2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
Jeremiah 31 and 36 (selected verses)
The following sermon was preached by Pastor Andrew at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church as part of the Falls City Area Ministerial Association’s “Sermons a la Carte” Lenten series. No audio is available, but the prepared text is below.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)
This Lent, our Sermons a la Carte series will explore Jesus’ sermon on Isaiah 61 preached at the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, a text that reveals Jesus’ mission as God’s anointed and gives us pause as we consider our identity as those who bear the name of Christ and who seek to be his body in the world.
Today, we begin with the first item on God’s agenda: bringing good news to the poor. To understand what Jesus means when he talks about bringing good news to the poor, we need to know both who the poor are and what good news looks like for those who are poor. First things first: Who are the poor? In Luke’s gospel, defining the poor requires us to walk a narrow road. On one side of that road is the ditch of excessive spiritualizing, the idea that Jesus is referring simply to those who are poor in some symbolic way. (Think, for example, of Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”) On the other side of that road is the ditch of excessive literalism, the idea that Jesus is referring only to those who are poor economically. The truth, as is usually the case in Scripture, is somewhere in the middle. Jesus undoubtedly has concern for those who are destitute in material terms – in this, he is firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who railed against the excesses of the ruling class and the disregard among the elite in society for those who are in need of sustenance. Similarly, he warns those who exhibit poverty of spirit, and who fail to understand that the core of the Biblical narrative is the responsibility to promote justice, righteousness, and peace among God’s people. In Luke’s gospel, then, the poor are those who do not enjoy full standing within the community of faith, those who – for whatever reason – find themselves on the outside looking in.
With that in mind, the good news that Jesus comes to bring is this: that his ministry makes a way for all to be welcomed into community. Whether their “poverty” stems from some spiritual or religious concern or from their inability to make a living, Jesus’ presence and proclamation promise that those who are numbered among the poor will have a share in the goodness and mercy of God. Perhaps no story illustrates this more viscerally than the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which is both a comforting and a terrifying passage of Scripture.
A lot of interpreters seek to soften this parable, to undergo all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid what it says on its face, which is that the rich man is condemned because he fails to care for the poor man who sets outside his gate for… well, God only knows, but long enough for the rich man to know him by name. He is unmoved by the law and prophets, which speak repeatedly of the duty to uphold the poor and vulnerable, especially the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner. He does not recognize that he is enjoined to care for the neighbor, to ensure that no one is left outside or without the basic necessities of life, and Jesus’ parable makes clear that there are real consequences for him – and, by extension, for those who fail to uphold this mandate.
So where is the good news? It’s in the parable’s promise that the poor will, indeed, receive good things. God’s will, of course, is that they receive them in this life – that those with means will give out of their abundance so that others can be fed, and that those who enjoy the blessing of community will extend welcome and hospitality to those who sit outside the gates. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, the poor are assured that they will enjoy blessing, a place of intimacy with God born out of God’s special concern for them.
As with much of Scripture, this passage represents both a challenge and word of comfort. It is a challenge, of course, because it presents us with a vision of accountability for how we care for those who are poor in any way. Comfort can be found in remembering Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, which declares that those who seek to be faithful to the Son of Man and his mission, though they may be reviled or ridiculed by the world (and though they may sometimes fall short) will receive a reward. (Luke 6:22-23, NRSV) In Christ, God’s grace and mercy come to us and enable us to bear the good news of God’s abundant blessing to the poor, strengthening us to face whatever might come our way as a result of our obedience to the challenge laid before us.
Brothers and sisters, in his life and ministry Jesus proclaimed welcome and abundant grace to all who, like Lazarus, were neglected or left behind. As we journey through this Lenten season, may we seek to be Christ for others, and, by our acts of prayer and kindness and generosity, extend welcome and grace to those in need in our community, so that Jesus’ sermon might once again be fulfilled in our hearing. Join us next week as we consider how Jesus’ life and ministry were brought to bear on the brokenhearted. Until then, may we be blessed with God’s grace and strength as we continue our journey through Lent. Amen.
Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
This is a difficult word, brothers and sisters. There’s no way around it. Today’s reading from Isaiah begins much the same way as last week’s reading from Hosea; it is a song of love, a song of tender care, a song of God’s patient and persistent providence for the chosen people. Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of that love in this allegory about the planting of a vineyard. The prophet recounts how the vineyard owner planted a protective hedge around the vines, installed a winepress to enjoy the fruits of the harvest, and even set up a military-style watchtower to defend it from those who would seek to harm it. Everything that was needed to make the harvest a success was done to perfection. Unfortunately, the vineyard fails to produce the desired crop. Many of you are all too familiar with the disappointment of a failed harvest. You know the agony that comes from preparing the ground, planting the seed, watching and tending and working the fields during the long growing season, and bringing in the crop at the end of the summer, only to see everything go sour. The devastation of seeing a year’s worth of planning and preparation and work go to waste is surely one of the most difficult things to deal with for someone who loves the land.
God was no less devastated at the failure of the people of Israel and Judah to achieve the harvest that God desired. All the preparation for that harvest had been done faithfully: the establishment of a covenant, the gift of instruction to help the people live will with one another, and the provision of leadership – however grudgingly it might have initially been given – to hold the people accountable to that covenant and law. At almost every turn, Israel and Judah fell victim to the most human of desires: the desire to become more than human, the desire to take the place of God, the desire to usurp power and authority and influence for one’s own benefit rather than using it for the good of the community. Where God expected justice to dwell among the people, violence and oppression took root. Where God expected to reap a harvest of righteousness, cries of distress and trouble rang out. In spite of all that God had done, the chosen people had failed to be the kind of people God had called them to be. As a result, Isaiah declared that they would soon lose the protection that had been so lovingly provided for them, and that armies from the north and east would sweep across the land and wreak havoc on God’s pleasant planting.
Yes, this is a difficult word, because it appears to fly in the face of God’s gracious and merciful character, a character that is revealed time and again throughout the Scriptures. In truth, however, that love song is just part of the picture. It is a devastating part, to be sure, but it is not the whole story. God’s grace is revealed once again when we turn from chapter five to chapter eleven, a movement from judgment to promise. Even before the predicted devastation of exile comes to pass, Isaiah declares that God will send a new kind of ruler to lead the people toward the kind of life that God intended for them. This new ruler would wear justice and righteousness like garments, and guide the people to pursue equity and fairness in their dealings with one another. He would banish evil from among the people, and spread abroad the spirit of the Lord, the spirit that brings wisdom and understanding, right counsel and strength, knowledge and reverence for the LORD.
As Christians, of course, we cannot read this description of the righteous ruler without thinking of Jesus, the son of David whose coming we will celebrate in just over five weeks. As we stand on the cusp of another new church year and the beginning of the season of Advent, we pause to remember that Christ came to be that righteous ruler for us and for the whole creation. His rule was not established to benefit himself, but to grant abundant life to those who would come to believe in him. He shows us by his life how to live well with one another and with God. He saves us from our love of self and our enslavement to sin by his obedient death. He frees us to live with love for others by his rising from death and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. In Christ, the devastation of the vineyard song is changed into the glorious song of new life and victory that has been passed down through the generations to the faithful, and because of Christ we have been planted as part of God’s chosen people in that holy vineyard, nourished by water and word in baptism, and filled with the sustenance we need by receiving the bread of life and cup of salvation.
Brothers and sisters, our reading today tells the story of rebellion and judgment, but it also calls us to give thanks for God’s grace and favor for the people that God has called and claimed. God grieves over human sin, and yet God also acts to restore humanity to relationship with one another and with the divine through the righteous rule of Christ our King. As we prepare to enter the season of longing for God’s rule to be extended over the whole creation without opposition, let us give thanks for the glimpses of that rule we receive as we live in union with God’s Son. Let us pray that we will continue to grow up into Christ, and that through Christ we will bring forth the harvest of righteousness and justice that God desires for us. Finally, let us pray that our lives will give glory and honor to the one who has created and redeemed us and who continues to sustain us under his lordship. Thanks be to God, and praise be to Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit! Amen!
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When I was looking ahead at this weekend’s services and I noted the confluence between the lectionary reading from Hosea and the observance of our annual Thankoffering service, I’ll admit that I was pretty excited. The tender love of God for the people of Israel was a natural complement to the themes of blessing and gratitude that accompany this celebration. For perhaps the first time in five of these Thankoffering services, I didn’t feel the need to adjust the appointed readings for the day to fit the occasion. Then Friday happened, and the hearts of people throughout the world were broken once again by cries of anguish and pain and anger and grief, this time occasioned by the horrific acts of terrorism carried out against the citizens of Paris, France. With deadly precision and unfathomable efficiency, six separate attacks claimed the lives of over 200 people in one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved cities and left many wondering how this could have happened. Some will point to ideology. Some will indict religion. Some will invoke mental illness as a cause of the carnage. Each of these explanations may be part of the picture, but none of them can be the sole cause of these atrocities, if for no other reason than that they represent just the latest in a series of violent acts that have laid bare humanity’s terrifying propensity for unleashing suffering and pain upon our fellow humans. Paris joins Chicago and Detroit, Aurora and Newtown, Beirut and Kabul and Damascus, Madrid and London, Mumbai and Abuja, Ciudad Juarez and Charleston, and countless other places that have experienced the worst of human hatred and cruelty, creating a terrible litany that should drive us all to our knees.
Today’s reading from Hosea was originally a word for the people of Israel, a message for a nation who had pledged their lives to God and then turned their backs, but in the present circumstances it’s clear that it also describes the condition of humanity at-large. If we take seriously the depth of God’s love for creation, love that led God to send Spirit rushing over the deep and to bring forth life, love that spurred God to imbue humanity with the imprint of God’s image and likeness, love that prompted God to write the commandments on our hearts and to guide us to a way of living compassionately with one another, then we must also take seriously the lengths to which we have strayed from that love. God has taught us how to walk, and we have responded by running to satisfy our hunger for power. God has held us tenderly cheek to cheek, and we have responded by lashing out at creation and one another. The more God calls to us, the further we stray from God’s guidance. This is not an Israelite problem. This is a human problem, and it affects all of us.
If there is anything to be thankful about in the face of such a daunting view of the world and our place in it, it is this: that God has not abandoned us to our own devices. God saw clearly the rebellion of Israel during Hosea’s prophetic career, and made sure that the people knew the depths of their betrayal, and yet God could not give that people up. God’s very heart recoiled at the thought of leaving Israel behind, of allowing them to receive the full measure of judgment for their injustice toward one another and their unfaithfulness toward God. By the same token, the incredible word of grace spoken to Israel is also a word for all of us who have gone astray, for a human family that has spurned God’s will for compassion and peace and love and joy for all people in pursuit of our own selfish desires.
This is the message of Hosea for Israel and for us: that the righteous and holy God who desires righteousness and holiness for humanity is also the gracious and merciful God who cannot give us up, and who continues to call us to turn from our love of self to live with love for God and for others. The signs of God’s continued presence with us are sometimes difficult to see through the pain and sadness we have wrought on our world, but they are there nonetheless: the people of Paris who in the middle of Friday’s attacks set aside their fears to offer open doors to strangers; the people of cities plagued by violence who nevertheless march and rally and raise their voices to express their hopes and dreams for their homes and streets and neighborhoods; the victims of hatred and conflict who speak words of mercy and forgiveness to the people who shattered their families and their peace; people of faith and goodwill throughout the world who continue to believe that compassion and understanding are possible even in the face of unspeakable evil. Wherever humanity has learned the lessons of our own selfishness and ambition and greed and distrust of others, God’s Holy Spirit continues to be active and alive, moving to give us glimpses of a brighter future where God’s will for abundant life and love and joy, rather than our own, is done, and reminding us of the truth that God in Christ is with us in our darkest moments, working to transform that darkness into the glorious light of resurrection life.
These are reasons for us to be grateful, brothers and sisters. In the midst of brokenness, God calls us to turn our hearts toward God and toward one another, sharing the gifts of grace and love and blessing that we have received with a world in need. Through the ministries of the Women of the ELCA and all the other ministries that are inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are given the opportunity to walk as God has taught us to walk, and to lead others to know the life and love that is ours in Christ. Because God has not given us up, we can hold fast to one another and support our neighbors in their need as we bear witness to God’s grace each day in everything we say and do. As we close this time of reflection, I would like to leave us with these words of lament from our hymnal. May they give us the strength to remain hopeful as we go out to serve this broken and beautiful world in the days to come.
When pain of the world surrounds us with darkness and despair,
when searching just confounds us with false hopes ev’rywhere,
when lives are starved for meaning and destiny is bare,
we are called to follow Jesus and let God’s healing flow through us.
We see with fear and trembling our aching world in need,
confessing to each other our wastefulness and greed.
May we with steadfast caring the hungry children feed.
We are called to follow Jesus and let God’s justice flow through us.
The church is a holy vessel the living waters fill
to nourish all the people, God’s purpose to fulfill.
May we with humble courage be open to God’s will.
We are called to follow Jesus and let God’s Spirit flow through us.
We praise you for our journey and your abundant grace,
your saving word that guided a struggling human race.
O God, with all creation, your future we embrace.
We are called to follow Jesus and let God’s changes flow through us.
Let it be so. Amen.
Complementary Text: Psalm 98:7-9
Preaching Text: Matthew 25:31-46
This Lent we have been exploring some of the parables of Jesus and learning what those parables have to teach us about how to live as citizens of “Heaven’s Reign”. Over these last four weeks, we’ve read about unforgiving servants, laborers in a vineyard, guests at a wedding banquet, and bridesmaids preparing for a wedding feast, and each of those stories has communicated some important truth about the life of discipleship – that we are called to live as forgiven and forgiving people, that our human ideas about fairness fall short of God’s will for justice, that God’s invitation to enjoy grace and love must not be received lightly, and that readiness to welcome Christ is an essential part of the life of faith.
This morning’s parable puts the fundamental character of life lived well before God into sharp focus. The setting of the parable is the heavenly throne room, and the nations are gathered before the throne to be judged by the Son of Man – understood in Matthew’s gospel to refer unequivocally to Jesus. What happens there takes everyone by surprise, because the basis of the Son of Man’s judgment seems to be completely unexpected: the sheep and goats are not separated by their profession of trust in Jesus (or lack thereof), or by their attention to the minute details of the law, but by the way that they treated “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”. There has been some dispute about how this parable is best to be interpreted, specifically who is being gathered in the throne room and who Jesus is referring to when he talks about “the least of these”. Some commentators define this parable very narrowly, insisting that the nations include non-Christians and “the least of these” is a clear reference to the community of disciples who will be sent out to preach the good news. In other words, they see this as a word to the nations, and a message of comfort for the church as they go out to make the gospel known throughout the world. Others expand the scope of the parable somewhat, but think it’s irresponsible to interpret it broadly to include everyone among the nations and all the needy among “the least of these”. While I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments in favor of a narrow reading of this parable, to be honest I don’t think we’re well-served by trying to limit its implications. It seems too human, too easy, too convenient to let Christians off the hook, for example, or to claim that the people who are worthy of being fed, refreshed, welcomed, clothed, and visited are only those within the church. When we read this parable as broadly as possible, we’re left with stunning implications for the life of discipleship, particularly as disciples who are being exposed to greater diversity every day.
If “all the nations” is a term that includes us, then this parable puts an edge on one of the central teachings of Jesus – the so-called greatest commandments. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is approached by one of the experts in the law, who asks him to name the greatest commandment. Jesus responds: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22: ) For Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor are so closely linked that they cannot be separated. As disciples of Jesus who are called to give up everything and dedicate ourselves to the values of Heaven’s Reign, it’s hard to imagine a more important teaching than this. This parable makes clear that any claim to love God that is coupled with neglect of the needy – whether a fellow Christian or not – is suspect at best and a grave offense with dire consequences at worst. The way we treat others is not a matter of personal preference, but an ethical imperative that lies at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and the language of reward and punishment underscores the seriousness with which our Lord takes our attitude toward others.
By the same token, that this parable concerns “all the nations”, presumably including people who are not part of the community of disciples has profound implications for the way we are called to regard people of goodwill who don’t share our faith in Jesus but who nevertheless live with compassion for others. In both the narrow and broad readings of this parable, the positive judgment rendered on those who extend care, concern, and love to “the least of these” is a direct challenge to rhetoric that seeks to demonize or denigrate people of other religious traditions (or maybe even none at all). This isn’t a matter of believing that anything goes or that it doesn’t matter what we do, but of taking seriously God’s ability to work through people of various faiths to bring about justice and peace and compassionate care for those in need. Put another way, this parable suggests that Jesus is served whenever people set aside their own selfish ambitions and desires and work to meet the needs of others, even (especially) when they do so without expectation of rewards in this life or the next.
Of course, this parable raises significant challenges for us as Lutheran Christians. Like last week’s parable, today’s reading places heavy emphasis on our actions, and links those actions very closely with consequences that have lasting impacts; it’s hard, after all, to ignore the language of eternal punishment and eternal reward that feature so prominently here. Is Jesus really saying that we must serve others or risk damnation? Well, sort of, and let me explain what I mean. I have no intention of diminishing the dramatic implications of this parable. I am firmly convinced that today’s reading speaks of an ethical imperative to serve others, and that there are dire consequences for not heeding that imperative. I’m not convinced, however, that Jesus is talking about a cause and effect relationship. This isn’t a threat: “Feed others OR ELSE!”; it’s a clear reminder that faith makes a difference, that faith works itself out in our lives in service to “the least of these”, and that any “faith” that doesn’t lead us to serve others has some serious issues. To follow Jesus and to be aligned with the values of Heaven’s Reign is to serve others naturally, without compulsion, because that service flows from the saving and transformative faith that is ours in Jesus. In Matthew’s mind, faith that doesn’t lead us to serve others is faith that needs to be seriously challenged and changed for the good of the disciple and the world.
As Lent draws toward a close and we move ever closer to Holy Week, there is much for us to ponder. Through these cryptic and difficult parables, we have been called to the hard work of forgiveness, justice, vulnerability, vigilance, and costly service. Each of the lessons we’ve learned this Lent are deeply important to the life of discipleship, and any one of them is enough to occupy much of our time and attention. I would like to suggest that you consider extended reflection on one of those topics in the days and weeks to come; these are, after all, not merely concerns during Lent. What would it mean for you to intentionally focus on being more forgiving, to use your hands and your voice to advocate for greater freedom, to acknowledge your brokenness and need for strength from God and others, to be more aware and more expectant of God’s power and presence moving in the world, or to ponder new ways of serving Christ by serving others? How are we already living out this call, and how much more powerful might our collective witness be if our trust in Jesus was regularly demonstrated by intentional acts of mercy, louder calls for justice, deeper expressions of community, more ministry grounded in fervent hope, and costlier examples of service toward “the least of these”? I don’t know the exact answer to those questions, but I do know that they are definitely worth asking. Let us pray that God would inspire us by this challenging parable to ponder how we might better express our love of Christ and our neighbors, not so others might know that we are sheep, but so that they might know Jesus and give glory to God, our heavenly King and righteous Judge. Amen.