The Violent Bear it Away (A Meditation on Matthew 11 and some current events)

JB headThe appointed gospel text for advent 3 was Matthew 11:1-19. Due to our Christmas schedule, we skipped it and went for Advent 4’s readings. When you are aiming for rejoice, the second John the Baptist lesson just doesn’t fit the bill. So we took it up in Bible Class Sunday and this morning. When I should be wrestling with the Christmas Eve message, I can’t let this one go. It seems so appropriate, yet so against everything the modern American church attempts to say.

It starts out with a question. John the Baptist sits in Herod’s prison and sends a couple of disciples to Jesus with a question. Are you the one, or should we expect another? Most of the commentators in Christian history have attempted to paint a fig leaf on this question. They have typically made comments to the effect the John was just moving his disciples along. He was asking the question and sending them for their benefit. We don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like that to me, especially when we encompass Jesus’ answer.

Jesus’ answer to me is twofold. A yes, look at the miracles. And when concludes the list with “the good news is preached to the poor” that is a textual referent to Isaiah 61:1. But then Jesus appends a “but”. “Blessed in the one who is not offended by me.” Why would someone be offended by Jesus? Especially why would someone sitting in prison who once gave a bold witness to Jesus be offended? Part of Isaiah 61:1 is “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Surely the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus would say the Baptist was/is, would be included there. Jesus, are you going to free me, or not?

The disciples are always asking are you going to establish the Kingdom now? The 5000 fed out in the desert tried to crown Jesus. He was eventually crucified because he claimed to be “the King of the Jews”. Did you come out in the desert to see a reed blown by the wind? No, we don’t need to come out to the desert to find someone who will tell us what we want to hear. Did you come out to find someone in fine clothes? No, if we wanted to see worldly power and authority we’d go to Congress (or K street). We’d get plenty of reeds in the bargain. No we came out to hear the Word. We came out to hear a prophet. And this prophet, this inbreaking of the reign of God is not by power and glory. It does not empty out the prisons, at least not the physical prisons. John, blessed are the ones who are not offended at this humble Kingdom. This Kingdom that only comes hidden. This Kingdom that only frees you of your sins.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away. The Kingdom comes not in pomp, but as a child in a manger. It comes not at the head of an army, but on a donkey. It comes not by bread and circuses, but by every Word of God. It comes not by authority, although it has that, but through appeal. It comes to the poor, those who know they need it. It comes by grace.
And as with everything that comes by grace, that makes appeals, that feels soft. The violent take it. They took him…to a cross. They took the apostles. They killed the prophets and stoned those sent to them. Do we really think it is different for us? From the time of John the Baptist until now…

The kingdom can come with kind words such as these. It can come with crass words captured here. Doesn’t matter to those who don’t have ears. “We played the flute and you did not dance/We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” From the time of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers, and the violent bear it away. There is just an order to these things. First they will come for the crass, and then for those who can use nice words unless they are quiet. I wonder what my 10 year old self would have thought soon after the miracle on ice if I had told him a Russian president, as Machiavellian as he might be, might understand the place of religion better than an American. (This is not an assertion that it is true, just that in 1984 I would have laughed at the thought – the Godless red commies, today after reading that from Cold-Warrior Pat Buchanan it can’t be laughed away.)

But this is Advent closing in on Christmas. Immanuel did come and did free us from our sins. “Jesus, friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And he will come in triumph and make all these minor trifles blow away. When the government shall be upon His shoulders (Isa 9:6), and with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked (Isa 11:3-4). And wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matt 11:19)

Tolerable Sins – A Strange Valentine

This is Pastor Saltzman with a piece that I think we miss a word for. It is worth a read.

Three thoughts:
1) The only word I can come up with is a lament. It is a recognition of a deep problem that has no readily apparent solution. In the season of Lent, laments are not bad things to ponder. A lament reminds us of our fallen nature and our deep reliance upon God. In something so fundamental and necessary, we muck things up.

2) Tolerance is a word that goes along with the therapeutic culture and mentality. We manage things. We accept things. We tolerate things. And if we just do that day after day, we can project an image of health and well-being. There are times and places for therapy. But Christianity at its core is anti-therapeutic. It declares things like: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Or like, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” God doesn’t manage things. He forgives. He settles.

3) God help the church that actually believes its doctrine in a public way. If you had a church that lamented and proclaimed…it doesn’t take long for somebody to say something like “that is just your interpretation” or “doctrine is just a bunch of fusty rules” or “how hate filled are you” or “who are you to judge me”. Tolerance is just easier. Like 10,000 maniac’s once sang, “give them what they want, so their eyes are fat and lazy…”

Isaiah 6:9-10 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Christmas Day – Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem

Nativity Icon

Biblical Text: Isaiah 52:9

Full Sermon Text

A prize goes to the first person who is able to identify the hymns referenced in the sermon. As to the Sermon, proclamation gives way to praise, especially when the mystery is so great.

Christmas Eve – A Proclamation or An Aesthetic Experience


Biblical Texts: John 1:1-5,9-14; Isaiah 42:1-3; Luke 2:8-20; John 8:12,12:35-36,46
Full Sermon Draft

I reread this sermon. In my head it is about as tight a presentation of the gospel as I’ve given. But I am also pretty sure it was only able to be heard by those who had ears already.

Preparing the Way

Sermon Text: Mark 11:1-10, Isa 64:1,8
Full Text of Sermon

It was the start of advent. The start of the season of preparing the way. With the start of a new church year we also change the gospel that we are reading. We are now reading from Mark in worship. So this sermon in the text part takes a very broad brush view of the gospel to position the action of the actual text.

We all get caught up in the sweep of movements. And there is nothing actually bad about some of the sarcastic examples I use, as long as a person’s identity isn’t based on that object or movement. When you find yourself chasing glory through some object or institution or event, you’ve gone off the path. Jesus has his disciples fetch a donkey. Jesus constantly asks his disciples to do the little things.

That is where you find the beating heart of the Christian life. In the everyday living. In living close to God and your fellow man. That is preparing the way of the Lord. The only true glory is available only by grace and through a cross. Its a narrow way. It can’t be bought, only lived.

Say you want a revolution…

Sermon Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7 and Matthew 22:15-22
Full Text of Sermon

First, I love it when the Children’s Choir signs. You can hear them on the Podcast well directed and taught by Mrs. Kristin Bayer who is a wonderful sax player and teacher. (I hope she doesn’t mind the plug.) The simplicity of the songs they sing makes worship and sermon themes very easy to construct. Someone has already done the hard work of distilling a biblical message to a child’s level – I get to piggy back it. And this Sunday had the serendipity to have lectionary texts very easily meshed.

Second, the Lordship of Jesus is something that Reformed usually do better having a strong Sovereignty of God theology. But even they take it in a different direction normally than I think the New Testament does. When most theologians start talking Sovereignty of God it is usually about election or salvation. Everything gets bent to a salvation theology. Not wrong, just not the entire story. The old and new testaments teach that God is actively involved in the world for the benefit of his people. He is not some distant deity. He is not some pull in case of emergency God or a galactic vending machine. He (typically) operates through means – like Cyrus, King of Kings of the Persian empire, or Pilate, Prefect of Judea or you and me wherever we might be.

That gets to that radical nature of “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” The authority is God’s duly appointed. She is there for a reason. The authority should also recognize they are not an authority grounded in themselves. There is a Sovereign, an active one. All authority is accountable in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is why when the Beatles sing “everything’s gonna be alright” we don’t just tune it out as Pollyanna drivel. Everything’s gonna be alright, because He’s go the whole world in his hands.

Christmas Eve Midnight – “Light is the Metaphor”

Text: Isa 9:2-7, John 1:1-14 Christmas Eve Midnight
Most of you have probably heard me say that John is impossible to preach on. I broke my rule earlier tonight, but the only way it is possible is by picking one verse or one theme and then reflecting it through an epistle or some other scripture to help. Earlier tonight it was receiving. Christmas really is all about receiving. Receiving eyes to see. Receiving the light.
And that is what I want to meditate on a little tonight. Please forgive the cliché, but at midnight how is light a metaphor for Christmas, and how that light works on us.
Life & Death
“Those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.” – Isa 9:2b
That word for deep darkness has been translated a bunch of ways. The King James divines translated it the land of the shadow of death. It is the same word as in the 23rd psalm. Modern attempts say deep darkness. One even tried death-shade. The word is used 17 times in the old testament. 10 of them in Job. 2 more in Jeremiah. And once in that burning prophet Amos. Just knowing where it is used tells you what “deep darkness” is about – death, destruction, exile. One of the psalms that uses it is about prisoners in chains in deep darkness.
That is where Isaiah puts us. A people who dwell in a land of deep darkness.
But on them a light has shined. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
That is the start. Somebody told us about the light – a little baby in a manger, the man on the cross, the empty tomb – and nothing is ever the same. The Father and Spirit have moved us from deep darkness to light, from death to life.
And that is a dramatic event. In our age a digital event. For many Christians an unremembered event – being baptized as little babies. But we’ve had our mountaintop experiences, and have heard the dramatic conversion tales. Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I see.
Goodness & Evil
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. (Isa 9:7 ESV)”
Another Biblical way we talk about light is good and evil. Nicodemus would come to Jesus at night – the original Nick at Night. Jesus would flabbergast him with talk of needing to be born again. “How can I a grown man re-enter my mother’s womb?” Jesus was talking more about that life & death metaphor. But Nicodemus wasn’t ready. So Jesus says to him,

“Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” – John 3:19-20
We understand the law. We might get it mixed up every now and then. We will try and mitigate its impact, but we get it. Bad men might glorify in their badness, but they know who and what they are. But in the midst of the land of deep darkness, there are Kingdom’s of light.

The promise of Isaiah, fulfilled in Jesus, is a new kingdom. A Kingdom upheld with justice and righteousness. We know these when we see them. Our literature and history are woven through with reflections – Camelot and Plymouth Rock, Cincinatus and Washington, Reagan’s shining city on a hill. They are always more filled with light in reflection and myth than they probably were in reality, but that is because they are reflections of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem whose King was born tonight, whose government increases, like yeast in the bread, like the mustard seed, slowly, quietly until its final fulfillment.

Wisdom & Folly
The last way the Bible uses light is probably the toughest. People will envy you for your stuff or for your intelligence, for your looks or your luck, for almost anything. But rarely will you hear words of envy for someone’s wisdom.
I’m always amazed at the wisdom of the King James translators – which really goes back to William Tyndale who was burned at the stake for his wisdom. They had no tools compared to modern scholars who sniff at the texts they used – but they created a language that lasted really until it met the force of modern marketing that needed to sell bibles.
“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (Joh 1:5 KJV)
The word they translated as comprehended has a wide area of meaning: more modern translations have tried overcome, understood, extinguish, and perceive. And those are all valid. The greek word is used in a variety of ways and he probably meant to evoke all of them, this being John. But here, he’s talking about a people not receiving. He’s talking about how the one through whom all things were made, was incarnated as a baby. Herod’s killing of the innocents is Matthew. To John, Jesus always knows what he is doing. Jesus puts down his life, and takes it back up again. This one came full of grace and truth. Not everyone sees it. Not everyone comprehends it.
In fact, the world looks at this baby and says foolishness. We have an inner light. We have our ways. God in this helpless child? God on a cross? God adopting us? God living with us? Impossible. The light shines, but the darkness – those living in a land of deep darkness – comprehend it not.
But the true light, which enlightens everyone, came into the world. He shines in the darkness. The boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned. They will be fuel for the fire. We call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts has done this. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts has done this…for us.

Sermon – Sept 6, 2008 – “In my flesh, I will see God”

Full Text

I’ve heard it from at least two preachers who I really admire for their wisdom and their craft that “all good sermons are first preached at the preacher.” The main point is that if the preacher himself doesn’t need it or resonate with the message he is delivering it probably can’t be a good sermon. This one falls squarely in that camp for me. I pray that my congregation was able to get something out of it as well. If you are going to read it, the thing you probably need to have in your head is that my brother died on the 24th of August at the age of 35. After spending a little over a week in Baltimore, MD cleaning out and settling his place, this was more first week back in the pulpit. The primary text was Isa 35:4-7

Trinity Sunday – “Here I Am, Send me”

Full Text

The OT text for the day was Isaiah 6:1-8 but I lengthened it to Isaiah 6:1-13. Anything less felt like taking stuff out of context.

When you read the rest of that passage the first reaction is, “How did that get in there?” But without the rest you don’t get the gospel. Without the failure of the law, without the reduction of Israel to one, the seed in the stump, Jesus Christ, you don’t get the gospel. Sitting on the other side of Jesus we have something similar. Our call by Jesus is to pick up the cross and follow him. The call is not to victory and glory in this world. Salvation is free and clear – by grace through faith. What God is asking is for those who will jump up and down saying Here I am, send me! because they trust the one who saved them. Trust Him freely, even though crosses come first. Trust him knowing that placing your life into those nail marked hands is the only sure thing in this world.

Theological Ghosts & The Year of Jubilee

I’ve got it in the blog-roll on the right – a web site dedicated to a critical look of media coverage of religion called Get Religion. One of the contributors, a long time major newpaper religion beat writer, talks about the blind spot or the religious/theological ghosts in news stories. Reporters who don’t “get religion” often miss key drivers of the stories they are writing. They attempt to fit a type of secular framework that just doesn’t fit.

This article is by a very good columnist in the Wall Street Journal (just in case the article is behind a paywall here is a mirror). In it he is starting to make some connections, although he has probably missed the source in the Presidents thinking. This chart is in the President’s budget.


Mr. Henninger goes on to write that, “Whatever its merits, their “Top 1%” chart has become a totemic obsession in progressive policy circles.” And right there is the Theological Ghost. He also writes that “Messrs. Piketty and Saez have produced the most politically potent squiggle along an axis since Arthur Laffer drew his famous curve on a napkin in the mid-1970s. Laffer’s was an economic argument for lowering tax rates for everyone. Piketty-Saez is a moral argument for raising taxes on the rich.” The key question to ask here is why has this 1% chart become an obsession, and why is it a moral argument? Mr. Henninger even says, “What is becoming clearer as his presidency unfolds is that something deeper is underway here than merely using higher taxes to fund his policy goals in health, education and energy.” What is that something deeper? The theological ghost.

Read Luke 4:16-21 and then read Isaiah 61 and finally Leviticus 25:8-55. That is the scriptural basis for the theological ghost. Those passages are the core of liberation theology. Liberation theology has been and largely remains the theology of the religious on the political left. And please don’t take this as the negative it might read as, but President Obama was listening closer to Jeremiah Wright than he might want you to believe.

The religious left reads those passages in a very “this worldly” economic way. The religious right tends to make them “otherworldly” or spiritualize them. The left views it as a Christian duty to work to correct the economic imbalance here and now often through governmental means. The right tends to read liberation as freedom from sin, and that the left’s readings are dangerous and miss the main spiritual point.

Many people probably don’t think: 1) that they have a theology, 2) that if they do it influences them in any solid way and 3) ignorance of theology is dangerous, or knowlege of theology is helpful in understanding our world and our existence. The above is an example of a theological debate. It just looks like an economic and budgetary debate. If you don’t know what you are debating, how do you even know what a good outcome looks like?