Free to Serve

(Isaiah 52:13-53:121 Peter 2:18-3:7)

One of the biggest things that trips us up as we try to understand the Bible is our habit of treating it like a plate of monkey bread.  We come to it, and it’s all in one piece, but we figure that it’s really a bunch of little pieces stuck together; and we don’t want a whole lot of it, we only want a snack.  We only want to know what the Bible says about this one thing, or maybe we just want something to comfort us or encourage us; and so we pull it apart.  We treat it like a lot of small pieces stuck together for convenience, rather than as all one book that we need to understand as a whole.

The tendency with this section of 1 Peter is to look at it and say, “Here, Peter’s talking about slaves, and here he’s talking about marriage,” and then go off and talk about the husband as the head of the household and the importance of female modesty and never actually come back to the book at all.  That misses the heart of this passage.  For one thing, look at verses 18-25 of chapter 2.  Peter begins, “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all respect,” but then he doesn’t actually say very much about slaves at all.  He spends more than half those verses talking about Christ and his suffering, and most of what he says applies to everyone in the church, not just slaves.

For another, context matters.  What do slaves and married women have in common?  Under Roman law, both were completely under the authority and at the mercy of another person.  What has Peter just been talking about in verses 13-17?  As slaves to God, we are to defer to other people and respect those who are in authority over us.  Is that always going to be a positive experience?  Will those authorities always treat us justly?  No.  And if they don’t, where is that going to bite?

The fact of the matter is, it probably won’t be from the emperor first.  Governments may be unjust, and even the best of them create a lot of injustice along the way, because this world malfunctions all over the place; but except in times of all-out persecution, it’s rare that any government deliberately does as much damage to any one person as an abusive husband can.  Slaveowners could be even worse, for obvious reasons.  It’s all well and good for Peter to say, “Respect the emperor,” even when the emperor is Nero or Caligula; but what if you’re a slave and your master is a mini-Nero?  What if you’re married to Caligula’s evil twin?  What are you supposed to do about that?

American society being what it is, we instinctively analyze and respond to these questions in terms of legal rights and political power.  We want Peter to say, “Rise up and demand justice”—but he couldn’t, because the people he’s addressing have no ability to do that.  They’re powerless.  Outside the very rich, if a man killed his wife, unless his wife’s family had a powerful patron, the authorities didn’t care.  If he killed his slave, nobody cared.  Other slaves might, but they didn’t count, and didn’t dare say anything.  Legally speaking, you’re going to submit—or else.

Peter’s answer is spoken into this reality, and the heart of it is an application of verse 16:  “As free people, but as slaves of God.”  You’re not free by the law of the world, but you are free in the spirit.  If you’re a slave, if you’re a married woman under Roman law, you’re going to submit; you can’t control that.  But you can control why you submit.  Do you submit resentfully, because you have to—perhaps because you’ll be beaten if you don’t?  Peter says, look to Christ, and do it for him.  Do it because he submitted to far worse for you, so that he might heal you and give you new life in God.

For slaves whose masters are cruel and unjust, the reality is that they will suffer unjustly.  Peter acknowledges this, and asks, “Is it really any better if you suffer because you deserve it?”  The answer is, of course, no.  If you suffer for doing good, he says, look to Jesus and endure it without fighting back.  He did that for us, because he trusted that the injustice of his earthly judges would not stand; God the Father and his justice would have the last word.  If we do the same, bearing undeserved suffering patiently because of Christ, because we trust in the Father, then our suffering isn’t pointless—we’re suffering for God, as an act of service to him, and this pleases him.

As Peter says this, he starts off talking to slaves, but he isn’t only talking to them—his words are for the whole church.  If we’re all slaves to God, and if we’re all exiles and resident aliens in a world where we really don’t quite belong, then what’s true of those household slaves is in fact true of all of us.  For one, if we live faithfully with the Lord, we’re all likely to suffer unjustly; that reality was just more obvious in their case.  And we’re all every bit as indebted to Jesus, who freely allowed himself to be tortured to death when he never deserved it.  If he’d insisted on his rights and demanded justice, we’d all be damned.

For another, we’re all going to have to submit to others, and not just the government.  No, we don’t have legal slavery; but the critics of capitalism have long denounced it as “wage slavery,” and they’re not entirely wrong.  Just ask the Man in Black. . . .

Obviously, there’s a difference between being beaten for praying and being taken advantage of at work because you have a selfish, unjust boss who knows you can’t afford to quit.  Employees have options and recourse that slaves didn’t.  But if you’re in a position where those options are all theoretical and there’s no better job in sight, you’re just as caught.  Bad economies empower bad bosses, and it comes down to the same two choices in the end.  If you’re being treated unjustly, you can resist in some way, even if all you do is complain, or you can look to God and bear the injustice with patience and grace for Jesus’ sake.  Put another way, you’re going to be a servant regardless; the choice is yours either to serve grudgingly, kicking and screaming, or to serve freely and graciously in the name of the Lord.  The work is the same in either case, but the heart is completely different—and it’s amazing how much that difference can mean.

When Peter speaks to wives, we see his concern for the witness of the church come into play again.  Women married to unbelievers were in a difficult situation.  The Roman writer Plutarch declared, “A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him.  The gods are the first and most important friends.  Wherefore it is becoming for a wife to worship and to know only the gods that her husband believes in.”  The women Peter’s addressing were violating that completely, and so they had to be very careful; they could easily endanger both themselves and the church.

This is why we have the injunction against fancy hairdos, jewelry and clothing, because they were commonly seen as signs that a woman intended seduction.  To quote the Roman satirist Juvenal, “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears.”  It was already questionable for a married woman to go out alone to meet with a lot of men her husband didn’t know; if she went out dressed to the nines, her husband and their society would likely assume the worst.  By contrast, if she lived in such a way that the goodness and holiness of God could be clearly seen in her life, that would allay his concerns, and perhaps draw him to Christ as well.

There’s a lot we could say here about how Peter is subverting the Roman social order, but most of it is outside the scope of this sermon.  I do want to look at verse 7, however, which brings the point of this passage—that in Christ, we’re called to choose freely to serve others—home to husbands, who weren’t legally obliged to submit to their wives.  He says to them, “Husbands, don’t you get any ideas.”  The culture of the time thought women were inferior and rendered them powerless, and Peter’s been talking to wives about how to live out their required submission to their husbands; now he forbids married men in the church from taking advantage of that.  As Karen Jobes puts it, “Peter teaches that men whose authority runs roughshod over their women, even with society’s full approval, will not be heard by God.”

Remember, in verses 13-17 Peter tells Christians to live with deference and respect to every person; this played out in particular ways in the Roman house­hold, but that didn’t let husbands and masters off the hook.  Nothing in this passage in any way justifies any sort of abuse of power; indeed, we are grateful that thanks to people like Mary Ann Cox, women with abusive husbands have options now that their Roman counterparts didn’t.  Whatever position of authority you may have, you have it only because of God, and under hisauthority, as his slave; he will judge you on whether or not you’ve used it in accordance with his will and his character.  Jesus suffered injustice, trusting in the one who judges justly; you don’t want to be on the other side of that equation.  Whether you are powerful or powerless, you are a slave of God; you are free in Christ, which means you’re free to serve.

Free Slaves

(Jeremiah 29:1-71 Peter 2:13-17)

In 1984, a Nigerian man named Umaru Dikko found himself in a bit of trouble.  He had been his country’s Minister for Transportation from 1979-83, but then a coup took down his government and he fled to exile in London.  Once there, understandably enough, he took every opportunity to attack the new government back in Lagos.  He also became a vocal critic of Israel, perhaps because the Israeli government bought a lot of Nigerian oil and sold the Nigerian government a lot of weapons.  That may have been understandable too, but it wasn’t wise, because Israel has the Mossad, and you never want to get on their bad side.

In July of 1984, a joint Nigerian-Israeli operation kidnapped Dikko, drugged him, and stuck him in a wooden crate (together with the Israeli anaesthesiologist whose job it was to keep him unconscious).  Crazy?  Not exactly.  Legally, any sort of bag, box, or other container which is properly labeled as a diplomatic bag is protected under the Vienna Convention and completely untouchable by local law enforcement.  It wouldn’t have mattered if Dikko had woken up and started yelling—there would have been nothing anyone could do.

Except for one thing:  that bit about “properly labeled.”  As it happened, someone in the Nigerian embassy forgot to do the paperwork.  Customs officials at Heathrow received word of the kidnapping while the crate was being processed; understandably, they thought it might be a good idea to check out that crate that was headed for a Nigerian airliner.  Since the crate lacked the necessary documentation, there was no label to keep them from searching it.  Dikko was freed, and four of his kidnappers ended up in a British prison.

As abuses of diplomatic immunity go, that one’s pretty extreme; we tend to associate it more with such things as the $17.2 million owed to New York City as of 2011 in unpaid parking tickets by members of the various UN delegations.  Still, the extreme case makes the point well:  if you tell a group of people they aren’t bound by the government of the nation in which they live, some of them will take advantage of that.  It doesn’t take many bad actors before the group as a whole develops a reputation for antisocial behavior.

Now, when you’re talking about recognized diplomats under international law, that reputation might not cause any real problems.  Being unpopular won’t hurt them, and they’re protected by treaty from anything worse.  The early church, however, was a small minority with no legal recognition or protection, and their mission was to be a witness for the gospel to the com­munities in which they lived.  A bad reputation could cripple their efforts, and if the government decided to go after them, they were defenseless.  Peter’s been very clear that Christians need to see ourselves as citizens of the kingdom of God who live among the nations of this world; but that doesn’t give us the right to misbehave, much less any protection if we do.  It means we’re held to a higher standard than the laws of this world, not an easier one.

This is the issue Peter begins to lay out in our passage this morning.  The crux of his argument, and the key point for this whole section of the book that extends through 3:7, is found in verse 16:  “As those who are free . . . yet as God’s slaves.”  The world defines being free as having freedom forthis world—freedom to do what the world teaches us to want to do.  It’s freedom to be ruled by our desires without anyone telling us “no.”  What Peter’s talking about, what God offers us, is freedom from this world.  It’s the freedom to step outside our desires and outside the roles and expectations the world lays on us, and to choose to do and to be something else.

Which is to say, the world thinks freedom is being able to do what we want with nobody stopping us.  The freedom of God is the freedom to stop ourselves.  It’s the ability to pull free of our desires and fears and think clearly rather than just reacting to them.  It’s the liberty to choose not to do what we want because we understand that what we want to do isn’t what we ought to do or what’s best for us.  It’s freedom from the world, from ourselves, for God.

Peter invites us to act as free people by turning away from that slavery which the world mistakes for freedom.  He summons us to freely choose to live as what we already are in Christ, as slaves to God.  If that doesn’t sound like freedom to you, consider this:  the way of the world is the way of anxiety.  No matter what, there’s always that crawling uncertainty, doubt, and fear at the heart of life.  The most you can ever do is bury it.  If you’re really good at what you do, you may be able to keep it buried for a long time, but you can’t change this fact:  much of what’s good in your life and your world is utterly dependent on things you can’t even understand, much less control.  That’s even true for the most powerful people on this planet.  Eventually, things will go wrong, and you won’t know until they happen, and you won’t be able to do anything about it—but it will all be on your head anyway.

Not so for the people of God.  Our dependence is no less, but we know the one who controls all the forces and events no human can even understand; we know the one on whom we depend, and we love him, and we know he loves us and takes care of us.  That’s why the word of God tells us over and over again not to worry and not to fear, and why Jesus promised us a peace that passes all human understanding—it’s the peace of not having to fear those things which pass all human understanding.  Being slaves to God means freedom from the anxiety that comes with being slaves to ourselves, and thus being free to live as people who are whole and well.

Of course, as we’ve already noted, Peter isn’t just talking about this to make his readers feel good, or to give them a theological education:  he wants to apply it in a particular way.  If we live as slaves to God and owe our allegiance to him above any human authority, how then do we relate to those human authorities?  Is this an excuse to assert our independence from them and do whatever we want?  Peter says, firmly, no.  We are not to use our freedom as an excuse to cause trouble.  That’s not what it’s for, and not what we’re for.

Instead, because we revere God and love his people, we are to treat everyone else (and especially those in authority) with respect and consideration, so that those who attack the church will only make themselves look foolish and ignorant for their efforts.  Peter tells us to defer to our fellow human beings, because they are God’s creations just as much as we are.  Here again we could look to Philippians, this time chapter 2:  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility put others first, ahead of yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interests of others.”  Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon to whom Jeremiah wrote, our job is to pray for the community and the nation to which God has sent us, and to do whatever we can do to bless it, and partly for the same pragmatic reason.

As part of that responsibility, Peter emphasizes something which I think we really need to hear:  he commands respect and deference for the emperor and the other ruling authorities.  I don’t hear much of that in this country these days.  I hear a lot of disrespect, contempt, and abuse directed at the President, at Congress, and at politicians and government figures all down the line, and it’s just wrong and ungodly.  There’s no excuse for it, and don’t try to tell me there is.

Peter wrote during the later years of Nero’s reign, when he’d already started executing anyone who displeased him.  Nero had had Paul put to death in AD 62, and would ultimately have Peter crucified.  In 64 AD, he made Christians the scapegoat for the Great Fire of Rome and had them burned as torches in his gardens to provide light for his parties.  This is the emperor for whom Peter commands respect.  Nero’s uncle and predecessor, Caligula, once had an entire section of the stands in the arena thrown to the lions because he was bored.  Peter commands respect for the emperor anyway, and doesn’t offer exceptions.

We need to listen to him, because quite frankly, we’re spoiled.  We have yet to see the President burning Christians as torches on the White House lawn; if we did, Peter would still tell us to treat him with respect.  Anything else dishonors God.  Anything else is a sign that we’re still too caught up in this world, and pinning too many of our hopes on it.

Ambassadors for Christ

(Isaiah 10:1-4Philippians 3:17-4:11 Peter 2:11-12)

Michael Card tells a remarkable story in his book Immanuel (read here by John Piper):

That’s what Peter’s talking about in this passage; that’s the goal of his instruction.  He tells us we’re exiles and resident aliens in this world.  He’s used each of these words before, but now he puts them together to multiply the effect.  Then he takes it a step further, adding in the point he’s just made in verse 9:  we have a purpose in this world that goes beyond just getting through the day and making a living.  We aren’t supposed to just blend in with everyone else, as if we were citizens of this world right along with them.  Our citizenship is somewhere else; we’re here on a mission from God.

Let’s unpack that for a minute.  Peter doesn’t explicitly use the language of citizenship, but coming hard on the heels of verses 9-10, his point here is right in line with Paul in Philippians 3.  It isn’t in the way you probably think, however.  The NIV reads, “sinful desires,” but a more literal translation would be “desires of the flesh.”  Peter isn’t just talking about things which are obviously sinful—and neither is Paul.  The point is broader than that.  The desires of the flesh are those desires which are natural to those whose minds are set on earthly things.  Yes, obviously, many of those are clearly sinful; but many of them aren’t.  There’s nothing wrong with our instinct for self-protection and self-preservation, or with our desire for material comfort and prosperity.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to experience pleasure, or to have a good reputation.  They’re just earthly, worldly, of the flesh, and so by themselves, they point us away from God.

Now, does this mean that we shouldn’t have any desires at all?  No.  We’re not supposed to be enemies of pleasure, as if we worshipped a cosmic killjoy; I’m not going to tell you to put on a hair shirt and go out and sleep in the snow on a bed of nails.  We need to understand that Peter was using typical language from both Jewish and Greek moral and ethical teaching, which would have been familiar to his audience; where the NIV reads “desires,” we should understand that to mean unrestrained desires or impulses.  The point isn’t that it’s wrong to have desires, but that it’s wrong to just give in to them and let them run the show.

It’s natural to desire pleasure, but that desire needs to be under control.  If it’s starting to get away from you—maybe you’re starting to drink a little too much, or your eyes are starting to wander once in a while—then you need to abstain.  You need to cut yourself short.  It’s normal to want financial and material security, but if you find yourself making all your decisions on that basis—if that desire is running your life—then you need to set that aside, because that way of life doesn’t bring glory to God.  It’s perfectly understandable to want a good reputation, but if you catch yourself shading the truth, or maybe spinning things a bit, to make yourself look good, then you need to sacrifice that desire to God, because he’s a God of truth, not of the lie.

We’re called to be a people who respect our earthly rulers, but who fear God alone—not any person around us and not any human power.  We’re an organized com­munity of resident aliens in this world, members of another nation living in the midst of this one, owing our allegiance to a greater King, for the purpose of declaring and displaying the character and the glory of that King in the earthly community in which we live and work.  Like Joseph, we’re here to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ with such persistent love and such humble grace that even when people attack us and beat us for it, our example will move them to repentance and faith.  We’re on a mission from God, alright—a diplomatic mission.  We’re his ambassadors to Winona Lake and Warsaw, to Kosciusko County, to Indiana, to America.  We’re the designated representatives of the kingdom of heaven to this community and this nation.

As some of you probably know, I’m pulling that language (and the title of this sermon) from 2 Corinthians 5, which we didn’t read this morning.  In verse 20 of that chapter, Paul describes himself and his colleagues as ambassadors for Christ because they’re speaking on behalf of Christ, carrying forward his ministry of reconciliation which God has entrusted to them.  It isn’t only a ministry for Paul and other special people in the church, however.  It’s been given to all of us.  Paul implores us to be reconciled to God so that we would then turn and do the same for others, leading them to find the peace with God which we’ve found.

This is who we are.  We are God’s people put here as his representatives to this nation and this community to declare his praises by our words and our actions, whether the world wants us to or not.  We are a new kind of people who don’t exist for ourselves, for God has formed us for himself to be his diplomats, helping lead those around us in the fine art of having his way.  We are his ambassadors bringing the good news that the God of heaven has made a peace treaty with the people of this world, and inviting them to sign it.

A Peculiar People

(Exodus 19:3-6Hosea 2:21-231 Peter 2:9-10)

If you’re familiar with the King James Version, you probably realize that I took the title for this message from its translation of verse 9.  You might also remember that I referenced it in the first sermon of this series.  Our modern translations are right to use the word “chosen” instead, because the word “peculiar” doesn’t really get the right idea across anymore, but it’s too bad, really.  “Peculiar,” as the King James uses it, carries a sense of possession and uniqueness which the word “chosen” doesn’t.  I could say that this is my chosen shirt this morning, and I could say that Sara is my chosen wife, but I couldn’t say that this shirt is peculiar to me—I’m not emotionally invested in it, and there are a lot of other people who have shirts just like it.  Obviously, I wouldn’t normally call my wife peculiar, but in this sense, she’s peculiar to me alone.
Now, you might point out that I didn’t just choose her, she also chose me, and you don’t know how right you are; but that only strengthens the point, because we have also chosen God.  His choice of us is clearly first and greater, but it isn’t something that just happens to us—we respond to him, and so participate in his choice.  We’re bound to him by his act and our own, and so we’re doubly his, and his alone.  No one else has any claim on us—not even denominations that think they have a right to our property.  We are only God’s possession.
All that said, I’ll admit it’s not the whole reason I chose this title for the sermon.  The fact is, while Peter doesn’t explicitly say this, we are indeed a peculiar people as the world understands the word.  We are odd; we are atypical; we are outside our world’s idea of “normal.”  To say God has chosen us doesn’t just mean that he’s chosen us to be with him in the next life; he’s chosen us, as Peter makes clear, to do his work and serve his purposes in this one.  We are strange to this world because we’re turned toward God.
Peter tells us we are a separate nation from the nations of this world.  We are a nation set apart in allegiance to the King of heaven, to be his priests to the other nations.  As we see in Exodus 19, this is language used in the Old Testament to describe Israel and their mission.  God had made a covenant with Israel, and that was to define them in every respect.  They were to be holy to the Lord—different and distinct from the peoples around them in the way they lived life, the values they upheld and the goals they pursued—because their primary allegiance was to him rather than to any worldly powers.  Precisely in that, they were to serve as the priests of God to the world—the access point through whom the nations could come to God, and by whom they might be led to him.
Biblically, all our standards for life are to be disjointed from our culture and society.  How we do business, why we do business, how we talk to one another, how we use money, our attitudes toward material possessions, our view of sex, our ideas of what we deserve and what we don’t deserve—in all these things, and in everything else, we should be fundamentally different from those around us.  The purpose of everything we do is “to declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  That’s why we exist.  You want a mission statement?  In the big picture, that’s it.  Anything else you come up with has to point to that and end there.
The world worships itself, in various ways.  That worship defines the world, makes it what it is, and makes it do what it does.  When we go along with the world in its ways, we join in its worship, bowing at its altar.  That’s not who we have been called and created to be.  We are a people created by the entirely different worship of an entirely different God—a God who is neither ourselves nor defined by and for ourselves.  Everything we do is to be worship offered to him, and to flow out of our worship together as his people.  God has redeemed all of our life in Jesus Christ, all of it belongs to him, and so all of it is for him.

Our morality is to be not a matter of duty, but an offering of worship to God.  Our politics should be not about power and self-interest, but an offering of worship to God.  Our identity is truly found not in what the people of our town or in our broader culture see when they look at us, but in our worship of God.  And our witness to our world, our outreach and evangelism, aren’t things we do because we want the church to get bigger, but expressions of our worship of God.  We worship God, we learn to see how good and great and marvelous he is and how wonderful his grace, and so we talk about him wherever we go.  That’s the idea.

Living Stones

(Psalm 118:20-23Isaiah 8:11-15, Isaiah 28:14-18; 1 Peter 2:1-8)

Jesus is the living Stone promised by God.  He is the keystone of the arch of the living temple of God; he is the cornerstone of the whole building, the one from whom everything else is built out.  For you who believe in him and bow before him as Lord of all creation, he is an unshakeable foundation for your souls, and a sanctuary that will never fall.  The one who trusts in him will never be put to shame and will never have to fear the things of this world, no matter what storm may come.

For those who don’t put their trust in him, Jesus is the cause and occasion of judg­ment.  His blessings aren’t promised to everyone regardless of what they do or what they believe; his promises are only for those who come to him and lay all the weight of their lives on him, accepting him as the only trustworthy foundation.  Either you commit to rest your whole life on Jesus and put all your hope in him, or you don’t.

Granted, none of us put all our trust in Jesus all the time without fail; we have to keep choosing to trust him alone, because we drift.  We’re well trained to put our trust in our money, our education, our résumé, our family, our connections, and so on, and if we aren’t vigilant in our own hearts, we will always tend to revert to old habits.  Even so, the commitment to trust him alone, to follow him alone, to serve him alone, has to be there.  We can’t have Jesus as half our foundation, whether we take money or anything else as the other half; as he himself said, a house divided will never stand.

In the last analysis, we’re either all in with Jesus or we’re all out, and he drives us to make that choice.  You can maybe be neutral about Jesus from a distance, where you can’t see him clearly, but as you get closer, that quickly becomes impossible.  You either bow before him in utter surrender as the king of everything, or you refuse his demands and go your own way.

For those who reject him, who refuse to acknowledge him as the only true cornerstone for life, their refusal changes nothing:  he still remains the cornerstone.  He still remains a massive, immovable, unbreakable stone right in the center of life.  For those who build their lives on him and are built on him, he is the firm foundation.  Those who refuse to acknowledge that must still deal with him.  They may try to pretend he isn’t there at all, or that he isn’t what he is, but that doesn’t mean their way is clear.  In trying to walk through a stone they will not admit is there, they will stumble and fall and break themselves, and willfully refuse to under­stand why.  When the storm of God’s judgment breaks on the lies of humanity, they will be swept away, still rejecting the refuge.

This is the Prince of Peace who said, “I did not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword.”  He was, and is, a divisive figure, because he demands and deserves our absolute allegiance and our highest loyalty.  No lesser promise of support and service is ac­ceptable to him—it’s all or nothing.  And this is the mighty God in whose image we are being remade day by day.  He is the living Stone; we are being made living stones.

This is significant for us in a couple ways.  First, it connects to one of the main themes of this letter:  because we are in Christ, because of who we are in Christ, because we take our identity from him and not from the world, we will have conflict and we will have trouble.  People stumbled over Jesus, and they will stumble over us, and then they’ll blame us for their fall.  It doesn’t matter if they weren’t really looking where they were going; it was the stone’s fault, and they will vent their anger by kicking it and beating on it, even if it means they break a toe and bruise their fists.  This is the inheritance of the children of God—in this world.  We need to expect it.  We need to stop assuming that conflict means we’re doing something wrong.  It may mean we’re being like Jesus.

Second, this is the point at which Peter shifts from talking about our individual identity in Christ to our collective identity in Christ, and note how he does this.  I’m sure you’ve heard the line, “We don’t go to church, we arethe church,” and he affirms this in a profoundly concrete way.  Unlike Paul in 1 Corinthians 3, he doesn’t talk about us as the people who build the church—Peter tells us that we’re the building materials.  We are the stones with which God is building his temple on earth.

Think about that.  The home of God on earth is us—he lives in us by his Holy Spirit—and he builds it with our lives.  We are the visual representation of the character of God, in the way we live together; we’re the ones given to draw in the nations and lead them in the worship of God.  We’re called to carry on the ministry of Christ as a sanctuary and a shelter; we aren’t the foundation, but we lead people to the One who is.  We stand as a great rock in the world’s way.  For some, that makes us a beacon of hope; others see us as an obstruction to be bulldozed at any cost.

This is what our lives are for, and this is what our life together as the church is for.  Nothing more, and nothing less.  We don’t exist for ourselves, and the church doesn’t exist for us.  Like Jesus, we don’t exist to support ourselves, but to spend ourselves for the world; supporting us is God’s job, and he’s better at it than we are anyway.  We’re part of something much, much larger than any of us, or all of us together, and the measure of our lives is—is the temple of God more glorifying to him, more true to his character, and more dedicated to his work, because we’re a part of it?

Permanent People in a Temporary World

(Psalm 34:8-10Isaiah 40:1-111 Peter 1:22-2:3)

You have been redeemed from the empty way of life of this world with the precious blood of Christ, who gave his life as the perfect, sinless sacrifice for sin.  God the Father raised him from the dead, and through him you believe in God and have been made children of God; therefore your faith and hope are no longer in this world or the things of this world, they are in your Father in heaven.  This is Peter’s summary of the gospel in our passage from last time.  As he makes clear, it’s not enough for us simply to agree with this in our heads; we need to agree with it in our hearts, our mouths, our hands, and our feet as well.  If we nod and smile and say, “Yes, that’s true,” then go on about life as if we’d never heard any of it, we’ve missed the point.

This is truth we need to obey.  That might sound like a strange way to put it, but it’s a normal part of life.  We obey the law of gravity:  we know that if we hold something out and let go of it, it will fall, so we don’t intentionally do that unless that’s the result we want.  We know the law of gravity is true, and we act on that knowledge—we make our plans and our decisions with the understanding that gravity is in effect.  I am married, I have four children, and I obey that truth—I don’t do things the same way I would if I were living alone.  (Partly because I don’t want to be living alone.)  These truths define and limit us.  They tell us this is how life is, this is what we can do and what we can’t, and we obey them, or else we get the consequences.  So it is with the gospel.  The Father doesn’t just want us to say that it’s true, he wants us to live the truth.

It’s through this, Peter says, that our lives are being made holy, as God commands in Leviticus 19.  I said last week that part of seeing ourselves as children of the Father is recognizing our fellow believers as our brothers and sisters in the family of God; Peter lands on that here, telling us that part of the purpose for which we’re being made holy is that we would love one another deeply and sincerely as brothers and sisters in Christ.  There should be no place among us for evil actions or dishonesty—no hypocrisy or jealousy, no gossip or backbiting or trying to undermine one another; we should never have agendas against one another, no matter how justified we might think them to be.  We face too much opposition from the world to be turning it against ourselves.  Instead, the more we look to the Father, the more his love will move us to value the good of those around us ahead of our own desires.  That’s his character being formed and revealed in us, and it’s the core of our witness to the world around us.

Obviously, this is something God is doing in us, not something we can do by our own efforts.  Our part is to seek to develop a taste for the things of God—a commitment to taste and see that the Lord is good.  My Nana used to tell us kids that we weren’t allowed to say we didn’t like something until we’d tried it five times, and she wanted us to try everything honestly.  There was no room in her view for taking a bite of food determined to dislike it—we were supposed to look for reasons to like it.  For all that, broccoli and I had a hate-hate relationship until a couple years ago when I tried some that my in-laws had just picked from their garden; all of a sudden, I had some idea what the good part of broccoli was supposed to be.  I’m still not hugely fond of it, but I’ve been able to develop more of a taste for it now that I know what I’m tasting for.

There are a lot of kids out there who won’t eat anything much beyond Wonder Bread, hot dogs, cheese pizza, and candy—cheap pleasures that don’t require any effort from them.  That’s the sort of food, spiritually speaking, that the world teaches us people to enjoy:  the cheap pleasures of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander, among others.  To learn that the food of God really does taste better, and to learn to desire his goodness instead of the evils of this world, takes time, and a certain degree of commitment.  There are exceptions, but generally, you have to want to taste that the Lord is good before you will.

I said this takes time and commitment; but it takes something else, too, because if all you have is the life of this world, the things of God will never taste good to you.  The food of God does not feed the life of this world—it starves it.  I mentioned learning to like broccoli a moment ago, but I left out part of the story.  My in-laws’ garden broccoli had a significant effect on my perceptions, but I don’t think that would have happened were it not for some medication I’d started taking a while before which changed my tastes in food—not hugely, but significantly.  I was able to make an external change, in my response to broccoli, because there had already been an underlying change in me; I could act differently because I myself was different.

That, working inward from the beginning and end of this passage, brings us to the key point at its heart.  What makes all of this possible?  What makes all of this real?  “You have been born again, not of any mere earthly seed that will perish in time, but of the eternal, incorruptible seed of the life of God through his living word, which abides forever.”  When my children were conceived and then born, they received life from me and from their mother; that life passes and decays, and in time it will end.  We have been born again as children of God, and we have received his life; that life will never end, and it does not decay.  This world is temporary, and everything that is born of it is temporary.  God is eternal and his word is permanent, and everyone who is born of him is permanent.

That ought to change how we live.  Whatever we spend of ourselves is permanent; what­ever we buy from this world is temporary.  Obviously our time is passing, and so is our money; but we have the chance to spend them on things that will last forever, instead of things that are here today and gone tomorrow.  Our talents and skills are gifts God has given us for his service, meant to be used to do works that matter eternally.  If we use them instead merely to gain the goods of this world, which do not last, aren’t we wasting them?

And if we let ourselves be filled with envy of others, if we lie to make ourselves look better or others look worse, if we give in to the temptation to undermine others and tear them down, if we nurture grievance and bitterness in our hearts, Peter tells us, we’re wasting our lives.  None of these things is ever from God.  They are of the life of this world, they serve only the purposes of this world, and none of them will endure, for he will blow them away like dead leaves in a hurricane.  It doesn’t matter what our reasons might be, treating other people this way never pleases God.  Bitterness, malice, deceit, envy, slander, and spite are all completely alien to his character; they arise from hearts which are focused on the things of this world rather than of God.  This world is temporary.  We have been born again, we are no longer of this world.  In Christ, by the Holy Spirit, God the Father has given us his life and made us permanent.  Peter challenges us:  live like it.

Children of the Father

(Leviticus 19:1-2Isaiah 52:1-61 Peter 1:13-21)

Last December’s issue of the magazine First Things opened with a piece from editor-in-chief R. R. Reno titled “How to Limit Government.”  You might wonder why I’m mentioning it, but here’s his thesis:

Government will remain in bounds only to the degree that it meets resis­tance, and the historic sources of resis­tance—faith and family—are in decline.

As he goes on to say, these have historically been most people’s two primary loyalties, their two primary sources of guidance, and their two pri­mary forms of support in times of need.  As such, they have long been the two major restrictors on the growth of government, and thus the two primary things which metastasizing regimes of whatever type have sought to control, subvert, or supplant.

Dr. Reno’s comments on religion and religious institutions are particularly insightful.  He writes,

Faith makes a claim—the claim—on our loyalty.  As an institution that nurtures and expresses faith, the church or synagogue or mosque is a sacred community with a law of its own.  When Caesar’s laws contradict the laws of God, divine authority trumps.

[The French philosopher] Rousseau saw how Christian faith divides our loyalties.  We can be citizens, yes, but we must be disciples first.  Our highest loyalty is to the City of God, not the city of man.  He rejected this divided loyalty as a threat to genuine freedom, which to his way of thinking requires an integral and all-powerful government . . .  Therefore, he insisted, true religion is a natural and ennobling piety that has no creed or church and, consequently, does not involve a system of authority to rival the state.

Rousseau’s vision has gained ground.  Atheism is rare, but many who believe in God don’t like “organized religion.”  They describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.”  Disorganized religiosity cannot limit government.

Now, let me take Dr. Reno’s argument one step further.  What he says is true of religion in general, but Christianity does more:  it teaches us to call God Father and to understand ourselves as his beloved children—and thus to understand one another as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  It unites these two loyalties in a way that nothing else on earth does.  Christian faith is apolitical and resistant to government in a way that politics and government can’t control.
Am I off on a tangent here?  No, I’m not.  Look at verse 17:  “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as resident aliens here in reverent fear.”  This is a different word from the one the NIV translates “strangers” in verse 1; this one was only used of foreigners who had lived in the same place long enough to gain a certain degree of legal protection.  It acknowledges that most of us live in this world long enough that we think of it as our home, but calls us to see past that to the deeper reality of our lives.  This isn’tour home, because we are children of the Father.  He is our home.

Calling God our Father isn’t just about him comforting and protecting us; that aspect of his relationship to us is real and important and worth celebrating, as in the hymn we sang a few minutes ago, but it’s only part of the picture.  Allegiance and obedience are at least as important, and they’re critical to understanding who we are in Christ.  If we live as children of the Father, we will live as resident aliens in this world; we will see ourselves as strangers living in strange lands.

Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, has said that exiles are people who know where home is—they just don’t live there.  The German mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, “God is at home.  We are in the far country.”  Put the two statements together, and you see our position.  We are exiles in the far country, living under a foreign govern­ment—one which we can influence, but which isn’t ultimately ours—holding to a different alle­giance than the world around us, obeying a different authority.

Now, am I saying we shouldn’t love this country or live as good citizens here?  No.  Our model is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29, which we’ll look at a bit more closely in a month or two.  The key verse for our purposes is 29:7:  “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  We bear witness to the goodness of God by working for the good of the community and nation to which he sent us; but that’s not the same as working for what this community or this nation think is good for it.  We bear witness to the character of God by defining that good differently than the world around us does.  Sometimes that means taking stands which are deeply unpopular, and telling people the truths they’re most determined not to hear.

This also means not putting our hope and our trust in the things of this world.  Rather, as Peter says, “set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.”  The world values perishable goods like money and power, pleasure and status, reputation and security; it has made them idols, things which people pursue above all else, on which they build their lives.  That way of life is slavery to sin.  Christ bought our freedom from that slavery, and the price he paid was none of the ephemeral treasures of this world, but the infinite, eternal treasure of his own life.  He freed us from the fleeting hopes of this passing age, and gave us a greater hope than all of them put together:  the assurance that we are saved by the grace of God.

To this end, Peter says, we’re to prepare our minds for action.  If you were here the last few months, you may remember me talking about the long robes the Jews wore.  If you were going to do any serious activity, you had to gird your loins—to put on a belt, gather your robe up, and tuck it into the belt to free up your legs.  What Peter says here, literally, is, “Gird up the loins of your mind.”  Get yourself ready to move, to run, to work, in order that you may be self-con­trolled.  That’s bigger than you may realize.  Most people aren’t truly self-controlled—they’re controlled by their desires, their fears, their habits, their instinctive reactions.  Apart from Christ, sin controls all of us.  In him, we have been set free to be our proper selves, and to choose not to be ruled by these things.  To do that, though, we need to gird up our minds for action, and intentionally set our hope beyond the walls of this world, on our Father in heaven.

I like the way Karen Jobes summarizes this:

Peter instructs his readers to set their hope on the grace that will be theirs when Jesus returns by being fully able to think and act on the basis of their true nature in Christ, despite whatever hostility such a lifestyle might provoke from their society.

We cannot resolve to stand against worldly opposition unless, as she says, we “have [our] minds fixed on the final outcome of that resolve.”  That final outcome is the only reason it makes sense to buck this world now; doing so is what it means to live as obedient children of God the Father.  God calls us to holiness—to be set apart from the world and con­formed to his character in our thinking and our behavior—nothing less.

This doesn’t just mean not doing stuff we know is sinful, either.  For instance, it’s not enough to say, “Well, I don’t spend money on illegal things, so I’m fine.”  When you look at the decisions you make with your money, do they show that you’re putting your trust in your money, or in God?  Being holy as the Father is holy is about our entire lives being set apart for him.  It means seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness in everything we do and with everything we have—even things like our operating budget and what we do for fun—and not keeping anything back for ourselves, trusting him to provide for all our needs.

Strangers in Strange Lands

(Exodus 24:3-8, Jeremiah 31:8-14; 1 Peter 1:1-12)

As we move into this new year, I wanted to take some time to give you a sense of where we’re going with the sermons and how things fit together.  In the last few months, I started to feel a pull to preach on revival.  I prayed about that, and had several con­versations which reinforced that idea, so I started thinking about it in earnest.  Problem was, I had no real concept of how to go about doing such a thing.  As I began to try to figure that out, I soon found myself thinking that I needed to do something else first.

What that was, I didn’t know.  I was driving along with the music playing, pondering this, and suddenly the song “Trouble Is” caught my attention.  It’s a song by the group Jars of Clay; the chorus gives the album on which it appears its title, which I’ve taken for this sermon series.  We think we are who the world tells us we are, and that life works the way the world tells us it works.  Jesus tells us otherwise, but we have a hard time believing him, because our vision of ourselves hasn’t really changed.  We think we are who the world says we are; the trouble is, we don’t know who we are instead.

As I continued to think and pray, a phrase came to mind:  “You are a royal priest­hood, a peculiar people.”  I went looking for it, and found it to be an abbreviation of the King James of 1 Peter 2:9.  As I read, I realized that that’s really what it’s about.  Peter tells us that we are the new Israel, in that we have been given the mission which was first given to Israel:  to be the distinct people of God in the midst of the peoples of this world, and thus to bear witness to his character, will, and purpose.  To understand what we’re called to do and how we’re supposed to relate to the world around us, we have to understand who we are in Christ instead of who we were in the world.

We see this in 1 Peter from the first line.  He addresses his hearers as “the chosen,” who are “exiles of the diaspora” in the provinces that covered the area we now know as Turkey.  That’s loaded language.  The Greek word “diaspora” was already being used to describe the Jewish communities scattered across the known world as a result of the exile.  Wherever the Jews went, though there were always some who assimilated to the dominant culture, as a whole they maintained their own identity and allegiances as a separate people.  They didn’t conform to the societies around them; they were conspicuous by their difference.  In this, they are the model for the church.

That’s why Peter calls his hearers “exiles.”  The NIV has “stran­gers” there, but I don’t think it’s strong enough by itself.  The Greek word refers to people who lived someplace where they weren’t citizens—foreigners who were long-term residents but remained foreigners, not belonging to the country in which they lived.  They were outsiders, and often treated with suspicion as possible threats to the social order.

Interestingly, Peter doesn’t address his readers as “the church” or “the churches” in these provinces, the way Paul would, but as individual believers who are out in the everyday world living as foreigners.  He’s balanced this quite carefully.  On the one hand, he wants them to understand that as Christians, we’re all exiles and resident aliens; yes, we live here, but we don’t belong here and we never will.  Karen Jobes of Wheaton notes that Rome expelled Christians from the capital more than once during the first century, and suggests that Peter’s audience may be Christians who were deported to colonies in the provinces during one of these expulsions; this would give his language extra force, if he’s drawing on a sense of homelessness and disorientation that they already feel.

On the other hand, addressing them as “the church” would focus their attention on what they do when they’re gathered together, separated out from the world around them, and Peter doesn’t want to do that.  The easiest way to deal with a society in which you’re a misfit is to withdraw from it, to find other misfits and create your own little bubble.  It would be easy for the church to become just that sort of bubble, a little pocket culture for the benefit of those who already fit in there.  That’s not what the church is supposed to be, and it’s not how Christians are supposed to live.

Rather, we’re called to live as strangers in strange lands.  We don’t belong here, and the countries in which we find ourselves don’t belong to us.  This isn’t home, and it’s no place we should be making ourselves comfortable.  Yes, that’s true even of this country, for all the influence Christian faith had in its founding.  Really, that was always the case, but all the more now that the body politic is moving into a religious hangover phase, no longer truly operating under the influence.  As Dr. Jobes puts it, “foreigners dwell respectfully in their host nation but participate in its culture only to the extent that its values and customs coincide with their own that they wish to preserve.”

If we’re faithful to Christ, we may not conform ourselves to the values of this society, or operate according to its models, or let its priorities dictate ours.  Rather, we must let the gospel of Jesus Christ and the holiness of God the Father judge them, and where they stand in conflict with God, we must stand against them—neither going along with them nor getting out of the way.  We are called to be, consciously, conspicuously, and carefully, different, and to let the world denounce us as different.

Inevitably, living that way leads to opposition, which sometimes rises to oppression, persecution, and suffering.  That’s why oppression, persecution, and suffering are such strong concerns all through this letter.  It’s not often our place as disciples of Jesus to create conflict, but we do need to accept it when it comes—and if we’re faithful to him, it will.  Peter’s concern in verses 3 and following is to focus his readers’ attention—and beyond them, ours as well—through suffering to hope.  Whatever trials and struggles we face will be worth it, and more than worth it, for two reasons.

One, in Jesus we have an inheritance which is beyond all the corruption of this world, and we have the assurance that it’s being kept for us and we’re being kept for it by the power of God.  This world cannot raise the dead, and though it can give much pleasure, it cannot offer joy.  God has already given us both, though we cannot now fully experience them.  The world can’t save us, and quite frankly, it wouldn’t want to; it profits too much from our scrambles to save ourselves, and even from our ultimate demise.  Jesus has already saved us, purchasing us out of this world and into the one that is coming.  Our society frantically tries to deny that, striving to convince us either that we don’t need it or else that it can’t possibly be for us—that we’re too messed up for him to love us.  Jesus just looks at us and says, “I love you anyway.”

Two, when trials come and we suffer for our faith, for all the grief and pain we experience now, even that is part of our hope.  Trials and suffering are the testing of faith.  A faith that has never dealt with trials and suffering is a faith that has never been experienced.  It’s easy to say you have faith in your ability to walk when you’re lying flat on your back; if you never get out of bed, your faith is merely theoretical.  It’s easy to talk about faith in God when everything in your life looks good, because you don’t need faith then.  It’s when trials come and you’re hurting, when you have to hang on to Jesus for dear life, that you see what your faith is made of.

But when you come out of those trials and you can look back and see that Jesus was faithful, that he hung on to you and you made it through by his power, then you can rejoice in his faithfulness—and then you have the assurance he’ll bring you through the next trial, because he brought you through this one.  Then you know that whatever this world can dish out to try to force you into line, God can and will give you the victory over it.  And that’s a joy and a peace that are more than worth the cost.

The Passover Lamb

(Exodus 12:1-14; Luke 2:1-20)

When Caesar Augustus ordered a census be taken throughout the Roman Empire, all he wanted was information for the tax rolls.  The idea that his census would be remembered for something else entirely would have been completely inconceivable to him.  And yet, so it was, because Rome allowed the Jews to conduct the census according to their own traditions.  That meant registering everyone not by their current address, but by their clans and tribes, in the family’s hometown, in the place of their ancestors.
So it was that one descendant of the great King David, a carpenter from the little town of Nazareth up in the hills of Galilee, traveled one spring down to the home of his ancestors, the town of Bethlehem, in the hill country of Judea.  And yes, I did say spring, and we’ll get to that in a few minutes.  With him on the journey was a very pregnant young woman.  Matthew 1 tells us that they were already married at this point, but the marriage was unconsummated; Luke’s point in 2:5 is probably not that they were still only engaged, but rather that Mary was still a virgin.  Nowadays, we’d tell her she was far too pregnant to travel, but they didn’t think that way back then, so there she was.
It’s unfortunate for us, but there are a number of traditions which have grown up around this story which skew our understanding of it.  In the first place, we tend to imagine Mary going into labor on the back of the donkey as they approach Bethlehem, and giving birth that same night; that’s not what Luke says.  It wasn’t long after their arrival that she gave birth, but there were at least a couple days in between.
A more significant problem is with the traditional translation “there was no room for them in the inn.”  You see, there’s a word in the Greek for “inn”; Luke uses it in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  That’s not the word here.  This word is kataluma, which Luke uses in chapter 22 for the “upper room”—the guest room—where Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover.  That’s a much more natural interpretation of the word here.  For one thing, it would be odd for Luke to use kataluma to refer to an inn when he knew a better word for that.  For another, Bethlehem probably didn’t have any inns.  It was a small town near a major city, and inns really weren’t all that common.  Mostly, when people traveled, they stayed with relatives, or friends, or relatives of friends.
The same was true of Joseph and Mary, but we miss that because we see Jesus laid in a feed trough and we think “barn.”  Villagers in that time and place didn’t keep their animals in barns, because they didn’t have barns.  When the weather required the animals to be kept indoors at night, they stayed in the house.  You can see from the diagram on the screen that the typical house had one big living room, with the main level for the family and a lower level for the animals.  It wasn’t a big drop, just a few steps.  The mangers for the animals were cut into the floor of the main level, right near the edge.
For some houses, that was all there was.  Some, however, had a second room attached, with its own entrance.  That was the kataluma, the guest room.  When Joseph got to Bethlehem, he would have been looking to stay with relatives, as would all the other members of the clan who were coming into Bethlehem to be registered; naturally, he went to those in the family who had guest rooms in their homes.  Despite Mary’s advanced pregnancy, however, no one made space for them in any of the guest rooms.  After all, their story was scandalous, and the family did not approve.  Still, they couldn’t turn out a pregnant relative either, so someone in the clan let Mary and Joseph stay in their home—but apart from the rest of the family.
That sounds bad, but a manger set into the floor, filled with clean straw, was a safe, sturdy bed for a newborn.  It’s not what you would have expected for the Son of God, but for exactly that reason, it was a sign of God’s grace.  Jesus wasn’t just born for the rich and influential, like the Persian wise men who would be the second outside witnesses to his birth.  He was also born for people like the shepherds, who got to see him first.  Shep­herds filled a critical role in the economy in Israel, but increasingly, their only role in Jewish society was at the bottom.  They would never have been allowed into the guest room of a respectable house—but in the lowest part of the house, where the animals stayed, they belonged.  Jesus was born where they too would be welcome.
That matters, because the presence of the shepherds in this story is a sign to us.  We tend not to see it, because we’ve gotten too close—our familiarity gets in the way—but it’s still there; the shepherds show us how big this story really is.  I’ve already men­tioned one way in which that’s true:  Jesus is God with us—all of us.  You can see that in the angel’s words to the shepherds.  He tells them to look for a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger, but he doesn’t say, “This is how you’ll know it’s the right baby”; he says, “This will be a sign to you.”  In other words, there’s a message here.  God has come to Earth, love has come to his people, and he came to a place where anyone could come, so that right from the first moment he was God with all of us, everyone.
There’s another part to that message, however, which the shepherds probably didn’t get.  You see, this was Bethlehem, where the Temple flocks grazed; and the fact that the sheep were out in the fields at night rather than in their sheepfolds back in town indicates that it was lambing season, in the spring of the year.  The firstborn lambs would be wrapped in strips of cloth to protect them and keep them still, then taken into the Tower of the Flock and laid in a basin carved out of a piece of limestone, which was called “the manger.”  Here they were examined to see if they were without blemish or defect.

These were the lambs for the Passover; and on that same night, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a stone manger just as they were, God’s promised Messiah was born.  The lambs were for the remembrance of God’s great deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt; the Passover was the beginning of the Exodus.  Jesus had come to lead the people of God on a new Exodus, an even greater deliverance from an even greater slavery—not from any mere political power, be it Egypt or Rome, but from the power of sin and death.  It’s entirely fitting that Jesus’ birth was heralded by the cosmic sign of a great star blazing in the night, because it was a cosmic event.  This was the Creator of all things becoming a creature, the Author of the whole story writing himself in as a character; this was the God above time breaking in to history, and the world would never be the same.

The Banquet at the World’s End

(Isaiah 25:6-10a; Luke 14:12-24)

To understand our passage from Isaiah, you need to look at chapter 24, which begins, “Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate,” and carries on from there.  There’s a turn in the last verse, however, as the Lord of hosts estab­lishes his reign on earth; then comes a hymn of praise to God, and then our passage this morning.  “On this mountain”—on Mount Zion, after he has judged the earth—the Lord will prepare a feast, not just for Israel, but for all the nations.  He will “swallow up” the shroud that covers the nations and keeps them from seeing his glory, and Jew and Gentile alike will receive his salvation.

This great banquet is related to the coming of the Messiah; but while the Jews got that part, they rejected a key element of Isaiah’s vision, that the Messiah’s banquet would include all the nations, not just the Jews.  Thus the Aramaic version of this passage renders verse 6 this way:  “In this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all the peoples a meal; and though they suppose it is an honor, it will be a shame for them, and great plagues, plagues from which they will be unable to escape, plagues whereby they will come to their end.”  Whoever was responsible for that couldn’t accept the idea that God might bless non-Jews, so they narrowed the passage.  Over time, that narrowing process continued, excluding unrighteous Jews, and then anyone with any sort of physical blemish; only those worthy to earn an invitation would be welcome.

This is where the dinner guest is coming from in Luke 14.  His statement is a conventional piety, to which he expected a conventional response.  He certainly wouldn’t have thought to provoke a challenge, and yet that’s what he gets.  Jesus sets the scene briefly:  a rich man gave a dinner party.  He sends out the invitations with an RSVP, so that he’ll know how many are coming, and thus what kind of meat to serve.  For a few guests, it might be a chicken or two, or a duck; for 10-15, a goat; for a larger number, a sheep.  To feed 35 or more would need a calf.  Once they’d butchered the appropriate animal, it had to be eaten that day, since the meat would never keep.  Once you accepted the invitation, you were duty-bound to come, so that none of the host’s food would go to waste.

The host makes his preparations, and when the meal is nearly ready, he sends out his servant to tell his guests that the feast is prepared.  They accepted the invitations and promised to attend, but to his surprise, now that it’s time for them to come, they refuse.  That alone was a considerable insult to their host, but then they offer excuses which can only have been calculated to increase that insult.  For whatever reason, they’re giving their host a deliberate slap in the face.

The first guest says, “I bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.”  Now, imagine you’re throwing a big party, and just as it’s starting, one of your guests calls and says, “I’m not coming—I just bought a house down in Indy, I’ve never seen it and I don’t know where it is, so I have to go look it over and check out the neighborhood.”  Are you going to believe them?  No!  Do you think they’d expect you to?  Of course not.  The excuse is ridiculous.  Who would buy a piece of property about which they knew nothing?

That was even truer then; buying a piece of land could take years.  W. M. Thomson, a missionary to Syria in the 1800s, said, “It is not enough that you purchase a well-known lot; the contract must mention everything that belongs to it, and certify that fountains or wells in it, trees upon it, etc., are sold with the field. . . .  Thus Abraham bought this field and the cave that was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, and that were in all the borders round about, were made sure.”  You knew a piece of land intimately before you bought it.  This excuse is a joke, and everyone knows it.  Worse, this guest says, “I must go out and see it.”  He’s saying this field is more important to him than his relationship to the host, which only compounds the insult.

The next excuse is even more preposterous.  Imagine a friend calling you up and saying, “I can’t come to the party—I just bought five used cars over the phone, and I have to go find out their make, model, age, and mileage, and see if they’ll start.”  No one would buy a team of oxen without testing them first—in public—to see how well they pulled together.  This excuse is just as transparently false as the first, and even more insulting.  Fields are land, after all, and land is holy, but oxen are just animals.  For the first guest to say that land was more important to him than his relationship with the host was bad enough, but oxen?

That said, this man is at least civil, as was the first.  The same cannot be said of the third one.  You see, this wasn’t his wedding night; the host would never have scheduled his banquet for the same day as a wedding.  No one would have come.  This guest already knew he was married, or would be, when he accepted the invitation.  Also, men in that culture were supposed to be very reserved when talking about women in public settings.  In particular, sex was seen as an intensely private thing which wasn’t to be mentioned in public.  It was extremely rude for this guest to say, “I know I said I’d come to your banquet, but remember, I got married not long ago, and this afternoon my wife—well, you get the picture.  I’m not coming.”  He doesn’t even bother to send his regrets, which only makes things worse.  As Kenneth Bailey notes, “The entire response is guaranteed to infuriate the most patient of hosts, East or West.”

Indeed, the host is furious; he’s just taken several nasty public insults.  He also has a problem:  what to do with all the food?  His delinquent guests are sure they’ve dealt him a humiliating defeat.  Obviously the feast can’t go on without them, and the food will go to waste.  But the host rises above them, and responds with grace:  if those who would be considered worthy of his invitation won’t come, then he’ll invite the unworthy.  He sends his servant out into the city to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame—those who were excluded from polite society.  This would enrage his original guests, both for the implied insult and because their attempt to prevent the banquet has failed.  They might retaliate somehow, but he does it anyway.

The servant comes back to report that he’s carried out his instructions, but there’s still room at the feast.  The host commands him to go out beyond the bounds of the community, out into the highways and side roads of the wider world, to bring people in to fill the tables.  This is an even more staggering command than the first—not least to those invited.  That’s why the master says, “Make them come in.”  In that culture, the unexpected invitation must be refused, and especially if the guest was of lower status than the host.  It was a matter of honor.  Those he was now inviting would be sure the host didn’t mean the invitation—that it was a gesture of some sort.  Nothing good could come from accepting an invitation that wasn’t meant to be accepted.  Thus the servant must gently compel the newly-invited guests, not with physical force, but with reassurance that yes, this invitation is completely sincere, as unbelievable as that is.

This must also have floored those listening to Jesus.  Whatever the merits of the poor, crippled, blind and lame, they’re at least members of the community.  They belong to some degree; they have an interest in the welfare of the city, and some connection to the host, however tenuous.  But outsidersForeigners?  To Jesus’ audience, that was unfathomable.

They knew what he meant.  Some of Jesus’ parables confused his audience, but this wasn’t one of them.  This is the banquet Isaiah promised, and Jesus’ point is painfully clear:  some who expect to be there won’t be, and they’ll be excluded by their own hand, because they’ve rejected God’s invitation.  In their place will be many whom the world calls “unworthy,” and many outsiders—Gentiles—including us.  Those who accept the invitation will be there.  Those who refuse it because they have rejected the Servant, Jesus, will be outside, no matter how they argue.  Jesus makes that clear with his closing comment, which is not part of the parable—the “you” is plural, so this is Jesus talking directly to his audience:  “None of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”  They’ve excluded themselves, and their self-exclusion is final.

The banquet of the Messiah isn’t for good churchgoing people who live moral lives.  It isn’t for respectable folks who are upstanding members of society.  It isn’t for those who stand for traditional values.  Not that any of those are necessarily excluded—it isn’t not for them, either—but you can’t get in that way.  Living a moral life won’t get you in.  Campaigning for biblical values won’t earn you a ticket.  Even faithfully attending church won’t qualify you.  The only way in is through the Servant, the Messiah, Jesus.  The banquet of the Messiah isn’t for those who think they deserve to be there.  It’s only for those who know they don’t.  It isn’t for those who think they’re good enough to make it by their own work; it’s for those who know they’ll only make it by the grace of God.  It’s by his grace alone, for those who accept that the only way is grace alone, through Christ alone.