May 10, 2021
The Easter 7B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 17:6-19 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 47 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John 5:9-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 61 (Lord’s Day 23)
Author: Scott Hoezee
“You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.”
That is a saying of my former colleague Ron Nydam. And he’s right. Worse yet, we all know that you cannot insure the happiness of your children, either. And that truth is married to another undeniable fact and that is this: the wider world in which we want our children to be happy most assuredly cannot be counted on to make that happiness a reality. In fact, the wider world has millions of jagged edges ready to tear into any given person’s happiness and success and stability at a moment’s notice.
Jesus is not the “parent” of his followers but his love for them is at least as fervent as a mother or a father. Thus as he looks ahead to his own departure, realizing that he’d have to leave his friends to keep working in the midst of a highly challenging world, Jesus knows that among the things he must pray for them is protection from the evil one, from the destructive forces of life that seem calculated to knock the stuffing out of us more days than not. Jesus knows, too, that the success of his mission depends precisely on the disciples’ not being transported out of this world nor cocooned away somewhere far away from society or from the people in this world who need to hear the Gospel message.
No, the only way this thing was going to work was if the disciples continued to labor smack in the middle of the very same world that was about to reveal its character that very night when no less than the Son of the Living God would get arrested and accosted and then nailed to a spit of wood. That was the world in which they’d have to work and that was why Jesus had to spend so much of this prayer begging his Father to give them all the help, all the protection, all the support he could provide.
If ever we in the church needed a reality check as to what we should expect in ministry and in service to this world, the fervency of Jesus’ prayer here should remind us that we should not expect smooth sailing. Yet so many people seem to expect just that. Too many in the Church are just shocked when they encounter resistance to the Gospel. It’s as though we simply cannot believe that there could actually be atheists around or people who would prefer we not pray in public schools or those who take a view of sexuality or money that just is so clearly at variance with what Christians regard as God’s own truth.
But why should any of this surprise us? Jesus knew what we’d be facing. Yes, he prayed for protection and strength but he did so precisely because he did not necessarily think the world was going to be any more receptive to God’s kingdom than it had been in his own lifetime. The truth is we need all the prayer we can get as followers of God but we need it because Jesus knew that the evil one still has some kicks. We ought to expect no less. But the Good News is that Jesus is—right now—still praying this same prayer at the right hand of his Father.
Of course, Jesus first prayed it in front of the disciples too and there was no doubt a reason for also this. Haven’t we as pastors occasionally prayed for our congregations—and prayed in front of our congregations—in ways that expressed both our genuine gratitude for these members of our flock and yet prayed somewhat aspirationally for a few things we wish were more true of that same flock? All things being equal, we’ve all surely prayed things about the congregation as a whole that we know full well are not true for the congregation in its every detail!
The truth is, Jesus was the only realist in that upper room that night. He alone was ready to face the events John will tell us about in chapter 18 and beyond. And he alone knew he’d face his trials alone—he knew not only of Peter’s impending implosion but of the failure of them all. Yet here is how he prayed about those very same people.
The good news is that post-Pentecost, everything Jesus expresses here about his band of followers would come true. But even at the moment, it was finally an act of love that Jesus prayed the way he did. When you love people, you want the best for them and you express this in also your prayers for them. You want to give thanks for the things worthy of gratitude and you also want to see them so singularly through a lens of love and compassion that you’ll say things that may not be totally accurate at the moment but that will be true by and by and that will be gloriously true when that comes to pass.
Jesus is about to be brutalized by this world. And his dearest friends on earth would do nothing to stop it or even to stand with him in his agony and dereliction. Yet far from rebuking them or being angry with them, Jesus prayed for them and he did so in the best possible light at that.
There are oodles and oodles of vignettes in the New Testament that display how much love Jesus had for his people and for his most devoted followers. But as displays of love go, this prayer surely counts as one of the finest!
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Frederick Dale Bruner makes the claim that it’s possible to view John 17 as a whole as John’s expanded version of the well-known “Lord’s Prayer” that Jesus presents more straightforwardly in the Synoptic Gospels. Verse 1 contains the equivalent of “Our Father in heaven.” Verse 2’s talk about glorifying the Son that he may glorify the Father can be a gloss on “Hallowed be your name.” Verses 11-12 contain talk of the ongoing presence of the disciples in the world and this could be a version of “Your kingdom come” even as verse 15 can be seen as a “Your will be done” and also a “deliver us from evil.” Just beyond this lection in verses 20-24 one can also locate versions of “Forgive us our debts” and “Lead us not into temptation.” Whether Bruner’s idea works exactly here is open for debate but at the very least the similarities he notes shows that Jesus was indeed very consistent when it came to his own prayer life, his view of his Father, and what we need to pray for in this world.
I don’t know if this will mean anything to anyone all these years later but as I thought about Jesus’ concern for his followers in what is a rough world, I was reminded of a Youth Service sermon I preached at my former congregation a few weeks after 9/11 in the Fall of 2001 (amazingly enough that will soon be 20 years ago). My text then was from Romans 12 and one of our young people (Christina) had in that same service made her Profession of Faith, her “confirmation” as it might be called in other traditions. But here is how I ended the sermon—maybe it has some resonance with Jesus’ own loving concern for his followers:
“We all wish we could tell you for sure that the world is safe, or will be one day soon. We’d all love to make you feel secure just knowing that the FBI is on the case and that our bombs are bigger than their bombs. But the images burned onto our brains from September 11 inevitably remind us what a fragile thing life is. But the gospel has something to say to us even so–something that no news headline can ever touch.
In a recent column in the Christian Century a writer reminded us of something C.S. Lewis preached at Oxford University sixty-two years ago tomorrow on October 22, 1939. Hitler had invaded Poland only six weeks earlier, and England was at war. The undergraduate college students there at Oxford were frightened–many of them would face death soon, and altogether too many would die. Here is what Lewis told them: “If we had foolish unchristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven here on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are now disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”
The world is a dangerous place. There is much that is good about this world and this life–we are surrounded by God’s gifts and we are right to take joy in them now and hope that we and our children can take joy in such things in also the future. But final security and ultimate hope are not going to emerge from what we or any nation can achieve this side of God’s kingdom coming in all its fullness. That hardly means that as Christians we have nothing to say, however.
There is something to say, and that’s why I want to invite all of you young people, 5th graders through 12th grade, to come up right now and join me by the baptism font–consider this a more mature form of the “Children’s Sermon,” if you will, but I really do want you to come up here.
For probably every one of you there was a time when your mom or dad or both brought you to this font or one like it in some other church. I don’t know exactly what was going through your parents’ minds back then or how precisely they pictured what baptism means. But when Christian parents bring a child to the font, we are admitting that on our own, we cannot guarantee the child’s future. So in baptism we let God claim you. We handed your soul over to God through Jesus, in whose hands alone you would be safe forever, in life and in death. The Jesus who met you in baptism is your and my only comfort. There is ultimately no other security in this world, not really. So we let God claim you. Today Christina answered God back some fifteen or so years after her baptism. In baptism God told Christina and every one of you, “I’ve got you!” Today Christina replied and said, “Thanks! And I’m staying put in your love, Jesus!”
It’s a rough world. So I urge you, young people of this church, in view of God’s mercies to you, not to conform to the roughness of this world, not to go with the flow of anger and revenge, but to be transformed from the inside out. Return every day to the love of God in Jesus that scooped you up at this baptismal font some years ago. Rest secure in that love. And then let it help you be loving, too. Let that love motivate you to do the hard work of figuring out what God wants out of us Christian people. Let love, not hate; good, not evil, guide you until that day when the love and goodness of Jesus is all in all. Remember: you’re baptized kids! And so whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s. Live in that hope, rest in that hope, and so go forward with courage, knowing that our world belongs to God and so do you.”
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Author: Stan Mast
If I were to preach on this passage, my sermon would be entitled, “And Then There Were Twelve.” Here’s why.
To begin with, I was a bit surprised by the RCL’s choice for today. We’ve been following the progress of the Gospel out into the world, following Jesus directions/prophecy in Acts 1:8. And given that last Thursday was Ascension Day and that next Sunday will be Pentecost, I expected to focus today on those two great moments in Redemptive History from which the progress of the Gospel flowed. Instead, we get this transitional moment between Ascension and Pentecost.
But the more I reflected on this text, the more I see the wisdom of including it in our readings for “Ascension Sunday.” I mean, Jesus is gone. What now? What’s left? Here is what’s left. For all his work—his teaching and miracles, his life and his death, his resurrection and ascension—what’s left is 120 believers doing the work of the church decently and in good order. But that’s not the end of the story—not for the early church, not for today’s church. This is a church in transition.
To get the total picture of the church in transition, we have to move back to the verses immediately following Jesus’ Ascension. Verse 13 says that when they returned to Jerusalem after witnessing Jesus’s Ascension, all the apostles “went upstairs to the room where they had been staying.” Verse 14 suggests that they were joined by the rest of the people who had followed Jesus. So, rather than scattering to their own homes or to the market or to other individual pursuits, they were all together in one place.
Wouldn’t the church love to do that today, in these COVID scattered times. If gathering to encourage each other (Heb. 10:23) was once a habit or a duty, we now see at as a necessity and a privilege. After three years of being together as they followed Jesus all over the Promised Land, these “left behind” believers instinctively or habitually gathered together in one place. It’s what the church in transition does.
What did they do in that place? Verse 14 says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” What a marvelous thing, almost unthinkable in our politically fractured time! They put aside all their differences and, without exception, apostles and non-apostles, men and women, they joined together in prayer. Of course! Jesus was gone, but they knew he was still alive, so they kept talking to him, constantly, as they had while he walked with them.
What did they pray about? Well, verse 24 says they prayed about the day-to-day business of the church, like finding leaders. But given Jesus’ last words to them earlier in this chapter, it is highly likely that they prayed for the gift of the Holy Spirit. He had told them the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel through their witness to his resurrection would depend on the power of the Spirit. So, of course, they prayed that the power of the Holy Spirit would come upon them. It’s what the church in transition does.
Our immediate text for this morning tells us that “in those days Peter stood up among the believers and said, ‘Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David….” Peter used the Scripture to interpret what had just happened to them and what they should do next.
Peter was convinced that the Scripture was given by the Holy Spirit through human beings. He had what we have come to call a verbal, plenary, organic understanding of the inspiration of the Scripture. The words, all of them, were spoken by the Holy Spirit through human beings who used their own language to convey what the Spirit spoke. And because Scripture was so inspired, it was the authoritative norm for faith and life. What the Scripture said was true and must be followed.
After quoting parts of two Psalms in what might seem to us an unlikely interpretation, Peter uses those Psalms to explain what the church had to do now that Judas was out of the picture. (The RCL leaves verses 18-19 out of our reading, presumably because they are too bloody for Sunday morning preaching.) Peter preaches those old and obscure Scriptures as prescriptive for the church in transition. He and the others had learned from Jesus that all Scripture was about him and for his followers (Luke 24:27, 44-47). So he preached the Scriptures. It’s what the church in transition does.
“Therefore,” said Peter, “it is necessary to choose” someone to take Judas’ place in the band of apostles. The word “necessary” there is the Greek dei, which has the sense of divine necessity about it. The Spirit inspired Scripture revealed the divine plan and the church had to follow it. There had to be another apostle to take Judas’ place; there had to be a twelfth.
This twelfth apostle had to have the same qualifications as the other eleven. He had to be part of the original group of disciples who had of followed Jesus from that epiphany at Jesus’ baptism to the epiphany of his resurrection—someone who had witnessed the entire earthly ministry of Christ and who had witnessed his unearthly resurrection. In other words, this new apostle had to be an expert witness for Jesus, someone who could speak of and for Jesus with complete conviction and authority because he had been there for it all. Jesus was at the absolute center of the church, so its leaders had to be sure of Jesus. It’s what the church in transition does.
So, they selected two men who fit the bill and elected one of them. Nope! Though leaders were elected and appointed later in the life of the church, faith in God’s providential leading was much more central at this crucial moment. They had to get this right because the whole future of the church depended on it.
So, they prayed to Jesus. “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen….” And they put the decision squarely in Jesus lap. “Then they cast lots…,” in the spirit of Proverbs 16:33. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” That’s not a method many of us would choose, but they had absolute faith in God’s providential control of even supposedly accidental things. They walked by faith in God’s leading as they conducted the daily business of the church. It’s what the church in transition does.
I would love to serve a church like this—a neat, tidy, well run, devoutly prayerful, deeply Scriptural, Christ centered little band of genuine believers who loved to get together to do the proper business of the church. Wonderful, comfortable, encouraging– and not going anywhere yet.
And that’s why the text ends as it does. “The lot fell to Matthias and he was added to the eleven apostles.” “And then there were twelve.” There had to be twelve, because it was their mission to “restore the kingdom to Israel (verse 6).” Back in Luke 22:28-30, Jesus had said, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
God always intended to use the Twelve Tribes of Israel to bless the world, but they had failed in that mission. So, the kingdom had passed over to the Twelve Apostles. Of course, God had never forsaken Israel; he always intended to restore them for the sake of the world. But that restoration depended on the witness of the Twelve Apostles, the twelve who had witnessed Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel? It is not for you to know…. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses….”
“And then there were twelve.” The church in transition was ready and willing. But not yet able. That wouldn’t happen until One More was added to the church. The church in transition is a wonderful, comfortable, encouraging thing, but it can’t restore the Kingdom until the Spirit comes on it. Is your church in transition, or on the move by the power of the Spirit?
As I pondered how the early church immediately turned to Scripture as it tried to navigate life without the physical presence of Jesus, I remembered a Christianity Today review of a book by Brent McCracken, entitled The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World.
Using the analogy of the new familiar food pyramid which diagrams a healthy diet using the image of a pyramid, The Wisdom Pyramid suggests that we are spiritually and societally unhealthy because we have been feeding our souls from the top of the information pyramid, rather than the base of it.
At the base of the pyramid is Scripture, which should be the foundation of our information about life. The next level is the Church and its tradition. Next comes nature and beauty, the created world and the art that reflects that world. Next to the top is TV and the Internet with its news sources. At the top is social media, where everyone can put out their version of truth. While we certainly don’t have to forgo Twitter and Facebook entirely, we will introduce all kinds of unhealthy content into our lives if social media is the basis of how we see the world.
The CT review of McCracken’s book concludes: “In other words, it’s not merely that our wisdom diets are too heavy on the processed junk of the internet and social media and too light on the staple food of God’s Word and his church. More worrisome, perhaps, is how our appetite for the former can spoil our taste for the latter.” So, if Scripture says something that conflicts with what we’ve read on line, we are more and more likely to reject Scripture for the opinion of our own echo chamber. If we go back to basics, back to Scripture and the church’s tradition, like Peter and his fellow apostles and the church, we will be much wiser and healthier.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sample sermon: How We See Things
[Since Ascension Day is May 13 and the Sunday after it can also be Ascension Sunday, I am posting a sample Ascension Day sermon based on the Lectionary’s Ascension Day psalm text of Psalm 47.]
One of the most mind-boggling spectacles I’ve ever seen is a short science movie titled “Powers of Ten.” Many of us no doubt saw this movie in a high school physics class. More recently a new version of this came out for IMAX called Cosmic Voyage (narrated by God himself, which is to say Morgan Freeman!). Both films accomplish the same thing and in the case of the original movie I saw in high school, the first scene shows a close-up view of a young couple spreading out a picnic blanket on a grassy section of Chicago’s Grant Park. Then every ten seconds thereafter the camera pulls back, each time increasing its distance from the couple by a power of ten.
First the camera pulls back just one foot; ten seconds later it pulls back ten feet; ten seconds later it pulls back one hundred feet and then one thousand feet and then ten thousand feet and so on. At first you can still see the young couple. But soon you can pick out only the small square of their picnic blanket in the midst of the larger Grant Park. Seconds later Grant Park itself has been reduced to a small green patch as you can now see all of Chicago and the southern curve of Lake Michigan.
Next Chicago disappears as you see the whole United States. Then you see the whole planet earth, then even our own sun starts to shrink into an ordinary looking star. Within just a couple of minutes the picture has pulled back to the outer limits of the Milky Way galaxy and soon thereafter to the edge of the known universe. Once the edge of space is reached, the camera then quickly hurtles back through space, finally zooming back in on the couple in Grant Park. All in all the film is a stunning reminder of how small we are compared to the vastness of the universe.
As part of this week’s celebration of Ascension Day, I invite you to take a similar trip of the imagination. Let’s begin somewhere out in the vastness of space and then let’s start zooming in. We enter the bright spiral of our Milky Way galaxy, zooming past millions of bright suns. Then we enter our own solar neighborhood, zipping past Pluto, the rings of Saturn, and the red planet Mars, finally seeing the bright blue marble of Earth. Then we narrow our focus to Europe and Africa, descending more specifically to the Mediterranean Basin. Finally we see the region of Palestine, focusing on the country of Israel (itself no larger than Vermont). Then we move down to the modest city of Jerusalem, to the little hill known as Mount Zion, and finally we come in for a landing at Solomon’s Temple long about the year 900 B.C..
Then, having made this cosmic journey to this little pin-prick on the face of the earth, we witness a group of ancient Israelites singing Psalm 47 and thereby declaring to all who hear, “This Temple is the center of the universe! This is the throne of the Most High God–of Yahweh who is so mighty, so exalted, and so great that from this location on Mount Zion he rules every nation, every king, every speck of the cosmos!”
From the outside looking in, we cannot help but see this claim as ridiculous. It seems the height of audacity! Even if you limited your gaze to the then-known-world, Israel was a very small, middling nation. Compared to the vast empires of Persia and Egypt, compared to the splendors of Babylon’s hanging gardens and Egypt’s towering pyramids, Israel was a pimple on the face of the earth. So on what possible basis could the Israelites claim that they alone mattered, that they alone were the headquarters for the Sovereign of all creation?
Yet there it is in Psalm 47: Israel shouts its ardent belief that they are the theological center of the universe. Most scholars believe that Psalm 47 was sung when, as part of a worship service, the Ark of the Covenant was carried up into the Temple. That’s probably why verse 5 refers to God’s ascending amid shouts of joy–since the Ark was God’s throne on earth, seeing it ascending into the Temple was the same thing as seeing God going up. The only true God lived in Jerusalem and was in charge of every other ruler on earth.
When we read Psalm 47, we see lovely poetry that gives eloquent expression to our beliefs. But if back then you had been some atheistic king in Babylon or the Pharaoh in Egypt (yourself regarded as a god by the Egyptian people), then Psalm 47 would hardly strike you as lovely. How dare those puny Israelites huddle together in their pathetic little capital city and point their fingers at the kings of the world to say, “You’re nothing! Our God could buy and sell you! You, O mighty Pharaoh, and you, O lofty Emperor of China, and you, O exalted king of Persia, you all are the property of our God!”
Of course, within the confines of Israel the people did not have much opportunity to see the Egyptians or the Babylonians getting angry about such rhetoric. International communication was pretty minimal back then–Israel’s worship services were not beamed via satellite to other nations. Israel didn’t have its own Facebook page on which they posted such claims as their status updates. Nobody sent Tweets for #ZionIsKing. So it’s possible that the people who would have been the most offended by Psalm 47 never saw the worship services in which this was proclaimed.
Today our situation is vastly different. These days we live in an international marketplace of ideas and religions. Now what we Christians think about Jesus gets put into print and distributed far and wide. What’s more, today you don’t even need to leave home to encounter people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds. Attend any major university and your roommate is as likely to be a Buddhist as a Methodist. Have a donut and a cup of coffee in the breakroom at work, and the co-worker sitting across from you could as well be a Hindu as a Roman Catholic. And none of those people is going to like it if you present them with some version of Psalm 47.
At the interfaith services that have followed things like the tragic shooting in Newtown or the Boston Marathon bombing, the Christian pastor or the Jewish rabbi who participates in the service would, of course, always be welcome to read Psalm 46. In fact, Psalm 46 usually gets read. That’s such a comforting psalm, after all. “God is our refuge and strength.” But if anyone at such a service moved one psalm more and read this 47th psalm . . . well, the spirit of religious unity might unravel live on CNN.
Yet here we still are in the year 2021 gathered for worship to do what really we do every week: we come here to sing and shout our New Testament version of Psalm 47 by proclaiming that our Jesus has gone up amid shouts of triumph. Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand and is, right now, the King of kings and Lord of lords; the President of presidents and Prime Minister of prime ministers. Jesus, we say on Ascension Day and at all times, Jesus rules. Jesus is in charge whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not. Jesus is The One in so cosmic and galactic a sense as to offend anyone looking for mushy, half-mumbled affirmations that all religions are equally true. If what we came together to sing about this morning is true, then every faith system, every religion, and every person who claims another lord is wrong. Period.
These are not modest claims! Every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed and say “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” we are talking in huge, galactic terms. If our claims are true, then they affect everybody. If our claims are false, then no one could say, “Well, at least their faith serves some kind of purpose in their little lives!” If we’re right, then no one and no thing is excluded. If we’re wrong, then we’re wrong so devastatingly as to evacuate all meaning from our faith. “Jesus is Lord,” we say. But Jesus cannot be Lord kind of, sort of, here and there, now and again depending on your point-of-view.
It’s a little like some scientist who grabbed headlines by claiming, “My calculations show that our sun will go supernova in six months, evaporating all matter from the sun’s center out to the orbit of Mars.” A person could not be just a little bit right or a little bit wrong about a claim like that. Some claims simply don’t brook much middle ground. Ascension Day, the Lordship of Christ: this is how we see things. It’s how we see all things.
Of course, believing that we are not just locally right about Jesus as Lord but universally so does not give us license to abuse or bash those who disagree with us. But a claim as grand as Ascension Day will have some pretty big effect. So what might that be? Perhaps we are called to do the same thing the Israelites were called to do 3,000 years ago: namely, live as authentic witnesses to what we believe to be the truth.
We, too, must acknowledge that what we say and sing every Sunday when we gather in our little churches looks ridiculous. If it’s centers of power and influence you’re looking for, check out Hollywood, Wall Street, or Washington D.C. Even as Israel did not look like the center of the universe way back when, so the average church doesn’t look like much today, either.
The story is told that near the end of World War II Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin were observing a military parade of tanks and infantry units. At one point Churchill mentioned to Stalin that he was hoping that perhaps the Pope could have a good influence on their efforts at putting Europe back together after the war. Stalin leaned over and cynically answered, “Oh yes? How many divisions has the Pope got?” Most of our world cannot conceive of power and influence any other way.
The only power some people recognize is the power that comes from the barrel of a gun. At the outset of the film Grand Canyon a young street tough from South Central Los Angeles is roughing up a motorist whose car had stalled on the gang’s turf. When a black tow truck driver arrives to bail the motorist out, he begins to bargain and plead with the head of the street gang, asking that they let the motorist go unharmed. At one point the thug asks the tow truck operator, “You bargaining with me because you respect me or because I’s got a gun?” The driver answers truthfully, “Hey, you don’t have the gun, we ain’t talkin’!” “That’s what I thought,” the gang member replies. “That’s why I always carry the gun!”
The church doesn’t carry a gun, or isn’t supposed to, though some comments by some religious leaders lately make you wonder if everyone really knows this. We don’t have divisions of tanks. We don’t have that kind of clout or power. Nor, by the way, should we want it. We’re like Mount Zion of old: little pin-pricks dotting the landscape of a much bigger world. Worse, it’s a world whose headlines almost every day seem calculated to challenge the idea that any kind of a good, loving God is in charge of things.
Some years ago when the worst of Rwanda’s genocide was taking place as one ethnic group hacked another to pieces with machetes, Time magazine featured a quote from a U.N. observer on its cover: “There are no devils left in hell– they are all in Rwanda.” But when was the last time there was such a large outbreak of goodness and peace that, with stunned amazement, anyone wondered if there were any angels left in heaven seeing as shalom was popping out all over? No, ours is a world of hatred and strife, of children shooting children on playgrounds, of cancer and leukemia, of homegrown terrorists shooting up campuses and Christmas parties. It doesn’t look like a world ruled by a good Lord.
How then can we claim the truth of Ascension Day–the truth that Jesus is Lord and we are his people; that the church, all appearances to the contrary, is very much in touch with the theological center of the universe? How can we do this? We can do it only by letting our own lives bear out our ardent faith. We can do it only if Ascension Day is how we see things, is the lens through which we view our world, the nightly news, our decisions, our lifestyle choices, our everything. We have to let the Holy Spirit move us to live Jesus’ Lordship as consistently and boldly as we can. The shape of our lives needs to make Jesus as Lord more credible, not less so.
But perhaps that is why Ascension Day has not really “caught on” the way Christmas and Easter have. Outside the church, but alas even inside the church, Ascension Day doesn’t much register. Christmas and Easter are both big deals, but maybe that’s because on those two holidays it’s all done for you in a way that ensures you can get something out of it. Think of Christmas: Jesus is born! There he is. God’s got a gift for you, all wrapped up and lying in a manger! Or think of Easter: Christ is risen! There he is. God’s got a gift of new life for you that walked right out of the tomb.
But now think of Ascension Day: Jesus is lifted up. Where is he?! There’s no gift here–we’re left rather empty-handed. What’s more, wherever he went the last thing anyone heard him say was something to the effect, “You are my witnesses.” On Christmas and Easter we get Jesus given to us and so sit back to watch him act and speak. In the Ascension Jesus leaves and we are the ones left to act and speak for him! Small wonder our consumerist culture skips this one!
In the end it really does not matter how ridiculous we look when we sing sentiments like the ones in the 47th psalm. To those who only and always are on the outside looking in, faith always looks absurd. What does matter, however, is that if anyone bothers to get to know you, if anyone looks your life over more thoroughly to check out your professional conduct, your home life, your choices in the entertainment field, your care for the environment, your conduct as a friend or spouse or parent–if anyone scrutinizes all of that, then it matters very much that what they see in you is transparent to the truth of Jesus as the Lord of all. The church and our lives need to be the one place where his Lordship is visible.
And by grace it can be and by grace it is. This isn’t an impossible task for us because in a very real sense it’s not a task at all. It’s who we are by grace. Pentecost is coming up in two weeks. We are drenched in the Spirit’s presence now and as a result of that divine gift, everything changes. God has given us a new identity in Christ. Now the Holy Spirit empowers us to live that out every day and in every way. The Ascension and now the Lordship of Christ are how we see things because in our baptisms, we were given a new set of eyes.
In Maya Angelou’s classic essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” we see a vignette of what such new eyes may mean when we see Jesus as Lord. Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.
The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black. One thirteen-year-old girl even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom and front. Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something. Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” The girls tired of the show and left eventually, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down.”
Momma could see deeper, farther than just those nasty girls and their despising of her. She saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and it changed everything.
We opened this sermon thinking about how quickly we can be dwarfed by the vastness of the universe. Given how big the cosmos is, isn’t it a bit audacious to claim we have the corner on ultimate truth? And yet we believe we do precisely because in our faith we know how well the cosmic touches us in our tininess.
Because once upon a time God’s Son took his own cosmic “powers of ten” journey. Long ago the Son of God zipped past galaxies, quasars, suns, planets, and continents getting ever closer to this world until finally he dove deeply into the confines of a virgin’s uterus. There, as a microscopic zygote, he took on human DNA, skin, organs, and blood, and was born in a small stable, all his vastness enclosed by no more than a goat’s feed trough.
Never before had the cosmic and the local, the vastness of space and the smallness of a single human being, mingled in so wondrous a way. And that is the God and Lord we serve; that is why we can be so sure that despite also our smallness, God is with us and does great things through us.
As the psalmist knew, this is a gospel too grand to be watered down–it needs to be sung with loud voices and the sounds of trumpets, inviting the whole world to “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to the Lord upon his throne! Sing praises to God, sing praises! For he is highly exalted!” Amen.
1 John 5:9-13
Author: Doug Bratt
1 John’s “love letter” approaches its “landing strip” with this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson. Yet it may initially seem as if this “flight” is veering off course. After all, in a letter that John packs with calls to love God and our neighbor, this text emphasizes testimony.
Of course, 1 John 5:9-13 is related to the verses that immediately precede it. Yet even verses 6-8 seem to veer a bit “off course” from not just 1 John’s first four chapters, but also from chapter 5’s first five verses. After all, after speaking about faith in the son of God there, John seems to swerve to speak about Jesus Christ as “the one who came by water and the blood” (6) and the three-fold “testimony” of the Spirit, the water and the blood (7).
The trustworthiness of that testimony is among 1 John 5:9-13’s subjects. In verse 5 John calls God’s testimony “greater” than any human testimony. The Greek word mega suggests that it’s greater in status. Eugene Peterson’s biblical paraphrase The Message suggests that means that God’s testimony is more reassuring than human testimony.
It’s, after all, “the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son” (9). This, insists John, is compelling evidence for God’s testimony’s trustworthiness. After all, while humans are natural liars, God always speaks the truth. While humans’ views of the things about which we testify are sometimes flawed, God sees perfectly. So, it’s as if the apostle suggests, since God offers the testimony about God’s Son, people can “take it to the bank.”
God, however, doesn’t, as it were, offer that trustworthy testimony from some sort of courtroom witness box or at the scene of a crime. No, John insists, God lodges God’s testimony deep within believers’ “hearts,” at the very animating center of Christians’ beings.
The content of God’s testimony is essentially this: “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Jesus’ friends can rely on God’s gift to us of eternal life. God, after all, testifies deep within us that we enjoy that life only “in his Son,” in union with Jesus Christ, in a faithful relationship with him.
Of course, those God creates in God’s image and deeply loves naturally look for life in all sorts of places. People gladly give our hearts and lives to all kinds of things and people. But this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists that we’ll only know life as God created it to be in a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ.
But, of course, sadly, some people refuse to believe even God’s testimony. They try to reduce Jesus’ to something less than what he claims for and about himself. This, however, reduces God, mourns the apostle, to a “liar.”
To say that Jesus is something less than God’s only natural Son puts God on the same level as Eden’s serpent that convinced our first parents to believe its deadly lie. The lie that, ironically enough, God prevented our first parents from eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil precisely because God didn’t want those God creates in God’s image to be “like” God.
There are so many labels that people naturally try to affix to God: unfaithful, unpredictable, judgmental, etc. Yet is there any label that’s both harsher and less true than that God is a liar? If God is, in fact, a liar, God can’t be relied on. Nothing God says or promises can be trusted. That, says 1 John 5, is essentially what those who refuse to believe that life is found in Jesus Christ alone assert.
Those who proclaim this might want to try to imagine what such a life might look like. What would it be like to think of God as a liar? What might life be like for those who can’t trust God to keep God’s word, to be faithful to God’s own self and character?
Someone I know, I’ll call him Roger, is, in my thinking, a Christian. But Roger struggles to believe God’s promises. He finds it hard to trust God because he can point to countless things that he deduces show that God hasn’t been and still isn’t reliable. This, frankly, leaves Roger’s life quite miserable. While he genuinely wants to believe, he often simply can’t believe God’s promises. Perhaps partly as a result, he finds it hard to believe God’s people’s promises.
My friend Roger may, quite simply, fail to have life in its fullest sense. God has saved him by God’s amazing grace. But he doesn’t have the life to which God summons God’s dearly beloved adopted children.
Roger is lively in the sense that his heart beats strongly and his brain works extremely well. Yet he doesn’t have the kind of life that flows, by God’s grace through the work of the Spirit, out of relying on God to be faithful to himself, God’s people and the creation. It’s too harsh to label Roger as a walking dead man. Yet his failure to believe that God is trustworthy leaves him limping badly through much of life.
The apostle John ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by insisting that he doesn’t want anyone to limp through life like Roger, struggling to believe God’s testimony. He writes not just this Sunday’s text but also his entire first letter, so that those who believe “may know that” they have “eternal life” (13).
Life that, Reformed Christians profess, doesn’t simply begin when Christians pass from life to Life in God’s eternal and glorious presence. It begins, instead, at the moment that God gives God’s adopted sons and daughters new birth that they receive with their faith in Jesus Christ. After all, the life with which God graciously gifts us is true life because it’s life as God created it to be. It’s life lived in harmony with God’s loving purposes and plans.
One might argue that “testimony” is perhaps an especially American fascination, dare I say, obsession. Americans even have an entire cable television network that’s in a sense devoted to it. CourtTV says it has “live gavel-to-gavel coverage of America’s biggest and most important trials.”
Among the trials the network recently covered was that of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. For several weeks at least some of us were riveted by the sensational trial. Witnesses for the prosecution included the 911 dispatcher who handled the call that sent police officers to the scene of Mr. Floyd’s arrest as well as a witness at the scene of Mr. Floyd’s murder. Witnesses for the defense included a use of force expert and a former chief medical examiner.
All offered what their allies called “expert testimony.” But those testimonies often sharply conflicted with each other. So jurors in both the courtroom and across the United States had to weigh whose expert testimony was more believable: that for the prosecution or that for the defense.
Ultimately, of course, the jurors in that Minneapolis courtroom found Mr. Chauvin guilty of several counts of murder. They, quite simply, trusted the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution more than they trusted the testimony of the witnesses for the defense.