Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Jesus, Hosea, and Justice as Healing

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Thanks to my good friend, Nick Melton, for inviting me to share a message on justice with the college ministry at Auburn UMC. 

Matthew 9:9-13

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

I’d like to start with a story. A slightly embarrassing story that comes from my illustrious elementary school playground football career. I think I was in 3rd grade, maybe 4th. We were outside playing football during PE. It was 2 hand touch of course. It was all boys – except for one girl – Sally. Sally was the tom-boy in our class. A sweet girl, but kind of rough around the edges, sometimes a tad mean. Definitely tougher and bigger than me. So, there we were on the fields of glory, the boys and Sally, and my team is receiving a kickoff. It comes to me. I field it perfectly and take off down the field behind our expertly planned blocking scheme. It was basically like the KICK-SIX play. Epic. I sprint past the other team and there’s nothing but wide open field in front of me. Touchdown… almost. Sally. Somehow Sally had caught up to me. Not enough to tackle me but close enough to trip me. I go flying, and break my arm on the landing. My first broken bone; broken by a girl. Of course I sobbed and the everyone was mad at Sally, game over. I share that story to ask this question: what does justice look like in this story? Is justice having a flag thrown by the ref? Sally being ejected? Maybe I should’ve gotten to break her arm? Or maybe my family should have sued the school or my PE teacher? Maybe it could have been a class action lawsuit against people who take cheap shots on the playground? Or even better, maybe we should have pushed for a law to put playground bone breakers and dream crushers behind bars?!?! Are any of those things justice? What is justice really about? Keep those questions in mind as we explore this story from Matthew’s gospel.

This is a story you’ve probably heard before: the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. It seems simple enough, but there is so much to unpack in this brief encounter. What makes it so interesting and complex is in verse 13, towards the end of the passage, when Jesus tells the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, no sacrifice.’” Jesus is actually quoting the Old Testament prophet Hosea. So not only do we need to explore the dynamics between Jesus, Pharisees, and tax collectors, but we also need to know something about Hosea, his life, and his prophetic message. So, we’ll start the New Testament part and then do a crash course on Hosea. Here we go:

Tax collectors. Everyday Jewish folk despised these guys. They were also Jewish but they cooperated with the oppressive, “gentile” regime of Rome. For as long as they did that, they were considered impure according to Jewish law and socially excluded from Jewish life. Some or most were also corrupt (remember Zacchaeus?). Taking their own slice of the outrageously high taxes they collected. These were not the kind of people any self-respecting Jewish rabbi would want as his disciples. They had sold their souls. No one wanted them. They were sinners under God’s judgment.

Not only does Jesus say, “Hey, you, condemned impure tax collector, come be my disciple!!”, but then he goes to eat with a whole crowd of them. Along with other “sinners,” which probably meant prostitutes. More impure, unclean, condemned folks under God’s judgment who were “justly” excluded from Jewish life according to THE LAW. Not only is Jesus hanging out with them, making himself unclean, but he’s eating with them! Having a meal with someone meant so much more back then. It was perceived by some, the Pharisees, as passive acceptance of these people’s sinful, unclean lifestyles. It showed a profound disregard for “the law” in order to welcome and show compassion and mercy towards those who were excluded. Jesus would not only eat with “these kind” of people; he called them to be his closest followers and take up his mission. This is outrageous.

Which brings us to the folks who were outraged: the Pharisees. These guys – and they were only men – were the strictest sect of Jewish folk in their day. They studied the law of Moses like no one else and made it their life goal to make themselves “righteous” before the law. They were very very serious about not breaking the law. They created more and more laws to keep themselves from breaking the laws. This is a very small group of highly educated, highly respected, probably wealthy men who held positions of power over most everyday Jewish folk. When they see Jesus go to eat with Matthew and his sinner buddies, they are incensed by Jesus’ disregard for the law they love so dearly.

But before we go into Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and dive into Hosea, let’s step back just a little and explore the context of this passage in Matthew’s gospel. We’re in chapter 9. Back a few chapters, in Matthew 5-7, we find Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount; the Beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer, several instances where Jesus re-interprets Moses’ law. At the end of the sermon, people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority – not like the other teachers of the law, ie the Pharisees. In a key verse, Matthew 5:17, Jesus teaches that he and God’s kingdom are the fulfillment of the law. He will show them what the law of Moses was all about in the first place. Then, a few verses later in Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes a somewhat confusing claim about the law of Moses and our “righteousness”, our justice, according to the law. He says, “Unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Interesting, because Jesus seems to be disregarding the law in our passage by eating with sinners and calling them to be disciples. If Jesus has come to fulfill the law, to fulfill justice, and if Jesus’ disciples are called to be even more righteous, more just, than Pharisees, then how do we make sense of what Jesus is doing in our passage?

To answer that question, we need to dive into the Old Testament, to the prophet Hosea. When Jesus responds in Matthew 9:12-13 to the Pharisees’ indignation against his seemingly unlawful behavior, Jesus commands them to study Hosea. He quotes Hosea 6:6, arguably THE key passage in Hosea’s message. Here’s the full verse: “I [God] desire mercy, not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, instead of burnt offerings.” By quoting this one verse from Hosea, Jesus is telling the Pharisees to remember the whole message of Hosea. So, who is this guy?

Hosea. A prophet. Sent to proclaim God’s truth to the northern kingdom of Israel before it was attacked, defeated, and scattered by the Assyrian empire. After this defeat and Hosea’ death, his message became popular in the southern kingdom of Judah when that kingdom found itself in a similar position with the Babylonian empire. Babylon would eventually attack and defeat Judah, destroying Jerusalem and the temple, and sending what was left of God’s people people into exile. So, the socio-political context of Hosea’s message is one of impending doom. Foreign armies are threatening. The kings of Israel are increasingly corrupt, foolish, and trying to make deals with other foreign powers as last ditch efforts to save themselves. They have turned from God, worshiped idols, forgotten God’s law, and are generally relying on their own strength. Of course, during this time, they have continued to “follow” their religious rituals. Sacrifices and offerings are still being given at the temple where God is “worshiped.” But the people have forgotten God and are exploiting the poor, there is rampant inequality, injustice, farmers are losing their land, the king/temple is centralizing wealth and power. They are ignoring God, but still going through the motions of religious piety, as if they cared, as if God would have to intervene and save them as long as they “followed the rules” of sacrifices and offerings which they assume will “justify” their actions.

God calls Hosea into this unjust, idolatrous society on the brink of collapse to proclaim a message of God’s judgment, of anger, but also of profound, unending, steadfast love, and – one day – of restoration, redemption, reconciliation. You may remember that Hosea is the prophet God calls to marry a woman, Gomer, a woman who he knows will be unfaithful to him. Some say she was a prostitute. In any case, they had 3 kids together, but then she is unfaithful to Hosea with other lovers. When this infidelity is uncovered, she leaves him or is sent away by Hosea. This was in accordance with the law of Moses. But then God calls Hosea to go take her back, to renew his love for her. Why does God put Hosea through all of this? Because God wants Hosea to feel, to KNOW, in the pit of his stomach, the immense pain that God feels for his people Israel. Hosea proclaims God’s unfathomable love like no other prophet because he felt the betrayal, the rejection, the broken promises, the fleeting commitments, the disappointments of the one who had promised to love him and him alone. God wanted Hosea to KNOW this – not abstractly, not as a nice concept – but to know it in his bones because this is how God loves God’s people. This is how God feels about our idolatry and injustice.

So, what does this verse, Hosea 6:6 mean? Through Hosea, God is pleading with Israel to see the empty hypocrisy of their ways. God wants THEM, not their sacrifices. God wants their hearts, their minds, their bodies – all of them. God wants to bless them, to see them flourish, to see them enjoy and steward God’s creation, to love each other, to love God, to seek the good of their neighbors, of widows, of orphans, of strangers, of the poor.

Hosea 6:6 is setup as a parallelism. Two statements which mirror each other. Mercy – not sacrifice; knowledge of God – not burnt offerings. Mercy is in parallel with “knowledge of God.” Sacrifice is in parallel with burnt offerings. The two things in these pairs are inseparable and we can’t understand one without the other. The people of Israel say they know God, but they have abandoned love of God and neighbor, they show no mercy, they live unjustly – and this shows they do not KNOW God. The Hebrew verb translated here as “knowledge” has a very rich meaning. It means so much more than head knowledge. Its not an abstract, conceptual knowledge ABOUT God; it’s a full bodied, emotional, passionate, deep kind of knowing that permeates thoughts and actions. The same Hebrew verb is used in the scripture, “Adam KNEW his wife Eve and she bore a son” and we all know what that means! SEX! Let me tell you: sex is not about an abstract, conceptual knowledge. Its mutual love and affection; it’s a shared commitment. When I say I know my wife, I don’t just mean that I know her birthdate, social security number, and address; my knowing of her and my love for her and with her are inseparable. THIS is what God wants from God’s people. The kind of deep knowing, in partnership, in friendship, that is lived out in the way we care for each other and structure our society. When Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, he is bringing this whole drama, this love story between God and Israel, back into the light for the Pharisees to see with fresh eyes.

So, when we left Matthew a few minutes ago, we were left with the question of how to understand what Jesus was doing eating with sinners and tax collectors and welcoming them into God’s kingdom – disregarding the law. Especially in light of his teaching that God’s kingdom FULFILLS the law and that our righteousness, our justice, in relation to the law must EXCEED that of the Pharisees. It’s seems contradictory.

But the contradiction fades when we understand justice the way Jesus did, the way Hosea did. The Pharisees were confused and outraged because they studied the law to justify themselves, to insulate themselves from “sinners”, to exclude, to protect themselves and their power over others, to set themselves up as the ones to be imitated and respected, as the ones to enforce the laws on others and punish them for their disobedience. But Jesus takes them back to the deep, prophetic well of Hosea, to reveal God’s heart, the heart of justice: mercy, compassion, steadfast love and faithfulness, solidarity, co-suffering, sacrificial service, healing, restoration, wholeness, hospitality, peace, reconciliation, LOVE. When Jesus teaches that our justice and righteousness must exceed the Pharisees, he means that we can’t be content with mere obedience to law, as good as that may be. Rather, we are called and empowered to seek the restorative, redemptive intent of the law through concrete acts of mercy which lead to restoration, healing, and wholeness on personal, communal, and societal levels.

The immediate context of Matthew 8 and 9 bears out this re-orientation of justice towards restoration and healing through acts of mercy. There are 9 stories of Jesus healing folks or exorcising demons in these chapters. All these acts of mercy are demonstrations of God’s kingdom. Jesus has come to welcome the sinners, the excluded, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, into a pursuit of justice and righteousness, of healing and wholeness, in God’s kingdom. Jesus comes as a physician, a healer. The end of Matthew 9 describes Jesus as a shepherd who has compassion, ie mercy, on the crowds, the sheep who are harassed and helpless, as he heals, restores, and brings wholeness.

Now, do you think the Pharisees listened to this teaching? No, of course not! What’s crazy is that Jesus REPEATS this exact verse from Hosea to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:7 after they get all upset about his disciples picking grain to eat on the Sabbath day, which was “breaking the law” of not working on the Sabbath. They still didn’t get it. Then, this same idea comes up in Matthew 23 where Jesus is EXCORIATING the Pharisees about their hypocrisy. Matthew 23:23 says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” In other words, I’m glad you’re so concerned about following every iota of the law that you make the effort to measure a tenth of your kitchen spices to obey the laws about tithing, but you don’t love people, you don’t care about the real needs of real people. You miss the forest for the trees. I like your commitment to obeying the law, but not if you’re going to miss the whole point of the law in the first place.

But the biblical evidence in Matthew for this deeper understanding of justice and righteousness founded in mercy doesn’t stop there. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats to describe the final judgement before God, the ultimate act of justice. What will be God’s criteria for justice and righteousness? Strict obedience to the law? Ceremonial purity? No. It’s mercy. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner. Acts of mercy alongside “the least of these my brothers and sisters” will be the evidence of our entrance into God’s kingdom. Justice as mere obedience to law apart from mercy leads to separation from God. It leads to death.

Is this simply works-based salvation? No, its not. Are we not saved by grace through faith? Yes, we are. God’s love for us has not, does not, and will never depend on our actions. We are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and nothing else. Our works of mercy, of pursuing justice, wholeness, peace, and the common good for all do not EARN our salvation. They are our joyful response to the love of God we experience deep in our hearts. How can we do nothing when we look at our world, our communities, our neighbors, our own lives and see the profound suffering, brokenness, pain, discrimination, hate, and apathy that surround us and invade our lives? God’s creation is moaning, all of us, earth, wind, sky, plants, animals, the entire universe is groaning for the promised restoration of God. And God longs to restore us as well. Hosea captured this longing in probably one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture:

Therefore I [the Lord] am now going to allure her [my people Israel]; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of [trouble] a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ I will remove the names of the [idols] from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will [KNOW] the Lord. “In that day I will respond,” declares the Lord— “I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth, and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. I will plant her [my people Israel] for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’

Behold the heart of our God, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, longing for our redemption, for our love, for the wholeness, healing, flourishing of not just “God’s people” but for all people, all creation.

The problem is that we don’t want this. Not really, not actually. If we do, our lives don’t show it. The way of the Pharisees is too easy, too enticing, too safe, too comfortable, and we settle for it far too often.

So, back to my playground football broken arm story. What does justice look like? Is it throwing a flag, a lawsuit, a national ban on playground football? No, justice looks like a healed arm, back on the football field, with my friend Sally, playing and enjoying God’s good gifts, full of life. That’s a process. My bones had to be re-set, put in a cast for protection so they could heal. Then my muscles had to regain their strength. It involves forgiveness. Repairing relationships. And trusting each other again.

Now, I get this is a kind of a trivial analogy. It was a simple fracture that healed easily. But I share it to call our attention to the many fractures in our lives and our world today. These are not “simple”. They are what doctors call “compound fractures”. The ones where bones have torn through muscles and skin and are sticking out, exposed to infection, rot, and decay. We are probably aware of these compound fractures – human trafficking, racial injustice and white supremacy, grinding, dehumanizing poverty, war, genocide, sexism and misogyny, hunger, global migration, wealth inequality, discriminatory laws and law enforcement, environmental destruction, the desecration of life in so many myriad of ways.

What do we do? Jesus calls to be even more righteous, more just, than the Pharisees. God longs for our restoration. Do we care? Are our own hearts broken by these compound fractures that break God’s heart? Are we, like the Pharisees, busying ourselves studying the Bible, being “good” people, reading theology, winning arguments against atheists or other “heretics”, just so we can protect ourselves, insulate ourselves, justify ourselves, and stay out of the “messiness” of things like politics and economics? Have we bought into the Pharisaical notion of justice that excuses us from any responsibility to seek the common good so we can sit around in the pews and wait for God to snatch us up into heaven?

Mercy calls us to respond in concrete ways to seek the healing and wholeness of our hurting neighbors. Who are they? What are their stories? Too often, “doing justice” is limited to changing laws and policies, to understanding “issues”. Please hear me out: this is not bad. We need to work for more just laws and policies and for people to understand the issues deeply and thoroughly. But its not enough, justice doesn’t end there and its not where I think I should begin my pursuit of justice. As a person who doesn’t experience much injustice, my first step of mercy is to listen, to serve, to lament, and feel the weight of suffering caused by the brokenness of our world. One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, says it this way: “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues.” And deal with them we must.

As we love people who are hurting, God graciously opens our eyes to our own brokenness, and how our brokenness and the brokenness of those we love are interconnected, one and the same. Ultimately, seeking justice will cost us – those who like me enjoy the privileges that others do not. Our hearts will be broken, our lives will change, repentance will not be easy. But this is what God desires: mercy, not sacrifice. We must come to see that Jesus, and he alone, is Lord and Healer – not us. Doing justice cannot be our attempt to fix or save others as if we had no need of a healer. Another favorite author of mine, Claudio Oliver, captures this conviction:

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer… when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda. God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed.

It may not sound like it, but this is very, very good news. We are not called to save the world by seeking justice and righteousness. As the prophet Micah said, we are called to walk humbly with God – all of us broken folks together – as we do justice and love mercy.

God desires mercy, not sacrifice. A Christian pursuit of justice must be oriented towards the healing, restoration, and wholeness of all people – ourselves included. It begins with concrete acts of mercy. The question is: Do we care? Have our hearts been broken by the pain and suffering of our world? Or do we hide behind our privilege refusing to care, refusing to listen? May we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Break our hearts for what breaks yours, O God, our Healer.

What’s that in your hands?

A sermon I’ll be sharing at Pepperell United Methodist Church in Opelika, AL tomorrow morning (8.10.2014).

Exodus 4:1-20

I’m not sure how much y’all keep up with current events, but if you’re like me and you like to stay informed about what’s happening across the globe then you know that the news this week has been grim. There’s violence, injustice, degradation, and just plain brutality nearly everywhere you look. Some of these problems have just recently begun but others have been with us for years, decades in some cases. One website I found listed 11 active “wars” in the world today along with 8 “serious armed conflicts”. Untold thousands – millions even – have lost their lives in this violence. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the massive scale of human suffering occurring every single day; children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, neighbors – their lives filled with pain and sorrow. Along with all this violence, we hear about our brothers and sisters in West Africa facing a public health nightmare – the Ebola virus. I don’t mean to be all negative this morning – there’s a lot of good happening in the world that we don’t hear about. But goodness gracious, the news this week has just been heartbreaking.

These are big problems. But, for the most part, they’re all in distant places – or at least they seem distant. But we’ve got our own big problems closer to home too. In Tuskegee where ARM [Alabama Rural Ministry] is currently expanding its work, the community is struggling. The poverty rate has been over 35% and the unemployment rate over 16% for the past 30 years.

I’m not sure about you but when I hear about these kinds of big problems I tend to feel powerless, overwhelmed, paralyzed. Do you feel that way too? What causes our feelings of powerlessness, our inaction, in the face of big problems near and far? Why don’t we, followers of the risen Lord, do something? Why don’t we become people who make a difference? These are the questions I want us to consider briefly this morning in light of all the bad news in our world this week.

 Thankfully, we know and worship a God who is no stranger to suffering, who doesn’t ignore the big problems. As we turn to the story of Exodus, we find another big problem: God’s people, the Hebrews – millions of them – are brutally oppressed as slaves in Egypt. As you heard in last week’s sermon, when God’s people cried out God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant, God saw what was happening to them, and God understood their pain (The Message, Exo 2:24-25). But God doesn’t stop there. We know what happens next: God calls out to Moses from the burning bush. God has chosen Moses to be the leader of God’s mission for the redemption and restoration of the Hebrew slave. But right away Moses is not interested: first he doubts himself and then he questions God’s own identity. God is open to Moses’ questions and patient with his doubts. God promises to be with Moses and then reveals His true name, I AM – Yahweh – the one who will redeem God’s people from their suffering and restore them in a good land “flowing with milk and honey.” In the face of massive suffering, God is present and acts to redeem and restore because Yahweh is a saving God who doesn’t ignore the cries of those who suffer. Our text this morning picks up the ongoing dialogue between God and Moses at the burning bush. So, Moses has just received God’s invitation to join God’s work of redemption and restoration for the Hebrew people. How does he respond?

It sounds something like this: but… but… but… (I can hear my mom saying, “No buts about it!”). As we heard in our text from Exodus 4:1-20, Moses is not on board with God’s plans. Three separate times, he tries to avoid God’s invitation. Moses is well-aware of Israel’s suffering; he saw it happening as a young man. He may be aware, but, much like us, he feels powerless to do anything. So let’s look at Moses’ three “buts” and see if they don’t offer us some insight into our own feelings of powerlessness:

  1. In v. 1, we find out that Moses lacks credibility and trustworthiness among his people. He fears they won’t listen to After all, he’s a runaway murderer turned shepherd. Why would they believe him? Don’t we feel the same way sometimes? I think we tend to feel like we need more before folks will listen to us – more money, skill, knowledge, training, degrees, expertise, experience, awards, more prestige, more authority? If only we had more we could make a difference because then people would listen. Like us, Moses is looking for that something more that will guarantee he won’t be ignored.
  2. In v. 10, we discover that Moses can only see his weakness. He’s afraid he’s just not cut out for this kind of work. Moses can’t be a spokesperson – he can barely speak! It’s just not his gift, his talent, his personality; God created him to be a shepherd, not a politician. Do we not make the same excuses? Are we not also blinded by our own weaknesses? We all have our lists of things we’d like to improve, right? Maybe someone who doesn’t have any weaknesses to worry about can solve the world’s problems but that’s not us. We’ve got our own issues. We’re not cut out for this kind of work. Like Moses, we struggle to see beyond our own weaknesses.
  3. Finally, in v. 13 we find Moses trying desperately to convince God that this plan is all wrong: “Please, my Lord, just send someone else!” Wow – at least he’s being honest. Moses is convinced he’s not the person for the job. But there’s a major flaw in his thinking: for some reason he thinks that he alone (or hopefully someone else) has to accomplish God’s work. Aren’t we sometimes paralyzed by this same kind of narrow, individualistic thinking? We think we have to solve the world’s problems alone, that we have to be the heroes and heroines, that the solution depends entirely on us. But no one person can handle that kind of pressure – not Moses, not us. It just leaves us powerless and stuck.

I think we’re a lot like Moses: we know about the pain and suffering, we’ve heard the invitation to join in God’s mission of redemption and restoration, and we just don’t think we’re up to it – we don’t have what it takes, we’re not the right people.

But God disagrees… and ain’t that some good news! Every time Moses says “But… but… but…” God asks him a question. God’s not backing down; He pursues Moses patiently and passionately, wanting Moses to trust Him and His power working in and through Moses’ life. God wants Moses to see that what he already has and who he is are more than enough for God. How does God do it? Let’s look at those 3 questions:

  1. After Moses doubts his own credibility, God asks in v. 2, “What’s that in your hand?” Odd question. Surely God can see for Himself, right? God knows that Moses is a shepherd and every shepherd carries around a shepherd’s rod; a wooden staff for herding sheep and fending off predators. Of course Moses is holding a shepherd’s rod – that’s his job, his vocation, he’s a shepherd. For Moses, this rod is just an everyday tool, a piece of wood that represents his lowly profession. But when it’s used in God’s mission, this piece of wood is transformed into a sign of God’s awesome power to redeem and restore. God will take this marker of Moses’ low social status, his lack of credibility, and transform it into a marker of God’s calling and anointing. All Moses saw was his little ole staff; he had no idea what it would become and how God would use it once he joined God’s mission of redemption and restoration.
  2. After Moses doubts his ability to communicate, God asks a series of questions in v. 11: “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord?” Yahweh, God the Redeemer, is also God the Creator. The Creator God who fashioned Moses already knows Moses’ weaknesses even more than Moses does! And this Redeemer God is committed to seeing Moses overcome these weaknesses. God promises to help Moses, to be his Teacher and Guide. It turns out that God’s big plan for the restoration and redemption of Israel also includes Moses’ own personal healing. All Moses can see is who he is, but God sees who he will become when he trusts in God’s help and joins God’s work.
  3. Finally, after Moses tells God how he really feels, we see that God gets angry with Moses, but not in the way we might expect. God’s anger doesn’t lead to punishment or abandonment. God’s anger – God’s passion for seeing Moses take up his place in God’s mission – ultimately leads to a relationship of teamwork and shared responsibility between Moses and his brother, Aaron. As Moses pleads with God to just send someone else, I think God detects the overwhelming sense of pressure that Moses is putting on himself. What does God ask? “Moses, have you forgotten who you are? You’re not just a lone shepherd! You’re a brother! And your brother, Aaron, happens to be an excellent speaker! I never meant for you to do this alone, Moses. I’m not looking for a hero.” Moses refuses to look beyond himself, but God asks him a question that reminds Moses of the relationships he has that can help him accomplish God’s work. Moses doesn’t have to take this risk alone. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for Israel will not be accomplished by heroic feats of individual power. God wants a team, a new kind of family.

It seems that all Moses can do in this story is think of excuses. Benjamin Franklin once said that “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Good thing Ben Franklin isn’t God! God doesn’t give up on Moses; God doesn’t give up on us. Maybe this morning you think you don’t have anything to offer God, nothing that can be of any use in God’s mission of redemption and restoration in Opelika, Lee County, Alabama, and the world. I think God may be asking us today, “What’s that in your hand?” All Moses had was a shepherd’s staff and that was enough for God – it wasn’t a sword or ruler’s scepter – just a simple staff. What do you have? A skill? A story? An experience? Maybe just free time and a listening ear? Each one of us here is a unique person that means we ALL have a unique role to play in God’s unfolding drama of redemption and restoration. Will you offer what you have to God?

Maybe all you can see this morning is your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your failures. God knows you – inside and out, backwards and forwards, past, present, and future. And guess what? God still wants you! God will be with you, your Teacher, your Guide. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for all people includes you and your personal healing. Will you trust God to be with you? To help you overcome your fears, your weaknesses, your doubts and to make you whole? Will you join God’s work knowing that you can’t accomplish it with your own strength?

Finally, maybe you’ve forgotten who you are this morning; thinking that you have to solve all of life’s problems on your own. Take a second to think about all the different roles you occupy. For me, I’m a son with a mom and dad, a brother to two other brothers, a husband to my wife, a father to my daughter, a co-worker with other co-workers, a friend among other friends, etc… We all live as members of a larger network of relationships that sustain us and make us who we are. And remember that God is Trinity, a community of three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. When we join in this Trinitarian God’s mission of redemption and restoration, we’re invited into a deeper fellowship with God, each other and our neighbors. We’re in this together. Are we willing to join hands and be the people whose life together shows the world a different, more loving way?

I love how this text ends. In verse 18, Moses tells his father-in-law Jethro that he needs to return to Egypt to see if his family is still alive. Now, either Moses is too scared to tell Jethro the real reason he’s returning to Egypt or maybe he still just doesn’t believe it. Whatever the case, the important part is that he goes. He may not understand how God is going to use him or how he’ll be changed in the process, but he packs up his things, trusts God, and hits the road for Egypt to face his people’s suffering head on. We don’t have to all be Moses, but I think we can learn something from his faith.

God has called us into His mission of redemption and restoration for all creation – beginning right here in Opelika, in Pepperell village. The kingdom of God is at hand. In the face of all the suffering we see in the world today, God is asking us, “What’s in your hand? Don’t you know that I created you? Do you know who you are?” We may not be able to see the end result, but let’s say yes to God, pack our bags and head towards Egypt anyway. Amen.

[See also, Dr. Al Tizon’s related post of Walter Brueggemann’s prayer “Deliver Us from Amnesia”]

Get Busy and Wait: Jeremiah 33:14-16

JeremiahThink with me for a moment: when was the last time your well-planned trip down the interstate – I95, or maybe the Schuykill – was suddenly interrupted by that dreaded sight: brake lights as far as the eye can see, lines of cars backed up for miles, a parking lot, bumper-to-bumper? Your car comes to a stop, idles, and then… you wait. Why is it so hard for us to wait? It’s not just traffic you know. That website takes more than 5 seconds to load? Obnoxious. How bout that security screening at the airport? Oh, tons of fun. Visited the DMV lately? It’s ridiculous. All this waiting drives us crazy!

Why? Well, we’re busy people. We have plans, goals; we’re going places, pedal to metal, outta my way. Now, some people are “busy” doing things that probably aren’t as important as they think. Some folks could probably stand to wait a little bit. But not us – God has called us! The Kingdom is coming and we got some serious work to do! Our time is God’s time so you better not waste it! Everybody hates waiting because everyone thinks their time is of utmost importance. However, I think those of us who “work on God’s clock” have a particularly difficult time when it comes to waiting on all these “worldly” things getting in the way of our “heavenly” calling.

Our text this morning from the prophet Jeremiah begins with a message we’re sometimes loathe to hearing: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” “The days are surely coming…” Ok, that’s nice Jeremiah but WHEN, when are these days coming? When will God fulfill God’s promises? Waiting in traffic is bad enough, but waiting on God can almost be unbearable. Jeremiah’s audience would surely agree: the holy city Jerusalem was under attack by the Babylonians and God says, “The days are surely coming…”? These people literally had no time to wait; Jerusalem was on life support. Are our lives much different today? We read, we write, we analyze, we meditate, we pray, we preach, we serve, we listen, we counsel, we give, give, give, and we go, go, go and then one day we  just… crash. We’re busy, but if we’re honest we’re really on life support.

In the midst of Israel’s distress, as their world is quite literally being destroyed before their eyes, God speaks a word of promise to God’s people:  “Wait. I am on the way. Trust me. I am faithful. Don’t lose hope.” Israel’s sin had led to this point; they had turned away from God and worshipped idols, forsaking the law, failing to practice righteousness and justice in the land. We have our idols too: namely, ourselves. The law we prefer to follow is not God’s, it’s the one where we’re in control. Justice and righteousness are great but surely not more important than my own personal success. Our self-idolatry propels us to be busier and busier, and more and more out of control. We take God’s work upon ourselves – and that’s quite a burden to carry. God’s says to us today: “Wait. I am on the way. Trust me. I am faithful. Don’t lose hope.”

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord.” These words are hard for us to hear because we want God now, on our terms. The season of Advent teaches us to wait; to wait on God’s coming to save us. Not just to give ourselves a nice break to recharge our batteries before diving headlong back into our crazy, self-important lives. Rather, we wait because our lives, our work, our callings are not really ours at all – they came from God; we belong to God; “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Our waiting leads us to repentance. We realize that it is God who “executes justice and righteousness in the land” – not us. It is God who saves us and heals us day by day; we don’t do this on our own strength. Yes, God has called us to participate in this work of restoring all creation, but we need the humility that can comes as we learn to stop, to wait, and  repent of our self-idolatry. This kind of waiting is hopeful because it allows us to confess, in the words of Bishop Ken Utener, that “the kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.” What might this waiting on God look like in our lives today? One option is the ancient practice of Sabbath; a weekly time to stop, to repent from our attempts to be God, and to celebrate our good, created limits.

Surely, God IS coming to restore our brokenness, to restore the world in justice and righteousness. God is faithful today. Let’s get busy… and wait.

Mary’s Salvation Song: Luke 1:46-55

[CLICK HERE FOR AUDIO]

Today is the first Sunday of Advent – a season of waiting & anticipating the birth of Jesus; a season of hope, love, joy, and peace: preparing to celebrate God’s coming. It’s sorta like Lent for Christmas. We like to celebrate Christmas, but, just as Easter isn’t really Easter without Lent, Christmas isn’t really Christmas without Advent.

We all have something which stirs up the Christmas spirit and gets us excited. One of those things for me is certain Christmas music. But, I’m a bit picky about this; “Jingle Bells” and “Rockin around the Christmas Tree” don’t cut it. There’s one song which never fails to stir up the Spirit of Christ in me: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The quintessential Advent song. If I don’t sing this, Advent just doesn’t happen for me. Listen:

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear.  Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!

Nothing says “Christmas!” quite like a nation of captured people mourning in lonely exile, right?

You probably have a favorite Christmas/Advent song too. Turns out Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke, did too. As we celebrate Advent over the next four weeks, we’ll be looking at four songs in the narrative of Jesus’ birth as recorded in Luke’s Gospel – songs of revolution. The first song is one you’ve heard before, probably the most revolutionary one of all (and, of course, Jason asks the intern preach). Let’s listen together as Mary’s sings in Luke 1:46-55:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever

Mary’s song, also known as the Magnificat; what’s she singing about? She’s just arrived at her relative Elizabeth’s house after being visited by the angel Gabriel who’s told her of God’s awesome work through the baby now growing in her womb. Elizabeth is also miraculously pregnant. Her own baby leaps for joy when Mary arrives. Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, begins shouting praises to God for Mary and her baby. Mary too breaks out in joyous song. Is this how your family gatherings at Christmas usually go? …Didn’t think so. Something big is happening and it makes me want to sing along.

Mary sings of God’s mercy, and remembrance of promises made to her ancestors, all the way back to Abraham. A long time coming. There’s some history we need to know here if we want to sing Mary’s song… and we definitely want to sing Mary’s song. So, let’s put ourselves in Mary’s story, the story of God’s chosen people Israel, which has become our story too.

Mary grounds her song in God’s promises to Abraham in the book of Genesis. God chose Abram to be the founder of a great nation, one that would be chosen and blessed by God to be the channel of God’s blessing for all the earth. God would be their God; they, God’s people. They would be a holy people because the Holy One would be present at the center of their lives. But Israel struggled to be God’s people. Eventually, prophets arose and cried out for Israel to return to God. When they refused to listen, their promised land was pillaged and their nation was captured. Israel “mourned in lonely exile” and wondered if God’s promises were still true. In this darkness, new prophets rose up and proclaimed the coming light. God desired redemption. God was still faithful to the promises. Israel would be restored and God would permanently reside among the people. Everything would be set right. God’s presence in Israel would be a signal of God’s intention to renew all creation. Hope. Israel rescued from exile; the world made new. It happened… mostly. Israel was delivered from exile but they still struggled to be faithful and God seemed to be moving slower than expected. The Old Testament ends with Malachi prophesying about a time when Israel would be God’s “treasured possession,” when “the sun of righteousness [would] rise with healing in its wings.” After this prophecy, Israel waited 400 years for God to fulfill their hope for salvation.

Mary’s song embodies Israel’s hope hundreds of years in the making. Notice her words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in,” who? In “God my Savior.” She calls God “Savior”; she was hoping for salvation. We talk of Jesus & salvation a lot don’t we?  Does our talk about salvation sound like Mary’s? Do we talk of bringing down oppressive rulers, lifting up the poor and powerless, satisfying the needs of the hungry, or sending the rich away empty handed? Not so much. We like to talk about sins being forgiven, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and how that event made us right with God, bringing eternal life. We sing about salvation and justification – the teaching of how our relationship to God as sinners is made right – as if they were the same. In other words, salvation just takes care of my sin and your sin and gives us eternal life. This doctrine is essential to God’s work of salvation, but our picture of salvation is woefully incomplete if all we see is justification, our individual reconciliation with God. It’s like saying that all you really need to know about a car is the steering wheel. Salvation is SO much bigger – big enough for the redemption and restoration of all people, places, and created things. We need a bigger vision of salvation and Mary’s song gives us a glimpse.

Mary’s salvation song was rooted in God’s promised presence with the people of Israel, a presence the prophets spoke of being renewed in a special way. When Mary walked through Elizabeth’s door, they both knew: God is coming, the time is now, and salvation is here! All she could do was sing. But what does she sing about?

In a word: reversal. For Mary, salvation is a great reversal in two dimensions – personal and social. In Jesus, God would set everything right by turning it all upside down – sounds like a revolution. Mary describes herself as God’s humble, lowly servant. She had very little power as a young virgin in the world she inhabited. Vulnerable, poor, and no children to bring her honor or status. When Mary says she’s “lowly,” she’s not just making a pretty metaphor – she is actually low. It’s ridiculous, completely preposterous, for someone like to her to even imagine singing a song like this. But God had remembered her – the lowly, humble servant. God was coming through her baby boy. Salvation was coming through her child. The “Mighty One” of Israel, the Creator King, has done great, wonderful things for whom? For Mary. Holy God, ruler of all, looked upon Mary with loving care. She sings recognizing God’s work in her as infinite grace. This first dimension of salvation’s great reversal was as personal as personal gets. The world refused to see her, God did! And Mary’s life changed forever. Her personal hope in God’s salvation was being realized right then and there. God was here… IN HER!

But it doesn’t stop there. The great reversal of salvation goes beyond Mary and fills the whole earth. When God’s mercy is shown in salvation, the proud are scattered, the mighty are humbled, the rich are sent away empty-handed. Reversal; the powerless exalted, the hungry satisfied. What God is doing in and for Mary, God will do in and for the world. Salvation will tear down sinful structures of injustice that cause all people to suffer. She sings for a world where the powerless aren’t oppressed, the poor don’t go hungry. It’s coming. For Mary, God’s approaching salvation in Jesus had personal consequences, but it also had social consequences. God’s saving Mary, and God’s saving Israel, but that’s not all – in Jesus, God is taking it all back; all would be restored, all would be made new, salvation would be for all creation!

Are you catching a glimpse of Mary’s hope for salvation? It’s a complete restoration to wholeness and peace. Physical, spiritual, and social healing comes personally to all the world has forgotten. Community is restored as all people humble themselves before God. Sin is forgiven and lives are transformed in the newness of God’s presence. Persons and communities are liberated from evil, oppressive structures. All are invited to know God and join in the work of the present-yet-future kingdom. Reconciliation between God and humanity overflows into reconciliation between neighbors; love for God and love for neighbor, the beloved community. Peace and justice rule the day as God’s original intent for creation is restored and God’s image is reflected in community once again. This is Mary’s song; this is Mary’s hope. When her Savior comes, all creation is made new!

Mary sings unable to contain her joy at the hope of God’s salvation being fulfilled in her and the world. As an Israelite, she had been waiting hundreds of years for God’s arrival. When God came again salvation would break forth, people and societies overturned. All creation renewed as a community flourishing under God’s peace. This is Mary’s hope, but is it our hope? Is it your hope?

Mary holds up a mirror to us and our world: what stands in need of reversal this morning? How is God overturning us? How is God overturning the world? Mary surrendered to God as a humble, lowly servant and God lifted her up. But, we struggle to surrender to God like that. We want God to lift us up, to fulfill our needs, but we struggle with placing our hope in the wrong things: ourselves, others, or objects. At the core of our beings, we struggle with certain personal tendencies towards sin. The outward sinful behaviors tearing us apart, breaking down our community, and eroding our relationships are mere symptoms of this core sin tendency. Like Mary, God will lift us up! But I wonder if our core sin is keeping us from offering our whole selves to God this morning like Mary did. We all have something inside of us that stands in need of salvation, in need of a great reversal, this morning. What’s denying God’s work of salvation in you?

Maybe something comes to mind right away, but if not, I want to offer a guide. It’s a tool known as the Enneagram and I offer it simply as a model to assist in identifying your core sin tendency. However, the Enneagram won’t heal you – that belongs to God’s gracious work of salvation in you and to you through your faith community. So, the Enneagram identifies 9 types of people based on their core needs and their corresponding core sin tendencies:

  • Ones need to be perfect and are tempted with self-righteous anger
  • Twos need to be loved and needed and show pride with how they use others to satisfy these needs
  • Threes need success and are tempted to be deceitful in order to avoid failure
  • Fours need to be special and are tempted towards envy, escapism, and loss of integrity
  • Fives need knowledge and are tempted by greed, stinginess, and critical detachment
  • Sixes need security and are tempted by fear, self-doubt, and cowardice
  • Sevens avoid pain and are tempted by gluttony and intemperance
  • Eights need power, self-reliance, and something to criticize and are tempted to lust, arrogance, and the desire to control and possess
  • Nines need emotional peace and avoid initiative and are tempted by laziness, comfortable illusions, and being overly accommodating[1]

Is one of these types resonating with you? In Mary’s song we hear of God’s desire for the reversal and healing of our core sins, so that we are transformed into the likeness of Christ for the sake of the world.

We can’t forget the rest of Mary’s song though. God’s work of salvation did not stop with Mary and it does not stop with us. The same sin that God is reversing in us is being reversed in the world. Why? Because it’s all the same. We’re conveniently deceived when we fail to see the connection between our personal sin and oppressive structures of sin in our world. What do I mean? Here’s one example. The sex industry – pornography – in the US generates about $12 billion annually, $57 billion globally. In August 2006, a survey reported 50% of all Christian men and 20% of all Christian women were addicted to pornography.[2] Viewing pornography dehumanizes you, it objectifies the human beings on the screen, and it destroys intimacy in your relationships. It’s a horrible addiction, but it’s just a personal thing right? No. Here’s the other side of our personal obsessions with sex: 1.2 million children are trafficked for sex every year at an average age of 12-14 years old. Nearly 30 million children – the population of 20 Philadelphia’s – have lost their childhood through sexual exploitation in the past 30 years.[3] This is just one example of the suffering that comes when the sin in us is reproduced in global structures of sin and evil.

How big is your hope for salvation this morning? Is it as big as Mary’s? Does it include a vision for a renewed family, for restoration of our community? Do you long to walk down peaceful streets in Philadelphia? Are you waiting in expectant anticipation for life together in community across all boundaries of race, class, age, and gender? Is the end of extreme poverty in our world beyond your vision? Will you dare to believe God’s promise that children are too valuable to be sold as sex slaves? Can we dream of a life that is lived in mutual care and respect for the land and animals which sustain us? God is coming with salvation, with healing, with reversal, for the whole world. Do we believe it this morning?

Yes, it’s daunting work, it will require our complete surrender, a coordinated effort of the entire Body of Christ, and we may never see it complete, but this is our vision – this is God’s vision; a vision of hope for all creation. Will we sing Mary’s revolutionary song of hope in God’s community-restoring, world-renewing, peace-creating work of salvation coming to life in Jesus Christ? What needs reversal in our own hearts? How is God convicting us to join the work of reversal in this community and beyond? I don’t know where you’ve placed your hope this morning, but I want you to know that the cause of Jesus Christ is the only cause that has a future today. Hope in anything else is no hope at all.

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high, and cheer us by your drawing nigh, Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind  in one the hearts of all mankind;  Oh, bid our sad divisions cease, And be yourself our King of Peace. Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free! Born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring!


[1] David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2004), 69-70.

God is in Our Midst

Regardless of what you hear in the news this morning, or what you see on your drive to work, or what your thinking after whatever happened this weekend: God is in our midst. God is dealing wondrously with us. God is restoring all things: the land, the animals, the plants, the people – ALL creation. If you are seeking to know God and are following after Jesus today, this is the story you are walking in right now:

Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

I pray that we – myself included – would have faith in this story, in its Author and Finisher, who has been poured out on us so that we might take up our our parts in this wondrous drama. Amen.