Building on Rock Bottom (a sermon)

This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on January 31, 2021 on the forty-sixth week of Coronatide.

Matthew 7:24–27

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Home Improvement

As the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn on in the United States now for almost a year, many industries have been hit especially hard, including the “church industry.” Once changing at a glacial pace, we now struggle to keep up with the needs and desires of a scattered flock. There has been one industry, though, which was uniquely prepared to weather the destruction of this virus.

In mid-March of last year, as we were all told to stay at home to flatten the upward climb of infections, one industry was prepared to cash in. See, as we all were forced to spend time inside the four walls of our family dwellings, many of us decided we really were not happy with how things looked. For years, we had all been too busy outside our home to give much notice to what was inside. Our bathrooms and kitchens needed a remodel from their 1970s pink tile and pressed wood, sure. But that was a project for an unspecified later time.

That later time had come. So, Americans logged on to Lowes and Home Depot to place pickup orders for all the things that would make their house, once just a functional resting place, into a true sanctuary that could provide homely comfort.

As many industries have cut back their advertising on television, regional contractors for home remodeling have been running ads at every commercial break. One contractor after another promises that you’ll be happy with your new windows. You’ll love preparing meals in your new kitchen. And this new bathroom will change your life. “Pay nothing now, we have installment plans!” they boast.

This is surely a positive thing for the home improvement industry, but it’s also been a positive thing for us at the church. One of the bright spots of this past year has been that the work crew has almost finished not just one or two, but four different major projects since we have all been away! Their diligence and forward-thinking with the church’s property is inspiring, and they are just one concrete way that we are building back better.

Even more encouraging has been the response to Rev. Tina’s messages about self-examination. We heard a couple weeks ago about the positive spiritual changes you all are making in this new year. It’s awesome to hear how the seeds of God’s word are growing and bearing fruit in so many lives.

All of that talk about self-examination and the important internal work we all need to do got me thinking about this construction parable from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a parable that still makes sense to us on the surface, as it did for its first hearers––dig deeper and build your house on the rock so your house doesn’t collapse in a storm. It fits with what Rev. Tina has been saying about looking underneath the surface, because one has to dig below the sand and soft soil to hit the bedrock below.

It also seems like a good, American truism that would fit well with one of Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, like “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. The parable of the wise and foolish builders is one that on its surface seems to be all about our individual human effort, teaching the wisdom of self-reliance. 

The trouble is, when we read this parable––and the entire Gospel––through the lens of our American Protestant Work Ethic, we miss the point and we lose the Gospel. How many of you who engaged in pandemic “nesting,” DIY home improvement, or hiring a contractor did so relying on God through prayer?

Maybe there are some of you who prayed about your home improvement projects. But usually building, constructing, remodeling, and improving our homes are things we do ourselves with our own effort and our own resources. We can do it foolishly or wisely, but it is we who are doing the work. This picture of improvement, in stark contrast to Jesus’ parable, has nothing to do with God.

Since we view our home improvement as something resulting from our own effort, and Jesus uses a home improvement metaphor to think about self-improvement, we’re liable to think we can improve ourselves through our own effort too!

If anything, we only go to Jesus for help telling us how to rebuild and remodel ourselves. We pray to Jesus for wisdom and discernment and then do the rest with our own effort.

As we engage in this important work of self-improvement, Jesus is asking us now if we have really counted the cost. Have we figured out if we can really finish this work ourselves, as Jesus asks in Luke 14:28? Do we have the resources within us to remodel and rebuild ourselves from the ground up?

Are we even building in the right place?

As I wondered about what it means to build on the right foundation with this parable, I was drawn to the images of destruction and rebuilding after a hurricane. The images of destruction from 15 years ago after Hurricane Katrina will forever be implanted in my memory. The houses flattened on their foundation. The Superdome, packed with 26,000 newly homeless people.

Invariably, whenever the hurricane was discussed in the years that followed, someone would ask, “why don’t they just move out of the hurricane zone?” As I researched this question on the internet this week, I found plenty of cynical responses that sounded familiar.

“Well, they won’t move because the insurance will pay for damages. They don’t want to give up their ocean views. The government enables them to live where they shouldn’t. And since they didn’t die, they’ll never learn.”

Again, in our cultural narrative, people don’t move out of a coastal area at risk of disaster because they’re stupid. They are, in the Benjamin Franklin wisdom reading of our parable this morning, the foolish builder. In our culture of individual effort, the parable is about building in the right place so as to avoid trouble. It’s about being self-righteous enough to put yourself out of harm’s way.

Here’s the problem, if we’re talking about literal houses: where in the US can you build a house that would be immune to natural disaster? Where can you build a place for you and your family that will not be threatened by wind, rain, fire, snow, and earthquakes? If you do know of such a place, I’m sure you’d save a lot of money on insurance if you moved there! But no such place exists. Everywhere you could build yourself a house has substantial risk of disaster coming in and leveling the place.

I can just imagine that there was some troublesome listener in Jesus’ audience who asked Jesus the same question. “Why don’t you just build your house away from the stream? Why don’t you build outside of the hurricane zone? Why don’t you tell these people to build somewhere safe?”

The answer that Jesus knows, and we should too, is that no such place exists.

We are, of course, not talking about physical houses or environmental storms at all. We are talking about the house of our bodies and the storm of Sin and death.

No matter how hard we try, we are incapable of picking up and moving to a place where Sin and death cannot strike us. We can’t move out of our frail bodies and become someone else instead. We can’t start over from scratch. In this work of self-awareness and self-improvement, we are stuck with ourselves. The best we can do is build back better in the same place with a better foundation.

Let’s go deeper into the parable. Jesus tells us about the sand and the rock where the builders set their foundations.

First, the sand. 

Jesus is not telling his hearers not to build houses on the beach where they might be blown away by a hurricane. He is not telling us to build our houses far enough out from where a storm might strike––he knows there is no truly safe place in this world.

Throughout Scripture, sand is used as a metaphor for humanity. In Genesis, God promises Abraham as many descendents as there are grains of sand on the seashore. Isaiah counts the number of the sons of Israel to be as numerous as the sand of the sea, lamenting that only a remnant would be saved from the coming storm. 

For many of us, this pandemic has revealed human selfishness like never before. We are unwilling to care for the most vulnerable among us. We are unable to follow the guidance of scientists. We are incapable of letting go of our desires for the safety of others. In the face of all of that, many of us are losing our faith in humanity.

To this, the Gospel says, good! Humanity is, after all, like the plentiful sand along the sea. To use a more well-known metaphor, humanity is but dust, and to the dust we will return. As Lent begins, we will put that metaphor directly on our foreheads.

Does sand seem like a smart material to build on? Of course not. Neither is humanity, our individual ego! If we engage the process of self-awareness and self-improvement to build on this sand of our humanity, we aren’t going to last long.

Let me say it plain: if you build the house of your life on the foundation of yourself, it is going to fall. Hard. Eventually, it will all wash away with the storms of trouble.

If we are going to follow the Gospel of Jesus, then the first step of our self-improvement will be the same as the first step of the Twelve Steps for all you friends of Bill: “we admitted we were powerless over _____––that our lives had become unmanageable.

Put another way, humanity is dust and to dust it will return. We are sand. We are incapable of saving ourselves. We ourselves are powerless over any number of things we might try to control in our lives.

That blank, the thing you are powerless over, may be any number of things. It could be one of any number of hurts, habits, or hang-ups. It may be drugs or alcohol, food, consumer goods, sex, gambling, work, or any number of other things. But when we have built a foundation on our own frail humanity, our own egos, our own self-sufficiency, our lives will become unmanageable.

Since we’re foolish humans, we often don’t acknowledge our own powerlessness and instead try to remodel and fix the “house” on top of the foundation. We remodel one area of our lives, maybe our nutrition and exercise or even our prayer and spiritual life, only so we can brag about how good of a builder we are! So we can brag about how much we’ve done! We find confidence in ourselves with the changes we’ve made, the success we’ve had, the artistic product we’ve produced. We pat ourselves on the back for all this hard work, only to find it all comes crashing to the ground when the rains come. (And the rains will come!)

To admit that we are sand is to declare the holy phrase, “I can’t!” There is nothing that will last that is built on the sand of our humanity. This is the radical truth of the Gospel and the truth about ourselves: all of us are sinners.

To not admit that we are sand is to live in denial and continue to perform building maintenance on a house that is condemned because of its cracking foundation. 

No matter how hard we try, we will never transform our foundation of sand into a solid rock. No matter how hard we try to do maintenance on our condemned houses, the cracks will keep coming.

Since the storms are inevitable, what is going to happen to our foundation if it’s built on sand?

Our foundation will crack.

At first, the foundation built on the sand of ourselves will look new. It’ll even look good and righteous to all our Christian friends! Don’t you just love the look of freshly poured concrete? Everyone will marvel at us and our brand new foundation. Piece by piece, we’ll construct the house on top of that foundation, making it look just like we want it.

All the while, trouble is brewing underneath. See, even before the rains come down and the floods come up, that foundation built on sand is going to start cracking. We might not even notice it at first, since most of us don’t live in our basements. But cynicism, judgment, bad relationships and friendships, and unwanted feelings are going to start cracking that foundation. And through those cracks, the first signs of sin are going to trickle back in through the floor. Unwanted feelings and desires will turn to unwanted behaviors. The water will seep into our basements through our cracking foundation.

What do we do? We engage in behavior control as a concrete crack sealer. Put another way, we start playing whack-a-mole with sinful behaviors. We think, if we can just stop _____ (whatever it is) by our own personal effort, our foundation will be restored. We start trying to improve the “spiritual rooms” of the house of our bodies in hopes that our sacrifices will appease God.

As I’ve illustrated, we can engage in all sorts of Christian behaviors while the sand of self is our foundation. You can be “Christian” and have a foundation on sand. You can be a deacon or elder, a Pastor or professor and still have a foundation built on the sand of self. Trust me, I know from experience. 

You can have a personal relationship with Jesus and have been saved at Bible camp and still have a foundation that is cracking on top of sand. You can be part of every weeknight Bible study group and have an accountability group and still be built on the sand of your own righteous effort. 

As you think of yourself, you’re a basically good person. There are others who are basically irredeemably evil, and you’re better than them. So you’re okay! You know who the bad people are, and you do your best to not be like them. Except, you know, for all those cracks in your basement foundation. So all the while, you keep doing foundation crack repair. And the shame about your leaky cracked floor amplifies the trespass! You hide the cracks, and they keep multiplying. No one can know that you don’t have it all together! Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know! You have to keep up the show.

It’s exhausting! And if you let that go on long enough, your whole house is going to fall over. Again, I know from experience. 

We can never transform our sand into a solid rock. We can never do more than damage repair on a foundation that is cracking.

The way to healing, the way to wholeness, the way out of the perpetual whack-a-mole is to admit the radical truth of the gospel and ourselves: all of us are sinners, none better than another. We cannot transform our sand into a stable foundation.

Until we get foundation on the stable ground, the solid rock, we’re completely powerless. Our own lives are unmanageable, to say nothing about trying to help anyone else.

If we don’t get the foundation right, we’re never going to be able to reach out to others or share the Gospel. Because all we will be able to share is our own fallible work, our own broken foundation atop sinking sand. Built on the sand, all of our works for Jesus will be either out of guilt or ego. We’ll help others so we can feel better about ourselves. We’ll give to the church just like we shop at Target. We’ll be part of a community out of a desire for control. 

When we help others from a cracked foundation atop the sinking sand, we’ll say, “I saved myself, here, let me save you.” But no, we need the message that we cannot save ourselves. We are helpless! We are powerless. But we know the one who can save.

We need the rock.

The truth about ourselves is that all of us are sinners, incapable of managing our own lives, unable to save ourselves––we are sand. The good news of the Gospel is that recognizing ourselves for who we are is a good thing. Because when we admit that truth about ourselves, we come up against the radical grace of the Gospel.

Jesus didn’t die for the ones who have it all together, the ones who are self-sufficient. Jesus didn’t die for those who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, as if such a thing was possible. Jesus died for the ungodly. Jesus died for we who are sand, dust in the wind.

God’s grace is sufficient because it works when we understand our weakness. We who are built on the rock cannot take any pride in being better than some other sinner because there is “no distinction.” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [and] they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (Romans 3:22ff)

This grace, this rock underneath our foundation is a gift. There is nothing we can do to earn it, nothing we can do to get a fancier version of it. No amount of work will produce more of it. All of us are given the same solid place to build our lives when we recognize our powerlessness and rely on Jesus instead.

When we have exhausted all of our own resources, when all the sand of self-sufficiency washes away, we hit rock bottom. And it is there that the sand of the self comes up against the strength of the rock who is Jesus

On the rock, we find that our concrete foundation, freshly poured after the latest storm, isn’t developing so many cracks. We find that we don’t have to spend our whole day in the basement playing whack-a-mole with our sins and perceived flaws. On the rock, we have a safe, hospitable sanctuary to offer to others in need––and we’re not doing it for our own glory. On the rock, we recognize that church is not a consumer good that can be bought, but a community sustained by our recognition that all we have is a gift from God.

It is on this rock, Jesus Christ, that the church and our lives can be built when we surrender to God by grace through faith.

On the rock, we find that our spiritual disciplines are no longer tools to appease God, but rather life giving pipelines of God’s spirit. On the rock, we are much less concerned with the sins of others than we are with sharing the grace of the Gospel. 

On the rock we have holy indifference about money, power, and material things and a holy passion for building up something that will last forever. On the rock we recognize that our body is a temple and we care about our food and exercise. because they are holy and set apart by God. On the rock we stop using other people to get our needs met and find ourselves in mutual relationships with each other for the very first time.

On the rock we create not for our glory, but for the glory of the one who saved us. On the rock we boast of our weakness, that others might be inspired through our story that yes, God can save even them.

In this season when COVID-19 has taken away so much with its fierce storm against our wellbeing, relationships, and security, we may be tempted to rebuild a new house on the same old sand of self-sufficiency. If we do, the cracks will re-form. Another storm will come along and knock us over yet again.

May we instead cease the ritual of building maintenance on a condemned dwelling. May we start from scratch, pouring a new concrete foundation of faith, hope, and love on the one who is the rock––Jesus Christ our Lord.

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness

I dare not trust the sweetest frame

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand

All other ground is sinking sand

Amen.

Receive (Advent 4B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 23, 2020.

Isaiah 55:1-9

Through the first three weeks of our Advent waiting, we have considered the words of Jesus to “ask, seek, and knock” through the lens of Isaiah, a prophet of God who wrote during Israel’s time in exile. Each week we have seen how Isaiah’s context in exile is similar to our own situation in various levels of isolation due to the Coronavirus. In this time that we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, we have considered the important spiritual tasks of asking God for what we need, seeking after a new way, and knocking at the door of the future.

We need relief from Coronavirus, both the symptoms of the illness and the loss of life and livelihood it has caused. 

We need God to show us a new way, because many in our world have been robbed of true peace and justice.

We need to be willing to stand at the doorway of that new way and actively request entry into it. We need to tell God “yes,” we will follow God’s way.

This is what Advent is all about. This Advent, more than usual, is a time when we await God’s promised deliverance, God’s coming again into our future.

Today’s message from the prophet Isaiah is half Advent message. Isaiah 55:6-9 in particular call us back to the theme of “seeking the Lord,” But let’s start at the beginning with a message that is perfect for these short days before Christmas.

Isaiah says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you thirsty? Come to the water! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway to buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Similar to the Message Paraphrase)

Over the past few weeks, our faithful deacons purchased food boxes from the Food Bank along with Christmas food staples to make sure families in our community who are in need have food to eat at Christmas. The deacons engage in this kind of ministry year round, making sure those who request food or other resources from the church can receive it. But Christmas is a time when this kind of ministry is in full force. 

There are all sorts of more “secular” reasons why we engage in acts of charity this time of year. We are more conscious of the blessings that we have. There is social pressure to do something for those who are less fortunate. Our mailboxes are filled with year-end financial appeals from charities.

But there is also a deeply Christian reason why the Advent and Christmas season is a time when we would open our hearts and resources for those who are in need. See, in Advent, we await the future coming of Jesus Christ. Not just in Isaiah, but in the New Testament as well, the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, is a time when both hearts and bellies will be full, not just with the bare essentials, but with wonderful things. Isaiah 25 tells us that there will be a feast of “rich foods for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine [with] the best of meats!” The New Testament likens it to a wedding feast or a king’s banquet.

The promise of Christmas, both now and future, is a great feast! A great banquet! An occasion for celebration with family and friends old and new. A time when when our bellies would be full of foods we cannot afford. A time when our hearts would be full of good news that we do not deserve.

But then the prophet, after giving the promise, asks the hard, discipleship question: “why?”

Isaiah asks, “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” I don’t know about you, but even despite the restrictions and tightened belts of the pandemic, I’ve spent money I didn’t need to spend. The things of last month don’t satisfy this month. My priorities aren’t always in the right place, especially this time of year. There are all sorts of great things that God gives me for free and plenty of people who do not have daily bread and what do I do? I spend money on fleeting entertainment. Why do we invest so much time and energy in things that do not satisfy? I don’t know, Isaiah. Because we’re bored? (I think Isaiah might scoff at our honest answer.)

Matthew and Luke’s Gospels ask another question about the way people respond to the Great Feast. “Why do people who are invited to the free water, the free bread, the free feast of blessing not come to get it?”

In Luke 14, Jesus tells a parable about those who do not come to the free banquet. The host says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you hungry? Come to the feast! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway. I’ve set a place for you.” And what do the guests do? They tell the host that they have better things to do. “Sorry, I can’t come.”

This is, perhaps, primarily a metaphor for a spiritual reality. Those who belong to God’s people and God’s church are often the ones who make excuses about why they can’t make time for God’s blessings.

But also, it’s just a plain fact. You can announce to the world that you have free food to give out, and some people will be too proud to come and receive it. They’re in need, but those blessings are for other people. And on the other side, you have people who say “yeah, I need some food!” who do not actually come to get it. 

Why are our priorities so out of whack? Why do we not admit our needs? Why do we not show up for the blessings God gives out so abundantly for free.

The answer is, of course, that we are human. We’ve been turning away from God’s blessings in search of something else since that first day in the garden. God was like, “look at all this stuff I’m giving you for free!” And we said, “Nah, God. I’d rather eat that fruit over there instead.”

And so, the Christmas promise (as it always does) leads us back into the Advent question. The promise of a great feast of FREE (did I mention, FREE) FOOD leads us to wonder why we do not ask, seek, and knock for what we need.

The prophet turns us to this Advent theme in Isaiah 55:6-9 — “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”

We’re right back where we started. Ask God for what we need. Seek God’s way. Knock at the door. Receive the blessings.

Again we ask, what does it mean for us to seek God’s way in the Christmas season during a global Pandemic?

I’m sorry for jumping around so much today, but if you look at Matthew 24:42-44 I think we’ll find the answer. 

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Keep watch. Stay vigilant.

If you’ve considered this Scripture text before, you may have noticed that the Lord here is likened to an unexpected thief. It’s a shocking comparison, like many in the Advent season. God, like a thief will come at the moment you’re not prepared and ready. The moment you’ve let your guard down.

Right now, there is something far more covert and menacing than a thief going around. Right now, at the moment when Coronavirus vaccines are starting to be distributed, hospitals are running out of space. Many of us are starting to let our guard down.

Over and over, our Scriptures remind us, “seek righteousness, care for your neighbor, keep watch, don’t let your guard down.”

Both blessings and suffering come at an unexpected time.

It is for that reason that Paul admonishes the early church to “not be like the others who are asleep” on the job, lax in their duty to keep watch and stay attentive.

“Let us be awake and sober” because we are children of the light of Christ.

Let us actively ask, seek, and knock in this season. Let’s stay vigilant because the day of our promised deliverance from COVID is coming. God is coming into our future and making a way and a future for us.

But as we remain ready and vigilant, let us also take time to celebrate and thank God for the free blessings God gives us. We have food to eat. We have shelter. We have connection with other people, even if only virtually. God is meeting our needs. God is present with us this Christmas.

Thank you for taking this journey through the message of Isaiah with me this month. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone! 

Knock (Advent 3B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 16, 2020.

Isaiah 43:14-21

It’s hard for me to believe it, but we’re already halfway through week 3 of Advent. Kelly, Jess, and Rev. Tina have led us through the practice of self-examination on Sundays, and in these Wednesday devotions we have considered the particular spiritual journey of this Advent as we wait for Christ through this time of Coronavirus.

Our theme for this time together has been the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:7 — “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

No matter what is going on in our lives or in the world, all of us constantly have to ask, seek, and knock. We have concerns for which we need God’s intervention. We have questions we need God to answer. And so, we know what it is to ask and seek.

As we’ve explored the past two weeks, Advent in particular is a season of asking and seeking. The  traditional readings from the prophet Isaiah take us back to a time before the promised deliverance through Jesus Christ and they point us forward to a time in the future when Christ will come again.

This year, through these 278 days of the life season of Coronavirus, we have a very pressing concern for which we ask God and seek direction. We ask God to come, to end this deadly pandemic and bring healing to our land. And we seek after new ways of being together, loving each other, and living in a way that will not harm our neighbor.

The reason why we go to God in these times is that we know, or at least we are coming to find out through the events of this year, that we are incapable of saving ourselves. We cannot, by our own will, end the coronavirus pandemic, no matter how hard we try. 

If you’ve found the last two weeks challenging, then I’m glad you’ve been paying attention. This week’s theme and text may be the most challenging yet.

This week, we knock so the door may be opened to us.

Have you ever been working on a project in one room and realized that you need to go into another room to talk to someone or get something. But when you go through the doorway, it’s like your mind has been erased. You can’t for the life of you remember what you were supposed to be doing. Only after going back into the first room, where your memory has apparently been waiting for you, do you remember what you originally set out to do.

This happens to me all the time in the office. I’ll leave my office to talk to Judy or Rev. Tina only to enter their office and go, “uh, I need to ask you about something, but… I can’t remember what it is.”

We all do this. And because we do it, scientists spend time researching it.

One group of scientists created a computer program to test this phenomenon—we’ll call it The Doorway Effect. They tasked participants with picking up an object in one room and taking it to a table in another in a computer game. What they found is that, even in a video game, participants would enter a new room in the game and forget the color of the item they were bringing with them. Walking through a virtual doorway slowed their responses and made them less accurate.⁠1

Going through a doorway causes us to forget what we are leaving behind. It resets and reprograms us for a new environment.

And so, as we in our faith are coming to a new doorway, as we prepare to open the door and enter into Christ’s presence this Christmas, we have to acknowledge the difficult and hopeful truth that we will forget much of what is behind us.

We have asked God to come and save us. We have gotten up and sought after God. And now at this doorway that leads into a new year, we have to take stock of what we are leaving behind and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

——

Our Scripture passage from Isaiah 43 describes this reality. When we looked at Isaiah 40 last week, the people of God were in the midst of a temporary peace. Isaiah was charged with providing comfort to those who were or would soon be in exile, stuck in a land that was not their own. Isaiah told them about this desert highway that would one day bring them back from exile in Babylon to their homeland. 

As our reading today from Isaiah 43:14-21 begins, God promises to “break down all the bars” incarcerating God’s people in Babylon. The exile in Babylon was thought of by the prophets as essentially a prison term. The people of God had disobeyed, so they were sent off to exile/prison in Babylon.

It was, in essence, a life sentence. The people would spend 70 years in Babylon. (Suddenly, our 228 days in Coronavirus quarantine doesn’t seem so bad!) 

Throughout those 70 years stuck in a land that was not theirs, the people of God went through all the stages of grief. They experienced denial, anger, bargaining with God, depression, and eventually, acceptance of their situation. But their situation, like ours, was not permanent.

After 70 years of asking God for deliverance and seeking after God’s way in exile, the prophet Isaiah promised them that God would make a door where there had once been a wall. God would break down the walls of their captivity and give them a hand to lead them through that doorway into a new normal. They would finally be able to start the journey home and rebuild the life they had before.

Just take a moment to imagine what we anticipate will happen in about 6 month’s time: we will achieve herd immunity through widespread acceptance of a Coronavirus vaccine. Steadily, restrictions will begin to be lifted. We will once again be able to leave our homes and gather in crowds without masks. What will that be like?

We might fool ourselves into thinking that we will be able to immediately take up the way we did things before, but the longer this goes on, the more and more I think that won’t be the case. Even those of us who are “huggers” and have smaller personal space bubbles will find ourselves wincing when people get too close. We have gotten used to our separation. We have been changed by this exile.

None of us know how we will react to the end of this pandemic. We will have to find out how we react when it happens.

But what God tells the people who are anticipating their return from a 70 year exile is this: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

When we walk through the doorway on the other side of the present struggle, God seems to encourage us to let the Doorway Effect happen. He seems to encourage the people coming back from exile to forget what the exile was like.

What former things is God through Isaiah telling the people to “not remember?” I think God is telling them to “forget” two kinds of things: their old, sinful ways (and the sins themselves and the nostalgic memories of what God did in the past.

First, God wants them to forget their sinful ways and the shame of those sins. God wants to set these people free from their old ways. He doesn’t want them to be burdened with the memory of what they did wrong all those years ago that sent them into exile to begin with. In Isaiah 43:25, God says, “I will remember your sins no more.” And if God is going to forgive and forget their sins, then surely they are also to forget their own sins. They have learned their lesson and now they are charged with going in a new direction.

Surely there are some sins, mistakes, and old habits that you want to leave in the past. When we realize our own need for forgiveness and take those sins to God and engage steps of reconciliation with people we have wronged, we can truly leave those things in the past.

God wants us to leave our former sins in the past.

But second, God also wants us to leave some good things in the past. This one might seem counterintuitive to us. So much of our faith is based on remembering. What do we do every week in worship except call to mind and remember what God has done in the past: God created us in his image. God rescued the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. God delivered his people from captivity in Babylon. God sent his son Jesus to save us. All of those wonderful acts of divine grace are in the past.

The same is true about what God has done in our individual lives. We call to mind the day of our baptism. We remember the day at summer camp where we gave our lives to Jesus Christ. We remember joining the church. We remember, perhaps, a “golden age” of the church when everything seemed easy and everyone you knew was Christian. All of those acts of God’s grace and mercy are in the past.

It’s easy for us to live in those former realities. The Exodus was wonderful! The birth of Jesus was world changing! Our individual stories of salvation are transformative! But those stories are just what God has done for us in the past. We have a tendency to grasp onto these past stories for stability when the present and future are unknown and frightening. These stories can ground us in uncertain times.

The danger is, we then start to live in the past. We cut ourselves off from what God is doing and will do in our future!

It is for this reason that God tells the exiles through Isaiah, “do not remember the former things, because I am about to do a new thing.”

God’s future acts of deliverance are going to be so awesome that we’re going to forget the past in the light of their glory. The things that God is going to do in the future are going to be greater than the Exodus, greater than the first coming of Jesus, greater than the moment we were first saved. 

God, on the other side of this doorway, is going to do a new thing. That can be frightening to us because it requires that we trust God. None of us know what is on the other side of our exile. We don’t know where next year or the next 5 years will take us.

All we have is the assurance from God will be with us in the new challenges and opportunities the next phase has for us. 

We stand at the door and knock, that God might open to us the door to our future.

Christ has come. Christ will come again. Come, Lord Jesus.

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1 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-walking-through-doorway-makes-you-forget/

Seek (Advent 2B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 9, 2020.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Last week, we jumped into the book of Isaiah as we considered what it means to “ask” God for what we need so it will be given to us, as Jesus promises. I encourage you if you missed last week’s devotional to find it on Facebook or YouTube because that’s really where I set the stage for this Advent series. Jesus tells us, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” So this week, we are going to “Seek” so that we might find. And since Kelly Ward teased the theme of peace in his sermon on Sunday, we’re going to start our reflection on seeking after God by thinking about a moment of peace that also illustrates what we mean by “seeking” after God.

This year, those of you who are history-inclined have probably done a bit of thinking about the year 1918. Culturally, the 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic has a lot to teach us about our our current struggle against COVID-19. But if you’re thinking in the wider context, the 1918 flu hit the world hard right at the end of World War I. And it is this war, and the censorship of media in everywhere except Spain about its terrible effects, that has given that pandemic the misnomer of being the Spanish Flu.

Anyway, we’re going to be thinking 4 years before, to the year 1914, the first year of the “Great War,” the “War to End All Wars…” (or so it was said at the time.

On December 7, 1914, almost exactly 106 years ago, Pope Benedict XV, with an eye toward the promises of the Advent season, with the Christian hope of “peace,” suggested a temporary hiatus of the war to celebrate the Christmas season.

It was not that preposterous of a suggestion. This was not, in large part, a war between nations of different religious allegiances. The vast majority of Europe in the early 20th century was Christian. And in large part, in each country that participated in the war, the various Christian traditions (Catholic and Protestant) unified behind their national cause.

There were Christians on both sides of the conflict that used their faith in Jesus Christ as a source of inspiration, guidance, and even justification for their military engagement.

You would imagine that in such a conflict, both sides might have been able to say publicly and from the highest levels of government: we will pause the war for a Christmas peace. If some temporary peace was possible among competing nations, surely this was it.

And yet, there was no official cease-fire in December 1914.

Of course, no one was going to stop war-weary soldiers, both British and German, from celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace.

On Christmas Eve 1914, without any preplanning or communication between sides, troops all across the theater of war began singing Christmas carols in their language. As night fell, you could hear the kingdom of God: men of different nations singing praises to Jesus in their own language, sometimes even accompanied by brass bands.

No one was going to take up their gun on Christmas Eve, no matter how committed they were to the cause of war. For one night, there was Peace.

But this is not where the story ends. The peace of Christmas Eve 1914 came without risk. It was something both sides could practice without leaving their trenches and guns. But, as we’re talking about today, real peace requires risk. It requires seeking after justice and righteousness. Real peace requires us to get off our butts and do something. 

As day broke on Christmas Day 1914, having heard the enemy carols the night before, a few German soldiers took a risk. They actively sought a Christmas peace. They arose from their trenches and approached the Allied lines, across the liminal space called “no-man’s-land” and called out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongues of their enemy. (Take a moment to consider the significance of such an act.)

The Allied soldiers were cautious, fearing a trick. War conditions men to fear such things. But the enemy was unarmed, so they too arose from the trenches and shook their enemy’s hand. On Christmas Day, two men who could have killed each other the day before were exchanging presents of cigarettes and plum puddings.

The words of Isaiah 11 ring in our ears, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the falling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

A German Lieutenant recalling the event mused, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

“For a Time” is the key phrase in his words. As Christmas Day ended, fighting once again broke out so that by New Year’s, the temporary truce was a distant memory. 

Never again would such a peace take place in war. Military officers made sure of it by threats of discipline. The Powers and Principalities would never make the same mistake of allowing a Christmas peace again. In fact, the Powers would further delay the possibility of true peace. For we know that the “Great War” was not the end of all war. Rather, it was only the embers of an even terrifyingly greater war.

Still, this memory of seeking after peace and justice reverberates in our imaginations at Christmas as we anticipate the coming (again) of the Prince of Peace.⁠1

So now you’re asking yourself, what does this have to do with our reading from Isaiah 40? It turns out, quite a lot. This text, scholars tell us, is the beginning of the second part of the Isaiah text. The Assyrians have destroyed most of Judah and have laid siege to the holy city of Jerusalem. Isaiah too is telling us about the middle of a war. But more than that, there is a temporary peace. The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had bigger issues going on at home, and so he recalled his troops to Nineveh.

Isaiah’s “comfort, O comfort my people” comes after this first siege by Assyria and before the later destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 587 BC.  You’ll remember from Kelly’s sermon on Sunday that it is because of Jerusalem’s destruction that Daniel ends up exiled in Babylon.

Isaiah 40, then, comes in this liminal space between violent attacks. It is a message of peace that arrives both in the aftermath and anticipation of conflict, much like the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Isaiah, as he did when he received his divine commission in chapter 6, has entered God’s divine council. Isaiah has entered the heavenly court where there is discussion about these earthly conflicts.

God speaks for his divine messengers (we might call them angels) to “comfort, O comfort my people.” A messenger (angel) chimes in, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” And finally another messenger instructs Isaiah to cry out to people on earth this message: all people are grass…but the word of our God will stand forever.”

As we consider our imperative to “seek” so that we might find, it is this imperative in verse 3 that is most crucial: prepare. It is not enough for us to ask God for what we need. We must also prepare the way for the arrival of the answer to our prayers.

The divine messenger is instructing us to go out from where we are to blaze a new trail through an overgrown land. We’re instructed to seek a new way that is different from the old way. We are to seek this new way in order to prepare that path for the arrival of the one for whom we are waiting.

If you’ve ever gone hiking, you can visualize this pretty clearly. Normally, to respect the land we are on, we stay on the marked trails. Someone has already blazed those for us by clearing the vegetation and putting up markers. The path may not be level, but it is clear of debris.

But if we want to get somewhere new, we cannot take the old trails. Like Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, we must chart a new course, veer off the path to clear a way through the vegetation, through the mountains and their valleys. The old trail can only take us to the same places it always had. A new trail can lead us to find what we have been asking for and seeking.

Like the route of the Corps of Discovery, the path being charted in Isaiah’s time is not an ideal route. Lewis and Clark never found a water route to the Pacific. Likewise, Isaiah’s route for God’s people is a wilderness route. It is dangerous. Most would avoid traveling it. Yet, this wilderness route is the difficult, painful way through which God’s people will one day return from their suffering in Babylon.

When this text appears again in the mouth of John the Baptist in the New Testament, the way of the Lord being prepared is similarly challenging. Not many want to openly air out their sins. Those who take this road only because they see others doing so or because it is politically expedient are called a “brood of vipers⁠2” by the harsh prophet.

This risky wilderness road in Isaiah, figured more completely for us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was once again figured in the Christmas Truce of 1914. Two sides of men were entrenched in the old ways of war and bloodshed. In between them lay a no-man’s-land, a wilderness, they had not before dared to travel. But by doing so, by blazing a new path between the trenches, soldiers of opposing sides found temporary peace.

As Kelly preached on Sunday, our Advent faith requires us to be active, not passive consumers. Charting a new course takes risk, it takes guts, and it takes us rising out of our trenches. 

Here is what I think is perhaps the most important lesson of this Pandemic. You and I were long stuck in a groove, in a trench. Like the grooves in a vinyl record, we have gone around and around so long that we began skipping beats. The longer we did things the old way, the more and more we dug a trench of safety, protection, and stagnation. A soldier who never leaves the trenches is one who has died in the trench.

The Pandemic has revealed the “groove” of life in the BC (Before COVID) time to be a rut, a trench. And right now, all of us cry out in one voice, “Come, Lord Jesus,” because we need to be freed from this trench, this rut, this groove. We ask God to come through the uncharted territory because we know the old ways were not working.

We did not love God with our whole heart.

We as a church were not obedient to God’s way.

We have not done God’s will. In fact, in our old ways we actively broke God’s law.

We have rebelled against God’s free offer of grace.

We have not loved our neighbors nor headed the cry of those in need.

It is because of this, because the old ways were not working for us, that we now daily cry out for  God to come and make a new way.

Last week’s Advent reflection could be summed up in a paraphrase of the first 3 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: I can’t. God can. So let him.

Together, we must admit that we were powerless over the Powers and Principalities. We were powerless over Sin. Our lives had become unmanageable. The virus had so fully infected us that we were blind to its effects. We were in the trenches, expecting to die there. But God can deliver us. No. God will deliver us.

That deliverance begins when we start seeking a new way. It comes when we see the trench for what it is and take those first few risky steps through the wilderness road, the land where few men and women would dare to go.

Let us seek a new way together, that we would find a future of peace and justice. A future that some would say is impossible. But through God, all things are possible––even a peace that lasts.

In the name of the God who can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine, we pray. Amen.


1 Prince of Peace 2: Electric Boogaloo

2 Many who came to John to be baptized were like those “crowds” who line up in front of a store only to ask others in line what they’re all waiting for.

Ask (Advent 1B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 2, 2020.

Isaiah 64:1-9

We as human beings tell time in a variety of ways. But no matter how you count, this Coronavirus pandemic, and the associated changes in our routines, has been going on for a long time. We began this journey of necessity in mid-March with what was presented as a “two week shutdown to slow the spread.” Now, eight months later, the spread is greater than at any point this year. Public health officials worry how Thanksgiving gathering may affect case numbers and hospital bed availability. The rest of us are wondering when a vaccine will be widely available to begin a new, post-Pandemic normalcy. We’re wondering if the government will pass another relief bill. We’re wondering if we will become infected and how much suffering that would entail.

But let’s think in a different frame for our time together this morning. Let’s think not in the secular, day to day, timeline of pandemic life. Let’s enter into the sacred timeline of where God has been, is, and will be with us.

At the beginning of the Pandemic in mid-March, we were in the third week of the season of Lent. As we all turned to the Bible as a companion to our journey, we found insight in the desert wanderings of the Israelites and in Jesus’ own time of testing in the wilderness. In some manner our time in that place has continued—as it did for the Israelites who stayed in the desert for far longer than intended because they didn’t learn their lesson and follow God completely (sound familiar?). Over the past months of this Pandemic, we have ventured in our Christian journey through our at-home testimonies to the resurrection at Easter, into the hope and promise of Pentecost from our locked-in Upper Room, and through the weeks that we wondered—like a child on a long car ride—are we there yet?

Now we are in the season the church calls “Advent.” But, I would suggest that we are not just in that season now because the calendar says it. No, we are truly in the season of already/not yet anticipation. The season that is at the turning point of all history. 

We are in the season of knowing that there are reliable vaccines on the horizon to unlock the doors of our seclusion.  We just are not entirely sure when they will be available. Now we count the days, waiting as best we can in confident hope and faithful diligence.

We are, in the Biblical narrative, in the middle part of the library. We are living, no longer in the days of Moses leading God’s people through the wilderness, but in the days of prophets who spoke hope into trying circumstances.

And so, in parallel to our journey of self-examination in our Sunday worship, we are going to be considering our place in this story and journey of God’s people in these Wednesday devotions.

Hopefully, this will serve to put even more context on what we have been thinking about in our Sunday services. We have been digging under the surface of ourselves in order to receive our salvation, but all the while, all of us are also on a journey together as the church and along with the prophets of old.

It is for this communal journey from desperate hope to realized joy that we turn to the prophet Isaiah this morning.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, 

so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 

as when fire kindles brushwood 

and the fire causes water to boil— 

to make your name known to your adversaries, 

so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, 

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

Isaiah 64:1–3 (NRSV)

The prophet is living in a time of unrealized expectations, not unlike our living in the 8th month of a two week quarantine. Year after year, the prophet has called people to return to God in the hopes of the promise that God will restore them and their land. See, they’ve had all the promises of God before—they just didn’t recognize it until it was gone. In the past, God had appeared on Mount Sinai to Moses. God had demonstrated power against the prophets of false idols by divinely igniting the bonfire of Elijah. God had even answered their yearnings for a King like the other nations! But as the people of God became more like the people around them, they forgot to turn to God. They turned elsewhere. And as a result, they lost everything

And now, 50 years since their exile, since the hostile takeover by a foreign power, there is hope on the horizon. They are now under the rule of a more agreeable empire and king, one who is willing to restore their freedom to worship the God of Israel. And yet, it doesn’t feel like it did before the captivity. God seems more distant than they remember him.

We could imagine all kinds of situations that would have been like those of Israel in the 530s BC. Perhaps it would be like if we in the United States had lost the Cold War so spectacularly that the USSR had invaded our shores and made us into the United States of Soviet Russia. And 50 years into that foreign rule, the Soviet Union had been conquered by a more powerful nation whose leader was willing to restore a degree of autonomy to our shores. Yeah, it would be like that.

But also, we don’t have to imagine such a situation because we’re in a crisis of our own. We want to gather to praise God in one voice—but also, we are prevented from that for good reason. And the ways that we are able to gather don’t feel like the days we remember, when God spoke to us in all the feel-good ways. 

And so we, right now where we are, can take the message of Isaiah 64 to heart. Spend some time personally with this text. Here’s the meat of what he is saying to us.

Point 1 (vv. 1–4) — Things in this world are not as they should be. There should be enough hospital beds and affordable healthcare for everyone who is sick. There isn’t. The world shouldn’t be diseased at all. The very existence of biological viruses is a defect in the created order caused by the virus of Sin.

The thing is, we as the people of God know that there have been times when God has acted decisively to free and heal his people. God freed Israel from Egypt, God gave them a land of their own, and God sent Jesus Christ in this world to free us from our sins. And yet God seems far removed from us.

We all have, at one point or another, prayed a prayer of desperation to God. “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down…” “If only you would heal me or one I love.” 

The reality we begin with is––we are experiencing a Pandemic that has taken too many lives and will take more. The reality is, people suffer and die far too young. And we cry out to God.

Point 2 (vv. 5–7): We Cannot Save Ourselves!

We as human beings are limited. More than that, we are afflicted with the virus of sin. If anything has proven that to us, it’s the past eight months. For all the good in the world that we have seen persevere through this Pandemic, there is at least as much selfishness and evil.

Right now we all look for a cure. But, a vaccine is not a permanent cure for all that ails us. We thank God for the means to create, research, and manufacture one. But we need a savior beyond ourselves. Because God knows that even our means of curing these bodily afflictions are just as fallible as everything else we do. And beyond that, a vaccine won’t fix the sin of racism, of poverty, of hatred, of the brokenness of our communities.

In fact, we’re going to be tempted, when this is all over, to pretend that all is right with the world. Newsflash: it’s not. The world is broken. The world is sick. And this pandemic and its effects are only a symptom of this larger reality that we need salvation. 

Point 3 (v. 8, v. 1): Healing Comes Decisively from Outside Ourselves

If we cannot save ourselves, than we have to rely on someone else to save us. There’s a lot of candidates in this world. Everyone is selling something that will supposedly cure what ails us. But the only one who can really fix the problem is the one who is the master engineer who built the thing in the first place, the loving father who has watched us go astray. We need God to decisively act––as God did in the past through Moses and all the prophets, and then through Jesus. 

We need God to literally tear the heavens open and come down. The good thing is, that’s the very thing God promises to do. We are told to cling tightly to Jesus because Jesus will come to free us in a decisive moment of power. Jesus will come to free us like the allies freed the Nazi concentration camps. Jesus will come to heal us like a vaccine that inoculates us against the virus of Sin. Jesus will come like a test that shows the cancer has disappeared. Jesus will come like a presidential pardon, freeing us from the prison to which we’ve become enslaved.

Jesus will tear the fabric of our brokenness and enter into the core of our being.

This is the hope and promise of Advent; The invigorating hope and promise of God acting decisively in Jesus Christ. It is not a hope to be rested in passively––it is a hope that wakes us up to how things are and leads us to prepare our hearts and minds.

It is a hope that raises a loud cry in our hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Make haste to help us.

This desperate cry to God, this asking and begging, is part of our faithful waiting. It’s faithful because it reminds us about who God is and always has been. It reminds us that Jesus is the cure to our affliction.

But, as we close this morning, we’re likely to ask, “how long must we wait?”

Well, the answer as it relates to COVID is probably 6 months. If all goes according to schedule, and the vaccine is accepted and trusted, we might be able to put COVID-19 behind us by early Summer. That means we’re over halfway through our waiting. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still waiting to do. There is faithful waiting to do. The waiting that means we take every precaution for the good of our neighbors.

The question, “how long must we wait for God’s deliverance?” Is a tricker one to answer. We do not know when God, in Jesus Christ, will once again rend the curtain of heaven and come down. What we do know, for each of us, is that God has torn open the curtain separating us from God in Jesus Christ. Jesus has come and is here for all who ask, seek, knock, and receive. Today could be the day of your salvation from the Spiritual virus that afflicts you.

But as it relates to the salvation of the whole world, we wait as those who have hope. We wait with loud cries out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

Just be prepared. That cry will go on for longer than six months more. But it will also come at an unexpected time.

We might be able to understand how God unexpectedly works in time through the character of Gandalf.

God is a bit like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Or rather, Gandalf embodies some of God’s characteristics. In the LOTR movies, Gandalf is noted for saying… A wizard is never late. Nor is he early; he arrives precisely when he means to.”

And thus it will be that when God saves us, it will be at the precise moment and in the precise way that he intends for his glory and our good. 

God is never late. Nor is he early. God arrives at the precise moment he intends.  

In the name of the God who holds the past, present, and future we pray. Amen.

The Church That Went Forth To Learn Fear (A Sermon)

This sermon was preached at Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on October 18, 2020.

Ecclesiastes 3:10-11

2 Corinthians 12:7-9

The Brothers Grimm, the 19th Century German minds who first collected the folk stories of Rapunzel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, pass down to us one story that has yet to be adapted (and tamed) by the Walt Disney Company. It is called “The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear.”

The story tells us about a boy who had no sense and no skills of which to speak. His father, as many parents do, worried that this boy would be a burden. He would have to provide for his boy because he could not earn his own bread.

Yet, financial stability is not what concerned the boy. Not at all worried that he has no trade, he sees his one fatal flaw as something else: he never feels afraid. His lack of fear is the one thing that makes him unhappy.

In a story perfect for retelling in the time around Halloween, the younger son goes out into the world to learn what fear is.

He encounters a groundskeeper who dresses as a ghost to scare the boy in a dark cathedral. He spends a night with seven dead men at the gallows. And finally, he goes to a haunted castle where a King has promised his daughter in marriage to any man who can survive its haunts for three nights. 

These experiences would unsettle most of us, but he finds these experiences pleasant rather than frightful. The only thing he gains from them is a wife. The boy still has no knowledge of fear.

The story ends as the boy marries the princess, but rather than rejoice in his new marriage—and his newfound status in a royal family—he goes around all day muttering, “If only I could shudder, if only I could shudder.”

The boy’s new wife has had just about enough of it all, so she goes out to the garden brook and gathers a bucketful of cold water and small fish. That night, as the young king sleeps, his new wife pulls the covers off him and dumps the bucket on his head.

He immediately wakes up, crying out “What is making me shudder, dear wife? Ah, now I know how to shudder.”


Most of us are not quite as lucky as the dim-witted boy in the Grimm Brothers’ tale. We have not, for instance, found ourselves welcomed into a royal family by virtue of our one fatal flaw. The majority of us can at least name one or two situations, in the past, present, or future, that cause us anxiety and fear.

Even if we can make it through a haunted house or scary movie without “shuddering” in fear, there are still worries of this life that keep us up at night.

In normal times, we experience anxiety over upcoming assignments or examinations at work or school that test the limits of our knowledge and skills. We become afraid when, during a routine check-up at the doctor, we or a loved one hears that a preventive exam has returned some “troubling anomalies.” We avoid checking our credit card balance or retirement plan investment performance because we know the numbers aren’t good. We go into work as normal, only to find out that some corporate bean counter has decided our job is “redundant.”

Yes, even in normal times, the troubles of this life are like weeds that choke the seed of peace and hope within us (Mark 4:18). There is no need for us, like the boy in the fairy tale, to have cold water dumped on our head. We are plenty afraid already, thank you very much.

If those anxieties of “normal” times were not enough for us, we have been plunged quite unwillingly into the frigid waters of a global pandemic. Now, not only do we fear troubles at work or school, but we fear them in the context of a universal situation that has erased any concept of normal at all.

It is no surprise, then, that we are facing what is perhaps the worst mental health crisis the world has ever seen. The ever quickening and unstable pace of life in the 21st century has taken its toll on us, and now another wrench has been thrown into our unsettled existence.

Half of Americans reportedly acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic is negatively affecting their mental health. I can only assume the other half is outright lying or is just not in tune with their own emotions.

It is not just our relationships with ourselves that is the problem either. On the one hand, our relationships with our usual circle of friends and acquaintances have been tested by the limited conditions under which we are able to interact. On the other, romantic relationships have been tested by the sheer amount of time they are confined to one place together! Marriages that could work when both partners were distracted with other things are now seemingly unbearable.

Where do we turn when the foundation of our lives seems to be crumbling below our feet, when seemingly unshakable parts of our life fall into the depths of the sea? (Psalm 46:2)

Since we are in church, we have an answer or we at least know where to go to find one. The Bible is filled with statements about anxiety and worry that are concise and easy to remember. 

Philippians 4:6 says, “do not be anxious about anything,” 

Joshua 1:9 says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened.” 

And Jesus in John 14 encourages us with the words, “let not your hearts be troubled.”

All of these verses offer good wisdom! When we are troubled, we can find comfort and assurance in taking our concerns to God in prayer. When we face a difficult situation, we can find strength in knowing God is behind us as we meet the challenge head on. When we are afraid, we can find consolation in putting our trust in the Lord.

The trouble is, these verses themselves don’t fix anything! If they did, Christians would have a one verse cure to anxiety: “I hear that you’re feeling anxious. Well, just stop it. Jesus tells us not to be anxious!”

Plenty of well-meaning Christians try that approach when someone shares their troubles with them. These words of encouragement often exacerbate the problem because they make the person who is worried feel alone and broken.

When we use statements that seem to provide a quick fix to the troubles of this life, we find ourselves further away from addressing the problem. Name one time God offers a quick fix to anyone in the Bible. (I’ll wait.) And if all you hear from the Bible is “thou shalt not worry,” then those who are aware of their worries will feel like God does not care about them. Not worrying becomes another law to which we fail to measure up.

The witness of Scripture is far more complex. When we read outside of the verses supplied by our proof texting for the ailment of anxiety, we find affirmation that none of our negative feelings are a stranger to the Christian experience.

The Psalmist, David, acknowledges in Psalm 88 that he cries to the Lord every day, and yet darkness is his closest friend.

The Teacher, Solomon, was given a divine understanding of wisdom only to find that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (Eccl. 1:18)

Job, having been dealt more suffering than most, struggled with God night and day in his grief only to be comforted by God by darkness itself. God tells Job that as God created the universe, God wrapped the infant creation in the snuggling blanket of darkness. (Job 38:8-9)

Jesus cries out from the cross from the depth of his feeling, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It’s no wonder that when we go to faith leaders for help when we are troubled, we don’t normally hear them refer to these verses. They don’t fix anything. They require us to actually look into the depths of our heart and acknowledge what we feel. If we find comfort in darkness, if we find solace in our distress rather than covering it up, we’re going to stick out like a sore thumb in a world that demands quick fixes and happiness all the time.


If the true comfort Scripture has to give doesn’t just fix the unsettled feeling in our soul, then many of us are going to go elsewhere for assurance. We will, as good members of American consumer society, take our business elsewhere.

Literally. We will take any difficult situation, any opportunity for personal and societal growth and bypass it with the comfort that the marketplace provides. We pour ourselves even more diligently into our work, taking our lack of a commute as an excuse to work more hours. After all, we have no one to rely on but ourselves! We connect ourselves to the television and social media in order to find someone outside ourselves to blame for our anxiety. We pour ourselves another glass of wine because the first one didn’t quench our anxious thirst. We buy from Amazon.com just for the feeling of gratification that waiting for and receiving a package provides. We become even more focused on ourselves and anything that gets in the way of our personal happiness is discarded. All this gets to the point that even the church becomes the subject of our consumer impulses—we’re not worshiping in the right way, the pastor isn’t doing enough, it just doesn’t feel the same anymore.

All of these coping mechanisms and responses to anxiety have been exacerbated by the coronavirus, but are they really new?

No.

There is not a single response to our age of coronavirus anxiety, not a single bandage for our wounds that I have mentioned that has been invented over the past 7 months. They’re the same things that have occupied and distracted us since birth.

And if our response to the anxiety of the moment isn’t new, guess what? The anxiety of the moment isn’t new either.

Has it sunk in yet? Half of us, according to surveys, may acknowledge that we are feeling more anxious now than before the pandemic. But if we’ve been overworking ourselves, hiding in ideological foxholes, and numbing ourselves with television and alcohol all along—the truth is we have been anxious in our interior world the entire time.

The difference is that right now, all of us have been confronted by the uneasiness of our humanity at the same time. All of us have had to peer into the dark basement of our lives—and most of us have scurried back upstairs, back to the old normal, because we don’t like what we see.

Let’s go back to the story of the innocent boy who learned what fear was. We have all now acknowledged that we are afraid—otherwise we would not be responding in the ways of coping I identified a moment ago. So now is the time for us to declare “I am the boy/girl who is afraid.” And then for us to go into the fear inducing places—(go to) the dark cemetery, the gallows, the haunted house, and the basement of our life where we hide all the unpleasant bits—(go there) and sit there for a while, feeling afraid instead of hiding from fear.

It is then, when we admit that we are afraid, when the darkness of our own soul becomes our constant companion, that we can find the faith we have been looking for all along.

See, if you’re inclined to gloss to this pandemic and all of the anxieties of our age by screaming “faith casts out fear” at the top of your lungs, I’m just going to assume that you don’t have faith at all.

The law that says “thou shalt not fear” is not faith.

If not being afraid means that you are able to provide for yourself, that’s not faith. If the comfort you have is knowing what tomorrow, 5 years from now, or 20 years from now will be like, that is not faith. If your faith is in yourself and your own ability to have everything worked out—including whose fault everything is—then you don’t have faith. If faith means returning to some sense of normal, then it’s not faith.

If faith means to you that you are never afraid, then you don’t have faith because God has put a burden on us. God, Ecclesiastes tells us, has placed eternity in the human heart.

God has placed within us a knowledge of the great, unsearchable, frightening majesty of God. God has put in our heart a longing for God alone so that no matter what we do to try and settle our hearts, they will not be at peace until they find their rest in God. Remember what we read from Ecclesiastes? God has burdened us with eternity at the heart of our being. 

But we have to be intentional about going to and experiencing the places in our life where God is known to show up, where this knowledge of eternity is found.. We have to seek out and investigate the places where this inner fear, this inner longing comes to the surface.

Look at the names and stories of the Biblical writers who talk about God giving unexpected peace through fear and you’ll realize they found that faith because they were willing to stare the darkness of fear and anxiety in the face! 

Moses had seen God in a flaming bush, confronted Pharaoh, and led Israel most unwillingly through a desert. Elijah ran into the wilderness in fear because Jezebel was intent on killing him. God appears, not in some trite bumper sticker, but in the silence of fear and trembling that comes after a storm. Job challenged God in the court of justice and had God unveil the whole mystery of creation to his face. Jacob wrestled with God. David sinned against everyone and had to befriend darkness. Paul was given a thorn in his side to constantly torment him.

It is these figures that tell us not to be afraid. Not because there is nothing to fear. Moses, Elijah, Job, Jacob, and Paul know for sure there is everything to fear. But they give assurance of God’s presence because they have confronted their own darkness, uncertainty and anxiety. They’ve stared the void in the face with fear and trembling. And now nothing, not even death or life, not even the anxieties of this world, can separate us them from God’s embrace anymore.

Right now, this global struggle against a pesky little virus, has dragged into the basement with all of our issues. It’s shown us the dust and disorder inside of ourselves. It’s intensified our frustrations and desires. And now, along with all creation, we anxiously await redemption (Romans 8).

Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, we raise our complaints to God, begging him to take away from us this thorn in our side, this prodding at our back that painfully moves us away from the old normal of our self-sufficiency. But God knows that without this thorn, we would go back to our old ways. 

If you feel anxious right now, if you feel unsettled, if you feel a need to lash out with your opinions and judgment, good.

Now it is time for us to learn what fear is.


Now, in the cover of pandemic darkness, we are safe enough to go down into our souls and sit with ourselves. Now, we have the opportunity to go into our quiet places to pray and lose ourselves.

Jesus says, “when you pray, enter your closet and shut the door.” Enter the place where nothing can distract you from the uneasiness of yourself. Enter the place where the only two people are you and God. The closet Jesus talks about is necessarily dark. It’s silent. If you can hear anything, it’s just the hum of your body ticking along.

A Christian philosopher of the 19th Century taught that learning to be anxious in the right was “an adventure that every human being must go through.” We need to learn to be anxious in the right way so that we do not succumb to the numbing of our anxiety in the wrong ways.

This man, Soren Kierkegaard, is noted for saying “Faith sees best in the dark.”

The truthfulness of the statement is immediately proven when you respond by saying, “well, faith cannot see best in the dark because I cannot see in the dark!”

Exactly. It is when we cannot see that we come to see ourselves clearly. It is when we cannot see that God speaks through the silence and we can do nothing besides trust him. It is when admit that we cannot see that everything is uncovered.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” If we don’t acknowledge our weakness, if we don’t uncover the inner anxiety growing from the neglected soul within us, then God’s power will never be made perfect in us.

Only when we come to the place where we have no hope for the future in ourselves, when we have no ability to move forward at all, can we experience true faith.

The only way out of our present age of anxiety is through it. The only way to overcome our anxiety is to stop fighting it and just accept it.

Kierkegaard most succinctly puts the problem of our world and its solution in these words:

The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and my advice asked, I should reply, ‘Create silence. Bring people to silence. The word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. Therefore, create silence.

Soren Kierkegaard

So, the challenge for us this week is for us to go back into our quarantine closets and shut the door. Separate yourself from the lights of the world; turn off the noise. Maybe one of the disciplines of the moment for you is that you restrain yourself from watching political news. Turn it off. Enter the place where only you and God reside, where the knowledge of eternity resides. Sit. Listen. Wait for the Lord.

And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Let us pray:

“To Thee, O God, we turn for peace . . . grant us the blessed assurance that nothing shall deprive us of [your true] peace, neither ourselves, nor our foolish, earthly desires, nor my wild longings, nor the anxious cravings of my heart.” Amen.

The Promised Land (A Sermon)

This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on June 14, 2020, on the fourteenth week of online worship due to the COVID-19 virus.

Deuteronomy 1:19–33

Matthew 9:38–10:1, 5–20

This year has taken us all on a journey none of us were prepared for, a road that many of us would have rather not traveled, even considering the circumstances. We have sought, now for our fourteenth week since the beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic, a return to normalcy, only to be stuck in a wilderness of difficulty and confusion.

Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, we have been forced to respond to another pandemic which we would have rather ignored: the pandemic caused by the virus of racism, a virus that to some degree hides within or affects each of us.

Out in the wilderness of unrest, confrontation, and continued social distancing, our feelings of dis-ease are only growing the longer we remain in this desert place.

Lest we imagine that we are living in truly unprecedented times, canoeing without so much as a paddle through chaotic waters, we have gathered once again as a virtual community to turn to the words of Scripture. Every time we do so, we recognize how much our lives connect with the story God has been telling since the beginning of time. 

We have been on a journey from “normal,” through various waystations in the wilderness such as beginning of the stay-at-home order and killing of George Floyd to some sort of “new normal” off in the distance.

When we read the Old Testament, we hear of a similar movement from the normalcy of slavery in Egypt, through various challenges and temptations in the desert, to the Promised Land off in the distance.

When we read the New Testament, again, there is the old normal of sin and death, the ministry of Jesus who like Moses leads the crowd through the wilderness, and a resurrection that gives birth to a new land of promise.

The central question in each of these movements through the wilderness is this: will the people turn back to the old normal (the virus of sin and death) or will they dream of milk and honey and follow Moses, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to that new place that is just on the other side of the mountaintop.

Will the Israelites turn back and return to slavery in Egypt?

Will the Disciples turn back and pick up their fishing nets and swords?

Will we turn back to the comfort of the past and do our best to forget this wilderness ever happened at all?


When we pick up the story of the Israelites journey through the wilderness in the story from Numbers 13, which is retold for us in Deuteronomy 1:19, the trip is not yet the “wilderness wandering” to which we normally refer.

To be sure, the route out of Egypt for the past year and a half (or so) has had its fair share of challenges. The only food has been manna and quail, the former called manna specifically because it is unrecognizable as food at all. Even water has been difficult to come by. Time and time again, the people have complained. At this point, their complaints have become so constant that they are for Moses the background noise of his ministry—his ears do their best to tune them out.

The exodus from Egypt through the wilderness has had its fair share of blessings too. There is food to eat and water to drink, thanks to the Lord who provides. And God has appeared to Moses and given the people of God an identity through the expectations of the Ten Commandments.

At this point, the journey to the Promised Land may have seemed like it was taking forever, but it wasn’t. What is a couple of years of walking for a people that had been enslaved for hundreds? 

Except there’s that tiny little detail in Deuteronomy 1:2 that the trip from Horeb, the Mountain of God, to Kadesh-barnea, the doorstep of the promised land, should take only 11 days.

Let’s just say the Israelites didn’t take the most direct route.

Even so, they’re now so close to the land of promise that they can taste it. Numbers 13:20 tells us they got to Kadesh-barnea during the season of the first ripe grapes. Imagine what a sweet, juicy grape would taste like after a few years in the desert eating only manna and quail.

Fortunately, their watering mouths don’t distract them from the importance of military strategy. They come up with a plan to send twelve men, one of the best from each of the twelve tribes, to scout out the Promised Land to see if God held up his end of the bargain; to ensure it was everything they had been promised.

It’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t made a spy thriller based on this passage. The feelings of suspense and anticipation are at least as great in this story as in the attempt by Rebel forces to steal the Death Star plans from Scarif in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The spies successfully infiltrate enemy territory and make it back to Moses with the intelligence they were sent to gather. And here’s the report:

“We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit!”

Wait for it.

But Moses, the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are very large, and besides, we saw giants there. We are small and weak like grasshoppers—we could never defeat them.”

Now they’re just making stuff up. Giants? Really?

They didn’t know and believe, as I was taught when I was growing up through Veggie Tales, that “God is bigger than the bogeyman. He’s bigger than Godzilla, or the monsters on TV. He’s watching out for you and me.”

Only Joshua and Caleb dissent from the majority report. Only two out of the twelve have faith that the Lord God will bring them into the land of promise. All twelve dream of the milk and honey the land would provide, but only two believe God can make that dream a reality. There are just too many giants standing in the way.

This scene, at the doormat of the Promised Land, just a couple years out of Egypt, sets off a chain of devastating events. The Israelites are cursed to wander for 40 years. Moses curses at the people and strikes the rock out of anger. Aaron dies. Israelites die from snakes and a pandemic. And Moses dies on the mountaintop overlooking the Promised Land, never to enter it. 

The journey that was supposed to take eleven days will now take 40 years because of a lack of faith, hope, trust, and conviction that God will do what God promises.


In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, we find ourselves in a similar scene. Compare Matthew 10 and the sending of the twelve disciples with Numbers 13 and the sending of the twelve spies and you’ll find many structural similarities.

More than the structure of the story, Jesus is clearly leading a New Exodus out of slavery to sin and death and into God’s Kingdom. As Jesus travels among the cities and villages of Judea, a political wilderness under Roman occupation, crowds follow him, desperate to leave their bondage to sickness, sin, and death behind. They’ve heard that he can heal, that he has the answers to the problems of their society. They are wandering around a wilderness like “sheep without a shepherd” year after year, ruler after ruler with no true “leader” among them.

So, what does Jesus do? He sends his leadership, those who have been hand-picked from the twelve tribes of Israel, out as ambassadors throughout the promised land of Israel.

Jesus sends them out among the crowds demanding a better government, into the hospitals where people are sick, into homes where people are hiding in sin, and he gives them a message of hope:

“The Kingdom of Heaven, the real Promised Land, has come near!”

These emissaries of the Kingdom are to take nothing with them except the peace of Jesus as they go to house after house, bringing the Good News.

Like the spies sent into Canaan in the Old Testament, these disciples are engaging in a highly risky activity. They could find themselves in a difficult situation with the Roman occupying forces as they told of a New Kingdom. They could be chased away by those who wanted to maintain the status quo. They were the furthest thing from self-reliant, depending on the hospitality of others for food and lodging.

Jesus tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to the courts and flog you in their places of worship, and you will be made an example in the court of public opinion. You will be hated by all because of my name, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

All of this difficulty in the place between how things were and how things will be is necessary so that they actually get somewhere! Sure, they could have stayed in the old normal of sickness, sin, and death, crying out for a leader, forever. Just like the Israelites could have remained in Egypt in slavery, being worked so hard they had no time to worship God.

If Jesus is going to take his people into the Kingdom of God, the new land of promise, things are going to get worse before they get better.


I’ve been spending most of my devotional and reading time since mid-March thinking, studying, and praying over these scenes of Israel in the wilderness, Jesus in the wilderness, and the disciples eventually leading people into the new land of promise that we call the “Church.”

The leadership team has been reading a book about Lewis & Clark, how they were sent out through an uncertain wilderness as emissaries for President Thomas Jefferson and the United States. They went out on canoes in search of a waterway to the Pacific Ocean until they reached the end of the water. They came upon a mountain pass and realized they couldn’t get to their destination the same way they started out. Such is true, in many ways, of the Biblical journeys through the wilderness I have been talking about.

But over the past couple weeks, as NASA prepared to send astronauts to the International Space Station from US soil, on an American rocket for the first time since 2011, I got to thinking about those modern voyagers, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. They were strapped into a crew module atop a 230 ft tall Falcon 9 rocket, which had never before carried humans into space.

Right now, in this time of unprecedented change, anticipating leaving the wilderness of the COVID-19 pandemic, finding ourselves in the wilderness of confronting the sin of racism, we feel like we’re strapped to a rocket.

We’re not cool and calm—we’re not astronauts. We would rather stay on the ground. We would rather stay in the wilderness or back in Egypt. We would rather not go anywhere new and different. We want to go back to our old norm.

But God is asking us now, as he did in the Old and New Testaments, to go higher and farther, to boldly go where no one has gone before, to become trailblazers for the Kingdom of God.

The new ideas and challenges from Rev. Tina and the leadership team are outside the “usual” box—from online worship to house churches to doing things differently when we return to the sanctuary.

And you know what, we’ve done really well considering than none of us would have voluntarily strapped ourselves on this particular rocket or taken this particular wilderness journey.

But as we look to the next part of our journey from the old normal, through this wilderness, to the promised land on the other side—there’s a real risk, not just a perceived one. Doug and Bob took a risk when they got strapped into that rocket. There had been failed launches before. We remember the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. As the spies had reported to Moses, there was a real risk involved in entering the promised land—the people were big and scary. Jesus and his disciples risked it all too, remaining faithful to God to the point of death.

The journey out of COVID-19 to a new normal is going to challenge all of us. There are real risks to consider: exposing people to the virus, facing reduced tithing and giving, alienating people, trying things differently and failing, as well as not doing things differently and failing to grow.

Likewise, the journey of dealing with the sin of racism is fraught with challenges. There are risks of saying the wrong thing and in saying nothing at all. There is a risk that the opportunities to face this challenge now won’t be taken, and that we’ll end up right back where we were.

But I believe, because I see it in Scripture, that there is a new world on the other side of these challenges. There is a promised land. There is a strong and faithful Church. There is a land flowing with milk and honey on the other side of the mountain at the end of this wilderness.

Martin Luther King Jr., in his last speech on the night before he was murdered, said this:

“The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today… the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’ Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding…Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind”

Oh, that we could have such faith to declare not that “the old days were better than these” (Ecclesiastes 7:10), but that the work of God that is unfolding is flowing with milk and honey and hope. Oh, that we would have the faith to reach the mountaintop and see that promised land.

We might, sometimes, rather head back to Egypt like the Israelites, go back to our normal fishing jobs like the disciples, or go back to how everything was before.

But at a certain point, there’s no return. We’re strapped onto the rocket. We’re about to take flight. The flame of Pentecost is about to be lit underneath us. And all we can do is look to the sky and declare: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”

As Astronaut Alan Shepherd is famous for declaring, strapped into the rocket for America’s first human spaceflight, let’s “light this candle.” Amen.

Sheltered in Place (A Sermon)

This sermon was preached online to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on April 19th, 2020 – the Second Sunday of Easter and Sixth Week of “Coronatide.”

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

John 20:19–29 (NIV)

Today is the Second Sunday of the Easter season, according to the church calendar. In the Anglican Communion they call this day “Low Sunday,” the meaning of which would be apparent to us in a normal year. When our calendar runs as usual, the Sunday after Easter is a time of moderate disappointment as the excitement of the Resurrection wears off. The pews, after the crowds witnessing to the Resurrection, seem emptier than usual.

This year, we are operating according to a different calendar. Today doesn’t really feel like the Sunday after Easter—it feels like another Sunday in a never-ending Lent. According to our 2020 church calendar of necessity, today is the Sixth Sunday of Corona-tide. It is the sixth week that we have been unable to worship within the usual four walls and have instead, largely, been confined to the four walls of our residence.

We are a displaced and scattered people. And it may feel as if everything is against us. Nothing is going according to plan. The calendars are cleared with no idea of when it will be safe to try and fill them again. We long for something to do and some place to go. Who would have thought, just a few months ago, that the closest thing to an adventure we would have in these weeks is a trip to the grocery store.

Let’s admit it—we are grieving.

When we first heard about the threat posed by Coronavirus to public health, and our regular patterns of life, most of us were in denial. Sure, there were some who confronted reality much earlier. My brother, for one, seemed to know early on how bad this threat was. But the rest of us shrugged things off as a problem in China that wouldn’t have much effect on us. We thought, perhaps, the situation was an overblown response to something no more harmful than the seasonal flu.

All that has changed. Coworkers, friends, and family members have been tested for the virus. We have wondered what it might mean if the test came back positive, especially if there are other risk factors present. We wonder if we might have the virus too, lying dormant for now. Is our cough just a cough?

Even if we haven’t yet been confronted with the health threat posed by COVID-19, by the grace of God, we are all aware how the necessity for social distancing has brought our economy screeching to a halt. There may be a silver lining for some of us—I, for one, have found my expenses greatly reduced by having nowhere to go and nothing to do. But for others, including members of our congregation, this economy of the bare necessities has plunged them into the unemployment system. Where will the money come from for rent, food, and other basic needs?

Even if we haven’t lost our jobs, we have lost some of our hopes and dreams—or at least seen them delayed. High School and College students now grieve the loss of many of the activities and experiences that made the schoolwork bearable. Many have lost their senior year.

Not being able to deny the challenging reality posed by Coronavirus any longer, we feel a tinge of anger arising out of our grief. We may direct our anger in political directions: at the President or “Republicans” or “Democrats.” Our anger may show itself, in moments of weakness, in an outburst against a friend or family member. We may even take our anger out on God, as Job once did in the Old Testament or even as Jesus, quoting Psalm 22, cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Many of us, as we approached Easter, held out hope that we might still be able to worship together! We bargained with God, with our civil leaders, with the virus itself: perhaps, if we do what we are told, the threat will leave us. Maybe, if we have faith, we will be able to celebrate Easter together with churches packed to the brim in a way they have never been before.

Now on the Sixth Sunday of Corona Time, having tried to muster up the spirit of Easter Resurrection in our hearts with varying degrees of success, it is normal, perhaps even healthy to fall into the fourth stage of grief: depression.

The adrenaline of problem solving has worn off and now we’re overwhelmed by the prospect of continuing on the present course. Our online meetings and schooling and even ways of doing church are challenging us and stripping us of joy.

Maybe through this path of grief and our current loss of joy we will come to a new, stable and safe place—a “new normal” of acceptance. Most of us, myself included, are still just looking for a way out of our pandemic struggle into “business as usual.” We’re buying our time by watching TV and movies and falling into the endless scroll of Facebook.


As we participate in this online service of worship, longing and hoping for God to show up and speak some word of grace into Corona Time, we return to a, likely familiar, story from John’s Gospel. It’s a story that I think we can understand this year in a way we never have before.

After Jesus’s crucifixion, the disciples returned to the only safe place they had left—the Upper Room, where Jesus had gathered with them around the table for the Passover. Like the Hebrew slaves preparing to leave their captivity in Egypt on the first Passover, the disciples were locked in that room, knowing that certain death lay outside that place of safety.

On that first Passover, the blood of the slaughtered Passover lamb on the doorpost protected those hidden inside from the plague of death that was about to spread through Egypt. For these disciples, the Upper Room protected them from those who had put Jesus to death and were looking to kill any who were associated with him.

The disciples were once full of hope and expectation. Jesus had transformed their lives. He had given them a purpose.

Jesus had called the twelve out of their “normal” lives as fishermen, merchants, and tax collectors—they left willingly, anticipating that the world was about to change for the better, and they could get in on the ground floor.

They dreamed that they could be somebody.

This Jesus fellow called himself the Son of God, and such a one could take them places. Jesus wouldn’t just make their ordinary vocation more profitable, as he had done by miraculously improving Peter’s fishing skills. Jesus talked about a new Kingdom where he would be King over all. With that new Kingdom would come all sorts of opportunities.

But with Jesus, it doesn’t work out the way the disciples had hoped. Not only do the disciples have to grapple with the defeat of their movement, but their leader is dead.

Like us, they went through the stages of grief. At first, when Jesus started to speak of his impending death, the disciples were in denial. Peter had spoken up and utterly rejected the idea that Jesus would die.

As the disciples began to realize that Jesus was not planning to overtake the Kingdom of Rome, that he had no plans to establish a new earthly government with key roles for his disciples, they got angry. The anger that arose from Judas’ grief led him to betray Jesus to the authorities. Peter’s anger led him to cut off the ear of Malchus, a servant of the High Priest. In that Upper Room after the crucifixion, I’m sure there was plenty of anger to go around: anger at Judas for betraying them, anger at Jesus for letting them down, anger at each other and even themselves for the ways they had failed.

The disciples were likely bargaining in their grief, “if only I had not failed him. If only we had responded differently. If only this whole crucifixion business could be undone.”

The women who had gone to the tomb, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, were accused by the men of living in denial. They had reported to them that the tomb was empty, but the men knew that was more likely bad news than it was a sign that Jesus had defeated death. Someone probably just stole his body to cause more trouble. Luke’s Gospel tells us the men did not believe the women’s report, “because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

As night fell on that first day of the week, I imagine the disciples, like many of us, were falling into a situational depression. Darkness covered them. The doors were locked in fear. There was nothing they could do, nothing to distract them from the sinking feeling of despair.

All they have is their grief of their lost hope that “Jesus was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).

This was the condition of the disciples on that first Easter, not all that different from where we find ourselves today in the shadow of the Coronavirus.


It is amidst these grief-stricken men, hiding in fear, that good news comes again. In the locked room, protected from the death that threatened them on the other side of the door, Jesus appeared among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.”

Grace­—unmerited love and comfort—fills that Upper Room. The promise of the Spirit’s coming among the disciples is fulfilled (John 14:15).

Jesus had told them the truth about what was going to happen the whole time. But Jesus does not shame them or stir up feelings of guilt. He knew that the disciples had hoped for the wrong things the whole time, fame and power.

But through the grief—not in spite of it—the disciples are forced to empty themselves of all their expectations and rely on the promises of their savior.

Through the grief, the disciples were given “peace.”

We sometimes imagine that after Jesus appears to the disciples in his resurrected glory, everything was resolved. That everything went back to normal. But that’s not the case at all. There was no normal left to which they could go.

Fast forward a week after the first Resurrection appearance and things are roughly the same as they were on the first day. The doors are still shut. The disciples are still in that Upper Room, sheltered in place. The only difference is that Thomas is with them.

Why wasn’t Thomas there the first time? I think Thomas had decided not to shelter in place with the rest of the disciples because he was fearless. He, after all, was the one who in John 11:16 said confidently to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go with Jesus, that we might die with him.” Thomas was prepared to die, to be a martyr, if that’s what the situation required. You would think that his fearlessness would be rewarded.

But it turns out that Thomas missed out. Thomas, in denying his grief, in having gone out while the rest of his brothers where hiding out in the upper room, in trying to do something, had missed a sighting of Jesus.

Thomas, like us, was restless. He wanted to leave the confines of the Upper Room, so he did. And so, he initially missed the grace of Jesus’ presence. It was while sheltered in place that all eleven of those who remained saw the glory of the resurrection and received the peace of Christ.


Sitting at home is hard. We are an active church. We long to do something. And in many ways, we continue to do good in the ways available to us.

But what if, like Thomas, our desire to go and do can actually distract us from the place where Jesus Christ is coming to meet us? What if Jesus means to appear to us in powerful ways inside of the four walls of our upper room?

In the history of the church, even and especially during times of the church’s strength and success, God has called men and women to take time apart in the quiet stillness to seek his grace.

In the third and fourth centuries after Jesus, there was a significant movement out to the desert of Egypt to seek God, just as Christianity was being legalized. They sought to escape the temptations of worldly success and hold onto the spiritual strength that comes through simplicity and solitude. In a world that told them they could be someone special, that the marketplace could define them, they decided to renounce the world to find God in solitude.

These monks, known as the Desert Fathers, recorded many sayings as they provided spiritual wisdom to their younger members and those who came to them seeking insight. These sayings might help us to experience the grace and work of God in our sheltered times.

We might feel right now as if we are a fish out of water, away from the things that give us life, but Antony, known as the Father of All Monks said, “Fish die if they stay on dry land, likewise the monk cannot survive outside his cell.”

Similarly, Abba Moses was known to tell other monks, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

What does this “cell,” this confinement, have to teach us if we resist the urge to flee it or be distracted from it? What if this time staying at home is really a means of God’s rescue, giving us new life when we’ve been floundering on the shore unknowingly for years?

In this solitude, like those monks, we are liable to confront our own faults, our deepest temptations. We’re likely to realize just how tempting it is to eat an entire sleeve of cookies in one sitting and open up the fridge to look for a snack four times an hour.

But we also might find unexpected joy: the joy of realizing we really don’t need as much stuff as we thought we did, the joy rediscovering family game night, the joy of contentment, the joy of peace.

Those moments may be few and far between. It’s okay for us to feel unsettled, to feel the grief, even most of the time. But there are moments when we hear and feel the words “Peace be with you.” And maybe it’ll come in the diligent work of cooking a simple meal or of taking a walk around the block.


Acts 1:4 tells us that while Jesus was staying with the disciples in Jerusalem, he “ordered them not to leave, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.”

That is our challenge now—to shelter in place for this designated time, to remain faithful, and to wait here for the promise of the Father.

With the disciples, with all who have sought God in quiet places, we wait in our grief and our longing. And until the day of deliverance comes, until that new day on the other side of this time of death and resurrection, we trust in the words of our comforter, “Peace be with you. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Amen.

Set Free from the Contagion (A Sermon)

This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on March 22nd, 2020, amidst the quarantine due to the COVID-19 virus.

Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Luke 13:10–17 (NRSV)

When we hear this story, our minds make an immediate translation from the world of the 1st Century to the 21st. When we hear that this woman was oppressed by “a crippling spirit,” and we hear the description of her illness, our modern scientific brains kick into gear, wondering what this woman’s affliction could be.

It turns out, through the power of Wikipedia, that this woman had Ankylosing spondylitis. (I am extremely grateful that Wikipedia will also pronounce things for you!) It’s an arthritic condition in the spine—inflammation causes a progressive fusing of the vertebrae that causes one to hunch over.

Without that translation, this story is almost unintelligible to us. How could a “spirit” cripple this woman? In what sense can “Satan” be accused of holding her in bondage? Can you imagine going to the orthopedic doctor today and being told, “ah, I see the problem. You have a spirit that is attacking you, pushing you down, causing you to hunch over. I can’t help you, but maybe your therapist or Pastor can help set you free from that spirit.”

We would quickly seek out a second opinion. We might even report that doctor to his credentialing board!

If we take the spiritual nature of this woman’s affliction seriously, and I think we should, we’re in danger of falling into another trap. Since this story implies that this woman has a spiritual rather than a mere physical condition, we might incorrectly assume that this woman has done something wrong, something to deserve her affliction!

Some have accused this poor crippled woman of being stuck in personal sin and “lax in [her] efforts toward piety” (Cyril of Alexandria). If that were true, she wouldn’t have needed anything more than to pray, be made right with God, and be healed. If that were true, it was a personal problem, not something to deal with publicly. If her spiritual condition was caused by an error in her individual behavior, Jesus would have identified the ailment’s source as a personal transgression.

In order to avoid the complex snares of the spiritual, we think we’re better off with our modern, physical translation of the story that foregoes all the spiritual baggage. This woman simply has a medical condition, she needs a doctor, and in lieu of modern medicine, Jesus and his miraculous healing ability is her best option.

We don’t tend to believe in the “spiritual world.” Honestly, it’s because it’s hard for us to see any evidence of it. Our eyes and minds aren’t programmed to see it. We look for scientific causes and effects for everything we observe. In premodern societies, belief in God was assumed, and with that assumption came a general understanding that there was a supernatural cause behind everything. Today, our default response is to assume a physical cause for every incident.

In this congregation, we try to intentionally reprogram ourselves to remember that God is living and active in our world by sharing “God sightings.” Every week in worship, we have a brief, open time of sharing in which we are asked to share what God has been doing in our lives and where we have seen God’s hand at work.

It’s a hard thing to do, because our minds are trained to be skeptical. And so, more often than not, when someone takes a risk to share a place where they have seen God at work, someone in the congregation lets out an audible groan. It’s not the same person. Many more groan silently, it’s just that one or two slip and let it out.

“This is not what the Sabbath is for,” our inner skeptics scream in our minds. “We are here, as good Presbyterians to rest from our labors by singing, praying for our list of concerns, hearing a talk about a passage of scripture, and leaving the building no more than one hour after the start of the service!” That is why we are here. It’s simple, physical, observable, understandable.

Isn’t it ironic that right now we’re forced to change that rhythm due to the Coronavirus? Our lack of spiritual sight causes us to assume that because our physical church doors are closed, because we cannot meet in groups of 10 or more people, the “church” is therefore closed. We’re forced, instead, to remember that there is something more than our physical presence that connects us.

The problem with our obsession with the merely physical is that it leaves us without any understanding of the nature of the human condition and the condition of creation. And if we don’t know the cause of our situation, how can we possibly be delivered from it?

If the physical is all that we have, then there isn’t any true salvation for any of us. We’ll just be stuck relying on beneficial, but incomplete, physical remedies. Nothing can save us from the reality of our eventual, physical death. And if the personal is all that we have, then an individual’s condition must be a result of their own personal choices and impiety.

What could be done for this bent-over woman today in modern medicine? We like to imagine, as 21st century moderns, that we have all the answers. We see the problems and we have a solution. But this woman’s condition is just as chronic and incurable in the 21st century as it was in the 1st. To this day, we can only treat symptoms of the disease. Modern medicine has a different name for this woman’s condition, but no silver bullet, no cure.

This woman represents all of us with chronic conditions that have no complete cure. Even when their condition is well-managed, the disease hides in the background, ready to appear again. From psychological conditions such as depression to degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease, to the constant fight against cancer­­—our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends, enemies, and ourselves cry out for a cure. But many live with conditions for which there is no cure, like this woman with Ankylosing spondylitis.

So, what do we do when an individual has an infirmity that cannot be “cured” in the full, embodied sense of the word?

Or, in this time especially as the world is infected with the Coronavirus, we might ask what we should do when the world is infected by a contagion, a virus, for which there is no readily available physical inoculation.

Now we’re on to something.

Turns out, we’re as helpless today in the 21st century as the desperate and downtrodden were in first century Palestine. We are as in need of a savior to heal and save us from our infirmities.

I wish I could simply say that Jesus can offer healing of a kind light-years ahead of what medicine can currently provide, that the power of Jesus that healed this unnamed woman 2,000 years ago can cure you of arthritis, cancer, depression, or whatever else affects you today. That somehow, a sprinkling of holy water or some oil will inoculate you from the Coronavirus. 

I wish we could say one simple prayer tonight and send the Coronavirus into the pit of hell. Some people might be willing to still make those pronouncements and put on a grand spectacle and sell you some snake oil, but medical cures are way above my paygrade.

Even if there is no easy cure for our chronic condition, the message of the Gospel is that there is healing for us and a Savior who can save us. As long as we focus on our individual infirmities, we’re doomed to suffer and fail under the weight of the human condition. But our Scripture tells us clearly and decisively that there is something behind this painful chaos that kept this woman hunched over on the Sabbath day.

The Bible paints a word picture of this multifaceted reality: Sin, Death, Satan, the Powers and Principalities, the Spiritual Forces in the Heavenly Realms (Ephesians 6:12)

In the beginning of it all, the book of Genesis tells us that God’s desire for the world was a lush garden of beauty and wholeness. But because of one transgression, out of a desire for personal autonomy, that picture was shattered. Sin, a contagion, a virus with an untreated 100% fatality rate, had infected the world. And thus, as we know, husband and wife turn on one another, brother rises up against brother, human relationships are broken by transgressions, yes. But the problem is really much deeper.

Scripture tells us that individual transgressions, those sins we commit, are not the only problem. No, the whole system of being is infected. Our behaviors are caught up in a wider web of pain and suffering that we can’t control. Try making one purchase, one personal decision that doesn’t have a negative effect on another human being. You can’t do it! It’s like trying to go about your day without spreading the Coronavirus. The reality is, just like with Coronavirus, you’re spreading the infection of Sin and Death wherever you go, even if you’re not currently symptomatic.

The power of Sin has cut us off from the Tree of Life, it’s affected our DNA, it dwells within us like a virus, cutting our time short, subjecting us to suffering and pain.

With this woman, with our fragile Earth, with the entire cosmos, we groan out for redemption! We’re bent over. We’re resigned to our fate. Except that we have the hope of Paul in Romans 8 “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

It’s not that this woman has suffered because of her sin. Yes, we face the consequences of our actions on a daily basis, but God does not consign us to suffering because of them. We suffer because all creation suffers. We suffer because all of us, as Ephesians 6:12 says, struggle not against flesh and blood, but against the “spiritual forces of evil” that attack our bodies and beat us down as children of God.

As St. Augustine put it, “the whole human race, like this woman, was bent over and bowed down to the ground.” Together, we cry out against this enemy to God.

As St. Paul asks in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

On that Sabbath day 2,000 years ago, the Lord Jesus released that woman who had been crying out for 18 long years from her bondage. Yes, Jesus did have the supernatural power to cure her. But more importantly, Jesus saw her and healed her. He restored her. He gave her the freedom of the children of God from her captor.

As Romans 8:2 declares, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

The woman who was in bondage in knows the reality of the human condition and the condition of the cosmos far better than the synagogue leader does. The synagogue leaders sees this incident as a simple act of physical healing. It’s “work.” It’s what those of you who are medical professionals do at your day jobs. But Jesus sees it as something far more.

The synagogue leader doesn’t know his own brokenness, his own wounds, the way this cosmic story of Sin and death has kept him in bondage. He doesn’t know the he too is bent over to the ground. Otherwise, he’d be begging for freedom too!

The synagogue leader has become so defensive and antagonistic with Jesus because he is unwilling and unable to find healing from the spiritual wounds in his heart.

Like those who go about their days as normal right now, denying the danger of the spread of the Coronavirus, the synagogue leader adopts a deadly “everything is fine, we don’t need saving” mentality.

This moderator of the Sabbath assembly doesn’t know that he, like all of us, is deeply wounded, broken, and infected. And if he knows it, then he’s trying his best to hide it.

None of us can escape the contagion of Sin. We’re all infected. And like the bent over woman, we can all be liberated from the powers that hold us in bondage.

Now is the time for release from bondage! Now, on this Sabbath day, is the time of our healing.

The thing that keeps us from deliverance and healing from the twin powers of Sin and Death especially in the Church is that we refuse to acknowledge and take up our afflictions. And if we don’t acknowledge our common sickness, we’re certainly not going to create the space for healing.

In our minds, Church is a recue raft for those who aren’t infected by the contagion, the virus of Sin and Death. And so, sometimes we get caught up in putting on a religious show during a season like Lent! Our life isn’t hard enough, so we find ways to voluntarily suffer to show how good and religious we are. Or to earn our place as one of the good-religious-sabbath-keepers.

But as it turns out, all of our false piety has been stripped from us this Lent. There are no more Fish Fry’s left to convince us that we’re doing our religious duty by eating fried food. There are no more gatherings of people in which to adopt a sullen expression and show people how terrible our fast is making us feel!

Right now, there’s no way to deny that we are ALL infected by the contagion of Sin and Death. Look at the empty supermarket shelves, decimated by those who are hoarding supplies for themselves. Look at the fragility of our lives—we carry viruses within our bodies, without knowing, that can bring death upon those who are most vulnerable.

–––––

In this season of Lent, our local ministerium decided that “Take Up Your Cross” would be the theme of our gatherings together. Those mid-week services may be suspended by the virus, but what an opportunity we have together now to take up the crosses that are before us, to pick up our pain and suffering, to pick up the sign of Sin and Death, and to ask Jesus to take that weight from us.

Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). “Take up my burden. It is the burden of the whole world and it will be a light burden. Take up my yoke and it will prove to be an easy yoke.” (Matthew 11:30; “Following Jesus,” 79).

Reflecting on that passage, the great Christian Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen writes, “This is the mystery of the Christian life. It is not that God came to take our burden away or to take our cross away or to take our agony away.” (As I’ve been saying in this sermon, Jesus did not come to cure us of our fragile humanity.) “No. God came to invite us to connect our burden with God’s burden, to connect our suffering with God’s suffering, to connect our pain to God’s pain.” (“Following Jesus,” 80)

When we hear that we are to “take up our cross and follow Jesus,” we often believe that we need to make a cross to follow Jesus. That we somehow need to take on some external suffering on ourselves and be hard on ourselves. Nouwen reminds us, “we have a lot of problems [already]. We don’t need more.”

Church, we do not need to make a cross. We don’t need to cause ourselves pain. Our cross is already in front of us.

There is no one watching this sermon who does not, in some way, carry the suffering of Sin and Death in their bodies. The only thing that separates us is that some of us have chosen to pick up that suffering and acknowledge it, while others have tried to hide the virus that lives within them.

The bent-over woman who went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day took up her cross! She could hardly hide it! She could not have not taken up her cross. It was visible on her body for all to see.

But the synagogue leader didn’t have a visible cross, and so he felt no need to take up his suffering, his infection of Sin and Death. The synagogue leader cut himself and others off from the healing and true joy that was so desperately needed on the Sabbath day.

We don’t take up our cross to show off how much we can suffer. We take up our cross so that we will be healed and set free!

That’s exactly what the bent-over woman did. She participated in the Sabbath, the gift given to the people of Israel as they were set free from the bondage of Sin and Death in Egypt. The Sabbath reminded her and reminds us that “we were once enslaved in Egypt.” We were once infected by Sin and Death.

The thing that kept the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt is the same thing that bent over this woman. It’s Cancer. It’s Chronic Illness. It’s the Coronavirus. It’s Sin and Death. It’s what we call the “human condition.”

And we all need healing.

Today we need to ask ourselves, “what is our unique suffering? What cross do we bear?” And then, like the bent-over woman, we need to take up that cross, and follow––bring that suffering to Jesus.

Henri Nouwen writes that, “this is what Jesus means when he asks you to take up your cross. He encourages you to recognize and embrace your unique suffering and to trust that your way to salvation lies therein. Taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds.”

Taking up our cross means taking up our unique part of the human condition. It means taking up our unique bondage to Sin and Death and bringing it to Jesus, not for a quick cure-all, not for Jesus to take that cross from us, but for the healing that comes through dying to ourselves and being raised up with Christ.

As the Lord told the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And as Paul said in response, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

–––––

I want to end with a story about a boy who needed to take up the cross of his pain and suffering to follow Jesus. C.S. Lewis, in the Narnia story “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” writes, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Eustace was an insufferable boy, a child who bullied other children and adults alike. He was “better” than everyone else, and he knew it. He had the right opinions. He knew all about what was physically possible, and he knew that his cousins who spoke of the Land of Narnia were full of it. There was no such place and there could not be.

The boy Eustace’s cross to bear, the wound from which he was operating, was his jealousy of his cousins Edmund and Lucy and their sibling bond. It was a cross that he needed to take up, a wound that he needed Christ to heal.

Everything changes when Eustace is pulled, kicking and screaming, into Narnia––that “impossible” world that “could not” exist.

As the story continues, Eustace eventually wakes up to find he is not a boy at all. Instead, he looks down and sees the claws and scales of a dragon. The boy Eustace, in this realm of Narnia, now shows his Sin, his infection, on the outside.

Unable to hide from his pain anymore, Eustace cries out for help and Aslan, the Christ figure in Lewis’ allegory, comes to him saying, “follow me.”

In front of Aslan, Eustice tries desperately to free himself from his dragon form, this Sin, by scratching and clawing himself. He tries to shed the outside layers of his condition by inflicting pain to free himself. (How often do we do the same?)

But under the outside layer of the scales of Sin is another, and another, and another. The boy Eustace seems to be a dragon all the way down. But Aslan the lion tells him, “you will have to let me” take off those scales.

Aslan, the lion who is not-safe but good, tears into Eustace’s dragon flesh—layer upon layer of the Sin and Death that has been suffocating the boy Eustice is removed in one fell swoop. Aslan picks up the raw, healed freed-boy Eustace and drops him into the pool.

After this, those who see and interact with Eustace can’t believe their eyes. They can’t believe it’s him. Eustace was never so kind and understanding. But this freed-boy Eustace, unchained from the shackles of Sin, rescued from the mouth of the dragon of Death, healed from the virus that has infected humanity, is now more himself than he has ever been.

–––––

If we take up our suffering and share it with Christ, what pain must we endure to be healed? The pain of acknowledging our sins to a friend, relative, or our accountability group. The pain of stripping off our false self for the truth that lies beneath. The pain of removing ourselves from toxic relationships and negative influences. The pain of faith and trust, knowing that things really are uncertain and there’s no security in this life. The pain of acknowledging a chronic condition for which there is no cure. The pain of acknowledging that none of us will get out of this infected world alive.

Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve – are you suffocating inside the oppression of the dragon of Sin and Death? Come to the healer, let him cut into the lies and false self that you might be set free. 

Child of God – are you bent over from the weight of the burden you carry? Stand up. Take up your cross. Be set free to follow Jesus, that we all might rejoice in what God is doing. 

There may not be a cure for the task of cross-bearing, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory of healing through Jesus Christ, sent by the Father, and with us always through the gift of the Spirit. Amen.


As I was writing this sermon, Mockingbird posted an article in the same vein that highlights a quotation from C.S. Lewis, addressing life in the “Atomic Age” and drawing the connection to the Coronavirus.”

The problem is, we are already infected. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before [the coronavirus began to spread].” As we scramble to save ourselves from this earthly ailment, the creeping virus of sin continues to infect our hearts with greed and fear and a whole host of other strains of itself. Against this disease, quarantine won’t help — it grows even when we’re isolated, just as it can grow when we gather together, multiplying as it passes from person to person.

Kate Campbell, Mockingbird – https://mbird.com/2020/03/wash-your-hands-you-sinners/

Angels and Demons (A Sermon)

This message was delivered on the First Sunday after Christmas 2018 at Eldersville United Methodist Church.

Matthew 2:13–18, 14:1–12

I appreciate the dedication that has brought you to worship today, even on the Sunday after Christmas. The Sunday after Christmas is a time for us to consider the consequences of the Christmas message.

On Monday and Tuesdaywe celebrated the good news that a child has been born to us! The King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Word on which all creation was spoken into being has come into the world. Hallelujah!

It’s appropriate for our celebrations to continue. After all, the Christmas season continues all the way up to Epiphany on January 6th. Don’t put your Christmas decorations away yet! Today is only the 6th day of Christmas!

Yet, as we worship in reduced numbers on this awkward Sunday between Christmas an New Years when many people are still traveling and thinking about everything except church, today is an appropriate day for a little reality check.

What did Jesus’ birth at Christmas really accomplish? How did the world react to the good news we’ve been spending our week celebrating.

We all know what ultimately becomes of this little child born in a manger—he’s baptized, he teaches and heals, he calls 12 disciples to participate in his mission, and then… he’s killed by the Romans on a cross. Not exactly what we would expect to result from the grand entrance at Christmas. This baby is, after all, the prince of peace, the mighty God himself!

But anyone who has spent any time with Matthew’s verison of the Nativity knows that death doesn’t even wait that long to rear its ugly head into the story.

After the small child escapes with his young parents to Egypt as a refugee from Herod’s evil power, all the male children under two who remained in Bethlehem were massacred.

A “reality check” alarm goes off in our heads. We can remain in our cheap-joy filled sentimental Christmas celebrations no longer. Evil is on the move right as the story beings.

It may be uncomfortable for us to deal with so soon after the celebration, but Fleming Rutledge explains it this way: “The great theme of [this season] is hope, but it is not tolerable to speak of hope unless we are willing to look squarely at the overwhelming presence of evil in our world. Malevolent, disproportionate evil is a profound threat to Christian faith.”

So let’s do it. Let’s take our eyes off the cute baby in the manger for just a second to shoot a piercing glare at the forces of evil in our world and scream in their faces: not today, Satan.

We don’t have to look far.

We can meanacingly on the number of mass-casuality events this past year that have only deepened our divisions while silencing the voices of the dead. We can look at cancerous growths in the bodies of those we love with fists held high and our battle faces on. We can stare down those who have abused and created harmful work environments for God’s children. We can look at those who have used their power to cause human suffering rather than alleviating it.

Not today! We exclaim, but our voices fall on deaf ears. There’s always a new evil in our world for us to condemn. And evil seems far more organized than the resistance. The forces of sin, death, and every kind of evil hold seats in congress. They entertain us. They tell us how to think and who to hate. They sit in executive suites and oval offices. They hold the innocent in prison and serve as judge, jury, and executioner on the street. Evil is well organized in our world!

And, oh yes—let us not forget—the forces of evil even hold a place in our hearts.

Yes, the forces of evil have killed worshippers in the Tree of Life synagogue. They have taken out journalists like Jamal Khashoggi. They have left children to die of hunger and thirst while celebrating a job well done. They have sown discord in families and divisions in churches. In big things and in small things, evil has accomplished a lot just in 2018!

The Gospels remind us that this is nothing new. Evil killed a multitude of children while it was trying to extinguish the hope given by baby Jesus and evil took John the Baptizer’s head and nailed Jesus to the cross.

We know some of the names that perpetrated this evil. We know the name of the gunman at Tree of Life. We know the leaders of the Saudi Government who silenced their critic. We can point fingers at border patrol agents and world leaders and bring any who abuse their power to justice. We can convict those who have abused children and harassed adults.

The problem with all this finger pointing is that, eventually, we will have identified a lot of evil without recognizing anything about the enemy. We will get stuck identifying human enemies.

And if we’re in the business of identifiying humans who commit evil by comission or omission, we’re going to identify basically every living person on this earth.

Pointing our fingers at people like King Herod, like we could reasonably do in this story in Matthew 2, would only get us so far. You know why? Because that Herod was followed by another one. And another. And another.

Our Scriptures attest, this battle is so much bigger than any one person. If we spend our time trying to identify human enemies, we’re going to miss a lot of them. Uncover one agent of death and a million more will wait in silence for their moment to pounce.

There is a bigger cosmic drama at play, bigger than any Herod of this world and any one tragedy.

Behind all the evil that we can identify in our world is the one cosmic reality that the Scriptures call by many names.

Put on your 3D glasses and see in a new dimension what is hidden from our eyes.

Go back and look at the nativity scene with spiritual vision and see what surrounded the pregnant Mary, in the process of giving birth, (Revelation 12) “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.”

One woman in Louisiana became an internet sensation, and the object of her neighbors ire, a few weeks ago when she put up inflatable dragons in her yard for Christmas. One neighbor spoke for the whole neighborhood when she said, “your dragon display is only marginally acceptable at Halloween. It is totally inappropriate at Christmas. It makes your neighbors wonder if you are involved in a demonic cult.”

I understand what the angry neighbor was trying to express, but I think they got it all wrong. We need to put the inflatable lawn dragons back in Christmas! John the visionary tells us the dragons were right there at Jesus’ birth, hovering over our little nativity scenes ready to snatch the Christ child alive.

This cosmic reality has many names when it appears in the story of Scripture. John sees it as a dragon. Ephesians 6:12 calls these forces, “the rulers, against the authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” We might also call this spiritual reality sin, death, satan, the accuser, the adversary, the prince of darkness, or the devil.

In the face of all this evil, Jesus taught us to pray, “deliver us from evil…”

And this is why the Christ Child has come—to bring power and glory that will wipe out evil for good!

Philip Yancey writes, “From God’s viewpoint—and Satan’s—Christmas signals far more than the birth of a baby; it was an invasion, the decisive advance in the great struggle for the cosmos.”

Jesus came into our world to fight a war that’s been a long time in the making.

It was this mission that led Jesus from the manger to the cross, where the forces of evil thought they would dispose of him for good.

Our world is full of little crosses, marking the deaths of infants, young men and women at war, families fleeing violence, and all who suffer under the weight of death’s rule. And Jesus came to join them by dying on that big cross, suffering along with all of us. That’s why Matthew juxtaposes Jesus’ birth with the stark reality of sin, death, and evil. This is why Jesus came!

The nativity begins the great war between the worlds.

On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of the savior. We celebrated the birth of God among us to take a hands on approach to sickness, sin, and suffering. And now, as we wake up from our sugar comas into the reality of the world, we come face to face with the enemy that Jesus came to deal with.

The dragon of evil is on the prowl, even if its only visible in some lady’s yard in Louisiana.

The good news for us now that we’ve had our reality check is that Jesus doesn’t just deal with these enemies one-by-one. Fighting against evil is, for us, a never-ending game of wack-a-mole. But Jesus came to uncover the whole thing. Jesus came to overthrow the power of sin, death, and evil once and for all. This evil is bigger than any of us. We can’t do anything about these forces alone. But Jesus has come to shine a bright light, to release us all from our bondage to sin and the weight of the fear of evil.

The dragons might appear menacing in the dark, illuminated by their own light, but when the big light comes on and the power behind the dragons is switched off, we’ll see this evil for what it really is.

The difficulty we face is that while the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter are significant and decisive moments in this conflict between the worlds, the battle still wages on.

The struggle continues. Herods still sit on their thrones. Children are still massacred and abandoned. Families just like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus still flee from their homes to escape a life under the rule of evil’s latest embodiment.

The decisive turning point of the conflict has come, but evil still lurks everywhere we turn.

So what do we do?

Paul, in Romans 12:15, tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” We rejoice when evil is exposed and sin-sick souls find redemption. Any day when sins are confessed and pardon is given is a great day for us and a terrible day for Satan.

And yet, the other part of that call is to “weep with those who weep.” We weep with Rachel for God’s children who are killed and who suffer in destitution. Yet, as 1 Thessalonians 4 puts it, we “do not grieve as those who have no hope.”

When tragedy strikes, as it did last year and will in the next year, let us see it for what it is—the latest appearance of the powers at work for the destruction of the world. When tragedy strikes, we will grieve and weep as those who know human pain. But we will also celebrate the work of Christ on our behalf in birth and in death. We will look to the heavens with our heads held high, knowing that the day of the Lord will come, bringing an end to the rule of evil, sin, and death in our world. We will sing the songs of salvation today and every day, remembering what Christ has done, Christ is doing, and Christ will do for us and the whole world.

The Christmas Carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” puts this response into song:

God rest ye merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

Remember Christ our Savior

Was born on Christmas Day

To save us all from Satan’s pow’r

When we were gone astray

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Truly, Jesus has come to set us free from Satan’s power. What better comfort could there be?