Rev. Dr John Judson
September 25, 2022
Daniel 7:13-14; John 1:43-50
The year was 1721. For most of us, it is not a particularly auspicious year. Yet it is one that resonates in our history to this day because 1721 was the year in which Peter the Great declared that Russia was an empire. That declaration was not simply a change in nomenclature, but it signaled a change in national understanding. Czar Peter believed that Russia was the inheritor of the ancient Byzantine Empire, or as most of us in the west know it the Eastern Roman Empire. And because Russia was the new Byzantium it gave Peter permission to expand the Empire and conquer his neighbors. Peter began by taking lands from the Ottoman Empire to have a warm water port on the Black Sea. Next Peter turned his attention to the west and engaged Sweden in a long, drawn out, costly war, which led to Sweden giving Russia ice-free ports on the Baltic. Over the years Russia continued its expansion until it became what would be the third largest geographic empire the world has ever known. This history resonates today because Vladimir Putin has made it clear that his ambitions in Ukraine have nothing to do with “de-nazification” of that nation, but it has to do with recreating the Russian Empire. It has to do with Russia reclaiming its rightful place as Byzantium. In interview after interview, Putin has made clear that his actions and their justification are identical to those of Peter the Great and are intended to re-Russify and expand the Russian Empire.
While we as Americans might find this concept of Empire a bit odd in the 21st century we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t because Empires and the dream of empires never really die. All we need to do is look at the past and witness the rise and fall and rise of empires. All we need do is look at some of the Biblical Empires such as Assyria, Babylonia, and Rome. These empires rose and fell multiple times over more than a thousand years each. Each time they fell there would be an eventual revival driven by feelings of tribe, nationality, and religion. Their gods would call them back to conquer, destroy, and subjugate their neighbors. They would wreak destruction on all those around them claiming that they had a divine right to do so. The pride and desire for empire is like a virus that once it infects the body simply refuses to let go and people will do almost anything to reclaim their rightful place in the world. And if you are wondering why I am waxing on about empire, it is because we cannot understand Jesus as the Son of Man without understanding Empire and the role it plays in the one title Jesus claims again, and again, and again. Let me explain.
The book of Daniel purports to be set in the great Babylonian Empire; the Empire that conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem. The stories it contains are about Daniel and his friends who are Jews taken into exile by this great Empire. The purpose of these stories is to show readers what faithfulness in exile looks like. The reality of the book of Daniel however, is that it was not written during the Babylonian exile but was written in a time when the Jewish people were in danger of being exterminated. This was the time of the Jews’ oppression by the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids were Greeks who took control of the Holy Land after the death of Alexander the Great. While several generations of Seleucids had been on good terms with the Jews, there arose one who was not, and his name was Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus made the decision that he would eliminate the Jews and their faith. Thousands were killed and imprisoned. The Book of Daniel was written to encourage resistance to Antiochus and trust in God. And it is in that conflict then that the image of the Son of Man appears. As we read, the Son of Man is a being who, with the backing of God will be given “…dominion, and glory, and kingship, such that all peoples, nations, and languages would serve him, and his kingdom shall never end.” In other words, the Son of Man would be God’s regent on earth for an everlasting Kingdom of God. It is this name above all other names that Jesus uses to describe himself.
The question that confronts us then is, what Empire was Jesus confronting and conquering as the Son of Man? Many of his followers assumed that the Empire was Rome. Throughout history others have assumed it was all non-Christian Empires, which was the impetus for the Crusades and other holy wars including those in which Christians killed other Christians by the tens-of-thousands. I would argue this morning that it was none of these. The Empire Jesus had come to conquer was instead, the kingdom of darkness. Ok, I know I sound like someone from Star Wars or Lord of Rings. “Jesus, I am your father, come to the dark side.” But if we are to take the Gospel of John seriously what we need to understand about Jesus is that he is described as the light of the world. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In other words, for John, the battle if you will, is not between one earthly human empire and another, it is a battle for the very soul of humanity. It is a battle between the forces of darkness and light. What do I mean by this? What I mean is that there are forces that shape human beings, cultures, and communities. These forces can be dark…meaning forces focusing on hate, violence, racism, homophobia, and death. Or, if you will, these are the forces that diminish the life God offers. There are also forces of light…meaning forces that focus on life, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, equality, and compassion. These are the forces that enhance the life that God offers.
What Jesus is about as the Son of Man then is that that of empowering internal transformation that results in external transformation. The internal transformation of darkness to light is not intended to simply be a gift that makes us feel better about ourselves, or act in more Christlike ways as individuals…though it is certainly intended to do that. It is also intended to create communities, or if you will, empires of light that shine into the darkest empires of the world. This is what Jesus means when he says in Matthew that we, his followers, are to be the light of the world. We are to be those who, as followers of the Son of Man, become both individually and collectively, beacons for life, welcome, forgiveness, and compassion in an often-dark world.
This contest of Empires is the reason that you matter. And by you I mean both you as individuals and you as Everybody’s Church. You matter because you are called to be agents of light as the followers of the Son of Man, who is the light. We are to be light to the world such that all persons we encounter have an encounter with the light; that all people we encounter can see themselves as beloved children of God. We are to be light shining in the darkness. At the same time, we matter as Everybody’s Church because we have chosen to be a light to the world. We have chosen to be a community of light in which all persons are welcomed, nurtured, and then sent out to be light to the world. We are light in what we do with Foster Care, at Alcott Elementary School, in Mexico, and with all the agencies we support.
My challenge to you for ths morning is, to ask yourselves, “How am I as a follower of the Son of Man, being light to the world around me?”
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
September 18, 2022
1 Samuel 3:1-20; John 1:29-39
It seems a little bit risky to ask the Pastor who went to Moo-ewe to talk about the Lamb of God. I went to MSU (Michigan State University) and often our rivals would call us Moo-Ewe because we are a land grant school. We do have cows and sheep on campus. Well, the jokes on them because it makes very cute logos especially when my fencing team made cows and sheep fencing on our t-shirts. We were happy to call ourselves moo-ewe.
It's interesting though that that was not my first encounter where sheep were an important journey piece for me. In high school I was in a Great Works class. We had to study a director for our final project and my best friend and I chose to study Tim Burton - the best excuse to just hang out at each other's houses and watch the movies. When we started watching them back-to-back we noticed something in every single movie. We started noticing the sound of sheep. We thought it was strange that every single movie, no matter if they seem like they belonged there or not, had sheep in the background.
During our project, Tim Burton came out with a new movie called Big Fish. It was only being released in select areas. The closest to Milford, Michigan where we lived was Sterling Heights. We went against our parents' permission and drove out to Sterling Heights to see this movie. We saw the movie and in that movie again was the sound of sheep. We looked at each other and thought, well, I guess that's how our senior project is gonna have to go. We're gonna have to talk about sheep.
We made a beautiful presentation about how the sheep, representing innocence, and how the world brings in its darkness around this sheep. We got all A's and our professor thought it was brilliant. Then we went to college together and the director's cut of that movie came out. In that DVD Tim Burton said the reason he uses sheep so often is because… he loves the sound of sheep. All of our preparation, all of our thoughts, all of our theories were completely wrong. They were completely made up; they were our own invention. That experience has made me very skeptical anytime I hear someone say this is what this symbol means or this is what the Bible says. If we get to a point where we only have one or two definitions of something I look around to see if I can find something new.
Similar to what we heard from Samuel’s story, Eli had been in control of the interpretation, so Samuel goes to him to see what he needs every time he hears the voice. He doesn't realize that God is asking him to look at things in a new way. So today I want us to look at the Lamb of God, but I want us to be open about how we think about this.
When I looked at all the commentaries, I found one of two definitions of what the Lamb of God meant. One of them is a protector (took a shield out of my bag to show the congregation). Biblical scholars believe that the Lamb of God is in reference to the blood of the Lamb of the Passover. The way that lamb protected the community from the Angel of Death from those evils of the world is also the way Jesus protects us. John is referencing this protector of the people of the community of the flock.
The other definition that is very common (holds up a scrub daddy sponge) is Jesus being the one who absorbs the sin, who takes away the sin of the world. This definition referencing the lamb that was given as a sacrifice every morning and evening that would be given for the sins of the community. That lamb and that sacrifice would absorb the sins of the communities as they begin their day and unload the burden of the shadow of sin. These are the popular ways to see the symbol of the Lamb of God.
But because I went to moo-ewe I know lots of people who know lots of things about lambs. So I gave them a call and I asked what their favorite thing was about sheep. Here is what I learned about sheep and possibly things we should work into our understanding of the lamb of God.
Sheep are actually very good at mazes (holds up a prayer labyrinth). They can learn a maze individually or as a group. They also remember it for long periods of time. They remember the way and they can find their way through fairly complicated mazes. Maybe the Lamb of God is in reference to the way that flocks and sheep understand the way and remember and teach the way to each other.
Another interesting fact (holds up an old church picture directory): There are probably some faces in here that you recognize, maybe some that you don't, similarly sheep are able to recognize and remember the faces of other sheep and humans. We think they can hold about 50 individual faces and remember them for two years. They have a very good recognition of who is part of their flock, who has been part of their flock and maybe gone away and come back. Maybe the Lamb of God is talking about recognizing your flock and knowing who is around you and remembering.
I also learned this week that after humans mastered agriculture they domesticated sheep. One of the very first things we did for our communal survival depended on sheep (hold up wool socks). I'm very thankful that we domesticated sheep especially here in Michigan where it gets cold. Sheep are very important to the development of human culture. Once we had agriculture we could raise flocks of sheep whose wool allowed us to live in different climates. We were able to be more comfortable. We were able to help our children survive in colder areas. Sheep are important to who we are as humans. I think it is fair to say that it is similar to the Lamb of God too.
I also learned that sheep can recognize the voices of their young (holds up a Tibetan singing bowl). Tibetan singing bowls come in lots of different pitches. I went to a retreat and was told that this is the pitch that sings to my soul. In a monastery each monk plays the bowl with their soul’s pitch for meditation. Sheep can recognize the lambs that are connected to their soul, and for who they are responsible to raise and care for. If they recognize the cries of their young, maybe the Lamb of God has something to do with recognizing our cries.
This next one, I promise, is clean (holds up a workout sweatband). We think of sheep as being docile, innocent, passive creatures, but that is not entirely accurate. In every flock, there is a young ram who always takes it upon himself to fight the battles. If there is even so much of an inkling of a threat he will run to that side of the flock and be ready to be in battle. He will head butt whatever comes into the flock. Often this is the smallest ram who gets the need to fight all the time. The reason why I brought this is because shepherds often have to tie fabric around the horns to keep them from hurting each other. They also use it as a handle to pull them out of the fight if they have chosen the wrong battle. Maybe this Lamb of God is like this young ram, the one that joins us in our battles, that joins us in our fights, that is always there by our side.
Another friend told me that sheep actually have the ability to know when plants (holds up a medicine pill bottle), that have no nutritional value to them, will solve and cure diseases. They will pass that knowledge on to their young as well. Sheep have medicine and they know how to heal the flock. Definitely something in there related to the Lamb of God.
Maybe my favorite is that sheep are great leaders and respect leaders (holds up a toy bullhorn). They trust each other totally. When a sheep sees a threat and it is confirmed to be heading their way the sheep on the other side of the flock will hear that and they'll begin moving so that there is space for the flock to move away from the threat. My niece in vet school told me this fun fact and I asked how do you become a leader in a flock of sheep, what's the protocol. She said there isn't really a protocol because everyone is expected to be on the lookout for threats. Especially if you're standing on the outskirts of the flock you're supposed to be aware. Everyone holds the responsibility of noticing when there are threats to the flock. Everyone works together when there is something that needs to be adjusted amongst them and to protect everyone. All are called to be leaders in their flock.
I looked at all these different things thinking what do I want to show to the congregation on Sunday. What do I want to say about this Lamb of God? I realized it's good for us, every once in a while, to just unpack these symbols. Unpack what we've known, what we might learn about sheep that is new, what people have said the Lamb of God is, and look at all of this and see what the Lamb of God can mean to us today.
In Samuel there is this word that we translate as “here I am” but it can also mean “behold.” God calls out to Samuel, “Behold, I need you to behold who I am.” This is how God signals that there is an adjustment to be made from Eli's traditional interpretation and understanding to how Samuel is to understand and lead. John the Baptist says the same thing, “Behold the Lamb of God.” When we behold something in its entirety each one of us will see something valuable and it won't necessarily be what the other person sees. Something different will speak to each one of us and will affect how we operate in the world.
Are we Fighters… are we protectors… are we guides? The way the Lamb of God resonates with us influences our behavior and choices and the way we live a Christ-like life. I decided not to pair down the options of what the Lamb of God can mean so that we can all behold, maybe add to our understanding even. And so, Behold, the Lamb of God.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 11, 2022
Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-19
There are two kinds of people in the world, those who like continuity and those who like discontinuity. To determine which kind of person you are, we are going to talk about what you did on your summer vacation. Do any of you remember having to write a story the first day of school about what you did on your summer vacation? Well, we are at it again. I will begin with two questions. First, how many of you on your summer vacations, whether this year, or most years, do you go to the same place or places over, and over again? You go to the cottage up north, or a particular place in Florida, or simply visit the same sites. Let me see your hands. Now for the second question. How many of you on your summer vacations regularly go to new places? You try to visit new national parks, new cities, perhaps even new countries. You feel as if you have been there and done that, so it is time for a new adventure. If so, raise your hand. If you raised your hand on the first question, you are someone who likes continuity where things stay the same. If you raised your hand on the second question, it means you like discontinuity. It may be that many of you have some of each within you. And let me be clear, neither of these types is better or worse than the other. They simply are.
I bring up these two types of people because what I have found is that there are similar types when it comes to thinking about God. There are those who are continuity types. What I mean by this is that their memory verse might be Hebrews 13:8, that “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” This verse brings great comfort to continuity folks because it reminds us that we know that there is something solid beneath our feet. That in the ever-shifting sands of history, the crises of the moment, the anxiety about the future, there is one who never changes. That God’s love will always be present in and around us. In other words, there is continuity to life, the universe, and everything. On the other hand, those who like discontinuity might find their memory verse in Isaiah 43:19, “Behold, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?” In this verse we can see that even though God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, God is always bringing forth something new. Just as we may be able to enjoy new vistas on our vacations, with God we can enjoy new vistas in life. In other words there is discontinuity to life, which for some is exciting and hopeful.
The question then comes to us, as to which of these does Jesus represent? Does he represent continuity or discontinuity? The answer is that he represents both because he is the Word. For the last two-thousand years Christians have struggled with this image of the Word; that Jesus is the Word and the Word made flesh. Many scholars and others have tried to find the meaning of The Word in Greek philosophy. I say this because the Greek word for The Word, is logos. And within Greek philosophy the Logos was more than simply a word for word. The logos had come to represent an eternal reason that always existed before, behind, and within the universe. In some ways it made the universe tick. The trouble with this explanation for the Word, is that Jesus and his followers were not Greek philosophers. They were good Jews. They were Jews who were reared on the TANAKH, the Jewish scriptures. And so, when they heard the word, logos, their minds would have instinctively returned to Genesis 1, where God spoke, and creation arose; where God spoke and brought order out of chaos. In addition, the Gospel of John intentionally references Genesis 1 with its language of “in the beginning.” So, when John refers to Jesus as the Word, “the Word who was with God, the Word who was God,” what we are to hear is the creative actions of God at work in and through Jesus, which means that in Jesus we find both continuity and discontinuity. Let me explain.
With the Word there is continuity. God is the one who is the same yesterday, today and forever. When God and the Word brought creation into existence, they did so by bringing order out of chaos. What this means is that this is a creation that operates by a set of rules and principles. We know gravity works. We know that there is a cycle to life. We know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Granted, we might not like the reaction sometimes, but we know how things work. In the same way we know who God is. God is not only the one who creates and brings order, but we know that God loves. We know that God’s creative work is not simply an exercise in physics and chemistry, but is a work of love because God not only creates plants and animals; but that God creates human beings, breathes into them the breath of life, and then lives in communion with them. God communicates with them. God cares for them. This never changes. This is the continuity of God. This same continuity is expressed in Jesus as the Word. Jesus was not only co-creator, but Jesus is the one who communicates, in the flesh, the message of God’s love for human beings. Jesus is the one who shows God’s care for all persons by forgiving, healing, and teaching. In a sense, everything that Jesus offers as the word is in full alignment with God’s covenant faithfulness with Humanity. In the Word there is continuity.
With the Word, there is discontinuity. There is discontinuity because the Word is the new thing that is springing forth from God. The overarching story of the Bible is that God created everything and called it “good”, meaning that it was created to work as God desired. And part of this good creation was that human beings were designed to love God, love neighbor, and care for creation. Unfortunately, human beings decided that they did not need to do any of these three things. The world quickly turned from one of love and trust, to one of violence, anger, and domination. This was not the “good” world that God intended. What then was God to do? What was the God of order and love, to do with a world of disorder and hate. The answer was to fix it. And so, this book (the Bible) is God’s love story of how God is fixing creation. What that means then is that God must do the new thing. God must bring about new ways of solving this creation crisis. God then brings forth prophets, priests, kings, Temples, arks, the Law, and the covenants. Each of these was something new, intended to bring about something old. Finally in the fullness of time, God sent the Word, the logos, to be with us. And the logos continued God’s recreative work by making us into new people within new communities, to live in new/old ways. In the Word there is discontinuity.
What does this mean for us? It means two things. First, the combination of continuity and discontinuity means that we can count on Jesus to be the solid ground on which we walk. We can count on the continuity of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness, to see us through all that we face in life. In the face of the crisis that the world and our nation are confronting, we can have sure and certain confidence that God in and through the word, are the same yesterday, today, and forever. Jesus Christ can be counted on in the best and worst moments of our lives. Second, this combination of continuity and discontinuity, tells us that we are not stuck where we are. It tells us that our loves are not finished and complete. That the Word, Jesus, can and will continue to work in us and through us to change us and to change our world. That the Word, Jesus, is not finished with this world even in the darkest of times. It means there are always new positive possibilities in front of us.
The challenge for us this week is this, to ask ourselves, “How am I allowing the continuity of the Word to give me confidence to live in this moment, and at the same time allowing the discontinuity of the Word to continue to change me into the person God has designed me to be?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 4, 2022
Genesis 22:1-8; Luke 14:25-33
It was a great project with which to begin my post-Peace Corps career. I was fortunate enough to get a job as a draftsman on what was going to be the first refinery built in more than 20 years. Chevron had decided that the time was right to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars required to design and build such a facility. My task was to create drawings required to link the large storage tanks together and to the refinery. During the process I was promoted from draftsman to checker to check the work of several draftsmen and designers. The pay was excellent, and we were working 50-hour weeks which meant overtime. One day, about noon I got a note from the project manager that I was to report to his office. My first thought was that I was going to get a raise. Instead, I got a pink slip and a check for two weeks wages. The project manager explained that the price of oil had dipped to the point that when Chevron did a cost analysis, they decided that it was not worth continuing the project. So, it was not just me who was being laid off, it was everyone on the project…hundreds of us. Chevron counted the cost and decided to bag it. I offer this story because counting the cost is at the heart of both our stories this morning. They challenge us to ask some tough questions about the cost of being a Jesus follower.
The first story is one of the most difficult stories of the Old Testament, and perhaps of the entire scripture. Abraham and Sarah had been promised by God that they would have a child through whom the promises of God for land, seed, and blessing would flow. Though they tried and tried, the couple entered their later years without any success at producing an heir. Along the way though God had been faithful to them, protecting and providing for them. Abraham had even had a child, Ismael, with Hagar, the former servant of his wife. Both Abraham and Sarah consoled themselves that Ishmael would be their heir. But that was not God’s plan. In their old age, beyond the age of bearing children, God provided a child to them. God gave them Isaac. It was a miraculous event. But then after Ishmael and Hagar had been sent away, God came to Abraham and asked him to sacrifice his son, his only son whom he loved, Isaac. People have wondered why Abraham would have agreed to such a request…and agree without complaining. I would argue that Abraham counted the cost of not obeying and perhaps losing the favor of this God who had protected him for decades. And so, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son as a measure of devotion to this God who watched over him.
The second story is centered around Jesus asking his followers to count the cost of the journey they were about to undertake. The picture that Luke paints is that of a parade, a parade of people happily following Jesus down the road, listening to every word he said, swapping stories of miracles, mystical experiences, and exorcisms. They were probably also sharing their hopes and dreams of what would happen when they reached Jerusalem. Some thought Jesus would become the great teacher and prophet predicted by Moses. Others thought he might become the high priest, casting aside the corrupt political appointees who held the position. Other might have believed that he would be a new king, or conquering hero. There were probably as many dreams as there were people in the crowd. The one thing few if any of them were probably thinking was about the cost of following; the cost which Jesus knew was ahead. And so Jesus stops the parade for a “come to Jesus” moment. In this moment he tells them that following him will cost them. It may cost them their friends and families. And let me be clear, the word hate here does not mean, hate as in anger and disdain toward someone, it means to love less. What Jesus is saying is that to follow him we must love our families less than we love him; that Jesus is the primary object of our devotion. Which, in the first century, was a radical concept…much as it is today. In the same way Jesus says that his followers must be willing to say good-bye to all they own if they are to follow him. This is what counting the cost meant for Jesus. But what does it mean for us?
Unlike believers in many places in the world today, who regularly risk their freedom and lives by following Jesus, most of us go through our lives rarely having to count the cost. Certainly, there are moments in which we are confronted with ethical dilemmas when choosing the way of Jesus might prove costly. Yet again, for most of us, these moments are few and far between. Perhaps then we ought to ask ourselves again, what does it mean to count the cost? I would offer you two possibilities.
The first possibility is that we make Jesus the primary object of our devotion. As human beings we have objects of devotion, meaning those things that shape our character, our decisions, our spending, our time, and our love. They are where we focus our lives. For some it is a career. For others it may be family, a school, a volunteer position, or another person. Think about the primary object of our devotion as magnetic north and the needle of our lives always points us to that person, place, or thing. What I believe Jesus asks of us is to chose him as magnetic north. And he asks us to do so not because he has a big ego, but because he is life; because in following him we find life in all the fullness God desires for human beings; a life now and a life forever. And this orientation to Jesus as the primary object of our devotion can be costly because society calls us to follow what they deem to be a priority, and they punish those who do not.
The second possibility, which is an extension of the first possibility, is that because Jesus is the primary object of our devotion that we live in imitation of him, meaning we love radically, we forgive unconditionally, and we serve sacrificially. In other words, we allow Jesus to shape how we interact with the world around us. And this too is dangerous and is part of counting the cost because it means we are to focus on others rather than self. It may mean giving up something that we want to something that others need. I cannot tell you what this looks like in your life because I don’t know your circumstances. Yet I believe that these two possibilities offer us a way forward in counting the cost of being a Jesus follower.
My challenge to you then on this morning is this, to ask yourselves, how am I counting the cost of following Jesus by making Jesus the primary object of my devotion and then allowing him to show me how to love radically and forgive unconditionally?