David’s Son or David’s Lord?

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on February 17, 2019, called “David’s Son or David’s Lord?” It is the sixth in a series called “Reading the Bible with Jesus.” The sermon is a reflection on the importance of Psalm 110:1 for Jesus (and throughout the New Testament).

Here is a written excerpt:

James Tissot, Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre

Psalm 110 speaks of “enemies” being made a “footstool”: the image is of a victorious warlord seated at the right hand of the king, his feet on the neck of his conquered enemies lying prostrate before him. And if you go on in Psalm 110, it speaks of “kings” being “shattered” on the “day of the Lord Messiah’s wrath”; it speaks of corpses filling the earth in this Lord Messiah’s judgment.

That sure doesn’t sound like Jesus’ kind of Messiah, does it? This is not Jesus the Messiah teaching “love of enemies” and praying forgiveness for his crucifiers from the cross! How is it that this Psalm became such a favourite of Jesus and his Apostles?

Well, Jesus follows in a stream of Jewish thinking that did not see “peoples” or even individual “human beings” as our ultimate “enemies.” Rather, behind all the unjust and evil oppressors of this world—all the “lords” of this world, all the Caesars and Führers of this world—behind all these human powers there are deeper, darker powers at work, forces that seem to control us but that we can never seem to control.

These are “spiritual” forces, meaning they are not human, not mere flesh and blood, however much they work in and through human beings and groups. These are not even necessarily “personal” forces; there is not an invisible being lurking behind every act of evil. But these “spiritual” forces are real, nonetheless.

Think of what happens when a crowd becomes a mob. A crowd is simply a bunch of different people in the same place at the same time. A mob, though, is a crowd compelled by more animal instincts, animated by a spirit of fear, perhaps, or a spirit of violence.

Or think about what happens when an ordinary person gets in a position of power. That access to power over others, power to do what they want in the world, that can change people profoundly—as if they are inhabited by a different spirit, a different temperament, than they were before.

People will do things as a mob that they would never do as individuals. People will do things when they have power that they would never do without that power. This—people driven by a spirit of power and mobs driven by a spirit of fear and violence—this is how Jesus got crucified.

It is these deeper, darker powers at work in our world—baseless fears, willful ignorance, stubborn pride, selfishness, greed, lust, hatred, violence, and more—“sin,” in other words, and the “death” that comes from it—these are our true enemies. Not each other, not any human being or human group.

These powers at work in us and among us, these can become built right into the structures and systems of our societies. They can be manifest in individual people, people in positions of authority in our world. But it is these forces—Sin with a capital S, and Death with a capital D—that are our ultimate enemies.

“Our struggle,” Ephesians 6 reminds us, “is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.”

This is how the first followers of Jesus understood Psalm 110:1, then: Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David who brings about God’s reign on earth, has been exalted by God as Lord, raised up from the dead to God’s right hand, given all authority in heaven and earth, and he will reign relentlessly until all God’s true enemies—all these deeper, darker powers at work in us and among us—are brought into submission to his reign of love.

In other words, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

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Mercy, Not Sacrifice

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on February 10, 2019, called “Mercy, Not Sacrifice.” It is the fifth in a series called “Reading the Bible with Jesus.” The sermon is a reflection on Jesus’ reference to Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:9-13 and 12:1-14.

Here is a written excerpt:

James Tissot, Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre

We take that bit of homework back to Jesus our Teacher, and he turns to us again: “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

So let’s go deeper. Let’s check out the context of Jesus’ teaching, why Jesus said what he said when he said it.

And so we turn to Matthew 9.

There Jesus is, eating with sinners, and the Really Religious (that’s us again) don’t like it. Their concern is about holiness, about maintaining purity. For them this is the prescribed “sacrifice” according to the Law. It’s what the Bible calls for.

But Jesus’ concern is about “mercy,” about showing compassion, especially to those who most need it. This is the greater pursuit. This is God’s greater desire.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t neglect the reality of sin—Jesus calls all sinners to repentance, remember? “Repent, for the kingdom of God is come near”? That’s Jesus’ entire message in a nutshell!

But Jesus turns the whole notion of “sin” on its head. When we push down and push aside the most broken, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, and especially when we justify this by appealing to “holiness” before God—this is the greater sin! Read Matthew 23—that’s what really got Jesus’ blood boiling!

Purity plus power so easily turns to exclusion and oppression. And to this, God says to us through Jesus, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

This is hard. This is much harder than simply “don’t do fake religion, kids, and throw a little love around, eh?”

This is hard: paying attention to those on the fringes, showing compassion to those on the fringes, welcoming to our common table those on the fringes, especially those our tradition or our community has labeled “sinners.”

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A Secret Message

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on February 3, 2019, called “A Secret Message.” It is the fourth in a series called “Reading the Bible with Jesus.” The sermon is a reflection on Jesus’ reference to Isaiah 6:9-10 to describe his use of parables in teaching about the kingdom of God (e.g. in Matthew 13).

Here is a written excerpt:

James Tissot, Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre

And so both Isaiahs [original Isaiah and second Isaiah] spoke in oracles rich with imagery and metaphor and even riddle: those who were ready to hear could hear and understand, while those who weren’t willing to hear would listen and be condemned by their own hardness of heart.

That’s the point of Isaiah 6, our first Scripture passage this morning. As our Gospel reading says, that’s also the point of Jesus speaking in parables, stories rich with everyday imagery and provocative metaphor and even some riddle.

Those who are ready to hear Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom,” his message of love bringing God’s reign of justice and peace—these will hear and understand, and this message will take root and grow and bear fruit for the kingdom.

But those who aren’t willing to hear, who because of their privilege or their power or their greed or their pride or their fear aren’t willing to hear Jesus’ message? They will listen and condemn themselves through their own hardness of heart.

This is a difficult truth; but it is the simple truth. Jesus’ message is a public proclamation, there for all to hear! Yet it is also a kind of secret message, only accessible to those who are willing to set aside their egos in order to save themselves and others.

Yet this never stopped Jesus from preaching the gospel of the kingdom.

He continued on throughout all the villages of Galilee and beyond, even to the edge of the Gentiles, denouncing injustice and oppression and all sins of harm, yet throwing parties for repentant sinners and sharing table with all the very last people anyone would want to eat with.

He persisted in proclaiming the message of God’s reign of justice and peace come to earth through generous, compassionate, nonviolent, self-giving, suffering love—and that scattering of seed sometimes fell on good soil, took root, and grew, and bore much fruit.

And so it is with us. We persist. We keep on.

We keep on speaking truth to power whenever and however we can, calling for justice and pushing for peace.

We keep on standing up to the bullies of our world, standing with the bullied, whether in our schools or in our workplaces or in our society.

We keep on reaching out to all our neighbours, including those who are different from us, who are strangers to us, who are even enemies of us, seeking mutual understanding and the common good.

We keep on forgiving the sinful, lifting up the shamed, seeking the lost and lonely, healing the wounded, feeding the hungry, extending the table to break bread with more and more people.

In other words, we keep on proclaiming and living out the good news of God’s love, regardless of whether the message is truly heard, regardless of whether our own love is spurned. This is the way of Isaiah, and it’s the way of Jesus.

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A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on January 27, 2019, called “Jubilee!” It is the third in a series called “Reading the Bible with Jesus.” The sermon is a reflection on Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise of Moses’ law of Jubilee (Luke 4:14-21; Isaiah 61:1-3; Leviticus 25:1-24).

Here is a written excerpt:

One of the biblical texts that made a particular impression on Jesus was Isaiah 61. All of Isaiah, really—there are echoes of Isaiah’s language and imagery all throughout the Gospels. But the first part of Isaiah 61 was a special text for Jesus:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

“The year of the Lord’s favour.” This is indeed that ancient promise of Jubilee, first given in the Law of Moses, then re-cast for the exiled people of Israel to whom Isaiah prophesied, and then re-cast again for the oppressed people of Galilee whom Jesus came to save. Jesus, as our Luke passage declares, has come to fulfill this Jubilee promise: good news for the poor, the downtrodden, the prisoners and slaves!

When we hear these words of Jesus, we often spiritualize them. We take them figuratively, and then apply them spiritually.

The “poor,” we say, are the “spiritually impoverished,” those who need a personal relationship with God. The “oppressed,” the “captives,” the “prisoners”—for us these refer to “spiritual oppression” or “captivity” or “imprisonment,” individual people needing to be freed from the guilt of their personal sins.

But that’s not the way people in Jesus’ day would have heard those words—at least not primarily, and not entirely.

James Tissot, Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre

Yes, Jesus speaks much of “sin” and “forgiveness” and the need for a devoted, trusting relationship with God. But for Jesus individual sin and salvation is bound up with much larger realities. In Jesus’ way of thinking there are whole structures and systems in society that are sinful, evil powers from which we all need liberation. This poverty, this oppression, this imprisonment and enslavement—it’s both literal and figurative, both physical and spiritual.

Over the last two weeks we have learned the greatest commandment of God at the heart of Jesus’ teaching: we are called first and foremost to love God with undivided devotion, and we are called first and foremost to do this by loving others with generous compassion.

But today we learn that this love is not simply about loving God as individuals, and then loving individuals in the way of God—as important as this is. According to Jesus this love also shows itself in a pursuit of justice and peace for all people, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Cornel West put it this way: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That’s exactly right.

And that’s what Jesus’ Jubilee mission is all about. To borrow Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:33, in following Jesus we are to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness”—God’s way of justice.

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The Shema, Extended Edition

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on January 20, 2019, called “The Shema, Extended Edition.” It is the second in a series called “Reading the Bible with Jesus.” The sermon is a reflection on the command in Leviticus 19:18 to “love your neighbour as yourself,” which Jesus appended to the command to “love the Lord your God,” calling these together the greatest commandments of the Law of Moses (Mark 12:28-34).

Here is a written excerpt from the conclusion:

James Tissot, Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre

Jesus says that this Extended Shema is the hook on which all the Law and the Prophets hang. This love for God by loving others sums up all the Law and the Prophets. In other words, it’s the whole point of the Bible.

Here’s what this means: if we come up with an interpretation of a passage in the Bible that leads us to not love another person in the way the foreigner Good Samaritan loved that enemy Jew in need—open-handed, with open arms—then we are not reading the Bible rightly.

History teaches us that we can justify a lot of terrible things by quoting the Bible. We can justify a lot of damaging, destructive things out of “love for God,” undivided devotion to God. Racism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, crusades, inquisitions and more—all of these have been committed by people committed to God, all have been defended by quoting the Bible.

But Jesus gives us a new hermeneutic. Jesus gives us a different way of reading the Bible: if we come up with an interpretation of a passage in the Bible that leads us to not love another person in the way Jesus loves us—open-handed, with open arms—we are not reading the Bible rightly.

Or, put in the positive, when we read the Bible with Jesus, we learn to love God by loving others: neighbours, strangers, those who are different, even our enemies.

This is a life-long pursuit, reading the Bible with Jesus like this, so that we learn to love God by loving others. But we can do it, one day at a time—because the Spirit of Jesus is in us and among us. We can do it, one step at a time—by always simply loving the person in front of us.

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The Shema

A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on January 13, 2019, called “The Shema.” It is the first in a series called “Reading the Bible with Jesus.” The sermon is a reflection on the opening of the Shema, the daily Jewish prayer, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which Jesus called the “first commandment” in Mark 12:28-34.

Here is a written excerpt:

James Tissot, Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre

It’s no surprise to anyone, then, that when the adult Jesus is asked what “the first and greatest commandment of the Law” is, he replies with the Shema. That’s what everyone would expect, because that’s what every Jew grew up confessing every single day.

Shema, Yisrael! “Hear, O Israel!”

Pay attention, everyone! This is important!

“The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”

“The Lord” here is the word “Yahweh,” the holy name of God revealed to Moses: God is Yahweh, the “I Am,” the “One Who Is.” Jews do not say the name “Yahweh,” but replace it with “Adonai” in their Scripture reading, which means “Lord.”

Yahweh, the God who simply is, the one from whom all things exist, the one in whom we live and move and have our being—this is the only true God there is.

We make gods out of all kinds of things, many of them good things—our idols are not just wood and stone, but also money and power and technology and sex and more. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8, there are many such “gods and lords” in our world, but for us as Christians there is only one true God, our Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus Christ, from whom and through whom all things exist.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

We are to “love” God with every dimension of our being: heart, soul, mind, strength. We are to be devoted to God with everything that we are and do. All things owe their existence—and therefore their allegiance—to God. All of us, every one of us, and all of creation, in all its dimensions—all is from God and all exists for God’s purposes.

The Shema, then, Jesus’ “first and greatest commandment,” is about undivided devotion to our Creator. And in Jesus’ day, no one would have disputed that this is indeed our highest calling.

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Reading the Bible with Jesus

How did Jesus read his Bible?

It’s actually an odd question, since Jesus didn’t have a “Bible” like we do today. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a bound collection of written Scriptures in book form, let alone one that included all the writings we have in our Bibles, let alone one that was affordable and readable by the average person, let alone… You get the idea.

Still, the Jewish Scriptures (roughly the Christian Old Testament) were important to Jesus. How did he read them—or, perhaps more often, hear them? Which biblical texts were most significant for Jesus’ thinking, for his teaching, for the way of life he modeled for his disciples? Why were these texts so important to him, and not others? And what might all this mean for us as followers of Lord Jesus today, as twenty-first century disciples of Rabbi Jesus?

Here are the sermons in the series:

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