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What Does It Mean?
John 6:1-21….Proper 12B
We follow signs every day of our lives. We become so accustomed to it that we don’t even think about it most of the time. We make sure we’re at the right wedding by looking at the church sign out front. We look for restroom signs in restaurants. We see a frown on someone’s face and react to it as a sign of anger or confusion. Here are a few road signs to get us thinking about signs today. (Several Power Point slides shown here.)
As people of faith, we develop a habit of seeing spiritual signs in our own lives too, but we can get mixed up about what constitutes a sign of God’s activity in our lives. What one person sees as an answer to prayer appears to be no more than coincidence to another. A conversation feels like God’s guiding voice in some cases, but in others, it might make things more confusing. How do we know what God is using to communicate with us?
The gospel of John has a theme of signs. The people witness Jesus performing a miracle, and it is seen and discussed as a sign of who he is, as wells as a concrete expression that somehow reveals God to us. Each sign is an image or an action that is regarded as meaning something more. The story in John 6 is no exception: Jesus fed 5,000 people and it was interpreted afterward. In fact it introduces a chapter in which Jesus tells us he is the “bread of life,” and he explains what that means for us.
There are two kinds of mistakes we make about signs. The first is in where we look. Do we rely solely on circumstances to tell us what God is up to, or do we go to the source? Too often we look around us at the ever-changing landscape of our lives in order to understand God. We see circumstances as signs of God’s love or provision. Then we assign God with ideas based on what we see and our own conclusions. That is a backward way of understanding God.
Let me give a crude example. Say I visit a friend’s house on the way to bringing cookies to a bake sale. I bring the cookies into the house because she wanted to see how the recipe turned out. We get talking about her new sofa, and we go into the living room. As I leave, I forget the cookies. (Not an unlikely scenario, unfortunately!) She doesn’t notice them either, and leaves to run errands. Her son comes home and assumes that Mom left him cookies. He samples a few and feels happy that his mother left him a treat.
Get the picture? We can deduce good and bad events in our lives in just such a way, assigning motives and actions to God that may or may not connect with our actual needs and God’s work in our lives. We can’t develop an understanding of God based only on our circumstances.
We should not forget to look in the Scriptures, because God stated outright that He is revealed to us in its pages. All that we need to know about God is there. If we want to interpret our lives as we relate to God, then we need to look first at what God says about himself. Circumstances and people that line up with the God of the Scriptures can be trusted.
God created us different from other creatures, one distinction being that we expect and look for meaning in the world around us. If we neglect our faith, pretty soon we see the world around us as the total picture that provides meaning. The way that plays out has taken different turns throughout history, so that in the Dark Ages and in the Enlightenment, people interpreted the world in ways that seem laughable to us now. And yet, many of us were raised in the modern age of the 20th century, where seeing was believing. So it feels natural to regard what happens around us as a clue to God’s existence, or not.
Good example: droughts that plague our farm fields sometimes, devastating millions of acres all around us. How easy it would be to interpret this in a few different ways. We could say that the drought means:
- God doesn’t exist. Everything is random.
- God does exist but doesn’t love us.
- God is punishing us for something we have done.
As for #1, I’m not going to address the idea that God doesn’t exist, because by your presence here, it’s a good bet that you do believe God is real.
Considering #3, in our Bible study on “The Good and Beautiful God,” a few of us have appreciated the author’s corrective about how God might punish and reward us. James Bryan Smith helped us see that good and bad things happen to believers and atheists alike. Nobody seems immune to terminal diseases or catastrophes, and good fortune seems to shine on both the just and the unjust. So we can’t interpret them as signs of punishment or reward.
Still, Smith follows the teaching of St. Augustine in pointing out that there are some good things that are unique to those who do good. Those who obey God can rely on God’s blessing, personal joy and peace. Those who repent and seek God’s forgiveness always receive it. Those who pray often experience peace, a keen sense of God’s presence with them. Conversely, those who disobey God and worship their own passions will suffer logical consequences for their behavior: restlessness, broken relationships and so on.
We want to know the cause-and-effect logic of what happens to us. We might conclude that any disaster we face, including the loss of this year’s crop, is a sign that God doesn’t love us. Maybe we are being punished for sin. The problem with that idea is that it begins and ends with what we see happening around us, and its effect on us. It is devastating; there’s no question of that. But to assume that our suffering means God doesn’t care or is punishing us is simply not a fair conclusion.
Don’t look just at circumstances to understand God. Instead, look into the Scriptures. What does it say about God’s love for us? Well, we believe that the whole Word of God points to Jesus Christ, and the culminating act of Jesus was his death on the cross. Can we look at that and say that God doesn’t care? On the contrary. We see that he suffered immeasurable pain for us. He died a criminal’s death for our sake. If we are going to make statements about the love of God, the cross is where we need to look, not at the circumstances around us. In times of tragedy or disaster, we can look to the cross and know that Jesus doesn’t ignore our pain and anxiety. Instead, he is practiced at suffering with us, and his promise is that he continues to do that. He feels our pain. He is with us in the midst of it.
The people Jesus fed with five loaves and two fish were in the habit of reading meaning into their circumstances too. Except in this case, they made a different kind of mistake. They watched as Jesus performed a miracle for the sake of thousands of hungry people. You would think they would believe in Jesus as the Son of God when they saw it. Yet the result was not as Jesus hoped. The people didn’t read the sign properly; they misinterpreted it. Instead of seeing this sign as an indication of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, the people concluded that he was their meal ticket. They read the sign through the lens of their appetites, and not through the eyes of faith. They stopped at having their hunger satisfied by Jesus, and ignored the greater meaning: that Jesus was God’s Anointed One.
It’s an important distinction. We teach our children that God provides for our needs, and we need to depend on God as such. That is true, and important for our faith. Yet God wants to be more for us than a steward of our physical needs. God is our source of life, love, and hope. God is revealed to us so we will know His great love for us. God desires our worship and obedience because that is the way to life. What God doesn’t want is for us to turn to Him for our bread, then skip on down the path pursuing our own self-centered goals. That’s not how the world gets the message that God loves them. And it makes our faith small and self-serving.
It’s so easy for us to think as those people did on the day Jesus fed them. Give me what I need, and I’ll call you my Lord! Who wouldn’t want a Savior who dispenses food and whatever else we ask for?
As you know, I follow the events in western Africa, and the turmoil in Mali has my attention these days. A military coup this spring (2012) happened almost without incident, because the corruption that had become ingrained in the government practically set them up for it.
Here’s what I find interesting, and hopeful. There is a movement among young adult musicians to change the way of thinking among the people of their country. These are rap artists who are extremely popular in western Africa, and they are using this as a vehicle for political action. They are exposing their own people’s habit of accepting the leadership of anybody who will promise them bread.
Here’s what spokesman Mohamed “Ras” Bathily said about the coup: “If we elected an inept government, it’s because in the run-up to elections we weren’t interested in the credibility of the men for whom we were going to vote. Nobody was interested in their social platform, in their morality, we just wanted the cash and the t-shirts they were giving away. Even though they took advantage of our ignorance, our poverty and our vulnerability to offer us trifles, we never had this civic reflex to vote for a platform, not for a man. It was this error we made, the result of which was the election of an incompetent government, the loss of two-thirds of our territory, chaotic governance in every domain, no economy, no jobs, no health care, you see, nothing was working! So we said, “This must never happen again.” And this self-critique, this recognition of our own responsibility must lead to an active civic awareness.
Do you see? We are no better. We share the Malians’ tendency to respond to whatever or whoever promises to meet our own needs in the moment. A sign of hope! Or, as we are tempted to do, we react to our difficult circumstances by assuming that God doesn’t care. A sign of God’s wrath!
Friends, God has been revealed to us so that we won’t be stuck in such an unreliable and confusing state of spiritual myopia. God has shown us that we are loved, and our circumstances have no voice in that statement of truth. Jesus has died for us, so that we can trust him fully to provide for our needs in whatever situation we find ourselves. The cross is the first and only sign we must consult to know what our lives mean. No matter what happens, we know that God loves us. Jesus is with us in suffering, and in the good times. We need no other explanation than that, do we?
This is not simplistic theology that avoids the hard questions. It addresses every question, every challenge we might pose. What does a drought mean? Well, it means we haven’t had any rain for far too long. It means that, as always, we will have to depend on the God who loves us here and now, and will love us beyond this world. Why did you get cancer? Because the cells in your body took a left turn and started growing out of control. And you’ll need to look to God for courage and meaning in the midst of it. God will not let you down, but will be present and love you in ways you never would have known without the disease. The sign of the cross is enough to settle our anxiety and our questions! If we want to find meaning in what we perceive as signs in our lives, we must at least acknowledge that they cannot contradict the cross which boldly stands as testimony to God’s love.
Do you want reassurance in the midst of the current drought? Don’t go to crop predictions or the markets to find peace. Go to the Word. Read in the pages of Scripture that the God of the ages does not change, and He will never forsake those who trust Him. Praise the God who is able to bring life out of death. Give thanks to God, who forgives you and me for our shortsighted faith. Find your hope in God, who is “just in all his ways, and kind in all His doings” as we will now sing in Psal
 I realize this leads us into a morass of theological questions about God’s sovereignty. For the sake of this message, we’ll save that for another time.
 James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God, 2009. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press), p. 47-9.
 As reported in “Fighting for the republic, in beats and rhymes” at http://bamakobruce.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/les-sofas-de-la-republique/
Jesus Unites Us
Ephesians 2:11-22…Proper 11B
I love books. I have always loved them. In fact, books are like a security blanket to me. When I was in high school, I took books home even when my homework was finished, just in case I needed them. I know. That’s a little crazy. At least I have found other people who have the same relationship with books, so maybe it’s not abnormal.
I have been on a quest for the past year or so, delving into books, seeking deeper understanding about faith, about the Bible, and about how the Bible is meant to be regarded by God’s people. I have found some authors whose writings are so intriguing, I can’t get enough of them.
I think the books are a symbol for what gives me confidence: knowledge. That is probably no surprise to you, since I like to give the impression that I am well-read and intelligent. After eight years together, you know that all too well.
There is something ironic about this. Some of my reading has been about the historical development of faith, and learning all the ways that we have packaged our theology. In the process, it is becoming more and more clear to me that knowledge is a false comfort when it comes to faith. The biblical story seems to tell us that God wants us to rely on him, not on knowing about him.
But I kept reading, and highlighting things, and taking notes. My knowledge grew and grew. In some areas, ideas became more integrated, but in others, I became more confused. Maybe the next book would have the answers, or the next. Gradually I am realizing that none of them can fully explain God’s relationship with us, nor the full intent of the Scriptures or even their meaning.
Now I don’t want to dismiss the value of careful study, and of seeking greater understanding of the Scriptures. That is important to us as God’s people. We read and study the Bible so we can be familiar with the ways of God. We even say the Bible is our authority.
But, like every other good gift from God, over-emphasis on the Scriptures—and on knowledge—is a problem. It is so much easier to look at words on a page than to wait on God. Knowing what the Bible says is not the same as trusting God. And the Bible is not on the same level as God in terms of authority. God is sovereign and all-knowing and has used the Bible to communicate with us. But the Bible is static, the canon closed. By contrast, God is living. God’s guidance, love, and forgiveness are fresh every day, suited perfectly to each situation.
Our churches and our society have been overtaken by arguments about what the Bible does or does not say. What is interesting is that the arguments on both sides of most issues are reasoned and plausible. Everybody has biblical, sociological, and scientific evidence to back up their claims. And everybody seems to be suspicious of the motives of those on the other side. How quickly the arguments become nasty.
It is sad because Christian people, all of whom are trying to be faithful to God, are accusing one another of being unfaithful. One side is striving to be obedient to Scripture. The other side is trying to model the compassion and justice of Jesus. Is either of them wrong? No. But how can they both be right?
All that reading has not helped me get closer to a solution. I think that is because the Scriptures were not given to us to provide answers. That is not God’s way. God expects us to depend on him, not on quoted verses or doctrines, even if they seem perfectly suited to prove our point.
But we live in a society that expects black and white answers. We expect somebody to be right, and that means everybody else is wrong. But that simply does not line up with the ways of God. God tells us that rightness is found in Him alone.
Ephesians 2 really arrested me this week. Recently I made some foolish, offensive remarks that I had to apologize for. I misunderstood a minor decision that was made, and I overreacted. What had me in its grip was the need to be right. To let everybody know how things should be done around here. I’m the pastor, so I ought to know!
But whatever knowledge I claim to have is useless without love. Paul said that in 1 Cor. 13. And knowledge is also useless when it comes to the unity of the church. What does the writer of Ephesians tell us about that?
First he described all the goodness of God in chapter 1—all the riches of salvation and hope and the privilege of being called God’s beloved children. Next, in the first part of Ephesians 2, the writer reminds the believers in Ephesus that both groups share the same spiritual origin: They were dead in their sins but God made them alive together in Jesus Christ, by grace, through faith in him. A tidy summary of the gospel, that.
But the Ephesian believers are at odds with each other. Their Jewish and Gentile backgrounds make it hard for them to come together. Paul doesn’t use logical arguments to persuade the believers to play nice with each other. Pointing out their common humanity or their shared beliefs wasn’t enough to break down centuries-old barriers between Jews and Gentiles. The truth about their salvation was not enough! Only Jesus could accomplish it through his living Spirit working among them.
The writer points to the cross of Jesus as the way we are brought together perfectly. He says “he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (v. 14) And the cross of Jesus keeps doing it continuously.
Do you see? Understanding what happened on the cross isn’t the key. Knowing all about what Jesus did and taught isn’t the key. The key is Jesus himself, and where he unites us is on the cross.
It is striking that God uses a brutal image used to torture criminals as the place where we are brought together. I would rather meet in a pleasant place, wouldn’t you? The cross assaults our carefully defended arguments and egos. It challenges us to go beyond understanding to trust. We can trust the one who takes all the suffering into himself.
Do you remember what it was that got us all into trouble in the first place? What was the one thing Adam and Eve were forbidden to do in the garden of Eden? Eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is the sinister, deceptive character of knowledge that gets us into trouble every time. We think that if we know what is right and good, we are better than anybody else. And we can wield power to make our rights or our righteousness hold sway over others. This does violence to relationships, and to the world in general. Suffering is the inevitable result.
Boy, don’t I know it. Careless words hurt people. With the stroke of a few keys on my computer and hitting “send,” I have done more damage than I ever thought I would. Words matter. Family feuds are ignited by them. Great projects are undermined. Religious people fight over words. We all want things to be done our way, because we are right, right, right. And we end up acting as though we speak on God’s behalf. It is what I hate to see in others, but I have done it myself.
As God’s people, here and everywhere else, we are going to have to accept the fact that there are different perspectives on what God has revealed, and it is impossible in many cases to convince everyone else that our claims are the right ones.
Jesus walks into the middle of all of this and commands silence. The image of his cross is lifted up, and what do we see? We see the one who said, “Do your worst. Unleash your frustration and murderous thoughts, and do the violence to me. Don’t do it to each other. Let me be the scapegoat you are so determined to blame for all the ills of this world. Let’s see what good it does you.”
And then, then, he transforms that horrible image of cruelty into the most profound symbol of love. The one who is right and good above all else takes the punishment we think somebody deserves (not us), even though he of all people is the last to earn it. In his flesh he makes us one by showing how we are all the same in our sin. He exposes our arguments and barriers for the flimsy, ridiculous things they are. As we gaze at the cross together, all of our disagreements fall away.
I don’t know how he does that! And I will never know. Neither will you. But because he invites us to that place, we are able to forgive one another, as he has forgiven us. He is first in line to give up his right to superiority, and he invites us to do the same. He resists changing people’s attitudes—even though he could do that—and tells us to stop trying to change others. It is futile, and will just make us angry at one another, over and over.
The arguments will crop up again. We will keep making mistakes, and hurting one another. It is no wonder we need to gather every seven days to gaze at the cross together, over and over. We need Jesus to unite us continuously, because without him we will surely fail.
Life is full of contradictions. Each one of us is full of contradictions. We say and do things we regret, and we suffer for it. Then we expend effort avoiding certain subjects, or even each other. We waste time and effort bearing grudges that don’t serve us well at all.
We will always disagree about many things. Better that we listen to one another and try to seek common ground, than to focus on trying to change one another. There are enough problems in this world, in this community, that we can spend our effort trying to solve instead of harping at each other. To me, that is one of the greatest tragedies of our culture and the church. How much time and energy has been spent on trying to convince one another of our positions, when the poor and hungry suffer from neglect? Jesus asks us to pay attention to them, and care for them. That may be the best way that he unites us, because then we will be too busy to argue.
My beloved books have not gotten me any closer to figuring out how to resolve the puzzles of faith than has Ephesians 2, and you. The mess I made last week was addressed by leaders who faced it, and corrected me as we are told to do in Matthew 19. Uncomfortable as it was, it was the church at its finest, speaking the truth in love, seeking to restore, allowing Jesus to keep us united. I was humbled and embarrassed by what I had done, but I was forgiven.
The church is where the presence of Jesus Christ is the source and force of our unity. As God’s people together, we are the prime exhibits of what the cross of Jesus really does for us, mysterious as it is. We don’t need to know how it works. All we are called to do is trust that it does work, because it is Jesus who makes it happen. In himself, he actually, truly unites us in spite of our knowledge, in spite of our sin, in spite of our spite. He has made us one. Thanks be to God.
How to Make Up Your Mind
Mark 6:14-29…Proper 10B
Some stories in the Scriptures leave us scratching our heads, and today’s gospel is a good example. The story of the death of John the Baptist in the book of Mark is a curious one. The gospel writer almost seems to have us sympathize with Herod. Neither of the other two gospel accounts give us the details of Herod’s attitude toward John.
Despite his wife’s resentment toward John, Herod finds himself fascinated with him. He is drawn to John’s preaching. John was quite a character, with his loud pronouncements and his rugged appearance. Even though he had accused Herod of breaking the law, Herod couldn’t quite resist listening to what John had to say. Maybe it was because he recognized what a righteous and holy man John was. When he was in the mood, he had John ushered out of his cell for a consultation. In spite of his own downward spiral into depravity, Herod could still recognize integrity when he saw it.
See, Herod was a horrible person, no question. As soon as he had gained the power of the throne, he was afraid of losing it. He even had his own sons killed so they couldn’t claim their right to power sooner than he wanted them to. It was said that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son, because you had a chance of living longer.
And he was not only a murderer, he was an adulterer as well. He took a fancy to his brother’s wife Herodias, so he married her. This was a man who got what he wanted.
So why on earth would a gospel writer provide details that might make us sympathize with him? Maybe he wanted to explain why Herod didn’t have John killed the minute he accused Herod of adultery. For some reason, Herod didn’t react the way he usually did. My guess is that it had to do with politics. Instead, he put John in prison.
Who knows how long John sat in prison? Herod might have forgotten all about him until his name came up again at the birthday party. Herod’s stepdaughter was a skilled dancer who pleased the king so much, he promised her half of his kingdom if she wanted it. Salome’s eyes got big and she hurried to her mother’s side for advice. One should not be too hasty about cashing in on a promise like that.
Salome must have been surprised and no doubt disappointed when her mother asked for John’s head as a party favor. She probably had visions of beautiful jewels or a dazzling new house. But there would be no arguing, not with her strong-headed mother. John was a burr under her saddle, and she jumped at the chance to get even with him.
The request was made. “You’ll give me anything I want, Herod? Okay, I want the head of John, your prisoner!”
And Herod was stuck. He had painted himself into a corner. He didn’t want to kill the holy man. Who knew what kind of curses would befall him? But because of the oath he had made to Salome, and because of the guests who eagerly awaited the conclusion of this drama, Herod gave the order. And that was the end of John.
One could ask, who really lost his head in this story? It sounds like Herod lost his head—although not in the same way John did—when he made a rash promise to a beautiful young woman who seduced him with her dancing.
Herod could have done the right thing and saved John’s life. He could have said that his oath included riches, not a man’s life. But he caved. Three things kept him from doing what he knew deep down was right.
He own oaths had him trapped. A man who was not known for his integrity suddenly became very interested in keeping his own promise. From our perspective, we can see how perverse his perspective was. But Herod would not be the first person to claim the high ground while at the same time dealing in death. How often do we justify our selfish decisions with righteous-sounding excuses?
Second, Herod was also influenced by his family. Never mind that his family consisted of his brother’s wife and her daughter. His previous indiscretions led to more depravity as they pressured him to kill John.
Third, Herod’s pride was a huge factor in the decision. He worried desperately about what people thought of him, especially his buddies who came to celebrate his birthday. As far as he was concerned, it was too late to change the course of events.
Well, well. That sounds a bit like the predicaments we get ourselves into sometimes. You state your position and stick to it for years and years. Then suddenly someone in your family has a problem, and you see the issue differently than before. You realize that things are not always so cut and dried, and maybe you should soften your stance a bit. But then people would think you’re wishy-washy. You can’t have that! Do you let your loved one suffer so that you can save face?
Or your family tells you what to think. Your dad always did it this way, and his father too. Your wife thinks maybe you should make up your own mind, but she doesn’t understand how strange it feels to contradict your father. No, better leave things as they are. Right…?
And so on and so on. Too often we are more worried about what people think, or what makes us comfortable, than what is the right thing to do. How sad! Who knows how much good could have been accomplished in this world if people had been willing to step out and do the right thing regardless of the consequences to their reputation.
I’ll give you one example in recent years. Ed Huber was in a bind. He lived in New York City, where he had bought the famous old restaurant called Delmonico’s. He got it all fixed up, and it really started taking off. Wall street brokers and top CEO’s began to have their business lunches in his place.
But a few years into the business, Ed learned that the city planned to put a homeless shelter just three doors away. He was horrified. What if people started panhandling outside his doors? He couldn’t afford to have customers put off by the derelicts in his neighborhood.
Ed and a bunch of other businessmen decided to fight it. But when Ed went home and told his wife Mary, she said, “I’m not at all sure you’re being Christian about this.” But he replied that this was business, and the shelter could ruin him.
The city went ahead with plans and even won the lawsuit that Ed’s group filed against them. Months and months went by, and he didn’t make any headway against the idea. His only hope was that his own church had volunteered to run the shelter, so Ed knew that at least it would be done well. And Mary patted his arm. “You know, it’s not too late to change your thinking—reverse the negatives and make them positive.”
And that is what Ed did. He swallowed his pride and went to the man who ran the shelter, offering to help in any way he could. Soon his restaurant was supplying the shelter with day-old but good food, and his business friends got in on the project too.[i]
Ed could have nursed his wounds and remained bitter towards the city and the shelter. But he chose to listen to the wisdom his wife gently spoke to him, and his whole outlook changed.
Unfortunately Herod was not so brave, or compassionate. He was too accustomed to following his self-interest. It didn’t matter if it meant killing someone he knew did not deserve it.
Maybe Mark wanted us to learn about Herod so we could see what happens when we let our sinful natures rule our decisions. When we let our old ideas and our families and our friends make our choices for us, instead of doing what is right.
God is not interested in what our friends think or what our family has always done or what we have said in public. God invites us to conduct our lives on the basis of love and trust. We can believe that what Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:17 is real: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
We don’t have to stick with old ideas or attitudes that have run their course. We are free to follow Jesus. Thanks be to God.
[i] Guideposts, April 1990, pp. 2-5.
Walking Through Weakness
2 Cor 12.2-10…Proper 9B
I love philosophy.
Well now, that statement just about guarantees that half of you are ready to hit the mute button on this message. But wait. It will only last for a minute or so. Don’t give up on me before we have begun.
The passage we read from 2 Corinthians this morning contains a philosophical concept called a paradox. A paradox is when two seemingly contradictory concepts are held to be true at the same time. I tried to find examples to explain it, but they made my head hurt. Instead we’ll stick with the Scriptures, where we find several paradoxes: the kingdom of God that spans the entire universe is like a tiny seed…the first shall be last in the kingdom of God, and vice versa…a seed must fall into the ground and die before it bursts forth into life and productivity.
The paradox of today’s reading is in verse ten: “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
How can that be true?
The writer is sharing wisdom he learned over a number of years, so we have to give him the benefit of the doubt. If anyone can speak of both weakness and strength, it is Paul the apostle. After he was stunned by a vision of Jesus his enemy on the road to Damascus, Paul became one of Jesus’ followers himself. For fourteen years after that, he had to relearn everything about God and religion. His life—his entire way of seeing the world—had to be transformed. No wonder it took more than a decade.
Paul had to let go of what made him feel powerful and righteous. He had to face his own weaknesses, including the weakness of his faith and his ordinary sinful compulsions.
Eventually he became the apostle whose influence we still appreciate almost two thousand years later. Instead of persecuting and killing the followers of the Way Jesus taught, Paul went to great lengths to take the teachings of Jesus far and wide, and was himself persecuted severely. He describes it in the chapter previous to the one we read today:
“Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he for ever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas set a guard on the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.” (2 Cor 11.21-33)
Paul was passionate about spreading the gospel, but in the process, he always had to watch his back. He was considered subversive at best, a lunatic at worst. He was imprisoned and tortured. He started churches, trained leaders, and wrote follow-up letters to them. He did not do it from a lofty position as one might expect. No. He did all of it in spite of opposition, physical problems, discouragement, and no financial backing.
What Paul discovered through his experience was that his strength was evident not in spite of the obstacles, but in the midst of them.
This spiritual giant could have described in detail his ecstatic religious experiences to dazzle his readers. But it would do them no good. Not only were such experiences rare, they were also not the point of following Jesus.
Paul knew that it was far more important to talk with new Christians about their discouragement, because it was sure to happen. He wanted them to discover the paradox of faith that strength is not only about lack of weakness or trouble. True strength that comes from trusting God goes much deeper. This is power that comes from God as a gift, through the act of trusting with your teeth clenched and your heart in your throat.
Paul learned what you might also have learned in times of grief or fear or seemingly insurmountable obstacles: that there are things God can show you only in the midst of such times.
It is usually difficult to describe such a deeply personal discovery. God comes to you in a way that only you can sense, but you find that your faith is more deeply grounded in the peace that results from that experience. It is mysterious and profound. Good luck trying to tell someone about it.
Joan Chittister likens this revelation to enduring the winter season: “Its lesson is clear: there is only one way out of struggle and that is by going into its darkness waiting for light and being open to new growth.” This author went through a very dark time when the professional advancement she had worked toward and fully expected to happen was denied her. Eventually, by treading steadily through that dark time, she was able to write, “When life changes under our feet, despite our resistance, without our permission, it is an invitation to growth.”
We don’t like to be weak or out of control, at the mercy of disease or loss or a harsh spouse. We can’t stand being isolated or hopeless. But it is only in facing weakness that we learn to hope, learn to trust, find out the true source of power and life.
On one of my trips to Mali for The Luke Society, I stayed with a new friend for a few days after my companions returned to the U.S. I planned to meet a friend in Senegal for a visit with our congregation’s missionaries there. A series of circumstances led to missing my flight to Dakar. I was panicked. I had no way of communicating with my friend, an inexperienced traveler who expected me to get off the flight I had just missed.
I found talking to personnel who rigged up a way to board the next flight if I paid them in cash. It seemed underhanded, though I couldn’t be sure. I was angry and embarrassed, but I was at their mercy. When I finally made my way to my gate, I was confronted by an armed guard who seemed to relish his power over me, grilling me about my reason for being in his country.
Relieved but still angry, I finally settled into a seat on a plane going in the right direction. As my breathing slowed down, I suddenly experienced a peace that could only come from God. I realized that I had just had one of the most striking experiences of helplessness of my life. Yet I knew at the same moment that God was with me.
After that, the Psalms about God lifting up the fallen became more real to me. The Beatitudes of Jesus that promised blessing to the poor and the meek made more sense. For one brief moment I went through what countless people in this world live with every day: inability to control their circumstances. It was eye-opening and sobering.
Because of that experience, I could understand Joan Chittister’s writings, that if you let God transform you through struggle, you become more compassionate. While you are unable to control some things in your life, they can leave you with the desire to do what you can for those who need hope.
We shouldn’t be surprised that mature faith is attained in this way, when Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, to take up our crosses as he himself did.
I’ll close with a few steps you can take in your sojourn with weakness. They are neither a formula for avoiding pain nor a shortcut to deep faith. They are simply a few ideas we can glean from the letters of Paul.
So how do we experience strength in weakness?
The first step is to acknowledge your weakness. Paul admitted that pride was his nemesis. Otherwise you will want to fool yourself into thinking that you do not need God’s help.
Second, be willing to admit it within your trusted faith community. We are told to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6.2) and to confess our sins to one another (Jas 5.16). We need encouragement and mutual love in the difficulties of this life.
If the first two steps sound hard, the third is most excruciating. Yet it yields the greatest truth, the deepest trust. Embrace your weakness or difficulty. You don’t have to like it, but you can accept that this is reality. Then you have made it most of the way, and you can reach the final step.
The last step is to turn your weakness over to God, and let God redeem it. Paul wrote about what happens at this point, in Romans 8:26-28—”Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
If that seems like too tidy an answer for your hardship and pain, then think instead of Jesus, who offered up his weakness in Gethsemane before he was crucified. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” he said to his drowsy disciples. But maybe he was saying it for himself too, because if ever he felt weak it was then.
Jesus sent his friends out as beggars long before that, as we read in Mark’s gospel today. Don’t be afraid of weakness, or even rejection, he told them. Just hold each other up, and you can do it.
The rabbi had to follow his own coaching when he got to Gethsemane. But he faced it. He walked through his terror and gave it to God. Look what God did with it.
Jesus knew it, and Paul wrote it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Thanks be to God.
 Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 2003. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), p. 40.
 Ibid., p. 22.
Your Faith Has Made You Well
Mark 5:21-43…Proper 8B
“Faith” is a word that peppers our conversations about God. It is a standard for our identity, sola fide–faith, and not works, as the vehicle for God’s grace at work in us. We seem to equate it with belief in the right things, as our weekly recitation of the Apostles Creed implies.
Yet faith is about much more than having your doctrinal ducks in a row. It is about trust, if the Scripture’s emphasis on relationship is any indication. Trusting God, specifically. And when it comes to that, our physical health is one of our primary concerns we hope to entrust to God. When we ask for prayer requests, the list is invariably comprised of 90% prayers for healing from sickness, injury, and the challenges of aging.
Illness is the great equalizer. The gospel story today is a good reminder of that. A synagogue ruler and an “unclean” woman are both desperate for healing. Rich or poor, athletes or couch potatoes, young or old…our bodies fall prey to viruses and cancers that often make no sense to us. My mother has emphysema, but she has never smoked a cigarette or worked in a coal mine.
I’ve spent a lot of time in hospital rooms, sobered by the diagnoses some of you have had to deal with. Yet as I walk to my car, I’m often struck by the fact that I can’t assume anything about my own health either. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, delight or disaster.
Disaster is a good word for Jairus’s situation. His daughter was deathly ill, and he was desperate, willing to do anything to keep her alive. As soon as he caught sight of Jesus, he hurried to him and threw himself face down at his feet. He begged Jesus to lay his hands on her to heal her. And Jesus obliged, changing whatever plans he had in order to go to Jairus’s house.
By this time crowds of people were tagging along with Jesus, so it was a little slow going. Lots of folks were jostling to get close to him. Yet somehow Jesus noticed when one particular woman tugged his clothing. He felt something happen in his spirit, or in his body: something had shifted. So he stopped and looked around. Maybe that extra tug was the clue of what had happened.
Once again someone landed at his feet, only this time it was a woman who apologized for calling so much attention to herself. Apparently she had thought she could sneak just a little bit of healing from Jesus without being noticed. But Jesus did notice, and he called her out into the open so that she had to explain herself. He didn’t scold her though. He complimented her for her faith, said it was actually instrumental in her own healing.
Meanwhile, the delay kept Jairus anxious, with good reason. Minutes mattered in his daughter’s case, and by the time Jesus had dealt with the woman along the way, the girl had died. Never mind, Jesus told him, the story isn’t over yet. And Jesus continued on what looked like a pointless mission, only to show Jairus and his relatives that it wasn’t pointless at all. The girl received her life back, a gift from Jesus.
We read these stories and try to figure out what they mean for us. They get our attention, because if there is anything we want from God, it is a miracle. Even if we don’t need one right now, we know someone who does. Is there some formula we can take from these stories, some combination of faith and prayer and more faith that will get us healed?
As you most likely know by now, there isn’t a formula. There are no vouchers or even promises of miracles. See, I think the gospel writer wasn’t telling these stories to explain the method for getting your own personalized miracle. Most likely Mark’s purpose was to demonstrate who Jesus is. He is no ordinary man; he is the Son of God. That’s a theme in the book of Mark. He is trying to get people to believe in Jesus, and if he has to describe some of Jesus’s miracles to drive home the point, all the better.
Healing people didn’t seem to be Jesus’s first priority either. He didn’t tell people to copy the woman’s faith, take a number, and he’d try and heal as many as possible. On the contrary. After he raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead, he asked everyone to keep quiet about it. So what did Jesus want people to take away from these miracles? He said a couple of things that might help us understand.
First, he told the woman with the bleeding problem, “your faith has healed you.” In another translation it reads, “your faith has restored you to health,” and another renders it as “your faith has made you well.” A lot of people conclude that Jesus is telling us just to muster up enough faith, and we’ll be healed of our sickness. Which leads us to all kinds of spiritual gymnastics, hoping like everything that we can score high enough to get some kind of medal that we can turn in for a cure. The trouble with that is, how much faith is enough? We all know people with faith that far surpasses ours, yet their cancer stubbornly persists. If faith is a necessary component for healing, why are miracles so rare and random? And why do unbelievers sometimes get healed?
Well, I think I do have an answer for that one. People get healed because it is pure gift, not something we can earn through piety or hard work. Furthermore, we have no idea how many people actually are getting healed, but in ways that we simply cannot observe.
Which leads to something else Jesus said. When time ran out and Jesus didn’t make it to Jairus’s house in time to heal his daughter, Jairus surely must have given up hope. His friends told him he shouldn’t take up any more of Jesus’s time. He precious daughter was dead. No use trying to get her healed. It was time to concentrate on making the arrangements for burial.
But Jesus didn’t seem ready to give up yet. Instead he responded in a very curious way. He said, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” Believe what? What was there to believe at that point? All Jairus could do was follow Jesus and try to figure out what he was talking about. And that is maybe what Jesus wanted him to do, more than anything. Maybe that’s what he expects from us too. Just follow Jesus and find out what he is going to do. Don’t just throw in the towel and quit believing because it looks as though death seems to have had the last word. Follow, and watch. See what God is going to do with this situation. As much as you are able, take your mind off the healing you yearn for, and see what else God might accomplish through it.
We have to face it: God doesn’t seem interested in miraculous cures very often these days, not many that we can document. And we don’t see anyone raised from the dead. But are we paying attention to what God is doing? Is there something else God is up to which can make us well?
Here’s something that might be hard for you to hear, but trust me, it can also free you. Maybe having a body with all its parts working is not God’s highest purpose for us. Is faith itself, trusting God with whatever outcome is ours, is that the essence of our healing?
I think the woman’s faith “made her well” because the act of believing, the recognition of God’s presence with us, makes us whole. We can still be whole while in the midst of the human condition which none of us can escape. We can still be “well” in spite of living with bodies that wear out no matter how much we pray that they won’t.
Broken bodies do not necessarily equal broken people. In fact, it is in the midst of our brokenness that God comes to us and shows us how to be most human. I have noticed that there are plenty of people in wheelchairs and hospitals who are more joyful, aware, and loving—more fully human—than I am, at present the picture of good physical health.
When we realize that God is in control, and we are not, we are most ready to depend on God as we need to do. Our spirits can be restored to wholeness when we admit that we cannot pray or believe or work our way into physical or even spiritual health. When we ask God to forgive us for thinking that we can control our lives, God heals our hearts and lives with us—abides with us—in the midst of the pain. We are most whole when we are reconciled to God. Jesus calls us to turn away from our fears that we will not be well again, and calls us to himself, to watch him and believe that we can entrust our lives to him. It is his marvelous surprise and wonderful gift to us: that healing—real health—is found in trusting him.
Who’s That in Your Boat?
Mark 4:35-41…Proper 7B
I recall a news story about nine people perishing in a boating accident off the coast of Oregon. Some men were going out on a fishing vessel when the waves grew higher and more treacherous. Their boat crested two 15-foot waves, but then they were hit broadside by a 25-foot swell.
The ocean can be a dangerous place, and it can happen without warning. The sea of Galilee has mountains on one side of it, so that the winds can change suddenly and sweep down onto the water, creating treacherous conditions. Jesus and his disciples were caught in a sudden storm on the sea of Galilee, and even the experienced fishermen were terrified.
The disciples couldn’t understand how Jesus could sleep through such conditions. In their terror, they woke him up and asked him a strange question: “Don’t you even care if we drown?”
What happens next is curious to me. First, Jesus got up and solved the problem. He rebuked the wind and commanded the water to be still, like an impatient parent correcting a rebellious child. And the wind and water meekly obeyed. But then he also rebuked the disciples: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Now does that seem fair to you? The disciples went to Jesus for help, and then he scolded them for doing it. Didn’t they demonstrate faith when they woke Jesus up in the first place? Shouldn’t we ask God for help when we are in trouble?
A friend told me that she was in a similar situation when she was a young girl. She discovered a fire in the barn and ran to tell her father about it. His response was, “You’d better not be kidding, young lady.” She was so frightened of her father then, that her prayer was, “Please, God, let the barn be on fire!” It doesn’t seem right to get chewed out for getting help when you need it.
Maybe we need to look at the situation a bit more closely. The disciples didn’t actually ask for help. They asked Jesus whether or not he cared about them. They jumped to a conclusion, thinking that Jesus’ ability to sleep through a storm meant that he didn’t care about them.
Now that was something to get angry about. Jesus’ friends had some nerve asking Jesus if he cared about them.
We would never do that, right?
What happens when a storm stirs up in your life? From time to time the unthinkable, the events we dread or fear most, actually happen to us. Someone close to us dies. We get a diagnosis we prayed we would not get. Our children make messes of their lives. Your spouse asks for a divorce. It is terrifying, and we don’t know where to turn.
We know that God is here with us, in our boat. But are we inclined to ask whether or not God cares? Without thinking, we might interpret the presence of the storm and God’s silence as God’s indifference. That must be hurtful to God.
That is where we find ourselves in this story. Jesus was disappointed that his friends thought he didn’t care. He must be equally disappointed when we draw the same conclusion.
Faith is not just believing that God is able to do great things. Faith is a trusting relationship. It believes that God’s presence is just as vital—in fact, even more vital—than the answers to prayer we desire.
We call relationships shallow if they are only about what you can get out of them. How easy it is for us to see God that way—for what God can do for us when we need help, but not all that operative when we think we can handle things on our own.
Jesus got in that boat with his friends so they could go across to the Gerasenes, a place most rabbis would not visit. If you look at what happened there, you’ll know that compassion is Jesus’ motive for their journey. There Jesus heals a madman that most people would never approach, freeing him from his bondage to demon possession, his isolation from society. Jesus sees beyond wild behavior, and he sees beyond stormy conditions too. He sees us, in our need.
When we cry out in desperation, God hears us. So often we are like children, accusing God of not caring, or muttering distrust in our discouragement. Nevertheless God hears and responds. God is with us as surely as Jesus was with his friends in the boat.
Paul knew all about personal storms, fearsome circumstances, feeling terrified. Yet he wrote about a “peace that passes all understanding” that comes from trusting Jesus. (Phil 4.7) He was delivered from danger sometimes, but not all the time. Eventually he was martyred for his devotion to Jesus. But by practicing a fierce trust in his Lord, he was able to face terrifying situations with an inner calm that Jesus provides. Does Jesus care? Paul would scoff at the question. Of course he cares.
David was a young man who had learned to trust God. He was willing to fight the giant Goliath with the full confidence that God would carry out the divine plan. (1 Sam 17.41-47) David was in a unique situation where Israel needed to see the power and love of God in action. They needed to know that God could—and would—conquer the fiercest foe on their behalf.
God will do that for you too. What is the storm in your life? What do you fear the most? Sometimes I think fear itself is the worst enemy, that whatever you face will not be any worse than the worry and fear you experience before it ever happens. Instead of wasting our time being afraid and panicking, we need to use our energy to trust the God who has the power to help us, and has the love to put that power to work for us. The God who is with us in every storm, both able and eager to calm our spirits in the midst of them.
There is an interesting irony at the end of this episode on the water. After Jesus calmed the storm, they were still afraid! The disciples weren’t scared of the storm any more. They were afraid of Jesus. They marveled at their teacher who could command the natural elements and get instant results.
God is so powerful that trembling is an appropriate response. Yet Jesus embodied God’s love in countless ways, showing us that God’s deepest desire is not a perfect world filled with cowering subjects, but a world where we know we are loved. Where we know that the one who created us has not abandoned us, hasn’t left us on our own to work our way out of the messes we get into. For some reason, God has chosen to experience life with us, right here in our pitching boats and our frailty. God gave us Jesus so we will be certain, without question, that God is with us through everything, because we are loved deeply and eternally. Thanks be to God.
Mark 4:26-32….Proper 6B
In the beginning, God planted a seed. A tiny, blue-green planet in a vast universe held the promise of human community, diverse and energetic, eager to share and nurture the gifts of their planet into flourishing. As God crafted each complex system and tiny part, the kingdom dream unfolded. As each newborn infant opened its eyes to its mother, the imprinting of the kingdom pattern was etched ever deeper into the human consciousness: you were made to be loved and to love. The kingdom seeds were planted.
In a place called Ur of the Chaldeans, in what we now call Iraq, God planted a seed. On a quiet evening after his wife had gone to bed, Abram heard a voice at once strange yet oddly familiar. The LORD said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12.1-3)
Abram followed the sound of that voice, carried the seed of the kingdom dream with him to Canaan and Shechem and Bethel. On the day of his son’s birth, he recalled hearing the voice for the first time, filled with dread at first, and then the release and the peace that followed. He had had to re-live those feelings many times before his promised son was born. He laughed with joy along with his wife Sarah, marveling at a God who could produce a squirming, squalling baby in their barren lives. Their love had gradually cooled from decades of hard living, but it was aflame once again, reflected in the eyes of their tiny son.
The seed was resilient, producing many descendants within a few generations. The family of Abraham numbered in the hundreds, then the thousands, as each seed produced one and two and ten more, and they in turn bore the fruit of their ancestor’s DNA. From time to time the offspring of Abraham looked back at his first step of obedience toward Canaan, and called that seed faith.
In a small village called Bethlehem, God planted another seed. A young woman of innocent mind and open heart was chosen to bear the seed and bring its fruit to the world. Nine months later God’s own Son was ushered into a harsh world, where the dream-message slowly took root. It took no less than thirty years to germinate, but then it burst into bloom. Jesus walked through the fields of Galilee and the streets of Jericho and Capernaum, Johnny Appleseed of the kingdom dream. He spoke of the God of the kingdom, the One who calls every human beloved and delights in watching us relish the gifts and the growth together.
Another seed was planted on a dark day of his thirty-third year. Its shape was cruciform, ominous. Driven into the ground with the weight of human suffering, of dead dreams. But like every other kingdom seed, the seed itself did not die. Instead, it emerged from the dry, rocky ground stronger than ever before. It found fertile soil in the apostles, who recognized its value at long last, and spread the treasure beyond the reaches of Jesus’ own ministry.
As the apostles spread the seed of God’s kingdom dream, they met many who called it counterfeit. They claimed that the true seed of Abraham could only be reproduced through following an ancient code, only through specific rituals that were not to be changed. They misunderstood the substance of the very first seed, God’s own image implanted in the first humans. God’s kingdom dream flourished through the years only when the humans reflected God’s own image, the seed of love that held the key to life.
It continues to flourish, and the seeds are everywhere. I noticed two of them last week. The first was described in an email, the monthly report from our Luke Society partner in Mali, Indielou Dougnon. I’ll read you the translation of his report.
“The village of Aourou is one of the biggest villages of our area of intervention. In 2011 I went to see the village chief for a crusade; the village head told me not to come to his village because they are not Christian and they are not ready to receive us. This chief died in 2014 and [subsequently] they appointed another village leader. On Friday, May 15, 2015 I went to see the new village chief and I explained to him the coming of Young Christians of May 22 to 23 to share the gospel in his village and we will stay two nights and two days. Glory to God; the village chief told me, ‘Indielou; you are welcome to my village and you are home.’ I thank God for the open door in the village; more than 1,000 people listened to the word of God and follow the Jesus film in their mother tongue, and 12 people agreed to come to be prayed for in cases of diseases; family problems.”
Indielou has been planting seeds of skillful, compassionate health care and God’s love for many years in the Kayes region. People trust him because of his tireless work for their well-being. Now he tells us of people who are expressing interest in the gospel. The seeds are bearing fruit, slowly but surely.
Another seed story. I was chatting with a talented preschool teacher about her passion for the education and welfare of young children. Like every other teacher, Nan’s heart is touched by those who are at a disadvantage, whether it is because of poverty or disabilities or abuse. She described one child whose parents’ treatment of him doesn’t rise to the level of criminal abuse, but is leaving its mark nevertheless. He seems frustrated and lashes out at the other children verbally. She wonders what will happen to him if this behavior continues.
But Nan has been planting seeds of love for this child. She has been creating a memory of kindness in him that he may one day yearn to experience again. She is a seed of hope for him. Her prayers may be the only ones uttered on his behalf. He is not a lost cause, because he is God’s beloved, and God sent her to him to be a seed of love.
The kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about is God’s dream for all of us, the flowering of God’s love planted among us through Jesus Christ. It is humanity in community, sharing God’s gifts equally with all, lifting up those among us who have fallen. It is not an impossible dream, not in God’s economy. Not impossible if the seeds God has planted are spread abroad, embedded in receptive soil and given the time and care they need to bear fruit for God.
When I think of the children we sponsor in India and in Honduras, and of the children in my friend Bibi’s orphanage, I wonder how the seeds planted in them will bear fruit. The teachers and caretakers of the children in countless orphanages and schools are raising up the mothers and fathers, bankers and presidents, farmers and technology workers of tomorrow. They are planting seeds of Bible stories and practices of faith so that the kingdom seeds will continue bearing fruit into God’s future.
The seeds of the kingdom dream were planted among the people of this congregation long ago. God keeps it alive in each generation. Today we are seeing results of previously planted seeds in the faith of young people, those confirmed last week and the children to be baptized next Sunday. This is no small thing. Consider it! About six years ago we decided to try a seed of an idea, a Wednesday afternoon program. It’s not perfect. We keep trying to be faithful in teaching the children on Sunday mornings, and I pray that those seeds will bear fruit. But it doesn’t negate the chatter and singing of young children in these walls every Wednesday from fall to spring. It is no less than a testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit who planted a seed of an idea, and keeps planting seeds of the gospel in each child. Children tell us of their prayers at home, their observations of God at work around them. Faith is growing here!
There is one more seed to talk about. That seed is you. God has planted you in your home, at your table, at your desk, in your office. You are the perfect seed for your environment. You do not have to produce bushels of fruit to be a productive seed. You are simply called to be yourself, God’s beloved, ready to speak of God’s faithfulness, to encourage, to pray for the people in your life. You are a seed even when you do your work with joy, as unto the Lord, because it is a gift to God from a faithful steward.
The seeds God plants are countless and multiform. If you practice looking for them, you can see them all around you. Seeds of hope, seeds of joy, seeds of friendship and of peace. People who reflect God’s image. You! In the mirror, a seed of God’s love and hope. You and your life, your faith, are not too small to be God’s seed that will grow into something good. Be the seed ready to have an impact, small as it may be. God’s kingdom dream will grow, in you and through you. Thanks be to God.
 Johnny Appleseed was the folk name for John Chapman, who became famous for planting nurseries of apple trees in the states west of the first colonies of the United States in the early nineteenth century. He was also known for his kindness and generosity.
The following sermon is by a guest preacher, my own brother, Rev. Dr. Allan Janssen. It is written for the ordination of leaders (elders and deacons in this case), and could well be used for an installation of other leaders also.
TREASURE IN CLAY POTS
2 Corinthians 4:7…Proper 9B
“We have this treasure in clay pots.”
We, the church, you and I, have been made trustees of a treasure, of something of greater wealth than can be imagined. God selected us, elected us, as those trustees. We are here, we exist, as the church on this rise in this village, we exist to share this treasure with our neighbors, with our world.
What is this treasure? [I ask my students: what is it that we’re to tell the world that it can’t live without. Why would we commit our lives, not just as preachers, but as Christians to this weird and difficult institution the church?] It is a tale – well more than just a story – but it begins there. It is the tale of a man in whose presence, and in whose very being, we see that at the heart of everything beats a love that cherishes everything from the pebbles on the beach to the most intimate thoughts of our heart. It is the story that at the heart of it all is a God who loves, who loves you when you aren’t so lovable yourself. At the heart of it all is a God who will risk everything for the sake of God’s children, and God’s children include those we consider the refuse of the earth – and that might include ourselves. And more. We look around at a world that to all appearances looks like it is ready to do itself in in war, in lies, in the abuse of power. We see a world where death appears to have the last word. But the tale told about this man – about Jesus – is that he, as God’s only-begotten, as God’s beloved, took on death and defeated all the dark powers that intend to destroy not only God’s beautiful creation, but God’s tender creatures as well.
I said this treasure is a tale told, but more. Because – get this – it is not just a story of things long past. We are stunned, even we Christians are stunned, that this God is present, with us, in our midst. In the midst of the mess that describes our life. God’s Spirit blows through us and among us, and so Jesus is present with us, even today. God speaks to us; we come to church to hear God speak. Christ is present when we break the bread of the supper and pour the wine for our meal.
That’s the treasure. But the treasure comes in clay pots. It comes wrapped up in church! Let’s admit it. The church is a mess. We don’t do very well. Even when it looks like we’re doing well, we aren’t. For then our inclination is to take credit. See what good boys and girls we are! And the message we give to the world is that if you work hard enough, if you’re smart enough, if you’re religious enough, then God will reward you. And then we’re no longer church. We’ve turned the treasure into just another bit of the ordinary human struggle, a message you can buy in any bookstore or find online.
I probably don’t have to convince you that we don’t do well as church. After all, we’re made up of ordinary folk. It isn’t just that we’re limited, that we’re human and after all “to err is human.” That’s true enough. But it’s deeper. We are sinners. The church is a collection of sinners.
Now hear what I’m saying correctly. I’m not saying that the church is filled with moral degenerates! I’ve been a pastor far too long to know better than that. The mistake we make, the theological mistake, is to equate sin with immorality. There’s a connection, but this is not a theological lecture where I’d outline the differences on the board. It’s enough to say this: to sin is to claim that we can make it on our own. To sin is to turn away from the love of God who sustains us and guides us and welcomes us.
It isn’t as though when we become members of the church, we sprinkle a bit of Holy Spirit dust on us and we become completely loving, selfless people who hold nothing back as we love God and our neighbor. We do pray the Spirit on us. And the Spirit comes. But the Spirit wrestles with our constant need for self-affirmation, with our need to protect ourselves, our need to be right. In old theological language it was our insistence on justifying ourselves. And we did that by doing the right thing. Which is what we find ourselves doing in the church – and have done since day one. We are clay pots.
Now today you set aside persons as elders and deacons. These are part of the ordained ministry of the church (they stand on equal footing with ministers of the Word – or with professors of theology for that matter). Again, I had been a pastor long enough to know that many – maybe almost all – who were tapped for these offices would protest: “That’s not me. I’m not a spiritual leader.” I never argued with those who entered this protest. I would point out that it is others who see the candidate for office as a person of spiritual integrity or who is gifted in a certain way. But sure. Of course. God’s treasure comes in clay pots. That includes those whom we set aside as leaders of our church, nay, God’s church.
And that, dear friends, is part and parcel of the gospel of which we are trustees! Listen to how Paul continues: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from ourselves.” If God uses people like ourselves, folk who aren’t chosen because we have attained the pinnacle of human virtue and success—nay, if God can choose even those of us who turn away from God, who are right when we say we aren’t worthy, then God can work with anyone. It is our very fragility, our very brokenness, that is transparent to God’s power. And it is as evident as this congregation in this place.
We live at a frightening time in our world. Nuclear bullies threaten the future of the planet. Our climate is changing, threatening God’s beautiful creation. Our politics have degenerated into name-calling, placing even our beloved democracy at risk. And we wonder – where is it all going? What about God? Is God still in charge? Does God care?
Well, fellow believers, you and I aren’t calling the shots in the great struggles of our time, although we all have our little role to play. That’s not what I’m about as a Christian preacher. What I can point to is that God still takes such broken persons as ourselves and shows God’s great power through our weakness – the very weakness of the church. God had done that lo, these many generations, these many centuries. And today, right here in this sanctuary, God continues with clay pots like ourselves. Treasure indeed, all the more so that it shines with such a people as ourselves.
The Trinity Not Explained
John 3:1-17…Holy Trinity B
The Bible as we know it today did not come to us fully formed. It is a collection of writings, penned over many centuries by people puzzling over the ways God interacted with humankind. Our doctrines didn’t come in a package either. The leaders of the early church pored over the writings to unravel the mysteries of God. Their efforts and those of scholars over the centuries resulted in our creeds, but even the creeds themselves only name a set of mysteries we understand just enough to trust God with all the rest.
Augustine of Hippo was one of the great church fathers who collectively developed the doctrines of Western Christianity in the first several centuries of the church. One day he was trying to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity, but he got so tangled up in the ideas that he had to walk away from it. He went for a stroll on the beach. He saw a young boy running from a hole he had dug in the sand to the water, back and forth, scooping up water and pouring it into the hole. When asked what he was doing, he said, “I’m pouring the ocean into this hole.” Augustine realized that his own efforts at understanding the Trinity were just as futile as the boy’s project.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday in the church year based on a doctrine instead of a story. Can I pour the ocean into a sandy depression today? It might be easier than explaining the mystery of the Trinity.
Fortunately we are furnished with a story, one of our favorites in fact, because it contains a gem of a verse that we think we can understand: John 3:16. Let’s back up and see what this has to do with the Trinity, if at all.
A Pharisee named Nicodemus couldn’t resist any longer. He had to find out what made Jesus tick, so he set up a meeting with Jesus after hours. He said, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” It doesn’t have a question mark at the end, but it was clear enough. Are you someone who has come from God?
And Jesus began to speak in images instead of giving Nicodemus a straight answer. Typical Jesus. “Well,” he says, “the way to see God’s dream for the world is to be born from above by the Spirit.” Nicodemus: “Okaaay. How does that work, exactly?” “The way to take part in that dream is to be born of water and the Spirit.[i] See, flesh begets flesh, and Spirit begets spirit. It’s like the wind: you can’t see it, but you know it’s there because it blows things around, and you can’t predict what it is going to do next.”
“Right, then,” Nicodemus said slowly as he squinted in bewilderment. “How do you suggest I get started?”
Poor guy. Who can blame him for trying to figure Jesus out? Nicodemus couldn’t stop puzzling over Jesus. He pops up two more times in John’s gospel, arguing for fair treatment of Jesus at one point (John 7:50-52) and finally making sure his body was buried with reverence after he was crucified (John 19:38-42).
Nicodemus wants to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, in contrast with many of the other Pharisees. And Jesus rewarded him with the closest thing to an explanation of God the Bible ever accomplishes. He talks of transformation (new birth), the mystery of God’s activity (the Spirit-wind), and the assurance that he alone has the authority to utter anything about God with absolute clarity and confidence. He virtually releases Nicodemus from the need to understand it all.
Thank God—literally—that Jesus gave Nicodemus the bottom line in verses 16-17: for God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts him will not succumb to permanent death; instead they will have eternal life. To be very clear, God is not in the business of condemning people (as your lot, Nicodemus, is so eager to do). God’s dream is to save everybody through me (Jesus).
We use this story today, and the other three passages we read, because it mentions all three members of the Trinity. The word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible. The wise leaders of the church of Jesus Christ spent a lot of time poring over the Scriptures and came to the conclusion that this is a very important aspect of God’s nature, mysterious as it is. Can you imagine their debates while they were working it out? Three, but one. One, but three.
The numbers don’t add up properly, which is a pattern in the Scriptures too. Jesus refuses to comply with mathematics nor even common sense, and it’s a good thing. Your sins and the suffering they cause have piled up, impossibly high. One divine action can do away with them all, for good. That’s called grace.
We like the mathematics of grace. If you don’t believe me, think of all the times you have considered your sin—or someone else’s—too great for God to forgive, and yet forgiveness is freely given. Or the moments (maybe right now) when you can’t see how God is going to provide what is needed for you, or for our ministry, or for the people in our community who need our help. Yet in trusting God, we discover that the divine pockets are deep, with an endless supply of goods, and grace, and love.
In the Scriptures, God does not give us explanations. God gives us stories, and songs. Instead of the information that we crave, God issues an invitation.
There was a playwright whose name I don’t remember who said that too much explanation separates us from wonder. Isn’t wonder the proper response to John 3:16? And so Jesus is more playwright than theologian. When people asked Jesus what the kingdom of God is like, he said things like, “Well, it’s kind of like a man who hits something hard with his hoe and discovers a buried treasure.” Or this one: “It’s like your neighbor lady who lost a penny, and everybody thought she was crazy because she turned the house upside down to find it, and then she threw a party to celebrate that cost a whole lot more than a penny.” It defies logic.
We cannot understand the threefold oneness that is God’s divinity. Instead, God invites us into the divine triad and overpowers us with the love that flows within the huge triadic heart of Three-in-One.
Poets don’t explain things either. They try to give you an experience. And so David wrote about his experience of the Three-in-One, overcome by the display of God’s power in nature: “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.” (Psalm 29:3-4) David compared God’s lovingkindness to a shepherd’s care in the 23rd Psalm. David’s beautiful efforts to describe God are poetry and song, not a creed.
Paul’s experience of God is about relationship. If Psalm 29 is about God’s majesty, Romans 8 tells us God wants us to come as close as a little child to his father. Paul says we can call God “Abba”—or Papa—because the Holy Spirit makes us sure that Jesus wants to treat us like brothers and sisters. Wow. It reminds me of the recent royal wedding, where little George and Charlotte don’t seem to know what a big deal their parents are. Prince William and Kate are just Dad and Mom.
God our Father, is one with the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three cannot possibly be separated, and yet they show up from time to time as only one of the three. Hmm. We could throw up our hands and walk away from such nonsense, if the love of the Three-in-One didn’t draw us in every time.
In these days of terrible disasters like volcanoes and floods, in uncertain times as we contend with partisan politics and a depressed farm economy, we need to know there is a God we can trust to get us through. We need a God who is far beyond our understanding, because our problems are too hard for us to solve. We need a God who uses divine power for our sake, a God who loved us so much that the Son was not too much to give. The Trinity is a mystery, and that is as it should be.
In the tradition of David the poet, I’ll finish with a poem about the Trinity, a sonnet from Malcolm Guite. It may seem like just more seawater in a sandy hole, but maybe not. Try listening with your heart this time, instead of your mind:
In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In his own image, his imagination,
The triune Poet makes us for his glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us, and within.[ii]
[i] Taken from the liturgy in Feasting on the Word Worship Companion, Year B Vol. 2. (Westminster/John Knox Press)
[ii] Malcolm Guite, “Trinity Sunday” in Sounding the Seasons, 2012 (London: Canterbury Press Norwich), p. 48.
The Spirit and the Dream
Acts 2:1-21…Pentecost B
Imagine the scene: you are gathered with your classmates this afternoon, all in gowns and mortarboards, family cheering sections snapping cell phone souvenirs of your special moment. Suddenly, a loud noise that sounds like a cross between a freight train and an airplane fills the room. Mortarboards are blown into the air, and flames come to rest on people’s heads, without actually burning anybody. As everyone tries to figure out what is happening, some of you start asking questions, but the words you form come out of your mouths in a language you don’t understand.
OK, the scene in Jerusalem at Pentecost was a little different. But they might have been taken off guard as much as you would be in an auditorium today. Jesus’ friends knew they were supposed to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem, but they would have had no idea what it would be like.
Jesus had promised them the Spirit, and here it was. Or he. Or she…it’s hard to know how to talk about the ‘third member of the Trinity.’ I’m going to settle on the Spirit being “him” today and move on.
So. Peter said this was also what the prophet Joel was talking about: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
I wonder what those dreams and visions were about, and what the prophecies were. For some reason Peter connected that strange experience of the Holy Spirit with those dreams and prophecies. Was he talking about God’s dreams?
If the Holy Spirit was sent to carry out God’s dreams that young and old would envision, we have some idea what that was about. The Holy Spirit got them going all right, and it was no picnic. The apostles faced fierce opposition and imprisonment because they could not help but share Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness, healing the sick along the way. The Spirit was pushy too, sending Philip to foreigner and a sexual deviant—an Ethiopian eunuch, and Peter to a Gentile enemy—an Italian commander. It seems that God’s dream had something to do with God’s love for all people, way beyond the bounds of Jerusalem and their mother religion of Judaism.
God’s dream was big.
Recently I read a blog meant to inspire us to join in the dream of reaching the world with God’s love. It was a great story of one family’s work of establishing maternity homes in Kenya. They have made a huge difference to many young women and their children. Except there was one statement in it that I want to point out for our graduates, and for the rest of us too: “we can let the world change us, or we can change the world.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
But it reflects a contemporary phenomenon that promotes confusion and can even drive a wedge between people. It is a creature called a false dichotomy. You know, when someone says, “There are two kinds of people in this world…”
Actually, there are many kinds of people in the world. But let’s go with this dichotomy for just a moment and see where it leads us.
“Don’t let the world change you.” There are those who follow God and make it their aim to remain pure and unstained by sin. Sounds good, doesn’t it? We pray “lead us not into temptation.” But then your life’s aim is about purity and protection, and the overriding mood becomes fear. Keep things good. Don’t be naughty! Make sure you have your doctrines straight. You don’t have to stay in your safe stronghold; you should go out and feed the hungry, preach the gospel, heal the sick. But don’t let the ideas of other religions or world views influence you.
“Change the world!” That sounds so noble. But whose idea of the world are we aiming at?
Well, God’s of course. But what is that idea? In story after story of the Scriptures—God revealing the divine dream—compassion and mercy are offered as the highest goals. The way to operate is out of abundance and kinship, not fear or protection. Jesus embodied it best, of course. He kept noticing people who needed his help, and he gave it. He disregarded the restrictive religious laws about keeping yourself pure. Instead he touched lepers and talked with fallen women and protected one of them from being stoned to death.
Jesus didn’t talk about changing the world. He let the world change him. He was moved by the poor beggar’s plight. He got angry at the moneychangers and upended the tools of their commerce. There are outrages in this world that ought to make us angry, should affect us deeply. Allan Dwight Callahan says, “Faced with an outrage, anger is the price we pay for paying attention.”[i]
Father Greg Boyle is a priest who has been working with gang members in Los Angeles for decades, and his memoirs describe young men and women whose lives have been transformed by the generous, life-giving love of Jesus through Father Boyle and Homeboy Industries. He says that God’s dream is the “exquisite mutuality of kinship.” “We are sent to the margins,” Boyle writes, “NOT to make a difference but so that the folks on the margins will make us different.”[ii] (Well, there you have another false dichotomy, but we get the point.)
As God’s people we understand that showing compassion is our mission in life. The trouble is, we have gotten the idea that we have everything everyone else needs, and all we have to do is give it to them. Maybe what God wants is for us to learn from them. Learn what it is to need and hope and despair, simply because you were born in a different place than the U.S. Learn that every human being has something to teach us, wisdom that we lack because we are so distracted by our stuff. Receive the gifts of faith that others have discovered beyond our perspective on the world.
Many other cultures in the world can guide us in improving our hospitality, and teach us about what it is to live in community. We are steeped in Western individualism, and our friends are able to help us balance that with a greater appreciation of seeking the common good. Our delegation to La Trinidad in Chile has shown us how a congregation with a fraction of the resources we have can nevertheless advocate for people on the margins. We have so much more to learn about compassion and servanthood.
Father Boyle tells a story about Pedro Arrupe, a Jesuit superior he much admired. “Pedro Arrupe was visiting Brazil when, by chance, he met a very poor man who invited him to his home in a nearby favela. He had a gift for the padre, he explained. So Arrupe accompanied the man and was led to a shack, where the man lived with his wife and children. It was so rough, small, and spare, it took Arrupe’s breath away. He was moved so deeply, his eyes brimmed with tears. The man led him to a huge opening in the wall. Not a window but just a hole, and he pointed. It was a sunset. The only gift he could give was the view.”[iii] We need the perspective of the poor; this is one of the most consistent teachings of the Scriptures.
There are plenty of platitudes and lofty ideas in the air on commencement weekend. That is not a bad thing; we need to be inspired from time to time. It’s just that the inspiration from the Holy Spirit—inspiration meaning literally breathing in, which is what the Spirit does to you when you stop and let your own spirit open up—what the Holy Spirit inspires is not to look up but to look around you, travel the world, travel your own neighborhood, and let it change you with its truth.
There is no need to worry about the world contaminating your values or beliefs. God is out there, drawing all people into the beloved community, the “exquisite mutuality of kinship” that is God’s big dream for all of us. Catch the dream, and the Spirit will keep you walking in the footsteps of Jesus, the one who let the world change him, and changed the world. Thanks be to God.
[i] “The Virtue of Anger” in Oneing: An Alternative Orthodoxy. Vol. 6, No. 1, p.29. The Center for Action and Contemplation.
[ii] Boyle, Gregory. Barking to the Choir. P. 165
[iii] Ibid., p.154.
Our Rosetta Stone
John 17:6-19; 1 John 5:9-13
Rock-solid. Is that how you might want to describe your faith? When it comes to matters of faith, we prefer certainty over mystery, especially in times of crisis. Most people consider impending death to be such a time.
In my tenure as chaplain at a nursing home, I sat at the bedside of many people as they spent their final hours this side of eternity. It surprised me how often people of faith expressed some uncertainty about whether they would be welcomed into God’s presence after they die. For many, the comment was, “I hope I’ve been good enough.”
My response was usually a reassurance that being good enough has nothing to do with it, and that the grace of God’s forgiveness they received long ago is still effective. They can be sure that God’s love will extend beyond this life and carry them into the next, where they will know the fullness of divine love and life. Then I would read to them from 1 John 5, a text we just read a few minutes ago: “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
Was that enough for them? I suppose it was for some, and wasn’t for others. This morning we aren’t facing such a crisis, so we can discuss with less urgency what it means to have confident faith.
The God revealed in the Old Testament is a powerful, somewhat distant God. Direct interactions with us humans are few and far between. While a burning bush and a pillar of fire are impressive signs from God, like every other experience based on the five senses, their impact fades over time.
Different figures in the stories have varying degrees of closeness to God. Abraham seemed to have an “in” with God, as did David and Daniel. But we need to remember that the time span of these stories is very broad, hundreds of years. And they had virtually no Scriptures to read in the long stretches when no signs were forthcoming from God. Oral tradition was the medium for keeping the faith alive. Stories passed on from generation to generation reminded the people that God cared, and God would punish them for disloyalty.
Still, the relationship with God was sketchy for most people. The stories explained ultimate realities like where the world came from and what mattered. But in their daily existence, there wasn’t the sense that God was involved. One wonders how many people were aware of the invisible world inhabited by a God for whom there is no barrier to this world, but the barrier seems impenetrable from our side.
And God wanted more. The One who created us didn’t settle for communicating through prophets and signs. The grand experiment began when God became a human being himself, Jesus born as a human baby. We forget how radical, how unbelievably generous and even foolhardy this plan appears. Yet it is the only way for us to realize how much God desires our companionship.
H. Richard Niebuhr likens the appearance of Jesus among us to the Rosetta stone. Before it was discovered, Egyptologists were hard pressed to decipher the meaning of hieroglyphics. And then one day someone uncovered a dark stone into which was chiseled the same text in Greek, in Egyptian script, and in hieroglyphics. What a breakthrough! By comparing the different translations, they could finally see into a world they could only guess about before.
We can think of Jesus as our Rosetta stone. What was a puzzling and rather fear-based relationship between humans and God was drastically improved by the birth and life of Jesus, God’s Son. The language of God was communicated to us through the actions of Jesus, and the message that came through loud and clear was “love.” God’s plan is to be intimately connected with us, involved in our lives, accessible to us whenever we need God’s wisdom and power. God’s love for us is personal and unstoppable.
Jesus’ three years of ministry were coming to a close when we get to John 17. It’s as though Jesus is reporting to the Father at the end of the great project. We get to eavesdrop on their conversation, at least Jesus’ side of it. What is surprising is that Jesus had grown so fond of his disciples, in spite of their thick-headed and sometimes downright rebellious behavior. He is extremely generous in his description of their faith: “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” (John 17:7-8)
From the reports we have in the gospels, the disciples didn’t understand fully who Jesus was until after he rose from the dead, and even then some of them doubted (Matt. 28:17). It took them some time to put together all the pieces of the puzzle that was Jesus.
Apparently it was enough to go on, because Jesus left them with only those pieces to decode. Oh, there was the Holy Spirit too. That is the piece we often forget, unfortunately. We’ll talk about that some more next week, on Pentecost.
So, God used the physical world to communicate with humans for centuries at first, and then bridged the still-wide gap by offering Jesus to us in person. This past Thursday was Ascension Day. After Jesus disappeared from our sight, we once again have physical signs to remind us that he is still with us, still working with us for our good and for the healing of the world. Signs like the means of grace, including the fellowship of believers we call the church. These point to the reality of Jesus, present with us in the Holy Spirit.
But it’s hard to believe in someone who is invisible. In the 21st century US, we rely on our vision to ensure us that something is true, and real. We feel uneasy without such proof. As believers, we might sometimes have the air of someone who is walking on thin ice. We step carefully in our faith, not wanting to break through to the frigid waters below. We want solid footing underneath so we can walk with an easier stride, more confident.
The foundation for faith doesn’t gain thickness through belief alone. Abstract concepts aren’t enough to give us comfort, especially in times of crisis. It is the relationship itself, informed by Scriptures and nurtured by the Holy Spirit, that gives us the reassurance we need. Pay attention to the language Jesus used in his prayer of John 17: yours, mine…protect them, make them one…my aim was that “they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
That’s relationship language, not theological claims. But if proofs are what we demand, John addresses those in 1 John 5. He tells us as the church that Jesus himself is God’s testimony. Jesus embodies and imparts eternal life. Jesus is the connection between the visible world and the invisible world. Jesus connects us with the invisible God. He gives us the vital clues about that invisible world of God’s sovereign rule.
Having Jesus as our Rosetta stone doesn’t make believing easy all the time. That’s because belief requires action. To act on our beliefs, we need to live the reality of Jesus’ presence and power.
To follow Jesus Christ as the living one is to be out of place much of the time. You answer to an invisible, mysterious God. There’s no getting around that. You don’t fit in with the values of the world. You are “sanctified in the truth,’ which is Jesus himself. You are “sent” and so in many ways are not at home.
Yet the world is God’s chosen stage on which to express the relationship with us. It is a worthy place to inhabit, having been created with artistry by God and graced with the presence of Jesus Christ. It is solid enough ground for now, furnished with the tools for discipleship and yes, abundant life at the same time. Still, we always have one ear cocked toward God, who is both beyond this world and intimately involved with this world.
We are charged to proceed with the force of God’s love in this world even though we take our marching orders from someplace else. The readings today are examples of it. In Acts 1, the disciples have to find a replacement for Judas, and Matthias makes it an even dozen again. There is business to do in the church, in other words. The book of 1 John hints that there are false teachers around, and that has to be dealt with. Then there is Psalm 1, which reminds us that we have to put in the time it takes to grow our faith and keep it vital.
The distractions of our culture and time are so many that it is a wonder we don’t question our faith more than we do. Wandering off is very, very easy to do. Arguments against the church and faith itself keep appearing in ever more creative guises. All the more reason, then to return to the relationship for reassurance and confidence. Logical propositions won’t reassure us when we approach our death, nor any other time if we’re honest about what we need deep down. We need to know we are loved beyond this world. We are hungry to know the God who made us and calls to us in the depth of our being. At such times, the prescription is simple: “If we doubt God, or find him incomprehensible, unknowable, the very best cure is to gaze steadily at Jesus, the Rosetta stone of faith.”
 Yancey, Philip. 2000. Reaching for the Invisible God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), p. 139.
The Fruit of a Friendship
John 15:9-17…Easter 6B
Friends matter. When my kids were growing up, we paid close attention to the people they were hanging around with. My son got into trouble with his best friend one time. They were maybe six years old. We didn’t appreciate it when they slathered our painted siding with mud, and it wouldn’t wash off. They could behave really well when they were alone, but as a combination they could get into mischief. It seems that we become like our friends.
In his last conversation with them before he died, Jesus made a point of telling his disciples that he didn’t want to call them his servants any more. He preferred to call them his friends. But he seems to alternate between friend language and servant language, so it can be confusing to us. Are we servants, friends, or both? Are disciples the same as friends?
Relationships are complicated. Maybe it was just as puzzling to Jesus as it was to Peter, Nathaniel, James and all the rest of them. When it comes to the many layers and functions of a close relationship, I think a better word than “puzzling” might be “mysterious.”
It is strange how a master/servant relationship can at the same time be a close friendship. We know it happens. The film “Driving Miss Daisy” comes to mind. The black man whom she actually treated with some contempt as her servant became, over the years, the one who understood her and loved her best, so he endured her crotchety comments, even her bigotry. She needed him as much as he needed her. Even when she could no longer pay him what he deserved, he stayed on and helped her because he knew she depended on him. He was her friend.
That interdependence might be part of what Jesus is getting at. He depends on us obeying what he has given us to do. If we don’t, the friendship can’t survive. We depend on Jesus to show us his way, to make his intentions clear so we can align our lives with his life.
In John 15:14 Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Sounds like an odd statement to our ears. If we didn’t know better, we would think that Jesus doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the good feelings of friendship and the barking of orders by a master. So he really must mean something different than our usual definition of friendship.
The Greek word for “command” in this verse has a few nuances to it. Here it may reflect a responsibility Jesus is entrusting to us. Even if we don’t feel the least bit capable of loving God and each other as Jesus charges us to do, he trusts us to do it because we are his friends. We receive Jesus love, and we participate in the love of Jesus with the Father. It is a position of privilege that makes us want to follow Jesus, wherever he leads us.
It seems that the friendship Jesus is describing involves a deep regard, so deep that friends are willing to give their lives for each other. Occasionally we have the opportunity to discover how much we love someone when we are called to lay down our life for them in one way or another. It can mean actually taking a bullet for them, or taking care of them in their illness, or maybe enduring struggle in a friendship that we refuse to abandon. We discover that we have a capacity for love we might not have realized otherwise.
The relationship with Jesus is a friendship that has no hint of being a burden to us. You have friendships that feel burdensome, I’ll bet. Where someone only seems interested in your friendship when they can get something they need from you. It doesn’t feel mutual. It’s not life-giving for you. When you see their number on caller ID, you sigh and wonder what they want now. That kind of relationship puts a tinge of falsehood on what used to be a friendship, maybe.
Friendship with Jesus is another matter altogether. It is not about serving Jesus earnestly, hoping to earn his love. It is not about trying harder and harder. This kind of friendship is “the kind of burden sails are to a ship, wings are to a bird,” to quote Samuel Rutherford. The responsibilities it entails are received with joy because the relationship gives joy.
So often I think we treat our relationship with Jesus as a burden. It is our duty to pray, to read about him, to serve him. We fail to see the friendship as a gift. “We may try to alter our lives by good resolutions and intentions, by imitations and effort, but how fruitless it all is until we open our lives to his friendship and are transformed like a grafted rose, not from without, but from within. It is the precious gift within that makes the difference.” So says Leslie D. Weatherhead in his classic book, The Transforming Friendship.
I have been trying to point out in this Easter season that we are blessed with the presence and power of the living Jesus Christ, not just an idea or a memory of someone who was great once, somewhere else. He is our friend, the source of our life right now. Another idea from Weatherhead helps us realize the difference, I think:
“Quite a number of people…have got the notion that Christianity is a kind of movement; a movement worthy of support and doing a great deal of good work, but still a movement…You find them going about recommending their religion, as a movement, with some degree of misgiving; and they are surprised when people pick up the misgiving and don’t pick up the religion. Some of them are very lovable, very pathetic souls, who don’t realize how utterly they have missed the way, and what an enormous lot they are still missing. They do often wonder why their life seems to be without power, why life seems to lack meaning and beauty, why certain secret sins have such deadly dominion over them, why the way is so steep and tortuous, why others pass them with radiant faces and a song on their lips, while to them life is all so grey and drab. I am afraid in many cases it is because they are supporting a movement, a movement which they can see is doing excellent work. Strictly speaking, they do not know what religion is, because religion means a binding back of the soul to God, a definite personal relationship, a link between a man’s soul and the heart of a great Father.”
Jesus says further that the friendship we have with him—what he also calls our abiding in him—exists for the purpose of bearing fruit. It is meant to be reproduced. That’s the purpose of fruit isn’t it? Not just to taste good but to be the vessel for seed that grows new vines or trees. That fruit-bearing is all bound up with obedience, with love, with time spent together. It is knowing one another and loving each other—I’m talking about our love for each other now, as well as Jesus’ love for and among us—that is such a delight that we cannot help but share it with other people.
See, life in Jesus is not a movement we’re somehow hired to promote as an ad agency might be hired to promote a product. It is a movement, but one to which we are compelled by an irrepressible force. It is the unstoppable love of Jesus that the writer in 1 John 5 says conquers the world!
So when we hear Jesus’ command in Matthew 28, what we often call the “Great Commission,” it is instead the Great Compulsion to give to a hurting world what Jesus has already given us. The Son of God himself loves us! He is for us! Good news, people: this love is more real and healing than any other love you have ever known. The truth of Jesus’ presence and love is too good to keep to ourselves.
So the outward movement of our mission is not a robotic, grudging obedience to the command of our master. Instead it flows out of a relationship that, by nature, must be reproduced or it will wither and die.
How do we grab hold of this friendship? The relationship has to have fertile soil to germinate and grow. Conversion, faith, and baptism do not develop in a vacuum any more than a seed plants itself in your field and grows without the sun and rain. The place for this nurture is the church. St. Cyprian, a third century African bishop, said that it is impossible to have God as our Father if we don’t have the church as our mother.
Our faith literally depends on the community of believers we call the church. It is the same for us all. We need one another so we can understand the Word of love, can have the courage to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, and are able to receive the Holy Spirit’s power to do it with confidence and joy. But it is not a task we undertake out of duty. It flows from our mutual growth and faith. It flows from worshiping God together, receiving God’s love as a community and learning what that looks like in practice.
We are given relationships as a gift—friendship with Jesus, family relationships, fellowship in the church—not just so we can have a kind of mutual admiration society. That quickly becomes ingrown, narrow-minded and prone to drama. The love we incubate in our fellowship (and in our homes as disciples of Jesus) is a love that is meant to grow up and make a difference in the world. It is an outward-reaching force that can’t be stopped.
This is what Peter discovered when he fell into a trance during his prayer time on a roof one day. What he had understood to be his mission was shaken up. He had to let go of what he thought it meant to serve God (following the cleanliness laws of Judaism), and trust his Lord enough to do something totally out of the box. His understanding of God’s love was radically transformed into the expansive, boundary-violating force that embraced people who were previously considered unclean, incapable of being included in God’s family.
That’s what friendship with Jesus will do to you. It will keep surprising you. The force of it will stimulate and exhaust you, and you will want to keep coming back for more. It will change your life and the lives of the people you influence.
I was visiting last week with a woman who has become the leader of a very effective ministry. We chatted over lunch about our work, and I asked her how she started the Bible studies she has led in her neighborhood for many years now. Here’s what she told me. She became a Christian in her thirties. She prayed a lot first, then she called up her neighbor and said, “If you had cancer, and I knew the cure was buried in the ground right next to me, I would have to dig it up and give it to you. I couldn’t do anything else. I know you have read the Bible, and you know about Christianity, but Jesus has changed my life, and I want you to know about it. Will you at least come and hear what I have to say?”
She couldn’t help but share Jesus’ love with her neighbors. She knows that Jesus is alive and well and changing lives every day. She knows what it is to come out of the darkness of fear and into the light of friendship with Jesus. Now she can’t help but look for opportunities to offer that life-giving friendship to other people.
I don’t tell her story so you’ll feel guilty about not “witnessing” enough. I don’t think that’s where most of us need to start. What we need is to get to know Jesus as the friend he said he is to us. Don’t wait for one more day to know Jesus like that. You have the tools you need. Maybe your prayer life needs to get real and not be a recitation of the same old requests. Maybe you need to get into the Word more than you ever did. Maybe in your case it is a matter of heeding the voice you have been resisting, to go and do and tell. Yes, friendship with Jesus involves time and work, but so does any relationship worth having.
Your life will never have the glow of deep joy, never be boundlessly purposeful, never have the contagious force of Christ’s love if yours is a half-hearted allegiance to him; if you have been posing as a disciple but living as though Jesus didn’t matter at all. Take up the only cross Jesus has for you and understand that it is a symbol of love and not a burden.
“God, the greatest Lover of the human soul, leans out of His immensity to say, ‘My child.’ He waits for as personal a response,‘My Lord, My God.’ Then life will begin all over again for you.”
 1990. (Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 25-26.
 Ibid., p. 83-84.
 Ibid., p.87-88.
Vine and Fruit
Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-11; 1 Jn 4.7-21
I don’t recall a lot of the details, but I’ll never forget how it felt. It was my first experience of being excluded. Three other girls and I, from the same church and school class, became very close and formed our own little clique. We played at each other’s houses, went to church camp together, had sleepovers. We were pretty tight.
Or so I thought. I made other friends in high school besides my bosom pals. I remember spending time with a friend who shared my love of music. Apparently I went too far, because my friends had a sleepover to which I was not invited. I heard about it afterward. That stung, and eventually my place in the group was restored, even though I didn’t give up my new friendship. But I never forgot the price of including an outsider in my circle, and suddenly being an outsider myself. I failed an unwritten friendship code.
The Ethiopian eunuch was an outsider, and it was far worse than my high school drama. First, if he was a God-fearing Gentile, which the Jewish religion did recognize to some degree, he was still cut off from the land of Israel. If he went to the temple in Jerusalem, he would not be allowed into the inner places where the Jewish men worshiped. Second, he was in the cabinet of the queen of Ethiopia, so he served the wrong sovereign. Third, he was a eunuch, with a sexuality that violated the purity codes in Leviticus (21:17-21) and Deuteronomy (23:1). Let’s just say that his body had been altered so that he could be trusted around women in the royal household. That was considered perversion back then, whether his condition was his choice or not.
We find him reading Isaiah 53:7-8, which reads
…like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living…
This man knew what it was to be cut off from the life everyone else knows. He knew what it meant to be ‘shorn,’ to have no voice or power to be restored to the normal pleasures and relationships in life. Perhaps he was drawn by the anguish expressed in the prophecy.
It is important to recognize that there are three characters in this story, not just two—the Ethiopian and the apostle. The third is the Holy Spirit who sends Phillip in the opposite direction of his normal responsibilities in the mission to Samaria, and then pinpointed the man he was meant to help.
The Spirit was shaking things up a lot those days, and the apostles were breaking new ground. Samaria was the first site of ministry beyond Jerusalem and Judea, since the persecution against Christians had grown too dangerous for them to remain there. But Jesus had predicted they would go farther afield, right? To Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1.8)
The barriers they were breaking were not only geographical. The chosen people of God had to get over their status of being special and realize that Jesus came to draw all kinds of people to himself. (Jn 12:32) One of the reasons he was such a thorn to the religious leaders was that he kept violating boundaries of purity and Sabbath rules: touching lepers, healing on the Sabbath, talking to women, accepting invitations to eat with tax collectors and other “sinners.”
Religious people can get a little nervous when Jesus talks about welcoming all people. And by “religious people,” I mean “we.” Excluding people from the church happens too easily. We like to declare who’s in and who’s out. We read our Bibles and create scorecards and feel all good because we are keeping the church “pure.”
Except God never asked us to do that. I realize there are verses here and there about ethical guidelines and litmus tests. It’s good to know that the people of God always have to wrestle with what it means to follow Jesus, in every place and time. Societies change, and we learn more about why people think and act the way they do. Paul had to advise the people of his time about dangerous practices of their time, and so do we. But be sure to heed the caution in 1 John 4 about fear and love; do not let fear have the upper hand.
How dare we exclude anyone from God’s family? Of all places, the church is where every person should feel safe, and loved, and welcome. Instead, masses are turning away from the God who loves them, because too many of God’s people are barring the door. Even nonbelievers understand that the church is supposed to be about love and welcome.
When the Ethiopian man read about those painful feelings in Isaiah, he was intrigued. Who was this one who was humiliated as he was? God sent him someone to help him understand. Phillip told him that Jesus, too, knew what it was to be judged and cast out. This Jesus offered forgiveness to everyone, both those ashamed and those who excluded them.
Jesus talked about being the vine, and his followers aligning themselves so closely with his loving ways that they could be considered offshoots, poised to bear the fruit of his ways. This time through the text I sensed the pathos of these verses. Over and over he uses the word meno which means abide/dwell/remain. Jesus yearns, “Stay with me!” His deep desire for us is to have a joyful life, sharing the love that comes straight from God.
Yet Jesus had to bear the pain of pruning. God “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Jesus has to let go of those who will not receive and pass on the life he offers. He doesn’t condemn them; it is a self-selection process. They won’t receive it, so he can’t give it.
We get a sense of the life he wants to give us in the reading from 1 John 4: “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” There’s the Spirit again, the same Spirit that prodded Phillip.
This isn’t the first time Jesus talks about fruit either. There is his Sermon on the Mount, which includes this: “‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit… Thus you will know them by their fruits.” (Matt. 7:15-20)
Jesus tells us not to pass judgment on one another. (Matt. 7:1) But he does tell us how to recognize his life in other people. Look at their fruit.
That is what puzzles me about excluding people from full inclusion and participation in the church because of their sexuality, race, or ethnicity. People of diverse identities produce much good fruit: kindness, faith, solid theology, compassion. There is bad fruit too, just as there is in the rest of the population. Jesus longs for us to bear good fruit, but our worthiness does not depend on it. That is up to God, who declares that all are beloved.
Jesus offers us the beautiful privilege of receiving his love and bearing it to the world. He is the vine, the source of our life, our actions, our passions, our witness. He could not make it more plain that the bottom line for him is love.
The fruit of Jesus’ love is beautiful, luscious, inviting. My mouth waters when I pass a roadside melon stand. If I can’t stop, you can bet I’ll be buying one at the grocery store and biting into that juicy pinkness as soon as I can. Who says Jesus the vine can’t be about watermelons? That is what our witness about Jesus is like if we let his life flow through us. It is robust and flavorful and inviting.
Meanwhile, back on the road to Gaza, the Ethiopian eunuch is now asking, “What is to keep me from being baptized?” He wants some of the fruit too. If he had read the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, he knew what the answer was back in Moses’ time.
What went through Phillip’s mind? Was it those ancient laws? Or did he see Jesus in his mind’s eye, sitting next to a well, talking with a Samaritan woman he was supposed to avoid? Maybe he pictured that upper room where he and the other disciples were hanging onto Jesus’ every word about vines and branches. Did he hear the echo of Jesus’ words about love?
It doesn’t say. But Phillip was definitely hearing the commands of the Holy Spirit that day, and he obeyed. I’m pretty sure the Spirit would have stopped him if baptism had to wait for a confession of sin or a statement of faith. Instead, the two of them went into the water as strangers and came out brothers. Sounds like fruit bursting out all over the place. Thanks be to God.
Wanting and Longing
John 10:11-18; Psalm 23…Easter 4B
There has been a pervasive attitude in the Midwest that has probably been even stronger in the Northeast for a couple of months. We have been longing for spring! Every conversation and every other Facebook post has been about these historically freaky weather systems that have changed plans for proms and weddings and driven school administrators to distraction. The funniest cartoon I saw had March coming in like a lion, and April coming in like a rabid weasel, armed with tasers and riding a hungry crocodile! On Wednesday last week, the day of yet another heavy snowfall, someone said it wasn’t the 18th of April; it was the 108th day of January.
I got to thinking about our collective longing when I read Psalm 23 with fresh eyes last week. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” What do we want?
I watched my grandchildren a couple of times last week. When three-year-old Link was riding with me here and there, he told me again and again, like a broken record, “I want a new toy!” So I had my own response to repeat over and over. “You have enough toys. We are not buying a new toy today.”
That is one kind of wanting. The wanting in Psalm 23 is more about lack. Because we are God’s beloved, we lack nothing that we need.
But we live in a culture that is adept at making us think we need whatever it is they are selling, whether it is a new toy, a new look, or a new partner. We like new things. Novelty gets us excited for some reason. But that is not the only thing we want.
We want security, admiration, success, love.
The trick is to distinguish what we truly need from what has us just wanting to get past being uncomfortable. Let’s face it: we don’t like discomfort, not one bit. Isn’t that what is behind our grumbling about a late spring? (Unless you are a farmer, for whom this late spring truly is disturbing to say the least.)
Let’s stop for just a moment to think about what it is we long for. Truly. In the core of your being, what do you desperately want? The answers will give you a hint to the shape of your life.
Marva Dawn has probed the depths of this, identifying the gifts of God that all of us were literally created to desire: “Our increasing postmodern world is, usually unconsciously, desperate for the gifts of the Christian faith…Individuals without a home yearn for community; people without a story seek a framework for understanding; ‘boomers’ who have rejected moral authority search for a reference point; ‘busters’ without motivation long for meaning beyond the next entertainment; teenagers pursue love and ache for it to last; children crave attention and a reason to care about anything.”[i]
In other words, we long for God.
We might think we are longing for spring, or a better job, or a better marriage. Nothing wrong with those desires, actually. But they are only signs of a deeper yearning, a yearning for wholeness. Which is a longing for God.
If we call it that, it helps us see how our lives are playing out. It exposes what drives us, and what does not ultimately satisfy us. No matter what we achieve, or buy, or settle for, it leaves us wanting more. Which tell us that to be human is to desire.
So how about shifting our awareness to the one who makes us whole, and worthy, and purposeful? Why not turn our gaze to the one who loves us simply because we exist?
So many advertisers tell you what you should want, but I am here to tell you the truth. You want God, even if you are not aware of it.
The psalmist says it:
“As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.” (Ps 73.1-2a)
When we felt the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, it was not only peace and security we were longing for. We were longing for God’s reign.
It is not only compromise and bipartisanship we want in our country. We long for God to show us the way into a beloved community.
It is not just a new toy or car or house you want. You want the true joy and stability and significance that only God can provide.
While you are waiting for a new pastor, it is not about filling a position. You need God to call someone to help you embody God’s love in Storm Lake for the foreseeable future.
All of the other wants and wishes masquerade as needs, but our hearts know the truth.
The good news is that we don’t have to go to great lengths to find God. God is constantly pursuing us. It is right there in Psalm 23:
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”
The original meaning of it is that God’s goodness and lovingkindness pursue us. All we need to do is to stop long enough and turn around to see it. That is another way of talking about repentance: turn around and see how God loves you.
Well, I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to love God. That awakens the true longing of my heart, the longing for God.
But if that is not enough to quicken your desire for God, maybe Meister Eckhart has a word for you: “The soul must long for God in order to be set aflame by God’s love. But if the soul cannot yet feel this longing, then it must long for the longing. To long for the longing is also from God.”[ii]
It might take some intention, some personal discipline to cultivate this shift in your awareness. It’s worth it, isn’t it? You do it to lose weight, or to save for a vacation. Why not apply it to your faith? Set aside some time, or maybe change up the time you already spend with God. Seek what God wants to show you.
Another quote from the Psalms:
“Delight yourself in the LORD
and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps 37.4)
Give it some time, and you will find yourself consciously longing for God. Then you will want what God wants. You will seek the good of your neighbor. Your heart will be broken by the things that break the heart of God. The healing of old wounds will give you incredible joy. You will have the life that is real life, in other words.
Then the rest of Psalm 23 will make much more sense. The green pastures and still waters restore our souls not just because we are getting the food and rest we need. We experience God’s real presence there. It is Sabbath time that allows our cares to be dealt with and God’s peace to hold sway. We remember who we are, and whose we are.
Going through the valley of the shadow of death, you will not be overcome by fear. You will know—deeply know—that God, your shepherd is with you. You will not have to struggle to get past the discomfort; you will find God in the midst of the darkness.
When you are in the presence of your enemy, whether it is a bully at school, a nasty co-worker, or a devastating illness, you can dine with Jesus who set a table right there where you are. He will give you the peace that passes understanding.
In other words, the comfort you thought you needed above all else turns out not to be the answer. The answer is God, whom your heart longs for. Then you can say along with the psalmist—one final quote from that great book:
“Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.” (Ps 73.25-26)
[i] Dawn, Marva. 1997. Is It a Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) p. 1-7.
[ii] from Freedom from Sinful Thoughts.
Following the Risen Jesus
Easter 3B…Luke 24:36b-48
There was a movie some years back about a family that played a mysterious game called “Jumanji.” Recently they did a sequel to it. It appeared to be a normal board game until they started moving the pieces on the board. They discovered to their horror that the innocent-looking game about adventures in the jungle was more like a portal where the animals and dangerous situations came to life before their eyes. They had to run from stampeding elephants and rescue each other from man-eating plants and shipwrecks. The harrowing challenges wouldn’t stop until they were able to complete the game.
Jesus’ appearance to his disciples reminds me of that game, mostly because I think we tend to perceive our faith in two dimensions, sometimes in the realm of the abstract. We need reminders that Jesus is real and living among us. He died on a real cross and led men and women just like us into a way of life that involves true danger, but also thrills we couldn’t imagine.
Following Jesus isn’t a game. It is not a movie where everything turns out just the way we would script the story. We are followers of the Jesus we got, not the Jesus we wish we had. That became obvious to Jesus’ disciples when Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem took an ugly turn and he was arrested, then tried and crucified. But what they thought was the end turned out to be the beginning of a whole new world, ordered by the living Jesus who would not be eliminated by the powers under the old order.
No matter how well the disciples knew the prophecy, regardless of Jesus’ own predictions that his death would be followed by a resurrection, they were still shocked when he actually showed up in their midst. They had to shift their thinking of who they thought Jesus was, and believe in the Jesus who was standing in front of them. We need to do the same. We need to let go of our notions of the Jesus we thought would serve us well, and put our trust in the Jesus we actually have.
The disciples thought Jesus was a ghost, but Jesus is not a ghost. We might say we don’t think of Jesus that way, but do we sometimes treat him like it? Do we see him as a sort of misty shadow of someone who was here a long, long time ago? I wonder if we treat Jesus as harmless as a ghost that might scare us or send us messages from the great beyond or maybe move some furniture around, but he doesn’t really have any power.
Jesus let his disciples touch him to show that he wasn’t a ghost. He ate food to demonstrate that his digestive system was still intact. His human body was raised from the dead. The Jesus we might wish to relegate to the past or to a more mystical realm will not be treated as such. The doors of our lazy thinking, our doubts, or our fears can’t keep him out. The doors of our resistance are no barrier to him. He insists that we face the reality of his existence.
Jesus does not need to explain the resurrection to us or prove that he is alive today. There are plenty of people who love to spend their time charting proofs of who Jesus is. Jesus doesn’t ask us to take up our time with these pursuits. He allows us to probe when we need to, not condemning our doubts any more than he condemned the disciples for having to touch his flesh in order to believe he was real.
Just because Jesus doesn’t fit our understanding of reality doesn’t mean he isn’t alive. Seeing may be believing, but not everything that is real can be seen. Not everything that is alive is tangible. How blessed we are that he took on our flesh so that our small minds could grasp the reality of his presence. He used the most mundane properties—flesh, and a piece of broiled fish—to ensure that we can believe in him.
Jesus is the Lord of life and death. He is not limited by physical barriers or disease. Do you remember what he told his friend Martha when he came to see the tomb of her brother Lazarus? He said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Death is not simply a formidable opponent that Jesus barely overcomes. He is in charge of it all. That is why he can give us peace in the midst of our fears. This is peace that knows the whole picture, that assures us that Jesus will be with us always, both now and beyond our death.
While Jesus is the source of true peace, that doesn’t mean he is content to sit on the sidelines of our lives, like some sort of athletic trainer who rushes onto the field when a player gets hurt. He’s not some kind of mascot, revving us up once a week to go out there and play the game without him. He is Lord of all of life, and he will only accept the title of Lord in our lives. He won’t let us think we can run things and expect to live abundant life. He is the way, the truth and the life, the only one capable of handling our struggles and leading us to overcome them. He is the only one who can use us to show the world the way to life in his name.
As Jesus ministered to his disciples, he opened their minds to the greater story. He reminded them of God’s plan from the beginning, and the prophecies that he had fulfilled. He was the living answer to the ongoing problems of every human. He is not merely an abstraction, a concept or principle on which we base our lives. He opens our minds too, to the reality that He is God’s Son who came in the flesh, our perfect Savior, both human and divine. He is not only our Savior, but the Savior of the whole world, who offers forgiveness and life and community and all that humanity needs, in every sense. He is the one in whom all our hopes rest.
When we let Jesus appear to us as he really is, he gives us new hearts that trust him. He gives us faith that he loves us enough to take care of us, to bring us salvation both in the present and for the future. He shows us the meaning of our suffering and the reason for the blessings.
Something else strikes me about this visit with the disciples. Isn’t it human nature to want to stay with someone you admire? Jesus could have been a superstar who kept his adoring fans around him all the time. My guess is that the disciples would have been content with that scenario. But Jesus doesn’t need that. He needs his followers to get on with the business of sharing his love with the world.
A common thread in resurrection appearances is that Jesus doesn’t waste time telling the disciples to carry out the next steps. They might not feel ready, but Jesus says they are. He sends them out, removed from the security of the classroom. It’s time to tell everyone who will listen that God calls them to turn from their narrow, death-like ways to the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. The irony of being sent out by Jesus is that the disciples don’t end up farther away from him as a result. Instead, as they spread the good news, they find that they are closer to Jesus than ever.
Jesus appears to his disciples, satisfied that the business of forgiving our sin has been accomplished on the cross. What’s next? Now it’s time to tell the world about the new order headed by God’s Son himself. It is a world where forgiveness, truth, and love are the standards. A world in which Jesus is Lord, ruler of all that exists and master of every life that recognizes him for who he is.
Life is not a game or movie like Jumanji. That is a fantasy. Movies these days are filled with special effects that could make Jesus appear in a locked room with no problem. But Jesus doesn’t play tricks on us. Jesus comes to us in the locked rooms of our fears and resistance, and he asks to be reckoned with. He calls us to believe, and to be his witnesses. Jesus will not remain on the pages of the Bible or in the memories of our early years in Sunday School. He is our Savior, scarred by love but very much alive, giving us peace and sending us out to proclaim that he is alive. The world doesn’t need our arguments or proofs about Jesus. It just needs us to believe in him as he is, and to tell all peoples that they, too, are forgiven in the name of our living Lord.
Open or Closed?
John 20:19-31…Easter 2B
Rev. Deb Mechler
We were filled with anticipation. Twenty youth and a few adults were on our way from Iowa to Idaho on a mission trip. We had borrowed an old Suburban from my in-laws to use as one of the vehicles. A couple of hours into the trip, the engine in the Suburban began to make a strange noise. We stopped in Council Bluffs to eat supper, and to consider our options. It seemed hopeless to think that we’d be able to continue our trip that night. It was Friday night, and all the automotive service stations were closed. As we prayed before our meal, we asked God to help us.
This happened before cell phones came into play, so we had only our wits to rely on, and naturally it was the topic of our conversation over supper. When we were almost finished with our meal, a man from a nearby table came over to talk to us. He had overheard us talking about the problem. He explained that he was a mechanic, and that he would be willing to look at our car if we could take it over to his place. We stared at each other in amazement. We were stunned to see our prayers answered so quickly. Even though the signs on all the repair shops said “closed,” here was someone who opened his garage and his home to us.
Open and closed. An “open” sign tells us that we are in business. We are welcome to come on in. A “closed” sign tells us we are out of luck: come back another day!
The room where the disciples were meeting was closed, and locked. Since Jesus’ opponents had successfully gotten rid of the problem that was Jesus of Nazareth, his followers understandably feared for their own lives, and they went into hiding. But the locked door didn’t keep Jesus out. He came and stood among them. He had compassion on his frightened friends, and he told them to be at peace. Everything would be all right.
Think about this for a minute. Walls and doors didn’t mean anything to the risen Christ. That means that the stone that had been rolled away from the tomb was not a barrier for Jesus. He didn’t need the tomb to be opened in order to be raised from the dead. So, why was the tomb opened?
We read the drama of those first moments last Sunday, how the women went with their spices expecting the tomb to be sealed. Yet they found it open. The grave clothes lay neatly folded, because Jesus didn’t need them anymore. The women and the disciples were baffled that Jesus’ body was gone, and angels appeared in the tomb instead. It seems that these things were arranged for the sake of Jesus’ friends. The tomb was open so they could see in, not so Jesus could get out. They needed to know that Jesus’ corpse wasn’t there anymore. Once again Jesus’ friends were left scratching their heads over the strange events that typically happened around their beloved rabbi.
Naturally they gathered that evening to talk about his strange turn of events. Naturally they had the doors locked, since it seemed very possible that a conspiracy was afoot. Somebody must have taken Jesus’ body. What would happen next?
Imagine their shock and delight when Jesus appeared among them. The gospel writer doesn’t tell us how much time they spent together that day, or most of what they talked about. He just says that Jesus showed them his hands and side. It was Jesus, without a doubt!
But Thomas wasn’t there to see him. And he did doubt. It was too much to fathom, Jesus actually showing up in the flesh, alive again when he had been pronounced dead and was entombed. Thomas was the cautious type. No one pulled a fast one on him. We could say that his mind and his heart were closed, maybe because of the pain of losing Jesus. Grief can do that to you.
How good of Jesus to appear a week later for Thomas’s sake. And then Thomas was the first one who addressed Jesus as God. After he got a good look at Jesus and his wounds, he declared, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus responded by pronouncing his last beatitude, one for folks who would not get to see him in the flesh and touch his scars—so that includes you and me. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And so he addressed our intermittent doubts—how much we are like Thomas!—and opened the way for belief that is ignited by the witness of others, not our own direct experience. Jesus challenges our closed minds and hearts to believe what cannot be contained in mere evidence. To believe what we ourselves cannot verify with tangible evidence, but witnesses tell us is true.
But then we ourselves become witnesses too. Centuries later we, too, share the experience of Jesus’ love, his presence, and his forgiveness, and it enlivens our faith. We have to have the experience of his life in us, or we have nothing to proclaim to a world in need of hope. Just as Thomas had to encounter Jesus in person, we also need to face Jesus one on one. We need to grasp the enormity of his forgiveness and love. This is the foundation and source of our faith in him.
There is a thread running through John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection that I want to point out. It is the idea of openness.
First, God opened the tomb to reveal what had happened to Jesus. It was like a display waiting for Jesus’ friends to discover: the open tomb, the grave clothes lying inside, and the angels interpreting what it meant.
It seems to me that this is an example of God’s openness to us. The Scriptures testify how God’s self is revealed at many points throughout history, culminating in the person of Jesus appearing in the flesh and blood of humanity. It is as though God keeps giving the message over and over: “I love you. Come to me, and let me redeem you. I want to give you life. I share my life with you.” And now at the tomb we have another message: “Death cannot stop my love!”
It was a lot for Jesus’ friends to comprehend. Gradually they did absorb it; they did come to understand. To do so, they had to open their hearts and minds to God’s surprising plan. They had to let God clean out all their ingrained ideas about religion and start a new thing within them. It began when Jesus appeared to them in the locked room. Grief and fear were replaced by joy! Jesus had told them this would happen, but who could have blamed them for being skeptical? Now they had to believe it.
Thomas’ heart was not so open. He was cautious about this strange news. I don’t think his reaction is that different than ours when we are presented with new or different ideas about our faith. Maybe Jesus’ resurrection was the jolt his followers needed in order to realize that his entire life and message were revolutionary. He challenged the traditional interpretations of their Scriptures that focused only on the Law. He declared instead that God’s community of love—the kingdom of God—was open to everyone. He offered forgiveness freely. He forgave the most despicable sinners.
Those who listened to Jesus and stayed with him had their ideas about God turned upside down by his message, by the way he embodied God’s expansive grace. They had to open themselves up to this relationship with God that seemed like blasphemy to them at first. But the Holy Spirit came and enabled them to see that this was the “new thing” (Is 43.19) God had promised to do among them. They would have to accept a whole new framework of faith. Once they grasped the beauty and force of this good news, they gave their lives over to proclaiming it far and wide.
So we need to at least examine new ideas about God. We need to rely not only on the interpretations of people we agree with. We need to open the Scriptures and explore what feels like unfamiliar claims to gospel truth.
This is what we do as God’s people gathered together. We recognize how God has been revealed to us, how God has told us that the kingdom of love and forgiveness and life is open to us who believe in the witness we have been given. We throw caution to the wind—we open our closed minds and hearts—and say, yes, it’s true. Jesus did rise from the dead, the first born of all of us who will not be doomed to death but who share life in his name. We don’t understand it, but we open ourselves to it, because we know it is real—more real than anything else in fact. We worship him and gather in his name and celebrate in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper that Jesus rose from the dead, saving us from sin and death.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples as the resurrected one, his authority could never be questioned again. And what did he used his authority to do? He reassured his followers, and he breathed on them his Spirit along with his most urgent command: Forgive. Of all the people in the world, you my disciples have learned the power and truth of this force most deeply. Nobody else can sow the seeds of this loving, divine force better than you can.
See, the open hands that Jesus extended to his disciples were wounded hands. There is no strength in such hands to hold on to bitterness or pride or self-righteousness. Such hands must let all of these things fall away. They can only forgive. When we say that we have the hands and feet of Christ, this is how they must function, or they are not his. Our hands are open to offer peace and healing and forgiveness, wounded hands he has bequeathed to us.
Do we have this story of Thomas, who had to put his hands in Jesus’ wounds, so that we will do the same? We need to accept Jesus as he comes to us, broken yet alive. We cannot let our doubts or our caution or our pride close us off to the living Jesus Christ. Open your heart to the truth God has given through the Scriptures. It tells you that God loves you deeply and eternally. Open your own wounded hands to the world God loves, and see how letting your resentments and bitterness fall away allows you to hold his peace gently to yourself.
This is the life of faith we celebrate with little Nate this morning. This is the life that is truly life, free of striving and bitterness and selfishness. A life that is open to God’s love, open to the suffering of others who need to be touched with our healing hands of forgiveness.
We will always have some of the same doubts that Thomas did. We will question whether this life is the true one we are meant to enjoy. When these misgivings arise, we open our hands to receive his body and blood given for us. We accept these tangible reminders of what we know in our hearts to true: we can trust God to fill our open hearts and minds and hands with what we need most, Jesus our Savior and Lord. Thanks be to God.
The theme I am using for the Sundays during Lent/Easter this year is “Where Do You Look?” In addition, a spiritual practice is suggested for each week, found at the end of the sermon.
Look at the Empty Tomb
Mark 16:1-8….Easter 2018
Something was different. I was working as an education and youth director at our church. That day as I entered the building something was off. Sure enough, as I rounded the corner in the hallway, there was broken glass on the carpet. The window to the secretary’s office was broken. At first I didn’t know what to do, but then I got my bearings and made some phone calls. There had been a break-in.
Something was different as Mary and the others made their way through the garden to the tomb where Jesus had been laid to rest. They had been wondering how they would get the stone rolled away from the entrance, but here it was, wide open already! They peered inside cautiously, unsure of what they might find. They gasped as they found a living, white-robed young man who seemed to be waiting for them. He informed them that Jesus—whose broken, lifeless body they had seen only the day before yesterday—was alive!
But they would have to take his word for it, because Jesus wasn’t there any more. No, Jesus had felt the breath coming back into his body, sensed the blood coursing through his veins again as he went from inanimate to alive. He laid aside this grave shroud and walked out of his tomb. Those stone walls could not contain the life force that God insists on creating and re-creating. Jesus had people to see, things to do.
The story could have been different. Jesus could have stayed in the cave and entertained his friends who came to visit. They could have decorated it and made it into a museum. Charged admission, even, to see the greatest sideshow of all time.
We have all visited graves of relatives or maybe famous people. We expect to find them as we left them, with grass taking over and the dust of time covering the names. We were once in the huge Cologne cathedral where what they claim to be the gold-encrusted shrine of the magi can be viewed behind a wrought iron fence. Obviously they have been there for hundreds of years. Wherever people are laid to rest is usually considered the end of their story.
But Jesus’ death was not the end of his story. He appeared first to his friends and disciples, and then to crowds of people—around 500 according to Scripture. Then he ascended to heaven ten days later. We believe that he is alive and with us in the power and presence of his Holy Spirit. Too big to see with our normal sight, but very much perceptible in our consciousness. His life flows through our veins and our hands and our words, alive among us as we gather and worship and work together.
Do we let Jesus lead us out of the place of death into the life he claims for us? Or do we do what feels a little more practical, visiting Jesus in his tomb? He wants to lead you and me into the world he loves.
Otherwise, why would Jesus rise from the dead? Was it just so we can take a victory lap with him on Easter Sunday? But if all we do is keep taking that victory lap this week and next week and all of our lives, if the victory over death is all that Jesus accomplished, and if that were all we focused on, I think our faith would wear thin. If a runner keeps coming back to the track and running a victory lap every day, we would think them a little deluded. We expect them to live their lives with more purpose than that.
Do you remember the conversation Jesus had with Peter on the beach after he rose from the dead? (John 21:15-19) Peter and the others had been fishing overnight, and Jesus told them where to put their nets so they made a big catch. Then he cooked them breakfast. I can imagine those men were still getting used to the idea that Jesus was alive again.
Jesus walked with Peter on the beach and told him, “Feed my sheep.” Three times he told him. Jesus said if Peter loved him, he should show it by engaging with people, meeting their needs. And then he told him not once but twice more, “Follow me.”
Jesus didn’t die and rise again just so we can feel less guilty, or feel righteous because we have the right beliefs and other people don’t. In fact, the more you live his life, you might see your sin more clearly and question the tidiness of your beliefs. But you will be alive with his life.
Jesus’ resurrection was not just a stunt prove we are believing in the right God. Jesus broke out of his tomb to go back into the world, this time with scarred hands and feet to offer forgiveness and hope to a world bound by fear of death.
Jesus strides through each day and year of history, meeting us in every time and place to give us life and hope. Jesus is on the move! He is seeking the lost and the poor, the sick and the persecuted, the children caught in trafficking and abuse, the refugee and the soldier, the politician and the farmer, the poet and the paraplegic. In other words, he comes to you and me, poised to give us the same kind of power that left his tomb empty. It says so in Ephesians 1:18-20. Paul’s prayer was that the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened, that we may know not only the hope to which God has called us, but also the immeasurable greatness of the power that God put to work in Christ in raising him from the dead.
Resurrection power, given to us! Wow. I don’t imagine God gives us that kind of power so we can watch more movies on Netflix or keep amassing so much stuff that we have to buy extra space to store it all. This is the power to overcome injustice, to have the courage to reach out to your neighbors, to give more of yourself and your possessions than you thought possible. The world does not need Christians who visit Jesus on Sundays and do their own thing the rest of the week. They need the hope that has captivated us, that enlivens us: hope in a Savior who lived here and suffered here and died from the injustice that is rife in our world. They need our Savior who sees them and loves them, and does that through us because we are alive with his life, and compelled by compassion like his. People who break into church offices need us to follow Jesus.
I once had a youth director on staff who was frustrating to work with, because I could never reach him on the phone. Sometimes he was home working with his dad on the farm, but more often he was out looking for opportunities to be with the teens, hanging out with them in the weight room or the coffee shop. He wasn’t sitting around. I’ve rarely met someone who loves Jesus more than Eric. He really does go where Jesus leads him.
Go ahead and celebrate today, as if your team has won the Final Four and the Super Bowl and the World Cup all rolled into one, because it is that big of a deal. Feast and hunt for Easter eggs and sing halleluia because Jesus is alive. What an awesome reality to proclaim! The tomb is empty. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.
But then tomorrow, leave the empty tomb behind and let Jesus lead you into the world he loves.
Look at Jesus, Our Savior
Palm Sunday Year B, Mark 11:1-11
We have a number of teachers in our lives, beyond the ones who get paid for doing it in school. One of mine was named Sharon. She was in my cabin the summer I was a camp counselor. The first week was for adults with cognitive challenges. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to rise to the challenge.
But Sharon taught me that she and her cabin mates were not intimidating. I found that what was needed most was just to be a friend and a helper, and sometimes teach and remind them where the boundaries were, just like other campers. Sharon was bright and energetic. She had a boyfriend at camp too. She looked forward to seeing Earl in June every year.
Sharon taught me to see people not as more or less “able,” but instead as a wide variety of humans with personalities and potential and failures. That perspective has served me well over the years, and I have Sharon to thank for it: a young woman who didn’t look like a teacher, but was the teacher I needed.
What we need usually comes in forms we do not expect. We expect one thing, and get another. The is certainly the case with the Hebrews. They had hope even when there was little else to count in their favor. The rule of the Romans was oppressive. They awaited the promised Messiah who would deliver God’s people. Memories of David the warrior–anointed by God to be king– persisted, so that they hoped for another military leader to help them throw off the Roman oppressors.
Jesus had been demonstrating his authority over sickness and death, and in his teaching. He had gained quite a following. Could Jesus be the one they were waiting for? He didn’t show any signs of battle readiness, but hey, he could feed a huge crowd with a boy’s lunch and a prayer! He was healing people of their diseases. Since he was a descendant of David, he fit the profile of the long-awaited Messiah. He seemed to have a special anointing or connection with God, so surely he must be the one.
So this year as people were arriving for the annual Passover feast, they threw a parade for Jesus. This was the highest honor that could be shown in the Roman empire. Jesus was treated the same way as a victorious military commander returning home.
Except his image was a little off. Military heroes rode muscular, well-groomed horses. Jesus chose a donkey, a beast of burden much more in keeping with the average person’s budget.
The people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Hebrew word hosanna means “save us” or “salvation.” So the people’s shouting sounds like a straw poll to end all straw polls; the people knew that Jesus could save them. But an Old Testament scholar I spoke with once says it’s not so clear.
“Hosanna” is found in only one verse in the Old Testament, in Psalm 118:25: “Save us (hosanna), we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!” And even though it originally meant “save us” or “salvation,” by the time Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem, the word had devolved into a generic greeting used for royalty. It didn’t mean “save us” any more. It just meant “you’re an important person.” In the same way, even the phrase, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was just a fancy way of saying hello. We see the same thing with words in our language. “Goodbye” used to mean “God be with ye,” but now it just means “see ya later.”
The irony is that Jesus actually would fulfill the original meaning of their greetings. He did come in the name of the LORD. He would save them. But he wouldn’t do it in any way they expected.
Jesus would answer their unspoken cries for help as well as their unwitting acclamations by being a king for all the ages. By saving them from an oppression far more sinister and powerful than the Romans. Jesus would be our savior from the sin that binds us in its vicious cycle, from the fear of death that is the natural result of sin. And he did it–he does it for us continuously–through his cross.
Who would expect a savior to free anyone by dying? And who wants that kind of freedom anyway? Isn’t that just church talk? Don’t we really need to be saved from terrorists and tariffs, job cuts and annoying in-laws? That’s what really matters for our lives today, isn’t it? If Jesus is any savior worth his salt, he’ll save us from the things that are bearing down on us now.
Yesterday there were nationwide rallies by high school students and adults advocating for better safeguards on guns, for safer schools and communities. Like the people who greeted Jesus outside Jerusalem, they were waving things too. They held up placards calling for social change. In fact, they were also crying out for salvation, since God’s salvation includes setting things right and enabling us to live together in trust and safety.
Can Jesus help us with that? How do we expect him to answer our prayers for peace and safety? When it looks as though God is taking too much time answering our prayers, not making any progress in solving our problems—a.k.a. saving us—do we trust God to work for our good even though we don’t see it yet? To do it in ways we might not expect?
Think of it this way. Jesus not only won salvation for us on the cross that seals our eternal destiny. He also saves us daily by showing up on Monday. He is with us in all the big things and the small things. Our cry to be saved is answered in the one who is present with us in all of our sufferings. God answers our prayers according to the salvation we need, not the salvation we expect.
That might sound like a disappointing response from someone who is supposed to love us so much. But do not underestimate the power of his presence in your life when it gets tough. Do not minimize the force of his love. See, what God gives us is himself, in Jesus the human one, and in the Spirit who dwells within you.
It can be hard to accept Jesus as he is. To wait for the answer that is longer in coming, the one that will bring us closer to God and farther from our own expectations.
Last year on Palm Sunday we were in a series together called “Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting.” We had no idea then that you would still be waiting for a new pastor a year later! The gift highlighted that day was humility. It still applies; the gift is still there as you continue to wait. Humility is what Jesus wore into Jerusalem, and humility in trusting him is what you still need.
You will have a new pastor, in God’s timing. But do not expect him or her to wear a superhero’s cape any more than Jesus did when he rode into Jerusalem. Jesus saves in his own way. Pastors must follow his lead and his timing, and each one is just one person, allotted with one person’s set of abilities and time and energy just like everyone else.
What we want is for someone to make everything better. We do not like waiting, or not knowing what is next, or a little chaos in the meantime. We want things solved, and stable. But life is not like that, and Jesus comes to us in the midst of our impatience and even our suffering.
As he comes to us, in the messiness of life, he teaches us not only how to endure suffering, but to experience his healing, hope, and mercy in the midst of it. And then he expects us to be agents of healing and hope for others in their messiness and suffering. His way of obedience is the way of love, which means we will also suffer. But this is suffering that means something. The sacrifices Jesus asks us to make are never wasted. His was not wasted, certainly, and neither are ours.
As you go through Holy Week, I encourage you to observe how far Jesus will go to answer our cries for help. To see him as the Savior who sets us free not by force but by sacrificial love. There was a parade when he entered Jerusalem, and then another as Jesus carried his cross on the Via Dolorosa—the Way of Suffering. Jesus is the focus of both parades. In a few short days the people realized that he wasn’t the Savior they expected, and they crucified him for it.
Now we know better. Jesus Christ is the one who knows our hearts and has gone all the way—far beyond our expectations—to meet our deepest needs. Our hosannas are not misplaced. Jesus is the one who saves us through suffering and beyond. Thanks be to God.
Look at the Big Picture or “Does Jesus Have a Whistle?”
Lent 5B…Jer 31.31-34; Heb 5.5-10; Jn 12.20-33
Last week I took a break from desk work and went to the local gallery to view the high school students’ art work. It was easy to distinguish those who are beginners from those in Drawing III class. What impressed me more than anything was not only the skill of one or two standouts, but also the subject matter of another student. He captured a friend from below, the bottoms of his sneakers in the foreground as he sat on a wall. He drew the seats on a trolley, the interior of a laundromat. I wondered if there were a connection between them.
Today I want to take you through a gallery of images inspired by sacred writings that were penned hundreds of years apart. They illustrate a strong theme of the biblical story, and the connections are striking. They show how deeply God loves us and yearns for communion with us.
First, from the prophet Jeremiah. I have not pointed it out, but there have been a few covenants mentioned in the Old Testament texts during Lent this year. In Jeremiah 31, it is as though God decides to scrap the idea, or at least reshape it drastically. The covenants I made with you, God says, just didn’t hold. The covenant that is coming, the one I have settled on, God says, “will not be like the covenant that I made with [your] ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.”
The image is both tender and urgent: God taking Israel by the hand, leading them away from the darkness and oppression of slavery in Egypt. It reminds me of the scene in “Les Miserables” where Jean Valjean and Cosette flee to get away from Inspector Javert. Both tender and urgent. Little Cosette is completely dependent on her guardian.
Even so, the Israelites had to depend on God entirely for survival. God drew up a covenant on Mt. Sinai, the Law, for their sake. But they broke the law, “even though I was their husband,” God says. The first image of rescue is followed by a second one, of disappointment and betrayal. A husband scorned, weeping. The covenant was broken. Perhaps you know something about this kind of brokenness.
A beloved relationship cannot be coerced. Well then, God surmises. I will put the DNA of my ways into your hearts, where you cannot ignore it. The seed of my own self will be planted where it can grow in fertile tissue, feed on the stories of my own faithfulness.
For hundreds of years, this image is a dream in the mind of God. It belongs in the gallery we visit, carrying the story line forward.
On to our gospel lesson, John 12. Some Greeks, those great masters of logic and philosophy, want to meet Jesus, presumably to understand what this great teacher has to say for himself. Jesus apparently doesn’t get around to meeting them. Those Greeks will be shown soon enough what Jesus is about.
The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus did not glorify himself. No, he didn’t. He went looking for the way to glorify the Father, and what he arrived at was not what any of us expected. The next stop in the gallery is a short film. We are seated in a cold room, starkly hollow and hard. We are seated on rock-like structures. We view Jesus in a hallway, slowly approaching a door labeled “Glory,” opening it, and finding not brilliant light or trumpets announcing the presence of the Almighty. He opens it to a place of darkness. He peers inside, takes a few steps. After his eyes are accustomed to the dim surroundings, he makes out the image of a cross. Seen through Jesus’ eyes, the image we have prettified reclaims its terrifying power.
We pull ourselves from this experience to the next item on display. It comes from Hebrews 5, and it is titled, “A Priest in the Order of Melchizedek.” We wonder if it is mislabeled, because it appears to be Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. So we have to read the description. Melchizedek is a figure from the time of Abraham, a king who was also a priest. A wise man who understood the ways of God, a rare confidant in Abraham’s lonely quest.
So, Jesus is a high priest who did not seek that lofty position. He was chosen, thrust into the role by the Father. Both high priests and kings wear special, ornate garments to match their positions of honor.
Yet this king in Hebrews 5 is not pictured in royal robes with pomp and splendor. He is a priest-king who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…”
This is the incarnate Son of God who took the low position. He chose the force that works not from without or from above. It works from below.
As I was driving the other day with my three-year-old grandson in his car seat behind me, he asked, “Does Jesus have a whistle?”
Hmm. I remember a conversation a few months ago when little Link and his sister Rydia were using their new child-sized shovels to scoop snow into piles in the backyard. We were brainstorming what to do with those piles, and how they might get smaller. I suggested that God could shrink them. “How?” Link wanted to know.
“God can make the sun shine to melt them.”
“Does God have a whistle?”
Ah. So, when asked whether Jesus has a whistle, I asked why he would need one.
“To make cars go, and stop.”
Okay, he has seen a story of a police officer directing traffic. So a whistle means authority, or control. I guess that is the image in his mind’s gallery.
My grandson will learn soon enough that Jesus doesn’t use a whistle. He uses a cross.
So the last stop in our gallery is predictable. We come to our inner artist’s rendering of Jesus crucified.
We do not understand the cross. Despite the innumerable words employed to explain it, only the image itself can speak into our hearts. Only the blood spilled, only his body broken can reveal the true nature of God. This is the power and compassion of God on display, the God who yearns to draw all people into the holy, eternal Embrace.
And if the image fades, as images do, we are given the recurring, constantly renewing image of the table, where the broken bread placed into our hands and moistened by the wine seals the reality of God’s forgiveness in our consciousness. I suspect that is why Jesus would have us eat the elements he consecrates for our use. God’s loving forgiveness has to get to our insides, as Jeremiah indicates.
This is the glory of God. This is the force of love, pushing us up toward God from below. This is the covenant that we cannot break by our easily distracted attention, by our disobedience, by our immature thirst for power and control. This is the force that embraces us, cracks us open, does God’s painful but healing work in us. The big picture of Jesus’ coming among us narrows down and down to a cross, to God’s seed of love planted in our hearts. May it flourish. Thanks be to God.
Look Through Grace
John 3:14-21…Lent 4B
Spiritual Practice: Forgiveness
In C.S. Lewis’ book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader from his Chronicles of Narnia series, he has the children stopping at an island where one-footed, invisible creatures called Dufflepuds live. They enlist Lucy to enter the forbidden rooms of the resident wizard to find and recite the spell that will make them visible again. She musters her courage to face unknown dangers and finds her way to the book of spells.
As she pages through the book, the illustrations and words come to life. Lucy observes a scene in the book where he school mates are talking about her, and she can hear their conversation. On another page, she reads and enters a glorious story that makes her feel refreshed and happy. She finds the page for reversing invisibility and sees the illustrations appear as she recites the spell.
The Bible is something like that book of spells. If you are familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia, you can be sure that this comparison does not trivialize spiritual matters nor the Bible itself. In fact, master storyteller Lewis enlarges them and provides the reader with new and delightful understandings of the Gospel.
The sacred writings that we call the Bible is rich with meaning, and inspiration. If we read it with anticipation, letting the Holy Spirit connect it with our stories, the people and events come to life for us, like that book Lucy opened with trepidation.
The stories of the Scriptures are more than accounts about what happened hundreds or thousands of years ago. They reveal something of God to us. We often find that there are multiple meanings that speak into different phases of our lives. It is more than a collection of writings; there is great coherence within it, and seemingly unrelated events are sometimes set side by side to show the consistency of the message about God.
In today’s reading we hear Jesus doing just that: comparing his death on the cross with a bronze snake used to heal the snakebite sickness of God’s people if they followed instructions and stared at the icon.
It’s a curious story in Numbers 21. The people grumble impatiently about conditions in the desert, hardships they anticipated as they escaped from under the Pharaoh’s thumb. But as we know, trouble in the abstract doesn’t compare to trouble in flesh and blood. It is hard to understand why snakes were sent to punish them. It’s as though God were saying, “Do I hear complaining? I’ll give you something to complain about!”
It’s no wonder that a favorite Bible verse for so many people is not John 3:14-15: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
But the story seems useful for Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. It appears in John 3, where we find the verse that is so beloved, John 3:16. Isn’t that just like the Bible? You find such clarity for your faith, but sometimes the very next passage is enough to make you scratch your head.
Maybe the Bible isn’t the problem. Maybe it is the way we see the Bible that gets us confused.
Today I’d like to suggest that we need two lenses to read the Bible in the way it is meant to be regarded. If you have ever watched a 3D movie, you know that the glasses they give you have lenses with slightly different angles. Look at the screen with no glasses, and it is flat as can be. Put on the glasses and
It seems to me that we can use John 3:16 as one lens to read the Scriptures. We love it because it is the Gospel message in a nutshell: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Simple, to the point. We really like that part about love, with good reason. I think God’s “everlasting love,” or “lovingkindness” comes through loud and clear on the pages of both Old and New Testaments.
But there needs to be that other lens, which is found in verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” May I suggest that this clarification of John 3:16 is critical to understanding the biblical message. It states that God’s intent is to save us, not condemn us. Do you believe it—that God’s overriding concern is not to catch you out in your sin, but to rescue you from its shame and destruction? We call that the mercy of God.
What if we got into the habit of wearing the lenses of love and mercy every time we pick up our Bibles? You’ll notice that I used the word “grace” for my sermon title, because that is what we could call the realistic picture we see when combining those two lenses. Grace is the beautiful word used in the letter to the Ephesians to describe God’s goodness to us. And instead of looking for grace as my original title read, it makes sense to think of grace as the set of lenses we need in order to see the Bible come alive as we read it. Look through grace when you read.
We could see humans’ relationship with God in two dimensions. I think that is what happens when we follow one school of thought. It uses the purity codes of the Old Testament as a framework for understanding all of Scripture. It sees the Law merely as a code, a way to be good and to please God. Any deviance from it demands punishment. Consequently you might spend your life worrying about whether you have gone out of bounds and earned God’s wrath. It assumes a sort of checklist that God consults to evaluate you. It is as though, when you go to a public swimming pool, you can’t enjoy the water because you are focused on the rules: No running! No horseplay! (What is horseplay anyway?)
A two-dimensional, purity-and-law perspective on the Bible pushes salvation into the future, understanding it only to mean the reward you get—going to heaven—after you die. Because it’s all about reward and punishment, right? Life simply becomes an exercise in trying to ensure that you are keeping your steps on the right path. The beauty all around—even the wisdom gained only through mistakes and brokenness—are lost on you. Everything and everyone is judged on this basis.
What I call the three-dimensional perspective is based more on story. It recognizes the humanity, our common failings and joys, on the pages of the Bible. Jacob’s selfishness and deceit don’t get him eliminated from God’s blessing. God has to work with him to see what happens when he is faithless. Eventually he learns humility, and repentance, and experiences the faithfulness of God.
David’s faith is celebrated in story, but later in life his lust gets the best of him. We see its tragic consequences, but we also witness God’s mercy and love in his life.
This way focuses on the God who forgives and rescues, the escape from Egypt being the iconic story. We learn about real people, and God’s love for them, and us. That love is not just a concept. As the writer says later in Ephesians, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3.18-19)
With the lenses of grace—love and mercy—we can hold each part of Scripture up to the mercy and power of God used on our behalf just as God did for the Israelites when they were rescued from Egypt. So, when you read Paul’s letters to the church, or the Psalms, or the fantastic imagery in Daniel or Revelation, you see God acting for the sake of loving humanity, offering hope even through suffering and discipline.
The Scriptures show us the way to life, so we need to read our lives with these lenses too. With love and mercy lenses we can see people not only for the ways they might offend or take advantage of us. We can look deeper and see that there must be some pain or fear driving them. When we look at the newspaper, we can see the good and the bad in 3D, not just pegging someone for one political stance or reacting with anger about the latest local trouble. We look for both brokenness and hope, not just more evidence to confirm our biases. We see people whom God loves.
Let’s focus these two lenses on one important word in John 3: belief. That is an important word in John 3. If you read it with a 2D (Law and purity) lens, belief is about making sure you agree with certain doctrines. Don’t color outside the lines! Now, getting ideas about God straight is very important, but belief doesn’t stop there. Belief could be confined to your head, simply saying that these things are true. It doesn’t even require that you look at the cross, or carry it with you. We were made for more!
Belief includes the dimension of trust. In fact, that is more the sense of the original language than having your conceptual ducks in a row. We believe in Jesus. We trust that he really redeemed us, and we trust him to lead us in a life of faith. Trust is a matter of the heart, and it is all about relationship. If you apply belief to the story back in Numbers, it is all about the people not trusting God, and trust being restored through the episode with the snakes.
I encourage you to try the word “trust” wherever you find “belief” in the Bible. It changes the way you see it. You begin to understand that God deeply desires our confidence and security. The object is knowing that God acts on our behalf out of love. Trust is a picture of a child and a loving parent. 2D belief can happen all by yourself. God created us for relationship, for community, for life in the Spirit who calls us to adventure, risk, and love.
There are many characters in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, including a band of trolls who embody the 2D perspective. They only ever see what is wrong. They refuse to see beyond their noses or look outside of their tribe. Even when all the others have lived through the trials and sufferings with the help of the great Christ figure, Aslan the lion, and are on their way to the eternal Narnia within Narnia, the trolls refuse the invitation to a higher and better life. They prefer sitting in a circle in the mud to the adventure of real life.
Don’t be a troll. Open your heart and your life to the full scope of God’s great story. Trust God with the parts of the Bible you don’t understand. Let love and mercy reveal everything in God’s Word that is relevant to our life now, as real as anything that ever was or will be. Because God is behind it, and in it, and with us here and now. Thanks be to God.
The spiritual practice I offer you this week is forgiveness. Of course forgiveness is more than a ritual; it is fundamental to our discipleship. This takes time, effort, and spiritual strength, but it will not happen unless you begin. Identify the hurts that will not go away, and what actually happened. Allow yourself to feel the pain. Consider who or what is responsible for it. Think about your relationship, and how you would like to see it improve. This practice is not a set formula, but involves prayer and gentleness with yourself, as well as time. It is a process. Do not expect to “forgive and forget.” Forgetting is virtually impossible for you to do on your own, if ever.
You may need to get help from a pastor, friend, or counselor. A helpful resource is The Process of Forgiveness by W. A. Meninger.
Look to God
Lent 3B….John 2:13-22
Spiritual Practice: Examen of Consciousness
Why are you here? Here, instead of at home, drinking coffee? Or on your computer, on the highway, in bed? What do you come here to do?
If you had come into this room and I had rearranged the furniture to face the west wall, how would it make you feel? I would expect a lot of protests, because it would be unsettling. It wouldn’t take long for someone to point out that Jesus is on the north wall you are facing right now, and we shouldn’t turn away from him, or the altar, or the font, or the cross.
It matters how we furnish this place, doesn’t it? I remember when your chancel looked different, and how tricky it was to preach from a peninsula. Maybe the designer was making a strong statement about the preaching and sacraments being among the people. But now it looks like a lot of other churches, with table and font and pulpit front and center.
Jesus entered the temple near the beginning of John’s gospel and ransacked the place. Talk about unsettling. Why would he do that? They were conducting the normal business of religion. The sacrifices were commanded by God, and the sale of animals was just an efficient way to handle it instead of driving livestock for miles. Money had to be changed because the temple tax required special coinage. What was the big deal, Jesus?
We can imagine the uproar Jesus caused, and the authorities swooping in to see what was going on. The question put to Jesus seems odd: “What sign can you give us for doing this?” Let me rephrase it. “Who do you think you are?” What gives you the right to do such a thing?
We are only a few paragraphs into the book of John, who is building a case for Jesus’ identity and authority. There is that beautiful introduction where we learn that Jesus was at the creation of the world, and he is the Word, the Logos behind everything. He became a human being whom John the Baptist called the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Jesus is a rabbi who has been recruiting disciples. That position carries some authority with it, although not nearly enough to clear out the temple. Then there is the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine.
When you put all those things together, you get the sense that John is not just giving us a chronological account of Jesus’ life or ministry. His account of Jesus cleansing the temple is way out of order compared to the other gospel writers, in fact. He is painting a portrait of the Son of God who has come to be God’s voice and stir things up where they have gone awry. God come to humanity as a human.
The sacrifices the people were busy with in the temple were sacrifices God had requested of the people, and we can find their origins in the Old Testament. But why was this strange practice put in place? It was a way to deal with sin.
We know what sin is, because we know what God wants and how we fail to live up to the Ten Commandments we read this morning. Sin is being naughty, right? It makes God angry, right?
I wonder if we can deepen our understanding of what we were taught in Sunday School and in confirmation about sin. When you think of it, sin is basically what hurts, what destroys, what kills. The commandments given to Moses and the people were about an order for society, for life. God is in charge. Honor God. You can trust God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.
The commandments tell us to respect other people—their bodies, their reputations, their property. Sin is violating the trust that is necessary in order to live together.
When Jesus summed up the law, he went beyond respect and trust to love. Love the Lord your God. Love one another. This is all of it summed up in a simple way of life.
God made us to love one another, and to live in such a way that everyone has enough and nobody has to be afraid. When you are greedy or jealous or violent, you tear the relationships apart. You violate the trust at the foundation of all of it. That is sin.
So, sin has to be taken seriously. All right, let’s create a deterrent. Punish you, your neighbor, anyone who sins. Except we would spend all of our waking moments assigning penalties, because we sin every time we turn around.
OK, then. Kill an animal to show how serious sin is. Make a sacrifice. You don’t like giving up a creature you carefully fed and raised. But it is better than having your hand cut off, or being banished from the community.
I am probably over simplifying this and maybe presuming to know the mind of God at the same time. But you get the idea. Sin matters, and it must be dealt with.
But after the sacrifices have been put in place, what happens a year, or two years, or ten, or a hundred years later? The sacrifices become more habit than heartfelt apology. They become a kind of payment, maybe even a “Get Out of Jail Free” card you play so you can function with a clear conscience. And you can go on sinning, and abusing your neighbor, and exploiting the poor, as long as you keep your appointment at the temple.
The prophet Amos gave voice to God’s disappointment:
“For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.” (Amos 5:12)
“I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)
David understood the tension between thoughtless worship and obedience:
“For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17)
Keep in mind that David learned this important truth and wrote about it when his heart was truly broken, when his sin with Bathsheba was on display, and he had broken trust with God.
Another problem that arose was that somebody had to be responsible for sin. Somebody had to be blamed. It was too easy to think that sin could be dealt with externally instead of dealing with it at the source, in the heart. So much of our sin involves blaming and shaming, literally scapegoating other people instead of dealing with the sin that metastasizes in our own lives.
Sin matters because it hurts, it kills, it destroys, it blames and shames. We were created to love, and the yearning for it never leaves us. God fills our yearning for love with God’s own presence, with the delights of creation and family and community. God who created all things has authority to set the order, the proper function of every cell and quark of the created world and every intangible thought and bond within and among us humans.
So, when Jesus walked into the temple and sensed a blasé attitude about worship in the air, he had had enough. He shook things up. He drove out the cattle and sheep, because they weren’t what mattered! He dumped out the coins, because they were distracting everyone from enjoying the presence of a loving God in worship.
I think what Jesus wanted to see in their place was that the longings and shame and brokenness in people’s hearts were brought into that holy place, and offered up to God, and healing received.
What would happen if we emptied this room, and re-furnished it every single week? What if we had to heft this big altar onto the platform and put it in place so that we could gather to receive the body and blood of our Lord once again? And we wheeled in the baptism font and filled it with fresh water, every time, to remember that our sin and shame and mediocre worship have to die before we can really live in God’s reign?
And what would happen if we had to do that with our own inner temples? Choose the furnishings and make conscious choices every week, every day, about what belongs there and what does not? Because that is where God meets us at every moment. That is why Jesus claimed that he was the new temple that would be torn down but raised up again in only three days. He is God who comes to us on a cross, in the Spirit, through the reality of every day we live.
The cross we bear high on our steeple is a symbol that cuts to the core of things. It will not allow complacency or comfort to water down our worship. It is an instrument of death, of sacrifice. It is a disturbing image that should shake us up every time we look at it. It tells us that sin matters. On that cross Jesus dealt with the ugliest, most violent sin that resides in our hearts, so that we can come together and worship such a loving, saving, sin-forgiving God, and be healed, and live.
The spiritual practice I am suggesting this week is called Examen of Consciousness, or the Prayer of Examen. It is a way of reviewing your day, confessing your sin, and receiving God’s forgiveness and power for forging a better life. It is a way of being specific, setting an intention for a life of discipleship. A helpful book about this practice is A Simple Life-Changing Prayer.
- Pray for the grace to see your life through God’s eyes.
- Ponder with affection all that God has done for you.
- Review the day with no illusions. Recognize the consolations God has given you—moments of goodness or insight, etc. Acknowledge the desolations—words, actions, thoughts, or anxieties that drew you away from God.
- Look gently at your sins and faults. Recognize that you possess them; they do not have to possess you. Give them to God, and ask for God’s forgiveness.
- Resolve to take action. What practices, attitudes, intentions can you make to amend your life? Ask God to give you what you need to do this.
“Look to the Cross”
Lent 2B…Mark 8:31-38
Spiritual Practice: The Jesus Prayer
Where do you look? What are you looking at? These are the questions that emerged as I pondered the gospel readings leading up to Easter this year.
They say that the eyes are windows to the soul. If they are, then our souls are taking in…what? Texts and memes, Snapchat or Instagram images on our phones. News feeds on our computers that are tailored to our opinions, at least on Facebook. Or, if you are not mesmerized by computer and phone screens, your attention might be focused on your bank balance. Or the approval or disapproval of people in your life. Or the mirror.
Whatever has your attention matters. We could even make a case for this: what holds your attention is what defines you. Another way to say it is that what you focus on is what you worship.
Strong statements. As we watch the progression of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, he gets closer and closer to the core of who they are. Up until now, Jesus has been the darling of the crowds, and the disciples were no exception.
But now the story turns.
Jesus began to predict his suffering and his death. I imagine Peter didn’t even hear the part about rising again, because he got snagged by the suffering and killing part. He was shocked. Jesus must have gone off the deep end. Could this be the same man who had been making blind people see and deaf people hear, the man who fed thousands of people with a couple of sack lunches, the one who walked on water as if it were solid ground?
Peter had no sooner made his great declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, than Jesus began to tell him and his friends that he was going to be tortured, rejected, and killed soon. This was not Messiah talk.
So he took it upon himself to pull Jesus aside and set him straight. The Messiah is supposed to save his people, not walk into a buzz saw of rejection and evil. The Messiah serves the needs of God’s people best by bringing healing and hope, by rescuing them from Roman oppression. He didn’t have to put up with people who didn’t agree with him.
But of course it was Jesus who ended up setting Peter straight. He told Peter in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t playing at being the Messiah. He meant business, except the transactions of his business were strange and chilling, much more costly than Peter could imagine. Jesus spelled out exactly what the salvation of God’s people would cost. His life would be required, but then he expected those he saved to fall in line behind him and give their lives too.
We still don’t quite understand how Jesus redefines the terms of religion. He claims that surrender will get you everything. Give up your life for him and for the gospel, and you will get it back. Victory and defeat, gain and loss—Jesus turned our normal ideas on their heads.
We think of this portion in Mark 8 as a call to discipleship. The terms could not be more simple: take up your cross. Period. Not the cross and a few other things you want to take along. Only the cross. Not a prettier cross. The one that tortures and kills. The one that shames.
That was the point of the Roman cross, not only to warn the populace to toe the line, but to shame those who did not. They were displayed on those crude, deadly stakes planted at intervals alongside the road, so they could not be missed.
Shame is to be exposed, naked, without defense. To have no moral cover.
Jesus predicted that he would be rejected—shamed—by the religious authorities. They were considered the most moral, most godly people of all. They would reject Jesus as cruelly and emphatically as possible. The worst kind of rejection anyone could imagine.
Follow me, Jesus says.
He does not offered a five-tiered list of options for disciples. You know how they name the categories of people who support a fund drive. There are the “supporters” and the bronze, silver, and gold donors, or whatever metaphor is being used. Jesus doesn’t offer your choice of being a fan, a patron, a friend, a student, or a follower. There are only two options: take up your cross and follow, or don’t.
If we call ourselves his followers, then we have to contend with that pesky cross planted firmly in the road. It is the proverbial elephant in the room that takes up so much space. It has to be acknowledged and considered at every moment. And it has blood on it.
As we gaze at the cross of Jesus and consider what it asks of us, it becomes a framework for everything else we see. We see the cross starkly outlined in front of us, but we also see through it to the world Jesus loves. “Persons who join this company [of Jesus followers] do not walk through the world with eyes averted…they develop ‘excruciatingly sensitive eyesight…The heart is stretched through suffering, and enlarged.’ Indeed, out of God’s own suffering, God ‘has planted the Cross along the road of holy obedience.’”
This is not popular theology, not even in the church, sad to say. As God’s people we need to push against the prevailing culture whose field of vision is filled with individualism, comfort, and amassing wealth and possessions. Instead of individualism, the cross calls us to a fellowship of committed followers. Instead of comfort, the cross asks us to be ready to give, and give, and give. Instead of possessions, the cross calls us to offer whatever it takes to live and love as Jesus does, with no regard for comfort, recognition, or success.
Lest we think he is asking too much, consider the questions Jesus poses: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
But that is maybe too abstract. It is easy to follow Jesus in the abstract. Peter said it, remember? It was on the Mount of Olives, and Jesus had predicted that his disciples would scatter like sheep when it was rough going. “Even though all become deserters, I will not,” Peter declared. (Mark 14:26-29) But he did. He did.
Jesus asks for nothing short of your life, your whole life. Well, when you think of it, what do you want your life to count for? Do you want to dedicate yourself to being nice, or to making a difference? Will your legacy be about a list of items on an auction advertisement, or the people whose lives you saved through your generosity and compassion? There are so many distractions that promise life—even a legacy—but once you acquire them, they fall apart in your hands.
The cross won’t fall apart on you.
You will fall apart. But that happens in life anyway, doesn’t it? Tragedy breaks us. Disappointment and disillusionment wear us down. You realize you volunteered once too often and now you are exhausted. How much better to be used up for the sake of Jesus Christ and his least and lost ones?
The cross and the call of Jesus are about your whole life, but you only have to give it one day at a time. One nudge to pray, or phone someone, or offer a helping hand, one at a time. Is it too much to ask you to pick up the phone, or turn off the TV, or stop by the hospital, or take ten minutes to give your attention God? Is it too much to ask? No, it is not too much. Maybe after we practice with these deeds for a while, we are ready for a whole cross.
That cross will cast a shadow, and you won’t always be able to see what is next. So you will have to trust the One who told us that he himself is the way. He had to trust too. He had to lay down his fears just like the rest of us.
The cross brought out the best in Jesus, his fierce love and commitment to us. Our cross will bring out the best in us too. Jesus promised. “Lose your life for my sake, and then you will find it.” The life that is truly life is shaped like a cross.
The spiritual practice I am suggesting this week is the Jesus Prayer. It is a very simple prayer that is meant to be repeated, whether a few times or at length. You might think that repetition would render it meaningless; in fact, it becomes more profound the more you use it. People who use this practice find the prayer returning them during the day. They might even return to it intentionally, to focus their attention on the Lord Jesus. The form I use is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Let’s try it as our prayer right now. I will say the prayer a few times, and then allow for silence as you repeat it in your mind a few more times. If this is uncomfortable for you, you are welcome to pray as you wish. This is an invitation, not a requirement.
 From a sermon by Rev. Dr. Allan Janssen, “The Cross in the Way,” March 12, 2006.
 Taken from “Our Covenant with God,” author unknown, quoting Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion.
Mark 1:9-15….Lent 1B, 2018
Spiritual Practice: Journaling
We are poised almost at the beginning of Lent, a few days into it. Jesus is poised to begin his ministry in our gospel story. It almost seems as though he is checking off a list, the way Mark tells it. Baptism, check. Temptation, check. Now I can start proclaiming the kingdom of God.
Of course there is much more to it than that. There is God’s voice breaking in at his baptism, for one thing: “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.”
And we know that Jesus’ time in the wilderness involved some real wrestling with Satan, the big liar. Something about turning stones into bread, jumping off the temple, and worshiping the tempter himself.
But Mark doesn’t go into all of that. What he does mention that the others don’t are the wild beasts, along with the angels that waited on him.
If Jesus is to be of any use, he has to address some inner issues that might otherwise get in the way of his ministry. I wonder if the mention of both beasts and angels suggests that Jesus had to deal with the inner tensions we all contend with. We know what that is like. We vacillate between heeding God’s invitation to mission and meaning, and letting our misgivings and pet sins have the upper hand. How easily we give in to the fears and habits and attitudes that get in the way of being God’s mouthpiece, God’s agent for healing.
So, Jesus has to take a hard look at what might compromise his message and his impact. Wait, we think of Jesus as perfectly suited to his mission, God’s own Son who came equipped with everything he would need. Why would he have to overcome the same pitfalls we face? I don’t know, but he did.
So, if we want to live close to the center of God’s kingdom and have any spiritual impact, we might need to face the same things. What is true for Jesus in this case would count double—or a hundred-fold—for us. Jesus cannot bypass suffering, cannot skirt around the cross, so he will need to make sure he is spiritually ready. All the more true for us, his disciples, following him on the same road.
If we think of Jesus going out to the desert on a spiritual retreat, we can imagine what he might pack to take along. He didn’t need the scrolls of the ancient texts; good Hebrew boys had them memorized. What is essential, and what is not? This would be good preparation for his three years of ministry. He would have to travel light.
He could not take along much of what he learned about religion. The old assumptions, the previous obligation of his life as a citizen of Galilee were no longer of use to him. He would not be subordinate to the temple or to any of the authorities, religious or Roman. We could say that his baptism signaled the end of that life and the beginning of the new.
Jesus was out there in the silence and the elements for forty days.
Imagine what it would be like. Could you handle all the thoughts and feelings that would finally catch up with you in the silence? When the first wild animal creeps up, would you stay or would you head for home? And how did Jesus—how could we—tell the difference between Satan’s voice, God’s voice, and our own inner whining, or wisdom?
If we are to be of any use to God, we need to face these beasts and meet the angels. We cannot avoid the inner work of being a whole human being if we want to get close to God and one another. Like Max in Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are, we need to face the monsters that want to take over and make us impossible to live with. And when we do, we might find that they are not as powerful and fearsome as we thought. Maybe that is the angels’ job, to help us get close.
But we can only find out if we go there.
I think this is particularly important to say in light of another tragic school shooting. It is horrible, unthinkable that we are agonizing over this yet again. I do not mention this lightly, and certainly do not wish to exploit it as a mere sermon illustration.
No, this is reality. This is where the wild things are, and they are not fun like Max’s monsters. This is pure evil come too close, too often. How can we regard it through the lens of the Gospel?
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, it is said, and this would not be the first time I would be called a fool. But we need to address it as God’s people, to wrestle with its ferocity and just the reality of it. If the way of Jesus isn’t relevant to this, then he is no good to us.
The news was still fresh when the arguments began. Why did this happen? We think we can prevent more violence if we can somehow understand it. What can we do?
One answer is that we can blame someone. Who is responsible? A young man. But it is unthinkable that so much destruction could come from one person, and so young. We cannot fathom it without presuming that there were forces influencing him, or failing to address his problems.
Blame is only one version of what has come to be called magical thinking, the idea that there is a solution out there somewhere. If we could only find the key to the puzzle, we could use it and solve the problem. “Poof!”
Of course none of us is that naïve when we give it any thought. Yet it seems to be an underlying theme to our collective thinking. We believe in cause and effect, a straight line from one to the other. Word hard and you will get results (except when you don’t). Spend more money on education and produce better test results (except when you don’t).
We are continuously disillusioned that our technological prowess, advances in scientific thinking, and progress in institutions do not produce better results than they have. Yet we are able to scrape together just enough evidence of their usefulness to maintain a little comfort, a sense of control. And so we can avoid addressing the disillusionment itself. Except when we can’t.
Maybe it is our illusions that are the problem.
We are experiencing the tragedy collectively, as we did 9/11 on a much larger scale. We feel victimized, and so we follow the impulse to blame someone. We do not like to be acted upon without our consent. This cannot be allowed! We are accustomed to being the act-ors, not the ones on the other side of the action. It is best to be in control. This is the illusion we are living under.
How does this relate to facing the beasts in the desert? Mark says the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. He needed a push, and so do we! We need to spend time in the silence that yields that still, small voice of God. Maybe we can only encounter that voice when we are willing to go where there are no distractions, so that is where the beasts—our evil tendencies?—hang out.
It is almost impossible to hear the Voice amid the clamor for meaning and justice. But this is the same Voice that has been whispering its truth to us every moment of our lives, underneath our emotional experiences as well as our daily lives. It always comes to us when we grieve, so naturally we resist the familiar sound. And yet the same insistent Voice is detected in quiet times of joy. The Voice is both calm and urgent. What is this elusive Voice?
I suspect it is Love.
Ah! Yes, we need love. We’ll get to that after we have found the solution to our tragedy, after justice has been served, after after after.
God who is Love invites us to listen now, especially now. But the message seems too simplistic, so we dismiss it as folly. Don’t make the mistake of thinking love is simple, or easy. We are asked to surrender to love’s requirements, and they can be the hardest challenges of our lives. We are asked to yield to this work, not take charge. It involves facing the truth inside ourselves, those parts that are not loving at all. It involves allowing ourselves to be acted upon, not to be in control of the project. Only God can untangle the sinister forces at work among us and even within us.
If Jesus did anything, he showed and taught that wielding power is not the solution. He will not offer any solution, only a way. His way invites us to be vulnerable, and listen, and reach out to care. And in the course of following Jesus’ way, God works something wonderful in us that is the opposite of violence and hate.
It is counter-cultural to let anyone—even God—have power over us. But God will not abuse the opportunity. God does not force anything on us, but only invites us to wholeness.
You might think we are straying too far from the problem, thinking that love will do any good in this case. Policies and enforcement are called for, not fluffy ideas about love! But love is more relevant than anything else, because it is what all 17 victims and their parents and their murderer were created to do above all else. And only love will heal the gaping wounds, in time. Only the love of the one who was also victimized can stand with us and heal us at such a time.
Following Jesus will help us know the truth of it. We have two main choices in how we will cope with the reality of evil. We can deny or avoid it. We have myriad ways of doing that. Or we can follow Jesus. Following him trains us to live in hope as God’s people who love no matter what, and let the energy of that fierce love forge us into people who offer hope to the world. It is not an easy path, not a quick solution, but it is the way to life.
Jesus could have waved his hand and fixed all the problems of his time. He could have offered an instant solution that would do nothing to soften and tame our wayward hearts. Instead he chose to do something that made no sense even to his disciples, not until after Jesus left them. He allowed himself to be acted upon, even to be killed, for the sake of love. He demonstrated the beatitudes he preached. He befriended all those who had no control over their lives, and he said that these are the ones who are prepared to live God’s way.
It makes no sense to us, not until we stop, and listen to the Voice of love, and heed it.
The spiritual practice I am suggesting this first week in Lent is journaling. It is an invitation to take time to pay attention to your inner beasts and angels. Record your questions, your thoughts, your anguish, your victories. Let that time be a bit of desert for you, where you will find that the beasts will not consume you, the angels will attend you, and God’s voice of love can reach you in the quiet.
Carrying Glory with Us
Mark 9:2-9…Transfiguration B
I spent January in four different places: Hawaii, northwest Iowa, Miami Beach, and the St. Benedict Center north of Schuyler, Nebraska. Quite a variety! Each place has its own significance and vibe. The natural beauty of Oahu is breathtaking. My home in Spencer is a place of solace and love. The St. Benedict Center is a place of serenity.
Miami Beach is in a beautiful place, but the impression I got in our hotel was that appearance really matters there. We happened to be in a place where the night clubs were hopping long after every sunset, and I’m pretty sure the clientele of our hotel did not shop at J C Penney.
But there are other images in Miami. I took the bus tour and hopped off at Wynwood Walls, where some wealthy benefactors bought up some space and invited artists to paint the walls in the neighborhood. The large scale art pieces were breathtaking. Artists depicted what was in their imaginations, and I was startled by what they created. How can someone even imagine such scenes? It was intriguing to think that any person I might meet on the street could have a whole gallery of ideas or images in their mind’s eye, with no hint of it on their faces or in the way they walk.
Peter, James, and John had an image etched in their minds, the image of Jesus glowing brightly one day after they hiked up a mountain together. It’s funny that most of the depictions of this moment called the Transfiguration have Jesus standing between two other figures—Moses and Elijah—as though they are making some kind of presentation or posing for a picture. I don’t like to think of them in such a formal posture. Maybe Jesus was kneeling in prayer, or just sitting on a rock, with the other two sitting on rocks nearby. The artists might be right. Who knows?
Try to put yourself in the disciples’ place. You’re resting after the effort of the climb. You look over at Jesus, and you notice he is starting to glow, and the light grows brighter. You rub your eyes and shake your head to look again. The glow is still there. And then, at the edges of the light some other shapes begin to form. You can’t tell what they are, but they look like people, like men. They seem to be talking with Jesus, so you lean in to hear what they are saying. From their conversation, you realize that they are Moses and Elijah. Impossible!
As if that were not strange enough, a mist appears and settles over all of you. It dims the light of these men and creates a hush. No more birds singing or leaves rustling in the wind. Out of the mist—you can’t tell which direction it is coming from; it seems to be all around you—there comes a voice unlike any other. It is deep and authoritative, yet gentle and almost imperceptible. It sounds familiar, but you cannot access any memory of it. The voice intones, “This is my son the beloved. Listen to him!”
And then the mist, the voice, the men, the glow all fade away. The rocks, the weeds, the dusty path are all just as they were a few moments ago. Once again Jesus is simply there, but this time he is smiling and peaceful, looking at you quizzically as if to say, “Well, what do you think?” You look at the other disciples with wide eyes, speechless.
Jesus says quietly, “Let’s go back now, my friends.” You follow him down the mountain, but before you get to the bottom, he beckons for you all to stop. He turns and instructs you, “I know that was a lot to take in. Please keep it to yourselves until after I rise from the dead.”
Rise from the dead? You look at each other again, confused.
Those three men kept this secret to themselves. Sometimes they would pull away from the others and talk about what it might mean. It was a puzzle, that was certain, and Jesus’ prediction about rising from the dead was the strangest part.
What was it like for them to have that image burned into their minds, especially after Jesus was arrested and their world was turned upside down? Was it pushed aside, overtaken by the image of his torture, his bleeding form carrying his cross? Did James and Peter remember that image while they saw Jesus’ dying form on the hillside in the distance? Was it on John’s mind when we saw the blood dripping on the ground in front of him as he was holding Mary up the foot of the cross?
When chaos and suffering overtake us, it is hard to imagine anything beautiful or hopeful. But for some reason, three of Jesus’ disciples were given the image of Jesus’ glory before he made his way to Jerusalem and his cross. He planted that image in their minds before his suffering and death. Nobody else could detect the image, the memory inside the minds of Peter, James, and John.
The memory they carried was bigger than anything they had ever experienced. It was strange and beautiful, reassuring and terrifying at the same time. Peter wanted to keep it going and camp on the mountain. But Jesus came back down, and he carried on as if nothing had happened, healing and casting out demons, telling everyone who would listen about the reality of God’s reign that was very different from the prevailing teaching about it.
We cannot translate or interpret the Transfiguration in any way that doesn’t render it smaller than it is. We can only behold and marvel. Like the resurrection, the veil of our world is parted for a moment, and we get a glimpse of what is beyond our normal vision. We get a sense that God has a bigger purpose, and the life God has placed in humans is not necessarily overtaken by death. There is something more, something much more vast and real at work.
Maybe that memory enabled Peter, James, and John to believe that Jesus’ resurrection was possible when it happened. That it matched a kind of déjà vu experience Jesus granted them on the mountain.
Maybe it helped them look back on Jesus’ suffering with a broader perspective than disappointment and grief, because it seemed that Jesus might have been preparing for it with the ancient fathers before it happened.
Or maybe not. We don’t know.
What we do know, and have, are the images we have as God’s people through the Scriptures. We have the whole story, at least through the beginnings of the church. We can read the whole Bible, and see that God is always up to something. When people in the Scriptures have mysterious experiences of God, they somehow know that it is God and not indigestion, or wishful thinking. They are inspired, and empowered. Moses gets the courage to lead his people out from under Pharaoh’s grasp. Mary understands that she will bear the son of God to the world. The disciples are transformed from cowardly traitors to bold preachers.
But all of these people also went through suffering. Jesus’ greatest glory is not the kind they try to reproduce at the Olympic opening ceremonies. His glory is just as operative when he is feeling every lash of the whip, every step on the Via Dolorosa, every ragged breath on the cross. As Lutherans we believe that Jesus’ glory is made perfect in his sacrifice. His love is demonstrated in his great suffering and death. It is a glory rarely seen among us, unless we train ourselves to look closely and detect that great love in our acts of servanthood for one another.
As we begin the season of Lent this week, the image we will hold before us is not the transfigured Jesus nor the resurrected Jesus. The image we have etched in our minds will be smudged on our foreheads, the cross of Jesus Christ. This image is God’s glory painted in earth tones and in Jesus’ human blood.
Other people may or may not detect this image we carry inside of us. I hope they do. As Jesus’ disciples we are granted this image to show us the way to life. It is the way of human struggle, the way of brokenness for the sake of others who are as desperate as we are for the hope we carry within. We will celebrate the resurrection only after we understand its meaning from the days leading up to it, when Jesus’ love endured the deepest pain and led us through our greatest fear to life with God.
Mark 1:29-39; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Jesus is busy in the gospel of Mark, at least up to this point. We are only at verse 29 in the first chapter of the gospel, and Jesus has been baptized—Mark doesn’t even bother with his birth in Bethlehem—and was tempted in the desert, and he has recruited some disciples. In today’s reading he cures or maybe even resurrects Simon’s mother-in-law (it could be either one), cures many sick people and casts out many demons, takes time out to pray, and goes on the road to proclaim the gospel in the synagogues and cast out more demons.
If I were to treat you like confirmation students and ask you what Jesus came to earth to do, what would you say? The safe answer would be that he came to die in order to save us from our sins. And that would be correct, although it is the simplest way of describing the gospel, which has many layers to it and reveals its beauty the more we explore its dimensions.
Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; that that is what I came out to do.”
That message, that gospel, which Mark says in verse one is the whole reason he wrote about Jesus, well, that is what we are meant to be all about as his church, isn’t it?
If we follow Jesus, which we can easily do in Mark’s gospel that is so direct and action-oriented, we really need to watch him closely. How did Jesus choose to spend his time? He healed people, he rebuked the demons that tormented them and sent them away. He told people about God, and when they heard what he had to say, they believed it as coming from someone who knew what he was talking about. He had authority.
That and the ability to heal diseases and cast out demons will make you popular in a hurry, and of course that is what happened. People flocked to him to hear him teach, to be healed, to be delivered from what troubled them.
It seems to me that is what Jesus was up to. He did not hole up in the temple courts or limit his contacts to the religious elites. He went to the people to see what they needed.
On a couple of my trips to western Africa, I felt as though I got a taste of Jesus’ experience, of people clamoring for help and hungry for hope. My host gave me a guided tour of her neighborhood, and word spread quickly that there was a Christian minister thereabouts. People came asking for prayer. These are Muslims, but they didn’t seem to care what my religion was; they simply wanted help. So I found myself praying with people seeking employment, a woman desperate to have a child but fearing she was infertile, people facing impossible financial challenges in a society with no welfare assistance. They came to me with hungry eyes, grasping me by the arm, eager to hear my prayer for them. At one neighborhood gathering, they heard who I was and lined up to have me pray for them.
So when I read about people coming from miles around to see Jesus, I have a bit of understanding how that feels. Even though I didn’t necessarily go looking for people in need, Jesus did. That is what he came to do.
See, the gospel is not just about us feeling less in trouble because Jesus died for our sins. It is God’s response to people in all kinds of need. It is God coming to us because divine compassion compels God to come to us and help us in our human condition.
The gospel is not a message as much as it is an action. It was Jesus driven to come to us to restore us, to make us whole again. He claimed his authority over the demonic and self-inflicted pains we suffer. He loves each one and all.
Fortunately Mark doesn’t leave out the part where Jesus went off to pray. He needed to go to the source to keep divine love flowing through him. That is how we get our energy too. Spending time focusing on God and bringing our selves into God’s presence enables us to see with God’s eyes, to regard the people in our lives with God’s heart of compassion. It is where the compulsion to care, the compassion and love are renewed and energized.
We live in an age where our language is in flux. New words and phrases are being coined every day in the torrent of words flooding social media. One such word is “adulting,” what twenty-somethings say they are doing when they accomplish certain marks of adulthood like buying a house, etc. Nouns are being turned into verbs, driving grammarians crazy. So now we have words like “twinning” and “tailgating.” Remember when “tailgate” only meant the back of your truck and not what you do before a football game?
There is no better argument for turning a noun into a verb than the gospel, because the gospel is not just a static thing. It is an energy, a direction, a drive that moves you to act. You are “gospeling” when you reach out in love, whether it is merely a smile of encouragement or a drastic change of lifestyle or your life’s work for the sake of the poor.
Gospeling is seeing the world with Jesus’ eyes, and acting with compassion. It takes no special skills or tools. It is a natural response to the life of Jesus Christ within us, taking him seriously when he tells us who our neighbors are (the people who need our help) and that loving means laying down our lives for one another.
An interesting contrast to Jesus’ “gospeling” work in Galilee is found in the excerpt we read from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning. It is not about compassionate work. It is about following the rules. The context of the letter is that there is controversy in that church about whether to eat food that has been offered to idols.
How did the church get away from that vital ministry of Jesus in only one generation? Already they are arguing. There’s nothing new under the sun, right? We know how fond the church is of arguing these days, almost twenty centuries later.
But here’s the thing. This argument mattered, because some of them were worried about leading new converts astray. They didn’t want them to think it was okay to consume food that had the taint of idol worship on it. That might look like approving of idol worship, right?
Others argued that since the idols were bogus, it shouldn’t matter. It would be fun to debate this, but I will resist. You can see how it could be argued either way.
Paul told his readers that he could have claimed authority and settled the questions. Instead, he used the opportunity to explain what he would do. He would not simply declare a ruling. He chose to identify more closely with different kinds of people, to understand them well enough to share the good news of hope in Jesus Christ with them:
“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view…I did all this because of the Message [what he calls the gospel]. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”
In other words, he loved them. That takes time.
As God’s people our faith engages us in a variety of activities, from meeting people’s needs to wrestling over questions that are not all that different from the one about which food is okay to eat.
My sense is that we need to avoid getting distracted by such questions, and we can approach them with an eye to the gospel Jesus embodied. We need to let Jesus’ love be the standard that guides our decisions and our actions. You might say, are we “gospeling?”
Questions about issues are second level activities. They matter as long as they drive us back to the question of the gospel, the question of love. What will meet the people where they are? What will help them be restored to well being again? How can we show them that God loves them?
If we keep the energy of the gospel, its focus on the needs of each person we encounter, not watering it down to some warm fuzziness but getting into the trenches with them and loving them, then we are following Jesus. We are loving as he loves.
Recently I chatted with a young man about his girlfriend. They have known each other for about six months, but they seem so well-suited to each other. Their story seems to have the mark of God’s ways on it. They live in different cities—Kansas City and Austin—so if they end up together, there is a question of who would relocate. He said, “Here’s how I know I am falling in love with her. When I first met her, I thought I could never move to Kansas City. But now I think I would be willing to do that.”
Love is willing, you see. It goes as far as it has to go to be with the beloved. That is what Jesus did, both in his coming to earth in the first place, and in his daily work. He goes as far as it takes. That is gospeling, what he asks us to do too, to go as far as we have to for the sake of each one. To become weak with the weak, to give up status for the sake of someone who cannot even see it from where they are. To let the love of God compel us, for the sake of all those God loves, every day.
Are We Giving Jesus the Leftovers?
Mark 1:14-20…Epiphany 3B
It was a quiet morning. The pink hues of the dawn horizon were slowly disappearing. The grunts of the fishermen pulling their boats and swooshing them to their moorings were the only sounds besides the soft, rhythmic slap of water on the beach. Another ordinary day had begun. Simon muttered impatiently at his brother Andrew, who was trying another cast of his net after an unsuccessful night of fishing. Andrew ignored his brother’s jibes as he doggedly gave the fish one more chance to provide him some meager income.
A hundred yards away, John and James inspected the nets as their father Zebedee scolded them once again about choosing the wrong spot to fish. John didn’t pay much attention, lost in thought as usual. He was thinking about the man that his friends told him about yesterday. Galilee was abuzz with talk of a carpenter from Nazareth who was hanging around Capernaum for some reason, telling people to straighten up and get ready for the kingdom of heaven. Sure, he thought, we’ve been getting ready for 700 years, ever since Isaiah told us that a Messiah was coming. Are we just stupid, thinking that David’s line hasn’t petered out by now? Our hope is almost gone, that’s for sure.
Does this Jesus character know anything that the rabbis don’t know? Could he be the Messiah? Nah, the Messiah was supposed to rescue his people, not get splinters making furniture for the upper classes. There have been plenty of false Messiahs anyway—guys who just want attention or like to stir up controversy…Nothing ever comes of it.
As John pondered these questions and gazed into the distance, something caught his eye. Who was the fellow talking with Simon and Andrew? What were they doing, walking down the beach with him, leaving their nets behind? Why are they coming this way? John motioned for his brother to be quiet. The man was yelling at them. “Come and follow me! You want to fish? I’ll show you fishing—you’ll be catching people before long!”
It was so strange. John’s common sense told him that this man was crazy. But there was something about the man that John couldn’t resist. He saw his brother James looking at the man in the same way, captivated. With a twinkle in his eye and a secret look of conspiracy at John, James jumped into the water and headed for shore. John felt his own feet getting wet before he realized that he was leaving the boat behind. His father’s voice seemed to come out of a dream, the same dream he seemed to be enacting in his own irrational behavior. “Hey! Where do you think you’re going? We’re not done for today. These nets need mending! I’d better see you back here tonight if you’re taking off, or we won’t be ready to fish tomorrow!”
The scene puzzles us. We can’t imagine taking off to follow a stranger, no matter how convincing his message might be. But this is the striking beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Mark. Jesus has just begun preaching that the kingdom of God has come near. Now he is building his kingdom. Only he’s not building it with fortresses or even armies. He’s building it with ordinary people.
Throughout the history of God’s people, God had been telling them over and over that power, size and material things don’t matter nearly as much as justice, compassion and peace. But they could never resist the temptation to control life and everything in it. Power is pretty convincing, at least in the short run. Large fortresses and armies do keep enemies at bay.
Still, the good news of God’s reign is about relationships, not territory or control. We stubbornly make a case for the ways of this world, and struggle with God’s ways marked by patience and humility. It’s no wonder Jesus had to come to teach us that, show us that. That day on the beach, Jesus began building his kingdom with fishermen. The bluster of Simon, the rivalry of James and John…these were the humble materials out of which he intended to establish his impact.
Jesus the authority as the Son of God not only to forgive sin but to create faith, peace and joy within us. He has the resources of the universe, the power to create and destroy, the truth that lies under all of science and psychology and art. His purpose for us is to bring all things under his reign, the reign that is all about love and peace for every human and all of nature. It’s no wonder we want to surrender our whole lives to him. Many people follow Jesus after reading the gospels and debating the existence of God. What’s striking about these fishermen is that they knew very little about Jesus when they left their nets and a boat to go with him. They did not make any careful plans to fall back on in case this lark didn’t pan out.
The same thing happens all over the world these days. People who never heard of Jesus before see the “Jesus” film in their language and turn their lives over to him. Just like that. The truth of Jesus’ love and forgiveness overwhelms their resistance, and they drop everything to follow him. Many people do it at great risk, whether in Saudi Arabia or China, whether they are acting within a gang family or against a parent’s direct orders.
What I wonder today is this. What if Simon, Andrew, James and John had told Jesus to wait and come back next week? How would things have turned out if Simon had told Jesus, “Hey, you seem really interesting, but I’m already going to the temple a few times a year. I’m not sure I can spare any more time than that.”
Or if Andrew had said, “Hey, I heard they’re selling ‘What Would Jesus Do’ bracelets at the market. I’ll just pick one of those up so people know I’ve met you.”
Or if James had said, “I don’t know. I think I’ll do a background check to make sure you are who everybody thinks you are. I can’t be connected with somebody who’s going to make me look like a fool.”
Or if you or I said, “I have a full schedule this week. Let’s try next Wednesday. That’s church night, so we should be good. Oh wait, that’s when my cousin said she’ll be coming to check the paint colors for my living room. How about Friday? No, that’s not good either. The kids have a ballgame out of town. Sunday ought to be wide open. Yikes! I forgot, I have to bake for the church fundraiser that day. I don’t have any other chance to do it. Well, why don’t I get back to you on that discipleship project, Jesus? It sounds really neat. I’ll email you after I check my Facebook tonight.”
Francis Chan, in his book Crazy Love, addresses this kind of attitude when it comes to following Jesus. He calls it “serving leftovers to a holy God.” He cites the priests of Malachi’s day who offered the diseased lambs instead of their best for their sacrifices to God. He notes Malachi’s scathing rebuke: “’But when you present the blind [animals] for sacrifice, it is not evil? And when you present the lame and sick, is it not evil? Why not offer it to your governor? Would he be pleased with you? Or would he receive you kindly?’ Says the LORD.”
In other words, we wouldn’t offer such substandard fare to a local official. Yet we think God should be happy if we offer Him something. God described such practice as evil. “Let’s stop calling it ‘a busy schedule’ or ‘bills’ or ‘forgetfulness’”[i] when we offer Jesus our excuses for not following him. It is called sin. It is called evil.
Jesus had the power to call fishermen from their nets, and he still has that power to call us from what occupies us today. His presence, his divine nature, his power are so compelling that he can take our minds off what we are leaving behind and focus them instead on the life he has for us.
That’s what it takes, doesn’t it? We have to pry our eyes and our hearts away from what the world says will give us life and turn to the life Jesus calls us to instead. But we don’t have to come up with the will to do this ourselves. We are baptized as God’s own children! Jesus not only calls and compels us to follow, he gives us the power to do it, and then he reveals to us the next step, and the next. He is our life! So nothing concerns us more than our relationship with him. Nothing.[ii]
What is this book we read? The Bible. But not only the Bible, it is God’s Word. The revelation to us of God’s own self, God’s desires for our wholeness and eternal joy, God’s drastic measures to give us the life that is the only true life. How can we do anything but fall on our knees in gratitude and confess our sin, admit that everything is his whether we give it to him or try to serve our own ideals? What does it take for us to see that nothing else matters except the love and purposes of God? We are called to be Jesus’ disciples, not his admirers, not his fans, not his pen pals. He made you, redeemed you with his death, lives in you as the Holy Spirit. Do you fight that, or do you make it your life’s work to serve Jesus as Lord in everything?
One writer calls discipleship being swept up into God’s story. She makes the point that this story looks different in each of our lives, and I think she’s right. Certainly what I’m called to do doesn’t look like God’s plan for you. We each have different gifts, different personalities, different situations.
Different fishermen have their own particular ways of following the Lord. It might mean letting hired servants go and taking care of Zebedee when he gets too old to fish. Or casting those same fishing nets in a new way, or for new reasons. It could mean using the fish you catch for some new purpose, or spending the money they earn at the market on something you never spent it on before. It could mean reorganizing the whole fishing business so those men idling on the pier could be employed at a decent wage.[iii] It might even mean doing less every day, so you can get to know your Master more, actually enjoy life with your fellow fishermen.
Whatever following Jesus means for you, it probably means taking a hard look at what you’re fishing for right now, and talking to Jesus about it. You can talk about whether you are you fishing for people, spreading the love of Jesus in your life and work. Maybe he’ll show you that you fishing for something else that won’t get you past the same old cycle of striving for more. We really need to check ourselves, my friends, and own up to what our faith in Jesus means to us. Are we Jesus’ disciple, or just admirers? Are we giving him all that we have and all that we are, or are we giving him the leftovers?
[ii] Ibid., p. 96.
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time
John 1:43-51…Epiphany 2B
Transformations are popular these days. From makeovers on talk TV to articles and websites and apps about losing weight, from HGTV’s house makeovers to a do-over of health care in the U.S., we can’t get enough of them. Transformation is a word we use about faith too.
To be transformed is to be changed from one state to something completely different. Jesus came to earth, died for you, rose for you, and gives you his Spirit’s power so that you can be transformed from a mere homo sapiens into his disciple. He didn’t die for you so you could be dogged by sin, hemmed in by bad memories, or even comfortable with the way things are. He didn’t create you to be satisfied with your own ideas of what is good. He came to give you life! Some might say that life in Jesus is “your best life now,” but truly, the life Jesus gives is sometimes very hard. Nevertheless it is your best life, because the sacrifices he calls you to make lead to amazing blessings for you and the world God loves through you. He calls you to be everything he created you to be, and for the vast majority of us, we aren’t there yet to be sure.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to let somebody have what is most precious to me, even to answer his invitation to give him everything, he had better be somebody I can trust, someone worth following, somebody who will really deliver on his promises. That would be a great contrast to the politicians who have filled our ears and our answering machines this month, eh?
And so, we would do well to take a fresh look at Jesus today. Clear away the old pictures of Jesus you remember from your childhood, pictures that have become pretty faded and worn with use in your mind. Perhaps we even need to put aside what we learned about Jesus just last year. Let him stride into our lives again today and call us again to faith in him. Let’s see if we can meet Jesus again for the first time.
I do not presume to be able to impress you today with who Jesus is. My words, as carefully as I can craft them, cannot compel you to follow Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. All I ask is that you open your mind and hear, and acknowledge that you need to meet him again. We all do. We tend to be like Samuel, who actually lived in the temple for 12 years but didn’t know God at all. Amazing!
Maybe that means we can go to church all our lives and not really know Jesus as he wants us to know him. Can you allow for that possibility? Last week we went over John the Baptist’s message of confession, forgiveness and repentance that has to happen in order for us to be open to his plan for our lives. If you don’t see how messed up you are without Jesus, you won’t be interested in coming to him so he can save you from yourself. We have to comprehend the disastrous consequences of remaining in our sin. Once we know that, and who our Savior is, following him is a no-brainer, to be blunt about it.
So, let’s take a few minutes to see Jesus as he comes to us in the Scriptures today. First, in our gospel lesson, John 1:43-51. If you are skeptical about who Jesus is, you can identify with Nathanael. When Philip told him that Jesus was the one prophesied in the first testament, Nathanael scoffed, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
When Jesus spotted Nathanael, he pegged him as a true Israelite, a dedicated person of God who was a man of integrity. “How did you get to know me?” Nathanael wondered. Jesus may have been teasing him a bit when he said, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” That’s no basis for knowing someone. Maybe that’s why Nathanael responded with shock that Jesus really did know him, and confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.
So Nathanael is stunned that Jesus could know him so well without ever having spent time together. It is important to understand this. Jesus knows us. He knows you better than you know yourself, and always will. We read part of Psalm 139 this morning, actually the best passage in all the Bible about how well Jesus knows us. He was there when you were created, but he was not surprised, because the plans for your DNA, your personality, for this day of your life, were all in his mind when you were crafted in your mother’s womb.
Remember how God called Samuel by name when he was sleeping in the temple? Jesus knows you by name. He knows when you sit, when you rise up. You cannot get out of his sight, even if you go to the “farthest limits of the sea” as the psalmist testifies in verse 9. He knows what you are going to say before you say it. Is that a scary thought? Maybe that will motivate you to confess your sin, if nothing else will.
Over and over again in the Bible we read about God knowing us and coming to us to call us to himself. Jesus knew Peter better than he knew himself; he knew Peter would deny him three times in spite of his vehemence in promising to stick with Jesus through thick and thin. He knew Zacchaeus well enough to see his pain and his yearning to be forgiven. He knew that Saul’s passion for God was misdirected, that Paul would become the great apostle to the Gentiles instead of the great persecutor of the church.
Jesus knows you. And in spite of all that you wish he didn’t know, he loves you. Each person he touches with his healing hand knows that love. But we don’t need images of healing to prove his love. We have the cross. Jesus doesn’t just want to give us life, or greatness, or purpose. He wants to give us himself. Only love can bridge such a gap, from Jesus’ eternal power and greatness to becoming one of us, becoming like you so you will receive the life he has for you.
James Baldwin, in one of his novels, says, “There was a man in the world once who loved me, and because that was the case, I can dare now to continue the struggle to become a man myself.” Jesus’ love not only makes you feel good, he helps you become his beloved one in all fullness of life. He gives you himself and gives you yourself too. He loves who you are! He made you, he died for you, he lives in you all because he can’t get enough of you. You are his treasure worth dying for. If when you picture Jesus in your mind’s eye you don’t see the love in his eyes, look more closely, because it is unmistakably there.
I think it is that love that compelled Paul to write what he did in 1 Cor. 6. God wants every part of our lives, including our sexuality, to be whole and meaningful. He warns us to flee from immorality because it will hurt us. He wants us to honor Him with our bodies because he loves us and wants what is best for us.
I believe it is this love that compels every believer to follow Jesus, to surrender everything to him. Don’t you want to know the one who loves you like this, as well as you can?
If his love weren’t enough, Jesus also tells us what he told Nathanael. This man wanted to follow Jesus just because Jesus noticed him under a fig tree. Jesus was amused that that was all it took. He said, in essence, “Is that all it took? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” And then, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Nathanael did see more. He saw Jesus in all his glory not just in healing people or feeding people with a boy’s sack lunch. He saw Jesus on the cross. He saw Jesus risen from the dead. He and his fellow disciples found out that Jesus had much bigger plans than they ever imagined. Heaven was opened for them, and the way to God was offered to them as a gift.
Jesus exceeds our expectations every time, my friends. Every single time. We think we do him a favor by obeying him, and he opens up a whole new way of being to us as a bonus. We forgive, and find our relationships not only restored but often revived and full of surprises. We trust him with our finances, and we find that we always have what we need. We give to the poor and find ourselves enriched. We give him our old ideas about being church and find that he gives us joy in worship and mission. Jesus grows bigger and more powerful in our souls the more we spend time with him and trust him.
Tomorrow we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day in the United States. He was certainly a great figure in our history, calling our society to live as Jesus taught us to live. But King’s detractors like to point out that he was a human being, that he had faults. He wasn’t a saint. He made mistakes in judgment and put his marriage to the test. He suffered from anxiety and depression. But what do we expect? Even though he had great influence, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man like the rest of us.
Jesus is not like the rest of us. He isn’t just a nice idea or a figure in history. He is God come to us in the flesh, buying us with his death, living in us by his Spirit. His power is beyond imagining, and his plans for us are also beyond the scope of our dreams.
And yet. We spend so much of our time rationalizing how we can follow Jesus and still have things our way. We try to tame Jesus so we can be in control of our lives. But Jesus will not be tamed. He is dangerous! He is appalled at our disregard for the poor and saddened by our satisfaction with small dreams. He is sick of waiting for you to forgive someone who hurt you years ago. He wants to give you the life that is real life! Let him have his way and your life will not be business as usual. I heard someone say this week that Jesus loves you just as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way.
You know it’s true. You know he loves you. Don’t be afraid of what he wants to do in you. Whatever he asks you to give up will be good riddance. Whatever he calls you to do will keep you coming back for more. In your soul, you know he is the only answer to your restless heart.
I like how Frederick Buechner proclaims this good news in his explanation of Nathanael’s introduction to Jesus.
Nathanael’s shrug [of a joke] is the shrug of us all if we’re honest, I think. Can any one
life shed light on the mystery of life itself? In some new and shattering way, can any one life make us come alive ourselves, because that is of course what we wait for, what religion is about—what churches are about, what our hymns and preaching and prayers are all about, though there are times you would hardly know it. Life: that’s what we all hunger for, wait for always, whether we keep coming back to places like church to find it or whether we avoid places like church…It’s life as we’ve never really known it but only dreamed it that we wait for. Life with each other. Life for each other. Life with the darkness gone. And they have found it, Philip says. They have found him. Can it be true?[i]
Mystery and Clarity
Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12
Life is full of mysteries. If you have email, you’ve read some silly ones. Examples: if you own land, do you own it all the way down to the center of the earth? Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of a bottle? Can you cry under water? And is the Hoky Poky really what it’s all about?
One could argue that life is shaped by the questions we seek to answer. Examples: How can I be ensure the best future for my children? What is the quickest way to make a lot of money? Can I be happy even though I am challenged by a disability?
Nobody would argue that our faith holds much mystery, and we need to tolerate our unanswered questions in order to have faith in God. William Broderick is a former monk who writes mysteries. The detective hero is himself a monk, and he is visiting a young woman who had lost a dear friend. In response to her questions, he advises, “if you keep listening, you…don’t get any answers, but more often than not, the question slip out of reach and cease to be questions. The bad news is that it takes about ten years.” The woman responds, “Thanks. And what about the ones that stay?” The monk replies, “We’ve a choice—either the whole shebang’s absurd…or it’s a mystery.”
We have to be satisfied to know that we will never learn the answers to all of our questions about God. In fact mature faith has been defined as the ability to live with the paradoxes, the mysteries of faith. I like what Rainer M. Rilke said about this: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved din your heart. And try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing, live along some distant day into the answer.”
In our time, mystery is considered a puzzle to be solved. We live in a scientific age, where observation and experimentation often lead to resolution. The diseases that don’t have a cure? We assume that someday down the road, science will provide an answer. In the meantime, the mysteries nag at us.
Yet for the Ephesians to whom Paul was writing, mystery was not a negative thing. It was a treasure to be revealed. The mystery Paul shared with them was that the salvation God offers through Jesus Christ is for all who believe, not just the Jews. That was news, a mystery revealed, back then. It was a big deal.
There is mystery in the story of the magi we read in Matthew 2. These were people skilled in strange arts. They made calculations about the signs they saw in the heavens, and so their conclusions led them to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We wonder whether they knew anything at all about the child they sought. For the people Matthew was writing to, it was a true mystery: Gentiles came to worship a king of the Jewish people. Gentiles! And what would compel them to travel so far on their quest?
At the end of the magi’s quest, they found what they were looking for. They worshipped the child Jesus and offered him precious gifts. Then they lived up to their nickname “wise men” and skedaddled out of Herod’s orbit before he could use them to find Jesus, or worse, kill them for the knowledge they possessed.
We celebrate Epiphany today, the revelation of Jesus to the world. The magi represent the world, having come from a far country. The word “epiphany” itself is defined as “a sudden, intuitive … insight into the … essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence….” (www.dictionary.com)
It is an “aha” moment. One writer compares it to a revelation, “a moment when we are reading a ‘difficult book, seeking to follow a complicated argument, [and] we come across a luminous sentence from which we can go forward and backward and so attain some understanding of the whole.’”
So everything falls into place in a moment of epiphany. The birth of Jesus is just that kind of event, because he makes sense of all that comes before him. The exiles who were suffering, yearning to return home were encouraged by the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” (Isaiah 60:1-2)
Neither they nor the prophet himself knew that the one who would embody all their hopes would arrive in the person of an infant. But God offered the always-intended solution to their troubles, and Jesus’ arrival formed the shape of their yearning many years later. Everything after Jesus was illuminated by his birth too. Jesus was the “new thing” God had promised to bring to pass, and his cross established God’s mercy toward us for all time.
We love those epiphanies. “…the veil parts, we see the not-yet now, we glimpse the mystery and beauty at the heart of all that is, we see things as they really are and not as they usually appear.” An “aha” moment makes everything crystal clear, but it only lasts that long—a moment.
I have struggled for the past three days with trying to express this kind of moment in words. I read an essay this morning by Kristen Johnson Ingram that, and I was captivated:
“In the movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ scientists rendezvous with beings from outer space. They share symbolic musical tones and create a song that’s echoed by the fleet of starships. The ships dance and swoop, and folks on the ground whirl and chuckle with delight. The aliens found us, we found them, and everything is beautiful.
“But a great silence falls, and the people look up, asking where their new friends went; and then they are paralyzed by wonder, because the main spacecraft slowly appears and the entire sky is obscured. That’s a sight to make you suck in your breath all right, and you’d probably wonder if you could live, having seen it…
“Imagine something bigger, something immeasurably bigger than that spacecraft, something you must look at while also trying to hide from the sight. Imagine a music that makes every molecule in your body and brain tremble with awe, something—or rather Someone—whose voice pervades the universe and calls across space with a terrifying, magnificent song. Think of a presence so awesome that even the angels cover their faces and the elders fling down their crowns (Rev. 7:11; 4:9-10). Everything on earth resonates with the pattern: God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sanctifier are, together, God the Warrior Lover, who dances through nature and politics and laughter and the moon. Don’t run away or hide: stand still and wonder.”
The vastness and other-worldly nature of God simply require that we remain ignorant for the most part. We could not grasp the realities of God any more than a fish can imagine riding a camel. In quiet moments we experience the mystery as an unnamed yearning, an awareness that there is more that we are meant to be connected with somehow.
The yearning for clarity is itself evidence that we were created to know God. Yet clarity is rare in the life of faith. We are given only what we need, and that is enough to ponder for a lifetime. The danger is assuming that we have been given more than we have. We can fall into the trap of being certain of what we have learned, what we have calculated and researched, even what God may have allowed us to discover in an “aha” moment. Be careful about certainty. It can close your heart to whatever God wants to show you next.
There are so many things about which we want to be certain, but we cannot. The Scriptures do not tell us everything. One of the paradoxes of faith is that what really is clear are the signs we are given, yet they are signs that hold mysteries: a star, a cross, an empty tomb. A bit of bread in your hand and the taste of wine on your lips to keep your senses tuned to the mystery we depend on. And this: the love at the heart of the universe came to us as a baby, and that love calls you. Like the magi, you must heed the call, or be lost.
 Kimberlee Conway Ireton, “Waking to Mystery,” Weavings (Vol. XXI, No. 1), p. 22.
 Kristen Johnson Ingram, “Stand Still,” Weavings (Vol. XXII, No. 1), p. 34.
Thank God for Religion
Luke 2:22-40…Christmas 1B
I made a New Year’s resolution last week, the first one I have made in a few years. My son and I resolved to play Scrabble together once a month in 2018. Sound silly? Well, we both struggle to take time off from work, so we think it is a great idea. But I wonder how well we will stick to it. Most resolutions seem to go the way of your average exercise bike—forgotten after a few weeks, right?
We struggle to follow through on good intentions. You know you should eat healthier foods, but then you get in a hurry, and a cheeseburger and fries take ten minutes to buy and eat. You tell yourself you will visit your mother more often, but the demands on your time don’t let up, and six months later nothing has changed.
At least there is worship every weekend so you can keep that going. Your faith is important to you, so maybe weekly worship is no great effort. You have gone to church for years, happy to have a place to go where you can pause and reset your priorities, connect with God and other Christians, keep your life moving on the path of faith.
There are plenty of people these days who think you are foolish for wasting a couple of hours a week on going to church. They consider religious practices to be superstitious, antiquated, ineffective. It doesn’t rank high enough to make time for it.
A decent percentage of Americans claim that they are “spiritual but not religious.” They don’t want to be identified with ritualistic institutions nor the moralistic pronouncements they hear about in the press.
Fair enough. I have to give them credit for wanting to be spiritual, for recognizing that spirituality is a natural part of being human. But I also think that when they discard religion, they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
In this case, the baby is Jesus. In today’s gospel, Mary and Joseph have gone to the temple in Jerusalem, obeying longstanding Jewish law, to purify Mary and to recognize that as their firstborn son, Jesus was designated as “holy to the Lord.” This would have been forty days after Jesus’ birth, so presumably they would have returned home to Nazareth in the interim.
Apparently Mary and Joseph could not afford the required lamb for the sacrifice, and brought two birds instead. They were poor. Not only that, but they had to travel sixty miles to get to Jerusalem from Nazareth. Bethlehem was on the opposite side of Jerusalem as Nazareth, so that distance was covered twice, and then some, after childbirth for Mary.
So this was an ordeal. Mary and Joseph did not wander into the temple on a whim. It cost them a lot of money, time, and effort to fulfill the requirements of their religion. But there would be no question whether or not they would do it; Joseph was a “righteous man,” after all. (Mt 1.19)
I suppose they could have said they were “spiritual but not religious” and just stayed home. Then Simeon and Anna would have waited for the Messiah in vain.
But the Holy Family did cross the threshold of the temple. This ritual mattered to them. It put them in the company of two people who were watching for them. In spite of their meager offering and humble appearance, not one but two prophets zeroed in on Mary and Joseph and identified their baby as the one long awaited.
Think of what the past year had been like for this couple. I imagine that both Mary and Joseph had struggled with second thoughts about their encounters with the angel about Jesus’ birth. There was plenty of time to wonder about it during her pregnancy and their travels to Bethlehem and home again. But now here in the temple they met two deeply religious elders who declared that their baby was God’s anointed. What the angel told them was being confirmed.
Isn’t that the way it happens? You have spiritual moments when you know for sure that God is real and loving and powerful. Maybe it happens on a retreat or in worship, at a concert, or in the course of reading the Bible. You get excited about your faith and want to change something about your life. Then you get busy with work and ballgames and just plain getting by every day, and you wonder if you were kidding yourself. The glow wears off. But then you return to worship, and you wonder why you ever doubted. The Scriptures seem to speak to you directly, you gain confidence in the creed, and standing among God’s people renews your faith.
The pendulum swings back and forth with matters of faith as much as anything else. There are those in our time who swore they would never go back to church, but now they are realizing that there was more to it than they thought. They feel drawn not just to spiritual matters, but to religion with its doctrine and rituals. They are not returning in droves, obviously. But for some, they just couldn’t do spirituality on their own. They need help. They are taking another look at the ancient rituals of the faith.
Sara Miles, a lay Episcopal minister, writes about going out into the Mission district of San Francisco on Ash Wednesday, offering the ashes to everyone. They were eager to participate in the ritual:
“The sidewalk was teeming: moms with babies in strollers, girls in tight jeans talking on their phones as they bounced along, shopkeepers darting out to steady their teetering displays of yucca and oranges. People flowed past like the river in Psalm 46 that ‘delights the city of God.’ A Middle Eastern man scooped up his toddler and gave the boy a noisy kiss, and another line from a Psalm popped into my mind: ‘Blessed be God, who has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city.’
“ ‘He’d like some ashes, please,’ said the man, lifting the boy high as he squirmed and giggled. ‘Hold still, it’s not going to hurt.’
“I crossed the boy’s forehead and then the father’s, then turned to the short, silent older Mexican woman who was standing patiently behind them, as if waiting in line. ‘Would you like ashes?’ I asked. She nodded, and I dipped a thumb again in the jar. I didn’t tell her it wouldn’t hurt.
“ ‘Amen,’ she said.
“ ‘Hey! Over here!’ A tall, exceptionally animated guy in a blue jacket spotted us and was waving excitedly. ‘Hey,’ he said in rapid-fire Spanish, grabbing my arm, ‘come with me! Around the corner! I’ve got these friends! In the beauty salon! Two beauty salons!’
“I followed as he loped ahead, nearly running. ‘They work so much!’ he shouted. ‘Guatemalans, just like me! We work hard! Nine, ten, twelve hours, and by the time you’re done the church is closed! But you still need ashes! Come on!’
“…The man flung the door open and proudly waved me in. ‘Look what I brought you!’ he exclaimed to the hairdressers and their clients as everyone looked up, slightly surprised, mid-coif. ‘I brought you the cross!’
“ ‘Oh, okay,’ said one hairdresser, a heavy woman laced into a flowered smock. ‘Oh, it must be Ash Wednesday!’ She put down her scissors and came over to me. ‘Please,’ she said.
“All the women nodded. ‘I brought you the Church!’ the man said to them, happily.
“ ‘Thanks,’ said another hairdresser. ‘Amen.’ She lifted her client’s foil-wrapped bangs off her forehead and motioned to me. One at a time, I gave ashes to all the women seated in the chairs, while the receptionist dialed a friend on her cell phone. ‘Hey,’ she said, ‘it’s Ash Wednesday, do you want the sister to come to your shop?’
“Then we were at McDonald’s, our last stop before we finished up, and we pushed open the smudged glass doors to the noisy, crowded dining room. I gave ashes to families eating French fries, to a woman who never stopped talking on her cell phone, to the antsy security guard, and to some gangbangers eyeing the security guard.
“…We were on our way out when a small, serious Mayan woman, sitting alone at a greasy table, unwrapped her tiny baby from an acrylic blanket and held him up to me . ‘He’s one and one half weeks old,’ she said proudly. I crossed his forehead with ashes, took a deep breath, and told the baby he was going to die.
“And then his mother, like everyone else we’d met that afternoon, said thank you. “Why would you say thank you when a stranger tells you that you’re going to die? “Because the truth is a blessing.”
We create rituals—need rituals—to remember what matters to us. Rituals of faith help us recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God. The ashes of our mortality help us face our death.
We need rituals to keep our faith alive, practices like going to God in prayer, reading the Scriptures, and returning to God in whatever ways makes sense to you. Those individual practices help us live our intention and to trust God even when our faith falters. I appreciate what one author says, that we kiss our children not only because we love them, but so that we will love them. We keep our love and faith moving forward by ritually acting on them.
But we need the body of Christ, the church, to keep our faith alive too. If you read your Bible carefully, you will see that our relationship with God is framed within the people of God, not just as free agents. God knows we need each other to have faith. And so we sing, pray, worship, and serve, not each one for his or her own sake, but for the sake of everyone else too. We are Simeons and Annas for each other, finding one another in the temple, so to speak, waiting on God together. Like Sara Miles and her colleagues, we spill out into the streets to be Simeon and Anna for everyone else too, seeing God’s presence among our neighbors and students, at the grocery store and in the waiting room.
Because the world needs us to have faith. Simeon and Anna did not praise God just because they got to meet the Messiah in person and take a selfie with him. They praised God because the salvation of Israel and of all the peoples of the world had arrived. God kept the promise.
Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to empower and energize us, to do the same things he did. When we enter a room, the Spirit of Jesus is there. Do people see salvation in you? In me? Are we agents of God’s healing and love and forgiveness? When people drive by St. Mark Lutheran Church, do they think, “God is really present in those people.”
I want to be better at that, don’t you? But I don’t just want to make a resolution. New Year’s resolutions might be better framed as rituals for us as God’s people. If they help us to remember who we are and to live as God calls us to live, then it would be good to renew them at this time of year. See the rituals of your faith as tools for God to live in you and empower your for the sake of the world.
The next time someone tells me they don’t go for organized religion, I hope I will use the opportunity to tell them this: I believe religion is a good thing. We gather together ritually as God’s people so that we can be signs and agents of God’s healing for a world in need of hope.
Friends, our religion matters. God plants us as seeds of love and faith, so that what Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah will also be true for us:
“For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.” (Isa 61.11)
God’s Love Lights
Luke 2:1-18…Christmas Eve
Four thousand years ago, a man sat outside his tent under the stars, unable to sleep. He was growing old, and he was a success if it is measured by herds and reputation in the city. But Abram was a failure in one important aspect: he had produced no heirs, and he and his wife Sarai had long since given up hope. As he studied the night sky, a thought came to him unbidden. “There is more.”
More what? More to accumulate? More to learn? It was a puzzle, but the thought grew into a whisper, which grew into a yearning. And as he pondered the mystery of this strange restlessness, he realized that it meant that there was more to life itself than he knew. Certainly more than the yearly cycle of buying, raising livestock, selling them. More than the endless series of rituals and prayers to these gods his father fashioned in his workshop. How could little statues control the rain and reduce a fever? He didn’t dare voice his suspicion. Everybody seemed happy with the way things were.
Weeks passed, and Abram suspected he had been dreaming on that strange night, though he couldn’t shake the feeling that it still mattered somehow. And then on yet another restless night, he suddenly knew the secret. These were not his own thoughts dogging him. This was something beyond himself. The whispers and yearnings came from someone out there, something not human but far bigger. Someone who made him feel whole, and free, and alive all at once. As he looked up at the stars for the ten thousandth time, all at once he knew that what he felt from that Being was love, reflected in those points of light.
Because he was willing to listen, because he had a heart ready to receive divine-sized love, God spoke to Abram and launched a nation. God put a compulsion inside Abram that would not be satisfied until he packed up all his goods and his family and took off for the land God promised to show him. God told Abram that he would yet bear a son in his old age. Nothing was impossible with God. No man or woman or people was too far gone to bear the love of God to the world. A love that has as many dimensions as there are stars in the sky and people on the planet.
Abram and Sarai went out at night often on the journey. They wondered at a god that has no statue to keep in a special cupboard. This was a god that could speak into a person’s mind. They talked about the love they felt at odd moments, love that came from a presence that felt both new and familiar at the same time. They looked at the million billion stars in a velvet sky, after everybody else was settled in for the night, and whispered their secret hopes of having a baby to hold after all these years.
And they did hold that baby. His name was Isaac. Isaac became the father of Jacob and Esau. God gave Jacob a new name—Israel, and he had twelve sons. The nation of Israel grew and loved God and betrayed God and cried out to God and returned to God. They could never get it quite right with God.
God whispered and prodded and grew angry and forgave His people many times in Israel’s long history. Then God fell silent for four hundred years. The people kept making the same mistakes, but at least they didn’t forget that God promised to send them a Savior. In all their fumbling devotion to God, at least there was that. And there were the stars…
And then, finally, God whispered again, this time to Joseph, and to Mary. Mary and Joseph had open hearts and listening ears like Abraham. Overwhelmed with a love so big, they didn’t care what other people said about her swollen belly and his misplaced loyalty. The baby whose secret they knew grew in the space under Mary’s heart until it was almost time. And then they had to make a road trip. Mary forced herself to think of the love-glow she felt when the angel told her what was going to happen, focused on breathing her trust in God as the donkey lurched all the long way to Bethlehem.
Both Mary and Joseph had to grit their teeth as the labor began and still there was no place for her to rest, no clean bed to birth her child in a bustling, busy town. And finally the resignation that hay would have to do for a bed and then the baby came, and the mess was cleaned up and the baby drank his first meal and settled in to sleep. The quiet and dark felt like a blanket giving them respite just for this night. Tomorrow they would rise and find a better place for their new son, and for Mary to rest.
But all was not quiet out in the countryside. The shepherds and the angels…well, you know the story. The secret was out. A glorious angel choir concert in the last place anyone would expect.
And about that same time, far away in a strange land, a pagan astrologer felt a stirring. A warmth, a presence, a love that was both new and familiar at the same time. He began to consult his charts, the only way he knew how to investigate this sense of something special happening. And then others beginning to hint at the same experience. Tentative questions about what it might mean. They consulted ancient prophecies that mentioned a star and then—yes! A bright star in the west!
They could not continue with business as usual. The magi decided to follow their leader whose sixth sense always ended up being right. They embarked on a journey, not caring what others might think. They looked up at the night sky as they camped, repeating the old fables played out in the constellations. But those old stories lost their allure as they were gradually replaced with the magi’s own accounts of strange sensations. Whispers they heard in the dark silence: “There is more!” A feeling of well-being on their journey unlike anything they had ever felt before. A sense that the star was leading them not just to something but to some One who would change the world forever. The usual dangers did not faze them. The question of what might happen next didn’t concern them.
And so they followed the greatest star that ever shone. It was a spotlight, a message from the Creator that this, now, is the main event. This is my love shining true in that manger. It is the beginning of a new light shining in the world, a light that cannot be covered or quenched or even copied. It is the light of truth, and it will be too much at first, maybe even blind you, but if you don’t turn away but instead peer into its glory, it will help you see what I have been trying to show the world since the beginning.
This baby, this is my love concentrated into the width and length of a manger. This child is the light of my own self dimmed for those who will not see it, but bright and lovely for all who welcome him. His light is my own light that will give life and healing and justice in a world desperately dark.
Friends, this light is for you. It is a light to shine into your life with a love that is both familiar and new at the same time. It is God’s love for you, to explain the whispers and fill the yearnings and erase the sadness that you and all humans share.
God’s love is a light for you. No gift you will ever receive this Christmas or the rest of your days will be as great as God’s love shining into every corner of your life. Turn to God’s light. Follow the star. Worship the child in the manger who grew up to be your Savior. Come to Jesus whose love light shone out of the empty tomb to banish the darkness of sin’s death-dealing ways once and for all. God’s love light has come into the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Thanks be to God.
Same Song, Next Verse
Luke 1.26-38, 45….Advent 4B
She was an ordinary girl. We remind ourselves of it every year at this time. We know nothing about Mary except that she was pledged to be married to Joseph. Later on we get a few hints about her personality, and there is one clue even in the annunciation—the encounter with the angel Gabriel. When he told Mary that God was pleased with her and that the Lord was with her, she was very upset. Interesting. She was troubled by a great compliment. Was she shy? Would we say today that she had “low self-esteem?”
Luke writes in his gospel that Mary took things to heart, and she “pondered” them. She certainly had enough to think about, both before and after the birth of her baby. She would naturally be alert to any hint of Jesus’ future. Gabriel may have announced a great mystery, but he didn’t leave everything to the imagination. He seemed to get all excited when he told Mary the news. Got ahead of himself, really, for a poor girl who had no prior warning: “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child…” He could have let that sink in for a bit before rushing to the next part, don’t you think? But no, he gushes, “He will be great AND WILL BE CALLED THE SON OF THE MOST HIGH!” “Throne of David…his kingdom will never end…Holy Spirit will come upon you…Son of God…Elizabeth is also going to have a child…”
Did Mary hear any of it after “you will be with child”? It was all a lot to take for a young woman, of middle school age by today’s standards. Wait, Elizabeth pregnant? If this was all true, if it was not some kind of strange dream, then she would have to see if it was coming true for Elizabeth too. Her parents may have been puzzled by the sudden request to visit relatives, but they did not yet know her secret. She was keeping it to herself until she knew for sure.
She had barely made it through the door of Zechariah’s house when she spotted Elizabeth and called her name. And then Elizabeth turning around with her big belly, her smiling eyes telling Mary all she needed to know. And the angel’s words coming back to her, more clear and piercing than the first time she heard them: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
Elizabeth felt her baby turning over, and she laughed, and she declared Mary the most blessed of all women, ever. She called Mary “the mother of my Lord.” Then she repeated the blessing, this time in more detail: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
We don’t know how much Mary really believed it at that point, but by this time there were prophecies happening all over the place, and this was just one more. Mary would come to trust that what was happening was God’s doing. She would gradually unfold all the layers of her responsibility. She would get plenty of practice at pondering, a skill she perfected over Jesus’ lifetime, until she could no longer contain it, and her heart would be broken open by the magnitude of the mystery and the grief at the foot of the cross.
For now, though, her heart was overflowing with wonder, and what came out was a song. It was in some ways simply the next verse of a song that had begun centuries before. A tune Abraham hummed under his breath on the long journey. A song sung by the freed slaves after they passed through the Red Sea. The song Hannah sang when she was given a child, impossibly, and she reluctantly handed Samuel over to Eli with shaking hands and a heart filled with pain. A song with countless variations composed by that skilled musician David. The song of Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband.
Every verse of the song praised the God who uses divine power not to grab and oppress as humans do, but to rescue and restore. The God who finishes every story with justice. The God who blesses. The God who is faithful to keep the promises.
Jesus picked up the song himself, in what we call the Beatitudes, when he described the kind of people God blesses. Not the obvious people who already appear to have their blessings, like money and power and lots of land and plenty of everything. Instead God blesses the ones who suffer, who are humbled by their circumstances or even their own bad choices, the ones who struggle to survive, the ones who are grateful for small favors. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” is the first line of Jesus’s verse in the song.
The words of the songs sung through the ages have a similar theme, it’s true. Praise to God who deserves effusive praise (not the silly claims to fame and power attempted by dictators and advertisers alike these days). Expressions of joy that spill out of the hearts and mouths of people who knew what it was to struggle, to be oppressed or poor or unnoticed. Praise for the blessing from God who saw them and lifted them out of their misery.
But something else happens with these songs. They not only express faith in God; they also create the trust in God that they sing about. Mary wasn’t just stating facts in her Magnificat. She was throwing herself on the God who would have to get her through the coming months and years. Mary would suffer for saying yes to God.
Which is what also happens every time. She is one in the long line of God’s people, ordinary folks, minding their own business when God taps them on the shoulder and says, “I have a job for you.” They have a choice to say yes or to say no. Who knows? Maybe there were others God called who said no, and so their stories never made it into the anthology.
But Abraham said yes. Jacob said yes (eventually). Joseph and Ruth and Samuel and David said yes.
They are not the heroes just for saying yes. The storytellers and authors make sure we see that every one of them had feet of clay, even Mary. God is always the hero, always the rescuer, the redeemer, the promise-keeper and provider.
But because they said yes, God blessed the poor and sick and unlovely through them. God lets us get in on the blessing. Blessing is what we get when we say yes. We also get hardship. No beatitude is ever complete without it. Hardship is what makes us ripe for trusting God. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the stares and whispers behind Mary’s back. The nasty names they called her and her child.
But she said yes anyway. Timid, unassuming Mary became the God-bearer for the world because she told the angel, “Let it be to me as you have said.” She would never see with her own eyes every single thing that she sang about, but she let God’s story be her story. Before she was thrust into the long, difficult months of pregnancy, labor, and birth, she got to sing a verse of the song.
“My soul glorifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
…His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
…He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
“Magnificat” is what Mary’s verse has been dubbed, the Latin version of first words of praise out of Mary’s mouth. I have heard other versions of the Magnificat. One was in the church office, with someone whose life had been transformed by the amazing forgiveness and power and love of God. “I have never been this happy and content in my entire life,” she said, her own heartfelt lyrics for the ancient song.
The other was in a hospital room, the words of a patient struggling with illness and confusion, but still coherent enough to say it over and over to God, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Hearing those songs of praise with my own ears, in our own time, makes me appreciate what Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian, says about Mary. “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within my self? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to this Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”
Sound strange, gentlemen, to think of being a mother? Think of yourselves as God-bearers then. Those charged with saying yes to whatever it is that God asks you to do. To see God accomplish through you that which you could never in your wildest dreams do on your own. To say yes to God, again, as Mary did.
Then you will be blessed, as surely as she was, for you have believed that what the Lord has said to you will be accomplished.
The Light and the Word
John 1:6-8, 19-28…Advent 3B
One of the things I like about driving to Storm Lake is that I get to watch the sun rise and set many days. The wide open fields between here and Spencer allow the brilliant pinks and yellows to dazzle above the horizon. Even the softer hues filtering through the lacy tree limbs and outlining the farm buildings make for a beautiful commute.
What I don’t appreciate so much is the darkness this time of year. I suspect you feel the same way. Another reason to love Christmas is that it signals the turning toward longer days of light.
John the Apostle liked to use the image of light in his writings about Jesus. He described Jesus’ incarnation as the “true light that gives light to every man.” In his first letter he called the Christian life “walking in the light.” And he calls John the Baptist a witness to the light of God who came into the world.
During Advent we are watching for the light. Our liturgical color is blue during Advent, the color of the sky before dawn. But the light John the Baptist was predicting has nothing to do with actual daylight. It is a much greater light, the light that emanates from God. It illuminates the darkness of our world and gives us hope. The light of the Scriptures reveals God’s goodness to us and shows us how to live in this world God made for us.
The coming light also reveals what the darkness has hidden. This includes things we have stuck in a corner because we don’t want them to be seen. We are ashamed of them. We are afraid of what will happen if they are brought into the light.
Maybe this is why John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. He made people face the habits and attitudes that thrived in the darkness of this world’s values. He gave them courage to drag their unmentionable sins into the light so they could be dealt with, put to rest. He promised them that someone was coming who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. Maybe part of what that means is that Jesus’ baptism gives us power to keep those sins out in the open—out in the light—where he can show us the truth about them and help us keep them at bay.
It is one of the ironies of our human condition that we may fear the light of Christ precisely because it means we will be loved and forgiven. Through no choice of our own, we may have lived in the dark corners, out in the fringes of God’s presence in the world. Some people only saw the light of hope rarely as they were growing up. Harsh living conditions or brutal caretakers made them suspicious of any light, any promise of hope. Despair seems to darken the world if this has been your experience. You may be understandably wary of anybody who promises you a brighter future. Forgiveness and love are not a part of your vocabulary if a harsh life has been your teacher. It is hard to come out into the light when you have been in the dark for so long.
We are all in this dark condition, to some degree. At best we live in the predawn light, aware of something over the horizon, but also keenly aware of the darkness that remains. We see our sin lurking as long as possible among the shadows. We do our best with the light we have, leaning toward the light and depending on it to find our way.
John also calls Jesus the Word. The introduction to his gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (Jn 1.1-5)
You may have heard before that “word” in this passage is logos in Greek, which means a lot more than letters strung in order to symbolize an idea. It is the root word for logic, and so it can be translated as reason or structure or purpose. If Jesus is the Word sent to us, then he is the divine clue that unlocks the very substance of being itself.
Whoa, now we’re wandering off into philosophy! If I am, then I am in good company, because this seems to be what John is trying to get at with his metaphors of Word and light. Christ is the source and answer to all that exists. “In him all things hold together,” wrote one of the apostles in the letter to the Colossians. (Col 1.17)
One reason we know that Jesus is eternal with God the creator is that John put it right there in his gospel. “Without him not one thing came into being.” So Jesus is not only the Son sent to save us, he is the Alpha and Omega (now I’m quoting the book of Revelation). Every single thing that has ever existed, from the tiny tree frog to the galaxies yet to be discovered, all of it has spun out from the mind and being of Christ who was in on creation.
Something, someone so big cannot be defined in human language. We have language, and we use language to describe God, but that doesn’t mean God is confined by our lexicon.
I was visiting with a friend recently about her faith, and she told about a recent evening with her husband, when she tried to describe to him the depth of her experience as God’s beloved, and she burst into tears because she couldn’t find the right words. She still can’t. She writes and writes about it, but the profound experience itself defies language.
Perhaps you know about that. You have had moments of holiness that washed over you unbidden. Somehow you felt connected with everything in the universe…or it was a sense of deep contentment and hope…or you felt forgiven—really forgiven—for the first time…or the love you felt for a child or parent was bigger than you remember feeling before. You got a glimpse of eternal reality.
Our faith is such a small sampling of the life God has for us. It comes in words of the creed, words of the Bible, words of our prayers. Yet these are only door latches we have to settle for, handles on a portal to a dimension far beyond our imagining.
Jesus came to us from that divine dimension to tell us there is more. The life that is truly life, the life God has for us, is rich with beauty and love and belonging. The ways we pervert that life and obscure the riches are no obstacles for Christ. He wears his forgiveness on his sleeve and offers his own self to enliven our curiosity and stimulate our creativity. He loves us so much!
Words can’t describe it.
And so he became the Word. A human. A baby. He pitched his tent among us as a walking, talking message from the God of the universe that life is meant to be filled with beauty and meaning. He offered himself on a cross to clear away the layers of guilt and violence and greed that we have allowed to masquerade as life.
The light is coming. It shines in our darkness.
The Word is coming. He makes sense out of our confusion.
God’s promise of a Savior is the Word made flesh, the light the darkness cannot overcome. Thanks be to God.
‘Tis the season…to be jolly? It’s the season for insomnia for some of us. Right? You have so much on your mind that it doesn’t stop just because you are lying in bed, trying to sleep.
I had a night like that last Monday. Worst night in a long time. It might have had something to do with the combination of wine (one glass!), chocolate, and a rich dessert we enjoyed with friends that evening. Add the mild stress of hosting a few friends, and it would have been a miracle to sleep through the night after that.
But there was also something nagging at me, and it wasn’t until there was nothing else to occupy me that I noticed it. I had to face a personal quandary, had to make a decision. So the insomnia was a gift in its own way, enabling to me to pay attention to an inner voice.
Last week I encouraged you to allow some time for stillness in this Advent season. It is one way to get away from the distractions of the season and of the culture. Going out to the desert would be another method. Or insomnia.
The desert is where we meet John the Baptist, although his voice is far from timid. He calls people to repentance, inviting them to experience God’s forgiveness. He lays claim to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy as the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Mk 1.3)
We go straight from one prophet to another in the Gospel of Mark, from Isaiah to John the Baptist. There is no stopping at the manger for Mark. Two prophets with eye-catching wardrobe choices, from Isaiah’s lack of clothing (Is 20) to John’s camel skin coat.
Both prophets are striking mystics, Isaiah in his conviction that something, Someone better is coming to do the new thing God has planned, John in his role as the warm-up act for the main show of Jesus, God’s own Son. Isaiah longs for God’s glory to be revealed. John knows that somebody coming after him who is mightier than he. Neither knows the details, but they both sense that the old ways are on the way out, and new life is on its way.
Both prophets have sensed God’s insistent urging to get the people’s attention. They have gotten off track, preoccupied with the form of religion instead of the actual shape of God’s reign, where the heart is what matters far more than liturgy or heritage or even sacrifice.
“Come away!” they cry. “Take a break from the Temple and the culture. Come out where you can hear God’s voice clearly. Someone is coming!”
Who? Well, neither Isaiah nor John is sure about that, but we know who.
But even now, we go out to the desert to meet John. We need to hear what he has to say. He doesn’t stand in a carpeted sanctuary with soft organ music playing. All we can see in the distance as we approach in the night is a campfire. As we draw closer, we see faces of people we know, glowing in the firelight, listening intently.
John doesn’t waste words. He tells us to take a hard look at the direction we are going. What is our internal GPS instructing us to do, turning here and there, following a road to…what? Turn around, he says. You are going the wrong way. God made you for a different life, a better life. Turn around.
Some people’s faces display their relief. They are ready to hear this message, and they waste no time coming forward for forgiveness, eager to get into the water to be baptized. Others nod their heads in recognition. They have heard the message before and heeded it. But they needed to hear it again. We see them lifting their faces to God, whispering their confession, thankful for God’s mercy. Still others seem hesitant. It might take a while for John’s message to get through to them. They aren’t convinced that their journey is misguided.
We are all gathered around the same fire, but our responses are different. That is the nature of humanity. God calls each one, but God knows what is in each heart, what holds this one in its grip, what needs releasing in another, who has come time after time and is welcome yet again.
The thing about the crowd around this fire is that it is different than the crowd in the Temple of Jerusalem. Here, women are welcome; they are left on the outside in the Temple. Here, the “religious” do not go to the front of the line, but get in line with everyone else, including the “sinners.”
Isaiah was God’s messenger. That is what a prophet does. John had the same calling. The gospel always begins with a messenger, like prophets, like an angel, like a parent, or a child. It is told in a voice that not everyone can hear, because not everyone is listening. Once they hear the voice of Goodness calling them, some of them cannot dismiss it. Some do, but some don’t.
Who will be God’s messengers this Advent? Who will let God’s love shine into their hearts, and into the lives of other people? Who will heed John, and turn toward God’s beautiful life, and become signs and messengers of the gospel for others? How can you and I embody God’s great promise of a Savior so that the imaginations and longings of other people are captivated?
The writer of 2 Peter was another voice calling for attention. God is always up to something, not just in some far-off day (or maybe not so far—”like a thief”) when Jesus returns. “What sort of life could you be leading now?” he asks us. Live holy and godly lives. Live your life for God, with God, loving God. Everything else is going to burn off anyway.
And here is another good word from Peter: “The Lord is not slow about the promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (3 Pet 3.9)
Repentance is a churchy word that has gotten a bad reputation. It is good news, actually.
That is why the writer of the gospel of Mark could call it good news at the beginning of his account. Another writer from our times says it this way: “…we are always, always offered the amazing grace of both the promise of God’s unconditional love and the humbling chance to have a purpose, to make a difference, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. That is the obeying-God’s-commands part of the deal. It turns out to be better than it sounds. Obedience, a word our culture hates, turns out to mean having a chance to make a difference, to make the world a better place. I have met very few people so jaded that they did not want to jump on that bandwagon.”[i]
Repentance will not let us have it both ways, the way that leads to death and the way that leads to life. You can’t go in two directions at once without getting broken apart. That is another reason that repentance is good news.
Follow the way of life. Say goodbye to the path that leads through thorns and quicksand and destructive, wild beasts. It has its appeal, taking you through some fine amusements along the way and offering trophies for achievement, but it ultimately leads to disillusionment and death.
Accept John’s invitation to walk in the way of love, the way of purpose, the way of peace, because the Prince of Peace is coming to meet you there, at Bethlehem, in a manger
Getting Ready for the Promised One
Are you ready for Christmas? Isn’t that the question we ask each other this time of year? We know what people mean when they ask us. Is your house twinkling with lights at night? Have you made your list and checked it twice? Are the fudge and cookies stacked in the cold porch?
It is a hustle-bustle time. We bemoan it, and yet we participate in it. The disconnect from what we call the “real meaning of Christmas” seems as traditional as the cookies, lights, and Christmas trees we put in place for the holidays. Year after year, we wonder how we can clear away the clutter and see the baby Jesus purely, with wonder and joy. At the same time, we don’t want to give up the traditions that have accumulated. The trouble is, the traditions can drive us to distraction.
When we come to worship together, we hope to renew a different perspective on the way life operates, a contrast to what our culture dictates. In fact, it is one of the reasons we keep coming back. We need help navigating the expectations all around us. We remind ourselves of the realities of God’s presence and goodness, experiencing the Holy Spirit renewing our hearts and minds in the faith. We celebrate the hope that there is more to life than the latest news and fashion. The author of the devotional book for Advent, Henri Nouwen, says that “we need to wait together to keep each other at home spiritually, so that when the Word comes it can become flesh in us.”[i]
In Mark 13, Jesus was speaking with his disciples about the time when things will be very unsettled, before the great settlement occurs at his coming again. He seemed to speak in riddles about the lights in the heavens and fig trees ensuring us that these events will occur, and it will be soon. But he said this a long time ago. What did he mean by “soon?” It is all very mysterious.
What we can understand is what he tells us to do: keep awake.
He did not say “get busy.” Instead he asks that we attend to our state of mind and heart. Work on your inner readiness. Pay attention. Look. Stop.
Advent is a great gift. It allows us to pause and think about what we anticipate. Is it really the date on the calendar—December 25—that gives us hope? Of course not. We are looking to God for hope. It is what comes from God that moves our hearts, not gifts or food.
I have only one wish for you this month, and its cost is not measured in dollars. I wish you stillness. Not the stillness that comes from exhaustion. God deserves better than that, and so do we. Be still for a few moments each day, to focus your attention on God’s coming.
We cannot recognize God’s coming to us if we are preoccupied. But we are so good at doing, at achieving, at searching for meaning and happiness in a thousand different places. We have not found it in any of them.
“God’s kingdom is not formed by any human discovery or intention, however daring and noble, but by the coming of Christ.” It is God’s coming that shapes the whole world, and shapes us.[ii]
We can waste a lot of time looking everywhere else, but if we do not quiet ourselves and focus our inner gaze on God, we will ultimately be disappointed. We know there is joy and purpose and meaning, because we have been wired to look for it. We cannot rest until we have found the great gift, the precious pearl of God’s Word that tells us we are loved. It is like listening to music that is unresolved. When we hear an unfinished scale, we feel unsettled; we yearn to hear that last note in order to be satisfied.
So, we need to quiet ourselves to be awake and alert to God’s coming. If we center and re-center our lives and our hope on God’s promise and God’s presence, then our busy-ness can spring forth from that and have substance. We can celebrate, and work, and find rest in a framework of the peace God offers.
Keeping awake is also to be open to God’s coming. What goodness does God have in store for us? When you go away on a trip and come back to your children, they might ask, “What did you bring me?” I sometimes told my kids, “I brought myself back to you, that’s what!”
But God never comes to us empty-handed. God offers us God’s own presence, which is all we can ever hope for. God promised us a Savior, the answer to the darkness and despair we all find ourselves in.
Yet we can fill our lives with other things, so that there is no room for God’s presence and goodness. Henri Nouwen writes, “when we sit down for half an hour—without talking to someone, listening to music, watching television, or reading a book—and try to become very still, we often find ourselves so overwhelmed by our noisy inner voices that we can hardly wait to get busy and distracted again. Our inner life often looks like a banana tree full of jumping monkeys! But when we decide not to run away and stay focused, the monkeys may gradually go away because of lack of attention, and the soft gentle voice calling us the beloved (son or daughter of God) may gradually make itself heard.”[iii]
Being open to God means closing the door to everything else that demands your attention. There is no shortage of those distractions, is there? In Advent we remember that we always need to submit to the spiritual discipline of focusing our gaze, our attention, on God.
Jesus spoke of the end time, but being awake and ready for God is not only about looking to the future. What kind of self will be waiting for God’s arrival? Will you be anxious and fearful, or at peace and poised to welcome God?
Sentries who are put on guard duty are not stationed there two days after they arrive at boot camp. They have to be trained to react properly. They learn to be quite and alert. They discipline themselves not to shoot at the first noise, but to determine the nature of a threat when they hear or see it. They do their target practice, but even more important, they must have inner discipline and readiness.
Paul told the Corinthian church that they already had the spiritual wherewithal that they would need in the meantime, before Christ’s return: “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1.7) You don’t need any additional skills or books or training to be open to God’s presence. All you have to do is show up, and God will come to you in the way you need most. Not to grant your wishes, but to give you life.
The reality of our need for God never lets up. This week the news was filled with accusations of harassment, because women are finally being taken seriously. But the depravity revealed by the behavior of many people in power is only one example of our need for God. It is a need we all share. It makes us empty, vulnerable to great destruction if we have not realized that we can come to God for spiritual and moral strength.
Being still before God involves recognizing our sin. We realize that we don’t have what it takes to live the life God calls us to live. We need God’s forgiveness and power on the inside, something no Christmas lights or wrapped presents or cookie-baking can achieve for us.
Be still. God invites you to come close and receive the gifts you need most, so all you need to do is accept the invitation.
I once read about a deep diving bell that scientists use to explore the ocean. It is necessary to pressurize it to a great extent from the inside. If it weren’t pressurized, the ocean’s weight would collapse it no matter how thick and strong the steel in its shell.
In the same way, we need inner strength and integrity to withstand the pressures of this world. We could so easily give up in despair or follow its misguided ways. God comes to us in our faith, in our baptism, in our community, in the power of the Spirit within and among us. God gives us all we need for life and goodness right now, so that when Jesus returns, it will be no surprise. We will be open, awake, and ready to join him in an eternity of a rich life with him that we cannot imagine right now.
When someone asks you whether you are ready for Christmas, let it be a reminder to you that readiness for God’s coming is a matter of inner work, of being awake and aware of what God offers you in the stillness of God’s presence.
God kept the promise of sending the Messiah two thousand years ago. Jesus our Messiah is the one who showed us how God works, and made the way for us to know this God who loves us enough to keep the promises made to us. Take some time to be still this week, and fix your gaze on our faithful God who has given us the Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.
[i] From Finding My Way (Crossroad, 2004).
[ii] Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, “Action in Waiting” in Watch for the Light (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing).
[iii] From Here and Now (Crossroad, 2006).