In the aftermath of the election, we are no less divided. But Bible tells us that God is love, and that our love for others is a representation of God’s love for us and our love for God (1 John 4:7-21). Jesus calls us to see the other person as an actual human being (Luke 7:36-50). Using stories of people with different backgrounds, this sermon shows how different experiences and realities move us to different, even opposing, political opinions. We’re challenged to move beyond the slogans to really understand the people who use them.
Now the narrative begins. And it begins in an astounding way: the appearance of an angel to a priest. This was not uncommon in the Old Testament, but it hadn’t occurred in centuries. To its audience, this links the Gospel to the Old Testament, but also announces that something amazing is at hand: God, who seemed so distant for so long, is once again working in our world.
I find that most translations fail to capture the magnificence of this event. Here’s my translation:
Let us begin the narrative with a priest in the time of Herod, King of Judea. This priest’s name was Zacharia, and he was of the priestly division of Abia. His wife’s name was Elizabeth, and she was a descendent of Aaron. They were also both righteous in the eyes of God, living according to every commandment and ordinance of the Lord, and above reproach. But they were childless because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both advanced in age.
But now something happened as he fulfilled the priestly duties in the holiest part of the temple. According to the tradition of his order he had been given his turn by lot, and he entered into the sanctuary to burn incense. All the people were praying outside at the time set for the lighting of the incense. But then he perceived that an angel, a messenger from God, had come to stand by him on the right side of the sacred altar. And upon seeing this, Zacharias became agitated, and terror overwhelmed him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth shall give birth to a son, and you shall name him John. And gladness and great joy will come to you, and because of his birth many will rejoice. For he will be great in the eyes of the Lord, and wine and strong drink he will neither drink nor desire. And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. And he will bring a great many of the children of Israel back toward the Lord their God. And he will go before Him with the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the elders to those they are responsible for, and to transform the rebellious to righteousness, to prepare for the Lord a people made ready.”
Already, this Gospel is pointing toward structural change, a theme Luke emphasizes often. John will “turn the hearts of the elders” to the people, rather than to their own wealth and power. Luke echoes the calling of the prophets, to call the people back to God and “transform the rebellious to righteousness,” and to prepare the way of the Lord.
For a people who have been subjects of one empire or another for most of half a millennium, whose brief period of freedom ended just a few decades before with the arrival of the Romans, and who equated God’ Kingdom with the Kingdom of Israel, it seemed that God had been terribly silent for a very long time. But here, beginning with one righteous priest, God initiates a new relationship. We don’t see yet the fullness of that relationship, but even in this beginning, Luke points both backward to the prophets and forward to a new beginning.
Of course, this righteous priest doesn’t respond heroically, but that’s in the next passage.
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him (Mt 26:3-4)
It seems like a simple question, right? The Bible tells us that the chief priests and the elders did. And it was the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. Who else could we blame?
Enter the theory of substitutionary atonement. Postulated by Anselm in the 11th century, this theory became widely influential, and remains the foundation for many Christians’ understanding of redemption. In brief, it suggests that humanity, through its disobedience, owed God a debt it could not pay. In order to satisfy this debt, Jesus assumed human form and was sacrificed to God as satisfaction for our debt. (Anslem suggests this was a debt of honor; John Calvin later contributed the idea that the debt was penalty for our sin.)
What’s the problem with this? Any way you look at it, this makes God responsible for Jesus’ death. God killed his own son to atone for our sins.
There’s not a lot of biblical support for this theory. Hebrews suggests this mechanism, and there is some sacrificial language in Matthew. But Matthew also makes clear that it was the religious leaders who caused Jesus’ death. Luke and John also take very different views. For Luke, Satan is defeated when Jesus’ followers begin doing the work Jesus did (Lk 10:17-18, cf John 14:12); Pentecost is the moment in which this salvation is revealed. John (like Mark before him, see Mk 15:39) sees Jesus’ death as an act of love; salvation comes through the Incarnation (Jesus’ birth) and, by extension, the Resurrection. Paul often argues similarly.
We might wonder why there are multiple views of salvation in the New Testament. One answer is that these authors were writing for different audiences. Jews understood sin and atonement to be inseparable– Hebrew uses the same word for both. Gentiles would have had trouble with this view. Perhaps more importantly, though, to expound on the mechanism of salvation requires knowledge of the Mind of God– knowledge that I, for one, do not have.
In the early Church, the most common view of salvation was called Christus Victor. It suggested that salvation came not through Christ’s death, but through his resurrection– his victory over sin and death. Yes, the religious leaders (and the Romans) killed Jesus. That was human sin. But Jesus was victorious over that sin by rising from the dead. That is the victory Jesus brings to us (see for example 1 Corinthians 15:12-19). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).
Can we believe that God killed Jesus? If not, then substitutionary atonement doesn’t work. Yes, Jesus died for our sins. In fact he died as a direct result of our sins. But it was not his death that brought salvation. It was his victory over death. In Christ, death and sin are conquered. And, as Luke adds to this discussion, through Christ, when we follow and imitate Christ, we too conquer sin and death. Not by works, but by the grace of inclusion and the transformation of our hearts to obedience to undertake Christ’s call to new ways of living.
You might wonder why this matters. But our view of salvation affects our whole social order. If Christ died for our sins, nothing more is required of us. Convenient, isn’t it? All we have to do is say we believe, and we don’t have to change much. Sure, we should refrain from legalistic sins like drunkenness and adultery. But love of our neighbor can be a noun rather than a verb. We get to ignore passages like Matthew 25:31-46. Injustice? That’s for God to worry about. We’re headed for the hereafter. (For more on this misconception, check out this sermon.)
That’s called “cheap grace.”
We are called to do the works of Jesus (Jn 14:12). And Satan is defeated when we do (Lk 10:18). If we are saved, our lives will be changed. Our behavior will be changed. We will become citizens of the Kingdom of God, and act accordingly.
Christ conquered death. This was no legalistic sacrifice to appease a vengeful God. The Resurrection conquered sin– our sin. So let us do as he did, in the faith of his salvation.
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:13)
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets warned of idolatry. In the New Testament, Jesus too warned of worshipping the wrong things. Yet many Christians today who invoke the name of Christ show by their actions that they worship something else.
When we place money, safety, or security ahead of serving God, we are idolaters. Jesus is clear on this. From Matthew 6:19-21 to Mark 10:17-27, from Luke 12:13-21 to John 13:34-35, Jesus tells us that we are called to focus on God and on helping others, not on material wellbeing. Yet our supposedly Christian society tells us otherwise. And many of us have bought the message. In a 2018 poll of Christians, Lifeway Research reports:
Churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs (75 percent) are more likely to agree God wants them to prosper than those without evangelical beliefs (63 percent)… One in 4 (26 percent) agree with the statement: “To receive material blessings from God, I have to do something for God.”
Two-thirds of Christians polled believe God wants them wealthy! And nearly a third think they can earn God’s favor in the form of wealth. Apparently, the point of becoming a follower of Jesus is to get rich. Yet if one follows where Jesus went, one is likely to get (from the world at least) what Jesus got: not wealth, but execution.
I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said, “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.” But have you ever noticed that you can’t do both at the same time? Our allegiance is to be to God’s Kingdom, not any power or principality. Yet many Christians see the United States as somehow chosen by God and thuis beyond criticism– and worthy of support and protection. And not just from heathen in other places. We don’t welcome our fellow Christians seeking refuge from Latin America, Palestine, or Africa as fellow members of the Body of Christ. In fact, we pay billions of dollars to help Israel repress Palestinians–including Palestinian Christians. (Israel makes no distinction among Palestinians based on religion; they are all non-Jews.)
Perhaps this is not unexpected. Alan Kreider, in his book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, documents from original sources the shift in focus of Christianity from radical behavior change in its first three centuries, to cultural compromise and a focus on belonging by the 8th century. This shift largely began with Augustine, who saw baptism as more important than a change in behavior. Perhaps this was because, by his own admission, his church was filled with people who wouldn’t behave in a biblically-Christian manner.
The shift was helped along by Constantine and his successors, who not only legalized Christianity but made it mandatory. Obviously many pagans became Christians because they had to. And rulers and aristocrats likewise became Christian in name, but could not as rulers take seriously the injunctions to “love your enemies” or “feed the hungry.” (Can we even imagine a leader who embodies Isaiah 11:2-4?)
In Christendom there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between church and state… a symbiotic relationship.” (95)
In addition, because it assumed that there is no choice but to be Christian, religious training and practice become “perfunctory,” and standards of behavior are coerced rather than taught (96-97).
In our own context, this symbiosis emphasizes a national concern with wealth and cheap energy. Eventually, we have today what too often passes for Christianity: militarism, individualism, greed, and selfishness. We idolize the free market and the individual. Politicians from both parties have proclaimed that “Greed is good”– a slogan that is not only unbiblical, but was coined as a satirical reflection of our society.
We point to our enemies. Iraq, Iran, ISIS, North Korea– Name any enemy of the United States, and read the history of that enemy. You’ll find, with few exceptions, that we created that enemy ourselves through military or covert action.
Too often we are satisfied with the assurance that we are saved by grace. We are! But that’s not the end of the story.
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)
As a society, we idolize wealth and security. Church father Cyprian, who was raised as an aristocrat before his conversion, called these “gilded torments.” They distract us from God, and from the Kingdom. And yet they are accepted as legitimate parts of Christian walk in many churches today.
What if we started naming things as Jesus did? What if we called greed idolatry? Or militarism an ungodly use of force that should be reserved to God? What if, in the face of those who resist refugees, we quoted 1 John 4:20?
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
I suspect I know the answer. What would happen would be that we would follow where Jesus led: to the Cross, indicted by society’s religious and political authorities. Jesus commanded us to “pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), and we would be doing just that.
Preaching the Gospel is dangerous. But should that stop us?
It was another one of those Sunday mornings: a few days before, a kid had shot his classmates at a school. Sadness and anger were evident in the congregation. “When will we get real gun control?” lamented one older woman. Several other congregants murmured their consensus. It was evident that many believed if kids didn’t have access to guns, these tragic events wouldn’t happen.
Later, my wife expressed her own anger. “What they’re basically saying,” she said, “is that it’s okay for these kids to suffer so long as they don’t hurt anyone.” That most recent shooter had been autistic, had been poor in a rich school, had been bullied throughout his whole school career, and had just lost his widowed mother. One of his classmates told a reporter, “Someone could have approached a faculty member, a guidance counselor, a teacher and said, ‘This kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something,’ … I definitely regret not saying anything.” 
I remember the first publicized
school shooting, back in 1979.  Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire
on the Cleveland Elementary
School in San Diego,
CA. She came from a broken home,
lived with an alcoholic father with whom she shared a bed, was gay, and had
experienced a traumatic brain injury due to a bicycle accident as a child.  When
asked why she committed the shooting, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.”  That
response was so absurd that it became the title of a hit song by the Boomtown
Rats. Spencer was tried as an adult, and remains in prison.
My wife says, “No one does this unless they’ve been broken, traumatized, lied to, and deceived.” She’s right. These kids are our children. They are broken and outcast. They live in a world that doesn’t want or accept them. I preached the following Sunday, and I called on my congregation to look beyond the tools of violence to its source. I quoted much from the Gospel of Matthew, but I see now that Luke has even more to say.
Beginning with Mary’s song of praise, the Gospel of Luke adopts a theme of raising and leveling (cf Isaiah 40:4). “He has brought down the powerful… and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things…” (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus, as he begins his ministry in Nazareth,quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, indicating that the good news he brings is neither merely spiritual nor merely political. It addresses the needs of the poor, the incarcerated, the blind, the oppressed, and the landless (Lk 4:18-19). He ate with sinners, healed the unclean, and raised the dead. The ministry of Jesus in Luke heals the broken, lifts the downtrodden, and welcomes the outcast.
My home congregation is proud to be located in a historically-minority neighborhood.Yet it is dominated by well-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class white people, about 75%. The leadership is comes exclusively from that group. Though the leaders have expressed their intention to broaden the diversity of the leadership teams, that has not yet happened.
To be fair,about 15 years ago the congregation did make a conscious effort to have inclusive leadership. The effects were not what they expected, and the congregation fractured. Their efforts to reach out to the broken resulted in the pastor getting robbed, worship services being disrupted, and a sex offender in the congregation making parents with children uncomfortable. Inclusivity is not easy, and some who experienced that time remain gun-shy. This is understandable in its cultural context. We white Americans tend to have a limited tolerance for difference, especially when it causes significant discomfort. This congregation has tried harder than many others, even though it has not succeeded in the long term.
By cultural standards, the efforts of the congregation are above average, perhaps even commendable. Yet how can we be satisfied when challenged by the standard set in Luke-Acts? Jesus healed the enemies of his people (Lk 7:2ff), ate with collaborators (Lk 5:30), let a sinful woman anoint his feet (Lk 7:36ff), and ministered to outcasts (Lk 8:26ff, 17:10ff). He dismissed the wise (Lk 10:21,18:9ff) and chastised those who were not ready to give their full commitment(Lk 9:62). His followers ministered to the needy even at the risk of their health (Acts 4:21, 5:18, 5:40) and life (Acts 12:2). Is this a standard we could possibly be expected to follow?
Beneath this question lies another, far more important: Do we believe that the Gospel is true? Is it Truth, or is it myth that, rather than informing us,defines us? If it is truth, then all that Jesus asks of us is binding. If myth,what are we doing here in church, in seminary, in ministry?
Perhaps the post-Enlightenment, scientific, materialistic, consumerist worldview of post-modern America has made us skeptical of prophecy made and fulfilled, sickness healed with a word or touch, unclean spirits, dead people raised, and a Savior who gained victory through death. The Holy Spirit Luke emphasizes sounds pretty chaotic. Whatif the Holy Spirit calls me to the wilderness (Acts 8:26), to foreign lands (Acts 16:9), to die (Acts 7:55), or, perhaps even more horrible, to give up all my possessions (Lk 18:22, Acts 4:31-32)?
Or perhaps we are, rather, threatened by the raising and leveling Luke promises. Though we don’t like to know what the world looks like outside our walls, neighborhoods, and nation, we’ve glimpsed the images on television or the internet. Perhaps we sense that we are the metaphorical Pharisees, and Jesus’ Kingdom threatens to take the comfort we’ve “earned” through the accident of birth. We do, after all, live ina nation that consumes the second-most energy (after China), burning 17% of the world’s energy despite having only 4% of the world’s population.  We produce the second-most food (behind China) and eat the second most calories per person (behind Austria). We have the highest obesity rates of any industrialized nation, and waste more food per person than any other country.  We have more cars per person than any other major nation (3rd behind San Marino and Monaco). Materially, Luke’s leveling could devastate our privileged position.
Yet despite our conspicuous material wealth, we are not a happy nation. “Deaths of despair” are causing life expectancy to drop. Joshua Cohen cites 196,000 American deaths from alcoholism, overdose, and suicide in 2016 (compared with about 11,000 gun-related homicides). We lead industrialized nations in drug overdose deaths.
Perhaps that which we have to lose is not that which is most important. Certainly that is the message Luke’s Jesus offers. Wealth (Lk 18:18ff, 12:13ff), power (Lk 18:1), status (Lk 10:25, 11:42),and even individual eternal life (Lk 10:21, 25) are challenged in favor of a simple vision of equity and peace, now and in the hereafter.
Why do we seem to find that so threatening? John Stuart Mill wrote, “Men [sic] do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men…” He argued that, while certain restrictions on humankind’s desires are required, moral development ultimately would allow humankind more freedom.  What Jesus challenges is not merely our own individual actions, not the structures that seek to restrain our desires, but the very character of humankind. 
Do we dare risk having our character changed? Do we dare risk having our hearts and minds renewed (Eph 4:23)? Do we dare risk embracing the Holy Spirit, having our children prophesy, and inviting society’s outcasts to sit at our table in fellowship and equity?
In my own case, the answer is, “Sometimes.” I want my children to go to good schools, and my family to have access to the best medical care possible. Ironically, I accept the healings, miracles, and even the Kingdom as literal; it is Jesus’ command to “Do not worry” (Lk 12:22) that I find most myth-like.
On an ideal Sunday, I worship God, celebrate Christ, and embrace the Holy Spirit. What will it take for me to carry the Gospel with me as I encounter a broken world on Monday, and to do so like I truly believe it?
 John Stuart Mill (attributed), “On Social Freedom: Or:
the Necessary Limits of Individual Freedom arising out of the Conditions of our
Social Life,” c. 1873 (https://liberologi.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/on-social-freedom-by-john-stuart-mill/,
accessed November 18, 2018). In context, he clearly included women in this
statement. But compare Mill’s claim with observations by Loewen that in African
society, disparity of wealth is considered unnatural. Jacob A. Loewen, “Demon
Possession and Exorcism in Africa, in the New Testament Context, and in North
America: Or, Toward a Western Scientific Model of Demon Possession and Exorcism,”
in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays on Spiritual Bondage and Deliverance,
Occasional Papers 11, Elkhart, IN:
Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988, 127-133. Thus,
Mill’s statement does not apply to humankind universally.
 Loewen (135) goes so far as to describe American
Christianity as “schizophrenic” in its embracing of actions and perspectives
that do not conform to its professed worldview.