At the Jordan with Jesus

Mark 1:9-15 February 21, 2021  —  Lent 1 (Genesis 9:8-17, Ps 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22)

“May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen” ( Psalm 19:14).

The heavens being torn open.  Jonah’s ark and the covenant of the rainbow.  The Apostle Peter’s connecting the ark with A prayer of King David for guidance and direction.  Our readings for this first Sunday in Lent are filled with imagery!

Let’s start with Mark.  Mark’s gospel is like a modern television series.  His writing is fast moving and to the point.  He doesn’t waste time on unnecessary detail.  The Greek words “euthus” often translated immediately is one of his favorites.  

Note, this is early in Mark’s Gospel, still the first chapter.  Mark notes that Jesus is from Nazareth.  An important point because that ties Jesus into His human story—His place in our human geography and history.  

Next Mark simply states that Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River and that as Jesus comes up out of the water everything changes!  He uses the Greek word for torn, which can also be translated “separate, or split.”  The Greek is the basis for our English word “schizo,” schizophrenic—split personality.  Mark implies that only Jesus sees this, and that only Jesus hears the voice form heaven that affirms Him as God’s beloved Son.”  But maybe the attendant crowds and others saw and heard that too.  I doubt it though.

The same Greek word “schizo” is used by Mark in chapter 15:38 where the veil in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies is torn in two.  

The voice from heaven—God the Father’s—is important for two reasons.  First, God is reaffirming Jesus’ mission and ministry at His baptism.  Jesus was not baptized for the forgiveness of sins, nor to set an example for us to follow.  He is being baptized by John, taking on our human mantle—our broken humanity with all its frailties and “stuff.”  He steps out of the water wearing the robe of human sinfulness and frailty, just as when we are baptized we are clothed with the robe of His righteousness.  Luther calls this the great exchange.  The Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that God “made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The second reason this is important is it shows us Jesus knew who He was and what He was doing on this planet of ours as one of us—that He created! He had no confusion about His identity or purpose in life.  Jesus came to save us from the unholy three—sin, death and the devil.  This is the unfolding of the mystery, the plan God had in mind from the very beginning of our human story.  

The Holy Spirit then literally drives Jesus into the wilderness for the forty days of being tested by the devil also reaffirms that understanding.  The number forty is significant in Old Testament imagery.  Moses was on the mountain of God for forty days receiving instructions and the Ten Commandments.  Elijah also experienced forty days of hunger.  Remember the children of Israel were tested in the wilderness for forty years.  Jesus is stepping into the Israel’s (and our) story and deliberately working out a different ending.  An ending with good news and hope.

Why the Jordan River?  It is one of the smallest rivers on the planet.  Its entire length from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea is only about 200 miles.  Certainly not very significant.  What is significant is Joshua and the children of Israel crossed it as they entered the Promised Land.  

What rich imagery!  In this little section of Scripture we have heaven and earth colliding with earth shaking imagery.  Heaven is torn open with the beginning of Jesus’ work of salvation on our behalf!  

African slaves captured this imagery when they sang about the Jordan River and crossing the Jordan River from the misery of slavery on this side to freedom and heaven on the other side.  Old Gospel hymns connect with that same theme in a very rich way.  The phrase “crossing Jordan” still has that imagery.  Crossing the Jordan means freedom.  

Remember the words of our Declaration of Independence from 1776:  

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  

February is Black History Month.  We need to make more of that than we have in previous years because we are playing catch up in a very real sense.  Consider the following:

The most famous episode in [Frederick Douglass’s autobiography] is Douglass’s fight with Edward Covey. Covey ran a business breaking slaves who were too headstrong, and Douglass’s master sent him to Covey in 1834 when Douglass was 17. Covey beat him every week, for any reason or for no reason. He would hide in the bushes and attack Douglass out of nowhere — all to instill in Douglass a sense of helpless terror and to destroy his capacity to dream of a better life.

Then, one hot August day, Douglass decided that he would not surrender. He had fainted from heat stroke that day, and Covey had beat him for it with a wooden club. Though Douglass had begged his owner to intervene, he had refused. So Douglass resolved to fight back. The next time Covey attacked him, he grabbed the man around the throat and held on. They struggled until Covey stumbled off mumbling. He never beat Douglass again. And Douglass learned from this incident a crucial principle: he who would be free must himself strike the blow.

Striking that blow rather than surrendering — believing in himself enough to stand up — that was the crucial lesson. Douglass refused to accept the hopeless, helpless, dreamless life of a brute. “Next to the dignity of being a freeman is the dignity of striving to be free,” he said years later. “I detest the slaveholder, and almost equally detest a contented slave. They are both enemies to freedom.”

Jesus, as He is baptized into the Jordan River, takes on the cloak of our humanity in order to bring us His righteousness, and with it liberty and freedom.  We were created for life and freedom.  It is a longing imbedded deep within our hearts.  A longing that finds its fulfillment through our faith in and relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.  

The View from the top

Mark 9:2-9—Transfiguration Sunday, February 14 2021

Climb that mountain. Reach the peak.  Take in the view from the top. It is exhilarating!  It doesn’t matter what mountain or peak.  It doesn’t have to be Mount Everest.  The experience is transformative, life changing.   Everything looks different from the view at the top. 

This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday.  It is also Valentine’s Day.  Both go together quite well.  Nothing pictures true love the way Jesus’s life and mission for us as His redeemed and forgiven people.  Beloved.  That’s what we are.

Jesus has taken the inner circle of the disciples with Him, Peter, James and John.  They have hiked and climbed to the top of a mountain.  We are not told what mountain.  Knowing the exact location and peak is not important.  What is important is what takes place there.  

A week before this transfiguration event Jesus has talked with His disciples about His mission and purpose in life.  Peter has correctly identified Jesus as Messiah and then scolds Jesus regarding Jesus’ talk of His impending death on the cross.  Jesus, in turn, corrects Peter.  Jesus speaks about seeing the kingdom of heaven coming in power—demonstrated through the weakness, the foolishness—of the cross.  That was six days prior to the transfiguration. 

And, now, on the mountain of transfiguration we find Jesus with Peter, James and John.  Picture Him standing apart from them, praying, when suddenly His whole demeanor and appearance are changed.  Metamorphosis is the Greek word.  His appearance is changed, but Jesus Himself is not changed.  His true divinity is shining through His humanity.  

Moses’ face shone when he came down from the mountain where he had been given the two tables of stone containing the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments.  When Moses met with God in the “tent of meeting” in the wilderness, speaking face to face with God, Moses would come out of the tent with his face shining brightly.  He wore a veil to cover his face so the Israelites would not be afraid to look at him (Exodus 34).  Moses’ face shone because he had been in God’s presence.  

Here Jesus’ entire appearance is changed because His divinity—which has been hidden and cloaked within His humanity—now shines visibly.  Make no mistake.  Jesus is God in human flesh!  True God.  True human.  Our Savior and Lord.  

While Jesus’ appearance is transformed two clearly identifiable characters from the Old Testament suddenly are with Him.  Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets.  The Law and Prophets—the heart and soul of the Old Testament.  Luke’s Gospel tells us they are talking about Jesus’ departure—His approaching death on the cross.  The essence of the Old Testament points to the reality of Jesus’ coming and mission.  That mission is focused on the cross—picturing our redemption, our salvation through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.  

This is stunning.  It reaffirms for us that Jesus came for one reason, one purpose—our salvation through our forgiveness; our restored relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son.  

Peter, ever the extravert, blurts out that they should build shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus.  He is beside himself with confusion and should have just been quiet!  Then, just as suddenly, a think cloud enfolds them and a voice speaks to them from the cloud, “This is My Son, the Beloved One!  Listen to Him!”  Then, again, suddenly, they see only Jesus and things go back to “normal.”  

The Old Testament points to Jesus.  It points to His coming to us as one of us, human like us, yet also divine. God among us.  God, our Immanuel.  It centers on the purpose of Jesus’ coming, culminating in the His ultimate sacrifice that ends all sacrifices.  With Jesus’ death on the cross the Temple and all the Temple rituals and laws are now extinct.  They are the shadow.    Jesus is the reality.  

The disciples must be confused and numb. They are bewildered.  Jesus only tells them not to speak of these events until after He is risen from the dead.  That, too, confuses them.  But it also reaffirms our understanding of what has just taken place.  

Jesus up to this point has preached, taught and performed many miracles.  He still does so, but His face, His resolve, is focused on the cross and what it means for us.  Jesus’ reference to the resurrection helps us to see the end of the story.  The cross is not the end.  It is the opening of our new beginning.  

Jesus’ metamorphosis—His change and transformation on the mountain top pictures and predicts our metamorphosis.  Through the cross we are changed.  We are transformed.  He takes our pain, our suffering, our garbage and transforms it into a splendorous display of His life changing love.  

All the hurt, pain and abuse we have experienced, our brokenness, our regrets and shames, all that “stuff” — none of it matters.  What matters now is living in His grace and experiencing His resurrection power every day, every moment, every hour. Forgetting the past, we strive forward to claim what is ours in our majestic Savior and Lord.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Okay, I’ll Pray!

Isaiah 40:21-31 (and Mark 1:29-29)

The story is told of a little boy and his father. They were walking along a road when they came across a large stone. The boy looked at the stone and thought about it a little. Then he asked his father, “Do you think if I use all my strength, I can move that rock?”

The father thought for a moment and said, “I think that if you use all your strength, you can do it.”

That was all the little boy needed. He ran over to the rock and began to push on it. He pushed and he pushed, so hard did he try that little beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. But the rock didn’t move — not an inch, not half an inch.

After a while, the little boy sat down on the ground. His face had fallen. His whole body seemed to be just a lump there on the earth. “You were wrong,” he told his dad. “I can’t do it.”

His father walked over to him, knelt beside him, and put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “You can do it,” he said. “You just didn’t use all your strength. You didn’t ask me to help.”

The world in which we live tells us that it is all up to us. It tells us that we have to be strong and independent. It tells us we can’t and shouldn’t count on anyone or anything else. And yet, what faith tells us and what Jews and Christians have known forever is that we have a ready resource in God, strength for those who ask.

Our Gospel reading from Mark 1 shows Jesus nonchalantly healing Peter’s mother-in-law, who in turn immediately begins serving those in her home.  Regardless of what we might say about roles in the home, this woman has a heart that cares about people and about serving.  Amazing!  

Also amazing is Jesus’ healing everyone who came to Him that night with a boatload of problems.  He healed every disease and cast out every demon.  Amazing!

But even more amazing is Jesus’ resolve to recenter His soul and reconnect with His source of strength.  Specifically, going to His Father in prayer in solitude.  Even Jesus, our Savior and Lord, had to make prayer a priority! What does that say about us and our prayer habits? 

That is why our reading from Isaiah 40 is so incredibly important for you and me.  The prophet Isaiah is speaking to a disheartened people who were on the verge of giving up hope and faith.  They were living as strangers in a foreign land as exliles.  They felt abandoned and neglected by God; and that God was somehow powerless against the governments and rulers of their day.  

God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah reminds them and us that our Lord has no equals…anywhere.  The Lord our God is the Creator of heaven and earth, of the expanse of universes and galaxies.  The Lord our God is the “everlasting God.”  Consider the list of attributes Isaiah lays out for our God:

  • eternal (no beginning, no end—timeless)
  • creator of all that exists—even distant universes and galaxies!
  • omnipotent (meaning all powerful)
  • omniscient (meaning all knowing)
  • merciful and gracious—giving strength and power to the weak and weary
  • loving—God never ceases to care and provide for His people—US!

We need to re-read passages like this over and over again; let them soak into the fiber of our beings, wash over our weary souls!  And then, to learn what it means to “wait on the Lord!”  

Consider these possibilities.  

  • Waiting on the Lord might mean learning to rest in and trust God despite the issues and difficulties you are currently experiencing.
  • Waiting on the Lord might mean being patient even when the world seems to be tipping the balance toward chaos and confusion. God is still in control!
  • Waiting on the Lord might mean not pushing my agenda or my hopes and desires for the way I want things to work out.  Rather, yielding myself to the invisible, yet loving hand of God working in and behind the scenes of human affairs.  
  • Waiting on the Lord might be our surrendering and saying, You are God.  I am not.  And I am okay with that and rest in that and find peace in that!  Our God is the “everlasting God!”  He doesn’t feint or grow weary!  He defends the weak and comforts those in need.  He lifts us up on wings like eagles!
  • And from that vantage point we can move forward in doing the good we can, everywhere we can, all the time we can, to all the people we can—even when we feel small and powerless.  Because we believe that God hears and uses our prayers and our obedience in the little things to make a difference in this world.  He is the Everlasting God!

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Holy Interruptions

Mark 1:21-28

We don’t know his name.  We’ve never met him.  We really do not know anything about him at all.  Was he young?  Old?  Was he short or tall?  

Maybe he was middle aged.  He might have had a scraggly beard and floppy head of hair.  He might have been single and unemployed—with a troubled employment history.  He was probably Jewish.  

What we do know is that he plays a significant role— causing a “holy interruption — in Mark’s gospel recording the first sermon Jesus preached at the beginning of His ministry!

The setting for our gospel reading is immediately after Jesus has called the first disciples.  Peter and Andrew along with James and John were called by Jesus to “come and follow Me” in Bethsaida.  Now they are in the hometown of Peter and Andrew which Jesus makes as his home base of operations.

Mark’s Gospel account of Jesus is like a fast paced television show.  He doesn’t waste time on unnecessary details.  A key often repeated word for Mark is “immediately.”  Mark’s portrayal of Jesus is to show Jesus’ power in multiple settings.  Thus he starts his record of Jesus’ first Sabbath, first sermon, and first miracle in rapid fire fashion.

So we find our Lord beginning His ministry in the Capernaum synagogue on the first Sabbath after His arrival there.  He enters the synagogue and straight away begins to teach.  But His teaching is different than what they attendees are accustomed to with the scribes and Jewish scholars.  He teaches with power and authority.  The implication is He knows what He is talking about and confident in what He says.  The people are astonished and taken back.  

And then…Jesus is interrupted.  

Just then, or “immediately”—the same Greek word Mark uses over and over again—a demon possessed man shouts out.  The Greek implies he is anything but quiet!  He screams at Jesus.

What do we have to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth!

Imagine the effect this has on the worshipping congregation—shock and dismay, with the hairs on the back of their necks standing erect.  All eyes are on Jesus and this crazy man.  

What do we have to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth!  Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are — the Holy One of God!

Get this, this demon who is screaming out at Jesus has “accurate theology.”  He correctly understand who Jesus is as a man, Jesus of Nazareth.  He also correctly identifies Jesus’ divinity.  Jesus is the Holy One of God!  

In theological terms we call that the dual nature of Christ.  He is both God and human together.  Completely human.  Completely divine.  

And, this demon has spiritual insight into Jesus’ mission and ministry.  Jesus has come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).  Jesus as God’s Messiah has come to set the captive free, to break the power of evil and darkness, to bring us hope, life, salvation and a restored relationship with God the Father!

So the question, “have You come to destroy us?” is an insightful and accurate question.  The answer is YES!  Jesus has come to break the power of sin, death and the devil.  

Now, step back with me a bit.  Why do you suppose this man finds himself in church on the sabbath?  Is it ironic or out of place for a demon possessed man to be in church, in a worship setting?  

Imagine this man being tormented and torn—a battle raging inside of him.  Sometimes he is in control of himself.  Sometimes he feels as though something else has control of him.  He must hate himself and his life.  He must long for deliverance, to be rescued from his tormenter.  

Have you ever had two voices or forces at war inside of you?  Do you struggle with an addiction? To pornography? Do you struggle with substance abuse and/ or addiction?  We all have issues, 

What about anger, emotional chaos and confusion, depression and thoughts of suicide?  Or being trapped in hopelessness?  What about our struggle with aging and its ill affects on us, or cancer, or divorce, or loneliness or just plain old fashioned despair.  

Jesus’ response?  He is cool and calm as a cucumber.  

“Be muzzled” is an accurate translation of the Greek.  Put a cork in it!  Silence!Shut up!  And then Jesus simply says, “come out of him!”  No incantations.  No formula for exorcism.  No appealing to God — “the Lord rebuke you Satan!”  None of that.  Simply, “Be silent! Come out of him!” And, just like that, the demon convulses the man, screams one more time, and leaves!  

Whoah!  Wow!  Amazing power.  Jesus is Lord.  Demons have no choice but to yield and obey Him.  Jesus is God in human flesh.  And Mark makes his first point on Who this unusual man is.  God among us!  Who has come with power to save and heal us!  What a beginning!

Nothing more is said of the man who is delivered of his demon possession.  I image he is tired and weary and totally happy!  He is rescued.  He is free.  Mark’s focus is on Jesus’ mission and ministry and His power over sin and evil. 

The worshipping audience?  They are amazed.  They debate among themselves about what they have witnessed.  

“What is this?  A new teaching with authority!”  The Greek word for authority here can also be translated “power.”  And if I understand Mark’s focus in his account of Jesus’ life and ministry power might be the best translation.  “He commands even the unclean (evil) spirits and they obey Him!”

The people are amazed and word about this man Jesus begins to spread like wild fire.  Yet, there is no comment about their coming to faith and trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord.  

So, what about you and me?  Do we move past amazement and wanting to be dazzled with miracles and entertainment?  Or do we believe and give Jesus our humble faith and obedience!  

The ball is in our court.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

How’s Your Hearing?

Our hearing might be okay, but our listening skills might not be.

1 Samuel 3:1-18

Listening is a challenge.  We might…

  • be too busy with our own thoughts and agendas
  • already think we know enough or more than the speaker
  • not like the speaker
  • not be able to hear over the din—over loaded senses!

Sometimes we just don’t care.

God is always listening to us.  He knows everything about us, every minute detail of our lives from conception to our final breath (Psalm 139).

We too can learn to listen.

Consider this story of the young boy who learned to listen and follow, to discern God’s voice and follow God’s leading in obedience.  That young boy is Samuel.

The early disciples also learned how to hear Jesus’ voice, to listen and to follow Him!

1 Samuel 3 starts out by telling us the “word of God” was rare in those days and that visions were infrequent.  

Yet, amazingly, God is always speaking—through nature.  Consider that great old hymn, “How Great Thou Art” where the hymn writer reflects and responds in wonder to God’s creative voice.

God speaks through His prophets and preachers who proclaim God’s word.

God speaks through the Bible—the Spirit breathed Word!

The problem is we cannot hear because we are not listening.  If we do hear, do we put into practice what God tells us?  We need to let God’s Word inform and instruct us.  We need to let God’s Word change us!

Sometimes we do not listen and follow God’s Word because we are caught up in our own thoughts and ideas.  We do not want to let go of our errant thinking.  We protect our position, our power and our privileges.  

Like young Samuel we can pray, “Speak Lord.  Your servant is listening!”

Pray 

Pray for a receptive and open heart, mind and soul.

Be humble

Let God’s Word confront us, challenge us, change us—change our values, our thinking, our priorities, agenda; our worldview!

Be repentant

Let go of our false thinking, stop being defensive, proud, obtuse!

God can speak through a donkey if we are listening, just like Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22.  

God’s Word calls us out of ourselves, to care past ourselves.  God’s Word calls us to be vulnerable, humble and teachable.  God’s Word, over and over again calls us to care for the vulnerable and marginalized in society.  

When we hear God speaking to us we need to respond with obedience like the disciples Jesus called to “come, follow Me.”  We need to put into practice what we hear and learn.  Show God we are listening.  

Consider Psalm 119:18 “Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things out of Your law (Word).”

Jesus opened the eyes—minds and hearts—of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  That story if recorded in Luke 24.  

When we are listening we must be willing to be surprised and interrupted, to be inconvenienced.  God changes our plans and agendas.

Consider the group of military veterans who cleaned up the litter and graffiti of the insurrection that took place in early January 2021.  They wanted our country to know they did not agree with the insurrectionists who violently stormed the capital.

God give us ears to hear and hearts to know and follow.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen!

A great little Jewish story…

Change Your World View

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 & Mark 1:14-20

This little book of Jonah from the Old Testament is a great Jewish story about God’s nature and God’s care for all people, and even “critters” — animals.  It is much more than a book about being called to ministry.  It is about changing our way of looking at the world, and growing in our understanding of God’s amazing grace in Jesus!  

Let’s consider this story from the book of Jonah.  Read the whole book.  It is short.  

Everyone in this story is religious.  

  • Each sailor cries out to his particular god for help in the storm.
  • The people of Nineveh quickly hear and respond with repentance.  They demonstrate their repentance through fasting and wearing scratchy, itchy sackcloth—a visible sign of saying I’m sorry.  The king even commands that no one, human or beast, can eat anything, and that all—humans and animals must wear sackcloth.  

Everyone in this story is religious!

The sailors are more humane and generous in their behavior than Jonah.

Even when they discover that Jonah is the one responsible for their predicament they try desperately hard to save him as well as themselves.  They are not willing to just throw him overboard to save themselves.  They pray to the Lord of heaven and earth—Jonah’s God—and ask not to be held accountable for the shedding of his blood—taking his life!  These are good men of noble character.  After they throw Jonah overboard and the storm subsides with the sea becoming calm, they offer a sacrifice and make vows to this new found Lord of heaven and earth!

Even the king and citizens of this wicked city fear God and respond with appropriate faith.

The purpose of this story is to enlarge our world view to match God’s all encompassing mercy, grace and love.

Jonah is a narrow minded religious bigot.  He cares about his own country and people, but no one else.  His ideology could be “make Israel great again.”  His prophetic message for the northern kingdom consists of proclaiming the northern kingdom being restored.  

Contrast Jonah’s attitude with that of the anonymous sailors.  They care about him even though they know nothing about him.  Contrast Jonah’s attitude with God’s.  Jonah is arrogant.  He is selfish and narrow minded.  He is angry and stubborn.  He knows enough about God to know God is loving and compassionate and that if the wicked people of Nineveh repent, God will grant them mercy rather than destroy them.  

Jonah, in this regard, places himself above God—as if he should teach and instruct God how to deal with evil people.  “Nuke them!”  “Destroy them!”  “Wipe them completely out!”  

God, through this amazingly little book, challenges our small minded thinking.  God, through this incredible bit of Hebrew literature, seeks to change and enlarge our world view—our way of understanding ourselves and the world we live in.  Our way of dealing with problems and issues in life.  God through the book of Jonah is trying to help us grow up spiritually.  

Jonah is angry with God.  He is angry that God would show mercy to the enemies of God’s people.  He is feeling sorrow for himself and is “angry enough to die!”

Then read the last verse of this awesome book.  

“Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

This Hebrew short story points to the cross of Christ—to the living expression of God’s love and mercy for the sake of the world in Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.  

Jesus is God’s answer to the brokenness of our fallen world.  You cannot answer evil for evil.  You do not overcome darkness with more darkness.  You cannot defeat violence with more violence.  Only love—the power of God’s love in and through Jesus—can overcome the evil and darkness we grapple with.  Only the light of the One who is the Light of the world can change us and our world.  

I love this little book.  I love Psalm 62 that helps us speak to God in such a way that we affirm our faith and confidence in God alone being our rock and fortress, our salvation, our deliverance.  

You and I are called to be witnesses to this world view—the understanding that God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  We are called, liked those early disciples, to get to know Jesus—to follow Him and live for Him and help others to know Him.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen!

also check out these verses…

John 3:16

Ezekiel 33:11

2 Peter 3:9

2 Timothy 2:4

Hope for Today/What do you hope for?

Psalm 80

Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation guided his people through the deep crisis brought by the invasion of the white man. Shortly before his death in 1932, he said to his biographer: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Jonathan Lear, author of Radical Hope, is haunted by this phrase. What did Plenty Coups mean by “after this nothing happened”? It is as though there is no longer an ‘I’ there.”

We have a term for life without hope: despair. Aquinas calls it the greatest sin. That judgment is something of a surprise, since hope is not the greatest of the virtues: love is. So why would despair, which opposes hope, outrank hatred, which opposes love? Aquinas believes there is something about despair different from either unbelief, which opposes God’s truth, or hatred, which opposes God’s goodness. While hatred and unbelief oppose God directly, despair, says Aquinas, “consists in a man—when we—cease to hope for a share of God’s goodness.”

Despair concerns God indirectly; it detaches us from God’s story. Despair does not so much deny or oppose God’s truth or story directly, but rather says: whatever the truth is, or whatever the story may be, there is nothing in it for me.

Hope is what sustains us when things go badly in our lives and in our world.  The Hebrew prophets were soaked in hope!  When the children of Israel were out of step with God, going in wrong directions the prophets pictured a better future with God bringing them back, blessing them with new hearts.  The emphasis is always on God’s action and mercy up against our human failings and frailties.

Hope is not having rosed colored glasses.  Hope is not optimism.  It doesn’t pretend that things are better than they are.  It does not mask reality.  Hope keeps us trusting even in the midst of trials and troubles.  

Sometimes when life is good, when we have things go our way without any challenges and difficulties we get comfortable and think this is the way it is supposed to be.  Then when troubles come we loose sight of what hope really is.

Our faith becomes soft and squishy.  Then we don’t have anything to hold on to (or to hold us steady) when troubles come. And troubles do come!  

Odysseus had to be tied to the mast as he passed the signing of the Sirens so he wouldn’t capitulate and be drawn to them.  Aquinas tells us that as Christians we need two be tied to a person—Jesus and the cross.  

We dare not be fooled.  If we fall into the trap of thinking life should be easy and we shouldn’t have struggles then we are vulnerable to giving into despair.  There is no perfect life.  There is no perfect job.  There are no perfect families.  There are no perfect marriages.  There are now perfect children or patents.  No one has it “made in the shade.”  No one is trouble free!  One of my members that I served years ago—an older widow who knew life could be hard—would tell me “this ain’t heaven yet!”  

Christian fellowship is when we realize we are all in this together and are pilgrims and sojourners of hope that lean on each other as we travel this sod.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “I have never been an optimist.  I am a prisoner of hope.”  That is a quote from Zechariah 9:12 in the Old Testament.  In that verse the prophet says to despondent Israelites, “return to your stronghold.”  Their situation was not changing immediately for the better.  They needed to rest in God’s grace and presence in the midst of struggles.  That is why the prophet Zechariah then calls them “prisoners of hope.”  Hope is refined and strengthened in the darkness.  Hope endures great evil and calls us to “buck up” and continue to entrust ourselves to God.  

There are times when we realize our grip on God is slipping.  Our faith is not strong enough.  And we feel like giving up and giving in to despair.  Don’t!  Jesus does not give up on us.  His grip won’t let us go.  We are tied to the cross through baptism even when we feel our faith is flimsy and failing.  It is not about how strong our faith is, but how strong our Savior is. 

Consider Psalm 80.  It starts by crying out to God “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel” (Israel here applies to all the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments, including you and me) “come to save us!”  The Israelites recognized their sin and desperate need, and their dependence upon God to save them.  We recognize our need and God’s ability to save us also!  Three times in our psalm for today the cry of the psalmist is “Restore us, O God.  Let Your face shine on us and we shall be saved” (verses 4, 7 & 19).  

Let Your face shine upon us is a tremendous phrase.  God looks our way favorably.  God sees our condition and acts upon His great love to care for us.  This captures the essence of Jesus coming—God in human flesh—God with us.  God as one of us.  God taking on our brokenness and giving us hope.  God holding on to us in the midst of the storms of life.  

This Advent season once again gives us hope.  We have the hope of several vaccines for this dangerous virus.  We have hope for a healthy government and the possibility of unity and harmony even with social discord and tension.  

Our hope isn’t in the hands of the donkey or the elephant.  Our hope rests in the Lamb. 

In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

The Lord is Near!

Philippians 4:1-9

v 1 Paul, stating his love and joy in the Philippian believers tells them to stand firm in the Lord.  

You might recall in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter six, he writes about spiritual warfare and the armor we should put on.  In verse 13 he writes, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything to stand firm.”   The word translated “withstand” implies being able to resist and oppose the evil winds and forces that oppose us.  

Life is not easy.  There is much good in the world, to be sure, but we are naive and foolish when we fail to see the evil in our world as well.  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians believers is positive and filled with joy.  As believers we can echo his hope and assurance.  Yet, he is also realistic and tells us to stand firm in our faith in Jesus.  There are forces at work that would draw us away from Him and whittle away our trust and confidence; weaken our resolve to serve Him.  

v 2-3 He goes right into one of the major areas that affect us—disagreements in the body of Christ.  In so many words he tells us to “get along,” we are on the same team.  We are co-workers with our names written together in the book of life.  

v 4 Then he goes right into the a series of commands, enjoiners telling how we should order our thoughts.  Rejoice in the Lord—not in circumstances, not only when everything is going our way, not in life when it is good—but in the Lord.  

Bad things happen to good people.  Not everything that happens can be explained away as being God’s will.  God does not will or cause evil.  God is not the author of death, but life.  God did not bring sin into our world.  We did.  So, not everything that happens is what God intended to happen.  Evil breaks His heart.  Disease and death break God’s heart.  Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus.  The death of God’s children is sacred and special.  God created us for life.  Jesus suffered, died and rose again to restore us to that life.  And when Jesus comes again He will usher in that eternal kingdom promised in Scripture.  In the interim we suffer.  Paul did.  He wrote these words from prison, and if we understand his circumstances correctly he never was released from prison.  Yet he says rejoice.  In the Lord.  Because God is still in control.  

v 5a Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The word translated “gentleness” can also be translated forbearance, patience, considerate.    

Another way of stating what Paul is saying might be, don’t react with anger to those around you.  Don’t be argumentative.  Don’t belittle or begrudge those you deal with.  Get along.  Be Christlike.  Be patient.  Be gentle.  We sure could use some of that attitude in our world.  Rather than wishing others would be like Jesus, Paul says, YOU BE LIKE HIM!  You be the standard bearer.  

The wedding feast parable in our Gospel reading shares a parallel thought.  You and I have been invited to a wedding party.  We understand this parable to be picture the “wedding feast of the Lamb.”—Jesus is the groom.  We are the bride.  We’ve been invited to the party.  And yet so many of us have too many others things going on in life.  Too many things to bother with this Christianity stuff, this holy living stuff, this churchy stuff.  

God’s invitation is to life and celebration of His presence and abundant giving.  It is an invitation to enjoy God’s presence, protection and provision no matter what and where we are.  We come clothed in Christ.  That means being filled with God’s Spirit, and doing the work of loving and caring for others Jesus’ style—the same way Jesus loves and cares for us.  

Note this, God loves us as we are and brings us into the kingdom as His guests with everything prepared for us.  But God loves us too much to let us continue unchanged.  Learn to grow in Christ.  Learn to emulate His attitude and way of caring for others.  Learn to put others before you.  Learn to turn away from greed, selfishness, self-centeredness, laziness, lustful thinking, etc. etc.  

v 5b The motivation?  The Lord is near.  His Second Coming, His return is imminent.  Live as if His Second Coming were this afternoon, or tonight or tomorrow.  If you knew you only had one more day of life how would you respond to the irritants that set you off balance?  Would you still be given to greed or complaining?  How would you be different.  Paul says let Jesus’ return modify your attitude, words, and actions.  

v 6-7 Paul continues:  Don’t worry!  Remember the song, “don’t worry, be happy!”  Paul is not simplistic here, but he does give us a formula, a strategy for not worrying.  Instead of worrying he says—P R A Y.  Talk to God.  Give God your concerns, but do it in such a way that you are thankful and grateful no matter the outcome.  That can only happen when our trust overrides our fears and worries.  God knows you and me.  God knows our needs better than we do.  Can you entrust yourself to God no matter what?  If so, “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  

The word “guard” is a military term from the Greek language.  It implies a sentry at the gate or doorway of our heart and mind.  The word picture is peace will protect and keep away those pesky worries and thoughts that assault us.  

v 8-9 Finally, says the Apostle.  Finally practice a little self talk.  Practice a little mental focus.  Be deliberate about what you focus on.  Intentionality ought to be part and parcel of our Christian faith.  You can control where your mind goes.  When it wonders into “enemy territory” such as worry, greed, etc.  lasso it back and focus on the good, noble, honorable, pure, commendable and excellent things.  You might have to pray for help.  But hey, that is okay.  You might have to admit failure and confess, but hey, that is okay.  Don’t quit redirecting your thoughts.  Don’t give in.  Fight the good fight and let God’s peace be with you and fill you.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Vineyard Story

Matthew 21:33-46, Psalm 80: 7-15, Philippians 3:4-14 ELC/ October 4 2020

Press On—Do the Next Right Thing!

This parable is about God’s grace and gifts to us as the people of God in this world.  He gives us all we need for daily life, including blessings and gifts that give us joy and pleasure.  It is good to recognize and remember that God’s gifts and grace surpass the mundane needs of necessary things for life.  God wants us to enjoy and celebrate His presence among us, and to celebrate life.  It is good to be grateful!

In this vineyard parable, along with the portion of Psalm 80 we see how we have failed God.  That is not breaking news—not a news flash.  It is old news.  We humans are predictable in our failure to see past ourselves.  We are predictable in consuming what we think is ours.  We forget we are stewards of God’s gifts, often slipping into the fallacy that God is our servant, doing our bidding, taking care of our every need.  Almost like a “Santa Clause god” just waiting for us to make our list of demands and wishes.  

This parable helps us see that God continues to care for us even when we rebel and resist His grace and Spirit’s pleading.  He speaks to us through His prophets—the Bible.  He sends His Son.  We are the ones guilty of Jesus’ death on our behalf.  When the tenants throw the Son out and kill Him, that is us!  We dare not blame Pontus Pilate or the Roman government.  We cannot put it off on the Jewish religious leadership.  God’s plan all along was to send His Son into the world to save us from our sin, from ourselves, from our greed, hate, bitterness, brokenness—all the things that shatter and ruin the paradise God created for us.  

Ours is a broken world.  Sometimes we can ignore that, pretending that all is good.  Today’s cultural chaos is like a reality check in that regard.  To quote an old member from my past “this ain’t heaven yet.”

The psalmist’s cry is also our cry:  “Restore us, O God of hosts; let Your face shine, that we may be saved…turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven and see; have regard for this vine…”

On first reading this parable in Matthew it is easy to miss the good news.  It sounds like God is angry and disappointed with the whole lot of us, that He is ready to throw us out and give the kingdom to others more deserving.  Sometimes the Word of God has to be like a hammer, breaking through our hardheaded, hard heartedness.  Sometimes our denial and defensiveness needs to be confronted.  Our protective shell must be shattered so we can be humble and teachable.  God does give us Jesus—His Son—for the sake of the world, for the life, wellbeing and healing of the world.  God gives us Jesus for the sake of saving us and restoring us to a living relationship with Him and with each other.  

The Apostle Paul knew all about human righteousness and human efforts to fix our broken world and put everything back in order.  He was on top of his game in being religious and spiritual.  Yet, he compares all his goodness and righteousness to dung—literally to sewage waste.  He’d rather have Jesus and Jesus’ righteousness.  He goes on to say that is his goal and aim.  That is what he strives for.  

Listen again to what he says:  “…that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith…I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.”

All of us can look back and point to regrets and failures.  Paul continues, “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” 

Do not despair.  Do not give up or give in.  Do not lose hope.  Don’t throw in the towel and say what’s the use!  Keep keeping on.  Stay focused.  When the world goes crazy, center yourself on Jesus.  Take one day at a time.  When you blow it or get confused, do the next right thing.  Keep trusting Jesus, following Jesus, loving all those in your life and in our world, without wanting to give in and become like the world in its hatred, anger and despair.

Press on.  Do good.  Love.  Do random acts of kindness.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Where the Sidewalk Ends

The readings for September 20, 2020—Philippians 1:21-30 and Matthew 20:1-16 help us to grasp the wonder of God’s scandalous grace and connect that with our purposeful living on this side of heaven.  

There is a sign near our home that I drive by on a regular basis that reads, “Side Walk Ends.”  It makes me think of Shel Silverstein’s poem and book “Where the Side Walk Ends.”  Maybe you have dealt with edges and uncertainties in your life.  Maybe you have lived where there are no sidewalks!  

Life can be exciting when we deal with the unknown of what is just around the corner.  It can also be quite scary.  We are certainly in such a time now.  

  • The most critical election our country has faced in our life time is just around the corner.  
  • Maybe some of you are not convinced of the science of climate change and global warming.  I assure you I am!  Regardless of what you think there, consider the huge fires our country is facing.  Multiple Millions of acres burned.  Many lives lost.  Many homes and businesses destroyed.  Unknown loss of birds and wild life.  Don’t forget Australia’s huge fire that was also  very devastating.  Our fire season is still in full swing.  
  • How many hurricanes and floods and damaging winds and storms have we had just this year?  We have run out of alphabet characters for naming the storms of this season. And we are not through yet.  
  • And then consider the Covid pandemic.  Europe is spiking again.  Utah is certainly spiking again as are other parts of our country.  Regardless of what politicians may say the Covid virus is not under control and scientists are telling us the timeline for a hopeful vaccine is still off in the distant future.  Those who hope for herd immunity to save us have to reckon with millions more deaths just in our country before we can take hope in that.  And our country is already way ahead of any other country in terms of infections and deaths.   
  • Then, consider Black Lives Matter.  Some will be offended by this even being mentioned.  But when you consider how people of color have been treated for centuries, and how if given the option or choice we would not trade places with them for anything, maybe they have a right to be unhappy and upset.  Maybe it is time for social change.  America is not a “while nation.”  We are a people of many colors, nationalities and ethnic blends.  There are many differences among and between us, but we are all equal in God’s eyes.  Yes, all lives matter, but not all lives have been treated equally down through the ages.  

Am I missing anything?  We would much rather ignore what is happening in our world, let alone try to image what is just around the corner.  But God calls us to have our eyes, ears and hearts open.  Jesus, over and over repeats the phrase “the one who has ears to hear, let them hear.”

God’s Holy Spirit is wrestling and working in us individually and collectively, helping us to see, hear and respond.  So, we need to pay attention.  

On top of that, many people are asking, “Is this the end times?”  Are we in the apocalypse? Is Jesus soon to come again?

My answer?  Maybe!  But consider this.  Did the people who went through World War I think it was the end of the world?  When the Black Plague ravaged Europe and millions died, and the Spanish flu that took so many lives at the beginning of last century, did they think the end was near?  What about World War II? Or the victims of the floods, tsunami’s earth quakes, fires and disasters that have wreaked havoc on our planet over the centuries and past millennium?  Our current day situation is no more or less serious than any of that.  

Are we in the last days?  I believe the message of Scripture would be that we should live as if we were, but not to be clock watchers.  

Have you ever sat in a class where you watched the clock and couldn’t wait for the class to be done?  We will talk more about this as we go through our fall Scripture readings.  But for now, note that Jesus doesn’t want us to watch the clock on the wall, but to live every day to its fullest!  That is our task.  Not to be worried about the timing sequence of when Jesus comes again.

Jesus in our Gospel reading tells us a little bit of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. 

This parable gives us a picture of a land lord (boss) who goes to the town square where the unemployed people gather and make themselves available to be hired.  He goes out early at the very start of the day and sets up a verbal contract with a crew.  Then he goes out multiple times during the day, including the very last hour of the day and hires more and more people.  

At closing time he tells the business manager to give everyone their day’s wages, starting with those who were hired first.  They are given a full days salary.  Those standing in line behind get their hopes up.  If this boss is that generous with these blokes, what about us!  We have worked all day in the heat and blistering sun!  We are going to get a huge pay check!  

But when their turn comes the business manager only gives them what they and the boss had initially agreed on.  And they were steamed!  They felt cheated.  How unfair.  No union would allow for such unfair treatment.  If this boss is an image of God, God would be taken to court for unfair and unlawful treatment by the labor union!  

Jesus’ sums up this parable by telling us in so many words that God’s grace is scandalous by our world’s standards.  Offensive even.  Because God’s treats all of us equally regardless of how much we do or how good we are or what our social/economic status is.  We are all in need of God’s mercy and grace, and are all equally benefactors of God’s unmeasurable grace.  

If we really understand the Gospel of God’s love for us in Jesus and recognize all of our sin and need for grace then we know we are all standing on level ground before the cross.  None of us deserve it, but all of us are given it because of Jesus!  Amazing Grace.  Amazing love indeed!

This boss—the owner of the vineyard, the picture and image of God—was hiring laborers for His harvest work.  He kept going back to the town square making sure that everyone had a chance to work in His vineyard.  Regardless of the timing for employment of the workers.  Some labor from their youth on.  Some have “death bed conversions.”  Some work their fingers  to the bone, others are slackers and skate their way through the harvest.  They seem to only do the minimum of what is expected.  And God’s treats us all alike!  We are all in need of God’s mercy and grace.  And all receive the same unconditional love and acceptance.  Those who work the hardest don’t get a special place in heaven. Is that unfair?  By human standards, maybe!  But not by God’s rule of grace.  Jesus says, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Meaning, I suppose, that God’s values and priorities turn our values and priorities upside down.  

How does Paul apply that rule to his life?  He says, “for me living is Christ and dying is gain.”  He knows he has no more special place in heaven than anyone else.  But he longs for heaven anyway.  And…he knows that he has a purpose for continuing to live because his ministry impacts others—including the members of the Philippians church he is writing to.  Paul goes on to tell the believers in Philippi that they need to live their lives in a  worthy manner of the Gospel of Christ.  Live with integrity, faith and honor.  Be dedicated and devoted followers of Jesus.  

Put these two passages and the application is God has work for you and me to do.  If you are able hear this message or read these words, then this applies to you.  God is expecting and looking for your faithful response to loving God and caring for God’s people—all of God’s people.  See Jesus in everyone.  Pray for all.  Do good to all.  Be kind to all.  Speak love and grace to all.  Embody Jesus for all.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.