Sermon from January 24: It Doesn’t Require Angels

It Doesn’t Require Angels
Epiphany III; January 24, 2021
Matthew 18

Since it is my calling to preach to you a sermon, I shall, although you have already heard two excellent messages this week in the President’s inaugural address and Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.” Not in either of those, but at some point during the ceremony, there was an allusion to Abraham Lincoln’s hope in his first inaugural address that the nation’s wounds would be healed by “the better angels of our nature.” Please note that Lincoln was not saying that our nation was so divided that only angels could repair it; he was saying that we could be reconciled if we would attend to what is best about human nature.

Although I do identify as a Calvinist and I find our theological tradition to be compelling, I’m not inclined to think we humans are so far gone as many Calvinists do. Yes, we are sinners, but I also have found there seems to be something intrinsically good about human beings, and that’s where I want to focus today. To heal a nation’s wounds, to heal a family’s conflict, to heal a broken heart doesn’t require angels. It requires us to attend to the better angels of our nature.

Matthew 18 is chock full of wisdom and challenge and encouragement. Jesus says a lot of things in here that are worth paying attention to, and most of us have our favorites. Here is my general comment about them: he meant what he said. The teachings of Jesus are not simply nice ideas, something to admire and wish they would become real. They are practical guides for living well. If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you and I should strive to obey them. If you’re simply interested, then consider them good advice. I’ve heard it said that it’s a lot easier to praise Jesus than it is to follow him; to actually do the things Jesus advises in Matthew 18 is hard, but not impossible. It doesn’t require angels; it requires us to attend to the better angels of our nature.

There are four general principles in Matthew 18 for human relationships. If you and I work at these things then we can have better relationships as individuals. We can also be part of the work of healing the tears in our national fabric. I suggest you write these down and think about how you can make them part of your own agenda.

  1. Don’t bait each other (verses 6-9). Jesus describes it as putting a stumbling block in front of one of the little ones; he also says that extreme thing about cutting off body parts that cause you to be tempted. Since the Church as a whole is called the Body of Christ, I’m going to twist that a little bit today and say, “Don’t be the tempting body part.” When I was a teenager in the turbulent 1970s, my Dad and I enjoyed arguing with each other over environmental issues and other public concerns. I don’t know what he actually believed because he enjoyed taking a contrary position just to get me riled up. Some of you know it isn’t hard to get me riled up. When it’s all in good fun, that’s fine, but when a person or relationship is emotionally or intellectually fragile, it doesn’t help your relationship to bait them, to rile them up, to provoke them.

In public issues, I try (sometimes successfully) to assume that those who differ from me want the same things I do, but they have a different idea of how those things are to be achieved. The main difference between Democrats and Republicans, for example, is not motivation, but method. We want the same things for ourselves and for our nation: peace, prosperity, health for everyone, good relationships with others. We differ in how we think those things should be achieved. Refrain from calling each other names, from putting stumbling blocks in front of each other, from trying to rile each other up, and we may get along better.

  1. Make an effort to bring home the lost (verses 10-14). Although it takes only one party to destroy a relationship, it takes two to heal it. Do your best to heal relationships. Reach out to the one who has wandered off, to the family member who has been disaffected, to the church member who is angry. You cannot guarantee that the lost sheep will follow you home, but you will have tried.
  1. Talk to each other, not about each other (verses 15-20). This is the hardest one in the list, I think. You and I are so accustomed to thinking that we have to be “nice” to each other and never say anything to someone else that might cause discomfort – to that person or to yourself – that when we have a problem with someone we do not talk to that person, but talk about that person to others. Jesus explicitly tells us not to do that, but church people do it all the time. When they dislike another member’s behavior, they complain to the Pastor. When they have a problem with the Pastor, they complain to the Personnel Committee. If we’re going to pay attention to Jesus’ instructions, both of those are wrong: you talk to the person you have a problem with. If that doesn’t work, or you’re afraid to talk to them alone, take someone with you. Start there.

I did a sermon about this one day many years ago. Afterward, during the time of thanksgivings and prayers, one of our members stood up and gave testimony about a time he did that in his business. He could have sued someone, but instead he went and talked to them. They worked it out; it saved a relationship and also saved a great deal of time and money. Imagine what it could do for your family if you summoned the courage to talk to the family member who has hurt you, rather than gripe about them to everyone else. Imagine what it would do for our nation if we listened to each other and talked to each other, rather than insulting each other on Facebook or in the letters in the newspaper.

  1. Forgive, that you may be forgiven (verses 21-35). This too is hard, but it is possible. You have doubtless heard moving stories of forgiveness. One of them is from Phan Thi Kim Phuc, a Vietnamese woman who was pictured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph in 1972. The photograph is a group of screaming children running down a road after their village has been napalmed by the Americans. Kim is the little girl running naked, because her clothes had been burned off her, and screaming, “Nong qua! Nong qua!” (“Too hot! Too hot!”).

After months of pain and multiple surgeries, she was well enough to resume her life. Eventually she was married and had children; she lives in Toronto and runs a foundation dedicated to advancing healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. She became a Christian after reading the Bible as a teenager and says that God helped her learn to forgive. It was hard and it took a long time, but she finally got it. She even once had the opportunity at a Veterans Day event at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC to personally forgive an American pilot who had helped coordinate the attack on her village. Kim said, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days, but my heart is cleansed.”[1]

Whenever you and I say the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Think about that; what we are saying is, “Lord, if I refuse to forgive, then please do not forgive me.” Forgiveness is hard and takes a long time, but it cleanses the heart, as Kim Phuc said, and it is essential for the healing of relationships.

Well, there is more in Matthew 18 worth talking about, but I think I’ve said enough for one day. To recap, Jesus gives four commands or pieces of advice that help with healthy relationships:

  1. Don’t bait each other.
  2. Make an effort to bring home the lost.
  3. Talk to each other, not about each other.
  4. Forgive, that you may be forgiven.

All of these things are hard, but none is impossible. We don’t need angels to do it for us; we need only to attend to the better angels of our human nature.

Thirteen years ago Kathleen and I got to meet Joe Biden at a small gathering in Shenandoah, Iowa. I was moved by the positive way he talked about the American people: he spoke about our possibilities, about what good things we are capable of. In his address on Wednesday, he said, “We are good people. And over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we’ve come so far, but we still have far to go.”[2] Let’s not get too Calvinist and quibble over his words “We are good people.” Let’s take them for what they are and apply them to all of us: Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Libertarian; White, Latino/a, Black, Asian, Native; born here and immigrant. Assume the other is at least as good as you are.

And cling to Amanda Gorman’s closing lines; apply them not only to the nation but apply them especially to Jesus’ church. It doesn’t require angels; it requires that we attend to the better angels of our nature. And though I will not try to match her magnificent performance, I wish to finish by reminding you of her words:

We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.[3]

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

 

[1] From Glenn McDonald, “Morning Reflection,” May 20, 2020

[2] Joseph R. Biden, Jr.; Inaugural Address. From the Omaha World-Herald, January 21, 2021,  p. A5

[3] Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb.”

Sermon from January 17: “Have you understood all this?”

“Have you understood all this?”
Epiphany II; January 17, 2021
Matthew 13:44-58

I have always been somewhat suspicious of the disciples’ confident reply, “Yes, we understand.” I find that the older I get, the less I understand. Actually, that’s probably not true; what is probably true is that I am more aware of how little I understand. I am glad to say, however, that I am confident that I understand very well the points Jesus makes in these parables.

The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast illustrate how effective the presence of the kingdom of heaven is: its emphasis spreads and grows. The parables of the treasure and the merchant illustrate how valuable the kingdom of heaven is: it is worth giving up everything else. And the parables of the weeds and the net illustrate that the kingdom of heaven on earth is not pure, but includes the good and the bad. I suspect you understand that too and you understood it as they were being read to you. If not, get in touch with me; I love to try to help people understand.

There are other things that I fail to understand, some of them having to do specifically with Christian theology and others having to do with human behavior. I cannot yet let go of the public events surrounding us, and today’s Scripture convicts me that I dare not let go of them. Here, let me explain. I love the picture Jesus paints after the disciples confidently assert that they understand. He describes the education of a Christian teacher as being like a homeowner going through the boxes in the attic and the new deliveries from Amazon. The homeowner looks through the treasures in the attic: these old clothes will probably never get worn again; oh, this doll needs to be loved by another little girl; look! my old train set; someone can play with that. And the new deliveries from Amazon: this will be useful; this will look good on you; what in the world was I drinking when I ordered that?

John Calvin helped me understand the parable of the householder. He said that “what is old” and “what is new” should not be tied to anything so specific as the Old Testament and the New Testament, but that it simply meant that a Christian teacher needs to study hard and be ready to produce from long tradition or from new insight whatever instruction from the word of God will respond to the needs of the time. Or put otherwise: just because it’s new doesn’t make it better; just because it’s old doesn’t make it more worthy. Understand the word of God well enough to be able to apply it appropriately to the time.

So, to reflect a bit on the needs of our time, what insights new and old may help us? My pastor friend asked me recently how any follower of Jesus could participate in or support violent insurrection against our government. You may have noticed that among the banners being waved by the insurgents on January 6 was one that read, “Jesus is my Savior; Trump is my President.” Since Jesus is the Prince of Peace, how could a follower of Jesus invade the Capitol with the intention of harming members of Congress? Or let’s step away from the insurrection for a moment: some White nationalist groups call themselves “Christian,” such as the “Christian identity” churches that claim that only White people can truly be Christians. There are other right-wing groups that identify themselves as Christian – such as dominionists – and my friend said he couldn’t understand how any follower of Jesus could participate in a violent action against the government, or speak in favor of such an action, as many have.

Well, emotionally I’m sympathetic to his plight; in my heart I don’t understand either. But in my head I do. Let’s look in what is old – Scripture – and what is new: theology and history. As I look to the written word of God to bring out what is old and what is new, I see the command of Paul to submit to the established authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and the assertion of Peter that the authorities must be disobeyed when they act contrary to the will of God (Acts 5:27-32) and even Jesus’ suggestion that the time can come to take up arms (Luke 22:35-38).

As for what is new: Calvinist theology traditionally taught that the established authorities are to be respected – when they are good, they are beneficial to faith; when they are bad, they challenge us to grow in faith – in the British colonies in America in the eighteenth century Calvinists were at the forefront of those calling for violent rebellion against the British crown. The only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence was a Presbyterian, John Witherspoon. Horace Walpole, the writer and member of the House of Commons, spoke to the House when news of the rebellion in America reached London. He said, “There is no good crying about the matter; Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”

Without going into it any more deeply, I simply want to point out that now, 245 years later, we celebrate that a particular group of followers of Jesus, Presbyterians, were at the forefront of armed rebellion against their government. Here is the crucial difference, however, between 1776 and 2021: John Witherspoon in 1776 carefully laid out in a sermon (The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men), the justification for rebellion against Britain. The Declaration of Independence includes a long list of grievances against the British crown that provides a rationale for the war. In other words, the Americans who rebelled against their government in 1776 had facts on their side, had evidence that the government was tyrannical and that the only redress available to them was rebellion.

What well-considered rationale moved the insurgents who attacked the People’s House and the People’s Congress on January 6? What evidence has been produced in a well-considered document, such as the Declaration of Independence, that our government is tyrannical and the people have no say in how we are governed? What is relevant to our situation? The example of John Witherspoon: a violent assault on government by followers of Jesus can be justified only when there is ample evidence that the government is tyrannical and there are no other means of redress.

Well, that’s pretty much what I told my friend, and an example of what Jesus is suggesting in the parable of the householder. So I understand the history and the theology, I think; what I don’t understand is the willingness of people to believe lies and conspiracy nonsense. When my friend, years ago, asserted that Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans because President Bush had ordered the bombing of the levees, I could not understand how she could believe such nonsense. I don’t understand the people who believe the ridiculous QAnon conspiracy. I have not understood those who have believed the lies that the President has been spouting for more than four years, and I do not understand those who continue to believe the lie that the election was stolen from him. I do not understand government officials, including leaders of our own State government, who have given aid and comfort to that lie. But I don’t suppose I need to understand. Jesus commands us to understand the word of God; he doesn’t command us to understand each other. He commands us to love one another.

Ay, there’s the rub. I don’t need to understand them, but if I am to follow Jesus then I need to learn to love them. What that means needs to be another sermon, of course, since that isn’t a feature of Matthew 13, except for this: the parable of the weeds and the wheat (vv. 24-30) and the parable of the net thrown into the sea make it clear that the Kingdom of Heaven includes all sorts, including lots of people I don’t understand and lots of people who don’t understand me. And it isn’t our job to sort out who belongs and who doesn’t: the angels of heaven will take care of that at the end of the age.

I heard an interview this week that is relevant and that is relevant to what I am saying. If you have a relative or a close friend who believes the QAnon nonsense or the President’s lies, don’t try to change their mind; don’t yell at them; don’t shun them. Love them. Remember what binds you together: your family relationship, your friendship. Focus on that and do your best to love them. It is not your job to convince them of their error, but it is your job to love them. That is more than enough to do.

When Jesus says to me, “Have you understood all this?” I admit that no, I have not. But today’s parables, at least, I have understood. The kingdom of heaven grows like yeast in bread. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind: fish like you; fish like me.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

 

Sermon from January 10: Follow Me

“Follow me.”
Baptism of the Lord; January 10, 2021
Matthew 8

Several years ago, I was in Washington, DC, changing trains at Union Station, and I walked to the Capitol building. It’s only a few blocks, and something I frequently do when changing trains in Washington. I stood in front of the Capitol, the People’s House, and read article I of the United States Constitution. When I used to wear a blazer most of the time, I generally had in the breast pocket a New Testament and a copy of the Constitution. A Capitol police officer walked over to me, greeted me, and invited me to visit my member of Congress.

That is the People’s House, the seat of our Republic, the emblem of our democratic institutions. Our House was invaded this week. As a Pastor, I need to address it, to encourage you in your attempt to make sense of it, and to consider what may be faithful responses by the people of Jesus Christ. May the Holy Spirit speak to you, through me or despite me. Some of you will protest that I am talking politics; in my almost forty years of experience at this I have discovered that people complain the Pastor is talking politics if he says something they disagree with; if they agree with it, they don’t call it politics. Whatever you may or may not agree with, please stay with us to where I hear Matthew 8 taking us at the end.

I spent more time on Facebook this week than I usually do; one person wrote, “For those of you too young to remember, this is what September 11, 2001 felt like.” At first I disagreed; the attack in 2001 killed some 3,000 people and we wept for them. But then I thought about it from another point of view: the attack in 2001 came from outside our own people, from Al-Qaida, and it was an attack on symbols, from their point of view, of American imperialism. We wept not so much for the symbolism of the attack on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon so much as we wept for the thousands who died. This week’s attack felt like a similar gut-punch because it was an attack on our House. Although as a nation we are young, when compared to, for example, China, England and India, we are the world’s oldest functioning constitutional republic, and the mob attacked our heart, the symbol of our republican government.

This is not the first attack on symbols of our republican government and I think it will not be the last. On April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh parked his rented truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He got out and at 9:02 am the homemade bomb inside exploded, destroying the building and murdering 168 people, including 19 children in the day-care. It was his way of showing his contempt for our federal government. At first, people assumed that Middle Eastern terrorists had committed the crime; I was listening to Rush Limbaugh at the time and he confidently asserted that. McVeigh was white, as white as those who overran the Capitol building this week. Not too many days later I was out for a walk in the town where I lived – Wyoming, Ohio – and I startled a young Black woman who was out walking with her baby. She apologized for jumping, and said that she was scared, in the light of what had happened in Oklahoma City, scared for her baby. I was used to people being afraid whenever they saw a Black man walking down the street; this was the first time someone was afraid of me because I was White.

This week, we the people of the United States are faced with the question, “Who are we?” We expect to see mobs overrun capitol buildings and executive mansions in many countries around the world. We have seen mobs attack other seats of political power in our country, such as when the mob overran the Douglas County Court House on September 28-29, 1919 in order to lynch Will Brown. We have never before seen a mob overrun the People’s House and seek to prevent the peaceful transition of power. But enormous numbers of people have been calling for weeks for that transition to be prevented. I was encouraged by the strength of our political institutions when Congress reconvened Wednesday night and finished its business, certifying the count of the electoral votes. Yet even after the mob’s attack, Senator Hawley persisted in seeking to undermine the election results from Pennsylvania. That was the last instance, I expect, of this round of attempts to subvert our democratic-republican processes, but these attempts began weeks ago and fed into the violence we saw on Wednesday. So the question is not merely, “Who were they?” of the people who stormed the Capitol, but “Who are we?” as a society. We can no longer pretend that we are special, that political transitions are marked by violence in other countries, but not in the United States of America.

To reiterate: Before we point fingers at anybody, we all should stop and ask ourselves, “Who are we?” The rioters this week are of us. Although the mob was led by known right-wing extremists, it included city council members and grandmothers and thousands of others who honestly believe that Donald Trump won the election in November and that the leaders of the Democratic Party are cannibalistic pedophiles who worship Satan and that President Trump’s God-given destiny is to save the nation from them. They are of us. Timothy McVeigh was one of us. Those in State government and those in Washington who joined lawsuits and spoke out to feed the attempts to undermine the election are of us. We have a lot of soul-searching to do as a nation: Who are we?

For you and me, however, there is an even more important question. Who are we, as people of Jesus? The answer to that question, of course, depends on who Jesus is, and I’ll come back to that before I’m done, but in your prayers and pondering this week don’t ask yourselves only “Who are we?” as Americans but especially ask yourselves “Who are we?” as Christians. Those of us studying the Book of Revelation are reminded regularly that our Christian forebears were forced to choose between saying, “Jesus is Lord” and “The Emperor is Lord.” We still face similar choices: whom do we really follow? Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, said of President Trump, “He’s become the voice of God for tens of millions of people, and they will follow him to the ends of the earth and off the cliff.”[1]

You and I, in our actions and attitudes, are forced to choose whom we follow. Shall we unthinkingly follow any merely human leader? Shall we follow our worst instincts? Allow me to confess to you. I noticed, as is often true in such rallies, that most of the mob were not wearing masks, and so I said the other day that I hoped that many in that mob would catch COVID-19 and die, and Becky, our Administrator, said to me, “Bob! Can you say that?”[2] I suppose I can, but should I? No, I should not. Yes, there are many places in the Bible where people say that sort of thing, especially in the Psalms, but I can’t imagine that Jesus would say it. And so you and I should not say it either.

In Matthew 8, when some people seemed to want to follow Jesus, he made sure they knew what was involved. It could mean giving up a settled household; it could mean giving up one’s family commitments. We may find ourselves needing to make some hard decisions in the coming years about what it means to follow Jesus in a turbulent society, a society riddled with partisan violence. Thank God for faithful leaders in our Session and Board of Deacons to discern what it will mean to respond to Jesus’ words, “Follow me.” Who we are is the people who follow Jesus.

And who is this Jesus that we follow? My original plan for today had been to preach about the authority of Jesus. I will say this much, to try to pull all this together. Matthew Chapter 8 shows that Jesus has authority over disease, over nature, over demons. I found myself wishing this week that Jesus would exercise his authority to force a change of heart on all of us who demonize each other, all of us who feel violence in our hearts, especially but not only those who think it is a good thing to commit insurrection against our institutions as a republic. We realize that Wednesday was not the end to the violence; white nationalist leaders have stated that it was only the beginning. So I yearn for Jesus to use his authority to change hearts.

But the reality is that Jesus does not exert authority over hearts that are unwilling to accept his authority. Many invoke his name, including many of those who attacked the People’s House this week and many of those who are defending them. They claim they are following Jesus. My self-disclosure was meant to show you, however, that those who are appalled by this attack dare not descend to the same sort of hatred. Jesus indeed is the One who has authority over human hearts, but his love and peace and salvation take root in our hearts only when we surrender our hearts to him.

People of Jesus, pause, reflect, pray, and when the call to act comes, act as Jesus acts. As one of my friends said this week, “When I am face-to-face with God, I want to be able to say that at the critical moment, I did the right thing.” For that we rely on each other for encouragement. Just as a mob can be egged on to do the wrong thing, so can a community of faith encourage each other to do the right thing. Stay connected with each other. Sure, we are not meeting together; use the telephone or email. Write notes to each other. Express your fears, hopes, weaknesses, victories and your thoughts in our Facebook Family & Friends Group. You as an individual may have to decide when to stand up to bullying, when to speak up to the voice of lies, and when to hold true to the peaceful processes of our nation when violent people want to undermine them. But you are never alone. We have the presence of the Risen Jesus. And we have each other. For when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he says it to each of us as individuals, but when we follow Jesus, we follow him together.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Omaha World-Herald, January 9, 2021

[2] She gave me permission to quote her.

Sermon from January 3: The Epiphany Bird

The Epiphany Bird
Epiphany of the Lord; January 3, 2021
Matthew 3

How deep into the weeds should we go this week? Oh, not very. Most of us, I expect, are feeling upbeat and light-hearted, certain that 2021 is going to be a much better year than 2020 was, and so cutting our way through weeds would not be helpful. But I need to impress upon you a few things this week.

Our congregation has just started the Year of the Bible, an adventure in reading the entire Bible in one year. If you haven’t started yet, you may still join us; and if you are not part of our congregation, but you want to be part of this adventure, you are welcome. Listen to my notes at the end of the service for more.

I first read the Bible all the way through when I was a teenager, although I had read lots of parts of the Bible before that. I love reading the Bible, because it has the most fascinating stories. It also has long stretches of grinding boredom, sort of like driving across Kansas. “Are we there yet?” If you persist, there will be at least two rewards.

First, you will have a great sense of accomplishment. I feel that way whenever I go out to run on a day when I don’t feel like it; after I finish, I feel good about myself. Folks, there is nothing wrong with that. When you do something extraordinary, such as read through the entire Bible in a year, you are entitled to pat yourself on the back. Or celebrate in some other way. I certainly intend for us to celebrate at the end of the year.

Second, you will make wonderful discoveries. “I didn’t know that was there!” “Who would dream that God would use someone like that?” “I am so upset that he wrote that; I wonder what I should do with it?” This will be a spiritual experience and an emotional experience. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the helps I intend to provide, so won’t repeat myself here, but I will say this: enjoy the words and savor the stories. If something bothers you or excites you, you should probably think about it. If something puzzles you – you just don’t know what it means – you can look for help or ask me for help or simply don’t sweat it. You’ve read it, which was the goal; if you don’t get everything you read, that’s alright. I’ve been reading the Bible for over fifty years and I still don’t get everything. But I keep reading.

Every Sunday this year I will preach from a chapter that is assigned for that day, either the New Testament or the Psalm. Usually I will pick one idea out of that chapter to preach on, which will mean neglecting a lot. The one idea today relates to the holiday we celebrate today: Epiphany. Epiphany was one of the first holidays in the Christian calendar, much earlier than Christmas. “Epiphany” means “showing” or “manifestation;” that is, in Jesus Christ, we have seen God. Or as one child put it, “Jesus is God’s show-and-tell.”

One of the stories we traditionally read at Epiphany time happens to be part of the chapter assigned for today: the Baptism of Jesus. Can you see why we would read about Jesus’ Baptism at Epiphany? If you were here in the room with me, I would make that a real question and would look for answers. Or if we had rigged up the live feed so that I could ask for responses right now from those of you watching this live I would do so. Instead, I’ll tell you what I think. I think we read about the Baptism of Jesus at Epiphany because at his Baptism Jesus saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and people heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In other words, at Jesus’ Baptism, God showed Jesus and God showed the people around him who Jesus was: the Promised One, the One who has the Spirit of God. They saw that he was the One in whom they should find God, who would manifest God to them.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a massive turning away from the Church in our society, and I think that’s because of what we’ve done to Jesus. Now, it may be true that people just aren’t interested in God, but I’m not convinced of that. I think people, for the most part, still want some sense of the eternal, some sense that there is a larger pattern to all this, some sense that our life on earth is not a random occurrence but that it means something. So people would like to have a connection with God. And those who have known Jesus know that Jesus is the one who brings God to us, the one in whom we can know God and know we are loved by God.

But a lot of folks in the Church have never really known Jesus. We know other people in the Church, we know the emotional experiences we like, but we don’t know Jesus. And since folks are looking for God, if they don’t find God in the Church they will look somewhere else. So I hope that by reading the Bible together for a year, we will come to know Jesus better. There is a whole lot more we may learn, for sure, but I don’t want this to be merely an academic exercise in gaining a set of facts about this old book. I pray that the Church will know Jesus, the one on who the Epiphany bird settled and of whom the Voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” I hope you will have some feelings about what you read, positive and negative, and that you will allow yourself to have those feelings and that you will accept those feelings. And that they will help give you a more complete picture of the God whom Jesus manifests.

I remember running across a thought from Martin Luther that I will share with you, and recently I found the source and I was surprised. Luther was writing about why we should read and understand that Old Testament, and said that we should set aside our preformed opinions and think of it as a mine: go deep into the caverns, looking for gems, and know that you will never fully explore it. Anyway, this is the line I was looking for, and which he said: “Here you will find the swaddling clothes and the manger in which Christ lies” (Prefaces to the Old Testament, 236). As this Christmas of 2020-2021 comes to a close, look for Christ in the manger of the Scriptures, the Holy Bible, and there you will find the One of whom the Voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

Sermon from Christmas I: Everyone Who Is Thirsty

Everyone Who Is Thirsty
Christmas I; December 27, 2020
Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21

The Sunday following Christmas Day I always do something different. Sometimes I read poetry, sometimes we sing carols. This year I am stringing together various readings from Scripture, following a theme. The sources are noted, but were not said during the reading of the sermon.

As the earth brings forth its shoots,
And as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
So the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
To spring up before all the nations.                                                                           Isaiah 61:11

Oh LORD, you make springs gush forth in the valleys;
They flow between the hills,
Giving drink to every wild animal;
The wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
They sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
The earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.                                             Psalm 104:10-13

There were some who wandered in desert wastes,
Finding no way to an inhabited town;
Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
And the LORD delivered them from their distress;
God led them by a straight way,
Until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank the LORD for such steadfast love,
For God’s wonderful works to humankind.
For the LORD satisfies the thirsty,
And fills the hungry with good things.                                                                  Psalm 107:4-9

The whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded.
They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.
The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”
But the people thirsted there for water;
And the people complained against Moses and said,
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt,
To kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”                                         Exodus 17:1-3

They did not thirst when the LORD led them through the deserts;
God made water flow for them from the rock;
The Lord split open the rock and the water gushed out.                                          Isaiah 48:21

Ah, you who rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink,
Who linger in the evening to be inflamed by wine,
Whose feasts consist of lyre and harp,
Tambourine and flute and wine,
But who do not regard the deeds of the LORD,
Or see the work of God’s hands!
Therefore my people go into exile without knowledge;
Their nobles are dying of hunger,
And their multitude is parched with thirst.                                                            Isaiah 5:11-13

Even the jackals offer the breast and nurse their young,
But my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness.
The tongue of the infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
The children beg for food, but no one gives them anything.                               Lamentations 4:3-4

The LORD says: Why was no one there when I came?
Why did no one answer when I called?
Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem?
Or have I no power to deliver?
By my rebuke I dry up the sea,
I make the rivers a desert;
Their fish stink for lack of water, and die of thirst.
I clothe the heavens with darkness
And make sackcloth their covering.                                                                         Isaiah 50:2-3

Job said: There are those who snatch the orphan child from the breast,
And take as a pledge the infant of the poor.
They go about naked, without clothing;
Though hungry, they carry the sheaves;
Between their terraces they press out oil;
They tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst.
From the city the dying groan,
And the throat of the wounded cries for help;
Yet God pays no attention to their prayer.                                                                Job 24:9-12

You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor;
My foes are all known to you.
Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none;
And for comforters, but I found none.
They gave me poison for food,
And for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.                                               Psalm 69:19-21

When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture),
“I am thirsty.”                                                                                                              John 19:28

The righteous will say to the King:
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food,
Or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you,
Or naked and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
And the King will answer them:
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,
You did it to me.                                                                                             Matthew 25:37-40

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you,
As in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
And my mouth praises you with joyful lips
When I think of you on my bed,
And meditate on you in the watches of the night;
For you have been my help,
And in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.                                                 Psalm 63:1, 5-7

Jesus said: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they will be filled.                                                                                              Matthew 5:6

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,
And the let the one who believes in me drink.
As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart
Shall flow rivers of living water.”                                                                            John 7:37-38

When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none
And their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the LORD will answer them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
And fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
And the dry land springs of water.                                                                      Isaiah 41:17-18

The ransomed of the Lord are before the throne of God,
And worship the Lord day and night within the temple,
And the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
The sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
And he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.                                    Revelation 7:15-17

Jesus said to the woman: Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,
But those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.
The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
The woman said to him: Sir, give me this water,
So that I may never be thirsty.                                                                                 John 4:13-15

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
And you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
And your labor for that which does not satisfy?                                                     Isaiah 55:1-2

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.                                          Revelation 22:17

 

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

Sermons from Christmas Eve 2020

Here is the sermon from our Jazz service:

The Home of God
Christmas Eve; December 24, 2020
Christmas Jazz Service
Revelation 21:1-6

The sermon was delivered not in the Sanctuary but by a fireplace.

Cozy scene, isn’t it? The sort of scene we wish for at Christmas. Everything is different this year, and although Colleen read you the Christmas story, I’m preaching from Revelation, just as I have all through Advent. And since we can’t be together anyway I thought I would talk to you from the fireplace in Dr. Krampe’s home.

Home. It may be a big house in the suburbs, an apartment in the city. It may be a room in your parents’ house, or a cardboard box under an overpass. Some sell their houses and live in an RV or an old VW minivan. Home is never really permanent, is it? You may have lived in the same house for twenty years but find yourself preparing to move into something smaller; or you’re getting married and buying your first place together. Home is on the move.

When John has his vision of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, he hears a voice from the throne say that the home of God is among human beings. The very first image the Bible gives us for the home of God is a tent that the people carried with them as they wandered, a nomadic God for a nomadic people. For several hundred years a stone temple in Jerusalem filled the bill, but even that was somehow temporary, always needing repair, once destroyed and rebuilt after decades of ruin, and then finally destroyed and never rebuilt.

Christmas is the story of God making a home among us as a baby, looking into his Mother’s face for the assurance of safety, taking hold of Joseph’s finger when he would hold it out for him. As with every baby, this child soon enough is on the move, and the home of God is surrounded by disciples and apostles, by admirers and detractors, by enemies and supporters. You know the story. If not, or if you want to understand it better, then keeping tuning in to our webcasts, or give me a call, or read it for yourself in that dusty old book called the Holy Bible.

What John ultimately sees is the home of God, still on the move, but finding its place: among us, wherever the people of Jesus are. This Christmas night the people of Jesus are not in church buildings, but at home or in prison or serving at a soup kitchen or being served at a soup kitchen. “See, the home of God is among mortals,” among human beings, wherever the people of Jesus are.

In John’s vision, the Holy City is not some heavenly realm that we hope to get to someday; you and I are privileged to be the Holy City. Wherever the people of Jesus are, there is the home of God.

And here is the sermon from the late night service:

Give the Lord No Rest
Christmas Eve; December 24, 2020
Late Night Service
Revelation 22:1-7

Although I think the commercialism goes overboard, you won’t hear me complain that Christmas is too materialistic. You can’t get much more materialistic than God does at the heart of our celebration: the Word was made flesh. Not idea, not spirit, not a slogan on a church sign, but flesh. And flesh of the most troubling kind: a baby. The Lord God Almighty joined in some wonderful, puzzling way with matter, nursing and pooping and sleeping in the straw. Babies are such a blessing and so much trouble; you can’t get much more materialistic.

So please don’t get too spiritual about Christmas. The Book of Isaiah has some advice I’d like you to follow:

You who remind the Lord, take no rest,
And give the Lord no rest until the Lord establishes Jerusalem
And makes it renowned throughout the earth. (Isaiah 62:6-7)

Give the Lord no rest. Pester the Lord with your praying for the Lord to establish Jerusalem. When I pray that, I think of two things: the literal city in Israel/Palestine, finally at peace and administering justice for all citizens of the State of Israel and all residents of the occupied territories. And I think of God’s Church, no longer indulging in ridiculous quarrels but faithfully welcoming those left out in the cold, literally and figuratively, and being a safe space for everyone.

We can work on that. We won’t get there on our own, we won’t get there if we overlook the reality of the one who is snoozing in the manger this evening, we won’t get there if we fail to pester the Lord in our praying. But we can work on it.

The words from our reading in Revelation are a vision of Jerusalem renewed, fully established as the Prophet said. In the midst of it is the Tree of Life, and John says that the leaves of the Tree are “for the healing of the nations.” We can work on that too; we can help with the healing of the nations, beginning with our own but not stopping with our own. You and I can do something toward the healing of the nations, whether it is a letter to a member of Congress or a donation to an international charity or a friendship with someone who isn’t from our own place. Don’t get too spiritual about Christmas; remember to do something material, something helpful, something toward the healing of the nations.

So please, this Christmas, celebrate the Word made flesh by doing something material. If health circumstances permit, hug somebody. Eat something special and enjoy it. Play a game. And give the Lord no rest until Jerusalem is established, until the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

Sermon from Advent IV: Our Bridal Gown

Our Bridal Gown
Advent IV; December 20, 2020
Revelation 18:1-5, 19:6-9

This time of year we often indulge in singing portions of Handel’s oratorio Messiah. Even though it falls in the section of the oratorio about the resurrection of Jesus, people often sing the chorus “Hallelujah” at Christmas time. And since we usually sing it out of context, we don’t pay attention to what it follows. The word “Hallelujah” means “Praise the Lord,” and it usually accompanies something specific that God has done that calls upon us to sing praise. As the Hallelujah chorus does. It follows a tenor air:

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

Yes: Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Hallelujah. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ. The words the tenor sings are from Psalm 2; the words the chorus sings are from Revelation. If you keep reading back, you see that the “them” who are to be destroyed are the nations of the world. Yes, the nations; all of them, including ours.

I didn’t read to you all the section about the fall of Babylon, because it’s rather a lot to take in. Babylon is judged because she believed herself to be eternal, and then the story goes on to tell us who weeps for her. The merchants weep, because she is the world’s biggest economy and they don’t have anyone to buy their good anymore. The shipping companies weep, because no one at Babylon’s ports is receiving shipments anymore. All those who partied and worked and made music in Babylon are silenced. Babylon, the consumerist economy who fancied herself the world’s superpower, is judged and destroyed. And heaven and all the saints are called to celebrate.

And because the source of greed and oppression in the world is overthrown, the marriage feast of the Lamb comes, the celebration of the Lord’s marriage day. And this is where it’s important to pay attention to a small detail, something it would be easy to overlook. It would be easy to conclude that John believes the world is purely evil and the only thing that Christians can do is to try to avoid contact with the world. Don’t work, don’t shop, don’t go to the theater or to concerts; dig a hole, get into it and pull it in after you.

Well, this will take us to the important small detail: let’s talk about the Bride. This is a wonderful image and I hope you’re familiar with it: Jesus is the Groom and we are His Bride. The Church is the Bride of Christ, the people of God collectively are the Bride of Christ. Jesus himself tells stories about the great celebration of the Day of the Lord in which he describes it as a wedding banquet. John the Baptist called Jesus the Groom and himself the Groom’s Best Man. And Jesus’ first sign of his glory was at a wedding banquet, when he turned water into wine. The image of the relationship between Jesus and His Church as being like marriage goes even into the letters of Paul, and so the day when we are fully united with Jesus is described as the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

The angel said to John, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. These are true words of God.” The image is confusing, isn’t it? We collectively are the Bride, the Church is the Bride, but we individually are the guests. I guess that means we get to do a lot of dancing; as the Bride we dance with the Groom and as guests we also get to dance with each other. At the first wedding I conducted as a minister the groom insisted on dancing with everyone; when he danced with me we had a bit of tussle over which one of us was going to lead.

The day that we are joined eternally with Christ is our wedding day. Each of us is a guest at that party, and together we are the Bride. And so we can think of Christmas as the beginning of the Lord’s courtship of us. I know that courtship rituals are pretty much passé, but perhaps you have seen old movies or read old stories. Men would call upon the available young lady, bring her gifts, try to win her favor, take her out to dinner and the theater and to dance, and so forth. Well, some things are still similar, although we don’t think in terms of courtship anymore.

One delightful old Christmas carol that is part of the script of the Omaha Playhouse’s annual performance of A Christmas Carol is “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” The first verse is:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day: I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play, To call my true love to my dance:
Sing O my love, O my love, my love, my love;
            This have I done for my true love.

And it goes on to sing about how “my” divine nature was knit to human nature, and I was laid in a manger, and so forth. Christmas Day is the day the Lord Jesus Christ dances, it is the beginning of his courtship of his true love: you and me, the Church, the people of God.

Well, I hope I’ve driven that point sufficiently home. Now let’s get to the other one. What are we going to wear? Not as guests, but as the bride: where shall our bridal gown come from? The song of the multitude says that it’s made of linen, bright and pure, but where do we get the linen?

“The fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” That’s a small point we may too easily overlook. All the while we’re singing about the destruction of Babylon, rejoicing that the nations of the world are overthrown (Hallelujah!), we can easily forget that we live in Babylon, that we are among the nations of the world, and it matters what we do here. What we do here, our deeds here in Babylon, are the clothing we shall wear on our wedding day.

Here’s another picture from A Christmas Carol. Do you remember the ghost of Jacob Marley, stomping about dragging heavy chains and chests behind him? He tells Ebenezer Scrooge that the chains and chests and locks are what he forged in life, the result of his deeds in life. What John is telling us is the opposite: the good deeds the Church does are the linen, bright and pure, that she wears on her wedding day. It matters what we do here in Babylon, because here we are weaving our bridal gown.

The best way for us to respond to the wickedness of Babylon is with the goodness of the Bride of Christ. When the voice in Revelation 18 called out, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins,” I don’t think that God is telling us to go hide from Babylon and have nothing to do with her. I think God is telling us to be different from Babylon. Our Christmas doesn’t have to look like the world’s Christmas. Your priorities don’t have to be Babylon’s priorities. You and I don’t have to be all caught up in the established religion of the United States – consumerism – while we nonetheless work and live and learn and play and worship here. Whatever is going on around us, we can choose to do those things that will weave us a beautiful wedding gown, so that when we dance with Jesus – and, trust me, he will lead – we will look terrific.

Recently I heard three stories on the same newscast. One story told of the white supremacists marching in Washington, DC and vandalizing the property of Black churches. Another told of the more than one hundred members of the federal House of Representatives that had joined in the lawsuit to undermine our democracy. I said, “What has become of us?” But the third story told of a Black family who had an inflatable Santa Claus in their front yard; this Santa was Black. Someone sent them an anonymous note – this sort of note is always anonymous – scolding them for teaching their children that Santa is Black. Oh, by the way, Santa isn’t White either; he’s originally from Turkey. Anyway, when the family told others about the note via social media, many of their White neighbors went out and bought Black inflatable Santas and put them in their front yards. We don’t need to run away and hide from Babylon; we need to choose to do those things that will weave us a beautiful wedding gown.

Here’s another piece of Christmas poetry to finish with, the conclusion of W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

Sermon from Advent III: Where Joy Is Nourished

Where Joy Is Nourished
Advent III; December 13, 2020
Revelation 12:1-6

I’ll bet you know a story with this motif: the ruler has a child, and someone usurps the ruler’s throne, and threatens the life of the child, so someone else spirits the child away to safety until the day comes that the child can claim the inheritance, recover the kingdom, and displace the usurper. Ron Howard’s delightful 1988 film Willow has that idea, and C. S. Lewis’ story Prince Caspian as well as The Lion King. Older, more classic stories have the theme too. It’s even older than John’s Revelation, and he picks up on that idea in this vision of the woman, her child, and the dragon.

Please don’t strain your brain trying to make these symbolize anything too specific. I think you’re safe to identify the child as Jesus, the Messiah, the One who legitimately rules the nations. And later in the chapter the dragon is explicitly identified as Satan, but the dragon has seven heads and ten horns, suggestive of the Roman Empire. The figure of Satan is the personification of any evil that wants to disrupt the realm of God, that seeks to devour the child of hope, the child of promise, the Messiah who delivers God’s people. But is the woman Mary? Israel? The Human Race? All of the above? Please don’t try to identify her with anyone too specific.

Simply, here is the takeaway from the story this morning: when the dragon tries to devour the Savior, the child is rescued and carried away to the throne of God, and the Mother is cared for in the wilderness, where she is nourished. Don’t sweat the time period; the number is symbolic and you’ll strain something trying to make it mean more than it should. The point is this: God cares for the Mother. The dragon wasn’t after her; the dragon was after the child. Nonetheless, God cares for the Mother and hides her in the desert and sees that she is fed. She reminds us of Hagar, the woman Abraham sent away, whom God cared for in the desert. And the people of Israel, who spent forty years in the desert, eating manna and quail. And the Holy Family, who fled from King Herod to Egypt, where God looked after them until they could return.

The child was carried safely to the throne of God, and the plot of the dragon was foiled. Even so, God looked after the Mother, cared for her and nourished her in the desert.

The theme for the Third Sunday of Advent is joy. The traditional introit for today is “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say: Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) As Cindy points out in her guide for family Advent devotions, that’s why the candle for today is rose-colored: that’s the color for joy. Therefore, today I want to say to you that in the midst of the desert, God nourishes joy, and not just for 1,260 days, but for however long it takes.

Joy is not something you can summon at will or manufacture. Joy comes from out of the shadows, often a surprise, emerging from the deep sense of the presence of God. The prophet promised, in our first reading (Isaiah 61:1-4), that God would give the people a “garland instead of ashes.” The people would wash the ashes of mourning out of their hair and put on instead a circle of flowers and dance, like Samwise Gamgee and Rosie Cotton at their wedding. The Lord God gives us that promise to nourish our joy, so that when we face a Christmas without a gathering of family or friends, a Christmas without lighting candles together in the church, we hold onto the promise that one day we will put flowers in our hair and dance. God hides our joy in the desert and nourishes it.

There is one thing you and I can do to cooperate with God in nourishing our joy: we can taste it from time to time. Oprah suggests keeping a journal in which you write every day three things for which you are grateful; she’s very wise. Pull out those old letters and read them; pull up those pictures on your phone and look at them. Maybe the memory brings tears, but tears sometimes accompany joy.

What I’m trying to say is that even when things are dark, you can choose joy. You can’t make yourself feel it, but you can imagine it, you can find reasons for it, you can taste the promise of joy. One reason I run is to celebrate the fact that I am alive. Every morning I rejoice that I woke up, that I can eat food, that I can read my Bible and pray. While I’m being personal: this year I didn’t make the Christmas pudding, because we won’t have our friends for Christmas dinner and we won’t have the Church for a Christmas open house. I’m not fixing puff pastry and pate, not selecting the right wines. But this Advent purist who doesn’t ordinarily decorate until Christmas Eve put up the little tree in our apartment last week, so that the lights shine out every evening on the empty church parking lot. I choose joy.

The trimmings of Christmas are mostly stripped from us this year. But the reality of Christmas cannot be taken from us: the child is born, despite the dragon’s worst efforts. Shepherds will hear the song of angels and magi will visit, bearing gifts. God has come among us, even if you can’t have cousin Imelda bring her famous pie. If you’re not feeling it, that’s all right; but see where you may have tucked away those memories, blow off the dust, and taste the promise of joy. Where do you keep those promises that God will give you a garland to replace the ashes?

Here at this Table is another place where God nourishes our joy. It still isn’t quite right; you should be here in this room with me, so we can share one loaf and pass the cup to each other, not viewing it on YouTube with bread or rice crackers or Melba toast or whatever, accompanied by your own wine or grape juice or flavored coffee. We should be together. We’re not. But God is here. And God is wherever you are, wherever you will be eating and drinking with me, nourishing your joy.

God looked after the child, the story says, and looked after his Mother in the wilderness. And God looks after us in our wilderness, nourishing our joy.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

 

Sermon from Advent II: Worthy is the Lamb

Worthy Is the Lamb
Advent II; December 6, 2020
Revelation 5:1-10

The buildup is great. There’s a scroll needing to be opened. It’s sealed tight: seven seals on it. A mighty angel (think Lou Ferrigno) shouts, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” Nothing. They look around the court of Heaven: there are elders and the four living creatures all singing in God’s throne room; there are more angels than anyone knows how to count, singing backup: no one is worthy. They check out the earth: no one is worthy. They scour Hades, the realm of the dead: no one is worthy. “Who is worthy?” No one is worthy. So our visionary, John, starts to weep, and one of the elders stops singing long enough to console John. “Don’t weep; there is One who is worthy: the Lion of Judah, the Root of David; he has conquered; he is worthy.”

So John looks and you and I look with him. We’re looking for a lion, for someone big and strong, able to devour enemies. We’re looking for the Root of David, the King descended from David, the apple of God’s eye. We are looking for someone who has conquered: a descendant of David, strong as a lion, fierce as Alexander the Great, tough as Caesar Augustus. We look, and we see…

A lamb. A lamb! And not only a lamb, but a lamb that has been slaughtered, a lamb that has been taken to the altar of the Temple and killed as a sacrifice for sin. Now you may have noticed when I read it to you that this Lamb had some strange features: seven horns and seven eyes, which John says are the seven spirits of God: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in the Lord’s presence (Isaiah 11:2-3). But nonetheless, it’s not a lion, but a lamb, and a lamb that has been killed.

And the hosts of Heaven go wild. The elders and the living creatures fall to the ground before him, offering golden bowls of incense, and they sing – all those angels still providing backup –

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
For you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
Saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…

Wait a minute. This just gets weirder and weirder. First we have a slaughtered Lamb when we’re looking for a lion able to tear apart its enemies, and now we hear why the hosts of heaven believe this Lamb is worthy. First: the Lamb was slaughtered. Yes, you heard that right. By the standards of the world we live in, by the standards that come from our own gut, the one who is worthy is the one who slaughters others. We praise the conquering hero, the one who led his armies into battle and killed thousands. That’s even the standard in much of the Bible. Do you remember what the women sang when the young warrior David came back from battle?

Saul has killed his thousands,
And David his ten thousands. (I Samuel 18:7)

We praise the one who destroys, who kills, who conquers by the sword and tank and aircraft carrier and UAV. So the first weirdness in the song is Heaven declares that the Lamb is worthy because the Lamb was slaughtered, not himself slaughtering others.

It gets worse. The second weirdness is they sing that by his blood the Lamb has ransomed for God. Yes, ransomed. By his blood. That strikes us as so wrong. As a matter of policy, we don’t pay ransom. It simply empowers the enemy, right? When Somali pirates would take captives, we would refuse to pay ransom. Yet Heaven praises the Lamb for paying ransom to release those who belong to God. And not only that, the Lamb didn’t levy a tax on his subjects to pay that ransom, the Lamb paid the ransom with his own blood. Well of course you know what they’re talking about, they’re talking about the death of Jesus on the Cross, but I’m emphasizing it to make sure you understand how completely wrong this all is, from our point of view. They praise a slaughtered Lamb as conqueror, and then they praise him for paying a ransom with his own blood.

And to put the capstone on the weirdness, whom did the Lamb ransom? His own people? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Put your own people first? Care about your own people? Ransom your own countrymen and women and tell everyone else to go to… well. But Heaven praises the Lamb for ransoming for God with his own blood saints “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Every tribe, not just his tribe. Every language. Every people. Every nation.

I don’t know how that strikes people from other countries but for a lot of the citizens of the United States that is patently offensive. We are accustomed to thinking that only the U. S. matters, that everyone should speak English – sorry, American English – and that God has a particular preference for white people. And yet Heaven has the gall to praise a Lamb who ransoms for God saints from every tribe, not just white people, from every language, not just English, from every people and nation, not just the U. S. A. You can yell at me for being unpatriotic if you want to; I’m just repeating what the Bible says, what the hosts of Heaven sing.

So rather than yell at the preacher, stop and think: do you believe the song of the hosts of Heaven? Do you? Do you agree that the Lamb who was slaughtered, who ransomed for God with his own blood saints from every tribe and language and people and nation is more worthy than a lion who tears apart his enemies and makes them serve him? You are allowed to disagree, to decide that this Christianity stuff is nonsense; but if you agree with the hosts of Heaven, that the Lamb is worthy, then how will you live? What are you going to do about it?

This is the other side of the message we proclaim at Christmas. The wonder of Christmas isn’t the birth of a cuddly baby in a manger; the wonder of Christmas is that the God who has the power to create the universe with a word chooses that strange means to come to the world. God comes as a human baby in order to shed his blood to ransom saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. It’s a package; take it all or take none of it.

Our hymnal – some think of it as our “new hymnal,” even though it’s been in print for more than seven years – has in its newer songs a wonderful Christmas song that we have sung every year and which expresses this better than any words I can muster. Here are two verses of it:

Who would think that what was needed to transform and save the earth
Might not be a plan or army, proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think, despite derision, that a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.

Centuries of skill and science span the past from which we move,
Yet experience questions whether, with such progress, we improve.
While the human lot we ponder, lest our hopes and humor fray,
God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.[1]

Who indeed would think such a thing? It was the plan of Heaven and it is the way of Heaven, but that is not how we do things on earth. It is what Heaven desires for earth and is trying to build on earth, but does so against opposition. That is not whom we praise; that is not whom we honor. That is not how we decide who is worthy. Whom shall we call worthy? The lion or the Lamb?

The choice is always before us: shall we follow our instincts and praise the hero who destroys others? Or shall we follow Jesus Christ, who ransomed for God with his own blood saints from every tribe and language and people and nation? The choice comes down to the simplest things. During this pandemic, who do you think is praised by the hosts of Heaven? The proponents of “freedom” who refuse to wear a mask? The anti-vaxxers? Those who have tried to make political hay of the world’s suffering? I found my hero in the pages of our local paper back in August. When the people of Omaha were fretting about what to do about school, a senior at North High School named Nate Hipsher was quoted as saying, “I really want to go back to in-person learning, but I don’t want to go back to in-person learning at the expense of someone’s grandma.”[2]

I want this, but I don’t want it at someone else’s expense. I will sacrifice what I want for the sake of the well-being of another. I know nothing of that young man’s religious orientation, but in this pandemic he has been my standard for how we follow the Lamb that was slaughtered: I want what is good for someone else.

Lord Jesus, you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. Worthy is the Lamb.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

 

[1] John L. Bell and Graham Maule, “Who Would Think that What Was Needed” (1987), #138 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Ó 2013 Westminster John Knox Press) verses 1 and 3.

[2] “OPS iPads are windows into homes of students,” Omaha World-Herald, August 31, 2020, p. A2.

Sermon from Advent I: Do Not Be Afraid

“Do not be afraid.”
Advent I; November 29, 2020
Revelation 1:12-18

There are two reasons to say to someone, “Do not be afraid.” One is because there is nothing to be afraid of. No, there is not a monster under your bed. No, the anxieties in your closet are not going to jump out at night and attack you. Do not be afraid; there is nothing to be afraid of.

The other reason is because there is something to be afraid of and you have someone strong on your side. There’s a thing among some of the guys called “Flex Friday;” they post pictures of muscles they’ve been working on to show their progress. It’s sort of like peacocks strutting around the yard, I know, but anyone who belongs to a gym knows what I’m talking about. I’m sure women have their equivalent. Anyway, I remember responding to one guy, “Wow! With those arms, I hope I never meet you in a dark alley! Unless you’re on my side.”

Exactly. Unless you’re on my side. When you hear this scary picture of the Lord Jesus in the first chapter of Revelation, he says, “Do not be afraid” not because he’s the “little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay” who couldn’t frighten anyone, but because the Lord who holds the keys of Death and of Hades is on your side.

I’m doing some different things with you this Advent, because everything is different this year. First, I’m not doing the readings you’re used to during Advent. We can forget about John the Baptist this year; we don’t need to talk about Mary’s pregnancy. You heard a prophecy from Isaiah (64:1-9) that we usually read during Advent, and we’ll read some more prophecies. But the other readings will be from Revelation this year, because Revelation is a book of hope and we need hope. Another thing that will be different is we’ll use Christmas carols throughout Advent, because we won’t be getting together to sing during Christmas and the carols will help to keep us grounded. But I’m saving “Silent Night” for Christmas Eve; I can bend only so far!

Back to the Scripture. We like to say that God doesn’t take sides in conflicts, and for most things that is true. God really isn’t a Notre Dame fan, regardless of the Touchdown Jesus overlooking their stadium. God doesn’t prefer the United States to other nations, and even though we say “The King’s English” to refer to the English that Jesus speaks, we know Jesus doesn’t speak English. He speaks Spanish. Just kidding.

But the Bible doesn’t mince words to say that when the rich back the poor into an alley, Flex Friday God is on the side of the poor. When an occupying power oppresses the indigenous people, the Lord is on the side of the oppressed. That doesn’t, alas, always mean that the bullies get what’s coming to them on our time scale, but Revelation makes clear that this scary Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” to those who are pushed down, shoved aside, forgotten by the glitterati.

History and the cause of justice suggest that God took sides in World War II. You may have heard about the “miracle of Midway;” perhaps you know the story of how General Patton enlisted the entire Third Army to pray for better weather at the Battle of the Bulge. He had 250,000 prayer cards printed with the following prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.[1]

They were distributed not only to chaplains but to soldiers and airmen with a call from the General for everyone to pray, not only in church but on the move and on the line and wherever they were. And you may know that, quite in opposition to the forecast, the weather cleared and nearly a week of good weather allowed the Allies to stop the German offensive.

Does God take sides in war? I’m not going to answer that definitively. But let us note what Nazism stood for and its assault especially on Jewish people, but also on homosexuals, disabled people, and the homes of free peoples.

The image of Jesus in the first chapter of Revelation is very different from what you are accustomed to: a nice guy holding children in his lap, cuddly baby in a manger. He is those things. But he is also the one whose eyes are like flames of fire, whose voice is like the sound of many waters. Stop and imagine that. What do you see when you look at someone whose eyes flash like fire? What do you hear that sounds like the roaring of many waters? And then see the two-edged sword coming from his mouth: the word of truth.

Those who indulge in lies and in self-deception should fear that word of truth. Those who ignore the clear call of God for justice should fear the sound of many waters. Those who care only about their own rights or power or freedom and have no care for the well-being of others should fear the fire flashing from his eyes. But to those who turn to Jesus for refuge, for help, for hope he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Now, I’m not going to make any predictions about the Lord’s timing. Six million Jews had died before the Nazis were vanquished. How many will die or be permanently harmed by COVID-19 before the world is vaccinated? How many Palestinians will lose their homes or their livelihood or their lives before justice is realized? Or even closer to home: how long will it be until you and I can see each other here again?

You know what it cost Jesus to become what he says of himself at the end of what I read to you: “the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” It cost him his life to become the Living One, and so many suffer and some also lose their lives while we cry out with Isaiah:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
So that the mountains would quake at your presence –
As when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil –
To make your name known to your adversaries,
So that the nations might tremble at your presence! (64:1-2)

Our cry is heard. After the Allied victory at the Battle of the Bulge, General Patton said to the Chaplain who had worked with him on that prayer project, “Well, Padre, our prayers worked. I knew they would.” (Ibid.) The power of Christ is the power of character, who faced the Cross when he could have turned away from it. The power of Christ is the power of truth, which is the two-edged sword out of his mouth, cutting through lies and disinformation. The power of Christ flashes fire from his eyes and has a voice like the sound of many waters, bending the moral arc of the world toward justice.

Do not be afraid. The One who is our hope is the living one. He was dead, and see, he is alive forever and ever; and he has the keys of Death and of Hades.

[1] http://www.pattonhq.com/prayer.html