Who’s coming to dinner?

Sermon from Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 17th Sunday after Trinity.
Text: Luke 14:1-14 (which takes up the first 2½ minutes or so)

I see, said the blind man

A sermon preached on Quinquagesima Sunday, 6 March 2011 at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham. (Typos and all)
[Click here for audio]

1 Samuel 16:1–13
1 Corinthians 13:1–13
Luke 18:31–43

If you have read John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, you may recall the trial of Mr. Faithful at Vanity Fair. The trial is a travesty of justice, because the sinful inhabitants are intent on getting rid of the godly voice that has appeared among them. The jury consists of Mr Blindman, Mr No-good, Mr Malice, Mr Love-lust, Mr Live-loose, Mr Heady, Mr High-mind, Mr Enmity, Mr Lyar, Mr Cruelty, Mr Hate-light, and Mr Implacable. To emphasise the injustice, and perhaps to get a few laughs to boot, Bunyan is unable to resist the obvious pun. The jury’s deliberation opens thus: “Mr Blind-man the Foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is an Heretick.”

How absurd: a man’s fate hanging on what the blind man sees. Bunyan, in none-too-subtle tones, describes the blindness of sin. How sinful people, blinded by their own sin, think that what they can perceive is all that there is, that the truth is that which lies before their darkened eyes, and who refuse to see anything other than the darkness which they mistake for light. As at Vanity Fair, so in the real world it’s an absurd, perhaps even offensive, notion: that the blind should instruct the seeing on what can be seen clearly.
Yet this morning, the evangelist presents just such a situation before us. As usual when Jesus went about His earthly life, He was surrounded by a crowd, so much so that as He approached Jericho, it brought about a small commotion. At the very least, the sensitive ears of the blind beggar of Jericho, could tell that something out of the ordinary was going on. But, being blind, he could needed others to fill in the details, namely that Jesus was coming to town. Up to this point, the story seems to confirm what I have just said: blindness is impotence, blindness brings about ignorance. Of all the people at the gates of Jericho that day, everyone knew what was going on, except the blind man. Had it not been for his curiosity and the kindness of the other bystanders, Jesus may well have passed by this unseeing beggar, unnoticed, never to return―since Jesus was already on His way to Jerusalem and the cross.

Apart from the word spoken to him, identifying Jesus as the cause of the strange stir, Bartimaeus―although Luke doesn’t mention it, the Gospel of Mark names the man as Bartimaeus, meaning the son of Timaeus―without the word, Bartimaeus would have remained in the ignorance of his blindness. But the moment he asks for an explanation and the word is spoken to him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by”, Bartimaeus springs into action, crying at the top of his voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ”
What a beautiful illustration of the power of the Word of God to break in on the ignorance of the blind. From birth, Bartimaeus’ world had been restricted to his four functioning senses. He was able to live, and to get about, but only just; safe in the familiar terrain of Jericho but ever to leave. Incapable of working, he was reduced to begging, a miserable and often short-lived existence at the mercy of others, in extreme hardship and extreme humiliation. It’s not for nothing that Scripture speaks of life lived in sin as darkness and of unbelievers as those blinded by sin. For such a life is just like that of blind Bartimaeus: people are able to live and get about, but only just: always one illness or accident away from death, capable of navigating the familiar terrain of this earth but unable ever to leave. Incapable of doing real work, loving God and the neighbour, work that sustains one eternally, they are reduced to scraping an existence that is sufficient in happy cases for some decades, before being snuffed out. As some anonymous realist put it: life is hard and then you die.

But when the Holy Spirit stirs such darkened lives with God’s word, blessed are those who, like Bartimaeus, have neighbours and by-standers at hand to declare the cause of these stirrings: Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. And blessed are those who, like Bartimaeus leap up and cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ” For Jesus never passes by anyone crying for mercy: there is nothing He delights in more than stopping to help such helpless beggars, showing mercy and giving impossibly rich gifts. Restoring sight to the blind, He literally gives them the life they could otherwise never have had. And how tragic it is when the blind have none to point them to Jesus, no one that will take them to that fountain of mercy, so that they are left in their dark ignorance. And how tragic it is when the blind are contented with their blindness and never cry out for mercy, allowing Jesus to pass by, ignoring the call of God’s word and turning their backs on the mercy and life He desires to give to all.

And so, it turns out that, though blind in his physical eyes, Bartimaeus wasn’t the blind man of Jericho at all. Like Mr. Blind-man of Bunyan’s creation, he was able to say―but he without a hint of sarcasm or irony―, “I see clearly where my hope lies.” Everyone else that day could see Jesus with their physical eyes, but the eyes of their souls looked right through Him. They could see His form and recognise Him―without ever seeing who He really was and what it meant that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. Even the twelve, when Jesus reminded them, not for the first time, of what was about to happen to Him, of the fate which was the whole purpose of His earthly life―Luke tells us that they “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” They knew Him better than anyone else, they were His closest companions, yet they were blind. Jesus’ death, His sacrifice for them and for the whole world, took them completely by surprise because they failed to perceive the purpose for which He was sent by the Father.

The crowd outside Jericho recognised Him and were excited enough to create a small scene. And yet when Bartimaeus began to cry out for mercy, they showed themselves to be blind to who Jesus is by trying to silence Him. As if Jesus would be annoyed by the temerity of the beggar of Jericho, as if it was somehow an indignity that someone as important as Jesus should be disturbed or interrupted by someone as insignificant and miserable as a blind beggar. Even today, it’s not uncommon in many parts of the world that when something important happens in a city―a state visit, or some sporting event or an international summit―the potholes are filled, an extra lick of paint is splashed along the main streets … and the beggars are bussed out of town so as not to embarrass the hosts or to hassle the guests.

You see, it’s a timeless truth that beggars make us uncomfortable, especially the ones in genuine need. They are insistent, out of necessity, and get in our way. Their disabilities and hardships―the mangled limbs, the clouded eyes, the crying babies―intrude into our comfort zone, unwelcome reminders of the injustice of their suffering compared to our good fortune, producing guilt, resentment and, eventually, the necessary hardness that puts up the hand and says, “Sorry. I won’t help you.” And isn’t it true, that the more insistent the beggar, the harder it is to remain sympathetic?  The longer he goes on, the less likely he is to get a sympathetic hearing, until we stop our ears―or give something, not out of love to help the needy in his need, but out of frustration, just to shut him up. “Love is patient and kind; it is not … rude. Love is not irritable or resentful … it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Who loves like this?

Well, clearly the people of Jericho didn’t seem to think that Jesus did. They assumed that Jesus was like them, and like us, finding beggars an embarrassment, a nuisance. They were blind to His love, to its nature and its depth. In the crowd that day, only the blind Bartimaeus saw clearly, saw that Jesus of Nazareth is neither embarrassed nor hassled by Bartimaeus. Jesus does not get riled by the insistence of those who beg of Him, but the very contrary is true. Jesus longs for us to beg, he desires our begging. To Him, it’s not a nuisance but a joy and a delight. Notice how impudent and insistent Bartimaeus was: the more they tried to shut him up, the more he cried. And notice Jesus’ reaction: unlike about everybody else, He wasn’t repelled by Bartimaeus’ begging, but drawn to it. Bartimaeus threw himself at the mercy of Jesus―and Jesus never turns away such beggars. That day, his eyes were opened. He found healing for his physical eyes because he had already been given the eyes of faith that recognised in Jesus his only hope. And so he not only received sight and a radical improvement in his quality of life, but through faith he received an eternal gift of sight and life. That’s why we know his name: Mark referred to him by name, because when Mark wrote his Gospel, Bartimaeus’ name was still recognised among the Christians for whom the Gospel was originally written.

And so, on that day in Jericho, Bartimaeus alone gave Jesus the royal welcome that was due to Him. In the ancient world, it was customary when the king visited a town for the populace to line the streets, and they would cry out, “Lord, have mercy”, in the hope that the king would hear their petitions for justice, a water supply, new roads, or whatever their immediate needs were. When the King of Kings entered Jericho, many were impressed, but only Bartimaeus gave Him His royal title, Son of David, and the royal welcome, “Lord, have mercy.”

And that cry still rings throughout the Christian church. In every Divine Service, we too cry out, “Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy! ” It isn’t a cry for forgiveness―after all, the Kyrie comes almost immediately after we have been absolved of our sins. Rather, in the Kyrie, we come to Almighty God, as Bartimaeus once came to Jesus, with our petitions, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the Church, and the world, entrusting our needs to the mercy of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The longer form of the Kyrie we sang this morning with its petitions, make this particularly clear. Likewise, this is why the petitions of the Prayer of the Church always conclude with an appeal to God’s mercy: ‘Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer’; ‘for this and that, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy’.

And like Bartimaeus, we are invited to beg openly, boldly and insistently―because Jesus does not pass by beggars in need, beggars who recognise their dire need and their only hope in Him. He sees all our needs, He delights in our asking for His help, and He delights in satisfying our needs―even though that sometimes means that He doesn’t give us what we ask when we would like it.

May God give us His grace that we will never tire of begging for His mercy, that at the last we may inherit the one thing that is needful, eternal life through the merits of His Son, our King and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Humbled and Exalted

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (29 August) 2010.

Luke 14:1–14

The daily ritual must have been incredibly wearying for the poor driver. Every morning at 8.20, he would approach the bus stop where I was waiting, together with a couple of dozen other young teenagers. In the three years that I was part of the experience, not once did he actually manage to get the bus all the way to the stop, as the herd pushed forward like so many wild animals in a fierce race to be the first at the door. It’s amazing that no one got seriously hurt, or that the driver never actually hit a child in frustration at such idiotic behaviour.

And the price for the winner, the goal of the death-defying race? A place on the back row of seats and the right to allocate the remaining seats as he or she wished. 15 minutes on top of the world, 15 minutes as the king or queen of all that one could survey from the back of that dingy, clapped-out school bus. And the same scenario repeated in a mad gallop across the school playground when the bell went at 3pm. With the hindsight of maturity, it’s amazing that we thought it worth it, that we didn’t see both the stupidity and the comedy of the whole enterprise.

But there was more to this crude ritual. Once or twice, some scrawny first-former would manage to wriggle to the front of the heaving mass and dart to the back of the bus. The moment of triumph would rarely last longer than a few seconds, before the natural order of things was restored and the back occupied by whichever rightful contestant—someone bigger and stronger than the impudent runt—got there to eject the miserable upstart. No one made that humiliating mistake twice.

In today’s Gospel reading, we have a scenario, which looks very different from the school bus crush of my youth: the learned and honoured ranks of a town gathered for a dinner party at the home of one of their number, with Jesus among the quests. However, underneath the respectable veneer, these respectable folk are playing exactly same game. Luke tells us that Jesus “noticed how they chose the places of honour”. This is the polite way of putting it. To be more precise, Luke tells us that Jesus noticed how they kept trying to choose the best seats. There was an outwardly respectable dance as the Pharisees and biblical scholars tried to do subtly what we used to do in the death-defying push for the bus door: to get to the best place, the seat recognised by all as the summit, whose occupier was the king of the castle—by virtue of sitting where he sat.

This is not something that is particularly familiar to us modern Westerners, for whom the social etiquette of the meal table has lost much of its significance. It is mostly at weddings that we still find our ranking published to the present company in the form of the seating orders. However, in the world where Jesus lived, for people who cared about their social standing (which was most people), these things were of utmost importance. A social faux-pas, or a public humiliation, could do huge damage to a person’s reputation and standing in the small and intimate communities where most people lived.

In this light, Jesus’ advice is healthy common sense: instead of risking humiliation by over-exalting yourself, you are better off aiming low. That way, you will avoid the risk of the terrible climb-down, of being put down in your place in front of everyone; and perhaps you will get to experience the opposite, of being elevated to a place of greater honour in front of everyone. It’s sound advice for anyone, and not only in the context of first-century social conventions. Aim too high and you’re set up for a nasty fall; keep your ambitions modest, and you may well be in for a pleasant surprise.

However, to hear Jesus’ words as mere sound advice about how to behave in polite society is to miss the point, and to let ourselves off the hook. What the Pharisees and the lawyers were guilty of wasn’t just unwise or risky behaviour. Their real mistake wasn’t that they were taking social risks, or behaving in a manner unsuited to men of their standing. Far more serious was the way they sought to assert their own honour and prestige at the expense of others by fighting for the outward signs of honour and prestige. They agreed with the society around them that what mattered most to a person in society was their position in that society—that the most treasured thing one could possess was to be held in honour among one’s peers.

And when we see them in this light, it’s not such a great leap to recognise ourselves in the jostling, self-promoting Pharisees and lawyers. The way we judge ourselves, the way we judge others, is by the yardstick of various social and other conventions about what makes a person honoured or worthy. Wealth, education, job, family background, the kind of house or car one has, the kind of company one keeps, fashion sense, accent, nationality, manner, manners, the behaviour of one’s children or grandchildren—the list is endless: little, or not-so-little, markers we use to evaluate ourselves and others; to determine the kind and extent of honour we show to others or expect others to show to us. And so we use them to seek and to allocate the right places in the different circles we occupy in life.

In the same way we, like Jesus’ host on the Sabbath evening and almost any respectable person in that society, we too surround ourselves with people who are either like us, or who can benefit us, or whom we can benefit in some sort of mutual arrangement. Most of the dinner parties we attend or host are likely to look more like the one hosted by the ruler of the Pharisees—a gathering of like-minded people of a similar social standing—than the one hosted by Levi on the day he became a disciple of Jesus—a ragbag of tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners—and Jesus.

Worse still, too many churches are no exception to this rule: gatherings of like-minded people of similar backgrounds—and all too often with the same unwritten rules and pecking orders. Because we are just as beholden to the same worldly standards of what constitutes wisdom, worth, honour and power.

How different things look from Jesus’ perspective! When He watched the dance of the status symbols that Sabbath evening, what he saw was not the aspiration for honour and prestige, the struggle for treasures of precious worth. Rather, what he saw a sad ritual, like a beauty contest in a pigsty or a freedom march in a high-security prison: it made perfect sense within that little world, but was totally ludicrous from an objective, outside perspective. Instead of men of varying degrees of honour, what Jesus saw was a group of modest little men, with much to be honest about, to borrow Churchill’s phrase.

For Jesus sees us as God sees us, since He is God incarnate. The standards of honour and respect that are so cherished to us are of little worth in His eyes, since God sees into our hearts. Hearts, where even righteousness is just so many filthy rags. Try to exalt yourself in God’s company, to present your honour and your worth to Him, and you will find that you will not just be shown a lower seat at the table, but will find yourself thrown outside into the great darkness where there will be gnashing of teeth. All the things that we cherish in ourselves and admire in others, are ultimately like us: perishing. And while they may have their value and uses in this life, they are of no consequence at the banquet hall of the kingdom of God. For, as Scripture tells us repeatedly, God shows no partiality, but looks into our hearts. Which is why everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. Because we all are humble little people, with much to sin to be humble about.

If we saw ourselves and others from this perspective, perhaps we would be less keen to create and maintain are various pecking orders, less keen to seek the best seats or to make sure that no one steps out of line. After all, none of has much to write home about when it comes to true worth and honour.

* * * * *

But when God looks at us, He sees us in another way as well. He doesn’t only see the shame that our sins bring on us, the filthy rags of our best moments and all the other moments worse still than the filthy rags.

When God looks at humanity, He doesn’t only see an ocean of sinners: He also sees an ocean of people for whom Christ died. Every person born of a woman: Christ died for every man, woman and child, from the humblest embryo to the President of the United States of America and beyond. He had pity on His creation and sent His Son into the world, into all the humility that is ours as a birthright since the Fall. And Christ humbled Himself, taking on the form of a servant and dying our death on the cross. Not because you’re worth it: you’re not. But because His love for you is so great. And as He is now exalted and has been given a name that is above every name, so that every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father—so too all who are found in Him, united with Him in baptism and through faith, will be exalted and given a place of honour at His victory banquet, when sin, death and the Devil are finally destroyed.

This is how Jesus sees you: a humble little person with much to be humble about—and a precious, rebellious child for whom He died. Jesus did not seek the company of those who were like-minded and of a similar standing to Him. That He had from eternity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The love of God, like an overflowing spring, cannot contain itself but seeks out creatures to love. He loves us because of His love, even though in ourselves we are as far from lovely as heaven is from earth.

And now we have a seat at the High Table, where every seat is a seat of honour. We already have the honour here and now. Every time we come to Confession and Absolution, the scenario painted by Jesus takes place: we take the lowest place, the place of the wretched sinner, which by right is ours. God looks at us, sees the name of Jesus written on our hearts, and says, “Friend, move up higher.” And so we are honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with us: angels, archangels and all the company of heaven, together with our fellow-saints here and in glory. Thus elevated to the High Table, we feed on the finest food and drink: the very body and blood of Christ, food that strengthens and nourishes, drink that refreshes and gladdens in equal measure.

This is how Christ treats us. Not in order to receive something in return from us, in order to be reciprocated—not even primarily for His own glory (though He is indeed glorious in His display of mercy). Rather He does it for the sake of His love, in order to elevate the humble, in spite of themselves.

In the end, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who humble themselves, because they have much to be humble about, but are exalted to the highest heavens because of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ; and those who also have much to be humble about yet insist on being rewarded on the basis of their merits, in this life and the next. But as far as we are concerned, these two types really belong to one and the same group: those for whom Christ died.

Which is why there is no place for worldly distinctions and systems of honour in the Church: because all have fallen short of the glory of God and are in themselves without honour, and are only made righteous by grace, as a gift, through faith rather than anything they have done. And there is no place for judging people outside the Church by these worldly standards either: because all are sinners, inside as well as out, and because Christ died for all.

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

We—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, unable to repay—are the chief beneficiaries of this policy. Having been loved so, shall we not share the love?

Lord, have mercy! Amen.

Everyone who asks receives

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (25 July 2010)

Luke 11:1–13

Rosie was one of the more memorable students I had early on in my teaching career. A teenage girl more blessed with a quick tongue than with a reliable sense of when and how to use it. What Rosie was thinking was very rarely a secret to anyone nearby. From the point of view of a teacher, you could say that it made Rosie hard to ignore or to forget.

One particular outburst of frankness from Rosie sticks in my memory. We were studying the subject of wealth and poverty from a Christian perspective, and were looking at biblical teaching related to it. And one of the passages we studied was the Lord’s Prayer and what Jesus had to say about asking God to supply our needs in Luke 11. Having got to the end of the reading, her voice rang loud and clear from the back of the room: “That’s just stupid! ” “What do you mean stupid? ” “Well it is, isn’t it, sir! Completely stupid.”

It turned out that her objection was this: If you look around the world, there are lots of Christians praying for good things, even things they really need, and not getting them. It’s not like the Christians of a particular region are immune to natural disasters, famines or wars in those places. The Boxing Day tsunami didn’t leave Christians unscathed. Many Christians must have prayed fervently for their loved ones to be rescued, to no avail. Many weren’t even fortunate enough to have a body to bury at the end of it. They asked for a fish, and were given a serpent, for an egg and received a scorpion.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

Try telling that to someone watching a loved one die of a terminal disease, in spite of endless prayers for healing. Try telling that to the man or woman, desperately pleading for the joy of human warmth and companionship, seeing their life slip by in unrelenting loneliness. Try telling that to the long-term unemployed, reduced to enforced idleness and hardship, who receive the dreaded note—“I’m afraid we are unable to make you an offer”—not only from every potential employer but also from the heavenly Father. I could go on.

If you feel that your prayers are not being heard, that the words of Jesus in the Gospel don’t ring true in the hard school of human experience, you are hardly alone. This is a dilemma that has plagued the saints of God at all times. Just hear the anguished cries of the Psalmist:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

(Ps. 13:1)

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!

Why do you hide your face?

Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

(Ps 44:23–24)

Or most famously of all:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,

and by night, but I find no rest.

(Ps 22:1–2)

And met by this barrage of silence, of prayers unanswered despite Jesus’ clear words, we are quickly given to despair. Some despair of God’s goodness, and turn away from Him, in anger or despondency, taking the advice of Job’s wife: Curse God and die.

Other’s despair of themselves, certain that it is some defect in themselves—faith that is too weak, the lack of some necessary ingredient in the prayer, a hidden sin—that is preventing God from answering their prayer.

Either way, God’s apparent silence drives us to doubt Jesus’ clear promise: “Everyone who asks receives and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” Everyone, that is, except I, and the dozens of others I know who are in the same boat with me, who hasn’t received, who hasn’t found, to whom the door appears forever shut. And so, we are left with that terrifying question of another another Psalm: “Has God forgotten to be gracious? ”

But as is so often the case, when we doubt God’s word, it is not because of a defect in God’s word but because of our defective attention to it, together with our mistaken notions of how things ought to be.

Jesus’ teaching in Luke 11 is in response to a request from His disciples: Lord, teach us to pray. And so He taught them, not so much how to pray but what to pray. In other words, Jesus didn’t give us some general rules and suggestions for godly, or effective, or successful prayer. He didn’t say: “When you pray, do it in this sort of way.” Rather, He gave us the very words to pray, the prayer itself: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, etc.”

And it is to this prayer He attaches the promise:“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” It is this prayer that He likens to a friend asking for help in the night. It is a prayer for good things, which a loving father would never refuse a son—the ultimate good gift from God being the Holy Spirit. It is the Lord’s Prayer: the prayer given by the Lord, the prayer addressed to the Lord, the prayer accompanied with the promises of the Lord.

This takes us back to where we left off last week with Martha and Mary: with the question of what is necessary and truly good, the difference between Jesus’ priorities and what are ours. In worship, as we learnt from the experience of Martha and Mary, what is necessary and truly good is what God gives us in Christ. And so it is in prayer as well.

What Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer is what we truly need from God: spiritual gifts. That His name is kept holy among us, that His kingdom come, that we receive bread from Him, that our sins are forgiven, that we are preserved from temptation. And as a friend wouldn’t dream of ignoring the urgent request of his neighbour, much less will God ignore our petition for our needs.

But notice the word “needs”. Not desires, wants or wishes but needs. Jesus promises to us that our heavenly Father will give to us what we need, and He will do so with delight. We run into difficulties when we define our own needs from our perspective and then measure God’s goodness and faithfulness against whether He gives us what we think we need.

This is not to say that our requests are frivolous, or that we should not ask for things in our times of need. Of course we should. Elsewhere, in John’s Gospel, Jesus encourages the disciples to ask for “anything” in His name. However, as Jesus reminded Martha when she was distracted by her serving from the word of Christ, there is only one thing that is necessary. Because there is only one thing that lasts beyond the grave.

Everything else, all the other good gifts of God: health, family, friendships, mortal life itself, will all come to an end. They may come to an end peacefully, at the end of a long and contented life; or they may come to an end suddenly and violently, or unexpectedly, or at the end of a life of hardship and suffering. We may enjoy God’s temporal blessings abundantly or sparingly. But the end of all of them is the same. And so is the end of them who put their trust in them as their only good.

By contrast, God’s kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom. The word of the Lord endures forever. The heavenly bread, together with those who eat it in faith, is imperishable. When Jesus fed the 5,000, the crowd went wild and wanted to crown Jesus as their king, and He had to remind them:

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

Now, I am sure that my erstwhile pupil Rosie would greet this saying of Jesus with the same exclamation: “That’s just stupid! ” Because it’s not difficult to demonstrate that there are plenty of Christians among the hungry and thirsty of the world. And plenty of Christians who go short on the temporal gifts of God, gifts of clothing, housing, family, income, health.

But it is not stupid. Because the true daily bread, which Jesus invites us to pray for, is the bread of life, the imperishable and life-giving bread. What would be stupid would be to place our hope in things that have no hope of lasting, and to judge God’s goodness by them. To decide whether God loves us by whether we survive this particular illness, whether we overcome this particular pain, or whether we live in wealth or poverty, is to miss the point. Jesus Himself knew this: on the eve of His own great anguish—an anguish greater than that of any human before or since—He too prayed for relief: “Father, take this cup away from me. But not my will but Your will be done.” For He knew that the Father’s will is the best—and we are the beneficiaries both of the Father’s good will and the Son’s obedient submission to it, God’s ultimate gift to us.

And now, we live in the happy world where we can both have our cake and eat it. All the good gifts we receive come as tokens of our Heavenly Father’s love for us, to be received and enjoyed with gratitude. But even when He withholds the earthly gifts, either for a time or for good, we are nevertheless blessed beyond all measure: children of the heavenly Father, heirs to His kingdom, raised to life in His Son, eating here the bread of heaven as a foretaste of the Kingdom to come, sanctified by His Holy Spirit and kept from the Evil One until sin, death and the devil are destroyed and we will live forever in pure enjoyment of His love for us.

Now that doesn’t sound so stupid, does it?

Just sit there

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (18 July 2010)

Luke 10:38-42

Spare a thought for Martha. The patron saint of every eldest child who has been let down by an idle younger sibling, left to protest: “It’s not fair! ”

Left to run the house, the kitchen, the washing, the animals, all by herself the moment it’s filled with Jesus and his entourage of 12 apostles. While she serves them—cooks, cleans, tends—while she works her cotton socks off to get everything done, Mary just sits on the floor, gazing at Jesus and listening to him talk. When Martha finally snaps and asks Jesus to intervene, he adds insult to injury by reprimanding her and commending Mary. It couldn’t have gone much more badly for Martha.

But the situation was even worse than that. Whatever Martha mumbled under her breath after the embarrassing reprimand from Jesus, she may well have said something along the lines of, ‘‘‘… but you said …” Had not Jesus Himself had said that it is better to give than to receive? Had he not taught His disciples repeatedly about the importance of service, about how it is the one who serves that is greatest of all? When He sent out the 72 disciples, He taught them to expect hospitality wherever they went. And the last bit of teaching, in the verse immediately preceding today’s reading, Jesus concluded the parable of the Good Samaritan by commending the Samaritan for his selfless service to the victim of a highway robbery by these words: “You go and do likewise.”

So here was Martha, giving rather than receiving—while Mary just sat and received. Here was Martha, serving, while Mary just sat and did nothing. Here was Martha, providing hospitality to the Lord Jesus, while Mary did nothing but sit and listen. Here was Martha, putting herself through the paces in order to serve the needs of Jesus and His disciples. And Mary just sat, listened, received, without a thought for giving, serving, showing hospitality—or even helping her increasingly stressed and harassed sister in her need.

Having heard, listened and learned all these teachings of Jesus, she put them into practice in His very presence—and got a gentle but unmistakeable dressing-down for having the wrong priorities. Seemingly, it was better after all to receive, to be served, to neglect hospitality, not to care for the needs of Jesus and His disciples.

You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Martha. By the standards of almost any society at any time, Mary’s behaviour is slovenly at best, and Jesus’ defence of it is just bizarre and more than a little unfair.

But apart from the bare facts of the case, there’s another reason why our immediate sympathy is likely to be with Martha. For Martha is in so many respects like us, and we are so much like her. Martha, we are told, was “distracted” with much serving. She was “anxious” and “troubled”. For her, the presence of Jesus was a burden, an additional demand. Yes, it was probably an honour—but there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and this honour brought with it many cares and troubles.

This, dear friends, is the way of the Law. Martha had heard everything Jesus had said, but they had come to her as law. She was determined to do all that Jesus had commanded: to give, to serve, to show hospitality, to love her neighbour as herself—and more than that, to welcome Jesus into her house in a way that was befitting of both His honour as an esteemed guest and hers as the head of her house. She did everything that was expected of her.

And that was Martha’s mistake. Jesus entered her house, and she sprang into action. It was the wrong thing to do. It was Mary, the one who sat and did nothing, who made the right judgement. She chose the good portion: she chose Jesus and His words. She understood that what Jesus brings to a house is far more significant and important than what the house can provide for Him. And so she sat and did nothing and allowed Jesus to serve, to give, to show her His love.

This was a hard lesson for Martha, and it is a hard lesson for us. The way of the Law is hard-wired into us and it is so ingrained that we find it impossible to escape. “Don’t just sit there—do something! ” We are naturally suspicious of free gifts. In fact, we don’t like them. Have you ever squirmed uncomfortably when someone has given you a gift or treated you to something? Uncomfortably, because it leaves you feeling that you ought to give something in return. Because you are too proud to accept sheer unrequited generosity. Because there’s no such thing as a free lunch, or at any rate there ought not to be!

While the world may think it reasonable enough, there’s no space for such thinking in the Church. As Jesus taught the apostles: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt 10:8). This reminds us of the importance of giving freely—but it also reminds us how vital it is to receive freely.

In the Christian church, the only lunch worth having is the free one. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. When Jesus enters a house, a home, a heart, he comes to give—to give Himself. He is the King of Glory, but His moment of glory on earth was not the adulation of the crowds, or the triumphant entry to the cheers of bystanders, not even the subjection of demons and nature itself to His power. No, the Son of Man was glorified when He was exalted—that is lifted up—on the cross. The attention that He craves from us is not our gifts to Him, our selfless service. He doesn’t ask to receive anything from us—not even Mary-like devotion—and He doesn’t require any service from us. All He asks for by way of hospitality from us is to allow Him to serve and to give.

Martha meant well. She had taken Jesus’ word seriously. Like Abraham in Genesis 18, she recognised that someone extraordinary had come to her village and she went to great lengths to receive Him rightly. But she had the whole thing back to front. The three angels did not visit Abraham in order to taste the best of Sarah’s cooking; Jesus did not enter Martha’s house in order to be entertained and looked after. And Jesus does not come to us in order to receive from us. Not anything: not our worship, not our service, not our goods, not our lives, our obedience, our devotion, our piety, our prayers, our songs, our thankfulness. The Son of Man came not to be served—with these or any other things—but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.

So you can just sit there and do nothing. Nothing at all. Just receive: receive His forgiveness, receive His promises, receive His salvation. Because He is here now. Here, in this house, visiting this church family. Asking for nothing and doing all the giving. Gently but firmly telling you that you can leave the distractions of your life, the stresses and troubles, at the door, because you have come to an oasis, a watering hole, a place of rest and refreshment. Where all the goods are on the house, pre-paid and without limit. If you came to do stuff—to offer your service, to dignify Jesus with your gifts—I’m afraid you came on the wrong day.

But wait a minute, pastor! Am I not supposed to love my neighbour as myself? Am I not supposed to show hospitality? Am I not supposed to serve others, to make myself the least of all? Am I not supposed to be seeking to do God’s will in obedience and to honour Him with my life?

No. Not just now. Just now, you are supposed to sit there and do nothing, to receive and to enjoy your good portion: Jesus present here, for you. On another Sunday, He would be here with the very body and blood that sat in Martha and Mary’s house and was exalted on the tree of the Cross so that we could sit in His presence in an even more tangible and intimate way.

The moment we sing the final Amen this morning, you will again have plenty of opportunity to be distracted, stressed and troubled—and also to love because you have been loved first. But now, just for a moment, sit there and do nothing. Jesus wants to do the doing. For you.

A Tale of Two Sinners

Homily on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 13 June 2010, at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham (UK).

Text: Luke 7:36—8:3

Proclaiming and bringing

Saint Luke iconWhile reading Luke 8 with my wife last night, I noticed something that had passed me by before:

Soon afterward he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. (Luke 8:1)

Proclaiming and bringing. That’s a lovely summary of how the Gospel works: Jesus proclaims and brings the good news, all in one. The proclamation brings what it proclaims.

Or looked another way: preaching is at its heart spiritual care, because preaching is a public exercise of the office of the keys. The preaching of the Law brings about guilt, because it proclaims the condemnation of God on sin. And the preaching of the Gospel brings about absolution, because it proclaims the forgiveness of sins.

All in one neat pair of verbs: proclaiming and bringing.

John the Baptist, faith and doubt

John the BaptistThe Gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 7:2–20, includes John the Baptist’s famous sending of his disciples to ask Jesus whether He “is the one” or whether they should wait for someone else. From time immemorial, scholars and other theologians have debated over the question of whether this is an indication that John the Baptist was himself beset by doubt about Jesus’ identity.

There are, broadly, two views:

(1) John had no doubts about who Jesus was. He was simply performing his last teaching duty to his disciples by sending them to Jesus and having them ask Jesus effectively to confirm that He is indeed the Messiah. Thus, John ensured that these disciples severed their exclusive attachment to himself and re-attached themselves to Jesus instead. In other words, their mission from John was an acted out version of his words in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

(2) John did indeed doubt Jesus. Despite having borne witness to Him and pointed others to Him, while in prison John began to wonder whether in fact Jesus wasn’t the real deal after all. Perhaps he shared the narrow and mistaken expectations of Jesus’ disciples and rightly recognised that Jesus didn’t fit that pattern.

The attraction of the first view is obvious. John the Baptist was, according to Jesus Himself, the greatest of the prophets of the Old Covenant. To have a record of His final words being those of doubt seriously tarnishes the reputation of the great prophet, which fits ill with the whole story of John’s life to that point, especially in Luke’s Gospel, where Luke so clearly points out the parallels between the annunciation and birth of the two cousins, John and Jesus.

However, there are difficulties with this view. First, the plain sense of the text gives the impression that John was asking the question, not merely asking the disciples to investigate for themselves. Moreover, we have the disciples returning to John to report Jesus’ reply—something they wouldn’t have had to do unless they thought that John was asking them to inform him of the answer. Thirdly, John up to this point has been preparing for Christ. Surely he would have pointed them to Christ himself, and sent the disciples merely to see for themselves what he had told them already—in which case they wouldn’t have had any need to report back to John. This is further underlined by the fact that Luke tends to minimise John’s role of pointing to Jesus, rather than preparing for him. John isn’t even explicitly mentioned at Jesus’ baptism.

On these grounds, the second option seems more likely: that John himself began to waver while in prison and had to be reassured by Jesus via the testimony of his (John’s) disciples.

However, I like to follow the advice I received as an undergraduate from one of my teachers: “Whenever possible, avoid the either-or in favour of the both-and.” In the case of Luke 7, this principle applies, at least homiletically.

Option 1: John remains steadfast in faith

John is in prison, aware that the time of his ministry is over. Jesus must increase, he must decrease. However, many of his disciples remain loyal to him and, unlike Andrew and Peter, have not begun to follow Jesus. Therefore, John completes his God-given ministry by sending them to Jesus with the question: Are you the Christ. He knows the answer, and he knows that once they get to Jesus, they too will find the answer. As they do. John’s job was to point people to Christ, and he did so even from his incarceration. And as Pastor Larry Peters preaches so well, in this he is an example for us to emulate, and an encouragement to remain steadfastly Christ-focused in all our life—thinking, doing, witnessing.

Option 2: John wavers

The great prophet—the greatest of all the prophets according to Jesus—had completed his task of preparing Israel for the coming of the Messiah. Yet when Jesus did come, and John rightly identified him as that Messiah, his faith wavered. Like the disciples of Jesus, like the crowds, like the Pharisees and the scribes, John too expected a different sort of Messiah from the one Jesus turned out to be. John, too, succumbed to the temptation to be a theologian of glory. And so he sent the disciples to ask Jesus for reassurance. And, ironically, this fact can be a reassurance for us, too: like Moses, like Jeremiah, like the dim-witted disciples of Jesus—and like us—John too wavered in his faith. But if that’s all, it’s still cold comfort in the end. “You aren’t the only one” may be some consolation to someone struggling, but in the end the problem remains unsolved. However, John is a man of the Word to the end. Instead of speculating, or examining his own faith in the silence of his dungeon, he goes to the object of his faith: he sends his disciples to Jesus to find reassurance, to have his faith strengthened. And it is this, rather than the strength of his faith, that makes John the true example for us to emulate: when he was in doubt, when his faith wavered, he went to Jesus to be strengthened.

So which is it? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. For this is not really a story about John, but a story for us. Whether it is for the strengthening of one’s weak faith, or for leading others to faith, there is only one option, only one method: go to Jesus. As Horatio Bonar put it in his beautiful hymn on discipleship:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.

(Lutheran Service Book 699:1)