Reading the Book of Jonah recently has reminded me of the other great stories of sea travels, from the Odyssey, to Moby Dick, to Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, and many others. Such stories are the inspiration of all sorts of similar journeys, right down to Luke Skywalker’s journey to the Death Star and beyond. They are heroic stories of dangers, battles, and conquests. A Christian version of the hero’s journey is the story of St. Brendan the Navigator, an Irish priest. He set sail in the 5th Century A.D. in search of the Island of Paradise, a maritime Garden of Eden. Along the way, he and his companions encounter dangerous sea creatures and strange islands, including one where the birds all sings the Psalms in praise of God. They also encounter Judas Iscariot sitting on a rock in the middle of the sea, getting a weekend reprieve from the torments of hell. They have numerous other adventures, including lighting a campfire on what they thought was an island, but turns out to be a understandably disgruntled whale.
St. Brendan seems to have been a real person, but most likely had legends added to his legacy over the centuries. He did have a heart for missions though, and travelled around founding monasteries and churches. His seven year journey to the Island of Paradise remains what he is remembered for the most. It is that magical, mythical journey that becomes a metaphor for the life each of us leads. When we put it in Christian terms, we talk about the journey as being a walk or the “Way” as we recognize that we are walking with Jesus on our journey through this life, as he walked through Judea and Galilee during his life, with the occasion journey by boat, as well. Our faith has been strengthened by the very real experiences we have had along this walk of faith, experiences that prove Jesus is alive and at work in our lives. As in the picture in the insert of St. Brendan sailing along with all sorts of dangers lurking below, we too often glide along, when out of the blue it seems, someone or something rises up to shake our faith, even though they were most likely there all along, just waiting for an opportunity to strike. It takes a mature faith to sift through the various things we hear and experience, especially in this day and age, and ride through the stormy seas we sometimes face that lead to new growth and renewed commitment to Jesus.
As if it wasn’t hard enough to digest a big book like the Bible, there are far more writings that are not considered to be Scripture but talk about Biblical things, and give a much larger glimpse of the time periods involved, including many writings that were produced before Jesus’ birth. Many of these stories from both before and after the time of Jesus contain some very strange things which are hard to believe. For the most part, such non-Biblical writings that are mentioned in the Bible have been lost, and when we come across references to them, we can only guess what the writer intended. One notable exception is the Letter of Jude, which makes references to other non-Biblical writings for which we still have manuscripts.
Now I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on Jude, and perhaps there is a good reason for that, we’ll just have to see, won’t we? The letter starts:
Jude, a slave of Jesus Christ and brother of James. To those who are called, loved by God the Father and kept safe by Jesus Christ. 2 May you have more and more mercy, peace, and love. 3 Dear friends, I wanted very much to write to you concerning the salvation we share. Instead, I must write to urge you to fight for the faith delivered once and for all to God’s holy people.
We may not know the original audience for this letter, and there is still debate about just who the author is, but if he was the brother of James, then he was also probably the brother of Jesus. This is assuming he is not the brother of James the Apostle, brother of John, son of Zebedee. Chances are good that his name was really Judas, but was shortened to Jude so he wouldn’t be confused with the other Judas. Mark writes that the people of Nazareth said about Jesus:
Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” (Mar 6:3 CEB)
James his brother would become the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and there is a chance that Jude could be another name for Thaddeus, one of the 12 Apostles, but that’s pretty shaky. We are also told that a certain Jude was sent with Silas and others to Antioch with Paul, and that this Jude was a prophet. Perhaps this is the same person, also. So anyway, even if we don’t read much about Jude in the Bible, the letter of Jude probably had the credentials to be taken seriously by its first readers.
Jude speak fondly to his readers, wishing them mercy, peace and love. He wanted to write to them about their common salvation, but something more pressing has come up. That “common” salvation” he refers to is their shared experience of the Gospel message, but something is threatening it. He continues:
4 Godless people have slipped in among you. They turn the grace of our God into unrestrained immorality and deny our only master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Judgment was passed against them a long time ago. 5 I want to remind you of something you already know very well. The Lord, who once saved a people out of Egypt, later destroyed those who didn’t maintain their faith.
We read of similar things in other later letters as well as in Paul’s letters, where his churches have started well, but they are being misled by unscrupulous people with different teachings, here, even teachings that deny that Jesus is our Lord. Here, we are reminded that the generation of Israelites that Moses led out of Egypt were disobedient, and so did not get to enter the Promised Land. The reason given by Jude for their punishment is that they did not maintain their faith. Now, his readers are also at risk of being misled and not staying true to their faith. In the early Church, as here, the word “faith” commonly referred to the teachings the people believed, while today we usually stress that we “have faith” in Jesus. Jude will give numerous examples of the punishment for such behavior. He continues:
6 I remind you too of the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home. The Lord has kept them in eternal chains in the underworld until the judgment of the great day.
Where he gets this from we will discuss momentarily, for it is not from the Bible, perhaps for now it should be noted that not even the angels are exempt from judgment. If this verse sounds familiar, it may be because 2nd Peter 2 is so similar that one of the letters probably is drawn from the other. Jude continues:
7 In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and neighboring towns practiced immoral sexual relations and pursued other sexual urges. By undergoing the punishment of eternal fire, they serve as a warning.
8 Yet, even knowing this, these dreamers in the same way pollute themselves, reject authority, and slander the angels.
Certainly we know about Sodom and Gomorrah, although it is often noted that in most Biblical references, it seems that the main offense is lack of hospitality. Here though, Jude is emphasizing the sexual immorality of those he is writing against. They too will face the same punishment, and they know it but are not changing their ways. Why Jude calls them “dreamers”, I don’t know, perhaps he means that they are not in touch with reality, and think that they are somehow too special to face the same judgment. Perhaps this is the first step, and then the next step is to reject all authority, except their own. How often do we see this today? The Greek word Jude uses for when he says “slander the angels” is the same word we get “to blaspheme” from, so perhaps he means that they don’t take the angels, or their punishment, seriously enough. Is this weird to you? Well, wait to you hear what comes next!
9 The archangel Michael, when he argued with the devil about Moses’ body, did not dare charge him with slander. Instead, he said, “The Lord rebuke you!”
Where does Jude get this story? It probably came from another work that predates the New Testament called “The Assumption of Moses”, but that is kind of sketchy. However, it seems to mean that we should leave judgment to God, I guess, for it will surely come. As Jude says:
10 But these people slander whatever they don’t understand. They are destroyed by what they know instinctively, as though they were irrational animals.
That we can relate to, can’t we? People attack us or the Bible, but they don’t really know what they are talking about if they haven’t experienced what it means to live this life of faith. In giving Biblical examples of punishment, Jude says about his opponents:
11 They are damned, for they follow in the footsteps of Cain. For profit they give themselves over to Balaam’s error. They are destroyed in the uprising of Korah.
These are all from the Old Testament. Cain’s offense was anger and murder; Balaam’s error seems to be lack of understanding of God’s ways, but the story of Balaam and his talking donkey is certainly a strange one, so I’m not certain; and the uprising of Korah took place on the road from Egypt when a faction rose up in defiance of Moses’ leadership, and they were destroyed. If these examples are not enough for you, then Jude gives some nice metaphors to condemn his opponents with. Jude writes:
12 These people who join your love feasts are dangerous. They feast with you without reverence. They care only for themselves. They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; fruitless autumn trees, twice dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom the darkness of the underworld is reserved forever.
Certainly, such words apply to our own time, as well. So many people are self-centered and irreverent, without proper direction and following shameful pursuits. Even the brightest of stars are headed for darkness. But then back to weird things. Jude writes:
14 Enoch, who lived seven generations after Adam, prophesied about these people when he said, “See, the Lord comes with his countless holy ones, 15 to execute judgment on everyone and to convict everyone about every ungodly deed they have committed in their ungodliness as well as all the harsh things that sinful ungodly people have said against him.”
In the Bible, Enoch does not say anything. He just lives a long life, and is so pleasing to God that he “disappears”, apparently taken by God so he wouldn’t have to experience death. This passage is actually a quote from what is called “The Book of Enoch”, which dates to the 1st Century BC, and which I personally have met Christians who not only are gullible enough to believe it was written by Enoch, but treat the work almost like Scripture, even though for the most part it has never been considered to be Scripture by Jews or Christians. This work has actually survived, and you can find it on the internet. The Book of Enoch has been very influential over the centuries, such as with Jude here and previous verse about the angels in chains, especially because it deals with the fall of the angels from Heaven, and gives details about the world they inhabit. A main theme of the book is judgment and punishment for those who oppose God. It’s weird, but very interesting, and like many other non-Biblical works, it seeks to fill in pieces of the picture that are not in the Bible. But back to condemning Jude’s opponents:
16 These are faultfinding grumblers, living according to their own desires. They speak arrogant words and they show partiality to people when they want a favor in return.
Jude may use words and examples that we wouldn’t think of using, but we see again that people haven’t changed much in some ways since his time. We, like his original readers, are to be different:
17 But you, dear friends, remember the words spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. 18 They said to you, “In the end time scoffers will come living according to their own ungodly desires.” 19 These people create divisions. Since they don’t have the Spirit, they are worldly. 20 But you, dear friends: build each other up on the foundation of your most holy faith, pray in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep each other in the love of God, wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will give you eternal life. 22 Have mercy on those who doubt. 23 Save some by snatching them from the fire. Fearing God, have mercy on some, hating even the clothing contaminated by their sinful urges.
To sum up: we have been warned that scoffers will come following their own desires. Their punishment has been set before them from long ago, but they still think they can somehow avoid it, or just don’t believe it will happen. They are worldly, and ungodly. But we have put our faith in Jesus, the one who saves us in his mercy. We don’t go it alone, we join together as one people, built on the foundation of faith, praying in the Spirit, joining together in God’s love. We know that we will have struggles, we know that we may face persecution, but together we wait for the day when Jesus in his mercy takes us into eternal life.
Jude tells us in turn to have mercy on those who doubt, presumably because there is still time for them to be saved, while his opponents are certainly facing destruction. The doubters we can still try to save, but we always have a healthy fear of God, recognizing that the doubters too can lead us astray. Jude sets before us the path we all take, a path set at the beginning of the world: either to follow God and live accordingly, or follow the ways of an ungodly world. Judgment is certainly coming, a judgment that has been predetermined, with plenty of warnings ever since, so choose wisely.
We all know the dangers that are out there, we need to be prepared when they turn their attention upon us. Hopefully we will have very few times when we feel like we are Jonah in the belly of the whale, we know we will have many more times of sailing along like in the picture of St. Brendan when dangers threatening nearby. But we also know that Jesus will take us by the hand, and lead us to where he wants us to go. The world is dark and full of perils, but it also is a world of light and love and joy. We continue to struggle on through the good times and the bad, for the joy of the Lord is our strength.
And so Jude concludes with one of the most beautiful doxologies of the Bible or anywhere else:
24 To the one who is able to protect you from falling, and to present you blameless and rejoicing before his glorious presence, 25 to the only God our savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, belong glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time, now and forever. Amen.
We belong to God, and he in his mercy will protect us and keep us until the very end.