My God, my God,…why?

Text: Psalm 22, Good Friday

Let us pray,

Father God, we have entered once again into the deepest and darkest mysteries of your love for us, to stand at the foot of your cross and to gaze at the broken and bleeding body of your son. Our ears ring again with the story of his passion, and we are all too aware that we have little understanding of the real agony he endured and of the love that put him there. Father, open the hearts of all who have gathered here and everywhere this day of sorrow and death to the fullness of what you did for us that day through the cross, and let us never forget why we remember the wounded flesh, the spilled blood, the thorns, and the rough hewn wood as good. In the name of he who died, that we wouldn’t have to, Jesus Christ. Amen.

And so we have come again to the darkest of all days to witness a violence we can only barely comprehend. It is a story we have heard many times, and recently seen dramatized graphically on the big screen. But even as we look on the violence and recognize the physical agony, and comment on how terrible the torture must have felt, how long the walk with the cross must have been, and how shameful it was to die as a criminal and to hang on a cross, none of us truly comprehend what it means.

Most of us, really, are desensitized to the violence of it anyway. We have seen worse things dramatized in film and on television. We hear of violence as brutal time and again on the news, often with many more than one or two victims, and it takes little effort to recall the holocausts of history, wars, maimings, tortures, genocides, and burning towers.

As Christians, we don’t have to look any farther than our own brothers and sisters to know that a brutal death was not reserved for Christ alone. Christians have died for thousands of years by torture, fire, lions, stones, and weapons. Nothing has been spared of the imagination of evil men and women in devising ways to harm and kill those who claim to love and serve the Father as Jesus did. Jesus was not even the last to hang on cross.

Even today, if we’re willing to listen, we hear that many Christians in other parts of the world are going through horrendous violence in the name of Jesus. If we are honest with ourselves, I don’t think any of us we claim to really know and understand what that’s like.

So when we consider the cross and Christ’s broken body, we might wonder how brutal it really was. We who are so aware of violence as somewhat commonplace and yet removed enough from us to touch us only in our awareness might be tempted to ask what was really so awful about the cross by comparison. And if we were a victim of that kind of violence, who in death could stand before Jesus and compare the wounds and the scars, we might be tempted to ask how his suffering was any different than ours.

There is little doubt that if we look at the cross merely form the standpoint of its physical torture and social shame, if we see it as a brutal instrument of pain and agony, the cross is absolutely terrible and something we would never want to have to experience. But it isn’t unique, and there is much in this world we could look upon with equal fear and distaste.

But the cross was different for Christ.

He did suffer in ways most of us will never have to, but some have and will. But there was one way he suffered that was more terrible than all the rest, more horrendous than the shame of his trial, the flesh torn by the Roman whips, the thorns pressed upon his brow. more agonizing than the nails pounded through his sinews and bone into the splintered wood, than the hours of thirst and labored breathing, and the spear in his side. There was something Jesus endured that was more intensely painful than the jeers of the crowd, the spittle on his face, the taunts of the soldiers, and even the denial and betrayal by his dearest friends. There was something Jesus went through that he never would have had to face if it wasn’t for us and our sin, something so profoundly terrible that we cannot even begin to really imagine what it was like even if we spend our lives trying, something that even the most brutalized Christians, past or present, could not begin to understand, something that wounded Jesus more deeply than anything else he endured.

There was something Jesus suffered that we will NEVER understand because we will NEVER have to face it.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Pslam 22.1).

Jesus Christ

– the alpha and omega,

– who was one with the Father from the begin of all time

– who knew God as only God himself could

– who knew the constant love and companionship of the Father intimately and deeply

– who walked the entire road to the cross with the confidence of the Father’s love and presence and the full knowledge of his blessing and will

Jesus Christ, because he was our sin for us, before holy God, because he was our guilt, our shame.

Jesus Christ was utterly, completely, forsaken by God the Father.

And because he was…we never will be.

Earlier we read the words from Psalm 22 that Jesus spoke during his last moments on the cross. They are words we can read and speak, but they are words we will never truly say as ours. To the wind, and to the silence, Jesus cried:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

But I am a worm, not a human being;
I am scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the LORD,” they say,
“let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me feel secure on my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.

My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

But you, LORD, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me. (Psalm 22.1-19)

But this time, the help did not come, and Jesus’ strength left him. “For the first time in eternity,” as singer and writer Michael Card reminds us, “Jesus was alone. Abandoned. No Father. No answers. Only Silence” (Michael Card, A Violent Grace, 134).

Do we understand what this meant? Can we understand what it means to be abandoned by God, to have him truly turn his face from us and to leave us utterly alone?

We can’t…because Jesus did.

And this is why we can only comprehend in part what it means to suffer in this way, why we must use our imaginations and then recognize that we can’t imagine enough to really understand this mystery. As violent and depraved as our world seems to be, as dark and brutal this fallen world is, and as much as it seems to us sometimes that God is nowhere to be found, the fact is that we have never tasted what it’s like to be abandoned by him.

The creator and sustainer still makes the world go ‘round, and though we reject him and fail him, though we don’t believe or believe poorly, we have truly never known how bad it can be to be left fully to ourselves.

That would be, quite literally…hell.

Even in our darkest moments, even for those who lay no claims to knowing God, we have never known what it means to be forsaken.

But Jesus did.

And because Jesus did—we don’t have to.

In the very moment when God was most absent,

– when the veil over the cross was the deepest darkness between the Son and the Father

– when Jesus Christ was abandoned by the Father because he bore our sin

– when he was wounded in ways we can never imagine

– when jesus Christ was more like us than we could ever be ourselves, more fully separated from God in sin, bearing on his own body and in his very being the consequences of our disobedience, our rejection, our pride and willfulness, and trapped in time and a mortal body, dying as Son of Man on a cross,

In that very moment, the worst we can only begin to imagine, God was closer to us than ever, and the veil between us and the Father was torn in two. Jesus assured that we would never, ever have to know and understand what it means to be forsaken by God.

This is the depth of Christ’s love for us, that while we were still sinners, while we should have born not only the wounds of the body but the unbearable agony of abandonment and eternal silence,

He died for us.

His love is why this day is good and why in our darkest moments we are never abandoned. In the deepest darkness of our sin, Jesus became all that we are and bore the wounds we will never have to bear—the abandonment of the Father, the silence…even hell itself.

My God, my God, why…?

So…

The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the LORD
will praise him— may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.

All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.

They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn, saying

He has done it! (Psalm 22.26-31)

For whom are you looking?

Text: John 20.1-18

Every Easter, we gather in our churches to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For some of us, Easter Sunday is a high point on a deepening spiritual journey, a rich and meaningful immersion in the reality of the risen Christ. Easter is the culmination of months of enriching spiritual discipline. We’ve humbled ourselves throughout the Lenten season, we’ve concentrated with prayer and meditation on the passion of our Lord during Holy Week, and we’ve come prepared to experience his resurrection afresh in our lives. We know Jesus intimately, and we’re eager to spend this special time with him and our brothers and sisters who know him as well.

For some of us, Easter is a good day to celebrate the truth of our faith, but it doesn’t seem to move us very deeply. We tried to keep some focus over the last few weeks, but life continued to get in the way. To much is going on for us to pay that much attention to Easter. In many ways it’s just another Sunday. Easter is special, but we can’t let it intrude too much on all the other things we have going on in our lives. We know Jesus. In fact, we rely on him to get us through these busy days, but sometimes our neighbor, our boss, and the man in the car ahead of us is more real than Jesus is.

Some of us, are here because, …well, we’re not entirely sure. We come week after week because it’s the thing to do, or maybe we rarely come at all, but we feel like we should at least be in church at Christmas and Easter. Perhaps our husband or wife wanted us to come. Our children begged, or our parents insisted. Easter is a holiday, and a couple of hours in church won’t hurt. It’s special, but so is Christmas and Mother’s Day. We believe in God, and we try to get to church every once in a while. We know about Jesus, at least a bit, and we’re happy with the bit we know.

There are other reasons some of us are here, I’m sure. There are probably as many different reasons and different expectations as there are people in this sanctuary. And we all know something about Jesus and Easter, quite a lot, or a little bit.

No matter why you’re here, though, no matter what is on your mind, whether you want to be here and whether or not you’re worshiping or wishing you were somewhere else, the fact remains that you are here, and Jesus has a question for you. No matter what plans you have for the rest of the day, no matter what else is on your mind at the moment, I hope you’ll give Jesus the courtesy of a few minutes of your attention so he can ask you that question.

And while we have those few minutes, as we wait for Jesus to ask his question, please consider Mary Magdalene with me.

Mary Magdalene knew Jesus. She knew him first as someone who did her a rather big favor—he delivered her from no less than seven demons (Mark 16.9, Luke 8.2). We don’t have much more information than that. We don’t know what they were like, or what kind of chaos they caused for her, but we do know that she was delivered. From that time she followed Jesus and is even described as having provided for him for a considerable portion of his ministry (Matthew 27.56; Mark 15.40-41).

Mary, likely a woman of some means, spent quite a bit of time with Jesus. In fact, she’s almost always mentioned as one of the women who accompanied Jesus’ mother. Perhaps they shopped together and prepared meals for Jesus and his disciples. They probably sat around the table talking and enjoyed quiet afternoons together.

Together, Mary and Mary witnessed the entirety of Jesus’s ministry—his miracles, his struggles with the pharisees, his compassion with the people, his intimate moments with his disciples. They witnessed them not as curious followers but as family and friends. Unlike many of Jesus’s followers who deserted him in a time of fear and need, we know that Mary Magdalene was present at the crucifixion. She also witnessed Jesus’ burial and was there when the tomb was sealed.And in our gospel reading today, she was among the first at the tomb the day Jesus was raised.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (John 20.1, NRSV). What was Mary looking for when she went to the tomb that morning? She was looking for the body of her dear friend who had rescued her from a life of slavery to sin and demons, her friend with whom she’d traveled and for whom she cared for so long. She was going to remember and grieve over the body of the amazing man whose miracles she’d witnessed again and again. She was going to anoint her dead friend whose body she saw beaten and pierced, whose corpse she saw removed from the cross and sealed behind the stone.

And what did she find? An empty tomb.

So she gets Peter and John, and they see the tomb, and they leave, wondering what it meant. Perhaps they were worried that they would be accused of stealing the body. Perhaps they were beginning to remember a bit of what Jesus told them in a new light.

But Mary stays behind, and everything changes. She sees the angels and responds to their questions, probably not even aware at that time who they were.

And then she sees Jesus.

She doesn’t recognize him. Mary, who was delivered by his hand from demons, who was with him through most of his ministry, who helped feed and care for him, who witnessed his death, and who watched as he was laid in the tomb, doesn’t recognize her friend and Lord.

So Jesus poses a question.

His question is innocent, coming from the gardener Mary supposed him to be. But coming from the resurrected Lord of all creation, it’s the question of the ages. Mary, who had known Jesus as he was and as she continued to expect him to be, did not recognize him as he now was. Jesus, who knew her as she once was, knew her also as she now was, asked her the question that got to the heart of the matter this first resurrection morning.

For whom are you looking?

In those few words hung the balance of Mary’s life. It was one of those kinds of questions that asks one thing but communicates so much more. Mary, are you looking for your familiar friend as you knew him and now grieve for him? Are you looking for your deliverer who was always there, always assuring, always loving? Are you looking for the one you saw laid in the tomb, your noble but tragic friend who could not fight the forces that were against him?

Or

Are you looking for the risen Christ who is victorious over powers you can’t even imagine? Are you looking for the unexpected king of the universe who conquered all by giving everything? Are you looking for the re-creating Lord who is as frightening as he is familiar, who makes everything new? And Mary, when you find what you’re looking for, are you prepared for what you’ll find?

All this and more were wrapped up in those few little words, for whom are you looking?

And then Jesus did something amazing. He called Mary by name. In a word, as intimate as her own name, he showed his dear friend who he really was. In two short syllables, he changed her entire world. In the simple, loving utterance of one familiar friend to another, he turned everything she knew about life and death, everything she knew about her own past, everything she expected from her future, and everything she thought she knew about him—completely upside down.

Mary came to the tomb that morning expecting to find Jesus. She came prepared to find him as she last knew him; a warm memory, a cold body, a dear friend, now a departed friend.

Instead she found the risen Christ, and her whole life was changed.

I said before: We’re all here for different reasons, looking for different things. We all have some knowledge of Jesus, and we all expect to find him in one way or another. But no matter how much or how little we expect from him, whether we know him as friend or name in an old book, whether we’ve walked with him every day or just come for one of a few holidays, or whether we know him deeply or barely have time to spend with him, Jesus meets us here today, as he did Mary Magdalene, with a very simple and loaded question.

For whom are you looking?

Are you looking for what you expect to find, or are you really open to know him as he is?

– The resurrected Christ who defied recognition by even his closest friends.

– The resurrected Christ who is able to change us into something so new we cannot conceive it—so new we may even be afraid of it.

When he calls you by name, will you recognize him?

You know, Mary’s story did not end with that recognition. Mary worshiped her risen Lord, so much so that she clung to him, Jesus had to tell her to let go. Mary was given a special task. Mary Magdalene, known often merely as one of the women who accompanied Jesus’ mother, was sent to bear witness to Jesus’ own disciples!

And she did it.

Mary was with the disciples long after this day. She most likely spent much more time with Jesus during the forty days he spent with his followers before he ascended into heaven. And she was with them at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given and a handful of once fearful people began the church and rocked the world. Mary went looking for her familiar friend, encountered the risen Christ, and opened herself to the fullness of his new creation in her life.

What will happen to us today when Jesus speaks our name?

Will we turn away in fear, or will we worship him and open ourselves to his unpredictable, unimaginable newness of life? Will we retreat again to what we were comfortable knowing, or will we risk everything to participate in his resurrection?

For whom are we looking?

Let us look today not for the savior of our own desire but for the risen Christ, whose resurrection glory defies explanation and blows away all expectations. Let us hope in the risen Christ because he draws us from death into unexpected life. Let us be eager to let go of everything so that he can take us and recreate us into something we never would have guessed.

There was another witness at the tomb that morning. It was not until later that he would also encounter his risen Lord and go through the transformation that would take him from coward to fearless apostle of Christ.

As we listen to Jesus’ question this morning, listen carefully to what Peter had to say to those who have encountered the risen Christ and have taken the risk and opened ourselves to his newness.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

…Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1.3–9, 13-16)

Amen and amen!

No matter how you got here this morning, and no matter who you were looking for when you came, Jesus has already asked you this question.

For whom are you looking?

And he’s about to speak your name. When he does, I pray that, with Mary, Peter, John, and Paul, with the prophets of old and the living church of today,

– with Thomas, Clement, Justin Martyr, and Polycarp

– with Theodore, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Cyril

– with John of Damascus and Thomas Aquinas

– with Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley

– with Theresa of Ávila, Thomas More and John Henry Newman

– with Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis

– with these who are going to be baptized and those who will reaffirm their baptism this morning

– with all of the witnesses to the living Christ from the distant past to the emerging future, young and old, dead and living

– with all who have seen him with their eyes and all who have known him through his Spirit

– with all who have heard him call their name

that you too will proclaim with your lips and show with your life that

Christ is Risen!

Listen…

Text: Isaiah 51

The children among us can probably relate to the fact that when a parent says, “Listen,” they rarely mean just “hear the words I’m about to say.” In my house, words of instruction or correction are usually followed by, “do you understand?” which is parent code for “I’ve explained this ten times already and you still haven’t listened—are you going to SHOW me this time that you get it, or am I going to have to SHOW you how you’re gonna’ get it?!”

When parents know that we have something important to say but are likely to be ignored, we start out with a warning, with just the right edge in our voice—just enough, we think, to raise the hair on the back of the neck, enough to convey a healthy sense of impending disaster if what is about to be said is not heard, understood, and put immediately into practice. And we say, “You’d better listen…”

But of course they often don’t, and our bluff is called. We have to resort to sterner means to get their attention, and then we speak our words of correction and end up back at “do you understand?”

Of course none of this is a problem for the children with us this morning—is it kids? I said, is it kids?Are you listening?

Some children (present company excepted), have perfected the art of not listening so well that they can listen to anything you say and give every indication that they’ve heard you, and yet with great skill and obvious flare, they ignore everything you’ve just said.

If you press the issue, they can repeat all that you said—even in the same tone of voice. But they continue to do what you told them not to…or fail to do what you told them to do. The technical term, of course, is ‘practiced indifference’.

Closely related is ‘cultivated tolerance’ with which words of warning or instruction are met with some form of partial obedience—often grudging and only enough to appease the raving lunatic who will obviously suffer an aneurism if they don’t do something. But the next time the situation arises, even when they know exactly what you’re going to say—even when they know what they’ll end up doing. It takes the raving lunatic again to move them to a minimal compliance laced with a carefully cultivated expression of scorn and displeasure.

Then there is what I consider to be the most insidious form of not listening there is, technically known as ‘passive disobedience’ (AKA ‘the Ghandi complex’, and popularly known as ‘the blank stare’). No matter what is said at any volume, no matter how many blood vessels rupture, no matter how many times your head spins around, everything you say (or scream) is quietly absorbed by the completely un-reactive, entirely unaffected, unflinching, unwavering, unresponsive, un-anything stare of the little angel who has no intention of doing anything at all.

While it may seem from these and many other listening disorders that our children never listen (I call them disorders, others might consider them artful avoidances), we know that they do sometimes. We even begin to experience what we hope for from the beginning as their indifference turns to attentiveness and effort. Their tolerance, or even outright defiance, becomes understanding and an eagerness to do what is right, and the blank stares soften into warm smiles.

Our words change too, as we have less to correct and more to encourage. We can instruct less and share more. “Listen” can and does become less a warning and more a prelude to wisdom or comfort, and “do you understand” ceases to be a code for “you better hear and obey” as it becomes an honest invitation to question further, share more, and admit to new levels of insight and appreciation.

From the very first time we sternly begin with “Listen, you’d better…,” we yearn for the day when we can softly say “Listen, I’m happy that you have… .” Even to the one we have punished many times, to the one who has tried every form of artful avoidance known to humankind, and to the one who has tried our patience and tested the resolve of our love, we yearn speak words of comfort and restoration. We yearn to share our wisdom and have it heard, appreciated, and practiced. All those years of correction and instruction, all of the difficult times of ranting and raving, cajoling and punishing, of trying to get our children to listen, are justified in those moments when they finally do listen.

The difference has nothing to do with their hearing, for they’ve heard what we’ve said all along. The difference, is that they have changed the way they listen. They have changed themselves. And their relationship with us has changed. Slowly their hearing becomes doing, and they begin to listen not to the words you say over and over again but to the character you’ve formed in them, the one you’ve molded through careful correction and instruction—through all those times of “You’d better listen,” and “Do you understand?” They begin to show that they have and are listening by the way they behave—by the way they respond to new situations and by the way they apply the wisdom and the patterns of behavior you’ve worked so hard to instill in them.

Where they were once passive, tolerating, and disobedient, they become active listeners, able to think and behave obediently and with good judgment. They are able to receive words of wisdom with thoughtfulness and understanding.

The way God deals with his people, and the ways his people respond, with artful avoidance or active and obedient listening is much the same. In Isaiah we have what amounts to a showcase of this whole pattern of listening (or not).

The book of Isaiah spans a period of nearly 250 years, from the time the northern kingdom, Israel, fell to the Assyrians and the southern kingdom, Judah, lived between rival superpowers through the time when Judah was taken by Babylon and many exiled to that distant land, to the time when the Persians took Babylon and allowed Israel and Judah to return home.

It opens at a time when the worlds greatest parent—God almighty—by whose word heaven and earth, even we ourselves came to be. The God of Israel and of all nations by whose word Abraham was called, and Moses was sent. The God whose word delivered his people and gave them a land, kings, and riches and who, with the patience that only God could have, had parented his children through prophet after prophet with many a “Listen,” a “Hear what I, the Lord, have to say.” God who, with the love of the parent of parents, punished and restored, corrected and forgave. Isaiah opens with THE parent…who reached the end of his rope.

And so God sends Isaiah of Amoz, the prophet for whom the book was named and perhaps the most important prophet in Israel’s history. Isaiah appears on the scene just as one recalcitrant child has been severely punished and put under the yolk of the aggressive Assyrian empire and the other cowers in fear before the world’s superpowers. And the first words from Isaiah, from God’s mouthpiece, the lips that were purified with fire in his famous vision in the temple, are these:

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.

The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand. (Isaiah 1.2–3, NRSV)

Almighty God speaks the frustration of a long-suffering parent and cries to whomever will listen, “I’ve screamed and yelled until I’m blue in the face and they still don’t understand!” Then with the passion of the ages, God the Father turns to his children and meets their practiced indifference, their cultivated tolerance, and their passive disobedience with some of the harshest judgment in scripture. “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of your God, you people of Gomorrah!” he rages, comparing them to the worst sinners in their collective memory.

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord;

I have had enough…
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil… . (Is. 1.10–11, 13–16)

“I’ve told you a thousand times what I desire of you, and still you won’t obey. I’ve had it this time—get it straight, or else!”

We know he wasn’t kidding, for the Chaldeans came from Babylon a little over a hundred years later, and the temple was destroyed. The princes of Judah were taken into captivity, and for several generations, Israel and Judah were no more.

But even in the midst of his anger, God loved his people. He saw through the unfortunate and difficult punishment he was about to deliver to a time when they would be restored. He looked forward to a time when they would listen and understand, and make his wisdom their own. “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;” he says in chapter 30,

…therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes will see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, This is the way; walk in it. Then you will defile your silver-covered idols and your gold-plated images. You will scatter them like filthy rags; you will say no to them, “Away with you!” (Is. 30.18–22)

Our reading from Isaiah, this morning, comes directly from that moment when, in the heat of punishment, the people are crying and the Lord hears and prepares for their restoration. Isaiah of Babylon, sometimes known as second or deutero-Isaiah, was most likely a prophet in the tradition of the original Isaiah of Amoz who took his name, as was common practice. Beginning with chapter 40, Isaiah of Babylon spoke the word of the Lord to people who were in the midst of their punishment, their exile, only a short time before Babylon would fall and the conquering Persian king, Cyrus, would allow the scattered people to return to their homeland.

Isaiah’s words at this time were of hope and confidence spoken to a very demoralized people. In fact, the very famous servant songs that look forward to the messiah were part of the promise of God through this prophet.

Where Isaiah of Amoz was burdened with judgment against people going the wrong way, who were failing to listen to God, Isaiah of Babylon was blessed with encouragement for a people who hungered for any word God would speak to them. Nearly 200 years before Isaiah of Babylon could speak the “Listen” of comfort and wisdom, Isaiah of Amoz spoke the “Listen” of warning that was not heard by the ears of indifference, by people who thought they knew better and who continued to go their own way and do their own thing.

Only a century later, Jeremiah would speak the same word of the Lord in desperation to stubborn people who thought they were on the right track—people who would yet again ignore the raving lunatic who threatened punishment with blank stares and hardened hearts. We know that their indifference to the warnings, their minimal compliance, and their blank stares when they were corrected was their doom—and Jerusalem fell.

The “Listen” of warning that Isaiah of Amoz spoke and Jeremiah cried went unheeded, and the Lord exercised judgment. The people of Judah, like the Northern Kingdom before them, went into what was essentially an extended and very difficult grounding.

Finally, they were ready to listen, to hear God’s words of wisdom and comfort. Their indifference had changed to desire. Their tolerance became a hunger for righteousness. Their blank stares softened to longing expressions, seeking God’s word and deliverance.

Listen to what God says to them through Isaiah in chapter 51. “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord” (51.1). What a change! They seek the Lord, they are ready to listen!

Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to thew quarry from which you were dug.
look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many. (1-2)

Remember where you came from and what I did for you. And know what I will do for you even now.

For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song. (3)

What a picture of restoration!

Listen to me, my people,
and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples. (4)

My people again! Under my care and protection! And now I will share my wisdom that you are ready to hear and understand.

I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.

Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;
but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended. (5-6)

I will deliver you for my purpose—and remember who it is who saves you now, for everything else is temporary compared to my salvation. “Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts” (51.7). Again, what a change—they get it, and he is is ready to encourage them

Do not fear the reproach of others,
and do not be dismayed when they revile you.
For the moth will eat them up like a garment,
and the worm will eat them like wool;
but my deliverance will be forever,
and my salvation to all generations. (7-8)

And then a reminder of just who it is that is speaking to them and how he will deliver them,

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord!
Awake as in the days of old, the generations of long ago!
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (9-11)

And then words of comfort and restoration,

I, I am he who comforts you;
why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die,
a human being who fades like grass?
you have forgotten the Lord your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth.
You fear continually all day long
because of the fury of the oppressor,
who is bent on destruction.
But where is the fury of the oppressor?
The oppressed shall speedily be released;
they shall not die and go down to the Pit,
nor shall they lack bread.
For I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name.
I have put my words in your mouth,
and hidden you in the shadow of my hand,
stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, “You are my people.” (12-16)

And then a call to action to all who are still reeling from the punishment, still wounded,

Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!
Stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath,
Who have drunk to the dregs the bowl of staggering.
There is no one to guide her among all the children she has borne;
there is no one to take her by the hand among the children she has brought up.

These two things have befallen you—
who will grieve with you?—
devastation and destruction, famine and sword—
who will comfort you?
Your children have fainted,
they lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net;
they are full of the wrath of the Lord,
the rebuke of your God.

Therefore hear this, you who are wounded,
who are drunk, but not with wine:
Thus says your Sovereign, the Lord,
your God who pleads the cause of his people:

See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
you shall drink no more from the bowl of my wrath.
And I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
who have said to you, “Bow down, that we may walk on you;”
and you have made your back like the ground
and like the street for them to walk on. (17-23)

I will restore you!

“Great story, pastor,” some of you might be thinking. We know what God did for Israel and the lessons they had to learn. We even know what he went on to do when he sent Jesus and opened the way to everlasting salvation that went far beyond restoring Jerusalem.

If we identify with God’s people in this case, perhaps we think of ourselves most like those to whom God was speaking words of comfort. We may consider ourselves those pursuing righteousness. In fact, the exile is over, Christ has come, and we enjoy the salvation and fellowship of God in ways they could only hope for.

But perhaps there are some of us here this morning who are willing to look a little deeper at the truth of our situation and the appropriateness of both the message of Isaiah of Amoz and Isaiah of Babylon for us even now.

The truth starts with the recognition that we are children of God, his people. Isaiah’s message is addressed to the people of God who aren’t listening, not to outsiders who don’t yet know that they should listen. In other words, rather than reason to pat ourselves on the back or puff up our chests because we’re not nearly as dense as those Israelites, we should ask ourselves how much we are like them and in need of Isaiah’s warning.

We are most in danger of needing to hear the warning of “listen” when we are too comfortable with who we are. What we think we hear of God’s word, even in comfort, is never stagnant or settling. God’s word always carries the “do you understand?” that expects response and transformation. And all too many of us are not really listening.

We come week after week, sit in our seats, hear the word of God, and walk away unaffected and unchanged—except perhaps more disgruntled with the pastor than when we came. We might even read our bibles and pray through the week—always asking for guidance and help, always seeking peace and comfort, and not once hearing when God says, “yes, but first YOU must listen.”

We are exposed to the truth of Almighty God that should shake us to our very foundation. We can even repeat the words in a pious tone of voice, perhaps even quoting chapter and verse, but we fail to understand and apply. Or we take and use only what we like, and fail to be confronted and changed by the word that surprises us, offends us, and puts us off-kilter.

Or maybe we understand more than we let on, and we have an idea what God is trying to tell us, but we do only enough to get by. We fail open ourselves fully to the demand and the grace of the Holy Spirit, because it’s too hard. Listening well involves too much risk—it means too much change. We might have to give something up, change our job and do with less money, admit we’re wrong, or worship a little differently.

There are those of us with the blank stares—the defiance that won’t even acknowledge that God is speaking. We are unflinching, unfeeling, unteachable, unbending, and desperately in need of being UNDONE.

Which kind of child are you? Which am I? It’s a question we must all ask ourselves and one that only we can ask of ourselves.

And then there is the church—which kind of child are we? Have we as a people gone astray? Are we failing to listen as we should? Are we open to the risk of hearing and understanding the word of God? Are we failing to listen to our past and our prophets? Are we stubbornly worshiping, fellowshipping, evangelizing, and doing church the way we think we should while remaining unchanged, unaffected, and unteachable?

Are we heading into exile as we watch a nation wander away on our watch? Are we so easily absorbed into the ways and values of culture, as we willingly submit to the oppression of wealth and progress, of individualism and prosperity? Do we wonder why justice no longer prevails, why only a few serve while the rest take, why personal security means more than sacrifice and servanthood—even in the church?

These are big questions all, personal and corporate. They are the questions that Isaiah SHOULD raise for us. They are the questions that should drive us to our knees and make us hungry for God’s mercy, for his deliverance, for his word.

Are we listening?

Even now, the Lord desires to speak the words he did through Isaiah of Babylon to the people in exile. He longs for his ‘listen’ of warning to become the ‘listen’ of comfort and wisdom.

What must we do, then?

Listen…

Listen to the word of warning, recognize the truth of who we are before the Lord, of our great need, for mercy and for abandonment to his will—his salvation.

Listen…

Listen not to what we think we need to hear, not to what we desire to hear, but to what God is really saying to us. Seek to be challenged and changed. Become teachable and open to any possibility. Hunger for God to speak. Work to understand, and be eager to do what he says.

And rouse ourselves…

Be active listeners, dependent upon God for who we are and what we do. Don’t be slaves to achievement or progress. Don’t be slaves to worldly values, wealth, or security. Don’t be enamored with our models of success or driven by our own expectations. Be willing to face powers and superpowers as God’s people, trusting in his power, his will, and his reward.

The Lord will take us to this place—by persuasion or by punishment. If we listen not to his word of warning, he will take us to the brink of desperation.

Be persuaded, learn to listen even now. Look to your past, he said through Isaiah, to the truth of who you are and who your ancestors were and the way I blessed them. Open yourself to my wisdom, my teaching, he said, “give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and MY justice for a light to the peoples” (Isaiah 51.4).

Recognize the fullness of who God is and the futility of who we are, for the “heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats,” but HIS salvation will be forever (51.6).

To participate in HIS salvation, to be restored and used as his people, we must

– Live a life of confession and humility

– Hunger for his word and the food of his table in worship and fellowship

– Expect to be changed and transformed by his Spirit in worship and each and every day

– Actively listen—be prepared to live HIS justice, HIS wisdom, and the hope of HIS salvation in the midst of a world full of oppression and pressure, of competition and selfishness, of self promotion, of suffering, of violence, and of injustice.

Listen, understand, and do—it’s the only way.

This was a difficult sermon to prepare. Much was laid on my heart—much that is difficult to express. Much was made clear by the Spirit that would take us many more hours to explore as we try to plumb the breadth and depth of the word of the Lord and to do it justice. I can only hope that we will all listen, with open ears and contrite hearts. I can only pray that we will all hear what the Lord is saying, through his struggling minister, through songs and prayers, through our feast at his table, and through the Holy Spirit who even now is speaking to each and every one of us.

I invite you now to quiet your hearts and minds to hear and understand. You can do this where you stand, or you can join me on your knees. Either way, without ceremony, let us reflect quietly on what the Lord, our God, has said and is saying to us.

Holy Father, we are your people who call upon you as children through the name and blood of Jesus Christ. We are desperate for your word. We are hungry for your salvation. We are ready to be taught, challenged, and changed by your wisdom in the power of your Spirit.

Humble us before your grace and glory. Use us as your justice and mercy in and for the world. Teach us to listen, in listening to understand, and in understanding to act, on your word, by your will, and in your grace. Amen.

Have mercy, O God

Text: Psalm 51 (2 Samuel 12)

The psalm for today, Psalm 51, is a lament, a raw, intimate, honest petition for mercy and forgiveness. Many of us know it well and love it.—David’s lament is deeply personal. He agonizes over his sin, and we are exposed to his confession, reconciliation, and transformation in a way that gets to the heart of our own faith and relationship with God.

David’s lament is also very public, included as it is in “the book of common prayer” of the Hebrews. Even the transcription exposes David, for it describes a specific person and a specific sin, a very private thing made public and voiced by the congregation. We are invited to know David’s sin and to share in his sorrow and confession, to give voice to his words.

For many of us this is very familiar territory, perhaps too familiar. As much as we read and speak this psalm in public and private prayer, in worship, and as part of the annual entry into Lent we call Ash Wednesday, we may forget the depth of what this psalm and David’s struggle is all about.

And so I invite you to step back and look again at David in two very important ways, both critical to understanding the full scope of his sin and the confession.

1. The man, David, sinned as we do and must confess as we do.

We can identify with him, but perhaps we are uncomfortable. I have sinned as well, and I am invited to know my sin, and through David, all are privy to my prayer. His is a beautiful prayer, powerful and something with which we can identify when we slip up. His indiscretion is an interruption in his story that shows us that this great king was still a fallen human, and we can all recognize that same fallen in our own stories.

But if this is all—we’re missing quite a bit.

2. The king, David, sinned, as God’s chosen and anointed.

And this is how it was handled—in raw, intimate detail. David’s sin as king is a whole new ball game. What difference does it make?

To understand that difference, we must consider David as king in the context of Israel’s story. Israel, God’s own people, chosen, rescued, and given a promise, a covenant with God himself. And Israel, fraught with sin and rebellion, rescued again and again, given the promised land, and enslaved by more rebellion. God’s people fail the divine king they have, and they demand a king like those of other nations (1 Samuel 8.4-9).

God relents and gives them a king, promising that he will indeed be a king like the kings of other nations, a king who will rule them and tax them, taking their resources and their children to make war. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves,” Samuel warns them, “but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (1 Samuel 8.18, NRSV).

And so God gives them a king—Saul, a compromise, and eventually a problem. The king personifies the people before God and in many ways God before the people, and in both, Saul was not the kind of king Israel needed.

But then…David. He was king and the promise all in one. He was the covenant king God desired and the people needed. Where Saul became embittered, David was blessed, and through him all of Israel was shaped to be the people of God and the light to al nations they were meant to be. David was loved by God, obedient, passionate, and victorious, and the covenant promise to Israel was specifically embodied in David.

In 2 Samuel 7.8-16—the covenant is confirmed and extended through David.

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not takes my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me: your throne shall be established forever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.

In 2 Samuel 7.18-26, we see David’s response as the ideal king: Anointed—chosen and established by God; humble and obedient; and victorious—establishing peace in the promised land.

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord God! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord God! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore you are great, O Lord God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears. Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods? And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O Lord, became their God. And now, O Lord God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised. Thus your name will be magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts is God over Israel’; and the house of your servant David will be established before you.

In 2 Samuel 8 we see evidence of God’s blessing through the victories God gave him as he fulfilled the conquest of the promised land. “The Lord gave David victory wherever he went” (6,14).

In 2 Samuel 9 we have evidence of David’s worthiness as David magnanimous to his enemies, Saul’s descendants and servants.

And in 2 Samuel 10, we have the extended story of David’s power and prowess as king in his defeat of the Ammonites, ancient antagonists of Israel and often allies of Egypt against God and his people.

And then we encounter David’s sin with Bathsheba—THE SIN that lay at the heart of David’s lament in Psalm 51 (2 Samuel 11).

1. David the man desires, fulfills that desire, and commits grievous sin (murder) in the process. David takes Bathsheba as his own, getting her pregnant in the process, and then has her husband killed (1 Samuel 11).

Like life as we know it, the beauty of love and of Bathsheba herself is marred by lust, selfishness, pride. “I am the king,” is David’s unspoken excuse. Feeling entitled, David does what any king would do, what any king has a right to do.

David does not even appear to be aware of what he’s doing wrong, for he is surprised when confronted by the prophet, Nathan (1 Samual 12.5-7). Much like the ways we’re not aware of how influenced we are by worldly ways of thinking and behaving, he doesn’t seem to see the inconsistency until it’s pointed out to him. In a way, this is a classic story of typical sin. In his world, it is okay to behave this way.

In our worlds, in business, in politics, in romance, in the daily grind, what is wrong often seems right and normal. We find many excuses—we are only human, life’s hard, it feels right, and this is just the way it’s done.

For David, it takes Nathan (the voice of God) to shed light on the sin. And the way David responds is instructive. Much can be learned through the story of the man David alone.

– David’s sense of entitlement and his sinful action: Lust, greed, murder.

– Nathan’s courage as he confronts a king (does that make us squirm?).

– David’s repentance. (How would we react? How should we react? Would we make excuses and remain indignant?)

– The consequences of David’s sin: A child lost, rape, murder, and civil war (2 Sam 12.10-12).

We can easily see the parallels for us. We all have sin in our life—not murder, perhaps, but greed, selfish desire, hurting someone to benefit ourselves. How would we react to confrontation—by others or by God himself? How should we react?

2. But David is KING—and not just any king! David is God’s king, over God’s own people.

Nathan’s confrontation is not just God’s word to a man. Even the king—especially the king—is subject to YHWH, the true king of Israel. And the consequences are not just the penalties of sin for the man David and his famliy—they affect the fate of Israel, her future kings, and the entire world as the light to all nations is dimmed.

The pattern we see in David is identical to that of the people of God, Israel. David, God’s chosen and anointed king fails, and through him Israel, God’s chosen people, fails. Where God called him as king to submit to God in obedience and as leader by example and in ordering Israelite worship and life together to show the world what it means to live in right relationship with the one, true God, creator and Lord of all things, David behaves as any other king would, acting sovereignly for his own desire and purpose. And the consequences are disastrous, for Israel as well as David.

And yet…God remains true to his covenant, and David confesses and seeks restoration in the right place.

In the end, we’re invited into David’s story at both levels. This is our fate, our story he’s living. He shows Israel, and us, the new covenant people of God, the way. We see all of Israel in David, we see the entire church in David, and we see ourselves in David.

And we see God’s heart in David—the whole story: Love and promise, our failure and sin, the path to reconciliation, and God’s faithfulness—through consequence to covenant.

Into all of this, we are invited to know David’s sin and ours, and to pray his prayer and ours. God’s promise to David was God’s promise to Israel, and God’s promise to Israel is God’s promise to us all.

Notice what this says about God. Using flawed people, he works through our sin to bring redemption. Not that sin is okay because God uses it, but because his forgiveness is hope for the big picture—our redemption and that of the whole world, even all creation.

None of this is just about us. When we fail God and he forgives, acting redemptively through our failure and our restoration, it is all about GOD’s faithfulness, GOD’s plan, and GOD’s sovereignty. It is all about his steadfast love, through failure to new hope.

In the “really big picture,” our failure, our sin, hurts God and flies in the face of his plans. The consequences can be huge, as they were in David’s case, but the failure is never too big that God cannot prevail and bring something new out of our sin.

1. At a personal level, the man David’s story is our story

Sin requires confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. We ruin our relationship with God. He doesn’t ask questions about responsibility—he assumes it. “All have sinned,” Paul tells us (Romans 3.23). Our sin leads us to Christ—to confess, to repent, to receive forgiveness and restoration, and to become the people of God he desires us to be.

2. In the cosmic, big picture level, David’s story as king is everyone’s promise.

God’s promise is life out of death, reconciliation out of sin, and new creation. David leads us to Christ, the king even David couldn’t be. Jesus Christ is the focus of God’s promise, his covenant, his plan. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David. Jesus Christ is the way through the fullness of the world, through sin, through failure, through death to new life, to redemption.

And so we come to the psalm, this very personal and yet not very private prayer of David that we all should pray.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop,
and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering,
you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices,
then bulls will be offered on your altar. (51.1-19)

David gets right to the heart of the matter. “Have mercy,” he cries (51.1). David sinned—no matter the reasons or circumstances. He bears full responsibility for his sin. David’s sin hurt his relationship with God, which is one of the best on record. That relationship needs to be fixed, cleansed, and restored (2, 7-12). David’s sin must be confessed, and so he throws himself on God’s mercy.

Likewise our sin, which is foremost an offense against God that requires reconciliation, is not little, not inconsequential, not trivial. None of us—not even king David—are above reproach. All of us—even king David—are in need of God’s mercy, with no excuses.

And here’s the twist: Confession itself is not enough to restore the relationship! We bring nothing that qualifies us for God’s mercy but a broken and contrite heart (51.5, 15-17). Not even blessed David, God’s chosen, was better qualified.

David’s prayer is our prayer.

– He is desperate—he understands his need and the truth of his sin.

– He is humble—he understands his place before God. He may have acted out of presumption as king, but confesses in humility.

– He is hungry—he desires restoration with whole being.

– And he is hopeful—he trusts in God and his steadfast love (hesed).

None of us escapes this prayer. None of us wants to escape this prayer—if we really understand who we are.

God fulfilled his promise and heard David’s prayer—as man and as king—through Jesus Christ! Through one man’s prayer for a very specific sin, Psalm 51 is every person’s prayer for right relationship with God in Christ, an orientation to life and a relationship for life with God, his kingdom, and with all he is doing to bring light and redemption to the world.

Are we ready to pray this prayer and to be restored to God’s people and his purpose for us? Are we

Desperate—do we fully understand our need? Are we broken?

Humble—do we really know before whom we stand? Are we aware of our creatureliness? Do we want the benefits of God’s forgiveness but not responsibility? Are we really shocked enough by who we are and awed enough by who he is to really desire reconciliation?

Contrite—do we approach God with remorse and penitence?­­ Are we honest about our sin,? Are we sorry we have grieved God?

Hungry—do we really want to be reconciled? Do we yearn for him and for his peace? Do we truly desire to serve him?

Hopeful—do we really trust God to be true to his promise? Do we ask but never trust? Do we keep on asking but continue to sin because we think nothing will change?

Part of what made David special—as man and king—was that he rested in God’s promise, even when he suffered consequences. Hear it in his petition,

Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering,
you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51.12-17)

Can we dare to be so honest about our sin, so hungry for God’s forgiveness, and so trusting in his promise?

Truth in Love

On the occasion of the rebuilding of the body of Christ in a community that suffered deep division.

Text: Ephesians 4.1-24

Normally the first thing I do to prepare a sermon is read through the scripture passages assigned in the lectionary for the week, several times. In most cases the message of one or more resonates with me and seems especially pertinent, and I have a clear sense of its content and application long before I begin the more serious task of studying the text and preparing the actual sermon.

This week was a bit different. I had an idea of something we needed to address, but the readings for the day went elsewhere. When I considered them in detail, I started down a path that fit well with a recent study of forgiveness, accountability, and reconciliation. The title “truth in Love” comes from that direction.

The more I worked with the passages, though, the more I realized I was imposing an idea and the selections were going elsewhere. As I struggled, a few calls came in, and I was unable to escape my earlier thoughts, and so I returned to the passage from which we get the phrase “truth in love,” Ephesians 4.

I tell you all of this for a reason. What I am about to say is the result of a long period of prayer and reflection—longer than usual. I firmly believe that what we will consider today must be understood if we are to continue to become the church Christ requires us to be. And so you should know, before we start, that “truth in love” refers more to how I am about to speak than to what I am about to say.

Today, we will not examine what it means to speak the truth in love, I plan to speak the truth to you in love, and I trust you will receive it as it is intended and as the Holy Spirit makes it known to you.

Have I piqued your curiosity? Good. Then let us hear from the apostle Paul.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4.1-24, NRSV)

Most of us know that a good look in a well-lit mirror will tell us a great deal of truth about ourselves. We may choose to think of ourselves as the way we used to be, young and handsome or beautiful. We may imagine the head of hair we used to have, picture ourselves with trim body and rugged good looks or lovely curves. We may feel young at heart and retain an image of the way we were when we liked ourselves the best.

A quick look in the mirror will usually shatter many of these false images—the gleam from the light bulbs off the all-too-bare and growing forehead…the deep crevices between wrinkles, the furrows in the brow, the bags beneath the eyes…the sag in the shoulders, and the paunch in the belly…chicken legs and knobby knees, spider veins and droopy thighs.

The image in the mirror is the truth about our physical bodies, the truth that shatters our false ideas about ourselves. It’s a truth that may affect the way we behave around other people. And it’s a truth that elicits one of two responses.

Some will view such truth as motivation for change, incentive to stick with the thigh-master or the bowflex. They’re determined to realize the ideal image they have of themselves and to make the truth in the mirror match the ideal. They work hard and grow in confidence. They may buy tailored clothes, the new bathing suit, the beautiful new dress and like to be seen.

Others resign themselves to the truth of what they see. For whatever reason, whether a lack of time, energy, or determination, they change the image in their minds to match the truth shown to them in the mirror. They become the middle-aged woman or the old man. They buy clothes to hide the imperfections, the blemishes, the sags. They live the image they see and do little to change it.

In our passage for today, Paul gives us an ideal image of the church and the mirror by which we see the truth of who we are. The church is a body, he writes, “…joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (4.16). Earlier in Ephesians, he writes, we are “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (2.19–22).

This household, this body, is the “…likeness of God, in true righteousness and holiness” (3.24). It’s the “…unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” which in maturity is “the full measure of the stature of Christ” (4.13). In this body, we are all to “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in live, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4.1–3).

There’s the image and the mirror all in one, for when we look into this mirror it’s very easy to see that we are not all that we should be.

We’ve looked in this mirror before, haven’t we. These passages are familiar and this language well-known. We’ve even been examining the church in some detail lately. We are becoming quite familiar with the concept of the church as Christ’s body. We’ve begun to realize that the church is Christ’s real presence in the world. We’ve begun, praise God, to understand the community of faith in new ways and to rethink our place in it.

We’re intimately familiar with our wrinkles and our sags, our bald spots and our blemishes, and we’re pulling out the bowflex and the treadmill. We’re determined, by golly, to whip this body into shape and realize the ideal we see in the mirror, and when we’re done, we’ll be clothed in righteousness and holiness and we can strut our stuff in the world and all will see the body of Christ—buff and beautiful. And so we know the great truth about the church, what it should be, what it is, and what it will be.

We’re quite comfortable with this idea so far, aren’t we? On the surface, at least. We all try to be gentle and loving. We agree with the concept of unity, and most of us are willing to do something to make it happen. We’re all for harmony and peace in the body. We look for the kind of place and the kind of people who make us feel welcome. And we’re doing a pretty good job of getting there.

But that’s the problem with mirrors, isn’t it. They show us the truth about ourselves on the surface, but they can’t see or show the truth of our inward selves. The appearance of our bodies may belie what’s inside. The wrinkled skin on the old woman’s face fails to address her gracious and joyful heart. The slouch in the shoulders and the paunch on the belly of the balding man does not convey his generous nature, nor his courageous determination. So also the youthful glow of the skin may mask a gnawing hunger for something better. The firm body and handsome exterior may not reveal the hardened soul and selfish heart. The beautiful curves may yet cover the disease within that may soon change the outward truth long before age. The appearance of age and decay fails to show the beauty of grace and maturity within, while the valued youthful exterior hides the childish self, the self of sin and decay.

If all we do is look in the mirror that reflects our outward appearance, we will not know the truth about ourselves. If all we do is look at the mirror of God’s word for a surface reflection, we will not own up to who we are before God. If all we do is look to our outward appearance for that which makes us feel comfortable, and if all we do is work casually to become that which looks good on the surface, we will not only fail to know the full truth about the church, we will fail to ever realize the image of Christ in ourselves and the church.

And so, the partial truth of the mirror that sees only the surface becomes the great lie. And partial truth, we know, is not truth at all. Partial truth, especially in matters of life and faith, is the same as death and faithlessness.

So what is the real truth about the church?

When we look deeper into the mirror of God’s word, what is it we discover? Paul writes, “Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart” (4.17–18). “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (4.14). I beg you, he says in verse 1—“lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called!”

Why?

Because he is speaking to those who are not fully “renewed in the spirit of [their] minds,” not clothed “with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4.23-24). They are behaving like those who are futile and self-centered. They remain children who are blown to and fro by doctrine, fad, and personal desire. They are not functioning as the body he’s describing.

On the surface, they are the church. They see their blemishes and warts, and they’ve been on their treadmills a bit to tone up some, but they get winded easily, and they’re failing to fulfill their calling, and Paul calls them on it.

So Paul speaks the truth in love, sometimes quite sharply, for he loves them enough to see them both as they are and as they should be, and to motivate them to change. In another letter, to the Galatians, Paul screamed, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? …You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (3.1; 5.7, 12)! To the Corinthians, “I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient [emphasis added]” (2 Cor. 13.2). To Titus, “There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers…they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach” (1.10–11). Later, “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone. …After a first and a second admonition, have nothing to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned” (3.9–11). And to Timothy he admonishes: “Teach and urge these duties. Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6.2–5).

Make no mistake, we know much about these kinds of problems in the church. We have in many ways been moving beyond the most obvious and most destructive of this behavior over recent months. In many ways our endurance has improved, and our health returned. But our joy over what we’ve endured and how far we have come should not give way to complacency. Now more than ever, as we delve deeply into what it means to be the community of Christ, his body, we need to, as Paul said, examine ourselves, and make sure that we are leading lives as individuals and a life as a body worthy of our calling in Christ.

And remember!

As we examine ourselves, the enemy will do everything possible to feed us lies, to dissuade us from our path, to lull us into a false image of who we are and to mistake a surface reflection in our mirror for the truth of ourselves.

So now let’s look deeply into the mirror to see the full truth of who we are, and what we must become. Yes, this is where we will speak the truth in love.

The image Paul upholds for us is the image of the body—the new self (and the new community) created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. We’ve already read about the characteristics of this body and all of us who make up its parts:

Unity—in which we become one with Christ and each other

The fulfillment of our calling and vocation in Christ—in which we exercise our gifts, not for our own benefit or edification, but for building up the body of Christ

Maturity, the measure and stature of Christ—wherein we not wind-driven but Spirit-driven, joined and knit together and working properly

We’re reminded by Paul and others that the likeness of God means all this and more, for it means:

– Unity with Christ in his full abandonment to the will of God, full obedience to the Father in service and sacrifice, and full participation in his resurrection in renewal, re-creation, and restoration to his image

– Making all of our lives the vocation of Christ, fulfilling the calling to His purposes as his church in all the world—our jobs, our families, our leisure, and most certainly our worship, ministry, and fellowship

– The maturity of loving God will all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength and loving others as we love ourselves—which means turning all of our priorities on end

– Living a life in which God is first and we give ourselves in service to all others

This means, and let’s be very clear about this, that everything we do, all that we spend time and money on, all that we give thought and attention to, must be shaped according to this image and the priorities it dictates. Every commitment, even those to our family, have lower priority than our commitment to Christ and his body. In fact, when we have conflicts between seemingly good priorities and the church, we should always reevaluate the other commitments.

We do not serve our families, our friends, our neighbors, our work mates well at all when we compromise our primary commitment to Christ and his body—even when it’s in the name of spending time with the family, opening doors of friendship with the lost, making sure our children find good opportunities in school, sports, or other pursuits, building our businesses or advancing professionally, or finding much needed rest or quiet time.

In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that our families are best served when we spend time with them in the context of the body of Christ, in worship, fellowship, and service to and with other Christians. This means that we teach our children by example and by helping them get involved in the body of Christ that any other priorities are secondary, joining them as they participate in the life and mission of the body of Christ for the sake of one another and the world we serve.

In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that the best way to reach the lost starts with being the church, the community of Christ we’re called to be, and the best way for them to encounter Christ is to encounter his church in its commitment as the body. The witness we have to the world of the reality of Christ and salvation is as much corporate as it is individual. The way we worship, live, love, and work together as his body is the most profound proclamation of the kingdom fo God to those who are not yet a part of it.

In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that the best opportunity we can cultivate for our children is to be a fully committed, obedient, and participating member of the body of Christ. They can be the best soccer or baseball players, get into the best colleges, and find the best internships and jobs, but it will matter not at all if they are lost themselves.

And yes, in the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that even our vocation—our businesses and our jobs, are subject to the rulership of God, and this does not merely mean being a good witness at work or conducting business ethically. It means being prepared to make sacrifices and changes in our careers to honor our commitment to Christ and to accommodate the needs of his kingdom and our obligations to his body. Certainly it starts with the recognition that all we have is God’s, and not our own, and so our financial commitments should reflect our commitment to Christ and his body. But it runs deeper with the recognition than nothing, not even our employment, should get in the way of our place in and responsibility to the body of Christ.

As for our own rest, most of us are fatigued and burnt out from trying to meet obligations that compete with Christ and service in his kingdom. When we’re tired, we’re almost always willing to set aside commitments to the body, but we will rarely set aside ball games, school events, or overtime at work.

In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that God’s model is that each of us pour ourselves out in service, to him and each other. When we are all doing our part, when, as Paul says, “each part is working properly,” the body grows as it should and no one is forced to bear more than they can handle in and with his grace. Only when members of the body don’t do their part, make commitments and back out, fail to find places of ministry, withhold time, money, prayer, and encouragement, the body grows weak as the few do the work of the church and bear burdens their brothers and sisters should be able to relieve.

When we look into the mirror with Paul’s image in mind, his ideal of who we should be, we see

– Weary faces

– Blemishes and imperfections

– Sagging skin, wrinkles, pimples, saddlebags, and crow’s feet

This is the truth of the mirror, we think. We’re not perfect, just saved. We’re doing our best, and God loves us for who we are. We need to be loving and forgiving and learn not to expect too much, from ourselves or others. Look at our nice new clothes, they hide quite a few imperfections, and they make us quite presentable—we’re more joyous than we used to be, we have more people dong something in the church now, we’re doing well enough—we’re becoming presentable!

It’s true—we have blemishes, and we will make mistakes. Not all of us are mature and fully toned, and God is infinitely patient with us. Not all of us are spring chickens any more—we can’t be expected to do everything. So what if this body has a few aches and pains—they’re not major, we’ll get along just fine.

Yes, it’s true. But when we look in the mirror and allow the truth of our imperfection to become the comfortable norm by which we live, we begin to live the great lie of the enemy. This is the lie of complacency. This is the accommodation of unhealthiness that let’s us feel comfortable with the status quo. This is the disease of the false self and the denial of the new self. This is not the image God want’s us to see when we look into his mirror.

Let me invite you to look just a little deeper with me now—for when we look into the mirror of God’s word in the full reflection of his grace, we can yet discover the truth about ourselves.

– “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” Paul said (Ephesians 4.1)—don’t try, do it!

– “There is one body and one Spirit,” he says (4.4)

– We were “given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift”—not our own need or comfort—and those gifts were to build up the body of Christ until all of us “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure for the full stature of Christ”—not for us to fiddle around with at our convenience as we remain happy where we are (4.13).

– We “…must [emphasis added] grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”—it’s not a choice for us to eat our meat and vegetables, get our exercise, and tone our body (4.15).

– “I insist,” Paul says, “you must [emphasis added] no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds” (4.17). Don’t live that way and keep on insisting that it’s okay because you’re just human and forgiven—“This is not the way you learned in Christ” (4.20)!

And here’s the crux of the matter—this is the truth of our image in the mirror

For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by it’s lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (4.21-24)

Look deeply into the mirror!

We are a new creation, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness—we’re not fakes, the image of God is realized in us, in his church. Let’s live like it! Let’s live the truth, not the lie. Why stoop when we can stand up straight? Why live with a little pain when God has made us new?

No, he’s not asking us to achieve everything overnight, for us all to become fully mature in one stroke, but he is asking us to live and grow in his image—not to become comfortable with what we first see in the mirror. He’s asking for us to envision, become, and embody his likeness in the body, the church.

This is the truth of the church—this is what we see about ourselves when we look deeply into the mirror of God’s word. I pray you will receive this truth in love and live this truth in love. Let’s examine ourselves in the mirror of God’s word and live up to his image of us as the body of Christ in true righteousness and holiness.

Live your baptism!

Romans 6.1-11

From the days Christ himself commanded that his disciples “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…,” the church has been obediently baptizing new converts (Matt. 28.19–20, NRSV). From the day of Pentecost, when Peter spoke, full of the Spirit, and “…those who welcomed his message were baptized,” the apostles, and the apostolic church that followed, were true to Christ’s own example and command and brought all who would repent into the community of faith through baptism (Acts 2.41). In fact, virtually no account of conversion in the New Testament is relayed without reference to the immediate, even concurrent, baptism of the new believer.

Of the people in Samaria to whom Philip was proclaiming the gospel, we read in Acts 8, “they were baptized, both men and women” (8.12). Even Simon the magician, “believed, and after being baptized, he stayed with Philip…” (8.13). Shortly after Philip opened up the scriptures to the Ethiopian Eunuch, who with urgency was baptized along the road, the blinded Saul obediently sought out Ananias, had his sight restored, and was told, “And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name” (8.26-39; 22.16). Cornelius and his entire household, and the jailor from whom Paul and Silas were delivered, and his entire family were all baptized into the great and wonderful journey of life in Christ and his church (10.22-48;16.25-34).

Throughout the New Testament, no other ritual or practice is mentioned or alluded to more than baptism. It’s as important to the new covenant as circumcision was to the old. Its imagery hearkens back to the waters of creation, the water for the thirsty in the desert, and the prophesied outpouring of the Spirit. It’s the act which Peter says was prefigured by the flood through which Noah and his family was saved and which “now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” and that Anglican John Wesley called “…the initiatory sacrament, which enters us into covenant with God…perpetually obligatory on all Christians…” (1 Peter 3.20-22; Wesley, Treatise on Baptism, I.1).

Baptism is one of only two sacraments enjoined by the entire church from its earliest days to its latest years. And it’s the one event in the life of the believer that happens but once and yet is to be remembered for a lifetime. “Remember your baptism,” is the cry of the ancient ritual, accompanied in some traditions by the splash of water across the faces and shoulders of the congregation from a soaked branch of hyssop.

What is so important about this ritual of getting wet that is worth such urgency and remembrance? And why have so many Christians in recent years then treated it so lightly, as so much empty words and actions, that they have ignored the command of Christ, the witness of scripture, and the example of the early church and treated baptism as incidental or even unnecessary?

The answer to both questions, as you might expect, can be found in scripture, especially in the person to whom it gives witness. “In the beginning,” John tells us, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1.1). “…the Word became flesh and lived among us,” and John the Baptist, he who baptized for repentance and foretold the coming of the Word, baptized Jesus, the Word himself (1.14).

The first quiet and miraculous act by Jesus, the incarnate Word, was to change the water in the jars of purification, water set aside for washing away uncleanness, symbols of the cleansing of sin and defilement, into wine—new, pure wine from Jesus, the incarnate word, a foreshadow of the wine of his own blood that would be shed for our purification (John 2.1-11).

Shortly after, in the still of the night, Jesus reveals to a confused and seeking pharisee the mystery of rebirth by water and the spirit, a strange notion made even more mysterious as he connects it with eternal life found in belief in himself, the incarnate Word of God (John 3.1-21). What follows is a dispute over the new baptism of Jesus and his disciples and the continuing baptism of John the Baptist in which John helps his perplexed disciples understand his own secondary importance to the incarnate Word, through whom the Spirit is given and eternal life found (3.25-30). And then in chapter 4, the incarnate Word, whose disciples have been baptizing in his name, superseding John and annoying the pharisees, sits at the ancient well of Jacob in Samaria, the favored source of water for the thirsty, and offers himself to an outcast and sinful women as “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4.14).

As the Word incarnate and the living water returns to Cana, where, we are reminded, “he had changed the water into wine,” Jesus heals the son of a desperate government official who is near death (4.46-54). Then in chapter 5, by the pool of Bethsaida, Jesus the living water heals the man who cannot make it to the waters that heal (5.2-15).

Do you see it? Do you grasp it?

Only a short time later, after he feeds thousands with abundance out of scarcity, and after he stills the chaotic waters of a raging sea, Jesus utters the words we use so often in that other great sacrament—eucharist:

Very truly I tell you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you will have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. (6.53–55)

The bread of life and the living water!

Jesus, the Word incarnate, God among us in the flesh, the very agent and substance of creation, has made everything new—even the water of birth, of satisfaction of thirst, of healing. Jesus even masters the waters of chaos in the storm (John 6.16-21).

So what is so important about this ritual of getting wet that is worth such urgency and remembrance? Jesus Christ himself!

Baptism is the wonderful, physical symbol, that points beyond itself to the to the great mystery and spiritual reality of the new life of the incarnate Christ! Christ, who is the spiritual reality of God given to the world in and through the physical reality of creation—which is what we call “incarnation”—is at the very center of the action we call baptism that is given all meaning and substance by the work of Christ. Jesus Christ himself, the living water, is the person who is the very substance and center of our baptism!

And so Paul not only assumes that we have been baptized in full obedience, he recalls our baptism again and again in order to make sure we live our baptism.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6.1-11)

Amen and amen!

Then why have so many of us in recent years ignored the command of Christ, the witness of scripture, and the example of the early church and treated baptism as incidental or even unnecessary? And why have those of us who have been baptized and who would never question the reality of the grace of God and the regenerative activity of his Spirit in the sacrament, trivialized it by the way we live our lives?

I think the answer also lies in what we read in John, and Paul’s letters, and even the Old Testament. When so many have emptied our lives and the church of a living faith in the living Christ and have separated the ritual from the living, saving work of Christ Paul described in Romans, we have reduced baptism to a meaningless external form and have sought the internal work everywhere but the place God intends to offer it. As we have sought the newness of Christ as shown through the witness of the New Testament, and as we’ve looked for the spiritual promise of the new covenant, we have forgotten the power and meaning of the incarnation and the fact that Christ’s redemption touches all of life—body and spirit.

In other words, anyone who insists that the performance of baptism is enough to save without a real and personal participation in and knowledge of the one to whom it points, is not obedient to the Lord they claim to serve. And anyone who treats baptism lightly and insists on being able to enjoy a saving and growing relationship with the incarnate and living Word while ignoring his command, the witness of the apostles, and the example of the early church is not obedient to the Lord they claim to serve.

Baptism is nothing without Christ, but without baptism, we risk living without Christ. Baptism directs us to Christ and marks us as his own. Through the powerful physical symbol of submersion under the water and the activity of Christ himself, baptism embodies the truth of our death to sin and life in Christ and the reality of life giving and cleansing presence of the living water in our lives. Baptism embodies

…the power of Christ over the waters of chaos that would otherwise overwhelm us.

…the wellspring of the Spirit of Christ and the new creation he makes of us.

…the unity of all who are baptized into Christ Jesus, who bear his name and his cross.

Wrapped up in the mystery of the incarnation, the water and the Spirit, is the great sacrament of our new birth that marks the real change in our lives and participation as new creatures in the community and Kingdom of our victorious Lord. Through baptism into the death and resurrection of our Lord, we partake in his victory over sin and death, over the powers of this world. And beginning with our baptism, we live the fullness of new life even as we rejoice in the promise of eternal life in the world to come.

And so again we hear from Paul, this time in his letter to the Colossians.

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

If with Christ [in baptism] you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?

So if you have been raised with Christ [in baptism], seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal [of baptism] there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (2.8–15, 20; 3.1–17)

Remember your baptism, Paul is saying. Remember that you were buried with Christ and raised with Christ. Why? So you can live your baptism!

To those who are about to be baptized, I wish you the joy of knowing the living water even as you are surrounded by the water of the pool as you feel its coolness on your face as it rushes over your body when you come up clean and refreshed from its depths.

And I admonish you, from this point forward—live your baptism!

To those who have not yet been baptized but who have begun to walk with Christ, although you have not yet been obedient in baptism, I pray that you will soon let go of all that holds you back and let Christ and his church welcome you fully into the community of faith and unreserved participation in his death and resurrection.

Very soon—come and be baptized!

To you who do not know Christ, I invite you this day, as you witness the great mystery and power of baptism, to also witness the realty of Jesus in the lives of these who proclaim it through their obedience. See their repentance as they enter the cleansing water. Witness the wonder of their new creation as they emerge from the depths. Hear and know of the life-giving victory Jesus Christ as you see before you those who have accepted his love and committed themselves to his service. And even this day, come as we pray in a few minutes to confess your need before the only one who can give you eternal life, repent and be baptized!

And finally, to all here who have been baptized, remember your baptism! Remember the change Christ has made in you. Put off the old earthly and sinful ways. Refuse to be ensnared by the charms of selfishness, the temptations to sin, the priorities of the world. Accept with joy and obedience the newness of life. Allow the work of Christ begun when you accepted his Lordship and obeyed in baptism to be perfected in you as you grow in grace and holiness.

Live your baptism!

Out of the Depths

Psalm 130

Psalm 130, is a lament, of that class of psalm that seems to bring the most human dimension to this book of worship that has served Israel and the church for thousands of years. Laments are often the psalms with which we can identify the most. The laments are moments of stark, unabashed honesty before God, sometimes expressed by an individual, sometimes voiced on behalf of the community, sometimes a lament over sin, and sometimes a lament over oppression from without.

When we read them, we are often struck by their force of feeling, by their bracing honesty in the middle of intense struggle. As broken people, facing broken situations and relationships, we find great comfort in words given to us to express our need.

Whether or not we are as honest to one another about our brokenness before God, we have all most likely cried out to him out of our own depths of despair, of fear, and of frustration. Behind our polite facades, in the lives we often take great pains to keep hidden from one another, we are broken people. We struggle with the pain of unexplained sickness and death, of diseases we cannot heal and losses we cannot replace. We face cruelty in marriage, love lost, abuse inflicted, and betrayal. We feel the sting of kids who reject us and parents who hurt us. We fear losing jobs and work under the oppression of bosses who demand too much and coworkers who make it hard to go to work each day.

All of us have retreated before the chaos of too many responsibilities and burdens to bear or buckled beneath the consequences of bad choices made and the burden of guilt and shame. For many the anger and frustration at things over which we have no control is debilitating, and we collapse in the face of hurts inflicted by circumstances and by others, especially by those we love and trust.

In all these struggles and more, the laments in the Psalms help give voice to our struggle. “Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD;” our psalmist begins. “Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications” (130.1-2, NRSV)!

In many of the laments in the Psalms, David himself teaches us much about what it is to cry out of the depths. And in so doing, as scholar Dr. Reggie Kidd recognizes. “David opens the floodgates of the human heart” (Kidd, With One Voice, 60)

Listen for a moment to some of the songs of lament and the way the floodgates are opened. Consider how these words might have been yours in recent memory, or how they might well be yours even now.

Give ear to my words, O LORD;
Give heed to my sighing.
Listen to he sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray. (Ps. 5.1-2)

O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD,
For I am languishing;
O LORD, heal me, LORD, for my bones are shaking in terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O LORD—how long? (Ps. 6.1-3)

Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. (Ps. 12.1-2)

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed;”
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. (Ps. 13.1-4)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but find no rest. (Ps. 22.1-2)

My wounds grow foul and because of my foolishness.
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.

I am utterly spent and crushed;
I groan because of the turmoil of my heart.
O LORD, all my longing is known to you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. (Ps. 38.5-10)

As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” (Ps. 42.1-3)

My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me; and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself far from the raging wind and tempest.” (Ps. 55.4-8)

Haven’t we all, at one time or another, cried to God, “it’s simply to much to bear—if I could escape, I would?” Have we not, in our hearts, in our most honest moments with the Lord, admitted to this kind of weakness or desperation?

But there is more.

Laments are not just raw human honesty before God. If that were true, then the almost defiant and certainly demanding cry of the unbeliever who screams at a God he’s not even sure exists would be holy lament.

But they’re not just shaking a fist at God and demanding that he listen. And they’re not the petulant cries of the childish who want their own way who say “if you’re there and you answer me and fix my problem, then (and only then) will I listen to you and consider being obedient.” They are not the appeals of those looking for a divine intervention or a way out of a tight situation in lives they have otherwise lived without much interest in God. And, quite frankly, they’re not even the simply honest expressions of need, frustration, fear, or sorrow before a God we hope might be there and will come alongside.

Biblical lament, the honest expressions of pain, fear, sorrow, and brokenness with which we can all identify, is not spoken by those who know nothing of who God is, who are confident in nothing but their own pain. And it is not spoken pridefully as if deliverance is something deserved.

Laments, like the one we are considering today, are the bracingly honest expressions of those who have known God, who have known him to be faithful, who have trusted in his faithfulness and his love for them, who have at one time known him to be close, and who are counting on him to continue to be everything they’ve always known.

So often, in the angry cries of frustrated people there are accusations to be made. The cries of pain and brokenness are more protest than honesty. The tone is more demanding than pleading. The relationship is that of an accuser trying to force the hand of the guilty into giving in.

But in the psalms of lament, the cry itself places he who cries in right relationship with almighty God. It is that raw, honest cry that so knows and trusts in God that it addresses him with confidence from the depths, where God seems suddenly very absent.

And the cry made by those who know the truth of who they are, what they have done, what they deserve, and what they must do. That cry is made by those who, in both profound humility and with the resolution of those who know no other course, lays all that they are and all that they need before their maker, even when they are where they are as a result of their own sin and what they deserve is nothing more and nothing less than God’s wrath.

Again, as Dr. Kidd describes, the psalmist “…admits the worst about who he is and what he has done, and in so doing finds greater tenderness and confidence in his relationship with God” (60).

This is what we find with the first few words of today’s psalm:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication! (130.1-2)

Notice immediately, that God is addressed personally with his own name. The plaintive cries for mercy are addressed to YHWH, the God of Abraham and Moses, the God the psalmist knows as deliverer, as faithful, the one who heard the cries of his people in bondage and brought them out of Egypt long ago.

And to YHWH, the psalmist cries “out of the depths” (130.1).

The depths are a very important image in scripture. We know intuitively, at least at one level, what it is to be “in the depths.” We know what it means to be immersed in the chaos of life to be overwhelmed, tossed about to and fro as if lost at see buffeted by waves that threaten to pull us under and drown us.

The depths for the psalmist are certainly the same. In Psalm 69, another deeply personal and passionate lament, the psalmist cries,

I sink in the deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. (2-3)

And

Rescue me from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me. (14-15)

The depths in scripture are a place of darkness, of fear, and death, a hard and difficult place from which it is impossible to deliver oneself.

But there is more. The depths are also a place of judgment and wrath and a place of separation from God.

Into the depths, Pharaoh’s army was cast when they pursued God’s people. As we hear in Exodus,

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. (15.4-5)

The psalmist declares in Psalm 88

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me;
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (6-7)

And in Ezekiel, a terrible passage of condemnation, God declares,

“When I make you a city laid waste, like cities that are not inhabited,
when I bring up the deep over you, and the great waves cover you,
then I will thrust you down with those who descend into the Pit,
to the people of long ago,
and I will make you live in the world below, among primeval ruins,
with those who go down to the Pit,
and so that you will not be inhabited or have a place in the land of the living.
I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more;
though sought for, you will never be found again,”
declares the LORD God. (26.19-21)

The depths are dark, desolate, deadly. From the depths there is no return. They isolate, smother, and drown us. They are the place we find ourselves when we are overwhelmed, and they are the place we drive ourselves with our own sin.

Which is exactly why the psalmist cries out of the depths, “Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, who could stand” (Ps. 130.2-3)?

No one.

And right here is the crux of the issue for the psalmist, and for us. There is much that can and will puts us in jeopardy that send us spiraling into darkness—into the depths—not the least of which is our own sin.

There are stupid things we do and have done, and stupid things others do and have done to us. We try to go it alone in life, and we make big mistakes—the first of which is trying to go it alone. We are wrapped up in our own desires and pursuits, and we fail God over and over again.

And all too often, we fail even more by not wanting to admit that things aren’t right, that we aren’t obedient as we should be, that we do not love and trust God as we ought. When it comes right down to it, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, even we who claim to be faithful, could not stand!”

This is the harsh reality of the depths.

Whether we have sunk under the waves and billows of chaos and despair due to circumstances over which we have no control, or whether we are in the pit we’ve dug for ourselves, the depths cannot be escaped. We are powerless to rescue ourselves.

But the psalmist cries out of the depths to YHWH.

Why? Because YHWH, sovereign God, is Lord of even the depths. “Can you find out the deep things of God?” God asks in Job 11.

Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?
It is higher than heaven— what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol— what can you know?
Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea. (11.7-9)

“Where can I go from your spirit?” David prays in Psalm 139.

…where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (7-12)

YHWH, to whom the psalmist cries out of the depths, to whom we cry out of the depths, subdued the watery chaos, the depths, when he created. He took the Israelites through the depths of the seas and drowned their enemies under the waves. He took his people through the wilderness to a new land. He heard their cries and sent his own son to save us.

Through the depths, the waters of our baptism, he saves us still.

This is God almighty, God the deliverer, known for his steadfast love, his faithfulness, his hesed. “…hope in the LORD!” our psalmist declares, “For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Ps. 130.7).

And out of the depths, while the chaos still rages and overwhelms, our psalmist admits the truth of who he is, and what he needs. He throws himself on the mercy of YHWH, and waits with hope for redemption and deliverance—not because he deserves it, but because he knows YHWH to be unfailing in his love. “For great is your steadfast love toward me;” David says in Psalm 86. “You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (13).

It is to this God that our psalmist cries,

I know who I am and what I deserve.
I know where I stand before you.
And yet I know that you love me and will restore me.
And so I hope in you, and wait with my whole being for your deliverance
So that I can serve you again, as I should. (Ps. 130, my paraphrase)

________

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
I wait for the LORD, my souls waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch wait for the morning,
more than those who watch wait for the morning. (Ps. 130.1-6)

And we know he didn’t wait in vain. We are invited to share his hope, his confidence in the Lord he knows as redeemer and deliverer. As with most laments in the Psalms, ours ends with a witness of praise, a praise embodied in an invitation to Israel, and to us, the new Israel to,

…hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities. (Ps. 130.7-8)

And notice that this is not a cheap praise that pats God on the back for coming alongside and helping us as we help ourselves. It’s a costly praise expressed by one who has been delivered through the depths, who knows what it means to hope in God’s steadfast love even while in darkness and to be delivered when undeserving and unable to save himself. And it’s a praise voiced to the community, that invites us all to join him, not only in praising God, but in walking with him through the depths and into his unfailing love and full redemption.

The psalmist, who has made the cry out of his brokenness to YHWH, who has thrown his whole being into hoping in the mercy and love of God, and who has been forgiven, invites us to do the same. He invites us to share in the blessing of undeserved and unreserved grace.

As Dr. Kidd describes it,

In a way that is without precedent in the ancient world, [the psalmist] shows how we can come before our Maker and admit that at our core we are not right. All we have to offer is a song from a broken spirit and a contrite heart, and we can know that if we come in this fashion we will not be torn to shreds. …the singer introduces us to the notion that there is a blessedness that awaits those—and only those—who admit that rightness is nowhere within them, who look to God alone to account it to them for no motive besides God’s own loving kindness. (61)

This is the blessing of God given to those, and only those, who begin in the depths, who know in our bones that we are not right and that only God can make us right, for no other reason than because he loves us and desires to restore us.

This is not a blessing for those who think we can make it on our own. It is not for we who want God to bless lives we mostly live without him. It is not for we who think we just need a little help along the way.

But this in itself is our source of hope, for most of us know, in our hearts, that we can’t do this ourselves. We cannot really meet life and its challenges on our own.

So when we really admit the truth of who we are before God, when we have nothing left to offer but our brokenness and our desperate desire for deliverance, when we have finally given up every other hope in ourselves, in others, in fate or our own force of will, when we confess to YHWH out of the depths, our impotence, our desperation, and our sin, he himself will redeem us.

For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem. (Ps. 130.7)

Let us pray

Out of the depths we cry to you, YHWH; Lord, hear our voices.
Let your ears be attentive to our cries for mercy.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
We wait for you, Oh Lord, with our whole being we wait, and in your word we put our hope.
We wait for you, more than watchmen wait for the morning, …more than watchmen wait for the morning.
We put our hope in you, for with you, as you have shown us through your Son, Jesus Christ, is unfailing love, and with you is full redemption.

Amen.

Hermeneutics of continuity diagram

Another attempt to visually represent a rich, dynamic process!

Hermeneutics is the entire process of interpretation, from exegesis to application, while exegesis (as the first part of that process) is specifically the process through which we establish the author intent, asking the questions about historical/cultural, literary, and theological context to establish the intended meaning of the passage.
 
When we work exegetically, we are working with what we might call two layers of context: the community of God as they used the book or passage as scripture (which is an interpretive layer, which means the community was interpreting what was received through oral and/or written tradition), and the community of God in which the events or issues were first experienced. As we work exegetically with those layers of context, we also consider, then, the biggest context into which all scripture fits: the big picture of God’s creative and redemptive purpose and activity, considering how the book or passage fits in that overall story and is it be understood in light of all that God has been doing (and plans to do) with his people, the world, and the entire cosmos.
 
When we understand the text well, having worked through those initial layers of context, we have essentially completed what we call the exegetical process, and we should have a pretty good sense of the meaning and purpose of the passage. But to understand, then, how we should see the church in our time in light of what we have discovered, we work through the remaining two layers of context. We need to make sure we account for the ways the church has understood and used the truth of scripture over time, drawing on things like apostolic faith and practice as it was realized through the early centuries of the church under the guidance of the early church fathers. We consider what we have discovered in the context of the ongoing faith, practice, and scholarship of the church over time such that when we finally consider what the passage means for us in our time and place, we are doing so in ways that take into account the continuity of the church’s theology and practice over time as well.
 
When we apply the text in the context of the community of God in our time, then, we have a rich sense of the way the text fits in that great big picture, and we can draw from the text both challenges to our assumptions and desires about God and what he has to say to us and a good sense of what he intends for us to be and do that fits in continuity with all he has said and done in and through his people through time, offering a much better-grounded sense of scripture and its meaning.
 
An example from the gospels might help:
 
When we start to approach any passage in the gospels, we are starting essentially wth what the author has put into writing to communicate with his audience (the church in his time and the issues he intends to address as he draws on the things Jesus said and did to do so). We enter the text by way of the ‘interpretive’ layer of the received text, the layer of the gospel writers, their audiences (the church in their time) and what they saw as especially significant about Jesus’ identity, purpose, and message.
 
There are other layers about which we need to be concerned if we are to place our exegesis in even deeper context. In the gospels, as with any historical narrative, for instance, we have the following layers of context to consider:
  1. Jesus, his audience, their expectations, and his message to them (the original context of the events as they happened decades before the gospel writers dealt with them).
  2. The gospels as they fit within the full sweep of God’s creative and redemptive purpose and activity, which is reflected in the perspectives of Christ, the gospel writers, and the church through the ages (biblical theology–the canonical context).
  3. The church as it circulated and used the gospels in worship and then came to affirm them, together, as the normative witness to Christ for the whole church (the applied context–as it is historically been understood).
  4. And finally the church in our time as it too receives the gospels as well as all of the reflection on them by the church through the ages as the authentic and normative witness to Christ as well as the understanding of all that he meant and means for the church in every age (the applied context–as it is contemporary to us).
With exegesis, if we are doing this well, we start with those first three contexts, making sure we consider the historical/cultural and theological context in which Christ was working (asking good questions about his intent in doing and saying what he was), and making sure we consider the interpretive context in which the author of each gospel was working to interpret and apply the tradition of the church about Christ to the church in their context (asking good questions about the author’s intent in using the events in Jesus’ life as he does, thinking of the historical/cultural, literary, and theological assumptions and issues related to the church in the time and region each gospel writer is addressing). All of this is related to the way God worked with his people in light of his covenant purpose for them and the world.
 
With the rest of the hermeneutical process, we work through the remaining layers of context to fit the church through the ages, and the church in our time, into what we have discovered (we call it ‘application’, but that implies that we take something from the text, and I tend to think a better image would really be one of ‘submission’, as we submit who we are and what we do to all that God has to say through the wisdom and experiences of his people that we have in scripture).

Layers of hermeneutical context

My Biblical Hermeneutics students often struggled to understand the many layers of context we see in scripture, all of which are important to understand in both their uniqueness and interrelationship if we are to most fully and appropriately understand scripture as it relates to theology and the life of the church both in history and today. The following diagram attempts to capture those layers and their scope in relationship to one another.

layers-of-hermeneutical-context