul traveled or wrote. Cities like Ephesus or Colossae would simply have been places conquered and occupied by Rome. Philippi, by contrast, was founded specifically as a Roman imperial city, as a kind of colony for retired Roman soldiers according to some. The whole notion of “citizenship” was more heavily freighted with significance in such a place, and the contrast between being a citizen and not became much more stark and severe. 

Back in Acts 22:28 we learn that Paul was in fact born a Roman citizen. We learn this in contrast to a tribune in Jerusalem who had ordered Paul arrested to ward off an angry crowd out to kill Paul. That tribune had ordered Paul flogged to sate the crowd, but Paul questioned whether it was lawful to do such a thing to a Roman citizen who was under no criminal charge. The tribune noted that he had paid a large sum of money to gain his Roman citizenship, to which Paul responds that he was “born a citizen.” 

Paul understood citizenship and its benefits. And yet here in Philippians 3, the only citizenship Paul wants to talk about is not Roman. No, here we get confronted with the idea of a citizenship which not only is not bound to any earthly nation but is to be embraced and claimed before any such citizenship. 

This is dangerous talk, especially in a Roman imperial city like Philippi. But Paul is unmoved: “our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul says, and continues that “it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” – the very figure that had been executed by Roman authority. 

Back in verses 12-16 Paul had exulted in “pressing on” towards the goal of “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” He now encourages the Philippians not to be sidetracked by earthly pleasures like those “enemies of the cross,” but to keep pressing forward to that goal, offering himself and his fellow laborers as examples to imitate and now introducing this idea of our “citizenship” in heaven as the working out of that goal. For someone living in the Roman Empire, were one was expected to devote full loyalty to that empire and to revere its emperor as a god at least for show, this was a good way to get in bad trouble. 

While there have been nations or empires since that time which operated on similar principles to Rome, the conflict of heavenly and earthly citizenship has usually operated differently in the intervening centuries. Nation-states, particularly in the Western world, have instead engaged in appropriation and conflation to negate, supposedly, any such conflict. The old medieval “Holy Roman Empire” was, as the old Saturday Night Live-borrowed-from-Voltaire punchline put it, neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. It was, however, a blatant example of conflating the church and the state. The old British empire had plenty of “God and empire” rhetoric about it. And if you are at all paying attention to the whole idea of “Christian nationalism” in this country, you know it happens here too. Perhaps the most prominent claiming headlines right now might be in Russia, in which the Russian Orthodox Church has been extremely closely attached to the state since the fall of communism. 

It’s a subtle temptation, letting its adherents think that by being a good (insert national identity here), they’re being a good Christian. And yet Paul, the Roman citizen by birth, is adamant that “our citizenship is in heaven,” and that all our hope, in the person of Jesus, is there as well. No other citizenship can claim that from us. No other citizenship can be the one for which we “stand firm” the way we are called here to “stand firm in the Lord,” in another of Paul’s infamous ‘therefore‘ phrases.  

We are citizens of heaven, of the kingdom of God, and no other ruler can claim what is God’s and God’s alone. Even nowadays that claim is still a good way to get in trouble, and yet that’s what Jesus himself demonstrated not just in today’s reading but throughout the gospels. It’s what Paul saw and urged upon those under his care. And it’s still how we’re called to live and move, and perhaps especially in this time of Lent, when getting back on track and repenting of where we’ve gone wrong is so prominent. 

The kingdom of heaven first. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #35, Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty; #213, In the Cross of Christ I Glory; #846, Fight the Good Fight