A Sermon on Luke 22-23

[Note on the Text: This sermon was originally delivered on 6 March 2013 (back in my seminary days as an intern) at St. Paul Lutheran Church, East Windsor, NJ.]

On Luke 22:63-23:25

With today’s gospel lesson we’re approaching the end of Luke’s story. Only three chapters remain to be told. We’ve heard of Christ’s birth and youth, his baptism and temptation, his miracles and parables, his prophecies and disputes with authorities. We’ve even heard of his transfiguration and triumphal entry into Jerusalem. By now it’s evident Jesus lived an eventful life. It would be hard to deny that it was also a divisive life. So today I’d like to ask, what did it finally bring him? Well, let’s resume the story and find out. Jesus has just been betrayed, arrested, denied, mocked and beaten. And the day is not yet over. Now he is being tried. His prosecutors — they aren’t looking to negotiate a plea bargain. They aren’t offering parole with good behavior. No. They want Jesus dead. The charges — blasphemy and sedition. Jesus stands accused of dishonoring the two highest known authorities in the land: God and the emperor of Rome. These were intolerable offenses. The judges — Pilate (the Roman governor of Judea), Herod (the King of Galilee), and, as it turns out, the people of Jerusalem. None of these were known for showing mercy to God’s prophets. So the outlook is bleak. The verdict is foreseeable. But as readers of Luke’s gospel, by this point in the story, we should already know to ask at least these two questions. First, in whose hands does Jesus’ fate actually lie? And second, if our fates rest in those same hands, what kind of lives as Christians do we have to look forward to?

This trial is not the first time Jesus’ life has been in jeopardy. In fact, Jesus’ ministry has been threatened since its very start. We’ll remember that in chapter 4, after having started his ministry elsewhere in Galilee, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. It was not a welcome reunion. It ended in this way, “They [the Nazarenes] were filled with rage. They got up, drove him [Jesus] out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” This time, though, Jesus escaped certain death. As Luke puts it, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Not much later in the gospel (ch. 9) Jesus completes his ministry in Galilee. He then changes his course. He “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” and begins a march southward. The road south, however, proves just as treacherous. As he passes through one village, he’s warned, “Get away from here; Herod wants to kill you.” This is the same Herod who killed John the Baptist not much earlier. It’s the same Herod before whom Jesus now stands on trial. If this isn’t dangerous enough, all along the way Jesus has been amassing opponents who are “lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.” And there are rivals “looking for a way to kill him,” “to put Jesus to death.”

By now, Jesus could hardly be more accustomed to staring the prospect of death square in the face. It’s worth asking, how does he take it? What’s his consistent response? In his words, it went like this, “Go and tell that fox … today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” On three separate occasions Jesus warns his disciples about what future is awaiting him: “we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; he will be mocked, insulted, and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him.” Finally, in Jesus’ first trial before the Sanhedrin, the highest judicial body of the Jewish people, he delivers these arresting words, “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” Jesus has just told his judges that he acts as an agent of God and therefore with God’s authority. To judge Jesus is to judge God. The Sanhedrin is infuriated by Jesus’ answer.

When we reflect on everything Jesus has been saying in this gospel, we’re clued into how Luke is interpreting Jesus’ last days. Jesus knows he must be on his way. He is destined for Jerusalem. No person or circumstance will impede his progress. All that has been written about him must be accomplished — till he is seated at the right hand of the power of God. Jesus knows full well what verdict awaits him. There are no surprises in store for him. From first to last, God has been the author of Jesus’ story. What Luke wants us to understand is this: it isn’t the Sanhedrin, it isn’t Herod, it isn’t Pilate, it isn’t even the people who cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion who are the ones who will decide what will become of Jesus. No, Jesus’ fate lies in God’s hands alone.

Now these are the same hands in which our lives rest. So we have to ask, is this a safe place to be? Well, how did Jesus fair? Though entirely under the care of God’s providence, Jesus still suffers injustice. He is convicted on false charges. He’s executed. God does not spare Jesus even from death. Neither, then, we must learn from this lesson, will God spare us from circumstances that we will struggle to accept. If you have been told that the Christian life is painless, you have been misinformed. As Christians, people whose lives take after the pattern set by their master, we should not be surprised if we have to pass through seasons soaked in tears, seasons plagued by uncertainty, seasons fraught with frustration.

Now if any of you feel trapped in such a season, I’d like you to hear this: in God’s calendar, no season lasts a lifetime. Though life may surprise you with its misfortunes, let me surprise you today with a measure of God’s grace. You may not have been anticipating it, but here it is nonetheless. There is a judge to whom all of us will owe an account. He is the one now seated at the right hand of the power of God. As you stand before him, your verdict is sure. Do not doubt it. For the rest of your days your fate will rest in the hands of Jesus Christ, hands pierced for you, hands that never fail to achieve their purposes. Let us be glad we belong to the Lord. Amen.

For Dad

[On April 10th my father passed away, six weeks after his diagnosis with cancer. He was 56 years old and will be greatly missed. The following is a word I shared at his memorial service on April 16th at Pacific View Memorial Park, Corona Del Mar, CA.]

There was a preacher who used to say that this world is a confused mystery of bright and dark. I know what he meant. My dad’s life was a spark of brightness for those who knew him. His passing has left a void of darkness. That preacher was right. This world is an ambiguous blend of bright and dark.

When I heard the news of my dad’s diagnosis I tried to think of a word of hope and encouragement I could offer him. But my words fell short. I didn’t know what to tell him. It turns out, that didn’t matter. Throughout my dad’s illness, it was he who remained the father and caretaker in our relationship, and I the son. Never ceasing to look out for his boys, he was the one who had a consoling word ready for me. He shared his counsel as he led my brothers and me in a prayer at the hospital late one night. These were his words, “I don’t know where this will lead, but I trust that all things lead to You.” With this confession my dad had not only exposed to me the extent to which I had been seized by grief and fear, but he also helped me situate these feelings within an affirmation of faith that was seated deeper than my despair. At the time I couldn’t have prayed those words. Like my dad, I didn’t know where this was leading. The difference between us was that I was fearing the worst. I couldn’t see past the dark prognosis. It was my dad who turned my gaze back to the source of all light. This was the testimony he left my brothers and me: all things lead to You, O Lord. It is in the bright and glorious vision of our God and Father that all things find their origin and end. We won’t always know why our lives take the courses they do in this ambiguous world. Nevertheless there is a measure of rest afforded us in the gospel’s assurance that we are all the children of a Father who knows better than we do, a Father with a word of consolation ready for us when we find ourselves at a loss for words. My dad believed this. And in his final weeks his own life pictured the very gospel he treasured above all else. That’s how I will remember him. Amen.

A Sermon on 1 John 2:3-6

[Note on the text: This sermon, altered at points from the original, was preached in Miller Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey, 19 March 2013.]

“Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.”

To get us started, I’d like it if you’d take a second to think of all the buildings we’ve got on this campus. Think of Stuart Hall. Where we go for lectures and precepts. Where we print out our papers, sometimes minutes before their deadlines. Where we first met Kugel. Think of MacKay. Where we eat and chat. Where we hope to find a table with an open seat so that we don’t have to be that person who makes everyone move over to fit them in. Where we play Euchre, Bananagrams, Bang! Think of Hodge Hall. Centrally located. Host of the year’s best party. The Hodge folk sure do seem to love it. The rest of us, we humor their enthusiasm. Think of the facilities plant, tucked away behind the parking garage like it is. It’s a place we don’t often find ourselves (though that’s to our loss, as it houses some fine people). Think of Miller Chapel. Where we all find ourselves right now. Where day in and day out we gather, sing, meditate, pray, and pass Christ’s peace. Hopefully — before the Day of the Lord comes — we’ll be able to add a library to this list. Hopefully. But leaving that last one aside, I’m curious, between the buildings that we do have up and running on this campus, in which one is it that we receive our education in the knowledge of God? Maybe you think that’s an odd question. But this is a seminary right? Is it not the purpose of a seminary to school its students in the knowledge of God? So I want to leave my question on the table. In which building is this education undergone?

Fortunately for us, we have the First Epistle of John to help us find our way. John is also interested in the knowledge of God. But I say that knowing that I’m going to have to speak carefully. John can be a slippery thinker. He has no problem using words in ways we might not be used to. The moment you think you’ve got him figured out, he’ll pull a fast one on you. Let’s consider the passage that was read for us. It began in this way: “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.” Later in the same book, though, John is going to say, “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” (5:3). By keeping his commandments we know him. By keeping his commandments we love him. The two claims are nearly identical— except for one key difference. Did you catch it? The second time round knowledge is swapped for love. So I’m curious, which is it? What is our commandment keeping evidence of? Our love for God or our knowledge of God?

Before we sort this out, let’s consider another passage. John also says this: “everyone who loves … knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God” (4:7-8). It’s almost as if John is laying down a rule about how to use the word “God” properly. If you’re using that name for unloving purposes, you don’t know who you’re talking about. It’s passages like that one where John is actually at his most frustrating. Why can’t you know God apart from love? What’s the connection here?

It turns out, this is one of those moments of divine irony. One of those moments where what’s frustrating to the thoughtful is gospel to the ungodly. John isn’t working with neat and tidy ideas. Knowledge, love, obedience, in John’s hands, these are messy, overlapping, interchangeable categories. They blur and bleed into one another. They’ve become one flesh, never to be separated. We aren’t supposed to distinguish between them. If you’re like me, you’re not used to thinking about knowledge in this way. I’m familiar with the knowledge that’s supposed to make us smarter. John, however, invites us to the study of a knowledge that aims at making us godlier. The knowledge John cares about isn’t a remedy for ignorance; it’s a cure for the diseases of the soul. It’s a power to drive out the demons besieging a community. It’s a knowledge that perfects the love of God in us.

I say, teach me that knowledge. Where can I find that at Seminary? Which building? Is it in Stuart Hall? Will I find it in coursework? What about Miller Chapel? Will I find it in worship? Or is it in Mackay? Will I find it in friendship? If you’re thinking this is an odd way to ask all of this, you’d be right. There isn’t going to be a neat and tidy answer here. All of these buildings contribute. And they do so in ways we may not realize until after their lessons have been learned. Not until after these lessons have collected our wits, tempered our hearts, and ordered our desires. Let me admonish you only this: be attentive. The limits to this education are set only by the limits to our lives. In every building we enter, class is in session.

The learning goals for coursework like this are something a degree can only gesture at. We won’t just be graduating as mere colleagues and peers in a workforce. No. We will end up as something so much more eternal. We will become, as John likes to call us, his “little children,” “brothers and sisters,” sons and daughters, “beloved.” Believe this: the knowledge of God is a knowledge that makes families out of its students. Families. Do you know how? We don’t need to overthink this one. God knew us first. Remember, the knowledge of God is a two way street. Just as we know God only as we apprehend him in love, so also God knows us to be what his love is fashioning us to become. This morning I get to be the one to tell you all that there is no one here that God does not know, that God does not see, that God does not hear, that God does not love. This is what makes us family: there is no one here that God does not call child. So think on this today, and be glad: we get to study the knowledge of God. We get to teach it. We get to live it. For the rest of your time here and for the rest of your days, there’s only one lesson plan, and it’s good news. Amen.