Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, November 30, 2012

He Is Coming to Town

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-28
December 2, 2012
© 2012


I.                Several news commentators made a big deal that Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Nativity Narratives that Jesus was born around 6 B.C.E. and probably not on December 25, as though this would somehow shake people’s faith. He even questioned whether animals were at the manger since they are not mentioned in the Gospels.  New Testament scholars have known this for a very long time, and it raises no issues with the Gospel texts.

A.           Not only do the Gospels not mention animals at the manger, they say nothing about Mary riding a donkey. Nor do the Gospels say anything about a stable. The imaginative stories around an inn and innkeeper come from a misunderstanding in the 2nd century novel The Protevangelium of James. The word translated “inn” actually means “guestroom,” which Luke also used for the room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper (Luke 22:11-12). Luke does use the word for “inn” in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34). A typical, peasant home would have a large “family” room with a lower area at one end where a goat or milk cow and perhaps a donkey would be brought in for the night. A small guest room would have been at the back or on the flat roof. This was already full, so Jesus was quite likely born in the “family” room. I know this tampers with our traditional imagery, but I find reading the Gospels carefully to be enriching. (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey, 2008, IVP Academic)

B.            Advent is countercultural to much of traditional holiday celebration. Advent is an opportunity for us to look at this most familiar of Gospel events with fresh eyes and see the real Jesus with renewed wonder. Advent is an opportunity for us to step out of the holiday frenzy and take time to savor the season.

C.            Advent is a season of anticipation and waiting. We start Advent with our own waiting for Jesus to come in the clouds with power and great glory. In the Scripture texts today we hear that when instability threatens, we can stand and raise our heads instead of fainting with fear and foreboding, confident that Jesus is on his way.

II.            Jesus offered that alternative in Luke 21:25-28, in the middle of a lengthy teaching on how to wait for his return in glory – what to expect and how to live until then. He said:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

A.           In the ancient world sun, moon and stars were the ultimate of predictable stability. So when he said the powers of the heavens would be shaken, people would naturally faint from fear and foreboding. The ancient Jews thought of Jerusalem as a kind of eternal city. For it to be destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. as Jesus predicted was devastating. For the Roman Empire to crumble like every human government before or since was unthinkable. We only need to look at the aftermath of hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy and the scientific and political debates about climate change to recognize in our own time “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

B.            Jesus referred to Daniel 7:13 when he spoke of seeing the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” It seems as unlikely to us today as the humble birth of the Messiah seemed 2,000 years ago. Yet, faithful people were waiting with great expectation that the Messiah would appear, perhaps at the moment of greatest darkness. As we begin the Advent season of anticipation, we are reminded that we, too, are waiting for the Messiah to come into the fearful instabilities of our time.

C.            In our highly individualistic culture, we tend to think we have to face threats on our own, sometimes even alone. But Jesus spoke to the community of his disciples in the plural. Though the Church as such wouldn’t emerge for another couple of months, Jesus was clearly calling us to find our stability together. He didn’t say, “You, there, lift up your head.” Emphatically no! He said, “You all, lift up your heads.” The themes of Advent remind us that when instability threatens, we can stand and raise our heads instead of fainting with fear and foreboding, confident that Jesus is on his way.

III.       We read from the Prophet Jeremiah at the start of the service because he also wrote to the people of God to wait together in a time of darkness for God to bring hope. A little Hebrew history will help us appreciate this call of the prophet. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was alone and vulnerable. Though they had had some revivals, these did not endure. The Babylonian Empire had taken the wealthy, educated, leadership elite to captivity in Babylon. The common folk were left behind in despair. The first part of Jeremiah’s prophecy pronounced judgment on Judah, especially these wealthy, educated, leadership elites for enriching themselves at the expense of the weak and poor. The Babylonian Empire seemed so invincible, they thought the captivity would never end. They couldn’t have imagined that in just over a generation, the Babylonians would be overthrown by the Persians.

A.           Just when the circumstances seemed darkest and God’s judgment most severe, Jeremiah’s prophecy takes a dramatic turn. It is called “The Book of Consolation” and brims with hope. Jeremiah assures the people that, as unlikely as it seems, the day is coming when God will fulfill the promise to Israel and raise up a “righteous Branch” for David to execute justice and righteousness. I’m sure the people who heard that at Jeremiah’s time and for several centuries afterward imagined a restoration of the political-military Davidic monarchy as a major world power. As they waited through those generations they couldn’t have imagined that when Judah was under the heel of Rome, God would act on this hope with the birth of a baby to a peasant family.

B.            Jeremiah uses a clever play on words to make the same point Jesus would make over 4 centuries later. Jeremiah was clearly calling the people of Judah to find their stability together as the community of God’s people. The last king of Judah when they were taken into captivity in Babylon was Zedekiah. His name means “The Lord is my righteousness,” even though 2 Kings 24:19 and 2 Chronicles 36:12 specifically say he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Jeremiah had prophesied. But in “The Book of Consolation” Jeremiah said that the name of the righteous branch will be “The Lord is our righteousness.” He has switched it from singular to plural. Hope shifts from depending on an individual to waiting together and watching for God’s hope.

C.            This Advent we can hear both Jeremiah and Jesus remind us that when instability threatens, we can stand and raise our heads instead of fainting with fear and foreboding, confident that Jesus is on his way.

IV.      Advent is not the season of Scrooge or the Grinch, scorning gifts, decorations, food, music and festive gatherings. Rather, Advent gives perspective and context to the delights of the season so we are not overwhelmed or derailed by it.

A.           As a congregation between pastors, you can appreciate the experience of waiting for someone to lead you on the next leg of your journey together with Jesus. Do not expect the next pastor to be your Messiah, but to point faithfully to Jesus. Wait with anticipation, not impatience.

B.            Back in the 70s, I remember Simon and Garfunkel’s melodic rendition of Silent Night sung over the 7 O’clock News. The incongruities were intentionally jarring. I have a lot of appreciation for Simon and Garfunkel, but this was just too easy. We know Christmas will be tough for many people on the East Coast this year. We know that the Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Israel almost dread Christmas. We experience these same incongruities personally. Loved ones will be absent. Health or career challenges tarnish our expectations. Relational stresses undermine hoped for harmony. The prayer service we will be having at 4:00 this afternoon will give us a chance to release these incongruities to God.

C.            The call of the prophet Jeremiah during Judah’s waiting for hope was to seek justice for the weak and poor. Our participation in Christmas for Others is one example of that. Even the secular campaigns to provide gifts and food during the holidays are signs that in many small ways the hope of the reign of God is breaking into the instabilities of our time. As Advent invites you to step back from the holiday frenzy to reflect of the hope we await in Christ, ask God to show you where justice for the weak and poor is a sign of the hope we anticipate. Ask God to lead you to someone for whom you can be a sign of that hope. Ask God to shine that hope through this church.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Welcome to a New World

Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37
November 25, 2012
Christ the King
© 2012

Christ the Savior
Andrei Rublev, 1410

I.                John wrote his Revelation perhaps as much as 60-70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, during one of the most brutal persecutions of the Church under the Roman Empire. An old man in exile on the small island of Patmos, he wrote to encourage the churches who were terrified that they and all Christians would be crushed. How could he write to them that Jesus Christ was the ruler of the kings of the earth, when the most politically and militarily powerful empire in human history was bent on exterminating them? We may not personally expect to be hauled off and crucified, but expecting today’s political and military powers openly acknowledge Jesus Christ as their ruler is not only unrealistic but would dilute and distort what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps we’re not too different from John’s first readers.

A.           The week after the election Dr. Joe Bessler, professor of theology at Phillips Theological Seminary, led a discussion for the Oklahoma Central Area Disciples clergy on American politics and American Christianity.

1.              He analyzed the candidates’ nominating acceptance speeches at their party conventions since 1952 with the coming of TV. He identified a sequence of 5 elements in all of those speeches regardless of party, whether by incumbent or challenger.

a)              They affirm the goodness of the American people and claim to embody that goodness.

b)             They identify a threat to that goodness.

c)              They present themselves and their policies as the solution to the threatening problem.

d)             They envision what a renewal of the American community will be like.

e)              They promise a bright American future.

2.              Dr. Bessler suggested that these elements arise out of a Christian theology that has shaped American culture, even at its most secular and pluralistic.

a)              The goodness of humans is that we are created in the image of God and of infinite worth.

b)             Our own rebellion and sin has distorted and broken that image, threatening our potential.

c)              In both his person and work – birth, ministry, death, resurrection – Jesus Christ redeems.

d)             By grace appropriated by faith, we are called to participate in the community of the Church.

e)              Through our daily struggles we look forward to the consummation of the Kingdom of God.

B.            The interplay between the powers of this world and Jesus’ kingdom that is not of this world has been with the Church from its beginning. A large Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in Rome was first placed in the center of Nero’s circus as a symbol of Rome’s power; they had conquered even Egypt. Tradition has it that Nero crucified Peter upside down facing that obelisk as a taunt that Rome was defeating the followers of Jesus. Centuries later when Christians developed that site for worship, a cross was mounted on the obelisk and it was moved to its present central location as a kind of “last laugh” that now Christ had prevailed. Of course, history has shown that the so-called Holy Roman Empire was closer to pagan imperial Rome than to Jesus’ Kingdom of God.

C.            In Jesus’ conversation with Pilate at his trial in John 18:33-37 we see this interplay between the powers of this world and Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world. Each of the Gospels tells of Jesus and Pilate in rather distinct ways. The Temple leaders were trying to bring a political charge against Jesus, rather than the theological issues of their own trial. A mob had been stirred up to call for crucifixion. Pilate was clearly confused as he tried to sort out what he didn’t really understand.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

II.            Jesus welcomes us to a new world in which truth and grace release power, and force is useless. What does it mean to belong to Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world while we still live in this world?

A.           Jesus told Pilate that if his kingdom was from this world his followers would fight. Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world does not use force or violence to establish or maintain its power. As the one responsible to maintain Roman power by force in Jerusalem and Judea, Pilate understood the contrast but could not grasp how it could possibly work.

B.            When Pilate asked Jesus to confirm that he was indeed a king, even if an unconventional king, Jesus said that his mission was to testify to the truth and that all who belonged to the truth listened to him. Pilate responded by asking, “What is truth?” In the Roman Empire, as in the world through history, those who are in power by force define truth, which has no objective reality. Even a superficial survey of our courts, political campaigns and commercial advertising exposes that our society treats truth as what is useful not what is accurate.

C.            Revelation 1:5 points to another central quality of Jesus’ Kingdom. As our King, Jesus loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. The world understands retribution, punishment and deterrence, but not grace. That is how criminal justice works. That is how international relations work, but not Jesus’ Kingdom.

III.       Jesus welcomes us to a new world in which truth and grace release power, and force is useless. The power brokers of this world continually challenge us by asking, who is king over God’s people? To whom do you give your loyalty?

A.           Pilate is acutely aware of this struggle for authority and loyalty. Like any occupied people, the Jews were reluctant to turn over even criminals to the Romans. So when the Temple authorities handed Jesus over to Pilate, he is shocked and asked Jesus, “What have you done?”

B.            Even though Pilate can find no case against Jesus, who said his kingdom was not from this world, when Pilate asked, “So you are a king?” he was aware that a king with followers who do not fight is a greater threat to the power of Rome than an upstart insurrection or army. The followers of such a king cannot be controlled or intimidated with threats of force or violence.

C.            In Revelation 1:6 John tells us that we are not a kingdom of soldiers but of priests. 1 Peter 2:5, 9 celebrates that we are a holy and royal priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people to proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Neither John nor Peter were making this up, they were claiming and celebrating that in Exodus 19:6 God called Israel a priestly kingdom.

IV.      Jesus welcomes us to a new world in which truth and grace release power, and force is useless. In his Revelation, John reminded the beleaguered churches of Asia, that as Christ’s Kingdom of priests, they had a power that the violent force of Rome could not crush. Rather than lament, he called them to celebratory worship! So today we celebrate Christ the King!

A.           Christ the King is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we start a new year with Advent. All of those prophecies we associate with anticipating the birth of the Messiah reach their culmination in the celebration of Christ the King. But we are reminded that we are still waiting for the fullness of that Kingdom.

B.            Jesus told Pilate that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. To listen for the voice of Jesus you need to be where you can expect he’ll be speaking. You’ve heard me say it before: read your Bible, pray, be with the church. But it also requires paying attention. With all the commercial noise of the holiday shopping season, I suggest a daily discipline: as the evening quiets ask yourself, “What did I hear from Jesus today?” Writing that in one sentence can be a wonderful Advent journal.

C.            Though our situation is not nearly as dire as the churches of Asia to whom John sent his Revelation, we are easily disheartened by our short-sightedness. Just as John wrote to encourage the churches of Asia, this Sunday of Christ the King encourages our long-range vision. That long-range vision of Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world nourishes and guides our journey through the confusion and catastrophes of this world. As those who belong to Jesus and live by truth and grace, we exercise a power greater than any threat this world could bring against us. The 3rd verse of Lead On, O King Eternal says, “Not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.”

Personal Disclaimer:
If you have gotten this far and are concerned or irritated that my use of king and kingdom is hierarchy or gender insensitive or that I am ignorant of the variety of contemporary ways of speaking about this, I ask a bit of tolerance. First, I am an “old guy” (66) and changing deeply engrained habits is difficult and awkward. Second, while I appreciate the nuances of current alternatives, I do think they miss some of what the New Testament was getting at when speaking about kings and kingdoms (recognizing we are dealing with different languages and cultures in translation). I appeal to you to try to understand first century thinking without undue contamination by European monarchies, etc. I think it will enrich our understanding of what the New Testament was getting at and the power of Christ the King in the liturgical year.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Jesus’ Perfect Hope

Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8
November 18, 2012
© 2012


I.                One of the hazards for we who are preachers is that we have to listen to our own sermons. Every Sunday I want to be sure I have heard from God for myself before I presume to speak to you. However, once in a while I feel that God is shouting to me, “Pay attention, Norm! This one’s for you.” That has been my experience this week. I definitely needed the focus of today’s message that with Jesus as our great heavenly high priest, we need not be alarmed by the uncertainties of the future, but can face them together with confidence.

A.           I’m sure many of you know we made an impromptu trip to Dallas on Monday to help our son deal with a personal emergency. From his first voice-mail message I jumped to what I took as an overwhelmingly disastrous conclusion. When he phoned again a few hours later and actually spoke with Candy, we learned that though serious, his problem was not nearly as severe as I had imagined. I have to admit I wasn’t listening to Jesus at the moment.

B.            Whether you are pleased or disappointed with the results of the election, the immediate political future is loaded with anxiety. Will the politicians care enough about the welfare of the people to find a compromise that avoids the fiscal cliff? David Petraeus’ personal behavior has clouded the already confusing Benghazi crisis. The violence between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza has eclipsed the violence in Syria and threat from Iran in this week’s news. Public anxiety about the future seems to be spiking this week.

C.            In Mark 13:1-8 Jesus’ confrontations with the Jerusalem Temple leadership were behind him and the cross was approaching. Jesus’ disciples seem somewhat oblivious of the magnitude of the events they were experiencing. Jesus’ responses to their mundane curiosity moved them toward a future perspective.

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

II.            Coming from rural Galilee, Jesus’ disciples were awestruck by the grandeur of the Jerusalem Temple. When Jesus pronounced its doom, their curiosity prompted them to ask for insider information. Jesus’ unexpected responses to his disciples remind us that with Jesus as our great heavenly high priest, we need not be alarmed by the uncertainties of the future, but can face them together with confidence.

A.           Monday morning I needed to hear Jesus’ word to his disciples, “Do not be alarmed!” but I missed it until after midnight. Whether we feel like our personal lives are falling apart or the world is falling apart, we have a hard time receiving what we most need to hear from Jesus, “Do not be alarmed!” Jesus was not suggesting that the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple that was to come in 70 AD was insignificant or good. Rather, he called his disciples, and us, to be so anchored in him that we are not taken by surprise by storms but weather them with faith.

B.            The disciples wanted a time line. They wanted a sign so they could have exclusive knowledge which would give them power over the future. But Jesus warned that seeking such knowledge and following those who offer it only leads us astray. Jesus is clear that these disastrous events are not signs that the end has arrived, but will be normal and expected for the world until the end comes. How easily we are led astray by preachers of doom and disaster, by commodity brokers hawking fear of the next crash, by politicians overplaying their power for good and overplaying the threat of their opponents for evil.

C.            Jesus used the fascinating image of birthpangs to describe the future turmoil. Without pushing it too far, I believe Jesus told his disciples and us that beyond the pain is the joy of new life. Don’t despair because the immediate future looks to dark and difficult. God is bringing something new and glorious, and you get to be part of it.

III.       Hebrews 10 continues the exploration of Jesus as our great heavenly high priest. It includes manifestly practical guidance for approaching the future that dovetails with Jesus’ word to his disciples. With Jesus as our great heavenly high priest, we need not be alarmed by the uncertainties of the future, but can face them together with confidence.

A.           Verse 25 connects the exploration of Christ as the high priest taking his own blood into the heavenly Temple with Jesus’ word to his disciples about anxiety for the future and with practical guidance for us today. The writer of Hebrews turns to the practical conclusion of this theological and spiritual treatise on the hinge of seeing “the Day approaching.”

B.            First, because of Jesus’ high priestly work, we can approach “the Day” with confidence, echoing Jesus’ word, “Do not be alarmed!” Verse 19 says that we, too, can enter the heavenly sanctuary and the presence of God by Jesus’ blood which he already brought for our redemption. Verse 22 tells us to approach with full assurance of faith. Heart and body, our whole person, has been washed clean by Jesus our high priest. So, as verse 23 says, we hold fast to our confession of hope, not because we are so spiritually strong or mature, but because Jesus our high priest is faithful to his promise.

C.            Second, we face the future, anticipating “the Day,” not on our own but as a community of faith. Verse 25 tells us not to neglect meeting together. It reminds me of the Woody Allen line, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Facing the kind of future Jesus described is not for the fainthearted. We can’t do it alone. We need each other. Verse 24 tells us to provoke each other to love and good deeds. Facing the uncertainties of the future can be discouraging. Verse 25 tells us to encourage each other.

IV.      In her 1980 book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeline L’Engle wrote, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability ... To be alive is to be vulnerable.” As we gather with friends and family for Thanksgiving later this week, we can be especially thankful that we do not have to be vulnerable on our own. With Jesus as our great heavenly high priest, we need not be alarmed by the uncertainties of the future, but can face them together with confidence.

A.           In my interim pastor training we were taught that the interim pastor is to be a stable, non-anxious presence for the congregation through the uncertain time of transition between pastors. On Monday I was anything but stable and non-anxious. Candy and I are personally very thankful that in our three months with you, this congregation has not only accepted us but has supported us on our journey, which has its own twists and turns. Several of you have shared your own struggles with adult children. You have helped us know we are not alone. Many of you have prayed for us, not just for my ministry with you but for the concerns we have for our parents, children and grandchildren. Your encouraging words have protected me from discounting the validity of my ministry with you. Thank you!

B.            In our three months with you we have walked together through funerals, hospitalizations and surgeries, career and family transitions, joys and frustrations. As you build your list of things for which you are thankful, I hope you will include the people of this congregation who have encouraged you at a difficult time, the people who have provoked you to faith and good deeds when you were faltering. My provocation to you this morning is to express your thanks to them personally. Face to face is probably best, but a note (even e-mail) or a phone call is good too.

C.            I got to know Dave and Neta Jackson in a circle of young Christian writers in Chicago. In 1974 they wrote a book on Christian community called Living Together in a World Falling Apart. The writer of Hebrews emphasizes how much we need each other in the community of faith whether we feel like our personal lives or the world around us are falling apart. Sometimes the church may feel like a life raft that is just enough so we can survive. Other times the church may feel like an advance outpost of the Kingdom of God, representing Jesus in hostile territory. Sometimes the Church may feel like a warm family or village that comforts and celebrates together. Sometimes the Church feels like a safe zone where we are free to acknowledge our vulnerabilities. We are the people of Jesus looking to him as the Day is approaching.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Jesus and the Perfect Offering

Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2012
© 2012


I.                The pilgrimage I took to Rome in 2004 with Pittsburgh Seminary centered around the spiritual leadership of Benedict and Francis. I believe God showed me that though I was more comfortable with a laid back style like Francis, I needed to grow in being more assertive like Benedict. As valuable as that was, I also experienced uneasy ambivalence in Rome.

A.           During one afternoon’s free time a few of us wandered through Chiesa del Gesù, the home church of the Jesuits in Rome. The altar was an open table with a glass case under it. Inside the glass case were three skulls and an assortment of bones. These were the relics of Jesuit martyrs who had been killed by Protestants.

B.            I was used to the stories of Roman Catholic church authorities martyring Protestants, and seeing the stories portrayed the other way was unsettling. The Vatican Museum has a gallery devoted to the “religious wars.” One large painting shows Dutch Protestant farmers lynching Franciscan monks from the rafters of a barn. The farmers were portrayed as clownish charactures and the monks as devoutly praying while they awaited their fate.

C.            The residence where we stayed was just a few minute walk from St. Peter’s Bascillica where I did some leisurely exploring. The art is magnificent. The biblical and historical symbolism is profound. As a “Temple,” it can both draw to and distract from the glory of God. As much as I appreciated the grandeur St. Peter’s, I couldn’t avoid the realization that its construction was funded in the sixteenth century by the selling of indulgences that prompted Martin Luther to start the Protestant Reformation. Church leaders at the time piled on the guilt to induce people to give so they could build what often poor donors would never see.

II.            In Mark’s Gospel, we are looking at Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple during Holy Week, through the lens of the Epistle to the Hebrews. As our great heavenly high priest in the earthly Temple, Jesus exposes our cover-ups and affirms our vulnerabilities.

A.           Mark 12:37b-44 is the culmination of Jesus’ confrontations with the leadership of the Jerusalem Temple. His triumphal entry on Palm Sunday set the stage for driving the merchants out of the Temple. The Temple leaders challenged his authority to do this. In response, Jesus told the parable of the vineyard tenants who kill the son of the owner, and the Temple leaders knew he told it against them. The Pharisees challenged Jesus on paying taxes, and he silenced them. The Sadducees challenged him on marriage and the resurrection, and he silenced them. Jesus turned the lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment back on him, and after that no one dared ask him any question. So Jesus went on the offensive with a question about Messiah as David’s son. As Jesus embarrassed the Temple leaders …

The large crowd was listening to him with delight.

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

B.            Jesus’ warned that the Scribes were using their appearances of piety to cover up that they devour widows’ houses. By strict tradition the Scribes who taught the Law were not supposed to receive a salary, but many of them lived quite well off of the voluntary contributions of their students. The teaching of many Scribes manipulated people with guilt to make contributions that enabled them to live with a level of luxury their students could never know. Jesus accused them, not just of greed and false piety, but of using the appearance of piety to cover up that they were feeding off the misfortune of even poor widows, whom the Law said deserved extra care.

C.            We often hear the story of the widow’s mite told by itself as a stewardship sermon. Mark purposely wrote them together. She was the personification of the widows whose houses were devoured by Scribes. Andy and I were talking about this passage the other day, and he observed – I think correctly – that when Jesus sat opposite the treasury, it was not just on the other side of the room but he sat in opposition to the treasury. Thirteen large metal funnels received money for specific Temple funds. None of which were prescribed in the Law of Moses. In those days all money was metal coins – no paper bills, no checks, no debit cards. So when wealthy people poured in large sums, it made a large noise. The widow’s two small copper coins made at best a faint pink, pink.

III.       To understand why Jesus commended the poor widow for her foolish offering to support the Temple establishment that he had been confronting and opposing, we recognize that as the heavenly great high priest in the earthly Temple, Jesus exposes our cover-ups and affirms our vulnerabilities.

A.           We read in Hebrews that the earthly Tabernacle was intended to be a reflection of the heavenly Temple. We got a feel for that back in August when we listened to Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the first Jerusalem Temple. But Hebrews is clear that even at its best, it is a reflection; it is not the real thing. When we start thinking something we have made to help us worship God is itself the worship of God, we are in great spiritual danger. Jesus was always reminding us not to see the outward appearances but to look for the spiritual realities in the far reaches of the infinite God and in the deep recesses of our hearts. Jesus’ confrontations with the Temple leaders exposed the corruption beneath the appearance of piety.

B.            Hebrews also says that Jesus is both the priest bringing the offering into the heavenly Temple, and he himself is also the offering. We need to be careful not to be so literalistic that we miss the point. Several times Hebrews says that this is a unique, unrepeatable offering. Unlike the sacrifices in the earthly Temple that must be repeated day after day, year after year, Jesus had dealt with sin once for all. No longer can guilt and shame be used to extract offerings. Like the widow who gave all she had to live on, our gifts express the giving of our total selves in joy and gratitude.

C.            Hebrews says that when the great high priest Jesus brought himself as the final offering for sin, he appeared in the presence of God on our behalf. The is that antithesis of hasatan in Job. Jesus is not the prosecuting attorney, Jesus is our defense attorney. Whatever accusation we bring against ourselves or anyone might bring against us, Jesus declares it inadmissible because his unrepeatable sacrifice of himself has dealt with it once for all.

IV.      As the heavenly great high priest in the earthly Temple, Jesus exposes our cover-ups and affirms our vulnerabilities. Jesus does not expose our cover-ups to embarrass or disqualify us, but to liberate us from their tyranny. And he affirms our vulnerabilities because that opens us to receive grace with gratitude.

A.           Most if not all of us find that we are shedding the same cover-ups and facing the same vulnerabilities over and over again. I know I am. That is exactly why Jesus’ sacrifice once for all is so important.

Thomas Keating describes it in his book Intimacy with God (Crossroad, New York, 1995, pp. 88-89)

What is most disconcerting for souls who have been on the journey for 20 or 30 years is that each time we make the transition from one level to the next, we are likely to encounter the same temptations we had before we started the journey, and we think, “I’m not getting anywhere; I’m just the same old stick.” … In actual fact, it is not the same temptation at all. … We are now dealing with it at a more mature level. Hence, we are capable of making a more complete surrender of that attachment or that aversion. If the Spirit asked us in the beginning to make a total surrender of every difficult person or situation, nobody could do it. By leading us gradually (the way human things work), through growth in trust and humility, we are able to make an even deeper surrender of ourselves to God.

B.            The crowd in the Temple listened to Jesus with delight because he openly confronted the ways the Temple leaders oppressed them. While the Temple leaders heard Jesus as a threat, the people heard freedom.

C.            One of my heroes is Hudson Taylor who was a pioneer missionary to China in the 19th century. Much to the consternation of his British counterparts, he adopted the dress and approach of a Confucian teacher and left the British costal colonies to bring the Gospel of Jesus inland to the people of China. He burned out rather quickly and returned to England a broken man. As he recovered his health, he discovered the principle he called the exchanged life. His grandson wrote about it in his book Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. The writing is quaint, and I’m sure Hudson Taylor would be embarrassed to receive such adulation, but it is powerful. The exchanged life is to give up trying to live the Christian life and allow Jesus to live his life in me by the Holy Spirit. When he recovered, Hudson Taylor returned to China. He worked hard, got tired, but never again burned out. The results and path of his life were now in Jesus’ hands. The great high priest had exposed the futility of performance and affirmed that spiritual greatness arose from acknowledged weakness.