This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. [Matthew 1:18-25]
Much of our lives involves finding a way out of trouble. Some of our troubles are self-inflicted, resulting from selfish decisions, besetting sin, or addictions revisited. Other trouble afflicts us simply because our circumstances, by our place within a world wracked by evil and injustice. This is the sort of trouble Joseph finds himself in when Mary, his fiancé, is found to be pregnant.
Joseph is caught between two competing instincts. Matthew tells us that he was faithful to the law, and so he would have been required to divorce Mary. But we also learn that he is a good man with sincere feelings of compassion and love for Mary: “He didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace.” Like us, Joseph needed a way out of trouble. And he finds a good enough way in his decision to divorce her quietly. In a small ceremony, with two or three witnesses, Joseph could fulfill the requirements of the law while still looking out for Mary’s wellbeing. It remained a heartbreaking situation, but the way out of trouble that Joseph settled on was good enough.
But then God intervened and suddenly Joseph’s good enough way out was no longer good enough. Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him that the Holy Spirit is behind Mary’s pregnancy and immediately his view of the situation and its associated trouble changes. Previously, he had two inputs into his impossible situation: following the law and caring for Mary. But now the angel opens up his vision and he sees beyond his immediate circumstances. He learns that the child Mary carries is a miracle of God and that he has been called by God to care for this child and his fiancé.
Everything changes. What had seemed like a good way out of his trouble now pales in comparison to the options that open up before him. Of course he won’t divorce Mary quietly. Of course he will take Mary as his wife and this child as his son. Why? Because when God opens our troubled eyes to his presence we see options where there had only been dead ends; we see open doors where there had only been brick walls; we see ways out of trouble that are genuinely good rather than just the best bad choice.
Now, we might think that the way out that God provides will be the easiest, the most painless option. But look at what happens to Joseph. After the vision, he takes Mary home to be his wife. So, in the eyes of his small community, Joseph is either a law-breaker because he didn’t divorce his adulterous fiancé, or Joseph himself is the father of Mary’s out-of-wedlock child. Either way, Joseph’s reputation is shot. He has brought shame onto himself and his family. This is now how he will now be defined in the eyes of his family and neighbors.
And then, one chapter later, after Jesus is born, Joseph is forced to lead his young, vulnerable family as refugees into Egypt. King Herod has heard about the baby king born in Bethlehem and he orders him killed. Joseph goes from being a laborer in a small, quiet town – minding his own business and trying to live a life pleasing to God – to a man on the run, pursued by the most powerful, violent tyrant in the region, living as a refugee in another country.
It’s true that God will always provide a way out of our trouble. And his way out will always be better than ours, will always open our eyes to miraculous possibilities beyond our imaginations. But we must not confuse God’s way out for the easy way out, the painless way out, the cheap way out. In a world that shames young, single mothers, God’s way out will at times seem shameful. In a world that fosters violence and upheaval in one nation and then slams shuts the doors to refugees in other nations, God’s way out will at times seem impossible.
What is it that keeps Joseph and Mary faithful to God’s way out of their trouble? Why, given the shame and violence that has come their way, do they not settle for their own good enough way out?
When the angel came to Joseph, he told him that the unborn child would be named Jesus, a very common Jewish name with an uncommon meaning: God saves. He will save his people from their sins. And then Matthew adds an editorial detail: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means “God with us”).”
God saves. God with us.
Mary and Joseph are the first to experience the shock of God’s rescue. Through the birth of their son they discovered that God’s plan – a plan the prophets had been pointing to for centuries, a plan so unexpected that no one was looking for it – they discovered that God’s plan was for God to save his people through coming to be with his people.
God saves. God with us. Jesus.
It’s when we believe that God has come to be with us, to live with us, to suffer with us, to die for us – it’s then that see that God’s way out, despite the cost, is the way of salvation. Jesus’ story did not end with the shame of Bethlehem. His story did not end with the terror of Egypt. His story did not even end with the suffering and abandoned death on a Roman cross. Through all of this, God’s way out was being accomplished. His way out of sin; his way out of rebellion; his way out of injustice; his way out of evil and death. God’s way out was accomplished through Jesus, and Joseph had just enough faith to see it on that night in Bethlehem. Just enough faith to set aside his good-enough way out of trouble and choose God’s way out.
May we do the same. We’ve schemed and planned and strategized our way out of trouble- out of sin, out of pain, out of debt, out of relational dysfunction. We’ve settled for the good-enough way out of trouble. It’s time to follow Joseph’s example. Set down your good-enough plans for a way out of your troubles. Ask the God who saves, the God who is with you, to open your eyes to his way out. It will not be the easiest way. It will not be a painless way. But along this way you will be joined by Immanuel – God with you – who will lead you his salvation.
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. [Romans 13:11-14]
Our Advent readings remind us that for ancient Israel, God was the world’s judge:
“He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judgebetween the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. [Isaiah 2:3-4]
There stand the thrones for judgment, the thrones of the house of David. [Psalm 122:5]
When they sinned against God, they knew God was their judge. And when they were sinned against, they knew God was their judge. For the Israelites, God was the one who righteously judged their sins of idolatry and injustice, and he was also the one to whom they appealed for judgment against their enemies.
Of course, thinking of God as a judge is not limited to the Israelites. To claim that there is a creator god is to acknowledge that there is a cosmic judge. All that has been created by the creator derives its function and purpose from that creator. The creation looks to the creator for the way of life that leads to flourishing, but we humans consistently look away from the creator and to ourselves. We develop our own ways of living, patterns that ignore our creator, exploit the creation, and take advantage of our neighbors. Sin has corrupted our hearts, turned us away from God and twisted us into ourselves. We image-bearers of God deserve his correction, instruction, and, ultimately, his judgment.
Like the Israelites, the early church understood that God’s judgment was real. They also believed that it had been expressed perfectly on the cross. It was there that God himself stood in for the judgment our sins deserved while allowing the injustice of this world to come crashing down onto his own body.
There can be a perception among some Christians that the God we see in the Old Testament is the God of judgment while the God revealed by Jesus in the New Testament is the God of grace and mercy. But this is to miss the severity of the cross. Here we see the extent to which God is a judge- that personal sin and societal oppression must be dealt with justly, even if it costs God’s own life.
This advent seasons reminds us that we await the world’s righteous judge. But what about now, while we wait? Those early Roman Christians who looked to the cross for the summation of God’s judgment might have wondered how were they to live in a world that thought the cross was foolish at best, offensive at worst. What did it mean that their neighbors looked at the cross of Jesus and saw one criminal among three receiving his deserved judgment while the church looked at the same cross and saw God’s justice accomplished? What did it mean that God’s justice had been accomplished on the cross – that justification was available to all through Christ’s atoning death – but that evil and sin still exerted their destructive influence?
What does the despair in Syria mean on this side of the cross? What do the three police-involved shootings in our city this week mean on this side of the cross? What does our besetting sin, our silent addition, our culturally-acceptable idolatry mean on this side of the cross?
These were their questions and, if we’re awake, they’re similar to ours. What does the despair in Syria mean on this side of the cross? What do the three police-involved shootings in our city this week mean on this side of the cross? What does our besetting sin, our silent addition, our culturally-acceptable idolatry mean on this side of the cross? How are we to live on this side of God’s cruciform judgment when there remains so much evil – out there, and in here – that demands God’s justice?
These are questions asked by in-between people, by people who live after the justification of Christ’s cross but before the final judgment of Christ’s return, by people who live between the angels announcing the empty grave and the creation announcing its creator’s return, by people who live in darkness by the promise of daylight. And it’s to these kinds of in-between people who Paul instructs in these verses in Romans 13. There are three things for us in-between, waiting for the righteous judge, kind of people to notice.
Understand the present time
This seems obvious- of course we understand the present time. But, as Paul points out, we’re prone to slumber. So what might it mean to understand the present time? On one level it simply means that we are aware and awake to our circumstances. We push against the societal default of “this is just how things are.”
And Paul has another level of understanding the present moment in mind. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. [13:12] He uses the metaphor of night throughout these verses- that the time before Christ’s return is like the last hours of the night before day breaks. It’s dark and seems as though the darkness will last indefinitely.
Understanding the present time requires faith that the night will end, that the impenetrable shadows will fade, and that the daylight will come. This means that we look at our present circumstances through eyes of faith, through eyes that understand that the darkness – in light of God’s eternity – is fleeting and mortal. It’s as though Paul is saying that in the midst of the deepest night, Christians have been given night-vision. It’s our super-power.
Does this mean we’re immune to suffering and tragedies? Does this mean that we answer every grief and lament with a spiritual cliché? No! Remember, understanding our present time includes being unflinchingly awake to the harsh realities of our circumstances and the pain of this world. But along with this, Christians also see the daylight infiltrating the darkness. How? We view each of our moments and this word’s events through the cross – through the moment of greatest despair and suffering, the moment of greatest injustice and inhumanity, the moment of greatest doubt and cynicisms – and we see through this crucifixion moment to the crucified Savior ruling in glory from heaven, we see through this moment to our salvation and reconciliation, we see through this moment to “a living hope… into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” [1 Peter 1:3-4]
But Paul doesn’t stop with understanding, his focus moves to action. Living before our just God in the midst of unjust times requires more than our understanding- we’re expected to live differently.
Put aside deeds of darkness
There is a way of living that makes sense in the darkness. Verse 13 fills this in: carousing, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and debauchery. Paul isn’t providing an extensive list; it’s an imaginative scene of those who use the cover of night to indulge their self-centered desires. We don’t need to linger on each of these deeds of darkness, but it’s worth asking how we succumb to these or similar sinful acts. The self-centered nature of our self-gratifying sins can be justified if night is all there is, all there will ever be. But those of us who look for daylight will understand that our lives point to a God whose generosity is the opposite of these deeds of darkness. He is sacrificial, gracious, merciful, and just and our lives – even in the darkest night – are meant to illuminate his extravagant generosity.
We who have experienced the blazing light of God’s grace can never succumb to the old, self-centered logic of the darkness.
This personal holiness is serious business for Paul. In 13:14 he writes, “Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” Darkness tempts us to believe that private actions are without consequences. But again, for those shaped by God’s judgment on the cross at Calvary, there can be no equivocation about this. The cross is God’s forever evidence that our humanity matters – that all of who we are, what we think, what we love, what we do – that all of this matters enough for God to offer himself in our place of judgment. This is how highly our Creator esteems us- that a judgment that should have overcome us was instead taken onto himself. We who have experienced the blazing light of God’s grace can never succumb to the old, self-centered logic of the darkness.
And then the nighttime metaphor sputters out and Paul includes two additional deeds of darkness: dissension and jealousy. While the others have more to do with self-centered actions, here Paul reminds the community that our life together is evidence of the coming daylight. We cannot accept the petty divisions that are normal elsewhere. In place of dissension, we are to pursue reconciliation that honors our distinctions. In place of jealously we exhibit kindness and sympathy- we think the best of one another. We mourn with one another when things are bad and we rejoice together when things are good.
We understand the present moment through eyes of faith. We set aside the old sinful logic of the night. And finally…
Put on armor of light
In a nighttime world that groans under the weight of evil and injustice, within bodies that still desire sin and minds that bend toward idolatry…we need armor as we wait for our righteous Savior’s return. In Ephesians 6 Paul writes that we need this spiritual armor to defend ourselves from the devil’s schemes and from the spiritual forces of evil. We need armor that protects against despair; against hatred; against envy. We need an armor strong enough to defend us from attacks against our humanity, our race, our accent, our gender, our names. We need an armor that insulates us from these times of sarcasm, cynicisms, and deception. We need an armor that is spacious enough for our hope, for our courage, for our divinely-inspired dreams and vision. We need an armor that is not overcome by the darkness, that stands firm in the darkness, that moves forward with each of our halting steps of faith through the darkness. We need, as Paul puts it, an armor made of light.
What does this look like? Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. [13:14] This is our armor of light! It is Christ Jesus himself. We clothe ourselves, we cover ourselves, we armor ourselves with the one of whom John wrote, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:5]. The one whom the psalmist describes as wrapping “himself in light as like a garment” is our armor. [Psalm 104:2] You see, it’s not simply that we see through the present darkness through night vision goggles of faith… it’s that we are covered with light itself, a light that could not be overcome even by the darkness of the grave!
And this Light, is also this world’s judge, our judge.
On that day evil itself will be put on trial, sin will sentenced to its mortal end, and death will stand condemned.
The one who accomplished God’s perfect judgment on the cross for our salvation, will one day return in glory to judge the world for its liberation. On that day, all that has been hidden in darkness will be revealed; each instance of injustice and idolatry that was rationalized in the night, will be exposed in the unrelenting brightness of day; each sin – the private ones we held close and the structural ones we barely notice anymore – will be leached of the power we granted them. On that day evil itself will be put on trial, sin will sentenced to its mortal end, death will stand condemned, and our ancient enemy will be cast down to hell. Our Lord’s righteous judgment will be proclaimed and accomplished.
This judge is also the light who covers us now, between the times, through the night. So we look forward to the return of our righteous Lord who is also our judge because even now his judgment has been applied to our sin for our salvation; even now he fights for us, prays for us, and prepares the future for us. Even now, his Holy Spirit advocates for us.
Daylight in darkness.
This life can seem like a perpetual night. The darkness seems to cover everything. But our hope is with the one who has overcome the night and who will bring about a new, righteous day when all is made new.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. [Isaiah 2:4]
But the promise is greater than this. Our well-placed hope is not just for one day, when our judge returns.
Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. [Isaiah 2:5]
What darkness are you facing? What sin seems too great? What injustice too overwhelming? Your righteous judge will come. And until he does, until the world is set free from the endless night, you have been armored in the light that has overcome the darkness. So step bravely into the darkness. Sing into the darkness. Dance into the darkness. The daylight follows you into the darkness.
A Sermon from Mark 13:1-37 after the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
What is this passage about? Some think it’s about Jesus’ return. This is a hugely important theme throughout the New Testament and fundamental for our faith. But I understand this passage as having something more immediate in mind. Jesus tells his disciples to flee the Jerusalem from the coming destruction. He tells them that this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. It sounds like Jesus has a particular, not-so-distant event in mind. This means the event this passage describes is a long way in the past. Yet we will find that the instructions Jesus gave his disciples about a specific time of traumatic suffering are relevant to us, especially in the midst of this season of very public trauma that we’re now experiencing.
The passage begins with the disciples pointing out the magnificent temple. Not long before, Jesus had forcibly cleared the temple. At his trial he will be accused of threatening to the destroy this temple made with human hands. When Jesus looks at the Temple he sees that the time has come for God to fulfill Israel’s vocation. He sees that his time has come, when his body will be the sacrifice; when he will be the bridge between heaven and earth. He sees the continuity of God’s promises through Israel to bless the world, a promise that God keeps through his crucified and resurrected body. But what do the disciples see when they look at the temple?
The disciples are impressed. Herod the Great began work on this building and it was the largest structure for hundreds of miles. Many considered it the most beautiful building in the world. The stones admired by the disciples were huge. The largest that has been found weighs roughly 600 tons. It makes sense for the disciples to focus on the temple. Except that Jesus has been telling them that when they arrive in Jerusalem he will be arrested and executed. Since they’ve been in Jerusalem the tension has been thick with attacks from the civil and religious authorities. The earlier events in the temple should have been enough to terrify the disciples, as Jesus confronted the powerful leaders.
But here there are, following their teacher who has repeatedly claimed to represent a new kingdom, surrounded by religious pilgrims – many of them zealots ready to go at it with the Romans at the drop of a hat, standing in the center of religious and political powers… and they’re talking about the size of the temple stones! They are completely distracted. But it’s worse than that. Herod’s temple is having its intended effect on the disciples.
The puppet king who was kept in place by Israel’s oppressor, who killed his Jewish subjects and defiled their religion, who sold their fields to foreign landowners making them tenant farmers, who used brutal and terrorizing tactics to keep people in line… this king built a huge temple – one of the wonders of the world – as an intentional tactic to keep his people distracted and occupied. And it worked. The disciples, despite everything Jesus taught them, fell for it.
What massive stones! What magnificent buildings! Do we do this? What a great home! What a highly rated school district! What a well-paying job! What a status-creating grad school! What a beautiful downtown! What amazing high rise development! What fantastic cultural festivals! What a beautiful pair of shoes! What a perfectly designed car! What an amazing, binge-watch worthy show!
The Temple was beautiful and impressive. It makes sense that the disciples would notice it. And it makes perfect, logical sense that we give our time, energy, affections, and allegiances to the the things we do. But the disciples weren’t simply looking at the temple; they were distracted by it. And their distraction was by design. But Jesus has spent too much time with these disciples to let this slide.
Watch out that no one deceives you.
In this passage Jesus looks ahead 40 years to the fall of Jerusalem. During a time of great turmoil in the Roman Empire, Titus marched into Jerusalem to put down a rebellion. He burned the Temple, destroyed the city, and crucified thousands. If the language Jesus uses to describe this future event sounds hyperbolic, consider that secular historians of the time described parents resorting to cannibalizing their own children. Jesus tries to show the disciples that the thing that has grabbed their attention will not last. And if they’re not careful, they will be so distracted by Herod’s Temple that they will completely miss the coming destruction. It’s as though Jesus were saying, Your oppressors are using this Temple to distract you until they can destroy you.
On Tuesday, Alton Sterling was murdered by police officers in Baton Rouge. On Wednesday Philando Castile was murdered by police in Minneapolis. I won’t rehearse the demonic details of their deaths. If you don’t know already, it’s on you to go home and learn. But the truth is that many of you are very familiar with these stories and you don’t need me to rehearse the trauma again.
(Before we go on, let me mention two things parenthetically. First: we had time of lament on sharing on Thursday. If you were unable to attend, please reach out if you need to talk. Second: on Thursday night Dallas police officers Brent Thompson, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens were murdered during a protest. We have current and former officers in our church so this evil hit close to home for us. It is not hard for us to clearly state how horrible these murders were and to affirm the immensely challenging job our law enforcement officers have. This is basic for us. What gets more complicated is when our society equates the the murders of Sterling and Castile with the murders of these officers. They are both unequivocally wrong, but they are different. In this country and this city, the lives of police officers are highly valued. This is true whether or not the officers have integrity or are corrupt. There is not question about whether the lives of the Dallas officers matter? We know they do and they should. The murders of Sterling and Castile – and Sandra Bland, Laquan MacDonald, etc. – are categorically different for the simple reason that Black lives have not mattered to the perspective and practice of this country’s powers and authorities. So we will grieve the murders in Dallas, but we will also think and talk about them very differently than we do the endless stream of those Black and Brown women and men whose lives have been stolen by this country.)
Jesus turned his disciples’ gaze away from the Temple and toward the coming destruction. Isn’t it likely that today Jesus would force our eyes off of all the glittering objects and desires placed in front of us by our society and turn our attention to these young men and their families? Can’t we safely assume that, like with the disciples, he would command us to: watch out! Be on your guard! Be alert! Keep watch!
Yesterday, Michelle Alexander wrote, I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. There’s always something each of us would rather be doing. The disciples would have rather marveled at the magnificent Temple, with it’s promise of glory and power. They’d have rather this than take seriously the way of discipleship as described by Jesus- a way that requires them to leave behind every empty but soothing promise made by those in power; a way that required them to give up their ambition for power; a way that was ambivalent about the Empire’s currency; a way that prioritized the marginalized and dispossessed; a way that will find the center of the universe not in the temple, not in Rome, but at the cross on Calvary.
Watch out that no one deceives you. How have we have been deceived? In the same way the disciples were susceptible to Herod’s lies, we struggle to see the way of Jesus within a nation whose self-described reason for existence is built on half-truths and offensive lies. And so, rather than giving ourselves to God’s work of shalom and justice, we are captivated by the shiny objects and glittering promises made by this nation and its many spokespeople.
Jesus told his disciples that a day would come that would be dreadful for pregnant women and nursing mothers. But in this country this has always been that day for Black women and mothers. Diamond Reynolds, recording her beloved’s death while comforting her 4-year-old daughter is only the latest, heart-rending evidence of this dreadful state of affairs.
But how long until we forget? How long until massive stones and magnificent buildings distract us, woo our attention away? How long until the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are crowded from our minds by the characters and storylines from Game of Thrones? How long until the conviction and commitment we felt this week are replaced with the energy required by the side hustle we need to pay for our addiction to consumer capitalism? We forget, because like the disciples, we succumb to Herod’s distractions.
We forget that our police forces descend from enforcers of the fugitive slave act. We forget that our prisons are traded on the stock market; their value rise as they find more reasons to plunder Black and Brown bodies, to warehouse men and women more cheaply. We forget that our cities are intentionally segregated; Black and Brown neighborhoods and schools are systematically defunded and isolated. We forget that our assimilation process forces immigrants to shed their history, the specifics of ethnicity; we will allow you honorary whiteness of a certain degree as long as you join agree to the anti-black racism that is this country’s currency. We forget that women of color are daily made to choose between the priorities of your people and your gender. We forget that white people who choose to tell the simple truths about this place are easily sidelined, made into a predictable punchline for this nation’s crude humor.
And let me says this gently but directly: None of us is immune to these deceptive ways. Watch out that no one deceives you. Jesus warned all of his disciples- some who had known the privileges of the empire and others who had known only its oppressions. Jesus seemed to think that all of them – perhaps for different reasons – were vulnerable to believing the empire’s lies; to become so infatuated with Herod’s temple that they missed the mustards seeds of God’s coming kingdom.
Harriet Tubman lamented that she could have freed more enslaved people had they only recognized their slavery. Despite their shared passion to end lynching, W. E. B. Dubois often ignored the work of his female counterpart, Ida B. Wells, writing her out of the founding of the NAACP. Watch out that no one deceives you! In his latest book, Ta-Nehesi Coates writes about white people as the dreamers, as those who have succumbed to this country’s racialized hallucination. But the fact that Jesus makes so emphatically clear is that the principalities and powers of this world will use the tools of this world to distract everyone of us from the truth.
Again, let me be gentle but direct: The fact that your race, ethnicity, or gender marks you for marginalization by our world does not mean you are not also susceptible to this country’s lies. The disciples were so enamored with the gold and brass of the temple that they forgot that it was their own oppression that made for it! For some of us – white people especially, Asian Americans at times – the deception will feel like freedom, like possibility, like blissful ignorance. For others of us, the deception will register as pronounced insecurity, anxiety, and self-hatred. The deception is spread like pollen in this country’s air, so that when you breath in the toxins you are made to think that something is wrong with you, rather than the one who is purposefully poisoning your lungs.
And our faith will make all of this seem harder at times. There is a belief that is common to hear from some Christian leaders and preachers, that our faith in Jesus will keep us from this deceptive world’s destruction. But such a belief would surely surprise the Jesus who said On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them, and, Everyone will hate you because of me.
Within these hard words are two incredibly important assumptions. First: Christians who represent Jesus and the ethics of his kingdom will necessarily find themselves opposed by a world that does not recognize our King or his justice agenda. This means that during weeks like this one, Christians should expect to suffer more than others because our allegiance to Jesus requires that we stand against state-sponsored violence and terror. And second: Christians will recognize this world’s lies and identify with those who suffer from them.This means that Christians should be the wokest people in this country. This means that we don’t debate blue lives VS black lives because blue is a job and black is an image-bearing, immortal, beloved by the Creator woman or man. This means that we know the issue isn’t so-called black on black crime, the issue is government policies of segregation, isolation, and enforced poverty; we know the issue isn’t an epidemic of fatherlessness, but a decision by our country and city to lock up our Black men at rates much higher than any demographic.
Our discipleship to Jesus make us more sensitive to this world’s deceptive violence and thus more susceptible to it.
At that time people will see the Son of Man.
This world’s impressive and imposing temples will do everything possible to capture our attention and affections. They will seek to distract us even as they work to destroy us. Into this reality Jesus commands us to be alert! To watch! He clarifies our gaze so that we see through the deceptive promises and to their destructive intentions.
But Jesus does not leave us here, staring at the source of our calamity and suffering. And even today, as we lament and grieve, as we get in touch with the trauma that has been once again inflicted upon us, even now we need our eyes to see beyond the source of our pain to the source of our salvation, our liberation, our restoration, and healing.
24 “But in those days, following that distress, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
To describe the painful days ahead, Jesus borrows language from the prophet Isaiah who used these sentences to prophesy the fall of Babylon, the empire which Israel was then in captivity to. In these verses Jesus takes nothing away from the actual suffering of his followers. He does not spiritualize it. Instead, he paints a picture where he, the Son of Man is coming to his throne. The crucified, supposedly-failed Messiah, now coming in great power and glory, attended to by angels and the saints, the entire universe at his command. It is as though Jesus were saying: This temple will fall, but I will still reign. Rome, like Babylon before it, will fall, but I will still reign.
I struggled to know how to end this sermon after the week we just had. What room is there for hope in the midst of such trauma? And then I thought of the saints who came before us. The suffering saints of generations past knew this traumatic reality. In the face of suffering and oppression they turned their gaze not to glittering temples but to the glorious Son of Man.
They could look to their Savior who came to his eternal glory and power by way of suffering and death and know that Rome would pass away, Babylon would pass away, America would pass away, but that Jesus and his Word would never pass away. In their suffering they could proclaim that their weeping would last but for a night and that their eternal joy would come in the everlasting morning. In their pain they could know that their suffering would not be in vain.
Do not misunderstand. By looking to the Son of Man in glory, we are not resigned to this evil world. No! By looking forward to God’s future and eternal justice our eyes re opened to his in-breaking Kingdom. By placing our faith in the one who conquered sin, death, and evil we were more alert not less. By being freed from the fear of death, we are more courageous; we tell the truth more clearly; we resist evil with more commitment; we build reconciled and just community we greater passion.
So with their eyes fixed on the glorious Son of Man, they sang: I have trials here below but I’m bound for Canaan land. They could stand in the pain, not deceived by this world and they sang: If you get there before I do; Babylon’s falling to rise no more; Tell all my friends I’m coming too. They could resist the impressive temples and their subtle oppressions and they sang: One of these mornings bright and fair; I want to cross over to see my Lord; Going to take my wings and fly the air; I want to cross over to see my Lord. They could look to the Son of Man in power and glory and see clearly the world around them, taking their stand against deception and injustice, and they sang: Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved; when my burden’s heavy, I shall not be moved; if my friends forsake me, I shall not be moved; don’t let the world deceive you, I shall not be moved.
May their alert minds, hopeful hearts, and strong voices then, be joined by ours now.
Our passage begins: “Jesus & his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.” This geographical context is important. Mark wants us to remember that Jesus is first recognized as Messiah near Caesarea Philippi, that he Jesus first predicts his execution near Caesarea Philippi, and that Jesus first explains the costly nature discipleship near Caesarea Philippi. To understand why the location of these first-time events matters, consider this photo of Pastor Michelle from this winter. Without the context, you see someone praying publicly, but not much more. But when you know that she’s at Chicago Police Department headquarters less than a week after the video footage was released of Laquan McDonald’s murder by an office footage… well, then you see much more in this photo. Caesarea Philippi is the context that let’s us see the snapshots in our passage with greater clarity.
Philip, one of Herod the Great’s sons, was allowed to rule this region by the Roman Caesar and so he built the city of Caesarea Philippi in honor of the Caesar. Unlike Galilee where Jesus and his disciples came from, this region was home to many Gentiles and was symbolic of Rome’s occupying power. In fact, the entire region was dedicated to Caesar’s lordship.
With this in mind, we begin to see why Jesus chose this region for these first-time events. With the huge expectations for the coming Jewish Messiah, it made sense for Jesus to elicit Peter’s confession away from the hype and tensions. Similarly, with the prediction of his death it was better to be out of their earshot when Jesus told his disciples about the religious leaders’ complicity in his eventual suffering and execution. Caesarea Philippi served practical purposes for these first-time events, but when it came to his teaching on costly discipleship, the region provided a symbolic backdrop for his disciples and, if we’re paying attention, for us.
The disciples who followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi were mostly young Jewish men from Galilee. These men shared at least two relevant things in common. First, there were perceived as a threat by the occupying Romans. Insurrectionists and rebels came from Galilee and the region’s strong accent made it hard to blend in. These disciples had likely been stereotyped and harassed by the authorities since their teenage years. Second, these young men had experienced very real and deadly oppression. The most grotesque example of this came in 6 AD when 2,000 Galileans were crucified by the Romans four miles from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. Jesus and these other young men would have grown up with this and other examples of what would happen to them if they stepped out of line.
Being a young, Jewish man from Galilee meant much more than being perceived as a threat & experiencing oppression, but it didn’t mean less than these things. It is these young men who followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus then says to them: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Their families have been taxed into poverty by the Romans. Their friends have been murdered violently by the Romans. They themselves have been harassed by the Romans… and Jesus brought them to the center of regional Roman power to tell them that following Jesus meant carrying a Roman cross. These were men who knew that their accents and zip codes make them targets for state-sanctioned prejudice… and Jesus brought them to symbolic center of that state tell them that following Jesus meant taking up a cross.
Do you see how hard and confusing this would be for disciples to hear? But it’s even deeper! When Jesus talked about taking up a cross, he wasn’t speaking abstractly. The cross didn’t hold any spiritual significance for the disciples. Jesus had just told he’d be executed, but hasn’t said anything about crucifixion. For the disciples, a cross was just a cross: a crude, Roman method of execution, something that had been used to murder their friends and family members.
But the cross was more than an execution method, it was an intentional form of terrorism. When Romans hung a young Galilean Jew from a cross their first goal wasn’t execution- there were faster ways to kill a rebellious Jew. No, the goal of hanging a suffering, dying, humiliated peasant from a tree was to terrorize everyone who knew him or her. New Testament scholar Paula Fredrickson writes, “The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”
With the cross, the Romans’ goal was to remind the occupied Jews of their subservient status. Their goal was to protect the privileged status of Romans. Their goal was to keep the Galileans from even trying to resist or rebel. A cross was an obscene political gesture, an unmistakable reminder of whose lives did and didn’t matter. When Jesus told his disciples that following him meant taking up their cross, they would have heard: take up your instrument of state-sanctioned terror and follow me. What would you have thought if you were one of Jesus’ disciples in that moment? What would you have felt?
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877-1950, 3,959 black people were lynched. EJI calls these “racial terror lynchings” because, like crucifixion, the goal was to terrorize. During slavery, women and men of African descent experienced unimaginable cruelty, but generally they were not killed by their so-called owners. They were simply too valuable. Slavery represented a 3.5-billion-dollar economy, more than all manufacturing & railroads combined. Our nation’s prosperity was literally being built on their backs. It was only after emancipation was declared that the lynching of black bodies began in earnest. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes,
White supremacists felt insulted by the suggestion that whites and blacks might work together as equals. Whether in churches, colleges, universities, or in the political and social life of the nation, southern whites, who were not going to allow their ex-slaves to associate with them as equals, felt that if lynching were the only way to keep ex-slaves subservient, then it was necessary.
If we ever think about lynching, we probably imagine white mobs surrounding black bodies. But in fact, anyone who didn’t conform to the standard of whiteness was vulnerable: About 600 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were lynched in the southwest during this same time period for a variety of reasons, including speaking Spanish too loudly and, in the case of women victims, refusing sexual advances of white men. In October, 1871, 18 Chinese men and boys were lynched by a mob of 500 white Los Angeles residents.
For most white people during this period, lynching was necessary tool to maintain order. Cole Blease was a senator and governor from South Carolina who wrote that lynching was a “divine right of the Caucasian race to dispose of the offending blackamoor without the benefit of a jury.” Newspapers printed announcements about upcoming lynchings; up to 20,000 spectators would show up for these terrorist events. Postcards were made: white men standing proudly next to the corpse; white mothers prodding their children into the photo.
Considering similarities between crucifixion and the lynching tree helps us feel some of the horror the disciples must have felt as Jesus’ call to follow him by taking up their crosses. Cone writes,
Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists- the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.
To be clear: I’m not using the lynching tree as a sermon illustration. I’m not using it as an object lesson to help us mentally grasp the horrors of the cross. The lynching tree is the cross. I’m saying that being lynched was the equivalent of being crucified. I’m saying that if Jesus was talking to a group of American disciples in the 1920’s, he very well may have said to them: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their lynching tree and follow me.”
This is an incredibly hard word – a seemingly impossible word – and we can’t water it down by spiritualizing what was, in fact, an act of dehumanizing terror. Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe. And though we’ve been focusing on the young Galileans who personally experienced Roman terror, we must see that following Jesus is demanding for everyone.
In 8:34 Mark tell us that just before his teaching on costly discipleship, Jesus “called the crowd to him along with his disciples…” The crowd in Caesarea Philippi included representatives of Rome, those whose ethnicity and privilege allowed them to benefit from the Galileans’ oppression. Jesus does not choose a different discipleship metaphor for them. There is not one way of discipleship for the oppressed and another for the oppressor. The cross is also for the powerful and the privileged. The women and men who profited from Rome’s campaigns of terror are now called to take up that very symbol of terror.
To these privileged women and men, citizens of an empire that had conquered the world, Jesus asks a rhetorical question: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” [8:36-37] The word Jesus uses for soul can also be translated as life. Jesus is implying that those who’ve succeeded because of another’s oppression have in fact lost comprehensively; their lives are bankrupt and they have no trustworthy hope. Their power and privilege have blinded them and they are in a desperate situation. They have satisfied themselves with the fruit of others’ oppression; they have become accustomed to cruelty and blind to their prejudice. They cannot even see their sin because everything around them normalizes their injustice and idolatry.
Jesus’ costly call to discipleship includes these men and women. The land owner, the business person, the government official, and the tax collector is each called to take up this symbol of terror. No longer can they claim ignorance. No longer can they keep a respectable distance. No longer can they explain their privilege aside from those they have oppressed. No longer can they let themselves off the hook with the hollow claim: “But I haven’t personally crucified anyone.”
No. If they desire the salvation Jesus offers they must swim against every expectation the Empire has for its favorite citizens. They must offer themselves to the cross. They must offer themselves to the lynching tree. Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe.
In 8:29 Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” The disciples still had a very small vision for what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. The same is often true for us. They had a specific political agenda for Jesus, we have specific spiritual agendas for him. They limited him to specific political and religious agendas. We limit what we expect from Jesus to our hearts and our hopes.
But our agendas are too small because Jesus came to save the world from all that terrorizes it. Which means that those who follow Jesus must follow him to the cross, to the lynching tree, and into the contemporary terrors of today. He calls us to take up the sources of our oppression, to take up the tools we’ve used to oppressed others. Reflecting on his opposition to the Vietnam War, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “When I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. It is not something that you merely put your hands on. It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.”
Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe, but if Jesus is in fact the Son of God who rescues the world, than following Jesus will also be far better than we’ve come to expect.
Once we grasp the great cost of following Jesus, it can be hard to see how such discipleship can be good. To understand why these same horrified disciples came to embrace the cross and called others to do the same, we must consider the one who issued such a costly call. Because the life of faith to which we’re called isn’t a call to an ideology, a political theory, or to a particular theology. We are called to and by a person. We are called to and by Jesus.
We are called to and by the one who held the power of the universe gave it up, the one with the privilege of deity who gave it up. He took on humanity’s flesh, but not a generic, color-blind flesh. He took on terrorized flesh. He took on oppressed flesh. He took on occupied flesh. He took on accented flesh. He took on abandoned flesh. He took on ridiculed flesh. He took on ethnically invisible flesh.
In the eyes of the Romans, Jesus was no different than his Galilean disciples. In their eyes he was a statistic and a suspect; a coward and a criminal. At best he was a backward peasant who needed to be kept in his place; at worst he was a thug who would only respond to the empire’s violence. He is the one who calls his disciples to the cross; to the lynching tree. And though they don’t yet see it, he called them to this terrorizing symbol aware that he must go there first.
What does it mean that Jesus willingly allowed Rome’s apparatus of terror to crush him? It means that the Father allowed the evil that had long terrorized humanity to crush his son instead. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” On the cross, Jesus absorbed our sin & our suffering; our prejudice & our pain; our complicity and our devastation by this world’s terror. As Cone writes, “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned the cross into a sign of liberation and new life. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.”
The only reason that taking up our cross can be good is because Jesus took up the cross first, and in doing so he robbed it of its power to terrorize his followers. This is why Jesus can call us to simultaneously take up our cross and follow him. It should be impossible to go anywhere with a cross. You don’t take up a lynching tree and move ahead! The cross, the lynching tree, and every other form of terrorizing evil are meant to destroy us and instill fear in others. Coming into contact with the cross is supposed to kill you. Coming into contact with the lynching tree is meant to terrify you and everyone you love. And yet because Jesus has already allowed evil to exhaust itself on his body, these evils have lost their ultimate power over us. Like Paul proclaims in Colossians 2:15, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
In other words, because Jesus was crucified, the cross has no power to terrorize his followers. Because he was hung from a tree, the lynching tree has no power to terrorize his followers. This doesn’t mean this world’s powers and authorities aren’t up to their old tricks, it just means that Jesus has already exposed their impotence.
Jesus has picked up the cross. Jesus has hung from the lynching tree. Jesus has been stopped and frisked. Jesus has been locked up and forgotten. Jesus has experienced educational malpractice by an underfunded school system. Jesus has known the terror of drone warfare. Jesus has felt the fear of a vulnerable body. Jesus has been demonized because of his accented English and immigrant roots.
By calling his disciples to pick up the cross, Jesus has placed himself within every terrorizing tactic this world and its evil prince will ever use against you. And though he was crushed, he rose; though he was pierced, he rose; though he was battered and bruised, still he rose. And because our faith is in this Jesus, because we follow this Jesus, we too will face this world’s terrors and live.
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. [Luke 1:46-56]
There are things that happen every single year: birthdays, taxes, the collapse of the Chicago Bears. These are normal things that will happen every year whether or not we’re paying attention. Christmas is one of those things that happen each year and, like anything else that occurs regularly, it can become normal.
It’s so normal that we can forget that there were once people who were the first to respond to Jesus’ birth. Of course there were plenty who knew the infant Jesus as simply that, the infant with a rather common name, born to a seemingly normal couple. But there were some who had more information, who knew that this infant’s birth was different, that in the birth of this baby they were seeing God’s long-awaited salvation. For them, this particular birth was in no way normal.
Given how ordinary – almost mundane – Christmas is for us, it is helpful to notice how these women and men responded to Jesus’ birth. What can the different responses by those who had some idea of the significance of this baby show us about our own predictable, ordinary, and tame responses?
Matthew and Luke tell the longest, most detailed accounts of Jesus’ birth and so from them we can quickly survey some of the responses. Right away we notice that some receive Jesus with joy, while others respond with doubt and rejection. This is not a simplistic observation; there are a variety of dynamic experiences within these two kinds of responses. For example, the joy Mary expresses in her song can’t be confused with temporary, superficial happiness. Her experience with the announcement of Jesus’ birth contains mystery, fear, and the promise of suffering. Or, to take an example from the other kind of response, Mary’s relative Zechariah the priest, when told of the birth of his own son who would prepare the way for Jesus, responds initially with cynical doubt. But later, at the birth of his son, he bursts into joyful song: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. [Luke 1:68]
So there are two primary responses to the birth of Jesus: joy & rejection. And the question for those of us who have become too accustomed to the Christmas story is this: What is the difference between those who receive Jesus with joy and those who reject him?
We hear the answer in Mary’s song. Here it is the humble whom God is gracious to: For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant; His mercy extends to those who fear him; He has lifted up the humble; He has filled the hungry with good things. On the other hand, in Mary’s song God opposes the proud: He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; He has brought down rulers from their thrones; He has sent the rich away empty.
This is what matters. Those who are humble receive God’s salvation with joy. Those who are proud reject God’s plan of salvation, especially when it comes in the form of a helpless baby. The logic behind these responses isn’t complicated and both Mathew and Luke give us a few opportunities to see it play out.
While Zechariah is humbled and changes his response, another prideful rejecter goes to his grave. King Herod, whose massive building campaigns and paranoid murders take pride to another level, opposes the news of the infant king. His violent response forces Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into Egypt as refugees. Matthew records his eventual death in passing, evidence that God’s plan will move forward despite a megalomaniac like Herod. Luke, in the book of Acts, similarly records the death of Herod’s son as mere passing background to the Gospel’s spread throughout the world.
Thankfully there are many more examples of humble women and men who received Jesus with joy. There is Anna and Simeon, faithful warriors of prayer who knew their God’s salvation when they encountered the just-born Jesus in the temple. There are the shepherds – young, ostracized, and barely visible in their society – who were granted pride of place at the stable in Bethlehem. Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. [Luke 2:15] And there are the Magi – possibly astronomers from Babylon – who, despite their wealth and status, traveled a vast distance to worship this new king. Their great humility overcame the temptations of their wealth and station; it overcame cultural and religious differences; their humility even overcame what must have been the great surprise that this new king was not at the palace in Jerusalem but in a small home in Galilee.
In these opposite responses we see why the humble receive the Lord: they know their great need. In their humility they know that it must be God who acts on their behalf. So Mary sings: For the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. And because they know their great and terrible need, these humble men and women receive their Savior with joy and so they are rescued by him. They are filled by him. They are lifted up by him.
But the proud oppose this infant king because his birth threatens to unseat their own authority and agendas. They see no need for a Savior. Not this kind at least. They would be ok with a bit of spirituality added to their lives, maybe some religious practices to legitimize their selfishness. But not a king whose birth is announced by angelic warriors, whose agenda is articulated as a cosmic reversal of the rich and the poor; whose mandate is the completion of Israel’s agenda to rescue the world. No, for the proud this is too much by far. This king will require too much and so must be ignored, discredited, and opposed.
How do you respond to birth of God’s son?
Here we have a helpless infant, born into poverty and imperial occupation. Despite the soft-focus filter we put onto the nativity, this child will grow into the one who calls our allegiance into sharp contrast: Follow me; Sell everything; Let the dead bury the dead; If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off; Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
Given the surprising and almost embarrassing way God enters our world, and given the completely alternative kingdom-of-heaven life that Jesus invites us into, it should be clear that only the humble could receive Jesus with joy. Only those who by experience or choice can see through this proud world’s lies can welcome the infant king. The proud will, of course, reject him. His arrival is undignified and his call is too costly. Mary’s song shows us who will welcome her son and why; who will reject her son and why. But her song also reveals what happens to the humble who accept their Savior with joy and the proud who reject him.
The humble find that their hope and faith have been well placed. They are lifted up. They are saved. Their lives are given meaning and dignity that cannot be coopted or stolen by this world. The proud, on the other hand, because they do not receive their Lord humbly will finally be humiliated by him. Zechariah is humiliated when is speech is taken from him; he’s left in silence to consider God’s surprising way of salvation. The Herods, despite all of their accomplishments, are remembered for their neurotic egos; they become the examples of all that is wrong in the world.
The humiliation experienced by those who reject Jesus is not the result of a petty, vindictive, and insecure God. It is, rather, the natural consequence experienced by those who oppose the very essence of God’s redemption in this world. Because, you see, it’s not that humility is some arbitrary perquisite for salvation. No, our humility places us within the very heart of God’s presence in this world. As Paul writes, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! [Philippians 2:8] Author Brennan Manning, in keeping with this season, puts it this way: On a wintry night, in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.
Our humility in response to the birth of Jesus is an imperfect but essential reflection of the humility of our God. The only one with the rationale for pride instead chose humility so that we could know and be known by God; that we could love and be loved by God. Do not let the birth of the world’s Savior be normal to you this year. Remember your great and desperate need for a Savior. Humble yourself with Mary, with the shepherds, and with the Magi. And if you find humiliating this old, strange, somewhat embarrassing story of God enfleshed as helpless, dependent infant… let even this turn you to the humble God, who for us and our salvation chose the humiliation of our humanity.
Most of you know my oldest son and you know that, like his younger son, he is adopted. You may not know that my son can trace his ethnicity through Filipino people, Puerto Rican people, and, especially, African American people.
My son is five years old. This means that in seven years he will be twelve years old, the same age Tamir Rice was when two Cleveland police pulled up to check out this “young black male” while he played with a toy gun a friend had recently lent him.
In seven years he will be the same age Tamir was when he was confronted by a white police officer had been deemed emotionally unstable and unfit to serve in his previous policing job.
In seven years he will be as old as Tamir who had exactly two seconds before that emotionally unstable, police officer pulled his gun and shot him twice.
In seven years he will be the same age of Tamir who, after being shot, was left unattended on the ground for four minutes. Rather than administering first aid to the mortally wounded child the officers tackled his fourteen-year-old sister who was running to his aid. They handcuffed her and put her in the back of a police car where she watched her brother bleed.
In seven years my son will walk in Tamir’s shoes. In twelve years he will walk in Trayvon’s shoes and Jordan Davis’ shoes. In thirteen years he will walk in Michael Brown’s shoes.
After Michael Brown’s killing, Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote about the despair his death elicited in so many parents. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.
I think about my son and I think about these other sons and I think about the truth and desperation of Ta-Nehesi Coates and I feel anger.
When we consider that that it has been forty-seven years since Rev. Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis and yet we are still trying to convince this nation that Black Lives Matter, I get angry.
When we consider that it has been fifty years since the voting rights act was passed, sixty one years since separate schooling based on race was unconstitutional, and yet we are still fighting to protect voting rights and still fighting for quality education for all, I get angry.
When we consider that it’s been one hundred years since Ida B Wells shone the spotlight of her journalism and rhetoric on the rampant lynching of unarmed, innocent African Americans and yet today we face the mass imprisonment of black and brown citizens, a reality unprecedented anywhere else in the world, I get angry.
When we remember that the Civil War ended one hundred and fifty years ago yet our nation remains unconvinced about the basic personhood of black and brown people, I get angry.
When we remember that the first Africans were stolen from their continent four hundred years ago and brought to America, when the wealth and power of this nation was purchased with the sweat, blood, suffering, and deaths of the descendants and kin of those enslaved Africans, and when America has the audacity to place the blame of black suffering at the feet of black people, I get angry.
When we hear pundits lie and spin about the suffering and prejudice faced by brown and black people, when they ignore the white supremacy that has been this nation’s religion for hundreds of years, I get angry.
I’m angry this morning because what James Baldwin wrote was true in 1972 and it’s true in 2015:
The truth is that this country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort.
I’m angry this morning because theologian James Cone is truth when he writes, “Whites cannot separate themselves from culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront history & expose sin of white supremacy.” Yet, how many of us white people are willing confront that history and expose that sin?
I’m angry this morning because of the lies our nation continues to tell. I’m angry because we kill our prophets and then sanitize and commercialize their legacies. I’m angry because my son is five and soon he will be twelve and then seventeen and then eighteen. And, if I’m honest, I’m angry because the injustices of this earth seem so entrenched that I wonder whether there is any realistic hope for anything different.
We are not the first to wonder about earth’s injustices. The young church in Ephesus who received Paul’s letter wondered about these things. Within this center of imperial and oppressive power they struggled to know how they would maintain their new identities as followers of Jesus. Like us they had to ask, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? How do we worship the Lord in a place such as this?
Our passage, Ephesians 1:17-23, shows two ways the early church answered this question. As we listen to their answers, as we see their example, I hope that added to the anger we might feel today will be hope. After all we are not the first to face the injustices of earth. We are not the first to walk closely with righteous anger.
The first thing Paul directs the church to do is to focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. Notice the passage:
17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
A simple way to summarize Paul’s run-on sentences in verses 18 and 19 would be: I pray that you would know the power of God. Not some generic power or some generic god. I want you to know the power of the living God who raised Jesus, the Messiah, from the dead. This is what Paul wants.
Some of us tend to focus on the unjust and corrupt powers that surround us. And we need to see these and call these out. But they can never to be our primary focus. Because there is no life there. There is no hope there. A person lost in the dessert and dying of thirst will only find it so helpful to have his circumstances described to him. What he needs is someone with a way out of the wilderness. He needs the hope that despite how terrible things appears, there is a way out.
It’s the same for us. We have to be honest about the corrupt powers and sources of injustice in our city. But these cannot be the primary focus of our sustained attention. They cannot be our only focus. No, our primary focus must be on the one who elicits not anger but awe. Our focus must be on the one who elicits in our hearts not pain but praise. Our focus must be on the one who compels not despair but delight. Our focus must be on the one who compels not worry but worship. Our focus must be on the one who provokes us not toward apathy but toward action.
In other words, we must focus our best attention not on the corrupt, impotent, and fraudulent powers of this world, that peddle in division and destruction. Rather, we are called to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We are called to focus our gaze on Jesus who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame. We are called to behold the One who even now is seated at the right hand of God the Father, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the age to come.
This was the secret weapon held by many of the leaders and participants of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course they looked at the injustices around them; many of those women, men, and children were forced to experience profound injustices every single day. But as clearly as they could describe those corrupt powers and as precisely as they could articulate what needed to change in America, many of those individuals had an even greater and more determined focus: their Savior. And so they could experience the worst of racial injustice without being overcome by it. They could taste the venom of hatred without it ever taking their hearts hostage.
We can see this focus on God’s power through Jesus in one of Rev. Dr. King’s sermons, this one in New York City in 1967 as he made clear his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?
See, it’s not simply that we focus on the only genuine and authentic power in the universe, the power of God. It’s that when we worship and esteem Jesus our lives actually change. One of the ways we change is that we begin to see the resources of heaven that are available to those of us who are citizens of that kingdom.
22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Paul says: God has placed everything under the feet of Jesus, the head of the church. Our incorporation in Jesus means that the power that is at work and available through Jesus is available to us as well! So Jesus can say things like:
18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [Matthew 28:18-19]
12 “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:12-14]
As we are given the Spirit of wisdom and revelation and as the eyes or our hearts are enlightened we see and worship our powerful Savior and we also discover that his power is available to us. To put it differently, when we see Jesus in his power we discover the resources of heaven that are available in our struggle against the injustices of earth.
So to the question, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? the first answer is that we focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. When the power of God is our focus all of the corrupt powers slide into their rightful place. We don’t ignore them, we don’t downplay them, but we allow them to take their rightful place beneath the feet of Jesus who will make all things right.
The second answer to that question comes on the heels of the first: We discover and utilize heaven’s resources against earth’s unjust powers. We could spend the rest of the year looking into the resources of heaven. I have time for just four.
The first resource is reconciled community. Drawing from 2 Corinthians we say that our church identity is a reconciled and reconciling people. Through Jesus God has reconciled us to himself and to one another. This would have been one of the radical implications of the Gospel to the church in Ephesus and it is no less radical today.
Reconciled community begins to deconstruct the racism we are all regularly exposed to. Social scientists call this implicit racial bias. That is, we are formed culturally to associate certain positive and negative characteristic to people based on things like skin color. But within a diverse church community, these implicit biases are not only challenged, they are slowly replaced by other, more generous and loving biases.
Reconciled community also requires that we stay. One of the defining legacies of Chicago is white flight and reconciled Community is the opposite of white flight; it requires that we stay, that we remain present. We don’t walk away from people who are different. We remain with the knowledge that we are family.
A second resource of heave that is available in our struggle against injustices is our secured identities. In Christ Jesus we have identities as God’s children that are secure and eternal. We don’t have to defend ourselves or prove ourselves. We can live with confidence from our place as beloved and empowered children of God. But there is more.
When our identities are securely in Jesus, we find that our ethnic & cultural identities are affirmed. Deep within Christian belief is that God loves us as we are. We are not required to become something different in order to be accepted. The church has gotten this wrong at times, requiring that individuals learn a new language or dress in a different cultural style. But these are aberrations of the Gospel. Our country slices and dices, marginalizes and sidelines based on skin color, accent, grammar, traditions, the shape of a person’s eyes, nose, and even height! But not within the Kingdom! This community is meant to be the place where every one of us experiences the radical hospitality and acceptance of Jesus.
Having secured identities in Christ also means that we can be protected from the co-option and coercion of the corrupt powers. In his book Liberty to the Captives Raymond Rivera points out that in different seasons the church will cooperate with or resist the powers. In one sense it is easier to resist than cooperate, but when we are clear on where our authority and identity comes from we can also cooperate without being co-opted.
The third resource of heaven is courageous truth. Jesus said of himself in John 14:6, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. We are followers of the Truth so we aren’t afraid to tell the truth. A great example of this is found in that same speech Rev. Dr. King gave against the Vietnam War. He knew this speech would make powerful enemies. Yet he had to tell the truth.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
As King demonstrated, followers of Jesus deal in the currency of the truth, regardless of its consequences. This means that we tell the truth about injustice We resist the tendency to soft-pedal. When media attempts to redirect our attention by talking about black-on-black crime or “thug” culture or the so-called crisis of fatherlessness, we call bull-sh*t. And we tell the truth.
We also tell the truth about Jesus .To those who think Jesus is only concerned with our souls after we die, we tell the truth about the Kingdom of justice and mercy and peace that Jesus came to proclaim and inaugurate. And to those who think that Jesus is one interesting morality teacher among others, we tell the truth about the Son of God who chose the cross to put to death the sin and rebellion within our hearts and who resurrected victoriously over evil and death.
Finally, in our struggle with the injustices of earth endless grace is another of heaven’s resources available to us. Fundamental to Christianity is the belief that salvation comes through God’s grace alone. Late in this letter to Ephesus Paul writes, 9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. But too often we treat grace as Christianity 101. In fact, grace is the air we breathe. It is the sustaining reality of our relationship with God and our status as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is the grace of God that allows us to pursue God’s justice in an unjust world. How?
God’s endless grace allows repentance and forgiveness to be normal for us. So much justice work is built on getting it right: saying the right things; knowing the right things; doing the right things; identifying the right strategies. But you will not always get it right! And if you’re counting on always getting it right it’s only a matter of time until you get it very wrong. What then? But if grace is our starting point than our goal isn’t to get it right, it’s to quickly confess when we get it wrong: when we wound, ignore, flake out. And when grace is our starting point, when we know how dependent we are on God’s mercy and grace, we can also quickly forgive when others confess their sin against us.
Endless grace also reminds us that we bear witness to Jesus regardless of the circumstances. This is and important reminder that we are not called to change the world. I’ve met many people who in their youth wanted to change the world. But things didn’t change as quickly as they hoped or in the ways they expected and so the walked away. They traded in their dream for justice for the so-called American dream of comfort and complacency.
In one of his speeches King said that, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” This is God’s grace, that his work is constant and gentle and eternal. And it is God who does this work with we as his representatives. Despite the heaviness of our world, God’s grace means there can be a lightness about our work.
I began by acknowledging my anger. I end by confessing my hope. My fiver year-old and five month-old sons, beautiful boys with complexions darker than mine, are growing up among you. They are growing up among a people who are learning to be captivated firstly by God’s beautiful and transformative power. They are growing up among a reconciled community; among women and men who know and love who they are; among people who will tell them the truth about this world’s injustices and the truth about this world’s Savior; among a people who will speak to them words of grace, who show them how to live this way of grace.
I remain angry. But not only angry. God, through his Old Testament prophet Zechariah, called his people, prisoners of hope. In this world of injustice, may it be true that we are prisoners of hope whose eyes have been opened to see the authority and power and resources of heaven that are at our disposal in our struggle against injustice.
I’ve had a few requests asking about how our church worshipped yesterday, taking into account the non-indictment from Ferguson. Below is a lightly-edited version of my sermon. However, the most impactful part of the service were the testimonies given by eight members who told us about their responses to the news. After each person shared the church responded by praying a portion of a psalm.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the season that reminds us of the time when God’s people were awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Our passage, Ezekiel 34, was written during that waiting time: Babylon had conquered Judah; Ezekiel and others had been carried into exile; The Temple had been destroyed. Advent reminds us of the longing and laments these people felt as they prayed for God’s rescue to come.
Advent also reminds us that we await our Messiah’s return. We share with those ancient exiles the bitter awareness that life is far from what it should be; we share with them the hope for the Messiah to come and make all things right. Because things are not right.
When Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18 year old, college-bound, African American man with no criminal record was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When the young man’s body was left in the middle of the street for four hours in the August afternoon sun, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When law enforcement responded to protests with tear gas and military grade weaponry, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When a town like Ferguson can be 67% African American and yet 93% of arrests made by the mostly white police force are of the town’s black citizens, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When Michael Brown’s personal life and motives are picked apart by a media looking for some reason to justify his killing, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When the same state that ruled against the enslaved Dred Scott’s legal suit challenging his enslavement in 1847 releases video showing Michael Brown stealing a few cigarettes as justification for his death, we are reminded that things aren’t right.
When so many American citizens question the innocence of these slain men while conveniently overlooking our nation’s pathological robberies: we took the first nation’s land before taking their lives; we stole black bodies from Africa and placed them within a white supremacist system of cotton fields, Jim Crow laws, systematically designed ghettos, and money-making prisons; our towns and tax systems benefits from undocumented brown bodies who do the work we’re unwilling to do for wages we’d be offended by… we are reminded that things aren’t right.
Oppressive Shepherds and Opportunistic Sheep
In response to their new situation in Babylon, the exiles wanted to know what they were to do. Their king was dethroned, they’d been sent into exile, and now the temple was destroyed. In response to so much trauma and suffering, what were they to do? I was texting with a friend this week about the news from Ferguson and, at one point, he replied, “I’m not doing enough.” Like the exiles, we want to know what to do. But the Ezekiel passage doesn’t tell us what to do. Instead Ezekiel makes clear that nature of the injustice suffered by God’s people and it tells us what God will do about it.
Verses 34:1-16 are directed to the shepherds, those in positions of power and leadership. Woe to you writes Ezekiel. God is angry with them for what they’ve not done as well as the ways they’ve abused their power.
You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.
As a result of their unjust rule, the people are scattered, wandering, and being devoured.
Verses 34:17-31 are directed toward the sheep, the people. Some of them, according to Ezekiel have taken advantage of the unjust system created and maintained by the shepherds. Ezekiel charges them: You’ve eaten your fill then trampled the pasture so others can’t eat; You’ve muddied the water so others can’t drink; You’ve abused the weak sheep and driven them away.
And what will God do about the wicked shepherds and opportunist sheep?
23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
This is pointing toward Jesus, the Messiah anticipated by the exiles and their descendants right up until that surprising night in Bethlehem. But look closely and see that the metaphor of shepherd is closer to a righteous judge.This shepherd will remove corrupt leaders. He will judge those who have benefitted themselves through an evil system.
What Will You Do When The Shepherd Returns?
The exiles awaited this “one shepherd” to come. We await his return. So how will you respond when this good shepherd and righteous judge returns? There will be many who great his return with celebration and relief. There will be some, like the shepherds in Ezekiel 34, who will be terrified because their opposition to this return king has been unmistakable.
And then there will be others of us who are like the fat sheep in this passage and like the goats in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46. In response to the righteous judge this group will respond, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ Those within this group know there is something wrong with our world. We know, on some level, that game is rigged. We know that our nation resembles a democracy to some and a kleptocracy to so many others. But because we generally don’t feel the wickedness of our society we are quickly distracted. We choose to invest in the small circle of our insulated existence rather than the lives of the overlooked and oppressed.
And here is the truth according to God’s word: the judge will pronounce sentence on those powerful people who oversaw the unjust system AS WELL as on those who quietly benefitted from the unjust system.
Which group do you fall within? If you’re unsure, imagine for a moment that Jesus returned today. Imagine the realization that the good shepherd and righteous judge had come to make all things right and new. What would you feel? Would you run to greet this shepherd and judge, knowing that your salvation and vindication had arrived? Would you run the other way, knowing that your day of hollow and wicked rule had come to an end? Or would stand frozen in uncertainty? Unsure of what the Messiah’s return means for someone as middle of the road, as under the radar, as inconspicuous as you? As me?
Jesus In Ferguson
As much as we want to know what to do in the aftermath of Ferguson, as much as the exiles wanted to know what to do in the aftermath of their desolation, Ezekiel is more interested in what God will do. And what God does in the face of such evil is to send us a shepherd, a servant, a prince, his only Son.
And the trajectory of Jesus’ life makes it very clear to us where he would stand in the streets of Ferguson:
His motives are questioned and his reputation slandered.
His body is dehumanized so that his execution could be justified.
He dies in the afternoon sun, a spectacle meant to remind the onlookers who holds the power.
In life he is marginalized and in death he is brutalized.
Are we talking about Michael Brown or Jesus? Yes.
Are we talking about 12 year old Tamir Rice or Jesus? Yes.
Are we talking about John Crawford shot in a Wal-Mart or Jesus? Yes.
Are we talking about Marissa Alexander, imprisoned for firing a warning shot at an abusive husband yet unprotected by the same stand your ground laws used by others, or are we talking about Jesus? Yes.
This is what God’s salvation looks like. We start with what God does, and because of what God does through Jesus and because of HOW God does it through a broken and bruised body, we in turn must look at the black and brown lives that are continually being broken and bruised, not in spite of how our society works but precisely because of how our society works.To paraphrase Ta-nehis Coates, a society structured around the dehumanization of black and brown people is having its intended effect.
And Jesus, the Bible makes clear, stands with those on the receiving end of our society’s violence.
I won’t wrap this sermon up cleanly or neatly. All we have done this morning is acknowledge the reality experienced by so many in our world, a reality we walk back into now. There very well may be things for you to do. But start instead with what God will do and ask yourself how you will respond on that day. How will you receive the returning shepherd and judge? Will you run to him in relief and joy? Then do so now, carrying with you every emotion and thought that you’ve known this week. On that day will you run the other way, knowing that your days of vapid and abusive power have come to end? Or might you be like the fat sheep or the surprised goats, frozen in uncertainty?
The possibility for a joyful reunion exists for all of us, but it requires that we embrace the cross of Jesus and all of its implications.