“What I Learned about Christmas from My Church”

What I Learned about Christmas from My Church

First Baptist Richmond, December 31, 2023 The First Sunday after Christmas Day

Luke 2:8-20

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was. But it would have been so much better if I’d had it a few weeks earlier. Ruth Szucs tried, she really did. She called every student on our list and said, “Would you be willing and able to share some thoughts on Sunday morning about what you’ve learned about Christmas from your church?” Some were willing but unable; others were able but unwilling; these two who have spoken today deserve some sort of prize for getting up off the Christmas couch and into the pulpit, but I feel sure that if others had had a little more time they, too, would have risen to the challenge. It came a little late, but it was still a good idea to think about what we’ve learned about Christmas from the church.

Because the only alternative, really, is to learn about Christmas from the culture, and the culture’s understanding of Christmas is…strange. It involves someone named Santa Claus who lives at the North Pole and oversees the work of an untold number of elves who spend the year making toys for good little boys and girls so that on Christmas Eve Santa can load up his sleigh and travel around the world, parking on people’s roofs and coming down their chimneys with a sack full of toys and goodies so he can fill the children’s stockings and leave presents

under the tree before heading on to the next house.

As I said, it’s strange, but not that much stranger than the church’s version of Christmas, which involves a couple from Nazareth traveling to Bethlehem, where the young woman gives birth to a baby boy in a stable because there is no room for them in the inn. But then a heavenly host of angels comes to a group of shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, with news of great joy for all the people, because unto them has been born that day a savior who is Christ the Lord.

You could just toss a coin and take your pick between these two strange stories, but you want to be careful about that, because the culture’s story is conditional: Christmas is good news if. And that if is summed up best in the words of a Christmas classic called “Santa Claus is coming to Town”:

You better watch out,

You better not cry,

Better not pout,

I’m telling you why:

Santa Claus is comin’ to town.

He sees you when you’re sleepin’

He knows when you’re awake,

He knows if you’ve been bad or good,

So be good for goodness sake.

You see, in the culture’s story of Christmas, you get presents if you’ve been good, and while the song doesn’t come right out and say it the implication seems clear that if you’ve been bad you don’t. You might get something worse. And then there’s the idea that Santa has his surveillance cameras trained on us 24 hours a day, watching to see if we are being good or bad. So, you better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why.

Santa has his eye on you.

But in the church’s story of Christmas God knows that we are not good. It’s not even a question. Long before Jesus came into the world the prophet Isaiah made it plain that all of our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). God sent Jesus not because we were so good, but because we were so bad! Because we needed what he could give us: a fresh start, a clean slate, a chance to begin again. Both of the gospels that tell the Christmas story speak of Jesus as a savior, which suggests that God sent his only son because we needed to be saved.

Turns out we do.

That’s the church’s story of Christmas. You can believe the other one if you want to. In some ways it’s more fun, especially when you add Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But that story is conditional: it depends on us being good. And the more we try to depend on our goodness the more we see how much we need Jesus. So, you can tell people that Santa Claus is coming to town, but I’m going to go, tell it on the mountain—that Jesus Christ is born.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

“Do You See What I See? Look for Miracles”

Do You See What I See?

Look for Miracles

First Baptist Richmond, December 24, 2023 The Fourth Sunday of Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:26-38

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

If I had been the chairman of the lectionary committee that chose our Gospel lesson for this morning, I couldn’t have done a better job. It’s the story of Gabriel telling Mary she’s going to have a baby, from Luke, chapter 1, and quite possibly the perfect reading when the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls on Christmas Eve. But I don’t know how this other reading got in there, this Old Testament lesson from 2 Samuel 7. It’s not the one I would have chosen. It takes us back to a time when King David was still on the throne.

He was living in a fine palace made of cedar, but he looked out the window and saw the Ark of the Covenant—the throne of God—sitting inside a raggedy, old tent. He told the Prophet Nathan that he wanted to build God a house (meaning a temple), and Nathan said, “Go, do all that you have in mind, for the Lord is with you!” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan saying, “Go tell my servant, David: ‘Are you going to build me a house? Have I ever asked for a house? I’ve been carried from one place to another in a tent, but have I ever complained? Never! No, you’re not going to build me a house, I’m going to build you a house’” (meaning a dynasty).

And then God got specific.

Old Testament scholar Gene Tucker says this seventh chapter of 2 Samuel contains the fullest narrative account of the covenant God makes with David, and if you were an ancient Jew, praying for the coming of the Messiah, this might be your favorite chapter in the entire Bible. Tucker says, “Several features are noteworthy”:

§ In verse 8 God reminds David of his humble origins as a shepherd. He says, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel.”

§ In verse 9 David is reminded of his conquest over his enemies. “And I have been with you wherever you went, and cut off your enemies from before you, and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.”

§ In verse 10 David is reminded that his success and greatness will be shared with the entire nation. “And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more.”

§ In verse 16 God promises David that his dynasty will be everlasting. “The LORD declares to you that…your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

§ And finally, Verse 14 is not included in today’s reading, but in that verse David is promised that his son will also be God’s son. Looking toward the future God says, “I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me.”

Tucker says, “2 Samuel 7:1-17, thus forms the locus classicus for the expectation of the eternal rulership of the house of David and is the fountainhead for all messianic hopes about the revival of David’s rule after the fall of Jerusalem in 586

B.C. As part of the readings for the Advent Season, it looks forward to the One who is the David to come.”i

John Hayes, an expert on the psalms, says that the one chosen for today, Psalm 89, “offers the fullest exposition in the Old Testament of the divine covenant with David and the promises this covenant involved.” I won’t read the entire psalm, but listen to verses 3 and 4 as a sample: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one [says the Lord], I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’”ii

I know this is a lot to take in, but it’s important. It helps us understand that long before the Angel Gabriel came to see Mary, the nation of Israel was pregnant with messianic expectation. The last of the Davidic kings had died out during the exile in Babylon. Some people said that David’s family tree had been cut down and could never be restored. But the prophet Isaiah held out the hope that one day, when the time was right, a shoot would come up from the stump of Jesse, a son of David who would usher in God’s eternal kingdom (Isa. 11:1). The people began to watch and wait for that day. But by the end of the Exile it still hadn’t come, and when the people returned to Jerusalem they still didn’t have a king.

So, they did what they could. They rebuilt the temple and the city walls. They cleared the cobwebs from the palace and swept the dust from the throne. They thought, “Someday, when the time is right, God will remember his covenant with David, and put one of his descendants on the throne. Someday, a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse.” I’ve heard it said that in those days little girls were taught that if they were good, and if they did everything they were told, then one day they might get to be the mother of the Messiah.

That’s how I think of Mary, growing up in Nazareth, bringing buckets of

water from the well in the center of town; taking the clothes off the line, folding them, and putting them away; washing the dishes after supper and hearing her mother say, “Now remember, when you say your prayers, pray that the Almighty will let you be the mother of his Messiah.” And I don’t know: maybe Mary did say that prayer. Maybe every young woman in Israel said it. But that doesn’t mean she expected it to be answered.

I picture her kneeling by the bed, saying all her usual prayers for friends and family, and then, right at the end, saying, “Oh yes, and if it be your will: let me be the mother of the Messiah.” And then opening her eyes to see the Angel Gabriel standing there, smiling, with his wings moving slowly back and forth. You could have knocked her over with a feather. But Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” And now Mary was not only afraid, but also confused. What kind of greeting was this? What could it possibly mean? And so Gabriel got right to the point. He said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Again, that’s a lot to take in, so let me point out a few salient features of this announcement.

1. Mary had found favor with God. We don’t know why. Maybe she was simply the best among all the good little girls in Israel. But for whatever reason we are meant to assume that God had considered every conceivable option (see what I did there?) and finally settled on this one, Mary, who was not a member of the royal household but simply a peasant girl living in the hills of Galilee.

2. Gabriel told her that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son, and that she should name him Jesus. He didn’t say how she would conceive. She may have assumed at this point that it would happen in the usual way. But the name Jesus is significant. In Matthew’s version of this story the angel explains, “For he will save his people from their sins.”

3. Gabriel says, “He will be great, and he will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” And that may be the thing that got Mary’s attention. To say that this child would sit on the throne of his ancestor David was to say that this child would, in fact, be the Messiah. Of course he would be great! Of course he would be called the Son of the Most High! If what the angel was telling her was true this child would be the one Israel had been waiting for since the Babylonian exile.

4. And finally Gabriel said, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” This promise is essentially the same promise God made to David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

So, what’s a girl to say after getting news like that? Mary sat there in silence, taking it in, but eventually her brow furrowed, her hand went up, and Gabriel said, “Yes?” “All this sounds wonderful,” Mary said, “but I’m a virgin. I’ve never been with a man. How am I supposed to have a baby?” And Gabriel said, “Not to worry, my dear. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy; he will be called Son of God.”

And if all that sounds like a little too much to believe—it is. Gabriel knows

it. No sooner has he said it than he offers Mary some additional proof. “Your relative Elizabeth,” he said, “the one everybody said was too old to have a baby, the one everybody said was barren, well, guess what? She’s six months pregnant! That’s just the way it is with God; things that seem impossible are possible; nothing is too hard for the Lord.” There was another long pause as Mary took all this in, as she tried to imagine what it would mean for her to become pregnant before she was even married. She thought about what her friends and family would say. But then she remembered how her mother had urged her, earlier that same evening, to pray that she might be the mother of the Messiah. Wasn’t this an answer to that prayer? “Yes!” Mary said, looking up at the angel. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And before she could change her mind:

The angel departed from her.

You know that story. You’ve heard it every Christmas since you were a child. There are no real surprises in it. But there are at least three truths that bear repeating.

1. God is not in a hurry. This is frustrating for us as humans. We seem to want everything and we want it right now, but when you dwell in eternity as God does you never hear the sound of a ticking clock. You can take all the time in the world. And often, apparently, you do.

2. God keeps his promises. He had told David a thousand years earlier, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever,” and now here he was keeping that promise, restoring that lost kingdom, raising up a Son of David who would set his people free.

3. Nothing is impossible for God. No matter how broken the world might be, no matter how hopeless your own circumstances may appear, nothing is impossible for God.

Fred Craddock writes, “This is the creed behind all other creeds. The church should recite it often, not only at the manger, not only at the empty tomb, but on any occasion of reflecting on its own life, joy, and hope.”iii

And so, like Mary, let us bow before the miracle and say,

“Let it be.”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

The Well-Remembered Word: The Disciples Remember

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near….

            Today we continue an Easter Season Sermon Series called “The Well-Remembered Word,” in which we are imagining a memorial service for Jesus, held several decades after his ascension, where some of the people who knew him best and loved him most would step to the podium to deliver a eulogy—a “good word”—about Jesus, the Word-made-flesh.  So far we’ve heard from Mary Magdalene and Doubting Thomas.  Today we will hear from those two disciples on the road to Emmaus who were kind enough to write down their comments so I could simply read them to you.  They say:

            Thank you to the Apostle John for inviting us to share our memories.  It’s a great honor to be on the same program as people like Mary Magdalene and Believing Thomas.  But before we begin, we should probably clear up a little confusion, because some of you expected to see two men standing up here.  You didn’t expect to see a man and a woman.  I suppose Luke, who interviewed us for his Gospel and told our story, could have been a little more clear about that, but I don’t think it even crossed his mind.  He knew who we were; we were followers of Jesus; and that’s what he said.  Well, not exactly.  He said, “That same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.”  But before that he had been talking about the other followers of Jesus: about the women who went to the tomb that morning, and about the eleven remaining disciples and their companions.  So when he wrote “two of them” he meant two of those people who had gathered around Jesus during his earthly ministry: two of his disciples.  Not two of the Twelve, but two of the many, many more who followed Jesus and learned from him, and that was us. 

            But then he says that one of us was named Cleopas, and that’s true, but he didn’t mention the other one.  I don’t know why people would assume it was a man.  Especially when you read ahead in the story and discover that when we got to Emmaus we invited Jesus to come in and have supper with us.  Did you picture us as two men living together in the same house?  Doesn’t it make more sense in first century Israel that it was a man and a woman, and that the woman who was walking along with Cleopas was Mrs. Cleopas?  Wouldn’t you guess that she was the one who said to Jesus, “Why don’t you come in and have some supper with us?  It’s getting late!”  It makes even more sense when you read John’s Gospel and learn that one of the women standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus died was a woman named Mary, the wife of Clopas, C-L-O-P-A-S.  But couldn’t that just be a typo? (no offense, John).  Or another way of saying the same name?  KLEE-oh-pas.  Kuh-LOH-pas.  Tomato.  Tomahto.  Is it really so hard to believe that the disciple walking to Emmaus with Cleopas was this same Mary, who is elsewhere referred to as the wife of Clopas?  Anyway, we know who we are, and again, we are honored to be standing before you today sharing our memories of Jesus.

            As Luke has already told you, before we met the risen Christ we believed that Jesus was “a prophet, mighty in word and deed.”  That’s why we started following him in the first place.  We had the same hopes as anyone in Israel in those days: we were looking for the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would sit on the throne of his ancestor David, run the Romans out of Israel, and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.  We were hoping that Jesus was the one.  I mean, nobody had ever done the kinds of things that he was doing.  No one had ever healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and cast out demons as he had.  No one had ever preached with such passion about how things would change when God’s kingdom was finally established, on earth as it is in heaven.  We really did believe that he would be the one to redeem Israel, but then, less than a week after he rode into town on a donkey while we were shouting “Hosanna!” he was hanging on a cross, breathing his last.  We couldn’t believe it.  We couldn’t believe how quickly things had changed. 

            We saw them take his body down from the cross.  We saw the tomb where Joseph laid him.  We waited around for a couple of days with the others, in shock, not knowing what to do, but eventually we decided to go on home.  And that’s where we were going when this stranger caught up with us.  People have asked us for years, “How could you not know that it was Jesus?”  But it’s like Mary said: we had watched him die.  No one had ever been more completely dead.  The last person in the world we expected to see alive and well was Jesus, and so, even though there was something very familiar about this stranger, we did not consider for a second that it might be him.  As Luke put it, our “eyes were kept from recognizing him.”  And Jesus wasn’t helping.  He was wearing that prayer shawl, so his face was in the shadows.  He kept his hands inside the sleeves of his robe, almost as if he didn’t want us to know who he was, almost as if he were waiting for just the right moment to surprise us with his true identity.  Looking back, I can almost see why.  I mean, has anyone ever had a better secret?

            There were lots of people making their way home from the Passover festival that day.  Some were from Emmaus, as we were.  A good many more were people we didn’t know, going farther.  When this stranger started walking alongside us it didn’t seem especially odd, but then we noticed that he was listening in on our conversation, and of course we were talking about Jesus’ death.  So, we stopped talking, but he wanted to know more.  “What were you talking about?” he asked.  And we said, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in the last few days?”  “What things?” he asked.  “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth,” we said, “who was a prophet mighty in word and deed before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.  Yes, and besides all this it is now the third day since these things took place.  Moreover, some women of our group astounded us.  They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

            And that’s when he said, “O, how foolish you are!  And how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  And then he began to quote from the Scriptures all these passages that we had never imagined applying to the Messiah, certainly not before the death of Jesus, but now they made sense!  For example: we had thought that Israel was God’s long-suffering servant, but this stranger said, “No!  It’s the Messiah!  Listen!”  And then, even though he wasn’t reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah he quoted it word for word, as if he knew it by heart.[i]  We’ve looked it up since.  We’ve written it down.  He said, “See if this sounds familiar:

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account (Isa. 53:2b-3).

And then he said, “Or how about this?

He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed (Isa. 53:5).

“Or this?

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isa. 53:7).

“Or this?”

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.  Who could have imagined his future?  For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isa. 53:8-9a).

And then he said, “But that was never going to be the end of the Messiah.  Death was never going to have the final word.”  And then he started quoting from the Psalms.  He said:

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.  For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption (Ps. 16:10).

He said, “Do you see?  It was God’s intention all along to raise his anointed one from the dead, to usher him into his glory.  But I know what you must be thinking: Now what?  Well, do you remember what King David said, when he was prophesying by the power of the Holy Spirit?  It’s right there in the Psalms:

The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool under your feet” (Ps. 110:1).

“Yes,” he said.  “The Messiah has done his part, now it’s time for his disciples to do their part (see Luke 24:47-49), and in the end, God will do his part.  He will crush the enemies of his Messiah and ultimately he will destroy death itself.”

            He quoted one passage after another, proving his point, until we looked up and saw that we had reached Emmaus.  The daylight was almost gone by then, and there was nowhere else to go, so we invited him to come in and have supper with us, this stranger.  He did.  We cooked up a little something and sat down to eat.  We asked him if he would like to say the blessing and he nodded, and then he reached out for the bread, and that’s when we saw it: the mark of the nails in his hands.  “Jesus!” we said, but as soon as we did he was gone, just like that.  We looked at each other in shock.  For a full minute we couldn’t say anything.  But then we began to babble like idiots.  We said, “That was him!  That was Jesus!  He was right here!  And now he’s gone, but oh!  Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he was talking to us on the road, and opening up the Scriptures to us?”  We had to tell the others, and so, even though it was late, and even though we were tired, we stuffed some bread into a bag and hurried back down the road toward Jerusalem. 

            We kept talking about the things he had said to us, and kept scolding ourselves for being so dense.  It had been right there in the Scripture all along, but we hadn’t seen it, we hadn’t been able to see it.  We had been so sure we would know the Messiah when we saw him that our eyes were kept from recognizing the real thing when he was right there among us: Jesus.  What had we said about him?  That he was “a prophet mighty in word and deed?”  Oh, he was that, all right.  But he was so much more than that.  He was God’s Anointed, the one he had chosen to set his people free.  We got so giddy at the prospect that for the last mile of that long walk we broke into a run, and when we got to the place where the other disciples were staying we burst in, out of breath, but before we could tell them our news they said, “the Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”  And we said, “He’s appeared to us also!”  When we caught our breath we told them the whole story, and all the things he had taught us on the road, and how we had recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

            That’s been a long time ago now.  Decades have gone by.  And yet we remember that day as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.  We also remember that Jesus was right there in front of us when it happened, and yet we didn’t recognize him.  And the story of God’s suffering servant had been in the scriptures for centuries, and yet we never made the connection.  It was humbling, that’s for sure.  It still is.  But it’s caused us to look at things differently than we used to.  Back in those days all we could think about was the redemption of Israel.  As we said, we wanted the Messiah to sit on the throne of his ancestor David, and run the Romans out of town, and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.  We couldn’t see beyond that.  We couldn’t dream any bigger.  And so our eyes were kept from recognizing someone who had come, not only for the redemption of Israel, but for the redemption of the entire world.  It helps us even now, when we begin to get impatient, when we wish that God would go ahead and do whatever it is he’s going to do.  It makes us think that maybe he’s up to more than we know, and maybe it’s already happening, all around us, and that if we could only see things the way he sees them we would know: heaven is coming to earth right now, right in front of us.  O, Lord!

            Open our eyes that we may see!

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] The fact that Jesus was familiar with Isaiah is evident from his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21), where he opened the scroll of the prophet and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” In that same pericope he implies that his understanding of his mission has come from Isaiah 60 and 61. The parallels between Isaiah 53 and the passion of Jesus are uncanny, suggesting that Jesus himself may have read Isaiah 53 as a kind of “script” for the closing act of his earthly ministry.

King of the World

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

 Today is Christ the King Sunday, and whether you are here in this room at the end of the Christian Year, or watching from home at the beginning of the calendar year, it is an important day.  It’s a day when we announce to the world that we have no king but Jesus.

There’s a scene in the book of Revelation where the 24 elders, seated around the throne of God, take the crowns off their own heads and cast them at his feet.  If it were up to me, on a day like today I would put a throne right here at the front of the church, and give each of you a crown as you came into the sanctuary, and then during the closing hymn ask you to imagine that Christ is seated on that throne, and invite you to come forward and cast your crowns at his feet as a way of letting him know that for you he is—and will always be—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  That would be a good way to celebrate.  But if it were up to Luke he would do something completely different, and he does.  He doesn’t ask us to imagine Jesus on a throne; he asks us to imagine him on a cross.  Why?

Because Luke is up to something.

He gives us a hint in the first paragraph of his Gospel when he says that after following all things closely and interviewing a number of eyewitnesses he has decided to write an orderly account so that someone named Theophilus may “know the truth” concerning the things about which he has been instructed. Let me warn you that I wrote a 300-page doctoral dissertation on the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, but then let me see if I can sum up my findings in something less than that.  One was that Luke doesn’t actually say he wants Theophilus to know the truth, but that he wants him to have some certainty about what he has already learned.  The Greek word is asphaleia, and it is usually translated as “assurance.”  In my dissertation I argued that assurance is an affective word: it describes a feeling.  Luke wants Theophilus to have that warm, comfortable feeling that comes when he realizes that everything he has learned about Jesus is true.

So, something must have happened to Theophilus.  I believe he was a God-fearing Gentile, like the ones we hear about in Acts 17, who attended the synagogue in a place like Thessalonica and who heard from Paul that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah.[i]  Theophilus heard that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans, but that God had raised him up again and given him “the name that is above every name,” and he believed it.  But then someone came along and told him it wasn’t true.

I’ve seen this illustrated in the videos I’ve been watching from the as I read through the Bible this year.  They show those early Christian missionaries going from place to place preaching that Jesus is the Messiah, and the way they represent that message is by showing that the cross equals the crown.  It’s up there in the little speech bubble over the missionaries’ heads: cross = crown.  But then they show how others would come along later and say that the cross does not equal the crown.  In the speech bubble there’s a diagonal slash through the equal sign.  But why would anyone say that?  Why would they say that Jesus is not the Messiah?

A blogger named Tracey Rich has helped me understand much of what traditional, observant Jews still believe about the Messiah.[ii]  He writes: “The Messiah is the one who will be anointed as king in the Last Days.  He will be a great political leader descended from King David. He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments.  He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel.  He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions.”  And then he writes: “In every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the Messiah. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person’s lifetime, then that person will be the Messiah.  But if that person dies before he completes the mission of the Messiah, then that person is not the Messiah.”[iii]

And what is “the mission of the Messiah”?  To redeem Israel, and to do it in a very specific way.  Listen: “The Messiah will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing them back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem. He will establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and gentiles.  He will rebuild the temple and re-establish its worship. He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land.”[iv]  Had Jesus done any of those things?  No.  Instead he had died on a cross like a common criminal; he had been buried in a borrowed tomb.  But Paul said Jesus had been raised from the dead, and Theophilus had believed him.  If Paul was right about the Resurrection then Jesus could still accomplish the mission of the Messiah, but if Paul was wrong then Theophilus would have to go back to waiting, and hoping, that one day the Messiah would come.

So, Luke writes an entire Gospel to assure Theophilus (and others like him) that what he has heard about Jesus is true: the cross equals the crown.  When Theophilus finishes reading his Gospel Luke wants him to have that feeling—that warm, comfortable feeling—that Jesus really is who Paul said he was.  So, how does Luke do it?  He tells a story.  He tells the story of Jesus from the very beginning.  He creates a narrative universe and invites Theophilus into it so that he can have a first-hand experience of Jesus, because nothing is so convincing as experience.

This is where I spent a lot of time in my dissertation, talking about the story world and how the reader enters into it.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  Sometimes you start reading a novel and it takes a little while to find your way.  There are all these new characters, settings, and situations.  You have to listen closely to the narrator as he or she guides you through those first few pages.  It’s the same with the Gospel.  The world of the Bible can be a very strange place.  You need someone to take you by the hand and guide you through it and that’s what Luke’s narrator does.

Some people speak of the narrator as the “whispering wizard” in a story, the one whose presence you are only vaguely aware of, but the one who helps you understand what you are reading.[v]  You could think of it like this: if you were sitting in a box seat watching a play the narrator would be the one sitting beside you, whispering, “Now, these cowboys in the white hats are the good guys, but those other ones, in the black hats, are the bad guys!”  In the Gospel of Luke, just after that one-paragraph introduction, the narrator introduces us to Zechariah and tells us that he is one of the good guys, but he is a good guy with a problem: his wife has not been able to have children.  Already we begin to feel sympathy for him (did you hear that?  We feel sympathy), and we rejoice when Gabriel gives him the good news that Elizabeth will conceive!  But then we are whisked away to Nazareth, where Gabriel tells a virgin named Mary that she is going to be the mother of a child who will sit on the throne of his ancestor David.  In other words, she will be the mother of the Messiah.  And there you are, sitting beside the narrator in your box seat, watching all this happen on the stage.  You lean in close and whisper, “Is that true?”  And he whispers back, “It is!”

And so it goes, through the entire Gospel, at Jesus’ birth and later at his baptism, when he heals the sick and when he raises the dead, when he feeds the five thousand and when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Every time he says or does something remarkable you say to the narrator, “Wow!  He really is the Messiah!” and he says, “Yes, he is!”

And then we come to the tragic part of the story, where the religious authorities, out of jealousy, have Jesus arrested and brought before Pilate, and where Pilate, out of cowardice, gives in to the demands of the crowd.  And there you are, sitting beside the narrator as the soldiers strip Jesus of his robe, nail him to a cross, and hang a sign over his head that says, “King of the Jews.”  And then everybody begins to mock him and taunt him, saying, “If you are the king of the Jews save yourself!”  The sky grows dark and the rain begins to fall and there’s Jesus, the one you have come to love and trust, gasping for breath under that horrible sign, and with tears in your eyes you turn to the narrator and whisper, “But it’s true!  He really is a king!” “Yes,” whispers the narrator: “He is.”

And that’s how a gospel works.

Back in the late seventies a religion professor named David Rhoads invited his friend Donald Michie, an English professor, to show the students in his New Testament class how to read one of the gospels as if it were a short story.[vi]  He writes: “As I listened to an English teacher interpret the gospel, I was fascinated by the fresh and exciting way in which he discussed the story.  He talked about the suspense of the drama.  He spoke of Jesus as a character struggling to get his message across.  And he showed how the conflicts come to a climax in Jerusalem.”[vii]

Of particular interest was his friend’s discussion of irony, when a speaker says one thing but means another, or when a character thinks one thing is true when in fact it’s the opposite.  He writes: “Irony has a way of drawing readers into accepting the narrator’s point of view.  By showing the authorities ridiculing Jesus [and mocking him as ‘King of the Jews’], the narrator leads the reader to sympathize with Jesus, thinking, ‘There’s more truth to that than they know.’  And because the reader sees what the real situation is, in contrast to the characters who do not see, the reader is led to be on the inside, perhaps even to feel superior to the blind victims of the irony.”[viii]  Luke was up to something, and when you read this Gospel faithfully you can feel it.  There you are, sitting beside the narrator in your box seat, looking down on those fools who keep calling Jesus the King of the Jews without realizing that he actually is.  If everything works the way it’s supposed to, then at this point in the Gospel you will have the feeling Luke has been working toward from the very beginning: the assurance that comes from knowing that Jesus really is the Messiah, no matter what anyone else might say.  Because in this story they say it, don’t they?

Luke tells us that while the crowds stood by watching Jesus die on the cross the religious leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  The soldiers also mocked him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  Even one of those two thieves who were being crucified along with him kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself, and us!”  These characters in the story make the assumption most of us would, that if you had power you would use it to save yourself.  Most kings would.  But not this one.  Jesus is up to something.  The surprising thing about him is that he uses his power not to save himself but to save others. And let me ask you: if you could choose between a king who would use his power to save himself and a king who would use his power to save you, which one would you choose?

I know I’ve told you this story before but back in 1984 I went to the polling place to cast my vote for president.  It was the year Walter Mondale was running against Ronald Reagan, the incumbent.  I was 25 years old, I had just started seminary, I was out to change the world. To tell you the truth I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the presidential campaign and as I made my way to the polling place, I found that I didn’t have strong feelings about either candidate.  I’ve never had a lot of interest in politics, never pinned all my hopes on any elected official.  I stood in that voting booth for a long time, looking at those two names, and finally I chose the third option: I wrote in my dad’s name.  When I told people about it later, I told them that, honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone who would make a better president.  No offense to those two candidates but I knew my dad, I knew he was good and kind and wise. And I also knew this, that if it ever came right down to it my dad would lay down his life for me, and that’s the kind of president you would want, isn’t it?

“If you are a king,” the religious authorities said to Jesus, “then save yourself.” “If you are a king,” the soldiers said, “then save yourself.” “If you are a king,” the other thief said, “then save yourself.” But Jesus turned out to be the kind of king who cared more about saving others than saving himself, and so he hung there on that cross, under that sign, until his work was done.  I don’t know what kind of king you want, but if I could choose, I would choose a king like that.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Acts 17:4


[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] My doctoral supervisor, Alan Culpepper, used that phrase. I don’t know if he invented it or if he was quoting someone else. I probably have a footnote in my dissertation.

[vi] David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: an Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

[vii] Ibid., p. xv.

[viii] Ibid., p. 61.

It’s All Coming Down

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

 In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus warns his disciples that a time will come when the religious world is in a state of chaos (vs. 8), the political world is in a state of chaos (vss. 9-10), and the natural world is in a state of chaos (vs. 11).  Twenty centuries later that prophecy seems to have come true.

If you talk to some people these days they will assure you that religion is on its way out, that science has eclipsed all of our old superstitions and none of them are relevant anymore.  If you talk to other people they will assure you that our nation hasn’t been so divided, politically, since the last civil war.  They predict the next one could be right around the corner.  If you talk to other people they will assure you that the plethora of natural disasters we have experienced lately is not random.  They attribute them to climate change and warn that this is just the beginning.

So, when Jesus says that false messiahs will arise who somehow convince people to follow them; that there will be wars and insurrections, with nation rising against nation; and that there will be natural disasters: earthquakes, famines, and global pandemics—he sounds a lot like someone who has just turned off the television news.  I read this passage before I went to vote early last Tuesday morning and almost wasn’t surprised to see a bloody red moon hanging over the polling place, a lunar eclipse that looked like the fulfillment of end-time prophecy.

I’ve got to say: there’s not much in this passage that sounds like good news.  Jesus makes all these predictions about religious, political, and natural disasters and then he says, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you,” which doesn’t really sound like good news either.  He says, “They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons….  You will be betrayed by friends and relatives; and they will put some of you to death.”  And if that’s not enough Jesus adds, “You will be hated by all because of my name.”  It’s not the kind of thing you would want to put on a recruiting poster and yet Jesus doesn’t apologize for any of it.  If anything he exaggerates the demands of discipleship, so that no one will be surprised when following him turns out to be hard.  “Even if your discipleship gets you nailed to a cross,” he might add, “you can’t say I didn’t warn you.”[i]

True, but still…how am I supposed to preach a passage like this?  I read the text over and over again last week in search of the Good News, and finally began to feel something I can only describe as a presence, looking over my shoulder, reading the text with me.  It took me a while to figure out who it was, but then I realized: it was Luke, the author of this Gospel.  I don’t always think about him when I’m reading it.  I think about Jesus, and the disciples, and whoever else shows up in the story, but I don’t often think about the one who wrote these words in the first place, or what he might have wanted us to see.  But as I read back over the text last week I thought about how Luke was the traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, and how Paul experienced exactly some of the things that Jesus describes.

“You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name,” Jesus says.  “This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  Do you remember how Paul was brought before Felix the Governor, in Acts 23 (which was also written by Luke)?  And how he was brought before Agrippa, the King, in Acts 25?  In both cases, without writing or rehearsing a speech, Paul delivers an eloquent defense of his ministry, as if to fulfill Jesus’ promise: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  It’s possible that Luke was sitting right there next to Paul, taking notes, and that he referred to those notes when he was writing his Gospel.

When did they start traveling together?  We can’t be sure, but in Acts 16 we get a clue.  Luke tells us that Paul and Silas and Timothy had gone down to Troas, on the coast of the Aegean Sea, and during the night Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.”  In the very next verse Luke writes:  “When [Paul] had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”  So I wonder: did Luke live in Troas?  Was he the local physician there?  Did Paul seek him out because he needed a doctor?  Did Luke invite them to stay the night?  Was it there that Paul had his vision?  Did he share it with his traveling companions at breakfast the next morning?  And is that when Luke decided to go with them?  Again, we can’t be sure, but from that moment on Luke uses the pronoun “we” when he talks about Paul and his traveling companions.

And if that’s true then Luke would have been with Paul during some of those misadventures he describes in 2 Corinthians 11, including the floggings, the lashings, the beatings, and the stoning.  “Three times I was shipwrecked,” Paul writes; “for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.”[ii]

“You will be persecuted,” Jesus says to his followers, “handed over to prison, possibly even put to death.  But before that you will be hated by all because of my name.”  And if anyone was ever hated for bearing the name of Jesus, it was Paul.  He was eventually imprisoned in Rome, and according to our most reliable sources it was there, under the persecution of Caesar Nero, that he was killed by the sword.  In 2 Timothy 4 we have the closest thing we can find to Paul’s last words.  He writes: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”[iii]  Just after that he writes that everyone else has deserted him, that Luke alone is with him.  Was Luke with him on the night before he died?  Did he ask Paul if it had all been worth it?  And did Paul smile and say, “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.”[iv]

Apparently Luke was able to get out of Rome alive and over the next twenty years gathered material for the Gospel that bears his name.  In the opening paragraph he writes: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, Most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know that truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”[v]  Now, we don’t know who Theophilus was, but his name means, literally, “Lover of God,” so that Theophilus could be anyone who loves God and wants to know the truth about his Son, Jesus.  But what interests me today is Luke’s assertion that the Good News he is about to share has been handed on to him by those who, “from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,” that is, his is an “eyewitness account.”  But where did he get that account?  Who did he talk to?  It’s an educated guess, but I’m guessing that Luke went to Ephesus, for two reasons: 1) that’s where John was, the one who is sometimes called “the Beloved Disciple,” and 2) that’s where Mary was, the mother of Jesus.

I’ve been to Ephesus.  I’ve seen the ruins of the church of St. John.  And I’ve seen the little house up on the hill above it where Mary is said to have lived out her last days.  Do you remember that moment in John’s Gospel, when Jesus was dying on the cross and his mother and the Beloved Disciple were standing at the foot of it, and Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and to the disciple, “Behold your mother,” and how from that hour that disciple took Jesus’ mother into his own home?[vi]  Well, at some point the two of them had to get out of that home.  You may remember that the followers of Jesus experienced persecution in Jerusalem shortly after the stoning of Stephen, and that they were scattered across the ancient world.  And you may remember that in 70 A.D. the city of Jerusalem fell to the Romans and the temple was destroyed, just as Jesus had predicted.

In fact, all those things Jesus had predicted came true in the years between his death and the publication of Luke’s Gospel.  Most of the stones of the temple were thrown down (although some are still there).  A number of pretenders claimed to be the messiah.  There were wars and insurrections.  There were earthquakes, famines, and plagues.  And, yes, as Luke could testify, the followers of Jesus were arrested and persecuted.  Some of them were betrayed by friends and relatives.  Still others, like Stephen and Paul were put to death.  Most of them were hated because they were followers of Jesus.  If Luke had spent any time at all with John, the Beloved Disciple, he would have heard all those stories, and evidence suggests that he did spend time with him.  There is a passage in Luke’s Gospel that sounds as if it came straight out of the Gospel of John.[vii]  And the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8?  Most scholars say it has the language, style, and grammar of the Gospel of Luke.  I think they knew each other.  I think they swapped stories.  And I think Luke may have had a chance to ask John, “Was it worth it?  If you had it to do all over again, would you do it?  Would you drop your nets and follow Jesus?”  And what do you think John would have said to that?  Is there any question that this disciple, the one Jesus loved, would say anything other than yes?

And finally there is Jesus’ mother.  If it’s true that she lived in that little house on the hill above John’s church, and if Luke had a chance to interview her as one of his eyewitnesses, what do you think she would say?  Would she say it was worth it?  I sometimes think Luke must have interviewed Mary.  Where else would he have gotten some of the information for his Gospel?  Who else could have told him about the time Gabriel came and told Mary she was going to have a baby?  Who else could have filled him in on that long trip to Bethlehem and that birth in a stable?  Who else would have remembered that old Simeon had talked about this child being destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and then saying to Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too?”  A sword had pierced her soul, certainly.  How could she stand at the foot of the cross and not feel the pain of a mother watching her son die?  I can almost hear her sobbing through that story, and when it was done I can almost hear Luke asking, gently, “Was it worth it?”  What do you think Mary would have said?  Would she have closed her eyes and started singing that old song again, the one she sang in the beginning?

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor
on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on
All generations will call me blessed.[viii]

Jesus was right.  He was right about the destruction of the temple and the persecution of his followers.  But he was also right about this: that all of these terrible things would give us a chance to testify about the most wonderful thing.  For Paul and John and Mary that was Jesus.  Nothing was more precious to them than him.  No one else was so worth living for, and, if necessary, worth dying for.  But maybe that’s not the most important thing to consider this morning.  Maybe the most important thing is not to imagine what they would say, but to think about what you will say when someone asks you,

“Was it worth it?”

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Luke 9:23

[ii] 2 Corinthians 11:23-27

[iii] 2 Timothy 4:6

[iv] Philippians 1:21

[v] Luke 1:1-4

[vi] John 19:26-27

[vii] Luke 10:21-22

[viii] Luke 1:46-48

A Place in the Resurrection

All Saints’ Sunday

Luke 20:27-38

 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question…

 “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection,” came to Jesus and asked him a question about a woman who had been married seven times, to seven different men.  They wanted to know, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will she be, for the seven had married her?”  It’s a hypothetical question.  It’s a question meant to trip Jesus up, and to make resurrection look ridiculous.  We’ll get to it in a minute.  But for now let me remind you that for some people that question is not hypothetical at all.  They have been married more than once, and they wonder: “When I get to heaven whose spouse will I be?”  Or they’ve been happily married to the same person forever and they wonder, “Will we still be married in heaven?”  I think we can find the answers to those questions and more in today’s Gospel lesson, but first I need to give you some background.

Let’s begin with the Sadducees themselves.  They were the wealthy ruling class in Jerusalem.  They held the majority of the seats on the Jewish religious council and among them were the chief priests and the high priest.  They maintained the peace in Jerusalem primarily by enforcing the decisions of Rome, and some thought they were more concerned with politics than religion.[i]  They were ultra-conservative, accepting only the first five books of the Bible as authoritative, and perhaps for that reason did not believe in the resurrection.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, did.  One of my Sunday school teachers helped me remember that distinction by saying, “It’s sad-you-see: there is no resurrection.”  And then saying, “It’s fair-I-see, there is resurrection!”  I will add to that distinction only this observation: that the people who have everything in this world often seem to have far less interest in the next.  In first-century Israel, those people were the Sadducees.

Secondly, I believe that the question they asked Jesus was their standard test question for the resurrection.  It was intended to make resurrection look ridiculous by appealing to the practice of “levirate marriage,” where a man would marry his brother’s widow in order to keep his brother’s memory alive.  Here’s how it is explained in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger.  Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

This, for the Sadducees, was the Word of the Lord (thanks be to God).  It was from one of the first five books of the Bible.  They say to Jesus in verse 28, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.”

And let me pause long enough to point out that the Greek word for “resurrection” is anastasis.  It comes from the word stasis, meaning “to stand,” and ana, meaning “again,” so that anastasis means “to raise up,” or, literally, “to stand up again.”  The Sadducees didn’t believe in that, but they believed in this: that a man could “raise up” children for his dead brother.  The Greek word is exanastase, which sounds just like the word for resurrection but with an ex on the front, meaning “out of,” and in this case “out of his seed.”  It’s an earthy analogy but in levirate marriage a dead man’s brother was expected to plant his “seed” in the “soil” of his widow’s womb so that children could be raised up for him like a farmer plants seed in his garden to raise up cabbages.  This is the only kind of resurrection the Sadducees believed in, and in their test question it created a problem because (verse 29): “There were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second; and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.  Finally the woman also died.  In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?  For the seven had married her.”

The real conundrum in this question, as far as the Sadducees are concerned, is not whether or not people can rise from the dead, but who gets the property rights.  Because in first century Israel wives were considered the property of their husbands (I’m not saying it’s right; I’m saying that’s how it was).  All seven of these brothers had, at one time or another, “owned” the same property.  In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will she be?  The Sadducees could almost picture these seven fighting over the same woman and to them the whole thing looked ridiculous.  To us it’s not so ridiculous.  We believe in the resurrection.  And we’ve all known people who were married more than once.  You may be one of those people, and you may be wondering, “In the resurrection, whose wife will be?” (or whose husband), and for you it’s not about rights; it’s about relationship.  So, lean in close and listen, because I think Jesus has some answers to your questions.

In verse 34 he says, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”  Let’s pause for a moment and think about when people do that: when they “marry” and are “given” in marriage.  It’s at a wedding, right?  In Jesus’ time that’s when a man “took” a wife.  That’s when a woman was “given” to her husband.  So, I don’t think Jesus is saying there won’t be any marriages in heaven, but he does seem to be saying there won’t be any weddings, and that’s because there won’t be any funerals.

He says, “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”  Why?  Verse 36: “[Because] they cannot die anymore.” And when Jesus says that he makes it clear that in his time marriage was not usually about being so in love with another person that you couldn’t live without each other, but rather about the creation of a stable social structure in which children could be born and raised.[ii]  It was about building up the nation of Israel initially, and beyond that about ensuring the survival of the human species.  I love the child’s letter to God that says, “Dear God: instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you’ve got?”  Jesus seems to be saying that in the resurrection that’s how it is: God keeps the ones he’s got.  There is therefore no need to make new ones and therefore no need for marriage.

“But wait a minute,” you say.  That’s not why I got married.  I don’t see marriage as merely the means of procreation.  I see it as a lasting commitment to another person.  What about me?”  Ah!  Now you’re talking about relationship, and that’s what matters most to us.  I sometimes say, “Relationships are the most important thing in the world and the only thing that really lasts.”  Occasionally I test that truth by asking mourners at a funeral, “Do you love this person more or less now than you did three days ago?”  They usually say, “More!”  The person has died but the relationship hasn’t.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in verse 37 when he invokes the story of the burning bush from Exodus 3, one of the first five books of the Bible and therefore a story that would have had authority for the Sadducees.  He says, “Do you remember what God said to Moses?  He said, ‘I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’  He didn’t say, ‘I was their God’ (past tense); he said, ‘I AM’ (present tense).  And for Jesus that’s all the proof the Sadducees should need.  “For he is not the God of the dead,” Jesus says, “but of the living.”  And then he ends with something that sounds almost like a poem.  He says,

For to him

All of them

Are alive.

I think he would say the same about those you have loved and lost: that “to him all of them are alive.”  And I hope that can be a comfort to you.  If you get nothing else out of this passage I hope you will get this: that according to Jesus the two things that survive death are identity and relationship.  Because somehow Abraham is still Abraham after all these years; his identity survives.  And somehow God is still his God after all these years; the relationship survives.  But that is not only true for Abraham.  It is true for all those who have made him their God, and for all those whose names were read this morning.  Their identity survives, and their relationship with God—the one who made them and loved them and called them his own—survives.  That’s good news.  But there may be some of you who are still wondering about marriage and asking, “In the resurrection what happens to that relationship?”

This is where I move beyond the things I can say with certainty and into the realm of speculation, but I think Jesus gives us some important clues.  In verse 34 he says, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage” while “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age” do not.  Listen carefully: he doesn’t say that people on earth get married but people in heaven don’t.  He says that people in this age get married but those in that age don’t.  An age is not a place; it’s a time.  Jesus is borrowing the language of Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology, where people talked about “the present evil age” as compared with the messianic age: “the age to come.”  That’s when they believed that God’s chosen one, the Messiah, would ride onto the scene, conquer evil, and usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity.  For them heaven wasn’t up there somewhere, in the sky, it was out there somewhere, in the future.  For us it might be that moment when God’s kingdom finally comes and his will is forever done on earth as it is in heaven.

Wherever it is or whenever it is, Jesus says in verse 36 that when that new reality dawns we will no longer be mortal (that is, subject to death).  Instead we will be like the angels (who never die).  He says that in that day we will be the “children of God, children of the resurrection,” and I’m fascinated by his use of the word children.  Because one of the things I know about children and one of the things I love about them is that they live in the moment.  For them there is no yesterday, and no tomorrow; there is only now.  I know this because I have struggled to explain the concept of time to my grandson.  I tell him that I will see him tomorrow, or remind him of something we did yesterday, but he doesn’t know what that means.  He’s two years old; for him there is only now.  But if that sounds like a handicap consider this: he doesn’t have any regrets about the past or any worries about the future.

He lives in the moment.

This seems especially relevant when I think of how some modern theologians have described the realm of God as “the Eternal Now.”  You’ve heard me talk about this.  In my Easter sermon this year I suggested that when we die we “step off the time line” and into the realm of God.  I quoted that old hymn, “When the Roll is Called up Yonder,” the one that begins with a reference to that moment “when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more.”  Even then I thought, “These old hymn writers had it figured out!  Time is not always our friend; sometimes it is our enemy.  But sometime there will come a time when time will be no more!”  Maybe then we will all be like my grandson, Leo: living in the moment.  But unlike him, we will live in that moment forever.

One of my favorite pictures is a picture of Leo and his little friend Charley on the playground at preschool.  Charley is just about the cutest little girl you have ever seen and Leo is, well…he’s my grandson.  In this picture the two of them are hugging each other hard and laughing hysterically.  It’s adorable.  And it’s a little too easy to start matchmaking, to start thinking that maybe the two of them will remain friends throughout childhood and adolescence, and someday tell us that they’re getting married.  “Wouldn’t that be sweet?” we think, for these childhood friends to end up married to each other?”  Well, yes, it would be sweet, until that night when they’re in their mid-thirties and both exhausted from working at demanding jobs so they can pay the mortgage on their beautiful home where the sink is full of dirty dishes and the dog just ate the remote control and one of the kids is spreading peanut butter on the living room curtains and the other one needs a diaper change in the worst possible way.

In a moment like that you might think, “Why complicate things?  Why can’t they just stay the way they are?  Why can’t Leo and Charley just be best friends forever?”  Is that what Jesus has in mind when he says that those who are considered worthy of a place in that age are the “children of God,” and “children of the resurrection”?  Does he mean that in that blessed state they will never have any regrets about the past, and never have any worries about the future?  Does he mean that they will always hug each other hard and laugh hysterically?  I don’t know.  How could I possibly know?  But sometimes the questions are even more exciting than the answers. They leave me scratching my head, searching the Scriptures,

And dreaming about the future.

— Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] From the “Got Questions?” website, which promises biblical answers to your questions (

[ii] This is my usual definition of biblical marriage. I’m currently reading a book on the history of marriage that includes things like political alliances, division of labor, etc. (Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage).

Saving the Lost

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 19:1-10

 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.

 Let’s begin with a pop quiz:

According to Luke 19:1-10, Zacchaeus was:

  1. Short in stature
  2. A chief tax collector
  3. A sinner
  4. A Son of Abraham
  5. All of the above.

If you picked “e,” you’re right, but if you’re like me there was a time when each of those seemed like the right answer.

When I was a boy, for instance, I knew that Zacchaeus was a “wee little man, and a wee little man was he.”  We sang that song in Sunday school.  But we also learned the story of Zacchaeus, and if you had asked me I could have told you that one day when the Lord was passing through his town he climbed up in a sycamore tree to see him.  I could relate to that.  If Jesus had passed through my town I might have had to climb a tree; I was a wee little man myself.  But I could have also told you that when Jesus passed that way he looked up in the tree and saw Zacchaeus and told him to come down.  Why? “For I’m going to your house today.  For I’m going to your house today.”  That’s the end of the song, and in those days, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the story.  The good news was not that Zacchaeus was a sinner who got saved; the good news was that Jesus was going to his house.  It made me wonder what kind of songs we would sing if Jesus came to my house.

But as I got older I learned that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, and as far as his fellow Jews were concerned, that was a bad thing.  He was working for the Roman government, the same government whose armies had conquered Israel back in 63 B.C. and whose soldiers still swaggered through its streets.  He was taxing his fellow Israelites, and handing over a substantial portion of their hard-earned income to Caesar.  But apparently he was keeping a good bit for himself.  He was growing rich at his neighbors’ expense, and nobody liked that.  They grumbled about him behind his back.  They called him a “sinner.”

And when I got to seminary I learned a little more about that.  The Greek word for “sin” is hamartia. It means, literally, “to miss the mark.”  I pictured someone shooting an arrow at an archery target, aiming for the big, red bullseye in the center, but missing—maybe by an inch, maybe by a mile.  So, I learned that a sinner is a “mark misser,” and that was new for me.  It made me hopeful.  It made me think that most sinners are at least aiming for the target; they’re trying to get it right, but they’re missing.  Doesn’t that describe you most of the time?  I mean, do you wake up in the morning looking for ways to sin, or do you wake up determined to do your best but by the end of the day realize, that in more ways than you want to admit, you missed the mark?  Zacchaeus’s sin seems a little more deliberate than that.  If the whole of the Jewish law could be summed up in the command to love God and love neighbor (as Jesus suggests), then Zacchaeus was not doing a very good job of loving his neighbors.  He wasn’t even aiming his arrow in that direction.  He was taxing them.  He was taking more than his share.  He was reducing some of them to poverty.  It’s no wonder they called him “a sinner.”

So, when I became a pastor, and when this story showed up in the lectionary for the first time, I seized the opportunity to talk about Zacchaeus’s glorious conversion.  He was a sinner, but for some reason he wanted to see Jesus (maybe there was something inside him that knew just how much he needed to be saved), and when Jesus saw him he did exactly what his Heavenly Father might do: instead of looking on Zacchaeus’s outward appearance he looked on his heart, and what he saw in that heart was good.   So, he called him down out of the tree.  He said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today,” and Zacchaeus was so moved by the invitation that he knelt at Jesus’ feet, and with tears in his eyes promised to give half his money to the poor, and if he had defrauded anyone to pay them back fourfold.  Jesus was amazed.  He turned to the crowd and said, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a Son of Abraham!”  And that’s how it works, right?  If you are a sinner who confesses your sins (as it says in Psalm 32), and if you repent of those sins as Zacchaeus did and promise to live a different kind of life, then Jesus can forgive you of your sins and offer you the gift of salvation, right?  That’s what I learned in church when I was growing up.  That’s what I shared with my congregation the first time I preached this passage.  It’s absolutely true, but it may not be what this story is about.

Because the last time I preached this passage I learned something new.  I learned that the verbs Zacchaeus uses in his defense are not in the future tense, but in the present tense.  That is, when the crowd starts grumbling about him and saying he’s a sinner, he doesn’t say to Jesus, “From now on I will give half of my money to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay them back fourfold,” he says, “I already give half my money to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone I pay them back fourfold.  It’s my standard business practice.”  Well, that changes the story completely, doesn’t it?

So, why didn’t I see it before?  Why didn’t we all see it?  Because everyone wants this to be a conversion story, including the people who translate the Bible, even the New Revised Standard Version, the one I have trusted since seminary, the one that’s in our pew racks!  The translators of that Bible and the New International Version want so much for this to be a story about a man whose life was changed forever by his encounter with Jesus that they have changed the verbs forever: they have taken an ordinary present tense verb and twisted it into something they call the “future-present,” as if Zacchaeus were saying, “From this moment on I give half my money to the poor.”  But if you ask them how many times the so-called future-present appears in the New Testament they will have to admit, “Only once.  Only here in Luke 19:8.”  Because it isn’t a real thing.  They made it up.  Their love for a good conversion story has skewed their translation.

But others have taken the verbs at face value.  If it’s a present active indicative verb then that’s how they translate it.  In the English Standard Version, the one I have on my phone, Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.  And if I have defrauded anyone of anything I restore it fourfold.”  And when Eugene Peterson paraphrased this passage in his version of the Bible, the Message, he quoted Zacchaeus as saying, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”  And if that’s too modern for you take a look at the King James Version, published in 1611, where Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

Reading these verbs in the present tense rather than the future tense makes it harder to hear this as a conversion story, but it makes it easier to understand Jesus’ response, because when the people start grumbling about Zacchaeus and saying that he is a sinner, and Zacchaeus defends himself by saying he gives half his money to the poor, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  Why?  “Because he too is a Son of Abraham.”  If you can hear it, Jesus is restoring Zacchaeus to his place in the community by restoring his identity as a good and faithful Jew.  And if the community can hear it, then this story has the potential to become a different kind of conversion story, a story in which it is not Zacchaeus, but the people of Jericho, who are converted.

Think about that archery target again.  What if that big, round circle were the circle of community, and what if the people who ended up in the center of that circle were not necessarily the most righteous, but simply the most acceptable?  Can you see how Zacchaeus would be pushed out because he collected taxes from his neighbors?  But can you see how many other people might get pushed out of that circle through no fault of their own?  On Friday morning I posted this question on Facebook.  I asked: “What are some of the things that push people out of ‘polite’ society? For example: the man who gets fired from his high-profile job and finds that no one will return his phone calls? Or the woman whose cancer diagnosis makes it hard for people to know what to say, so they begin to avoid her? Failure, illness…what else?”  And then I waited for the answers.

The first one came within minutes: “Becoming a religious wacko will do it. By which I mean—falling so in love with Jesus and being so intoxicated by the Spirit that everything else in this fallen world seems dark and drab.”

The next person wrote: “Divorce.”

A few minutes later someone wrote: “So many things will [push you outside the circle]. Grief or loss come to mind foremost.”

Another wrote: “Insecurity, self doubt”

An old college friend added: “Becoming a widow/widower or being divorced…  Losing a child due to illness or miscarriage… Telling your friends/family/coworkers that you are gay.”

Someone wrote: “Drug addiction/alcohol abuse.”Bottom of Form

Another added: “Having a disability or being disfigured in an accident.”

Someone wrote: “Depression.”

Another added: “Being a trauma survivor with all the challenges that linger on for years.”

Someone wrote: “Marrying a person of another race.”

Another wrote a long post that began with the words: “Society’s intolerance of introverts.”

Someone wrote: “Extended illness,” and another agreed, writing: “The world gets tired of dealing with a person’s infirmity.”

Someone else wrote: “Divorce.”

The next person wrote: “Divorce and being gay.”

Someone wrote a longer post about the challenges of mental illness.

Someone wrote: “A child with behavioral problems. That has isolated us for years now.”

Someone wrote: “When you make a horrible mistake and you think you can’t be forgiven.”

Another added: “Poverty. Your life is going well. Then, boom. Medical event, loss of job, divorce, economy, etc. It’s amazing when poverty or loss of status strikes you. Your circle of friends or acquaintances shrink. Downright crater. You learn fast who your REAL friends are.”

A pastor wrote: “When you leave a church and people think you did something wrong.”

A church member wrote: “Gender transitioning.”

Someone mentioned the stigma of suicide and said she left church for more than ten years after no one reached out to her after her father’s death.

Someone wrote: “Being a felon. Even for non-violent offenses.”

Someone else mentioned the awkward pause in a workplace conversation when you say anything that sounds too Christian.

Another wrote: “Shame or self-pity due to not being able to measure up intellectually, financially, family circumstances, etc.”

There were more: people talked about aging, Alzheimer’s, grieving, loss of a spouse, loss of a child, loss of hearing, leaving a promising career to care for your children, disability, addiction, coming out, and again divorce, which was mentioned a half dozen times in that thread.  One person wrote: “When you get divorced, no one brings casseroles!” which made me think we need to start a new ministry.

I hope I’ve given you enough examples to convince you that people get pushed out of polite society by all sorts of things.  It’s as if there’s this place at the center of the circle for people who are bright, young, attractive, healthy, happily married, gainfully employed, with 2.4 perfect children, and then there are the rest of us, somewhere outside the circle, wondering how we got there.  But here’s the good news: Jesus is outside the circle, too.  If you look hard enough you can almost see him, poking around in the darkness, looking for people who have been pushed out of polite society, finding those whose hearts are still good, picking them up, brushing them off, and bringing them back to the center of the circle.  At the end of today’s Gospel lesson he stands beside Zacchaeus and says, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a Son of Abraham.”  And then he says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”

And that’s the end of the story.  There’s Zacchaeus, restored to his rightful place in the community.  But there’s no guarantee he will stay there.  There’s no promise that the people who pushed him out the first time won’t do it again.  And maybe that’s why Jesus felt the need to create a new community, one he called the Kingdom of God, where everyone would be welcome, no matter what.  In his thinking it would be a place where you didn’t have to be perfect; you only had to be human.

Sometimes I meet people who ask me, “Do you think I would be welcome in your church?”  And I look them up and down, wondering what kind of reception they would get.  These are good-hearted people for the most part.  They want to come to church and I want to say yes, but I have to be honest: some of them might be hard to accept.  So, here’s what I do: I say yes anyway, and then I hope and pray that they will be accepted, that this church will be for them the kind of community Jesus had in mind, the one he called the Kingdom of God, where everyone is welcome, no matter what.  And sometimes I picture Jesus himself standing there beside them, introducing them to the congregation at the end of the service and saying, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this one, too, is a child of God.”

Jim Somerville © 2022

What Makes Us Right?

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:9-14

 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…”

 For nearly three months now we have been on the road with Jesus, walking with him through the Gospel of Luke as he makes his way to Jerusalem, the city where he will suffer and die.  But along the way he has been teaching his disciples everything they will need to know when he is no longer with them and as his modern-day disciples we’ve been listening in, learning as we go.  Recently Jesus has started telling parables: the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin; the parable of the Dishonest Manager; the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus; the parable of the Persistent Widow.  He seems to believe that the lessons contained in these short, memorable stories will be an essential part of his disciples’ formation, and possibly ours as well, but those lessons aren’t always easy to discern.

One of my favorite New Testament scholars refers to the parables as riddles, and that’s not a bad way to think about them.  Riddles are verbal puzzles.  You have to think about them, you have to figure them out.  For example: “What has many keys but doesn’t open a single door?”  A piano.  “What is more useful once it is broken?”  An egg.  “What is small and brown, has a head and a tail, but no legs?”  A penny.[i]  You see?  Some of the parables are like that, like riddles that have to be figured out (the one about the Dishonest Manager comes to mind; I’m still trying to solve that one).  But others are more like jokes in the way they upset our expectations.  For example: I’ve enjoyed some of the “Dad Jokes” I’ve seen on TikTok, where two men sit on a dock and try to make each other laugh.  One says, “I went to the bookstore yesterday and saw a book that said, ‘How to solve 50 percent of your problems.’  So I bought two.”  His friend says: “If 666 is all evil, then 25.8069758 is the root of all evil.”  He says: “I ate a kid’s meal at McDonald’s today.  His mom got really angry.”[ii]

Jokes like that set you up to expect one thing, and then they deliver a “punch line” you just didn’t expect.  Some of the parables work like that.  This one, for example, from Luke 18, the one about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  In fact it may be the best example of a parable that sets you up to expect one outcome and then delivers another.  Because when Jesus said, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one of them a Pharisee and the other a tax collector,” everyone in his original audience would have expected him to say that the Pharisee went home justified. The Pharisees were the best people anyone knew in those days: they were the solid, hard-working, church-going citizens of First Century Israel.  As the Pharisee in this parable says: “I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  I wish I had a church full of people just like that!  Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the worst people anyone knew, because they had betrayed their fellow Israelites and gone to work for the Roman government.  Not only did they not love their neighbors, they taxed their neighbors, and always seemed to find a way to hit them up for a little extra.  If their neighbors wouldn’t pay they would send someone around to beat the money out of them.  They didn’t have many friends, but when you’re filthy rich, who cares?

So, when Jesus told this parable for the first time, when he said, “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray,” the people who were listening must have nudged each other and said, “This is going to be a good one!”  The very idea of a tax collector going up to the temple was laughable, and the thought that he was going there to pray was funnier still.  “What’s he going to pray for?” they must have wondered.  “A tax increase?”  So, what Jesus said about the Pharisee wouldn’t have surprised them at all.  Of course he was a good person.  Of course he tithed and fasted.  But what Jesus said about the tax collector would have shocked them to the soles of their sandals.  He called himself a sinner?  He asked God to have mercy?  What kind of tax collector is that?

Well, it’s exactly the kind of tax collector we’ve come to expect, because we’ve heard this joke a hundred times.  It doesn’t shock us anymore; it doesn’t upset our expectations.  When Jesus says, “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray” we know exactly who is going to come home justified, which means that this parable doesn’t work for us anymore, if it ever did.  We have come to think of Pharisees in the way Luke describes them at the beginning of this parable: as those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  We don’t expect them to come home from the temple justified; we expect them to come home condemned.  So, I’m wondering if there is any way we can adapt this parable so it works for us.  I’m wondering if we can learn to have some sympathy for this poor Pharisee.  And the best way I’ve found is to think of my dear mother, because while she was one of the very best people I have ever known, she sometimes regarded others with contempt.  I’ve spent years trying to figure out why.

I think it comes down to this: that she grew up in a home where she wasn’t completely sure of her father’s love.  She used to tell a story about having a nightmare when she was sixteen and coming to her parents’ room where her mother invited her to get in bed with them.  A little odd for a sixteen-year-old girl, but as she snuggled in between them she felt loved and accepted in a way she rarely did otherwise.  And when she woke up in the morning she felt “healed” of an eating disorder that had bothered her for years.  She said, “I used to sneak into the pantry and gobble down anything I could find, but after that night I didn’t feel the need anymore.”  She felt loved; accepted.

But later on in life she wasn’t always sure of God’s love, and I think it stemmed from those early experiences of insecurity.  So, she tried to be the very best person she could be.  She tried to be deserving of God’s love.  She would prop her Bible up on the kitchen windowsill while she was washing the dishes and turn the pages with wet, soapy fingers.  You could always spot her Bible in our house because those wrinkled pages made it twice as thick.  And she would pray without ceasing—well, she had to; she was the mother of six boys; there was always something to pray about.  She would visit with the poor people who came to our house looking for my dad, and she would help him deliver food boxes to them at Christmas.  She started a clothes closet where she charged ten cents per item and kept most of the county in decent clothes.  She was a good woman, a good person, as I said, one of the best I have ever known.  But she did have this tendency to look around and compare herself with others, and when she did she would often judge them unfavorably.

Why?  Because she wanted to be sure that her heavenly father would judge her favorably.  So, she would look around at what this neighbor or that one was doing and say, “Humph!  That doesn’t seem very Christian.”  She would put others down in order to lift herself up.  “I might not be perfect,” she would say, “but at least I’m not like so-and-so.”  I always cringed when she did that, partly because I was so often on the receiving end of her judgment, but also because it seems like the very thing Jesus condemns in this parable, which he told to some who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  Now I see that it may have come out of an old insecurity, that my mother may have wondered if her Heavenly Father loved her in the same way she used to wonder if her earthly father loved her, and she wanted to be sure she was accepted by being the very best person she knew how to be, and by looking around to make sure she was at least a little better than others.

If I read this parable with my mother in mind, and with some understanding of her old insecurities, I find that I can begin to have some sympathy for this Pharisee.  Maybe he just wasn’t sure that the Heavenly Father loved him.  Maybe he wanted to prove to him that he was worthy.  So he fasted twice a week.  He tithed.  And when he looked around he could see that he was better than a lot of people, better than thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector.

Let’s talk about him for a minute.

If he was anything like the rest of the tax collectors in Israel at that time then he was a superlative sinner: one who had sold his soul to the evil Roman Empire, and defrauded his righteous Jewish neighbors over and over again: he deserved the worst punishment he could get.  But this tax collector seems to know that.  He isn’t trying to justify himself, that is, he isn’t trying to “make himself right.”  He knows he is wrong, and that he has done wrong, and if he is ever going to get right someone else is going to have to do it for him.  Which is an important thing to understand.  One of our problems as Americans is that we are so independent.  We seem to think we should be able to do everything for ourselves.  And yet there are some things we can’t, and getting right with God is one of them.

In my house these days there is a place where we change our grandchildren’s diapers.  It’s a foam pad covered in soft cotton fabric that sits on top of the dryer.  It’s got a little safety belt on it so the children won’t roll off.  But that’s where Christy and I put them when they need to be changed and here’s the wonderful thing about them: they know they can’t do it for themselves.  They can’t change their own diapers, although I wouldn’t put it past Leo to try.  If he does, at two years old, I’m pretty sure he will make a mess of it.  But his three-month-old sister, Vivi, would never attempt it.  She doesn’t even seem to know when she needs a diaper change.  Christy and I do; we can tell right away.  And so we put her on that changing pad, strap her in, and go to work, and she just looks up at us and grins.

I don’t mean to be indelicate.  I apologize for talking about such things during a Sunday morning worship service.  But maybe you can see how it relates to the question of dealing with our sin.  We might be independent; we might think we can do everything for ourselves; but we can’t do that for ourselves.  We will mess it up every time.  This tax collector seems to know that.  He seems to understand that he needs some help.  So, he goes to the helping place.  He goes “up to the temple to pray.”  And when he gets there he goes to the darkest corner he can find.  He doesn’t want to be seen.  He doesn’t even look up to heaven, but instead stands there, beating his breast and saying, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Good for him. Because God is the one who can have mercy on sinners, and who does.  He not only does it, he loves to do it.  So you don’t have to put it off until the last possible moment, you don’t have to spend your life trying, and failing, to save yourself.  You can say, when you wake up in the morning, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  And you can say, when you go to bed at night, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  It’s no harder than a two-year-old knowing that he needs a diaper change and it may be the reason Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”[iii]  You’ve got to realize that you can’t do this on your own.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray,” Jesus says.  One of them was an insecure Pharisee who wasn’t sure that God loved him, so he did everything he could to earn God’s love, but there were still plenty of times when he wasn’t sure it was enough.  The other was a tax collector who knew exactly how sinful he was, who knew he didn’t have a chance of saving himself, that if it was ever going to happen God was going to have to do it.  “I tell you this man, rather than the other one, went home justified,” Jesus says.

This man went home changed.

It’s not much of a joke, not in our way of thinking, but it does upset our expectations.  Who gets saved?  The one who knows he’s a sinner.  The one who isn’t afraid to ask.  Who doesn’t?  The one who may be the best person you know.  The one who thinks of himself as righteous.  It’s not much of a joke, and it’s not much of a riddle, but it ends with something that sounds like the answer to a riddle: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says, “and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I think my mother figured that out in the end.  In the last years of her life she would often say, “I’m not good enough to get to heaven, not on my own; I’m just going to hang on to Jesus’ coattails.”  “Yes,” I thought.  “That’s it!  None of us is good enough to get to heaven, but Jesus is, and if we hang on to his coattails we will surely get there.”

When my mother died her hands were just like this (fists clenched).  I believe she was holding on tight to the Love that would not let her go.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] From a website called “Classic Riddles” (

[ii] From @loganlisle on TikTok. #dadjokes and #doktok.

[iii] Matthew 18:3.

What God Is Not

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:1-8

 Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’”

 Today’s Gospel lesson is the parable of the Persistent Widow from Luke 18:1-8.  It begins with a brief introduction by the evangelist who says, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart,” and sometimes we stop right there.  We may listen to the rest of the passage but we already know what it’s about: it’s about praying always and not losing heart.  So, when we’re praying for someone, and our prayers aren’t being answered, we just pray harder.  But if you look closely you will notice that Jesus doesn’t use the word pray at all.  Instead he uses the word justice, and he uses it four times.

I’m reluctant to bring it up because the word justice has fallen on hard times lately.  Some Christians hear it as “social justice” and confuse it with socialism.  But let me be clear: the word socialism is found nowhere in the Bible.  The word justice, on the other hand, is found 173 times.  I’m not talking about social justice; I’m talking about biblical justice, because the God of the Bible is a God of justice.

Here’s the way I think about it.

I think of injustice in those situations where you look at something and say, “That’s just not right.”  And there are plenty of those, aren’t there?  They may look different to different people but there are some things almost all of us can agree on.  One of the things the Bible agrees on is that when we mistreat widows and orphans we are doing a great injustice.  Widows and orphans are among the most vulnerable people in society, and when we make sure that they have what they need to live that’s justice.  So, Jesus tells a story about a widow who needed some justice.

The word in Greek is ekdikeo.  It has the same root as the word righteousness, but it begins with the prefix ek, which usually means “out of.”  This woman is trying to get some righteousness out of a bad situation.  She comes to the judge saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent!”  And the word for “opponent” is interesting, because it has that same root, the one we find in the word righteousness, but here it is preceded by the prefix anti, which you can probably figure out on your own.  This widow’s opponent is “anti-righteousness.”  He’s against it.  He has done something that just isn’t right and now she wants to see if this judge will help her get some “rightness” out of the situation.

What did her opponent do?  We don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  But it wouldn’t hurt to imagine something just to make this parable a little more concrete, and to make this widow a little more human.  So, let’s imagine that her husband (when she still had one) worked in a quarry (which would have been a dangerous place to work), but his boss had assured her that if her husband died on the job he would see to it that she was taken care of.  He would give her an accidental death allowance of one denarius a day, which would be enough to live on.  Well then, let’s suppose that something did happen to her husband, that a huge slab of granite fell on him while he was working in the quarry and he died.  And then let’s suppose that the owner of the quarry told the woman that it was her husband’s own fault, that he had been reckless and careless on the job, and that she wouldn’t be getting so much as a widow’s mite from him.  You and I might say:

“That’s just not right!”

And so the next day this woman (now a widow) got up and went to see the judge.  But here’s the problem: apparently there was only one judge in her town.  Everybody knew that he was a scoundrel but nobody could do anything about it.  If you wanted justice, that’s where you had to go: to the unjust judge.  So she went, and she made her case, but this judge didn’t have any regard for God or people—he only cared about himself—and this particular case didn’t interest him.  After the widow had poured out her heart he dismissed her with a wave of his hand.  “Next!” he said.

But she would not be so easily dismissed.  She came back the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.  She just kept coming and pleading for justice until the judge finally said, “Enough already!  Even though I have no regard for God or people I am going to give this widow some justice so that she won’t wear me out with her continual coming!”  And that’s when we usually say, “Yep, that’s how we’ve got to pray.  We’ve got to keep coming to God no matter what.  We’ve got to wear him down until he gives us what we need.”  As if God were an unjust judge!  But Jesus says, “No!  God is the opposite of that.  God is the most just judge there is.  He will quickly grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night, and yet when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?”

Luke tells us this is a parable about our need to pray always and not lose heart, but it wasn’t until I noticed how many times Jesus mentions the word justice that I wondered what it is we are supposed to pray for.  That question took me back to Luke 11, where one of Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  It might be another way of asking, “Lord, what are we supposed to pray for?” which is an excellent question, especially when you are keeping company with Jesus for whom physical healing—the thing we pray for the most—doesn’t seem to be a problem.  So Jesus said, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is shorter than the one we usually recite from the Gospel of Matthew, but it has a lot of the same features, including the request that God’s kingdom would come.  Suppose the disciples started praying for that, and suppose they did it every day, in the same way this widow appealed to the unjust judge.  “May your kingdom come,” they would say, and the next day they would say it again.  Because when God’s kingdom comes, and when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then all will be right with the world.  Did you hear that?  All will be right with the world, from the same root as the word righteousness or the word justice.  And can I say this?  I’m praying that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done, because God is the only one I trust with making things right in this world.

I think this is one of the reasons some Christians are so uncomfortable with the idea of social justice; it’s because the people who are talking about it have different ideas of what justice might look like than they do.  For example: I went to a clergy conference on racial reconciliation this weekend where I was shown the huge disparities between white people and black people living in Richmond when it comes to things like jobs, housing, health care, education, and transportation.  I didn’t have to look at those charts and graphs very long before I concluded, “That’s just not right!”  And the other people at my table agreed with me.  They had seen the same information.  But if I stood in the pulpit this morning and said, “We’ve got to do something about the inequity between black people and white people living in the city of Richmond!” you might not agree with me.  Those might not be your issues.  You might not care about affordable housing… until you can’t afford to pay the rent; and you might not care about education… until your son can’t pass his SOL’s; and you might not care about health care… until you can’t pay for your prescription medication.  But when you can’t, and you’ve done everything you know how to do, and nobody seems to want to help, that is, when you have experienced injustice then you might find yourself caring about justice, and you might find yourself praying that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

You have to remember that Jesus was talking mostly to poor people, living under foreign occupation in a remote corner of the oppressive Roman Empire.  They had experienced injustice first hand, and they had experienced it over and over again.  So, the first thing Jesus taught them to pray for was that God’s kingdom would come, because when it did, when God (rather than Caesar) had his way in the world, then every wrong thing would be made right.  “Pray for that,” Jesus said, “and keep on praying even if it seems like it’s a long time coming.  Because if an unjust judge can grant justice to a persistent widow, then surely a good and loving God can grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night.  He’s not going to delay!  He’s not going to drag his feet!  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  In other words, will he find anyone who still believes that God’s kingdom is on its way into the world?

I don’t know.

We talk about that here at First Baptist Church.  We talk about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and sometimes we use the Lord’s Prayer as a guide.  I say, “It’s the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, the kind of prayer a missionary might pray before going onto the mission field.  ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,’ it says.  ‘Thy kingdom come!  Thy will be done!’ but then (don’t miss this part) ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’  Or, as we pray it in staff meeting each week, ‘In Richmond as it is in heaven.’  And then we ask God to give us our daily bread, because we’re going to need our strength.  We ask him to forgive us our sins, because they would only drag us down.  We ask him to lead us not into temptation, because we can’t afford to be distracted.  And then, just in case we begin to have some success and think it’s because of our efforts, the prayer reminds us that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to God forever and ever.


Richmond’s First Baptist Church wants to be an answer to the Lord’s Prayer, and there are days when I feel as if we are getting close.  But there are other days when it feels as if God’s kingdom is a million miles away, and on those days I feel like that persistent widow, pleading my case in front of an unjust judge.  That’s when I need Jesus to remind me that God is not an unjust judge; God is the opposite of that.  If an unjust judge can grant justice to a persistent widow then how much more will God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night?  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

It’s a good question.

I came to that clergy conference on racial reconciliation Friday night.  It was being held right here in our fellowship hall.  I sat down at the assigned table and got acquainted with the other people who were there, but it wasn’t long before one of them asked, “How much longer are we going to have to do this?  How much longer are we going to have to talk about justice in the city of Richmond before something actually happens?”  She didn’t say it this way but I could tell she was on the verge of losing heart, the very thing Luke warns us about at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson.  She was tired.  She was discouraged.  She almost hadn’t come.

But then we had dinner (which was delicious) and afterward we had conversation around the tables that began to change the mood and maybe even her mind.  Because here we were: white people and black people talking to each other, laughing with each other, understanding each other, relating to each other.  Near the end someone at our table said, “If the whole city of Richmond could have the experience we’ve had around this table tonight things might actually change!”  And then the musicians got up and began to sing.  They sang a song about how hard it is to keep on hoping and praying when nothing ever seems to change, but then they segued into another song, an old, familiar song.  They began to sing “We shall overcome,” and we all got up and started singing along with them.

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome someday. 

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

That we shall overcome someday.

And then something happened: as we sang we began to believe what we were singing.  You could feel it.  And one of the musicians got so excited that he began to sing, “We shall overcome today!”  And everybody joined in, and we sang louder and louder until revival practically broke out right there in Flamming Hall.

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?  Will he find anyone still praying that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven?  Well, if he had come to that conference on Friday night, he would have.  And if he comes to First Baptist Church in the next thirty seconds he will, too, because, pray with me:

Our father who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done, on earth,

as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever, Amen.

Jim Somerville © 2022

One Came Back

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:11-19

 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him…

 On almost every Monday morning—after I’ve gotten up and brewed the coffee, said my prayers and read my Bible, gone for a five-mile run and made the oatmeal—I sit down at the kitchen table and open my laptop and while I’m having breakfast give some thought to the sermon for the following Sunday.  I used to do it on Monday afternoon, but then our worship planning team moved its weekly meeting from Tuesday to Monday and I had to start thinking about the sermon earlier, which is fine; earlier is almost always better.  Last Monday I had the good sense to read the Gospel lesson before I went for my run so I could think about it along the way and by the time I sat down to breakfast I had some thoughts.  This is what I wrote to the worship planning team: “I don’t think this week’s Gospel lesson is mostly about leprosy or Samaritans, even though each of those might find a place in the sermon. I think it is mostly about gratitude and our ability to express it.”

“Gratitude and our ability to express it.”  When I wrote those words I thought about how important thank-you notes were to my grandmother, who was raised in some form of polite society in the early part of the last century and who kept her 1922 First Edition copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette right next to her Bible.  Because thank-you notes were important to her they were important to my mother, who insisted that if we ever received a gift from our grandmother we should sit down and write a thank-you note immediately.  I think she wanted her mother to believe that even though my brothers and I were being raised in near-poverty in rural Appalachia, in a home with no running water and no indoor plumbing, we were still being raised right.  There was a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette in our home, too, where we found examples of thank-you notes like this one for a wedding present:

Dear Mrs. Worldly:

All my life I have wanted a piece of jade, but in my wanting I have never imagined one quite so beautiful as the one you have sent me. It was wonderfully sweet of you and I thank you more than I can tell you for the pleasure you have given me.


Mary Smith.

Or this one written by a man who had been convalescing at a friend’s house:

Dear Martha:

 I certainly hated taking that train this morning and realizing that the end had come to my peaceful days. You and John and the children, and your place, which is the essence of all that a “home” ought to be, have put me on my feet again. I thank you much—much more than I can say for the wonderful goodness of all of you.


But nowhere in that book were there any examples of how to thank the person who has just cured you of your leprosy.  To find that we have to turn to the pages of scripture, and to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke 17:11-19.

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, and apparently on the road that followed the course of the Jordan River as it made its way from the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea.  He was going through the region “between” Galilee and Samaria, which is a little hard to find on a map, but which may explain why at least one of the ten lepers he encountered was a Samaritan: one of those half-breed descendants of the Eighth-Century Israelites and their Assyrian conquerors.  There he was, standing outside his village along with the other nine (who were presumably Jews), and that’s just where he should have been.  According to Leviticus 13, “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean…his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46).

So, there they were, these ten, obeying the Law of Moses and keeping to themselves in a kind of leper colony outside their village.  They approached Jesus as he entered but were careful to practice social distancing.  And then they covered their upper lips (which may have been an early form of masking) and called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  What does Jesus do?  He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  Why?  Well, again, because of Leviticus, chapter 13.  That’s where you can find all the rules and regulations about leprosy (if you’re looking for them), and there it clearly states that when people have been cured of leprosy or when it has abated on its own they must show themselves to the priests in order to be pronounced “clean.”  “Go and do that,” Jesus says, as if there might be a good reason.

And so they do what he says (these ten are nothing if not obedient).  But along the way something happens.  Along the way they are made clean.  And that’s when one of them stops doing what he’s told.  If you pay attention to what he does you can tell that he has never read Emily Post’s Etiquette because he does not sit down to write a thank-you note, instead:

  1.  He saw that he was healed.  In a sermon on this same passage Barbara Brown Taylor says: “As these lepers went to do as they were told they were cleansed—the scabs disappeared, the color returned, the feeling came back into limbs that had been numb for years.”[ii]  I’m sure all ten of them noticed the difference, but one of them did something about it.  When he saw that he had been healed he,
  2.  Turned back.  Which is not what he had been ordered to do.  Jesus had told them to go and show themselves to the priests.  I’m assuming the other nine did exactly that.  But not this one.  This one’s sense of gratitude was overwhelming.  It turned him around and sent him back to Jesus.  And as he went he,
  3.  Praised God with a loud voice.  Can you picture him?  Marveling at his newly restored skin, saying, “Thank you, Lord!  Thank you!”  I don’t know what gratitude looks like to you but to me it looks like this—like this former leper praising God at the top of his lungs as he makes his way back to the place where it happened and to the person who healed him.  When he got there he
  4.  Prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet.  The Greek text says that he “fell on his face,” but you get the picture.  He didn’t saunter back, stick out his hand, and say, “Hey, thanks a million.”  He turned back, fell at Jesus’ feet, and lying there with his face in the dirt, he
  5.  Thanked him.  In Greek this is a present active participle.  It describes something that happens during the action of the main verb.  Which means that while the man lay prostrate at Jesus’ feet he was thanking him.  And you can almost see him, can’t you?  Sobbing and saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

And that’s when Luke tells us that he was a Samaritan, which may not be the most important detail in the story, but it is nonetheless remarkable enough to elicit a response from Jesus.  He says, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

It’s a haunting question, isn’t it?  It makes me wonder if I am one of the nine, going my own way and minding my own business rather than returning and giving praise to God.  In a book called Let Your Life Speak Parker Palmer writes about a condition that is far too common among Christians.  He calls it “functional atheism,” and explains: “This is the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.  This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.”[iii]  He goes on to say that it is a debilitating condition, one that can lead to burnout, depression, and despair.  But along with believing that it’s all up to us functional atheism can manifest itself in the belief that everything we have we got for ourselves.

Do you remember the story about Abraham going up on the mountain to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice?  It’s in Genesis 22, one of the darkest chapters in the Bible.  God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a sacrifice on one of the mountains I will show you.”  And Abraham doesn’t say a mumbling word.  He takes Isaac and goes to the mountain, a three-day journey away.  Together the two of them climb to the top and there Abraham builds an altar, binds Isaac, heaves him up onto it, and then lifts his knife to slay his son.  Only then does the Angel of the Lord say, “Stop!  Don’t do it!”  And when Abraham lifts his eyes he sees a ram caught by its horns in a thicket.  He offers the ram as a sacrifice instead of his son and on the way down the mountain he calls the name of that place Jehovah Jireh, meaning, “the Lord provides.”

I’ve often tried to make sense of that story, and one way I do it is by imagining that Abraham had fallen into a kind of functional atheism, that when he sat at the door of his tent and looked around at all that he had acquired in the land of Canaan he began to congratulate himself, thinking, “My flocks, my herds, my servants, my son…” so that God had to remind him who had given him that son.  Only as Abraham comes down from the mountain, only as he remembers that Isaac was then and always had been a gift from God, does Abraham think to call the name of that place, “The Lord provides.”

I think that’s what happened for the Samaritan leper.  On his way to see the priest he was healed, and as soon as he saw it he knew he hadn’t done it for himself.  He may have been a functional atheist up until that moment but in that moment he knew that it wasn’t all up to him and that he hadn’t gotten everything for himself.  This was a miracle!  This was the power of God working through the person of Jesus.  And so he stopped, turned around, and made his way back to where it had all begun, praising God with a loud voice.  He fell at Jesus’ feet with his face in the dust and if you had asked him he might have said that for him the name of that place would be from now on Jehovah Jireh: “The Lord provides.”  Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “[Nine of those lepers did exactly what they were told].  They behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”[iv]

And maybe that’s why Jesus says to him at the end of this passage, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”  In a previous sermon I pointed out that the word Jesus uses here is the Greek word sozo, which can mean “your faith has cleansed you, healed you, made you well, made you whole” but which can also mean (and literally does mean), “your faith has saved you.”  And I think that’s how this former leper might have described it.  He wasn’t only healed of his disease.  By returning to Jesus, by falling at his feet and praising God, by acting like a fool in love he was healed of his functional atheism.  He realized he couldn’t save himself.  He realized that only God could save him and miraculously God had.  “Get up and go your way,” Jesus said.  “Your faith has made you well.”

Before I close, can I tell you how hard it’s been to keep this sermon from turning into a lesson on tithing?  Because it would be so easy.  Ten lepers were healed; one came back to thank Jesus.  It could almost be a children’s sermon about the ten little dollars that went out into the world and the one that came back to church.  But a sermon like that would not do justice to a story like this, which is not about feeling a sense of obligation, but about being overwhelmed by gratitude.  It’s not about counting out your dollars at the kitchen table and putting one out of ten in an offering envelope; it’s about acting like a fool in love; it’s about praising God with a loud voice, and running back to Jesus, and falling at his feet.  This is not a story about tithing, but the next time you make out a check to the church you could think of it as a thank-you note, and you could write:

Dear God:

 For too long now I have behaved like a functional atheist, saying I believed in you but acting as if it were all up to me. It’s exhausting.  I’m ready to stop.  And even though I have thanked you for what I have I still probably believe that I wouldn’t have most of it without my own hard work.  I’m ready to give that up, too.  You are the one who provides.  You are the one who helps, and heals, and saves.  So, I’m writing this check like a thank-you note, and I’m thanking you for what you have done for me.  Ten percent wouldn’t begin to cover my gratitude.  If I could give you everything I’ve got I would.  But I’m giving what I can and I hope you will receive it in the spirit with which it is given: a spirit of overwhelming gratitude.

 Yours, now and forever,


 You won’t find that letter anywhere in Emily Post’s Etiquette.  My prayer for you is that you will find it in your heart.


—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] From the First Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, published in 1922 and available online in PDF format at Project Gutenberg (

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 109.

[iii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 88.

[iv] Taylor, Preaching Life, pp. 109 and 110.