Proper 26 – Series A
Many of us will celebrate the festival of All Saints today. We could observe All Souls day as well. But of course, we also could observe the Sunday after Pentecost. These readings are the readings for that day.
We are rambling up toward Christ the King which we will celebrate later this month. The end of the world is a prominent theme today and in the Sundays which follow.
The theme today is that God’s kingdom is at a serious variance with the kingdom of this earth. This strikes fear into our hearts because we are so invested in this kingdom of the world. We live in it. We are part of it and it is part of us. Micah excoriates the people of Jerusalem, especially the prophets and leaders, who abuse the people in the name of God. Jesus has similarly brutal words for the scribes and Pharisees of his day. It is no wonder these guys killed him, he is vicious with them today.
But there is more than just judgment here. Even in looking at the darkness we get in thinking about the opposite, something of a picture of God’s holy and just kingdom. We also get today something of a clue to its mechanism. It is the theology of the Cross, a recurrent theme in the readings of the Church year and a great reason to be Lutheran. Luther was the great theologian of this theology. You will find him to be helpful here. The kingdom of God does not abuse the poor and weak, but it works through them and for them. The kingdom of God serves and loves.
Paul would have us find that kingdom at work in our lives as well. It is not in the heroic and the huge that Christ is most often found. It is in the simple and the mundane. We wash our cars, we raise our kids, we work hard, and go to bed at night. We expect that when God shows up there will be something big and special. Paul reminds us that the kingdom of God is often found in the very mundane and ordinary things that we do. He would sanctify the whole of our lives and in so doing make us ready for that last and glorious day when he will point to the Thessalonians and us and be boast before God and those armies of angels that we are the ones who embodied the kingdom of God in this place.
The problem this week will often be a faith problem. We just have a hard time trusting that this can possibly work. The world only understands raw force. But God’s kingdom works much more though sacrifice and love than power ever can. Will we believe it? Will we trust it? The preacher will proclaim it.
Merciful and gracious Lord, You cause Your Word to be proclaimed in every generation. Stir up our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that we may receive this proclamation with humility 2
and finally be exalted at the coming of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
We pray that the Holy Spirit stir up our hearts and minds. Is that a good or a bad thing, to be stirred up? It probably doesn’t feel good at the time. We beseech him for that stirring because we would receive the proclamation with humility. I have generally found the events and processes that result in humility are not enjoyable. Pride is a painful thing to have broken out of a person.
What are we praying for here? The preacher would do well to ask that question seriously if he considers these texts.
5 Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths. 6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; 7 the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God. 8 But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.
9 Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, 10 who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. 11 Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the LORD and say, 3
“Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.” 12 Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
Micah is not happy. He sees two very large problems going on here. First there is a problem of the prophetic office. Those who claim to be prophets are self-serving. They seem to be preaching from their bellies rather than from their relationship with God. When their bellies are full, they are full of good news, but they have only vitriol and wrath for those who threaten their pension fund or would dare question their tax deductions for housing allowances. Micah sees that as a problem, and it is. The answer is that God will shut down this show. The seers and diviners will not find light, only darkness and quiet. There will be no more revelation or divination.
We don’t really understand much about the role of the prophet in the ancient, pre-exilic kingdoms. There seems to have been a fair number of people who claimed the title of prophet. Some of them were genuine, others were not. But we don’t have a manual or any sort of a code of conduct or what it took to be a prophet. Jeremiah strives mightily with the false prophets of the late seventh and early sixth centuries. It appears that Micah, a full 150 years earlier was also struggling with these same problems. Some things don’t have immediate solutions.
But Micah’s problems don’t end with his fellow prophets. He also has a problem with the folks who are listening the prophets, especially the heads of the houses, the folks who are running the show. They detest justice, they make the straight crooked, they build Zion on blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. On top of it all, they have the gall to claim that God has privileged them. No disaster will afflict them because God is on their side.
Micah has a problem with folks claiming divine protection for sinful behavior. He has a problem with people who extort money from folks in his name. Of course this does not stop people from trying it. Leo X extorted money to build a basilica in Rome with indulgences. Televangelists will send you a spiritual blessing if you just post a check today for $50. But these are egregious examples and easy to preach against. How is this happening in our own parishes? Capital campaigns can become arm twisting. Wealthy contributors can get premium pastoral service while the widows and shut-ins are neglected. We can build our kingdoms on a variety of blood, injustices, and iniquities.
Micah does not seem to have much Gospel for the folks of old or for us either. The city of Jerusalem, the embodiment of God’s promise to his people and the place where he caused his name to dwell is laid waste. The city will be plowed like a field and become a heap of ruins. The preacher who wants to consider this text will need to expand to find the Gospel, I think. One could speak of a God who has his eyes on the poor and downtrodden, I suppose, but the solution 4
needs to be further developed I think. The best way to go with this, it would seem, is to say that God did do this, but he did not sever relationship. He rebuilt the city. He restored Zion. The very city which was ruined and the temple which was destroyed would become the place where his perfect sacrifice would be made, a perfect peasant Son, murdered by the very injustice which Micah decries. Built on blood and injustice, the death of Christ and his resurrection from that death, has become our Zion, our Jerusalem (see the end of Ephesians 2).
Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me! 2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
3 Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! 4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
I Thessalonians 4:1-12
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God 5
has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
Paul writes to the good people of Thessalonica. They are worked up about the end of the world, they are afraid and it is distorting their lives. Paul does not tell them that the end is not happening, nor does he tell them there is nothing to be afraid of. The wrath of God comes, but Jesus rescues from that wrath. On the last day, when all seems lost, Paul will boast about them before all the hosts of heaven (see 2:17-20). Paul has assured them that God establishes their hearts and lives as blameless in the judgment (3:11-13).
Here Paul starts to unpack what it means that this is true. It means that their lives in this time and this place, lived out in the reality of the promised end of the world are marked by Christ-like love, compassion, service, and holiness. The end comes, it is true, but we live out of the righteousness that Christ established by his work. For Paul that means we don’t get ourselves all worked up about the impending doom of the world. The polar caps might melt and the world might become some post-apocalyptic hell. We don’t contribute to that, but we also don’t get all worked up about it. We love, we serve, we mind our own affairs, work with what is before us to make it better.
I love this text because Paul is really sanctifying the normal life. I am not called to be a hero or a person who does something really dramatic. The call to be a normal person is just as holy and good and may in fact be better. The anonymity of loving one’s spouse, raising your kids, doing a good job at work, and simply minding your own business may in fact be the better road than the infamy of reality television.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. 6
Jesus words echo those of Micah. Some things never change and the reality of sin infecting the church will not change until heaven’s reign completely displaces the reign of Satan and his wretched minions. It is rather odd that in these last couple of decades the secular world has turned once more upon the Church to point out its hypocrisy. Like that is news.
Jesus points to a Jewish leadership who are very inauthentic in their Jewishness. They are not reflecting the great texts of Isaiah and Torah. Abraham was to be the father of many nations, a blessing to all the families of the earth. Isaiah foresaw days when kings and gentile nations would stream to Zion. Jesus paints the picture of small minded men who rule over their little fiefdoms. They burden people but will do nothing. They squabble about silly honors and distinguish among themselves with long fringes and tassels.
I received my academic regalia the other day. Having recently completed my PhD I get to parade at graduation ceremonies in doctoral robes, hood, and hat. I have been limited to the master’s degree regalia which I had earned to that point. I am somewhat conflicted by this, I have to admit. There is no gathering of people who love these distinctions quite like a bunch of academics ready to process into a university function. And, while one would hope that great learning would instill largeness of heart and broadness of mind, the facts simply don’t bear that out. The climbing and the political machinations in the academy are intense. I would be another sort of academic, if I could. How will I remember the words of Jesus here? Exalting self will only result in humiliation. The humble will be exalted.
The gospel of this text has to be found in those last verses. We love to make the distinctions which do not matter, to take pride in the meaningless and the visible things which simply occlude the truly significant. Jesus has set a child in our midst and said he is important. Jesus has called us servants and noted that God sees the servants. It was the servants who realized that the water had been changed to wine at the wedding of Cana. The master of the feast was oblivious to the truth, he simply tasted the excellent wine without realizing just how special it really was.
Jesus turns this world upside down, thank God! It often feels uncomfortable, but the Gospel is found there. He did that in ascending to a cross, remember these words are spoken days, perhaps hours before his arrest, trial, and death. He continues to turn the world upside down. The fishermen who followed him became the founders of a movement which commands the allegiance of 1/3 of the world’s population. Christianity is the largest movement that ever existed, and it was started by men who heard these words and put them in to practice, dying martyr’s deaths, serving the little, least, and lost. The Church has always succeeded in its humility and cross-shaped life. When it gathers to itself power, wealth, and prestige it will be humbled so it can once more take the role which God has outlined for it.
Through this strange, alien humility which Christ embodied on the cross and which his church has embodied in so many ways since, God is establishing his reign on earth. It shows up when 7
we look at the stinkers in front of us and forgive them. We get and can make no guarantees that they won’t just take advantage of that. We do it anyway. The world thinks we are nuts. Let them. Jesus reign is like that. There is no army involved, at least not in the traditional sense. There is no firepower, unless you call baptismal death a sort of firepower. Would that be waterpower? The glory is completely other than what we might expect.
Law and Gospel
1. Our lives are often filled with turmoil. Our hearts are roiled up and we are unsettled and so we yearn for peace. The problem is that we often look for it in all the wrong places. We try to make peace ourselves. We look for it in the guarantees of life, the temporary assurances which we find in power and the security which we imagine to be ours in wealth. Praise God he does not leave us in that filth! He turns our world upside down. The strong are brought low, even us. The wealthy are impoverished, even us. And as the weak and poor, in humility, we can really live in the righteous and holy reign of God’s Son.
2. But we love the guarantees of wealth and the assurances of power. We want to live in the world where we succeed and win. That world makes sense to us. That world operates through causes and effects which we can understand. It is comfortable, especially if I happen to be one of those folks with power and wealth. At some level, we are at odds with God’s righteous reign simply by being Americans, citizens of the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth at the moment. Praise God! He does not wait for us to become what he wants us to be. He works our condition for us. Yes, sometimes that means we are brought low, but humility and service are also possible in our context right now. He reigns despite us and he reigns through us.
3. But wait, don’t we believe in the end of the world? Isn’t God going to show up on that day with power and wrath, destroying all the bad guys? Yes, he is. This strange humble kingdom will be seen in power and glory that day. But that kingdom is always the same kingdom. The one who reigns on that day reigns today in the humility and love he has chosen to be the locus of his perfect kingdom. One does not wait for that day to show up. It comes right now. Our savior today is also our savior on that day as he rescues us from the wrath God is pouring out on the whole rebellious creation. The rebellion will end, but the love, joy, peace, and harmony which God establishes in Christ and in you through Baptism will not pass away in that judgment. We await the day of power, but we await in calm and sure hope. We are already there.
4. But doesn’t this make me vulnerable and weak? Yes, in one very real sense it does. The world may well stomp on you. You won’t have nice, clean lines of power and force to exert your will upon the bad guys in the world. You will only have the messy, humble
service which Christ embodied and the love which he gives us in his Spirit. The good news here is that it works far more than the earthly power ever could. Satan flees before the love of Christ. The service to children, little ones, least ones, lost ones, that service is breaking down the very gates of hell and snatching Satan’s victims from his gruesome jaws.
1. The world turned upside-down (Gospel and OT:That the Spirit of God would open the eyes and hearts of the hearers to the peculiar reign of Christ in this world through them, and empower their words and deeds with his humble service and love.)
This sermon wants to point the hearer to the strange mechanism of Christ’s kingdom. It will note that we as human beings rebel against this notion and too often our own Christian lives have embodied a very different kingdom. We have thought to solve problems through power and security.
Don’t make light of those solutions. They are solutions of a sort but they are temporary. The power solutions which are the domain of government and other institutions are also the means for God to exercise his left-handed kingdom. But these solutions are always temporary and often they come with unintended consequences. They never really solve the problems, they just allow us to cope with problems a little better. It is good to tax the people so we can feed, shelter, and clothe the folks who do not have enough. It is a better society we live in for that reality. But it does not solve the root problems of human lives which prevent folks from being productive and fully functioning in society. Sometimes those temporal, power solutions even go on to cause other problems.
Christ’s kingdom of the right, his reign in love and grace, eschews the guarantees of power and wealth. It applies the healing balm of Christ’s love and service to a broken world. It too cares about the human needs, but it cares about the human who needs differently. The reign of Christ is a servant reign, it loves, it is humble and gentle.
We are agents of that kingdom and that reign. The sermon will try to give people the big picture but the purpose is to allow the hearer to see where he or she fits into the grand scheme. The intent is to empower the lives of the hearers to embody this sort of kingdom. We live in both left and right kingdoms and the temptations of power and wealth are great. They offer a way to deal with problems, but the real solutions are found elsewhere, in the service and the love. 9
2. No heroes here, just saints (Epistle: That the Holy Spirit would break the notion that we serve God best through the exercise of power and might, instead proclaiming God’s holy presence in the wholeness of the human life lived in baptismal grace.)
The theme here is similar to the first sermon but looking at the same truth from another angle. Paul writes to people who are afraid and somewhat agitated by the truth. God is coming in power and glory. The angelic armies will wage victorious combat, the forces of Satan and this world will flee before His right and might. At the time some were living as if that day were right around the corner. Were they not paying their bills? Were they making distinctions? We don’t know exactly how this played out, but from reading Paul we get the idea that they were worked up.
Paul enjoins them to see their lives here differently in light of God’s final judgment, but not as they were doing. The kingdom of God does not wait for that last day but it was proclaimed on the first Easter by Jesus himself. It was empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And now it rules in the lives of God’s people today.
In this day and age, we often imagine that the reality of God’s kingdom to come means I need to undertake some heroic effort. The picture of folks who have been convinced that the world is about to end is persistent. They sell their goods, make some heroic gift to the poor, they don a white robe of an ascetic and become a hermit. They live some heroic life. I am not suggesting that these are all bad things to do, but they are not really the person prepared for the end. The person prepared for the end is living out the very kingdom which is to come because it has already come.
Paul describes a Christian who is ready for Jesus. Such a person is living a saintly life, not a heroic life. He or she is caring for children, loving spouse, tending to their own business, not poking a nose over the fence into the neighbor’s garden and life. Paul does not speak of heroic deeds, but every day deeds. This is how the coming kingdom is seen today. This is how Christ shows up and changes this world.
Yes, this means we avoid the impurities of this world. We live lives marked by love and service, not by scandal, immorality, and drunkenness. But it also means we go about the lives God has given us to lead, aware that they are right now filled with the love and presence of Christ. They are not perfect, but he makes them perfect in his forgiveness and love. They have become the vehicles for his good in this world. I may be changing diapers, helping a neighbor fix his car, taking my kids to school, or watching a football game. They are all times and places in which Christ also is found in me.
No heroes here, just saints.