Christmas Eve 2017: Mary’s Prophetic Song

(This is the text of the sermon Amy and I preached at Gainesville Vineyard‘s Christmas Eve 2017 service.)

So here we are at the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We’ve been focusing all Advent on God speaking to the various people in the Christmas story, Zechariah, the shepherds and astrologers, and Joseph. All of that has been leading up to today, when we will focus at last on what God said to Mary and actually what God said through Mary. Our service today takes a different format than usual. We’re going to interweave the songs and teaching. My hope is that this will accentuate the radical kingdom good news that Mary prophetically declares in her song. But let’s set the stage first by reading Luke’s account in chapter 1.26ff.

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! Yahweh is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. Yahweh God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the sacred one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 Mary answered, “Here is the slave of Yahweh. May it happen to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea,40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

And Mary said:

My soul exalts Yahweh
And my Spirit rejoices in God my savior
For He has cast down His eyes to the lowly estate of His slave girl
Behold, after now all the generations will bless me
Because the Mighty One has done great things for me
And His name is sacred
And His mercy is for generations and generations
For all those who respect Him
He bared His arm and showed His power
And scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He has pulled down the tyrants from their thrones
And raised up the humble
He has filled the hungry with good things
And sent the rich away with empty bellies
He has taken his child Israel by the hand
Remembering mercy
Just as He promised our ancestors
To Abraham and his children forever

Mary gives us the fullest and best response to when God speaks to us. Gabriel appears and speaks blessing and favor and calling and hardship and anointing over Mary. Whenever God speaks to us, all of these are including. It is blessing and favor and anointing when the Spirit speaks to us. Responsibility, calling, and hard work are also always included when God speaks to us. Mary’s response is the model for how we should respond: “Here we are. We are Your servants, your slaves (same word in Greek, let’s not nice up the translation to make things easier on ourselves). May it happen to us as you have said.”

But this dialogue with Gabriel is only the beginning of what Mary hears from the Holy Spirit. She and Elizabeth have a Pentecostal experience as they meet and then Mary launches into this song, what the church has called The Magnificat since it was read in Latin in the fifth century, because that is the first word in Latin – magnify, exalt, lift up, make great, praise, worship.

This is a primary response to when God speaks to us. We worship. We lift our souls and our thoughts and our voices and we praise the Lord. We rejoice – we take joy in – this God who is our savior, whose mighty arm does such powerful work and also takes us by the hand.

This is how Mary begins her song:

My soul exalts Yahweh
And my Spirit rejoices in God my savior
For He has cast down His eyes to the lowly estate of His slave girl
Behold, after now all the generations will bless me

Let’s follow her example and sing now about the great Joy Jesus brings into the world.  Join us in singing Joy to the World.

My soul exalts Yahweh
And my Spirit rejoices in God my savior
For He has cast down His eyes to the lowly estate of His slave girl
Behold, after now all the generations will bless me

Because the Mighty One has done great things for me
And His name is sacred
And His mercy is for generations and generations
For all those who respect Him

Why? Why will all generations bless Mary? Because God has done great things for her. This is true. True for Mary and true for us. God has done great things for us. Last week, the Spirit led us to take some time to remember the great things God has done in our lives. That’s not to say everything has been a walk in the park. Mary is quite honest about the lowness of her own social status. She didn’t have an easy life before or after Gabriel showed up. But God showed up and did this marvelous thing for her and for all of humanity. I encourage you again to remember the goodness of God that has been displayed in your own life. Goodness to you and goodness to others through you.

Why? Why is Mary blessed? Why are we blessed? Why does God do great things for us? Because His name is sacred. His name is holy. Our God is fully involved with all the processes of this world – and yet without being dirtied by any of them. Sometimes like flowers coming up in the cracks of the cement, God works goodness into this world whenever and wherever possible and to the extent possible without usurping human freedom and becoming a tyrant too. There is much in this world that is unholy, the profane is prevalent. And yet the holiness of God persists in direct contact with all that is profane and unholy. We get it wrong to think that holy means separate, hermetically healed, untouched and untouchable. Mary sings later about the mighty arm of God that brings down tyrants and lifts up the poor and takes children by the hand. We are blessed because this sacredness that is our God touches us and is touchable to us and yet loses none of its sacredness in the touching. In fact, it is we who are made more holy, more sacred, more good by the touch of that Mighty Hand.

Why? Why is Mary blessed? Why are we blessed? This is what Arty told us last week and precisely what Mary sings here: God’s holiness, God’s sacredness is God’s mercy. Because God has done great things AND God’s name is sacred AND God’s mercy is for all of us. For Mary. For us. For generations and generations. God’s greatness is God’s holiness is God’s mercy. This is why we follow Mary in respecting and honoring Yahweh. Because with God power is not capricious, it is morally good. Because with God sacred is not segregated, it is radically inclusive. Because with God mercy is for all of us, young, old, and in between.

This is why our communion table is completely open. Even aggressively open. This bread and juice stands in for the greatest of all of God’s great acts. The ultimate instance of power and sacredness and mercy expressed together in one act. Everyone should come and take this bread because God has been good in some way to each and every one of us. Everyone should come and dip that bread into this juice because there is no way that you taking this profanes it. Excluding people from this table profanes it. Including everyone as equals is the best way to honor its sacredness. Everyone should come eat this dipped bread because God’s mercy is for all of us, for each of us, from the very youngest to the very oldest. Good news to those on both ends of that spectrum, you don’t need teeth to take communion.

Arty, Jackie, Amy and I are going to serve communion now. We’re going to serve Jared, Rachel, and Kristy first so they can play over us while we take. Then we’ll all sing O Holy Night together.

As you take the bread, we are going to remind you that, “God has done great things for you.” As you dip your bread into the cup, we will declare that, “God’s mercy is for you.” Eat the bread as soon as you’ve dipped it and enjoy this sacred moment.

Mary continues her prophetic song:

He has bared His arm and showed His power
And scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He has pulled down the tyrants from their thrones
And raised up the humble
He has filled the hungry with good things
And sent the rich away with empty bellies

Remember earlier Amy said that whenever God speaks both favor and responsibility are conveyed. You can see that right here in Mary’s song, especially for those who might be more on the rich end of the scale than the slave-girl end of the scale. There is a basic and radical reordering in the economy of the kingdom of God. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. If we are to have Jesus as our king, that includes him being king over our finances, socio-economic standing, and even how we perceive ourselves to be in the world. I hope I don’t need to convince you that the world terribly unfair when it comes to such things. Injustice, inequality, and exploitation are basic facts of the profane world. Apart from the sacred mercy of God, our human freedom always leads to lopsided social constructs, where the strong take advantage of the weak.

We tend to get uncomfortable talking about this in church settings because religion is routinely used as a means of exploitation. False prophets have always been willing to sell their services to those in power to maintain the profane, inequitable status quo. The church in the United States has been plagued by this for a long time. We’ve had preachers declare that both slavery and later Jim Crow were both biblical and holy, that God’s will was for certain people to suffer under necessary oppression. But oppression is only necessary for keeping tyrants on their thrones. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary declares that the kingdom of God is breaking in and breaking the grip of those unholy powers. The Spirit anointed Mary to prophesy the shape and focus of her son’s ministry. Listen to it again as the mission statement of Jesus:

Jesus bared His arm and showed His power
Jesus scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
Jesus pulled down the tyrants from their thrones
Jesus raised up the humble
Jesus filled the hungry with good things
Jesus sent the rich away with empty bellies

Now listen to what Jesus said himself in Luke 6:

20 Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
because yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
because you will be fed.
Blessed are you who weep now,
because you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they segregate you and blame you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.

23 “Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
because you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
because you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
because you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 praise those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful, 37 and do not judge, and you will not be judged, and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

None of these are metaphors. If we try to impose a spiritualized reading or religious coating to what Jesus and Mary are telling us here, we miss their point, maybe intentionally so. Now look, I’m not judging or condemning anyone. That’s right there too! But I am highlighting that the kingdom of God that Jesus brings in comes with a whole new economic outlook, one that is inimical to our Wall Street driven economy. Each of us enters this new community, this kingdom of God life, in some social position or other. Some of us are closer to Mary’s slave-girl status. Others of us are exactly who Mary and Jesus mean when they say “rich.” And all points in between. And all are welcome here. The mercy of God is for the poor and the rich. We come together and do life together and we share resources together. This is why we receive your tithes and offerings. Because in giving, you are witnessing to the fact of this new kingdom economy. You are refusing to be owned by the economy of this world. You are saying, ‘Here take this money and help the poor, help those in need. Make true what Mary sang, that hungry people are filled with good things.’ That has been the heart of this church for 30 years and you knew it was the passion for Amy and I when you brought us down here. We will be having more in-depth and direct conversations about this in January. For now, we are going to take the offering and sing The First Noel because this is a primary way we offer kingdom resistance to the tyranny of this world.

He has taken his child Israel by the hand
Remembering mercy
Just as He promised our ancestors
To Abraham and his children forever

I love Mary’s imagery here. Earlier it was God rolling up His sleeve and showing the power of his mighty arm. Here that same arm is extended out, taking Israel – and us – by the hand.

So much of Israel’s history – and our own lives – can be described in terms of a loving parent holding a child’s hand. I like holding hands with my kids. Especially out in public, especially in parking lots, especially out holiday shopping. They are just safer that way. But they don’t always want to hold hands.

And kids you know, when you don’t want to hold hands, you have amazing ways of getting out of that grip don’t you? You can make your hand like a smooth cone with no surfaces to keep a grip on. You can do the limp/passive then sudden pull away thing. You can just throw all your body weight against the hand hold, hoping they let go before your shoulder goes out of socket. Or you can go all in and do the full lay on the floor, drag-me-if-you-want-to move.

I think we do all of these with God at different times. But when we do that, when we succeed in breaking free from our adult who’s holding our hand, what happens next? Does your mom or dad just forget you and wander off to find some coffee or something? Of course not. They get that hand back as fast as they can, right? It’s the same with God. The prophet Isaiah said it like this:

But we said, “Yahweh has forsaken us,

Yahweh has forgotten us.”

“Can a mother forget the baby she is nursing

and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget,

I will not forget you! 

From at least as far back as Abraham, and that’s a long way back, God has promised to be merciful to us. It is that mercy that causes God to reach out and take us by the hand. God never forgets what He promised. God never forgets to have mercy on us.

Mary knew that God had shown her great mercy in letting her become Jesus’ mom. She also knew that Jesus was going to be how God was going to show mercy not only to her but to all of her people – the Jewish people, and to all the people in the whole world.

This is what Christmas is all about, God taking us by the hand and showing us amazing mercy. And we join in this by showing mercy to each other. Just like we’re lighting one candle with the next, we share the light of God’s mercy with each other. From one of us to the next and on down the line, generation to generation, a light for all people.

Listen to more of what Isaiah said about the coming of Mary’s baby, the one they both prophesied about. And then we’ll sing about it together.

Listen to me, all you in distant lands;

hear this, you who are far away:

Before I was born Yahweh called me;

from my mother’s womb he has called me by name.

He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,

in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me into a polished arrow

and concealed me in his quiver.

He said to me, “You are my servant,

And you will bring me glory.”

I replied, “But my work seems so useless!

I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.

Yet I leave it all in Yahweh’s hand;

I will trust God for my reward.”

And now the Lord says—

he who formed me in the womb to be his servant

to bring Jacob back to him

and gather Israel to himself,

for I am honored in the eyes of Yahweh

and my God has been my strength—

he says:

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant

to restore the tribes of Jacob

and bring back those of Israel I have kept.

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,

that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” 

Shout for joy, you heavens;

rejoice, you earth;

burst into song, you mountains!

For Yahweh comforts his people

and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

But we said, “The Lord has forsaken us,

the Lord has forgotten us.”

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast

and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget,

I will not forget you!

Join us now as we sing Silent Night together.



Lord, we join Mary – our souls exalt You
We are grateful and full of joy because
You have seen our lowly condition and brought
Us salvation and  blessings.
You are the  Mighty One and You have done great things for us
Your  name is sacred
And Your mercy is for generations and generations
We honor and respect You
Show Your power Lord
Tear down the proud in the imagination of their hearts
Pull down the tyrants from their thrones
Raise up the humble
Fill the hungry with good things
Send the rich away empty
Take us by the hand
Remember Your mercy
Your promises to our ancestors
To Abraham and us his children forever


Life with the Paraclete: Trust


My sermon this afternoon addresses what happened in Charlottesville yesterday in a real way but not as directly as this moment warrants so I want to talk about it directly up front, even though we’ll come back to it as we go. I started this series last week so you would know what your new pastor is all about so this isn’t reactionary. Nor is it mere coincidence because the Spirit knows how to line things up and also because what went on in Virginia yesterday is not an anomaly or something that came out the blue. It’s also not merely a “Southern problem.” The racism we saw put on public display yesterday in Charlottesville is a pervasive part of the American story. From the way the earliest colonizers interacted with the native Americans they encountered in this new-to-them world, through a national economy built on slavery, through the period of brutal subjugation in the Jim Crow South and barely-more-subtle discrimination in the rest of the country, all the way down to the present where racism most often takes the form of colorblindness and things like the war on drugs are used to continue the division and harm of the previous eras behind a thin veneer of respectability. All too often we follow the letter of our civil rights laws with a self-righteousness that blinds us to the many ways we violate the Holy Spirit’s call to live in loving unity, cherishing the image of God in each other, and loving all our neighbors as ourselves. We stand with the lawyer of the Good Samaritan passage who asked, “who is my neighbor?,” by which he really meant, “who is not my neighbor, who do I get to exclude from the onerous demands love places on me?” To which Jesus replied, “who are you being a neighbor to?” There are no exclusions to neighbor. The neighbor is the person you meet when you open your door, at the restaurant, the coffee shop, on the sidewalk, in the car next to you at the red light, at work, at school, standing on the corner asking for money, waving a Nazi flag, living in Iran or North Korea. Every human being is a precious creature made in the very image of God. Every human being is our neighbor. Followers of Jesus must hear again and again the command our Lord gives, the demand our King places on us: love our neighbors. We must obey this command to remain followers of Jesus. Except we can’t because it’s too hard and we are too sinful. Did you see the picture of the folks carrying torches on the UVA campus Friday night? Did you notice how normal they look? They don’t look like monsters. They don’t look like irrational, hate-filled, racists. They look like our neighbors. And they may be coming here next, so we need to be ready for seeing some of our actual neighbors marching for hate. Is it that hard to imagine people from Alachua or Spring Hill or even right here in Gainesville waving Nazi flags, wearing tee shirts with quotes from Hitler, making the awful Heil salute? Whenever we see something as awful as displayed in Virginia yesterday, an immediate reaction is to create mental separation from the perpetrators. “What is wrong with them?” “How could they think and act like that?” Denial is the first stage of grief and one we come back to often in the grieving process. But we have to resist that urge. We have to become able to see our own sin by the light of those tiki torches. That’s the only way any progress gets made on this. We can denounce white supremacy all day long, but if that comes across as creating more separation, we’ve only made matters worse. We can’t use the tools of hate to defeat hate. Only love can conquer hate. We can only overcome the hate, sin, the demonic principality of racism, and the toxic ideology of white supremacy, by joining in the mission of the Paraclete.

John 16.8-9: The Paraclete will convince the world about sin and justice and judgment: about sin, because they do not trust me;
I began last week by trying to explain what the words “Paraclete” and “elencho” tell us about the nature of God and the divine mission Jesus is describing here. I can’t go over all that again today but the keys to remember are that Paraclete describes the Spirit as One who comes alongside us as One who is radically for us, supporting us, encouraging us, directing us forward toward our best possible selves and actually empowering us well beyond what would be possible on our own (more about that in a minute). The Spirit advocates to the Father and Jesus on our behalf and advocates to us directly about following Jesus (we’ll get into more of that next week). And the verb here describes just that sort of action: advocating, persuading, convincing. The old translation “convict” is only helpful if we think of how someone who loves us might talk us into exercising, eating better, taking our vitamins, or something like that. Not in the sense of a courtroom conviction and subsequent punishment. This is an encouraging to do what is best for us – and yes that often involves hard work we are avoiding.
There are a few more things I want to point out about the grammar of our passage. First, this is a single sentence. Yes, I’m spending four weeks preaching from one sentence. 40 dense pages of my dissertation on this one sentence. What makes this significant is that the Paraclete is the one acting throughout this thought and the action being done through is this persuading/convincing action. And the object being acted upon throughout is the world. The Paraclete will convince the world. The rest of the sentence is an explanation of what the Paraclete will convince the world of and how the Paraclete will convince the world. Today and the next two weeks are about the what and how. The other factor to bear in mind here is who is being addressed. Jesus tells all this to his followers as they are walking from the Last Supper to the garden where he was arrested. Earlier in this last discourse, Jesus told them:
John 14.15-17: If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
In our sentence for this series, Jesus is saying the Paraclete will convince the world. But he’s already said the world can’t accept, see, or know the Paraclete. So how is the Paraclete going to convince the world of anything? That’s where we come in church. Jesus is telling his followers this – Jesus is telling us this – because we are participants in this work. The Paraclete convinces the world about sin, justice, and judgment through the life and witness of the church in the world. The Spirit persuades those who don’t trust Jesus through the lives of those of us who do trust Jesus. Which only works to the extent that we live lives that look like we trust Jesus. This is the only us/them separation that exists for followers of Jesus. There are those who trust Jesus with our lives and those who don’t. And those of us who have begun the adventure of living a life trusting Jesus have only great sympathy for those who haven’t yet, because we know all too well how hard it is, how often we fail at it, and how we often can’t decide which is scarier, shrinking back from trusting Jesus or stepping out and risking to trust.
Now your translation probably doesn’t use the word “trust” in this verse at all. Your translation probably uses the word “faith” (or “believe”) which is the standard English translation of the Greek word “pistis.” As your pastor, this is one of main points of influence I want to have in your lives and in the life of our church – redefining “faith” as “trust.” This is partly based on a grammatical point but more importantly is based on a shift we need to undertake in our theology and philosophy. In other words, it’s not that “faith” is such a bad translation as it is that as people living in modernity (and postmodernity) have adopted a very anemic understanding of what “faith” names and entails. We have come to misunderstand “faith” as mostly a matter of mental assent, agreeing to a certain set of ideas, adopting a certain statement of faith (even the name perpetuates this misunderstanding). This is really hard because even in calling it a “misunderstanding” I am playing into the hands of how we approach such things on this side of the Enlightenment. We are convinced that getting our thinking right, coming to the “right” ideas is the first step, the most important step, that everything else flows from our mental aspect. But this was not the approach Jesus took. He told people like Peter, “follow Me.” If they followed (not all of them did), Jesus let them do stuff like pray for healing or cast out demons well before they understood what Jesus was teaching. They often showed remarkable slowness in coming to understand. But what they exhibited was obedience. They trusted Jesus enough to do what Jesus said, even when they did not understand what Jesus was teaching or what He was up to. Faith is not mental assent, faith is obedience. Faith is trusting the Spirit enough to follow those nudges we get and act on them.
I posted the other day that “theology cannot be ideology” and that “theology can only be ideology in the service of idolatry.” I was thinking of this message when I posted those. I’m not sure but I’m hoping a little math(ish) explanation will help. Any word that ends in “-ology” means “the study of” or “words/discourse about” a given topic. It comes from the Greek word “logos” which means “word.” So “biology” is the study of life (“bios” is the Greek word for life). “Theos” is the Greek word for God, so theology is the study of God, or more precisely a careful examination of the words we use to describe God, our experiences of the divine. There are typical ways people talk about God, and those reveal much about how we understand life, ourselves, our ethics, etc. “Ideology” is the study of ideas or ideals, those conscious or unconscious principles we each live by. What I was saying in those posts is that Theology ≠ ideology. So a little math. If we factor out the -ology it looks like this: (God)(-ology) ≠ (idea)(-ology). The (-ology)’s cancel out and we’re left with the root idea here: God ≠ idea – just to repeat how difficult this is, I just called this an idea. Grr. God is not reducible to a human idea or set of ideas.
We talk with limited, halting, faltering words about the God of the universe. We dare with finite, forgetful, landlocked minds to fingerpaint pictures of the Infinite Creator of all that is – 98% of which we don’t know anything about or have any experience of. And each of us winds up with some set of ideas that we are partial to. They make sense to us – they make sense of us – so we assume they work for everyone else too. But they don’t because the person who lives next door to us has a very different experience of life and the world that leads them to a different set of ideas. And the person who lives across town has an experience of life and the world so radically different from us that our set of ideas makes no sense to them at all. Even though we’re speaking the same language, rooting for the same teams, eating the same food. Go to the other side of the world and the competing sets of ideas there are beyond radically different – we can hardly enter into conversation with the various “sides” in other contexts because we don’t understand the context, or the ideas, or the people invested in them. And then still, all these different ideas about life, the world, human nature, the divine – none of them have anything more to do with the real God of the universe than any of the others, or than ours do. This is what Jesus confronted. He came to his own people as the Son of Yahweh and they could not understand or accept him or his teachings because they didn’t understand Yahweh at all. They didn’t understand Moses or the prophets or their own story as Israel. Their ideas were badly off track from the truth that Jesus revealed. How much less on track are the ideas that we bring to the table? God is not an idea. God is Transcendent Being and all our ideas are crap we make up. None of our ideologies are sacred. None of them will save us. Every last one of them is a sinful, idolatrous creation of people just like us determined to live this life apart from radical obedience to Jesus Christ.
So Jesus takes people with highly incompatible ideologies and puts us together to do life together. He couples together Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Tax Collector. Paul the Pharisee and Barnabas the Businessman. But we’ve been fighting against this since basically the beginning of the church. Most of the books of the New Testament were written to help people in the early church live together in unity across all these same fault lines that plague us. Unity across all boundaries: race, gender, economic status, age, physical or mental ability, ideology. Especially ideology. The Spirit convinces the world it can trust Jesus by creating communities of people who live in peace across all these lines of division, communities where people who would otherwise be enemies love and care for each other as neighbors. But churches succumb to the way of the world and wind up dividing along all these lines, especially ideology. We create statements of faith and elevate our ideas about God onto the throne of God and worship the idols we create. That’s nothing new. We’re no different than Aaron and the Israelites worshipping the gold cow they made out of their own jewelry. And when we see people exhibiting vile ideologies like the deadly white supremacy riot in Charlottesville yesterday, we tend to respond with a competing ideology. We wrongly think we can force a better ideology on them and use violence to attain a peaceful outcome. But violence always leads to more violence and an ideological war is not what Jesus has called us to. There were clergy and other people of faith out yesterday trying to bear witness to faith in Jesus. And if the racists come here to put on another ugly display, we will be asking ourselves, what should the church do? What should our church do? Jesus is answering this question in our text for today. The church communicates to the world that it can trust Jesus by being a community of people who trust Jesus, which means becoming a group of people who trust each other. This is what our church must do. We must do all that we can to obey the nudges of the Spirit pushing us to become a community of people who trust Jesus and trust each other, specifically trusting each other across racial, gender, age, economic status, and ideological lines. We don’t have a quick, easy answer. We only have the hard work of a long obedience in the same direction of becoming a community of people where enemies become friends, where love grows between people the world thinks can’t love each other. A love for each other that is radical, shocking to the world. That is what the Paraclete calls us to.
And we have to lay this right on the table – this is not easy. This is hard. You know our old Vineyard saying: faith is spelled R-I-S-K. That is nowhere truer than right here. This is at the heart of what I mean by replacing “faith” with “trust” in how we understand and live out this life together in Jesus. Mental assent says, “I believe a parachute will deliver a person who jumps out of an airplane safely to the ground.” Sure. But that’s not faith. That’s not trust. Trust is strapping the parachute on and jumping out of a plane at 12,000 feet. The reason churches retreat from being communities that bear witness that Jesus can be trusted is that we don’t often actually trust Jesus with our lives. It’s not comfortable. It doesn’t feel safe. It pushes us out of our comfort zones. It makes us question our prejudices. It’s easy and safe to look on in disgust at those awful people who were in the streets of Charlottesville yesterday. It’s a lot harder to ask ourselves about the racism that lies in our own hearts or our prejudice against people who disagree with our politics. We can’t participate with the Paraclete in convincing the world of its racism if we’re not willing to let the Spirit convict us of our own prejudices. 1 John was written specifically to people who were having a fundamental ideological break. It was about the sin of prejudice that John wrote:
1 John 1.8: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
Don’t mishear this. This isn’t about sin generically. It is specifically about the sin of prejudice. We all do it. There is prejudice in my heart. And there is prejudice in your heart. This is the real RISK we run in trusting Jesus, that our hearts will be exposed and we will be confronted by the Spirit and forced to decide between following Jesus or clinging to our prejudice. This isn’t new and it never ends. Remember how Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and thousands followed Jesus? Then he preached to Cornelius and saw first hand as the Spirit opened the door and brought the Gentiles into the church. He went back to Jerusalem and argued for the inclusion of the Gentiles to the church leadership. Some time later, this same Peter, champion of faith, acted like a racist bigot in Antioch, refusing to eat with Gentiles, mostly because he caved to peer pressure and refused to stand up to his brothers in Christ who were wrong in their thought and practice. Still, that’s no excuse. Peter proved the remaining prejudice in his heart through his actions. In Galatians 2, Paul relates how he confronted Peter to his face in front of everyone because he sinned and led others to sin along with him. In that same context, further in the letter, Paul makes this statement:
Gal. 3.26-28: So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through trust, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
We are one because we trust Jesus. That’s what our baptism signifies – that we are giving our lives and bodies over to trusting and following Jesus, to obeying this Paraclete who convinces the world to trust by leading us into community with each other. We risk in small ways – “can I pray for you right now?” – and then we learn to risk in large ways, life altering ways. The Spirit is going to lead this church to take big risks. The Spirit is going to ask us to trust Jesus, to demonstrate that by jumping out of the plane. We will be able to measure how well we are doing in obeying by how diverse our community becomes and how diverse our leadership is. The church that trusts Jesus is racially diverse. The church that trusts Jesus has women leading. In the church that trusts Jesus, rich and poor people are close friends. In the church that trusts Jesus, young and old people speak into each other’s lives prophetically – in both directions. In the church that trusts Jesus, people with very different ideologies feel welcome, become friends with those who think very differently, and together experience the Spirit drawing them beyond their ideologies, away from their idolatries. This is risky business. Kingdom business is always risky business. It doesn’t happen more because it is so risky, so hard, so hard to sustain.
But there is hope. We’ll talk more about hope specifically next week, but this isn’t just a tease for that. There is one very important aspect of the trust I’m talking about that I haven’t mentioned and it’s also right here in this sentence if we can see it. Remember I said the Paraclete is the one doing the convincing work here and convincing is the work being done. The Spirit convinces the world to trust Jesus by creating communities of people who trust Jesus. The Spirit creates communities of trust. The Spirit creates trust. We become people who trust Jesus and trust each other, not by some force of our own wills, not by just jumping out of the plane. The parachute is important. Don’t jump out of a plane without a parachute on. And what makes the parachute work? The wind. Air. The Spirit is the one who makes this work. The faith/trust I’m talking about comes from the Spirit. Trust is a gift of the Spirit. Trust is a fruit of the Spirit. In 1 Cor. 13, Paul said,
These three remain: trust, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.
This comes in the context of 1 Cor. 12-14, where Paul explains the charismata, the gifts of the Spirit, things like speaking in tongues and prophesying. The “love chapter” is the most important part of Paul’s teaching here and this sentence is the apex of the whole thing. The church fathers named these three: trust, hope, and love the “theological virtues.” That means these three are essential to living the Christian life and they come into our lives from outside – they are infused in us by the Holy Spirit. And to be clear, this isn’t controversial, this isn’t something that only Pentecostals and charismatics and folks like us teach. Across the whole Christian church throughout its history, the church has taught that God initiates the conversion process. We differ on how the process proceeds but everyone agrees that a person who comes to faith is responding to something the Spirit is doing to us and in us. Otherwise, we somehow are saving ourselves which makes the work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection null and void and no Christian thinks that. So faith is infused in us. The Spirit empowers us to trust Jesus. This is exactly what Jesus is saying here. The Paraclete enables us to trust Jesus. The Spirit empowers us to trust each other. If we will participate, the Spirit grows trust in us and will grow us into a community foundationally marked by trust. The more we grow into that, the more the Paraclete can convince the world to trust Jesus through us. The thing about people who trust – they are also people who are trustworthy. We can be known in Gainesville as trusting and trustworthy people. The Spirit will infuse trust in us and grow that trust in us. Then we will prove Jesus over and over. And more and more people will learn just how sweet it is to trust in Jesus.
‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His Word
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know, “Thus saith the Lord!”
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!
I’m so glad I learned to trust Him,
Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend
And I know that He is with me,
Will be with me to the end.
Oh, how sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to trust His cleansing blood
And in simple faith to plunge me
‘Neath the healing, cleansing flood!
Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just from sin and self to cease
Just from Jesus simply taking
Life and rest, and joy and peace.