Who, Not How

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 24, 2016
Taken from Luke 10:38-42

Hands - 07-24-2126

Today I want to start with the prayer before the Lord’s Prayer. Did you catch that one in today’s reading? We talk a lot about the Lord’s Prayer, but there another prayer that comes right before it. It’s okay to look back, if you like—this is an open-book quiz. This prayer I’m talking about comes in Luke 11, the first verse, from the mouth of one of the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

“Lord, teach us to pray.” That may not strike us at first as a prayer, but it’s actually a pretty good one, isn’t it? Have you ever prayed that? “I wish I could pray better.” Or, “I wish I could pray like____ (insert name here).” Or maybe a New Year’s Resolution: this year I’m going to pray more. I won’t ask for a show of hands for who’s done that one! I would guess that all of us at some point, maybe right now, have shared the desire of these disciples to be “better” at praying.

How amazing would it be to have a special prayer lesson from Jesus, of all people? This is a guy who clearly knows how to pray! So the disciples go up to Jesus and ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Teach us to pray.

I wonder if they thought Jesus would teach them a special trick. “All right, if you really want something, make sure you ask like this.” Surely Jesus would know the best technique. Or maybe they simply admired the depth and intensity of his spiritual life. He woke early in the mornings to go off and pray alone, and he prayed with large crowds of people; he would pray over meals with his disciples and pray intensely in a garden at night. Prayer for Jesus was everywhere, connecting him with God and enabling him to live in a clear, purposeful way. Teach us to pray like that, the disciples asked.

And he does. So today, we look at what Jesus teaches them about prayer.

Let me be clear that the goal of this sermon is not for me to teach you to pray. Jesus is the person for that job, not me, though I will look carefully at what he teaches. And I should also say upfront that there is a lot I don’t understand about prayer. Top of the list is that age-old question of why some prayers seem to get answered and others don’t. Why do some people who are sick get better and some not? Why are some of our most desperate prayers met with silence? There are paradoxes here that I don’t understand and don’t expect to ever figure out. I’m not going to try to answer those questions today. And I’m also not going to give you any special techniques for how to pray better. Here’s why: I don’t think Jesus cares about technique.

When it comes to prayer, method doesn’t really matter. What matters, what Jesus teaches us, is the relationship with God lying under that prayer. It’s a question of who, not how. Rather than a secret technique, Jesus teaches his disciples who God is and who they are in relation to God.

So let’s look at his answer, starting first with what he teaches about God.

From the opening words of the prayer, we are told to relate to God as our father, and then Jesus uses a couple of illustrations to make his point. “Which of you… if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” The absurdity of those questions is obvious. Parents don’t put their kids in harm’s way; you don’t let kids play with knives or jump off buildings or play with snakes and scorpions—at least I hope not! Good parents give children what they need to grow and thrive, not things that will hurt them. And that’s true even when the kids don’t like it.

There’s a funny blog online called “Reasons my kid is crying.” On that website, people upload pictures of their toddlers in full meltdown mode, with a caption explaining the various reasons why. I’ll read some of the captions, and I’ll let you imagine for yourself an image of the most miserable, dejected toddler you can imagine.

  • I wouldn’t let her drink the yummy blue juice that goes in the dishwasher.
  • Because he didn’t want to get in the bathtub. Then because he didn’t want to get out.
  • It took me more than 0 seconds to take his shirt off.
  • Someone else was walking on the sidewalk.
  • She wants to be in the corner of the room and in bed at the same time.
  • Asked for a waffle. Refused waffle. Asked why the waffle was taken away. Screams because she doesn’t have her waffle.
  • He wants the windows down in the car but not the wind in his face.
  • We asked him to stop hitting his big brother with a fly swatter.

They go on, but you get the idea. That’s part of parenting: little kids crying because they want something that’s not good for them, or not possible, or not even logically consistent. It’s funny to watch, because we see how they don’t quite understand how the world works yet.

Do you think God ever hears our prayers that way? Not that God is laughing at us, but that God sees our experiences and prayers with a broader understanding and perspective that we don’t have. And God is not mad about that, or disappointed, any more than a loving parent is mad at an infant for not understanding the intricacies of physics or economics. God as parent loves us despite our limitations.

We should acknowledge here that this metaphor has its downsides. Not everyone experiences parental love that is kind and generous, and no human parent is perfect. And it’s also worth saying that although we use the term Father, we are not saying that God is a man; we can see qualities of mothers and fathers when we encounter God.

But despite those caveats, the image of God as parent is a powerful one, and it reminds us of something important that we should remember when we pray: like any good parent, God already wants what is best for us. That sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying again: God already wants what is best for us.

Prayer is not about talking God into giving us what we want, or trying to prove that we are faithful enough to deserve good things. Prayer is not a kind of cosmic manipulation, where if we get the words just right, our wish comes true. So when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he doesn’t say, “Okay, guys, here’s the secret. Here’s what you have to say.” He reminds them to start by saying, Father. God already wants what is best for you; you don’t have to get the words just right to get your message through.

And Jesus probably could have stopped the prayer right there, with the profound dynamic of parental love encapsulated in that single word, “Father”. But he continues, and I think the petitions that follow teach us something about ourselves.

If God is father, who are we? Well, children, of course, but what does that mean? What does our half of the relationship look like?

When I was growing up, I remember a cartoon that was on the bulletin board at church—maybe you’ve seen it—which shows a panicked student sitting at his desk, looking terrified, with the caption, “As long as there are exams, there will be prayer in schools.” They say that need is the great teacher of prayer. When we find ourselves in a tough spot, like an exam we didn’t study for, we naturally turn to prayer. Our needs bring us to our knees, and we turn to God for help.

When Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer, he teaches us to see that we are always in need. Take a look again at the words here, as Luke presents them, and see how plain and concrete this prayer is. This is not: “o thou everlasting and incomprehensible greatness, we do humbly beseech thee in thy lofty heights…” No. Jesus’s prayer is not flowery and ornate. It’s real. It’s for people who are hungry and need food. It’s for people who ache for God’s kingdom to come because they are suffering right now. It’s for people who have messed up and need to be forgiven. It’s for people who struggle with temptation. In other words, it’s for us. It’s for real people who are humble enough to admit they have real needs.

I wonder if that’s why it is hard to pray sometimes. We prefer to be in control, to be self-sufficient, to see ourselves almost as gods. But the truth is, we are always in need—of direction, of daily bread, of forgiveness, of protection. If you’re going to pray like this, it means taking on a posture of being dependent on God, and not sufficient by yourself. If you pray these words, it means you need God, and you are not God. You are a child.

Prayer allows us to see ourselves with the right perspective, the perspective of our relationship with God.

Jerusalem, Israel, is home to many holy sites and historic churches. One of those, atop the Mount of Olives, a short, steep walk away from the Temple Mount, is a church called the Pater Noster, which is Latin for… “our Father”. It is a site that came to be regarded as the place Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer. Architecturally, there are some 4th Century Byzantine ruins there, but the main attraction for most visitors is the courtyard containing 140 large, colorful ceramic plaques displaying the Lord’s Prayer, each one in a different language. You can watch tour groups search for and then flock around a particular plaque, depending on where they are from: Italian for this group, Swahili for this one, Arabic for another. There’s something magical about finding your own language, but also in seeing so many other translations of this same prayer.

Today, in churches all over the world—in Jerusalem, Beijing, Barcelona, Charlottesville—Christians will gather and recite these words, an amazing commonality that connects us all together. There will be different languages, different liturgies, different theologies, even slightly different wording. Catholics, for instance, do not include “For thine is the kingdom…”. Yet those differences don’t really matter, because this is not a magic formula we have to get just right to get God’s attention. The important thing is not even the words themselves, but the relationship that lies behind them. It is that relationship that is seen at the heart of the prayer Jesus teaches, that relationship with a God who is a parent who loves us and already wants what is best for us, not a distant authority figure to be appeased or manipulated. It is that relationship that we nurture when we pray.

So now, as we close, let us connect with God and unite with sisters and brothers around the world, as we pray once again the words that Jesus taught us, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:  for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

Choosing to Choose

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, July 17, 2016
Taken from Luke 10:25-37

mary martha -by he huibing

Did you know that last Sunday afternoon, the files on my computer needed to be re-organized? Well, probably not. Actually, I didn’t either, until I should have been figuring out what to write for this sermon. All of a sudden, those files just absolutely must be categorized, sorted, and labeled. And then, the empty shoeboxes long gracing presence of the floor beside my bookcase, needed to move to their proper place in a closet down the hall. A news article caught my eye, with “Six tactics to keep your kids from becoming too materialistic” – seems worthwhile, how could I not check that out? 10 Exercises to Prevent Runner’s Knee? Well yeah, I don’t want that, better start reading!

Ahh, procrastination. We all have our favorite vices, and this has long been one of mine. If you ever come in my office and see my desk free of paper and my shelves nicely organized, either I’m really on top of things, or—more likely—there was something else that I should have been doing.

Not so with Martha. Oh, no. She is not to be deterred. Let’s get to work, she says. I’ve got things to do. No idle Facebook browsing for me, no barrage of online articles with click-bait titles, no meandering and re-organizing. Martha is efficient and productive, getting things done—the exact opposite of my procrastinating self. Martha is hard at work, and all the while, Mary sits in the other room doing nothing.

This is a familiar story for many of us, isn’t it? Mary and Martha have become type characters for us, representing two totally different ways of engaging the world. Mary and Martha. On the one hand, a life of contemplation, quiet, prayer; and on the other a life of action, busy-ness, work.

There is value in that comparison, to a point. I’ve heard lots of people over the years who’ve seen something of themselves in Martha, noting that the really should slow down and take a break. And that’s a valuable insight.

But today I want us to take another look into this passage to see if there is more we might find there.

After all, Jesus doesn’t actually say, “Some of you are like Mary, faithfully devoted: good for you. Some of you are like Martha, too busy all the time: cut that out.” There’s more to it than that.

So let me start, first of all, by defending Martha’s willingness to work. It’s worth saying upfront that the moral of this story is not that “doing is bad.”

“Doing” is not bad. Reading this story by itself might give you that impression, but, fortunately, this story doesn’t come by itself. When this story is put in context, the picture gets a lot more interesting. Let’s zoom out a bit and see where we are.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been working our way through the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and this story picks up right where we left off.

Two weeks ago we read the story of Jesus sending out 72 of his followers. Do you remember that story? These 72 have been devotedly following Jesus around, listening, learning, being attentive disciples (kind of like Mary…), and eventually Jesus says, okay, that’s enough; time to get to work. Go! Get out of here! He sends them two by two to all the towns in the area, telling them to stay in people’s houses, relying on their hospitality. Eat and drink with them, heal the sick, teach them. Go and get to work!

Then, last week, we continued in Luke 10 to the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Here, the hero of the story is not the religiously devout priest or pious Levite, but the foreigner who stops and gets his hands dirty to help someone in need. This is tangible, concrete love of neighbor, and Jesus ends with the unambiguous command, “Go and do likewise.”

The very next verse brings us into Martha’s house, where Martha is hard at work, getting her hands dirty to care for Jesus, the neighbor she has welcomed into her own home, preparing a meal for him. It’s tangible, concrete love of neighbor. Faith in action, just like he commanded. Right?

No… Where did she go wrong?

It can’t be the fact that she was busy doing things. Jesus has made it abundantly clear that he expects a great deal of doing from his disciples. I don’t think Martha is wrong for getting to work. Jesus doesn’t tell her to kick back and watch TV.

What does Jesus say is the problem? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.”

Martha’s problem is: distraction.

[PAUSE.] Hmmm…. I was kind of hoping a fire truck would go by just now, or at least a cough or a sneeze.

We all know that distractions happen, including here at church. Earlier this week (when I was definitely not procrastinating!) I came across an article listing the “top 10 actual stories of preaching distractions,” a dramatic list of unplanned excitement during sermons. Here’s a taste: “A bat started flying low while I was preaching. Many people were screaming. Finally some of the men captured the critter. They actually had prayer over him and released him toward the Methodist church.” Here’s another: ““The pastor was ten minutes into his sermon when two police officers came in the service, pointed to a deacon to come out of the pew, handcuffed him and took him away. I thought the amazing thing was that the pastor kept preaching, but I was even more amazed that the deacon’s wife stayed for the entire service.” [from http://thomrainer.com/2013/04/top-ten-actual-stories-of-preaching-distractions/ ]

Distractions happen. They’re a part of life.

But what happens when distraction doesn’t just a momentarily interrupt our lives, but controls it?

What happens when we get so caught up in the trivial things, that we miss out when God turns up right beside us? Martha was so distracted by getting things ready for Jesus, she nearly missed the fact that Jesus was sitting in her living room!

Distraction takes our attention from what matters and puts our focus on things that don’t. Martha is distracted, so she’s not paying attention to what really matters.

I started this sermon by confessing my tendency for procrastination, noticing how different my aimless meanderings can be from a busy, productivity-machine like Martha. But if we realize that her problem is distraction, then maybe we’re not so different after all.

Martha’s brand of distraction is frantic activity, but distraction can also look like procrastination, or it can be financial worries, or family drama, or self-centered ambition, or chasing after the wrong goals. Distraction happens whenever we let something less important take the place of what really matters. It’s easy to get stuck there and live our lives focused on the wrong things.

So what are we supposed to do? What is it that this story teaches us? If Martha has gotten distracted, what is it that Mary did right?

I’m afraid Jesus says very little about Mary. There’s no “10 Easy Steps to being a good disciple.” What he does say about her is this: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary has chosen what is better.

My gut reaction to that is to think, “well, what did she choose?” What is it that’s better? Tell us more! But you know, I think the important thing here is not what she chose, but the fact that she chose. Mary has chosen what is better.

The antidote to distraction is choice: choosing for ourselves what matters, instead of doing whatever happens to come along. Instead of letting worries and distractions define your day-to-day life, choose to focus on what matters. Choose to choose for yourself. And then you can decide what to do.

Martha didn’t do that. She didn’t decide to ignore Jesus, but she also didn’t decide to pay attention. And so, autopilot kicked in and she got too busy to even think about where she should be.

So please don’t hear me wrong. The point of this sermon, and the point of the story of Mary and Martha, is not to tell you that you’re doing too much and that you should slow down. That may be true, but that’s for you to decide. Here’s the thing, though: you should decide. If you see that you’re doing things you don’t need to be, than decide to be done with those. That’s part of what this story teaches. But, just as important, if you want to serve God by all the things you’re doing, then by all means, choose to do that. Make the choice and enter your work with a deliberate intention to serve God and your neighbors through your actions. That is also a faithful choice.

To bring this back to UBC, I am so grateful for all the people here who do choose to love God and neighbor by their doing. During this past week, people in this congregation have taken meals to friends who were sick, decorated the stage for VBS, greeted people in the parking lot for a funeral service, prepared for and cleaned up after the reception, and written who knows how many emails about every aspect of church life. There are many faithful ways to serve God, and I don’t think the story of Mary and Martha means that doing such things is bad.

But it does suggest we should choose do those things deliberately, or we risk missing the point. Like Martha, we can get so busy serving God that we forget the amazing reality that God is right here with us, right now, in our houses, at our work.

Of course, life will happen. We’ll get preoccupied with our to-do lists, we’ll find ourselves too addicted to our smartphones and newsfeeds, things will happen that knock us off balance and in so many other ways we will come to realize that our lives are moving along on autopilot. And when that happens, I hope we’ll come back again to the story of Mary and Martha.

For the bulletin artwork today, there were many paintings to choose from, since so many artists have depicted the scene in Martha’s house. I’m sure you’ve also imagined it in your own mind. Most of these paintings have an angry, bitter Martha glaring over at a serene, saintly Mary. I didn’t pick one of those, because while that is a scene in the story, I don’t think the story ends there, with distracted Martha, but a few frames later when Martha has been invited to choose to join her sister before Christ. One sits quietly, and one stands with her hands full, but both are invited to choose the most important thing.

It took Martha (like most of us) a little while to get there. But even when she was distracted or preoccupied, Jesus interrupted her busy-ness and called out her name. Not with judgmental scolding, “Martha, Martha, Martha,” but with a calm, steady invitation: “Martha, Martha.” You don’t have to do that; you get to choose. And so do we.

So, choose. Look past the distractions, and take the reins of your life. Listen for the one calmly speaking your name to you, calling you into the fullness of your life, and choose to follow.

To Inherit Eternal Life: A Muslim’s Mercy

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 10, 2016
Taken from Luke 10:25-37

The Good Samaritan - van Gogh

There is difference between knowledge and wisdom.  A handy way to remember difference goes like this:  Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.  I’ve thought about that distinction over the last few days each time I looked over today’s sermon title.  I’ve wondered about knowledge and wisdom.

On the knowledge side, I know that for many of us contemporary American Christians, that a Muslim is in fact the modern-day equivalent of what a Samaritan was for a 1st-century Palestinian Jew.  So, my sermon title today, “To Inherit Eternal Life:  A Muslim’s Mercy” – that is informed by knowledge.  I’m just not so sure it’s also informed by wisdom by actually putting it in the bulletin.

To speak of a Muslim’s mercy as though that might have anything remotely to do with a Christian’s hope of inheriting eternal life, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?  At the very least, it’s a gratuitous provocation upon the sensibilities of us Christians.

As might be true for us today so it was true then, on this day when Jesus just puts it out there, as Luke records for us.  Jesus doesn’t prepare this poor lawyer for what he’s about to spring on him.  Jesus doesn’t qualify the word “Samaritan” with the word “good” because, frankly, for these Jews there gathered around Jesus and for generations of Jews who’d come before them, there was no such thing as a “Good Samaritan”.

If that is so, why does Jesus tell this particular parable in this way?  Was it wise thing for him to do so?  For us, today, of course, Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan is enshrined as Scripture, so we can’t change it.

But it wasn’t so on that day.  Jesus could have told his parable a dozen other ways…but why this way?  Is Jesus just pulling this out of thin air, a gratuitous provocation for those listening to this argument?

Jesus, of course, is an excellent storyteller, but Mr. Luke can spin out a pretty good tale himself.  You see, Luke is not simply stringing together a bunch of little stories to flesh out a life about Jesus.  Luke is weaving together little stories in order to tell us his readers one Great Story.

The Great Story is the Kingdom of God has come near to you in Jesus of Nazareth.  The little stories Luke records for us build on one another, one leading to the next, unfolding before us the Great Story of God’s Kingdom now among us.  And, that’s what Luke has done here.

Jesus wasn’t just pulling this story out of thin air, and Luke wants to prepare us for it.  Luke gets his readers ready for what Jesus is about to tell here in chapter 10 by telling us a little nugget one chapter back, in chapter 9.  Jot down this reference to read later:  Luke 9, verses 51-56.

Getting us ready for chapter 10, Luke tells us near the end of chapter 9, that Jesus is up in Galilee, and he realizes now is the time for him to head south to Jerusalem.  The most direct route is for him and his followers to go through Samaria to reach Judah and then on to Jerusalem.

So, that’s what they do.  They head south, approaching Samaria.  Perhaps it gets toward the end of the day; they need water and food and shelter for the night.  So Jesus sends messengers on ahead to the next village to prepare for his arrival.  Remember we talked about that last Sunday.

It’s a village of Samaritans, of course.  The messengers show up at the village and make inquiry.  But, Luke tells us in chapter 9, verse 53, that when the Samaritans realize this is a band of Jews headed toward Jerusalem to celebrate a festival, they rebuff them…”Get outta here!  We don’t serve your kind around here!”  That’s what they told them.

So the messengers return to where Jesus and the others are waiting and report this to Jesus.  Luke tells us it makes James and John so angry they say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?”

 Now, where have we heard that recently?  They’re taking a page right out of Elijah’s playbook, aren’t they?  That’s how Elijah dealt with people like this; you unleash holy fire to reign down on them.

Think about that a moment.  There is a village out there in front of them.  It’s full of Samaritan men, women, children, babies.  All settling down for the night, and James and John want to call in a drone strike from heaven!  They’re not being metaphorical!  They are actually asking for Jesus’ permission to have divine fire drop down out of the sky onto this unsuspecting village and incinerate them!

We don’t need scholars to tell us what Samaritans thought about Jews and what Jews thought about Samaritans.  Luke does a pretty good job of letting us know that right here in these few verses in chapter 9.  The followers of Jesus despised Samaritans and the Samaritans despised them, with a racial hatred and a religious hatred fueled at least for the past 500 years, if not longer.

Why does Luke tell us that ugly incident here, now, near the end of chapter 9?  Luke is telling us, his readers, you just hold that little episode in your minds for at least one chapter longer.  Jesus rebuked James and John for what they asked, but you better believe this incident stuck in their craw.

Especially so because now Jesus and the disciples have to cut way over to the East, all the way over into the Jordan River valley, where they catch another road south that follows the Jordan River all the way down to the city of Jericho, where now they can catch the road from Jericho back through the treacherous, dangerous mountains, to reach Jerusalem.1

So by this little bit of foreshadowing, we now know that these traveling Jews found themselves on the road and in need, but they were rebuffed and treated rudely by Samaritans.  Now, these same traveling Jews find themselves walking the dangerous road that connects Jerusalem to Jericho.

So, no, Jesus wasn’t just pulling this parable out of thin air, was he?  He was being quite intentional in how he constructed this little story.

We may find the sermon title, “To Inherit Eternal Life:  A Muslim’s Mercy”, is wee bit provocative.  Imagine how much Jesus’ parable, “To Inherit Eternal Life:  A Samaritan’s Mercy”, provoked everybody there that day.  We’ll appreciate that Jesus wasn’t just speaking to this lawyer, was he?  He was aiming it at James and John and the other disciples, too.

So, Jesus and the disciples are on that same road over from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Along the way this lawyer encounters them, realizes this is a Galilean rabbi he’s heard about, and decides to test Jesus’ credentials:  “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, that is a crucial question, is it not?  If you believe there is God, and if you believe there is an eternal life with God that you might have, and if you believe that that life with God would be far richer and satisfying far beyond imagining, you and I should be asking that question for ourselves:  “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, if someone asked us that question, “Friend, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, we would naturally quote a Scripture from the New Testament.  There’s lot to choose from, so we’d want to pick one that gets right to the point, such as Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

That’s pretty much what the lawyer wants to hear out of Jesus.  He wants to hear Jesus quote back to him the correct Scriptural response.  Because that’s this lawyer’s profession.  It is his vocation to make sure all is being done according to Scripture.

It’s his job is to draw up contracts, to counsel clients, to settle lawsuits, to argue zoning requirements, to assess weights and balances…anything you can imagine…his job is to ensure all is done in a way consistent with Hebraic Holy Law.2

I have a lawyer friend who once served in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office down in Bedford County.  She said one day a man came in needing some legal advice.  He had traded away one of his hunting dogs to another man in the county for a shotgun he’d admired that this man owned.  Straight trade, hand shake, nothing complicated.

Except, the hunting dog kept leaving its new owner to come back home to its original owner.  This kept on happening, over and over, until finally the man wanted his shotgun back.  The dog’s former owner didn’t think he had any control over the dog since it wasn’t his dog anymore.  So, his question to my assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney friend:  was he obligated to hand the shotgun back over to its original owner?  This may have actually been the case that caused my friend to go find somewhere else to practice law.

That’s the kind of question this lawyer interrogating Jesus lived for!  He could have sorted through all of the Book of Leviticus, and all the precedents of similar cases down through the generations, faster than you and I could Google it to tell that man exactly whether he needed to return the shotgun. Out would come the answer, all squared up with Jewish law.

Jesus throws the question right back to him:  “What is written in the law? How do you read (what you shall do to inherit eternal life)?”

You can probably quote this without peeking down at your bulletin:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

 “Boom!  You nailed it!” says Jesus, “So go do that, and you’ll be fine.”

Realizing that a peasant rabbi from Galilee with no training whatsoever had just turned the table on him, the lawyer won’t let it go.  He says in verse 29, “Oh, yeah?  And who is my neighbor?”  And thus begins Jesus’ little parable about the traveling Jew walking the road that connects Jerusalem and Jericho.

A gang of robbers assault him, rob him of everything including his clothing.  They leave him stripped naked under the brutal sun, dying and easy prey for the animals.

Along come other travelers, also Jews.  Who among them will recognize that this man, lying in the ditch near death, is their neighbor whom the Law obligates them to help?  You see, that’s the lawyer’s assumption of where Jesus is going with this little story.  What does the Law say about the man lying there in the ditch?  Even under these circumstances, is he my neighbor?

Well, watch, says Jesus…along comes a priest also headed to Jericho.  The priest knows good and well that this man is his neighbor under the law, but he cares more about his own safety, so the priest keeps right on going.  “Hah!” maybe the lawyer thinks to himself, “that’s about what you could expect from a priest.”

Then, there comes along a Levite, also heading to Jericho.  The Levite does the same as the priest…he looks over in the ditch to see his fellow Jew whom the Levite knows good and well he should help.  But not today, not on this lonely stretch of road.  The Levite keeps on trucking.  “Well,” perhaps the lawyer thinks to himself, “that’s a little disappointing.  I would have expected better from a Levite.  But, I bet I know who’s coming next down the road.”

Maybe he’s thinking, “I’m a lawyer, so I bet Jesus is going to bring a model lawyer along down the road, who will do exactly the right thing even under these risky circumstances, because the model lawyer knows that regardless of the situation, if you love God, then you’ll love your neighbor and help him out.”  Jesus is going to tell him to go do the right thing that he already knows to do, this time by way of this story of the Good Lawyer.

Our lawyer is all set for one of his fellow lawyers to come down the road to Jericho, when Jesus drops this on him, “But a Muslim…I mean, a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him and went to him and bound up his wounds…”  And, you know how the rest of the parable goes.

There is so much in this little story Jesus told, that Luke tells to us.  Most of all, it was a story that shocked the lawyer, and it shocked Jesus’ disciples.  Because the hero of the story, as in so many of Luke’s stories about Jesus, is not the righteous and the orthodox, it is the outcast, the one hated and despised.  This story is much like the one of that unnamed prostitute Luke described for us a few weeks ago, that we, for the time being, called Roxanne.

The Greater Story, the Story of the Kingdom of God Come Near in Jesus, is meant to provoke us.  Whatever we may say we believe and know of God in Jesus, if we have not love like that of that forgiven prostitute, if we have not the mercy that a Samaritan shows to his enemy, then we have to ask ourselves, has the Kingdom of God truly come to abide within me?

Never do we purchase our entry into the Kingdom of God, by anything that we ourselves do.  It is by way of this truth:  “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.”

 But, to know the Kingdom of God now come into our lives, will put us at odds with the ways of the kingdoms of this earth.  Unexpected love, unexpected mercy, is what we have received from God, and it is what God expects us to offer to all who yet do not know the Great, Great Story of Jesus.


1 Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979) p. 294 n. 7.

2see for example, Dr. Allan Ross’s series, “The Religious World of Jesus:  the Scribes”, at https://bible.org/seriespage/7-scribes

Two by two: Out of the Ark, Into the Harvest

Luke describes for us how Jesus sent out seventy or seventy-two of his followers to go in advance of him.  They were to prepare folks in the villages to receive Jesus’ visit and to hear Jesus’ core message, that the kingdom of God was at hand.  That was Jesus’ message:  the kingdom of God is at hand.

As Luke recorded earlier in chapter 4, when Jesus left the wilderness of temptation to begin his public ministry, Jesus’ first teaching was in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth.

There in the synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah the prophet, the word of God which Jesus then claimed for himself and his ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”  (Luke 4:16-21)

Those words of Isaiah, Jesus said, anticipated what his ministry would be.  Those words of Isaiah, for Jesus, summed up the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Several Sundays ago, we considered Luke chapter 7.  Luke tells of how John the Baptist sent two of his own disciples to question Jesus:  “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Jesus’ told them this:  look at what Jesus was doing, and then John could draw his own conclusion, as Jesus lists for them the works and words of his ministry up to that point.  In essence, Jesus lists how he was fulfilling what he had earlier quoted from Isaiah.  (Luke 7:18-23)

Jesus was asking John the Baptist, “What does the kingdom of God come near mean to you?”  What did it mean for them, and what does it mean for us, to say that kingdom of God is at hand?

Long before these seventy, or seventy-two, knew anything at about the cross and the resurrection, long before there was any place in their imaginations for the Garden of Gethsemane and the Garden of Easter morning, their grasp of the Gospel was only this: the Kingdom of God now come near to them in Jesus, and the words and works that Jesus performed.

What is the Kingdom of God now come near and now at hand mean for you and me and for University Baptist Church?

Is it what Jesus described of himself to his fellow worshipers that first Sabbath in the synagogue at Nazareth?  Is it what Jesus enumerated for the disciples of John the Baptist to tell to their teacher?   Is the Kingdom of God at hand on Earth

about “preaching good news to the poor”?
about “proclaiming release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind”?
about “setting at liberty those who are oppressed”?

Is the fact and the reality of the kingdom of God at hand and near us about “proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord?” for those who cannot imagine that the Lord God would accept even them?

Because if the Kingdom of God is about that, as Jesus himself professed, then why are we not, in the name of our Lord, also professing that same message and also doing those same works?

Interestingly enough, the key to our answer may be how we hear these few little words in verse 1:  the Lord “. . . sent them two by two ahead . . .” “Two by two.” Now, where have we heard those words before in Scripture?  It’s the command God gave to Noah, all the way back over at the start of our Bible, in Genesis chapters 6 and 7:

“Make yourself an ark of gopher wood . . . And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two . . . they went into the ark with Noah two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life.” (Genesis 6:14, 19; 7:15)  Two by two, they entered the Ark to escape God’s judgment about to come over all the earth.

Early on in Christianity, and on down through the centuries, Christians have viewed the Church as a kind of Noah’s Ark.  The Church is God’s Ark into which God is gathering all those whom God intends to save from God’s coming judgement and destruction on all life left outside God’s Ark.

We call this space where we gather for worship on Sunday mornings the Sanctuary.  Downstairs is the Fellowship Hall, and upstairs is the Sanctuary.  That architectural truism is built into most any Baptist church building.  But, historically, Christians have called this space the Nave.

As one scholar describes it, “The word ‘nave’ comes from the Latin word ‘navis,’ meaning ship (a collection of ships is a ‘navy’). The church nave symbolizes a ship with its vaulted ceiling looking like an inverted keel.”  In other words, we’re sitting in the cargo hold of an upside-down ship.  We are the Lord’s Ark, into which the Lord gathers us “two by two”.1

Well, that’s o.k.  We need a sanctuary, don’t we?  We need a refuge.  We need at least one sacred space in our lives that we know is consecrated to worshiping God.  Yes, we can worship God anytime and anyplace, but this place on our spiritual maps is uniquely devoted to the worship of God now revealed through Jesus of Nazareth.  This nave, this ship, this Ark, of refuge – that is a good understanding of church.

But, what’s not o.k. is how the Church as Ark often gets turned more into Church as Floating Fortress, a place into which God has separated us and isolated us.  In this version of the Ark is the Spirit of God within; without is Satan.  Within this Ark are the Redeemed of the Lord, without are those under God’s condemnation.

A.W. Tozer was in highly influential pastor, preacher, author, who ministered mainly in the first half of the twentieth century.  You may have read his book, The Pursuit of God, published in 1948.  It’s a book that I read as a young man that helped form my earlier faith.

Tozer preached this in one sermon, “The church is depicted as an ark on the flood waters. As the ark of Noah floated on the waters and contained all who would be salvaged, so the church of Jesus Christ is an ark on the flood waters and contains all who will be salvaged.”

“Remember that!” Tozer emphasized, before continuing in his sermon, “All in the ark are saved, and all outside the ark perish. All around us is a perishing world, and we float on top of it in a little ark called the church. All that are not in the church–the ark–will perish.”2

What picture does Tozer’s words form in your mind?  What attitude does that description call forth in your heart?  Are we in the Church of Jesus Christ really an Ark that floats atop a perishing world, an Arc into God has gathered you and me, two by two, until God has cleansed away the filth, dispensed with the evil, established a new heaven and a new earth onto which God’s Ark will then deposit us safe and saved?

Yet, Luke records for us a very different gathering up of Jesus’ followers into pairs, two by two.  These seventy, or seventy-two, depending on your translation, unnamed followers whom Jesus called, not to sit two by two at ease around him, but whom he sent out, two by two, as workers in a field where “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

These seventy, or seventy-two, whom Jesus called up, two by two, not as innocent lambs gathered in and with the door securely behind them, as on Noah’s Ark.  These Jesus sent out to go into their region “as lambs in the midst of wolves”.

In other words, Jesus parked the Ark!  Jesus unsealed the door and threw it open!  The passengers are told to disembark and to go ashore!  Two by two Jesus marches them out, to go out into a field of work, out to pass through a place of risk, to prepare people with a message of peace.

That word, “peace”, these followers knew through the good Hebrew word, “shalom”.  They took the message of God’s “shalom” where the broken of humanity are mended and restored, the empty filled up and made content, the anguished befriended and comforted, and the lost brought home and reunited.

Yes, there is much yet to be said of methodology.  The verses that follow are very much about methodology.  There is every generation’s obligation to learn the language and to know the culture and to form a meaningful message of the kingdom of God and to go.

But, before all that will ever happen, there must be a change of hearing and a change of heart.  How do you hear the words, “two by two”?  “Two by two, safely gathered in and sheltering in place, until God wipes away all that threatens and dismays us?”

Or, do we hear “two by two” sent out by the Lord of Peace in whom and through whom the Kingdom of God has come near, a great Kingdom gathering for all who will, receive that Peace in their lives?

Shall University Baptist Church gather ourselves in, seal up the doors of our building, ride high above what waves rock around us, until God delivers us safely across to Heaven’s shore?

Or will University Baptist Church be a refuge, be a sanctuary wherein we do come for spiritual rest and reviving before going back out into the field outside our church doors, a field ripe with people in need of the healing presence of Christ, the peace of Christ answering the peace which they seek?



1 Daniel B. Clendenhin, “Under God’s Rainbow:  The Church as Noah’s Ark,” for Revised Common Lectionary, May 24, 2014, http://journeywithjesus.net

2 Text sermons: A.W. Tozer: The Ark Analogy, http://SermonIndex.net.

When Elijah Finally Heard Silence

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 25, 2016
Taken from 1 Kings 19:1-13

St Elijah and the Hearth Bread


This past Wednesday I traveled over to Waynesboro for a meeting.  That gave me a chance on the way back to do something I find fun to do. Before coming back over the mountain, I like to fill up my gas tank at one of the gas stations there where Rosser Avenue intersects with I-64.

Then just as I’m about to top over Afton Mountain, I reset my gas mileage calculator to zero and I shift my car into neutral and I coast down Afton Mountain. I am very easily entertained.  I will admit that.  What entertains me about this is watching my gas mileage calculator calculate my gas mileage as I coast down Afton Mountain on my way back to Charlottesville.

So, I’ve reset my gas mileage calculator to zero, I’m in neutral, I’m coasting down Afton Mountain.  I’m watching the calculator with one eye, my speedometer with one eye, and the road with my other eye.  Occasionally I’m having to apply the brakes to stay at the speed limit.

The first calculation that pops up is 33. 6 miles per gallon, but I smile in anticipation because I know where this will end up…33.6…33.7….34.0…on and on the readout of my mileage calculator climbs.  Forty-two miles per gallon!  Eh…that’s nothing, as I continue coasting down Afton Mountain.

I hit 50 miles per gallon, then 60 and 70 and 80 and 90 miles per gallon, and I’m laughing because I’m only half way down Afton Mountain.  Finally, the calculator tops out at 99.9 miles per gallon that I’m getting in my little Ford Focus, and I’m still not off the mountain.

My calculator won’t go any higher, so who knows how much my actual gas mileage is when I finally come down off the Mountain?  A hundred  and ten miles per gallon?  A hundred and fifteen miles per gallon?  What an amazing car I’m driving!  This is absolutely thrilling me!  This is so excellent an experience!

Until I start coasting on towards Crozet.  The calculator holds at 99.9 miles per gallon for a few miles, but then, inevitably, the gravity that gave me that fabulous mileage coming down the mountain now starts to taking it back…90 miles per gallon…89.9 miles per gallon…well, I won’t count it out for you.  Let’s just say reality can be a bitter cup from which to drink.

What happened to all my wonderful miles per gallon?  Was my calculator malfunctioning?  No. My calculator was working perfectly.  Was I dreaming or hallucinating?  Nope, to the best of my knowledge, I was stone-cold sober and clear-eyed.

My readout was factually correct; in full truthfulness I can tell you that my little Ford Focus gets better than 99.9 miles to the gallon.  At least, when I’m coasting from the top of Afton Mountain, most of the way down to exit 107.

So, let’s see if that has anything whatsoever to do with Elijah’s experience here in 1 Kings, chapter 19. If not, then I’m about lay an egg, but I think it might help us.

Last week, we saw Elijah have this great victory up high on Mount Carmel.  He put the 450 prophets of Baal to shame.  Baal was nowhere to be found, but Yahweh God showed up with a tremendous display of fire reigning down from the sky above.  Elijah’s riding high…he is getting 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon, and he’s still up on the mountain top coming down to the valley below.

Elijah commands this fired-up frenzied mob of religious folk to seize the prophets of Baal; commands they drag these 450 men of false faith, to go down with Elijah into the valley, where Elijah oversees the execution of those 450 men.  He’s still clocking in at 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon in his soul.

Then, the reality of Elijah’s world starts encroaching.  The gravity of what Elijah has done starts dragging at him.  The off-the-chart calculation of Elijah’s enthusiasm begins to spiral down, as the reality of Elijah’s pyrrhic victory collides with the reality of Jezebel’s burning vengeance.

Chapter 19, verse 2, “…Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and worse, if I do not make your life as the life of one my dead prophets by this time tomorrow.’”  And, suddenly, not only is Elijah getting really bad mileage, but Elijah discovers that his soul is just about on empty and the little warning is blinking at him, announcing his grand road trip is about to run out of gas.

Have you ever gotten the equivalent of 99.9 spiritual miles per gallon in your soul?  Have you ever experienced what it was like to know the presence of God and the power of God and the overwhelming reality of God in and around and beyond everything in your soul?

Nothing was wrong with you.  Everything was working the way it should with you.  You weren’t dreaming or hallucinating.  You knew correctly; perhaps you even testified truthfully, you experienced the Living God.  For a time, in your travels with God, you were getting better than 99.9 spiritual miles to the gallon in your soul.  But, then, the gravity of this world took hold of you…the reality of Spirit of God within you gaveth, but now other realities draineth…and, so, now, you’re not so sure any more about that whole God thing.

Don’t let it fluster you too much.  It happens to us all.  It happened even to Elijah.  The question is, what do we do with that experience of exhilaration?  What do we do with that knowledge that at some point, for some brief part of the journey, we knew the simple and pure joy of God within us.  That is, until those who serve the gods of this world threaten to overwhelm us and to defeat us?  All those “Ahabs and Jezebels” and their minions, those prophets of Baal we thought we’d dispatched never to come ‘round again but who, now, seem to rise and haunt like ghosts from the grave?

Well, Elijah just decided he didn’t want anything else to do with any of it!  Curse them all!  And, curse me for caring so much!  Elijah takes off, heading south.  Recall your Bible-land geography.  If you have your Bible, it’s o.k. to look back into the maps.

This sacred Promised Land which God gave to the Israelites lay within the ancient boundaries of Canaan.  The twelve tribes had scattered up and down Canaan.  Eventually, King David unified the tribes into the nation of Israel.  King David’s successor, Solomon, manages to keep the twelve tribes united.  But, after King Solomon’s death, the people became divided once again, splitting the Promised Land into two competing entities, Israel in the northern half and Judah in the southern.

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel ruled the northern kingdom of Israel, so Ezekiel heads south out of Israel, down into Judah to escape Jezebel.  Elijah safely crosses the border into Judah, he doesn’t stop there.  Elijah keeps right on going, traveling further south down through Judah, until he comes to the southern border town of Beersheba.  Elijah is now at the southern-most point of The Promised Land.  He is well beyond Jezebel’s assassins.   But, does Elijah stop there even?  No.

In verses 3 and 4, Elijah leaves Beersheba.  He crosses over Judah’s southern border and goes a day’s journey even further south.  Do you realize what Elijah has just done there in verse 4?  Not only has Elijah fled from Ahab and Jezebel way up north, Elijah has left behind the Promised Land entirely.  He’s gone into a desert no-man’s land.1

That’s how angry and frightened and depleted Elijah had become.  He left the people of God behind him entirely.  He’s even left the Promised Land of God behind him.  Curse them all!  And, curse me for caring so much!  That’s what Elijah is telling God.  “I’m finished!” Elijah tells God in verse 4.  “My life means nothing!  I am worth no more than the ashen bones of my ancestors, so just finish me off here and now!”  Elijah falls asleep, hoping never to wake up again.  What a terrible and dark place to be in one’s own head and in one’s own soul.

If you’ve ever been there in your own head and soul, it’s really, really hard to take care of yourself until you’re better.  It’s also really, really hard to let someone else take care of you.  But, if you ever do find yourself reaching that desperate place of wishing your own death, please let someone take care of you for a bit.

If there’s no one around, and you’ve got a phone handy, you make yourself pick it up and dial 911.  Or, get yourself to an emergency room or a walk-in clinic.  Don’t even debate it with yourself.  Taking care of yourself is not up for debate.  God takes care of Elijah, even though Elijah doesn’t want taking care of.

Think about all the other ways God could have responded to Elijah.  In places, the Old Testament presents God to us in a pretty rough ways:  pestilence and floods and fires and general acts of divine mayhem.  So, maybe we’d expect God to be pretty rough on Elijah, too.

You remember that Geico commercial from several years ago where the serious spokesman asks, “Can Geico really save you 15% on your car insurance?”  He pauses and then asks, rhetorically, “Does a former drill sergeant make a terrible therapist?”

Then, it shows a client on the therapist’s couch, pouring his heart out to this former drill sergeant-turned-therapist.  The therapist proceeds to ridicule the client, which makes the client cry; he offers the client a tissue and when the client reaches for the box, the therapist slings the box at the client in disgust.

Maybe we’d expect that kind of ‘quit your sniveling’ reaction from God to Elijah, but no.  God takes care of Elijah.  God sends an angelic messenger who prepares some hot baked bread and some cold water for Elijah.  You know, sometimes what you need are your carbs replenished and rehydration.  Elijah eats and drinks and falls back to sleep.  Sleep…sometimes you need more sleep and rest, too.

A second day, God sends the messenger to wake up Elijah and make him eat.  Don’t overdo the sleep…don’t let sleep turn into an escape from taking care of yourself…you’ve got to eat and drink to replenish what your body needs.

The third thing God does for Elijah is God takes this journey with Elijah.  God transforms Elijah’s flight from life into a journey to rejuvenate his life.  God helps Elijah to rediscover purpose and calling for his life.

God takes Elijah back, way back, in time and place to where it all started:  Mount Horeb, better known to us as Mount Sinai.2  Mount Horeb, where Moses met God on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights.  Where Moses hid in the cleft of the rock, shielding himself as God passed.

Mount Horeb, where God through made covenant with this mass of rescued slaves and began to transform them into God’s people.  As many centuries ago for Moses, so now for Elijah.

In verse 11, God calls Elijah to come out from the cave where he is hiding.  God is about to pass by.  But, as we read in verse 13, apparently Elijah had said no way I’m staying put in my cave.

But God acts anyway, in all the ways that have up to point super-fueled Elijah’s faith.  God sends a terrific, destructive wind that sheers plates of rock off the mountain face, sending them flying, shattering down the mountainside.  But, Elijah somehow understood, this terrible wind was not the true revelation of God with him, so he stays put.

Then God sends an earthquake; it’s as though God has snatched Mount Horeb by the throat, shaking it as though the destroy this sacred mountain itself.  But, still Elijah hides himself in the cave, knowing that God had not yet passed by.

Finally, the fire rained down around the cave where Elijah hides.  It’s the divine fire of God that Elijah himself had once called down on that other mountain top called Carmel.  But, now, Elijah realizes, fire does not show God for who God really is; so still, he hides in the cave.

God was not in the wind, not in earthquake, not in the fire…what torrent will next sweep down around Elijah.  There comes…what?  What was that, which Elijah thought he heard, after the fire?  Was it anything at all?  Was there someone out there, outside of the cave, speaking, calling out to Elijah?

The phrase there at the end of verse 13 gets translated in various ways.  It can be translated as “a sound, a fine silence” that Elijah hears.  It can also be translated as “a voice, a small whisper”.  In the silence itself, he hears God speak, “Elijah…what are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah once loved the thrill of that 99.9 miles per gallon kind of experience with God, but now God is reorienting Elijah in his grasp of God.  Scholar John Gray interprets the meaning of this encounter to be this:  God is admonishing Elijah not to expect God to be revealed in a way that thrills Elijah and that destroys the opposition.  It is not in “the supernatural and spectacular in-breaking of Yahweh” into events with the “storm, earthquake, and fire”.

Instead, Dr. Gray continues in his scholarly way, God comes to Elijah with “an intelligible revelation to find God’s direction in the ordinary course of daily life…to communicate [God’s direction] regularly and constructively.” 4   Wow, doesn’t that sound… boring.

No, not really.  There’s nothing boring about God in any way, shape or form that God chooses to reveal the Divine Presence to us.

I grant you, whirlwind, earthquake and fire are exciting and satisfying and will get you revved up.  Yes!  when it’s whirling and quaking and scorching someone else, especially when it’s happening to folks we wish God would remove from this earth.

But, it’s not God.  It’s not redemptive, and God is finally revealed to us as the God Who Redeems.  God does not shatter nor wrench nor scorch the land, nor does God do that to people.  We do that.  God, instead, redeems people as well as redeems lands.

When God wanted to prepare for coming among us in Jesus of Nazareth, God chose another like Elijah to prepare the way.  When Jesus, in the course of his ministry, needed God to validate him, God sent Elijah, along with Moses, to meet Jesus up on that Mount we call Transfiguration.  But, neither an Elijah nor a Moses is our Lord and Savior.

On that day we call “Palm Sunday”, Jesus’ followers expected a triumphal king to march through Jerusalem’s gates, to march up the Temple steps and to call down all forms of destruction on God’s enemies.  God instead gave them the king who surrendered his life to death on a cross not only to redeem his followers but to redeem his enemies, as well.

When the followers of Jesus most expected their own destruction, God gave them resurrection instead.  They learned, no person and no people, no servant of God, and no congregation that serves that same God, no, not one will God abandoned nor cause to fail.  Any of us may come coasting down off a mountain-top of victory one day, only to find ourselves wandering in the desert of despair.  But, in that silence, we will find God who whispered out to Elijah, still speaks our names.

The God who finally showed up in Jesus, still keeps showing up.  We too, let us keep showing up, witnessing of God who redeems all people, in all the lands of the earth.  That is our purpose in God’s service.  It’s purpose enough for any of us.


1Both DeVries and Gray note the significance of Elijah’s further travel south beyond Beersheba; Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, John D.W. Watts, ed. (Waco:  Word Books, Publisher, 1985) p. 237; and John Gray, I & II Kings:  A Commentary (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1970) p. 407.

2For Moses’ experiences on Mount Horeb (Sinai) see, for example, in Exodus chps. 19-20, chp. 33:17-23; and chp. 34:1-10.

3Gary T. Dalton, “Exposition of I Kings 19:9-18”, December 6, 1982, written for partial completion of requirements for class, “Introduction to Old Testament,” The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY; Fall Semester, 1982; Dr. Page Kelley, professor.

4op. cit., p. 410.

When Fire Reigned

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 19, 2016
Taken from 1 Kings 18:20-21, 25-40

The medium is the message!

“The medium is the message” is the well-known statement Marshall McLuhan introduced in 1964.That is, McLuhan observed, the media which are the containers and conveyers of our messages, becomes part of the messages themselves.

If I tell you that on two different occasions I went to two different restaurants but ordered the same thing to drink at both restaurants, what could you tell me about each restaurant?  Well, maybe that I have a favorite beverage that I like to have wherever I go.

What if I told you, yes, I do have a favorite beverage when I eat out:  it’s unsweetened iced-tea served with a slice of lemon.  Again, you would know that much about me, but you still would not be able to tell me anything about the two restaurants.

But, what if I told that at one of these two restaurants, the server brought me my unsweetened iced-tea contained in a goblet of fine crystal-glass with the lemon-slice nicely slipped onto the rim of the glass?  Then, what if I told you that at the second restaurant, the server brought me my unsweetened iced-tea contained in a mason jar, along with a little bowl containing several slices of lemon for our mutual convenience?

The only additional information I have given to you is about the container in which the server brought me my iced-tea and lemon-slice.  I haven’t said a word about the locations of the two restaurants or the names of the restaurants or the quality of the iced-tea they each served me.  The only thing I have told you is the container in which each restaurant serves iced-tea to its patrons.

But, with that single bit of additional information—a fine crystal goblet or a mason jar–you now could tell me with a great deal of accuracy all kinds of things about each of those restaurants.

You could tell me about what likely was on the menu of each restaurant; you could describe to me the décor of each restaurant; you could even describe for me how my fellow patrons and I were likely dressed as we ate in each restaurant.

And you could supply me with all that information based simply on this single bit of seemly inconsequential data:  what container does each restaurant use to convey to its customer the contents of iced-tea with a lemon-slice.  Marshall McCluhan seems to have been right on the money back in 1964:  the medium and the message are inseparable.

So, I ask you:  what may we conclude?…what message do we perceive?… when the prophets of two gods gather on a mountain-top, lay out their sacrifices, and, then, in the terms laid out by Elijah in our case, in verse 24, “‘…you call on your god and I will call on the name of [mine]; and the God who answers by fire, by golly, he is God.’”  When the medium of revelation is trial by fire, what message may we gather of the god who then rains down that fire?

I was an architecture student my first year at Virginia Tech.  Your first year of architecture, you are constantly building little models.  The professors lay out concepts of structure or beauty or any kind of abstract idea, and then they tell the students to go translate that idea into a three-dimensional object.

One Tuesday, the professor gave us his lecture; he laid out this abstract concept; now, he tells us, go build a model to illustrate how you understand the concept I presented to you.  It’s due on Thursday.

Thursday comes around.  We’re all ready, with our little models sitting up on our bench-tops.  But, instead of coming around to each of our work stations to view our models, the professor tells us to meet in the presentation room…that’s just a fancy name for a big empty classroom.

He gathers us into a big circle and calls on us each in our turn to lay our models there on the floor in the middle of the circle.  The professor then carefully walks around each model, circling it like a hawk circles a field mouse, finally, crouching down over the model, staring at it, and then looking up at the student:  “Please, this, explain,” he asks the student.

As I watch this inquisition unfolding, to my horror I realize that my classmates have positioned their models on nice pieces of poster-board, so their models aren’t just sitting all exposed on the floor.  That was not in the professor’s instructions.  Everyone else just seemed to know this is how you do it, except me.

My model is fairly small and will fit nicely on a piece of notebook paper.  So, I rip out a page from my spiral-bound notebook.  You know how a page rips out of a spiral-bound notebook, with all the little perforations down the edge and usually some little bits of paper tear out and stick to the perforations.  Eh!  At least now I’ve got something to set my model on.

My turn comes.  The professor invites me to present my offering.  I carefully lay down my sheet of spiral-bound notebook paper and then carefully position my model dead-center on the paper.  Then, I scurry back and watch as the hawk begins circling its prey.

The professor circles, stoops, rubs his chin and studies what I’ve laid before him.  “This is very interesting,” he says.  “Ah!” I think with relief…the professor thinks my model is interesting.

But, now, he’s poking my model around with his finger, shifting it first to one side of the notebook paper and then to other side, as if he’s unsure where it best fits on the paper.

Finally, he looks up at me.  “This, I understand,” he says to me, pointing to my model.  “But, this?  This, I don’t understand,” he says, circling with his finger the paper.  “What is the meaning of this part of your project?” (finger circling the paper), “to this part of your project?” (finger poking the model, pushing it around again.)  I was at a loss to answer his question…what was the relationship, what was the meaning, of the sheet of notebook paper to my model?

The medium of presentation–my ripped-out piece of notebook paper–and my carefully crafted model—my message to my professor of how I understood him—these were now joined as a whole in his eyes.  “Please, this, explain.”  The lesson he was teaching us at my great discomfort was, the medium becomes intertwined with the message.

The explanation for the god called “Baal”, really, is quite simple.  We all know the answer, right?  There is no such actual being named Baal. Elijah knows that, but Elijah’s not going to let these four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal off the hook so easily.  “Please, this, explain!” Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal in verse 27.

“Cry aloud, shout it out from the mountain-top!  For surely he is a god, isn’t he?  Well, maybe your god is lost in thought.  Or, maybe it’s this…maybe Baal has momentarily left the room to tend to some urgent business.”

The Hebrew scribes just loved this part of Elijah’s taunt, because the expression Elijah uses can be translated, “tending to urgent business” as in “going to the bathroom.”2 “Maybe your god had to go see a man about a horse…I’m sure he’ll back any moment now.”  “Or, perhaps,” Elijah continues in verse 27, “he’s gone off on a journey, or maybe Baal’s just fallen asleep and you’ve got to shout even louder to wake him up!”

Which, no doubt to Elijah’s delight, is exactly what the prophets of Baal do!  They double-down on their pleas to Baal!  In verses 28 and 29, “And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them….on they raved.”

Then, suddenly it seems, they all stop and grow still and listen…”But,” verse 29 concludes, “there was no voice…no one answered…no one showed up.”

Elijah says, “Move aside, boys, and let me show you how a real prophet of the one, true God gets it done!”

Elijah selects twelves large stones which he stacks together.  The twelves stones represent the twelve tribes of Israel.  He digs a huge trench around these twelve stones that now become the altar.  He stacks the wood on the altar.  He slaughters the sacrificial bull, cuts it up, and lays it out over the wood and the stones.

Then, in Elijah’s bow to showmanship and his general in-your-face attitude, Elijah commands that four huge jars of water be poured over everything…the bull, the wood, the stones…do it a second time, he commands, as the crowd watches in awe.  Do it a third time, Elijah commands, the crowd now left breathless at Elijah’s performance.  Water drains down and fills the trench around the altar.

All is ready, now.  Elijah doesn’t do anything else…he doesn’t dance around the altar or shout or scream or slash himself.  All he does is offer this prayer, essentially, “God, don’t let me down after all this grand build-up.”  Verses 36 and 37, Elijah prays, “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel…that I am thy servant…answer me, O Lord, answer me….”

And, my, but how God answers that short, simple prayer of Elijah’s.  Verse 38, “Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.”

Up until then, the people of Israel were gathered there in the big middle, undecided whether to line up over here behind the prophets of Baal, or to line up over there behind lone Elijah and Yahweh.  That’s the picture Elijah had given back over in verse 21, when he’d told the people, “For God’s sake!  How long will you go on limping between two different opinions?  Make up your minds:  if it’s Yahweh, follow him; if it’s Baal, follow him.”

Well, sisters and brothers…you see that divine fire fall from heaven and vaporize everything it touches…that’ll help you make up your mind in hurry!  They don’t walk; they run over to line up behind Elijah and Yahweh in verse 39, shouting as they run, “Yahweh, he is God!  Yahweh, he is God!”

But, remember this:  Marshall McLuhan may have written it down for us in 1964, but it’s always been true:  the medium is the message.  When divine fire rains down from heaven above, what message do you perceive about the God who reigns by fire?

Elijah prayed God to answer with fire.  God, as God is shown to do from time to time with God’s prophets and God’s people, God accommodates Elijah’s request and answers with fire.  And, in that medium of revelation by fire, Elijah thinks he finds permission to do what he orders be done, in verse 40:  “Round up the prophets of Baal; don’t let a single one get away.”

The people mob around those 450 prophets of Baal, long knives appear.  Elijah leads this frenzied mob down off the mountain, and there 450 throats are slashed, and their blood fills up the barren bed of the drought-starved brook of Kishon.

Which, nowhere, is in God’s instruction to Elijah.  Read through 1 Kings, chapter 17 and chapter 18.  The only message God gives Elijah to give to King Ahab is this:  “As Yahweh, God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (1 Kgs. 17:1) Then, God orders Elijah to go into hiding for a few years.  The drought takes hold and strangles the land and the people of Israel.  Move ahead one chapter.

Chapter 18, verse 1, “…the word of Yahweh came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, ‘Go, show yourself to Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.’”  So, Elijah comes out of hiding and shows himself to Ahab.  Skip over to chapter 18, verse 41, “And Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of the rushing rain’.”  And, very soon, the rain does rush in and pours down over the land of Israel.  That was God’s mandate to Elijah.

God, I believe, meant to be revealed as the one true and living God through the medium of life-refreshing, life-sustaining rain, because that’s what the prophets of Baal claimed for their god, that Baal provided the rain.  God, I believe, meant simply to say to the people of the covenant, “You want to live under Baal’s care?  O.K., try it for a while.  I’ll check back in with you in three years or so.”

It is not at all my place to question why in the world God would accommodate Elijah in this trial by fire.  That’s not my call to make.  But, neither do I believe it was Elijah’s call to command the people round up those 450 prophets of Baal and execute them.

I cannot fathom why God accommodates any of us whom God has called out to be children of the covenant.  I cannot fathom why God accommodate us while we limp about, seemingly undecided on whether we really want to serve the living God, or whether we want to want to serve those who beckon us to come after lesser gods, or maybe, if we can have both at the same time.  God says, “no, my children, you can’t serve both God and something that’s not God.”

The ultimate accommodation God made is when God finally came to us, flesh and bone.  Mind, heart, strength, and soul, Jesus was, like any other human mortal borne of woman, borne of the flesh.  Yet, Jesus who by perfect faith loved God perfectly—mind, heart, strength, and soul—discovered in his young life’s journey, his true self:  that he was the Son of God as well as the Son of mortals.

You recall, I’m sure, the sermon from two Sunday’s ago.  John the Baptist thought Jesus might just be old Elijah returned to earth, to baptize with Holy Spirit and once again to rain down Holy Fire.  When Jesus turned out not to be so much the firebrand John had hoped for, John got worried, wanted to know if he’d make a mistake. (Luke 7:18-35).

You see, John the Baptist knew this Elijah account.  He knew this part about the divine fire falling.  John the Baptist thought that was the enduring message of God:  fire reigned then!  Fire reigns now!  Let the fire fall where it may!”

“Surprise!” says Jesus to John the Baptist:  turns out, you are Elijah come to prepare God’s people, not me; I am the Savior who comes, bringing a different kind of fire…the fire which purifies and transforms the inner being of whomever welcomes me and welcomes the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God, this community of love, wherein “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them.”  (Luke 7:22)

Or, would you prefer I slit a few throats, Cousin John?  That I rain down fire to incinerate our enemies, cleanse us of our infidels, expunge the followers of other gods amongst us?

What kind of fire reigns in your heart?  The only flame from above that I read about in my New Testament is the flame of God’s Spirit raining down on that day of Pentecost…we looked at that together too several Sundays ago.  When young and old, male and female, spoke the word of life to all people, people surprised that the Gospel was meant for them, too.

Does God’s fire reign now in the heart of University Baptist Church?  If not, then may we lift up that same prayer of Elijah’s, not that fire fall that incinerates rock, but that this Holy Spirit Pentecost fire might now fall and reign over us, person by person, until this congregation burns brightly for our Lord and his Gospel.


2Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, John D.W. Watts, ed. (Waco:  Word Books, Publisher, 1985) p. 229.


Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 12, 2016
Taken from Luke 7:36-8:3

2016 -06-12 "Roxanne" Peter Paul Reuben


“One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him, and so Jesus went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table.”  Thus, Luke begins to paint his picture for us.  Much as Peter Paul Rubin later did, depicting this story through his early 17th century painting that’s on the cover of our bulletin this morning; so Luke presents us first with this tableau.  There is first no interpretation at first, but only presentation.

Luke’s canvas is the dinner table in the home of an unnamed Pharisee.  Four times in these opening verses, Luke refers to him simply as “the Pharisee”.  Luke will later mention there are others there at table, we may assume they too are Pharisees and scribes; certainly, Luke’s first readers would have assumed the presence of these others, and so Luke has no need to mention them at this point.

There, says Luke, you see the Pharisee who has invited Jesus to share dinner at this table; you see, of course, the other religious notables of the town also gathered around the table with the Pharisee and Jesus.  There, they recline in the usual manner of the day, leaning upon the table with their legs stretched out behind them.

The tableau so far, in verse 36, is one of typical early Middle Eastern hospitality, but Luke is not finished yet with his tableau. “Look, there!” Luke points us as he continues in the next verse, verse 37…”Look!  Behold!”  Unfortunately, the translators of the New International Version printed in the worship bulletin made a serious misstep in their work.  For some reason, they left out this simple but most important word direction to us from Luke.

The first two words Luke writes to us his readers in verse 37 is this emphatic direction, “And, behold!”   It’s a narrative word; it’s a word meant to signal to the reader, “now, pay attention and watch what happens next!” 1

“Don’t miss this!   Do you see her?   You don’t know who she is, do you?  She’s the town…well, you know!  Oh, my gosh!   What in the world!  How did she slip in?  I don’t know, but there she is!

Luke continues laying out the brush strokes of this shocking tableau, as this infamous woman silently enters the room.  She is the woman whom no man would dare to be seen with, certainly not in the light of day; certainly never near the good and pleasant homes of their fair city.  Yet, there she is, quickly slipping in behind the guests reclined at table, crouching down, finally stopping to bend over the feet of the guest of honor, this Galilean peasant rabbi, Jesus.

Of course, the Pharisee sees it, just as we see it, because Luke told us, “watch for it!”  The Pharisee sees that she holds a small, alabaster vial, as she kneels down, her face now but a breath’s distance from Jesus’ feet.  As silently she has entered the room, so silently she weeps, her tears flowing so fully and freely they fall from her cheeks onto Jesus’ feet.  She lets her tears fall, as if to bathe the dust off these feet she now tenderly holds.

The Pharisee watches; as the host, he’s horrified, of course.  Yet, he is also intrigued because he questions the truthfulness of this rabbi.  His can’t understand why Jesus does not react in the slightest to this filth that dares to touch him.  Jesus fails to yank his feet away out of the hands of this mess of a woman, this unclean woman that no righteous man would even tolerate to share the same path with him.   Certainly, no anointed prophet would abide such an embodiment of all that God abhors.

These are the reactions and the thoughts that race through the Pharisee’s mind, as he looks down on this woman.  He looks back up to see that his guest, Jesus, has been watching him, waiting for him to take it all in.

By verse 40, Luke’s tableau of words is now complete, much as Rubin’s paint strokes so well capture the moment on his own artist’s canvas.  We see it, as the Pharisee sees it.  Now, Jesus challenges his host and us to see it as Jesus sees it.

In verse forty, we learn that Luke actually does know this Pharisee’s name, as Jesus says to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”  But, what of the woman’s identity?

All four Gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—all four tell some version of this story.2  All four agree that at some point in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus had dinner in someone’s house when a woman slipped up behind Jesus, broke open an alabaster flask of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus with the perfume.  After that, the details among the four writers differ on exactly what, when, how, why, and most especially, on who this woman was who did the anointing.

Matthew, Mark and John agree that the woman does this anointing to show her extravagant love for Jesus.  It had nothing to do with her sinfulness and her forgiveness.  The woman simply wanted to express her total devotion to Jesus, by bestowing on him this exceptional gift, an act for which the others at table with Jesus criticize her, because of her extravagence.

Matthew and Mark don’t name her.  John, however, tells us that this is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  (John 11:1-44)

That’s all good and well until we toss in Luke’s account of the woman anointing Jesus.  Because, based on Luke’s telling, it was commonly understood that this woman was a prostitute everybody knew about in that town.

Well, it did not sit well with later church leaders to have a story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus associated with a very similar story of a prostitute anointing Jesus.  So, in the 6th century, Pope Gregory the First decided to put the question of this woman’s identity to rest.3

Pope Gregory decreed that Luke recorded a different encounter by another woman who anoints Jesus, and her name was Mary Magdalene.  Pope Gregory had absolutely no basis to put this burden on Mary Magdalene.  Mary Magdalene simply had the misfortune of showing up first in the list of women that Luke names immediately after this, in chapter 8, verses 1-3.

Mary Magdalene was literally in the wrong place at that wrong time on the page when church leaders were looking for someone to pin this story on.   That and the fact that Luke says Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene seemed to seal her fate in church history.  At least in Pope Gregory’s mind, that meant she must have been the prostitute whom Luke was describing in the previous chapter.

Well, given the cloudy and slanderous history behind naming this woman, I’m choosing today to call her by another name entirely.  For today, I’m naming her, “Roxanne”.  We’ll pretend this is Luke’s account of a prostitute named “Roxanne”, as later immortalized by the British rock band, The Police, and sung by Sting.

Released in 1978, “Roxanne” went on to be among The Police’s biggest hits.  It’s a woeful ballad of a young man who’s in love with a young woman, Roxanne.   But, Roxanne is a prostitute.  Sting sings her name out with a despairing cry, “Roxanne…

I loved you since I knew ya/I wouldn’t talk down to ya

I have to tell you just how I feel/I won’t share you with

another boy.

Roxanne you don’t have to put on the red light.

Those days are over you don’t have to sell you body

to the night.

Roxanne you don’t have to wear that dress tonight,

Walk the streets for money you don’t care if it’s wrong

or if it’s right.

That’s Luke’s Roxanne, putting on whatever that first century version of the red light might be, selling herself to any man who’d want her body for his use.

There’s nothing of love in prostitution.  There’s no Julia Roberts and Richard Gere “Pretty Woman” kinds of prostitute who gets rescued by her super-rich, knight in shining armor.  There are simply prostitutes, women and men, underage girls and underage boys, being brutalized by the pimps who sell them and the men who pay for them.

Beyond that fact of Luke’s Roxanne, that she most likely was a prostitute, we just don’t know much else about her.  But, what we can glean of Luke’s Roxanne are these two tantalizing details.

First, Roxanne possesses a small, alabaster flask of expensive ointment, most likely a kind of perfume.  Alabaster was a soft stone which an artisan could carve and hollow out to hold such precious liquids.   Then, the artisan would seal the neck of the flask in such a way that its owner would have to break the flask to get to the contents.

These alabaster flasks were precious heirlooms mothers would pass down to daughters, often as the daughter’s dowry for when she should be married.  It was like having money tucked away under the mattress, held in reserve should she and her husband ever face the desperate need for money.  Only then would an alabaster flask be sold or traded away.

How in the world had Luke’s Roxanne come to hold such a precious commodity?  Was it her dowry given to her own mother that she’d held on to out of sentimental reasons?   Perhaps some wayward husband had taken his own wife’s alabaster flask of precious perfume to trade it away to Roxanne for his own night’s pleasure?

However she got it,  Roxanne realized that one day men would no longer pay good money for her services, so she’s held on to the flask as a kind of rainy day fund.   If this little alabaster flask could talk, the tale it would tell of hope and of heartache, of betrayal perhaps, and most certainly, this flask would tell a story of personal ruin.  That’s the first tantalizing detail.

The second tantalizing facet of Luke’s account is why Roxanne is there this day in Simon the Pharisee’s home.  The reason is this:  for the first time in a long time, for the first time perhaps ever in her life, Roxanne finally had met a man who loved her.   She had met Jesus.

We don’t know when or how their paths had crossed.  But when Roxanne had met Jesus, her whole way of life—the bad, desperate choices she had made, the wrongs others had perpetrated against her—all of it fell away from her.

Yes, Jesus knew exactly who and what Roxanne was the moment they’d met.  But, what Simon the Pharisee did not know and could not comprehend, was this:  in their earlier encounter, Jesus had not tallied up Roxanne’s sins.  He had not weighed the sins against her on some scale of righteousness.  Jesus was not concerned to eyed Roxanne over to see if she might yet be some value to him.  Jesus never examined her for even the briefest moment.  No examination was needed.

In the moment she encountered Jesus, Roxanne knew instantly that her sins carried no weight with Jesus at all.  If anything, it was as if her wrongs, her despair, her abuse, served only to measure the fullness of Jesus’ love for her just because he loved her.  In Jesus’ presence, there was no sin left in this woman, and she knew it, because she met God in Jesus, and God forgave her.

Of course, Simon knew none of this.  What Simon the Pharisee knew of others was what he could measure by the yardstick of righteousness and of wrong.  Simon valued his own life and the lives of others by what each earned and possessed, and by what each owed and must someday repay.  Therein lay the balance of one’s standing before God and before Simon.

“Simon,” says Jesus to his host, “let me help you see this woman as I see her.”  So, Jesus tells his little parable in verse 41 and 42.  It’s a parable designed just for Simon.  There were two debtors.   The one debtor owes only fifty, while the other debtor owes five hundred.

But, when their creditor forgives them both their debts, “Simon, which debtor will love the creditor more.”  Simon responds to Jesus with an expression that roughly translates, “well…duh!”  “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.  And Jesus said to him, you have judged rightly.” 4

“Now,” says Jesus in verse 44, “do you see this woman?”  Examine her through the lens of the story I just told you.  Do you see how she has welcomed me into her life, as though she were a hostess welcoming me into her own home?  Do you see this alabaster flask, Simon?  Do you realize what this means for this woman who has sold her body over and over for money, yet who now offers me this particular gift?

Whatever misbegotten claims or outright crimes had attached themselves to this alabaster flask that Roxanne carried around with her, when Jesus had looked upon her, it was as if the flask itself was restored to its original purpose and purity right along with her.  The flask of pure ointment now became Roxanne’s own dowry to give to the one in whom she would entrust her life, her love, and her soul.

There was more to Jesus’ little parable than just the simple lesson Simon first saw.  Consider again the facts as Jesus laid them out.  Though their debts were miles apart when measured out and weighed, in effect, their debts were exactly the same:  neither the one who owed fifty nor the one who owed five hundred could repay his debt.

Each one’s only hope lay in the creditor who held both their fates in his hands, either to prosecute or to forgive.  Their creditor chooses to forgive and to release them from the consequences of their debts.   Their creditor restores to them their freedom when he could have condemned them both to the debtor’s prison.  Both debtors should have come from the presence of their creditor with equal gratitude in their hearts and praise on their lips.

Simon the Pharisee, if he had seen Jesus with the insight of one whose sins were forgiven, if he had seen Jesus with the insight, for example, of Roxanne, well, let’s just say he would have given Jesus a far more generous welcome at his table than what he’d actually provided.

We sin, and others sin against us.  Some of us manage far better than others under the weight of those sins, by whomever and however those sins entered into our experience.  But, some of us don’t manage at all well; we break under sins’ burden, and sin quickly becomes a burden that gets compounded over and over again, like a bad debt compounding usurious amounts of interest month by month, year by year.

We who manage our lives well, indeed we seem very well, don’t we?  And those who don’t, well, we know who they are and how to avoid them.  At least, I know I do.

But, Jesus doesn’t avoid them, just as Jesus doesn’t avoid us.   The question is how we see ourselves when Jesus does encounter us.  Because, how we see Jesus seeing us, makes all the difference in how we see others, especially in how we see others whom we know have made a royal mess of things.

The shining example in this little story as Luke tells it turns out to be the one who clearly knows what it means to be forgiven.  May our life’s joy in Christ match more closely the joy of a forgiven prostitute, who for the moment is named Roxanne, and not the apparent righteousness of a Pharisee who was named Simon.


1BAG, idou, p. 371a.

2Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8.

3Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28 (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1981) p. 688 n.37

4 epolamvano, Geldenhuys notes the word indicates “’an air of supercilious indifference’”, Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979) p.236 n.8.

Are you Qualified, Jesus?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 5, 2016.
Taken from Luke 7:19-23

John in Prison

An elderly man lay in his upstairs bedroom, awaiting death.  The doctors had done all they could, until it finally was obvious there was nothing more to be done.  The man and his wife agreed he would be more comfortable at home, in his own bed, for his final days on earth, which seemed to be few, at this point.

As the man lay there, at death’s door, he could hear his wife busy downstairs in the kitchen.  Soon there came wafting up the stairs the aroma of the fresh baked brownies that his wife had just baked and taken out of the oven.  Throughout these last years, the man had been on a very strict diet.  He could not remember the last time he had enjoyed a fresh baked brownie.  He thought, “What the heck, what’s it matter now?  I’m going to get me a brownie.”

So, the man pulls himself up out of his bed.  He steadies himself, and then bracing himself, he stumbles over to a chair, where he stops.  He holds onto the chair as again he steadies himself.  He then makes it over to the bedroom door, where once again, he leans and catches his breath.  And, on he goes, out into the hallway, pulling himself along until he reaches the top of the stairs.

Honestly, he thinks, “This may be it…this may take every last bit of life left in me, but I’m going to make it at least long enough for one last bite of a hot, fresh baked brownie.”  So, he sits himself down on the top step and slowly, ever so slowly, eases himself down, step by step by step.  Along the way, he stops to listen for his wife.  He doesn’t want to alarm her or frighten his sweet wife who’s been taking such pains to care for him.

The man finally reaches the bottom step where he can look into the kitchen.  Sure enough, there on the counter, sit the brownies, cut in nice large squares that she’s laid out on a serving platter.  He looks and listens; no sign of his wife, she’s gone somewhere else in the house.  Now’s his chance; for him, it is literally now or never to enjoy one last brownie.

Somehow, he pulls himself up to standing, he stumbles across the hallway and through the kitchen door.  He dare not stop until he’s at the kitchen counter, where he leans and catches perhaps his last breath on this earth.  He picks up that warm square of chocolate deliciousness and opens his mouth to shove it in.

Suddenly, his wife is by his side.  She reaches out and smacks his hand but hard.  “Put that brownie down this instant!  I made those for the funeral!”

John the Baptist is facing down his own death.  Not from the comfort of his bed, mind you, but from a barren cell in King Herod’s prison. (Luke 3:19-20).  While John the Baptist awaits the inevitable moment when Herod will indeed execute him, John considers his cousin, Jesus.  Like our poor husband craving for one last brownie, John the Baptist desperately wants a sign from Jesus.1

Jesus, whom John himself baptized, whom John realized was the Anointed One of God and the One to whom John has directed his own followers; Jesus, for whom John did his fiercest preaching to prepare the people to follow Jesus:

“You nest of snakes!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit that proves your repentance….Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the tree!  Bear good fruit or you’ll be chopped down and thrown into the fire!”  (Matthew 3:7-10)

“I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is on his way…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand; he’s here, to clear his threshing floor…to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (Luke 3:16-17)

It is so going to be a “turn or burn” spectacle now that Jesus, God’s Anointed has shown up!  John had expected a holy blood-bath of epic proportions.

How John, so near death, craved at least one last sign that Jesus was indeed that Anointed One of God!  Had he gotten it right; that he’d pointed his followers to the true righteous teacher of God.  But, had he?  Had John given up his own fierce firebrand that burned with righteous rage, handing it over to the wrong man?

Amidst all the signs that Jesus performed, John wants just this one last sweet, burning bite, to reassure him that Jesus is qualified to wear the mantle of God’s Anointed.  So, he sends two of his own disciples to find Jesus and to ask him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Twice, Luke lays that question out for us to contemplate.  Word for word, Luke gives it to us, from the mouth of John to his disciples and then immediately from the mouths of his disciples to Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  (Verses 19 & 20)

That’s an awkward question to ask of Jesus.  But, apparently, according to Luke, that is the question we each need to ask and answer for ourselves.  That’s why he records it not once, but twice for us his readers:  has Jesus turned out to be something other than what you expected?  Has your faith that Jesus is the one…your Savior, your Lord, the fulfillment of what you expected of God…has that turned out to be correct, or should you look elsewhere?

It’s a shocking thing to consider, I’ll grant you.  Even Jesus understands the shock value of John’s question.  In verse 23, Jesus turns to all who are there, and to us, because now we are there, too.  Jesus says, “…blessed is whoever who is not scandalized in me.”  Our English word, “scandalize”, comes straight over from the Greek word that Luke reports Jesus saying.  To be scandalized, to be shocked at, to be deeply offended by.2

“Has Jesus turned out to be someone or something other than what you’d hoped for, and, if so, should you look elsewhere?”  Apparently, for many a baptized believer in Jesus, the answer is “yes.”  And, they have turned to look somewhere else for whatever it was that first drew them in faith to Jesus.  They made a start with Jesus, but they have since turned away from following Jesus.

It’s a really complex thing to answer, “Why have baptized believers started off with Jesus but have since turned away from him?”  Maybe if they were in the very presence of Jesus it wouldn’t be that way.  We’re there with Jesus, because Luke calls us as his readers in our religious imaginations to put ourselves there and to hear this twice-asked question.

But, we’re not really there, are we?  We aren’t in the bodily presence of Jesus.  So, did these folks have an advantage over us in answering John’s question because they were physically with Jesus?  Doesn’t seem so; John had been with Jesus, had observed Jesus’ ministry, but it doesn’t allay John’s doubts.

So, this question weighs on John’s conscience.  It’s weighing on the consciences of those people there, whom John baptized and who are following Jesus because John told them that’s what they should do (see verse 29).

Now, Luke wants this question to weigh on our consciences, too, in concern for our fellow professed Christians, certainly, but first in concern for ourselves…how has Jesus, if not scandalizing us, how has he at least disappointed us so that he no longer qualifies to hold the preeminent place in our love?

For John the Baptist, it is not the fact that he is facing imminent martyrdom that upsets him.  What upsets him is the thought that he is about to give his life for the wrong cause and for the wrong person.  John wants to know this from Jesus:  while there is still time, dear cousin, before I lay my head on the executioner’s chopping block, should I point my disciples in a different direction?

Well, Jesus does not let John the Baptist off so easily.  He does not give John the quick satisfaction of a clear “yes” or “no”.  What Jesus expects of John the Baptist is exactly the same thing Jesus expects of you and me.  Jesus tells John to consider Jesus’ Gospel, to measure Jesus’ deeds, and to answer the question for himself as we must for ourselves: is Jesus still for me the right one of God, the one preeminent in my love, the one for whom I offer my life’s witness.

That is the literal meaning of the word “martyr”.  The word “martyr” means “witness”:  will I continue to give witness of Jesus and his Gospel, by word, by action, by dedicating myself as a living witness.  Would I be a witness of Jesus even to the point, as John will soon do, as Luke’s first readers sometimes were called on to do, to witness of Jesus by dying the martyr’s death.

Man, that turned dark in a hurry, didn’t it?  So, let’s just catch our breath and back away from the frightening specter of martyrdom.  That’s not really where Jesus was headed with this anyway.  Instead, Jesus moved everyone along by this interesting thing he does next.

Jesus doesn’t bash John the Baptist there to the crowd because of John’s question.  Jesus in no way feels the need to diminish John the Baptist at all.  Instead, he lifts up John the Baptist before the people.  He invites them to consider the heart of John’s message.  Then, in verse 28, Jesus makes a crucial pivot by saying this:  “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John…”

Notice how Jesus set this up:  “among those born of women”.  Well, that pretty well covers the whole of humanity, doesn’t it?  After all, how else does one go about getting born?

We also may get born of the Holy Spirit, don’t we, if we enter the kingdom of God?  It’s that whole conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus; that the Gospel of John records for us in John chapter three. (John 3:1-8)

Back to Luke 7:28, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John, yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”  We have come into the kingdom of God, this unseen yet eternal community of God’s beloved children. Jesus’ Gospel is all about being part of that community, entering it, living it, anticipating its fulfillment.

John the Baptist was right about Jesus; he just didn’t know exactly how he was right about Jesus.  John was looking at his own works, his own fiery message, and he couldn’t get them to line up with Jesus’ works and message, and it confused him.

Perhaps we’ve wondered about Jesus and our allegiance to Jesus and whether to keep going in active witness of Jesus.  Whatever the cause of our bewilderment:  we were right about Jesus, even if we don’t really know exactly how we were right.

This “kingdom of God business” is not easy always to understand, if ever.  But, the weakest among us in any way—whether in faith, knowledge, obedience—we still are so greatly valued and esteemed in God’s love.

The takeaway for today is at least this:  Let’s help each other always to grasp this basic truth about the kingdom of God:  the weakest is valued as much, and more, as the strongest.  Let’s help those, our sisters and brothers who’ve grown weak, who’ve somehow forgotten and wandered on to other paths.  Our ministry is not that of fire and threat; ours is the ministry of the Anointed Shepherd of God, come to gather the flock safely into God’s fold, the weak and the strong.


1Exegetical notes are from Joseph A. Fitzmyer, ­The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28, Double Day & Co., 1982.

2 BAG, skandalizo, p. 760a.

Ruth: Naomi’s Do-Over Story

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 29, 2016.
Taken from Ruth 1: 11-18

Ruth And Naomi
Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes, “Look at the birds of the air:  they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them….Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”  (Matthew 6:26, 28-29)

“Yes, Jesus,” we might very well reply, “but have you seen the bird as it pecks along over frozen ground looking for food or as it sits huddled on a branch, enduring a cold, drenching rain with no understanding that it could very well not survive?”

“You yourself, Jesus, you acknowledge that these lilies of the field have but a brief moment of glory in the sun before being mowed down and “thrown into the oven”.  (Matthew 6:30).   Yet, you tell us to take comfort in the lessons we learn from them?   You tell us God has arranged for all to be well for them?   You call on us to learn from them lessons of God meant to allay our fears and calm our anxieties?

Who is this God, then, who with such utter abandon adorns creation with beauty only to leave that same beautiful creation to ruin on the whims of nature and the foolishness of mortals?  What should we say, then, about God?

These are the hard questions the Book of Ruth asks.  Hard questions to which, interestingly, God never once replies.   Nowhere in the Book of Ruth does God speak a word.  There is no prophet to declare, “Behold!  Thus sayeth the Lord”.  There is no burning bush in the valley, and no theophany on the mountain top.   There is no priest culling the truth of sacred text nor sage ordained to offer wisdom in God’s name.  In Ruth, there are, instead, only the birds and the lilies themselves to tell their story.

We commonly call this the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman.  But, it’s not just Ruth’s story.  Ruth literally marries into this story, which is the story of Naomi and Naomi’s husband and their two sons.  The opening verses of chapter one sets the stage for us.  The time is in the ancient and early days of Israel, long before the tribes are united under king and nation.1

Hear the story:

“…there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem migrated to Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.   The man’s name was Elimelech and the name of his wife was Naomi…they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem.”  (1:1-2)

Names are important in this story.  Elimelech and Naomi are Ephrathites from Bethlehem.  Ephraph is what their town used to be called before later settlers renamed it “Bethlehem”.  In other words, Elimelech and Naomi were from one of the old established families there in Bethlehem.   They were like the FFV here in Virginia:  they were the Lees and the Byrds and the Washingtons of their time and place.   They were Ephrathites, and you best not forget it!

Elimelech’s name means “God is King”.  Naomi’s name means “Pleasant” or “Beautiful”.  But, before this first chapter moves very far along, Naomi will have cause to wonder exactly what kind of king is this God of hers.  Her own name, Naomi…Pleasant, will sound like ridicule to her own ears.  Her own given name will soon be too painful to pronounce, so much so, that she rejects it!

Naomi changes her name to reflect the harsh reality life will tattoo in the deep lines furrowed across her own forehead:  “Mara”, which means “Bitter”.  “Call me, ‘Mara’,” she will come to say, for that is who I am.  I am Bitter.” (1:20)  I said, “life” will tattoo that name across her forehead; but that’s not actually what Naomi says did it to her; she says, God has done this to her.

Even the name of their village, “Bethlehem”, turns rancid in Naomi’s mouth.  “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread”, but there is no bread to be found in Bethlehem nor anywhere around their beloved land.  There is a long famine which compels Elimelech and Naomi and their sons to seek a better life in the neighboring country of Moab.

Think of Naomi and her family as one of the families that suffered through Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.  Louisiana is devastated; homes, businesses, whole communities left in ruins.  So, many simply get up and leave the ruins behind.   In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, many families migrated over into Texas.   They just end up staying in Texas.  They start over.  They get work in Texas, they get the kids back in school, some are even able to buy a house!

You know, 2005, 2006, 2007:  anybody could get a home mortgage, couldn’t they?  What collateral?  What down-payment?  You’ve got some kind of job, you’ve got a house!  What a country!   What a life!  Katrina may have turned out to be the best thing to happen to a lot of people.

Picture Elimelech and Naomi that way.   They’re devastated by Katrina.   They leave New Orleans and migrate to Houston.  Elimelech and his sons get jobs, they get a mortgage and buy a house big enough not for Mom and Dad, but even with enough room for the sons and their young wives.  Sure, 2005 was bad.  But, things started to turn around…2006, 2007…looks like Naomi and her family have landed on their feet.

Then, comes 2008.  The economy starts tanking.  Elimelech and the boys lose their jobs.  The housing bubble bursts.   Banks collapse.  Real estate values plummet.   Mortgage companies start foreclosing on houses, right and left.  Families literally are thrown out on to the street.

Suicides, divorces, homelessness, wide-spread confusion that only the oldest of the old can remember living through.

That’s about how it goes for Naomi as, first, her husband dies, and then both of her sons die, leaving her with no money, no way to work, and two young daughters-in-law in exactly the same predicament along with her.  So bad does it become for them, Naomi can come up with no solution other than to move back to New Orleans.   Maybe she can move into one of those FEMA trailer camps.

Naomi simply can’t ask her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to make that trek with her, this old broken beggar woman crossing that barren desert land.  It is indeed for Naomi, a terrible walk of shame.

Orpah sees the hard but necessary choice before her.  With great heartbreak, Orpah kisses her mother-in-law goodbye and returns to her own family.  But, the other daughter-in-law simply can’t do it.  Ruth pledges herself to her mother-in-law, much in same way she had pledged herself to Naomi’s son:

“Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” (1:16-17)

Ruth’s pledge of fidelity to Naomi and to Naomi’s God is all the more daring when you consider what Naomi has to say about God.  Naomi has just then told Ruth and Orpah, “my life is bitter, terribly bitter, because God…Yahweh…has gone against me for some reason…God has slapped me down hard!  Go!  Get far away from me and save yourselves!”  (1:13, paraphrased).  But, Ruth persists, and so these two destitute widows make their way back to Bethlehem.

When Naomi and Ruth show up in Bethlehem, verses 19-21 of chapter 1 tell us that it causes quite a stir.  The women of the town see Naomi, and they whisper and they talk and they question, “Is this Naomi?  Is this Miss Pleasant, Miss FFV Beautiful-Fancy Pants?”  Well, Naomi puts a stop to that right away.  “Do not ever again utter that name to my face!  My name from now on is Mara, ‘Bitter’, because the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.   I went away full, but Yahweh has brought me back empty….Yahweh has afflicted me and the Almighty has brought me to ruin.”

Again, names tell the story in this little book.  Mara not only renames herself, she begins addressing God by a different name, too.  Up until now, Naomi has addressed God as a daughter of the covenant, so she uses God’s covenant name, “Yahweh”.  But, now, she starts calling God by the name, “Shaddai”.  We most often translate the name, “Shaddai”, as “Almighty”.  But the name can as easily be read, “the Destroyer”.2  This is how Mara means it:  “God has destroyed my life, and I am bitter!”

Why has God done this to me?  I don’t know…I don’t know anything my husband and I have done other than try to make the best decisions we could make in the face of the natural disaster of that famine back those many years ago.  Why has God done this to me?  I can only answer with the absolute truth:  my arms are too short to box with God, and God has beat the daylights out of me.  Am I bitter about it?   You bet I am!

Well, Ruth knows, even bitter people have to eat.  Her mother-in-law is a broken woman.  It will fall to Ruth to support them, so Ruth offers to do the only thing she knows to do.  She and Naomi have just happened to come back to Bethlehem during the harvest season, so Ruth asks Naomi’s permission to go to the fields and glean.  Gleaning was not day work done to earn hourly wages you collect at the end of the day.  Gleaning was going on the public dole; it was ancient welfare.

The law required that landowners leave some of their crops unharvested at the edges of their fields.  The destitute could come and pick over the remains in order to feed themselves.  It was a flat-out tax on the productive citizens, taking money out of their pockets in order to feed those who produced nothing, for whatever reason.

As you can imagine, the landowners did not like it one bit.  Whatever they left unharvested would be the poorest of the crop.  They would not provide water nor shade nor food nor any other accommodation that might encourage beggars to come work their fields.  They turned a blind eye to how their own men would molest the women who gleaned.  (see Boaz’s own admission to this, in 2:9, 15-16)

Now, even though I know better, I always picture Ruth on this romantic outing into the countryside, pretty much like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”.   It’s a bright Fall day.  Ruth has her hair tied up in kerchief; she’s dressed in peasant’s dress, carrying a basket on her hip, a smile on her face, and a song in her heart.  Of course, that is utter nonsense.  Ruth went out early each morning knowing she was putting herself in a hard and dangerous predicament just hoping to get enough for her and Naomi to eat one more day.

As it so happens, Ruth stumbles into the field of a man named Boaz.  It turns out that Boaz actually is a rich relative of Naomi’s.   We also learn in chapter 2, verse 11, that Boaz already knows about Naomi and her daughter-in-law returning to Bethlehem.   Apparently, though, Boaz had felt no pangs of conscience about ignoring his destitute relative and her foreign daughter-in-law.  Until, that is, Boaz gets a look at this foreign born young woman who’s attached herself to Naomi.

Boaz comes out to inspect his fields and to see how the harvest is going.  He looks out and sees Ruth gleaning among the other poor folk.  Suddenly, Boaz finds—shall we say—a sudden infusion of kindness welling up in his old bachelor’s heart.   Which, is where our little story suddenly takes a romantic turn.

Ruth runs home that evening to Naomi.  Her hands are full of grain, and her heart is full of good news.  “Naomi!  You won’t believe who I met today.  It was the owner of the field, Boaz, and he and I really seemed to get along just great!”

I can picture Naomi smacking herself in the forehead as she realizes, of course, Boaz!  My long lost, rich cousin Boaz!  This is very good news to Naomi, because Naomi also knows about a certain law that says, if a man dies without a male heir, then the dead man’s male next of kin is obligated to marry her and to try and sire a male descendent for his dead relative.

Naomi realizes that this all more than just good luck.  Ruth choosing to stay with her; them coming back to Bethlehem just in time for the harvest, Ruth happening upon Boaz’s field?  Naomi hears herself uttering a prayer she never ever expected to pray again, in chapter 2, verse 20, “Blessed be he by the Lord, Yahweh, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!”  Naomi jumps into action:  she preps Ruth, dressing her up, coaching her what to do and what to say in order to activate that particular law.  There are rituals to go through to get this sort of arrangement settled.  You can read all about them in chapters 3 and 4

Just to quickly summarize, Boaz rolls over in the middle of the night and awakens to discover lovely Ruth there with him.  Ruth tells him, it’s time to do your duty and I’m ready and willing.  Boaz, never the fool, and at least this time, not slow on the uptake, takes up Ruth on her offer.  That’s chapter three.   There’s some legal haggling with another male relative who has to relinquish his first dibs on Ruth.  That gets settled in the first part of chapter 4.

All of which is to say, Boaz gets it done.  He and Ruth are married.  Then, we’re told in chapter 4, verse 13, “the Lord, Yahweh, gave her conception, and she bore a son.”  But, that’s not the end of the story.  There is one more scene, the final scene, to be played out before this story is finished.  And it is not Ruth’s scene at all.  It is Naomi’s.

The scene opens in chapter 4, verse 14.  The curtain pulls back with Naomi holding her newborn grandson, who at this point remains unnamed.  The women of Bethlehem once again surround this grandmother, who at this point, you’ll recall, still is renamed “Mara”.   But, no more.  In verse 17, the women proclaim, “A son has been born to Naomi”.  No longer is she to be called “Mara”—the Bitter One—but she is once again “Naomi”—the Pleasant, Beautiful One.

The baby whom the women proclaim as Naomi’s son, they now give the name “Obed”, which means “worshipper”.  Our story concludes with the narrator telling us that Obed will be the grandfather of David.  Which means, of course, that Naomi will become the great, great grandmother of the greatest king over God’s people.

And many, many generations later, another descendent of Naomi’s will enter into the streets of Bethlehem, poor and very tired.  There will be an older man with his young betrothed wife, where they too will experience the birth of their son.  In Bethlehem, the “House of Bread”, will born a child who will later be called, the “Bread of Life”, but who for the moment will simply be named, “Jesus”, meaning, “he will save”.

Naomi’s story presents the very same God who is with us, the God Who Saves, not the God Who Destroys.  Although, that is what Naomi had come to believe.  Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons had made their own decisions in the face of harsh, trying circumstances.  There seems to have been a brief reprieve, when things went well, and it seemed well for the sons to marry and to begin their own families.

But, then, it got worse.  Naomi’s life turned hellish and destructive and despairing.  Did God do that to Naomi?  She thought so at the time, and she complained quite plainly about God’s treatment as she saw it.  But, God did not strike her down, nor curse her.  Famine, dislocations, and death struck her down and left her bitter, but not God.

In her bitterness, Naomi could not see that already God was working to restore her and to rescue her from bitterness.   Much as a mother bird might shelter her young, God embraced this very hurt and damaged daughter of the covenant.  God restored Naomi and gave her a new life and a place in God’s saving work for others.

This is God, as we have come to know God through that much later offspring of Naomi, who is Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, the Bread of Life meant to feed us all.  Where ever we have traveled, what ever harshness has left us embittered, God is with us though we do not know it, laying before us a path to new life through God’s gracious gift of the child of salvation for us, too.  Jesus is also our Bread of Life, for the journey.



1All exegetical notes are from Arthur E. Cundall and Leon Morris, Judges and Ruth, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman ed. (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1968) pp. 217 ff.

2Brown, Driver, Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1979) shadat p. 994a

Stardust, Plus

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 15, 2016.
Taken from Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-32

Let’s begin with a little mental exercise this morning.  I think it will be fun.  I’m going to rattle off a list of names in no particular order. Your job will be to identify what they all have in common.

It’s a list of names that I’ve just pulled off the top of my head that I know.  It’s by no means exhaustive.  The other thing I need to say is that all these names are western and northern.   There are vast swaths of other cultures that I’ve omitted, but that’s out of my own ignorance, of other cultures, O.K.?  It shows the limits of my own education, and my own failings of intellectual curiosity.

So, if you’ve got some names from Asian culture or Middle Eastern or African or one of the Americas other than North America, by all means, plug those names in…it’s still work.

So, with that upfront mea culpa, here we go.  What do all these names have in common?

Monet…Georgia O’Keefe…Erma Bombeck…John Steinbeck…
Pearl Jam…Hank Williams…Louis Sullivan…Roy Orbison…God…
Gregory Hines…Merle Haggard…Nina Simone…Sam Maloof…
Thelonius Monk…Jesus of Nazareth…Jesus the Christ…
Alice in Chains…Degas…Andy Warhol

That’s round one; are you getting the idea?  What do all these folks have in common?  A few more, and then I’ll quit.

Duke Ellington…Frank Sinatra…Janis Joplin…Frank Lloyd Wright…
John Williams…Patsy Cline…Christopher Wren…Earl Warren…
Antonia Scalia…The Artic Monkeys…God…Grandma Moses…
Jack White…Joni Mitchell…The Holy Spirit…
Thomas Jefferson…Merle Haggard…I.M. Pei…Mary Cassatt…

O.K., I’ll stop now.  So, all these names, plus the names you’ve thought of, what do all of these folks have in common?

They have in common at least this:  each one discovered his or her own way of seeing life.  From the mash up of experiences and perceptions and distortions and genius that made them, they in turn crafted for themselves a unique perspective on the world.  They each found a medium which they mastered—painting, music, the law, clay, wood, words, dance, their own bodies.  They used that medium to get what they saw within themselves out into the world so the rest of us could see it.

We know their names because they helped enough of us to see what we ourselves could not see, of life, especially of this bit of life called humanity.

The fancy word for expressing one’s personal way of seeing is “aesthetic”:  each of these, had his or her own aesthetic.  As I said, aesthetic is a fancy word.  It’s not a word we’re prone to use much in church.  In fact, we may be kind of suspicious of such words and the people who use them.  So, let’s acknowledge that suspicion up front.

The second suspicion to acknowledge is that among those many names I named, there were a few that seemed out of place.  You know the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things (is Not Like the Others)”?

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song? 1

Among all those other names, I dropped in these names, in this order: “God”, “Jesus of Nazareth”, “Jesus the Christ”, “God”, “The Holy Spirit”.  For the purposes of this list, are these names not like the others?

Does God have a unique perspective about life which is God’s own?  Has God masterfully made use of a medium to get that perspective on life out where the rest of us can see it, especially that little bit of life called humanity?  So, couldn’t we say, God has an aesthetic?  If so, what is God’s aesthetic?

From what our reading in Proverbs says, God’s aesthetic seems to be Wisdom.  But this is no wisdom of the “stitch in time saves nine” variety of wisdom.  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  “The early bird catches the worm.”  “What goes up must come down.”  “Let sleeping dogs lie.”  “Don’t be surprised if you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas”

There is wisdom in such sayings.  Maybe they’re sort of like droplets of water sprayed up off the surface of Wisdom’s ocean.  But the sayings are mere surface.

The writer, here in Proverbs chapter 8, is reflecting upon creation and sees something beneath the surface.  He sees a liveliness beyond the obvious.  There is evidence of what he can only describe by the one word, “delight”.  It seems as though the Maker took great delight in the making of this world.  More than that, it’s as if the Maker actually infused delight into the media of creation:  the stars, the sun, the way the sun plays across the horizon, delight contained from within the largest mountains down to the mere “bits of soil” as verses 25-26 put it.

But, what makes it so lively is this, says this sage:  it’s as though creation itself is responding with its own delight offered back to the Maker.  It’s as if there’s a grand duet of delight being sung between unseen partners…a dance…perhaps even a romance.

This writer is no idiot.  He knows as well as anyone, dirt is dirt, rock is rock.  The same wind that blows his hair askew atop his head is the same wind that moves the trees and shrubs that sit firmly rooted in the soil.

He knows, Water is water.  It’s necessary for life, be it vegetable or animal; it’s wet.  He knows that too much water can ruin the farmer’s work just as easily as too little water.  He knows the water distorts the light somehow.

Yet, there’s more at work.  There is laughter in the dirt, the rock, the wind, and the water.  There is joy, as though shared between old friends, or perhaps it is love, after all?

The writer, here in the verses of chapter 8, somehow has to capture what he perceives God showing him, what he experiences so vividly yet which lie beyond mere touch, or fragrance; beyond the majesty of sights and sounds and the flavors of the stuff of this world.  For him, it is as though a far greater sage, a woman, were calling out through creation itself, inviting him to hear and understand her story, so he can tell her story to others.

Her story of how it is that she has come from before time and place ever were, to be here, now, in his own time and place, speaking to him.  He names her Wisdom

In beginning,” you know, says she, “the Lord created me….at the first, before beginning even with the earth.”  There were no depths of the sea, nor mountains; no horizon was in sight, because there were no heavens to separate what was above from what was below; there was no up or down:  “First,” she says, “the Lord created me.

“So,” says Wisdom, “there I was beside him, to begin, like a master crafter, and I was the Maker’s daily delight.  And I, rejoicing always before him, rejoiced in the Maker’s world as together we brought it life, especially delighting in the children of our making, the human race.

Now, my children, listen to me…,” Lady Wisdom says, in verse 32.  Have we forgotten how to listen to Wisdom in creation?  Does Wisdom’s song fall wasted, misunderstood, mislaid and finally lost to us, like some great work of art tucked away in the attic of an abandoned house or a lyric composition, or a play-write’s drama that sits idle in the drawer of a piece of furniture, an unwanted heirloom that no family member cared to take?

Should we even be taking time in a Christian worship service to speak of something so spiritual in creation itself?  Isn’t this all just a bunch of “woo-woo”?  Is “woo-woo” a term you’re familiar with?  “Woo-woo” is a derogatory term, defined this way:

adj. concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey.2

Now, there’s the curse of death in Christian circles, to term something as “new agey”.  That’s right!  By golly, we want a rational faith; we want a scientific faith, not a “woo-woo” faith!

As I was first going through the lectionary suggestions for this Sunday and read this, Proverbs chapter 8, almost immediately there popped into my head the refrain from the 1970 song, “Woodstock”, the rock version by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  Surely you know the refrain to “Woodstock”?  Let’s sing it, why don’t we?

We are stardust/Billion-year-old carbon/
We are golden/Caught in the devil’s bargain/
And we’ve got to get ourselves/
Back to the garden. 3

 I guess we might call that “woo-wooey”, too, if it weren’t for the Bible references to the Devil and the Garden of Eden and then the scientific references Joni Mitchell put in there when she wrote the lyrics.

I’m all for us Christians knowing at least something about the science of how this creation in which we live came about and continues.  We need it.  A solid, scientific understanding of the Universe is, literally, what keeps our faith from turning into one big mess of “woo-woo”, whether it’s New Agey woo-woo over here or the Tim LaHaye “Left Behind” woo-woo over there!

Because creation is the backdrop for all kinds of good Christian theology, from Genesis, to Proverbs, to John’s Gospel, throughout the writings of the Apostle Paul and ending up in the Book of Revelation.  Good, solid theology and Christian practice is grounded in creation.  It behooves us to understand it.

I strongly recommend to you Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of the Universe.  There are all kinds of scientists who’ve tried to write books for the general reader, and they fail miserably at it.  Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy do a pretty good job, but, for my money, you can’t beat Bill Bryson’s book.

What you’ll learn is that, in fact, Joni Mitchell got it right:  we are stardust, billion-year-old carbon and other stuff that burst out of a nothingness some 13.8 billion years ago.  All of the energy, all of the elements of matter, out of which we are made, popped out as if from nothing, per scientists who know what they’re talking about.

Lawrence Krauss is a physicist who knows what he’s talking about.  He tried to explain all this for the general reader in his book, A Universe Out of Nothing:  Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.  I’ve attempted to read it, and I have to say, “sorry, Larry, but I’m not sure you know any actual ‘general readers’.”  So, start with Bill Bryson.

If we want to have a sound theology and a right practice of our faith, we need to learn something of the medium in which God chose to work.  Because, it is through this medium of matter and energy that God worked out God’s own unique aesthetic, of which the sage of Proverb testifies.

It is our calling to continue to testify of God’s delight in this, God’s, creation; it is our calling to help this creation, especially its human family, to voice its delight back to God.

Theologian Matthew Fox argues vigorously that we Christians have become so obsessed with the idea of “original sin” that we’ve completely forgotten about the “original blessing” in creation.4

You know, I often wonder this:  why was it, when Jesus walked into a bar-room full of tax collectors, or when Jesus walked past a street corner where gathered prostitutes, or whenever Jesus came into the sightline of any other groups of people whom the religious termed unclean and unfit for God, why was it they so welcomed Jesus, rabbi that he was?

Was it that in the presence of Jesus, they felt in their souls this primordial delight of the Creator now looking them in the face?  Is that why they flocked after Jesus and hung on his words and welcomed Jesus to their tables?

Do you know what it is to experience judgement, shaming, perhaps deserved condemnation, to experience it all so much so that you start living your life to fit that rejection?  Or, you live your life in such deep fear of that judgment that you bind yourself up:  rigid, buttoned down, excelling at becoming like those whose judgement you seek to prevent?

And, then, you come into the presence of someone who seems to actually welcome you, who delights in you, who embraces you?  Well, then, that’s who you’re going to follow, that’s the group to whom you will pledge your fidelity come what may.

Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of delight.  Jesus called forth the innate delight which the Maker infused within creation itself.  The first generations of Christians quickly seized upon this picture of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and saw there attributes of Jesus.  The Apostle Paul knew these ancient writings as well as anyone.  Paul wove the theme of creation and re-creation as he sought to explain the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

The sage of Proverbs introduces this wisdom collection with this person, Lady Wisdom.  In a very similar way, the Gospel of John introduces the ministry of Jesus with this Prologue read for us earlier of the Living Word of God, who was before creation and through whom came creation and for whom all was created.  Jesus, the Living Aesthetic of God.

Among all those names with which we began, there should be your name and mine.  God calls us to see with God’s own way of seeing, to express God’s aesthetic through the medium of our lives.  God calls us to embrace this world of rock and soil, of wind and water, and most of all, this human race, with God’s delight in it all, and then to help all, flawed though they be, to find delight in God, their Maker and their Redeemer.  We see that way most fully in Jesus the Christ.

We are stardust, plus, the Holy Presence of God’s Delight, who would sing through our voices and live through our bodies, this deep, deep Wisdom of creation.


1 http://www.metrolyrics.com/one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others-lyrics-sesame-street.html

2Robert T. Carroll, http://skepdic.com/woowoo.html

3 http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/jonimitchell/woodstock.html

Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer on Creation Spirituality, (NY:  Tarcher/Putnam, 2000)

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