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David’s Community Bible Church

2 July 2017

 

Today we’ll look at one of the Gospel of John’s most beautiful stories. This story is about Jesus’ encounter with someone who truly needed his touch. I’m drawn to this chapter for the combination of tenderness and strength that is so much like Jesus. But I also love it because I, too, am lost without Jesus’ touch. And so, frankly are you. We all share something with this ‘woman taken in adultery’, as she’s often called.

Here’s how the passage reads:

Early in the morning (Jesus) came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’

This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’ (John 8:2–11 ESV)

I want us to talk about three experiences. We’re all familiar with two of them. Most of us have experienced all three.

  • Shame
  • Sin
  • Freedom

Now it’s possible that you’ve never thought about ‘shame’ and ‘sin’ as two different things. But they are different.

In fact, people who study the way cultures work speak of two different kinds of cultures.

Shame cultures (or ‘honor/shame cultures’) are those in which people suffer most from the disapproval and contempt that their actions bring on them. People in shame cultures don’t entirely dismiss the idea of objective righteousness and sin as a falling short of that standard. But what wrenches at their hearts and beats them down is the sense of shame that comes from having failed or having been thought to fail. And what raises them up is being respected …  honored.

Law cultures (‘forensic cultures’) are those in which people speak more easily about sin than about shame. They speak the language of guilt and righteousness and are less comfortable thinking about, talking about, or even feeling shame as the deepest reality in their lives. What raises them up is forgiveness … knowing that their law-breaking is no longer held against them.

In the US, we have traditionally been a law culture. We speak of the rule of law and are given to classifying people as law-abiding or law-breaking. People are either innocent or guilty. We don’t worry as much about what they feel.

Now I wonder if you’ve observed a shift between those of us are, say, 40 years old or older …. and those who are younger than 40. Maybe you think the younger ones among us seem to belong to an honor-shame culture more than to a law culture. If you have that idea in your head, you’re not alone. Many culture-watchers would say that we are in fact undergoing that kind of shift. We’re becoming less like Germans and more like Italians. We’re less concerned about law or righteousness as an objective standard that ought to be upheld no matter what we feel about it … and more concerned about how people feel, whether someone has been humiliated or excluded … or shamed.

One of the things I love about Jesus’ encounter with this woman in John 8 is that he seems to deal with both shame and guilt. As he does so, I think he says that both kinds of culture … both kinds of people … both ends of the spectrum of our experience as human beings are important. Both are redeemable. Most importantly: we can be freed from both shame and sin.

Now I need to take a little detour here for a minute, so bear with me:

If you’re an especially sharp-eyed reader or if you have a Bible that calls your attention to this sort of thing, you may have noticed that this short passage floated around for quite a few years before it found its eventual home in the Gospel of John.  These verses don’t appear in our very earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John. They do show up in a few manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke. And then, finally, they come to rest in their current location at the beginning of the Gospel of John, where I think they fit so beautifully as a real-life example of Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness.

I want to say just a few words about this in order not to leave anybody hanging:

First of all, this kind of thing is very, very unusual. Our manuscript evidence for the books of the Bible is so solid and indisputable that this kind of uncertainty almost never occurs.

Second, there’s nothing to worry about in this. Most scholars who study this kind of thing say that this passage has all the earmarks of a genuine encounter of Jesus with this woman. It’s hard to say why it had to struggle to find its home here in the Gospel of John.

I like to think of the passage itself as suffering some of the same un-belonging that this woman must have felt as she was dragged into this very public humiliation and then eventually abandoned to the care of Jesus’, her merciful rescuer.

Now let’s talk about an unfortunate woman’s shame.

Jesus challenged the religion and the religious leaders of his time in many ways. But no challenge rose higher than his insistence on showing mercy to those who had been most shoved aside by the mainstream. The Old Testament tells us that ‘the LORD draws near to the broken-hearted’.

Jesus certainly did so. He saw right through appearances. He was no respecter of persons. He recognized the point at which piety and spirituality actually push people away from God rather than drawing them towards Him. He knew the hypocrisies and the half-truths that sometimes seem as though they flourish much better in religious soil than they do in other places.

And no one pushed back against Jesus and his teaching more than the men whom the gospels call ‘the scribes and the Pharisees’. These guys were the custodians of the faith and of the people, as nobody else was.

Now let’s not be too quick to write off these ‘scribes and Pharisees’ as the miserable, rotten people they often sound like. The Pharisees grew out of a movement that had paid a very high price for standing form against all kinds of political and religious compromise back in the day. And the teachers of the Law had studied long and hard to master the deep truths of God. They weren’t lazy bums. They were diligent. They cared. They wanted their children to grow up in a culture that honored God and that walked in the ancient paths.

But, you know, our zeal is never enough. Sometimes we who are closest to the truths of God find ourselves wanting to master God rather than to be mastered by him. We come to place where it’s no longer possible for God to surprise us because we’ve possessed him. We’ve domesticated him. We know all sorts of things about him. But we don’t know Him and are no longer undone by how good and gracious and demanding he is. And then we become an obstacle that stands between God and people who would really like to know Him.

This is what happened to too many of the scribes and Pharisees. So Jesus was not welcome among them. He was a threat.

When the scribes and Pharisees bring this woman to Jesus, verse 6 tells us that they did this ‘to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him’.

So here they come … and here she comes.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.” John 8:3–4 ESV)

She’s been caught in the very act of adultery. Imagine her shame. Who knows if they even allowed her to throw something over her body, to cover herself up.

There’s a crowd of people with Jesus, listening to his teaching, learning from him, becoming his disciples.

This crowd of religious officials bullies in and they place this woman in the midst of everybody. They text doesn’t even tell us her name. I think it withholds that information intentionally, as a way of signaling that this woman … this human being … had been reduced to a legal case study … She’s an object lesson to them, not a human being who needs redeeming. She has no name.

A few minutes before, she had been in the embrace of her lover. Misguided as her love might have been, maybe she felt loved there, cared for. Maybe she was finally finding some tenderness.

We sometimes collapse this story with others that suggest she was a serial adulterer or even a prostitute. But the text says nothing to suggest that. Likely she was a normal woman, maybe a lonely one, and—dishonest and damaging as her act might have been—she was experiencing some affection.

And then suddenly here she is, in the midst of a crowd … embarrassed … shamed … condemned.

Can you imagine the shame … ?

What are her thoughts: ‘Even if I get out of this alive … and I may not … where do I go from here? I have no more secrets. I’ve lost my dignity. Everybody is staring at me … and scowling.’

Now, before we go any farther, one question hangs over this scene. At least in my mind it does, and maybe in yours too.

Maybe the guy was faster on his feet than the woman was, and got away. Or maybe the hypocrisy of this woman’s accusers is evident in the man’s absence. Maybe they let him go. Maybe he was one of the boys. Maybe they could sweep his cheating on his wife under the rug.

‘But this woman …’, you can almost hear them saying, ‘… we’ll make an example of her, and we’ll trap this Jesus along with her.’

Have you ever felt utterly alone? Abandoned?

This woman, in this terrible, public, shameful moment … certainly feels that way. And, as far as anybody knows, she should. She’s got no one to stand up for her. There’s no fairness in this, no dignity in this, no mercy in this.

Many of us live with shame, so this woman may not seem so different than what we know.

There are two kinds of shame you know:

  • There is shame for something you have done or someone you have been. This kind of shame flows from our own sin. It’s a step beyond regret, and you see it in the eyes of people who know the thing they’ve done or the things they haven’t done and they wonder how it ever got this way. But there’s no going back. You can see it in their eyes.
  • Then there is shame that is bred into us. Some of us feel shame even though it doesn’t flow from some real sin in our lives. If you’ve come from a home with a domineering parent or a family where other dysfunctions ran really deep or suffered abuse at an early age, you may feel that this second kind of shame is far too familiar to you. Everything’s not your fault, but it sure does feel like it is.

Whatever its cause, shame is debilitating. It traps us. It becomes a dark story and we live in that story, never quite able to escape its darkness. We long to be free, but the shame is stronger than we are. It keeps us from responding with joy to God’s calling on our lives. It keeps us from reaching out in joy and concern to others, keeps us from focusing on others rather than on our own darkness.

Shame is a cage.  A really frustrating, trapping, debilitating cage.

I bet you know something about shame. I do. Most of us do, sooner or later

But this woman was not only suffering shame. She was also caught in the act of one of the most awful of sins: awful because it involves the shattering of marriage promises by one or by both of the people involved. The Bible understands adultery as sexual relations outside of marriage when at least one of the participants is married. The Germans call it Ehebruch or marriage-breaking, because that’s exactly what it is. This woman was not merely a victim. She was a sinner.

It all adds up for Jesus’ adversaries to being the perfect trap.

They know Jesus is stern with them … and off-the-charts merciful with the weak and the needy. But it’s hard to book a guy for mercy.

But they also know that Jesus honors their Scripture. And they think they can trap him between his own mercy and the Scripture’s severity.

That would be their opening to get rid of this very popular Jesus once and for all:

Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say? (John 8:5 ESV)

It’s worthwhile, when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, to look back to the verses that are being quoted. Here are the passages from the Law of Moses that are most likely in their minds:

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 NRSV)

If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:22 NRSV)

So Jesus’ adversaries have a strong point.

What will Jesus’ do?

This is where this passage slows waaaay down … and becomes very mysterious.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. (John 8:6–9)

What do you think Jesus wrote in the dust? Wouldn’t you love to know?

I have no idea why the gospel writer withheld from us the details about what Jesus wrote.

All kinds of theories have been offered about what those words in the dust might have said.

The truth is, we simply … don’t … know.

And the fact that we don’t know puts our focus back on what we do know: the words of Jesus that were not written in the sand but rather were spoken to this woman’s accusers and recorded in the Gospel of John:

Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.

Now I have a question for every follower of Jesus in this room:

Having known the grace and forgiveness of Jesus, how could we ever entertain a judgmental spirit in our hearts. How could we ever allow un-grace to creep in and poison our relationships? How could forgiveness and restoration ever fail to be our deepest desire when there is sin and shame in those who walk along beside us?

Now Jesus and this anonymous woman are left alone.

Probably for the first time in this whole sad calamity, someone looks her in the eyes and speaks to her. It’s Jesus, of course, who does so.

Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

She said, ‘No one, Lord.’

And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’ (John 8:10–11 ESV)

Is there a more poignant, more moving question anywhere in Scripture than this?: Does no one condemn you?

 Notice that Jesus removes from this woman two terrible burdens:

First, he takes away the terrible burden of her public shame. He restores her to dignity in the sight of other people, for none are left who condemn her.

But then he also speaks as the Incarnate Lord who wields an authority that belongs only to God: to forgive sin.

He assures her that he himself does not condemn her. Yet this does not mean that sin does not matter, that adultery is a trivial thing, that our actions don’t have consequences. Jesus stays very far from that conclusion. Having forgiven her, his last recorded words to her are ‘From now on sin no more.’

Honestly, it’s hard for me to decide which message this amazing passage brings to Christian people most powerfully.

Are we meant to hear in this how utterly unthinkable it is for us, having been forgiven just like this woman by the sheer mercy of Jesus, that we should be judgmental, condemning people? People who classify other human beings as better or worse depending on the kind of sin in which they’ve indulged and forgetting our own?

Is it a message about how we should live towards those who are trapped in shame and even in sin? With mercy, as Jesus addressed this woman?

Are we the scribes and Pharisees, who need to watch Jesus writing in the sand and then hear his biting, liberating words, ‘Is there anyone here without sin? If so, you go first … Go ahead, throw your stones.’

Maybe. And maybe that’s what your heart and mine need to hear this morning.

Or is the main message to us as those who become trapped in shame and sin?

Maybe we’re not the scribes and the Pharisees. Maybe we’re more like this woman, caught in a family-bashing sin, a light shone upon her own personal evil … discovering that in Jesus there is forgiveness and freedom from our shame … and from our sin.

Maybe that’s the main message for us this morning.

We have fine pastors and trusted elders in this congregation, and I know that if you’ve been trapped in that cage and would like to begin your break from it this morning, any of us would be delighted to talk with you about that.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cuando los profetas del Antiguo Testamento satirizan, no es causa de risa. Es decir, cualquier regocijo provocado por sus irónicos o ataques verbales—y algo de esto es bastante gracioso para los ojos modernos también—está destinado a despertar en sus oyentes que la realidad creada ha sido transgredida. Y pronto, o eventualmente, será rectificada.

En el siguiente pasaje, los dioses de los opresores babilónicos absorben la fuerza de este sátira acre.

Bel se inclina, Nebo se somete; sus ídolos son llevados por bestias de carga. Pesadas son las imágenes que por todas partes llevan; son una carga para el agotado. Todos a la vez se someten y se inclinan; no pudieron rescatar la carga,  y ellos mismos van al cautiverio.

Escúchame, familia de Jacob, todo el resto de la familia de Israel, a quienes he cargado desde el vientre, y he llevado desde la cuna. Aun en la vejez, cuando ya peinen canas, yo seré el mismo, yo los sostendré. Yo los hice, y cuidaré de ustedes; los cargaré y los libraré (Isaías 46:1-4 N.V.I., ligeramente editada).

El sofisticado juego verbal presente es muy rico para ser explicado en la traducción. Pero déjenme intentarlo.

Estos dos breves párrafos proféticos (por lo que la versión hebraica del ‘Texto Masorético’ los considera) juega sobre los temas que Isaías sostiene, vemos algunos giros hacia adentro y algunas exploraciones, así como J.S. Bach explora la capacidad del sonido dado en una fughetta barroca.

Éstos son algunos de esos temas que aparecen en las líneas que he citado.

En primer lugar, el momento histórico parece comprobar los poderes de los dioses de babilonia, incluso para descartar cualquier discusión en el rostro de su evidente magnificencia. La nación babilónica, después de todo, reina en supremacía. Como podríamos decir hoy, es como  una imagen de  una superpotencia unipolar. Los príncipes babilónicos son reyes, se jactan ellos. Son la definición misma de la voluntad invencible de ejerecer el poder. El lenguaje isaiánico de la altura entra en juego aquí, donde ‘la alta’ significa la gloria y la autoridad y ‘la baja’ significa derrota e incapacidad.

En esta luz, la afirmación de Isaías de que ‘Bel se inclina’ y que ‘Nebo se postra’ convierte las circunstancias en su cabeza. El pensamiento del profeta, ofrecido en contra de las evidencias, es o bien enterado y provocativo, pues quizás el profeta discierne más que nosotros. O es simplemente el delirio.

En segundo lugar, las ideas gemelas isiánicas de peso y fatiga se despliegan ingeniosamente y, en mi opinión, poderosamente. Permítanme tratar de descomponer de una forma ordenada que lo pueda compartir sin drenar la imagen de su fluyente potencia.

Satíricamente, Isaías sugiere que la representación física de los dioses babilónicos es  sencillamente demasiado pesada como para ser cargada sin que la gente se agote en el proceso. Es decir, estos dioses no ayudan a su gente. Más bien, sus adoradores son reducidos al simple hecho de transportar a sus ídolos, con la energía que ellos mismos carecen. Este tipo de religión, según las reclamaciones del profeta, es agotadora.

Los componentes verbales que hacen de esta sátira posible, son palabras comunes para describir el soporte (נשא), la relacionada con carga (משא), una palabra exquisitamente empleada aquí que implica carga y transporte (עמס), y—por último—una palabra que es potente en manos de Isaías que significa estar fatigado (עיף).

Ahora veamos de nuevo el pasaje, esta vez con comentarios intercalados en cursiva:

Bel se inclina, Nebo se somete; sus ídolos son llevados por bestias de carga. (Aquí los grandes dioses de Babilonia se reducen a pesados objetos materiales y que la gente utiliza patéticamente a sus valiosos animales, forzándolos a llevar la  carga.)

Todos a la vez se someten y se inclinan  (¿Quién hace esto?, ¿los dioses, las bestias de carga? Es muy probable que este último–la bestias—luchen, se esfuercen y se quejen bajo la carga). No pueden librar la carga, sino que ellos mismos son llevados al cautiverio.

Escúchame, familia de Jacob, todo el resto de la familia de Israel, a quienes he cargado desde el vientre, y he llevado desde la cuna.  Aun en la vejez, cuando ya peinen canas, yo seré el mismo, yo los sostendré. Yo los hice, y cuidaré de ustedes;  los sostendré y los libraré.

Ah, y ahora vemos que en los oídos de Isaías es YHWH quien lleva y carga a su propio pueblo. No los somete a la fatiga de arrastrar a los dioses inertes, sino que los carga sobre alas de águilas, de modo que hasta los fatigados logran encontrar nuevas fuerzas.

Así que la sátira Isiánica es  luz en lo que realmente está sucediendo en un momento en que Babilonia y sus dioses aparentan triunfar y Judá se esconde como una de las muchas víctimas que fenecen ante esta poderosa nación.

Echemos un vistazo a un juego de palabras más, en este impresionante pasaje.

Esas bestias cargadas—cargadas de ídolos, si esta lectura es la lectura correcta—no pueden ‘salvar la carga’. La palabra traducida aquí como ‘salvar’ es profundamente familiar en el contexto isaiánico del exilio y el retorno, de la subyugación y de la redención. El  verbo en  hebreo מלט, aquí  al parecer, significa que las bestias desgastadas de tropiezo no pueden salvar a la carga de los ídolos bajo cuyo peso muerto son  impulsadas siempre hacia adelante. Pero sólo unos cuantos versículos más adelante, leemos acerca de la afirmación de YHWH: ‘voy a llevar y a salvar’.

Este extracto de cuatro versos del libro de Isaías es gema de sátira profética, que se puede admirar por motivos literarios por sus matices penetrantemente inteligentes. Sin embargo, ha sido preservado, leído y atesorado porque habla de cosas aún más profundas: La religión muerta  engañada lleva una nación al agotamiento. Muy por el contrario es el ofrecimiento de  YHWH; él carga y sostiene a los que son suyos.

El lector cristiano puede encontrar que las palabras de un profeta posterior vienen a la mente:

Vengan a mí todos ustedes que están cansados y agobiados, y yo les daré descanso. Carguen con mi yugo y aprendan de mí, pues yo soy apacible y humilde de corazón, y encontrarán descanso para su alma. Porque mi yugo es suave y mi carga es liviana (Mateo 11:28-30 N.V.I.).

No tomaría nada de estas últimas palabras, ni de su orador, si uno especulara que la sátira isaiánica—atesorada, reflexionada e incluso memorizada—estaba en el centro de la llamada de Jesús a una cierta ligereza misericordiosa.

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Usualmente los oráculos proféticos de la Biblia no se leen buscando inspiración alguna. Lo espeso de sus paisajes, los cuadros dantescos, salvajes y desoladores, más bien causan perturbación en vez de brindar consuelo o inspiración. De hecho, esto es su objetivo, aunque para ello emerja de sus entrañas una lectura dura de roer.

Profecía sobre el desierto del mar. Como torbellino del Neguev, así viene del desierto, de la tierra horrenda.  Visión dura me ha sido mostrada. El prevaricador prevarica, y el destructor destruye. Sube, oh Elam; sitia, oh Media. Todo su gemido hice cesar. (Isaías  21:1–2 N.V.I.).

Isaías 21 es pues parte de ese grupo de llamados ‘oráculos contra las Naciones’, dirigido contra Babilonia la opresora de Judá. La pequeña y frágil Judá encontraría algo de consuelo en ello, por su manera de invertir las estructuras de poder en su entorno. Semejantes denuncias muestran que los perros grandes no mandan, a pesar de su presunción. El profeta se  atreve a sugerir, en contra de las evidencias, que ningún poder humano es invencible.

Los versículos citados despliegan una característica particular de los oráculos proféticos, los cuales de manera sutil hacen un terrible reclamo: existe una línea de inevitabilidad que los rebeldes de cualquier clase pueden violar. A pesar de la paciencia larga del YHWH, a ese punto todo ha sido dicho y el juicio pronto se ejecutará.

Los traductores luchan por capturar la repetición representada en las dos frases en cursiva. En lo personal, he pasado tiempo tratando de encontrar una versión de la Biblia que intente reflejar esta misma idea como un juego de palabras reiterativa. Al menos en ingles la NRSV lo hace bien:  the betrayer betrays and the destroyer destroys (el traidor traiciona y el destructor destruye Hebreo: הבוגד בוגד והשודד שודד).

Por su lado, el libro neotestamentario,  Apocalipsis toma prestada esa misma  técnica, quizás mostrando su deuda con el libro de Isaías. Esto no debería extrañarnos en un libro tan saturado del espíritu isaiánico, tan convencido de que el nombre ‘Babilonia’ sirve perfectamente bien para identificar cualquier poder que aplasta bajo sus pies a los pequeños de YHWH.

Otra secuencia de lamentos de condenación idénticos encontramos aquí: (“cayó, cayó, Babilonia”, Isa. 21.9 // ” Ha caído, ha caído la gran Babilonia”, Apocalipsis 18.2) complementa este ritmo de reiteración.

 Si alguno lleva en cautividad, va en cautividad; si alguno mata a espada, a espada debe ser muerto. Aquí está la paciencia y la fe de los santos (Apocalipsis 13:10 N.V.I.)

Lo ineludible es algo que no se muestra con frecuencia en el relato bíblico en cuanto al trato que tenía YHWH con su pueblo y su gente. Por el contrario, se muestra una relación abierta, cargada de  promesas y deseos impregnados de buenas aspiraciones para los protagonistas humanos.

Pero hay un punto, los oráculos proféticos nos instruyen, después del cual no hay vuelta atrás. Es el punto en que oponerse a la voluntad divina se torna voluntarioso y completo. En ese momento, la suerte ha sido echada y la destrucción es inevitable.

Dios no lo quiera.

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Convocation, Clark Theological College, Nagaland

17 April 2016

Honorable chairperson of the Board of Governors and members of this Board, Respected Principal Dr Takatemjen, incoming Principal Dr Mar Congener, faculty of Clark Theological College, distinguished guests, parents of the graduating students, graduating students, continuing students, staff, and the larger CTS family …

May I speak in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?

  *   *   *

One of my favourite things is to look into the faces of graduands, like these 2016  graduands of Clark Theological College … and to imagine ….

Will you allow me to look without embarrassment into your faces?

I see feats that you hace already accomplished and sacrifices that you have already made …

Some of these achievements have been widely celebrated in your community as miracles of God and as heroic efforts by one or another of you.

Others have been quiet … even silent … invisible to all but one of you. These private acts of heroism may be known only to your closest family and friends. Or perhaps only to you. It’s no matter. God knows them.

  • Some have chosen a path of Christian ministry against other more lucrative careers that your family had in store for you.
  • Some have perhaps left a girlfriend or a boyfriend to pursue a calling that that person could not encourage or support.
  • You have worked late into the night to master Greek or theology or anthropology or the history of Jesus’ church.
  • You have encouraged each other.
  • Perhaps some have summoned up the strength against depression or sadness … the strength simply to get out of bed and to go to class. This, too, can be the deed of a hero.
  • You have discovered spiritual gifts that you didn’t know God had given you, and academic aptitudes that you didn’t know were yours to steward.
  • Your curiosity has been awakened and you have become alive to the joy that is learning to learn …
  • You have learned to stop talking in order to listen intently.
  • You have served your home churches or other ministries in which you have become experienced with new learning. You have learned to deploy that learning with humility and tact among sisters and brothers who have not had the opportunity of study.
  • You have discovered the heart of Jesus for the broken and the outcast.

 

The truth is, the churches and people of Nagaland and of India and beyond are fortunate to have you … blessed to know the kinds of servant leadership that you will provide over the next thirty years … or forty … or fifty … or sixty.

Rooted in scripture … eager to serve … with minds alert … and with hearts that sing … in more than one sense of the word, ready to go.

It would be awkward for an invited guest to speak anything but congratulations on an occasion such as this. It would be almost a social sin to speak of anything but commendation and well-deserved praise and encouragement to keep on into the future as you have walked in the past.

And I see the future, or at least I imagine that I do … and it inspires me … it makes it a wonderful thing to look into your faces this day and to think of things that will be.

Without invitation, my mind already wants to add you to the famous list of the book of Hebrews, chapter 11:

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:4–8 ESV)

 

It would be an easy thing, during a ceremony such as this, to add your names to this list and to sum up the deeds you will accomplish, by faith.

*    *   *

But the truth is, I don’t know your future. I can only imagine. Perhaps I can only speculate.

However, two thing I do know:

You will face hardship. And you will be resilient.

 May I give to you as my gift on your graduation day a passage from the ancient book of Isaiah that has become so very important to me?:

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:27–31 ESV)

Now back to those two things about your future, of which I am certain.

 

You will face hardship.

In fact, you will experience exile.

Do you know what an exile is?

Exile is simply the loss of everything that seems important.

Old Testament Israel suffered what is for Jews and for Christians an iconic exile.

This people of God, this chosen race, lost everything.

  • Temple
  • Priests
  • Sacrifice
  • Land
  • Promise
  • Identity
  • Future

Israel lost everything. That’s what exile does. It strips you of everything you knew …. Everything you thought you were … everything that sustained you … everything you believed …

What does an exile sound like? Israel’s voice out of exile sounds like this:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”   How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Psalms 137:1–6 ESV)

It gets worse. Israel’s emotions in her exile become more savage and violent than I can bring myself to read out on a happy occasion such as this.

One thing was true of exiles in the time of Israel’s captivity in Babylon: nobody ever survived them. Exile was designed to liquidate peoples … to abolish all sense of separate identity … to destroy a people’s name and hope and future … to let captivity and assimilation accomplish their fatal work.

Exiles are final. They are terminal. They lead nowhere. Every exile claims to have the final word.

Yet the Lord turned Israel’s exile into one of his greatest miracles. He transformed an experience that could only possibly destroy his people into a rebirth that refined and resurrected them instead.

The Lord spoke  deeply into the lives of his captive people. He assured them that he was capable of being with them in this foreign place, as capable as he was of being present to them from the Holiest of Holies back in the promised land.

By YHWH’s grace, Israel experienced a national resurrection. Israel survived. Israel returned. Israel gave birth to Israel’s Messiah. You and I are here at Clark Theological College, brothers and sisters, together—sons and daughters of the Lord Most High—because of it.

*   *   *   *

I wish it were not true. It seems on such a happy occasion as this a shame to say it, especially as I exercise my privilege to look from this platform into your beautiful faces.

But you will experience your exiles.

For some, they will be momentary and fleeting. For others, the rest of your lives may prove to be an unremitting difficulty … for most of you, you will be somewhere in between.

Yet all of you—you, with your feats and victories and accomplishments, with your brilliant futures ahead of you, with your love and your families still awaiting you—all of you will know something of exile.

But here’s that second thing, that second prediction that I can make with confidence about your future.

You will be resilient!

 Resilient means that you will rise up from what should have crushed you. You will find your way past the moans of pain and into the songs of rejoicing.  You will discover strength when you thought you could only continue to collapse.

Out of your mourning, you will find that you have been given …

… a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that you are once again called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:3 ESV)

And then, miracle of miracles, you will be even stronger and more beautiful than you are today.

It seems impossible, but this is what awaits you, dear graduands.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:27–31 ESV)

Thirty years ago, I was a young missionary in Latin America, learning to teach and to mentor young men and women with whom I had a powerful intuitive connection. Things were going well, and the Lord was causing a spiritual gift of teaching to flourish. I had been a very insecure person and found it difficult to imagine that all this good ministry was happening around me and even through me. I could not have been happier. I was 28 years old.

One day, after I’d finished teaching my heart out, an elder colleague whom I still refer to as the man who shaped me in ministry, approached me and said something I have never forgotten: ‘I want to hear you when you’re forty’.

Forty seemed a long way off then. Now it seems a very long way in my past. But that man knew that the best things come through exile and resilience … and that these take a long time to have their effect.

I want to hear you … I want to see you when you’re forty.

 35 years ago I read an essay on the back page of a famous magazine in my country called TIME. It told the story of two older gentlemen who loved classical music and frequented the performance hall of one of the world’s most prestigious symphonic ensembles, the New York Philharmonic.

One day a very young Korean girl—a prodigy really, for no one should be able to make music like the music she made at such a tender age—appeared on the program to play the famous Brahms Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. It was the first piece on the program, to be followed by an intermission, and then by music of a different composer.

The performance was technically perfect. This little girl never missed a note. It was astounding. The audience was baffled by the ability of such a youth to play the music of a master as she had done.

There was only one problem: the performance had no soul to it … no pathos.

The one elderly music lover came upon his friend in the lobby of the concert hall during intermission. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked ‘So, what did you think?’

The other man looked thoughtfully down at his shoes for a while before answering. Then he looked his friend in the eyes and offered this comment: ‘She needs to suffer before she plays that piece again.’

*   *   *   *

You look this morning as though you are at the height of your powers. Vigorous … beautiful … strong … youthful.

But, in truth, you are not yet at the height of your powers. You are merely on your way.

The height of your powers will come to you when you have suffered your exiles and, in them, found resilience through the strength of the living God … The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … the Giver of his empowering Spirit.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28–31 ESV)

May it be so.

And congratulations for a most admirable beginning!

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The Bible is unflinching about the human predicament.

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.   And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:4–8 ESV)

How do we become un-lost?

How do we overcome our agnostic doubts, find our way through the morass of what we self-justifyingly call ‘the evidence’ to a defensible conclusion?

How do we assess this abiding sense of guilt again someone we can’t quite see?

How do we decide whether whether we are, finally, alone? Or not?

But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9 ESV)

The Bible’s story of human origins has the creator seeking out the first humans in their worst possible moment.

It has ever been so, and we are fortunate for it.

Absent a creator who—so we are told—pursues us and loves us in spite of everything, we are lost. We are on the fence. We cannot know if the aloneness we feel is real, or only the product of minds poorly equipped for the harshness of life.

To be lost out here is more than a feeling, and the jungle is vast.

But, wait! I hear someone …

 

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Is it only the hope born so relentlessly in a new year’s first hours?

Or is YHWH’s purpose as unstoppable as it appears this first morning?

… and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel .. (Matthew 1:11–12 ESV)

From the conjunction of a January 1st and the first verses of the New Testament emerges a fresh glimpse of divine purpose, pushing through the bitter-sweets of the year just gone and into the face of all manner of fears about the one taking shape under our feet.

Matthew—grouping a genealogy of the about-to-be-born Jesus into an artifice of fourteen generations here, another fourteen there—molds history’s apparent chaos to make it a bit more ordered and orderly than rapid readers in the twenty-first century might understand it to be.

Between one fourteen and another, he skips over an apparent end-point: deportation, or exile. In the world of Babylonian eminence, a people did not emerge from exile. They either died in its grip or assimilated into the empire’s powerful ways and means so as to become unrecognizable among the flotsam and jetsam of once-proud peoples and nations now subjugated by the empire’s irresistible force. So was Israel’s great crisis short-handed as ‘exile’.

Yet Matthew skips over Babylonian captivity as though it were nothing. Well, not quite nothing, but nothing more than a comma in the long story of YHWH’s purpose.

Exilic calamity brands death into the bodies of less favored nations, who will die sooner or later far from home and be forgotten when they do.

Not to those who serve the divine Father of the about-to-be-born Jesus. They taste the same blood as those who are ground into dust by history. Their hearts race to the same fears. They curse the same mornings. Far from  immunity to history, they have been thrust into its sweaty core.

But, just when all seems list, a new fourteen appears, a biographical cluster that promises life, progeny, and future.

And now, we are about to be told, a king is born. His name means ‘He rescues’.

And, on top of that, it is January 1st, when all things are possible.

Give us fourteen more, then.

 

 

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For the New Testament writers, the ‘good news’ is in reality amazing news.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10–12 ESV)

These same writers consider that the long story of intrusive grace has opened a new chapter in their time. The trajectory of this tale—whence it comes, the mysteries it transmits, the grace it continues to reveal—is only in the smallest sense know-able ahead of time. The early daughters and sons of the Jesus movement lived with a continual sense of surprise.

Yet each surprise ‘lined up’ with what had gone before.

The letter we call 1 Peter punctures any assumption that greater beings than we are understand these things comprehensively. Apparently, there is mystery even in the heavenlies.

Indeed, it would seem that human beings—as the special concern of YHWH’s redemptive tenacity—are poised to understand that redemption in a way that greater creatures cannot. Some things are barred even from the gaze of angel eyes.

Or, perhaps it is that the angels are as surprised as we are and along with us as the story unfolds, for they—with their presumed proximity to heavenly counsel—had not known that YHWH would do this … would burnish his glory in just this way … would prove himself this creative, this good, this worthy of praise.

The verb is a strong one: … ‘things into which angels long to look.’

They’ve had enough clues, these angels, to expect the outlandish, the lavish, the most laudable.  They lean forward, expectantly, awaiting the turn of a cosmic page.

But this! This glory, crafted of these sufferings!

Who ever would have thought!

 

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