Building on Rock Bottom (a sermon)

This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on January 31, 2021 on the forty-sixth week of Coronatide.

Matthew 7:24–27

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Home Improvement

As the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn on in the United States now for almost a year, many industries have been hit especially hard, including the “church industry.” Once changing at a glacial pace, we now struggle to keep up with the needs and desires of a scattered flock. There has been one industry, though, which was uniquely prepared to weather the destruction of this virus.

In mid-March of last year, as we were all told to stay at home to flatten the upward climb of infections, one industry was prepared to cash in. See, as we all were forced to spend time inside the four walls of our family dwellings, many of us decided we really were not happy with how things looked. For years, we had all been too busy outside our home to give much notice to what was inside. Our bathrooms and kitchens needed a remodel from their 1970s pink tile and pressed wood, sure. But that was a project for an unspecified later time.

That later time had come. So, Americans logged on to Lowes and Home Depot to place pickup orders for all the things that would make their house, once just a functional resting place, into a true sanctuary that could provide homely comfort.

As many industries have cut back their advertising on television, regional contractors for home remodeling have been running ads at every commercial break. One contractor after another promises that you’ll be happy with your new windows. You’ll love preparing meals in your new kitchen. And this new bathroom will change your life. “Pay nothing now, we have installment plans!” they boast.

This is surely a positive thing for the home improvement industry, but it’s also been a positive thing for us at the church. One of the bright spots of this past year has been that the work crew has almost finished not just one or two, but four different major projects since we have all been away! Their diligence and forward-thinking with the church’s property is inspiring, and they are just one concrete way that we are building back better.

Even more encouraging has been the response to Rev. Tina’s messages about self-examination. We heard a couple weeks ago about the positive spiritual changes you all are making in this new year. It’s awesome to hear how the seeds of God’s word are growing and bearing fruit in so many lives.

All of that talk about self-examination and the important internal work we all need to do got me thinking about this construction parable from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a parable that still makes sense to us on the surface, as it did for its first hearers––dig deeper and build your house on the rock so your house doesn’t collapse in a storm. It fits with what Rev. Tina has been saying about looking underneath the surface, because one has to dig below the sand and soft soil to hit the bedrock below.

It also seems like a good, American truism that would fit well with one of Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, like “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. The parable of the wise and foolish builders is one that on its surface seems to be all about our individual human effort, teaching the wisdom of self-reliance. 

The trouble is, when we read this parable––and the entire Gospel––through the lens of our American Protestant Work Ethic, we miss the point and we lose the Gospel. How many of you who engaged in pandemic “nesting,” DIY home improvement, or hiring a contractor did so relying on God through prayer?

Maybe there are some of you who prayed about your home improvement projects. But usually building, constructing, remodeling, and improving our homes are things we do ourselves with our own effort and our own resources. We can do it foolishly or wisely, but it is we who are doing the work. This picture of improvement, in stark contrast to Jesus’ parable, has nothing to do with God.

Since we view our home improvement as something resulting from our own effort, and Jesus uses a home improvement metaphor to think about self-improvement, we’re liable to think we can improve ourselves through our own effort too!

If anything, we only go to Jesus for help telling us how to rebuild and remodel ourselves. We pray to Jesus for wisdom and discernment and then do the rest with our own effort.

As we engage in this important work of self-improvement, Jesus is asking us now if we have really counted the cost. Have we figured out if we can really finish this work ourselves, as Jesus asks in Luke 14:28? Do we have the resources within us to remodel and rebuild ourselves from the ground up?

Are we even building in the right place?

As I wondered about what it means to build on the right foundation with this parable, I was drawn to the images of destruction and rebuilding after a hurricane. The images of destruction from 15 years ago after Hurricane Katrina will forever be implanted in my memory. The houses flattened on their foundation. The Superdome, packed with 26,000 newly homeless people.

Invariably, whenever the hurricane was discussed in the years that followed, someone would ask, “why don’t they just move out of the hurricane zone?” As I researched this question on the internet this week, I found plenty of cynical responses that sounded familiar.

“Well, they won’t move because the insurance will pay for damages. They don’t want to give up their ocean views. The government enables them to live where they shouldn’t. And since they didn’t die, they’ll never learn.”

Again, in our cultural narrative, people don’t move out of a coastal area at risk of disaster because they’re stupid. They are, in the Benjamin Franklin wisdom reading of our parable this morning, the foolish builder. In our culture of individual effort, the parable is about building in the right place so as to avoid trouble. It’s about being self-righteous enough to put yourself out of harm’s way.

Here’s the problem, if we’re talking about literal houses: where in the US can you build a house that would be immune to natural disaster? Where can you build a place for you and your family that will not be threatened by wind, rain, fire, snow, and earthquakes? If you do know of such a place, I’m sure you’d save a lot of money on insurance if you moved there! But no such place exists. Everywhere you could build yourself a house has substantial risk of disaster coming in and leveling the place.

I can just imagine that there was some troublesome listener in Jesus’ audience who asked Jesus the same question. “Why don’t you just build your house away from the stream? Why don’t you build outside of the hurricane zone? Why don’t you tell these people to build somewhere safe?”

The answer that Jesus knows, and we should too, is that no such place exists.

We are, of course, not talking about physical houses or environmental storms at all. We are talking about the house of our bodies and the storm of Sin and death.

No matter how hard we try, we are incapable of picking up and moving to a place where Sin and death cannot strike us. We can’t move out of our frail bodies and become someone else instead. We can’t start over from scratch. In this work of self-awareness and self-improvement, we are stuck with ourselves. The best we can do is build back better in the same place with a better foundation.

Let’s go deeper into the parable. Jesus tells us about the sand and the rock where the builders set their foundations.

First, the sand. 

Jesus is not telling his hearers not to build houses on the beach where they might be blown away by a hurricane. He is not telling us to build our houses far enough out from where a storm might strike––he knows there is no truly safe place in this world.

Throughout Scripture, sand is used as a metaphor for humanity. In Genesis, God promises Abraham as many descendents as there are grains of sand on the seashore. Isaiah counts the number of the sons of Israel to be as numerous as the sand of the sea, lamenting that only a remnant would be saved from the coming storm. 

For many of us, this pandemic has revealed human selfishness like never before. We are unwilling to care for the most vulnerable among us. We are unable to follow the guidance of scientists. We are incapable of letting go of our desires for the safety of others. In the face of all of that, many of us are losing our faith in humanity.

To this, the Gospel says, good! Humanity is, after all, like the plentiful sand along the sea. To use a more well-known metaphor, humanity is but dust, and to the dust we will return. As Lent begins, we will put that metaphor directly on our foreheads.

Does sand seem like a smart material to build on? Of course not. Neither is humanity, our individual ego! If we engage the process of self-awareness and self-improvement to build on this sand of our humanity, we aren’t going to last long.

Let me say it plain: if you build the house of your life on the foundation of yourself, it is going to fall. Hard. Eventually, it will all wash away with the storms of trouble.

If we are going to follow the Gospel of Jesus, then the first step of our self-improvement will be the same as the first step of the Twelve Steps for all you friends of Bill: “we admitted we were powerless over _____––that our lives had become unmanageable.

Put another way, humanity is dust and to dust it will return. We are sand. We are incapable of saving ourselves. We ourselves are powerless over any number of things we might try to control in our lives.

That blank, the thing you are powerless over, may be any number of things. It could be one of any number of hurts, habits, or hang-ups. It may be drugs or alcohol, food, consumer goods, sex, gambling, work, or any number of other things. But when we have built a foundation on our own frail humanity, our own egos, our own self-sufficiency, our lives will become unmanageable.

Since we’re foolish humans, we often don’t acknowledge our own powerlessness and instead try to remodel and fix the “house” on top of the foundation. We remodel one area of our lives, maybe our nutrition and exercise or even our prayer and spiritual life, only so we can brag about how good of a builder we are! So we can brag about how much we’ve done! We find confidence in ourselves with the changes we’ve made, the success we’ve had, the artistic product we’ve produced. We pat ourselves on the back for all this hard work, only to find it all comes crashing to the ground when the rains come. (And the rains will come!)

To admit that we are sand is to declare the holy phrase, “I can’t!” There is nothing that will last that is built on the sand of our humanity. This is the radical truth of the Gospel and the truth about ourselves: all of us are sinners.

To not admit that we are sand is to live in denial and continue to perform building maintenance on a house that is condemned because of its cracking foundation. 

No matter how hard we try, we will never transform our foundation of sand into a solid rock. No matter how hard we try to do maintenance on our condemned houses, the cracks will keep coming.

Since the storms are inevitable, what is going to happen to our foundation if it’s built on sand?

Our foundation will crack.

At first, the foundation built on the sand of ourselves will look new. It’ll even look good and righteous to all our Christian friends! Don’t you just love the look of freshly poured concrete? Everyone will marvel at us and our brand new foundation. Piece by piece, we’ll construct the house on top of that foundation, making it look just like we want it.

All the while, trouble is brewing underneath. See, even before the rains come down and the floods come up, that foundation built on sand is going to start cracking. We might not even notice it at first, since most of us don’t live in our basements. But cynicism, judgment, bad relationships and friendships, and unwanted feelings are going to start cracking that foundation. And through those cracks, the first signs of sin are going to trickle back in through the floor. Unwanted feelings and desires will turn to unwanted behaviors. The water will seep into our basements through our cracking foundation.

What do we do? We engage in behavior control as a concrete crack sealer. Put another way, we start playing whack-a-mole with sinful behaviors. We think, if we can just stop _____ (whatever it is) by our own personal effort, our foundation will be restored. We start trying to improve the “spiritual rooms” of the house of our bodies in hopes that our sacrifices will appease God.

As I’ve illustrated, we can engage in all sorts of Christian behaviors while the sand of self is our foundation. You can be “Christian” and have a foundation on sand. You can be a deacon or elder, a Pastor or professor and still have a foundation built on the sand of self. Trust me, I know from experience. 

You can have a personal relationship with Jesus and have been saved at Bible camp and still have a foundation that is cracking on top of sand. You can be part of every weeknight Bible study group and have an accountability group and still be built on the sand of your own righteous effort. 

As you think of yourself, you’re a basically good person. There are others who are basically irredeemably evil, and you’re better than them. So you’re okay! You know who the bad people are, and you do your best to not be like them. Except, you know, for all those cracks in your basement foundation. So all the while, you keep doing foundation crack repair. And the shame about your leaky cracked floor amplifies the trespass! You hide the cracks, and they keep multiplying. No one can know that you don’t have it all together! Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know! You have to keep up the show.

It’s exhausting! And if you let that go on long enough, your whole house is going to fall over. Again, I know from experience. 

We can never transform our sand into a solid rock. We can never do more than damage repair on a foundation that is cracking.

The way to healing, the way to wholeness, the way out of the perpetual whack-a-mole is to admit the radical truth of the gospel and ourselves: all of us are sinners, none better than another. We cannot transform our sand into a stable foundation.

Until we get foundation on the stable ground, the solid rock, we’re completely powerless. Our own lives are unmanageable, to say nothing about trying to help anyone else.

If we don’t get the foundation right, we’re never going to be able to reach out to others or share the Gospel. Because all we will be able to share is our own fallible work, our own broken foundation atop sinking sand. Built on the sand, all of our works for Jesus will be either out of guilt or ego. We’ll help others so we can feel better about ourselves. We’ll give to the church just like we shop at Target. We’ll be part of a community out of a desire for control. 

When we help others from a cracked foundation atop the sinking sand, we’ll say, “I saved myself, here, let me save you.” But no, we need the message that we cannot save ourselves. We are helpless! We are powerless. But we know the one who can save.

We need the rock.

The truth about ourselves is that all of us are sinners, incapable of managing our own lives, unable to save ourselves––we are sand. The good news of the Gospel is that recognizing ourselves for who we are is a good thing. Because when we admit that truth about ourselves, we come up against the radical grace of the Gospel.

Jesus didn’t die for the ones who have it all together, the ones who are self-sufficient. Jesus didn’t die for those who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, as if such a thing was possible. Jesus died for the ungodly. Jesus died for we who are sand, dust in the wind.

God’s grace is sufficient because it works when we understand our weakness. We who are built on the rock cannot take any pride in being better than some other sinner because there is “no distinction.” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [and] they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (Romans 3:22ff)

This grace, this rock underneath our foundation is a gift. There is nothing we can do to earn it, nothing we can do to get a fancier version of it. No amount of work will produce more of it. All of us are given the same solid place to build our lives when we recognize our powerlessness and rely on Jesus instead.

When we have exhausted all of our own resources, when all the sand of self-sufficiency washes away, we hit rock bottom. And it is there that the sand of the self comes up against the strength of the rock who is Jesus

On the rock, we find that our concrete foundation, freshly poured after the latest storm, isn’t developing so many cracks. We find that we don’t have to spend our whole day in the basement playing whack-a-mole with our sins and perceived flaws. On the rock, we have a safe, hospitable sanctuary to offer to others in need––and we’re not doing it for our own glory. On the rock, we recognize that church is not a consumer good that can be bought, but a community sustained by our recognition that all we have is a gift from God.

It is on this rock, Jesus Christ, that the church and our lives can be built when we surrender to God by grace through faith.

On the rock, we find that our spiritual disciplines are no longer tools to appease God, but rather life giving pipelines of God’s spirit. On the rock, we are much less concerned with the sins of others than we are with sharing the grace of the Gospel. 

On the rock we have holy indifference about money, power, and material things and a holy passion for building up something that will last forever. On the rock we recognize that our body is a temple and we care about our food and exercise. because they are holy and set apart by God. On the rock we stop using other people to get our needs met and find ourselves in mutual relationships with each other for the very first time.

On the rock we create not for our glory, but for the glory of the one who saved us. On the rock we boast of our weakness, that others might be inspired through our story that yes, God can save even them.

In this season when COVID-19 has taken away so much with its fierce storm against our wellbeing, relationships, and security, we may be tempted to rebuild a new house on the same old sand of self-sufficiency. If we do, the cracks will re-form. Another storm will come along and knock us over yet again.

May we instead cease the ritual of building maintenance on a condemned dwelling. May we start from scratch, pouring a new concrete foundation of faith, hope, and love on the one who is the rock––Jesus Christ our Lord.

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness

I dare not trust the sweetest frame

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand

All other ground is sinking sand

Amen.

Receive (Advent 4B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 23, 2020.

Isaiah 55:1-9

Through the first three weeks of our Advent waiting, we have considered the words of Jesus to “ask, seek, and knock” through the lens of Isaiah, a prophet of God who wrote during Israel’s time in exile. Each week we have seen how Isaiah’s context in exile is similar to our own situation in various levels of isolation due to the Coronavirus. In this time that we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, we have considered the important spiritual tasks of asking God for what we need, seeking after a new way, and knocking at the door of the future.

We need relief from Coronavirus, both the symptoms of the illness and the loss of life and livelihood it has caused. 

We need God to show us a new way, because many in our world have been robbed of true peace and justice.

We need to be willing to stand at the doorway of that new way and actively request entry into it. We need to tell God “yes,” we will follow God’s way.

This is what Advent is all about. This Advent, more than usual, is a time when we await God’s promised deliverance, God’s coming again into our future.

Today’s message from the prophet Isaiah is half Advent message. Isaiah 55:6-9 in particular call us back to the theme of “seeking the Lord,” But let’s start at the beginning with a message that is perfect for these short days before Christmas.

Isaiah says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you thirsty? Come to the water! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway to buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Similar to the Message Paraphrase)

Over the past few weeks, our faithful deacons purchased food boxes from the Food Bank along with Christmas food staples to make sure families in our community who are in need have food to eat at Christmas. The deacons engage in this kind of ministry year round, making sure those who request food or other resources from the church can receive it. But Christmas is a time when this kind of ministry is in full force. 

There are all sorts of more “secular” reasons why we engage in acts of charity this time of year. We are more conscious of the blessings that we have. There is social pressure to do something for those who are less fortunate. Our mailboxes are filled with year-end financial appeals from charities.

But there is also a deeply Christian reason why the Advent and Christmas season is a time when we would open our hearts and resources for those who are in need. See, in Advent, we await the future coming of Jesus Christ. Not just in Isaiah, but in the New Testament as well, the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, is a time when both hearts and bellies will be full, not just with the bare essentials, but with wonderful things. Isaiah 25 tells us that there will be a feast of “rich foods for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine [with] the best of meats!” The New Testament likens it to a wedding feast or a king’s banquet.

The promise of Christmas, both now and future, is a great feast! A great banquet! An occasion for celebration with family and friends old and new. A time when when our bellies would be full of foods we cannot afford. A time when our hearts would be full of good news that we do not deserve.

But then the prophet, after giving the promise, asks the hard, discipleship question: “why?”

Isaiah asks, “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” I don’t know about you, but even despite the restrictions and tightened belts of the pandemic, I’ve spent money I didn’t need to spend. The things of last month don’t satisfy this month. My priorities aren’t always in the right place, especially this time of year. There are all sorts of great things that God gives me for free and plenty of people who do not have daily bread and what do I do? I spend money on fleeting entertainment. Why do we invest so much time and energy in things that do not satisfy? I don’t know, Isaiah. Because we’re bored? (I think Isaiah might scoff at our honest answer.)

Matthew and Luke’s Gospels ask another question about the way people respond to the Great Feast. “Why do people who are invited to the free water, the free bread, the free feast of blessing not come to get it?”

In Luke 14, Jesus tells a parable about those who do not come to the free banquet. The host says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you hungry? Come to the feast! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway. I’ve set a place for you.” And what do the guests do? They tell the host that they have better things to do. “Sorry, I can’t come.”

This is, perhaps, primarily a metaphor for a spiritual reality. Those who belong to God’s people and God’s church are often the ones who make excuses about why they can’t make time for God’s blessings.

But also, it’s just a plain fact. You can announce to the world that you have free food to give out, and some people will be too proud to come and receive it. They’re in need, but those blessings are for other people. And on the other side, you have people who say “yeah, I need some food!” who do not actually come to get it. 

Why are our priorities so out of whack? Why do we not admit our needs? Why do we not show up for the blessings God gives out so abundantly for free.

The answer is, of course, that we are human. We’ve been turning away from God’s blessings in search of something else since that first day in the garden. God was like, “look at all this stuff I’m giving you for free!” And we said, “Nah, God. I’d rather eat that fruit over there instead.”

And so, the Christmas promise (as it always does) leads us back into the Advent question. The promise of a great feast of FREE (did I mention, FREE) FOOD leads us to wonder why we do not ask, seek, and knock for what we need.

The prophet turns us to this Advent theme in Isaiah 55:6-9 — “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”

We’re right back where we started. Ask God for what we need. Seek God’s way. Knock at the door. Receive the blessings.

Again we ask, what does it mean for us to seek God’s way in the Christmas season during a global Pandemic?

I’m sorry for jumping around so much today, but if you look at Matthew 24:42-44 I think we’ll find the answer. 

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Keep watch. Stay vigilant.

If you’ve considered this Scripture text before, you may have noticed that the Lord here is likened to an unexpected thief. It’s a shocking comparison, like many in the Advent season. God, like a thief will come at the moment you’re not prepared and ready. The moment you’ve let your guard down.

Right now, there is something far more covert and menacing than a thief going around. Right now, at the moment when Coronavirus vaccines are starting to be distributed, hospitals are running out of space. Many of us are starting to let our guard down.

Over and over, our Scriptures remind us, “seek righteousness, care for your neighbor, keep watch, don’t let your guard down.”

Both blessings and suffering come at an unexpected time.

It is for that reason that Paul admonishes the early church to “not be like the others who are asleep” on the job, lax in their duty to keep watch and stay attentive.

“Let us be awake and sober” because we are children of the light of Christ.

Let us actively ask, seek, and knock in this season. Let’s stay vigilant because the day of our promised deliverance from COVID is coming. God is coming into our future and making a way and a future for us.

But as we remain ready and vigilant, let us also take time to celebrate and thank God for the free blessings God gives us. We have food to eat. We have shelter. We have connection with other people, even if only virtually. God is meeting our needs. God is present with us this Christmas.

Thank you for taking this journey through the message of Isaiah with me this month. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone! 

Knock (Advent 3B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 16, 2020.

Isaiah 43:14-21

It’s hard for me to believe it, but we’re already halfway through week 3 of Advent. Kelly, Jess, and Rev. Tina have led us through the practice of self-examination on Sundays, and in these Wednesday devotions we have considered the particular spiritual journey of this Advent as we wait for Christ through this time of Coronavirus.

Our theme for this time together has been the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:7 — “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

No matter what is going on in our lives or in the world, all of us constantly have to ask, seek, and knock. We have concerns for which we need God’s intervention. We have questions we need God to answer. And so, we know what it is to ask and seek.

As we’ve explored the past two weeks, Advent in particular is a season of asking and seeking. The  traditional readings from the prophet Isaiah take us back to a time before the promised deliverance through Jesus Christ and they point us forward to a time in the future when Christ will come again.

This year, through these 278 days of the life season of Coronavirus, we have a very pressing concern for which we ask God and seek direction. We ask God to come, to end this deadly pandemic and bring healing to our land. And we seek after new ways of being together, loving each other, and living in a way that will not harm our neighbor.

The reason why we go to God in these times is that we know, or at least we are coming to find out through the events of this year, that we are incapable of saving ourselves. We cannot, by our own will, end the coronavirus pandemic, no matter how hard we try. 

If you’ve found the last two weeks challenging, then I’m glad you’ve been paying attention. This week’s theme and text may be the most challenging yet.

This week, we knock so the door may be opened to us.

Have you ever been working on a project in one room and realized that you need to go into another room to talk to someone or get something. But when you go through the doorway, it’s like your mind has been erased. You can’t for the life of you remember what you were supposed to be doing. Only after going back into the first room, where your memory has apparently been waiting for you, do you remember what you originally set out to do.

This happens to me all the time in the office. I’ll leave my office to talk to Judy or Rev. Tina only to enter their office and go, “uh, I need to ask you about something, but… I can’t remember what it is.”

We all do this. And because we do it, scientists spend time researching it.

One group of scientists created a computer program to test this phenomenon—we’ll call it The Doorway Effect. They tasked participants with picking up an object in one room and taking it to a table in another in a computer game. What they found is that, even in a video game, participants would enter a new room in the game and forget the color of the item they were bringing with them. Walking through a virtual doorway slowed their responses and made them less accurate.⁠1

Going through a doorway causes us to forget what we are leaving behind. It resets and reprograms us for a new environment.

And so, as we in our faith are coming to a new doorway, as we prepare to open the door and enter into Christ’s presence this Christmas, we have to acknowledge the difficult and hopeful truth that we will forget much of what is behind us.

We have asked God to come and save us. We have gotten up and sought after God. And now at this doorway that leads into a new year, we have to take stock of what we are leaving behind and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

——

Our Scripture passage from Isaiah 43 describes this reality. When we looked at Isaiah 40 last week, the people of God were in the midst of a temporary peace. Isaiah was charged with providing comfort to those who were or would soon be in exile, stuck in a land that was not their own. Isaiah told them about this desert highway that would one day bring them back from exile in Babylon to their homeland. 

As our reading today from Isaiah 43:14-21 begins, God promises to “break down all the bars” incarcerating God’s people in Babylon. The exile in Babylon was thought of by the prophets as essentially a prison term. The people of God had disobeyed, so they were sent off to exile/prison in Babylon.

It was, in essence, a life sentence. The people would spend 70 years in Babylon. (Suddenly, our 228 days in Coronavirus quarantine doesn’t seem so bad!) 

Throughout those 70 years stuck in a land that was not theirs, the people of God went through all the stages of grief. They experienced denial, anger, bargaining with God, depression, and eventually, acceptance of their situation. But their situation, like ours, was not permanent.

After 70 years of asking God for deliverance and seeking after God’s way in exile, the prophet Isaiah promised them that God would make a door where there had once been a wall. God would break down the walls of their captivity and give them a hand to lead them through that doorway into a new normal. They would finally be able to start the journey home and rebuild the life they had before.

Just take a moment to imagine what we anticipate will happen in about 6 month’s time: we will achieve herd immunity through widespread acceptance of a Coronavirus vaccine. Steadily, restrictions will begin to be lifted. We will once again be able to leave our homes and gather in crowds without masks. What will that be like?

We might fool ourselves into thinking that we will be able to immediately take up the way we did things before, but the longer this goes on, the more and more I think that won’t be the case. Even those of us who are “huggers” and have smaller personal space bubbles will find ourselves wincing when people get too close. We have gotten used to our separation. We have been changed by this exile.

None of us know how we will react to the end of this pandemic. We will have to find out how we react when it happens.

But what God tells the people who are anticipating their return from a 70 year exile is this: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

When we walk through the doorway on the other side of the present struggle, God seems to encourage us to let the Doorway Effect happen. He seems to encourage the people coming back from exile to forget what the exile was like.

What former things is God through Isaiah telling the people to “not remember?” I think God is telling them to “forget” two kinds of things: their old, sinful ways (and the sins themselves and the nostalgic memories of what God did in the past.

First, God wants them to forget their sinful ways and the shame of those sins. God wants to set these people free from their old ways. He doesn’t want them to be burdened with the memory of what they did wrong all those years ago that sent them into exile to begin with. In Isaiah 43:25, God says, “I will remember your sins no more.” And if God is going to forgive and forget their sins, then surely they are also to forget their own sins. They have learned their lesson and now they are charged with going in a new direction.

Surely there are some sins, mistakes, and old habits that you want to leave in the past. When we realize our own need for forgiveness and take those sins to God and engage steps of reconciliation with people we have wronged, we can truly leave those things in the past.

God wants us to leave our former sins in the past.

But second, God also wants us to leave some good things in the past. This one might seem counterintuitive to us. So much of our faith is based on remembering. What do we do every week in worship except call to mind and remember what God has done in the past: God created us in his image. God rescued the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. God delivered his people from captivity in Babylon. God sent his son Jesus to save us. All of those wonderful acts of divine grace are in the past.

The same is true about what God has done in our individual lives. We call to mind the day of our baptism. We remember the day at summer camp where we gave our lives to Jesus Christ. We remember joining the church. We remember, perhaps, a “golden age” of the church when everything seemed easy and everyone you knew was Christian. All of those acts of God’s grace and mercy are in the past.

It’s easy for us to live in those former realities. The Exodus was wonderful! The birth of Jesus was world changing! Our individual stories of salvation are transformative! But those stories are just what God has done for us in the past. We have a tendency to grasp onto these past stories for stability when the present and future are unknown and frightening. These stories can ground us in uncertain times.

The danger is, we then start to live in the past. We cut ourselves off from what God is doing and will do in our future!

It is for this reason that God tells the exiles through Isaiah, “do not remember the former things, because I am about to do a new thing.”

God’s future acts of deliverance are going to be so awesome that we’re going to forget the past in the light of their glory. The things that God is going to do in the future are going to be greater than the Exodus, greater than the first coming of Jesus, greater than the moment we were first saved. 

God, on the other side of this doorway, is going to do a new thing. That can be frightening to us because it requires that we trust God. None of us know what is on the other side of our exile. We don’t know where next year or the next 5 years will take us.

All we have is the assurance from God will be with us in the new challenges and opportunities the next phase has for us. 

We stand at the door and knock, that God might open to us the door to our future.

Christ has come. Christ will come again. Come, Lord Jesus.

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1 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-walking-through-doorway-makes-you-forget/

Seek (Advent 2B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 9, 2020.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Last week, we jumped into the book of Isaiah as we considered what it means to “ask” God for what we need so it will be given to us, as Jesus promises. I encourage you if you missed last week’s devotional to find it on Facebook or YouTube because that’s really where I set the stage for this Advent series. Jesus tells us, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” So this week, we are going to “Seek” so that we might find. And since Kelly Ward teased the theme of peace in his sermon on Sunday, we’re going to start our reflection on seeking after God by thinking about a moment of peace that also illustrates what we mean by “seeking” after God.

This year, those of you who are history-inclined have probably done a bit of thinking about the year 1918. Culturally, the 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic has a lot to teach us about our our current struggle against COVID-19. But if you’re thinking in the wider context, the 1918 flu hit the world hard right at the end of World War I. And it is this war, and the censorship of media in everywhere except Spain about its terrible effects, that has given that pandemic the misnomer of being the Spanish Flu.

Anyway, we’re going to be thinking 4 years before, to the year 1914, the first year of the “Great War,” the “War to End All Wars…” (or so it was said at the time.

On December 7, 1914, almost exactly 106 years ago, Pope Benedict XV, with an eye toward the promises of the Advent season, with the Christian hope of “peace,” suggested a temporary hiatus of the war to celebrate the Christmas season.

It was not that preposterous of a suggestion. This was not, in large part, a war between nations of different religious allegiances. The vast majority of Europe in the early 20th century was Christian. And in large part, in each country that participated in the war, the various Christian traditions (Catholic and Protestant) unified behind their national cause.

There were Christians on both sides of the conflict that used their faith in Jesus Christ as a source of inspiration, guidance, and even justification for their military engagement.

You would imagine that in such a conflict, both sides might have been able to say publicly and from the highest levels of government: we will pause the war for a Christmas peace. If some temporary peace was possible among competing nations, surely this was it.

And yet, there was no official cease-fire in December 1914.

Of course, no one was going to stop war-weary soldiers, both British and German, from celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace.

On Christmas Eve 1914, without any preplanning or communication between sides, troops all across the theater of war began singing Christmas carols in their language. As night fell, you could hear the kingdom of God: men of different nations singing praises to Jesus in their own language, sometimes even accompanied by brass bands.

No one was going to take up their gun on Christmas Eve, no matter how committed they were to the cause of war. For one night, there was Peace.

But this is not where the story ends. The peace of Christmas Eve 1914 came without risk. It was something both sides could practice without leaving their trenches and guns. But, as we’re talking about today, real peace requires risk. It requires seeking after justice and righteousness. Real peace requires us to get off our butts and do something. 

As day broke on Christmas Day 1914, having heard the enemy carols the night before, a few German soldiers took a risk. They actively sought a Christmas peace. They arose from their trenches and approached the Allied lines, across the liminal space called “no-man’s-land” and called out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongues of their enemy. (Take a moment to consider the significance of such an act.)

The Allied soldiers were cautious, fearing a trick. War conditions men to fear such things. But the enemy was unarmed, so they too arose from the trenches and shook their enemy’s hand. On Christmas Day, two men who could have killed each other the day before were exchanging presents of cigarettes and plum puddings.

The words of Isaiah 11 ring in our ears, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the falling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

A German Lieutenant recalling the event mused, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

“For a Time” is the key phrase in his words. As Christmas Day ended, fighting once again broke out so that by New Year’s, the temporary truce was a distant memory. 

Never again would such a peace take place in war. Military officers made sure of it by threats of discipline. The Powers and Principalities would never make the same mistake of allowing a Christmas peace again. In fact, the Powers would further delay the possibility of true peace. For we know that the “Great War” was not the end of all war. Rather, it was only the embers of an even terrifyingly greater war.

Still, this memory of seeking after peace and justice reverberates in our imaginations at Christmas as we anticipate the coming (again) of the Prince of Peace.⁠1

So now you’re asking yourself, what does this have to do with our reading from Isaiah 40? It turns out, quite a lot. This text, scholars tell us, is the beginning of the second part of the Isaiah text. The Assyrians have destroyed most of Judah and have laid siege to the holy city of Jerusalem. Isaiah too is telling us about the middle of a war. But more than that, there is a temporary peace. The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had bigger issues going on at home, and so he recalled his troops to Nineveh.

Isaiah’s “comfort, O comfort my people” comes after this first siege by Assyria and before the later destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 587 BC.  You’ll remember from Kelly’s sermon on Sunday that it is because of Jerusalem’s destruction that Daniel ends up exiled in Babylon.

Isaiah 40, then, comes in this liminal space between violent attacks. It is a message of peace that arrives both in the aftermath and anticipation of conflict, much like the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Isaiah, as he did when he received his divine commission in chapter 6, has entered God’s divine council. Isaiah has entered the heavenly court where there is discussion about these earthly conflicts.

God speaks for his divine messengers (we might call them angels) to “comfort, O comfort my people.” A messenger (angel) chimes in, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” And finally another messenger instructs Isaiah to cry out to people on earth this message: all people are grass…but the word of our God will stand forever.”

As we consider our imperative to “seek” so that we might find, it is this imperative in verse 3 that is most crucial: prepare. It is not enough for us to ask God for what we need. We must also prepare the way for the arrival of the answer to our prayers.

The divine messenger is instructing us to go out from where we are to blaze a new trail through an overgrown land. We’re instructed to seek a new way that is different from the old way. We are to seek this new way in order to prepare that path for the arrival of the one for whom we are waiting.

If you’ve ever gone hiking, you can visualize this pretty clearly. Normally, to respect the land we are on, we stay on the marked trails. Someone has already blazed those for us by clearing the vegetation and putting up markers. The path may not be level, but it is clear of debris.

But if we want to get somewhere new, we cannot take the old trails. Like Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, we must chart a new course, veer off the path to clear a way through the vegetation, through the mountains and their valleys. The old trail can only take us to the same places it always had. A new trail can lead us to find what we have been asking for and seeking.

Like the route of the Corps of Discovery, the path being charted in Isaiah’s time is not an ideal route. Lewis and Clark never found a water route to the Pacific. Likewise, Isaiah’s route for God’s people is a wilderness route. It is dangerous. Most would avoid traveling it. Yet, this wilderness route is the difficult, painful way through which God’s people will one day return from their suffering in Babylon.

When this text appears again in the mouth of John the Baptist in the New Testament, the way of the Lord being prepared is similarly challenging. Not many want to openly air out their sins. Those who take this road only because they see others doing so or because it is politically expedient are called a “brood of vipers⁠2” by the harsh prophet.

This risky wilderness road in Isaiah, figured more completely for us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was once again figured in the Christmas Truce of 1914. Two sides of men were entrenched in the old ways of war and bloodshed. In between them lay a no-man’s-land, a wilderness, they had not before dared to travel. But by doing so, by blazing a new path between the trenches, soldiers of opposing sides found temporary peace.

As Kelly preached on Sunday, our Advent faith requires us to be active, not passive consumers. Charting a new course takes risk, it takes guts, and it takes us rising out of our trenches. 

Here is what I think is perhaps the most important lesson of this Pandemic. You and I were long stuck in a groove, in a trench. Like the grooves in a vinyl record, we have gone around and around so long that we began skipping beats. The longer we did things the old way, the more and more we dug a trench of safety, protection, and stagnation. A soldier who never leaves the trenches is one who has died in the trench.

The Pandemic has revealed the “groove” of life in the BC (Before COVID) time to be a rut, a trench. And right now, all of us cry out in one voice, “Come, Lord Jesus,” because we need to be freed from this trench, this rut, this groove. We ask God to come through the uncharted territory because we know the old ways were not working.

We did not love God with our whole heart.

We as a church were not obedient to God’s way.

We have not done God’s will. In fact, in our old ways we actively broke God’s law.

We have rebelled against God’s free offer of grace.

We have not loved our neighbors nor headed the cry of those in need.

It is because of this, because the old ways were not working for us, that we now daily cry out for  God to come and make a new way.

Last week’s Advent reflection could be summed up in a paraphrase of the first 3 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: I can’t. God can. So let him.

Together, we must admit that we were powerless over the Powers and Principalities. We were powerless over Sin. Our lives had become unmanageable. The virus had so fully infected us that we were blind to its effects. We were in the trenches, expecting to die there. But God can deliver us. No. God will deliver us.

That deliverance begins when we start seeking a new way. It comes when we see the trench for what it is and take those first few risky steps through the wilderness road, the land where few men and women would dare to go.

Let us seek a new way together, that we would find a future of peace and justice. A future that some would say is impossible. But through God, all things are possible––even a peace that lasts.

In the name of the God who can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine, we pray. Amen.


1 Prince of Peace 2: Electric Boogaloo

2 Many who came to John to be baptized were like those “crowds” who line up in front of a store only to ask others in line what they’re all waiting for.

Ask (Advent 1B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 2, 2020.

Isaiah 64:1-9

We as human beings tell time in a variety of ways. But no matter how you count, this Coronavirus pandemic, and the associated changes in our routines, has been going on for a long time. We began this journey of necessity in mid-March with what was presented as a “two week shutdown to slow the spread.” Now, eight months later, the spread is greater than at any point this year. Public health officials worry how Thanksgiving gathering may affect case numbers and hospital bed availability. The rest of us are wondering when a vaccine will be widely available to begin a new, post-Pandemic normalcy. We’re wondering if the government will pass another relief bill. We’re wondering if we will become infected and how much suffering that would entail.

But let’s think in a different frame for our time together this morning. Let’s think not in the secular, day to day, timeline of pandemic life. Let’s enter into the sacred timeline of where God has been, is, and will be with us.

At the beginning of the Pandemic in mid-March, we were in the third week of the season of Lent. As we all turned to the Bible as a companion to our journey, we found insight in the desert wanderings of the Israelites and in Jesus’ own time of testing in the wilderness. In some manner our time in that place has continued—as it did for the Israelites who stayed in the desert for far longer than intended because they didn’t learn their lesson and follow God completely (sound familiar?). Over the past months of this Pandemic, we have ventured in our Christian journey through our at-home testimonies to the resurrection at Easter, into the hope and promise of Pentecost from our locked-in Upper Room, and through the weeks that we wondered—like a child on a long car ride—are we there yet?

Now we are in the season the church calls “Advent.” But, I would suggest that we are not just in that season now because the calendar says it. No, we are truly in the season of already/not yet anticipation. The season that is at the turning point of all history. 

We are in the season of knowing that there are reliable vaccines on the horizon to unlock the doors of our seclusion.  We just are not entirely sure when they will be available. Now we count the days, waiting as best we can in confident hope and faithful diligence.

We are, in the Biblical narrative, in the middle part of the library. We are living, no longer in the days of Moses leading God’s people through the wilderness, but in the days of prophets who spoke hope into trying circumstances.

And so, in parallel to our journey of self-examination in our Sunday worship, we are going to be considering our place in this story and journey of God’s people in these Wednesday devotions.

Hopefully, this will serve to put even more context on what we have been thinking about in our Sunday services. We have been digging under the surface of ourselves in order to receive our salvation, but all the while, all of us are also on a journey together as the church and along with the prophets of old.

It is for this communal journey from desperate hope to realized joy that we turn to the prophet Isaiah this morning.

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! 

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, 

you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

Isaiah 64:1–3 (NRSV)

The prophet is living in a time of unrealized expectations, not unlike our living in the 8th month of a two week quarantine. Year after year, the prophet has called people to return to God in the hopes of the promise that God will restore them and their land. See, they’ve had all the promises of God before—they just didn’t recognize it until it was gone. In the past, God had appeared on Mount Sinai to Moses. God had demonstrated power against the prophets of false idols by divinely igniting the bonfire of Elijah. God had even answered their yearnings for a King like the other nations! But as the people of God became more like the people around them, they forgot to turn to God. They turned elsewhere. And as a result, they lost everything

And now, 50 years since their exile, since the hostile takeover by a foreign power, there is hope on the horizon. They are now under the rule of a more agreeable empire and king, one who is willing to restore their freedom to worship the God of Israel. And yet, it doesn’t feel like it did before the captivity. God seems more distant than they remember him.

We could imagine all kinds of situations that would have been like those of Israel in the 530s BC. Perhaps it would be like if we in the United States had lost the Cold War so spectacularly that the USSR had invaded our shores and made us into the United States of Soviet Russia. And 50 years into that foreign rule, the Soviet Union had been conquered by a more powerful nation whose leader was willing to restore a degree of autonomy to our shores. Yeah, it would be like that.

But also, we don’t have to imagine such a situation because we’re in a crisis of our own. We want to gather to praise God in one voice—but also, we are prevented from that for good reason. And the ways that we are able to gather don’t feel like the days we remember, when God spoke to us in all the feel-good ways. 

And so we, right now where we are, can take the message of Isaiah 64 to heart. Spend some time personally with this text. Here’s the meat of what he is saying to us.

Point 1 (vv. 1–4) — Things in this world are not as they should be. There should be enough hospital beds and affordable healthcare for everyone who is sick. There isn’t. The world shouldn’t be diseased at all. The very existence of biological viruses is a defect in the created order caused by the virus of Sin.

The thing is, we as the people of God know that there have been times when God has acted decisively to free and heal his people. God freed Israel from Egypt, God gave them a land of their own, and God sent Jesus Christ in this world to free us from our sins. And yet God seems far removed from us.

We all have, at one point or another, prayed a prayer of desperation to God. “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down…” “If only you would heal me or one I love.” 

The reality we begin with is––we are experiencing a Pandemic that has taken too many lives and will take more. The reality is, people suffer and die far too young. And we cry out to God.

Point 2 (vv. 5–7): We Cannot Save Ourselves!

We as human beings are limited. More than that, we are afflicted with the virus of sin. If anything has proven that to us, it’s the past eight months. For all the good in the world that we have seen persevere through this Pandemic, there is at least as much selfishness and evil.

Right now we all look for a cure. But, a vaccine is not a permanent cure for all that ails us. We thank God for the means to create, research, and manufacture one. But we need a savior beyond ourselves. Because God knows that even our means of curing these bodily afflictions are just as fallible as everything else we do. And beyond that, a vaccine won’t fix the sin of racism, of poverty, of hatred, of the brokenness of our communities.

In fact, we’re going to be tempted, when this is all over, to pretend that all is right with the world. Newsflash: it’s not. The world is broken. The world is sick. And this pandemic and its effects are only a symptom of this larger reality that we need salvation. 

Point 3 (v. 8, v. 1): Healing Comes Decisively from Outside Ourselves

If we cannot save ourselves, than we have to rely on someone else to save us. There’s a lot of candidates in this world. Everyone is selling something that will supposedly cure what ails us. But the only one who can really fix the problem is the one who is the master engineer who built the thing in the first place, the loving father who has watched us go astray. We need God to decisively act––as God did in the past through Moses and all the prophets, and then through Jesus. 

We need God to literally tear the heavens open and come down. The good thing is, that’s the very thing God promises to do. We are told to cling tightly to Jesus because Jesus will come to free us in a decisive moment of power. Jesus will come to free us like the allies freed the Nazi concentration camps. Jesus will come to heal us like a vaccine that inoculates us against the virus of Sin. Jesus will come like a test that shows the cancer has disappeared. Jesus will come like a presidential pardon, freeing us from the prison to which we’ve become enslaved.

Jesus will tear the fabric of our brokenness and enter into the core of our being.

This is the hope and promise of Advent; The invigorating hope and promise of God acting decisively in Jesus Christ. It is not a hope to be rested in passively––it is a hope that wakes us up to how things are and leads us to prepare our hearts and minds.

It is a hope that raises a loud cry in our hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Make haste to help us.

This desperate cry to God, this asking and begging, is part of our faithful waiting. It’s faithful because it reminds us about who God is and always has been. It reminds us that Jesus is the cure to our affliction.

But, as we close this morning, we’re likely to ask, “how long must we wait?”

Well, the answer as it relates to COVID is probably 6 months. If all goes according to schedule, and the vaccine is accepted and trusted, we might be able to put COVID-19 behind us by early Summer. That means we’re over halfway through our waiting. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still waiting to do. There is faithful waiting to do. The waiting that means we take every precaution for the good of our neighbors.

The question, “how long must we wait for God’s deliverance?” Is a tricker one to answer. We do not know when God, in Jesus Christ, will once again rend the curtain of heaven and come down. What we do know, for each of us, is that God has torn open the curtain separating us from God in Jesus Christ. Jesus has come and is here for all who ask, seek, knock, and receive. Today could be the day of your salvation from the Spiritual virus that afflicts you.

But as it relates to the salvation of the whole world, we wait as those who have hope. We wait with loud cries out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

Just be prepared. That cry will go on for longer than six months more. But it will also come at an unexpected time.

We might be able to understand how God unexpectedly works in time through the character of Gandalf.

God is a bit like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Or rather, Gandalf embodies some of God’s characteristics. In the LOTR movies, Gandalf is noted for saying… A wizard is never late. Nor is he early; he arrives precisely when he means to.”

And thus it will be that when God saves us, it will be at the precise moment and in the precise way that he intends for his glory and our good. 

God is never late. Nor is he early. God arrives at the precise moment he intends.  

In the name of the God who holds the past, present, and future we pray. Amen.