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Sermons

Rough Going

February 16, 2014

Bible Readings

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of all of these people the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

(Hebrews 11:29-12:2)


“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

(Luke 12:49-56)

Sermon

It’s probably way too early in my career to admit this, but I loathe writing sermons.

I know. That’s a terrible thing to admit to your congregation. But there it is. I hate writing sermons. I hate, I dread, writing sermons so much that I feel distracted, worried, sometimes even sick, until the blessed thing is done.

And the reason I hate writing sermons is because they matter so much, because I care about them so much, because I love God’s word with such ferocity that I want to break it open for all of you and share the shining contents inside. So writing a sermon always feels like a death match, like Jacob and the angel wrestling at the river Jabbok—and, like Jacob, I always seem to come out of the match limping. If I’m lucky, like Jacob, I find that I, too, have seen a glimpse of God’s face and found my life preserved (Genesis 32:22-32). And then I can show the little glimpse I’ve had to you. But yeah, writing sermons can be rough going.

Well, this week’s passages not only made for rough going, they are all about it. These are hard words for hard times. In our gospel reading from Luke, Jesus— the “prince of peace,” the “dawn from on high” meant to “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 2:78, 79b), the one who sent his own disciples out with no bag, and only a blessing of peace, the one whose very breath brought the peace of the Holy Spirit to his anxious disciples (John 20:21-22)—that same Jesus is fixing for a fight. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

The writer of Hebrews isn’t playing around, either. He or she is reminding one early Christian community—reminding us too—that following Jesus Christ comes at a cost. “Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented . . . They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.” This is not rhetorical exaggeration for effect. This stuff really happened. Life and death in the first-century Roman Empire, for a Christian, could be hellish.

Fire on the earth, the baptism of crucifixion, household strife, division. Martyrdom, torture, homelessness—and no answered promise to show for it. Rough going indeed. Sorry, folks, no good news here. Better luck next week!

Except that it’s at least a little comforting when someone tells it like it is. And that is what we’re getting today. That’s the starting point, at least. Because in neither of these passages is the story over yet. Jesus’ words, the writer of Hebrews’ words, capture the tension, the pull, between the way things are and the way they should be. These passages press us forward—and also draw us forward—on the journey toward the kingdom of God. They mince no words in describing the rock-littered road toward redemption. They push us deeper into the baptismal waters, deeper to the point of drowning, ready to pull us up spluttering and reborn into the brilliant daylight of the Son of God.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus has set his face for Jerusalem. He knows what is coming. “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” he says, “and what stress I am under until it is completed!” He knows, too, that the goal toward which he presses is, by human standards, impossibly far away. He knows all too well that the “race he is running,” to use the image from Hebrews, will take more perseverance than any mortal can muster. Jesus knows that he must be “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” the source and the end, the Alpha and Omega, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”

And he knows that the race will be rough going, not just for him, but for all those who follow him. “Do you think I came to give peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I came to divide it!”

Christ is not calling us to political or social holy war here. He’s not calling us to create social and political strife or to do violence in his name—and anyway, we humans don’t need excuses as lofty as God to make war among ourselves. No, Jesus is talking about spiritual holy war, the war that takes place within our own hearts and souls and that causes strife even in the closest relationships, even among family members. He is telling us what his message of love, his interpretation of the divine law, will do when it rams up against our selfish natures. The human race cannot be transformed hey-presto into the Body of Christ. The devil, the idols we worship in the form of money, power, status, self-righteousness—they will not “go gently into that good night.” This is the division Jesus is talking about. Rough going, for sure.

But if Jesus, God’s Word incarnate, brings division instead of peace, what then? Is there no respite, no hope? Is life under God’s reign just one giant battle?

No. Jesus means, in this passage, not to say that strife is the way the world should be, but that strife is too often our first response to love. Finger pointing, defensiveness, turf protection, a well-timed sarcastic snort—too often these are our default answers to the promise of something better than conflict, more inspiring than zero-sumsmanship and the winner-takes-all mentality. Jesus means to lead us to a deeper, higher kind of peace. Because you know as well as I do that there is more than one kind of peace.

There is surface peace, tense peace, in the sense of “keeping the peace.” This kind of peace, to mangle a quote from Henry Kissinger, is not really peace at all but merely a state of preparation for war. This is the peace of things swept under the rug. This is the peace some of us try to maintain at the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table, or maybe even the nightly dinner table—the peace of public composure maintained, of sibling rivalries seething, of old resentments festering, the peace of all these things kept well in hand so that for a time, at least, we can eat our turkey and mashed potatoes without lobbing them—or an insult—across the table at each other. This is a thin, brittle peace we keep so that maybe, just maybe, the window might open to deeper peace, to real forgiveness and solid relationships. The problem is, this surface peace can become an end in itself, an idol we worship because we fear the conflict that will come with the truth, a distraction from the fact that our sour grapes, whatever they may be, are turning to more and more potent vinegar.

That is the sort of peace that Jesus is speaking about in this passage. The Jewish people, by the early first century, had figured out how to worship and function under the Roman government. They had rebuilt the temple, they observed the law, and developed leadership, all under the thumb of a brutal government. Just as they were beginning to negotiate with the Romans how they might practice their religion without being punished, Jesus showed up on the scene and began making a mess of things. He healed on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). He blessed and healed a woman who was ritually unclean (Luke 8:43-48). He claimed he could rebuild the temple in just three days (Mark 14:58). He overturned the money changers’ tables in the temple (Luke 19:45-48). Jesus walked onto the scene and chipped away at that brittle peace between Rome and the people of Israel. Jesus wasn’t interested in false peace, in appeasing his or his peoples’ oppressors, whoever they were. He was running the race. His eyes were on the prize—the fulfillment of the reign of God.

And there is another kind of peace. This is a deep peace, not a skim coat over the surface of conflict. This kind of peace takes work. This kind of peace often makes trouble before, and because, it resolves trouble. This kind of peace sometimes requires division, struggle, a big huge mess, in order to lay an indestructible foundation.

Here’s an illustration close to home: When the construction workers were digging around underneath the sanctuary and courtyard to shore up our sanctuary, there was one spot in which they had a devil of a time finding soil that would compact enough to make really firm footing for the building. The dirt had been stirred up, dug up for oil tanks years before, and no matter how they smashed it together, that mixed-up soil would not hold up under the pressure. The workers had to dig down six feet or more there, then bring in new soil, just to create solid enough ground to work with, ground that would hold up our building.

Sometimes we have to do the same thing. Sometimes we have to dig deep, churn ourselves up, encounter division within ourselves and even with others, in order to delve down deep enough to find the real peace that is from Christ. Sometimes that churning up takes place within ourselves. Sometimes it takes the form of conflict in our relationships. Always it is rough going.

But it is always worth it. Because there is a deeper peace, a firmer foundation, in and through and beyond tears and shouting and struggle, a peace deeper and more lasting and fiercer and stronger and more supple than finger-pointing and disagreement and killing. “Many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it,” says the Song of Songs. This is the peace of Christ, a peace born from love so vast and deep that we cannot find any way around it or under it or through it; we can, if we’re trying to avoid it, only stick our fingers in our ears and hum loudly to ourselves and pretend it does not exist.

This is the peace of Christ, which comes from remembering that others have traveled this rough road before, that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. This is the peace that allows us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and . . . run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, [Jesus Christ,] who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

And this, too, is the deep peace that is ours in Christ, the peace that emboldens us to keep treading the rough road, telling the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Because the race isn’t finished yet. “All these,” the writer of Hebrews tells us, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

Which is to say that it’s up to us. God moves and works through us. We are part of the great cloud of witnesses, you and I.

Following Jesus, accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior, is no guarantee that life will go well. It is no guarantee that one’s prayers will be answered in the way we want. It is also no guarantee of peace and harmony. In fact, following Christ guarantees rough going, because following Christ requires that we honor the beauty in one another, that we help one another out, that we stand up for what is good and holy and merciful, that we speak for love, against fear. That’s a recipe for hardship. For that reason, we are counseled in Hebrews to “consider Christ, who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that [we] may not grow weary or lose heart.”

As the old saying goes, “It will all be OK—better than OK—in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Prayer

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid.
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”

- John Rippon, Selection of Hymns, 1787

Rev. Leah G. Goodwin