Wednesday, January 27, 2010

pigsty people, micah and intro (omega)

pigsty people (micah & intro)

Why the prophets? Why spend an entire semester reading the prophets, learning the prophets, hearing the message of the prophets?

Here’s why …
(play horrible version of amazing grace CD)

This person is obviously singing off key – and not just a little off key either. He sounds like a tortured rhinoceros. I’m not trying to make fun of this man, and to be honest I’m not much better. But to the question of why the prophets, this is my answer.

Now, we all know this guy is an awful singer. On that, we can all agree. But I invite you to imagine a world where everyone sang like him. Where his version of Amazing Grace was the only version that you had ever heard? Let me ask you this – would you still know that he was a bad singer?

I don’t think you would, because the reason you know that his version of Amazing Grace is bad, the reason you know it is off pitch, the reason it was painful to listen, is because you’ve heard Amazing Grace done well, because you know what Amazing Grace is supposed to sound like.

That’s why we need the prophets. In an off-pitch world, they remind us what Amazing Grace is supposed to sound like.

Here’s another example. Imagine being forced to live in a pigsty. What do you think the first ten minutes would be like? Imagine the rotten stench, the putrid sensation invading your nostrils. You gasp. You cover your nose with your shirt, but the horrible smell just won’t go away and you think to yourself, “I can’t do this. I cannot live in a pigsty. I cannot tolerate this smell.”

But let’s say a week does by. Are you still in agony?

No. Did the smell go away? No, the smell is still there. The difference is you – you have adjusted. You don’t notice the smell anymore. In fact, after a while you start enjoying the smell. And before you know it, you’re slopping around happy as a pig.

That’s why we need the prophets. In a stinky world, prophets remind us what a fragrant odor is supposed to smell like.

Sin is like a pigsty. With time the sinful practices that surround us deaden our heart’s sense of smell. The world stinks, but we don’t notice the smell. We don’t see the consequences. We don’t get what the “big deal” is. But then along comes a prophet whose mission is to shake us, to wake us, and to help us realize that something stinks.

Sin is like a bad version of Amazing Grace, where humanity is singing out of tune with God’s plan. But then along comes a prophet, who sees what God sees, who hears what God hears, who feels what God feels. That’s all a prophet is – someone that knows the heart of God and then tells us how to get our lives back in tune.

Now, I’m going to warn you – prophets are strange, at times they seem harsh, and if I imitated their behavior I would lose my job and get thrown into jail. For example, Hosea married a prostitute to let the people of Israel know that their infidelity broke God’s heart. Ezekiel cooked a meal over his own excrement to show the people how unclean they had become. Jeremiah preached while holding a dirty pair of underwear to symbolize how disgusting Israel’s behavior was. Isaiah preached naked for three years. And so be warned. Prophets are strange.

But we desperately need their witness because you and I see the world through a very narrow lens. If our needs are met, we tend to think that the world is a pretty good place. And when everything seems great in our own lives it’s really easy to walk right past the things that break God’s heart and to not even notice. A prophet’s job is to make us notice.

For example, we hear about war but because it’s been going on for years we get numb. We tell a white lie and then find comfort in knowing that everyone else does it too. We gossip about a friend and don’t feel guilty, our rationale being “what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” We see the homeless and convince ourselves that they’re lazy. We get so wrapped up in our own comfort that we forget the needs of the poor and the outcast.

Our problem isn’t that we don’t understand – that we don’t know war is bad or homelessness is bad. Our problem is that we don’t feel. We’re in the pigsty and we don’t think it smells. We even have sayings that help us deal with the reality of the pigsty. “Such is life.” “That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.” But then along comes a prophet screaming, “that is not life DAMMIT! The cookie is not supposed to crumble that way!”

There’s a verse in the book of Micah that sums up why we need the prophets so badly. It’s Micah 2:11, which says “If a lying prophet says to you ‘I’ll preach about the joys of wine’ that’s the kind of prophet you would like!” Does wine make you more relaxed or less relaxed? More relaxed. Micah is saying that our preference is to live in a state of spiritual inebriation. We don’t want to notice. We don’t want to feel. We don’t want to hear about all of the pain in the world and so we love lying prophets that makes us more comfortable and more relaxed. The only problem is that real prophets speak the words of God. And the funny thing about the truth – it convicts us, makes us uncomfortable, and challenges us to act.

The greatest feedback I’ve ever gotten from a sermon was this, and it’s an exact quote. “After listening to your sermon I’ve decided that I’m no longer a Christian and that I will not be coming back to church.” Don’t get me wrong. It broke my heart that she walked away from the faith. As a Christian I was brokenhearted, but as a preacher I knew that I had said something true. And there’s something about the truth that makes us uncomfortable and forces us to decide. That’s why we need the prophets. They snatch away our wine glass and force us to decide.

With the time we have left, to prepare us for a semester with the prophets, I want to look briefly at Micah. Listen to a reading from Micah 6. This is one of those passages that answers the question of human existence. And that question is this – what does God require? What does God want from us?

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? 
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

What does God really want from me? What can I bring to God? Micah begins by forming a list of possible answers.

Shall I come with a burnt offering? Notice, Micah starts small. A burnt offering could be a pigeon or a dove, which anyone could afford. But God doesn’t want something so small. God wants more.

Shall I come with calves a year old? Calves were expensive and would be very generous. But most families couldn’t afford this kind of offering. And so Micah goes bigger.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams? Only a king would have access to thousands of rams. Such an offering would be beyond imagination, but notice – Micah keeps going which means that God would not be pleased with thousands of Rams.

Will the Lord be pleased with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Rivers of oil would be great. The only problem is, they don’t exist. That’s like asking if God would be pleased with a thousand golden unicorns. Tens of thousands of rivers of oil is like offering infinity plus infinity. And yet even if that could be offered, God would not be pleased.

Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression? Micah knows that God abhors human sacrifice. But this is Micah’s way of pushing the question to the limits – the question of course being, what does God really want from me?

“He wants you to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” In other words, God wants us. He wants our hearts and our lives fully submitted to Him. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.


Justice is funny. We hate it when we’re treated unfairly. When wronged we demand justice. Our problem is that we live with a double standard. We’re passionate about justice when it comes to us, but we forget to extend justice to others. Micah tells us to “do justice.” In other words, we should be just as energized over the injustices that other people suffer as we are over the injustices that we suffer.


The Hebrew word for kindness is hesed. Hesed is a word that can’t be translated. It has to do with the way that God feels and acts towards the people with whom He’s in relationship. Hesed is a combination of mercy and kindness and love and faithfulness, but it’s tied to this idea of a covenant relationship with God. To love kindness is to love the kindness that God lavishes on us so much that we extend that same kindness to others.


It’s hard to be a prophet and not get a little self-righteous. There’s a huge theological difference between demanding justice and being a jerk. To walk humbly with God is to live a life of love. You see, what burns most deeply in the heart of a true prophet isn’t anger but love, because the heart of a prophet is in sync with the heart of God and God’s heart beats with love. A prophet’s anger is always an expression of a much deeper love. Prophets never forget that they too are sinful, that they too need grace, and that they too need to walk in humility before God.

I’d like to end with a story that I heard read about a boy named John. At the age of five, John was diagnosed with a cruel form of Muscular Dystrophy, which would eventually destroy every muscle in his body, and after about ten years, take his life. Each year John lost something – his ability to run, to walk without support, and eventually to stand. The most difficult time of John’s life was junior high because his classmates were cruel. John was bullied so much and humiliated so much that he hated going to school. But no one ever stood up for him. No one ever said a word. John didn’t have any friends. His life was very painful and lonely.

Well, one year John got a break. He was named the ambassador for Muscular Dystrophy in the state of California and was invited to a high profile charity dinner and auction. Athletes were there. Celebrities were there. John was there.

When the auction began, there was one item that really grabbed John’s attention – a basketball signed by the Sacramento Kings. John got carried away and started bidding on it, but because his family was poor, John’s mom restrained him because she knew they just couldn’t afford it. But on went the bidding – higher and higher – that is until one man stood up and offered an amount that was so high it shocked the room. The bidding stopped. The man walked to the front to claim his prize, but instead of returning to his seat he walked across the room and placed that ball in John’s thin, frail hands.

That was a prophetic act. Why? Because it made people feel – it made people feel what God feels for John. When I read that story for the first time, it made my heart hurt in a way that it hadn’t in a long time.

And that’s why we need the prophets – because it’s a good thing for our hearts to hurt. Metaphorically speaking, it’s a good thing when someone takes our wine glass away and makes us feel the pain we’re trying so hard to numb. I mean, think about it. What a tragic thing it would be to live our entire lives in a pigsty and to never know that we stank.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

to let the oppressed go free

Luke 4: 14-21

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, … to proclaim release to the captives and, … to let the oppressed go free.”

About a week ago I got a text message from a friend that said, “You’re sick, dude. I hope the people at your church can’t see your facebook page.” As I began to ponder what he could possibly mean, my phone rang. Another friend had questions about my facebook activity as well. “Why,” he wondered, “Would I ever think that it was okay to become a fan of the dead babies club?” Well, I started freaking out and couldn’t log onto facebook because my password had been changed, and so I knew immediately that my account had been hacked. And for the next three hours or so, my phone would not stop ringing – friend after friend with question after question about things I apparently posted on people’s walls. “Why’d you tell Ben that dogs ate his brother? Why’d you tell Christy that Darth Vader was going to kill you? Why are you dating an 87 yr. old man? I have to say, this experience made me feel like a prisoner – like I was powerless and out of control. An evil villain was holding me captive– reeking havoc on my life – and there was nothing I could do. I felt like a prisoner.

Now obviously, I’m only being half-serious. In the grand scheme of things, having your facebook hacked isn’t that big of a deal. But the panic we feel when confronted with injustice – the feeling of captivity that comes with being powerless and out of control – that is real. And the reason it’s real is because that feeling of captivity tells us something about how the world should be. All I have to do is mention Hitler or 9/11 or that devastating earthquake in Haiti, and pretty soon we start shaking our heads and thinking, “that’s not right. Things are supposed to be different. We need to fix that.” But then, we realize we can’t – that we’re powerless and out of control – that we’re held captive by the forces of evil or chance or circumstance – and that, that makes us feel like prisoners.

In order to understand today’s Gospel, and the hope that Jesus offers, there’s something we have to understand first. The people in that synagogue that Jesus preached to also felt like prisoners – they felt like captives on this earth – and I can think of at least three reasons for that. First, they were a conquered people. The Romans ruled over them and the Israelites felt imprisoned by their presence and their politics. Second, as devout Jews, they yearned for personal holiness and found that they couldn’t attain it. To quote psalm 51, “I was born guilty, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” I’m pretty sure that sums up how they felt. They wanted to love God. They wanted to follow God’s law perfectly, but just couldn’t do it, and this inability to be holy made them feel like prisoners. Finally, and I don’t know how else to say this, but they had a problem with the whole “natural disaster thing.” You see their belief was that the entire creation was imprisoned – that all of creation needed to be set free. And so earthquakes and storms, the scorching heat and the bitter cold, even animals hunting and killing each other, these were all thought of as part of a world that needed to be set free. And so that’s the first thing we need to understand – the people in today’s Gospel felt like prisoners.

But there’s something else we need to understand. Not only did Jesus’ audience feel like prisoners, but their hope – their faith – was that God would act in a mighty way in order to set them free. In other words, they weren’t okay with the status quo. There was no Hebrew equivalent of “c’est la vie” or “that’s just how the cookie crumbles” because they hungered for a better world. And so they prayed for it, expected it, wrote about it, and were actively waiting for this new world to arrive. And perhaps more so than anyone else, the prophet Isaiah championed this belief that a new world was on its way – that a time was coming when God would anoint someone to set them free. And prophets like Isaiah called this person the Messiah, which is a Hebrew word meaning “one who is anointed.” And so to recap, lesson #1 they felt like prisoners. Lesson #2 they longed for a Messiah – or an anointed one – to finally set them free.

Ok, now we can look at today’s Gospel, which is actually the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke. You might even say that today we hear Jesus’ mission statement. His manifesto. His public declaration of who he is and what he came to do. And to recap, this is what Jesus declares. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed ME to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free.” For a people that felt imprisoned, for a people that yearned for freedom, for a people that expected a Messiah, Jesus is speaking words of hope – the “Lord has anointed ME.” I’m here to set you free. I’m here to set the entire creation free. I’m in control. I’m here to fix things. The Lord has anointed ME.

Now, I doubt that you need me to stand here tonight and tell you that all isn’t well with the world – that you know, deep down, that things are supposed to be different. Because in our heart of hearts, like the people Jesus was preaching to, each one of us hungers for a unified world – for a world where societies are fair, where everyone prospers, where tectonic plates don’t shift and cause earthquakes, and where people not only know the right thing to do, but where they actually do it. In our heart of hearts, we all hunger for a unified world. For unified lives. For a world that is free.

The good news of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus came to bring freedom. To quote the apostle Paul “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). To quote Peter, “live as free people” (1 Pet 2:16). To quote Jesus, “I’ve come to let the oppressed go free.” You see, the miracle of the Gospel is that Jesus himself was imprisoned – not in a cell but on a cross – and that he was intentionally taken captive so that you and I could be free.

You and I are free. We may still struggle with sin and fear and sickness. But make no mistake we are free now because we know that a day is coming when Jesus will set the entire creation free, when as Revelation puts it, “death will be no more,” or as the prophet Isaiah puts it, when the “lion will lie down with the lamb.” We are free because Jesus lives to make all things new.

And so as you go into the world this week, you may have a moment or two or twelve when you feel powerless and out of control. But I’ve got great news for you. You are. You are powerless. You’re not in control. But you know what, that’s okay because Jesus is in control. And Jesus’ power is so great that He’s made death his prisoner. And because of that you and I are free.

And so here’s the question I leave us with this week. Jesus lives to make all things new. What are we living for? You see in baptism we too were anointed. The priest took some oil, made the sign of the cross on our head, and marked us as Christ’s own forever. In baptism we were anointed. Now, I’m not saying that we’re the Anointed One. That’s still Jesus. But I am saying that we are anointed ones- that we are mini-messiahs, that the Spirit of the Lord is also upon us and that our great purpose in life is to join Jesus in His mission is to bring good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives. To let the oppressed go free.