Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Lenten Sermon on Prayer (Luke 11:1-13)

A Hermit Praying in the Wilderness, Willem van Mieris
Luke 11:1-13: 
1 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: 
Father, hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
3     Give us each day our daily bread.
4     And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 
5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 
9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

A couple years ago, my wife Debbie and I got in a car accident on a highway in Virginia Beach. We were on the way to lead worship at a memorial service for a friend of ours. He was our age, and he died in a car accident.

We were hit by another car changing lanes. It was a hit and run, and we did a 180˚ and smacked into the guardrail. There was a second when I thought Debbie, who was sitting in the back-right passenger seat, might have been seriously injured.

Thankfully, she wasn’t, but the feeling I had coming that close to such a serious tragedy was one of the single most traumatic experiences I’ve ever had.

At the service a couple hours later, I couldn’t tell if I felt like I was attending Debbie’s funeral, or my own. As you can imagine, neither feeling was pleasant.

To this day, I get anxious in cars. But the most challenging outcome was the death anxiety it introduced, which has continued to be a regular visitor and bedfellow in my life since.

I think a lot about death. I am endlessly baffled by the paradox of the thought of it.

The problem is trying to figure it out. What happens when I die? Why can’t I know that? What if there is nothing afterwards? What does that mean? What does that make life mean?

Whatever it is, it’s not this. And the reality that hit me after the car accident was that it’s going to mean separation from Debbie. Death means saying goodbye, and I don’t want to say goodbye.

Following this train of thought, I usually get stuck in a cycle of worry. It is as if I have come upon a tall brick wall, enclosing some mysterious destination, to which I have no access.

I circle the enclosure again and again, but there is no way in. It is a barrier, full stop.

I knock on the wall, but there is no opening. I seek an entrance, but there is none. I ask questions to which there are no answers.

But then I read Jesus in Luke, saying, “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Not only do I read these words, but I have to preach on them!

On the one hand, these words should be encouraging, as if they’re saying, “You are seeking, and don’t worry, you will find what you are looking for.”

On the other hand, they are somewhat discouraging. Am I not promised answers when I ask questions? Am I not promised an open door somewhere? Why have I not heard? Why have I not found?

Are Jesus’ words just another example of happy-go-lucky religion with its wishful thinking? Sigmund Freud said theism is wish-fulfillment. Humans want a benevolent father figure, and so they fabricate a god in their minds to be one. The heavenly Father referred to in Luke 11 is just a figment of your wishful imagination.

It’s escapism. Reality is too harsh, so we escape into a nicer world, one that has a nice god, one in which life has meaning and we have significance.

I actually believed that about Christianity for a while. But, in my experience, when I am caught in a web of my own questions, doubting everything, worrying to no end about my ultimate fate, racking my brain about death and the meaning of life, that is when I am farthest from the world.

I’ve had times when I’m sitting on my couch, staring into space, spiraling into anxiety, and meanwhile, my wife is near me, on the computer, in the kitchen, sitting next to me. I can hear her, feel her, but in my head it’s like she’s not even there.

Worry detaches you from the real world and places you into a world of fear, a world just made up of you and your questions.

So Jesus turns out to be quite down-to-earth and life-affirming when he says, as we read a few weeks ago, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life?” Do not worry, for your Father knows what you need. Instead, seek his kingdom, and what you need will be given to you (Lk. 12:25, 29–31).

This is not a worldview you can develop when you walk by sight and stick only to the earthly reality we see, as Freud would want you to.

Reading the news, for example, is a constant source of worry and fear. You get to thinking that evil and injustice make up the true nature of the world. They are so pervasive and constant that it comes to seem unlikely that things were ever any different.

We maybe even imagine an alternate creation story in which Satan is the primary mover.

“In the beginning Satan said, “Let there be evil,” and there was evil. And Satan saw that it was good. And there was morning and there was evening, the first day.”

Goodness, then, is a deviation from the natural order of things. We think, “We have to fight to keep the flame of goodness alive, or else it will be extinguished completely, swallowed up by injustice, the true substance of creation.”

With this pessimism, we begin to say things like, “It’ll never change,” “It’s hopeless,” “It’s too good to be true.”

When we read Jesus saying, “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” there’s often a serpent who slithers out from a tree to whisper in your ear, “But probably not. It’s too good to be true.”

There’s always that voice of cynicism. And no matter how much I read, worship, pray, preach, live and breathe the gospel, this immediate sense of doubt keeps coming back.

“You’re not praying to anyone. No one is listening. You’re fooling yourself.”

These thoughts present themselves as self-evident. They just immediately seem truer than not somehow, as if just saying them is all you need to make them true. Negativity is thus primary, and cynicism is revelatory.

Jesus’ understanding of the world, however, is the inversion of this. For Jesus, evil and injustice and negativity are not necessary. They deviate from the true order of things, and their days are numbered.

It is because of this understanding that Jesus can speak so boldly about our asking and seeking, our knocking and searching.

He saw the heavenly Father as primary. It is not that we exist and we think up God and we choose whether or not we believe in God. For Jesus, it is rather that God exists and our life stems from God, and whatever we experience is secondary to the reality of God.

When you doubt God, you assume that your standpoint is the more the truthful one, and God’s truthfulness depends upon God’s ability to satisfy your standards for belief.

Jesus turns this right around. God is the Creator, not Satan. Goodness is the ultimate ruler, not evil. Righteousness and justice are never truly lost; they will never be swallowed up by injustice.

We may not perceive this or understand it, but we, Jesus says, are evil. He says, “You who are evil,” so casually, as if it’s just a given. We are evil. God is good. We are untruth. God is truth. To use Paul’s language, “Let God be true and every human being a liar” (Rom. 3:4).

We’re not accustomed to speaking this way about human beings. It isn’t hard to imagine how this thinking can have negative effects, possibly encouraging self-deprecation and a sense of worthlessness. So it’s not without good reason that many have dropped this language in favor of more positive statements about humanity.

But what I think Jesus means when he says, “you who are evil,” and what Paul means when he says, “every human being is a liar,” is that we cannot lean on our understanding, we cannot depend on ourselves for salvation.

And this is good news because it means you don’t have to make yourself better in order to receive help. Martin Luther even said, “Not despair but rather hope is preached when we are told that we are sinners.”

When I understand my own frailty, my doubt isn’t as decisive as I tend to think it is. I may look at the world and despair, but it is not my view that counts. That my perception is not decisive means that there is hope, and that hope comes from Jesus, who did not come for the healthy but for the sick (Luke 5:31).

But, still, we live in the world. The world we live in is evil, and we are wrapped up in it. We know not what we do. We know not what to do.

And it is not as if we can beam ourselves into a nicer, happier world where God’s kingdom is realized all the time. On the contrary, we are often left wondering, waiting, longing.

Even some of the earliest Christians felt this. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, many were under the impression that Jesus’ return to inaugurate the kingdom was going to happen within their lifetime. As time went on, and more and more of Jesus’ generation died, people started doubting if the kingdom was going to come at all.

At the time Luke’s Gospel was written, this had become a serious problem. How do we pray “Your kingdom come” when we don’t see signs of the kingdom anywhere?

Unfortunately, there is no scientific theory that can work out this problem in a way that will seem reasonable to us.

The disciples do not say, “Explain to me how you logically arrive at the coming kingdom of God. How do you deduce the kingdom’s coming from present observations?”

No, the disciples say, “Teach us how to pray.”

And Jesus does not lay out logically how and when the kingdom is going to come. He only promises that everyone who asks will receive, everyone who searches will find, and for everyone who knocks, the door will open.

We are told to pray and to pray persistently. Indeed, to make a life out of prayer.

What we are promised is the Holy Spirit when we pray. Prayer itself becomes a daily bread from which we can receive nourishment. The life of prayer, unlike the life of doubt and cynicism, promises good things.

Prayer pulls us back from the world of fear and reconnects us to the life that is happening in front of us. As Psalm 116 says, “Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. … I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (v.7, 9).

So, in my case, instead of confining myself to my doubts, withdrawing into isolated worrying, and spiraling into anxiety thinking about being separated from life and from Debbie, in prayer I am united with Debbie in an affirmation of life.

Here at St. Lydia’s, we are united in our prayer together. Amid our worry-laden lives, we gather to a place where Christ’s victory and coming kingdom are proclaimed, where, despite the liturgical calendar, it never stopped being Easter.

There are things that will be different when Pastor Emily leaves, but what certainly won’t be any different is the promise of the Holy Spirit in prayer. We will pray together, and the Holy Spirit will be among us, encouraging us, reinforcing our faith, breathing new life into us.

We are not told that prayer will bring us everything we want, bring our loved-ones back to us, stop people from leaving our lives, or keep bad things from happening.

We are not told that things will stay the same, that we will always have the same comforts, or the same home.

Nor are we told that prayer will satisfy our doubts, or solve our puzzles.

But, as it was said by a priest in the wonderful movie Jackie that came out last year,

“God in his infinite wisdom has made sure it is just enough for us.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Have you ever had an experience that made you think,
“How did I get here?”

You have an understanding of the world, of yourself, and of what’s possible…but then something happens.

Maybe you do something. Or maybe it happens to you. Whatever it is, it changes you forever. You don’t know what to expect from life anymore.

I’ve had such experiences. I remember looking at myself in the mirror, after everything had gone wrong, and realizing, I’ve heard about this happening before, but it was always to someone else.

And there I was, having to know what it felt like.

That’s what I think of when I think of the prodigal son. He had squandered his inheritance, and was now staring longingly at the food pigs were eating. Surely things can never go back to the way they were.

He thinks of home and says, “It would be nice to just be a servant in my father’s house.”

In such times, you forget what it’s like to feel normal. Whatever it was, you know it isn’t how you feel now, and all you want is a taste of that former life—a taste of home.

But maybe you haven’t had that kind of experience. Maybe you’ve led an upright life, and that has paradoxically been a source of sorrow for you.

You did what was right. You played your part. But you received a most unfitting result.

Maybe you were a diligent worker, but couldn’t find a job, or lost one. Meanwhile, you know someone who just gets lucky and finds the perfect job with the big salary.

Or you were a good spouse, and your partner cheated on you. You didn’t do anything wrong. You were caring and considerate.

Your experience is not one of personal failure and regret, but one of unfairness and injustice.

You are like the elder son.

It is important to note that both sons need restoration and reconciliation.

Each son in the parable is separated from the father—the younger son leaves and the elder son refuses to go into the house.

And each son has to return to the father.

The father is the agent of reconciliation.

He was always preparing a place for his lost son, always ready for the moment his son would come into view.

You can imagine him looking out at the horizon every day, hoping for his son’s approach.

You can imagine him keeping a space ready in the house, just in case.

The father never stopped actively anticipating his son’s return, so that when his son’s shape emerges on the horizon, he immediately rushes out to meet him.

The father remained open to share life with the younger son, the same way he shares life with the elder son.

He never questions his relationship to the elder son. He is there for him, and wants to give him anything he wants.

He says, “You are always with me. All that is mine is yours”—as if to say, “Ask and you shall receive.”

The father’s love is steadfast and warm.

His land is not a factory, but a home—a home which is always there, always open, always welcoming,

no matter what happens.

When I was thinking about this sermon, I thought of the Empire State Building. (Obviously.)

Not even a year after the stock market crash of 1929, construction began on what was to be the tallest skyscraper in the world.

It is hard to find a better example of something which demonstrates the imprudence and overconfidence of the roaring twenties—and yet, its construction began right at the sad end of this period.

It was so superfluous by the time it was finished that they had to hire someone to go to every floor and turn the lights on before dark, so that the building looked occupied when most of it wasn’t.

What a paradox.

People were afraid for their future. The rich were losing money; the poor were losing jobs. Life was increasingly grim, with no sign of good tidings around the corner.

And yet, every day, little by little, this enormous building was going up right in the middle of Manhattan.

I used to resent the building for this reason. The audacity of it. Did it not mock the experience of the millions of people who surrounded it?

But now I see something of a parable in it.

Almost wherever you were in Manhattan, whatever hardship you were experiencing, you could look up at the construction and think, “And yet, it goes on! And yet, it shall be built!”

Despite all the turmoil happening around it, it was still - being - realized.

The father’s home in the parable is like this.

The younger son leaves, or he returns; the father’s home remains the same.

The elder son comes, or he refuses to come; the father’s home remains the same.

For this is the nature of the kingdom of God.

It is always open, always ready for visitors, never closed on account of extreme weather conditions.

The lights are always on.

It never stops coming alive in the midst of—and, indeed, in spite of—our world.

It is constant, eternal. Like the construction of the Empire State Building, it goes on in spite of everything that happens around it.

Our lives as Christians, as citizens of God’s kingdom, should reflect this reality.

But we, like the sons, often experience a radical dissonance in our lives, a separation from peace, from justice, from wholeness.

Paul says in II Corinthians 5 that “while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord,” and we long to be “at home with the Lord.”

Can we ever say we experience the kingdom of God? Aren’t we always separated from it, always pulled in other directions?

The news pulls us in one direction; our job, another; our family, yet another; and so on.

The world rages on, and often to our peril.

But still we must – always – return – home.

The theologian Karl Barth said we should read the Bible alongside the newspaper, but we need to do theology as if nothing ever changes.

The kingdom of God is not something that adapts to the news. God doesn’t standby for word from the city on whether the kingdom should open today.

No, it is always there, in our midst, ready for us, waiting for us, but ultimately going on in spite of us.

It is our home.

And our return home is our resurrection.

“This son of mine was dead and is alive again,” the father says.

For the home in 1st century Galilee was not the place you went every Christmas, often only out of obligation. The home is where you worked, raised your kids, and watched your kids raise their kids.

Home was life together.

The father in the parable lives and breathes this togetherness. The sons have to be reconciled to it.

The younger son shows us what happens when we abandon home altogether. There we encounter the misery and despair of cutting ourselves off from the wellspring of faith and hope.

The elder son shows us that returning home is something we must continually choose to do, no matter what happens.

Our works, our merit, will not protect us from injustice, or comfort us when we are wronged. We cannot acquire for ourselves a life of luxury and tranquility, in which all our worries are subsided, all our anxieties resolved.

No, returning home requires an alternative way of reckoning the events of life, one in which we put faith in the words, “You are always with me. All that is mine is yours.”

Whatever happens, wherever you are, however you feel, still the father says, “You are always with me. All that is mine is yours.”

This doesn’t become less true when we screw up and feel unworthy, or when nothing seems to be going right, or when our nation starts to resemble a dystopia.

It outlasts all the evil and injustice, all the sin and death, that plague us in this life.

And so we must always return home,

to faith in God,

to hope in the kingdom,

to life together.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Donald Trump is Not a New Yorker

At the Women's March last month, the best protest sign I saw all day said,

A little NYC history is needed in order to understand this sign.

In 1975, the city of New York confronted a significant financial crisis. It was close to filing bankruptcy as it did not have enough money to cover normal operating expenses and had been denied the necessary loans. The only thing that could save the city was a loan from the federal government.

Initially, president Gerald Ford denied the loan, saying, “I am prepared to veto any bill that has as its purpose a federal bailout of New York City to prevent a default."

NY Daily News then published a front page story with one of the most famous headlines of NY history: "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."

The message was clear: by denying the city any aid, Ford was issuing its death warrant. Two weeks later, Ford signed a bill that allocated $1.3 billion to help the city recover, after being advised that letting the city default would bring the worse outcome.

The "CITY TO TRUMP" protest sign that I saw at the Women's March was my favorite because it said so many things at once. It was a reference to a famous headline in NY history, the article of which concerned the very survival of the city. By alluding to this historic event, the protest sign made the bold statement that Trump's views and policies are fundamentally anti-New York.

Donald Trump is not a New Yorker, this sign proclaims. And it's correct.

I have found several articles from different New York newspapers and magazines addressing the question: What makes a true New Yorker? Each article provided a collection of quotes from different New Yorkers, and the comments sections offered even more. They ranged from, "You had to be born here," to, "If you live here, you're a New Yorker."

I was not born here. I have only lived in New York for a year and a half. But I am tempted to say that I am more of a New Yorker than Donald Trump, and that's because I have learned enough about New York and its history to know that Trump's policies go against one of the essential parts of what has made New York New York from the first couple decades after the Dutch settled in what they called New Amsterdam.

The word 'xenophobic' has been thrown around a lot since Trump has come to the fore of American political discourse. It's one of those big bad words that gets thrown in with "racist, sexist, homophobic, et al." I never used it, but, honestly, it's because I didn't know what it meant (and I have the suspicion that many others who do actually use it don't know what it means, but simply adopt it as part of their kneejerk liberalism). Now that I know what it means, however, it certainly describes Trump's outlook.

Xenophobia, simply put, is fear of the other. It manifests itself in prejudice against strangers and foreigners--refugees, immigrants, Muslims, etc. Trump's entire outlook on foreign affairs could be identified as xenophobic. His travel ban is fundamentally and categorically xenophobic.

New York City, on the other, is the anti-xenophobia city par excellence. Only a couple decades after the Dutch settled here, 18 languages were spoken in the small area of New York that we now know as lower Manhattan. I need not describe the present diversity in New York City, as I would only be reiterating what everyone already knows about New York.

The Statue of Liberty's presence at the entryway of the city's port is the most appropriate statement of what New York is and represents.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

This, the city proclaims to the world, and the call has never gone unheeded. People have come from all over the world to participate in the democratic dream that is New York City.

The dream of New York is the dream Donald Trump wants to crush with xenophobia and nationalism.

And that is why Donald Trump is not a New Yorker.

And that is why the city declares to Trump:

Drop dead.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Semi-Seminary: Politics, Activism, and the Kingdom of God (Audios)

Part I. “The Spectrum of Political Theology”
Matthew Brake

Part II. “He Will Speak Peace to His People: Bonhoeffer, Peace, and Responsible Action”
Muoki Musau

Part III. “Engaging Politics: A Neo-Anabaptist Perspective”
Earl Zimmerman

Part IV. “Unglamorous Activism”
Austin McNair

Part V. “A Conservative's View of Faith and Politics in America”
Scooter Schaefer

Part VI. “Where does neighbor-love fit into public policy? Some insights from Adam Smith”
Robert Thomas

Part VII. “The Resurrection of the Warrior God: Theological Existence Today
Jack Holloway

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The 10 Best Books I Read This Year

I set out to read 30 books this year and it looks like I will have read 52 by the time the year ends. Here are my 10 favorites. I have to apologize as most of the books on this list deal with Karl Barth. As I am primarily studying Barth for my MDiv, I spend the most time reading his books and reading about him.

10. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things by Dale Allison

If you know me, you know I struggle with fear of death. This was an edifying book to read for me. Allison has clearly struggled with the issue a lot as well, and offers here some valuable insights that shouldn't be overlooked. (Also, I have a review coming out for this book in the Wesleyan Theological Journal!)

9. Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison

I started reading Batman graphic novels this year. I read about a dozen of them. I can't decide which is my favorite, but this one was the most thought-provoking. It's such a gritty, disturbing, and compelling portrait of Batman and the Joker, and provides endless opportunities for critical analysis. I even wrote an And Philosophy article about it.

8. Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts by Eberhard Busch

This is not only a great biography, but it's one of the best introductions to Barth that I've read. You really get to know Barth and his thought through this book. He led an exciting life, full of controversy and conflict, but also full of beauty. There is never a dull moment, and it paints a very full picture of Barth.

7. Against Ethics by John Caputo

Caputo never ceases to impress me with his striking way with words. He really knows how to write. He is also one of the most compelling thinkers with whom I am familiar, and one of the best theologians alive today. This is clearly one of his best works.

6. The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology by Gary Dorrien

I read this book in a week, which is odd for me because I usually read several books at once and take my time with them. I couldn't put this one down. It's a fantastic introduction to the story of Barth, his theology, and the conflicts that paved the way of his life. It's also a thrilling read.

5. Church Dogmatics, II.1, The Doctrine of God by Karl Barth

The highlighted pages in my copy of this book tell it all. It is clear to me that I will be working with this text for years to come. It is exhausting to get through, but it's worth it. You truly see his brilliance here. He was undoubtedly one of history's greatest theologians.

4. War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin by Carlos M.N. Eire

I am so glad I read this before taking my Luther and Calvin classes. It's such a great introduction to the reformers and reformation theology. Eire outlines well how the issue of worship was central to the reformation program, and his telling of the history is endlessly interesting. This is in no wise a boring read. It's funny, intriguing, informative, and well-told--a great history book.

3. Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology by Graham Ward

This is my favorite text of secondary literature on Barth that I've read so far. It convincingly demonstrates how postmodern Barth was, and how his theology was a sophisticated critique of metaphysics. More people need to read this, especially those critics of Barth who characterize his theology as revelatory positivism, and those philosophers who disregard Barth as fideistic or his God as far too radically transcendent.

2. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

What can I say that hasn't already been said? It's a masterpiece.

1. The Epistle to the Romans by Karl Barth

For this one as well, what can I say? It was described in its time as "a bomb on the playground of theologians." The bomb explodes with the same power today.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"What Will become of the Child?" My Advent Sermon on Luke 1:57-66


At St. Lydia's we are in the middle of Advent.

The word Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” In this season, we celebrate the coming of Jesus, the birth of God into the world.

It is a time to reflect on what it means to inhabit an in-between space, the already-not-yet, wherein we celebrate the Incarnation, but also wait with eager expectation for Christ’s return.

Scripture reading (Luke 1:57-66):
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.


When we open our Bibles to the Gospel of Luke, we know what we are going to find—the story of Jesus. As soon as we start reading, we anticipate the arrival of the Messiah. We know how the story ends.

But Zachariah and Elizabeth are far from that story. The thought that the Messiah is coming has probably not even entered their minds yet. They are living in the day-to-day realities of Jewish life in the shadow of Rome, in the days of King Herod.

This was only about 30-40 years after Rome had taken control of Judea. It is likely that Zechariah and Elizabeth were alive during Judea’s independence, and for the fall to Rome. The collective memory of an independent Judean kingdom would have been quite fresh, and the people of Judea would have still been mourning…and dreading.

Life had become a wilderness, an ocean of barren, uninhabitable land, where few things grow, where praiseworthy things like rain and the color green are scarce.

It was a seemingly hopeless setting.

So what did the people think when these strange events in the life of Zechariah and Elizabeth began to occur?

Zechariah comes out of the temple speechless. They don’t know that he had been met by an angel and a prophecy. They only encounter his silence.

He remains silent for 9 months. In that time, Elizabeth, despite everything, becomes pregnant. After the child is born, at his circumcision, when they defy tradition and name him John, Zechariah recovers his voice.

What are the people to make of all this?

Dinner tables throughout Judea were filled with speculation.

What will become of the child?

There is no announcement of hope. Not yet. There is only hope-filled longing.


But just as unexpected events can hint at hope, there can also be events which rather crush and devastate.

My sister had two miscarriages.

Both pregnancies were met with excitement and wonder.

I’m sure we all know how exciting a pregnancy can be.

There is so much hope and so much joy surrounding the thought of the coming child.

What is this child going to be like? What joy and wonder will this child bring?

For with every birth, we celebrate newness. New life. New possibility.

But these two pregnancies were short-lived. And both were devastating.
Hopes were crushed, and the road up ahead darkened.

A similar feeling, I think, was felt by many of us when Donald Trump was elected president.
It seemed like everywhere I went that week, there was a collective sinking of spirit.
Dread ruled the day.

Now we are living in the reality of that event, and many of us are nervous about what the future holds.
It is filled with uncertainty, and even danger.

We don’t know what is coming.
Nothing guarantees that things will turn out well, that what is coming will not be a disaster.

The mother might miscarry. The child might not be born.

And so we fear.

What will become of the child?

This is the predicament of every believer: How do we have faith when the future is uncertain and dangerous, and when the present promises coming disaster?

How do we have faith amid the wilderness, where we can see for miles all around us, but nothing green, and no clouds.

As we contemplate the coming of Jesus, Christians long for that coming.
In this time that remains, we feel deeply the absence of the coming one, and are haunted by his memory.

There is no announcement of hope. Only hope-filled longing.


But then there is John.
The text says he is a voice calling from the wilderness,
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

“Let every heart prepare him room,” as we sing during Christmastime.

Along these lines, Paul in II Corinthians 8 speaks of readiness, diligence, and expectation.

He incites the Corinthians to develop a “readiness of the will,” or as one commentator puts it, a “willingness to be willing.”

Readiness is a predisposition toward an event, wherein we pre-decide how to respond.
In this case, it is a predisposition toward the coming kingdom of God, toward justice, toward abundant life,
When rulers will be brought down from their thrones, and the lowly will be lifted up,
When the hungry will be nourished, and the rich will be denied,
When the enslaved will be freed, and their oppressors punished,
When those who mourn will be comforted, and those in luxury will know want.
For wherever these things occur, there the kingdom has come.

We ready ourselves for the kingdom by remaining dedicated to its possibility, by living in the promise, and remaining loyal to it, not letting our responsibility waver, so that when it comes, we intuitively respond as God would have us respond.

We see this in Elizabeth.

In old age, she has to bring a child into the world, into that world, the world of subjection to Rome…the wilderness.

But from the text we have no reason to believe that she was anything but faithful to God.
We see this throughout chapter one, where, despite not being visited by an angel, she seems to understand what is going on better than anyone.

How does she know to call the child John?

There is no indication that Zechariah imparted to her what happened in the temple, and we should hesitate to reach beyond the text and assume that Zechariah wrote it down for her earlier.

Without any such indication, it seems likely that we are to assume her choice was inspired.

Elizabeth had faith. She had that willingness to be willing. She was predisposed to the coming of God in such a way that she lived her life actively anticipating it.

And so when God came, she responded as was needed.

This is how faith functions for Luther. It is a disposition, a state of being which organically entails a manner of living.

The way of faith is the way of loving and hoping in the things of God so that they are reflected in our being in the world.

Elizabeth embodied this faith, and that is what it means to prepare the way of the Lord, where hope-filled longing becomes embodied hope.


What will become of the child?

We do not know.

The mother might miscarry. The child might not be born.

It could be a disaster.

We are like the people gathered around Zachariah outside the temple, like the neighbors witnessing the naming of John.

We ourselves have not been given direct divine communication. We did not see or hear the angel. We were not told to name the child John.

We have only the testimony of strange events, and the strange testimony of Christ’s coming, of a promise of new life, of a New Creation,
of the kingdom of God.

But we also have the example of those like Elizabeth. She also did not have direct divine communication. She also did not hear or see the angel.

But she lived in the promise, ready and willing,

preparing the way of the Lord.