Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8), June 30, 2019 (Luke 9:51-62) – “Foxes have Holes, Birds have Nests….”

“Jesus Traveling (Jésus en voyage)” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It seems hard for me to believe (because it seems so recent), but over ten years ago, Honda had a certain advertising campaign on television and that featured an animated man who would talk about the vehicles and deals available during the Honda Year-End Clearance Event.  Once he had told the viewer or listener about the great deals available to them, he would either “rap” the television screen or “tap” the radio microphone and state enthusiastically, “I’m Mr. Opportunity, and I’m knocking.”

Mr. Opportunity was Honda’s way of telling prospective car buyers about the cars they could have if they acted quickly.  The Year-End Clearance Event wasn’t going to last forever, though, and the cars weren’t going to stick around. Just as soon as the event was over and the cars sold, Mr. Opportunity would be on his way until the next big sale.  But while the sale was on, he was knocking.

In a way, Jesus, in our reading from Luke this morning, is kind of like Mr. Opportunity.  He’s been going along, preaching about the coming kingdom of God, preaching repentance and healing people as he journeys toward Jerusalem where his work will be made complete.  He presents an opportunity in every town he enters, an opportunity for life and healing, an opportunity for second chances and changed hearts. But not everyone who comes into contact with him is open to that opportunity.  The Samaritans, theological opponents of the Jewish community, see that he’s going toward Jerusalem, the seat of their rival religion, and so they don’t let him into their town. He’s not acceptable among them, even if he is bringing with him the good news of the kingdom of God.

Some of the people who have joined Jesus on his journey don’t understand what taking the opportunity to follow him means.  The man who says he’ll follow Jesus wherever he will go doesn’t understand the stakes of being a disciple. “I will follow you wherever you should go,” he says.  But Jesus replies, “Foxes have dens, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay down his head.” To follow Jesus is to leave behind everything, to give up your comforts, to become homeless in this world.  Wild creatures have their homes, but not Jesus. The one who expects comfort and an easy time of it while going with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem will be sorely mistaken.

“Homeless Jesus” by Timothy P. Schmalz in the courtyard of the Papal Charities Building, Vatican City. From the sculptor’s website.

And those whom Jesus calls to follow him learn that the opportunity to follow Jesus is fleeting.  Jesus isn’t waiting around. “Permit me, going [with you], to first bury my father,” says one. “Let me say goodbye to all the folks at home,” says another.  But Jesus won’t give them time to do these things. “Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus tells the first, “but you proclaim the kingdom of God.” “No one who puts his hands upon the plough and looks back is worthy of the Kingdom.”  Jesus is Mr. Opportunity, and he’s knocking. He’s still heading for Jerusalem, and they either heed him or they don’t.

Of course, what Jesus tells these men who wish to follow him is a hard saying.  In the case of the first, he’s telling him that following the Son of Man means becoming essentially homeless in the world.  In the world of first-century Judaea, to follow a rabbi literally meant to take on their philosophies and lifestyle. Following Jesus guarantees hardship and difficulty–no earthly security, no earthly comfort.  The fox has his den, the bird her best, but Jesus, and by extension, his followers, doesn’t have that comfort and safety. When Jesus calls these men to follow him, they learn that in order to truly follow him, they must have no earthly attachments.  Jesus comes first, everything else comes second. Even the obligation to bury one’s father, the most important thing one could do as a first century Jew, must come second.

“Fox Den” (2018) by Yellow Oxide after Shingo Nono. Image from Instagram.

But surely Jesus can’t be serious, can he?  That his followers are not to expect any kind of stability, that family comes second to following him, so much so that caring for one’s parents is made subordinate to preaching the word of the kingdom of God?  What Jesus is doing for these men who wish to follow him is that he’s pointing out their idols, the things that keep them from committing to his call, those things that take their attention away from preaching the kingdom of God and instead focus their attention on worldly matters, those things which take Jesus’ place in their hearts, those things which keep them from fully placing their trust in him, either because they dominate their attention or because they are convenient excuses.

And that’s what Jesus is doing here. By calling these men to follow him (or in the case of the first, explaining what his call will be like), Jesus is asking them to trust him utterly, to give up all they have and to follow him wherever he goes, even to Jerusalem where he will die.  But these men have other worldly cares that seem to take place of Jesus’ call. They don’t seem necessarily willing to set these things aside and throw their lot in with Jesus. They hear the call of the son of God, and yet, when they hear what’s entailed, they are reluctant. The idols in their lives–comfort, family, societal obligations–keep them from trusting him fully and taking the plunge.  They don’t have their priorities straight. They try to put conditions on their following him.

It’s worth remembering that when Jesus talks to these men, he’s talking to people who haven’t yet seen his crucifixion and resurrection (though they’re looming in the distance).  Looking at ourselves, what does this mean for us? We’re Christians, living in the promise of the resurrection. Most of us have been Christians since our infancy. But just because you’re in the church, doesn’t mean that you’re automatically following Jesus.  To follow Christ isn’t some sort of casual activity. It’s not something that we do passively (though we can’t do it without Jesus’ help), because there are all kinds of things out there that vie for our attention and which we turn into excuses for not following him, living as baptized children of God, being the church.  Maybe you’ve noticed some in your life. Perhaps it’s a desire to be comfortable. “Lord, I want to follow you, but I don’t want to take the risk–I’m afraid of the social repercussions of living out my faith publicly.” “Lord, I want to tell other people about you, but I’m just too busy making ends meet.” “Lord, I fear what others will say.”  Maybe the desire for financial security gets in the way. “I want to help people as you would have me, Lord, but I want to save money. I’m worried that if I give this homeless fellow cash, he’ll spend it on drugs. I don’t want to be defrauded.” “Lord, I know we pray ‘thy will be done,’ but I really want things to go my way for once.” “Lord, I know what I should do, but I can’t bring myself to act the way you want me to.”  “Lord, I believe— help my unbelief!” These thoughts and worries are all indicative of the idols we make out of ourselves, our time, our money, and our feelings, among myriad other things. They’re all things that we use to say, “I want to follow you, Jesus, but….” When we do that, we’re going back to that old familiar sin of ours wherein we trust ourselves over Jesus, or at least show that we’re not so ready to take him at his word, to trust that he is God and that, with him, we will be in his care and under his protection.  We can’t put our hands on the Gospel plough and then have second thoughts about it.

“The Man at the Plough” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain

Humans are creatures of comfort, after all.  We don’t like to be drawn into uncomfortable situations or ones in which we are vulnerable.  But that desire for comfort in the world distracts us from the fact that our Lord wants us to find our true comfort in him, not in the world.  That’s the issue that faced these men to whom Jesus called along the road to Jerusalem. But the difference for them is that Jesus isn’t calling them to follow him on their own, left to struggle and puzzle out how to best follow their master by themselves.  He is going to be with them! And while they may not understand who he is and what following him fully means, he invites them to trust him and follow him. It’s not unlike how the Israelites trusted God and followed his pillar of cloud and fire on their way out of Egypt in the Exodus.  God called them to follow him, and they did so, trusting him the whole way. They didn’t know where they were going, but he was present with them for every step, protecting them from danger.

“Moses goes through the Red Sea. The Army of Pharaoh is Drowned” (10th Century). Paris psalter, BnF MS Grec 139, folio 419v. Public Domain.

As it was for the Exodus-era Israelites, so it is for the men in our Gospel reading.  Jesus will be with them–in fact, they’ll be with him. And if they’re with him, then he will guide them.  In a sense, that’s what Jesus means when he talks about how no-one who puts his hands to the plough and looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom.  If you’ve ever seen how an old plough works— the kind that’s drawn by oxen rather than horses— you’ve probably noticed that in addition to the person who guides the plough itself, there’s at least one other person to help goad on the oxen along and keep the plough moving.  Jesus is like that person who guides the oxen, and when they start moving, you’d better hang on! But he keeps the oxen from going out of control and keeps the plough in its furrow.

And so it is for us.  Even though there are many things that fight to control our attention and entice us to hem and haw about living as one of God’s children in Christ, Jesus invites us to trust him and follow him.  We don’t have to fear or worry about discomfort or worldly obligations preventing us from following Jesus with our whole being because he will help us deal with that discomfort and meet those obligations as we follow him.  As we “go along,” following Jesus, we can perform our duties and face discomfort and unsurety in the world, but motivated by a different spirit, not because we are motivated by fear or by some law or custom, but because Jesus has given us the freedom to do so.  When we trust Jesus when he says, “Follow me,” knowing that the Son of God has our back no matter where we go or where he calls us to go, we can follow him without fear or worry, and we can do our best to be who he calls us to be. He will be with us every step of the way, and if we stumble in our following him, he will set us back on our feet to continue with him on his way.

C.S. Lewis once wrote the following: “If you read history you will find that Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next.  The apostles themselves, who set out on foot to convert the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

When we remember that Jesus is with us when we go to follow him, we can live confidently in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, not worrying about discomfort, vulnerability, or fear, but living in the world while looking confidently forward toward the kingdom of heaven, made worthy of it because we trust the one who makes us worthy, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost, June 9, 2019 (Acts 2:1-21) – “Depart, you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit!”

“Pentecost” from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), F 102r 1. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine, if you will, the following:  The year is AD 33, though you, as someone in the Jewish community would have known it as the year 3794, or as the 786th year since the founding of Rome, or the 19th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.  You and all of the congregation are crammed together in a house in Jerusalem, praying.  The day is the feast of Pentecost, called “Shavuot,” the Feast of Weeks.  It is a Jewish harvest festival, which “conclude[s] the period of seven weeks which began with the presentation of the first sheaf of the barley harvest during the Passover celebration.”[1]  But it is also a festival commemorating God’s giving the Law to the Israelites at Sinai fifty days after their leaving Egypt, when God descended upon Mount Sinai in thunder and fire, when “[the] smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly” (Exodus 19:18, ESV).  You and the rest of the assembly are probably planning to observe the feast with everyone else in Jerusalem.  But recently, strange and wondrous things have been afoot in your little community.   Jesus has ascended into heaven.  Fifty days ago he was resurrected from the dead after being put to death by the Romans, and now he’s gone to be with God, his Father.  But he promised to send a helper to you, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to speak to his glory and be your guide.  And now you are waiting, following Jesus’ command to “not depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4, ESV).

And while you’re all together in the house, talking, praying, reading, there’s suddenly a mighty whoosh, a great wind, roaring like the sound of a jet engine through the house (not that you’d have known what a jet engine was). But nothing is moving, it’s merely the sound.  Suddenly tongues of fire, perhaps like those God sent down on Sinai over one thousand years earlier, come down through the air and rest above the heads of each person in the house, you included, and you’re filled suddenly with this indescribable feeling, maybe a warmth, maybe a prickling, you can’t say.  It feels unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, though.  Something is going into you, filling you, and you feel different.  Better?  Whole?  Alive?

“Pentecost : The sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles” from the Hortus Deliciarum (1180) by Herrad of Landsberg (1125-1195). Public Domain.

Suddenly you and everyone else are running out of the house, dashing into the street.  The neighbors have heard the whoosh, as well as the out-of-towners who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost.  They’ve come from all over the world for this, men and women from other parts of Judea and Galilee, from Parthia to the east and Crete to the west; from Egypt, Pontus, Persia, the Anatolian coast, North Africa, and far off Italy.  The whole known world is represented in Jerusalem this day.  And suddenly, like things possessed, you’re speaking to them about Jesus and who he is and what he’s done.  And they can understand you and you can understand them, even though you don’t know a lick of Farsi or Latin or Egyptian.

But some people in the crowd laugh at you.  They hear all these languages that they’ve never heard before, this literal Babel of voices, and they think you’re all drunk. They can’t believe it.  You can’t believe it.  How can this be?  What is causing you to do this?  How are you doing this?  You see, this is the work of the promised one, the Holy Spirit, and he has entered you and made these things possible.  The Third Person of the Trinity has come into you and made you his instrument to proclaim the Good News to the world congregating in Jerusalem.


That’s the first part of the Pentecost account from today’s Acts reading.  We have all heard the story before, but has it ever occurred to you that something is happening here that is an exact reversal of what happened on several occasions in the Gospels?  What we’re looking at in the Pentecost story is not just the story of a miracle.  It’s the story of— and I use this term carefully— a possession.  Or perhaps put a better way, an exorcism and a possession.

“St. Felix, priest of Rome performing an exorcism” (1170-1200), by “Frater Rufillus,” from the Weißenauer Passionale, Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 146v. Fondation Bodmer, Coligny Switzerland. Public Domain. Cropped.

When we think about possession, we usually think about demonic possessions, especially the pop culture depictions of them, like the film depictions in The Exorcist or Ghostbusters or The Evil Dead franchise, or that scene in Ghost where Patrick Swayze inhabits Whoopi Goldberg’s body so he can give Demi Moore one last kiss, to name a few.  Or we might remember those famous Biblical possessions: the possessed man in the synagogue who tried to call Jesus out early in his ministry or the possessed man in the land of the Gerasenes who hosted the demon Legion, and from whom the demon was cast into a herd of hogs which drowned under its influence.  Or we may remember the possessed slave girl used as an oracle who the apostles healed in Acts.  We even have a famous story of demonic possession at Concordia Seminary, which is said to have served as the basis for the novel upon which The Exorcist was based.  And in all of these examples, we see demons, evil spirits, taking up residence in the bodies of individuals and bending them to their wicked wills, tormenting them and harming them.

But Pentecost is different, because instead of an evil spirit taking up residence in their bodies, the Holy Spirit enters the disciples and takes hold of them.  Prior to his coming upon them, they were open to demonic attack, but now the Holy Spirit is dwelling in them.  Their bodies are his temple, and he is with them forever, glorifying God, testifying about Christ through them, and helping them withstand the assaults of the devil and the world.  They have been “possessed” by him, and are now preaching his Word to an unbelieving world.  And even after hearing the sound of the Holy Spirit rushing through the house and seeing and hearing the disciples, these people from Galilee, speaking in tongues not their own, some of the Judaeans and visitors to Jerusalem still did not believe that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was at work there among them that day.  They chalked it up to “new” wine, “sweet wine,” the flavor of which masked the alcohol and made it far too easy to drink too much.  To them, this miracle was no miracle at all, just a bunch of lushes babbling drunkenly in the street.

“Pentecost” (1925), by Ludwig Glötzle (1847-1929), Saint Jodok Parish Church, Bezau, Vorarlberg. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber (May 27, 2012). This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic license.

It’s easy for us, too, to not see, or not want to see, the work of the Holy Spirit, either in us or in others.  The Old Adam, the old sinful man and servant of the devil who still lives within us, tempts us to sin and do those things that would harm us, contrary to God’s will and desire for us.  And because we are sinful beings, we enjoy following the Old Adam.  It is our basest inclination.  And so we sin in all sorts of ways.  We might gossip about a neighbor’s behavior, or get angry at that guy with Maryland plates who’s driving twenty miles under the speed limit in front of us in a no-passing lane.  We might let our gaze linger just a bit too long on someone who is not our spouse and entertain fantasies that, while we didn’t act on them, still were played out in our hearts.  Or we might get angry with our neighbor over some perceived slight, and say things that are very hard to take back.

But when we sin in these ways, when we give in to the temptations wrought upon us in the world, we forget whose we are, trusting in our feeble selves to know what is right and wrong and how we should act.  Isn’t this what happened to Adam and Eve, our first parents? And if we let sin rule us for long enough, when we go in search of unclean spirits and trust their voices over God’s, then God help us, because we become lost and cannot find our way back to him on our own.  And at that point, the law of God condemns us, and there is nothing we can do.  How shall we be delivered from this body of death?  Who can we turn to when the enormity of our sin comes crashing down on us and we realize just how helpless we are?

Peter provides an answer to the despair that comes from living under the rule of sin.  As Peter says in his sermon to the people gathered outside the house, quoting the prophet Joel, God has poured his Spirit out upon all flesh on account of the work of Christ, and he is now working through those who have received him.  They are doing his will now, conformed to him in righteousness so that they might do the works he has set before them.  He has cast out the unclean spirits that once made a home in those who have received him, and has made them his dwelling place. Just as God wrote his law on the hearts of the people of Israel, now he comes himself to rest upon the hearts of all believers.  The house swept clean from which the unclean spirit has been sent has been given over to a new and better Owner, with a very different taste in interior decoration.  They are his own, possessed by him to do God’s good and gracious will.  He, the Paraclete, the Helper, has come to protect them against the assaults of the devil and help them live according to God’s purpose.  Won by Christ, these disciples are now further preserved in faith by the Spirit who works in them, and his indwelling makes it possible for men to call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.

How do we know that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, especially if we have at times not lived as God would have wanted us to?  How do we know that he can help us when we see how terrible our sin is and desire deliverance from it?  I have this to say to you: trust in your baptism.  You see, when you were baptized, the same kind of exorcism and possession that we see at Pentecost took place in you.  In Luther’s Baptismal Rite, the pastor says to the one being baptized, “Fahr aus du unreiner Geist und gib Raum dem heiligen Geist![2]  (I bet you didn’t expect hearing speaking in tongues today!)  “Therefore, depart, you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit!”  And later, “Ich beschwöre dich, du unreiner Geist, bei dem Namen des Vaters und des Sohns und des heiligen Geistes daß du ausfahrest und weichest von diesem Diener Jesu Chrsiti [N.] Amen![3]  “I command you, you unclean Spirit, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, that you come out of and depart from this servant of Jesus Christ, Amen!”  This rite still exists in our agenda.  The old unclean spirit, the old power of the devil, was cast out, and God’s Holy Spirit has made you his dwelling place.  Bought and cleansed in the precious blood of the Lamb spilled on Calvary to reconcile all of creation to the Father, you are his own.  His Spirit is living in you.  Because he lives in you, you can live the life he desires for you and do the good works that have been set before you for the good of your neighbor.  With him living in you, you can fight temptation to sin and remember whose you are and how you should live when you want to gossip or look with lust on someone or get angry with your neighbor, for he is your protector.  And with him living in you, you can have faith in the promises of Christ, that he died and rose to save you from sin, death, and the devil and turn to him when confronted by your own sin.

“Baptism” from the Reformation Altarpiece (1547), Stadt- und Pfarrkirche St. Marien zu Wittenberg, by the Cranachs. Public Domain. Cropped.

And if you fear that you are too great a sinner, that you have lost your salvation because of how you have lived, or if you fear that you are beyond redemption because you have fallen away from the faith for a time, take heart!  You might be a great sinner, but God is an even greater savior!  His promises are still for you.  You can’t wash off your baptism.  That promise is indelible, and you can always return to it.  The Holy Spirit is still working in you to show you your sin and lead you to repentance and Christ’s love and forgiveness.  And when you are restored, he helps you to live as God would have you do.

Jesus says in John 16: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Because of Jesus, we have been cleansed and possessed by the Holy Spirit.  Let us live joyfully in his dwelling in us, confident in the promises he has given us in our baptism and doing good toward our neighbors, and speaking God’s good news in Christ to them so that they too may know him and believe.  For this is the Pentecost mission of the church.

May the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Mark J. Olson, “Pentecost,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 222-223.

[2] Agend-Büchlein für die Nürnbergerische Kirchendiener in der Statt und auf dem Land, 1591: 54.

[3] Agend-Büchlein für die Nürnbergerische Kirchendiener in der Statt und auf dem Land, 1591: 56.