On Earth as it is in Heaven

In July I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

I am becoming convinced the Gospel wants us to be bi-lingual. Matthew, most of all, seems intent on teaching us a new language. Matthew speaks kingdom language. And his method is to saturate us in this language.

The Gospel does not want us to learn a new language just for the sake of learning. The Gospel wants us to be different. So Matthew gives us stories that are intended to change us. Not just stories for story sake, these are kingdom stories. Jesus tells these stories as if he is giving away the kingdom secrets.

The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are not to stay in heaven. Matthew preaches to us “on earth as it is in heaven.” One of these secrets is about forgiveness. It is not enough to forgive as everyone else forgives. So Jesus tells a story about forgiveness. This is not only a story but an invitation. Jesus invites us to participate in a ministry of forgiveness. Forgiveness is kingdom language.

Preachers Should Expect Surprise

In The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized William Willimon talks about how God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises. He says “We ought to preach as if we were opening a package that could be packed with dynamite.”

The people God chooses to love are certainly surprises. I like Willimon’s conversation held in an empty church building. “I’d sit down in my office, pour God a cup of coffee, and ask, ‘Now let’s go over this again. Why did you think it was a good idea to build a church here… Okay. But why these people?’” He goes on “And then God would reply, saying something to the effect that ‘these are my people… (this) is my idea of a good time.’”

While Willimon may not be preaching as he writes this, he is a preacher so it is no surprise he turns to a text. He claims no one preaches Genesis 38. In this text we meet Tamar who goes through husbands and funerals and is eventually sent away. Tamar the unmarried childless widow becomes the savvy deceptive harlot. Willimon describes her expected situation like this “End of story. Tragic. Dead End.” Instead “Because this is the Bible, where nearly anything can happen and often does… Tamar becomes the lead character.”

Just when we are wondering why Genesis gives an entire chapter to Tamar, we are surprised to find her again. Only this time we find her in the Gospel of Matthew. The childless widow harlot who seduced her father in law becomes the great great grandmother of Jesus. Have we mentioned that God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises?

Our history is full of ancestors we do not often talk about. We belong to a peculiar family. And we will continually be surprised by a God who would write a person like Tamar into the gospel. For “If Tamar could slip into the beginning of the gospel, so might you.”

A Written Sermon

“The Ministry of Forgiveness” (Matthew 6.12)

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are speaking a new language. This is the language of another kingdom. The truth is, we have become well versed in the language of the present kingdom. We throw around words like tolerance and use phrases like get over it and preach coexistence and learn to avoid people who have wronged us. We might use the word forgiveness but we use it for small matters. We might forgive someone for breaking a glass or getting the carpet dirty or hurting our feelings.

But in kingdom language, forgiveness is a revolutionary term. We can’t throw it around lightly. Forgiveness is shocking. Forgiveness is reckless. Forgiveness is undeserved. Forgiveness is world changing. When we pray this prayer we are praying for a revolution. We are praying for the world to change.

When we pray these words, we do so because of relationship with God. When we look at this prayer closely, it is not to dissect it into bite sized pieces so we can know more. We look at this prayer closely because we desire relationship with one who has long desired relationship with us. We seek to align ourselves with Jesus. We acknowledge we cannot tackle all of life’s problems and there are things we simply cannot accomplish. So we pray these words, entering a realm where God is ruler. We pray these words and understand where power lies. Matthew does not suggest power in prayer, Matthew wants to be clear, he is all in, power is with God. This prayer takes us into a realm where God is ruler. A realm where our will takes a backseat and God’s will comes to the forefront.

This part of the prayer has a strong interest in relationship with others. As we are forgiven, we are to forgive others. This would be so much easier to pray if it only were “forgive us…” It becomes complicated when we are expected to forgive others in the same way. Yet, Matthew wants us to know, we are forgiven so that we may participate in the ministry of forgiveness.

This changes everything. We cannot live life the same any longer. Since we are forgiven, we are expected to forgive. Have you been looking for a ministry to become involved with? This is your lucky day, Matthew is inviting you to the ministry of forgiveness. You haven’t been looking for ministry? Matthew doesn’t allow for that option – you have been called to the ministry of forgiveness.

Here is a connection between what God does and what we do. Later Matthew tells us the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. I will read the story… Matthew 18.23-35. This story provides a commentary on “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

As we are forgiven, we are expected to forgive. When God forgives us, we are to become representatives of forgiveness. It is like we are agents for the kingdom. We represent what it is like to live in this kingdom. Here where we receive and give forgiveness. Forgiving others is the proper response to being forgiven. In the parable we meet one who did not represent kingdom come. He was grateful for being forgiven but had no interest in forgiving others. He does not represent what it is like for God to rule on earth as it is in heaven. He is not speaking the language of another kingdom.

The unforgiving servant in the story wanted to pray the part “forgive us our debts” but not the part “as we forgive our debtors.” But the Lord’s Prayer is not a buffet where we pick and choose what appeals to us. We do not get to say yes to daily bread and being forgiven and then skip over forgiving others. This is the bare bones of Jesus teaching. The essentials of what we bring to God in prayer. The prayer helps us to pay attention to our soul. Don’t worry about what others are saying. Don’t worry about fairness. Don’t worry about how many likes you get – pay attention to your soul. Does it surprise us that Jesus includes forgiveness among the essentials of what we bring to God in prayer? Jesus desires to keep us close. Failure to forgive cuts you off. Failure to forgive is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

We might be uneasy with so much forgiveness talk. We certainly are not the first. Matthew tells a story about people uneasy with Jesus and his forgiveness policies. In this story we meet a paralyzed man. It is no surprise at this point that Jesus looks at the man, assesses his needs, then forgives the man’s sins. Others thought this was inappropriate, even blasphemous. We know how this story goes. Matthew wants us to know that in this kingdom, the king of the kingdom has authority to do anything. But everyone is not convinced so Jesus asks a question, “which do you think is simpler, to say, I forgive your sins or get up and walk?” We know what they are thinking. Anyone can say they forgive sins. Jesus turns to the paralyzed man and says “Get up, take your bed and go home.” Matthew does not leave us in suspense long, “and the man did it.”

We are beginning to get the importance of forgiveness in this prayer. The importance of forgiveness in this kingdom. Wherever Jesus goes, whoever he is with – forgiveness is his default strategy. Jesus is throwing forgiveness around like he found it at a wholesale club on discount.

One of the more well-known stories we have in the New Testament is a story about a running man. Today it is trendy to run. Clothing manufacturers might not care if you run but they want you to look like you run. Shoe manufacturers want you to wear shoes they have designed just for running. Dignified people are photographed while running. But when the story of the running man was told dignified people did not run. Dignified people did not even walk fast. But Jesus tells us a story about a running man. A man who embarrasses himself by his lack of dignity. It is more embarrassing when we realize he is running to greet one who is a disgrace, one who has embarrassed the family.

Sometimes we call this story the prodigal son, today we will call it the running man. We need stories like the running man because without them we cannot know the shocking undeservedness of what it means to pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” We need stories like the running man because we are not always convinced we need forgiven. And not always willing to forgive others. We need stories like the running man because we are inclined to think that people get what they deserve. Jesus is telling us about a kingdom that is ruled by a King who wants to forgive so badly that he will be like an undignified running man who cannot wait to meet a disgraced child.

We might be catching on that when we pray “forgive us our debts” God really wants to forgive. But this part “as we forgive our debtors,” That is still so complicated, it still seems so reckless. Not surprisingly, this has been questioned also. Matthew tells us that Peter wants to know how this works. Jesus has been throwing forgiveness around willy-nilly. Does it ever run out? Should we budget forgiveness? Should we reserve it for those more deserving? How many times? How about seven? Jesus replies, “seven, hardly. Try seventy times seven.”

It is so much easier to talk about forgiveness than it is to forgive someone who has really wronged you. Yet we gather to acknowledge, to receive, and to proclaim forgiveness. We are learning a new language. We are the representatives of forgiveness – called to the ministry of forgiveness. “forgive us… as we forgive our debtors.”

A Christmas Sermon

“Prophets and Kings” (Matthew 2.1-12)

We sometimes talk about the first testament in the bible (we often call it the Old Testament) as if it is an assortment of stories. As a series of stories that fit loosely together. However, when we read more carefully we discover it is a single great story. It is a story that is pointing to something big. It is a story that lets us in on the fact that old Israel was playing a critical role in a great drama. But the drama did not end with the conclusion of the Old Testament.

Through much of that grand story there is a strong undercurrent, something simmering, a repeated theme. David, in spite of his flaws, was a good king. Every king since has been less than David. Ever since, Israel is always looking for the next king like David.

Ever since David was king, kings have been born in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the place of the palace. That makes Matthew’s reference to an old prophecy somewhat a surprise. The old prophecy tells us that hope for the future is not in Jerusalem. It is time to go back to Bethlehem where David was born. The old prophecy is not only talking about a place but also a hope for a king like David.

The prophet is interested in a different kind of king because the kings of Jerusalem have become satisfied. The kings do not care for anyone other than themselves. The prophet says the solution is to return to humble beginnings. The prophet says it is time to go back to Bethlehem. The word used to describe Bethlehem literally means “insignificant” or “youngest.” Like Bethlehem, David was least significant in his family and the youngest of his brothers. The prophet reminds us that true kingship lies in the humble, insignificant roots of David and not the arrogant power hungry courts of the king.

Matthew inserts this prophecy into the story about a king who leaned toward the arrogant side. King Herod had already murdered two sons and his wife. He intended to keep his power, keep his throne safe and eliminate anyone who may have been a threat. And then the Magi show up. The Magi show up and ask “Where is He born King of the Jews?” The Magi show up and everyone gets nervous at the palace. Those same Magi who seem so trouble free in our nativity scenes show up and Matthew tells us that King Herod becomes “disturbed.”

The Magi may be surprise visitors who come from afar. The Magi have such good intentions; they show up bringing extravagant gifts. The Magi show up at the palace thinking this is the place one born King of the Jews may be found. The Magi show up and announce “We have come to worship Him.” King Herod hears this and becomes “disturbed.”

King Herod begins scheming already and asks where this one born King of the Jews may be found. He is told about the old document that contains the old prophecy that says the newborn King of the Jews will be born not in a palace but in Bethlehem. That same Bethlehem considered to be the least of places. That same Bethlehem where the great king David was born.

King Herod is scheming. That is what kings of earth do. They scheme, they plot, they make plans to keep their power. It is no surprise Herod is disturbed by the old prophecy. It is no surprise Herod is disturbed by the visit form the Magi. These things suggest he has been ruling all wrong. These things suggest he is not the rightful king. These things suggest that being king is something different than what he has been doing.

Just like the old prophecy said, just like King David, the newborn child King Jesus was born in the insignificant little town of Bethlehem. Like David, Jesus demonstrates that being king is found in humility.

The Gospel of Matthew is well aware of Bethlehem’s status. Matthew is also aware that Bethlehem is now the birthplace of two great kings. The old prophecy is not a romantic reminder to prompt us to begin a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The old prophecy is announcing that things are changing and that things have changed. This is the disturbing truth of God’s plan. Being king is not about wealth but justice. Living in this new kingdom is not about power but love.

This will not be popular with kings of the earth. This has never been popular with those who hold the power. But the old prophecy is part of a single great story that points us in a specific direction. This story does not point us to a little town that has become the birthplace of great kings. But to One who has been born the rightful King. One who does not rule like the earthly kings. One who rules in humility and love. One whose arrival we celebrate this day. And on account of that we can sing glory to God in the highest and glory to God on High Street.

An Advent Sermon

“Into the Darkness” (Isaiah 9.1-7)

It is possible that when you hear Isaiah 9 read out loud you can hear the Hallelujah Chorus playing in your head. Some of you might be humming the tune right now. Before Handel wrote that song, Isaiah sang it. Isaiah’s song takes us to faraway places by the sea like Zebulun and Naphtali. Lands that have known gloom and anguish and contempt. Isaiah’s song is a trip into darkness.

Darkness is a metaphor we use often. We have a pretty good idea what it means. If someone tells us we live in darkness we have an idea what they are talking about. If told we are against the night, we know that is something more than protesting when the sun goes down.

If you are familiar with rock band Led Zeppelin, you may have heard the song “Battle for Evermore.” The song has lyrics like “The dark lord rides in force tonight” and “Side by side we wait the might of the darkest of them all” and “Well the night is long, the beads of time pass slow.” If you are like me, pictures come to mind when you hear lyrics like that. I am thinking that if Isaiah would have known of Led Zeppelin he may have played that on his I-pod. Before we go further it is probably safe to say we are the only church in town who have talked about both “The Hallelujah Chorus” and Led Zeppelin this morning.

Isaiah wants us to know we are waiting in darkness. He wants us to understand things are not ok the way they are. So Isaiah gives us darkness. But he also gives us light. Our text almost seems out of place. The prior chapter was a message of distress, gloom, despair and darkness. It was a warning that people will be overwhelmed by the enemy. Directly after our text we learn that disaster has already struck the neighbors. In between, our text tells us “People who walk in darkness will see a great light.” And then, “Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.”

Isaiah likes to mix things up like this. His recipes include disaster mixed with peace. Despair mixed with hope. Darkness mixed with light. We know that darkness and light go together because our lives tell us they do. This time of year half the day is darkness. Not one of us has experienced a lifetime of only joy. We know disaster and despair. We know what it is like to be waiting in the dark. Isaiah is talking to people who know darkness all too well. He speaks to people who wonder if there will ever be light. To people who wonder if the darkness will ever end. Surrounded by darkness, Isaiah offers “People who walk in darkness will see a great light.”

It is into this darkness Isaiah sings the words “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government…” Yes Isaiah is talking about politics again. He is talking about a king who will be the evidence that God reigns. This king has more the one admirable trait. This list goes on “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

At this time of year we would do ourselves a disservice if we did not find ourselves in the Gospel. It is of interest that Matthew 4 takes us back to the dark lands of Zebulun and Naphtali (sound familiar?). Matthew tells us we are going back there in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet. It is not surprising to find a gospel text about a certain son of a carpenter who starts to preach about a kingdom of heaven. When he came, he came to a world where we were waiting in the dark. Matthew doesn’t say the words out loud but we know where he is going with this. If you are like me you picture the first Christmas as a night scene. This text would have us know the light shining into the darkness of that scene is not a star, but a child. And we are reminded that we were already given the words “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government…”

A Written Sermon

“A Long Journey of Presence and Absence” (Matthew 27.45-54)

Crucifixion. The word sometimes gets lost on us as we are inclined to think about the cross as a piece of religious furniture and crucifixion as some religious ritual. But lets be clear, what happened on Good Friday at the place called skull was an execution.

The Gospels give us permission to eavesdrop, to listen in on words spoke by Jesus on the cross. Words we have come to know as “the last words.” We might find ourselves asking the question “What would we expect to hear at an execution?” Each of the Gospel writers contribute. This is not a collecting of data about crucifixion. We listen in in order to learn how to follow. We read these words with the hope to discover what it means to be a disciple.

Matthew paints a gloomy scene. Jesus is not only executed but executed alongside convicted criminals. He has received the death penalty. Passersby insult him. He is taunted and mocked. He is insulted some more. Matthew does not even mention the pain. There is total darkness. It was inevitable that emotions would be strong. It is then we get the words… “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”

“My God, My God, whay have you forsaken me?” These are the only words from the cross we get from Matthew. We get them in Aramaic, perhaps so we won’t overlook them. Perhaps so we feel the emotion. Jesus is feeling forsaken. He is not the first, he is quoting a psalm. This is not a coincidence, the psalms are words used by old Israel to navigate during emotional terrain. The psalms are songs and prayers that travel a long journey of presence and absence. This “word” is part of the practice of singing and praying the psalms. Old Israel knew about the presence of God, that is why they could sing about being led beside still waters. Old Israel also knew absence. They know the feelings of being forsaken. Some still feel it.

Mark also records these words. His is a dark Gospel with dark powers showing up in the early chapters. Even Jesus is accused of being in league with dark powers. He writes these words after the deaths of Peter and Paul. He writes them to a church in danger of losing their own life. We might say they felt forsaken. He writes so that those who feel forsaken may have hope. The early church knew what it meant to feel forsaken. Some still feel it.

Of all people we can trust Jesus speaking these words. He knows what the presence of God feels like. He knows the presence of God in healing the leper, in making the lame walk, the blind to see. He knows the presence of God when the dead are raised. He knows as he witnesses the kingdom of heaven come to earth. We can trust Jesus. Since he knows so clearly what presence is like, we can trust him to recognize absence.

What goes through our mind as we read this text? This is a word we might expect during an execution but not one we were hoping for. We hear a word like “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and we might think “Oh that Jesus, always thinking about forgiveness.” But we read this word “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and think “Oh no, what are we going to do with this?” Forgiveness fits nice in our vocabulary. Abandonment belongs to some other story. Yet this text reminds us, our story is one of presence and absence.

These words remind us the cross is not for safe religion. The cross cannot be reduced to a piece of religious furniture. Crucifixion is not just another religious ritual that can be cleaned up easily afterward. Pop religion will try to convince us that a scene like this is not even possible. Pop religion, pop psychology, pop songs – they all try to do the same thing. They all try to convince us they can simplify complicated things in the hope of selling something along the way. We know this all too well, we are presently getting a regular dose of pop politics.

The cross goes against the way the world works. The cross leaves the holiness of God raw in the world. This is evidenced as the temple curtain is torn and as the Son of God hangs exposed. The cross exposes a holy God and His plan of victory by weakness.

We do not want to neglect the conclusion of the scene. The temple curtain tears, the earth shakes, the rocks split, tombs open, bodies are raised, the Romans are terrified. And whatever conclusion we come to, we know, this was no ordinary execution. What are we to make of this response to Jesus three o’clock afternoon prayer? What are we to make of the way God answers the prayer of His forsaken son?

We may know what presence feels like. We may be able to point to people, situations, and activities where we have known the presence of God. We may claim to know absence. We may experience absence even when among people, in places, and during activities where we used to feel His presence. These words may leave us with questions. But they do not point fingers at us. The text simply highlights the reality of a long history of presence and absence. The text does not provide an escape from absence, instead it may imply that following Jesus may bring us into places where we feel forsaken. But Matthew reports them so we can learn to follow. Matthew wants us to know what it means to be a disciple.

Perhaps the text wants us to recognize that Jesus is present even in the absence. That Jesus is there even during feelings of abandonment. Jesus is there even during unimaginable pain. That even in our worst times, we are not alone. We journey with one who knows how to navigate dark days. We are following one who has traveled the paths of presence and absence. This is good news. We cannot be where he has not already been.

Matthew and Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew weaves together narrative stories with sections of teaching to help us recognize that Kingdom words are related to the narrative stories of earth. An implied question becomes “what kingdom are you claiming as reality?” Matthew knows there is a difference between what God wants and what people are doing.

This may be the reason Matthew uses the phrase “the Kingdom of heaven” – to present a contrast with the rule of earthly kings. It is certainly interesting that we read a disturbing story about an earthly king immediately before Matthew introduces the phrase “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Does Matthew present Herod as a representative earthly king who is rival to Jesus and therefore a representative of the kingdom of earth vs. the divine rule of the Kingdom of heaven?

Matthew presents a case that rule has been re-established in King Jesus. This rule on earth becomes connected to the rule of the King of heaven. Preaching the Gospel of Matthew includes the announcement that heavenly rule has invaded the land in Jesus and is challenging the corrupted rule of earth’s kingdoms. We are called to live obediently under this rule on earth.