Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church. Advent 1, Year 4.
Texts: Dan 3.1-30; Jn 18.36-37
Leading up to this week, we’ve heard a lot about exile. Amos warned of God’s anger; Isaiah shined a ray of hope in the midst of darkness; Jeremiah gave advice for those who had been uprooted from their homes and families. Today we hear a story from the book of Daniel about what it was like for the Jews to live in exile in Babylon under King Nebuchudnezzar. It is a story about people who had lost everything familiar, and now even faced the prospect of not being able to practice their own faith, but being instead coerced to worship strange gods in a strange land.
This is a story about how ridiculous idolatry is. Listen to the description of this statue the king erects: it is 60 cubits tall and 6 cubits wide. That’s about 90 feet tall—9 stories—tall enough to be seen for miles on the plain of Dura. It’s golden gleam would have captured the eyes and the attention of all who saw it! Yet, it is only about 9 feet in diameter. Any engineer will tell you that getting this to stand at all—let alone keep it standing—would be next to impossible. For a great and grand as this monument to Nebuchudnezzar is, it has no base, no grounding. It could easily topple at any minute—and this is what he wants them to worship?
If this sounds like hyperbole, that’s because it is. This isn’t actually a story about exile in Babylon. Nebuchudnezzar and the Babylonians actually were very pluralistic: they let the peoples they conquered worship without much interference. This is actually a story from hundreds of years later, after the exiles had returned home and rebuilt their cities and houses, when they were ruled by King Antiochus Epiphanes IV, ruler of the Greek Seleucid Empire.
Far from exile, these people were living in their own homes and in their own land; and yet, this foreign ruler tried to make them assimilate. He outlawed the two most visible practices of Jewish worship: circumcision and Sabbath-keeping. The Greeks played sports in the nude, and so when you went to the gym, it was really easy to tell who the Jews were. In this political climate, it was not a good idea to be different; people all tried to fit in, so that they wouldn’t suffer social or legal consequences. If you were known to be Jewish, you might be profiled by the cops, your store might be boycotted or even trashed, or you might face worse penalties. Instead, the king set up a pagan idol in the temple of God in Jerusalem. As you can imagine, people were not happy about this; and that is what this story of Nebuchudnezzar and his golden stick is really about.
As much as people like Sarah Palin might like us to think that we are being persecuted for our Christian faith here in our own country, we are not. We are not living like Christians right now are living in Egypt, or Iraq, or Syria, places where they are in serious danger for their property and lives because of their faith. There is no “War on Christmas” as atheists and Jews and Muslims attempt to attack and secularize our holy day. The only attack Christmas is under is coming from us Christians.
We don’t live in a society like the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes. We are free to worship (or not worship) however we choose. The government tries as hard as it can to prevent any intrusion into our religion. However, we Christians find ourselves faced with the same choices as our three protagonists: do we set ourselves apart, worshiping and obeying God? Or do we instead try to fit in, bow down when the horns play, and act like everybody else?
We are under no threat of a fiery furnace, but we still find ourselves trying to fit in. Instead of bowing to a giant golden stick, however, we find ourselves too often bowing before the altar of success, in the temple of the Almighty Dollar. Christmas, for example, has become a holiday celebrating shopping more than it does the birth of Christ, because all the Christians out there race to buy and give Christmas presents. There’s nothing wrong with shopping or sales, but they have become so important to us that this time of year is celebrated primarily because it stimulates the economy. In our own congregations, we measure ourselves by worldly standards. We count success by how many butts are in the pews, and how many bucks in the plates.
Our primary focus has become keeping our budget balanced, our facilities running, and our doors open, rather than doing the work of God. All these goals, all these aims, important as they may be, are giant golden sticks: tall and glorious, but without any sort of grounding. They are liable to topple at the first stiff wind—and likely shall some day—and yet these are what we worship. Does that make any sense?
Even our annual meetings of the congregation are primarily about conducting the business of the church: approve the budget, hear reports. Where is the sense of mission? Where is the discernment of where God is calling us? Where do we imagine why exactly it is that we keep our doors open?
We have not horns and trigons playing to signal us to bow, but bow we have. We have capitulated, we have knuckled under. Not our congregation, but all our congregations. We have given ourselves to the worship of success, of good business sense. After all, the church is just another business, isn’t it?
Today we begin the celebration of Advent. Advent is a time of waiting: waiting for Christmas, certainly, but more importantly a time of waiting for Christ’s return. It is during Advent that we remind ourselves that Jesus is not just the baby once born in a stable, but our Lord and our God, and that he is coming back.
Let me repeat that: He. Is. Coming. Back. What is he going to find when he gets here?
Advent is a time to prepare ourselves—heart, mind and body—to welcome back our true King. Advent is a time to get ready for him, to realign our sights on his kingdom, to refocus ourselves on his will. This year during Advent, as we do our Christmas shopping and put up decorations and send out Christmas cards, let’s spend some time talking, imagining, disagreeing, even fighting about what it is that Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church is being called by God to do here in Benson, MN. Let’s spend some time talking with one another at the drug store, at the bank, at the grocery store, in our homes, and in our council and committee meetings about what God is inviting us to do with the time, the resources, and the talents we have been given as God’s called and chosen people in Benson to do for God’s kingdom.
Many of us here would gladly stand up against some outside authority that commanded us not to worship our God even if it meant going to the furnace; so why and how to we so easily give it up when we are free to worship as we choose?
This is the year we stop bowing to the golden pole. This year, this Advent, we are called to re-commit ourselves to our God and to God’s kingdom on Earth, and to prepare for Christ’s return. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Swift Falls, MN. Proper NL 11/Pentecost 26
Texts: Jer 29.1, 4-14; Jn 14.27
Today we’re talking about exile. The closest thing I have ever experienced to exile was moving to Pennsylvania for seminary. I left my home and my people in Montana and Idaho and moved thousands of miles away to a strange place filled with strange people called ‘Germans’ who ate weird food like sauerkraut and scrapple. And I never even left the country! My last summer in Idaho before I left, I ran into somebody from my congregation in the parking lot of the grocery store and we talked about my coming departure for “Back East” and she told me, “Just be careful out there; they aren’t as friendly in the East as we are here.”
Many of you here are living on the land to which you belong. You have grown up and raised children—perhaps even grandchildren—all while living in the land on which you were born and on which you will die. For you, more than many, this community is home in every sense of the word. Not only were you born here, but your parents and grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents.
And yet, in a way, we as the Church are finding ourselves in a kind of exile. It’s not Babylon, or even Pennsylvania, but it is a world that is different than the one in which you grew up. We no longer live in the world called “Christendom,” where the pews were full because Sunday worship attendance was considered a civic duty. We live in an increasingly secular world, and many congregations—not just ours—are beginning to wonder what that means for our future, wondering what God is doing (or is able to do) in this new world.
That worry is very much like the worry the Israelites had in Babylon. As we have been looking back at the build-up to exile for these past few weeks, we have heard Amos warning of God’s anger, and we have heard Isaiah offering a word of hope that it will not last forever. These Israelites wondered and worried about what God was doing: Were they being punished? Had God abandoned them? Was God even still around, or had God been defeated by the gods of the Babylonians?
Psalm 137 describes the lament of the captives. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows we hung up our harps… how could we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?” Their God was the God of Judah, not of Babylon. They had left the LORD’s land and entered Marduk’s. What could God do for them now?
It was to these worried, wondering, wandering people that Jeremiah sends his letter. In it he gives them two pieces of Truth: ‘Seek the welfare of the city into which I have sent you into exile,’ and ‘I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm.’
God first assures them that not only is God alive and well, not only is God still with them and caring for them, but they are there at God’s command. God is telling them that Babylon is not Marduk’s land, but God’s; God is God of the whole world, not just Israel, and God’s designs go beyond the borders of Judah. So, God says, take this new place and make it your home: live, love and prosper. Not only that, but be good citizens in this new place, and make it better with your presence. Far from calling for them to resist and revolt, God tells them to get comfortable and seek the welfare—the peace—of the city where God has put them because in it’s welfare they will find their own.
To us in this new world in which we live, the world that has become increasingly secular and where we are neighbors to people of many different faiths or no faith, God sends this same message: don’t rise up, don’t fight a culture war, but get comfortable, live well, and seek the welfare of the world into which I have sent you into exile. God tells the Israelites and us that the key to our survival is not resistance, but service and love. We are not called to be warriors for the gospel, but servants of God and of Jesus Christ in the place and time where we have found ourselves.
The people of Judah, much like us, worried about their survival; not just the survival of their lives, but of their culture. They were afraid that they would be diluted and washed away in this new place. God tells them not to worry about it, but just to seek the welfare of that city, because their own welfare—their own survival—depends on its welfare. God tells them in no uncertain terms that they are there because God has put them there and given them a job to do. And just what is that job? Amos told us two weeks ago it is to work for a world in which justice flows like streams of living water. Isaiah reminded us last week that it isn’t to go back to the way things used to be, but to look ahead and to expect God’s future.
When Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, he instructs them to say, “Our Father in heaven, holy is your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Reflecting on this prayer, Luther writes “God’s good and gracious will comes about indeed without our prayer… but we ask in this prayer that it would come about also in and among us.” God has a job for us to do here in this new world, a plan that is taking shape. That job and that plan will be accomplished with or without us, but we gather together as a community of God’s people to pray that we might be able to take part in that plan and lend our hands to God’s work.
We may not all live to see it’s completion; we as individuals will die, and even our congregation may be gone by then, but we trust in God’s word of reassurance “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm.” If we trust that God is in charge, that God knows what God is doing, then we are called to enter into that work, whether or not we see the fruits of our labor.
But here’s the amazing part; we worry now about our survival, about how long this congregation will last. Can you imagine in the year 2966 celebrating the 1000th anniversary of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church? Jeremiah’s letter gives us hope for this very thing: as long as we ‘seek the welfare of the city,’ as long as we work for God’s will by serving and loving God’s world, that is what we can expect. It’s when we fall into the trap of looking inward, worrying about ourselves and our own future, our own survival, that we begin to die. As long as we focus outward on what God is doing and how we can be a part of it, God will take care of the rest.
We share this message of hope today, on Christ the King Sunday, to remember who is in charge. We remember today that we as Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church do not call Barak Obama our king; we do not serve and follow Elizabeth Eaton (1); we are not here to obey Gary Brandenburg or Seth Novak (2). We are here to do the will of Christ our King, who reigns not just over this congregation in this place, but over the whole world in every age. God’s plan is not just for us, but for all God’s people of every race, nationality, faith and time. We have a part to play in that plan, but it is bigger than us.
The question now is how will we live out God’s call to seek the welfare of this new world? How will Shepherd of the Hills become an instrumental part of God’s caring for people here in our own community and across the globe? We don’t need to be big or rich to do it: Christ’s Church began with a few people meeting in houses. We don’t need to do it all ourselves: God has given us a community of congregations across the globe with which to work. We do need to come here and worship and imagine and listen together, to remember the waters of our baptism and to be fed with Christ’s body and blood, otherwise the journey will be too much for us.
Jeremiah’s letter reminds us that it is precisely in the time of exile, the time of feeling out of place and insecure, that we most need to trust in what God is doing and open ourselves to God’s invitation to participate in that. We are Christ’s Church: called, chosen and sent to do God’s work in the world, even this strange, new world that seems sometimes to be so disconnected from God. To the Church in exile, God reminds us to seek the welfare of the world around us, and in seeking its welfare we will find our own, because God is not done with us yet.
1) Elizabeth Eaton is Presiding Bishop of our denomination, the ELCA.
2) Gary Brandenburg is my colleague, the other pastor for Shepherd of the Hills.
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Swift Falls, MN. Proper NL 11/Pentecost 26
Texts: Isa 9.1-7; Jn 8.12
Please forgive me, but I’m about to drag up an unpleasant memory. Remember about this time last year, just before the election when we were all neck-deep in political ads? Every other year or so, we get inundated with messages from this or that candidate, telling us how a vote for him (or her) is going to make the world a better place, but how voting for his or her opponent will put us on the fast track to destruction.
After all the dust has settled and those annoying ads are finally purged from our newspapers and airwaves, we are often left with disappointment. Whether or not our candidate makes it into office, suddenly the polish begins to wear off and we see that, whether re-elected incumbent or political new-comer, all those campaign promises seem to evaporate. Remember “Read my lips: no new taxes!”? Or, more recently, a certain senator’s promise that if he were elected president, his first order of business would be to close Guantanamo Bay?
Whether they simply forget, or find the promise too hard to keep, or even make stuff up to just get elected, it’s a lot of the same, over and over. I think it has very little to do with the efficacy or inefficacy of individual politicians and has more to do with the system in which we work. Whether we’re talking politics, economics, or anything else, we are constrained by systems. These systems are by their nature are designed to resist the effects of individuals. Often, this is good and helpful; it means that our way of life doesn’t vary wildly from one politicians’ term to the next. However, it also means that meaningful reform is a long and difficult process, near impossible for one person or even a handful of people to accomplish on their own.
Our reading from Isaiah today is a perfect example. Last week we heard Amos preaching warning and God’s wrath to Israel because they had grown prosperous and complacent, oppressing the poor even as they had once been oppressed by the Philistines and Midianites. Our reading today from Isaiah is delivered in Judah, Israel’s neighbor to the south, but they are in much the same position. They, too, have experienced wealth and prosperity, safety and security, and they, too, have wandered from God’s path. They have begun worshiping idols, bowing before other gods.
You see, the system is broken. Even though the Israelites came from slavery and from oppression, they bought into that same system when they found themselves on top. Even though it had once been them under the heel, once God had delivered them they were quick to throw their own weight around, unfairly treating their own poor and oppressing their own neighboring countries, because that’s how the system works.
We hear it all the time: “to make an omelette, you’ve gotta break a few eggs,” “its’ a dog-eat-dog world,” “nice guys finish last.” We’re still stuck in the same, old system: we push and shove and do what it takes to get ahead, no matter how many people we have to trample to get there. And so, to these people blinded by their own success, God announces punishment.
We read today from the beginning of chapter 9. In chapter 8, the rest of chapter 9 and all of chapter 10, Isaiah is announcing the Lord’s punishment. War is coming; Judah’s days of comfort are limited. The Lord is stirring up Assyria to come and break God’s people, to teach them humility again, to remind them that all their success and power comes from God, not their own strength or intelligence or wit.
It is in the midst of this dire warning that our words today come. It is a gleam of hope in the midst of darkness that God will not let the people be destroyed: “for unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.” Hezekiah, the king who will lead them to victory against the Assyrians!
That’s not who you thought this was about, was it? This poem we read today is a kind of political ad for King Hezekiah, the leader God will raise up to save them from destruction; and he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, for his wisdom comes from God. He shall be called Mighty God, for he is God’s chosen king, God’s representative and voice on earth. He shall be called Everlasting Father, the protector and provider for God’s people from the everlasting line of David. He shall be called Prince of Peace, for he will establish peace and justice forever. How does that sound for a pack of politician’s promises?
Hezekiah was a good king. Under his rule, Judah turned back the Assyrians who destroyed Israel, but not without great loss. Isaiah’s words were meant to give people hope in the midst of God’s justice that God’s mercy and love would ultimately prevail. These words were to inspire hope in God’s chosen king Hezekiah, and to save the people from despair.
Maybe Isaiah’s message accomplished its goal, maybe it didn’t. Either way, the same old systems were at work, and the same old problems persisted: the people on top always stick it to the little guy, large nations throw their weight around with armies, and somebody always comes out last. Judah under Hezekiah was no different, and after the Assyrians left, the Babylonians came. After the Babylonians, it was the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. And on and on it goes…
But the reason we read these words from Isaiah today is not because of how great or not great Hezekiah was. We read these words again because, buried under the political rhetoric and the promises of a campaigning politician is the grand design and certain promise of God. When we read Isaiah’s poem today, I’ll bet all of you had in mind who the child was that Isaiah had in mind, and it wasn’t Hezekiah. Early Christians realized that no mere mortal can live up to the promises recorded in Isaiah’s poem; but we know of one who can.
These promises, spoken of a human king, hide God’s eternal promise that the poor and the oppressed can always count on God’s saving action. These words tell us about God’s ultimate goal: to abolish the old, broken system, the system where to the victor go the spoils, the system were nice guys finish last. God has something much larger in mind—not just regime change, not just “no new taxes,” but a total reordering of creation and society. God’s goal is a world where there is no longer rich and poor, haves and have-nots, a world where swords are beaten into plowshares (Isa 2.4) and the wolf shall live with the lamb (Isa 11.6).
When we read the epitaphs meant for Hezekiah, we imagine a promise that goes beyond him: we imagine the kingship of the Wonderful Counselor, who really is our Mighty God and Everlasting Father. We imagine the reign of the true Prince of Peace. When we read these words, we read a promise that has become timeless: a promise to abolish the old ways and to establish a new world order that we have come to know as the Kingdom of God.
This cannot and will not come through our own action. It’s not about waiting for the right Hezekiah come around; no human leader can fix our broken system. The old ways are too ingrained in us. We just celebrated Veterans’ Day, the anniversary of the end of what was supposed to be the “war to end all wars,” but we know how that turned out. Even now, look at our own country: we have the largest military in the world and are among the wealthiest of the nations, and yet there has scarcely been a time in any of our lifetimes when we were not involved in a war, a police action, or a ‘peacekeeping’ mission. We are not able accomplish this, but the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will.
This is why we have come to understand the subject of this poem as God’s messiah, for only he can overcome our bigotry, our arrogance, our mistrust and our greed. He will do it not through conquest or political might or flexing his muscle; but through submission, humiliation and death.
We have seen, and we bear witness, to the power of God made perfect in weakness, to the defeat of Good Friday transformed into the victory of Easter Sunday. It was the zeal of the Lord of Hosts that did this, the ardent love and fervent passion of God which accomplished God’s will in spite of our rejection, and which will establish God’s reign of peace on earth in spite of us and our insistence on the old system and the old violence. So, come Lord Jesus; come and reign over us, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. By the zeal of the Lord of Hosts, come. Amen.
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Swift Falls, MN. Proper NL 9/All Saints Sunday
Texts: 1 Kg 19.1-18; Jn 12.27-28
Have you ever felt alone? Not just lonely, but utterly alone, like there’s no one else in the world that understands what you’re feeling, what you’re going through; no one who can help you? The worst is when you feel like not even God is there. Maybe God just doesn’t care, maybe God’s too busy to notice. Either way, there you are, under that lonely broom tree, a day’s walk from anywhere.
In our story today, Elijah is at rock bottom. He’s just come from Mt. Carmel, from the epic showdown between God and Baal. He really believed that Mt. Carmel would be, the end of the problem, definitive proof of God’s power and the lie of Baal’s idolatry. After that, with Baal debunked and the 450 prophets of Baal destroyed, surely Israel would turn away from this farce and return to God. (See 1 Kgs 18.20-46) He would be able to live happily ever after, knowing that he had helped bring his country back from the brink.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, he finds himself on the lam, hunted by the queen’s henchmen. He sits, utterly alone under the broom tree, in the middle of the wilderness, but home is no better. No family, no friends, no community would dare give him shelter with the royal bounty on his head. Were he surrounded by a sea of people, he might as well still be in the middle of this desert for all the good it would do him.
In his loneliness, Elijah did a profoundly human thing: he went looking for help, for comfort, for companionship. He went looking for the One he knew would still be on his side. With the world set against him, he went looking for God.
The Israelites believed that God lived in the temple. That was God’s house; it couldn’t contain all of God, but when you went there, you could be certain that God was there, too. But Elijah can’t go to the temple. If he shows his face, he’ll be killed on the spot. Even if he did, the Israelites have abandoned the worship of God, and the temple is either deserted or desecrated; would God be there anyway?So Elijah decides to set out for the one place where he thinks he might find God: the same place Moses found God all those long generations ago, the place where God handed down the Law. Elijah went to Horeb, the mount of God.
Elijah’s journey to Horeb may be a journey you are familiar with. If you’ve ever been where Elijah is, you know the sense of longing, the desire simply to find someone who can reassure you that you are not alone. Today as we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, I know that particularly at the front of many minds is the loss of loved ones—parents, friends, children—and the grief that follows. Death in particular has a way of making us feel alone, abandoned even, but there are many things that can leave us searching for companionship: the dissolution of a marriage, a terminal illness, a feud with a neighbor, the loss of faith.
Elijah walks for 40 days, the same length of time as the rain that fell on Noah’s ark and the same period for which Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. It recalls the 40 years that Moses and the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness, waiting and preparing themselves to enter the land promised to Abraham. Elijah is now walking that same ground, ground once covered with manna and quail, ground once soaked in the blood, sweat and tears of people longing for a home.
When he arrives at the holy mountain, God asks him a question: What are you doing here, Elijah? Life’s sorrows have a way of making us question and wonder about God: if God is really paying attention, if God really cares, if God is even able to do anything. Elijah is no different. You can hear it in his response to God’s question, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts…” He says, “I’ve done everything you wanted me to, I’ve done everything right. The others, they’ve deserted you and defamed you, but I’m the one being hunted. Where are you, God? What more do you want from me? Why is this happening?” And God’s response? “Hold on, I’m coming.”
While he waits for God, Elijah witnesses an earthquake, the shaking of the very hills, but no God. Next a whirlwind, the rending of the heavens and the fury of Mother Nature herself, but no God. Then a raging fire, consuming all that it comes across, a testament to the raw power of God’s creation, but no God. Finally, quiet follows, utter silence. Certainly he experienced a lot of silence before—under the broom tree, walking through the wilderness—but now something has changed. Here, in this silence, Elijah perceives God.
Perhaps Elijah realized in that silence that God had been with him all along, beside him on his journey to the mountain, feeding with cake and the water under the broom tree, bringing down rain on Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs 18.20-46), sustaining him with the widow’s bread at Zarephath (1 Kgs 17.9-16), bringing him food with the ravens at the wadi (1 Kgs 17.3-4)…
That’s the thing about God. God is always there, as close as the sunlight on our skin, as close as wind in our hair; but when loneliness and isolation creeps in, it can be too hard to notice. Once in a while, we need something to help us remember where God is. For Elijah, it was a mountain, and earthquake, a whirlwind, a fire. We’re not always fortunate enough to have a giant neon sign to point us to God, but that is why we gather here. Here in this place, where God has promised to meet us, where God feeds us with the bread from heaven, we look around at the saints gathered here and remember where God is.
God sent Elijah from that place with a new sense of purpose and the promise that he was not alone. Hazel, and Jehu, and Elisha were with him, called and sent by the same God, the Lord of Hosts, who met Elijah on Horeb. Not only that, but Elijah was not the one remaining of God’s faithful: there were yet 7000 in Israel like him, who had never given in to Jezebel and worshiped Baal.
If you remember our conversations earlier this year about Revelation, numbers in scripture are often significant. 7 is a number of wholeness, perfection. The seventh day is the day that God rested and made holy; 7 is God’s number. 1000 means many; a thousand 7s remain of God’s faithful people; not an innumerable host, but not insignificant either: 7000 people belonging to God.
All Saint’s day is a reminder to us of the 7000 faithful of God. It’s not a literal 7000, of course, but the whole of God’s people, made holy and perfect with the blood of the Lamb. We look around today, and we see them. We light candles here, and we see them. We come to the font, and we see them. One holy people, knit together with the love of God and sustained with the same food, the body and blood of Christ.
For just such days as those, when we feel lost and forsaken, so utterly alone, God reminds us in the Feast of All Saints, the Feast at the Lord’s Table, that we are not alone. Not only is God with us, in the clamor and in the silence, but the holy people of God are with us, surrounding us, sustaining us. Daily, their number is growing as more and more are called to lives of service at this font; and though we cannot see them, even those who have departed this life are here with us, alive in Christ, sharing together with him and with us the feast that has no end.
So come, all who are weary, all who are lonesome, all who are hurt and broken and mistreated, and receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord, otherwise the journey will be too much for you. Know today that the Lord is with you, and wherever your path takes you, God goes there ahead of you.
Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Benson, MN. Proper NL 8/Pentecost 23/Reformation Sunday
Texts: 1 Kgs 5.1-5, 8.1-13; Jn 2.19-21
King David had a dream. With the kingdom of Israel established and his own power consolidated, he wanted to build a house where God’s people could worship. He would not see this dream accomplished, but his son Solomon would. Today we get the beginning and the end of that story. Solomon, having taken the throne after David his father, sends word to King Hiram of Tyre that he is beginning work on a temple. He orders men and materials, and after years of work the temple is complete. Gathering all the leaders of Israel together to worship and celebrate, the temple is consecrated, and God makes an appearance like a great cloud, as if the very pillar of cloud that led the Hebrews through the wilderness of Sinai had itself settled in God’s temple.
The temple Solomon constructed would become the focal point for the worship of God throughout the Old Testament. It was so important that, though it was destroyed by war, it was rebuilt under the Roman Empire by Herod. We read in John’s gospel that it took 46 years to complete the second temple. Even today, the one remaining wall of Herod’s temple is the holiest site in Jewish culture.
We Protestants will never quite understand just how important the temple was to Solomon and those who came after him. It was God’s house; unlike our myriads of church buildings from dozens of different denominations, Solomon’s temple was the one place in all the earth where God was sure to be. Solomon himself says that God is not restricted to the temple, but the temple is the one place where a person could go and be sure to find God.
It is important for us to have a place where we can go and know that God is there. That’s why Solomon built the temple. Today as we gather to celebrate the affirmation of baptism, we are celebrating a building of a different kind of temple. Instead of cedar and marble, this temple is made out of the living stones of the members of our community.
The reason we have a confirmation program here is to help the community accompany our younger members as they grow into their faith. Historically, we have done this by teaching the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and the 10 Commandments. We’ve expected our confirmands to memorize parts of the bible or Luther’s Small Catechism, or we’ve expected them to pass tests, serve in worship or any number of other requirements. These things have served us well in the past. The times, however, are changing.
When our current practice of confirmation first began, it was an outgrowth of Sunday School, a way to ‘prepare’ children for adulthood in the Church before they finished school in the 8th grade and went to work in the fields. Confirmation became like a graduation from Sunday School. We can still see that tradition in how we observe confirmation day. Confirmands, like graduates, wear gowns, receive certificates, have parties thrown in their honor where they receive gifts and cards full of money. The message that is sent is that once they are confirmed, they are ‘done,’ they have finished being ‘prepared’ to be mature Christians.
But this is not our understanding of confirmation. Luther believed, as do we, that confirmation is a life-long process. We are never fully ‘done’ growing in our faith, at no point in our lives have we been fully ‘prepared’ for a mature faith. Real faith is always growing; unlike the temple, there is no endpoint at which we can say our faith is “complete.”
Not only is our Church always growing as the living stones that comprise it change and multiply, but the way we form the faith of those living stones is growing, too. For many years, we considered knowledge and information the most important part of faith: it was most important to be able to memorize and learn and recite and list. But now, we live in an age of information, when everything we could want to know about anything is literally at our fingertips. Having information in our heads is so much less important now because it is in our hands. Now, far more important is learning how to sift through that information, how to put it to use for us, and how to engage that information as a community.
Our confirmation curriculum is changing to reflect this reality. We are focusing less on teaching kids about faith, and more and helping them grow faith. Gone are the days of memorizing the Bible and the catechism, but now we are focusing more on teaching them how to use the Bible and the catechism. We are focusing on building relationships with people in our congregation—friends, parents, relatives and mentors—who can help kids continue to grow and shape their faith beyond just the 8th grade.
This new model of confirmation extends beyond just middle school. It will someday encompass all of us sitting here. “Confirmation” will be a time when all of us together will reaffirm our baptisms every year, every week, every day, always remembering that none of us are “done” learning and growing in Christ. That is what we are celebrating today: that the Holy Spirit is always at work in us, moving us to grow beyond where we are.
If the Solomon’s temple was worth the cost in years and money and even human lives that it took to build, how much more time is the Church of Christ, built of the living stones of the lives of Christians? If the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches us that when we reach the place in our faith where we think we are “done,” it is time to knock everything down and start over.
When Jesus entered the temple, he drove out the money-changers, disrupting the established system of religion and worship; and when he was asked why he had done it, he responded with the words we read today: “Destroy this temple…” The temple had come to stand for an act of commerce, a business transaction between God and the people, and so Jesus symbolically destroyed it by ruining its function. John is sure to tell us, though, that he was speaking not of the temple of Herod, but of the temple of his body.
John uses this story of Jesus’ destruction of the temple and his death and resurrection to teach us about God’s work in the Church. When something has been established and institutionalized, it can sometimes become corrupt or outdated. When that happens, God’s Holy Spirit is at work, disrupting and destroying the brokenness of our human works to make way for the work of God. We see this in the life of Christ, we see this in the Protestant Reformation and the work of Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon and Calvin, and we see this borne out in our churches today.
God is still speaking, still leading and guiding us in a new age and with new people. The story of scripture is full of God raising up prophets, teachers, kings and leaders to renew people’s relationship with God. God certainly promises to do the same in this time as God has always done.
We have a wonderful opportunity in the gift of confirmation to participate in the growth and formation of our Church today and into the future. We have the opportunity to be on the front lines of God at work in the world. Too often we hang back, we figure that we’ve ‘put in our time,’ that there’s nothing new for us to learn. We believe that we are incapable of teaching our children and leave it to the professionals, forgetting that there is much our children can teach us. We have been treating confirmation like a fraternity induction, where young people are brought into ‘our’ club, rather than seeing in it the chance for all Christians, young and old, male and female, old-fashion and new-fangled to rediscover God speaking to us together.
Today as we reaffirm the promises of our baptism—both ours and God’s—let’s begin to imagine the new ways that God is using to form and confirm this entire community, not just our 9th graders.