Don’t Just Do Something––Stand There (a sermon)

Ephesians 6:10-20 – “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”

NASA has been answering the bold call from the President of the United States to plan for a return to the surface of the Moon in 2024. It was December of 1972 the last time boots touched the lunar surface in the Apollo 17 mission. There have been many missions to space since then, to be sure. The Apollo program atop the Saturn V rocket was followed by the Space Shuttle program that began in 1980 and ended 10 years ago, in 2011. For the last 22 years, trips to the International Space Station have been a common occurrence. Right now there are 7.6 Billion people on Earth and 10 in Space. But there is something that still captures our imagination when we think about humans traveling to, and even living on, a celestial body that is not our own. The Artemis program plans to send astronauts to the Moon’s surface in 2024, with the eventual goal of regular lunar flights and even a permanent base on the moon.

There is, however, already a hangup that threatens to delay our next mission to the moon. The astronauts’ outfit isn’t ready yet. Space is not hospitable to human beings. Without a protective garment, a human would pass out in 15 seconds and die from asphyxiation after 90 seconds. Eventually, an unprotected human being in space would turn into an ice cube. All those things we take for granted on Earth, like breathing, are almost impossible when you’re outside the Earth’s protective atmosphere. Space is openly hostile to humans.

For the past 40 years, astronauts have been using a suit called the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) to protect them against exposure to space. These white puffy-looking suits, resembling the Michelin Man, were the result of 21 years of development and testing. The Artemis program requires an update to the old design. The xEMU will be specially designed to be more adaptable to different body types, protect against lunar dust, and keep astronauts at a comfortable temperature as they travel extreme temperatures on the moon ranging from -250℉ to 250℉.

I could put a whole outfit together at Old Navy for $50, but it won’t keep me safe in space. The development and deployment of the first two xEMU spacesuits is estimated to cost $1 Billion and is currently 6 months behind schedule. 

If you’re asking an astronaut, the outfit they wear isn’t just important—it’s a lifeline. One small tear in the garment would mean a rush to safety to prevent a certain death. The whole suit is necessary for survival and the work of exploration. 

The Hard Upper Torso assembly provides a rigid enclosure around the astronaut and is the keystone for the entire suit. The Primary Life Support System regulates suit pressure, provides oxygen, cools the suit, provides communication, and displays suit and astronaut health data. Arm sections and gloves as well as leg sections and boots provide contained mobility for their work and connect together to maintain pressure. The bubble helmet and visor assembly protect the head and eyes. Finally, the Maximum Absorbency Garment contains any liquid waste that is expelled during their work. (No one ever said being an astronaut was glamorous…)

Astronauts need the whole EMU suit to survive and perform their work while in the hostile environment of space.


To say that Christians belonged in the 1st century world about as well as humans belong in space is only a slight exaggeration. As space is hostile and hazardous to human life, so too was Ancient Rome opposed to the mere survival of this ragtag group that claimed to follow a crucified—and risen—Lord.

Rome knew of only one lord and his name was Caesar, not Yeshua (or Jesus). Lord Caesar was venerated in Temples, his likeness etched in money, his offerings demanded through taxation, and his might demonstrated through an army 350,000 men strong.

Those who dared challenge the might of Rome may have survived slightly more than 90 seconds, but they would quickly become an example none would dare to follow. Revolutionaries, and worshipers of another Lord, would be stripped naked, whipped, and hung on a cross barely above the eye level of the passing crowds. Onlookers would see the bloody execution and know Caesar’s might was not to be messed with.

The savior Jesus, along with many of his disciples and followers, were crucified as a testament to the lordship of Caesar over Rome. The environment was hostile to any other Lord. This was the Pax Romana, the Roman peace.

In the terrifying and inhospitable Roman world, where everything was working against them and their ability to live as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom of Jesus, they would need a protective suit of their own. They would need garments that would protect them and advance the cause of the Gospel that was announcing the reign of God to every corner of the Roman world. They would need armor.

Mere mention of armor to the early Christians would have conjured up images of one thing: the uniform of the Roman Garrison. The hundreds of thousands of Roman soldiers stationed around the empire wore a helmet with a plume on top and a mask protecting the face. A tunic was worn, covered with chain mail armor and solid metal plates. A belt around the waist held clothing together as well as weapons, with an optional shoulder belt that could carry a sword or drum. A scarf protected the neck from chafing and a satchel carried their rations. Finally, their feet were protected by sandal-boots with heavy soles and shoe tacks for added traction.

In contrast, the average Roman peasant would have been a simple, flowing white tunic tied together at the waist. They stood no chance against the heavily armored Roman guard. Early Christians had no strength in themselves, no earthly defenses that could take on the lordship of Caesar.

Paul knew this. He himself, a Roman citizen by birth, was imprisoned in the city of Rome as he was writing this letter for disrupting the Roman peace with his travels to Jerusalem. The presence of the Roman army was a constant reality for him, a source of fear and trembling. Now he was under their watchful eye and constrained in his motions.

In this week and vulnerable position, like an astronaut surviving precariously in the vacuum of space, Paul writes, “be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God.”

As members of the Kingdom of Jesus, ambassadors of the Gospel, and facing the might of the Roman legion, Christians are to “take up the whole armor of God” so that they might be able “to stand firm.”

The helmet of salvation protects the wearer from the threats of Sin that might make damning strikes of judgment against them. Over their tunic goes the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness, which guards and protects their heart from deceitful schemes and around their waist, the belt of truth holds them together. 

On their feet are not heavy boots that trample on the weak, but sandals that equip them to share the good news of peace with God. As Isaiah declares, “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, and who say” to Zion and now to Rome, the God of Abraham now reigns over all creation. And now all people are welcomed into God’s family, God’s Kingdom, where all are one.

And then there is the shield of faith—the protection of the hope a follower of Jesus possesses that extinguishes the fiery arrows of despair and destruction.

This is the armor of God. It is, to be noted, a defensive armor. Like the EMU suit of an astronaut, it serves to protect the wearer against a hostile environment. The armor of God serves to enable the announcement of something that is already true––that Jesus is Lord.

Yet there is one element of the armor that is not primarily defensive: the sword of the Spirit. To be sure, a sword can be a helpful defensive tool. It is quick and agile against the strikes of another in a duel. Still, the sword is an offensive weapon. It is sharp and pointed to strike the armor of another and to cut through points of weakness.


To understand this sword of the Spirit we need to know more about the enemy the first Christians were up against. Sure, as we have identified, Ceasar was emperor and lord over Rome. He commanded his legions of armies, he made sure he was worshiped above any other. But scripture identifies another behind the comparatively puny little lords like Caesar. The New Testament tells us about an enemy that Jesus faced from the beginning of his ministry to the end, one who asserts control and authority over the whole world. 

That enemy is identified as Satan. Jesus calls him in John 14 “the ruler of this world.” Our text from Ephesians today refers to the enemy as something more powerful than flesh and blood rulers like Caesar who seek to control and destroy. “Our struggle,” Paul says, is “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.”

It is this ruler of the world that Jesus came to cast out. He healed the sick, freed the captives, and proclaimed good news of God’s Kingdom in order to gain territory against the enemy. The Word of liberation was his sword. He spoke, and people were set free from Satan’s power.

We exist, like the first Christians, in a hostile world in which the enemy is seeking to control and destroy with his schemes. That is why we need the Armor of God. We need the spacesuit of protection against an environment that is set for our destruction.

Without this protective garment, the ruler of this world will, in a mere matter of seconds, suck the life out of us. He will hold us captive to Sin and control us with shame. Mistake and error will lead to our destruction. The death and frailty of those we love will constantly hang over us and attack us until we meet our end as well. These are the devil’s wiles, Satan’s schemes.

In this battle we have little to no power. We know this because when a diagnosis is pronounced upon ourselves or someone we love, we realize that we are powerless to remove it. We are powerless to heal. We will do our best to fight, to advocate for those we love, to bring them to those who can heal, to intercess on their behalf. Yet, we are powerless to just make that enemy of death go away. As we witness the suffering of a parent, child, colleague, or friend, we expend our effort in care. But we are powerless to fix it.

All we can do is don the armor that is laid out for us.


A hospital housekeeper recently described to CNN her daily work against the powers and principalities as COVID has led countless people to their deathbeds. As Rosaura Quinteros went about her cleaning duties, she encountered Jason Denney, who was in isolation for a severe case of COVID-19. Denney was fighting a battle it looked as if he would lose. But Quinteros told him not to lose hope. She told him that his life was in the good hands of doctors and God, that God was not done with Denney, and he should keep fighting for his life.

Every day as Quinteros the housekeeper went to work, she put on her protective armor. She put on her  work scrubs and shoes for a day’s hard work. As she enters the isolation room, she dons the respirator that will filter the air she breathes to protect her from infection. She puts on her protective gown and gloves so that when she exists isolation, those items can be discarded, leaving her scrubs clean for use. She puts on protective eyewear to keep out any particulates.

And as she relies on the training the hospital gave and the armor of protection they provide her, she puts her faith in God. “I put everything in God’s hands,” she said.

It turns out that Jason Denney was not on his deathbed after all. He would make a full recovery. And he credits Quinteros and her faith, her caring ministry of standing with him in his fight, for giving him the hope to pull through.

This is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 6. This is how the Armor of God works. This is how believers are united in God’s Kingdom in solidarity and service—a fearful veteran who had received last rites and said goodbye to his family and a caring housekeeper who had emigrated from Guatamala. 

As we find ourselves in situations where we need to don a mask of protection, and as we receive the protective armor of a vaccine, maybe we too will consider that to be an outward sign of the inward spiritual armor of God.

The world in which we live is hostile to our survival. Every day, cells in our body die, parts of our body grow frail, and our body is often corrupted by forces that mutate those elements to grow and destroy themselves. If there is any truth we know beyond a shadow of a doubt it should be this: we cannot do it on our own.

And yet, this is often our narrative. We imagine ourselves and others to be singular soldiers facing formidable enemies alone. We are one soldier against a legion.


Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School who lives with Stage 4 Colon Cancer, talks in an interview about how her rugged individualism was demolished by her diagnosis. She was a high achiever who climbed the academic ladder. She said she “fell in love with that individualism” and self-determination. She could be anything she set her mind to!

But then, Cancer. The power of Death came knocking. Suddenly she can’t do it on her own anymore. She says “I have been absolutely held up by the people who have chosen to love me.”

That is what it looks like when God’s family takes on the armor of God and, as Philippians 1:27 says, “strives side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” We stand side by side in our protective armor as a legion ready for battle against the forces of Sin and Death. 

We can’t do it on our own. We need each other. We need the armor.

We have that fellowship and protection, not because of anything we have done, but because of the one who acted unilaterally to strengthen us. Notice how our passage begins, “be strengthened in the Lord,” is the most accurate translation of the Greek. It is in the passive voice. We aren’t strengthening ourselves or pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We are being strengthened by the work of Christ. The protection of God’s armor is not something we can fashion ourselves, but is a protection that comes wholly from outside us.


Richard Manning grew up closer than a brother with his best fried Ray Brennan. As the Korean War raged and as they reached the age of enlistment, Richard and Ray joined the US Marines.

As Manning later told the story, Ray Brennan was in the foxhole with him one night when a live grenade was thrown into the trench. Brennan looked at Manning and gave a wry smile. Brennan looked down at the grenade and threw himself onto it, absorbing the fatal blast as his friend Manning stood helpless.

Richard Manning lived to tell the tale. He survived the war because of the selfless sacrifice of his best friend Ray Brennan. That sacrifice led Manning to service, now not as a military soldier, but as a prayer warrior in religious life as a Franciscan monk.

In religious life, monks take on the name of a saint they want to emulate. Someone whose life of selfless service to God they wish to carry on and be reminded of every day. Manning knew the saint he would choose. He took the name of his best friend who had saved his life, Ray Brennan. For the rest of his life, Richard Manning would be known as Brennan Manning.

Brennan Manning had taken up the armor of his friend’s sacrifice. He had clothed himself with a strength and protective garment that he could not earn on his own. It was Brennan’s sacrifice that had done it for him.

So too it is with each of us. Jesus Christ has jumped on the live grenade in front of each of us. He has taken on Death into his own body that we might have life everlasting. In his crucifixion, Christ took on our death that in rising he would break its very power. 

Dressed in Christ’s armor, there is only one thing required of us in this passage: stand firm. Stand in the knowledge that Christ has won the battle, that salvation has been secured. Jesus has flung himself on the grenade of Sin and Death, securing life for all who live in his name.

Wearing the protective exoskeleton of God’s armor, we know we still live in a hostile world that is filled with sickness, Sin, and Death. And yet, as the theologian Abraham Kuyper writes, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

The battle has been won. Christ has placed his name on us. Christ has won and will be ultimately victorious over Sin and Death, redeeming all creation from the grip of the evil one. 

So don’t just do something. There is nothing you can do. Just stand there. Be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his powerful sacrifice. Clothe yourselves with his armor so that you may be able to stand firm. And may the God who is the true ruler of the Cosmos, both Heaven and Earth, be with you now through his Spirit, as he also protects you with the armor of his Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Great Acquittal (a sermon)

Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with the apparel; and the angel of the LORD was standing by.

Zechariah 3:1–5

I would speak to you today in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Last summer, as the protests over the death of George Floyd were taking place in countless cities across the country, I took the time to watch a movie that had come out a year earlier about systemic racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. The movie, Just Mercy, tells the story of a novice, Harvard-educated lawyer named Bryan Stevenson, who follows a calling to provide legal representation to individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted.

As his work begins, he meets a death row inmate named “Johnny D.” McMillian. Johnny D. is a Black man who was convicted for the murder of a white woman, Ronda Morrison.

The movie follows Stevenson as he uncovers evidence that McMillian is innocent and fights in the court of public opinion and in the Supreme Court of Alabama for a retrial of the case and a dismissal of all charges.

The movie is powerful and convicting. An innocent man is finally given the justice he is due. We are moved by the stunning partiality of justice in our country and the diligent work by lawyers like Bryan Stevenson to recalibrate the scales of justice. 

We wonder, “what does it mean there have likely been innocent people who were executed for a crime they did not commit?”

The story of Just Mercy moves us for the same reason that law enforcement and courtroom dramas captivate our eyeballs on primetime television. We long to see the wicked punished. We demand to see the innocent freed. We long for justice. Specifically, we long for retributive justice. We want people to receive what they deserve, either good or bad.

Since retribution is the way our brains are programmed, we assume that this is also how God works. The wicked should be punished while the righteous prosper. With authority from the divine, we set up our civil society to punish the guilty and to exonerate the innocent.

Who would dare represent the truly guilty and fight for their acquittal?

In a recent essay for The Atlantic magazine, Elizabeth Bruenig researched innocence programs like the one Bryan Stevenson started in the 1980s. Plenty of idealistic young attorneys now graduate law school interested in freeing the innocent, the wrongly convicted, from death row. They want justice, freedom for the innocent. 

The stark reality is that most of those on death row committed the crime for which they received their sentence. No lawyer wants to take the case of a guilty poor man pro-bono. They want justice, punishment for the guilty: an eye for an eye and a life for a life.

If we are looking for guilty individuals to punish, we don’t have to look very hard.

We are moved to anger and revenge for the deaths of 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh at the hands of Robert Bowers and the deaths of 9 at a Black congregation in Charleston, SC at the hands of Dylann Roof.

Justifiably, the dominant cultural voice is to demand “an eye for an eye,” a life for a life.

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Human depravity—our theological term for the human inclination to selfishness and evil—is not new. Scripture is rife with examples of human transgression deserving of punishment. 

The first law in Scripture is also the first law that was broken. As quickly as the words are uttered from the mouth of God, they are disobeyed. “Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

The law is spoken and the law is disobeyed.

Later, as the people of God are freed from slavery in Egypt, God gives them direction on how they should order their lives as free people. Do not worship other gods, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet.

The ten big laws are followed by plenty of more detailed regulations that would help God’s people to know exactly where the line between good and evil, permitted and prohibited, would be.

Before the entirety of that law leaves God’s mouth and enters Moses’ ear, it is broken.

Aaron, the brother of Moses, encouraged the people to collect their gold jewelry and melt it down into the image of a calf, saying, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 

The law is spoken and the law is disobeyed. This is how it goes between God and the people of God.

Perhaps the most well-known example of Biblical lawlessness was King David. Despite the fact that he was “a man after God’s own heart” who was chosen by God to be Israel’s righteous ruler, David’s pride, power, and selfishness leads him to break the commandments at the core of God’s law.

David covets Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and uses his power as king to commit adultery with her and then, to cover it all up, he has her husband Uriah killed in battle.

The prophet Samuel was right when he said that a king would take sons, daughters, fields, servants, and cattle for his own use. King David showed the depths to which human depravity can go—and he was one of the good ones.

The prophets of God declare with one voice the constant sinfulness of God’s people. Amos charges the people with “trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” and accruing wealth by “violence and robbery.” They made a mockery of the justice of the courts. As a result, the people would suffer by the sword of judgment.

As we have heard from the prophet Malachi over the past few weeks, even the worship of God was corrupted by human selfishness.

God has declared in holy law what is good, what God requires of us, and throughout history we have been unable to do it.

Romans 3 declares powerfully, “there is no one righteous, not even one.”

Still, we convince ourselves that there is a categorical difference between us and those who do evil. We insist, to assure ourselves of self-righteousness, that there are good people who deserve blessing and there are bad people who deserve God’s curse. We convince ourselves that there is an invisible line between human beings that separates the righteous from the sinner. If we could only do away with all the sinful people in the world, we think, there would finally be peace and prosperity.

Jesus challenges that notion in the Sermon on the Mount. Have you kept all ten of God’s commandments? Jesus prophetically declares that while the letter of the law “you shall not murder” may let us off the hook, the spirit of the law implies that “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Have you committed adultery? Everyone who has looked on someone lustfully has already committed adultery in his or her heart.

In the face of the law, none of us are faultless. And that’s to say nothing about the countless laws outside of Scripture that find us lacking. We are constantly told, “you’re not successful enough, skinny enough, happy enough. You’re not from the right place. You don’t have enough of the right things. You don’t work hard enough. You don’t have the right opinions.”

None of this does any good in changing us. As Paul declares, hearing what we ought to do just makes us more inclined to rebel. When we are told to wear a mask to protect our neighbor, our human nature speaks up and asserts our rights to do the opposite of what the law requires. When we feel called out in a sermon for a sin or shortcoming, our shame leads us to double down on our behavior. When we are told about the threat of CO2 to our climate, we purchase bigger, more consumptive vehicles.

This is what is in our human nature to do.

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The law that accuses brings us to the third chapter of Zechariah. 

The prophet is brought into a vision of God standing as supreme judge in the divine court. Joshua, representing the whole people of Israel, stands to the left in the place of the defendant. Satan, in the position of heavenly prosecutor, stands at the right ready to accuse. As prosecutor, Satan has a list of charges for which he knows the defendant is guilty. He has compiled accusation after accusation, testimony after testimony, witness after witness. Satan is prepared to offer them all in evidence in the divine court. 

The LORD stands ready to begin the proceedings. Order is brought to the court. Before the trial can even begin, a judgment comes down from on high. It is not the defendant Joshua, battered and covered in the filth of sin, who is accosted by the judge. No, it is the prosecutor, the satan, who is called out.

The defendant is acquitted. The rags of sin are removed from his body. His guilt is taken away. No longer will Joshua be known as the sinful one. No, Joshua will be known as the one who has been forgiven, cleansed, washed, and made new. The past will no longer define him. Accusations of previous offenses can no longer be offered in the divine court. The defendant is free to begin again. 

If we continue reading from the Sermon on the Mount, this is where Jesus is going with his intensification of the law. It is what Paul will later do in his letter to the Romans. Jesus is finding all guilty under the law so that all may be offered forgiveness under grace. All of us have been bound in disobedience in order that God may have mercy on all of us (Romans 11:32).

It is for this reason that Jesus calls not for the righteous to follow him, but sinners. Jesus calls out to those who know and feel their guilt and shame to follow him so that they can receive forgiveness. There is nothing Jesus can do for one who is righteous, one who is convinced of their own superiority.

When Jesus quotes the law “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” he obliterates the principle of retribution. “I tell you,” he says, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

Whatever a person does to sin against us, Jesus declares that we are to respond in love. We are called to take the steam out of rage and violence rather than responding in retaliation. We are called to prayer rather than revenge. We are called to see even the thief with compassion, knowing that if they are after the shirt on our backs, they probably need a coat as well.

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The Spirit of Grace, the Holy Spirit who stands in defense of the accused, stands in opposition to the Spirit of this world, the Spirit identified by Scripture as Satan. The accuser speaks up every time a wrong is committed and demands the maximum sentence. 

Countless people have been fired from their jobs when one poorly considered social media post has gone viral or something from their past has been exposed. 

When individuals are convicted of violent crimes, the demands for “justice” through the death penalty grow louder. When a life is taken, the best recourse we can muster is to take a life in return.

When an individual is shamed on the nightly news for their worst decision, the social media comments in response go for blood.

In the age of the internet that never forgets, it seems there is no path forward, no future, and no forgiveness for those who have erred.

And yet, we see glimpses in our world of a different way. Grace is in no sense easier than judgment. It is easy to declare the end of a career, a reputation, or a life. It is easy to deny the truth of a wrong that is committed than it is to bring it out into the open. It is much harder to declare the truth of a fault and to absolve it through the power of grace.

In South Africa in the late 1990s, as Nelson Mandela was elected president and the apartheid regime was finally overthrown, the new government sought a different way, a way of grace, to resolve the pain of the past. People had been tortured and killed in defense and opposition to apartheid—the institutional segregation by race which had lasted over 40 years.

Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to enact restorative justice at an unprecedented scale. It shined a light into the darkness and evil of the apartheid years as the voices of over 21,000 victims were heard and 849 individuals were granted amnesty for their crimes. The truth was exposed and justice came, not through retribution, but through forgiveness.

Desmond Tutu wrote in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, “to forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest since anger, resentment, and revenge are corrosive of that…communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community.” 

The TRC and the unification of South Africa was not without its faults, but it was a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

So too have the survivors of tragic violence in this country been witnesses to the power of grace in God’s Kingdom.

In response to the death of five children in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, the Amish community reached out to the family of the gunman, expressing sympathy for their loss. Rather than anger and revenge, they sought forgiveness and restoration.

As Dylann Roof stood trial for the massacre of nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, family members of the victims began to offer statements for the prosecution. What happened next was shocking to all involved. The first to testify, Nadine Collier, told Roof “I forgive you…You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to holder again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”

Chris Singleton, whose mother was killed, later said, “After seeing how people could forgive, I truly hope that people will see that it wasn’t us just saying words. I know, for a fact, that it was something greater than us, using us to bring our city together.”

That was God’s Kingdom, coming on Earth as it is in Heaven.

In 2018, our own wider community was struck by unthinkable violence as the Tree of Life synagogue was attacked by Robert Bowers. The U.S. Attorney’s office plans to pursue the death penalty in the case, given the extreme depravity of his murder of 11 worshipers. 

And yet, members of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh have spoken up to plead with the Attorney General not to pursue the death penalty. They argue that a guilty plea with the guarantee of life in prison would not only spare the community from the trauma of a capital trial and appeals, but it would also be more consistant with the values of their faith.

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The testimony of Scripture is that the accuser has been thrown out of the heavenly courtroom. The work of Jesus means that Jesus has taken on the garments of our sin and shame. When we could do nothing to free ourselves from the constant barrage of temptations and the shackles of sin, Jesus came and cast out Satan that we would be given new life, that we would be freed—not only for our benefit, but for the benefit of the whole world.

Our culture demands denial and revenge. The accused never fully admit their guilt and the victim rarely gives up their right to vengeance.

But Jesus came into this world that there might be another way. Jesus came that there might be “one new humanity out of the two” that there might be peace (Ephesians 2:15).

The Spirit of Grace that declares to us the words of acquittal, of forgiveness also reminds us that every single person we encounter is someone for whom Christ died and someone for whom God desires salvation.

Rather than taking the position of Satan in the divine court of justice, we are called to abandon our self-righteous accusations in exchange for mercy. We are called to abandon the tool of shame for that of empathy. We are called to desire the welfare of even the chief of sinners.

The Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in the shadow of the Holocaust that without forgiveness, without being “released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.”

This is the most important gift we as Christians have to give to our wider society––the power of Grace, of mercy, of forgiveness. It is the power of Jesus who interceded for his oppressors on the cross, saying, “father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is the gift that declares the end of the titles “sinner” and “criminal” and replaces them with the garments of the redeemed.

Through his prophets, and ultimately through his Son Jesus, God declares that the past does not determine the future. Sin and Death will not be victorious. Satan, the tempter and accuser will ultimately be thrown down, forever caught in the fire as our filthy clothes, our guilt and shame, is forever taken from us and we are clothed with the garments of celebration. 

By this we will be known as disciples of Jesus—by living as people forgiven by grace who forgive by grace, who are eager and willing to welcome anyone into the forgiveness we ourselves have received.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people, now and forever. Amen.

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.

The Church That Went Forth To Learn Fear (A Sermon)

This sermon was preached at Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on October 18, 2020.

Ecclesiastes 3:10-11

2 Corinthians 12:7-9

The Brothers Grimm, the 19th Century German minds who first collected the folk stories of Rapunzel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, pass down to us one story that has yet to be adapted (and tamed) by the Walt Disney Company. It is called “The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear.”

The story tells us about a boy who had no sense and no skills of which to speak. His father, as many parents do, worried that this boy would be a burden. He would have to provide for his boy because he could not earn his own bread.

Yet, financial stability is not what concerned the boy. Not at all worried that he has no trade, he sees his one fatal flaw as something else: he never feels afraid. His lack of fear is the one thing that makes him unhappy.

In a story perfect for retelling in the time around Halloween, the younger son goes out into the world to learn what fear is.

He encounters a groundskeeper who dresses as a ghost to scare the boy in a dark cathedral. He spends a night with seven dead men at the gallows. And finally, he goes to a haunted castle where a King has promised his daughter in marriage to any man who can survive its haunts for three nights. 

These experiences would unsettle most of us, but he finds these experiences pleasant rather than frightful. The only thing he gains from them is a wife. The boy still has no knowledge of fear.

The story ends as the boy marries the princess, but rather than rejoice in his new marriage—and his newfound status in a royal family—he goes around all day muttering, “If only I could shudder, if only I could shudder.”

The boy’s new wife has had just about enough of it all, so she goes out to the garden brook and gathers a bucketful of cold water and small fish. That night, as the young king sleeps, his new wife pulls the covers off him and dumps the bucket on his head.

He immediately wakes up, crying out “What is making me shudder, dear wife? Ah, now I know how to shudder.”


Most of us are not quite as lucky as the dim-witted boy in the Grimm Brothers’ tale. We have not, for instance, found ourselves welcomed into a royal family by virtue of our one fatal flaw. The majority of us can at least name one or two situations, in the past, present, or future, that cause us anxiety and fear.

Even if we can make it through a haunted house or scary movie without “shuddering” in fear, there are still worries of this life that keep us up at night.

In normal times, we experience anxiety over upcoming assignments or examinations at work or school that test the limits of our knowledge and skills. We become afraid when, during a routine check-up at the doctor, we or a loved one hears that a preventive exam has returned some “troubling anomalies.” We avoid checking our credit card balance or retirement plan investment performance because we know the numbers aren’t good. We go into work as normal, only to find out that some corporate bean counter has decided our job is “redundant.”

Yes, even in normal times, the troubles of this life are like weeds that choke the seed of peace and hope within us (Mark 4:18). There is no need for us, like the boy in the fairy tale, to have cold water dumped on our head. We are plenty afraid already, thank you very much.

If those anxieties of “normal” times were not enough for us, we have been plunged quite unwillingly into the frigid waters of a global pandemic. Now, not only do we fear troubles at work or school, but we fear them in the context of a universal situation that has erased any concept of normal at all.

It is no surprise, then, that we are facing what is perhaps the worst mental health crisis the world has ever seen. The ever quickening and unstable pace of life in the 21st century has taken its toll on us, and now another wrench has been thrown into our unsettled existence.

Half of Americans reportedly acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic is negatively affecting their mental health. I can only assume the other half is outright lying or is just not in tune with their own emotions.

It is not just our relationships with ourselves that is the problem either. On the one hand, our relationships with our usual circle of friends and acquaintances have been tested by the limited conditions under which we are able to interact. On the other, romantic relationships have been tested by the sheer amount of time they are confined to one place together! Marriages that could work when both partners were distracted with other things are now seemingly unbearable.

Where do we turn when the foundation of our lives seems to be crumbling below our feet, when seemingly unshakable parts of our life fall into the depths of the sea? (Psalm 46:2)

Since we are in church, we have an answer or we at least know where to go to find one. The Bible is filled with statements about anxiety and worry that are concise and easy to remember. 

Philippians 4:6 says, “do not be anxious about anything,” 

Joshua 1:9 says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened.” 

And Jesus in John 14 encourages us with the words, “let not your hearts be troubled.”

All of these verses offer good wisdom! When we are troubled, we can find comfort and assurance in taking our concerns to God in prayer. When we face a difficult situation, we can find strength in knowing God is behind us as we meet the challenge head on. When we are afraid, we can find consolation in putting our trust in the Lord.

The trouble is, these verses themselves don’t fix anything! If they did, Christians would have a one verse cure to anxiety: “I hear that you’re feeling anxious. Well, just stop it. Jesus tells us not to be anxious!”

Plenty of well-meaning Christians try that approach when someone shares their troubles with them. These words of encouragement often exacerbate the problem because they make the person who is worried feel alone and broken.

When we use statements that seem to provide a quick fix to the troubles of this life, we find ourselves further away from addressing the problem. Name one time God offers a quick fix to anyone in the Bible. (I’ll wait.) And if all you hear from the Bible is “thou shalt not worry,” then those who are aware of their worries will feel like God does not care about them. Not worrying becomes another law to which we fail to measure up.

The witness of Scripture is far more complex. When we read outside of the verses supplied by our proof texting for the ailment of anxiety, we find affirmation that none of our negative feelings are a stranger to the Christian experience.

The Psalmist, David, acknowledges in Psalm 88 that he cries to the Lord every day, and yet darkness is his closest friend.

The Teacher, Solomon, was given a divine understanding of wisdom only to find that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (Eccl. 1:18)

Job, having been dealt more suffering than most, struggled with God night and day in his grief only to be comforted by God by darkness itself. God tells Job that as God created the universe, God wrapped the infant creation in the snuggling blanket of darkness. (Job 38:8-9)

Jesus cries out from the cross from the depth of his feeling, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It’s no wonder that when we go to faith leaders for help when we are troubled, we don’t normally hear them refer to these verses. They don’t fix anything. They require us to actually look into the depths of our heart and acknowledge what we feel. If we find comfort in darkness, if we find solace in our distress rather than covering it up, we’re going to stick out like a sore thumb in a world that demands quick fixes and happiness all the time.


If the true comfort Scripture has to give doesn’t just fix the unsettled feeling in our soul, then many of us are going to go elsewhere for assurance. We will, as good members of American consumer society, take our business elsewhere.

Literally. We will take any difficult situation, any opportunity for personal and societal growth and bypass it with the comfort that the marketplace provides. We pour ourselves even more diligently into our work, taking our lack of a commute as an excuse to work more hours. After all, we have no one to rely on but ourselves! We connect ourselves to the television and social media in order to find someone outside ourselves to blame for our anxiety. We pour ourselves another glass of wine because the first one didn’t quench our anxious thirst. We buy from Amazon.com just for the feeling of gratification that waiting for and receiving a package provides. We become even more focused on ourselves and anything that gets in the way of our personal happiness is discarded. All this gets to the point that even the church becomes the subject of our consumer impulses—we’re not worshiping in the right way, the pastor isn’t doing enough, it just doesn’t feel the same anymore.

All of these coping mechanisms and responses to anxiety have been exacerbated by the coronavirus, but are they really new?

No.

There is not a single response to our age of coronavirus anxiety, not a single bandage for our wounds that I have mentioned that has been invented over the past 7 months. They’re the same things that have occupied and distracted us since birth.

And if our response to the anxiety of the moment isn’t new, guess what? The anxiety of the moment isn’t new either.

Has it sunk in yet? Half of us, according to surveys, may acknowledge that we are feeling more anxious now than before the pandemic. But if we’ve been overworking ourselves, hiding in ideological foxholes, and numbing ourselves with television and alcohol all along—the truth is we have been anxious in our interior world the entire time.

The difference is that right now, all of us have been confronted by the uneasiness of our humanity at the same time. All of us have had to peer into the dark basement of our lives—and most of us have scurried back upstairs, back to the old normal, because we don’t like what we see.

Let’s go back to the story of the innocent boy who learned what fear was. We have all now acknowledged that we are afraid—otherwise we would not be responding in the ways of coping I identified a moment ago. So now is the time for us to declare “I am the boy/girl who is afraid.” And then for us to go into the fear inducing places—(go to) the dark cemetery, the gallows, the haunted house, and the basement of our life where we hide all the unpleasant bits—(go there) and sit there for a while, feeling afraid instead of hiding from fear.

It is then, when we admit that we are afraid, when the darkness of our own soul becomes our constant companion, that we can find the faith we have been looking for all along.

See, if you’re inclined to gloss to this pandemic and all of the anxieties of our age by screaming “faith casts out fear” at the top of your lungs, I’m just going to assume that you don’t have faith at all.

The law that says “thou shalt not fear” is not faith.

If not being afraid means that you are able to provide for yourself, that’s not faith. If the comfort you have is knowing what tomorrow, 5 years from now, or 20 years from now will be like, that is not faith. If your faith is in yourself and your own ability to have everything worked out—including whose fault everything is—then you don’t have faith. If faith means returning to some sense of normal, then it’s not faith.

If faith means to you that you are never afraid, then you don’t have faith because God has put a burden on us. God, Ecclesiastes tells us, has placed eternity in the human heart.

God has placed within us a knowledge of the great, unsearchable, frightening majesty of God. God has put in our heart a longing for God alone so that no matter what we do to try and settle our hearts, they will not be at peace until they find their rest in God. Remember what we read from Ecclesiastes? God has burdened us with eternity at the heart of our being. 

But we have to be intentional about going to and experiencing the places in our life where God is known to show up, where this knowledge of eternity is found.. We have to seek out and investigate the places where this inner fear, this inner longing comes to the surface.

Look at the names and stories of the Biblical writers who talk about God giving unexpected peace through fear and you’ll realize they found that faith because they were willing to stare the darkness of fear and anxiety in the face! 

Moses had seen God in a flaming bush, confronted Pharaoh, and led Israel most unwillingly through a desert. Elijah ran into the wilderness in fear because Jezebel was intent on killing him. God appears, not in some trite bumper sticker, but in the silence of fear and trembling that comes after a storm. Job challenged God in the court of justice and had God unveil the whole mystery of creation to his face. Jacob wrestled with God. David sinned against everyone and had to befriend darkness. Paul was given a thorn in his side to constantly torment him.

It is these figures that tell us not to be afraid. Not because there is nothing to fear. Moses, Elijah, Job, Jacob, and Paul know for sure there is everything to fear. But they give assurance of God’s presence because they have confronted their own darkness, uncertainty and anxiety. They’ve stared the void in the face with fear and trembling. And now nothing, not even death or life, not even the anxieties of this world, can separate us them from God’s embrace anymore.

Right now, this global struggle against a pesky little virus, has dragged into the basement with all of our issues. It’s shown us the dust and disorder inside of ourselves. It’s intensified our frustrations and desires. And now, along with all creation, we anxiously await redemption (Romans 8).

Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, we raise our complaints to God, begging him to take away from us this thorn in our side, this prodding at our back that painfully moves us away from the old normal of our self-sufficiency. But God knows that without this thorn, we would go back to our old ways. 

If you feel anxious right now, if you feel unsettled, if you feel a need to lash out with your opinions and judgment, good.

Now it is time for us to learn what fear is.


Now, in the cover of pandemic darkness, we are safe enough to go down into our souls and sit with ourselves. Now, we have the opportunity to go into our quiet places to pray and lose ourselves.

Jesus says, “when you pray, enter your closet and shut the door.” Enter the place where nothing can distract you from the uneasiness of yourself. Enter the place where the only two people are you and God. The closet Jesus talks about is necessarily dark. It’s silent. If you can hear anything, it’s just the hum of your body ticking along.

A Christian philosopher of the 19th Century taught that learning to be anxious in the right was “an adventure that every human being must go through.” We need to learn to be anxious in the right way so that we do not succumb to the numbing of our anxiety in the wrong ways.

This man, Soren Kierkegaard, is noted for saying “Faith sees best in the dark.”

The truthfulness of the statement is immediately proven when you respond by saying, “well, faith cannot see best in the dark because I cannot see in the dark!”

Exactly. It is when we cannot see that we come to see ourselves clearly. It is when we cannot see that God speaks through the silence and we can do nothing besides trust him. It is when admit that we cannot see that everything is uncovered.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” If we don’t acknowledge our weakness, if we don’t uncover the inner anxiety growing from the neglected soul within us, then God’s power will never be made perfect in us.

Only when we come to the place where we have no hope for the future in ourselves, when we have no ability to move forward at all, can we experience true faith.

The only way out of our present age of anxiety is through it. The only way to overcome our anxiety is to stop fighting it and just accept it.

Kierkegaard most succinctly puts the problem of our world and its solution in these words:

The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and my advice asked, I should reply, ‘Create silence. Bring people to silence. The word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. Therefore, create silence.

Soren Kierkegaard

So, the challenge for us this week is for us to go back into our quarantine closets and shut the door. Separate yourself from the lights of the world; turn off the noise. Maybe one of the disciplines of the moment for you is that you restrain yourself from watching political news. Turn it off. Enter the place where only you and God reside, where the knowledge of eternity resides. Sit. Listen. Wait for the Lord.

And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Let us pray:

“To Thee, O God, we turn for peace . . . grant us the blessed assurance that nothing shall deprive us of [your true] peace, neither ourselves, nor our foolish, earthly desires, nor my wild longings, nor the anxious cravings of my heart.” Amen.

The Promised Land (A Sermon)

This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on June 14, 2020, on the fourteenth week of online worship due to the COVID-19 virus.

Deuteronomy 1:19–33

Matthew 9:38–10:1, 5–20

This year has taken us all on a journey none of us were prepared for, a road that many of us would have rather not traveled, even considering the circumstances. We have sought, now for our fourteenth week since the beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic, a return to normalcy, only to be stuck in a wilderness of difficulty and confusion.

Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, we have been forced to respond to another pandemic which we would have rather ignored: the pandemic caused by the virus of racism, a virus that to some degree hides within or affects each of us.

Out in the wilderness of unrest, confrontation, and continued social distancing, our feelings of dis-ease are only growing the longer we remain in this desert place.

Lest we imagine that we are living in truly unprecedented times, canoeing without so much as a paddle through chaotic waters, we have gathered once again as a virtual community to turn to the words of Scripture. Every time we do so, we recognize how much our lives connect with the story God has been telling since the beginning of time. 

We have been on a journey from “normal,” through various waystations in the wilderness such as beginning of the stay-at-home order and killing of George Floyd to some sort of “new normal” off in the distance.

When we read the Old Testament, we hear of a similar movement from the normalcy of slavery in Egypt, through various challenges and temptations in the desert, to the Promised Land off in the distance.

When we read the New Testament, again, there is the old normal of sin and death, the ministry of Jesus who like Moses leads the crowd through the wilderness, and a resurrection that gives birth to a new land of promise.

The central question in each of these movements through the wilderness is this: will the people turn back to the old normal (the virus of sin and death) or will they dream of milk and honey and follow Moses, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to that new place that is just on the other side of the mountaintop.

Will the Israelites turn back and return to slavery in Egypt?

Will the Disciples turn back and pick up their fishing nets and swords?

Will we turn back to the comfort of the past and do our best to forget this wilderness ever happened at all?


When we pick up the story of the Israelites journey through the wilderness in the story from Numbers 13, which is retold for us in Deuteronomy 1:19, the trip is not yet the “wilderness wandering” to which we normally refer.

To be sure, the route out of Egypt for the past year and a half (or so) has had its fair share of challenges. The only food has been manna and quail, the former called manna specifically because it is unrecognizable as food at all. Even water has been difficult to come by. Time and time again, the people have complained. At this point, their complaints have become so constant that they are for Moses the background noise of his ministry—his ears do their best to tune them out.

The exodus from Egypt through the wilderness has had its fair share of blessings too. There is food to eat and water to drink, thanks to the Lord who provides. And God has appeared to Moses and given the people of God an identity through the expectations of the Ten Commandments.

At this point, the journey to the Promised Land may have seemed like it was taking forever, but it wasn’t. What is a couple of years of walking for a people that had been enslaved for hundreds? 

Except there’s that tiny little detail in Deuteronomy 1:2 that the trip from Horeb, the Mountain of God, to Kadesh-barnea, the doorstep of the promised land, should take only 11 days.

Let’s just say the Israelites didn’t take the most direct route.

Even so, they’re now so close to the land of promise that they can taste it. Numbers 13:20 tells us they got to Kadesh-barnea during the season of the first ripe grapes. Imagine what a sweet, juicy grape would taste like after a few years in the desert eating only manna and quail.

Fortunately, their watering mouths don’t distract them from the importance of military strategy. They come up with a plan to send twelve men, one of the best from each of the twelve tribes, to scout out the Promised Land to see if God held up his end of the bargain; to ensure it was everything they had been promised.

It’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t made a spy thriller based on this passage. The feelings of suspense and anticipation are at least as great in this story as in the attempt by Rebel forces to steal the Death Star plans from Scarif in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The spies successfully infiltrate enemy territory and make it back to Moses with the intelligence they were sent to gather. And here’s the report:

“We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit!”

Wait for it.

But Moses, the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are very large, and besides, we saw giants there. We are small and weak like grasshoppers—we could never defeat them.”

Now they’re just making stuff up. Giants? Really?

They didn’t know and believe, as I was taught when I was growing up through Veggie Tales, that “God is bigger than the bogeyman. He’s bigger than Godzilla, or the monsters on TV. He’s watching out for you and me.”

Only Joshua and Caleb dissent from the majority report. Only two out of the twelve have faith that the Lord God will bring them into the land of promise. All twelve dream of the milk and honey the land would provide, but only two believe God can make that dream a reality. There are just too many giants standing in the way.

This scene, at the doormat of the Promised Land, just a couple years out of Egypt, sets off a chain of devastating events. The Israelites are cursed to wander for 40 years. Moses curses at the people and strikes the rock out of anger. Aaron dies. Israelites die from snakes and a pandemic. And Moses dies on the mountaintop overlooking the Promised Land, never to enter it. 

The journey that was supposed to take eleven days will now take 40 years because of a lack of faith, hope, trust, and conviction that God will do what God promises.


In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, we find ourselves in a similar scene. Compare Matthew 10 and the sending of the twelve disciples with Numbers 13 and the sending of the twelve spies and you’ll find many structural similarities.

More than the structure of the story, Jesus is clearly leading a New Exodus out of slavery to sin and death and into God’s Kingdom. As Jesus travels among the cities and villages of Judea, a political wilderness under Roman occupation, crowds follow him, desperate to leave their bondage to sickness, sin, and death behind. They’ve heard that he can heal, that he has the answers to the problems of their society. They are wandering around a wilderness like “sheep without a shepherd” year after year, ruler after ruler with no true “leader” among them.

So, what does Jesus do? He sends his leadership, those who have been hand-picked from the twelve tribes of Israel, out as ambassadors throughout the promised land of Israel.

Jesus sends them out among the crowds demanding a better government, into the hospitals where people are sick, into homes where people are hiding in sin, and he gives them a message of hope:

“The Kingdom of Heaven, the real Promised Land, has come near!”

These emissaries of the Kingdom are to take nothing with them except the peace of Jesus as they go to house after house, bringing the Good News.

Like the spies sent into Canaan in the Old Testament, these disciples are engaging in a highly risky activity. They could find themselves in a difficult situation with the Roman occupying forces as they told of a New Kingdom. They could be chased away by those who wanted to maintain the status quo. They were the furthest thing from self-reliant, depending on the hospitality of others for food and lodging.

Jesus tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to the courts and flog you in their places of worship, and you will be made an example in the court of public opinion. You will be hated by all because of my name, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

All of this difficulty in the place between how things were and how things will be is necessary so that they actually get somewhere! Sure, they could have stayed in the old normal of sickness, sin, and death, crying out for a leader, forever. Just like the Israelites could have remained in Egypt in slavery, being worked so hard they had no time to worship God.

If Jesus is going to take his people into the Kingdom of God, the new land of promise, things are going to get worse before they get better.


I’ve been spending most of my devotional and reading time since mid-March thinking, studying, and praying over these scenes of Israel in the wilderness, Jesus in the wilderness, and the disciples eventually leading people into the new land of promise that we call the “Church.”

The leadership team has been reading a book about Lewis & Clark, how they were sent out through an uncertain wilderness as emissaries for President Thomas Jefferson and the United States. They went out on canoes in search of a waterway to the Pacific Ocean until they reached the end of the water. They came upon a mountain pass and realized they couldn’t get to their destination the same way they started out. Such is true, in many ways, of the Biblical journeys through the wilderness I have been talking about.

But over the past couple weeks, as NASA prepared to send astronauts to the International Space Station from US soil, on an American rocket for the first time since 2011, I got to thinking about those modern voyagers, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. They were strapped into a crew module atop a 230 ft tall Falcon 9 rocket, which had never before carried humans into space.

Right now, in this time of unprecedented change, anticipating leaving the wilderness of the COVID-19 pandemic, finding ourselves in the wilderness of confronting the sin of racism, we feel like we’re strapped to a rocket.

We’re not cool and calm—we’re not astronauts. We would rather stay on the ground. We would rather stay in the wilderness or back in Egypt. We would rather not go anywhere new and different. We want to go back to our old norm.

But God is asking us now, as he did in the Old and New Testaments, to go higher and farther, to boldly go where no one has gone before, to become trailblazers for the Kingdom of God.

The new ideas and challenges from Rev. Tina and the leadership team are outside the “usual” box—from online worship to house churches to doing things differently when we return to the sanctuary.

And you know what, we’ve done really well considering than none of us would have voluntarily strapped ourselves on this particular rocket or taken this particular wilderness journey.

But as we look to the next part of our journey from the old normal, through this wilderness, to the promised land on the other side—there’s a real risk, not just a perceived one. Doug and Bob took a risk when they got strapped into that rocket. There had been failed launches before. We remember the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. As the spies had reported to Moses, there was a real risk involved in entering the promised land—the people were big and scary. Jesus and his disciples risked it all too, remaining faithful to God to the point of death.

The journey out of COVID-19 to a new normal is going to challenge all of us. There are real risks to consider: exposing people to the virus, facing reduced tithing and giving, alienating people, trying things differently and failing, as well as not doing things differently and failing to grow.

Likewise, the journey of dealing with the sin of racism is fraught with challenges. There are risks of saying the wrong thing and in saying nothing at all. There is a risk that the opportunities to face this challenge now won’t be taken, and that we’ll end up right back where we were.

But I believe, because I see it in Scripture, that there is a new world on the other side of these challenges. There is a promised land. There is a strong and faithful Church. There is a land flowing with milk and honey on the other side of the mountain at the end of this wilderness.

Martin Luther King Jr., in his last speech on the night before he was murdered, said this:

“The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today… the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’ Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding…Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind”

Oh, that we could have such faith to declare not that “the old days were better than these” (Ecclesiastes 7:10), but that the work of God that is unfolding is flowing with milk and honey and hope. Oh, that we would have the faith to reach the mountaintop and see that promised land.

We might, sometimes, rather head back to Egypt like the Israelites, go back to our normal fishing jobs like the disciples, or go back to how everything was before.

But at a certain point, there’s no return. We’re strapped onto the rocket. We’re about to take flight. The flame of Pentecost is about to be lit underneath us. And all we can do is look to the sky and declare: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”

As Astronaut Alan Shepherd is famous for declaring, strapped into the rocket for America’s first human spaceflight, let’s “light this candle.” Amen.

Sheltered in Place (A Sermon)

This sermon was preached online to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on April 19th, 2020 – the Second Sunday of Easter and Sixth Week of “Coronatide.”

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

John 20:19–29 (NIV)

Today is the Second Sunday of the Easter season, according to the church calendar. In the Anglican Communion they call this day “Low Sunday,” the meaning of which would be apparent to us in a normal year. When our calendar runs as usual, the Sunday after Easter is a time of moderate disappointment as the excitement of the Resurrection wears off. The pews, after the crowds witnessing to the Resurrection, seem emptier than usual.

This year, we are operating according to a different calendar. Today doesn’t really feel like the Sunday after Easter—it feels like another Sunday in a never-ending Lent. According to our 2020 church calendar of necessity, today is the Sixth Sunday of Corona-tide. It is the sixth week that we have been unable to worship within the usual four walls and have instead, largely, been confined to the four walls of our residence.

We are a displaced and scattered people. And it may feel as if everything is against us. Nothing is going according to plan. The calendars are cleared with no idea of when it will be safe to try and fill them again. We long for something to do and some place to go. Who would have thought, just a few months ago, that the closest thing to an adventure we would have in these weeks is a trip to the grocery store.

Let’s admit it—we are grieving.

When we first heard about the threat posed by Coronavirus to public health, and our regular patterns of life, most of us were in denial. Sure, there were some who confronted reality much earlier. My brother, for one, seemed to know early on how bad this threat was. But the rest of us shrugged things off as a problem in China that wouldn’t have much effect on us. We thought, perhaps, the situation was an overblown response to something no more harmful than the seasonal flu.

All that has changed. Coworkers, friends, and family members have been tested for the virus. We have wondered what it might mean if the test came back positive, especially if there are other risk factors present. We wonder if we might have the virus too, lying dormant for now. Is our cough just a cough?

Even if we haven’t yet been confronted with the health threat posed by COVID-19, by the grace of God, we are all aware how the necessity for social distancing has brought our economy screeching to a halt. There may be a silver lining for some of us—I, for one, have found my expenses greatly reduced by having nowhere to go and nothing to do. But for others, including members of our congregation, this economy of the bare necessities has plunged them into the unemployment system. Where will the money come from for rent, food, and other basic needs?

Even if we haven’t lost our jobs, we have lost some of our hopes and dreams—or at least seen them delayed. High School and College students now grieve the loss of many of the activities and experiences that made the schoolwork bearable. Many have lost their senior year.

Not being able to deny the challenging reality posed by Coronavirus any longer, we feel a tinge of anger arising out of our grief. We may direct our anger in political directions: at the President or “Republicans” or “Democrats.” Our anger may show itself, in moments of weakness, in an outburst against a friend or family member. We may even take our anger out on God, as Job once did in the Old Testament or even as Jesus, quoting Psalm 22, cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Many of us, as we approached Easter, held out hope that we might still be able to worship together! We bargained with God, with our civil leaders, with the virus itself: perhaps, if we do what we are told, the threat will leave us. Maybe, if we have faith, we will be able to celebrate Easter together with churches packed to the brim in a way they have never been before.

Now on the Sixth Sunday of Corona Time, having tried to muster up the spirit of Easter Resurrection in our hearts with varying degrees of success, it is normal, perhaps even healthy to fall into the fourth stage of grief: depression.

The adrenaline of problem solving has worn off and now we’re overwhelmed by the prospect of continuing on the present course. Our online meetings and schooling and even ways of doing church are challenging us and stripping us of joy.

Maybe through this path of grief and our current loss of joy we will come to a new, stable and safe place—a “new normal” of acceptance. Most of us, myself included, are still just looking for a way out of our pandemic struggle into “business as usual.” We’re buying our time by watching TV and movies and falling into the endless scroll of Facebook.


As we participate in this online service of worship, longing and hoping for God to show up and speak some word of grace into Corona Time, we return to a, likely familiar, story from John’s Gospel. It’s a story that I think we can understand this year in a way we never have before.

After Jesus’s crucifixion, the disciples returned to the only safe place they had left—the Upper Room, where Jesus had gathered with them around the table for the Passover. Like the Hebrew slaves preparing to leave their captivity in Egypt on the first Passover, the disciples were locked in that room, knowing that certain death lay outside that place of safety.

On that first Passover, the blood of the slaughtered Passover lamb on the doorpost protected those hidden inside from the plague of death that was about to spread through Egypt. For these disciples, the Upper Room protected them from those who had put Jesus to death and were looking to kill any who were associated with him.

The disciples were once full of hope and expectation. Jesus had transformed their lives. He had given them a purpose.

Jesus had called the twelve out of their “normal” lives as fishermen, merchants, and tax collectors—they left willingly, anticipating that the world was about to change for the better, and they could get in on the ground floor.

They dreamed that they could be somebody.

This Jesus fellow called himself the Son of God, and such a one could take them places. Jesus wouldn’t just make their ordinary vocation more profitable, as he had done by miraculously improving Peter’s fishing skills. Jesus talked about a new Kingdom where he would be King over all. With that new Kingdom would come all sorts of opportunities.

But with Jesus, it doesn’t work out the way the disciples had hoped. Not only do the disciples have to grapple with the defeat of their movement, but their leader is dead.

Like us, they went through the stages of grief. At first, when Jesus started to speak of his impending death, the disciples were in denial. Peter had spoken up and utterly rejected the idea that Jesus would die.

As the disciples began to realize that Jesus was not planning to overtake the Kingdom of Rome, that he had no plans to establish a new earthly government with key roles for his disciples, they got angry. The anger that arose from Judas’ grief led him to betray Jesus to the authorities. Peter’s anger led him to cut off the ear of Malchus, a servant of the High Priest. In that Upper Room after the crucifixion, I’m sure there was plenty of anger to go around: anger at Judas for betraying them, anger at Jesus for letting them down, anger at each other and even themselves for the ways they had failed.

The disciples were likely bargaining in their grief, “if only I had not failed him. If only we had responded differently. If only this whole crucifixion business could be undone.”

The women who had gone to the tomb, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, were accused by the men of living in denial. They had reported to them that the tomb was empty, but the men knew that was more likely bad news than it was a sign that Jesus had defeated death. Someone probably just stole his body to cause more trouble. Luke’s Gospel tells us the men did not believe the women’s report, “because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

As night fell on that first day of the week, I imagine the disciples, like many of us, were falling into a situational depression. Darkness covered them. The doors were locked in fear. There was nothing they could do, nothing to distract them from the sinking feeling of despair.

All they have is their grief of their lost hope that “Jesus was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).

This was the condition of the disciples on that first Easter, not all that different from where we find ourselves today in the shadow of the Coronavirus.


It is amidst these grief-stricken men, hiding in fear, that good news comes again. In the locked room, protected from the death that threatened them on the other side of the door, Jesus appeared among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.”

Grace­—unmerited love and comfort—fills that Upper Room. The promise of the Spirit’s coming among the disciples is fulfilled (John 14:15).

Jesus had told them the truth about what was going to happen the whole time. But Jesus does not shame them or stir up feelings of guilt. He knew that the disciples had hoped for the wrong things the whole time, fame and power.

But through the grief—not in spite of it—the disciples are forced to empty themselves of all their expectations and rely on the promises of their savior.

Through the grief, the disciples were given “peace.”

We sometimes imagine that after Jesus appears to the disciples in his resurrected glory, everything was resolved. That everything went back to normal. But that’s not the case at all. There was no normal left to which they could go.

Fast forward a week after the first Resurrection appearance and things are roughly the same as they were on the first day. The doors are still shut. The disciples are still in that Upper Room, sheltered in place. The only difference is that Thomas is with them.

Why wasn’t Thomas there the first time? I think Thomas had decided not to shelter in place with the rest of the disciples because he was fearless. He, after all, was the one who in John 11:16 said confidently to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go with Jesus, that we might die with him.” Thomas was prepared to die, to be a martyr, if that’s what the situation required. You would think that his fearlessness would be rewarded.

But it turns out that Thomas missed out. Thomas, in denying his grief, in having gone out while the rest of his brothers where hiding out in the upper room, in trying to do something, had missed a sighting of Jesus.

Thomas, like us, was restless. He wanted to leave the confines of the Upper Room, so he did. And so, he initially missed the grace of Jesus’ presence. It was while sheltered in place that all eleven of those who remained saw the glory of the resurrection and received the peace of Christ.


Sitting at home is hard. We are an active church. We long to do something. And in many ways, we continue to do good in the ways available to us.

But what if, like Thomas, our desire to go and do can actually distract us from the place where Jesus Christ is coming to meet us? What if Jesus means to appear to us in powerful ways inside of the four walls of our upper room?

In the history of the church, even and especially during times of the church’s strength and success, God has called men and women to take time apart in the quiet stillness to seek his grace.

In the third and fourth centuries after Jesus, there was a significant movement out to the desert of Egypt to seek God, just as Christianity was being legalized. They sought to escape the temptations of worldly success and hold onto the spiritual strength that comes through simplicity and solitude. In a world that told them they could be someone special, that the marketplace could define them, they decided to renounce the world to find God in solitude.

These monks, known as the Desert Fathers, recorded many sayings as they provided spiritual wisdom to their younger members and those who came to them seeking insight. These sayings might help us to experience the grace and work of God in our sheltered times.

We might feel right now as if we are a fish out of water, away from the things that give us life, but Antony, known as the Father of All Monks said, “Fish die if they stay on dry land, likewise the monk cannot survive outside his cell.”

Similarly, Abba Moses was known to tell other monks, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

What does this “cell,” this confinement, have to teach us if we resist the urge to flee it or be distracted from it? What if this time staying at home is really a means of God’s rescue, giving us new life when we’ve been floundering on the shore unknowingly for years?

In this solitude, like those monks, we are liable to confront our own faults, our deepest temptations. We’re likely to realize just how tempting it is to eat an entire sleeve of cookies in one sitting and open up the fridge to look for a snack four times an hour.

But we also might find unexpected joy: the joy of realizing we really don’t need as much stuff as we thought we did, the joy rediscovering family game night, the joy of contentment, the joy of peace.

Those moments may be few and far between. It’s okay for us to feel unsettled, to feel the grief, even most of the time. But there are moments when we hear and feel the words “Peace be with you.” And maybe it’ll come in the diligent work of cooking a simple meal or of taking a walk around the block.


Acts 1:4 tells us that while Jesus was staying with the disciples in Jerusalem, he “ordered them not to leave, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.”

That is our challenge now—to shelter in place for this designated time, to remain faithful, and to wait here for the promise of the Father.

With the disciples, with all who have sought God in quiet places, we wait in our grief and our longing. And until the day of deliverance comes, until that new day on the other side of this time of death and resurrection, we trust in the words of our comforter, “Peace be with you. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Amen.