Where Is The Father’s House, You Ask?

Sermon, May 14, 2017 – Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
John 14:1-14

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

A few weeks ago I talked to you about the comments of Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, who had declared “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas was having a very human reaction to the reports of the resurrection of Jesus, indeed a reaction that each one of us here would have probably also had.

In today’s gospel, Thomas strikes again. Actually though, the events in today’s Gospel took place before the events in the Gospel from a few weeks ago. But, it is still Thomas. I am beginning to think that the role of Thomas in John’s gospel was as the set-up guy to give preachers material for their sermons. So what is Thomas up to today?

Jesus had just finished telling his disciples that they need not worry when he leaves them because he is going to his Father’s house to prepare a place for them, and that he will come back to take them there. Jesus concludes by telling them “You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas asks what would appear to be a very reasonable question. He says “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” If you look at the first four verses of chapter 14, you see that Jesus talks about his Father’s house, but where might that be located? Thomas, quite reasonably, simply wants to know the way so that he can get there when the time comes.

This is quite sensible, isn’t it? I mean if Sheree tells me that she has prepared a lovely garden for me to come and see, and says “you know the way” but I don’t, isn’t it very reasonable for me to say to her “I don’t know the way. Can’t you tell me?” And Sheree would give me the driving directions so that I could get there. Or suppose a guest needed to use the restroom here and asked one of you how to get there. Wouldn’t you instruct them on how to get there?

Thomas simply wants to know the way to the Fathers’ house which Jesus talks about, so that he will be able to get there. And this is his mistake. And it is an easy one to make. In fact, it is one that Christians make all the time. This is, on its face, a very reasonable thing for Thomas to ask, right? And yet think about what it does. It turns the focus away from Jesus and on to ourselves, in two key ways.

First, it leads to an emphasis on our effort, as if we could find our way to the Father’s House if only we are given the correct road map and directions. Second, it can make Jesus into something that is little more than a signpost or treasure map for us. He is something that serves us in getting what we ultimately want. This way of thinking sounds far more like the Kingdom of this world than the Kingdom of God.

I think that this erroneous way of thinking has seriously undermined the church’s witness in America today. In fact, what strikes me is that much of the conservative church and much of the liberal church have taken this same basic error and gone in two different directions. On the one hand, how many people in America today – whether they are Christian or not, believe that the basic message of Christianity is this: Christians accept Jesus as their personal Savior, which then earns them a place in heaven for all eternity. A little bit of pain in the here and now, in exchange for an eternity of bliss if only we say the sinner’s prayer, try to attend church a couple of times a month, follow the ten commandments and tithe. It can sound very contractual. Jesus can become our tool to get what we really want – which is to escape hell and make it to heaven.

On the other hand, we hear from others that it is much too arrogant and exclusive to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, because it excludes those who don’t follow Jesus. Instead, we are told that Jesus is simply our way to God, but that there may be other ways as well. If Jesus is just simply a way, and an unnecessary way at that, he can’t very well be the central focus. That turns back on us and our quest. Once again, Jesus might be simply the tool we use to get what we really want – some sort of union with the divine.

I would like you to think about it this way. Imagine your best friend has come to you to tell you about a young man who has expressed interest in marrying her. You care deeply for her and want to be sure that she doesn’t make a mistake. Now imagine how the following might affect your views of this young man and what his intentions are for your best friend. What if you hear him say “I really want to marry her because she’s got a lot of money, and once we’re married, I get half.” Or how about “I want to marry her so that I can get a green card and stay in the country.” What would you say to your friend? You’d warn her away because the fellow would obviously have an ulterior motive in marrying her. She would just be a tool for him to get to his ultimate goal.

What you want to hear the young man say is “I really want to marry her because I love her so much and I want to be with her and be her help mate for as long as I live.” She should be the ultimate goal for the young man. Not a way to achieve something else, but the ultimate goal.

And so it is with Jesus. He is our ultimate goal. He is not the way to our ultimate goal. He is the goal. And so Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Our passage expands on what this means. Listen again to what Jesus says to Thomas: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

What does Jesus mean here? Let’s go back to the words of Jesus at the beginning of our passage. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” If we asked Christians today to paraphrase this, most would say that this means that Jesus is preparing our place in heaven for when we die. But this isn’t what Jesus meant and it isn’t what Jews of that day would have understood him to mean.

Jews, including Thomas, believed that when the Messiah came, he would establish the Kingdom of Israel as the predominant earthly kingdom. And God would then come to Jerusalem and dwell in His Temple there. And so, for Jews of this time period, the “Father’s house” would be the Temple where God would forever dwell with his people. The rooms would be in the new Temple, where only undefiled servants of God would have a place.

What Thomas didn’t understand yet, was that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah that he was expecting. The kingdom that Jesus was going to establish was not a political kingdom in this world. And the Temple that Jesus was going to raise in three days was not a building, but rather himself. When Jesus spoke of the rooms in his Father’s House, he was referring to how his followers would dwell in Him. What the disciples didn’t yet understand, was that Jesus is the second Temple and He and the Father are one.

And so Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” Jesus is telling his disciples that he is the second Temple, and that if we are in Jesus, then we are dwelling with God the Father even now.

Jesus came to earth to die for our sins and then rise from the dead and defeat death. His resurrection is the vanguard in God’s plan for the new heavens and the new earth, when all who belong to Christ will be resurrected and dwell with him forever. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”

And so, in today’s Gospel we hear that if we belong to Christ, then we know Christ and know the Father also even now. But what’s more, Christ’s resurrection is our sure promise that when he returns, we will all be resurrected and, in our resurrected bodies, take our places with God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – in the new heavens and new earth. This is the Father’s House. In the book of Revelation, John writes “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””

This is what our Gospel reading is pointing us towards. If we know Christ today, then we know God the Father as well. If we dwell in Christ, then we dwell with the Father. We are already part of the Kingdom of God. But there’s more! The resurrection of Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection of all who are in Christ. Jesus is telling us in today’s passage that when he returns to earth for the second time, we will all be resurrected in him, and we will then be fully in the Father’s house – with our resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth. In one sense, we’re there already, because we are already in Christ. But in another sense, we still have a way to go, because we have not yet been resurrected in Christ. But Jesus has both shown us the way and he is our way. And our truth. And our life.

Let us pray.

Eternal God, your Son our Lord Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life: grant us to walk in his way, to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life. Amen.

The Holy Trinity – God Really Is Love

Sermon, May 22, 2016 – Trinity Sunday, Year C

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

A few months ago a small controversy erupted in the world of American Christianity. The question of the day was “do Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God?” Some said “yes, of course. Christianity developed from Judaism, and Islam claims its lineage from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all worship the God mentioned in Genesis.” Others said “no, of course not. The God of Christianity is uniquely revealed in the Bible, including the New Testament. God is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Followers of Judaism reject the true God when they reject Jesus Christ. And the followers of Islam have strayed completely from the true God.”

As I considered the various responses to this question, it struck me that the answer depends how you look at the question. It is sort of like asking do we all believe in St. Nick when Christmas season approaches. Some will describe Santa Claus – the fat guy in a red suit who lives in the North Pole and flies around on Christmas Eve in a sleigh bringing presents to children. Others, especially the Dutch, will point to Sinter Klaas who dresses like a bishop, rides a white horse and carries a book telling who has been good or bad throughout the year. Still others will point to the historical St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop who lived in what is now Turkey and who is known for his secret gift-giving. The point is that on the one hand, all of these individuals can be traced to the same source – that of the original St. Nicholas, but on the other hand, these are no longer the same characters.

I ended up siding with those who would say that Christians, Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God. The differences in our concept of who God is are just too great. The Christian God described in the Old and New Testaments is not the same as Islam’s Allah and the Jewish concept of God is no longer complete. There are many differences, but one of the most key and significant differences is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Today is Trinity Sunday and we’ll spend some time thinking about what the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity means.

The first thing to note is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly stated in the Bible. It is, however, clearly implied and it soon became something that the early Church realized was imperative to the Faith. If the Trinity per se is not stated in the Bible, how was it determined to be a core part of the faith by the early Church? The very concept would have been unthinkable to a Jewish believer. When I was thinking about this question, a maxim that appears often in Sherlock Holmes stories and films for drawing conclusions from implicit clues came to my mind. Sherlock would say “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” The early Christians knew that there was only one God. This had been taught repeatedly in both the Old Testament and by Jesus.

They knew that there could only be one God. And yet, they also knew that Jesus referred to God as his Father, stated that he and his father were one. They knew that Jesus was not born of just human parentage but instead came down from heaven and he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. They knew that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son and came upon them at Pentecost. They knew that Jesus had told them to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They knew that God was three persons in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They knew that there was one God, in three persons, and so the doctrine of the Trinity was developed. The Trinity was the only possible explanation for the facts and so they knew this doctrine was absolutely essential.

Before we consider why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important for what it tells us about the nature of God, let’s think about some of the more common misunderstandings that have arisen over time. As you might guess, the doctrine of the Trinity is really far beyond our full comprehension level. We will never be able to fully understand it. It is also a doctrine, as I mentioned that is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, yet one that is very important. Because of all of these factors, the Church had great difficulty in pinning down the doctrine of the Trinity and there were many heresies that came about when people got the Trinity wrong.

The two most basic problems, which tend to form the basis of the Trinitarian heresies, are focusing primarily on the unity of God at the expense of the idea of three separate persons, and focusing on the three persons of the Trinity at the expense of God’s oneness. What do I mean by this? Let’s consider the first problem – that of focusing on God’s oneness at the expense of the three persons of the Trinity. This tends to be our biggest problem with the Trinity in today’s church. We can sometimes stray into this territory when we try to make Trinitarian references by referring to roles instead of persons. In some churches, for example, the priest does not want to say “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” but instead says “Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer.” Doing so de-emphasizes the personhood of the three Persons of the Trinity. Instead, we are told some of the job duties of God, but don’t sense that God is three distinct persons – the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The other problem is focusing on the three persons of the Trinity instead of God’s oneness. We can stray into this error when we overemphasize one of the three persons of God, over and against the others. Perhaps an overly exuberant charismatic may only focus on the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit without recognizing the Father’s work in creating the world and giving us commandments to follow, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. The problem here is that we pick and choose which persons of the Trinity that we resonate with and overlook the fact that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all part of the one God.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because the doctrine of the Trinity tells us an enormous amount about the character of God. I want us to do a little thought experiment. Imagine that you are God. You can have access to the most wonderful house, the nicest car, you need merely snap your fingers and your favorite food will appear beside you. The only thing that you cannot have is another person. You would be entirely alone and by yourself for eternity. Think about this. What would it say about you? If you were eternally alone, what would that say about your essential character?

And now imagine a slightly difference circumstance. Imagine again that you are God just as I described above, but this time you will be spending eternity with two others. Look around you right now and see the two people sitting nearest you. These two would be always present with you for all eternity. You would always be looking out for them, and they would always be looking out for you. Think about this new situation. What would this say about your essential character?

Pastor Tim Keller writes “But what if there is a God? Does love fare any better? It depends on who you think God is. If God is unipersonal (Tim Keller means here just one person – so like our first example), then until God created other beings there was no love, since love is something that one person has for another. This means that a unipersonal God was power, sovereignty, and greatness from all eternity, but not love. Love then is not the essence of God, nor is it at the heart of the universe. Power is primary.” Tim Keller is right on here. Without the uniquely Christian doctrine of the Trinity, God is not love, but power.

Tim Keller continues. “However, if God is triune, then loving relationships in community are the ‘great fountain…at the center of reality.’…God really has love at his essence….[Love]is the purpose of God because he is essentially, eternally, interpersonal love.” If we err on the doctrine of the Trinity and emphasize Gods’ unity only, then we are essentially proclaiming that the essence of God is power instead of love. A God whose essence is power is very different than a God whose essence is love.

Tim Keller also tells us that “[e]ach of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the other revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.” If we focus on the individual persons of the Trinity, we lose this focus that God is a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God in a way that is fundamentally different then God as understood in either Judaism or Islam. The Christian God is a God whose essential, defining characteristic is not power, but love. And this can only be so in a Triune God. And so, even though it can be very difficult for us to grasp the concept of the Trinity, it is an extremely important doctrine for us. Because it tells us that our God is a God of love and relationships. When we are told in the Bible that God created us to be his sons and daughters, to be in an eternal relationship with him, we know that this is indeed exactly who our God is.

And God made us in his own image. Genesis chapter one says “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” God created us to also have love, relationship and community at the core of our being, both with him and with each other. We are called to love God and love each other. When asked to summarize the Law, Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” This is our call, and it is rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity, which we celebrate today. And so, as we go about our lives, let us always remember that our core and God’s core is love, relationship and community – both with God and with each other. This is what we celebrate today on Trinity Sunday.

Let us pray.

Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed yourself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and live and reign in the perfect unity of love: hold us firm in this faith, that we may know you in all your ways and evermore rejoice in your eternal glory, who are three Persons yet one God, for ever. Amen.

The Preacher’s Role

While reading through the lectionary readings for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, I was struck that two of the assigned passages spoke powerfully to the role of preachers. Although I found this discovery to be interesting and worthy of exploration, I focused on another subject for my sermon.

Now I would like to take another quick look at what these two passages teach us on both the role of the preacher and the congregation. Let’s turn to the passages in question. First, from Nehemiah 8:1-8 (excerpted) we read “They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. So…Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon…. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. The Levites…instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.”

The second passage is found in Luke 4:16-21 “On the Sabbath day [Jesus] went into the synagogue. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place…. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.””

In both passages, a portion of Scripture is read aloud to the people. The preacher’s job is to make the word of God clear to the people and give its meaning so that the congregation will understand it. The role of the preacher is not to tell entertaining stories, dispense his or her wisdom about the world, advocate for his or her political or social causes, berate people, nor to sound clever or sophisticated. Sometimes preachers might do some of the above as they make the meaning of Scripture clear, and that’s okay. But the primary role of the preacher is to expound Scripture to the people so that they will understand it.

To do this, the preacher will often read through several different translations of the Bible, look at how the passage fits into the wider context of the surrounding passages, consult commentaries, read through related passages in Scripture, read up on the historical and cultural context of the time, sometimes look at the passage in its original language, and always pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. In all of this, the preacher is seeking to discern what God’s message is for the congregation in the passage, and how he or she can communicate that to the people.

And what of the congregation? In Nehemiah, we read that the people “listened attentively” (for six whole hours no less!) while in Luke “the eyes of everyone were fastened on” the preacher. The purpose of listening attentively is so that the people will understand the Scripture and will understand the Gospel. The preacher’s job is to facilitate the people in this.

What does this mean to us at St. Luke’s? Speaking as a preacher, I see my job as being to immerse you in the Scripture of the day and to show you how the truth of the Gospel is communicated in our lectionary readings. What about those who are listening to the preacher? Feel free to follow along in the pew Bible, and note down the other Scripture we reference. I love it when people approach me after the service to ask me further about what I preached about (this suggests that they are seeking greater understanding) or telling me that I taught them something new (this tells me that I accomplished something).

And so I would encourage each of you to review the lectionary readings before coming to church on Sunday (you can find apps that give you the readings, or go to http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ to see the readings and download calendars for your devices, etc.). Think about what you read, and then listen to the preacher. After the service, share with the preacher something you learned or how the Scriptures that we read impacted or affected you. Engage the preacher in a follow-up question. And most importantly, let God’s Word speak to your heart, mind and soul.

Karma or Grace

Sermon, February 28, 2016 – The Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1-9

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

This past week, I was reading a comment that someone had left on Facebook about the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The person said that they did not like Justice Scalia and thought that it was “karma” that he died before he got to enjoy his hunting trip. A rather petty comment, but it reminded me that karma, or at least a pop-culture version of karma, has become an increasingly popular belief in America, even among Christians. What is karma? One scholar describes it as follows:

[Karma]… claims to insure justice. According to the law of karma…we get what we deserve in every life. Our good and bad deeds produce good and bad results from lifetime to lifetime. With karma, there is supposedly no unjust suffering, because no one is innocent. All suffering is deserved on the basis of bad karma.

We sometimes think of karma as “what goes around, comes around.” If you do something mean, you will experience a negative consequence down the road. So, if you are a Supreme Court judge and make decisions that a certain Facebook commentator doesn’t like, you will die in your sleep before your hunting trip. On the flip side, karma means that if you do good things, then you will reap positive consequences down the road.

One thing I have observed about karma is that everyone believes that it is other people who will suffer negative consequences. Not themselves, just others. Does the commentator who took pleasure in Justice Scalia’s death before his hunting trip think that she will suffer a negative consequence for her mean-spirited comment? Surely not. We see karma as the universe’s way of vindicating ourselves and our selfish wants and emotions. My boss is going to get bad karma because he didn’t give me that promotion I wanted. The driver that annoyed me on the road is going to get bad karma because she displeased me with her driving habits. The judge I don’t like is going to get bad karma because he made judicial decisions that I don’t like. Others will get negative karma because they have displeased me in some way.

But me? Heh, I’m basically a good person. I don’t really lie. I only tell harmless fibs. I haven’t murdered anyone. That cashier I chewed out yesterday in the store for being too slow, well she deserved it. I haven’t committed adultery. That woman I was flirting with? That was just harmless fun, I don’t know why my wife got so upset with me. No, I’m basically a good person, and karma will reward me in the end. It’s really all about me and justifying myself.

What does God say to such thoughts? Jeremiah chapter 17, verse 9. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” 1 John chapter 1, verse 8. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” We are deluded if we think that we are in line for good karma.

Jesus takes on the idea of karma in our Gospel passage.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

The belief in karma is part of the human condition. The people in the ancient near east would not have called it karma, but they did hold deeply to the belief that if something bad happened to you, it was because you had deserved it. Jesus is referring to two incidents which were apparently news stories in his day. The first involved some Galileans who had gone to the Temple to offer sacrifices to God and were apparently killed by the authorities – perhaps as a result of an overzealous response to a potential riot. We don’t really know. In another incident, people died in a building collapse. In both instances, it doesn’t appear that the people did anything obvious to cause their own deaths, but the people were ready to blame them anyway.

Jesus asks the crowd “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” and “do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus is challenging their belief in karma. Flip what Jesus is saying and you get “do you think that you are more worthy then the people that died?”

Then Jesus takes it a step further. After asking the rhetorical questions whether the people thought that those who died brought their deaths on themselves through karma, Jesus emphatically says “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish”. In other words, we are all guilty and we are all deserving of bad karma. If we think that karma is going to be the instrument of our petty revenge on those we don’t like, but which will protect us, we are deluding ourselves.

I don’t usually think that celebrities have very much to contribute to theological or philosophical discussions, but U2’s lead singer Bono had some great things to say about karma and Jesus Christ. In an interview he said

It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics…every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…. I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep [trouble]. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

Bono is spot on here. The reality is that each one of us is deserving of bad karma. If karma is our judge, as so many believe, we are in deep trouble. We are seriously delusional if we think that the people we don’t like will get bad karma, but that we and our friends will somehow get off scot free.

What then is our hope? Jesus tells us to repent, and that we must do. Indeed, it is all we can do. But we can also see hope in our Old Testament reading where Moses encountered God. Remember that Moses had escaped from Egypt where his people, the Israelites, were enslaved by the Egyptians. God chose Moses to save the Israelites and bring them out of captivity – to save them from their bad karma.

There is much to the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush, but I want to focus on how God reveals who he is to Moses, because God tells us a lot about himself in how he reveals his identity. It is very important to understand that in ancient culture, knowing somebody’s name was very important as it was thought to give you power over them. And so, by knowing the name of your god, you could invoke that name and seek to manipulate this god through spells, curses, offerings, idols and what not. And so, with that in mind, let’s see how God names himself.

The first way that he identifies himself to Moses is by saying “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” God tells Moses that he is the same God who has been with the Israelites from the beginning. God isn’t giving his name, but rather telling Moses about who he is in relation to the people. He is the God who has always been with his people.

Later, Moses asked God his name in the following interchange.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

When asked for his name, God says “I am who I am.” In the ancient Hebrew, this could also be read as “I will be who I will be.” Do you see what God is doing here? He is saying to Moses “no, I am not giving you a name by which you can manipulate me. I am who I am. I will be who I will be. Your one choice here is to trust me.”

Humanity’s idea of karma is a way to avoid trusting in God and repenting. It is humanity’s way of trying to control God, by declaring that everyone else is due their punishment, but that we are worthy of good karma for ourselves. It’s us trying to substitute our own ideas of right and wrong for God’s view.

Jesus makes it clear that we don’t get to do that. If we are truthful, we can only admit that we are all due bad karma. We can’t think that we can substitute our own judgments for God’s and escape our fate that way. We can’t manipulate God.

Our only hope is to repent. To lay hold of God’s promises to us that he is the God of our fathers and mothers. He is who he is, and he will be who he will be. He has shown us that he is the God who rescues his people. He rescued his people from the flood, from slavery in Egypt, from exile, and, most important of all, from sin and death through the death of his son, Jesus Christ. He is who he is. He will be who he will be. He is and he will be our rescuer and our redeemer. We can only repent and throw ourselves on his mercy confident that he will keep his promises.

And that is what Lent, the season of penitence is about. This is the season where we repent and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. And when Good Friday and Easter come, we celebrate that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Let us pray.

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Being Part of God’s Story

Sermon, November 15, 2015 Proper 28, Year B
1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 2:1-10

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today we heard a story about a vulnerable woman, who despite her rather precarious social situation, nevertheless demonstrated great faith and trust in God. This woman miraculously became pregnant and gave birth to a son who played a very important role in the salvation history of Israel and the line of King David. During the time when we normally recite a Psalm together, we instead recited this woman’s song to God, in which she praises God for lifting up the powerless and humbling the rich and powerful. Quickly, how many are wondering if we accidentally read our Advent readings a month early?

Well there are a lot of similarities between the story of Hannah and Samuel and the story of Mary and Jesus. And I’ll bet that there has been more than one doctoral thesis exploring these connections. Some of the similarities are quite obvious. There are the miraculous births of key figures in our salvation history. And the Magnificat sung by Mary is based on Hannah’s song which was our canticle this morning. But the similarity I want to look at is what Mary and Hannah had in common with Ruth and Naomi, whose story we read last week. All of these were socially vulnerable women who stepped up when they needed to, demonstrated incredible faith in God, and ended up playing a much greater role in the coming of God’s kingdom than they could have imagined.

Last week the pastor preached on the story of Ruth and Naomi. The story of Ruth in the Book of Ruth immediately precedes the passage we read today. Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth are widows in ancient Israel. Not only have their husbands died, but they have no sons. Ruth was a foreigner to boot. It is hard to imagine someone at greater risk of living in brutal poverty. But Ruth had made the decision to be with Naomi and to follow Yahweh, the God of Israel. And as we heard last week, Ruth’s faithfulness in following God resulted in her marrying Naomi’s kinsman redeemer and becoming the great grandmother to King David.

Today’s reading is the story of Hannah. Hannah is the first wife of a man named Elkanah. The story tells us that Hannah was not able to produce an heir for her husband. In ancient Israel, it was very critical for a wife to bear a son who could then carry on the family tradition. As we learned last week from Ruth, in ancient Israel only men inherited and carried on the family name. A woman who could not bear a son was in an extremely vulnerable position. Her husband could divorce her or ignore her. Fortunately, Elkanah did not do this. Instead, he took a second wife who bore him children. This is the general setting for today’s story.

Somewhat more specifically, verse 3 tells us that Elkanah took his family and went once a year to worship and sacrifice to the Lord at Shiloh. This was before David had established Jerusalem as the center of Israel, and at this time the town of Shiloh was the important religious center in Israel. Most commentators I have read suggest that when Elkanah and his family went to Shiloh they would have had a feast very similar to our Thanksgiving dinner. So when it says that Elkanah gave portions of meat to his family, this was probably referring to a major family feast. At this feast, Elkanah gave Hanna “a double portion because he loved her.” It would appear that Hannah was Elkanah’s favorite wife despite her inability to have children.

This sets us up for the next part of the story. Since Hannah couldn’t have children, Elkanah took a second wife, named Peninnah, to produce an heir. And , Peninnah did just that, but Elkanah still loved Hannah more. This led to a very dysfunctional situation. You had the best loved wife, Hannah, who was not able to bear children. Then you had the number two wife, Peninnah who did produce children. Both of these women had grievances and cause to be envious of the other. We are told that Peninnah responded by constantly needling Hannah about her inability to have children. Our reading tells us that Peninnah “kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.”

Can you imagine the situation? You’ve got the husband who strikes me as a nice man but rather clueless. He seems to be completely ignorant of how his wives are feeling. He tries to reward Hannah with a special portion at the feast but he is unable to give her the one thing she most desires – that is, children. Peninnah saw Elkanah lavish this special attention on Hannah and probably thought to herself “Why give her all the attention? I’m the one that has given you children. Why slight me in favor of her?” And so in childish fashion, Peninnah would provoke Hannah behind the scenes till she cried and lost her appetite. What a wonderful home life it must have been.

But one time at Shiloh, Hannah had had enough. Rather than just continuing to be upset, Hannah decided to turn to the Lord. She poured out her heart in anguish to God. Hannah told God that if God would only give her a son, she would in turn, dedicate that son to the Lord’s service for his whole life. Israelites dedicated to God did not shave their heads, and so when Hannah said “I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head” this is what she means. Hannah must have been very emotional because Eli the priest watched her and figured that she must be drunk. When Eli realizes his mistake, he tells Hannah “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” God uses the bumbling Eli, who was not able to tell the difference between an emotionally distraught woman and a drunk woman, to assure Hannah that her prayers had been heard.

In time, Hannah did become pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. When her son Samuel was ready, Hannah took him to the priest Eli where he entered into God’s service. When Samuel grew up, he became one of the leading prophets in Israel and, among other things, anointed David to be Israel’s king. Hannah’s decision to turn to God in her time of trial led to one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history who anointed King David.

This is a great story, just as the stories of Ruth and Naomi and the Virgin Mary are. But what does it teach us? What lessons can we learn from these stories? They tell us about how God works in the world to bring about his plan for salvation. In each of these situations, God used the weakest and most vulnerable members of society to play a key role in the salvation history of the world. These women were not asked to complete a great quest or conquer a powerful enemy or become a celebrity. Rather, these women were only asked to take an incredible step of faith and follow the path that God had already laid out for them.

Those of you who know me, know that I am a huge fan or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the accompanying movies. In these stories, there are great races of men, elves, dwarves, and eagles. All of them had a proud history of great and noble deeds and possessed martial prowess and always sought after glory. But then there were the hobbits and these were largely forgotten about because they were very pedestrian and shied away from glory and adventure. There were two special hobbits, Frodo and Sam, and these two hobbits never sought glory, never saw themselves as the central feature in the story. They just did what was asked of them. And it was Frodo and Sam and their simple faith and obedience that, in the end, proved decisive.

I think that Tolkien probably got this theme in the Lord of the Rings from stories like Hannah’s, Mary’s, and Ruth and Naomi’s. These were people who did not fancy themselves as the center of the story. Rather, they demonstrated a simple but strong faith, trusting in God and moving forward in obedience to God’s calling. And at the end of the day, though they did not realize it at the time, nor did they seek it out, they nevertheless played decisive roles in God’s overall story of bringing salvation to the world.

In today’s world, we often think that we are the central feature in the story. Sure, we may be open to sometimes receiving input from God into our story. Indeed, we often ask how God fits into our story. We might ask “what is God doing in our lives?” and that might be a very good question to ask but there is a danger in it. One of the defining themes of our Western culture is radical self-autonomy – in other words, everything is about us and our definitions of reality, our wants, our desires, our stories. Christians cannot help but be influenced by this way of thinking. It is human nature to want to be the center of the story.

And so, often Christians ask how God fits into our stories. This is usually done with the very best of intentions as we seek God in fulfilling our culturally given right to define our own stories. But is this how Hannah thought about it? Or how Mary thought about it? Or Ruth or Naomi? I don’t think so. They didn’t pray to see how God fit into their stories, but rather, they prayed and responded by doing what was asked of them in God’s story.

Theologian Eugene Peterson, in a commentary on the first and second books of Samuel, makes a very important observation about the story of Hannah and Samuel. Peterson writes “We do violence to the biblical revelation when we “use” it for what we can get out of it or what we think will provide color and spice to our otherwise bland lives. That results in a kind of “boutique spirituality” – God as decoration. The Samuel narrative will not allow that. In the reading, as we submit our lives to what we read, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but to see our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which my story finds itself.”1

Peterson’s point is so important I want to repeat it “we are not being led to see God in our stories but to see our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which my story finds itself.” If we have this perspective – of our story being part of God’s larger story – then I think that faith, trust and obedience in God becomes more natural to us. Think about it. If we are the center of the story, we don’t know how the story ends. However, we know the ending to God’s story – we can read that in the final book in the Bible, the Revelation of John. We know how God’s story ends. We can count on that.

If we realize that the story is not all about us, then we don’t need to prove anything or make our mark. We don’t need to swoop in and save the day. We can step back and realize that we only need to join Naomi, Ruth, Hannah and Mary in trusting God and obeying him, because that is the key to God’s story being the context and plot in which our stories belong.

God’s story is all about rescuing the world from sin through Jesus Christ. And all of our stories are to be found within this context, within this plot. Jesus Christ is the main character in our stories and is where each of our stories find their roots. If we can keep focused on Jesus and respond to God with faith and obedience, we will play our part in God’s greater story.

Let us pray,

Lord God, we thank you for making us a part of the most incredible story ever – the story of Jesus Christ coming to earth to die and rise and again, saving us from our sins and restoring our relationship to God. You have given us your story in the Bible. As today’s Collect tells us: you caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

1Eugene Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), p. 3.