Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 15

Isaiah 55:1-13

Today we come to the last reading from the Old Testament prophets in our narrative walk through the Bible. We started out with Amos, that prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah who went to the northern kingdom of Israel, criticized the economic system there, and said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We then went to Isaiah, a prophet who lived in Jerusalem during frightening political times and who proclaimed a word of hope from God to the king by announcing the birth of a child. Next, we heard from Jeremiah, who wrote a letter to the first group of Jewish exiles in Babylon, telling them to stay there and to adjust to a new culture, and reassuring them that God had plans for their future. We then heard a story from the Book of Daniel about three men thrown into a fiery furnace and miraculously saved—a story to inspire the exiles to maintain their Jewish identity in the face of pressure to change and worship Babylonian gods. And finally, last week, we heard from Ezekiel, the prophet to the Babylonian exiles who saw a vision that God can make bones that have no life in them live once more.

We may think it strange, then, that our series brings us back to the prophet Isaiah, since we heard from Isaiah once already. Well, this is a later section of the book of Isaiah, and it is, possibly, a different prophet than the Isaiah we met who lived during the reigns of King Ahaz and Hezekiah. Scholars who are much better at the Hebrew language than I am point out that the later chapters of Isaiah are written in a Hebrew that has changed significantly from the first chapters of the book. It’s like I’ve told my Thursday morning Bible study group: we who live in 21st century North America and speak English can read the King James Version of the Bible and admire its beauty and its poetry, but we don’t speak like that anymore, and it’s sometimes difficult for us to understand. It’s the same language issue with the first part of Isaiah and the second. Scholars think that perhaps the latter part of Isaiah was written by a disciple of the original Isaiah who prophesied in Isaiah’s style, and whose prophecies, therefore, were attached to the scrolls of the original book of Isaiah.

Another reason that scholars think the latter chapters of Isaiah were written by someone other than the Isaiah who lived in Jerusalem during the reigns of King Ahaz and King Hezekiah is that these chapters are speaking to a different situation. The first chapters of Isaiah find us with the people of Jerusalem facing war against Assyria and the northern kingdom of Israel. The chapters in the last part of Isaiah are speaking to the exiles as they are being allowed to return home. Yes, the exiles are going to go back to the land of Israel. The Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian Empire in 539 BC, and that area came under the rule of King Cyrus of Persia. King Cyrus thought it would be a good idea to allow those people that the Babylonian emperor had captured to return to their homelands, including the Jewish people. And so, the prophet who speaks in today’s chapter of Isaiah is interpreting these events as the Lord relenting from his anger against the people of Israel. The Lord will renew the promise God made to David to have steadfast love for David’s family forever. And God will renew this promise to David by bringing the exiles back to Israel and reestablishing a nation and rebuilding the temple.

But when the exiles return, they find things in Jerusalem to be not as they expected. The temple is still in ruins. They have very few resources. And the land had not lain empty while they had been in Babylon. It had been settled by foreigners who did not know that this land had once belonged to the Israelites. There were fights between those who were returning, who remembered that certain plots of land had been their family’s home, and those who had moved in and lived there in the approximately 50 years that the exiles were in Babylon. The returning Jewish exiles are now asking this question: Why is God bringing us back here, if God is not going to miraculously restore our nation to its former glory? Should we have stayed in Babylon (now Persia) after all? If this is what God has promised us, why is this so difficult?

In response, the prophet tells us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways. But, he also reassures us that God’s word will not return to God empty, but that it will do what God intends for it to do. What does this mean? It means that the exiles who returned to the land of Israel to rebuild have made the right decision. It does not mean that life will be easy and that God will magically wave a wand and *poof!* the city of Jerusalem and the Temple will reappear in all of their former glory. It does mean that the exiles will have to work hard to rebuild and they will have to negotiate with the people who have moved in there over the last 50 years. But they should have confidence that God will fulfill the promises that God made to them, even if it takes many years longer than they were expecting. This God is a God that they can believe in and trust to fulfill words spoken to them.

This God that the Jewish people of that time trusted in to fulfill the promises spoken to them is also the God who we trust to fulfill the promises spoken, because they have also been given to us. This is something that the Holy Spirit continually reminds us of. God has not promised that, once we become Christian, everything will be easy for us and all will be well. God has promised that God will be with us through everything that happens in our lives, good, bad, and ugly. And God has promised that the word that God speaks will accomplish its purpose, even if it takes 50 years or more for that word to be fulfilled.

We live in a culture where we want everything right now. Why wait for something when you can have it right now? The radio station that I usually listen to started playing nonstop Christmas music at the beginning of November. Stores start putting Christmas merchandise out right after Halloween. Mostly gone (although I believe some stores still have this) is the idea of layaway, where you make payments on a larger item for several months and when you have made all of the payments, then you get the item. Most of the time now credit cards allow you to have something instantaneously and pay it off after you receive it. And if you can’t find a certain item in the stores around you, you can go on to Amazon and pay for next-day shipping. Instant gratification is so much more satisfying than waiting for something.

And even in the church, we fall prey to this, including me. I confess to you that I get frustrated and wish our congregations would grow instantaneously and be flourishing. But, God doesn’t work like we human beings do. The prophet tells us that God’s Word works more like the snow and the rain. Just because it’s snowed quite a bit in the last week and the moisture has seeped into the ground, that doesn’t mean that the flowers and the trees are going to bloom overnight and it’s going to be spring again. No, the ground needs time to absorb the moisture, and the earth needs time to travel around the sun so more light returns before the grass gets green and the trees and the flowers bloom. This is how God’s Word works: when we tell people about Jesus who have not heard of him before, we are planting seed. And that seed needs time to get the nutrients it needs before it begins to grow and blossom in the heart of a person. It needs time to be watered and fertilized. And the time for God’s Word to grow is different for every person: sometimes it will sprout overnight and sometimes it will lie dormant for 50 years before it blooms. But what we are told is that God’s Word will accomplish what God wants it to do, and that it will not fail.

It is often incomprehensible to us that the God who we believe is all-powerful and all-knowing would choose to work in this way. And we don’t know why God works this way, but there it is. But while we are waiting for God’s word to accomplish its purpose, we do not sit and twiddle our thumbs. We are to be actively waiting. We are to be sowing the seed. We are to be seeking the Lord while he may be found and calling upon him while he is near. We are a people of hope, and we are to be spreading that hope that we have in Jesus to everyone we meet. And we are doing that through many of the activities that our four area churches are doing together and separately. But we are to be doing this active waiting freely, not expecting to see the results of the labor, but trusting that God will bring about the results, and rejoicing if we are lucky enough to see those results. And another thing: those results may not look like what we think they will look like, because God is a creative God who delights in doing new things.

The Jewish people who returned to Israel from exile in Babylon did succeed in rebuilding the Temple. But it was smaller compared to the Temple that had been destroyed, and the book of Ezra tells us that some of the older people who remembered the former Temple wept when the foundation was laid, while the younger people rejoiced. So, too, as God works with our congregations in the Steelton-Oberlin-Highspire area, what is going to happen will not look like the glory days of old. God will create a new thing, and some of us may not recognize this new thing. Those who remember the former days, the glory days, may weep when they see that the church does not look like what they remember. But, we know that God keeps the promises God makes, and we can trust that God’s word will not return empty, but will accomplish that which God purposes for it—no matter how different it looks. The God who loves us is the God who keeps promises, and in that we can trust. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 14

Ezekiel 37:1-14

This week we find ourselves still among the Jewish exiles in Babylon, but now there is suddenly a change in the message. Jeremiah told the exiles to settle in and to live their lives in Babylon, because they were not going to come back to their homeland. Then last week, we had a story from Daniel to inspire the exiles to retain their Jewish identity in the face of pressure from the dominant culture to assimilate. Now, in our passage from Ezekiel today, we have a message of resurrection; of dry bones coming to life, and a hope for a return to the land that God had promised them. So, what has changed? Why and how have we gone from a message of “stay where you are,” to a message of hope for return?

Well, let’s start with what we know about Ezekiel. He had been a priest in the temple at Jerusalem, and he was part of the first group of exiles: the royal family, nobles, and other important people that were taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 597 BC. As a priest, he became a prophet for the Jewish people who were in exile in Babylon; that is, he became God’s spokesperson, giving the people the words that God wanted them to hear. But, Ezekiel is also the kind of prophet who has weird, ecstatic visions given by God. For example, in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, we see him having a vision of four living creatures, some kind of strange wheeled machine that had eyes in the wheels, and above all this God appearing in human form seated on a throne. God speaks to the exiles in Babylon, through Ezekiel, in strange visions and metaphors. And the exiles don’t always want to hear what God has to say to them through Ezekiel, especially when Ezekiel tells them that the Babylonians will destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and that it will be many years before God allows the exiles to return home. The first part of Ezekiel is filled with messages of God’s righteous and justified punishment upon the people because they followed other gods. It’s no wonder that the people did not want to listen to Ezekiel.

But then, after Jerusalem falls, the messages that God gives to the exiles through Ezekiel change to messages of hope. Suddenly, God is concerned that, because Jerusalem is destroyed and God’s people are scattered, all of the other nations are going to laugh at a God who seems powerless to defend his name and his people. And suddenly, there is now hope that God’s wrath is finished and that God will bring the exiles back to the land of Israel. In the chapter before our lesson today, we hear God promise that God will remove the heart of stone from the people and give them a heart of flesh, so that they will follow God’s statutes and live in a holy manner in the land that God promised them.

This brings us to the vision of the dry bones. Probably the most famous story out of Ezekiel, this may be familiar to us from Sunday school lessons where we sang about, “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord!” And then we sang about “the foot bone connected to the ankle bone,” and so on and so forth. But, we need to look beyond the cute Sunday school songs and look more closely at what is going on here. Again, Ezekiel is speaking to the first group of exiles to Babylon: the royal family and the nobles of Judah. They are hearing the messages that they need to stay put, but they’re not really listening to them. They are hoping against hope that their time in Babylon will be short, that the Babylonians will leave Jerusalem alone, and that they will be able to go home again. But then, the worst news possible reaches their ears: Jerusalem has fallen, and the temple has been destroyed. In an instant, all of their hope is gone. Who are they now? They are a people without a homeland, living in a strange land with strange customs, and where once they enjoyed high status, they are now looked upon as lower class. Everything that they know and they love is gone. And they say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

And so, God gives Ezekiel this vision. Many times, when we hear Bible stories, we gloss over the disturbing parts, so I want us to spend a few moments imagining what Ezekiel is seeing in this vision. God leads him through this valley, and it is full of dry bones. And it’s not like Ezekiel is hovering over the bones; he’s walking where God leads, through all of these human bones. Did you ever see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? If so, I want you to picture the scene where Indiana and his lady friend let themselves down into the catacombs beneath the library in Venice, and they’re walking on skeletons and trying to brush by the skeletons in the walls without touching them. That’s what’s going on here with Ezekiel. And perhaps he is imagining all of the lives these bones represent; all of the lives that fell in battle, or that died of disease, or of natural causes. Those that died too early and too tragically; those that died when they were supposed to. The emotions would be overwhelming, and I’m surprised that Ezekiel did not weep when he saw them.

And then God asks Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” I think Ezekiel senses a trick question here. Everything that he knows and all of his experience tells him, “No, these bones cannot live. They have been lying here too long; the life that once lived in them is long gone.” But Ezekiel knows that God would not ask him this question without reason, and so he hedges his bets with a respectful, “O Lord God, you know.” And that’s when the miracle happens: when Ezekiel prophesies as the Lord commands him to, the bones start coming together and flesh reappears on them; and then, when the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind, breath comes into them. And there is a vast multitude of living, breathing people where once there was nothing but the driest of bones.

The Lord tells Ezekiel that the exiles should not give up hope. The Lord’s anger against the people is finished. The Lord is with the people in Babylon, and God will bring them back to the land that God promised them. And God will put God’s spirit in them, so that, when they return to the land and become a nation once more, things will be different this time. They will have a heart of flesh, not one of stone, and they will worship the Lord, and the Lord alone. And all the surrounding nations will see this and will know that God is the Lord, and they will acknowledge that the God of the Jewish people is the one, true God.

This promise that God once spoke to the Jewish exiles in Babylon is a promise for us, too. We may look at our circumstances in our congregations and feel that we, too, are dried up. For example, the choir at St. John’s took the bold step of pulling out many of the old robes that were worn when the choir was much larger than it is now and giving them away to a congregation that can use them. As we removed them from the closet, there was much remembering of the people who used to wear them, and some sadness as we remembered the way things used to be. But when God asks us, “Can these bones live?”, we will not hedge our bets like Ezekiel did. As a people of hope, we can boldly say, “Yes, God, these bones can live, and we know that they will live. And we know this because, through Jesus Christ, you gave us the promise of resurrection from the dead. So we know that, even though things may change around us, we have nothing to fear. Because Jesus lives, we too can and will live.”

The new life that Jesus gives us as congregations may not look like the old life. We are spreading hope in Jesus to everyone we meet in new ways. As St. John’s hosts Family Promise in January and hopefully again in the years to come, the other congregations in the cooperative are joining together to support them. We are looking at creative new ways to reach out to the people around us with the hope that we have in Jesus, such as a combined Blessing of the Animals. We are joining together for worship more often, realizing that our future life in Christ will be more full if we put aside some of the old things that divided us. We are beginning to experience that new and abundant life in Christ right now.

But the promise of resurrection is not quite fulfilled. And we focus on that hope for resurrection during this Advent season. It may seem like Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, when we remember the birth of Jesus, the baby in the manger who was the Son of God and who grew up to be a teacher who loved all of us, and who died on the cross and rose again on the third day. But more than that, Advent is a season of hope and anticipation, where we look forward to that day when Christ will come again to reign on this earth, and when he will usher in a new creation where there will be no more crying or mourning or pain, and where we will see all of our loved ones again. This is the resurrection that Ezekiel saw in his vision: not only the resurrection of the Jewish people, but also the resurrection of everyone who hopes in God. And this is the resurrection that we, as a people of hope, anticipate. And it is the resurrection that we share with everyone we meet. So do not be afraid: we have this promise from God and the promise is sure. Amen.


Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 13

Daniel 3:1-30

Today we move from Jeremiah, the prophet who told the people of Judah that they were going to go into exile, to the Book of Daniel. The Book of Daniel is interesting, because, although we Christians count this book as one of the books of the prophets, the Jewish people do not—they categorize this book as a writing. And as we look at the book, we can see why. Daniel is very different from the prophets that we have encountered up to this point. The first six chapters of the book contain stories of righteous Jewish men, including Daniel himself, maintaining their Jewish identity while they are in exile in Babylon. The remaining six chapters of this book contain apocalyptic visions given by God to Daniel. We see none of what Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah have been doing by giving the people the words of God. Nevertheless, there is much of value in this unique book, and so we Christians do count Daniel as one of the prophets.

The story that we have before us today is one that is familiar to us from Sunday school. As I mentioned before, this takes place among the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Last week I talked about how, in 597 BC, the Babylonian army had come in and captured all of the Jewish royal family and nobles and forcibly removed them from Jerusalem to Babylon. Well, about 10 years later, in 587 BC, the country of Judah revolted again, and in response, Babylon invaded, destroyed the Temple, and took most of the people who were left into exile as well. So now there is a large Jewish community in Babylon, and they are asking these questions: Where is God? Why did God allow the Temple to be destroyed? And how are we to live in this strange land? How do we maintain our Jewish identity with all of these strange gods and customs around us?

In response, we have the story of the three young men and the fiery furnace, along with other stories in Daniel, such as Daniel in the lions’ den. But today, let’s take a look at the fiery furnace. In chapter 2, we find out that because Daniel had interpreted a dream correctly for King Nebuchadnezzar, the king promoted Daniel and gave him great power over the country of Babylon. Daniel then appointed the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as officials under him. So, these four young Jewish men had assimilated into Babylonian society enough so that the king entrusted them with great power. But, the story also tells us that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not the true names of these three young men. Their original names were Hananiah, which means “God is gracious”; Mishael, which means, “Who is like God?”; and Azariah, which means “God keeps him”. So, think about that for a moment: these three Jewish men, who had the very name of their God woven into their names, were renamed with names that referenced the Babylonian gods. How do they keep their Jewish identity in a world where the king rips their very identity away by the act of renaming them?

The answer to that question comes in the story of the fiery furnace. They may have been given new names in order to better fit in with Babylonian society, but these three men never forget who they are and whose they are. They are Jewish, and they worship the Lord, the one true God. They belong to the one true God, and they trust that their God will deliver them from the worst that the Babylonian king or anyone else can throw at them. But even if God does not deliver them from the fiery furnace, they would rather die than change who they are under pressure from other people. Well, we know how the story goes: the three men are saved from the flames, and when King Nebuchadnezzar looks into the furnace, he sees a fourth man in there who “has the appearance of a god”. And when the three young men are let out, they are miraculously unharmed.

As I read through this story again in preparation for today’s sermon, this is the question that arose in my mind: In 21st century North America, where we have the freedom to worship God, and we do not expect to die for our faith, why do we teach this story to our children? After all, it is rather terrifying. What do we hope our children will learn from it? So, I posted the question to the Narrative Lectionary Facebook group to see what kind of answers I might get from the “hive mind”. One answer was this: that it inspired the person towards that kind of commitment to God that these three had. Well, that’s a good answer, but it lays the commitment on us. And we will eventually fail in that commitment, because we are sinful human beings. I think the better answer, and the one that we should be teaching our kids in Sunday school, focuses on that fourth person who appeared in the flames. You know, the one who “had the appearance of a god”. And that is this: when we encounter our own “fiery furnaces” in life, whatever they may be, Jesus understands and is with us through the flames.

Because here is another interesting piece of information about this story of the three young men and the fiery furnace: it is one of the readings for the service of the Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil is the service that takes place on the night of Holy Saturday, as God’s people wait with eager expectation for the news that Jesus is risen. Originally it started out as an all-night service; today, the length of the service varies depending on the individual church. There are twelve Old Testament readings assigned to this service as the people of God listen to their story of salvation that culminates in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Some of these may be omitted if you don’t want the service to last too long. But one of the readings that is not omitted is this story of the three men and the fiery furnace. I believe this is to remind us that Jesus endured his own fiery furnace when he died on the cross and descended to hell, and yet, like these three young men, he was raised from the dead.

Jesus understands all the pain and the suffering we undergo because he also underwent pain and suffering on the cross, and he walks with us through our fiery furnaces. And even when things don’t turn out the way we hoped or expected, Jesus is still there beside us to encourage us to keep going and to promise us that he is with us and that he will, one day, fulfill the promise of our own resurrection from the dead. This is what we should be emphasizing as we teach this story to our children, because, even though we have the freedom to worship as we please, we may be tested as we live out our faith in our daily lives.

As one example, there are certain cities in different places across the country who have made it a crime for people to bring food to the homeless. Now, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt here. Those in power may have concerns about the safety of the general public. But this means that Christians who are in the ministry of feeding the homeless by bringing food to them, rather than making them come to a center of some kind, have a decision to make. Will they stop the ministry that they’ve been doing? Will they make some adjustments to the ministry and take the chance of missing some of the people they have been serving? Or will they continue their ministry and risk being arrested for violating the law? That is a decision that each person or group of people will have to make. And knowing the story of the fiery furnace may encourage people to continue doing what Jesus has called them to do, knowing that they may be arrested, but also knowing that Jesus will be with them through the trial as they live out their faith.

But more even than that: this story, especially when seen through the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is about hope. The three young men hoped that, even if they died in the flames, God would vindicate them for holding on to their identity and standing up for what they believed. Through this story, God gave hope to the exiles in Babylon that they could hold on to their Jewish identity, even in a strange land, and that one day, they might live out their lives in peace and freedom from those who would oppress them. And for us Christians today, this story is also about hope: the hope that we have in Jesus, who was born for us, who lived for us, who died for us, and who was raised from the dead for us. We have hope that, even though things in this world don’t always turn out the way we want them to, and even though it seems like evil wins more often than good, Jesus will one day return and set all things right, and that the kingdom of heaven will reign on earth.

We are a people of hope, and today, the first Sunday of Advent, we begin that season of hope. But we are not hoping for Jesus to be born. Jesus has already been born. We are hoping for Jesus to come again and to set all things right. Spreading that hope to everyone we meet means telling people about the good news that Jesus is Immanuel, God with Us, in every situation that we encounter in life. Spreading hope in Jesus means that, like the three young men in the furnace, we remember who we are—God’s children—and whose we are—we belong to God and we are loved by God. Spreading hope in Jesus means that, no matter what happens to us in life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, that God is with us. So go out and do not be afraid, and live out the call that God has placed upon your life. Amen.