The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-26; Matthew 1:18-25
Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit….
We are so accustomed to hearing the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, that when Matthew steps up to the microphone and says, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” we hardly know what to think. Especially when his Christmas story turns out to be so much different from the one we are accustomed to hearing. No Joseph and Mary making a long journey to Bethlehem; no baby lying in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn; no angels singing alleluias to a group of very surprised shepherds. “No,” says Matthew, “No matter what you may have heard elsewhere the birth of Jesus took place in this way.” And then he writes, “When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit….” And the question that leaped into my mind when I read that verse this time around was,
Who found her?
No, seriously. Taking that verse at face value it would appear that Mary wasn’t very forthcoming about her pregnancy, that she didn’t tell anyone she was expecting, that she had to be found out. So, who found her? Was it Joseph, when he went to see her after she got back from visiting Elizabeth? She’d been gone for months, helping her elderly cousin bring a new baby into the world. Did Joseph brush the sawdust from his shirt and head over to Mary’s house as soon as he heard she was home? Did he want to hear all about her trip and tell her what he had been up to while she was away? And did she at some point smooth her dress over the swell of her belly without thinking? Joseph would have seen it, and recognized it at once for what it was:
Mary was pregnant.
She would have seen the shock on his face. Her hands would have moved instinctively to cover the evidence. But then she might have said, “Um, Joseph, there’s something we need to talk about.” And after taking a deep breath and letting it out she would have told him all about her visit from the Angel Gabriel (which is not in Matthew’s Gospel but only in Luke’s); how he had told her that she was going to have a baby and how she had questioned him, asking, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (looking up to make sure Joseph had heard that part). But Gabriel said, “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 holy; he will be called the Son of God.”
Which was a lot for Joseph to take in.
Not only was Mary telling him that she was, in fact, expecting a baby, and not only was she telling him that it wasn’t his baby, she was telling him that it was God’s baby, and asking him to believe it. She could see the shock on his face slowly turning into something more like skepticism, or even suspicion. She added, “I didn’t believe it either, at first. But that’s when the angel told me that my cousin Elizabeth was expecting a baby, even though she was way past her childbearing years. He told me it was evidence that ‘with God, nothing will be impossible.’ And so I said yes to him, Joseph. I said, ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’ And then he was gone. But the very next morning (and you may remember this) I went to see Elizabeth to see if he was telling me the truth—and he was! Joseph, he was right about Elizabeth’s baby, and he’s right about mine.” She smoothed her dress over her belly once more and said, “No man did this to me, Joseph. This child is from the Holy Spirit. You’ve got to believe me.” But it was a lot to ask. Joseph didn’t know what to say. In the end he told Mary he’d have to think about it, and then he got up and headed down the road toward home without even saying goodbye.
That was the night it happened. That was the night he tossed and turned for hours, wondering what to do. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man, which means, I think, that he was not only a good man, but also a man who was “right” with God, and who kept himself right through strict obedience to the Torah: the Law of Moses. And the Torah was clear about this. Deuteronomy 22:21 says that if it can be determined that a young woman was not a virgin when she married, “then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” Whatever he could imagine about how Mary became pregnant, Joseph could not imagine that: he could not imagine accusing Mary in front of the village elders or being the one to throw the first stone.
But here’s the other thing he could not imagine: he could not imagine taking Mary as his wife and having everyone find out that she was already pregnant when he married her. In that time and place the thing everybody wanted most was honor, and the thing everybody wanted least was shame. To marry a woman who had been defiled, to allow her to have the baby and then to treat it as one’s own, would have heaped mountains of shame on her cuckolded husband. The Torah said you should “purge the evil from your midst” by stoning a woman who had prostituted herself. But if he married her, then everywhere Joseph went he would be known as the man who married a prostitute.
And so, somewhere around midnight he chose the middle path. He made up his mind not to accuse Mary, but to break things off quietly: to tell her parents that for reasons he’d rather not discuss he simply couldn’t go through with the wedding. Although he wanted to. He loved Mary. He’d been dreaming about their wedding for weeks. He’d been dreaming about the life that would follow, with a wife and children to fill up his empty house and turn it into a happy home. If he broke off the engagement none of that would happen. But if he didn’t, ah, the shame! “I have no other choice,” he thought. “I have to do it.” And then he promised himself, “I’ll do it first thing in the morning.” Only then was he able to roll over and go to sleep. But he hadn’t been asleep long when he had a dream, and in this dream an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
In a little book called A Coming Christ in Advent, biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown writes: “That Joseph should not divorce Mary was crucial in God’s plan, not primarily for the sake of Mary’s reputation, but for Jesus’ identity. The child must be the son of Joseph, who was a son of David, thus fulfilling God’s promise to David, ‘I will raise up your son after you…I will make his royal throne firm forever’ (2 Sam. 7:12-13). The angel points to this essential element by addressing Joseph as ‘Son of David’ [the only person in the entire New Testament other than Jesus to be addressed in this way]. Yet the most frequent question asked by modern readers is: ‘How can Jesus be Joseph’s son if Joseph did not beget him?’”[i]
And Raymond Brown has a good answer. In Judaism, he writes, “The royal lineage of the Messiah had to be traced through a series of fathers to David. Matthew gives the answer to the modern question when Joseph is told, ‘She is to bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.’ Judaism wrestled with the fact that it is easy to tell who is a child’s mother, but difficult to tell who is a child’s father. To establish paternity, it is not sufficient to ask the wife because she might lie about the father in order to avoid being accused of adultery. Rather the husband should give testimony since most men are reluctant to acknowledge a child unless it is their own. A commentary written some 200 years after Jesus’ birth is lucidly clear: ‘If a man says, “This is my son,” he has to be believed.’[ii] Joseph gives such an acknowledgment by naming the child; thus he becomes the legal father of Jesus (which is probably a more accurate description than ‘adoptive father’ or ‘foster father’). The identity of Jesus as Son of David is in God’s plan, but Joseph must give to that plan a cooperative obedience that befits a righteous man.”[iii]
So, God needed Mary to give birth to his son, but he needed Joseph to name him, so that this child could be both Son of God and Son of David, and therefore eligible to claim the title of Messiah. He was the Messiah, but that’s not all he was. The name that Joseph was instructed to give the child was Jesus, because, as the angel said, “He will save his people from their sins.” The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in New Testament times, explained that the name Jesus can be interpreted ‘salvation of the Lord—a name for the best possible state.’ But Matthew’s explanation of this idea goes beyond this basic idea of salvation. ‘You shall call his name Jesus [the angel says], for he will save his people from their sins.’” And if you were Joseph you might hear in that announcement an echo of the story of Moses. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, once wrote about a dream Moses’ father had, in which God told him that the child about to be born would ultimately “deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt.” In Matthew’s understanding this child, Jesus, would not only save his own people but all people, and not from their slavery in Egypt, but from [their slavery to] sin.[iv]
Now, that’s a lot to take in, and if you are still listening, good for you. I’ve been talking about first-century philosophers and ancient Jewish paternity protocols. But if it’s been hard for you think how it must have been for Joseph, who in the space of a single dream learned: 1) that Mary’s pregnancy was, in fact, from the Holy Spirit; 2) that he, Joseph, was supposed to claim this child as his own by giving him a name; and 3) that the name he was supposed to give him was Jesus, meaning “He shall save his people (and potentially all people) from their sins.” And then Matthew rises even above that. Turning to the audience he says: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son (which is what it says in the King James Version of Isaiah 7:14), and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” It’s a lot to take in. Joseph was being asked to believe that this sweet, young woman he had proposed to had become the vessel of God’s salvation, and that even now, in her womb, a child was growing who would be the very incarnation of the Divine: one who would be “God-with-us.”
Can you imagine how he woke up the next morning, and how long it must have taken him to clear his head, splash some water on his face, and get dressed? Can you imagine how he must have sat at the breakfast table struggling with the choice that lay before him? He was weary from a sleepless night, but he couldn’t help wondering: “Do I say yes to all this, even though no one will ever believe my story? Or do I say no, and go back to my old…empty life?” And that’s what did it; the thought of all that emptiness. The hollow echo of a life without love in it, without Mary in it.
When he finished his breakfast he pushed his chair back from the table, stood up, and marched himself down to Mary’s house. He called her out to the front yard and said to her (while she was still standing there in her bathrobe), “Look, I’m in. I’m in this thing for better or worse. Even if they call me every name in the book. Even if they call you a… a name no woman should ever be called. I’m in. I will be your husband, and I will be this child’s father. You can count on me.” Matthew doesn’t say so, but there must have been great rejoicing in Mary’s heart that day, and great rejoicing in heaven. Just as in the Gospel of Luke there must have been angels somewhere singing alleluias, and “Glory to God in the highest.” Because a crucial piece of God’s plan to save the world was now firmly in place.
Joseph had said yes.
I don’t think I realized until I began work on this sermon just how much God’s “salvation project” depended on others. It depended on Mary, of course. But it also depended on Joseph. And finally, it depends on you. If God is going to save the world he is going to have to do it one human heart at a time, which means that, like Joseph, we will have to find it in ourselves to say yes to God’s preposterous plan for salvation. We may have to toss and turn through a few sleepless nights, but in the end we will have to open the doors of our hearts,
And let Jesus in.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Raymond E. Brown, A Coming Christ in Advent (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988), p. 33.
[ii] The Mishna Baba Bathra (8:6)
[iii] Brown, A Coming Christ, pp. 33-34.
[iv] This information is gathered from Brown, A Coming Christ, pp. 34-35.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
December 1, 2022: Dear Diary: I saw the strangest thing today. Christy and I went for a walk in the neighborhood, and at one point we stopped to admire someone’s front yard. I said, “Wait a minute: isn’t that an Azalea bush?” She said it was. I said, “But it’s December. Why is it in full bloom?”
December 7, 2022: Dear Diary: I was walking home after my Wednesday morning workout with one of the other people in my group when I noticed the trees that had been planted behind the Museum of History and Culture back in the spring. I said, “Hey, aren’t those cherry trees?” She said they were. “Then why are they blossoming?” I asked. “It’s December.” We went a little closer to see if they were artificial trees, but no, when I plucked at one of the blossoms it came away between my fingers: small, and pink, and fragile.
December 8, 2022: Dear Diary: Today was my day off. I went for another walk with Christy, and at the corner of Grove and Tilden I saw a small tree that was covered with fat, green buds. “Are these buds?” I asked. “Like buds that are about to open?” She said they were. It was strange. It made me wonder: “What’s going on? Why is everything budding, blooming, and blossoming in December?”
Those are not the only strange things I’ve seen lately. Back in November I found an article called, “20 climate photographs that changed the world.”[i]
- The first was from July 2018: It was a picture of a 300-foot tall iceberg looming over a small, fishing village in Greenland. Villagers were evacuated, knowing that if the iceberg “calved,” that is, if a huge chunk of it split off and splashed into the water, the resulting tsunami would wipe out their village. Eventually it drifted away from shore but the article warned that as glaciers melt we can expect to see more and more of this.
- Another was from January, 2013, when wildfires were raging in Australia. This one showed a woman and her five grandchildren up to their necks in water, clinging to a wooden dock as smoke filled the air and the fire behind them destroyed their home. The photo was taken by her husband, who told reporters later: “The atmosphere was so incredibly toxic. We were all just heads, water up to our necks, just trying to breathe.”
- Another was from August, 2022, just a few months ago, and it showed a Pakistani man pushing his children through neck-deep flood waters on a satellite dish. The catastrophic floods submerged a third of the country, affecting 33 million people, and killing at least 1,700. Waterborne diseases and malnutrition are among the main continuing health threats.
- There was an aerial photograph from December, 2021, taken in Kenya, that showed the emaciated carcasses of six giraffes who had died after getting stuck in the mud when trying to drink from a reservoir that had almost dried up. In this photograph they look as if they had been dropped from a helicopter, their long necks arched backward, their legs akimbo.
- And at last November’s international summit on global warming the foreign minister of Tuvalu, an island nation in the South Pacific, broadcast his address to the group from a podium, the flag of his country behind him, while standing knee-deep in the ocean. “This is not a joke,”[ii] he said. “We are sinking.”
There were fifteen other photographs in this series, and if you want to see them you can Google: “20 climate photographs that changed the world.” I don’t know what effect they will have on you, but when I saw them I kept wondering,
“What’s going on here?”
The scientists would say that it’s us: that in the past 200 years we humans have burned enough fossil fuels, and piled up enough garbage, and cut down enough forests to upset the delicate balance of nature and throw the entire planet into a tailspin. But what would they say if the desert should suddenly start to blossom, or if waters should break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert? What would they say if the burning sand became a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water? Well, I don’t know what they would say, but the Prophet Isaiah would say that’s not us—that’s God!
In today’s Old Testament lesson he speaks to God’s people in exile, in Babylon, 500 miles west of Jerusalem across the burning sands of the Arabian Desert. If they wondered why there were there he would have told them: It’s you! You didn’t keep God’s covenant. You didn’t walk in his ways. And now you are getting what you deserve: a really, really, long time out. But God hasn’t stopped loving you. He hasn’t given up on you. And if you don’t give up on him then one of these days when you least expect it the desert will burst into bloom; the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy, because God is going to take his people home. He’s going to pave a highway through the wilderness, with rest areas every 500 yards. He’s going to do away with every natural danger and when he does, “the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Yes, when you can’t see the sunrise from your kitchen window because an enormous iceberg is blocking your view, you know that something is wrong, but when the desert bursts into bloom you know that something is right—that God is up to something, that the world is about to change.
And that’s the message of our Gospel lesson for this morning. John the Baptist is locked up in prison and he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Apparently John was disappointed in Jesus. Jesus hadn’t done any of the “Messiah” stuff John had promised. He hadn’t laid his ax at the root of the trees and cut down every tree that didn’t bear good fruit. He hadn’t separated the wheat from the chaff, gathered the wheat into his granary, and burned the chaff with unquenchable fire. He hadn’t run the Romans out of Israel, or taken his place on the throne of his ancestor David, or ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity. So, John wanted to know: “Are you the one who is to come? Or should we look for another?”
And Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. This is the real ‘Messiah’ stuff. And if you have eyes to see it you can see that God is up to something, and the world is about to change.” John may not have been able to see it; he was locked up in prison. But don’t you think those people whose lives Jesus touched had something to say? “Dear Diary,” they might have written, “Today I met the Messiah. He opened my blind eyes, he straightened my crippled limbs, he cleansed me of my leprosy, he opened my stopped up ears, he raised me from the dead, he brought me good news, he made a believer out of me, made me believe that God is up to something, and that the world is about to change! And blessed is the one who takes no offense at him.”
A few years ago I was invited to speak at the Senior Adult Christmas Luncheon, and I told stories about some of the winter adventures I had when I was a boy: about spending the night in a homemade igloo; about going over a ski jump on a pair of strapped-on, secondhand skis; about floating down the river on an ice raft until it broke apart and dumped me and my brothers into frigid, waist-deep water. “But after those kinds of adventures,” I said, “I loved to come inside where it was warm and cozy, make a mug of hot cocoa and curl up on the couch with a good book.” My favorites in those days were the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, and in one of those books a character named Tumnus tells a girl named Lucy about the White Witch, the one who has cursed the land of Narnia, so that it is always winter there and never Christmas.
Even as a boy who loved winter, I could tell what a curse that would be. Lewis was writing as a Christian, of course, and looking for ways to weave the Christian message through this story of four English children who end up in a magical, snow-covered world where animals talk, and where they often talk about Aslan, the Great Lion, who will one day come to break the witch’s spell and undo her evil curse. One of the reasons those books have been popular not only with children but also adults, is because many people live in a world where it can sometimes feel as if it is always winter and never Christmas.
Dr. Steven Garber of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture remembers reading the Narnia books as a boy. He says the words, “Always winter but never Christmas,” captured his imagination, that even then he understood them, though now he understands them much more fully. “At that first reading,” he writes, “they made sense of my life and world, young as I was. Now I have lived with them, and within them, for most of life, and I feel their weight deeply. Like every other son of Adam and daughter of Eve, I feel the winter of this weary world. This week the death of a long friend, and the death of a long marriage; this year the deaths of other friends at moments that seem ‘too soon.’ For every one of us, with our families, our friends, our neighbors, our cities, in every relationship in every way we are burdened by what is tragically not the way it is supposed to be. And beyond what we see with our own eyes, the day by day onslaught of the news of the world is more often than not a window into a heartache and horror that seem impossible to explain.”[iii] And yet, as Garber would say, we are believers. We believe that things are not always the way they appear, and that even when it looks as if the White Witch is winning, Aslan is on the move.
Listen to this excerpt from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis:
What the children saw [once they had rubbed the sleep from their eyes] was a sledge, and reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the minute they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as holly berries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world—the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn. “I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.” Then he gave gifts to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and special gifts to each of the children, and just before he left he brought out (I suppose from the big bag at his back, but nobody quite saw him do it) a large tray containing five cups and saucers, a bowl of lump sugar, a jug of cream, and a great big teapot all sizzling and piping hot. Then he cried out, “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” and cracked his whip, and he and the reindeer and the sledge and all were out of sight before anyone realized they had started.”[iv]
When I was a boy I loved winter, but I don’t think I would have loved it without Christmas. There’s got to be something more than long nights and cold weather in this world. There’s got to be something to look forward to, something to believe in. Steven Garber says that it sometimes feels as if we are living in a world where it is always winter and never Christmas. “But then,” he says, “I know that I have staked my life on something more: that this wounded world, this…broken world, is not the last word. Simply put, I believe in Christmas, and what it is we celebrate when we celebrate its true meaning—God is with us! Cursed as we are, cursed as this life so often seems, it will not always be winter…. Christmas has come, and is coming…” he concludes, “and I am longing for its blessings to flow far as the curse is found.”[v]
Me, too, Steven Garber. Me, too. And when I see Azalea bushes in full bloom in December, and cherry trees covered in fragile pink blossoms, and the little tree on the corner heavy with fat, green buds, I begin to believe that Aslan is on the move, or Christ is coming, or God is up to something we haven’t even imagined yet.
And my heart leaps with joy.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Gabrielle Schwartz, “‘It was like an apocalyptic movie’: 20 climate photographs that changed the world” (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/05/20-climate-photographs-that-changed-the-world)
[ii] I have summarized his remarks.
[iii] Steven Garber, “Always Winter, Never Christmas” (https://washingtoninst.org/always-winter-never-christmas/)
[iv] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (HarperCollins, 1950), pp. 106-109.
[v] Garber, “Always Winter”
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Please don’t hate me for this, but I live in the same town as my grandchildren. Not only that, but I work four blocks from home, where my wife watches them on weekdays, and where I am often able to slip away for lunch and a quick visit. But I think it’s a good thing for me as a preacher to have some children in my life. They help me see the world through their eyes: to appreciate all over again how wonderful it is, how full of beauty, and to remember what is most important.
Last Wednesday I went home and found that Leo (who is two-and-a-half years old today!) had conked out on his way home from preschool. He was asleep on his nap mat in the living room. I ate lunch quietly in the kitchen with Christy and Vivi, but when it was time to go back to work Christy mentioned that it was also time for Leo to wake up from his nap. So, I went to the living room, and sat on the floor beside him, and began to rub his back and tell him a story, and the one I told him was the story of the first Christmas. I talked about Joseph and Mary making the long journey from Nazareth, and about how, when they got to Bethlehem, they couldn’t find any room in the inn. I talked about how they ended up in that stable with donkeys, cows, sheep, and chickens (making all the animal noises in an effort to rouse Leo from a very deep sleep). I talked about how worried Joseph was and how hard Mary worked and how, eventually, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. While I was telling that part of the story I was looking on Leo’s face, and thinking what a beautiful boy he is, and wondering how long people have been doing this: telling stories to their children.
As I read through the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah last week I could imagine the people of ancient Israel telling that story to their children, partly because it has so many animals in it: wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, lions and bears, and a little child who leads them all (notice I didn’t say anything about snakes). But before all that it has a king, and not just any king. Isaiah predicted: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” and anyone who knew anything about Israel’s history would know that he was talking about Jesse, the father of King David, the greatest king who had ever lived in Israel. He was saying that another king would spring up from the stump of Jesse’s family tree.
Isaiah wrote: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord (fear in this case meaning profound respect). His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with [God’s kind of ] righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth (meaning the people of Israel); he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,” Isaiah continued, “and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (meaning their enemies).[i]
Isaiah tells the story of a perfect king, one who is descended from the family of King David, one who will be full of the wisdom and power of God, one who will decide with equity for the meek of the earth, and one who will smite the wicked with the breath of his lips. “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,” Isaiah promises, “and faithfulness the belt around his loins!”[ii] And for centuries afterward, when parents were putting their children to bed at night, or trying to wake them from their midday naps, they would tell the story of that king. “One day he’s coming,” they would say, “and when he does the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. In those days “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” says the Lord; “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
It’s the story of a perfect king and a peaceable kingdom. It’s the kind of story parents would tell their children whenever things got bad and through the centuries they had been given plenty of reasons to tell that story. The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. The Babylonians conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 587. The Greeks took over what was left of Israel in 333 and the Romans did the same in 63. In between Syria to the North and Egypt to the South fought over the tiny nation of Israel like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat. But even when the sounds of battle could be heard in the streets, or maybe especially then, grandfathers would rub their grandsons’ backs and tell them the story of the king who would someday come, and how, when he did, the wolf would live with the lamb, the leopard would lie down with the kid, and a little child would lead them.
But before that day—before God rendered his terrible judgment on all of Israel’s enemies, before he placed his Chosen One on the throne of his ancestor David—God would send the prophet Elijah to call his people to repentance, “to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.” It said so in the very last sentence of the very last book of the Old Testament.[iii] And so, when John the Baptist stepped onto the stage of history looking very much like the Prophet Elijah—making his home in the wilderness, wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a wide leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey—the people of Israel got very excited. All those grandchildren who had been told the story in their youth must have thought, “This is it! This is what Grandpa was talking about! This is the beginning of the great and terrible day of the Lord!” And so when John began to suggest that people needed to repent and get baptized they came, they repented, they were baptized in the Jordan River. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees came.
But when John saw them he said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (See? There are snakes in both of these stories). Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (And see? There are also stumps in both of these stories). What John is saying is what I’ve heard some of the old preachers say: that God doesn’t have any grandchildren. You don’t get to heaven because your parents were good Christians and you don’t get a seat in God’s banquet hall because you’re a descendant of Abraham. Every tree bears its own fruit, and the kind of fruit John is looking for is the fruit of a changed life.
He says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” That, too, sounds like something I’ve heard the old preachers talk about—“unquenchable fire”—but as I looked at this passage again it occurred to me that fire could be a very positive thing, and maybe just what we need.
Some of you have been reading through the Bible with me this year. I don’t know where you are in your daily reading, but last week I was making my way through Paul’s letter to the Romans, and I came to chapter 7, where Paul laments the state of his soul. He writes: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”[iv] Eugene Peterson paraphrases it like this: “The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?”[v] The real answer, as Paul writes in the very next verse, is Jesus Christ. And in his own way that may be what John the Baptist is saying.
“Look,” he says, “I baptize with water,” which means, “I can get you cleaned up on the outside. I can get you looking pretty good externally. But I can’t do anything for you internally. Jesus is going to have to do that. He’s the One who’s coming after me. He’s the One who is far more powerful than I am. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. I baptize with water for repentance, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And fire is what it will take.
I know you don’t hear me talk a lot about sin. I’m not one of those preachers who dwells on that. I talk a whole lot more about working with Jesus to bring in the Kingdom of God. But sin can get in the way of that, and sin can trip you up. When I talk about the Lord’s Prayer I say that Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. That’s what he really wanted. But he also taught them to pray that God would forgive their sins, because sin can be a stumbling block: it can keep you from fulfilling the mission. I think about Paul, wrapped up in a wet wool blanket by the side of the road somewhere on one of his mission trips, unable to sleep and thinking about the sin in his own life. There couldn’t have been much, could there? He spent all his time working for the Lord! And yet in a moment like that he may have thought, “Wretched man that I am; who will deliver me from this body of death?” And that’s when it hit him: Jesus. The one John was preaching about. The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. “That’s what I need,” Paul may have thought. “And especially on a night like this one, when I’m cold and miserable and unable to sleep because of worrying about my sin. I need some refiner’s fire.”
You may remember that Paul was a saint. He was precious to God, just as you are. But even precious metal needs to be refined. Gold, for instance, is heated in a crucible to as much as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the experts, “When the gold reaches this temperature it melts. The metals in the alloy separate and the gold sinks to the bottom of the crucible. The other metals and impurities are left behind.”[vi] When John says that the One who comes will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire he doesn’t say how hot the fire will be. Maybe it depends on how many impurities there are and how much dross needs to be burned away. Maybe it’s different for each person. But the good news is the same: when the refiner’s work is done, “the…impurities are left behind.”
I don’t know how you feel about that but I would love it. I would love it if every impurity in my life, anything that might offend God, could be purged. And I think I would be willing to go through it even if the process itself were painful, which is what being baptized with fire sounds like. John says that the One who is to come will have the power to do that, and not only that, but also to baptize with the Holy Spirit. I picture it like this: I picture Jesus baptizing me with refiner’s fire, purging away every impurity from my life, but then baptizing me with Holy Spirit, filling up all those places where the sin used to be. Can you imagine that? If your life could be flushed of every impurity and then filled with the Holy Spirit? Can you imagine how different things might be? In your own life at least that internal conflict could come to an end; that “war” Paul talks about, between what he knows is right and what he actually does, would be over. The wolf would live with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid, and a little child would lead them. This little child; the one whose birth we will celebrate three weeks from today. The perfect king of a peaceable kingdom. The one who has the power to make us perfect.
Thanks be to God.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Isaiah 11:2-4 (all Scripture references are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted).
[ii] Isaiah 11:5
[iii] Malachi 4:5-6
[iv] Romans 7:21-23,
[v] Romans 7:21-24, The Message
[vi] “How Gold is Refined,” a step-by-step guide from Pease and Curren (https://peaseandcurren.com/how-gold-is-refined-a-step-by-step-guide/).
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
In the past few months, I have come to appreciate the biblical insights of a woman named Debie Thomas, who was born in India but grew up in Boston, the daughter of an evangelical pastor. Now she works at an Episcopal church in California and writes for the Christian Century. In her comments on today’s Gospel lesson, she explains: “I didn’t grow up observing Advent. My childhood church didn’t follow the liturgical calendar, so the holiday lineup I remember went straight from Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkin pies to Christmas trees and ‘Jingle Bells’—one consumer feeding frenzy pressing hard into the next (that may sound a lot like your childhood). But,” she writes, “as I’ve moved deeper into the liturgical tradition, I have come to love the holy season we are now entering. I love that the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker. I love that the season rejects shallow sentimentality and false cheer. And I love that the Gospel gets us started with images that startle me out of my complacency—not swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs, but Jesus as relentless pursuer of my soul. Jesus as thief.”[i]
You may not love that the Gospel gets us started on this season with such startling images, but there they are. The word advent means “coming,” and the one whose coming we anticipate is not Santa Claus, with a sack full of toys, but Jesus, with who knows what? Justice? Mercy? What will the world look like when God’s will is done and God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven? We don’t know, exactly, and it makes us a little anxious. We’d probably rather talk about Santa than Jesus during this season because with Santa at least we know what to expect. Jesus has always been a little too unpredictable for our tastes. In today’s Gospel lesson he talks about the coming of the Son of Man and says that it, too, will be unpredictable. It will happen when we least expect it. He urges us to stay awake, therefore, and be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour— “like a thief in the night.”
This Advent sermon series is called “What’s the Word?” and it was dreamed up by my friend Dorisanne Cooper, pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. She’s one of the preachers in my Preacher Camp group, and in the notes she shared with us last summer she wrote:
The question, “What’s the word?” is something we ask when we want to know what’s going on, when we want to get a picture of things. (Or when we can’t quite think of what we want to say). Advent is a season with lots of familiar words (stable, swaddling clothes, shepherds), but as we more deeply engage the Advent texts themselves, other words arise that both reflect and shape our days and call us to deeper living. In many of the weeks’ texts, the Gospel reading tends to be more of a reflection of our days while the Hebrew Bible reading (all from Isaiah) points us toward the possibility of what might be.
So, is the Gospel reading for this Sunday, with all its frightening images, a “reflection of our days”? Maybe so. Dorisanne writes:
Ah, the tradition starting Advent with the apocalyptic texts! It’s actually one I lean into, usually borrowing from Fleming Rutledge’s phrase, “Advent begins in the dark.” [As a preacher] I don’t mind on this Sunday giving space to naming how hard life really is, and how bad things are or feel, to allow for people to be honest about where they are in response to the way the world of television commercials and glossy magazine ads tends to paint a picture of a perfect season with diamonds and new cars and everyone getting along. I find this Sunday gives extra permission to name how things aren’t like that for most all of us, but the truth of Advent is that that’s exactly what God comes into. The Matthew text allows us to name the feeling of the uncertainty of our days while diving deeper into the “word” that Isaiah saw and the hope of the ways and paths of God.
Dorisanne chose the title “Hopes and Fears” for this Sunday, two words suggested by the readings themselves. The reading from Matthew is unusually fearful, while the Isaiah reading is abundantly hopeful. Both words have something to do with Advent and as I thought about them last week I thought about how both words look forward, toward something that hasn’t happened yet.
In a sermon I preached a few weeks ago I talked about children, and how one of the things I love about them is the way they live in the moment. Over Thanksgiving I asked the family, “When does that change? When will Leo, for instance (my two-year-old grandson), start looking forward to Christmas?” We agreed that he is already getting excited about Christmas lights and the prospect of presents, but he isn’t yet able to say, “Remember what we did for Christmas last year, Opa?” or, “Do you think it will snow on Christmas this year?” For the most part, he is still living very much in the moment, and if the moment has Christmas lights in it, so much the better.
I’ve heard that anxiety occurs when our bodies try to respond to something that hasn’t happened yet.[ii] We perceive a threat—real or imagined—and some internal alarm goes off. Our hearts start beating faster, adrenaline is pumped into our system, we get ready to fight or flee, while actually there may not be anything to fear. Amy Frykholm, a journalist who focuses on religion in America, seems to have that phenomenon in mind when she writes:
Lately I’ve been trying out a new discipline: reading the news without engaging in speculation about the future. I’ve been curious about how much of my daily news intake is not about what has happened, but various predictions about what might happen. As far as my new awareness indicates, my own news-reading routines are full of predictions: weather predictions, election predictions, economic predictions. Who will say or do what. What it will mean.
I’m aware of how attractive these predictions are to me. I almost always heedlessly give a part of my morning to participating in this collective project of predicting the future, for good or for ill, right or wrong. It is almost as though I am trying to replace faith with a false mastery of the future. Given the number of these articles in the various news media that purport to know the future, I am guessing I am not alone.[iii]
“Trying to replace faith with a false mastery of the future,” she writes.
Maybe that’s why Jesus told his disciples not to try too hard to figure out when the Son of Man would come. “But about that day and hour no one knows,” he said, “neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So don’t waste your time making a list of the “88 reasons Christ will return in 1988” (like the one I remember seeing back in 1987, replaced the next year by a list called “89 reasons Christ will return in 1989”), and don’t waste your time putting up billboards announcing that Christ will return on May 21, 2011, as some people did, or that the world will be destroyed six months later, on October 21, 2011 because that didn’t happen either. Amy Frykholm writes:
We tell ourselves these stories about the future because they allow us to imagine that we can prepare, that we know what’s coming, that if we only analyze the future rightly, we can create viable safety plans. The bigger the predicted catastrophe, the greater we imagine that just by knowing it is coming, we can avoid its most adverse effects. In other words, we use predictions about the future to try to escape the basic vulnerability of being human.[iv]
“Don’t even try” says Jesus, “for as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” And this may be a good time to admit that some of the warnings in today’s Gospel lesson are really scary.
Jesus talks about the days of Noah and then reminds his disciples that “in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away. So, too, will be the coming of the Son of Man,” he warns. “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
When I was just starting out in ministry I talked about the return of Christ as a good thing, a happy thing, like when you were a child and your father had been away on a trip and then he came home a day earlier than you expected and you jumped up and down and said, “Daddy’s home!” So shall the coming of the Son of Man be, I preached. But when I look at this passage closely I hear Jesus warning of devastating floods, and sudden disappearances, and thieves breaking down our doors. It’s not very comforting. It could make you anxious. It could make you fearful. It could make you turn to the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, from Isaiah chapter 2, which looks forward not with anxiety, but with expectation.
This is “the word that Isaiah saw,” a vision of the future that could make your heart beat faster with hope. Listen: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
This passage comes from the Eighth Century, BC, a time when the nation of Israel was surrounded by enemies, when the threat of war was an ever-present prospect that must have made everybody anxious. Into that grim reality Isaiah speaks this word of hope, a vision of a future in which everyone will want to know the Lord, that he may teach them his ways, that they may walk in his paths. When that happens then “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Can you imagine? Can you envision the people of our time, the people of this world, hungering and thirsting for the word of the Lord, hearing it and obeying it until they saw the foolishness of their ways and gave up their lust for power, until Russia, for example, turned its tanks into tractors and its helicopters into hay balers? If you could hold onto that kind of vision you might be able to look toward the future with hope. You might even begin to feel a sense of expectation, wondering,
“Could it come today?”
Which is what I think Jesus wants us to feel when we consider the coming of the Son of Man. I don’t think he wants us to feel anxious; I think he wants us to feel expectant. If I were advising him I might say, “Jesus, do you think you could cut out some of this language about floods and sudden disappearances and thieves? That kind of talk just scares people.” And he would say, “I didn’t mean to scare anyone. What I meant is that you can’t predict these things. You can’t wait until you know they’re coming and then get ready for them. You have to be ready for these kinds of things at all times. So it is with the coming of the Son of Man.” And if you read all of Matthew 24 and not just today’s passage, you will find that Jesus is talking about something really hopeful. “When the world around you is falling apart,” he says; “when you think things couldn’t get any worse; that’s when you need to lift up your heads, because that’s when the Son of Man will appear, and that’s when he will send out his angels and gather his beloved from every corner of the earth.”[v] Whatever else that might mean, I think it means that if you belong to Jesus, you have nothing to fear. And that’s good, because looking toward the future with fear leads to anxiety in the present, while looking toward the future with hope leads to expectancy.
And that’s what we love about Christmas, isn’t it? We expect something wonderful. We don’t know what it will be, exactly, but we believe it will be good. If it wasn’t they wouldn’t call it Christmas.
I think about my own Christmases as a boy. I’ve told you about them before. We were poor. I couldn’t have looked forward to them because I was going to get so many presents or so many sweets. And yet I looked forward to Christmas with an excitement I have rarely felt about anything since. On the night before I couldn’t sleep. I would lie awake in my little twin bed waiting until six o’clock, because my parents had told me I couldn’t wake them up before then. And finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I would pull my mattress off the bed and drag it down the hall to the top of the stairs, where I could lie on my stomach and see the clock on the wall and hear it tick-tick-tick ever so slowly toward the appointed hour.
I was well past that age when I was living in the moment. I was living with the memory of Christmas past and the hope of Christmas future. I was quivering with expectation, just waiting for that minute hand to reach the top of the dial so I could leap out of bed, run down the stairs, throw open my parents’ bedroom door, and shout “Merry Christmas!”
The coming of Christ is going to be kind of like that, Jesus says, and if you’re not ready it could scare the (what’s the word?) bejeebers out of you.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Debie Thomas, “Like a Thief,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2466-like-a-thief).
[ii] Andrew D. Lester, Coping with Your Anger: a Christian Guide (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983)
[iii] Amy Frykholm, “Our Hidden Future,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/).
[v] Matthew 24:30-31.
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 BibleProject.com 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
[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.
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
All Saints’ Sunday
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 I 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
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 (https://www.gotquestions.org/Sadducees.html).
[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).
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
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:
- Short in stature
- A chief tax collector
- A sinner
- A Son of Abraham
- 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
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
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” (https://www.riddles.com/classic-riddles).
[ii] From @loganlisle on TikTok. #dadjokes and #doktok.
[iii] Matthew 18:3.