Showing posts with label Luke. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Luke. Show all posts

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: Sections C & C' (part 5)


As noted in the beginning of this mini-series about the Sermon on the Mount, the whole sermon is laid out for us in the form of a chiasm:

A. Jesus ascends mountain surrounded by crowds (4:23-5:2)
   B. Blessings (5:3-10)
      C. Fulfill “the law and prophets”/ glorify “your Father in Heaven” (5:11-20)
         D. Two triads about Torah (5:21-48)
            E. One triad about spiritual discipline (6:1-18)
         D'. Two triads about Godly priorities (6:19-7:6)
      C'. “This is the law and prophets”/”your Father in Heaven” provides (7:7-12)
   B'. Warnings (7:13-27)
A'. Jesus descends mountain surrounded by crowds (7:28-8:1)


In the last post we completed section "C".  Now we are going to tie it into section C', which says:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.


At first glance the meaning of section C' (7:7-12) might not seem to correspond to section C (5:11-20) simply because of its difference in size. After all, one section is twenty verses long, whereas I'm claiming that it's corresponding section, section C', which contains only six verses, derives it's meaning from the previous twenty verses near the beginning of the Sermon.

But let's begin by asking some obvious questions, and I hope it will become obvious immediately as to why I think both sections are mutually interpretive. When reading 7:7-12, the first obvious question we ought to be asking (as indeed, we should imagine Matthew's audience asking) is, ask for whatA second question would be this: Knock, and what would be opened to them? A third (and again, obvious) question is: Everyone who asks for what, receives what

To summarize: Everyone who seeks after what, finds what? Everyone who knocks, what will be opened?


I contend that apart from the literary structure of the Sermon itself, according to the way Matthew wrote it (or whoever wrote it--it doesn't matter who wrote it at this point in our inquiry, but what is actually written is most important), there is no clear answer to that question. Scholars conjecture in a wide variety of ways in response to these questions, yet most don't approach it from the Sermon's own literary structure. If you look at the verses immediately preceding this section (which would be section B': 6:19-7:6) I can assure you that you won't find the answer there. The whole Sermon must be taken into account. And since the whole Sermon must be taken into account, why not look to the preceding section which corresponds to it? Yet that is precisely what we are about to do. With a literary approach that pays attention to the internal structure of the speech in question, we will be able to answer the obvious and somewhat naggingly unclear questions above.

The first question, again, was: Ask for what? If we look back to section C (here, here, here, and here), the answers become apparent. They ought to have asked for hope and joy through the coming persecutions. They were to seek to have their light shine brighter than the scribes and Pharisees. And if a door stood in opposition to where Christ was leading them, here in section C' they are encouraged to simply knock and it would be opened for them.

They could also ask for wisdom when others thought their witness to the truth of Jesus Christ was foolish. In retrospect, one might think that would have been an obvious thing to ask, given that Jesus had already warned them about being trampled under foot by hostile brethren opposing Jesus and the good news that his kingdom was drawing near (which, as we have seen in previous posts, necessitated the destruction of Herod's Temple, which many first century Jewish leaders and their disciples idolized).

They could have also sought to obey and teach others about the Law and the Prophets, which included their way of fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Now they are being told that if only their brethren knocked on the door of Christ's Church, they also would be welcomed into his heavenly kingdom. Unfortunately, as we know from historical accounts, such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Eusebius (and as noted by a wide variety of Church Fathers), not all of first century Israel took Jesus' advice.

Implicit in all of these illustrations is their asking, seeking, and knocking for good things—what God has revealed to be good things. Those good things they were exhorted to ask for and pursue were—somewhat surprisingly—gifts which only the Holy Spirit could give.

Luke 11:13 clarifies this. (And Matthew seems to be taking this for granted as understood in context.) Luke records the same statement as Matthew, but with one additional phrase: 
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

In Matthew's version ("If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children”) the phrase could be rendered a tad bit more literally, in order to clarify some potential concerns of ours. What Matthew says, more woodenly, is this:
Therefore if you-all, although you-all are evil, know how good gifts are given to your children, how much more…(etc.)1

It turns out that in Matthew's version, Jesus is not accusing all the people before him of being evil. He is offering them a worst case scenario. The “if” is just as important as the “although.” 

Jesus's point is this: Even the most evil parents know how good gifts are given to their children—and it’s not through cruelty, or trickery. Even the most evil parents know how to give good gifts to their children because their children ask for them. Therefore, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him? So then, whatever they wished that others would do to them, they were also to do to them, for such is the Law and the Prophets.

Notice again that along with the "Father in heaven" providing for them, this phrase, "the Law and the Prophets," also shows up. The last time we heard (or saw) these phrases was back in Section C. 

If they wanted to be treated mercifully, they too should treat others mercifully. If they wanted swift and stern justice for every sin, they had to be willing to receive it themselves. If they wanted to receive reconciliation with their family or neighbors, they needed to pursue reconciliation. If they wanted to avoid false accusations of treating others in an evil manner, they had to turn the other cheek and not resist the one who is evil to them. That is what the Law and the Prophets taught!

In other words, if they wanted to live like their God revealed in the Law and Prophets, they needed to live like Jesus. 

We learned a little about the Law and the Prophets in previous posts, so I won't rehearse them here. But I will say this: If Christians today struggle with the God revealed in the "Old Testament" Scriptures, but they also think they don't struggle with Jesus as the God of the "New Testament," they're probably not reading either "Testament" accurately. The God of the Old Testament is Jesus, and the God of the New Testament is YHWH

In the next series of posts I plan on going through sections D & D' in detail, and I hope to show that the common understanding of Jesus' comments about "the Law" are horrendously misunderstood, partly because the literary structure is rarely brought into the discussion, but mostly because Christians today don't actually know what the Law teaches, and therefore assume that Jesus is teaching contrary to it, when in fact he most certainly does not.   












1. The Greek is: εἰ οὖν ὑμεῖς πονηροὶ ὄντες οἴδατε δόματα ἀγαθὰ διδόναι τοῖς τέκνοις ὑμῶν, πόσῳ μᾶλλον…





Friday, December 30, 2016

Suffering with Him




Jesus enters the world as we know it as it truly is. He enters a very human world, a world with human evil, human foolishness, and human suffering. He did not enter a sanitary world, or even a sanitized community of believers. If you've ever read the gospels, it's clear that the people of God and the land in the first century were both thoroughly polluted and in need of cleansing. Jesus came into that world--the world of evil, foolishness, and suffering as we still know it today. 

By entering this world, Jesus was willing to get his hands dirty in the muck and filth of humanity, and even suffer at the hands of the wicked. His suffering then led to scandal, exile, and death. From this paradigm, spokesmen for the Christian cause sometimes say that Jesus is connected with all of humanity's suffering, and that the incarnation gives meaning and purpose to "our" suffering. 

This is what I want to comment about.

I want to make very clear from the outset what Jesus did not do in making this "connection". What he did not do was suffer for the sake of suffering itself, or welcome scandals for the sake of being associated with the scandalous. He suffered because he preached repentance from sin and faith toward God in a world so perverse and lawless that God's very own people would crucify him for it. Jesus was scandalized because he exhorted his own people to forsake the perverse traditions of that generation and of their fathers. He was scandalized because he preached against the moral relativism of his generation, and led people to embrace the singular way of truth, justice, mercy, and peace. 

It is purported that Jesus wasn't afraid to hang out with the scandalous. Jesus was willing to "connect" with prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners. From this, allegedly, we learn that we who also live scandalous lives have this same connection with Jesus, because that's what his ministry was all about: connecting with the scandalous. He even suffered the shame of a scandalous life and death in order to show the world how purposeful and meaningful "our suffering" is.

Depending on what one means by that, that could be complete ethical nonsense.

Jesus' solidarity was not with fools or suffering-people in general, but rather the faithful first century remnant of his disciples who were willing to follow him and suffer for righteousness' sake, for the sake of the truth spoken by his prophets and just-ones. His solidarity is with those who turn away from evil and foolishness, and turn toward Him, never looking back. His solidarity is with those who have "washed their robes so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates" (Rev. 22:14). Their robes were bloody, and needed to be washed, because they were willing to be martyrs for the sake of the truth spoken by Jesus' prophets and just-ones. Their robes were spotted by the sins and injustice of others who hated Christ and his following of disciples. If our lives as Christians remain scandalous for the sake of actual injustice and falsehood and foolishness and evil, Jesus will say to us on the day we bow before his throne, "Outside with the sexually immoral and murderers and adulterers, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood" (Rev. 22:15). 

In other words, Jesus did not enter a very human world of evil, foolishness, and suffering in order to show perpetual solidarity with the lowliest of sinners. He stooped down to that low level to wash the feet of his disciples, not the feet of disciples of Apollo, Cybele, Diana, Baal, or even Caesar. He stooped low to wash his disciples, and to make better disciples. He stooped low and showed solidarity with the lowliest because he loved humanity, and wanted humanity to receive purification from him. Jesus did not and does not love sin, and by extension, those who habitually and unrepentantly sin (I John 3:6, 9). Sure, if we say that we have no sin at all, then the truth of Jesus Christ does not dwell in us (1 John 1:8-10). But the belief that we will not or cannot sin at all is a very different belief than the one revealed by Christ's apostles, that we ought not and are now able to not make a habit of it. The incarnation gives meaning and purpose to that very specific type of suffering--a cruciform one, one which looks like Jesus's suffering through obedience. If his disciples suffered for the sake of their own injustices, their own falsehoods, and their own foolishness, that suffering is their own fault, and Jesus wants nothing to do with it. But if we suffer in his name (i.e. as "Christians") for what is truly just and right, and for what is absolutely true, and for what God has revealed to be wise and good, then Jesus welcomes us to the tree of life.

But that's part of our problem, right? Instead of conforming our thoughts and our ethical standards to God's revealed standards, we question his revelation. In our own subtle, serpentine manner we think, "Did God really say that?" Instead of forsaking what God demands us to forsake--our foolishness, our relative and lax moral standards--we want Jesus to accept our foolishness and laxity. We want to remain what we are now, and we want Jesus to accept us for what we will always want to be, even if we want to remain infantile. When we read the gospels and think that Jesus wants solidarity with the foolish, sin-filled world he entered, we are the ones who are mistaken. He does not. Jesus entered this fallen world in order to raise sinners up with him, from death to eternal life. He stooped very, very low, not to "connect" with us where we are, in order to remain where we are, but to tell us face to face, eye to eye, in flesh and blood, "Repent!" and "Go and sin no more!"

That brings up the last problem I want to address: guilt and pity.

I can't tell you how many Christians I know who wallow in their own guilt and self-pity. They constantly sin and fall into foolish ways of thinking; and they admit it; they wallow in it. They think they can't escape it. And to claim otherwise--so it is thought--is blasphemy; it's allegedly contrary to "the gospel."

But is it really contrary to the gospel, to think and live as though you have been delivered from slavery to sin and foolishness? Is it really contrary to the "good news" that Jesus says to us, "Go and sin no more!", and he really expects us to do that? I don't think so. And I think that it's the height of spiritual arrogance to excuse ourselves from trying, as though no matter how hard we try we're not actually able to do so. 

But then one might respond: "Because we will sin in the future, at some point, we might as well rest content in being who we are, wretched fools saved only by the grace of God."

Here's what I have to say to that: Grow up. Stop thinking like a child, and forsake such childish ways of thinking. If he saved you from your sins, he delivered you from enslavement to sin. You don't have to wallow in some imaginary bondage to sin. If you're still enslaved to sin, as though there is nothing you could do to stop it, then Jesus did not save you. You don't have to remain a fool, and he doesn't want you to.    

Now, someone might respond to these claims of mine by suggesting that Jesus expects perfection from us. And to that I respond, "No". That, to me, seems like another excuse to rationalize away one's need to "sin no more." The truth revealed in Scripture is that Jesus expects us to grow up. Jesus expects all of his children to increase in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man, just as he did (Luke 2:52). If we have true solidarity with him, that's what our lives ought to look like. Once "saved" from bondage to sin, we mature from childish ways to mature, godly ways. Jesus expects us to become equipped for the work of ministering to other sinners in need of godliness, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of "mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Ephesians 4:12-14).














Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Church as Lone Prophet (A Meditation for Ordinary Time)

The Church as Lone Prophet
A Meditation for Ordinary Time (Proper 7, Year C, II)
I Kings 19:1-15
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39


In 1st Kings chapter 18, we learn that the wicked king of Israel, Abab, has hunted down all the prophets of YHWH in an attempt to remove their influence throughout the land. And just before our reading today, he summoned all of Israel and all of their prophets to defeat the Lord's last prophet, along with his "God" on Mount Carmel. At this point in the story, it's all the prophets of Baal versus one prophet, Elijah, the lone prophet of YHWH. Elijah, again, is outnumbered. The odds seem to be completely against him. But as we soon learn, just one lone prophet with the Lord on his side, is greater than the world that opposes him. 


You all know the story. In the end, the prophets of Baal cannot summon their gods to rain down fire from heaven. The Baal worshipers make fools out of themselves all day long, and at the end of the day Elijah prays to the Lord one time, and the Lord answers him. The Lord answers by raining fire down from heaven, and Elijah's God—the living and true God—wins. And when all the people saw the Lord answer Elijah's prayer, they fell on their faces confessing that YHWH is God (1 Kings 18:38-39).

Because of Elijah's loyal and loving faithfulness to the Lord, by the end of chapter 18, it looks as though the dawn of Israel's redemption seems very near. We finally see a glimmer of hope in the story, where the Lord seems to be turning the idolatrous house of Ahab, and the corrupt hearts of Israel, back to Himself. But as soon as we turn the page and enter chapter 19—which is our reading for today—we hit a major road block. Apparently Elijah's loyalty to YHWH didn't stop all of the leaders of Israel. Jezebel, the queen, was particularly upset with his victory. And instead of turning to the Lord, the leaders of Israel follow Jezebel's reaction against Elijah's faithfulness by threatening and conspiring to kill this last, lone prophet of YHWH. For those familiar with the history of the powerful nations surrounding Israel, reactions of these sorts are expected from enemies. (Similar reactions occurred with later prophets as well, like John the Baptist and even Jesus himself.) In Elijah's day, Israel had become another powerful empire of its own, just as corrupt as the surround ungodly empires.

Even Paul, when writing to the Galatians, was prepared for the hostile reactions of Judaizers who were breathing threats against him and against his gospel. The Judaizers painted Paul's gospel as a threat to the Faith, yet Paul faithfully and lovingly urged the Galatian Christians to follow his example, obeying the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and not another gospel.

Like Elijah and Paul, the Church is called to be a prophetic witness sent out ("apostled") to the nations. As such, the calling of the Church is to love and serve the Lord through all threats against Him and against His anointed ones. In doing so, the Lord's victory over the idols of every generation becomes obvious to all. But that isn't to say that such faithful witnessing is always easy or even comfortable. It can be incredibly intimidating and demanding at times as well.

Like Elijah fleeing into the wilderness and lying down in despair under a tree to die (1 Kings 19:5), at times we—the Church—will exhaust ourselves through various trials, and will even want to lie down and accept defeat at times, too. But the witness of Holy Scripture reminds us that the Lord is faithful to those who remain jealous for Him. He is faithful to those who trust and obey Him through the high mountain-top victories and low valleys of wilderness wandering—quite literally through life and death. As we see vividly in the Elijah narrative, just when the feelings of defeat and death set in, the Lord resurrects hope within, visiting them with food and drink to endure their long journey (1Kings 19:5-8).

The gospel of our Scripture readings today could not be more clear: In the midst of despair, when most people follow the "Baals" of the land or simply reject the lordship of Jesus outright (as many of Israel did in Paul's day), the Lord does not forget His people. Instead, the Lord nourishes and raises up a remnant in the midst of a dry and thirsty land, to remind us that even when despair or depression or exhaustion has distorted our vision of God's love for this world, God has the situation under control. He has not stopped loving this world of His, even through its trials and judgments; nor has He forgotten His people through such judgments. Just as the lone prophets and apostles were God's means for preserving the Faith of Israel through judgment, so the ministry of the Church in Christ Jesus—the prophet and apostle of our confession (Heb 1:1-4; 3:1)—is God's means of saving the world.

As we learned in our gospel reading today, it is in Christ that each earthly house—whether it's the house of the Gerasenes, or Israel, or Baal—can flee from judgment, and can have its Legion of demons cast out. As the Church of Jesus Christ, we are sent out into the world to bear witness to that One who delivers his enemies from bondage to sin and calls them to proclaim how much God has done for them (Luke 8:39). Our calling might be difficult. It might be exhausting too. But when we get weary and weak because of our faithfulness, at least we know where rest and refreshment are found for our journey. It is here, in Christ's Church, that the weary are given rest, and the weak receive food and drink for every journey ahead.

It is in Christ Jesus that we, the Church, are all sons of God. For Paul says, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. In Christ we are now a new creation, so we ought to live like the new creation we are, living with gratitude, living with praise and adoration of Jesus Christ, living unashamedly as a prophetic witness of His lordship over all. It is in this Church united to Jesus Christ—this new Jerusalem which has already come down from heaven—that death is swallowed up in victory, and all things are being made new.

Believe that, and don't be ashamed to proclaim how much God has done and will continue doing for the world. And if you're ever feeling ready to throw in the towel, don't lean upon your own understanding. Rather, in all your ways acknowledge Jesus and He will direct your paths. He won't forsake you or anyone else who puts their trust in Him. So put your trust in Him. Lean on him. He wants you to, especially when you feel like a lone prophet in this world. He walks alongside you, directing the way you should go, so that you can put your trust in Him. Even if it's through death's darkest valley, don't fear any evil, for the Lord is with you. Let his rod and staff comfort you, for he walks with you, ready and willing to show the world that He is your Shepherd, and in Him you lack nothing. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.



* * * * * * * *



O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.







Saturday, March 19, 2016

The stones will cry out (A meditation on Luke 19:29-40)


Palm Sunday
Liturgy of the Palms
Year C
Gospel Reading: Luke 19:29-40 



I love the film, Memento. What I love most about Memento are the little nuggets of plot-development hidden in plain sight, and how those becomes crucial for appreciating the entire story. 
    At the beginning we learn about the main character, Leonard Shelby, who suffers from extreme short term memory loss because of a severe brain injury incurred at his home, seconds before witnessing the murder of his wife. Just as Leonard witnesses his wife suffocating to death, an armed robber violently strikes Leonard on the head, and from that point forward in life, Leonard's long-term memories are haunted by that final, enduring image of his wife's suffocation. He then sets out on a life-long quest to find those who killed his wife, and to satisfy justice.
    Fast-forwarding to the end of the story, a detective named Teddy is murdered by Leonard Shelby. Leonard thinks Teddy was part of the conspiracy to murder his wife, but of course, because Leonard suffers from severe short-term memory loss many people throughout his life after that event—including Teddy—become suspects of that conspiracy accidentally, even though they aren't necessarily guilty. All Leonard wants in life is to find those who conspired in the murder of his wife, and he will do whatever it takes to bring vengeance upon them. But we come to find out in the end of the story that so much more had been going on all along, and best of all it was hidden in plain sight, right in front of our very eyes. 
    Spoiler Alert: Just before the death of Teddy, the detective, we learn some mind-blowing details about Leonard's life. First we learn that Leonard Shelby's wife didn't actually die the night her husband had his brain injury. She survived that night, but Leonard doesn't remember that because he suffers from extreme short-term memory loss after his brain injury. All he remembers is her suffocating. Every day, he still thinks she's dead. And eventually, over time, she does die; and she's even truly dead by the time the events within the film take place. However, as the plot progresses, we learn that Teddy, the detective, already brought Leonard to the real attacker, and Leonard already avenged his wife, but Leonard doesn't remember that either. Finally, as if those tidbits of information weren't shocking enough, we also learn the most shocking fact of all: Leonard actually murdered his own wife, by assisting her in committing suicide. It turns out that after his injury, his wife became so depressed with having to live with his short-term memory loss, that one day she tested him. She was diabetic, and in need of regular insulin shots, so she tested him over and over again by requesting him to give her shots, minutes apart from each other. She eventually died of overdose. That was her way of coping with what she perceived to be the loss of the real man she loved and married. But he doesn't remember ever assisting her suicide. Leonard even gets a tattoo on his hand to assist his memory about that, but the tattoo doesn't help. All throughout the film we are shown that tattoo, and the message is in plain sight, but Leonard interprets it differently. Even when you hear or see that phrase tattooed on his hand repeated over and over again ("Remember Sammy Jenkins"), if the viewer does not stop and think about it's significance, or its significance is misunderstood, it is possible to watch the entire film and walk away from it with a very different message than what the director intended. 
    This is true with the theological nuggets we find scattered throughout Luke's gospel. If we overlook or misunderstand some of them hidden in plain sight, we might walk away from the gospel story with a very different message than what Luke intended. And in today's reading, we have one of those theological nuggets. It is found in Luke 19:39b–40, which the ESV translates this way:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out."

Usually, when I'm preparing a meditation for any given day, I try to harmonize as many of the lectionary readings as possible and unite them into a common theme. But with this week's lectionary readings, something very different happened as I was studying. I became stuck on this one very brief statement.
    Do you want to know why I've been stuck on that passage all week long? It's because the Greek text underlying that English Standard Version does not say that. And I've been hung up all week on what it actually says, and why Jesus said that. What the Greek text actually says is this:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" And answering, He [Jesus] said: "I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"1

As I perused through my biblical commentaries, I noticed that this passage is usually explained in one of two ways. It's either explained as a comparison between animate human beings (i.e. disciples) and inanimate objects (i.e. stones), illustrating somehow, some way, that Jesus deserves to be praised by His creation, e.g. "If people stop praising Jesus, surely these stones on the ground will instead!", or it's expressing a contrast of faith between the Pharisees and stones, illustrating that even stones understand their Creator better than Pharisees.2
    With either option, I'm left unconvinced. And I think it's important to convince others to remain unconvinced as well. But in order to reach any conviction about the meaning of this theological nugget (whether one agrees with me or not), it always helps to start by asking obvious questions. For instance, why does Jesus mention stones? Is it merely because they can be classified as inanimate objects? In that case, wouldn't the reference to stones be somewhat arbitrary, as though Jesus could have mentioned any other static material on this planet—such as trees, saddlebags, or belly-button lint—to illustrate the same point? He just mentioned "stones" for no essential reason, I guess. Perhaps it was the first thing that popped into His mind, someone might say. That sounds like a dubious proposal at best. 
    What if the whole point of mentioning stones is simply to point out how lifeless the faith of the Pharisees is? Although I don't doubt that the faith of many Pharisees was dead, I don't think that clarifies what Jesus actually said. Again, all one has to do to notice my contention is to simply look back at the text. Re-read it a few times. Such explanations about dead pharisaical faith hardly accounts for what Jesus actually said in context. (Besides, if you've read the previous 18 chapters of Luke's gospel, you should have already realized that their faith was dead.) So let's go back to asking obvious questions again. 
    Why must stones cry out if Jesus' disciples are silenced? That is what the text actually says.3 Is it because stones perceive God better than Pharisees? That doesn't answer the question. That begs the question. If the point, supposedly, is that Jesus is also worthy of praise by stones, then why aren't the stones also crying out at the same time as the disciples? Why wait until the voices of Jesus disciples are silenced?

I think that in order to make sense of Luke 19:39b-40, we need to review the story of Luke's gospel briefly to find other tidbits hidden in plain sight for us.
    In the close context of 19:39b-40, Jesus is on his way into Jerusalem for the first time in Luke's gospel. Toward the beginning of the Lukan travel narrative, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem (9:51), and he wouldn't cease ministering to people until he was silenced in Jerusalem. Throughout Luke's travel narrative, that message of reaching Jerusalem and being killed by Israel's rulers is repeated three times for emphasis (9:22, 44; 18:31-33). Alongside that tidbit, Luke's travel narrative is also filled with allusions to soon-coming judgment upon Jerusalem for rejecting their King. Even before  Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the shepherds of Israel have no excuse for rejecting him as their King, and they also have no excuse for refusing to repent of that rejection.
    In the middle of Luke's travel narrative, we find one of those nuggets hidden in plain sight. But there, Jesus does more than make allusions to Jerusalem's judgment; he emphatically declares that its temple is forsaken, abandoned by God, because they were not willing to accept His terms of peace:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'" (Luke 13:34-35)

Now fast forward to the end of Luke's travel narrative, where Jesus is about to leave Jericho and enter into Jerusalem for the first time. There we find Jesus telling one last parable to his disciples en route to his triumphal entry (19:11-27). In that parable Luke goes out of his way to emphasize the allegorical relationship between Jesus' servants in Jerusalem and Himself entering that city as their King. By the end of the parable the "wicked servants" and "enemies" have proven themselves hostile and indignant toward their King. Not only had they perpetuated gross injustice while the King was away (similar to the claim above about "killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to it"), they also would not repent or accept His terms of peace and reconciliation. They refused to let Jesus rule mercifully over their merciless kingdom. For that reason, the King decrees that they be slain upon his arrival. With the merciful, he would show himself merciful. With the blameless, he would show himself blameless. And with the crooked, he would make himself seem torturous (Psa. 18:25-26; 2 Sam. 22:26-28). Jesus saves those who are humble, but his eyes are on the haughty to bring them down. 
    After that final parable, Jesus follows his prophetic cry with more sovereign lamentations explicitly directed at first century Jews in Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44):
And when he [Jesus] drew near and saw the city [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, "Would that you, even you [Jerusalem], had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation."
Much like the prophet Habakkuk's reasons for thundering woes against Jerusalem, it is this incessant rejection of Israel's King by their rulers which leads to the toppled stones of the Temple's ruin crying out against those perpetrating violence and injustice within:
You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples! You have forsaken your life! The stone shall cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" (Habakkuk 2:10-12)
I believe these nuggets of prophetic woes scattered throughout Luke's gospel are designed to clarify what Jesus said to Pharisees during his triumphal entry. The "Wisdom of God" repeatedly told Jerusalem that His prophets and apostles would be sent to them, but they would not listen. Instead, the harlot-city would silence the Lord and His servants (Luke 11:49–52). With that trajectory toward rejection and judgement, when we reach the point of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we see the Pharisees still attempting to silence Jesus' disciples (19:39b), Jesus' response makes perfect sense if its understood as a prophetic, Habakkuk-like cry toward Jerusalem and its corrupt rulers. As Jesus' disciples cry out, "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!", the Pharisees tell Jesus to rebuke the disciples. So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, its trajectory is directed toward the harlot-city, toward Jerusalem's rejection and consequent judgment:
"I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"

Little did the Pharisees know that the prophets, apostles, and disciples of Jesus were living stones of God's new temple-building project (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-6), so when those stones cry out for vindication, judgement is right around the corner because their voices are heard by Jesus himself in his heavenly temple. This was the Lord's mysterious and marvelous plan all along. It is through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of God's incarnate Son that the blood of all the prophets and apostles, shed from the foundation of the world, would cry out and finally receive vindication for all their suffering. They witnessed to the truth of God and His reign over all, and their shed blood would be charged against Jesus' generation (11:49-52). That generation would be definitively judged.
    All of this brings us back around to the passage in Luke in which Jesus prophesies about disciples being silenced for their testimony of Jesus' lordship, and stones crying out as a result. I think its clear that Jesus' woe alludes to the Habakkuk woe spoken to the leadership of Jerusalem. In that prophecy, the stones of the temple walls cry out because of tremendous injustice perpetrated within its walls and upon God's people. Historically, it was during the Jewish wars (66—70 AD) that Jerusalem and its idolatrous temple were finally destroyed by the Lord's visitation. Because Jerusalem did not know the time of her visitation, and the testimonies of those who bore witness to Jesus were silenced, the stones would cry out from the wall: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" But "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"
   
At this time, someone might be asking, What is the bottom line of all this?

That's a good question. How does this affect our understanding of the gospel story, so that we don't miss out on what the director envisioned for us? 

A few responses immediately come to mind:
    First, because there is a pervasive tendency among Christians to "proof-text" scripture into emotional and spiritual nonsense, it's always important to remember that the gospels are about real life, flesh and blood, pus and guts, historically documented events. Even the prophecies of Jesus were not some kind of gnostic, esoteric, mystical future cataclysm. Certainly they were about future events. However, Jesus was addressing historical events which would come upon his own generation (Luke 7:31; 11:29,30,31,32,50,51; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32). This is often missed, and the gospels misinterpreted, because the fulfillment of those divinely imposed judgments within his generation are not taken into account by the average, run-of-the-mill Christian. It is absolutely vital to the understand and acknowledge that the destruction of Herod's idolatrous temple is the most significant historical event in Israel's history. And that was clearly on display in Jesus' mind throughout Luke's gospel. That event is the definitive end of the old covenant, and the decisive action which vindicates all the disciples of Jesus Christ in the first century. The entire course of history dramatically changed after that cataclysmic event.4 And it's not a mere coincidence that Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension strike the match and light the wick leading to that cosmic judgment. So it's important to familiarize yourself with those events, and to read scripture through the lens of those concrete historical promises.
    Second, remember that because every statement within the gospels is part of a much larger story, we need to search, discover, and meditate upon the nugget-like tidbits scattered throughout the story. Those tidbits are not tertiary details. Just like in Memento, if they are overlooked or underestimated, the director's vision behind the story can be misunderstood. If Jesus' explicit promises regarding Jerusalem's destruction in that generation are overlooked or underestimated, then the first century Jewish-Christian context of New Testament theology can be misunderstood.
    Finally, but just as important as the previous points, this brief tidbit of Luke's gospel teaches us something significant about the character of God. Throughout evangelical circles, Jesus is often mistakenly portrayed as the "light" version of the old testament God. Just like Budweiser has their light beer, Jesus is the old testament Father's light-bodied persona. He's low on calories, while still offering the full-bodied flavor of the original Divine recipe, which we all love. As such, the Church mistakenly thinks of Jesus' character differently than the Father's, and that is a mistake. Both Jesus and YHWH are love (Deut. 7:9; Psa 36:7-10; Joel 2:13; I John 4:8,16). Both Jesus and YHWH are a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). Jesus' gospel was about consuming fire and love. It is our God, Jesus, who considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict his children, and to grant his children relief through affliction by inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know Him and on those who do not obey the good news of our Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 1:6-8). 
   In fact, it is precisely because Jesus is love, that we must heed Jesus' warnings and not reshape the love of God into our own American idol. When we see Jesus loving all those around him, we also need to see that love as an expression of warning his own generation of consuming fireof tangible, down-to-earth judgment upon flesh and blood because of their exceedingly great wickedness. It's also important to see Jesus as the son of man coming to judge them (Matt. 10:23; 12:40-42; 13:37-43; 16:27-28; 24:30-34). As the son of man, part of the way he loves the world is by waging war upon its evil every day; and that is a good thing. It is good that Jesus must continue waging that war until he has put all his enemies underneath his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). Only then will true peace cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Jesus was indeed the most loving human in history, and yet his love did not violate the free will of those whom he loved, and so he warned them about how destructive their idolatry had become, and he waged war against those who refused to accept his rule. In an thoroughly corrupt and evil generation, there can be no peace without war. Thankfully, though, most people throughout the world are not destroyed. Instead, many are confronted by the heinousness of their own sins and destructive tendencies, and are brought to their knees before King Jesus. God graciously makes Himself available to them, and when they sincerely repent and surrender to him, they are shown mercy, and they receive new life in Him. 
    Another way to look at Jesus' prophetic warnings is like this: Jesus loved the world so much that he gave his life for it, but there comes a point in time when an entire generation needs to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings and he knows our needs better than we do. He knows how to establish and cultivate peace on earth better than we do. If parts of his creation become rotten to the core, he knows best, and he knows how to uproot and plant something new and healthy in its place if need be. In a world where the ground is cursed and humanity is exiled from the presence of God, the whole process of uprooting, tilling the soil, and planting new is an expression of love. The fact that the Gardener even draws near to his fields all over the world and tends to their needs worldwide is a good and beautiful thing. 
    Within the exhortation of our Lord about disciples being silenced and stones crying out, is his decree to tear down the diseased house of the old covenant in order to build an exceedingly glorious temple in us. And his temple-building project isn't over yet. His global gardening project is not over yet. There still is a lot of work yet to be done. Don't be bashful about that, and don't be afraid to walk in the way of Christ's suffering for that. Rather, walk humbly in the way of his suffering that you may also share in his resurrection. Believe that, witness to that, and proclaim that. That is true, just as God's love for the world is true, and his warfare against evil every day is true. 
   If you start thinking about how gloomy and corrupt our current generation is in comparison with the glorious future promised for God's kingdom, don't be worried about it. Continue witnessing to the good news of King Jesus and his terms of peace for the world. He is always far more willing to give mercy and extend favor than we are to receive it. He is called the King of Peace for good reasons. 
   And if you ever become anxious about these temporary, mortal bodies of ours returning to the soil, leaving the fruitful praise of our lips silenced, don't worry about that either. Other stones of God's temple will continue that proclamation. Blessed indeed is our King, Jesus. He is the reason why there is any peace on earth and in heaven. Glory to Him in the highest!



* * * * * * *

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 










1. This is my translation of the Greek text: Διδάσκαλε, ἐπιτίμησον τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου. καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν· Λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅτι ἐὰν οὗτοι σιωπήσουσιν, οἱ λίθοι κράξουσιν
2. Darrell Bock, a reputable Lukan scholar, offers a variant of this, claiming that inanimate objects—like stones—"have a better perception of God than the people He came to save." Even though that is a clever and truthful way of spinning what Jesus actually said, I still think that greatly misses Jesus' point. See Darrell L. Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; 1996), p. 1,547
3.  A few other technical details are worth noting. As I have argued here and elsewhere on my blog, I think mainstream english translations of the New Testament are based on an interpretation disconnected with the destruction of Jerusalem as foreshadowed in the consistent typological messaging of Israel's prophets. To me that disconnect seems clear for grammatical reasons as well. For example, in the ESV we find the insertion of "very" into the text (which isn't even implied in the Greek). In English, the insertion of "very" could be construed as connoting an idea of contrast between animate and inanimate objects, which is unnecessary if Jesus is actually prophesying future historical events related to Jerusalem and its temple. Another disconnect is seen in the confusing translation of "were silent" and "would cry out" like it's a conditional subjunctive, which it's not in Greek. Both verbs are future-active-indicative. The ἐάν with a subjunctive verb would express a probable or hypothetical future condition (which is why the conditional conjunction is translated "if" in the ESV), but the indicative verbs remove that probability and instead express certainty (which is why ἐὰν here is better translated as "when").
4.  See Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2008, eighth ed.), pp. 23-46

Saturday, December 12, 2015

From Many Exhortations to Joy (A Homily for Gaudete Sunday)








  

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18





The Prophecy of Zephaniah begins with a message of horrific judgment upon the surrounding nations of God’s people. In Zephaniah chapter one, the Lord declares:
I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,”I will sweep away both man and beast;I will sweep away the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.
The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly.
....
That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the Lord.
Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung.
Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.

In the following chapter, chapter two, Zephaniah then tells the people of God to watch and listen carefully to these judgments of God pronounced upon the surrounding nations. He tells the people of God to be humble and to keep seeking the Lord, searching out those things which He has commanded them to do. Zephaniah warns them to seek justice with humility in order to receive shelter on the day when the Lord comes to judge the nations (2:3).

After these instructions to Israel, Zephaniah's message becomes more specific about every thingmore specific  about which nations would receive the Lord's judgment and why they would be judged. We see that God's holy fury is against the wicked nations surrounding His people.

Our attention is first directed to the land of the Philistines with a description of God coming to visit them in his wrath, laying waste to their major cities with their temples and all their false gods (2:4-5):
Gaza will be abandoned and Ashkelon left in ruins. At midday Ashdod will be emptied and Ekron uprooted! Woe to you who live by the sea, you Kerethite people!The word of the Lord is against you, Canaan, land of the Philistines!
I will destroy you, and none will be left.

Next, the Lord moves on to other surrounding nations of Israel, to the Moabites and Ammonites, who insult God and His people, boast in the power of their own idols, and threaten to conquer Israel's God, bringing them all under their rule (2:8-11). To that the Lord responds, saying:
I have heard the insults of Moab and the taunts of the Ammonites, who insulted my people and made threats against their land.Therefore, as surely as I live, surely Moab will become like Sodom, the Ammonites like Gomorrah—a place of weeds and salt pits, a wasteland forever.

The idea, again, is to emphasize their complete destruction as a powerful civilization and nation that had become morally bankrupt.

After this the Lord moves on to the people of Cush and their soon-coming destruction as a nation. Then He moves on to the Assyrian empire, because they were a people who reveled in their safety, making claims about their uniqueness and greatness as an empire. Assyria says to herself, “I am the One! And there is no one besides me!” (2:15) Does that sound like any nation you know of?

This is interesting, and dare I say, damning, because the Lord is truly the one Sovereign and only One. There truly is no Sovereign one beside Him who can compete with Him or defeat Him. Nevertheless, Assyria had grown in its imperial might, wealth, and prestige to the point of thinking so highly of itself, that they considered themselves uniquely mighty. They alone, supposedly, were great. So the Lord declares to them:
I will stretch out My hand against the north and destroy Assyria, leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert.
Flocks and herds will lie down there, creatures of every kind.
The desert owl and the screech owl will roost on her columns.
Their hooting will echo through the windows, rubble will fill the doorways, the beams of cedar will be exposed.
This is the city of revelry that lived in safety.
…What a ruin she has become, a lair for wild beasts!

The feeling that God’s people are supposed to have regarding all of these judgments is fear and awe. Alongside this there is supposed to be a sense of respect for what God promised to do to those wicked nations. From this it's clear that God has never been ignorant or indifferent about evil in the world. God sees how nations and people treat each other. God knows their entertainments, their idols, their indifference to His truth, their boasting against Him, and their persecution of His people. The Lord knew that the Assyrians, the Moabites, and Philistines were a people who would not humble themselves before Him and obey His commands, worshiping Him alone in His holy temple. They would not seek God on a path of humility with the meek and lowly. They were proud of being high and mighty. They would not seek God on a path of justice with the poor and outcasts of society. Instead they paved their own way to success by plundering their neighbors. That is why, on that “Day of the Lord” spoken in the first chapter of Zephaniah, the Lord promised to come and visit those nations and clear a path of holiness for Himself to walk on. If the nations would remain stubborn and rebellious, set on paving their own ways of evil and destruction, the Lord would come and bring destruction upon their cities and all of their evil ways. And it would be terrifying. When we look back at the history of these ancient nations, after the time of Zephaniah, we can see their complete and utter destruction as spoken through the Prophets, and it's not a pretty picture. The Lord most certainly did bring their evil and destructive ways to ruin.

So far, the word of the Lord through Zephaniah is powerful and dreadful. It's a message which, if we were the people to whom the Lord spoke these words, we too ought to be fearful. This is important to keep in mind because it is in light of this dreadful message that we find our lectionary reading for today (3:14-20). Intriguingly, that reading is not about dreadful judgment, but rather, is about rejoicing. However, before we get to the part about rejoicing, we need to remember carefully what the Lord had said to His own people back in chapter two. Recall that brief warning I cited earlier in passing (2:3). Speaking to the people of Jerusalem, Zephaniah said: 
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands.Seek justice. Seek humility.
Then you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.

The reason why I'm stressing that particular warning to God's people is because of what comes next in Zephaniah's prophecy. In order to appreciate the message of great joy pronounced to God’s people, we need to empathize with those people who were willing to seek God with humility.

After denouncing Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush, and Assyria, and just before God's people hear the great news of salvation and rejoicing, Zephaniah cries out one more time this way:
Woe to the city of oppressors! The rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one! She accepts no correction!She does not trust the Lord!She does not draw near to her God! Her officials within her are roaring lions!Her rulers are evening wolves who leave nothing for the morning!Her prophets are unprincipled! They are treacherous people!Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the Law! The Lord within her is just.He does no wrong.Morning by morning He dispenses His justice.Every new day he does not fail, yet the unjust know no shame.

For those who are new to the book of Zephaniah and his message, you might be thinking that this message is not surprising at all. It sounds like the same message of justice and judgment, re-hashing the same old news to the surrounding nations. But it's not.

When we look closely at this message, this is the climax of Zephaniah's entire message, and it's not at all directed at the surrounding nations of Israel. It is a message directed at Israel. It's about the people of Jerusalem. When the prophet cries out, "Woe to the city of oppressors! The rebellious and defiled!", that is a woe to the people of God's land. When the Lord describes them as accepting no correction, of having civil rulers who strip their people of sustenance, leaving them in poverty, that's a description of civil rulers in Israel. And when God condemns the people who lie and deceive and use perverse speech to promote greater injustice, God is condemning people who carry His name among them

This is not a light matter. The people of God were addressed at the climax of Zephaniah’s message because they were the most peculiar people in the world at that time. They were a peculiar people chosen out of all nations by God, and set apart to be like God—to be Godly. But here, at the climax of Zephaniah’s message, we see that they have become just as ungodly as their surrounding nations.

The Lord continues speaking through Zephaniah, saying:
Of Jerusalem I thought, ‘Surely you will fear me and accept My correction!’ Then her place of refuge would not be destroyed, nor all my punishments come upon her.
But they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did.
Therefore wait for me, for the day I will stand up to testify.
I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms
and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger.
The whole land will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.
On that day you, Jerusalem, will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me, because I will remove from you your arrogant boasters.
Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill. But I will leave within you the meek and humble.
The remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the Lord.
They will do no wrong; they will tell no lies.
A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths.

The Lord is coming, Zephaniah says. He is coming to visit the nations surrounding Israel, but He is also coming to visit the city where His name dwells, the city of Jerusalem where both His people and his own house reside. And when he comes, Zephaniah says, the fire of His jealous anger comes with him, consuming “the whole land” because the whole land of Israel had become accustomed to their own defilements, approving of their own evil desires, just like their surrounding nations. A terribly jealous fire comes with the Lord's visitation, but here at the end of Zephaniah’s message we learn that His visitation of fire does much more than destroy cities and their buildings. Above all the things which the fire of God brings, most importantly it brings purification.

When the Lord comes to visit His people, the lips of His people are cleansed so that they can call upon Him with thankfulness, serving Him without defiled offerings of speech (3:9-11). The Lord says to them, You will not be put to shame (v. 11). I will leave within you the meek and humble (v. 12). They will do no wrong. They will tell no lies. A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths (v. 13).

Notice carefully that when the Lord gathers the nations together for judgment, He has no intention of destroying His own people in their midst. His judgment included the land of Israel and the people of Israel, but the remnant of His people were purified by His visitation. So in that “Day of the Lord” which Zephaniah spoke about (that day when the people of Jerusalem saw their own city and temple brought to ruin by the Babylonian armies, and the subsequent deportation into Babylonian captivity), that was not the destruction of God's people. That was the destruction of all their idols and entertainments, basically the entire world as they knew it, but it wasn't the destruction of God's people. God was destroying all the vain confidence they had in themselves, and their arrogant boasting like the nations around them. God was destroying their love for lies, and their deceitful tongues, promoting gross injustices and treachery toward their neighbor.

It is in that context in mind that we finally reach our reading for today. It is in the context of God visiting His people to change the way we live our lives—to think and live Godly again—that Zephaniah proclaimed God's good news:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel!Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!The Lord has taken away the judgments against you!He has cleared away your enemies!The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst!You shall never again fear evil! On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:“Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will direct you by his love; He will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the appointed time, so that you will no longer suffer reproach.Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes”

When God comes, He comes to clean His house, but the purpose of cleaning house is because He wants to live there. And if His people are going to dwell in his house, they need to be holy and pure even as He is holy and pure. 

Notice carefully that this message is virtually the same as what we find in our gospel and epistle readings for today. In our gospel reading, John the Baptist is approached by the rulers of Israel in his day. And he message is very much like Zephaniah’s. He scolds them for their corruption and vain confidence. You vipers!, he says. Who warned you to flee from God's wrath that's about to fall upon this generation? The axe is already laid to the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Don't say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' so God won't come and cut us down like he does with the surrounding nations.

That was the message of John the Baptist. It was a message of God coming to judge Israel as an idolatrous nation that boasted like all the other surrounding idolatrous nations.  
The crowds then asked John the Baptist, “What then shall we do?”He answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

John's message was about God coming to purify a remnant of people for Himself, and a bunch of people understood that. Notice carefully that when some of the people asked John what to do, he told them what to do. John didn’t say ‘There’s nothing you can do! Just sit back, do nothing, and let God do His thing.” Not only does John not say that, but he says the very opposite of that. It is precisely because God was coming to visit His people that he told them to prepare to meet Him. In preparation for that meeting, he tells them to purify the way they've been speaking, and thinking, and behaving with their neighbors, in their homes, and in their workplace. To the one he says, in essence, help others in need with the abundance of good things that God gives you. If you have two tunics in your closet or enough food for a buffet at dinnertime, don't covet what you have. If one of your neighbors is in need of a tunic (and there definitely is at least one), give one of your tunics to him, and invite his family over for dinner too. 

To you, the tax collector, John says not to collect more in taxes just because you have the power to do so. Don't ever capitalize by an injustice to your neighbor. Even if it’s legal. Even if it’s “safe.” Even if you could move up the corporate ladder by just taking a tiny advantage of your neighbor, don’t do it. Resist that temptation. Don't encourage or advance business policies which exploit the poor and needy.

Even soldiers—military and police men of the region—came to John asking what to do, and notice carefully again that John didn't tell them to stop protecting the peace of the city. He doesn't advocate that they quit their jobs or throw away their weapons. Instead, he tells them to stop their abuse, and the cover-up of their scandalous abuses. He tells them to stop their threats and false accusations, their extortions and discontent. He tells them a message which many people in our American police force need to hear. 

John is directing the people, telling them to turn to God and His ways for purification. He's telling them to seek God's ways of humility and justice, because God was coming to pay a visit. One mightier than him was coming, the strap of whose sandals he was not worthy to untie; and that One comes with a winnowing fork in his hand, to clear the threshing floor of Israel, and to gather the wheat into his barn, leaving the chaff for burning.

Does that sound like good news to you? Do these messages of God, through John or Zephaniah, sound like the gospel of our Lord? Does all of this talk about justice and purification sound like a gospel which helps our hearts rejoice? Our answer might be 'No', but it should be 'Yes'! At least that's what Luke tells us. Luke tells us that this message of purification was essential to the gospel. In verse eighteen of our gospel reading today, Luke says this:

So with many other exhortations John preached the gospel to the people.

God's gospel is, first and foremost, a dreadful message of purification. When we hear about God coming in these terrifying ways, we cringe, as we should. God's good news is that He cares so much about this world we live in, and the sins we persist in, that He doesn't leave us alone in our sin. He comes to change us. He comes to purify nations and cities, villages and towns, neighborhoods and homes, parents and children. He comes to lay an axe to the root of our pride and arrogance. He comes with a winnowing fork in his hand to gather up our heaps of lies, threats, and false accusations, to destroy them. He comes to purify our abusive speech, evil schemes, and unholy discontent. He comes to clean house so that he can dwell with us, in our midst again.

Take a few moments to reflect upon this idea of God dwelling with us. Ask yourselves: When I look around at my surrounding neighborhood and city, does it look like a city filled with people who God wants to dwell with?

Look at the police force in this city, or the military personnel stationed around our state, and ask yourself, Are these people who God wants to dwell with?

Look at the politicians of your city and ask, Are they people who God wants to dwell with?

Last, but not least of importance, look at the people you work with, or those who are just friendly acquaintances here around you in this city. Take a good look at the way they speak, and how they discuss the treatment of others. What are their views about people of color? What do they say about refugees? Is their speech unjust or arrogant? Is their view of our nation like that of Israel or Assyria, that "we" are special descendants of Providence, that “we” are "the one" and there is no other like us? That “we” must not tolerate "them" or that they must become one of us?

Does God want to dwell with people like that? 

Again, our instinctive answer might be 'No', but that kind of answer tells us more about how much purification we need as His people. Our answer should be an emphatic 'Yes' because our God comes into the midst of this messed up world as the One and only, the Almighty One who can save us from the mess we create. Like we saw earlier in Zephaniah, God has no interest in destroying us. Instead he wants to clean up this messed up world. That's why he came in Zephaniah's day, that's why He came in John's day, and that's why the Lord continues visiting His Church throughout all nations today.

When we consider how messy this world is, and how our own lives contribute to that mess, don’t let that become an opportunity of despair for you. Rather, let your conviction of that truth become an occasion to rejoice in the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is an occasion to rejoice because it means that God is coming to dwell among you and in you. Even for those of us who are like the soldiers and tax collectors in John's day, earnestly questioning what it is that we must do to prepare for God to enter our homes and our lives, this is still good news because in our readings for today we are told what to do. We are not left wandering around in despair. We ought to seek the Lord and His ways with humility. We ought to put away the foolish and wicked ways of the world, and instead put on Christ. We know that when God comes into our homes, and into our lives, He comes to clean us up. He cleans us up, not so he can kick us out and boast in his might, but so he can rejoice over us with gladness, direct us by his love, and change our shame into praise (Zeph 3:14-20). 

When you look at the messiness of life, do not despair. 
Turn to God and rejoice in Him always. 
The Lord is very near. So Again I say, rejoice! 
In baptism, our shame has been washed away. 
When we confess our sins together, we are welcome to draw near to Him at His Table, to eat a meal with that One who alone is mighty to save the world
Let that joy be known to everyone. 
With great thanksgiving, direct your prayers to God. 
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

* * * * * * *
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us, and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.