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09:57:00 am, by Robert Arbogast , 1710 words  
Categories: Advent 2012

Goodwill Hunting

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
December 9, 2012

For an audio version of this sermon, click here.

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 11:1-3a
Psalm 40
1 John 2:15-17
Matthew 12:46-50

O God, give us a glimpse of your holiness today. Not so much that it would overwhelm us. But enough to encourage our faith. Enough to challenge our discipleship. Enough to feed the fire in our hearts, until we reflect your light in this dark world. Amen.

Advent is the season of waiting. (I don’t think I’ve said that so far this year.) Advent is the season of waiting.

We wait to remember the birth of Jesus. We wait to celebrate God coming to visit us in the flesh. Not just coming to visit us, but coming to live with us. And coming to live, and to die, for us. So, during Advent, we wait to remember the birth of Jesus.

At the same time, we wait to welcome Jesus again. We wait for him to come and this time to put everything right. Because the world still is too broken. And we still are too broken. So, during Advent and always, we’re waiting for Jesus to come back. To come back and make everything right. To come back and make us right.

In the meantime . . . That’s the issue, isn’t it? That’s where the big questions are. In the meantime. We have our own in-the-meantime question: In the meantime, Jesus, what are you doing? With the world in the kind of shape it’s in, what are you doing? That’s our big question. Maybe Jesus will answer it for us.

But I don’t think he’ll answer our question without first asking a question of his own. Because, when it comes down to it, Jesus is the one who gets to ask the questions. And ask he does: In the meantime, Bob, what are you doing? In the meantime, Susan, what are you doing? In the meantime, Tovey, what are you doing? In the meantime, (insert your own name here), what are you doing?

It’s a fair question. What are we doing in the meantime? What are we doing while we wait for Jesus?

Usually we find something to be busy with while we’re waiting. If we’re waiting in traffic, we listen to the radio. If we’re waiting at the doctor’s office, we read a book. If we’re waiting for company to show up, we sweep the last bit of dirt under the living room rug.

So here we are waiting for Jesus. Waiting for Jesus. The question is, What are we busy with while we wait? Hold on to that question for a little bit. Don’t lose it.

But for now, let’s look at the Scriptures in front of us this morning. There’s a common theme running through all of them. Let me read a few words from each of the readings, and you’ll see what I mean.

First John 2: Those who do the will of God live forever (v. 17).
Matthew 12: Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (v. 50).
Psalm 40: I love to do your will, O my God (v. 8).
Isaiah 11: He will delight in the fear of the Lord (v. 3).

And since the person who fears the Lord does the will of the Lord, we have our theme: Doing the will of God.

According to Isaiah, the branch, the coming king, will be identified by the presence of God’s Spirit. And because of the Spirit, the king will be busy doing the will of God. This had never been true of Israel’s kings. Not one of them had done the will of God faithfully. Not even wise Solomon. Not even David.

Sure, a national mythology had grown up around David. David was like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and George M. Cohan all rolled into one. He couldn’t tell a lie. He held the nation together. And he wrote a song or two in his day. But the picture was more complicated than that.

So when the prophet looks ahead, he sees something beyond David and better than David. He sees something beyond David and before David.

Isn’t it strange for the prophet to invoke the stump of Jesse? If God made the promise to David, then why doesn’t the branch sprout from David’s stump? It’s as if the prophet’s vision goes back before David. Before David’s corruption. Before the man after God’s heart revealed what was hiding in his own heart by stealing Uriah’s wife and having Uriah killed.

The prophet goes back before David to Jesse. He sees a new David. Not someone merely descended from David, but someone who gets right what David got wrong. He sees someone who does’t turn away from wise and reverent fear of the Lord. He sees someone who delights in the fear of the Lord.

The New Testament looks at this and says the prophet was catching a vision of Jesus. It says the same thing about the psalmist. So when the psalm says, I love to do your will, O my God—when the psalm says that, it’s speaking for Jesus.

To do the will of God was life and breath for Jesus. My bread, he said, (in other words, what sustains me) is to do the will of God, who sent me (cf. John 4:34). Doing the will of God. That’s what Jesus’ entire life was about.

Part of the will of God for Jesus was that he would re-form the people of God. That he would gather a new people of God around himself. That’s most obvious when Jesus appoints twelve apostles to be the foundation of a new Israel like the twelve sons of Jacob, the first Israel. But the same thing is happening in the incident we read from Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus’ family come for him. But instead of making himself available to them, Jesus redefines his family. It’s not about blood relations, he says. It’s all about doing the will of God: Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, that’s my family, that’s my whole family.

This is the family we join by baptism and faith. This is the family that defines us every day of our lives.

I’m sure I read it somewhere. I’m sure I didn’t think it up. But the other day I wrote this down: We are a people who are being formed by the Spirit, formed by the Spirit to live a subversive life, to live a God-directed life, in this world, in this world that is turned away from God. That’s what John is on about when he says, Don’t love the world or the things in the world. Do the will of God.

The problem with the world, according to John, is the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of riches. The problem is what the world teaches us to desire, what the world teaches us even to require. And if we follow the ways of the world, we want to see, we want to touch, we want to possess.

It’s like the old story from Genesis 3. The woman sees the forbidden fruit. It pleases her eye. It’s a lovely fruit. And she wants its gifts of knowledge and wisdom. And she has the means to make it her own. Nothing stands in the way of her taking what she wants. So she takes it. And she eats it. And the sweet fruit turns bitter in her mouth.

It was never a question of whether the fruit itself was good or bad. It was a question of the will of God. And the will of God was, Don’t eat it.

Jesus is forming a new people, a new people that he himself is leading. And he leads the way by doing the will of God. He came into the world to do the will of God. And he calls us and everyone who would be his brother or his sister, everyone who would be part of the family of God—he calls the church, the whole church, to do the will of God. That’s why he asks us that important question: In the meantime, what are you doing? Exactly.

So, to return to our earlier question, What are we busy with while we wait for Jesus? Are we doing the will of God? That’s the question for Advent and for every season. Are you doing the will of God. That’s the question for today and for tomorrow. Am I doing the will of God? That’s the question for every day of my life.

And the will of God is not about what feels good to me. It’s not about what looks good to me. It’s not about what I can get my hands on, about what I can afford, about what I can get away with. That’s the world talking. That’s the world teasing. That’s the world leading us astray.

Somewhere the New Testament says, Try to find out what is pleasing to God (cf. Ephesians 5:10). I guess that’s what it comes down to. The question to ask when I’m making my big plans and dreaming my dreams, the question to ask when I’m trying to decide what to do with my money this Christmas season, the question to ask when I’m trying to figure out how to spend my free time—the question to ask is not, What will please me? The question to ask is, What will please God?

If we’re not asking that question, if we’re not asking that question every day, then we’re not leaving out something. If we’re not asking that question, we’re leaving out the main thing. The first thing to do is to ask, What will please God? And then to do exactly that.

That’s why Jesus came into the world. To do the will of God. And that’s why Jesus leaves us in the world. And that’s why he sends us to the world: to do the will of God. Doing the will of God. That’s how we know we belong to Jesus. That’s how we know we really are Christians. That’s how we know we really are the church.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


09:00:00 am, by Robert Arbogast , 1610 words  
Categories: Advent 2012

Of Jesse’s Lineage

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
December 2, 2012

For an audio version of this sermon, click here.

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 11:1-9
Psalm 61
Acts 13:16-25
Matthew 1:1-6a

Come, O come, Immanuel. We need you. Come and stay with us. Come and change the way we see things. Come and change the way we think about each other. We need you. Come and change our hopes and our dreams. Come to us again and again, until we hunger and thirst for the presence of God. We need you. Come and transform our worry to thanksgiving and our fear to praise. We love you. Come and restore our joy. Amen.

Lots of people are interested nowadays in finding out about their ancestors. They sign up at They search old census and immigration records to fill in the blanks of their family story. They want to find out where they’re from. They want to find out who they’re from. But how much can we ever know, most of us?

I have a three-ring binder at home that my Aunt Betty put together years ago. It’s an Arbogast family tree. Not the whole tree. Just the branch that began with Michael Arbogast.

Michael Arbogast was born in Germany in 1734. At age fifteen, he came to the American colonies. In due time, Michael was the father of Adam Arbogast and eight others. Adam was the father of Benjamin Arbogast and eight others. Benjamin was the father of another Adam Arbogast and eleven others. This Adam was the father of Aretus Arbogast and nine others. Aretus was the father of James Arbogast and nine others. James was the father of Roy Arbogast and four others. Roy was the father of Frederick, Thomas, and Robert Arbogast. That last one is me.

For the most part that three-ring binder contains a record of people being born, getting married, having children, and dying. There aren’t many other details. Only by reading between the lines could I even guess at the character and history of my ancestors. That’s okay. I may not want to know the truth about them.

I wonder what Jesus thought about his ancestors. There were certainly some high branches on his family tree. That’s where Matthew starts off. He tells us that Jesus was the son of David, the son of Abraham. That sounds impressive, biblically-speaking. Then again, every Jew had Abraham as an ancestor. And if my Aunt Betty’s careful work is any indication, by the time Jesus was born, there would have been lots and lots and lots of Jews who had David as an ancestor. So I don’t know if Jesus made a big deal out of it. But Matthew did, starting with Abraham.

The way Matthew tells it, whoever came before Abraham doesn’t matter so much any more. Because with the coming of Jesus, there is a new beginning, a new Genesis. That’s how his Gospel starts off: The Book of Genesis about Jesus the Messiah. (That’s one way to translate Matthew’s first verse.) And just like with original book of Genesis, the next thing we know, we’re climbing a family tree. So and so was the father of such and such, and so on.

There are some interesting things about the family tree of Jesus. For example, unlike other family trees in the Bible, this one includes several women, each of them with a story. There’s Tamar. She had to pretend to be a prostitute to trick her father-in-law Judah into keeping his promise. There’s Rahab from Jericho. She sheltered Joshua’s spies. Because of that, she was rewarded with a place in Israel, even though she was a foreigner and a real prostitute. And there’s Ruth from Moab. She left her home and her people out of loyalty to her mother-in-law. Even though she was a foreigner, she was David’s great-grandmother.

Besides this unusual inclusion of women, it’s also of interest that the family tree of Jesus is broken into three equal parts. Matthew begins, of course, with Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and so on. Then he reaches a climactic point with Jesse the father of King David.
From there, Matthew moves on to the next climactic point. Though climactic is probably not the best word. Because it was not a high point in the story. Let’s call it a pivot point. That’ll work. The pivot point Matthew comes to is the exile to Babylon.

From there, Matthew moves ahead to the final point in the family tree, the truly climactic point. And that’s Jesus.

Matthew moves from Abraham to David, from David to exile, and from exile to Jesus. Matthew prunes the family tree of Jesus to fit this movement. Because he has a point to make. And the point is this. The story that began with the promises God made to Abraham, the story that reached legendary heights with the promises God made to King David, the story that suffered what seemed to be an irreversible setback with the exile to Babylon and everything that followed—this story has reached its decisive moment in Jesus. In Jesus all the threads of the story are picked up and brought to their intended resolution.

Years ago, I read John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. Chapter by chapter, Irving fills the story with strange details, details that he repeats again and again. The lift. The voice. The shot. Keep reading and you wonder what those details are about. They don’t seem to make any particular sense. But when you reach the climactic chapter in the novel, all those details find their place. All of a sudden, everything fits together. All of a sudden, everything makes sense.

Matthew is doing something like that in his family tree of Jesus. Instead of the lift, the voice, and the shot, he has Abraham, David, and exile. But in Jesus, it all comes together. In Jesus, it all makes sense.

It made no sense that the big promise God made to Abraham would wind up being confined for so long to Israel alone. God had promised to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham. But for centuries only Israel was getting blessed, blessed with the glorious presence of God.

But Matthew is starting to tell us about Jesus and how through Jesus the earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea (cf. Habakkuk 2:14).

It made no sense that the big promise God made to David ran into trouble within a generation and then came crashing down. God promised that David would always have a son on the throne. But as soon as David died, the throne was contested. And when Solomon died, the kingdom of David was split in two.

But Matthew is starting to tell us about Jesus and how he will be enthroned on a cross, about how all authority will be placed in his hands, about how he will reign as king forever. Jesus is the son of David, the son of Jesse. He is the branch that Isaiah and Jeremiah saw. He is the rightful heir to David’s throne. And his kingdom will be without limit and without end.

It made no sense that Israel should be deported to Babylon. God had promised the land to Abraham’s descendants forever. Yet Israel had gone into exile. And the exile wasn’t over, because one occupying army after another had trampled the land.

But Matthew is starting to tell us about Jesus and how he will remake the people of God from every nation and how they will inherit not the land of Canaan, but all the earth.

I’ve been wondering lately what sense there is to our story as a church. It makes no sense that we aren’t thriving as much as the maple trees in front of the buildings here. It makes no sense that instead of spreading out and getting thicker and fuller, our branches are getting more sparse. After all, God has a purpose for us. If nothing else we’re here to give glory and praise to God. And as far as we can tell, it takes waving branches to do that. It takes more than a stump.

But our story is what it is. Whether it makes sense to us or not. People come and go, just like branches in a family tree. And there are stories to all the branches. Some of the stories make us laugh. Some of the stories make us cry. Some of the stories make us sing. Some of the stories make us hang our heads in shame. But you can see that in every family tree. If you have enough details. Or if you can read between the lines.

Maybe we need to step back a little bit. Maybe we need to take in a bigger picture. You see, what Matthew gives us in his first chapter is our family tree. It’s our family tree because we are Abraham’s descendants, too. And it’s our family tree because we are brothers and sisters of Jesus the King, part of a family that is much bigger than just us. And even with all the ups and down of thousands of years, even with all the ups and downs of fifty years or of the last decade—for all that, we’ll keep on waving whatever branches we have. Because Jesus is the root and the branch of Jesse. He is son of David, the son of Abraham. And in him all the pieces will come together and make sense.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


10:24:00 am, by Robert Arbogast , 1443 words  
Categories: Trinity

Glory and Worship

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
November 18, 2012

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 6:1-4
Psalm 96
Revelation 4-5
Matthew 28:16-20

Holy Spirit, fall upon us. Grip us firmly. Then open your wings and take flight. Carry us into the holy presence of God. There fill our eyes with glory. And fill our ears with the angels’ song. And when you set us down again here on this earth, may we be changed, changed enough to see glory all around us and to sing with the angels. Amen.

Why are we here this morning? For all kinds of reasons, I’m sure. Out of need and out of custom, as the song says. And more. Maybe. Probably. But whatever brings us, we’ve come here today to do one thing. As another song puts it, Here I am to worship.

Worship. That’s why we’re here today. We’re not here to visit. Though we will do that. We’re not here to drink coffee and to eat cake. Though we will do that. We’re not here to plan a night out at the symphony. Though we might do that, too. No. We’re here today to worship God.

We’re here today to worship God, and that puts us in good company. In Isaiah’s vision, seraphs surround the heavenly throne in worship. They join their voices to declare the glory of God. In the psalmist’s poem, the whole earth worships, singing the glory of God. In John’s vision from the book of Revelation, living creatures and elders fall on their faces in worship. Together they declare the glory of God and of the Lamb. Then, soon enough, everything everywhere joins the celebration, the celebration of the glory of God.

It’s all worship. And worship celebrates the glory of God. So that’s why we’re here this morning. To celebrate the glory of God.

The glory of God. What does it look like? To go by Isaiah’s vision and to go by John’s vision, the glory of God is visible and overwhelming. Isaiah sees seraphs with no place to stand in the heavenly temple. No place to stand because just the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. Fills the temple. So the seraphs have to stay airborne with the smoke. And when the scene moves from heaven to earth, the picture is the same. The whole earth is full of God’s glory. God’s glory is visible everywhere.

John, in the book of Revelation, sees something along the same lines. It’s an overwhelming vision of color and light and sound. Anyone who sees it or hears it or feels it can’t help but respond to it.

The people who run big events know all about this. It could be a rock concert or a hockey game. It could be a political convention. It could be a Sunday service at a megachurch. Whatever the venue, whatever the occasion, there are common themes. Loud music, heavy on the rhythm section. Bright, dancing lights. And a big crowd that’s ready, a big crowd that’s eager to be swept up into the spectacle.

When you’re there, you can’t help yourself. You want to shout. You want to sing. You want to cheer. You want to cry. Ask Martha what it was like for her the first time she saw the band U2. She was overwhelmed. She was in sensory overload. And she loved every minute of it.

Isaiah and John picture the glory of God that way. Big. Awesome. Overwhelming. And everything everywhere sings and shouts and cheers. Go, God! Go, Jesus! Everything everywhere worships.

But does the glory of God always look that way? Larger than life? Awesome and overwhelming? Does the glory of God ever take a more subtle form? Well, you know the answer to that question.

When Jesus came into the world, he came full of the Father’s glory. But with him, the glory was not overwhelming. It wasn’t overpowering. People didn’t fall on their faces before Jesus, not most of them. Plenty of people did anything but worship Jesus, glory or not.

And it was the same way after his resurrection. The glory was still subtle. When he met disciples in Galilee, they worshiped him. But some of them were not so sure. He did not overwhelm them. Not even in his resurrection glory.

It’s like the part of John’s vision where he hears a roaring lion but turns to see a slaughtered lamb. Anything but overwhelming.

If all we had to go by was Isaiah’s vision—God’s glory filling up every space—and if all we had to go by was John’s vision—the sound and light-show vision—if that’s all we had to go by, we could get a very wrong idea about the glory of God. But that isn’t all we have to go by. There is the lamb.

And there is this from the gospels. Do you remember it? James and John come to Jesus. They say, Teacher, when you’re in your glory, let us sit by your side, one of us on your right, the other on your left. Jesus says no. He tells them the places have been reserved. As it turns out, reserved for the two terrorists who were crucified alongside Jesus. Which means that the cross is his glory. Not a golden throne surrounded by tens of thousands of angels. A cross. A cross on a rugged hill outside Jerusalem. Hardly a big, overwhelming, stand-up-and-shout extravaganza.

That’s not what we would expect from Isaiah’s vision or from John’s. But God is always doing the unexpected. Even when it comes to revealing his glory.

Now, suppose we wanted to have a good reason to come here on Sunday mornings. Suppose we wanted to have a good reason to worship God. What would that good reason be? What could it be? There’s really only one reason for us to worship. Because we have seen the glory of God. Worship is a response to the glory of God. It’s a celebration of the glory of God.

So where do we see the glory of God? Where? The first place to look is to Jesus. We see the glory of God in the face of Jesus. That’s what the Apostle Paul tells us (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6). But where do we see Jesus? Well, close your eyes some time. Close your eyes, and listen to the Gospel. With the help of the Holy Spirit, you may see Jesus. Or, at the risk of belaboring the point, take the bread and take the cup. See Jesus. See his body and his blood.

But where else? Where else can we see the glory of God? Where else can we find a reason to come here on Sunday morning to worship God?

Do you know the state motto of Michigan? It says, If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you. In other words, Open your eyes. Open your eyes, and you will see what you’re looking for.

In John’s vision from the book of Revelation, everything everywhere declares the glory of God. Everything everywhere hints at and reflects the glory of God. Even little things. Even trivial things. I see the glory of God in sunsets and in wildflowers. And I want to worship the God who paints with the best textures and with the best colors. If you want a reason to worship, look around you. The glory of God is everywhere. If only we would see it.

Let me conclude with a poem, this one by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s titled God’s Grandeur. But maybe we could call it God’s Glory instead.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Sometimes the glory of God is spectacular. And we fall on our faces. But usually here on earth, the glory of God is subtle, as subtle as the face of Jesus. And that’s enough. Enough for us to see it. Enough for us to worship.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


08:25:00 am, by Robert Arbogast , 1601 words  
Categories: Trinity

Stump Speech

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
November 11, 2012

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 6:1-13
Psalm 6
Galatians 3:16,26-29
John 12:37-43

O God, once again we’ve been gripped by sadness. And it tears at us. How can we listen today? How can we hear? How can our inner turmoil settle down enough to make room for your Word?

But we need to hear from you. We need to hear your Word. We need to tell the story. We live by that story. And we die in that story. So, help us to hear the story today. And help us to proclaim it and live it every day. Amen.

What’s your story? Everybody has a story. Who we are. Where we’re from. How we got here. Where we’re going. Every individual has a story. Every family has a story. Every country has a story.

Sometimes I wish I knew more about my own story, especially about my parents and my grandparents. What was life like for the Arbogasts down in the hills of West Virginia? What did it mean for the Malkasians to leave Ottoman Turkey and to settle in Massachusetts? What did my dad do during the war? When my mom and dad met, was it love at first sight? What was it like for them to live in trailer parks in 1950s Toledo and Cleveland? Why did my half brother never visit again? So many questions I’ll never know the answer to. So much of my own story I’ll never know.

If we don’t know our own story, do we have any idea who we are, who we really are? I wonder.

A long time ago, the Israelites knew their own story. They were a promised people. And they lived in a promised land. But the prophet Isaiah had news for them, news that was anything but promising. Time’s up! he said. Israel, you’ve had all the second chances you’re going to get. It’s over. Promise or not, the Lord is through with you.

What a shock! It couldn’t be! Impossible! The promises were supposed to last forever. That’s what the Lord said to Abraham: I will give this land to you. And I will fill it with your descendants. This will be our forever arrangement (cp. Genesis 17:1-8). Everlasting, that was the word the Lord used. But Israel never lived up to its side of the deal. To be faithful to the Lord. To have no other gods. To have no other loyalties. So the Lord was going to cancel the arrangement.

The descendants Abraham was promised were about to be driven out of the land Abraham was promised. The land would be as desolate as a burned-up forest. And whatever wasn’t reduced to ashes the first time around would be burned a second time. Over. It was all over. What an unhappy ending to Israel’s story!

If we go back to the first stories in the Bible, we find a man and a woman living in a paradise. Promise is everywhere. Life. Work. Companionship. Love. But almost at the very beginning, they violate the arrangement. And they find themselves driven out of paradise with no way of getting back.

That was Israel’s story. That was the story that haunted their existence as a people. Once, promise was everywhere. But then it was lost, all lost. And it was still lost.

Here we are in exile. Far from home. And there’s no way back. Even if we do make it back, will it ever be the same? And if we go back, will the Lord come back with us? Without the presence of the Lord, there’s nothing promising about that land at all! Without the presence of the Lord, we will be no better than exiles in our own country. Cut off. Burned up. Done in and done for. That’s us. Banished from paradise with no way back.

That was the future Isaiah saw. The doom of Israel, spread over centuries, with every spark of hope fading into disappointment.

But was everything lost? Was it really over? Was there no hope, no hope at all? Were the everlasting promises only temporary?
The prophet warned them: Everything will be burned. Everything. And if a tree remains standing, it will be burned again. And if even so much as a stump has some life left in it, it will be burned. So, no, there was no hope. There was no hope. And yet . . .

And yet the prophet said, The holy seed is its stump. A later prophet would remind us that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it can’t sprout and grow and bear fruit (cp. John 12:24). And so Isaiah’s words were a note of hope. Hope for a seed that would sprout and grow. Hope that the story wasn’t over.

Now, of course, we know how the story goes. We know that, even though Israel suffers for a long time, even though the return from exile is not a return to promise and paradise—we know that hope does spring up. We know that the promise endures, that the promise lives, that the promise is Jesus.

As the Apostle Paul recounts it, Jesus is the holy seed (cf. Galatians 3:16). Jesus is the one in whom all the promises to Abraham are fixed. Jesus is the one in whom the promises are completed. Jesus is the one through whom all the families of the earth are blessed. Jesus is the one who gathers a people for God from every place and every culture.

Jesus does this by bearing in his own flesh Israel’s promise and Israel’s fate. Jesus is the embodiment of Israel’s story. He is the one true prophet. Though it’s not just that he speaks the Word of God. He is the Word of God. Jesus is the great high priest. Though it’s not that he goes into the Temple to offer sacrifices to God. He is the Temple, and he is the sacrifice. And Jesus is the great king, the king of Israel and of all the world. Though it’s not just that he is David’s son. He is also David’s Lord (cf. Matthew 22:41-45).

Everything that Israel was called to be and destined to be, Jesus himself is. And as Israel, he himself is condemned and cut off. As Israel, Jesus himself is sent into the exile of death. And when he rises from the dead, he is the holy seed. He is the stump that lives. The stump that will grow to become a great kingdom that covers all the earth.

That’s the story. That’s the story we tell over and over. That’s the story we proclaim at the Table. The Apostle Paul says, Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). To proclaim the Lord’s death is not just to say that Jesus died. It is to remember his story, who he is and why he died. It is to remember his story, which is Israel’s story, which is the world’s story. And it is to find our place in that story.

Years ago, there was a TV program called You Are There. The program would feature reenactments of important historical events. It would show them and tell them in a way that would put us in the middle of the action. Well, that’s what we do when we proclaim the Lord’s death. That’s what we do when we remember Jesus. (Jesus said, Do this to remember me.)

To remember Jesus and his story is to be with Jesus as the world takes shape. To be with Jesus as the promises are made to Abraham. To be with Jesus as Israel struggles in Egypt and escapes to freedom. To be with Jesus as the holy presence of God fills the Temple. And to be with Jesus as the glory departs.

To remember Jesus and his story is to be with infant Jesus when he comes in his Father’s glory to his Father’s house. To be with Jesus as he announces the arrival of God’s kingdom. To be with Jesus as he shows signs of the kingdom: healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, forgiving the sinner.

To remember Jesus and his story is to be with Jesus when he is arrested, condemned, and crucified. To be with him in the grave. To be with him in the garden as he meets with Mary Magdalene. And to join him as he walks with the couple from Emmaus in the cool of the day.

You see, this is our story. The story of Abraham, the story of Israel, the story of Jesus is our story. Jesus may be the seed of Abraham, Abraham’s one true descendant, the one to whom all the promises pointed. But we are Abraham’s descendants, too. Because we belong to Jesus. All of us together. Everyone everywhere who has been gathered to Jesus in communities of faith.

People of God, you have a story. A story to live. A story to live up to. A story to tell. It’s the story of Jesus. Always, it’s the story of Jesus. His story is Israel’s story. It’s the world’s story. And it’s our story. It’s Mark’s story and Joan’s story and Mikhail’s story and Roger’s story. That’s the story we tell when we eat the bread and drink the cup. That’s the story we tell until Jesus comes. And because of that story, we praise Jesus, with the Father and the Spirit, praise him forever.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


12:24:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1679 words  
Categories: Trinity

Parable Surprise

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
November 4, 2012

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 6:1-10
Psalm 115
Acts 7:51-60
Matthew 13:10-17

Our only God, we come here today to meet with you. And you come here today to fill our hearts and our minds with your presence. You come to take away our fear. You come to enlarge our hearts by planting Christ there. You come to set us free by filling us with your Holy Spirit. You come to claim us as your servants and to send us on a mission. Unstop our ears, so we can hear. Open our eyes, so we can see. Make us more on our way out than we were on our way in. Amen.

Isaiah 6 is a fruitful text. The holiness of God. The availability of the servant of God. The truth about God’s grace. The holiness of God’s people. It’s all there. And there’s more.

This morning, I want to begin with the New Testament, with the Gospels. Because Jesus surprises us. Were you surprised? Did you hear what Jesus said? The disciples have a question, a question about parables. Jesus, why do you speak to the crowds of people in parables? In other words, Why don’t you speak plainly? The answer Jesus gives is surprising. Basically he says, I speak in parables so the crowds of people won’t understand. And I speak in word pictures so they won’t catch the vision. They might listen, but they won’t be able to hear. And they might look, but they won’t be able to see.

Now that’s not the way we usually think of parables. We think of them as crisp little stories, stories that give us an idea of what Jesus is up to, stories that give us a picture of God’s kingdom. And we’re not wrong about that. The parables do give us a handle on Jesus and the kingdom.
In our Reformed tradition, we talk about the kingdom a lot. I preach about the kingdom a lot. And sometimes people ask me, But what is the kingdom? They want a concrete description, even a definition. The best thing I know to do is to say, The kingdom of God is . . . like a man who had two sons . . . or, The kingdom of God is . . . like a mustard seed . . .

We get those parables. They give us an idea of the amazing grace of God, a grace that welcomes messed up people into the family. And they give us a picture of the fruitfulness of God’s kingdom, a fruitfulness that outstrips standard expectations.

But when the disciples asked him about the parables, Jesus said, I tell the people parables so they won’t get it, so they won’t repent, so they won’t be saved. That doesn’t make Jesus much of an evangelist. With that approach, it’s a wonder that we ever heard of him!

But he did have a reason for doing it. His reason was Isaiah 6. Isaiah said it already a long time ago, Jesus says. I’m just making it happen. And it’s not like I’m starting from nowhere. These people already have shut their ears. These people already have closed their eyes. These people already have their minds and their hearts made up, made up and set in stone.

That’s how it was when Isaiah began his work. And it was so much the case that God had had enough. Listen to how Isaiah’s book begins. Listen. These are almost the first words:


Sinful nation, people weighed down with crimes,
evildoing offspring, corrupt children!
They have abandoned the Lord,
despised the holy one of Israel;
they turned their backs on God. (Isaiah 1:4)

That’s the situation. And the prophet sums it up with a couple of word pictures, word pictures that reveal the truth:

An ox knows its owner,
and a donkey its master’s feeding trough.
But Israel doesn’t know;
my people don’t behave intelligently. (Isaiah 1:3)

So by the time we get to chapter six, by the time we hear about the Lord calling and claiming and sending Isaiah, we’re not surprised by the prophet’s mission.

Go and say to this people:
“Listen intently, but don’t understand;
look carefully, but don’t comprehend.”
Make the minds of this people dull.
Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind,
so they can’t see with their eyes
or hear with their ears,
or understand with their minds,
and turn, and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

By this time, the Lord has had enough. He is not going to tolerate any more. He has made up his mind. It’s over for his people. He’s not going to give them another chance. And why should he? It’s not just that Israel doesn’t know. It’s that Israel refuses to know!

In the Exodus story, we hear about Pharaoh hardening his heart against the Lord. Again and again he refuses to listen, he refuses to give in. Then we hear about the Lord hardening Pharaoh’s heart. If you want to dig in your heels, God says, then let me really dig them in for you, dig them in so deep that there’s no getting them out! Which, of course, is what happened with Pharaoh. Until at a great price—such a great price!—he finally let Israel go.

Now, here, in Isaiah’s time, the prophet learns that the Lord has had enough of Israel’s stubborn resistance. And that’s so much the case, that the Lord is sending the prophet to speak to Israel, to tell them a hard truth that they will never hear, no matter how much they listen. Because this time the Lord is stopping up their ears! This time there will be no turning back.

Jesus, why are you telling parables to the crowds of people? Why don’t you speak plainly to them? That’s what the disciples are asking. Why? Jesus answers. Why? So they won’t hear. So they won’t see. So they won’t get it. So their hearts will stay hard. But why? Why would Jesus do this? What reason could he have? There must be more to it than a few verses in Isaiah. There’s got to be some kind of point. There’s got to be some purpose to it, some method to the madness.

Well, how about this? Turn the clock ahead, and what will this hard-hearted, close-minded crowd do? Will they embrace Jesus? Will they follow him into the kingdom? Or will they join their voices in a shout and say, Crucify him!? Lots of times as Jesus goes about his work, he says, It is necessary . . . Certain things have to happen in certain ways so that he can accomplish his saving work, his kingdom-bringing work. The parables functioned in that way. It was necessary for Jesus to speak in off-putting, alienating ways.

And it’s not a matter, simply, of people failing to understanding the images of the parables or their story lines. Sometimes the audience understood the images and the story lines and the punch lines of the parables very well. But they still couldn’t hear, or wouldn’t hear, the message. When Jesus spoke parables against the chief priests and the Pharisees, they understood perfectly well what he was saying. They simply rejected the message—and the messenger! The same as the crowd that covered its ears before picking up stones to launch at Stephen.

But there is something else to notice in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the contrast that Jesus draws between his disciples on the one hand and the crowds of people on the other. The contrast between them and the contrast in how Jesus approaches them. Yes, to the crowds Jesus speaks in parables, sometimes unclear, sometimes off-putting. But Jesus tells his disciples,

You have received the secrets of the kingdom.
Happy are your eyes because they see.
Happy are your ears because they hear.
I assure you that many prophets and righteous people
wanted to see what you see and here what you hear,
but they didn’t. (Matthew 13:16-17)

Now what I’m wondering about today is this: Where are we in these stories? Are we on the inside or on the outside? Do we really hear? Do we really see? Do we really get it? Or have we stopped our ears? And have we closed our eyes? Do we harden our hearts when the message gets uncomfortable? When the message calls us to change the way we think, to change the way we make decisions, to change the way we vote?

My guess is that we are in both places—on the inside and on the outside—that we are in both places at the same time. Remember, the disciples didn’t get the parables without Jesus explaining them. And the disciples didn’t really have a clue what Jesus was up to. And in the end, they ran away. And along the way, Peter—great Peter, Peter the rock—on the way, Peter was so clueless and out of touch with the kingdom that he tried to turn Jesus off the necessary path. And Jesus had to call him out for what he was, the devil himself! Get back behind me, Satan! Jesus said that to Peter—to Peter!

I wonder if we hear any better. I wonder if we see any better. When the word is read, do we hear the voice of God? When the Gospel is preached, do we see the kingdom? And when the Table is spread, what do we think we’re taking in our hands and putting into our mouths?
I’m thinking about the man who said to Jesus, I believe. Help me with my unbelief! Who of us doesn’t wear his shoes?

But here’s the thing. Never forget. To go back a couple of Sundays, never forget the truth about God’s grace. Because the truth about our blindness never can exceed the truth about God’s grace. And the truth about our stubbornness never can exceed the truth about God’s grace. So we trust the God of grace. Because that God has given us the secret of the kingdom. And the secret is Jesus.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.

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