Old Testament: Isaiah (1:1, 10-20)
The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The Response: Psalm (50:1-8, 23-24)
1 The Lord, the God of gods, has spoken; *
he has called the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, *
God reveals himself in glory.
3 Our God will come and will not keep silence; *
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.
4 He calls the heavens and the earth from above *
to witness the judgment of his people.
5 “Gather before me my loyal followers, *
those who have made a covenant with me
and sealed it with sacrifice.”
6 Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause; *
for God himself is judge.
7 Hear, O my people, and I will speak:
“O Israel, I will bear witness against you; *
for I am God, your God.
8 I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; *
your offerings are always before me.
23 Consider this well, you who forget God, *
lest I rend you and there be none to deliver you.
24 Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me; *
but to those who keep in my way will I show the salvation of God.”
The Epistle: Hebrews (11:1-3, 8-16)
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
The Gospel: Luke (12:32-40)
Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” That warning, taken from a movie that was released thirty years ago, has been used on countless posters and in countless memes, accompanied by a wide variety of images, some supposedly serious, most of them obviously not.
Being afraid is something that we humans have in common with other animals. Fear is a natural thing and can be very good. Fear heightens our ability to respond to genuine threats in our lives. But fear can also become a debilitating thing in people’s lives. And fear can even become, and all too often has become, a tool used by people who are trying to manipulate us, who distort or totally disregard the truth in order to arouse our suspicions about and our hostility toward others. It can become, and sometimes has become, a malicious means of control. And it works.
In our nation’s history, for example, unscrupulous individuals and groups have successfully used fear as a tool to rally others to discriminate against and persecute Chinese immigrants, Roman Catholics, Italian immigrants, people of African heritage, Jews, people of German heritage during World War I, people of Japanese heritage during World War II, and those who advocated on certain social issues during the anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s. Today, there are those who use distortions and outright lies to try to frighten people into suspecting and discriminating against others on the basis of their race, their nationality, their country of origin, or their religion. Fear is a very effective tool, and far too many people fall prey to it.
Even in the life of the church, fear has often been used as a motivating factor. Earlier this summer, when we were in York and paid our first visit to its magnificent cathedral, Yorkminster, we found that we happened to be there during the month when they were putting on the “Mystery Play.” This production happens only once every three years. And they have plenty of experience doing it: it’s been going on for about 700 years.
A Mystery Play is not what we think of as a mystery. Its name comes from the Middle English word “myster,” which means a guild or a union. Mystery plays rose in the Middle Ages as ways to teach ordinary folks the stories of the Bible. Each scene, each biblical story, was adopted and put on by a myster, a guild: the masons doing one scene, the carpenters another, the bakers a third, and so on.
This particular version began with a wonderful enactment of the first story of creation, followed by a long series of scenes depicting stories found in the Old and New Testaments, with some additions from much later interpretations and elaborations on those stories. It ended with a scene of the final judgment, as it was envisaged in the Middle Ages: one that was obviously intended to strike fear into the hearts of the audience in order to keep them in line and make sure that they would live their lives the way that the leaders of the church taught them to do.
That fearful approach to the Christian faith and life was not at all left behind in the Middle Ages. It is alive and well in some churches even today, especially in some of the more conservative churches. So-called “fire and brimstone” sermons still try to strike fear into the hearts of church members. The approach that they take would have been very much at home nearly 300 years ago when colonial preacher, Jonathan Edwards, delivered his most famous oration, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” His message about God and those of his successors today is still: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Certainly, God is pictured in both the Old and New Testaments as angry at times. Our reading today from the beginning of the book of Isaiah includes God’s strong and direct condemnation of those who fail to “do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Yet, far and away, the prime motivating factor in the scriptures is not fear, but an awareness of the infinite goodness and endless compassion of God, and God’s call to imitate and to live that goodness and compassion in our lives, caring especially for the most vulnerable among us, for those who are most in-need.
The temptation to fall back into a “fear mentality” about God continued to afflict the early church, just as it does the church in all ages. St. Paul found it necessary to remind his hearers in Rome (Romans 8:15): “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” And, at the beginning of today’s gospel reading (Luke 12:32), Luke has Jesus reassuring us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Those Christians who continue to live in fear have somehow managed to miss the “give” in that statement: “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” They have somehow managed to miss the “good” in the Good News. They have lost sight of the most basic characteristic of “eternal life” or “life in all its fullness” as presented in the scriptures; and that is the fact that it is a gift, pure gift.
It is the same gracious God who brought all things into being, who delivered a group of slaves from bondage in Egypt, who rescued God’s people over and over again through the centuries, and who sent Jesus to bring us to the fullness of life – it is that same gracious God whose boundless love and forgiveness and compassion we celebrate here each time that we gather in Jesus’ name. And we do so, knowing that our road may sometimes be hard, but knowing also that, in the end, it is God’s gracious intent to give us the kingdom.