Monday, February 25, 2008

Where do you quarrel with God?

     He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?" -- Exodus 17:7. What makes the naming more depressing is the context in which it comes. Think of this: God has sent the ten curses upon Egypt; Pharoah and all of Egypt have thrown the Israelites out; Egypt has given Israel its treasure to ensure that Israel will leave; the cloud has protected and lighted the way for Israel; the Red Sea has been parted; the superpower of the day, Egypt, has been defeated; manna has been provided; quail has been rained down upon them -- and still, Israel complains and doubts! "Is the Lord among us or not?" Can you imagine ever thinking, let alone saying aloud, such a thing?

     The truth is, we are no better than the people of Israel in the story. We live on this side of work and person of Jesus Christ. Jesus has come, He has taughted and ministered, He has been crucified, He has died, He has risen, and He has ascended. What all of Israel ultimately longed to see, our ancestors have witnessed! Salvation has finally come to God's people. Yet how often do we find ourselves complaining and testing God? How often do we create our own Meribah's and Massah's?

     I have mentioned several times during this season of Lent that I think we should all strive to be a bit more introspective. Often, I am calling people to live out their faith in thanksgiving of the gift first offered them, but during Lent, I have efforted to ask questions which cause people to look inward and examine their own faith lives. Where in your life do you question His presence? What part of your life have you refused to surrender to His lordship? Finances? -- we often refuse to give what He has placed on our hearts because "we will not have enough to (fill in the blank). How about your relationships? --we often try not to be too Christian around our friends, co-workers, or even our families because we do not want them to think of us as "Bible-thumpers" or "religious wacko's." How about in our testimonies? -- often we do not wish to speak into situations for fear of "saying the wrong thing" or "giving the wrong impression."

     Over and over again, we question among ourselves whether the Lord is among us or not? Over and over again, we do the very things for which we condemn Israel. The good news is, of course, that He went willingly to that cross knowing our fears, knowing our failures. Yet still, He went! And His resurrection and ascension are a reminder to each of us that all things are now under His authority. If He can conquer death on our behalf, can He not give us the words to speak to a stranger, co-worker, or loved one? If He gave us life, do you really not think that He can give us more of whatever it is He asks each of us, be it finances, time, ability or whatever He knows we lack? If He loved you and me so much that He was willing to die for each of us, despite knowing our failure, do you really not think that close friends and families and those whom we love dearly should be off limits as far as talking about Him? Where do you quarrel and wonder if He is present? Where are your Massah's and Meribah's? Brothers and sisters, He has promised that He is a God near at hand. The Easter feast reminds us of His ability to keep those promises. The very places where you are certain He is absent may just be the very places in Your life where He is the most present and the places where He may work the greatest redemptions. He longed to care for Israel; He longs to care for each one of us! Instead of fighting with Him, why not work with Him, instead?


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

For God so loved the world . . .

     Lord, we thank You thank once again You have tricked these people into thinking that we are worth this feast. All of us here have gotten what we deserve, but we thank you that these people do not know any better. Amen. -- Some time ago, this was a prayer thanking God that we had spoiled recipients at the Community Meal. The anonymous man asked if he could say the prayer for that evening before the meal. Naturally, a new prayer was needed. But I was reminded of that sentiment many times recently. A number of parishioners, AFM recipients, and even strangers seem to have been struggling with the idea of God's wrath and punishment during the course of the last week or ten days. Perhaps they have always been struggling with it; maybe I just had ears to hear it recently. Such is not surprising as the Church, through the writings of some of its brightest minds and saints, has often struggled with the balance between God's wrath and God's mercy.

     Our Gospel lesson from John this past week includes, perhaps, one of the most famous verses in Scripture. People who are not Christian know John 3:16 and its claim. One cannot watch a major sporting event without spotting the sign in the background of an extra point, a pitch, a free throw, or some other aspect of an athletic contest. Even people who attend church only on Christmas and Easter know John 3:16. For all our determined efforts to avoid reading Scripture, few people can go through life without learning the verse.

     But I wonder. Do we really pay attention as we read or recite the verse? Really pay attention? So many of us go through life with this misunderstanding that the God of the Old Testament is somehow more vindictive than the God of the New Testament. "The God of the OT is a smiter; the God of the NT is a lover" might be one way to characterize the distinction we make of God. Jesus, though, reminds us that God's punishment and God's mercy exist in both. Jesus cites Numbers 21. If ever there was a symbol of God's punishment and God's mercy, that is a good one. Israel has rebelled, again. God has punished, again. But the story does not end there. God instructs Moses to hoist the snake on a stick and have the people look at it. All who look at it are saved. God shows mercy, again. And Jesus reminds us that He will be raised. Literally, God's punishment will be poured upon Him for the sins of everyone.

     Yet His story and ours does not end there. God vindicates Jesus by raising Him on that glorious Easter morning! God the Father glorifies the obedience of the Son. And yet, all of this was done for one purpose. Jesus came into the world not as punishment, as John expressly tells us in 3:17; Jesus came because "God so loved the world." Jesus' entire incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension occured because God so loved the world. Sometimes we go through life's valleys thinking we are being punished by God. Perhaps we are correct in that we are living in the consequences of our own actions and choices. But the punishment has been paid by Jesus. Those secret sins which each of us have and each of us think make us totally unloveable are known by God. And yet He loved each of us so much, He desired to spend eternity with each one of us so much, that He sent His Son to proclaim that love and to accomplish what none of us could for ourselves. The next time you see a sign bearing the verse or hear someone simply saying John 3:16, remember the beginning of that verse. For God so loved the world. All that He has done, all that He has accomplished, has been to draw you and me and all others whom we meet into an eternal embrace. By worldly standards, we are unworthy of such love. But by His standards, we are His sons and His daughters. He has promised that His Son has taken on our deserved punishment, and He always keeps His promises. Rather than be motivated by fear of Him, we should approach Him with thankfulness and praise, knowing that the world's judgment is not the one that matters, knowing that His love for each of us is the true treasure, the source of true peace and true happiness.

God's Peace,

Monday, February 11, 2008

The messianic temptations

     What did you mean that Jesus' temptations were messianic? -- I made the statement that the temptations faced by Jesus are nothing like what we face as His were messianic temptations. The statement pricked the ears of a few parishioners who asked that question. Simply put, the temptations of Christ are not simply an example to us. Yes, we can see how Jesus was tempted and how He dealt with those temptations, but the ones depicted in our readings for this week are specific to the messiah. How so?

     Keep in mind the beginning of each of the temptations -- "If You are the Son of God . . .". We should probably hear a snear or three in the challenge. The challenges that Satan is placing before Jesus go to His very identity. Satan knows full well who Jesus is. Jesus really is the Son of God. Yet here is the devil telling Jesus to do this, do that, "if You are the Son of God." The idea is that he can attack Jesus' pride. Better still, if Jesus refuses to tempt God or to feed Himself, maybe a seed of doubt will crop up in Jesus' mind or our own. In other words, "If You will not change these stones into bread, maybe You are not the Son of God . . .".  He did not do these simple challenges, maybe He is not who you think He is.

     Of course, the very temptations are meant to derail Jesus from His very purpose. Jesus is asked to feed Himself. The temptation is for Jesus to be concerned about this world and fall prey to the call of the temporal world, in this case the ravenous hunger of His flesh. Jesus refuses. He reminds Satan and us that we live "only by every word that comes from the mouth of God."

     Satan's next temptation is for Jesus to cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. Both Satan and Jesus knew full well the messianic expectations of the temple elite and the people. All knew that when the messiah came, they would be fed with manna. The idea was that the messiah would provide them with food as Moses did for Israel in the wilderness (maybe you now understand the further significance of the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000). Satan's real test is a mocking "prove it." If you are the Son of God, prove it. Jump! Yet Jesus reminds Satan and us that everything works out in God's time. We might want fulfillment now, but Jesus knows He serves another and His purposes. So He refuses to put God to the test.

     Satan's last temptation in our readings this week is the offer to rule everything now. What is hidden, of course, is the fact that Satan offers Jesus the same worldly and temporal authority which He will receive, but without the pain and suffering of the cross. Can you imagine the temptation? I can have all this without the hurt, the pain, the ridicule? -- talk about an unimaginable temptation! Yet Jesus teaches us a lesson that we should never compromise with Satan. Though the offer was amazingly tempting, Jesus chooses to serve only God!

     Each of the temptations is effective because they all represent in one way or another a offer to bypass the cross. Jesus is offered to feast, to be protected and cared for, and to become the ruler of all things on earth. Satan tempts the Lord with the allure of the glory minus the suffering on the cross. Thankfully, mercifully, Jesus understands that to bypass His cross is to lose all His glory. To bypass His cross is to lose each and every one of us.

     So often in life we want to live in God's glory. We want to live in the emotional high of the baptismal experience. We want to wrap ourselves in that warmth and euphoria. We want so much our lives to be awash with that love we first felt when we realized that the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, came down to save us. Yet Jesus' temptations remind us that our living, our ministry, takes place in the real world. Each of us is called to face the world as witnesses of His love and grace. More often than not, we are called to witness Him despite the world's testimony against Him and us. We are meant to live on God's bread alone, even if it is found only in the wilderness of our lives. But, we live on that bread knowing that the path He has placed each of us upon is the true path to glory. He has promised. Thankfully, mercifully, He keeps all His promises.


Friday, February 8, 2008

Transfiguring glory of the cross

     This week we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord and Savior before we head into Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. Some might think that such an arrangment makes little sense. We go from the height of the mountaintop experience immediately into the bleak and dismal experience of the valley wilderness. We go from the glory and radiance of His Transfiguration to the sackcloth and ashes of our penitence. What were thinking when we devised this liturgical occurence?

     As I shared yesterday, the Transfiguration ought to comfort us and the Transfiguration ought to challenge us. When we read the story, we notice that Moses the lawmaker and Elijah the prophet both appear with Jesus. When God speaks that "this is My Son, the beloved, in Him I am well pleased; listen to Him," we cannot help but notice that Moses and Elijah fade. For those of us who wonder whether Jesus was serious when He says that the prophet and the law were about Him, we are given a wonderful sign by God. The lawgiver and the prophet fade before the Light that has come into the world. God is confirming for the witnesses and us that Jesus is the one to whom salvation history has pointed since the dawn of time. Isaiah's prophecies of a glorious Messiah and a suffering servant converge in the work and person of Jesus Christ. We ought to take comfort knowing that the Messiah will rule as God intended; and we ought to be comforted by the fact that Jesus loved each of us and serve each of us that we might be reconciled to God through His death and resurrection.

     Of course, we are not left standing on the mountain. Jesus leads His disciples and us back down the mountain and to His certain fate. Jesus, as a fully human being, has just had God confirm for Him that the way to the glory of God is through the suffering of the cross. We will see Jesus wrestle with this seeming conundrum most poignantly in the garden of Gethsemene, but for a time Jesus can know with certainty that God will redeem His cross. Good Friday will be followed by the Easter morning! We should be challenged by this story knowing that God calls all His sons and daughters to servanthood. We ought to be challenged by this story knowing that Jesus will tell His disciples to pick up their crosses and follow Him.

     Yet, how many of us look for the easy way out rather than for God's use of whatever cross we are bearing? How many of us forget that our road to glory is often full of various crosses? When we are beset with financial problems, soured relationships, obnoxious coworkers or students, various temptations, or whatever it is that we fill is too much to bear, we ought to be reminded of the promise of the Transfiguration. God takes the suffering of all His faithful sons and daughters and uses it for His glory! We may not know the how; we may not, like Job, know the why; but like Jesus we can trust that He will redeem whatever cross He has given us. If He can redeem the suffering of Jesus' cross and turn it into Easter, imagine what He can do with our crosses? The fact is, when we face the trials of our lives with the expectant comfort and challenge of the Transfiguration, it may just be us who are transfigured before those whom we are called to witness and serve.

Christ's Peace,