Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Walking paths that glorify Him . . .

     Best sermon yet, Father! – I was glad to learn that so many of us at Advent have a great sense of humor.  For those absent, I did not preach a sermon at either service; hence the wonderful comments on my sermon!  Instead, we read Mark’s account of the Passion Narrative, with parishioners chosen at random reading the assigned parts.  It had been done in the history of Advent, as evidenced by the fact that we had the card stock narratives to distribute.  What apparently had not been done was the random assignment of those parts by the ushers.  As I joked with the congregation the week before, the early Church often trusted the selection of bishops to God by drawing lots.  It seemed only natural that we could trust individuals to serve in this liturgy as well as many of those early bishops did the early Church!  Fortunately, we were not disappointed!

     All kidding aside, Palm Sunday is a liturgy that dates all the way back to Cyril of Jerusalem.  Cyril developed the liturgy as a way to deal with the pilgrims to the Holy Land.  As the pilgrims returned to their countries of origin, they spoke of the remembrance of Palm Sunday.  Our liturgy is meant to reflect the events that transpired on that day and to draw us in as active participants rather than remain mere observers.  After all, it was for us, each of us gathered together in worship of Him, that He endured such pain and suffering.  We remind ourselves that our Lord suffered pain and death before He entered into joy and glory, that we are called to walk in the way of the cross so that we may find our lives and peace, that we are responsible for the death of our Lord, and that what is occurring is precisely what God had planned before the creation of the world!  There is often a powerful realization about the depth of God’s love for us and our own need of salvation when one yells with the rest of the congregation to “crucify Him!” not once, but twice in this liturgy.  What more can a preacher add to that experience?

     That being said, it is my job to teach you a bit every week.  Were I to have preached a bit this week, I think I might have reminded us at Advent of our need to keep God in focus in our lives.  Put in blunt language, we are a people who are quick to go from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday without a lot of contemplation on the events in the Temple this week, on our Lord’s willingness to wash our feet, our Lord’s suffering at the hands of the Temple elites and Roman occupiers, on our Lord’s cruel and humiliating death, and on the seemingly utter failure that confronted His disciples and audience.  Our salvation was costly; His willingness to pay that cost for each one of us begins to hint at the love with which He holds each one of us.  Culturally, we are taught to desire glory.  But how often are we unwilling to pay the price of hard work and practice that makes glory possible?  Everyone wants to be the boss; everyone expects their great idea will be the next moneymaker and life-alterer for their family; everyone expects their marriage will be of the “happily ever after” variety; all parents hope their child will be a future President or world-renowned difference-maker; every child that engages in sport expects to hit the game winning goal or basket.  How many of us, though, have a good understanding of the work required to get to that coveted position or outcome?  How many of us are unwilling to pay our dues, hit the practice field or weight room, work on our marriages, or otherwise do the dirty-work that made the glory possible for others?  And we are speaking only of temporal things?  What of eternal glory and joy?  If the hard work is necessary for temporal glory, what must be required of us for eternal glory?  The truth is, of course, our Lord bore that heavy work for us.  He took our humiliation, He took our lashes; He took our pain, and He took upon Himself even our deaths!  And in their place, He offers to share His hard-earned glory.

     The events that we will celebrate this week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Stations of the Cross, and Holy Saturday, are important in the lives of Christians.  It is this week that signifies the true counter-cultural message of the Gospel.  As the world around us seeks to dull its pain in drugs and alcohol, to find acceptance in the arms of another, to find meaning in a random, seemingly haphazard events we call life, and to put off as long as possible that death for which it has no answer, you and I are taught the meaning of love, the redemption of pain and suffering, and even victory over death!  This week marks the time in history when God’s plan came to fruition in Jesus Christ our Lord.  This week we remind ourselves that He is the King who deserves a mount.  This week we remind ourselves He is the Servant of all.  This week we remind ourselves that He is the firstfruit of the new creation, with power and authority to redeem all those who call upon His name!  This week we are reminded that our suffering leads to His glory.

     Brothers and sisters, I encourage you to join us for all the services this week.  It is in this annual reminder of the depth of His love for us, and of the incredible power of His Father, that you and I are fortified to face the evils that come our way.  This week, we remind ourselves the path that He walked that we might live forever, and we pray that we have the strength and endurance to walk the path upon which we are set, that He might draw others into His incredible, tender, saving embrace . . .




Thursday, March 26, 2015

The time is at hand . . . as is our opportunity to be glorified in the Son!

     I spoke last week of us being signposts that are meant to point the way for others to the Cross, the Empty Tomb, and our Lord Christ.  Predictably, the sermon caused a bit of pushback.  It was not enough that some were not willing to let me spend time with my wife and children, but neither was it a discussion that was going to be allowed to fade into memory.  Truthfully, as I looked at this week’s readings, I gave some serious discussion to preaching on our passage of Jeremiah that teaches us about the new covenant God has made in Christ and gives us a glimpse into what the life after death might look like.  But as my discussions continued last week, we need to concentrate a bit on God’s fulfilled promises before we spend some time exploring how He might fulfill some of those promises still hanging out there for each of us.  Put in different language, we need to be put in the mind of the wonderful saving works He has done before we can ever become effective signposts and guides to the future He offers all humanity.  That being said, let’s stick with John again this week. . .

     There are two lessons I particularly want you all to notice this week.  Some of you sitting there may expect me to preach on the dying grain signifying our Lord’s death so close to Good Friday or maybe the voice from Heaven.  I think those have been well covered here in the past.  No, the first lesson I want you to notice is the time.  Up until this point in John’s Gospel, what time has it been?  Whenever people ask Jesus if it is now the time for Him to restore the Kingdom of God on earth, what does He say?  Larry gets the gold star this week.  He is absolutely right.  Whenever Jesus is pressed about whether the time is at hand or if an untimely death is possible, Jesus always answers “Now is not My hour,” or “Now is not the time.”  Every time until this point, as His ministry has flourished for three years, Jesus continues to repeat that now is not the time.  Notice what moves the clock in His ministry.  Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. . . . “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

     On the outside, it seems a very simple request.  Conversions were not at all uncommon to the Jews.  There were Gentile who would convert to Judaism, and there were Gentiles who act as if they were Jews without the formal conversion.  Of course, there was a limit to the participation of that latter group especially.  Human nature being what it is, we know the natural distrust of the outsider.  Our struggles with issues of immigration and of how to deal with Muslims in this country demonstrate that little under the sun, if anything has changed.  For those in Jerusalem for the Passover, the demarcation between Jew and Gentile would be clearly marked in the Temple.  The Court of the Gentiles, one of the outer rings of the Temple, signified how close foreigners could come to the presence of God.  Like the women, the Gentiles were kept outside the center of the Temple.  Serious discussions, good old boy networking, and serious teaching, of course, usually occurred closer to the middle of the Temple.  In many circles, the Jews had forgotten that they were to be the means of salvation to the world.  God, through Abraham, had called them to be a nation of priests, a light unto the world.

     But here we have these Greeks asking to see Jesus.  They approach Phillip, who has a Greek name, with a simple request.  They want to see Jesus.  What they are asking seems simple enough.  Jesus has allowed crowds to come to Him; He has allowed children to come to Him.  Heck, Jesus has even allowed women to learn from Him.  But this request, this request carries a bit more danger and Phillip knows this.  If Jesus consents to speak with the Greeks, hardliners will condemn Him for fraternizing with non-Jews.  It does not quite rise to the seriousness of partying with tax collectors and prostitutes, but you get the idea.  So, what does Phillip do?  He goes to his brother to figure out what they should do.

     Although they are somewhat slow, Phillip and Andrew decide to let their Master decide.  Most of us, if reading the story for the very first time, might well expect Jesus to go and speak to the Greeks.  Can speaking to Greeks be any worse than healing on Sabbaths?  Forgiving sins while healing cripples?  Allowing a menstruating woman to touch Him?  Healing lepers?  But a curious thing happens.  How does Jesus respond to the request to see Him?  He tells the brothers and us that “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  All the way to this point, Jesus has answered “not yet” when asked whether He was going to usher in the kingdom of God now.  Now, when asked by Greeks to speak with them, He declares the hour has come.  What is going on?  Worse, is Jesus being rude?  People want to speak with Him.  Should He not allow them to speak with Him?  Is He not, by His behavior, endorsing rudeness and exclusion?  And how will the Greeks feel?  Can you imagine their disappointment that they are the group with whom He decides He has not the time to speak?  What is wrong with Jesus?  Has He forgotten His own words of the 3rd chapter of this book?  Did He not come into the world to save the whole world?  What has changed?

     Hopefully, you see the significance of their request.  God promised Abraham that, through His descendants, the world would be saved.  Over and over, God has reminded His people of that promises, that THE seed of Abraham would fulfill the Covenant God made with Abraham.  Lo, and behold, we get to Jesus.  Jesus is the ultimate seed of that promise.  Jesus is the longed-for Messiah, the desired descendant of David.  Put in the covenantal language, Jesus is THE descendant of Abraham through whom the world will be blessed.  That the Greeks have begun to see the light in the darkness, to use John’s language, means that Jesus’ purpose is being fulfilled.  The promise of 3:16 that we read last week is beginning to be realized.  How do we know?  Greeks are coming to God’s Temple and asking to see Jesus!  To make salvation for them and for the Jews possible, His glorification must take place.  The events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday must occur so that the world can be drawn into His saving embrace!  The Greeks’ desire to see Him means His hour has truly come.  And it is appropriate, this fifth Sunday of Lent, that we, like our ancestors before us, stop and consider the significance of the events that we will remember next Holy Week.

     There is another lesson in this passage I want you to notice.  Were we to stop with the declaration that Jesus died to save us and give us eternal life, that would be a wonderful story. But this is the Gospel story, THE GOOD NEWS story, and God is not satisfied with good enough or wonderful.  Look back up in the passage at verse 26.  We spend a great deal of time in the Church telling ourselves and those not yet members that the reward for faith in Christ is eternal life.  Certainly, that is one reward.  But the nature of the covenant that God swore with Abraham and with us is one of way more profound significance.  God has so bound Himself to us that we will honor or dishonor Him by our actions and words, and He has promised that we will share in His glory.  Listen to His words this morning.  Whoever serves Me must follow Me, and where I am, there will My servant be also.  Whoever serves Me, the Father will honor.

     Think on that this morning for another moment.  Jesus declares to us that whoever serves Him must follow Him.  These are not ironic words said just before that horrible walk to Calvary with the evidence of the beating and scouring raw upon His skin.  No, Jesus tells us that the path He walk will be arduous.  He does not want to walk it, but He knows that the Father’s plan of salvation depends upon it.  So, as the obedient Son, He will walk that path of humiliation, of rejection, and of death, confident that His Father will glorify Him for His obedience.  We who live on this side of the Resurrection and this side of the Ascension know that promised glorification has taken place.  But, have you paid attention to His promise and instruction?  Follow Me, and you will share in My glory because the Father will honor you.  Has there ever be said a more beautiful promise?  We human beings make promises all the time, but can we keep them?  I might love my wife enough to move heaven and earth for her, but only God can truly move heaven and earth for her.  Whatever promises we make pale when compared against the promises of God.  Only He has the power to conquer all things.  Only He has the power to redeem all things.  How do we know?  He conquered death as a lesson and pledge to us.  Just as I have done for My Son, so will I do for you, if you will but follow Him. 

     Brothers and sisters, we gather this week, nearing the end of Lent, much as Israel did so long ago on the banks of the Jordan.  Like them, we are about to enter into a season of God’s blessing.  True, for them, it was real possession; whereas for us it seems more a reminder.  But is it?  Because His time was at hand and He went willingly on that path, you and I, like throngs of Gentiles before us, are grafted into His kingdom.  Because His love and promise for us includes us sharing in His glory, you and I know, as obedient sons and daughters, that we can face the vicissitudes of life and evil of the world, knowing that our faithfulness in the face of oppression and degradation is none other than the life-giving, cross bearing path our Lord trod.  Best of all, we know how our journeys end!  We may not know the means.  We may not see the potholes and back-switches in the trail ahead.  We may not even seem to survive to our loved ones on this earth.  But we know, we know, that He who has promised is faith and has power to redeem all things to His honor, even our own deaths.  Brothers and sisters, whom will you follow?  Whom will you serve?  Will you follow that path that leads to your sharing in God’s glory, that journey He walked ahead of you and of me, that we might share in His eternal kingdom . . .




Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On bronze snakes and signposts . . .

     Back when I was a guy, this was one of my favorite times of the year.  I loved the excitement provided by March Madness.  I relished the idea of filling out a bracket and competing with my friends to see who “knew college basketball the best.”  I was even known to toss in a few dollars and draft teams in an office lottery, and pray, if I drew a 13-15 seed, that my new team had drawn Syracuse in the first round.  I see you all laughing at various parts of the story.  Some of you are laughing at my “when I was a guy” description of myself.  Others of you have felt the pain of tossing $20 in the office pool and pulling out the upset champion of the Horizon League tournament or the Southern Conference tournament.  One or two of you might have selected Syracuse as a Final Four team in your brackets only to see them flame out in the first round as a #2 seed.

     I mention the tournament because of the prevalence of John 3:16 signs in the arenas back in those days.  It used to be that some guy in a Bozo the clown wig would be holding a sign that said John 3:16 in plain view of the camera during free throws.  What really amazed me about his ministry was that he could get to both ends of the court behind the basket for every free throw!  I would imagine, especially here in Nashville with the heavy Baptist and Church of Christ influence, John 3:16 might be the verse that best summarizes the Gospel.  When I was . . . disagreeing with God about my call, that was a ministry that I thought sounded more like me.  I was willing to be that guy.  I would travel to important sporting events.  I would make the sign.  I would suffer for God by proclaiming His love to the world at Tourney games, at Super Bowls, at NBA games, and maybe even the Olympics!  I see you men nodding.  It would be a great ministry, wouldn’t it?  Except maybe for that stupid wig.  Maybe we could convince God that the wig detracts from the message?!

     I start off with that funny story, though, because we are going to focus today on the story that informs that famous verse of “For God so loved the world. . ." and is anything but funny.  How do we know that?  Jesus begins verse 14 by reminding us all that He will be lifted up just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness.  When we as Christians or we as clergy skip over such challenging stories, we do ourselves and those who are seeking God or a deeper relationship with Him a terrible disservice.  What do I mean?

     Look at your story in Numbers today.  How many of you have ever read this narrative before?  It goes without saying that you have read it every three years since the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary; yet how few of us remember the story?  And it is a great story.  The people gripe at God.  He punishes them with venomous snakes.  They repent.  He instructs Moses as to the anti-venom.  And the people continue their wandering.  All that does not include the background.

     I shared with the Wednesday night group that my favorite description of the book of Numbers by a commentary writer was that it was like the old desk or table or counter where we keep all those things we are loathe to throw away but not quite sure what to do with right now.  I am sure none of you do this, but I have been known to collect piles on my desk, on an island countertop in my house, and a dining room table.  To outsiders it looks like a mess.  To me, it is that paperwork “I might one day need.”  I see some elbows in ribs and knowing nods.  One or two of you might do this as well.  That’s one of the descriptions of the book of Numbers.  God gave Moses all this information.  He wrote the other four books of the Pentateuch, but he had all this leftover information, mostly numbers, that he needed to use.  Let’s be real: if we can’t throw away a receipt, what do you think we would do with information given to us by God?  Hoarding would not even begin to describe my response! 

     In truth, Numbers is a great book for modern Americans, and not just as a cure for insomnia.  One of the most popular defenses in this country is “it’s not my fault.”  We blame everything and everybody for our wrong, stupid, and evil choices.  People tell me that their divorces are not their fault because their parents never really taught them how to have a loving, stable relationship.  Abusers have told me they beat their wives or children because that’s how their dad raised them.  A convicted child rapist once defended his actions to me by saying “Father, she acted and dressed like she wanted it.”  How many psychotic killers or other criminals play the “I was abused” defense card?  How many of us in relationships here blame the other for pushing our buttons for our actions?

     The book of Numbers speaks against that very defense.  Most commentators agree that the book is roughly divided between the two censuses.  There is a counting of the first generation and a counting of the second generation.  In between the two censuses is where a lot of action occurs, including our story for today.  One of the main themes of the book is that we are influenced and shaped by our surroundings, our environment, and our family systems; each person, however, is finally required to make a decision on how to act in the today.  Will we follow God?  The first generation chickened out.  Although the second generation was born in and forced to wander in the desert because of the first generation’s distrust of God, they were eventually forced to choose whom they would follow.  Luckily for them and for us, they chose wisely.

     Our story today, though, is challenging to modern Christians and especially modern pastors.  The people complain and God sends snakes to bite them and kill them as punishment.  We claim we have a loving Father, yet this story seems to speak against that.  Doesn’t this sound more like an abusive father or a vengeful father?  Who sends snakes to bite His people?  I had to laugh at one of my colleagues this week who claimed it was a good thing we don’t have to preach on the Old Testament because their god does not act like that God.  It is sad, is it not?  What’s worse, their path to their god supposedly goes through this guy Jesus, and he says right before our famous passage that He must be lifted up as was the serpent in the wilderness by Moses.  Jesus could have avoided that imagery.  There are tons of pages in the Old Testament.  Why choose one that supposedly besmirches the character of His Father?

     The simple answer, of course, is that the narrative in Numbers does not besmirch God’s character.  Quite the contrary, it reveals His character to His people.  What has happened to lead us to this point in the narrative?  God has decided to free His people in Israel.  He proved His power over ten of Egypt’s gods with various plagues and signs.  He has so upset the Egyptian cosmology that the people throw Israel out and give them treasures to leave.  When trapped by the Egyptian chariots against the sea, God has parted the waters and led Israel to safety.  God has muddied the wheels of the chariots to slow them and then closed the passage to kill them, thereby ensuring that Egypt will no longer be a threat against Israel for many years.  God has shaded them in the wilderness by day and lighted the way with a fiery cloud by night.  God has fed Israel manna, the bread of angels.  God has fed them quail until it came out of their nostrils.  God has watered Israel when necessary.  Their sandals or feet have withstood the long journey.  They have witnessed the cloud descending into the Tabernacle to speak with Moses.  They have heard the theophany of Sinai with their own ears.  They have seen God’s jealousy at work with the molten calf and revelry.  And how do they respond?  They rail against God and complain about this miserable food.

     More often than not, the people grumble and complain against Moses.  But here, they complain specifically against God and, by extension, Moses.  They even call the food of angels detestable.  Parents probably can relate to this story.  Ever make a big sacrifice for your kids and have them cast it back in your teeth?  How did it make you feel?  Maybe now you understand the snakes.  Those of us who were once or are currently kids, ever complain about something only to have your parents explode?  Maybe we did not understand the cost, maybe we did not understand the benefit.  But when we complained about whatever it was, whoa!

     Now, place yourself in God’s shoes.  You have cared for them like a loving Father.  You have fed them, watered them, protected them, guided them.  You have given supernatural proof of your power to provide for them, and how do they respond?  I can only speak for me, but I sort of think the snakes are a sign of grace.  I’m thinking I would tend toward the lightning strike and instant vaporization, though I can respect a painful poison.  Given the chuckles, I’m guessing some of you are like me.  Here is God doing this great thing, actually series of great things for Israel, and they cast it back in His teeth.  No wonder he punishes them!  We often forget that God takes sin seriously.  God takes sin so seriously that it will take His Son to redeem us from it.  One of those sins we commit is rebellion.  In this story, God’s people are rebelling not just against God, but His care and concern and provision for them.  They reject the very life He is offering and, in a real, tangible way, earn a painful death.

     Notice, too, though, the rest of the story.  When Israel realizes their sin, what do they do?  They go to Moses and beg Him to intercede on their behalf.  A few lines earlier, they were grumbling against Him; now they want Moses to save them.  Now, this is where you and I should really begin to be humbled and really should begin to understand the true depth of Jesus’ claim in John 3:16.  How does God respond?  Those of us a minute ago who were laughing knowingly how we would respond know this is far beyond us.  Those of us who would have vaporized Israel would have no opportunity to show mercy.  Those of us who killed everyone instantly would be unable to see them learn the necessary lesson in this story.

     God tells Moses to make a bronze stake and place it on a snake in the middle of the camp.  Then He tells Moses that, when they are bitten, Israel needs to look at the snake to live.  How would you have responded to Israel’s repentance?  Those of us who nuked Israel would not have had to worry about it.  Would you be able to show grace?  When you parented, did you?  When you were parented, did your parents?  Most of us, particularly if we are of the “nuking” mentality, would probably find ourselves pulling back from the punishment entirely.  I suspect, unless we are abusers, we would simply cause the snakes we caused to come to leave.  That seems fair, right?  They sinned.  We punished.  They repented.  We accepted and fixed.  It's like reducing a grounding of weeks to a day or paying the allowance withheld.

     Jesus claims our Father in heaven is the perfect Father.  He loves us, wants nothing for the best for us, but He also realizes that we are separated from Him by our sin.  There is a cost, a terrible cost that Jesus knows all too well, for sin.  When we repent, we usually want God to take away the consequences, don’t we?  But when that happens, over and over again, do we really learn the cost of sin?  Put differently, if, every time you sinned and repented and God forgave and wiped away the consequences, would you really understand the cost of your sins?  We know our jobs as parents is to raise our children to love God, to love other people as themselves, to participate in society as productive members, to find a spouse that shares their values and will raise their children, our grandchildren, in light of these obligations.  How do we teach our children those important life lessons?  Is the best way to teach them always to take away consequences?  Or do we recognize that some of the best lessons are learned through experience?  Can a child truly understand the value of something as simple as a phone if we give it to them and replace it every time they break it?  Or do they better learn these lessons as they save their money to buy those things they value and lose that value when the items in question are not cared for appropriately?  And what of bigger items like cars?  Houses? Education?  And if we who are sinners recognize that wisdom, what do we think God is really teaching the people here?  Might not some learn the lesson the hard way not to think that God wishes them ill?  Maybe the next time they think to curse God for that detestable manna their ankle will say “hey, uh, don’t forget these fang marks here” and cause them to withhold that sentiment?

      Notice, too, even though God allows the people to continue to be punished by the snakes, still He places among them the means for their healing.  God is effectively saying to them, “yes, you will be bit, but if you want to live, look to the snake on a post.”  Can you not see how the image relates to our sins?  “Yes, you will sin, but look to the Cross for healing.”  We might think it stupid to look at a bronze snake on a post for healing, but is it really that different from looking at the Cross on Calvary for our healing?  Every time we sin, we are reminded of the cost of forgiveness, the cost of our Lord's life!

     Better still, our loving Father wants us to choose obedience.  Does He make the people look at the snake?  No.  Numbers does not record it, but I wonder how many people were too stubborn to be healed.  I think I might have numbered among that group.  Really, Moses, that’s supposed to be my cure?  Why don’t you shut up and grab me a knife and a belt so I can cut an ‘X’ over this and suck out the poison.  Don’t laugh.  You have seen those cowboy movies, too.  We have seen the real life rejection of Jesus for just that reason, though, as well.  You want me to believe I can be forgiven for all that I have done because of some guy’s death on the Cross?  It seems just as implausible to many as the snake in today’s story, yet the healing is undeniable to those who cling to it.  It sounds stupid.  It is far too simple.  Most of all, we don’t bear any of the cost.  How is that fair?  How is that just?  How does that save?

     You have probably thought more about this passage today than you ever have in your life, and believe it or not we have not fully mined the depth of this passage.  My hope is, my prayer is that you will never again see that John 3:16 sign on television or hear it on the radio without remembering this story.  Jesus pointed to this story as the foundation of that favorite passage.  Is there a cost to sin and disobedience?  We better believe it!  Are there consequences to our sins and evil actions?  Absolutely.  Are we ever without the means of healing and eternal life?  No.  Never.  Who provides the healing for us?  Our Father in heaven.  Who makes the healing possible?  His Son our Lord who came not to condemn us, but to save us.

     There is one other significance to this story we need to consider.  You and I live in a world beset by sin.  Paul tells us that Creation groans under the weight of our sins.  Some of those consequences are our own making.  A number of you have shared already how your choices have negatively impacted your present life.  But some of us have experienced consequences not of our own making or choosing.  Those of you abused by parents or spouses did not choose nor deserve to be abused.  Those of you stabbed in the back by friends or co-workers did nothing to deserve such actions.  Some of you have suffered environmental illnesses that do not tie directly to you behavior.  Using a metaphor based on today’s story in Numbers, you and I live in a world beset by snakes.  Some of the bites are nuisances, some are rather painful, and some, I am sorry to say, are even deadly.

     You and I, though, know that our Lord has been nailed to that Cross two thousand years ago and lifted up.  We have been given a sign not that different from Israel.  We have looked upon our Lord dead, buried, Resurrected, and Ascended, and we know that we shall have eternal life.  That same Father who promised Abraham that He would die if Abraham’s descendants could not keep the faith, that same Father who promised Israel He would deliver them, that same Father who promised He would cause the Land to disgorge them if they failed to keep His covenant, that same Father who sent His Son, not to condemn us, but to save us, has promised.  And you and I, by virtue of that promise, by virtue of our belief in Him and His Son, have become like snakes on poles in the camps where we live and work.  You and I have been charged with dying to self that we might arise in Him and begin, through His empowering Spirit, to draw the world into His saving embrace.  In a way, we are the bronzed snakes who point the way to the One lifted up that the world might be saved.  We are the ones who testify to the dark world that the Light has come into the world.  We are the ones who proclaim that there truly is healing for our evil deeds.  We are the signposts who point the others in our lives to the Christ, the Son of God, that they, like us, might not be condemned, but rather might turn to Him and live eternally!




Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Changing the locus of our worship even as He change the focus of our hearts . . .

     And here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Thee – those words no doubt sound familiar to those of us who were raised on or attended Rite 1 Eucharists for any length of time in our lives.  Why do I bring them up today?  A few of you have figured out I enjoy the more challenging aspects of theology.  Just a few minutes ago, in the adult Bible study, we were taking on questions of whether salvation can be lost, whether our inheritance can be taken from us, or even how unengaged people-groups, to use Clayton’s language from earlier this week, will be held accountable by a true, just, and holy God.  The fact is, your friends and neighbors and family members who do not believe, will often come at you with those kinds of hard questions.  If you have not pondered them, if you have not considered the incongruity that exists between the world promised by God and the world in which we live, you might miss a wonderful opportunity to engage someone where they are, at their invitation so to do.

     This week, we get a double dose of the Ten Commandments.  We read the Ten Commandments during the Penitential Order, and then we turned around and read them as part of our Old Testament reading from Exodus.  Why?  Why should we read them twice?  Part of the answer concerns the kingdom of God.  One of our seminary professors, Rod, one of the experts in John reminded us all the time that the rule of God is where God is the ruler.  Part of the answer, though related to that first, is that all the other instructions of the torah flow from the Ten Commandments which, in turn, flow from the Two Great Commandments.  No doubt you really want me to slow down and state that again.  Let’s try it in reverse.  Jesus said the two great commandments were loving God with everything we have and loving our neighbor as ourselves, right?  Why did Jesus give those two commandments as an answer?  He was asked by someone else to summarize the torah, the teaching of God.  Jesus taught that those Two Great Commandments summarize the entirety of what God expected of His people.  To be sure, up to this point, what Jesus taught was not unsurprising to those who heard it.  Other Rabbi’s had summarized the torah in a similar fashion.  Where Jesus differed, of course, is that He claimed every jot and every tittle of the torah was fulfilled by Him and pointed to Him – but that is a sermon for another day!  No, the summary of the torah gives us real insight as to the character and pace of the Kingdom of God.  Want to know the heart of God?  Consider the Cross and Empty Tomb even as you meditate on His instructions given to Moses.

     The Ten Commandments summarize the other 600 or so instructions given by God to the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai, and then again when the second generation, under Joshua’s leadership, chose the wiser course of trusting God and entering the Promised Land.  All those laws were given to a redeemed people to teach them how to live in communion with the Lord God.  They were not onerous; they were not meant to be burdensome.  Israel wanted to know how to live as God’s people, and God gave them the instructions.  When people come in arguing for the observance of or permission not to observe a particular law, I always encourage them to consider where the law in question in their mind falls within the Ten and then the Two.  It makes for a lot of work, I understand, but it also gets the person focusing on the heart and mind of God and of themselves rather than the sin of another they want to condemn or of themselves they want to ignore!  I share all that with you not because I want to focus on the Ten Commandments specifically today but because I want you to understand better what consumes Jesus in John’s Gospel and the Psalmist in Psalm 69.

     For those who like the idea of the “buddy Jesus” of Dogma fame or some hippie presentation of Jesus, today’s reading from John is a challenge.  Jesus comes into the Temple.  We are told He makes a whip from cords and begins chasing out the animals and money changers and all the business owners essential to the commerce of the Temple.  Those who like to pretend that the New Testament to show an evolution in God’s wrath find this passage distasteful.  After all, were the money changers and business owners not there, most people could not worship God properly, or at least as taught by the priests, scribes, and elders.

     Given the marketplace scene described by John, you may have figured out that there was quite the business inside the Temple.  Only specific currency could be used to buy the right sacrifice.  Each animal had to be brought to the marketplace to be sold for worship.  And, money sure was convenient if one was walking for a couple days or a week to go to Jerusalem.  Who wants to carry pigeons or tow a sheep or an ox?  That only slows people down, right?  That makes them an easier, slower target for the brigands.  So this business center sprang up to deal with the realities of the world.  It would be easier on the people if they did not have to bring their own sacrifices.  It would be easier on the people if they did not have to get the Temple currency when they lived some distance from Jerusalem, or it would be more beneficial to the Temple if we were paid for the currency exchange rather than some guy down in Jericho.  It would be easier on the people if they could buy their animals, again from us at the Temple, rather than cut into their herds or flocks by bringing their own.  See how seductive the system was?  Can you see how good intentions turned into money-making schemes?  I’m glad we never do that in the Church, take good intentions and try to monetize them.  We never burden people like that, do we? 

     All sarcasm aside, John relates this story because it captures the essential reason for the revelation of the torah on Sinai.  God’s people had asked how they were supposed to live in communion with the Lord.  The torah was the answer.  God taught His people, through Moses, what it meant to be His people, to be a nation of priests, to be a light unto the world.  Like everything else, though, Israel’s ability to keep the torah was hamstrung by sin.  What God revealed was supposed to be the characteristics of a circumcised heart; the people revealed that their hearts were as stiff as their necks.  Some will assume in their conversations with Jesus that because they have Abraham as a father that God must protect them.  Some will try to contextualize the torah and assert that those old teachings no longer apply.  Some will so twist the torah that the elderly, the widows, and the orphaned will be punished rather than helped.  Gee, mom and dad, I’d love to help you out in your retirement years, but I pledged my money to the Temple.  And Jesus, consumed with zeal for the Lord’s house, reasserts the purpose of the torah, the purpose of the Temple, the relationship the people of Israel should have with the Lord, a relationship that should be written on their hearts, minds, and wills.  A relationship that is not yet possible, but will be if Jesus accomplishes the work He has come to do.

     One of the important lessons we as Christians should take from this scene, and there are admittedly more than one, is the changing place where God is to be worshipped.  Israel, understandably, was focused on the Tabernacle and then the Temple.  The tent and the Temple were the place where Yaweh resided.  Their ancestors had seen the cloud come down in the middle of the camp during the Exodus, they knew that Solomon built the permanent House of the Lord, they knew that the prophet had seen the Spirit of God leave the Temple before the Exile, and they knew the emperor had sent Ezra and Nehemiah and that generation to rebuild the Temple that had been sacked.  Even after 46 years of rebuilding and refurbishment, the Temple in which they were standing was a pale imitation of the glorious Temple of Solomon.  But those in the Temple forgot their purpose.  They became more concerned with the economy of the Temple rather than the worship of the Lord the Temple signified.  They became more concerned with the privileges and perks of their position than calling the people of God back into right relationship with Him.

     Jesus hints rather strongly that the locus of worship is changing.  In answer to their challenge of His authority, He challenges the Temple elites to destroy this temple and in three days He will rebuild it.  They interpret Him to be saying that He can rebuild in three days what they have been working on for 46 years, but Jesus has in mind a more glorious sign for them.  Of course, neither the Temple Elites nor the disciples nor you and I understand the sign He has in mind absent the Cross and Resurrection.  Who is Jesus to declare this teaching?  From where does this son of a carpenter derive His authority?

     The next several chapters of John’s Gospel will be full of signs which point to the source of Jesus’ authority.  It will include, with this scene in the background, the Samaritan woman at the well who asks which mountain is the proper mountain upon which to worship God.  Jesus tells her the time is coming when God’s people will worship Him in spirit and truth rather than on a particular mountain and that He is the Messiah, the Anointed One who will make this possible.  The place of the right worship of God will shift from the Temple to the heart of the believer.  To outward appearance, the life of a faithful Jew and a faithful Christian will be indistinguishable.  What will have changed will be the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the one who claims Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  That indwelling Spirit will provoke life which looks like the life called for under the torah.  That indwelling Spirit will make it possible for the believer to worship the Lord truly.

     Back to our discussion of the Ten Commandments and Two Great Commandments.  One of the effects of Jesus’ work is the changing of the place of worship.  I’m not talking about the differences between a Temple and a synagogue and church.  I am talking about the understanding that you and I are always called to be worshiping, praising, thanking, and communing with God.  There is no part of our lives that is ours!  He is Lord over every second, every facet, every bit of all our lives.  God is every bit as much God over our personal live, our work lives, our interests and hobbies, as He is over our worship lives.  Jesus sums up the 600 instructions with the idea that we are called to love Him with all our hearts, all our minds, all our strength, all our everything.  Not part.  Not most.  All our everything.

     More amazingly, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.  How can He expect us to do that?  What was He thinking?  He was thinking that everyone was created in His image.  Everyone.  Yes, we mar that beautiful image through our sins, but His image is indelibly imprinted upon us.  If we understand God’s love for us while we were enemies and unrepentant sinners, how can we truly honor Him by not reaching out in love to those who are currently His enemies?  If we truly understand the joy and thankfulness of the grace proclaimed to us, how can we ever withhold it from another?  If we as a people can gather, week in and week out, and receive the Sacrament according to His instruction and in remembrance of His death and His passion for us, how can we ever work to withhold that same gift from others and expect to be doing the work He has given us to do?  And, understand me clearly, some in the world will seek to take advantage of our efforts to live out the Two Great Commandments in our lives.  Schemers and thieves and all sorts of bad people will hope to use us to further their own ends or selfish ambition.  But we should not be surprised.  As John wrote a few verses earlier, He came into that which was His own, and His own rejected and despised Him.  Those who reject and despise Jesus will reject and despise us, and that is ok.  Because that same God who gave the torah, that same God who sent His Son, has promised that He will redeem all things.  If we suffer for Him and His sake, we will be vindicated by Him!  So all things—how we relate to one another, how we care for strangers, how we play, how we mourn, how we celebrate—all we do testifies to the reality of whether we are God’s people.

     All of that begins in here, in our hearts and minds and wills.  Do we live our lives cognizant of and thankful for the love and grace which He first showed us?  Do we live our lives determined to walk as He walks, to see as He sees, to hear and speak as He hears and speaks, and to love as He loved?  Do we really seek His mind in all our actions, in all our thoughts, in all our musings?  Do we?  Or do we try and confine it to ninety minutes on Sunday?  The truth is, as He knew it would be, no.  Forgive them, Lord, they do not know what they are doing.  How many of us, though, answered those questions with “no, but. . . ” in our heads?  How many of us went right to the extenuating circumstance, the excuse, the reason for our behavior?  The Ten Commandments, indeed the whole of God’s instruction, teaches us where we fall short, where we need grace, where we need a Savior.  And so it is fitting that we spend some time each year reminding ourselves of His teaching.  It is fitting that we spend extra time listening to Him describe what kingdom life is like.  It is fitting that we are reminded of the measure, the canon, and where we fall short.  It is fitting that we remind ourselves of who we are called to be by Him.  It is fitting that we remind ourselves that this, this mind and heart and body are the places where we are called to worship Him, thankful that He brought us in from the wildernesses of our lives, into His Peace, into His life, into His kingdom!



Monday, March 2, 2015

Only He had enough faith . . .

     As those on Wednesday night can attest, I really enjoy teaching Bible Study classes.  Truthfully, I enjoy plumbing the depths of Scripture like we do on Sunday mornings, but I love trying to present the Scriptures in relevant ways.  The reason, of course, is that Bible Study gives me an opportunity to take the “spiritual temperature” of those active in the congregation.  I get to hear where your struggles are, way better than I do after sermons on Sunday morning.  A few attendees on Sunday may come in later in the week to argue with me or to share with me their struggles, but the real wrestling comes in Bible studies.  I joke that the patron saint of all Episcopalians should be St. Jacob because we love to wrestle with God, much as did Jacob so long ago.  God does not seem to mind us wrestling with Him too much.  Sure, He dislocates hips or cracks 2x4’s upside heads every now and again to remind us that He is God and we are His creature.  But, overall, He shows us incredible patience.  Bible Studies, to continue the analogy, give me a chance to see where people are wrestling with God in their lives.  Some will outright state that there is a sin that plagues them or a part of His instruction to which they will not submit.  Often, though, people are really trying to figure out what God expects of them.

     I have only been at Advent for two months, but one struggle has certainly become visible even to this legally blind pastor.  It is a question which plagues far too many of us as a group, and it is a question which I feel must be addressed.  The answer to the question will have ties to the reading from Romans and from Genesis.  I think it will cause a bit of a murmur around here, as it will not be my typical sermon.  You all have been very gracious in your observations that I try to give you ways to apply the Scriptures in your daily life and work and that I share the ways in which your friends, your co-workers, your family, and others might see you, the world, or, most importantly, the Gospel.  This one won’t, but it will.  I will have no specific illustrations for you to try this week; yet without this fundamental understanding, your ability to share the Gospel and even your ability to share in the Peace that passes all understanding will be diminished.

     That all being said, what saves us?  This is not meant to be a rhetorical exercise.  I want you to think how you understand faith and belief and righteousness and all those fancy words that we throw about casually.  What saves us?  What is it that makes us righteous before God?  This question is of paramount importance because far too many people have misunderstood how they are saved.  In my couple months with you, one of the big questions repeatedly asked of me is whether I think the person in my office has enough faith to be saved.  Father, I have done this and this and this.  Do you think I have enough faith to get into heaven?  Father, sometimes I struggle with this sin or that sin.  If I know it is a sin and still sin, do you think that just confirms my lack of faith and the fact that I will not be saved unless I get better?  Sitting there, you might think such questions ought to be coming from our shut-in’s, as they face the decline of health.  I am here to tell you that not one of our shut-in’s have asked that question, or one like it, of me.  No, it has been the people in the pews next to you.

     I daresay all the answers tossed out earlier are correct.  All flow rightly from the teachings of the Gospel.  Jesus died for us.  He made us worthy to stand before God.  His blood cleansed us.  All those answers uttered and thought along those lines are right.  Jesus, by His work and person, saves us from the wrath of God and bestows upon us eternal life.  Where, in all those discussions that you were having in your head or with the person sitting next to you, does God ever teach us that He is measuring our faith as a determining factor of whether we are saved, admitted into heaven, or however you want to put it?  Where does God say, on the scale of faith, one to a hundred, you need 50.01 when you stand before Me?  You can point to Scriptures where God commends the faith of certain individuals, but nowhere is there a “standard of faith” put forth in Scriptures.  So I ask again, in light of Genesis and Romans, what saves us?

     The truth is we have become sloppy Christians.  That sloppiness has led to an increase in anxiety, the very opposite of the Peace which passes all understanding which are told to expect.  Perhaps we always have been sloppy Christians and that is why Paul wrote so many letters to churches around the Mediterranean.  We sling around words like righteousness and faith and salvation and forgiveness like everyone knows what they mean.  But we never really slow down to consider what should be meant by those words.  Righteousness, as we see in our reading from Genesis this morning, simply means a right relationship with God.  Righteousness and unrighteousness are used in the Bible to teach us about our relationship with God.  As sinners, we are unrighteous.  Sin keeps us from a right relationship with God.  Now, God has made it possible for humans to be brought back into right relationship with Him.  The torah taught that the cost of sin was blood.  If one was a faithful Jew, one could make the appropriate sacrifice and be brought back into right relationship with God.  Paul tells us in some of his letters that he was righteous under the law.  Paul is not bragging to the churches to whom he wrote or to us.  He is stating a fact.  Notice, though, Paul does not speak of forgiveness under the law.  When he sinned, Paul made the appropriate sacrifice under the law.  Because Abraham believed that God could give him and Sarah a child, the Hebrew speaks of bringing life from death, God credits his belief as righteousness.  How do we become righteous?

     In the grand scheme of things, nothing has really changed since Genesis 12.  What makes us righteous?  What restores us to right relationship with God?  If you are from a tradition that believes in “believer” baptism or one like our own where we confirm that our youths, of an appropriate age, accept the oaths made on their behalves.  In reality, all that a believer is asked is a simply question.  Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins and was raised by God to new life, and do you accept Him as Lord?  That’s really it.  Like Abraham, do you believe that God brought life from the dead?  Here’s the great news: it is a simple question that demands a simple answer.  Either we believe it true that He died for our sins and was raised from the dead by our Father in Heaven that wonderful Easter morning, or we do not believe it.  It really is that simple.  It is so simple that it becomes offensive the eyes and ears of many.  We are asked to respond to a yes or no question.  Whichever answer we give, that’s it.  Well, Brian, I want to be like St. Augustine and party some more before I believe it.  Fine, that’s a no.  Well, Brian, there’s so much evil in the world and Christians have done such horrible things in history, I’m not sure I want to be included among them.  Fine, that is a no.  God does not make us accept Him.  God gives us all free will with respect to this choice.  But nowhere, nowhere in this covenant that He makes with us does He ever say our faith saves us.

     Jesus’ faith is what saves us.  I see by the expressions that you have never considered this.  Who had to demonstrate faith that you and I might be made righteous, made worthy to stand before God?  Jesus.  Jesus is the One who came down from heaven to do the will of the Father.  Jesus is the One who had to reject the temptations by Satan in the wilderness and continue to do the will of the Father.  Jesus is the One who was homeless and had to have faith that the path which He was on led ultimately to His and God’s glory.  Jesus is the One that was betrayed by the very people He came to save?  Jesus is the One who was mocked, punched, spat upon, crowned with thorns, and nailed to the Cross.  Jesus is the One who gave up His last breath on that Cross and died, trusting that His Father, the Lord, would bring life from this death, radiant light from this darkness.  It is Jesus’ faith that God would redeem His suffering and death that saves us.  Jesus had to have faith in God’s plan when Satan tempted Him to bypass the Cross and aim for more temporal glory.  Jesus did the heavy lifting.  You and I just have to believe, or are free to reject, that He did.  We got the easy part of this process of redemption, salvation, and forgiveness.  Jesus did the hard work!  And that, brothers and sisters, is why it is Gospel news!  To those oppressed, to those struggling, to those wondering whether they could be restored to Yahweh and His blessings, this plan of redemption was incredible.  It was so incredible that it took Paul, St. Paul—A Jew’s Jew, three years to come to grips with this Resurrection of Jesus!

     The Temple priests got it wrong; the world got it wrong.  We cannot do anything to make ourselves righteous before God.  There is no amount of money, no amount of time, no amount of prayer, no amount of fasting, no amount of anything that we can give that makes us deserve to be restored.  That is why it is called grace.  God offers it freely.  God gives it to all those who believe in Lord Jesus.  Young or old, rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, line worker or company owner, all have the same requirement—Do you believe?  That’s it.  It really is that easy.

     Brothers and sisters, if you are struggling with questions of whether your faith measures up, stop!  I promise you, neither yours nor mine measures up to our Lord’s.  All He demands of us, all He asks of us, is whether we believe that He died for our sins and was raised on that third day.  That voice that you are hearing, that voice that causes you to question whether your faith measures up is not our Lord’s.  He knew our faith long before He ever came down from heaven.  He went to that Cross knowing the relative strength or weakness of our faith.  And still He died for us, that our Father might credit our belief in Him as righteousness, and so bless us, we who were already dead, with eternal life!