Southminster Presbyterian Church

We are a community of people encouraging each other, seeking to be like Jesus; serving God by loving generously, proclaiming boldly, and giving with grace and humility.

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Launching the New Creation

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-4

             When my children were young we occasionally played a game called Taboo, a game where you use clue words or phrases to help a player guess the target word.  The trick is that certain clue words are taboo—off limits.  In one round we were trying to help my son, who at the time was probably around ten years old, guess the word “Bible.”  The taboo words, the words we could not use in any clue, were book, scripture, church, and pulpit.  So we gave him this clue: “The thing we always read on Sunday morning.”  He said, “Comics.”

             Well, this morning we are actually going to read a comic strip in church.  I showed this strip two weeks ago in my class on the Theology of Calvin and Hobbes.  In the first frame Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “I wonder where we go when we die.”  Hobbes answers, “Pittsburgh?”  To which Calvin says, “You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?”

             When you think of heaven, I doubt many of you think of Pittsburgh or even Seattle.  And yet when the Bible pictures heaven, it thinks of a city.  Revelation 21, verse 1-2:

 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

             This vision of heaven is almost a direct quote from the prophet Isaiah.  In Isaiah 65:17-18, God says,

 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

             In both scriptures heaven is not described as a place where we leave behind our earthly bodies, and our earthly cities, and this whole earthly world.  It’s a place where these things are transformed, where our earthly bodies no longer suffer, and where earthly cities like Jerusalem, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and even Washington, D. C. become the healthy, just, nurturing, life-giving communities they were supposed to be.

             Isaiah elaborates on this theme in our first scripture reading from Isaiah 25.  Notice the down-to-earth imagery.  Verse 6:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

The mountain mentioned here is probably Mount Zion, the temple mount in Jerusalem.  But it’s a picture of Jerusalem transformed and expanded, a place of welcome for people all over the world.  In the new Jerusalem there won’t be rich nations and poor nations, some people living in penthouses while others live in refugee camps.  In the new Jerusalem everyone will be invited to the same table to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation.

            Isaiah extends this image in verse 7-8:

 And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.

             Compare this to the vision of Revelation 21, verse 4:

God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

Illness will be gone, as will violence and abuse.  And this won’t be just for us.  God will wipe away tears from all faces; God will take away the shroud that is cast over all people.  The whole world will be transformed.

            So what does this have to do with Easter?  How is this connected to Jesus’ resurrection?  Jesus’ resurrection is the launch pad for this new creation.  Jesus’ resurrection is, in a sense, God’s down payment on a new heaven and new earth.

            There is an important detail in the Easter story found in all four gospels.  All of the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection agreed on this.  The tomb was empty!  The body was gone.  Jesus was risen bodily from the dead.  Easter is not a case of Jesus leaving earthly bodily life behind; it is a case of God transforming earthly bodily life, beginning with Jesus.

            There is a scene in John’s gospel where the risen Jesus comes to his disciples in a room where the door has been shut and locked.  To reassure them that he is real, he shows them the nail prints in his hands and feet.  Think about that image.  Jesus’ risen body still bears the marks of his crucifixion, but it can go into a room through locked doors.  Jesus is risen bodily from the dead, but it is a transformed body.  He has a body that can never again be shut out; it can never again be excluded.  It can never again suffer under Pontius Pilate or be crucified on a Roman cross.  It is bodily life redeemed.

            That’s what Isaiah and Revelation are talking about: bodily life redeemed, earthly bodily life transformed into the kind of life together God meant for us.

            Admittedly, the new creation is not yet finished.  Easter is the launching of the new creation, but not its completion.  We still live in a world where bodies are crushed by violence and riddled by disease.  We still live in a world where death is very much with us and tears saturate the ground.  But Jesus resurrection marks the beginning of a new creation, and every time we work to heal human bodies, every time we care for them and do things to make them whole, we strike a blow for this new creation.  We declare that death will not have the final word; Jesus will.

Likewise, every time we provide shelter for the homeless or better yet an affordable home, and every time we serve a hungry person at the food bank, or better yet help them find appropriate, life-sustaining work, we strike a blow for the new creation.  And every time we clear a landmine from a farm in Vietnam, every time we support a school for disenfranchised children in the Dominican Republic, every time we intervene to stop abuse or violence, and work for reconciliation and peace between races and nations, we strike a blow for the new creation.  We declare that poverty, injustice and suffering shall not have the last word in this world; Jesus will.

            In his book Miracles C. S. Lewis says that miracles write for us in small letters what God will one day write in large letters across the whole canvas of creation (p. 219).  That’s the key to Easter.  Easter writes for us in small letters what God will one day write in large letters across the whole canvas of creation, and through Jesus we are invited to be part of it.


One Prisoner's Story

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 53:1-6; Mark 15:1-15

             My name means “son of the father,” which is strange because I’m not at all like my father.  My father was a prestigious Jewish official.  I am what some might call a terrorist.  But before you judge me, consider this.  We were an oppressed people living under a brutal dictatorship.  I know you’ve heard the story of what King Herod did in Bethlehem, how he killed all the children two years old and younger because he was afraid one of them might grow up and take over his throne.  Shouldn’t we fight against a tyrant like that?  And then there was Pontius Pilate.  Pilate seized some of the money from our temple fund and used it for one of his own public works projects.  When we protested he sent soldiers disguised as civilians to infiltrate the demonstration.  At his signal they pulled out clubs and began beating people to death.  Hundreds died.  Is it wrong to take up arms against such a corrupt and brutal dictator?  I wasn’t a terrorist.  I was a freedom fighter.  I led a band of Jews who ambushed small squads of Roman soldiers, killing as many as possible, so that the Romans would be worn down by the mounting toll of casualties and finally decide to leave.

I expected to die in this struggle.  I was fully prepared to give my life in glorious battle for the sake my people.  What I did not expect was to be captured alive and spend my last days in a Roman jail, chained to a wall, waiting to have my wrists and ankles nailed to a cross.

            On the day of my execution I heard voices in the courtyard outside.  A crowd had gathered in front of Pilate’s Praetorium.  Maybe they are here to demand my release.  For weeks I had dreamed of a nationwide strike—masses of Jewish people marching through the streets carrying signs and shouting, “Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!”  But I knew it wouldn’t happen.  For decades the Romans humiliated and exploited us: seizing our land, making slaves of our sons and daughters, forcing us to pay taxes to support the very soldiers who oppressed us.  For generations we lived under this tyranny but none of my people would join me in the fight.  They just sat in their homes and synagogues praying for a Messiah, some imagined Savior who would come to set them free.

            Just then my cell door rattled open and the jailer stepped in.  “I have some news for you,” he said, taking a bite of a large fig.  “We’ve arrested that Galilean fellow from Nazareth, the one you call Jesus.  He was condemned to death this morning by Pontius Pilate.”

            “Why should I care?” I snapped.

            “I just thought you’d like to know,” the jailer said, popping the rest of the fig into his mouth.  “Isn’t he supposed to be your Messiah?”

            I had heard about Jesus, of course.  Early on I even thought about joining him. He spoke of God’s kingdom with an authority that made even the Jewish leaders tremble.  Then he backed up his words with demonstrations of power: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, raising people from the dead.  He had all the qualifications of the promised Messiah; only he didn’t act like the Messiah.  He had no weapons, no armies, no political base.  He just wandered through the country preaching, as if words could change people’s lives.

            “Why should I care about Jesus?” I said to the jailer.  “He was a coward and a fake.  He went around preaching love when all you Romans understand is power.  Love?  Love never opened any prison doors.  If you want freedom you have to fight for it.”

            “Well, maybe so,” the jailer shrugged.  “But he sure did all right by you.”

            “What are you talking about?” I asked.

            “I’m talking about your freedom,” the jailer said.  “That’s what I came to tell you.  Pilate has a custom of releasing one Jewish prisoner during the Passover.  He was going to release Jesus, but since the people wanted Jesus crucified, he decided to release you instead.”

            What?  I was convicted terrorist.  Jesus was an unarmed, penniless carpenter.  Jesus never lifted a sword or attacked a Roman soldier in his life.  Yet Jesus was to be executed as a threat to the government, while I was set free?  It made no sense.

            “It’s a trick,” I said to jailer.

            “Sure.  Everything to you is a trick,” the jailer said.  “The only thing you understand is hate.  But what have you gotten for your hate, Barabbas?  Each attack on Roman soldiers leads to a new round of violent retaliation by the Romans, which in turn leads to new attacks.  Where does it end?”

            “It will end when we drive you Romans into the sea,” I snarled.

            Jailer shrugged.  “Yes, and then what?  Suppose you drive us out, Barabbas.  Suppose you get rid of us the way we got rid of the Greeks.  What then?  By the time you defeat us you will have shed so much blood and built up so much hate, you won’t know how to live any more as a human being.  You will rule over an angry nation full of violent people, and you will rule them with the same tyranny we did.”

            I glared at him.  “You, a Roman soldier, have the audacity to lecture me about hate.  You kill my people, occupy our land, use us as pawns in your wars of conquest, and you dare to talk to me about hate.”

            “I understand your hate,” the jailer said.  “But I’m telling you that hate won’t set you free.  Only love can do that.”  Then he came over, knelt down in front of me, and unfastened the shackles on my ankles.  Then he stood up and took off the chains from my wrists.  “There,” he said, “now you are free.”

            I rubbed my wrists and slowly stretched my arms and legs.  What was that I had said?  “Love never opened any prison doors.”  But here was a prison door opened for me.  And it wasn’t opened with swords, it wasn’t opened with armies, it wasn’t opened with violence.  It was opened by someone willing to take my place on a cross.

Then I remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah that I had learned as a child: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

            The jailer motioned for me to go, but in the doorway of the cell I stopped to ask him one more question.  I said, “If you really believe that armies and swords will never conquer hate, why do you use them?”

            The jailer thought about this for a moment, then said, “Because we are afraid.  We are afraid of losing our lives, our homes, our freedom, our privileges.  We are afraid of what hate may do to us, so we fight, hoping that if we cannot destroy hate, at least we can restrain it.”

            I looked at the jailer and for the first time I saw the person inside the uniform.  “So you are a prisoner as much as I am,” I said.

            He laughed.  “Of course.  We must always keep up our guard.  We can never relax.  A jail imprisons people on both sides of the bars.  But what else can we do?”

            “It’s strange,” I said.  “Yesterday you were planning to kill me, and given the chance I would have killed you.  But today, an innocent man who did not try to kill anyone is hanging on a cross, and you and I are talking as if we were friends.  What do you make of that?”

            “I don’t know, the jailer said, “But if he is the Messiah, he has a strange way of liberating people.”

            “Yes,” I admitted.  “But it works.”


An Inclusive Welcome

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 56:1-8, John 10:11-16

             As I said in the eNews this week, our church has received three cemetery plots at Washington Memorial Park near SeaTac, donated by the family of Bill and Darlene Adams.  Bill and Darlene were members of this church from 1964 to the 1980s.  After Bill’s death in 2014 and Darlene’s death last year, they were buried at a cemetery in Sequim closer to where their daughter lives, and the daughter then decided to donate to our church the plots they had owned in SeaTac.

             Two weeks ago Bill Gwyn and I met Bill and Darlene’s daughter to look at the plots and see about transferring the deed.  They are in a lovely section of the cemetery, and it was very kind of the family to donate them.  My shock came when I read the original 1952 deed.  The second paragraph says, “The Company agrees to sell, and the Purchaser to buy, according to the terms hereof, a Memorial Plot in Washington Memorial Park, … containing 3 adult internment spaces to be used exclusively for the internment of members of the Caucasian Race.”  I was stunned.  I had no idea there were segregated cemeteries in Seattle in the 1950s.

  I should not have been surprised since I knew there were intentionally segregated neighborhoods across Washington.  I once saw a covenant document from the 1950s prohibiting non-whites from buying houses in certain Spokane neighborhoods, which had profound economic implications, since white veterans, for example, were able to come back from World War II and get loans to buy houses in a growing real estate market from which African American veterans were excluded.  And that equity advantage got passed on for generations.  I knew that, so I should not have been surprise that cemeteries were segregated.

             But it got me thinking.  Why segregate a cemetery?  What is the fear?  That crime will go up?  That people of color will rise up out of their graves and assault the white folks?  That black folks and white folks mixing six feet underground will kill the grass?  What were they afraid of?

             Then I got to thinking theologically.  What happens on the other side of these graves?  What happens when all these white people buried in this cemetery get to the pearly gates and discover they are standing next to people of color, people of every race, language, and nation together before the throne of God singing God’s praise?  Do they turn around and leave?  Do they decide to go to the other place where people might go when they die, where there probably is segregation?

             All these thoughts were going through my head looking at those cemetery plots.  Then I began studying today’s scripture passage from Isaiah 56.  Verse 3:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”

Apparently when the people of Israel were taken into exile in Babylon, some of the Babylonians heard from them about the Lord and became attracted to their faith.  They wanted to serve a God like the Lord, a God who created people for love, not sport, who believed that every person from the king on down had equal dignity in the sight of God.  They were attracted to a God like that, and when the people of Israel were allowed to return to their land and rebuild the temple, they wanted to come.  But would they be welcome?

             The same issue applied to eunuchs.  Eunuchs were people who were castrated—rendered sexually incapacitated—in order to serve in the king’s palace.  The fear was that these palace officials might try to have an affair with one of the king’s wives, and they were castrated to prevent that from happening.  This happened even to some of the people of Israel.

  These eunuchs felt like a dried tree because they could produce no fruit, no children, which meant they would have no future descendants to remember them after they were gone.  But look at what God says to the eunuchs.  Verses 4-5:

For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

            And to the foreigners God says—verses 6-7:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

            Jesus makes an interesting reference to this verse when he throws the money changers out of the temple, who were exploiting foreigners by charging them to exchange their foreign coins for temple coins in order to make an offering.  Jesus quotes this verse when he says to the moneychangers in the temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

Jesus also has in mind Isaiah 56 when he says in our first scripture reading: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold”—in other words, people who are not already part of the in-group.  “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  Jesus is probably talking here about Gentiles—non-Jews, people of other races, nations, and languages who will be included in his family.

            In God’s new kingdom, those who have been excluded are welcomed in.  Those we may not have felt comfortable associating with will be there.  Those we may have deemed unworthy to be buried next to us, will be standing with us on the other side of that grave.  That’s how it will be in God’s kingdom.  So we better get used to it here and now.

            Which brings me back to the deed for the cemetery plots.  When I saw the wording of the original deed, I said to the funeral director, “You don’t still have this wording, right?”  He smiled at me, because as it turned out our funeral director was African American.  He assured me that those provisions were gone.  But when we get our own deed to those cemetery plots, I’m going to look to make sure, because eventually we intend to sell these plots at a discount or donate them to a needy family, but we will have nothing to do with them if that provision still applies.

            And here’s why: It is not just an issue of justice, though it is that.  It is also a matter of getting ready for God’s kingdom.  We all of us need to start practicing now for the kingdom of God.  That’s why we had a delightful dinner last Sunday night at our church with the folks from City of Glory, the Swahili speaking Christian fellowship that meets at our church.  I know that one small event does not solve all the problems of racism in our world, or even in the church.  But still I think it is an important sign.  In our church all people are welcome.  In our cemetery plots all races are welcome.  Because the kingdom of God is not going to be segregated, friends.  When it comes to an eternal relationship with God, we are all in this together.  We are all in need of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and that grace—not our race, not our sexuality, not our economic status—that grace will bring us home.

Bare Root Jesus

Isaiah 43:1-7, Colossians 2:8-19

I love fruit trees. Nothing makes me feel that the world is right the same way that fruit trees and perennial vegetables do. With the right care they just make food, year in and year out. Sorrel, berries, and my ever self-seeding winter red kale are the cornerstones of my garden. I also have, packed onto our tiny 4000 sq foot lot five fruit trees. Now they’re all on dwarf stock and I keep them well pruned. It wasn’t until after I had planted them all that I learned I did it wrong. Reading the easily recommendable book, “Growing Small Fruit Trees,” I learned to forget about dwarf stock which keeps trees small by being well, an inferior root system. If we were drawing theological analogies here, dwarf stock would be like the prosperity gospel. Instead, the thing to do is get the strongest, most fruitful tree variety you can find and either plant it in a clump for pollination or for self-pollinating varieties, get a bare root plant and lop off it’s trunk about eight inches off the ground. Both techniques take a robust tree and give it freedom to grow in a new way.

One of my early learnings in gardening was the importance of breaking up a root ball when transferring a plant from pot to ground. As a gardening pacifist, it seemed to me counter-intuitive that I should disrupt anything the plant has done, that spreading out its roots, tearing and breaking some, would ultimately produce a healthier plant.

Those of you who read my sermon teaser this week know where I’m going with this. This practice of unpotting plants is exactly what that Sri Lankan Christian, DT Niles, was talking about when he said that Christianity has been brought all over the world as a potted plant, rather than being allowed to grow in the native soil of each culture it encounters.

I was set on this path as I read this passage in Isaiah. Initially I had selected it because of it’s uplifting character. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” declares the LORD. This is a powerful image of God’s faithfulness, through all the trials of life: through waters, rivers, fire and flame God’s faithfulness will persist.

But then I noticed something disquieting. This line about Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba struck me. God giving “people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life,” is a particular promise to the people of Israel. The idea of God ransoming one people with another, particularly with African nations, left a bad taste in my mouth. Now references to God’s particular love for the Chosen People are not uncommon in the Old Testament. Even in the Gospels, Jesus had to be prevailed upon by the Syrophoenician woman that she was deserving of Jesus’ attention like a dog finding scraps at the table.

This is a little uncomfortable. It’s been called the “scandal of particularity,” God’s willingness to choose a particular people in time.

Now the chosen people, the nation of Israel, was never rigidly defined by modern constructs of race or even kinship. Faithfulness has always been the threshold by which people entered the covenant. We see this in the stories of Rahab and Ruth, both outsiders who not only join the covenant people of God, but who are named in Jesus’ own ancestry.

How is it that we understand this promise from God to also be for us?

Through the early history of the Christian faith, the church adapted as it encountered new cultural enclaves. From the small community of Palestinian Jews who were Jesus’ first followers, to the Greco/Roman and Ethiopian communities to which it first spread, through centuries of growth in North Africa and Europe, through the reformation and on to today’s North American pop culture, Christianity adapts to new cultural norms.

We can see some of this evolution in the names we use for Jesus, from the Hebrew “Yesua” to the Greek “Iesus” from which we get our English name, “Jesus.” Yes, barring his divinity, the human person we call Jesus wouldn’t recognize his name if we said it to him. It doesn’t even carry the same number of syllables!

The cultural markers we often associate with Christianity--stained glass, organ music, pews -- these are all just European cultural norms with nothing distinctly Christian about them.

Last month marked the 500th anniversary of Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrival in Mexico which led not just to the downfall of the Aztec empire, but also to the forcible conversion and effective enslavement the native population there.

Throughout the Colonial era, Europeans delivered Christianity all over the world with much worse cultural baggage than pews and stained glass. The individualism of our post-enlightenment Western culture doesn’t fit within many community-oriented native cultures.

Aboriginal children in Australia, like Native American children here, were taken from their homes and placed in “Christian” boarding schools where they were forced to adopt European cultural practices. In some places these schools were in operation into the 1980s. The first U.S. school of this kind was founded with the slogan, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Native children were shorn of their hair, stripped of their language, given new names, and forbidden to practice any part of their native culture. These schools, while well-intentioned, were a practice of cultural genocide. In just 2016, at the 222 General Assembly, our own denomination issued an apology to the stolen generations of Native Americans for our complicity in the Indian-assimilation movement. This is from that statement:

In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ, our hearts and minds were closed to the value of your wisdom and lifeways. We did not understand the full extent of the Gospel of Christ! We should have affirmed the commonality between your spirituality and our understanding that God’s sovereignty extends with length from East to West, with breadth from North to South, with depth throughout the Earth, and with height throughout the Sky and Heavens.

Even worse, we arrogantly thought that Western European culture and cultural expressions were necessary parts of the Gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition for your accepting the Gospel. We tried to make you be like us and, in so doing, we helped to diminish the Sacred Vision that made you who you are. Thus, we demonstrated that we did not fully understand the Gospel we were trying to preach. (link)

This may be hard to hear. But, here in the season of Lent especially, it’s ok for us to feel a sense of lament. It’s ok for us to lament first because only then can God do the deep work of healing and restoration. It is discomforting to be sure, but God can work in our discomfort too.

Now, my broad impression of the church through the sweep of history is that it has been very concerned with its doctrine. Wars have been fought over beliefs about the divine/human nature of Jesus (and to this day we aren’t quite on the  same page there with our Orthodox kin).

This is why I find the Colossians reading so intriguing. Here we turn a corner. Not only does it answer Isaiah’s exclusiveness, but doctrine is not its primary concern. The writer of Colossians, whether Paul or one of his successors, is chiefly concerned with preserving Christian liberty.

“16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

And so we consider that substance.

Imagine. Imagine Christianity like a teabag, infusing into the water it sits in. For 2000 years Christianity has been infusing the cultures around the Mediterranean. For 500 years it’s been steeping in Mexico. Or imagine that Christianity is a grape, like say Chardonnay, that takes on the characteristics of its environment--or as the French (and your wine snob friends) would call it “terrwa.” When allowed to grow in local soil instead of in a pot, unique flavors particular to the region infuse the fruit of the plant.

Look at Christian churches that sit atop Aztec temple sites. Look at an Orthodox sanctuary and watch people there venerate icons. Consider the Mayan priests who offer sacrifices on the grounds of Catholic churches in Guatemala--I’ll confess, this one made me nervous!

Consider Aboriginal Christians in Australia. When the first cave painters in Europe began to decorate their world 30,000 years ago, Aboriginal people had already been in Australia for 20,000 years. Their experience of the world is radically different than ours. The Western notion of linear time is foreign. Distinctions between the sacred and profane, the holy and the dirty don’t exist. What could Christianity look like in that world without its Western pot? Well, they’re doing their own theology. They’re figuring it out. Rainbow Spirit Theology and the Jesus Dreaming are two approaches. One Aboriginal man said,

"I learned from my father one of the most precious things to live my life with. He once said to me, 'Bubbi, just think, you come from a people that used to walk with [the] Holy Spirit across this land because this is His country and we Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are His children. That is why our lands own us and give us our spiritual connections. Our Creation Beings walked with Him and with our ancestors for thousands of years.'" (link)

At the NEXT Church Conference that pastors Ken, Erin and I went to a few weeks ago, there was a presenter from the Yakama Nation named Corey Graves. Now Corey has been a Christian since he was seven, and for decades he participated and then worked in a “Western” church that preached a “replacement theology.” While not as extreme as the philosophy of “kill the Indian, save the man,” it is on that end of the spectrum. In the last ten years, Corey had an epiphany, a vision from God of a ministry to native youth that honored their traditions and drew them into relationship with Jesus, or Yeshua, his tribal name. This path of Yeshua involves unlearning the abusive theology and toxic gospel of cultural eradication imposed on so many Native Americans. Corey and the leaders of his “Mending Wings” ministry have created a bridge between the longhouse faith and the path of Yeshua.

Is there room in the body for such as these? Is their room, with Christ as our head, for us to be nourished and held together in all our diversity? With our European organs, Aboriginal djembes, and Native drums? Can we allow others their own festivals, new moons, amd sabbaths? Can we trust that the same Spirit animates our seeking? Will we break away the pot, exposing the bare root of Jesus and allow the plant of faith to grow into new forms? Can we trust with the author of Colossians that in this body we are all alive together, that the substance belongs to Christ?

Can we trust that all mission is merely participation in the redemptive mission of God, who declares in Isaiah 43:1, “I have redeemed you! I have called you by name!” Can we trust that God has gone before us?

Can we have an even bigger, more liberating concept of God?

In this body, held together by the ligaments of baptism and the sinews of communion, there is room for the Rainbow Spirit Theology of the Aborigines, and the Yeshua Path of the Native Americans, there is room for our Orthodox brothers and sisters, for Catholics, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and yes, even Presbyterians. And thank God there’s room for you and me too.

God did not give the Egyptians and Ethiopians as ransom for Israel. Nor for us. God did not sacrifice the lives of Native Americans in favor of our European ancestors. God did not give these as ransom because God chose instead to give Jesus, God’s own son. And God gave Jesus as ransom for not just the covenant people of Israel, but for the Egyptians, Ethiopians and the people of Sheba. God gave Jesus for the Native Americans, the Aztecs and Aborigines. And yes, God gave Jesus for Europeans too.

On Easter we all celebrate the saving death of our risen Lord, whether we call him Yeshua, Joshua, Yeasou, “Hesus,” Iesus, or even just Jesus. In every language, his name ALWAYS means, “The Lord is salvation.”

Finding Satisfaction

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 55:1-7, John 6:25-35

             As I said in the eNews this week, I never thought I would quote Lady Gaga in a sermon.  But here goes.  These are lyrics from Lady Gaga’s academy award winning song “Shallows”:

 Tell me something, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there something else you're searching for?

I'm falling
In all the good times I find myself longing
For change
And in the bad times, I fear myself.

 Tell me something, boy
Aren't you tired tryin' to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain't it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I'm falling
In all the good times I find myself longing
For change
And in the bad times, I fear myself.

             Isn’t it interesting that Lady Gaga raises the same issue as Isaiah?  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

            Earlier this year I had lunch with a friend from high school who had grown up across the street from me in Tacoma.  During an earlier visit, I told him about my book A Faith Worth Believing, so he got one and read it.  When he finished it, he contacted me and said he would like to talk about it, so we met for lunch.  He told me he had thought carefully about what he was going to say, and he decided to begin with a story.  He said, “When I go to the grocery store, as I am checking out the clerks always ask the same question.  They say, ‘Did you find everything you were looking for?’”  He looked at me and said, “When I read your book, I realized I hadn’t found everything I was looking for.”

At first I thought he meant he had not found what he was looking for in the book, that the book had disappointed him.  But then I realized that was not what he meant.  He meant that the book had raised for him a question: “Have I found what I’m looking for in life?”  And his answer was no.

We talked for another hour about his experience growing up with an alcoholic parent and all the things he had gone through since high school: touring with a rock band, getting married, getting divorced, losing his job, getting another job, but still wondering what he was looking for.  He concluded by saying, “I think I need to start going to church.”

  If no one else ever reads my book, that conversation alone makes it worth writing it.

             As both my friend and Lady Gaga recognized, there is a void in our lives which cannot be filled at a grocery story.  There is a search going on that does not end with getting a degree, getting a job, getting married, getting a house or getting anything else.

            Which brings me back to Isaiah 55.  Here is the first irony in Isaiah 55.  You cannot buy what you are looking for, but you can have it for free.  “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

            How do you buy something without money?  Simple, you accept it as a gift.  Notice the verbs that are used in Isaiah 55, verses 2-3:

-          “Listen carefully to me”

-          “Incline your ear”

-          “Come to me”

-          “Listen, so that you may live”

It is not the things we do that will make our lives meaningful.  It is not the things we buy that will give us satisfaction.  It’s the words we listen to and the person speaking them.  Meaning is not found in possessions or accomplishments but in a relationship with Someone whose words we can trust and who will be there with us when everything else is gone.

            Did you notice the similarity between Isaiah 55 and our first scripture reading in John 6?  A crowd of people come to Jesus wanting to make him king because he has just fed 5000 people with five loaves bread.  Who wouldn’t want a king like that?  Someone who could balance the budget, fund social security, increase spending for education, and provide cradle to grave Medicare, and do it without raising taxes.  He is the ideal candidate for president.

But Jesus says to them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  Son of Man is an expression Jesus often uses to refer to himself.  It is your relationship with Jesus that gives you food for eternal life.

The crowd does not understand this.  They are still thinking about accomplishments and acquisitions, so they say to Jesus, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  Their very question is based on the idea that satisfaction comes from works, from what we do.

But Jesus replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he sent.”  It is not your work that will bring ultimate satisfaction to your life; it is your relationship to God, a relationship that Jesus came to make possible.

But there is something else in Isaiah 55 that gives our lives meaning.  Not only are we given a relationship to God, it is a relationship we can share with others.  Verse 5: “See, you will call nations that you do not know, and nations that you do not know will come running to you, because of the Lord your God.”

For several years in Spokane I belonged to a fitness club.  One morning while I was working out, the background music was interrupted by an advertisement.  A voice came on inviting people to join the 24-hour Fitness staff as a trainer.  The voice said, “You can change people’s lives forever, and there aren’t many people who can say that about their job.”

When I heard that announcement I sort of smiled to myself.  I looked around the gym at all the people there, including those strong, muscle-toned trainers, and I thought, “You know, all of you will eventually get arthritis or cancer or heart disease or macular degeneration or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or some other terminal malady.”  If you want to change people’s lives forever, don’t be a trainer; be a minister!  Sooner or later our bodies will let us down, as will everything else to which we might commit our lives: career, possessions, advancement, even spouses, parents, or children.  Sooner or later all these good things will let us down, especially if they become the sole focus of our lives.

“Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  And here is another irony: if you seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, you will discover more satisfaction in the other areas of your life.  If your job, your family, your possessions, and even your precious but deteriorating body are not the ultimate priorities of your life, you will find more joy in them than if they were.  Seek first the Bread of Life, and all the other bread in your life will be more satisfying.

Memory and Hope

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 43:14-21; Isaiah 63:7-15

When I was a student at Whitworth College in the 1970s, some friends and I began visiting an elderly woman named Lillie.  Lillie lived alone in a small ramshackle house on the north side of Spokane.  One of my friends met her at a department store, and she seemed so lonely and disheveled, almost like a bag lady, that my friend decided to start visiting her and persuaded a group of us to begin visiting her.  The first time we went to her house—this was about 1973—she was clearly in mourning.  The drapes were closed, and she was sitting on her sofa in tears clutching a picture of her deceased husband.  As she held the picture she told us about how good her husband had been to her and how anguished she felt when he was stricken with cancer.  I finally worked up the nerve to ask her when he died.  She said, “1957,” which at that point was 16 earlier.  I asked if this was a special day for her, like their anniversary or her husband’s birthday, but no, she was just grieving.  In subsequent visits I discovered that she was always grieving.  Years later the drapes were still closed, and the same picture of her husband was propped up on the sofa next to where she sat.

She reminded me of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, who still wore her wedding dress from the day, decades earlier, when her husband had failed to show up for their wedding.

There are two ways to remember the past.  One is to remember the past and be stuck in it.  You can see this happen in our first scripture reading from Isaiah 63.  It begins by remembering the past. Verse 7: “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us….”  It goes on to tell how God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, how God parted the waters of the Red Sea so they could escape, how God led the people through the wilderness, giving them food  and water until finally bringing them to the promised land.  It is a wonderful memory.  But they are stuck in it, because the present does not look that good.  In the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel had been defeated by their enemies, made homeless and taken into exile by the Babylonians.  Listen to verses 11-13:

Then they remembered the days of old, of Moses his servant.  Where is the one who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flocks?  Where is the one who put within them his holy spirit, who caused his glorious arm to march at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths?

The Israelites cherished their memory of Moses, but they were stuck in it.  As a result they were blind to what God might do in their lives now.

Which brings me to our second scripture reading from Isaiah 43.  Once again this scripture starts by remembering the past—verses 16-17:

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.

            Again this remembers the time of Moses.  If you remember the story, when the Egyptian horses and chariots tried to chase the people of Israel through the Red Sea the water closed back over them.  They were extinguished, quenched like a wick.

            But now in verses 18-19 God says,

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

            God is not telling the Israelites to forget the past completely.  After all, God had just reminded them of the past in the previous two verses.  God wants us to remember the past, because God has worked in the past.  But the past is not something to inhabit as your permanent home.  The past is meant to show us what God can yet do in the future.  That is the other way to remember the past: to see the past as prelude:  “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord, “I will make a way in the wilderness.”  Just as God made a way through the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape from Egypt, so God will now make a way through the wilderness so that the Israelites can return from their exile in Babylon.  The past is the prelude to hope.

            I wonder what would have happened to Lillie if she had remembered her past in a different way.  What if she had remembered the wonderful husband God gave her, and then wondered what other good relationships God might have in store for her?  She might have even realized that some quirky college students could be part of God’s future blessing in her life.

            According to the Bible the past is prelude.  This is true even if your past is full of memories not all that great.  I know from talking to you that some of you here had an almost idyllic life growing up, and that others of you had some horribly painful experiences growing up.  That was also true of the Israelites who looked back and remembered how God saved them from the Egyptians.  But they also remembered how they ended up as captives to the Babylonians, in part because of their own poor choices.

            Another way to get stuck in the past is to get stuck in guilt, to feel that you have messed up in ways that God can never fix.  But Isaiah also has a message for the guilty: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” says the Lord, “I am about to do a new thing.”

            In my office I have a book by Robert Dykstra called Counseling Troubled Youth.  In the book he talks about how the future God has for us can reshape even our memory of the past.  He writes, “It is never too late to have a happy childhood” (p. 17).

            There are two ways to get stuck in the past.  One is to idolize it—those were the good old days—and the other is to regret it, to feel that the past has trapped you in a hopeless future.  Both are a denial of God’s power to do something new in your life.

            When I was called to be the pastor of my former church, Hamblen Park Presbyterian in Spokane, I followed a pastor, Harlan Gilliland, who had been there for 17 years, not as long as Ben Lindstrom was the pastor here, but a long time.  Many people in the church had deep ties to Harlan.  Their children had grown up with him.  He had done their weddings or the baptisms of their children, or the memorial services of their parents.  They had fond memories of mission trips with Harlan and various kinds of small group outings.  So when I went there I worried that people would yearn for the good old days, the days when Harlan was their pastor, like the way the people of Israel felt about Moses.

            Then I ended up staying their 26 years, and I became the good old days, the days people looked back on with fond memories.  Never mind that we also had our struggles and problem during those years, and sometimes people got mad.  When I announced I was leaving, everyone got nostalgic.

            I suspect that might have also happened to some extent here at Southminster.  Ben was the pastor here for 33 years, the only pastor some of you had ever known.  There are a lot of fond memories of Ben’s time in this church.  It would be easy for Southminster to live in the past just as it would have been for Hamblen Park.

            But the good news is doing a new thing in both churches.  In January I went back to Hamblen Park for a Sunday morning church service, the first time I had been back for a Sunday morning service since I had left almost five years ago.  Within 30 seconds of walking in the door, I saw four people I did not know.  During the children’s message about 15 kids went up to the front, and I did not recognize any of them.  Then I realized that half of them weren’t born yet when I was there.  And I thought about our scripture passage: “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord.  In the five years I have been gone, God has been doing a lot of new good things at Hamblen Park.  I think the same is true here.  I think the same is true in all our lives.

Memory can be a trap, but it can also be a vehicle for hope.  The past can be the prelude to a new future.  If it isn’t, maybe you are not looking at it the right way. 

Coming Home to a New Place

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:1-6

  Near the end of my daughter’s first quarter at Seattle Pacific University, we received a letter from student services warning us that our children might be different when they came home for Christmas break.  The letter explained that our children had been away from home and on their own for three months.  They had made new friends, experienced new things, and discovered a whole new world of ideas.  Because of this, the letter said, we should not expect our relationship to them to be the same as it was before.

After that, when my daughter got home for Christmas break, I kept looking at her, watching to see if there was some dramatic change.  But she seemed pretty much the same.  After two days her room was just as messy as it was in high school.

            And then I remembered coming home after my first semester of college at Whitworth.  I had been away from home on my own for four months, making new friends, managing my own schedule and finances, even doing my own laundry.  I thought I was so grown up.  But the minute I walked in the door I reverted to old patterns of behavior.  My parents started arguing about something, and I retreated to my room, closed the door, and started reading a book.  It was just like I was back in high school.

Sometimes what makes us nervous about going home is not the fear that things will have changed, but the fear that nothing will have changed.  It is the fear that we will go back and fall into the same behaviors and the same pattern of relationships that we had before.

            Believe it or not, this is relevant to Isaiah 35.  As I have mentioned before, in the time of Isaiah the land of Israel and Judah was devastated by foreign armies.  In 587 BC the Babylonian army marched in Judah, broke down the walls of Jerusalem, set fire to the city and its surrounding fields, and took most of the healthy and educated people as slaves to Babylon.  The land that they left behind became a wilderness of devastation and drought, and the people they left behind were generally the sick, the blind, the lame, and the helpless.

            With that in mind turn back to Isaiah 35, verse 10: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion (Jerusalem) with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

This verse dreams of a time when the people of Israel who have been taken into exile in Babylon can return to their homes and their land.  But when they do, what will they find?  Will their land still be a drought-stricken waste?  Will the people in the land be the same sick, lame, blind, helpless people that were left behind?  Will they be easy prey for every marauding tribe of bandits that comes along to steal what they produce?  If they go home again, will anything be different?

            Isaiah 35 answers that question. Verse 1: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.”  Their land will become fertile again.  But not only will the land be transformed, so will the people.  Verses 5-6: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

These last two verses have a spiritual meaning as well as a physical meaning.  Earlier in the book Isaiah describes the people of Israel as blind and deaf, meaning they are blind to God’s presence and deaf to God’s word.  But here is the good news: it is not just the land that will be healed but the people.  The people who have been blind to God will see, the people who have been deaf to God’s word will hear, and that will make their home a different place than it was before.

            It did not happen right away. When the Jewish people were finally allowed to return to their homes in 538 B. C., their homes were still in ruins and their fields were still desolate.  Nothing had changed.  The situation remained that way for about six centuries.  Times were better or worse, but for much of the next six hundred years the people of Israel continued to live under foreign rulers in a land periodically ravaged by drought and suffering.  For six hundred years they waited for the promises of Isaiah to be fulfilled.

Then someone came along who finally began doing the things Isaiah envisioned.  We heard about it in our first scripture from Matthew 11. John the Baptist is in prison.  In a way he is like the people of Israel in exile.  He is wondering if he will ever get to go home again, and if he does he wonders if anything will be different.  So he sends a couple of his disciples asking Jesus a question.  Verse 3: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Are you, Jesus, the one who will finally fulfill the promises of Isaiah, or should we wait for someone else?  In verses 4-5 Jesus replies, “Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus is quoting here from Isaiah 35: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  During his earthly ministry Jesus literally gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, legs to the lame, and food to people in the desert.  But these great works were not important only in themselves, they were signs of something greater.  When Jesus opened the eyes of the blind, he opened all of our eyes, helping us see how God is at work in the world.  When Jesus opened the ears of the deaf, he made it possible for all of us to hear God’s word in a way we had not heard it before.  And when he made the lame to walk, he empowered all of us to serve God in ways that we did not realize we could do.  Jesus accomplished the miracles Isaiah 35 both literally and metaphorically.  He brought us home to a new place, a place where not just sight is restored but so are relationships, a place where not just the wilderness rejoices and blossoms, but so do people.

I once read a story about a man at the Union Gospel Mission named Joe.  When he came to the mission he was heavily addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamine.  His addiction had cost him his marriage, his children, his job, and his apartment, and at that point he found himself out on the street.  In a sense he was like the people of Israel in exile.

But then Joe came to the Union Gospel mission and entered their Life Regeneration Program which includes Bible study, prayer, job training, and group support.  God worked through that program to turn his life around, giving him sobriety and a new purpose for living.  After 18 months he thought about going home, at least going back to see his oldest daughter and her children whom he had not seen for six years.  Nervously he called her up.  Here is how he tells the story:

I said hello, and she said, “Dad?”  Then we talked for 45 minutes.  I was nervous about asking her if I could come visit this Christmas, but she said yes. … [He continues] This Christmas I’ll be getting to know my grandkids again.  They’ll have a lot of questions for me, like, “Where have you been?”  That will be hard to answer, but I want to be part of their lives as they grow up.  I’m nervous but happy when I think about seeing my family again. … [He concludes] What I learned at the Mission gave me a chance to dream again.  I learned that you can’t change the past.  I also learned to turn my problems over to God through prayer.  He answered one for me I thought would never happen: restoring my relationship to my daughter.

            The good news of Isaiah 35 is that you can go home again, and with God’s help it can be a different place.  But the key to that is not expecting other people to be different but for yourself to be different.  To go home to a new place means we have to be different people, responding to situations in a different way than we have in the past.  In some cases it may mean confronting things that have not been confronted before.  In other cases it may mean forgiving things that have not been forgiven before or accepting people that you have not previously been willing to accept.  It may not be easy, but Isaiah 35 says that you can go home again to a different place: a place where people who are blind to God can see, where people deaf to God can hear, where feeble hands are made firm and fearful hearts given courage, a place where the wasteland of old destructive relationships can blossom with new life.

Anticipatory Praise

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 12:1-6; Psalm 118:5-14

             Isaiah 12 is a remarkable scripture passage.  In many ways it reads like one of the psalms.  In fact some of its phrases are taken from the psalms.  Isaiah 12:2 says, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  Compare that verse to a verse Kurt read for us from Psalm 118.  Verse 14: “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  Isaiah 12 echoes Psalm 118.

             A similar thing happens in Isaiah 12:4.  It says,, “And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations.”  Compare that to Psalm 105, verse 1: “O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.”  Isaiah 12 is built on psalms of praise from the Bible.  But it occurs in a context where you would not expect a psalm of praise.

             I have shown this map before. It illustrates how in the time of Isaiah the people of Israel and Judah were like a punching bag for the more powerful empires around them.  Israel and Judah are down here, around the city of Jerusalem where Isaiah lived.  During Isaiah’s lifetime they were invaded by three successive armies, each bigger than the previous one: first the Syrians then the Assyrians and finally the Babylonians who in 587 BC captured Jerusalem, destroyed the city, and took most of its people into exile as slaves.

             Those are the times in which Isaiah was written.  But Isaiah still believes in God’s power and love, so much so that he is able to sing about it even before he sees it.  Isaiah 12, verses 3-4: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations.”

             Our first scripture reading, Psalm 118 is a psalm of praise written after being rescued by God.  Verse 5: “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.”  Psalm 118 celebrates how God has rescued the person from some horrible problem.  And that leads to a chorus of praise in verse 14: “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

             In contrast, Isaiah 12 is not a song of praise after the people have been saved by God.  It is a song they are taught to sing before they are saved.  Verse 4: “And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations.”  Isaiah 12 is what I call “anticipatory praise.”

            It’s one thing to come to church and sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” when everything is going okay, when you’ve still got your job or your retirement income, when you still have a home to go back to and food to eat, when you still feel well enough to come to church.  In those circumstances it is easy to be thankful and sing songs of praise to God.

            But it is something else to come here and sing God’s praise when you are facing a cancer, or when your child is seriously ill or in trouble, or when you are depressed and worried about things happening at your school or in your home or in our country.  Let’s be honest.  There are plenty of things happening out there, that if you stop and think about it very long, will leave you feeling depressed.  And yet, we expect you to come here on Sunday morning and sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  We expect you to sing, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does it successive journeys run.”  We sing these songs, not because they are statements of fact but because they are statements of faith.  They are anticipatory praise.  They are our determined declaration to the world that love is going to win.

            One time I had an experience of watching an old movie with someone who had already seen it.  The movie was called Hoosiers, the story of a high school basketball team from the little town of Hickory, Indiana.  Anyone who thinks a movie is not as exciting the second time you watch it should have been with my friend that night.  He could hardly keep himself in the chair.  Even before it started, he said to me, “This is a great movie; you are really going to like it.”  So I settled into my chair to watch.  But all through the movie he kept telling what was coming next.  At the first practice with the new coach two of the seven players quit the team, leaving only five players to take the court.  My friend turned to me and said, “That’s okay, wait until you see what happens next.”  Well what happens next is that during the first game one of the players fouls out, leaving the team with only four players.  My friend then turned to me and said, “Don’t worry; watch how it turns out.”  He was like that all through the movie.  At one point the team’s coach gets thrown out of a game.  My friend turned to me and said, “This is a great scene coming up.”  I was feeling depressed, but he could barely contain his excitement.

            I discovered why at the end of the movie.  In the end this small town basketball team from Hickory High School, enrollment 64, ends up winning the Indiana State Championship, beating a team from South Bend Central High School with an enrollment of 2800 students.

And then I realized what was going on: while I was sometimes anxious and depressed watching the movie, my friend was excited because he knew the ending.  He knew how it was going to turn out, so he is praising the movie even while I’m thinking I want to turn it off.

            That’s what Isaiah is doing.  Isaiah is encouraging us to praise God, not because of what is happening in our lives right now, but because of how it will turn out in the end.  Isaiah is teaching us anticipatory praise.  Isaiah wants us to practice gratitude, even if at the moment you don’t feel particularly grateful.  Isaiah wants us to practice praising God, not only for what God has done for us in the past, but for what God will yet do in the future.

             Like many of you I was touched to hear Paul Edwards tell his story in our church two weeks ago.  It was humbling to hear him tell about meeting his grandmother in Alabama who still bore the marks of slavery on her back, and then to hear him tell of marching in a civil rights demonstration in Memphis, TN, with Dr. King, and afterwards going into a hotel, getting permission to use their restroom, and coming to see a row of armed police officers pointing rifles at him and asking what he was doing in that hotel.  Paul said he knew in that moment if he flinched he could be dead.  Our own Paul Edwards told those stories and reflected on how experiences like that still happen to African Americans today.  Then all of us in the church stood up with him, and together we began to sing:

             We shall overcome; we shall overcome. We shall overcome some day.

            Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day.

             That is anticipatory praise.  It is not unlike my friend during the movie telling me, “Don’t worry; watch what happens next.”  Every Sunday we stand in this church and proclaim to the world, “Don’t worry; watch what happens next.  We shall overcome and love is going to win.”


Created For Salvation

Isaiah 41:17-20, Mark 4:30-32

Rev. Aaron Willett

Our human relationship to nature is complex. We revel in nature’s beauty, and we depend on nature for our very being, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the land on which we dwell. Yet it can also seem as though we are locked in a perpetual power struggle with nature.

In the 20th Century, in our country we undertook grand projects, altering the landscape to suit our needs. We raised dams, greened deserts, and even learned to build skyscrapers on giant shock absorbers so they can survive earthquakes. As a kid I loved few things more than building dam in a ditch on a rainy day. Maybe this is instinctual. Far beyond my mud-dams, the brilliance of engineers is reflected in the ever-diminishing size of the transistors that power our electronics and the ever-increasing fuel efficiency of the planes that fill our skies (especially here!).

And yet nature has its own power. As the climate around us continues to change, we experience the growing threat of heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and storms; not to mention migrations and conflicts fueled by waning resources, desertification of marginal farmland and water shortages. Each of these demands a cost in lives, time, and treasure.

Add to this the sometimes destructive power of humanity. The 20th Century was also the deadliest in our history. Too often we resort to war and violence. Some of the nuclear weapons in the world today are more than 3000 times more powerful than Little Boy dropped on Nagasaki! And the fear of mutually assured destruction seems to be declining in our world’s corridors of power.

The exiles to whom this latter part of Isaiah was written experienced a world similarly out of control. Gone were any illusions of their own worldly power--they had been dominated by their neighbors and wrapped up in their wars, first the Assyrians, then the Egyptians, then finally driven into exile by the Babylonians, with the rising power of the Persians next door still!

They did not sit in the seat of power. God’s covenant people were being tossed by the storms of history.

Yet, even in the midst of that storm, did God abandon the Israelites to the whims of the international power players that surrounded them?

You might be wondering... and so did the Israelites.

Lamentations was written during the same time period as this part of the book of Isaiah, and it speaks to that sense of abandonment in 5:20-22:

20 Why have you forgotten us completely?

  Why have you forsaken us these many days?

21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;

  renew our days as of old—

22 unless you have utterly rejected us,

  and are angry with us beyond measure.

If we’re being honest, there are aspects of God’s sovereignty that might make us wonder along with those Israelites. Just how high above all this is God?

To the doubters from other nations who are inclined to associate the power of gods with the power of their attendant nations, Isaiah responds with a universal claim in 40:28:” Do you not know, have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.”

And then Isaiah twice declares (in 41:4 and 44:6) that God is beyond even time, “I the LORD am first, and will be the last.”

So we have this image of God, who is first and last, the creator of everything, this whole good earth... but does this God care about any of it? “Why have you forgotten us completely?” the author of Lamentations asks.

Does this God care about the migrants fleeing economic insecurity and food scarcity in northern Africa? Does this God care about the families whose homes were destroyed in last summer’s wildfires? Does this God care?

As if in response, God declares through Isaiah, in 41:10:

“Do not fear, I am with you.”

Do not fear, I am with you, says the LORD.

Yes, this God cares.

All life finds its purpose in the one who undergirds all creation. All of human history is built upon a foundation of this God who existed before all and will exist after all. God reigns in glory above all, beyond our imaginations, and yet is still connected with and concerned about the plight of humanity. God persists as an agent of justice and peace in our world, working to restore wholeness to the fractured human family.

And so we see in today’s passage, God greening up a way through the desert. The road was promised in the previous chapter, but now we read of God coming to the aid of the poor, needy, and parched, making the desert mountains fertile, of water gushing down from the mountains, springs rising up in the valleys. And God promises trees great and small to point the way home for the exiled people of God.

This is a sign of God’s continuing provision and promise, a mark of God’s loving-kindness extended through nature, God’s creation.


Jesus’ parable similarly speaks of God’s provision. The mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, grows to provide shelter for the birds of the air.

Now, Jesus is playing on imagery his audience would have recognized from Ezekiel. Ezekiel chapter 17, verses 22 and 23, speak of God promising to raise up Israel as a great tree, a stately cedar, for birds of all kids to nest in. The birds here, as in Jesus’ parable, are a metaphor for the people of the nations. But instead of that grand cedar providing them shelter, the kingdom Jesus describes is like a mustard plant.

Now the mustard plant was a known quantity in antiquity. Pliny the elder in his Natural History from 78 AD described both the culinary quality of the plant as well as its challenges.

“[The mustard] is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

The pharisees in Jesus’ audience would have recalled not only the play on Ezekiel, but the Talmud’s prohibition of mustard being planted in Jewish gardens because of its propensity to take over the place and thereby mix with the other plants. They would have heard this troublemaking rabbi’s clear implication about the bottom-up nature of the coming kingdom.

There’s another interesting insight to be had in comparing Mark’s telling of the parable of the Mustard Seed to that in Matthew and Luke. In Luke, the seed becomes a tree. In Matthew, he declares that as the greatest of shrubs it becomes a tree. But Mark, well, Mark seems to understand that maybe Jesus meant something different, that he chose the Mustard seed on purpose, because it is in fact not a mighty tree like a cedar, but a shrub that spreads by it’s relative lowliness. Jesus’ kingdom is not marked by the promise of grand temples and tall steeples, but by humility. Paul would later have to remind the churches of this, that in the Kingdom of God, the greatest honor is reserved for the lowest.

We Christians, in all places and at all times, would do well to remember this, that we are a part of God’s creation, like the trees lining the path home to Jerusalem. As such, we are invited to participate in marking the path to God, but we do so not as the most impressive trees, but really, just as shrubs. Shrubs sprung up from a tiny seed, spreading every-which-way, and playing host to all the birds of the air. Shrubs who can tell of the way our experience of the divine has given meaning to our lives and sustained us in our troubles. The seeds of our faith have been passed along for two thousand years, and we still rest our faith on the same simple truth: Jesus saves. Jesus saves with the gentleness of an expansive shrub giving shade to a nesting bird. In our humility, we are invited into what God is doing in our midst: saving, creating and recreating.

This is the promise Isaiah held for those lamenting Israelites in exile, and this is the good news for us us as well, we who live in a world that teeters and totters, every day flush with new anxieties to burden our hearts:

Do not fear, I am with you.

God cares for you, for me, for our community, AND for the whole, fractured, divided, torn-up human family. Isaiah envisions the healing of all creation, an action graciously infused with God’s love of ALL creatures, and Jesus gives us a vision of an untamed kingdom graciously providing shelter.

We, citizens the mustard seed kingdom, get to join with God’s good creation, pointing the way and participating in God’s never ending, never giving up, never abandoning us, always for us, faithful love. That sounds like good news to me.

How God Deals with Enemies

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 19:18-25, Revelation 7:9-12

             Recently I listened to a podcast by a woman named Ozlem Cekic.  It was a Ted talk given last year in New York called, “Why I Have Coffee with People who Send Me Hate Mail” (Sept. 2018).  Ozlem was one of the first Muslim women to be elected to the Danish parliament.  She was born in Turkey to Kurdish parents, but grew up in Denmark where she became a citizen and was elected to parliament.  But as soon as she was elected, she began receiving hate mail—email messages calling her vile names and telling her to go back where she came from.  She deleted them without responding, until one of her colleagues in parliament told her to save them.  He said, “When something happens to you, it will give the police a lead,” which somehow wasn’t very comforting.

             After a few months of this, she was at a friend’s house, complaining about all the hateful messages she had received, when the friend said, “You should call them up and visit them.”  Ozlem said, “They’ll kill me.”  The friend said, “Oh, they would never attack a member of parliament.”

Ozlem wasn’t sure about that, but the suggestion seemed so outrageous, she decided to try it.  She opened the folder in her computer where she stored all the hate messages and decided to contact the person who had sent the most.  His name was Ingolf.  She found Ingolf’s phone number and called.  When he answered the phone, she blurted out, “Hello, my name is Ozlem.  You have sent me so many hate mails.  You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.  I was wondering if I could come around and we can drink coffee together and talk about it.”  There was silence on the line, and then he said, “I have to ask my wife.”  Ozlem said she stared at the phone and said, “He has a wife?”  She could not believe that such a hateful person had a wife.

  Apparently the wife gave permission, because a couple days later they met at his house.  In the podcast Ozlem says,

 I will never forget when he opened his front door and reached out to shake my hand. I felt so disappointed, because he looked nothing like I'd imagined. I had expected a horrible person -- dirty, messy house. It was not. His house smelled of coffee which was served from a coffee set identical to the one my parents used. I ended up staying for two and a half hours. And we had so many things in common.

             I will come back to Ozlem’s story in a minute.  I share it, however, because it is the perfect introduction for today’s scripture reading.

You cannot appreciate today’s scripture without first understanding the history of Israel’s relationship to its neighbors. The territory of Israel was positioned directly between two of the most powerful warring empires of the ancient Near East: Egypt and Assyria.  These two ancient superpowers fought back and forth for a century or more, and right in the middle between them was Israel.  Israel became the battle ground where these two powers fought each other, sort of like Vietnam during the cold war, which served as a kind of proxy battle ground between the U. S. and the Soviet Union.

             But Isaiah 19 pictures a stunning turnaround in this situation.  Verse 19: “On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border.”

  The Egyptians were one of Israel’s traditional enemies, going back to the time when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  At that time Moses went to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and said, “Let my people go that we may worship the Lord in the desert.”  Pharaoh replied, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know the Lord.”  That was the attitude of the Egyptians toward the God of Israel.  But now, Isaiah says, the Egyptians will build an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt.

             Why?  Verse 20: “It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them.”  When the Israelites were slaves of the Egyptians, the Israelites cried to the Lord because of their oppression and the Lord delivered them.  But now in the time of Isaiah, the Egyptians find themselves oppressed.  The Egyptians are under attack by the more powerful Assyrians.  So this time God intervenes to deliver the Egyptians.

Notice how God is not motivated by retaliation.  God does not say to the Egyptians, “Well, you oppressed the Israelites in the time of Moses; now you are getting a taste of your own medicine.  Take that, you Egyptian scum!”  God does not say that.  Instead God hears the cries of Israel’s enemies when they are oppressed, just as God had heard the cries of the Israelites in the time of Moses.  God reaches out to save the Egyptians in the same way God had earlier saved the Israelites.

             But God still isn’t finished.  Verse 23: “On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.”  As I mentioned earlier, there was an ongoing back and forth battle between Egypt and Assyria, much of which took place on the road between them running through Israel.  But now this road will be a highway for cultural and economic commerce.  These old enemies will become trading partners. 

             Isaiah concludes in verses 24-25: “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’”  All those phrases have been used in the Bible previously for the people of Israel.  But now those same phrases are used of Israel’s enemies—the Egyptians and Assyrians.

            When I read this passage, I thought of my son and daughter-in-law’s honeymoon.  For their honeymoon my youngest son and his wife chose to visit Vietnam.  When they told me I was flabbergasted.  For anyone in my generation and older, Vietnam was not the kind of place you went for your honeymoon.  The very word Vietnam conjured up grim images.  I had both a father and a brother who fought in Vietnam.  But forty years later, here were my son and daughter-in-law going to Vietnam as tourists.  And they came back marveling at what a beautiful country it was and how graciously they were treated by the Vietnamese people.  And now, as we heard, the sister of an American killed in Vietnam is helping to clear land mines, plant trees, and establish schools in Vietnam.  Amazing!  The most powerful manifestation of God is not when we defeat our enemies but when we are reconciled with them.

            Which bring me back to Ozlem Cekic. Near the end of her talk, Ozlem gave this challenge.  She said,

I want to give you a challenge. Before the end of this year, I challenge you to invite someone whom you demonize -- someone whom you disagree with politically and/or culturally and don't think you have anything in common with. I challenge you to invite someone like this to coffee. … Basically, I'm asking you to find an Ingolf in your life, contact him or her and suggest that you meet for coffee.

When you start, you have to remember this: first, don't give up if the person refuses at first. Sometimes it's taken me nearly one year to arrange a coffee meeting. Two: acknowledge the other person's courage. It isn't just you who's brave. … Three: don't judge during the conversation. Make sure that most of the conversation focuses on what you have in common.  And bring food.  And finally, remember to finish the conversation in a positive way because you are going to meet again. A bridge can't be built in one day.

            I don’t know who your Ingolf might be—a person with opposing political views, a person of another race or nationality, or a homeless person you see on the street.  Maybe it’s a neighbor, a coworker, or a family member.  Whoever it is, find your Ingolf, and invite them to coffee.  Try somehow to connect with them, not so you can change them but so you can better understand them, and they can better understand you.  And maybe in the process both of you will witness a miracle.

Poor Draft Choices and a Hopeful Future

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 27:2-6 [The Message]

             I will read our second scripture near the end of the sermon today.  Before that, I need to talk about the scripture we just heard.

             For Seahawk fans there may be less interest in today’s Superbowl than in the upcoming NFL Draft.  For those of you who don’t follow this stuff, the NFL draft is where teams take turns picking from among the top college football players across the country who are graduating or turning professional.  It’s called a draft because the players don’t get to choose their teams, the teams get to choose their players.  In the NFL draft the team with the worst record gets the first pick, which is a way of trying to even out the talent between teams.

             The problem is that the Seahawks have a mixed record in the draft.  In 1987 the Seahawks had the number one pick in the pro football supplemental draft.  They got the first choice of all eligible college football players in the country.  They chose Brian Bosworth. The Boz, as he was called, seemed like a good choice.  He had played three years for the University of Oklahoma and was twice named the best college linebacker in the country.  The Seahawks signed him to the biggest contract in team history: $11 million dollars over 10 years.  He played only three years.  ESPN named him one of the 10 biggest flops in the last three decades.

            In 1993 the Seahawks tried again.  They had the 2nd pick in the NFL draft, the 2nd choice of any eligible college player in the country.  They chose Rick Mirer from Notre Dame. Rick signed a 5 year, $15 million contract.  He played four years for the Seahawks, and in three of those four years he threw more interceptions than touchdowns.  Pro Football Reference rated him the worst quarterback in NFL history.

            Believe it or not, this is actually relevant to our scripture reading from Isaiah.  Isaiah 5 describes a vineyard planted by the Lord.  Verse 2 says, “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.”  The Lord did everything to make this a healthy, safe, and productive vineyard.  The Lord had high hopes for this vineyard, expecting it to yield high quality grapes.  But instead it produced wild grapes—grapes that tasted bitter and were worthless.

            In verse 7 we are told the meaning of this parable: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.”

To use football imagery, Israel was God’s first draft choice.  The Bible says this quite clearly.  In Deuteronomy 7, Moses tells the people of Israel, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”  Israel was God’s first round draft choice.  And if you think about it, the Lord paid a significant price for them: bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, leading them and feeding them for forty years in the wilderness, defeating all their enemies and giving them a fertile land in which they could plant vineyards and raise crops.  In one sense Isaiah 5 should be taken literally.  The Lord literally created a vineyard for the people of Israel, giving them a good land with the potential to produce delicious grapes.

            But they turned out to be one a “bitter” disappointment.  In Isaiah 5:5-6—the Lord says,

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.  I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.

            This is not just a parable.  It describes quite literally what happened to the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah.  Their vineyards were trampled and destroyed by foreign armies.  Their towers and fortifications were torn down.  The people who survived were taken into exile, which meant the fields were left untended, overgrown with briers and thorns.

            Why did that happen?  Because the people did not fulfill their purpose.  They did not live up to their reason for being drafted.  Verse 7: “God expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mishpah); God expected righteousness (sedeqa), but heard a cry (she’aqa).”  In Hebrew words almost rhyme.  I tried to emulate that in the prayer of confession this morning.  God expected light, but instead got blight.  God expected care, but instead got despair.  God expected hope, but instead got self-centered dopes.  It’s not great poetry, but you get the idea.  God expected Israel to bring blessing into the world, but instead their history was filled with greed, conflict, and destruction.

            But that is not the end of the story.  Now we are ready for the second scripture reading.  By the time of Isaiah 27 Israel and its vineyards had long since been destroyed by the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  By the time of Isaiah 27, Israel was no longer a first draft choice.  It was an undrafted free agent, meaning no team wanted it.  But God did, and that is where our second scripture reading begins.  This scripture reading is confusing in the New Revised Standard Bibles, so I am going to read it from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.

At that same time, a fine vineyard will appear.
There’s something to sing about!
I, God, tend it. I keep it well-watered.
I keep careful watch over it so that no one can damage it.
I’m not angry. I care.
Even if it gives me thistles and thornbushes,

I’ll just pull them out and burn them up.
Let that vine cling to me for safety,
let it find a good and whole life with me,
let it hold on for a good and whole life.”

The days are coming when Jacob shall put down roots,
Israel blossom and grow fresh branches, and fill the world with its fruit.

Did you notice how this scripture reverses the damage described in Isaiah 5?  Both talk about God tending a vineyard.  But there is a difference.

-          Isaiah 5: Hedges and walls are torn down, leaving it unprotected.

-          Isaiah 27: God will keep careful watch over it.

-          Isaiah 5: No rain will fall on the land.

-          Isaiah 27: God will keep it well watered.

-          Isaiah 5: It will be overgrown with briers and thorns.

-          Isaiah 27: God will pull out the thistles and thorns.

-          Isaiah 5: The vineyard is a waste.

-          Isaiah 27: The vineyard blossoms and grows.

Isaiah 27 is the vineyard in Isaiah 5 restored.  In fact it is made better.  This new vineyard fills the world with its fruit.  Israel finally becomes the blessing to the world it was meant to be.

It seems that when the Seahawks had a top draft pick, they did not do very well.  The Seahawks often seem to do better when they pick from the bottom of the barrel.  In 2012 they took Russell Wilson as the 75th overall pick.  In 2011 the Seahawks had the 154th pick.  153 college players had already been chosen by that point.  On the 154th pick, the Seahawks took a not very highly rated player from Stanford.  His name was Richard Sherman.

In the time of Isaiah, God could have selected many more promising nations as God’s chosen people, like the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Persians.  But God chose instead to stick with the lowly, defeated people of Israel, determined to make them a fruitful vineyard and a blessing to the world.  Which has happened, we believe, in no small part through an unheralded descendant of Israel named Jesus.

In 2011 the Seahawks signed an undrafted free agent.  That means no professional team wanted him.  No NFL team chose him in the draft that year, so the Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent.  His name was Doug Baldwin, who now has the second most career touchdown receptions in Seahawk history.

If the Seahawks can do that with an undrafted football player, if God can do that with a disappointing vineyard, what might the Creator of the universe be able to do with you, if you only give God the chance?

Before the Downfall

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 2:5-17, II Chronicles 26:1, 6-16

             This week I saw an interesting poster. It shows a bicyclist doing a wheelie on the edge of a cliff.  You can probably see the main title under the poster.  It says, “Confidence.”  What you may not be able to read is the subtitle: “The feeling you have before you understand the situation.”


            That could be the title over today’s scripture from Isaiah.  Early in Isaiah’s time the people of Judah and Jerusalem were riding high.  In our first scripture, Nanci read about the reign of King Uzziah in Jerusalem, who was king at the time Isaiah began his ministry.  Here are some of the things it said about Uzziah’s reign:

-          Verse 8: “The Ammonites paid tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong.”

-           Verse 10: “He built towers in the wilderness and hewed out many cisterns, for he had large herds, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands.”

  This picture of power and prosperity is echoed in the scripture I just read from Isaiah.  Chapter 2, verse 7: “Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.”

  At this point the people of Judah and Jerusalem are comparatively powerful and prosperous.  But a crash is coming—verses 11: “The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled; and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.”

  Of all the problems Isaiah identifies in the people of Judah and Jerusalem, the most dangerous is pride—not drugs, not stealing, not lying, not sex, but pride.

  Isaiah brings this up even when he is not talking to the Israelites.  In Isaiah 47:10-11 God says to the Babylonians,

You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, “No one sees me.”  Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.”  But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing.

            Here God is talking to the enemies of Israel—the Babylonians.  God is an equal opportunity humilater.  According to the Bible, God works at humbling people, cutting down arrogance wherever it is found—whether it’s the pride of Israelites or Babylonians, Americans or Russians, Republicans or Democrats, criminals or church goers.  Why?  Because pride, if left unchecked, is a deadly cancer.  Arrogance is inevitably destructive.  It not only damages our relationships to each other, it makes virtually impossible a relationship to God.

            A while back I read a novel by Michael Malone called Handling Sin.  I picked it up because I thought it was about theology, which in a way it is.  But it also turned out to be one of the funniest novels I have ever read.   The main character, “our hero” as the narrator calls him, is Raleigh W. Hayes, an insurance salesman, who sets off out to fulfill certain conditions set by his father for inheriting a large sum of money.

Raleigh, I should say, had always been the good child in his family: doing his homework, obeying his parents, never skipping school or getting in trouble, becoming a responsible citizen and family man in the hometown where he grew up.  His father, on the other hand, had run off with a young pregnant woman while Raleigh was still a boy, leaving Raleigh and his brother to care for their shattered mother.  And now years later this same father, well into his 80s and hospitalized with heart blockages, had discharged himself from the hospital, withdrawn all his money from a bank, and driven away in a convertible yellow Cadillac with a young female mental patient, leaving word for Raleigh to meet them in New Orleans.  Along the way Raleigh was to pick up certain items and people that he was to bring with him to meet his father.  If he did so, he would receive a large inheritance.

So Raleigh sets out on this journey to collect certain items and people and bring them to his father in New Orleans.  And that’s when this story becomes a quest, a sort of pilgrimage about handling sin and pride.

            Raleigh, of course, does not think of himself as a sinner, nor as particularly prideful.  He sometimes attends church with his family, because that is what good people do, but the church service does not really speak to him, especially the prayer of confession.  The narrator says,

Now, in its common usage, the word confession did not at all appeal to our hero. … Try as he might during church services, he honestly could not think of any manifold sins and wickednesses that he needed to repent.  He honestly did not see why, in all fairness, he should have provoked God’s wrath and indignation when there were so many really provoking people (like his father…) out there getting off scot-free; nor did he see why he should feel guilty and responsible and worried and all the things he had to confess he did feel, when the truly guilty appeared not to have a care in the world (pp. 230-231).

            I have talked to people in our church and in other churches who felt the same way as Raleigh.  They wonder why we have a prayer of confession every Sunday.  Isn’t that rather negative?  Shouldn’t church make people feel better about themselves rather than making them feel guilty and unworthy?  Even today’s scripture reading from Isaiah seems excessively negative.  Doesn’t it?

            Yes, it does.  But it is also like an immunization.  The scripture reading from Isaiah, like the prayer of confession we say every Sunday in our church service, is an inoculation against pride.  It is a reminder that we are not as righteous and self-sufficient as we might like to think.  We are all of us people who need grace—people who need the tender mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

Raleigh discovers this on his way to New Orleans.  On the journey Raleigh, our upstanding citizen who could think of nothing he needed to confess, becomes a fugitive from the law, ends up in a nunnery, goes on a boat ride with his brother, who it turns out is running drugs, impersonates an FBI agent to escape the Ku Klux Klan, and chases two mafia hit men through a state park in a stolen van.  When he finally gets to New Orleans, he meets his father, and before his father dies Raleigh learns much that he had never understood about his father’s life and in the process receives an inheritance far more important than money.

The story ends with Raleigh back in his hometown attending church on Easter.  Around him are many of the people whom he previously despised.  In the choir was his huge child-like neighbor Mingo Sheffield, who went on the trip with Raleigh, frustrating Raleigh with his bumbling incompetence, but saving him more than once.  The narrator says, “[Mingo] sang out beaming as if he’d just heard the news, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today!  Alleluia!’”  Beside Mingo was Pierce Jimson, another person Raleigh had despised at the beginning of the story.  He was singing, “Sinners to redeem and save.  Alleluia!”  Down from him was Raleigh’s teenage daughter Caroline, with whom Raleigh had fought countless battles over clothes, school, boyfriends, and cars.  She had a green streak painted across her blond hair but she was singing in a beautiful soprano voice, “Where the angels ever sing.  Alleluia!”

The narrator says, “And next to the organist, at his own request, by special arrangement with the choir, to the delight of his family (some of whom cried as they sang), to the astonishment of his neighbors (some of whom lost their places in their hymnals), stiffly stood Raleigh W. Hayes … accompanying the organ and choir on [his father’s] trumpet so highly polished that it glistened like gold.  “The strife is o’er, the battle done.  The victory of life is won.  The song of triumph has begun.  Alleluia!” (p. 592).

I guess we could send all of you on a quest to discover humility, but instead we do it with a prayer of confession and a reading from Isaiah.

Good News for Hypocrites

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 1:10-20; Luke 3:7-18

  The children’s message this morning reminds me of a story about a preacher who finished the service one week saying, “Next Sunday, I am going to preach on the subject of liars.  In preparation I would like you to read Mark, chapter 17.”  On the next Sunday he asked how many people had read the scripture.  Almost everyone’s hand went up.  Then he said, “Okay, you’re the people I want to talk to.  Mark has only 16 chapters.”

  It is not just politicians who sometimes stretch the truth to make themselves look better.  We all do it.  I recently read a sociology study from the 1990s.  In most surveys when American adults are asked if they attended church during the previous week, about 40% say yes.  To test this in 1993 a group of sociologist surveyed the population of a medium-sized county in Ohio: Ashtabula County.  First they did a random phone survey—which was easier to do in 1993 than it would be today—asking people about their religious identification and how often they attended church or their place of worship.  They found that 36% of self-identified Protestants claimed to attend church almost every week.  Then they went through the entire county to collect average weekly attendance figures for every single Protestant church in the county, not just those listed in a phone directory but every building in the county they hosted a weekly Protestant worship service.  They found that the total average attendance of every Protestant house of worship in the whole county was only 20% of the Protestant population.  (Kirk Hadaway, Penny Marler, and Mark Chaves, “What the Polls Don’t Dhow: A Closer Look at U. S. Church Attendance,” American Sociological Review, Dec., 1993; 741).  In other words, 36% said they were in church, but only 20% actually showed up.  And all this time we thought they were going to other churches.  But they weren’t going to any church.  Their walk didn’t match their talk.

  Which, in a way, is the problem with all of us, even those of us who do go to church.

  Isaiah points this out in our scripture reading this morning.  Isaiah chapter 1 begins with a scathing denunciation of the people of Israel.  Verse 4:

Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!

It sounds like he is talking to a bunch of drug dealers and child abusers or at least the kind of people who go skiing on Sundays.  But he is not.  If you read further you discover he is talking to church-goers. In verses 12-14 the Lord says,

When you come to appear before me, who asked this [offerings and sacrifices] from your hand?  Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.  New moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

            The Lord is talking here to church-goers: people who attend worship, pay their pledge, give to mission, make pies for the bake sale, sing in the choir, do work projects, and serve on the session or deacons.  And pastors—don’t forget pastors.  He says to them all, “You are all people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly.”  In other words, we are all hypocrites, people whose lives do not match their faith.

            John the Baptist makes the same point in our first scripture reading.  He says, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to feel from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

            John is not preaching here to people at the Dead End Tavern or the Déjà Vu strip club.  He is talking to people who walked miles into the desert to attend a revival meeting.  He is talking to people who came for baptism.  He is talking to church goers, and in essence he calls them all hypocrites.

            I have mentioned before a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called The Gulag Archipelago.  In the book he describes a friendship he had with another Russian army officer during the World War II, how they had so much in common, so many of the same hopes, dreams, and beliefs.  But after the war their lives took completely different directions.  Solzhenitsyn became a Soviet prisoner for standing up against Stalin’s reign of terror.  His friend became one of Stalin’s interrogators, torturing people into false confessions.  Solzhenitsyn wondered how he and his friend could have turned out so differently when they both had such similar values and beliefs.  But then he made an important discovery.  He writes,

If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?  During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish.  One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being.  At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood (p. 168).

            Isn’t that a definition of hypocrisy: acting like one kind of person in certain situation, and a totally different person somewhere else?  The line between hypocrisy and authenticity runs through the middle of every human being.  It goes to our very core, where only God can dealt with it.

            But here is the Good News: God can bring new life even to hypocrites.  Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.”  Let’s deal with this!  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

God does not simply ignore our sin.  God does not simply look the other way.  But nor does God cut us down and throw us out.  Rather God accepts us, despite our sin, and then works on us to make us new people.

  Recall what Isaiah said in verses 16-17: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  The good news for hypocrites is that God accepts you just as you are.  But the even better news is that God will not leave you that way. God wants us to become not only forgiven people but just people, people who defend the lives and rights of those who do not have the power to defend themselves.

  John the Baptist preaches the same kind of message. While baptizing people for the forgiveness of sin he tells them,

-          “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

-          To tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Don’t be dishonest!

-          To soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation.” Don’t use your power to exploit people.

The Good News for hypocrites is that God accepts us as we are.  The even better news is that God refuses to leave us that way.  God is determined to work on us: to replace deceit with honesty, greed with generosity, self-centeredness with compassion, pride with a sense of community, and gloom with the hope of God’s blessing and peace for all nations.  God is determined to make us new people, slowly and imperfectly perhaps, but steadily and relentlessly, until we discover what it means to be part of God’s family.

            So friends, do not be surprised that the church is full of hypocrites.  The church has always been full of hypocrites.  Just like the halls of government.  Just like the corridors of Hollywood.  Just like the board rooms of businesses and the club houses of sports teams.  The church has always been full of hypocrites.  The difference is that the church was designed for hypocrites.  Jesus came to give his life for hypocrites—hypocrites who will never be the same for having encountered him here in this place.

An Unexpected Fulfillment

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6, Isaiah 55:8-11

             All ministers have great wedding stories, but the best wedding story I have ever heard was told by a minister from Edmonds, WA, named Robert Fulghum.  He is the Unitarian minister who wrote the book Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  This story, which I will paraphrase, is from his book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It.

*          *          *

The mother of the bride was determined to make this wedding the most memorable wedding anyone ever attended.  To accomplish this she hired an eighteen piece brass and wind ensemble to play for the ceremony and reception.  There were nine bridesmaids, all outfitted with custom-tailored dresses, and an equal number of groomsmen, all wearing purchased—not rented but purchased—tuxedos.  There were also four flower girls, two ring bearers, three simultaneously running video cameras, and enough candles to light a shopping mall.

To be memorable, of course, the wedding had to have a lavish reception, so the mother lined the edges of the beautifully decorated fellowship hall with tables of food.  There was only one problem.  As the bride waited what seemed like hours for the wedding to begin, she started sampling some of the hors d’oeuvres.  First she tried some of the pink, yellow, and green mints.  Then she picked through the nuts and ate all the pecans.  This was followed by a cheese ball or two, some black olives, a handful of glazed almonds, little sausages on a toothpick, some shrimp wrapped in bacon, and some crackers piled with liver pate.  Then to calm her nerves, she chased it all down with a glass of champagne provided by her father.

As the bride came down the aisle what people noticed was not her dress but her face.  It was whiter than the dress.  She came down the aisle like a living grenade with the pin pulled.  When she arrived at the front, she finally threw up.  Not a dainty little urp in her handkerchief but a complete hosing of the chancel steps, including the bridal party.  All of which was captured from different angles by the three simultaneously running video cameras.

Fortunately, Fulghum said, the story had a happy ending.  The wedding guests were dismissed to the fellowship hall.  The bride was revived and the wedding party got a chance to clean up.  After the chancel steps were scrubbed, everyone came back in, the wedding resumed, and the couple were successfully joined in holy matrimony (pp. 9-15).

*          *          *

            What I found ironic in this story is that the hopes of the bride’s mother were fulfilled.  All of the guests agreed it was the most memorable wedding they had ever attended.  It just didn’t happen in quite the way the mother had envisioned.

            Which brings me to our scripture reading.  Isaiah 60 envisions a new day in Israel’s history.  Up to this point Israel had been decimated by one foreign army after another.  First they were attacked by the Syrians.  Then the Assyrians, an even larger empire to the north, conquered over half the territory of Israel, destroying its outlying farms and towns.  Then the Babylonians came along, laying siege to the capital city of Jerusalem, finally conquering it in 587 B. C., and taking many of its inhabitants into exile.

            But Isaiah 60 dreams of a new day when Israel and the city of Jerusalem would be restored to its former glory.  Verse 4: “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses arms.”  This is a picture of the Israelite exiles coming home exile.  But notice, it is not Israel’s newly acquired power that brings this about.  “Your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.”  This is not a picture of Israel’s strength, but of God’s strength, bringing the Israelites home from their captivity.

But it is not just Israel that is affected by this work of God.  Verse 3: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  People from all over the world would come to Israel bringing lavish gifts to show their respect to Israel’s God.  Verse 6: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah.”  Apparently the camels of Midian were like the BMWs of the ancient world.  People from all over the world would bring expensive gifts to Jerusalem in honor of Israel’s God.  Verse 6 continues, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

            Imagine, all the peoples of Arabia—that is where Midian and Ephah were probably located—imagine all the Arabs bringing lavish presents to Israel in honor of Israel’s God.  This is an amazing vision.  But it never came even close to happening at any time in Israel’s history.

Except once.  One night about 500 years later some Gentile astrologers from the east, possibly from Arabia, came to Jerusalem, most likely on camels.  They came because they saw a star.  Remember what Isaiah said: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  A light in Israel draws kings from Arabia to come on their camels bearing gifts, including gold and frankincense.

            The whole vision is fulfilled.  But here is the twist.  They present their gifts not to the reigning king of Jerusalem, who would have been King Herod at the time, but to a baby born in a stable whose parents who were refugees.  The remarkable vision of Isaiah 60 is fulfilled, right down to the details—a light arising in the sky, kings drawn to its brightness, bearing gifts of gold and frankincense.  It is all there.  But none of it happens in the way that anyone expected.  I doubt even Isaiah imagined his vision would be fulfilled by Arab astrologers bearing gifts to a poor refugee family in transitional housing.

            That, friends, is how God works.  God fulfills promises, but rarely in the way that anyone expects.  Kurt read about that in our first scripture reading from Isaiah 55:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways, my ways, says the Lord, … For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, … so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I propose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

            In 1946 my brother was baptized at a small Presbyterian church in San Francisco.  I wasn’t around yet, but I am sure it took place like most Presbyterian baptisms.  The minister put water on his head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Then the minister would have said something like this: “Richard Onstot, child of the covenant, you are have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  What a remarkable promise: marked as Christ’s own forever.

Later on my brother did not seem to embrace that identity.  When he got to college he became a classic skeptic.  In his own words, he tuned out faith.  He had little to do with church or God.  In fact, during this time he met and married a woman from Taiwan who was nominally Buddhist.  Religious affiliation meant little to him, much to my parents’ consternation.

            Then he and his wife had a child born on Christmas Eve.  They named her Christine.  When she was old enough, they enrolled her in a preschool at a nearby Presbyterian church.  They enrolled her not because it was at a church but because they heard it was a good preschool.  But then my brother started taking her to Sunday School.  He did not go himself, at least not at first.  He later told me there were competing voices in his head.  One voice said, “Don’t go into that church.  Your wife is Chinese.  She won’t be accepted, and neither will you.”  The other voice said, “Come and see.”  So finally he went, and he discovered that he and his family were welcomed with open arms.

Then one day he called me at my church office in Potlatch.  He called me to tell me he was committing his life to Christ and joining the church.  I almost fell off my chair.  And then I thought about that little Presbyterian Church in San Francisco where he was baptized.  It took almost forty years for the promises given to him in baptism to be fulfilled.  Forty years through all kinds of ups and downs in his life: a broken engagement, four years in the army including a year in Vietnam, a marriage in Taiwan, the birth of a child on Christmas Eve, not to mention countless prayers for him by my parents and grandparents and sometimes even by me.  But it finally worked.  The promise given to him in baptism was fulfilled, marking him as Christ’s own forever.

            That is the story of Isaiah 60.  It is the story of how God works in our lives.  God intends to fulfill the promises given to our children in baptism and the promises given to our world in Isaiah.  But it may not happen in the way or in the time frame that you expect.  The thing to watch is how God might use you in unexpected ways to bring it about.

Singing Isaiah

Ken Onstot

Part I:                             “Starting Over” (Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-2)

Sometimes people must begin again,

Undertaking a fresh start,

Like new growth from a fallen tree,

Not just a tweak of personality,

But a totally transformed heart.


So it was in Isaiah’s time.


They had tried king after king,

To fix their country’s ills;

But none was able to bring,

The blessing only God fulfills.


For some kings were powerful,

But not terribly smart,

Others were incredibly cunning,

But God’s will played too small a part.


And even those who wanted to do right,

Lacked the power to save,

Let alone having ability,

To change how people behave.


So the people in Isaiah’s time,

Went on their way still sinning;

The only solution possible

Was a totally new beginning.


Then God promised an offspring of Jesse,

The father of David’s line,

A new king greater than David,

Whose power and wisdom combine

To bring God’s kingdom of peace.


Not just a powerful king,

But one in whom justice would rise;

And not just a smart king,

But one who was spiritually wise.


Of course, no descendant of David

Measured up to this;

Nor any other politician

Promising worldly bliss.


A new beginning

Requires someone unique

Like a baby born in a manger,

Whom lowly shepherds might seek.


For the kingdom of God is not built

By weapons of power or might,

But by the bearer of God’s eternal love,

Bringing God’s compassion to light.


And he reigns not by destroying his enemies,

But healing the hurts that divide.

Giving all of us, worthy and unworthy,

The peace only God can provide.


Part 2:                     “The Pathway to God” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

How do you get to God?

What barriers must be broken?

What stirrings, yearnings in our hearts

Must somehow be awoken?


“Prepare the way of the Lord,

Make straight God’s road,

Let every valley be filled,

Let every mountain erode.”


Is this so I can get to God,

Or so God can get to me?

Is the barrier perhaps a prison

From which God must set me free?


Originally Isaiah foresaw

The return of exiles to their land,

A way back home from Babylon

Across the desert sand.


But preparing a way for the Lord

Involves so much more,

It’s not just a road through the desert

It’s God clearing a path to your door.


But for God to do this

Some barriers must be removed,

The pathway to our hearts

Must be seriously improved.


Pride must be taken down,

Racism brought to naught,

Self-centered greed must go away

And love for all be taught.


The grieving must be comforted,

Guilt must be washed away,

The lowly must be lifted up,

And all of us taught how to pray.


Then God’s glory will be shown

For all the world to see,

And at last our world will finally become

The place God meant it to be.

Part 3:                           “Telling Others” (Isaiah 52:7-10)

When you’ve gotten some really good news

It is hard to keep it to yourself;

It is not something you tuck away

In the corner of some dusty shelf.


It’s something you can hardly contain,

Your excitement is hard to restrain,

You want everyone to know,

For in the telling your excitement will grow.


So it is with good news from God.

It’s something we are all meant to share;

It’s not something just to be felt,

It’s something we’re meant to declare.


When God brought the Israelites home

From their Babylonian exile,

The people rejoiced

In their newly freed lifestyle.


But God does not rescue people,

Only for the sake of the few,

But that people of all nations might learn

That God’s love is lasting and true.


So Isaiah tells the people good news,

Hoping they will not want to refuse

The opportunity to share it with others.

In a larger family of sisters and brothers.

And this, of course, applies to our church.


In a world of violence and strife,

God is offering us a new life;

Healing the hurts of the past,

And giving us hope that will last



That is not something to keep to ourselves,

It is something we are meant to share,

That the depths of God’s grace and compassion

Might be felt by people everywhere.


It’s something to share in our actions

In our many daily decisions,

In the way we talk to each other,

And the way we share God’s provisions.


So go tell it on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere,

That Jesus Christ is born,

To show us the depths of God’s care.

Part 4:            “Celebrating with All Creation” (Isaiah 55:12-13)

When people do wrong, it is not just humans

Who suffer some kind of harm;

The whole creation is injured,

Forests, animals, crops on the farm.


Have you seen what happens in a war?

Or when oily birds wash up on the shore?

Nature suffers when people transgress,

Or turn their back on the poor and oppressed.


Thoughtless pollution damages rivers,

Deforestation gives trees the shivers;

Unbridled greed damages the air,

And causes even the fish to despair.


It is not just nations but nature,

That yearns for the coming of God’s king,

It’s not just people but trees

Who hope for the salvation he’ll bring.


So when Isaiah announces good news

Of God’s coming reign,

All creation breathes a sigh of relief,

And joins in the joyful refrain.


Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Sing the mountains and hills.

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Burble the rivers and rills.

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Sing the soprano birds

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Rumble the bison herds.


In the end God promises

A new heaven and a new earth,

Not a disembodied existence,

But the dawn of creation’s rebirth.


So we pray for God’s kingdom to come

With people of all races and lands,

Looking for the day when we’ll all say hooray,

And the trees of the field will clap their hands.


Blessed: A Christmas Eve Meditation

Ken Onstot 

Scripture: Luke 1:26-35

The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.”

But I wonder if Mary really felt favored.

Living at home with her parents, unmarried and pregnant, did she feel favored?

And when Joseph found out, did he feel favored?

Later when their child was born, miles from home, a cattle trough for a cradle,

did they really feel blessed?

How about when they fled as refugees to Egypt to escape Herod’s soldiers?

Or when their twelve year old boy stayed behind at the temple, and his parents spent three days looking for him?

I don’t think Mary always felt favored,

especially while watching her son die on a cross.

Those whom God chooses may not always feel blessed.

Sometimes they may wish God has chosen someone else:

Like Moses when the Israelites complained about him,

Like David when King Saul tried to kill him,

Like Elijah when he fled from Queen Jezebel,

Like the apostle Paul when he was shipwrecked on his way to Rome.


To be chosen by God does not always feel like a blessing.

Sometimes it is confusing.

Sometimes it is disturbing.

Sometimes it is scary.


The blessing is in the promise that comes with it.

“Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.”

The Lord is with you!

The Lord is with you!!

That’s the blessing!

Mary, when you go into labor on a pile of straw,

the Lord will be with you.

When you flee as a refugee in the middle of the night,

the Lord will be with you.

When you anguish over your lost child,

the Lord will be with you.

And when you watch your son hang on a cross,

the Lord will be with you,

holding you until the day of his resurrection.


And you, here tonight, to you the angel is also speaking:

Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid!

When you are sick and wonder if you will ever get better,

do not be afraid.

When you are out of work, and wonder how you will survive,

do not be afraid.

When you despair for your children, alternating between anger and grief,

do not be afraid.

When your heart breaks over the loss of a loved one,

and you wonder if you will ever feel joy again,

do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid!

For the Lord will be with you.


When you are confused and don’t know which way to go,

the Lord will be there.

When you feel alone and forgotten,

The Lord will be there.

Even when everything is going well,

even when there are no dark clouds on your horizon,

the Lord will be there, preparing you for something greater:

a life of love that you cannot yet imagine.


Jesus is Immanuel—God with us.

He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.

And his kingdom will have no end.

Neither death nor life,

neither height nor depth,

neither things present nor things to come,

can separate us from his love,

if we trust our lives into his hands.



What's in a Name?

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 7:3-4, 10-17; Matthew 1:18-25


Today’s scripture from Isaiah needs a little background.  In Isaiah’s time the kingdom of Israel had been split by a civil war. The southern half, where Isaiah lived, was called the kingdom of Judah, from which the Jews get their name.  Its capital was the city of Jerusalem, and it was ruled by a king named King Ahaz.  The northern part was called the kingdom of Israel.  Don’t be confused.  At this time the word Israel did not refer to the whole territory as it did in the time of King David.  It referred only to the northern part that had split away the kingdom of Judah.  The northern kingdom was called Israel, or sometimes Ephraim, and its king was named King Pekah.  As you might expect, there was ongoing conflict between these two kingdoms.  But in Isaiah’s time, the northern kingdom under King Pekah formed an alliance with the king of Aram (modern day Syria) to attack Judah and take over its territory.  King Ahaz was terrified by this development, as were the people of Jerusalem.  So Ahaz decided to make an alliance of his own with Assyria, an even bigger and more powerful nation to the east. The problem is that Assyria had its own ambitions for taking over the Middle East.  Today it would be like America coming under attack from Canada and Mexico and appealing for help from China.  Ahaz was reaching for a sword that was likely to cut off his own hand.  And that is where Isaiah comes in.

[Read Isaiah7:3-4, 10-17]


            I once heard a father tell about trying to pick a name for his daughter, a name that other children would not ridicule.  I worried about that in the case of my own children.  I knew they would have enough trouble with their last name.  Over the years I have been called Onspot, Onstart, and Nonstop, so I wanted my children to have a first name that would not be easily ridiculed.  So this father and his wife decided to name their daughter Danae.  How do you make fun of a name like Danae?  Well, in middle school the other kids starting calling her “Decay.”  So there you are. 

            Isaiah, however, did not seem to worry about the names he gave his children.  From chapters 7 and 8 we learn that Isaiah had two children.  One was named Maher-shalal-hashbaz.  Imagine having to write that in first grade.  In Hebrew it translates roughly as “Run for your life.”  His other child was named Shear-jashub, which means “Only a few will come back.”

            Not happy names to give your children when you are under attack from powerful enemies.  But then God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz with a message, telling him not to fear these two kings who were attacking him.  And as proof that God would deliver the people of Judah and Jerusalem, God invited Ahaz to choose a sign.  Verse 11: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God: let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven,” in other words as deep as the grave or as high as the sky.  In essence Isaiah invites Ahaz to rely on God instead of his ill-conceived alliance with Assyria.  But Ahaz refuses.  Verse 12: “But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’”  At first this sounds rather pious, like when Jesus says to Satan, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Ahaz is quoting from the same Bible verse as Jesus, but not with the same intent.  Ahaz does not want a sign from God, because he wants to go ahead with his own plans for an alliance with Assyria.  He does not want a sign from God; he wants to rely on his own power and cunning.

            But God gives him a sign anyway.  Verse 14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  There has been some confusion about what exactly verse 14 means. The New Revised Standard Version says, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” but the old King James Version translates verse 14 this way: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  That translation is based not on the Hebrew Bible but on a Greek version of the Old Testament, which Matthew quotes in the New Testament.  But the ancient Hebrew text does not call the woman a virgin; it calls her a young woman, and it says she is already pregnant.  Did you notice that?  The child Isaiah talks about has already been conceived, presumably by natural means, and will be born shortly.  But before that child reaches the age of accountability, about 12 years old, the two kings that Ahaz fears will be defeated.

            Please understand, I am not suggesting that Jesus was not born of a virgin.  I have no problem with believing in the virgin birth.  If God can create the world and raise people from the dead, God can produce a baby anyway God wants.  In an age of test tube babies, we shouldn’t be fussing over a virgin birth.

            But for Isaiah the issue is not how the child will be conceived.  The issue is the name given to the child.  King Ahaz is obsessed with threats to his security.  He is shoring up his defenses around Jerusalem.  He is arranging alliances, building coalitions to help fight off his enemies.  Ahaz is doing everything he can to make himself secure, but he is still afraid.  Meanwhile there is a woman in his country who is not afraid.  We are not told who she is, but we know she is not afraid, because of the name she gives to her child.  She does not call him Maher-shalal-hasbaz—“run for your life.”  She does not call him Shear-Jashub—“only a few will return.”  She names him Immanuel, which means “God is with us.”

            Which brings me to the central point of this scripture passage.  The issue is not whether you believe in the virgin birth; the issue is whether you believe in God.  In what do you put your trust?  On what do you rely to keep you safe?  The police?  A home security system?  A pistol by your bed?  What are you counting on to keep you healthy?  Exercise?  A low cholesterol diet?  Large doses of anti-oxidants?  What are you counting on to take care of you in your old age: Social security?  A pension fund? Your children?

Please understand.  I’m not saying that home security systems or pension funds or healthy eating is a bad thing.  But let’s be honest.  If we are counting on any of these things are for our ultimate security, if we are counting on our own resources, our own power, or own cleverness, our own program of exercise and healthy eating—if we are counting on those things to give us a long, happy, successful life, not to mention eternal life—then we are fooling ourselves, just like King Ahaz.

But there was a woman in Isaiah’s time who was not fooled.  She knew her country faced many dangers.  She knew that her own life was at best fragile.  But she was not afraid, because she knew God is with us.

I have shared before the story of Kate Bowler.  Kate is a professor of religion at Duke University, who at the age of 35 was diagnosed with incurable stage 4 cancer.  She went through surgery and then a last ditch experimental treatment that so far has held the cancer at bay, but there is no guarantee that will last.  She wrote about this experience in a book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved.  In the book she talks about the many letters she received from people all over the world, some of whom felt the need to explain her suffering in terms of some larger divine purpose.  Generally, those letters did not help.  Here is what helped.  Kate writes,

 The letters that really spoke to me don’t talk about why we die, they talk about who was there.

 She goes on,

 [Something] happened to me, something that I felt uncomfortable telling anyone.  It seemed too odd and simplistic to say what I knew to be true—that when I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry.  I felt loved. …  At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes.  I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement.  They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus (119-121).

  Sometimes what matters is not why something happens but who is there with you when it does.  Mary and Joseph realized that when they named their own child Jesus.  They, too, lived in perilous times, wondering how they would survive.  But they proclaimed their faith in the name they gave their child: Jesus, which means “the Lord saves.”  They did not name him Immanuel, but he was Immanuel.  Combine the hope of Immanuel in Isaiah 7 with the virgin birth in Matthew 1, and you get Jesus.  Jesus is God with us, God made flesh.  And when we accept that, the things that threaten us and make us afraid don’t seem so powerful or important.

Called at Church

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-13; Mark 4:1-12

 [Preacher stands up and begins preaching]

(CELL PHONE RINGS.  He fumbles to get it out of his pocket, while apologizing to congregation.)

Preacher: I’m sorry.  This is so embarrassing.  I thought it had it turned off.  (Presses a button)  There, now it is turned off.


Preacher:  Oh for heaven’s sake.  (Again checks and presses button)  I’m sure I had it turned off.  Well, this time it is.


Preacher: What the ….?  I am so sorry.  Excuse me. (He leaves pulpit and crosses over to the other side of the chancel where he talks on the phone.)

Preacher (in a hushed voice): Whoever you are, this is not a good time to call.  I’m in the middle of church.

(The Lord answers over the sanctuary speakers)

Lord: When is a better time to call?

Preacher: Am I on speaker phone?  Any time is a better time to call, but don’t interrupt me in church.

Lord: Isn’t that the point of church?

Preacher: What do you mean?

Lord: Isn’t the point of church for me to interrupt your life and talk to you?

Preacher: Who is this?  I don’t recognize your number.

Lord: Whom do you think it is?

Preacher: Look, if you are some telemarketer, put me on your do not call list and hang up.  We are in the middle of worshiping God.

Lord: I know.  The singing was so heartfelt this morning, I thought I should respond.

Preacher: Who are you?

Lord: Think about it.  Who could call you in church, even if your cell phone was off?

Preacher (suddenly nervous and stuttering): I … I … don’t know.

Lord: I think you are starting to figure it out.

Preacher: Look, you don’t expect me to believe I am talking to the Lord, do you?  The Lord wouldn’t use a cell phone.  The Lord would send an angel or something.

Lord: That was before we had cell phones.

Preacher: You mean God has to use a cell phone?

Lord: I thought it would get your attention.  People are more likely to answer their cell phone than to answer me.  But I don’t have to use a cell phone.  Try hanging up.

Preacher: What?

Lord: Disconnect the call.

Preacher (pushes the button):  Okay.  There, that should take care of that scam.

Lord: Can you hear me now?

Preacher: Okay, you’ve made your point.  What do you want?

Lord: I want you.  That’s why I called.

Preacher: But what do you want me to do?

Lord: Ah, now that’s a little more complicated.  I want you to proclaim my message to people.

Preacher: Proclaim your message!  What do you think I’ve been doing all these years?

Lord: I know.  But this time I’ve got something special for you to do.

Preacher: Like what?

Lord: Tell people the truth.

Preacher: Haven’t I been telling them the truth?

Lord: Yes, but this time you are going to tell them the truth they may not want to hear.

Preacher: Why me?

Lord: Because I chose you.

Preacher: Lucky me.  I suppose you probably chose me because I’m a preacher, but preachers aren’t special.  We’re no better than anyone else.  You ought to know that.

Lord: I do.

Preacher: So don’t ask me to be your special messenger.  It is hard enough just being a pastor.  Sometimes I lose my patience.  Sometimes my pride gets in the way.  I am not always very generous, especially about giving my time to people who need help.  I am not the best example of being your follower; you should know that.

Lord: I do.  But I’ve taken care of that.

Preacher: How?

Lord: Earlier in the service, didn’t you pass the peace of Christ?  Didn’t you recite words of forgiveness?  Do you think those words are meaningless?  You’ve been forgiven.  Your sins are wiped away.

Preacher: It can’t be that easy.

Lord: No one said it was easy.  It took a huge sacrifice.  And I’m not talking about one of those Old Testament animal sacrifices.  It took the sacrifice of my own Son to forgive you.  Don’t think that was easy!

Preacher: But that does not make me worthy to be your special messenger.

Lord: I’m the one who decides whether you are worthy or not.  Now get going.

Preacher: But what am I supposed to say?

Lord: Tell people that they need to turn their lives around.  Tell them to quit worshiping their money or their career or their looks or their athletic ability.  Tell them it’s time to worship something bigger than themselves.

Preacher: I can’t say that to people.  They will be offended.

Lord: Exactly.

Preacher: They won’t listen to me.

Lord: Exactly.

Preacher (pause): You mean you don’t want people to listen?

Lord: I want them to listen, but I don’t expect them to understand.  I want them to hear my message but I don’t expect them to believe it.

Preacher: Then what is the point of sending me?  What is the point of this church or these people if you don’t expect anyone to believe our message?

Lord: Sometimes you have to make things worse before they can get better.  It’s like an alcoholic.  Sometimes you have to have a painful confrontation.  You have to say things the alcoholic doesn’t want to hear.  And when they refuse to listen, you have to let them suffer the consequences.  You have to stop protecting them and covering for them.

Preacher: So, you think we’re a bunch of alcoholics.

Lord: In a way.  You are addicted to things.  Some are addicted to possessions.  If you are not continuously acquiring new stuff, you are not happy.  Others are addicted to success or recognition.  Unless you keep getting more of it, you feel unfulfilled.  It is like drugs.  You need a bigger hit to feel the same buzz.

Preacher: So you want me to go around telling people that they are a bunch of alcoholics and drug addicts.

Lord: And hypocrites.  Don’t forget to tell them they are hypocrites.  On Sundays they worship me, but the rest of the week they act as if I don’t exist.

Preacher: Obviously, you have never read the books about to win friends and influence people.  You don’t change people by criticizing them or putting them down.  You change people by building them up and gaining their confidence.

Lord: I am not trying to change people, at least not at first.  I am trying to make them face themselves.  Your job is to tear away the pretense.  If you speak my word to them and they don’t listen, they can no longer pretend to be following me.

Preacher: Don’t you want people to follow you?

Lord: Of course.  But I don’t want them pretending to follow me.  If they don’t want me telling them how to live, let them try life on their own.  Let them discover what it is like to be free of all constraints, even God’s.  Let them go into the far country and eat the swill of pigs.  Until the prodigal son left home, he never realized what it meant to have a family.

Preacher: So you want me to drive people away from you, so they will discover what they are missing when you are not there?

Lord: You won’t have to drive people away.  Just tell them what they have to give up in order to follow me.  Tell them they must give up their pride, their independence, their lust, their greed, their grudges or resentments, their desire to get ahead by putting others down.  Tell people these things, and you won’t have to drive them out.  They will leave on their own.

Preacher: It sounds like you don’t want me to help the church grow.  You want me to close it down.

Lord: Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.  In the time of Isaiah I allowed my chosen people Israel to be conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians.  They were determined to worship other gods, so I gave them into the hands of those gods.  But I never gave up on them.  Out of the stump that was left I grew a branch that produced Jesus, and from him came the possibility of new life.

Preacher: And now you hope to grow new life in us.

Lord: Exactly.  If you keep on proclaiming my message, if you keep on telling people about me, something may yet grow.  You may not see it.  There may be many twists and turns in a person’s life before it is revealed.  But I can tell you this: Your efforts to share my word will not be wasted.  As the rain comes down from the skies and does not return without watering the earth, so will my word that you speak.  It will not return without accomplishing its purpose.

Preacher: Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  You want me to share your word with people who won’t listen.  And when they reject your word and wander away from you, you intend to let them go, so they will discover what life is like without you.  Then, maybe, at some time in the future they will come back.

Lord: Yes, and do you know why they will come back?  They will come back because they will remember what you told them years earlier when you thought they weren’t listening.

Preacher: So you think they really will listen.

Lord: Call it delayed listening—like a message on your cell phone that you suddenly discover has been there for a long time.

Preacher (taking out his cell phone): Wait a minute.  Have you ever left a message on my phone?

Lord: It has been there all along.  You are just now listening to it.


Fake Gospels

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 11:1-6; I Corinthians 15:1-11

             While studying our scripture passage for this week, I discovered a new image for what it means to be a minister.  I’m a matchmaker.  In days before online dating apps, the way you met a compatible person was often through a friend, someone who knew you and the other person and set you up on a date.  It was called matchmaking.  To me, that is a great image for what it means to be a pastor.   A church is not supposed to fall in love with its pastor; it’s supposed to fall in love with Jesus.  My job is to set up you and Jesus on a date, to get you and Jesus into a relationship.

             Which is what the apostle Paul has been trying to do with the Corinthians.  Verse 2: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”  Okay, maybe this goes beyond matchmaking; it’s more like an arranged marriage.  But the idea is that Paul is an intermediary.  Paul is trying to get the Corinthians into a relationship with Jesus.

But something has gone terribly wrong.  Verse 3: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunnings, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”  The Corinthians are being seduced into a kind of spiritual adultery, taking up with partners other than the one to whom they have been engaged.

             But here is the tricky part.  The other partners are disguising themselves as the fiancé. They are masquerading as Jesus.  Paul warns about this in verse 4: “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.”  The Corinthians are being seduced away from Jesus by people who dress up to look like Jesus.  They use all the same words that are found in the Bible—Jesus, spirit, gospel—they use all the same religious words but give them a different meaning.

  In his book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey describes some of the interpretations of Jesus which he has heard from various people.  He writes,

Norm Evans, former Miami Dolphins lineman, wrote in his book On God's Squad, "I guarantee you Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game. ... If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot-six-inch 260-pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive lineman like myself."  Fritz Peterson, former New York Yankee, more easily fancies Jesus in a baseball uniform: "I firmly believe that if Jesus Christ was sliding into second base, he would knock the second baseman into left field to break up the double play" (p. 19).

You see the problem?  People use the terms “Jesus” and “Christ,” but they use those words to picture a Jesus of their own creation, a Jesus who looks less like God and more like themselves.

How do we prevent that from happening?  The answer, I think, is to check sources.  The way to distinguish between a fake Jesus and the true Jesus is by checking the source.

By the way, I think this is also a good way to distinguish true news from fake news.  Check sources.  To begin with don’t accept anything as fact just because it is reposted on Facebook or re-tweeted on Twitter.  Go back and check sources, preferably multiple sources.

The apostle Paul operates in a similar way when it comes to claims about Jesus.  Listen again to what he says to the Corinthians in our first scripture reading—I Corinthians 15:3-8:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I had in turn received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sister, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

            Notice how Paul uses sources for his gospel about Jesus.  Yes, he had his own personal experience of Jesus, but he checked out his understanding of Jesus with the people who actually knew him, like Peter and James.  When Paul wrote this letter, Peter and James were still alive.  Paul met them.  He describes this in his letter to the Galatians.  By the way, even the most skeptical, critical Bible scholars agree that the apostle Paul wrote the letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Philippians, and the first letter to the Thessalonians, and that Paul wrote these letter between about 60 and 70 AD.  Even critical Bible scholars agree that Paul knew at least some of Jesus’ first followers and that he wrote these letters only 30 to 40 years after Jesus actually walked the earth.  So Paul knows who he is talking about.

            There are a lot of people out there today who talk about Jesus and don’t know who they are talking about.  Back in the 1980s, there was a church in north Idaho called The Church of Jesus Christ Aryan Nations.  Their pastor, Richard Butler, talked about Jesus all the time, but the Jesus he described was a white supremacist, someone who believed that white people—I should add “white non-Jewish people”—were the chosen race.  But that flies in the face of the people who actually knew Jesus.  For Jesus, by all accounts of the people who knew him, was a Middle Eastern Jew.  That is the truth: Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew who taught us about loving people beyond our own clan.  Richard Butler preached a fake gospel, a gospel that contradicted the best sources we have for what Jesus actually said and did.

            There are many other groups out there claiming to know the mind of Jesus on various issues.  Do they really know the mind of Jesus?  I think the only way to answer that is to check the sources.  Read the book, and not just a verse or two that fits the way you already think.  Read the whole thing, at least the whole New Testament, so that your picture of Jesus fits into the total context of what God is doing in Jesus and in our world today.  That’s what we are trying to do here on Sunday mornings and in Bible studies during the week, and if you want additional help, I can suggest other resources.

            A psychiatrist named Scott Peck tells a wonderful story about meeting Jesus again as a 40 year-old adult when he began reading the gospels for himself.  This is from Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled:

There were all kinds of milestones on (my journey of faith), but perhaps the most important was reading the Gospels for the first time at the age of forty. ... I was absolutely thunderstruck by the extraordinary reality of the man I found in the Gospels.  I discovered a man who was almost continually frustrated.  His frustration leaps out of virtually every page: "What do I have to say to you?  How many times do I have to say it?  What do I have to do to get through to you?"  I also discovered a man who was frequently sad and sometimes depressed ... a man who was terribly, terribly lonely, yet often desperately needed to be alone.  I discovered a man so incredibly real that no one could have made Him up.

It occurred to me then that if the Gospel writers had been into PR and embellishment, as I had assumed, they would have created the kind of Jesus three quarters of Christians still seem to be trying to create ... (someone) with a sweet, unending smile on His face, patting little children on the head, just strolling the earth with this unflappable, unshakable equanimity, because with His mellow-yellow Christ consciousness, He's got peace of mind.  But the Jesus of the Gospels--who some suggest is the best-kept secret of Christianity--did not have much "peace of mind," as we ordinarily think of peace of mind in the world's terms, and insofar as we can be His followers, perhaps we won't either.  Perhaps that's not the point.

So that's when I began to suspect that, rather than being public relations specialists, the Gospel writers were … [trying to describe] the events and sayings in the life of a man they themselves hardly began to understand, but in whom they knew that Heaven and earth had met.  And that's when I began to fall in love with Jesus (pp. 159-61).

            You don’t have to go far to distinguish the true gospel from fake gospels.  Just read the book, and if you need help, ask me.  I am, after all, in the business of matchmaking.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7