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Loving God

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-46)

Do you ever stop and wonder what is life all about? Do you ever wonder what are you and I doing here on this planet? How do we little human beings go about reaching God? What does God want us to do with our lives?

I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager questions like this used to rattle around in my brain all the time. Even at this stage in the game many of us are still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up!

I used to get really discouraged trying to get a sense of direction for my life from the Bible. On the one hand, the Bible is too general. It doesn’t give answers to questions like “what career should I choose?” or “who should I marry?” or “should I marry?” If I want to know why I happened to be born in this particular place at this particular time in history the Bible doesn’t offer much of an answer.

On the other hand, the Bible can be very specific. There are lots of things it says to do, and lots of things it says not to do. The Old Testament has three books devoted mostly to God’s commandments (Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy). There are lots of “Thou shalt do this-es” and “thou shalt not do thats” – too many for my teenage brain to remember! I thought to myself: what chance do I have of ever figuring out what God wants me to do, and getting it right?

Of course the Gospel message – the Good News – is that we don’t have to get it right. Jesus gave his life to pay the price for our sins, and to set things right between us and God. We don’t have to remember every single “do” and “do not” in the Bible… we can’t… it’s too much for most of us.

But the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee in today’s reading from Matthew gives a wonderful guideline for those of us who want to please God but have problems remembering all the details. In their conversation, pleasing God comes down to two things: love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Easy to remember. Not so easy to do.

For starters, we need to come up with a working definition of “love”. What does it mean to love? Talk about a word that is over-used, misunderstood, and shrouded in mystery! People talk about it, fall into it, fall out of it, and even then still can’t figure out how to explain it. People write songs about it. Love Is an Open Door, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Love is All You Need, Love Makes the World Go Round, might as well face it, you’re Addicted To Love. But what is love?

I would like to suggest that love is primarily a decision – a decision to take a course of action, to do what is beneficial for others. To be sure, love touches the emotions, it stirs our hearts. I don’t mean to make love sound like a cool, clinical, intellectual thing, because it’s not. Whether it’s falling in love, or loving a friend, or loving a parent or loving a child – when we love, our feelings are very close to the surface. But love is not primarily a warm fuzzy feeling. Jesus says elsewhere in scripture, “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And we rightfully honor men and women who spend their lives, or give up their lives, in service to others. People don’t do these things because they have fuzzy feelings; they do it because they sense a higher call, a higher purpose.

So bringing this back to our reading from Matthew… Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with everything we are – heart, mind, and soul. But what does it mean to love God? I mean, if you have a friend you can give them a hug; if you’re visiting someone in the hospital you can hold their hand. But how do you love someone we can’t touch, can’t see, who is so much greater and more holy and more perfect than we are?

I’d like to suggest three things today. First, like with human love, loving God includes praising Him – telling God and telling others how wonderful God is. When we love someone we can’t shut up about them, and it’s the same way with God. Second, like with human love, loving God has more to do with actions than feelings. And third, when we love God we try to understand things from God’s point of view, to see things God’s way.

On the first point – finding wonderful things to say about God is pretty easy, because our God is fantastic! But we tend to get bogged down in life’s difficulties and forget to look up and be amazed by our God. At times like this I find it helpful to read the Psalms, particularly a psalm like this one that I was reading this morning:

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits –
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…
He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding…
Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul. (Psalm 103, excerpts)

That’s the heart of loving God.

On the second point – my old pastor, a wise man, has often suggested that loving God has a great deal to do with obeying God. The first time I heard him say that I kind of felt let down, like he was taking all the fun out of love. I mean, isn’t the word ‘obey’ the first thing we take out of the wedding vows? And I don’t know about you but I’ve seen enough of bullying and injustice and mis-use of authority in this world – ‘obedience’ can be a dangerous word. But when we’re looking at Jesus we’re not looking at the world or at human authority. We’re looking at a man who loves us enough to sacrifice himself for us.

Jesus says in John 14:13: “if you love me, keep my commandments”. And he amplifies that a few verses later:

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)

Which commandments, then, does Jesus ask us to keep? Jesus talks about many commandments during his time on earth, but often what he’s referring to are the ones God gave Moses – particularly the Ten Commandments.

When we think about the subject of love, the Ten Commandments are probably not the first things that spring to mind! But think about it. Think about what the Ten Commandments tell us to do. Honor our parents? That’s loving. Resist the temptation to kill, lie, cheat, steal, or want what doesn’t belong to us? That’s loving. It’s even more loving if we can do the opposite: if we can be faithful, if we can be honest, if we can be happy with what we have, if we speak the truth, if we let our enemies live. That covers a lot of ground on the road to love.

These commandments are about our relationships with other people. Which makes sense in light of what Jesus said about the second greatest commandment: “The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In God’s world, loving other people is one way to love God. Mother Teresa said about the poor people she worked among, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.” And when asked how we can begin to love this way, she added, “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

So loving others is a powerful way to love God. But there are some other commandments that deal with loving God directly. The first is “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods but me.” God commands us not to bend our knees to anything or anyone else. And I want to suggest that if we obey that one command all the others fall into place. It’s only when we make something more important than God that we start to do things like steal, kill, lie, or cheat. If we love God we will speak his name with honor and we will live in such a way that brings honor to his name.

There’s one more commandment I haven’t mentioned yet, and that is: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. God says through Moses:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. (Exodus 20:9-10)

The longer I live, and the more I read God’s word, the more important this commandment becomes in my mind and in my heart… and here’s why: when Jesus says “love your neighbor as yourself” his words assume that we love ourselves. It’s impossible to love your neighbor without loving yourself. If your love-tank (so to speak) is empty, you’ve got nothing to give. Keeping the Sabbath is the one commandment that falls almost exclusively into the category of loving yourself.

When we work our fingers to the bone we’re not loving ourselves. When we’re running around trying to make this appointment and that meeting and this ball game over here and that event over there – we’re running ourselves ragged, and that’s not loving ourselves. God gave us a beautiful gift in the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not just about Sunday morning church – the Sabbath in Moses’ day was understood as a full day off, 24 hours from sundown to sundown, when God’s people have God’s permission to say “no” to the demands of the world and “yes” to rest and re-creation. A time to turn off all the noise that demands our attention and enjoy family, friends, nature, books, art, music… and prayer. All the things that make life worth living. Keeping the Sabbath can sometimes take a little creativity when we mix it with our modern schedules, but that’s OK. Your Sabbath can be Wednesday if that’s your day off. The important thing is to give ourselves the same permission God gives us to stop and rest once a week.

Which leads us to my third point – loving God means seeking to understand things from God’s point of view. Why is it that loving others and loving ourselves is a way of loving God? Because we are God’s creations, God’s handiwork. When we care for what God has made, we show our respect and care for God. It just makes sense. For example, if I plant a garden, and someone walks through that garden with me and bends over to smell the flowers and remarks on how beautiful it is, that person is loving and respecting me. But if someone throws trash in my garden or tears up the plants I worked so hard to grow, that person doesn’t love me. And it’s the same with God. If we love what God has made, we honor God.

So loving others and loving ourselves is a way of loving God. And there are other ways of seeing things from God’s point of view. Moses was an expert at this. His prayers in scripture are amazing in their depths of understanding God. Think back to Exodus and the episode with the golden calf. Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, receiving the Ten Commandments, and down at the foot of the mountain the people had made a golden calf and decided to call it god and worship it. God was furious and threatened to kill the people and build a new nation with Moses and his descendants. Remember Moses’ prayer for the people? He didn’t try to make excuses. He did not say, “The people didn’t know what they were doing Lord… they’re new at this “Chosen People” thing… c’mon, give ‘em a break.” No; Moses saw things from God’s point of view. He prayed, “Lord, what about the honor of your name? What will the Egyptians say? That you brought these people out into the wilderness in order to kill them? That you were not able to carry out your plan to make them your holy nation?” Scripture says Moses changed God’s mind.

Some of the things Moses says in Psalm 90, which we read earlier, profoundly express God’s point of view.

  • He says, “before the world and the earth were formed, from eternity to eternity, God was there.”
  • He says, “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past”
  • He says, “grass flourishes in the morning, and in the evening fades and withers… [and] we humans are like the grass; our years come to an end like a sigh; days full of trouble and soon gone.”
  • Moses therefore prays, “Have compassion on your servants O Lord!”
  • He says, “satisfy us… with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days…”
  • He says, “Let us see your works, your power, let your favor be on us, prosper the work of our hands”

Moses knows God’s will for his people is mercy, health, and love; and that with him our lives will be abundant, full of joy, and have eternal meaning.

Jesus says in John 10:10, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” This is God’s will for us. Loving God means understanding this. Loving God means trusting that God’s intentions towards us are good.

Life will always have its difficulties; but we trust that ultimately all things are in the hands of a loving God. To love God is to believe what God says… to follow where God leads… and to love the people that God has created.

Let’s pray.

Lord thank you for this word of Yours that we can keep in our hearts, that all the law and all the commandments can be summed up in loving You and in loving each other as we love ourselves. Thank you for making love the purpose of our lives. Teach us to love better and better each day, and by the power of your Holy Spirit inspire in our hearts love for each other, and above everything else love for Yourself. We pray in Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

Invitation to a Royal Wedding

Annunciation

Scripture readings: Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

Our neighbors across the street got married this weekend! What a wonderful time – handsome young man, beautiful young lady, starting out life together. It’s got everyone on the street excited for them.

It made me think back to the days when my husband and I were planning our own wedding, not so long ago. It was his second marriage, my first – and at the age of forty I was a neophyte in the world of weddings. I had no idea what I was doing.

I can remember when I first started telling people I was engaged – I was amazed, it seemed like everyone was almost as excited as I was! “A wedding!!” they would say, grinning from ear to ear. It didn’t matter how bad their week was, or how mean their boss was, or how many bills were piling up, or even if they’d had a fight with their own partner that morning. A wedding!! Time to celebrate! A new family, with all the hopes and dreams that go with it – a home, and children, and love that will hopefully last a lifetime. And a great party with friends and good food and dancing. We had people coming from Philadelphia and New Jersey and North Carolina and Tennessee and Ohio and probably a few other states that I’ve forgotten, just to be with us on that day.

And when people heard about our plans they immediately started offering all kinds of help. One friend did the flowers, another friend made the cake. Another, who drove a school bus, decorated the bus and used it to take the wedding party from the church to the reception. You should have seen us going out the Parkway West with all the streamers flying behind us – even the other drivers were getting into the celebration, honking and waving. A wedding!!

What kind of a person would say “bah humbug” to a day like this? But look at the wedding guests in today’s scripture. Look at them! They’re invited to a wedding, and they make fun of it and refuse to come. Who does that?!

And to make matters worse this wasn’t just any wedding Jesus was talking about. It was a royal wedding! Think about the royal wedding in England not so long ago. Can you imagine if Will and Kate had sent out nearly 2000 invitations, only to arrive at Westminster Abbey on the morning of their wedding to find the church empty? It would never happen! People were fighting for invitations to that wedding! One young English girl even went on a hunger strike to try to get her hands on an invitation. But in Jesus’ story the king’s subjects not only blew off the wedding, they beat and killed the messengers who hand-delivered the invitations. Who would do that in response to a royal wedding invitation?

I think it’s important to step back at this point and ask, “who is Jesus talking to?” He’s not talking to the disciples, to his followers, though we are meant to over-hear the conversation. But Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders of his day – the priests and the Pharisees.

This parable comes the tail end of a conversation that starts back in the middle of Matthew chapter 21 when the priests come up to Jesus and demand to know by what authority Jesus is doing what he does. The priests and the Pharisees are already planning Jesus’ death – in fact we’re only a few days away from the cross at this point.

As Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question, he answers indirectly – first by replying with a question of his own, and then by telling parables. The first parable describes a vineyard owner who has two sons. He tells the boys to go out and work in the vineyard and one son says “yes sir” but doesn’t go, while the second son says “no way” but later changes his mind and goes. Jesus explains that the son who says ‘no’ but later goes represents the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ – people who say ‘no’ to God at first but later have a change of heart. Jesus says they will enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of the Pharisees.

In the second parable Jesus tells the story of another vineyard owner who plants a vineyard and sets up a wine press and then leaves the country for a while and rents the vineyard out to tenants. When harvest time comes the owner sends servants to the tenants to collect some of the produce – but the tenants beat them and send them away. The owner tries again and they do the same thing. Finally the owner sends his own son thinking ‘they will respect him’ but instead they look at him and say ‘this is the heir – let’s kill him and the vineyard will be ours!’

Matthew tells us the priests and Pharisees knew these parables were about them. Jesus is exposing them for the hypocrites they are – because they knew all along who Jesus was. They were even more sure Jesus was the Messiah than Jesus’ own disciples were sometimes. The problem for them was, when the Messiah comes, their jobs were done. Priests are go-betweens between God and the people. But when God’s own son is here, priests are no longer needed. The Pharisee’s job was to teach the people the meaning of God’s word and how to follow God’s law. But when the Word of God is standing right in front of you, the job of the teacher is done. These men knew who Jesus was, but they had no intentions of stepping aside and allowing Jesus to take what they saw as their place.

So Jesus tells a third parable, about the wedding of a king’s son. In the parable the King sends out invitations to his son’s wedding, but the King’s subjects laugh at the invitations and go about their business, making money, living their lives, while others take the messengers and beat them and kill them. In this story, of course, God is the King and Jesus is his son. Throughout its history the nation of Israel has been described as God’s ‘bride’. The prophet Isaiah says for example: “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Is 62:5) The prophet Jeremiah writes: “Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride…” (Jer 2:2-3)

So the time has come for the greatest wedding in earth’s history, between Israel and her Messiah, between Jesus and His people, but the religious leaders will have none of it. God is planning a wedding, and they are planning a funeral.

And a few days later the funeral happens. It amazes me that God didn’t end the world right then and there. Instead he brought his son back to life and invited others to the wedding. As Jesus says in the parable, God “destroyed the murderers and burned their city.” About 30-35 years after Jesus’ resurrection, the Romans burned Jerusalem to the ground. At that point the Pharisees as a religious order ended – they were no more.

But what about the rest of the parable? Because Jesus doesn’t end there. He says the King sends his messengers out into the streets to invite people in to the wedding banquet – anyone who will come. The wedding is back on! The king invites the misfits, the outcasts, the poor and the sick and the homeless, and everyday Jewish people like Peter and James and John, fishermen and tax collectors, and Gentiles – people like you and me.

So today we hold an invitation in our hands – an invitation to a royal wedding banquet. God has invited you. The groom is Jesus, and the bride is the community of people who love him.

But the parable doesn’t even end there. There’s also word of caution: Jesus warns that people coming to the wedding banquet need to wear proper attire. At William and Kate’s wedding, the invitations included instructions on what to wear. Jesus says, “when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe.” This man is asked how he got in without one, and when he doesn’t have an answer, he is thrown out of the banquet.

So what is the proper attire for a celestial wedding? The righteousness of Christ, received by faith.

In ancient cultures the tradition at big weddings like this one was that the host of the wedding would give each guest a brightly colored robe to wear. The person coming to the wedding wasn’t expected to make a wedding robe for themselves, or to buy one or bring one. It was provided by the host as a gift. And that’s how it is at this wedding. The robe of righteousness received by faith – which leads to eternal life with God – is a gift, provided by God, the royal host.

I saw something on TV this week that gave a beautiful picture of this. The show was called Something Borrowed, Something New – it’s on TLC – and on it a bride is choosing a wedding dress, and she has to choose between buying a new one or remaking an old one that has been passed down through the family. On this particular episode, the old wedding dress was one that had been worn by the bride’s mother and grandmother, and was made of expensive ivory silk and handmade lace. It was an amazing garment, but after being worn twice and then stored away for years it was badly stained and yellowed. It could never have been worn looking the way it did – until they gave it into the expert’s hands. The dress expert removed the stains, restored the original color of the dress, repaired and repurposed the lace, and the result was stunning. The bride never even looked at the new dress. And I thought… how much like God that is! We come to Him with our own self-made righteousness in tatters and stains and He restores us and makes us new.

So today you hold in your hand an invitation to a royal wedding. How will you respond?

If there’s any doubt in your mind, I recommend to you the words of Paul from Philippians, where Paul describes life in God’s royal household. He says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing… if there is any excellence… anything worthy of praise, think about these things…. and the God of peace will be with you.”

A life marked by truth, honor, justice, beauty, excellence, and peace – who wouldn’t want that?

The invitation is in your hand. Will you come?

Lord Jesus, for those of us who have heard this message before, we say ‘yes’ to your invitation once more and renew our commitment to you. And for those of us who may never have responded to your invitation before, may the joy and peace and truth of your Spirit shine in their hearts and lead them to say ‘yes’ to you. Thank you for your generosity to everyday people. Thank you for the wedding attire you have given us. We love you Lord and we look forward to the great wedding day. AMEN.

~

Dealing With Doubt

Scriptures: Philippians 2:1-13 ~and~ Matthew 21:23-32

Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the worldwide Anglican church, made international news when he was quoted as saying he sometimes doubts the existence of God.

Here’s what was quoted in the press. When asked the question, “Do you ever doubt?” Archbishop Welby replied “Yes. I do.” He went on to say: “The other day I was praying as I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well but isn’t it time you did something [about a certain situation] – if you’re there’ – which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.” He added: “It’s not about feelings, it is about the fact that God is faithful and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful when we are not.”

I don’t know about you but I find the Archbishop’s honesty refreshing. It’s good to know even the big guys have doubts from time to time. Because when you get down to it, we can’t prove scientifically that God exists. The scope of science is too limited for that discussion. And the limits on our own senses can lead us to doubt: we can’t see God, and most of the time we don’t physically hear God. So how can we be sure?

And what is faith really? If we begin to doubt God, where can we turn?

After skimming a number of comments on the Archbishop’s statement, I was attracted to an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times written by Julia Baird. She wrote: “much of the reaction [to the Archbishop’s statement has been] predictably juvenile… But Archbishop Welby’s candor only makes him human. […] Faith cannot block out darkness or doubt. […] Just as courage is persisting in the face of fear, so faith is persisting in the presence of doubt.” She goes on to name many well-known Christians who have experienced doubt, including Mother Teresa, John Calvin, and C.S. Lewis.

I think ultimately where it comes to faith the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As John Wesley often said, it is not enough to know about God and religion – experience is essential to faith. Faith grows across the course of a lifetime, and not always at a predictable pace.

But having said that, when my faith is feeling a little shaky, one of the greatest arguments in support of the faith – that I have found – is to listen to the people who oppose Jesus. Listen to his enemies and consider the alternatives.

When the baby Jesus was presented in the temple – in Luke chapter 2 – the prophet Simeon took Jesus in his arms and one of the things he said was that this child would be “a sign that is spoken against, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” What people say about Jesus reveals their hearts. So as I listen to Jesus’ opponents, I ask myself: What are they really getting at? What are they really after?

Our scripture reading from Matthew this morning is an excellent illustration of this. As the scene opens we find Jesus sitting in the temple teaching. Most likely he would have been in the outer courts, sort of like on a porch with marble columns (as opposed to in the sanctuary) because this is where people would congregate.

As he is teaching the chief priests and elders (and some Pharisees as well, as we find out later) – dressed in their long robes, with the insignias of their respective offices – interrupt Jesus and ask him: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

This of course is an attempt at intimidation. It’s like they’re asking him, “excuse me, who gave you permission to be here?” As a group they appear united; they represent the religious establishment; and from a purely human standpoint, they out-rank Jesus. They are educated; Jesus only has the basic education of the working class. They are ordained; Jesus is not. They have the approval of the Chief Priest; Jesus does not. They are… at least tolerated… by the Romans, in that ever-changing balance of power between religion and politics. Jesus on the other hand is nothing to Rome: a potential victim for a cross, nothing more. They are in power, Jesus is not. Or so it appears.

On top of that, this confrontation takes place in front of the people Jesus is teaching. So he’s also in a position where he might lose face.

With all this going on around him, Jesus is not the least bit rattled. He’s not intimidated by the religious leaders, and he’s not troubled about what his followers are thinking. He is, however, concerned with what he is always concerned with: communicating God’s truth and God’s love.

The high priests asked him, “By what authority do you do these things?” And the answer seems simple: “by God’s authority” would be the obvious reply. But Jesus doesn’t say that… because they’re baiting him, and Jesus isn’t fool enough to take the bait. If Jesus gives them the obvious answer they will argue with him. They will demand that he “prove it”. They will accuse him of blasphemy. They will try to drag him into a convoluted, esoteric, endless theological argument, argued on their terms and on their turf. As Paul will one day advise the young preacher Timothy (II Tim 2:14) “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.”

Jesus knew this. So instead of giving them a straight answer, Jesus calmly looks them in the eye and answers with a question of his own. He says, “If you answer my question, I will answer yours.” Is he bargaining? No; Jesus is in control of the situation. Rather he is taking an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel one more time… even to people who are actively resisting it.

Jesus’ question is this: “John the Baptist – was his baptism from heaven, or from men?” In other words, did John’s teaching come from God or merely from human wisdom? Brilliant question! John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, of returning to God… but more than that, John was preparing the way for the Messiah. When people asked John if he was the Messiah, he answered in Luke 3:16, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

Under John’s ministry all kinds of sinners – prostitutes and tax collectors – came for baptism, and came to God, and their lives were changed. And because of this the people held John in high honor. They knew where he was from.

I imagine at this point Jesus has the entire crowd’s full attention. You can imagine the silence hanging in the air. Because the chief priests and the Pharisees are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can’t admit John the Baptist was a servant of God; if they do Jesus will ask, “why didn’t you believe him?” But if they say John’s authority was merely human, the people know better. The religious leaders would lose credibility.

So they answer with a lie. They say, “We don’t know.”

In John chapter eight Jesus has an interesting discussion with these same men about their not being sons of God but rather being sons of the Father of Lies. For now, though, Jesus simply answers, “Neither will I tell you where my authority comes from.”

Is this a tit-for-tat answer? No. Jesus just doesn’t waste time trying to have a conversation with people who refuse to be honest with him.

However, Jesus is also God’s son, and as God’s son, he loves the chief priests and the Pharisees enough to point them in the direction of God’s kingdom. So he continues and in v. 28 tells a parable of a man with two sons. The man owns a vineyard, and he tells his sons to go out and work in the vineyard. (Side note #1: In Jesus’ parables the ‘vineyard’ represents the nation of Israel.) The first son says “no” but later on he changes his mind and goes. The second son says “Yes sir!” but doesn’t go. Jesus asks, “Which son did what the father wanted?”

The high priests and Pharisees answer “the first son,” to which Jesus replies, “the tax collectors and sinners are entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.” Why? “Because John taught the truth and you didn’t believe him. What’s more, when you saw that John’s ministry caused tax collectors and sinners to turn their lives around you still didn’t believe.”

Side note #2: When Jesus talks about belief he is not talking about intellectual agreement. Faith is something that brings about a change in how people live. Belief without action is not really faith.

The thing is, whether they wanted to admit it or not, the high priests and Pharisees knew who Jesus was. They knew he was the Messiah. But the arrival of the Messiah meant that their work as intermediaries between God and humanity was completed.

There’s a great illustration of this kind of phenomenon in the movie Lord of the Rings. In the final movie of the trilogy, The Return of the King, we meet Denethor, the last Steward of the city of Gondor. Denethor was descended from a long line of Stewards who had ruled Gondor in place of the King for many generations. And now, at a time when prophecies of the return of the true king looked like they might be coming true, Denethor decides he has no need for a king. He and his ancestors, the Stewards, had ruled Gondor for hundreds of years, and they didn’t need anyone’s help. And who was this upstart that people were saying was the real king?

In the movie Denethor ends up committing suicide rather than confront that question. In Jesus’ story the high priests and Pharisees have something worse in mind. So in Matt 21:33, which is next week’s reading, Jesus will tell another parable. This parable is also about a vineyard. A man owns a vineyard and goes away on a trip and leases the vineyard to tenants to take care of it. When harvest time comes he sends servants to collect the crops, but the tenants beat the servants and throw them out. Finally he sends his son, saying “they will respect him” – but the tenants say to each other, “this is the heir! Let’s kill him and the vineyard will be ours.” In Jesus’ parable, instead of suicide, the evil stewards choose murder. They knew who they were dealing with. They knew.

What’s more, remember the original question the high priests asked? “By what authority do you do these things?” Isn’t that just another way of asking, “Did God really say…?” Which is the question the serpent asks in the Garden of Eden: “Did God really say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” He’s keeping something from you. He knows that if you eat it you will be like God, knowing good from evil. “Did God really say…?” That’s always the question deceivers ask, human or otherwise.

So there can be no doubt the leaders of the temple and the Pharisees knew who Jesus was. In fact a number of them actually became believers. Nicodemus was one. Saul, who later became Paul, was another. And there were others.

So when times of doubt come, it may help to reflect on the fact that Jesus’ enemies knew. They were sure. If they were willing to go so far as to as to commit murder in order to put an end to a man who was changing peoples’ lives for the better, healing the sick and giving sight to the blind and raising the dead… a man who was God’s promised Messiah – none of which these eyewitnesses denied – isn’t that a pretty convincing argument in favor of the faith?

In the words of the Pharisee Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher, in Acts 5:38, “if this teaching… is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow [it].”

And 2000 years ago that’s exactly what happened.

Let’s pray.

Lord when we are honest we have to confess sometimes we wonder where You are or how it is that You are. Thank you that the words and actions of Your enemies only help to prove Your point. In our moments of uncertainty, strengthen our hearts and spirits with Your words and Your presence. In the name of the one who taught with Your authority, AMEN.

~

Today in church our Scripture lessons and sermon were about the journey to the Promised Land – both metaphorically and literally in terms of preparing ourselves for Heaven.  As I was choosing hymns I was surprised and thrilled to find the song above in the United Methodist hymnal.  It fit the scriptures and sermon perfectly.

Just two problems: (1) I suspected very few in the congregation knew it; and (2) how on earth does one explain what Mary’s weeping and Pharaoh’s army getting “drownded” has to do with going to heaven?

Here’s what I shared with the congregation. May it be a blessing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

O Mary Don’t You Weep is an old African-American spiritual that has to do with arriving in heaven. But that’s not immediately obvious from the text of the song. Let’s take a closer look at it.

The verses are meant to be sung by a song-leader or soloist, with the congregation singing the chorus (“O Mary don’t you weep, don’t mourn…”).  And there are many verses (I know of about a dozen) that can be interchanged as the song leader chooses.  We won’t be using a song-leader today — I’m not going to ask anyone to sing a solo! – so we will sing just the three verses in the hymnal.

So what does Mary weeping and Pharoah’s army getting “drownded” have to do with going to heaven?  Hang onto that thought, I’ll come back to it.  But first…

African-American spirituals often talk about crossing rivers. Here are some well-known examples:

Michael Row the Boat Ashore
“River Jordan is chilly and cold, chills the body but not the soul”
“River Jordan is deep and wide, milk and honey on the other side”

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
I look over Jordan, and what do I see? A band of angels comin’ after me.

Deep River
Deep river, my home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into Campground.

The river represents death, and crossing the river and arriving safely on the far side represents arriving in the promised land — in heaven.

So in this song, the writer of the hymn is standing by Mary’s side. [I assumed it was Jesus' mother Mary, but it may also be interpreted as Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning.]  The song writer is telling her, “Don’t cry. Remember the Red Sea? Remember how God’s people ended up safe on the other side, and the river they crossed became the death of Pharaoh’s army, their enemies? Jesus is doing the same thing.  Jesus is crossing the river of death right now to make a way for God’s people, and the enemy (which is death) is being destroyed. So Mary don’t you weep.”

So this hymn is about looking through life’s challenges to the joy in God’s saving power and the celebration of our arrival in heaven.

Let’s sing!

On the Journey of a Lifetime

Scripture readings: Exodus 16:2-15 and Philippians 1:21-30

Imagine for a moment that you’re going to be taking a trip to a country you’ve never visited before. What are some of the things you might do to get ready? Will you need a passport? How do you know what to pack and what not to pack? What kind of currency will you need? If you’re anything like me you’ll read a few books on the country and learn about its customs, its weather, the exchange rate, where to stay and more. We plan, we prepare for journeys like this.

In a sense all of us are on journey to a country we’ve never seen before: God’s country. Someday we’ll all be going there. So it makes sense to learn about that country now and to plan and prepare for the trip.

In both of our readings for this morning we meet people whose journeys to the promised land have been written down… and reflecting on their thoughts and experiences may prove helpful to us on our journeys.

Recently we remembered as a nation the anniversary of 9/11. And I was remembering how, in the days immediately following 9/11, people flocked to the churches, to grieve, to support each other, to comfort each other. And for just a few weeks everything else toned down. The news toned down, the entertainment industry toned down. For a few weeks nobody cared what the Kardashians were doing. For a moment ultimate reality made itself known, and we saw clearly just how uncertain life can be, and how precarious even our nation’s security can be. Just for a moment. But within a few months the nation went back to denying reality and chasing after things that don’t satisfy. It’s amazing how quickly the mood of a nation can change.

We see a similar kind of incredibly fast national mood change in today’s reading from Exodus. Here we see the nation of Israel – who had been suffering under slavery in Egypt for nearly 400 years – free at last! They had crossed the Red Sea, they were safe on the other side, and the entire nation was dancing and singing and rejoicing in God and in being God’s people. And then we turn the page and in the very next chapter – not even two months later – the nation’s mood has changed completely! Suddenly all of Israel was complaining and griping and accusing Moses and Aaron of bringing them into the wilderness so they could die of starvation.

So God decides to test the people to see if they will listen to what he tells them. He sends them food: quail at night and bread in the morning, and they are to collect only what they need for one day: no more, no less. On the sixth day they are collect twice the amount because the seventh day is the Sabbath and no work is done on the Sabbath. This is a lesson in learning to trust God to provide – which is something the people will need to be able to do if they’re going to enter the Promised Land.

That night, in the camp of the nation of Israel, the quail arrive and the people have meat to eat. And in the morning, when the dew fades, it leaves behind some white flaky stuff the Israelites have never seen before. So they look at it and they say, in Hebrew, “man-na?” – which translated means, “what is it?” And that became its name. “Oh look! More what-is-it on the ground!”

The people trusted God and did what He told them to do. But if we keep reading past verse 15 we discover that not everybody listened to God. Some people collected more manna than they needed – tried to hoard the stuff – and it went bad and became filled with maggots and started to smell. Then other people decided to ignore the warning about the seventh day and didn’t bother to collect twice the amount on the sixth day – and they went out on the morning of the seventh day and discovered there’s no manna! At which point God gets angry and asks, (Exodus 16:28-30 ) “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? The LORD has given you the Sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days… do not leave your place on the seventh day.” So finally all the people got the message and rested on the seventh day.

So looking at what the Israelites went through, here are a couple of things they learned on their journey to the Promised Land that might be helpful to us on ours:

  • The first is to trust God to provide for us day by day. A little while ago I was talking to some friends, and I was worried about something, and at one point my friend spoke up and said, “you know, God gives you today’s manna today and tomorrow’s manna tomorrow.” Wise words! We need to trust God for daily needs one day at a time. That doesn’t mean we don’t plan ahead… but it does mean ‘don’t borrow trouble from the future’.
  • The second is to observe the Sabbath. I could preach an entire sermon on the meaning and value of the Sabbath but for now let me say this. The Sabbath is not meant to be a burden or a bunch of rules to follow. It’s meant to be a foretaste of the Promised Land. It’s a time of rest, when our work is done. It’s time spent with God and family and the people we love. And isn’t that what we think of when we think of heaven – work done, surrounded by those we love? The Sabbath is a day when we say to the world “you will not demand that we be available 24/7”; when it’s appropriate to turn off the cell phone and turn off TV and share a meal and conversation with friends.

So these wilderness experiences were designed to prepare the people of Israel for the Promised Land they were about to inherit. Which is also Paul’s theme in our reading from Philippians.

In Philippians, Paul is writing from prison to the believers who met at a home church in Philippi, a city in what is now Greece. Paul is writing to bring them up to date on his circumstances, to encourage the people, and to encourage unity among believers. Today’s passage picks up where Paul has just told the Philippians that he is not sure yet what his fate will be. He is hoping to be released from prison and come to visit them; but if not he is rejoicing that many of his guards are coming to faith in Christ; and whatever happens, “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. Paul does not have a death wish when he says this; just the opposite: he speaks from a heart full of hope. He’s just having a hard time deciding which is better. Here’s how Paul sees his options

  • If he lives – While he stays on earth Paul has work to do that will bear fruit for God’s kingdom. He will come to visit the Philippians and he is in a position to help meet their needs, to teach, and to share a joyful faith… a faith that has the flavor of anticipation: of knowing what’s coming but just not quite seeing it yet.
  • If he is convicted and dies – the next life is even better, and it includes meeting Jesus face to face… the fulfillment of faith. Anticipation satisfied.

Having reviewed his possible fates, Paul says it is better to depart but he senses God is calling him to stay for a while. And whatever happens he asks just one thing of the Philippians. He says, (v. 27) “Lead your lives worthy of the gospel of Christ… standing fast in the Spirit as one soul, striving for the faith of the Gospel, and not being intimidated by opposition.”

That’s actually more than one thing; Paul has a gift for putting a a great deal in one sentence! Pulling it apart, there are actually four things that Paul is asking:

  1. ‘Lead lives worthy of the gospel’ – the Greek word for lives here is politeusthe… it’s the word we get our word politics Paul is talking about public lives, that is, our lives as citizens. The Philippians (and we also) are citizens of God’s kingdom. Therefore their lives (and ours) need to reflect that citizenship. And the Gospel can be understood as the equivalent of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
    This is similar to what Paul says in II Cor 5:20 – “we are ambassadors for Christ”. As citizens of heaven, the way we live represents God’s kingdom to those who do not yet believe. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to live as citizens of God’s country, subjects of our King.
  2. ‘Standing fast in the Spirit’ – it’s not in our own power that we stand. It is not in our own power that we live as citizens of heaven, but in God’s power, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  3. ‘As one soul striving for the faith of the Gospel’. This could also be translated ‘being of one heart’ or ‘being of one mind’. Unity in the faith of the Gospel is absolutely essential. It is how opposition is to be confronted.  Does this mean all Christians must always agree about everything? No. What it means is our number one priority as a church is proclaiming the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom and Jesus as its king, and we are united in that. All other things are secondary to that primary cause. In the words of the theologian Charles Simeon, speaking of the Gospel he said, “All [people] should have one object, and unite in their efforts to accomplish it… Christians should see the smallest symptom of disunion as they would see the beginnings of a fire in the house where they live…
  4. Paul says in v 29-30 that some members of the church are called to suffer for Jesus. Paul is one of them. For those called to suffer for the faith, this is a gift and an honor. Paul is not saying that people should want to suffer or should go out of their way to be persecuted. But think of it in terms of our military veterans. We honor those who serve; but isn’t it true that we give the greater honor to those who are wounded while serving? Those who love their country enough to sacrifice… literally… a part of themselves? Or even their whole selves? This is Paul’s meaning. We honor those who suffer for the faith.

I’ve often thought the church should have a holiday like Memorial Day when we remember the men and women who have suffered and in some cases given all they had for the sake of the Gospel.

So to sum up then, for our journey, six things for our consideration as we head towards the Promised Land:

  1. Manna is given for each day. We get today’s manna today and tomorrow’s manna tomorrow. Trust God to provide.
  2. Take days off to rest and enjoy the company of our loved ones. The Sabbath is worth observing.
  3. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and we need to live lives that reflect our citizenship.
  4. The unity of believers in the Gospel is one of the greatest gifts we can give the world – and each other.
  5. Remember and honor those who have sacrificed and suffered for the faith.
  6. We stand not in our own strength but in God’s.

Let’s pray.

Lord, this life you’ve given us is a good life. You have created a beautiful world for us to live in and you have given us a life-journey that is never boring. But it scares us sometimes to think about the end of it. Calm our fears, O Lord. In the hour of our need, provide for us caring friends and gentle hands and a sure knowledge of your presence. Thank you that you provide all we need, even more than we know to ask, and you are with us every moment of our lives, in this world and the next. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 9/21/14

Servants of Another

Scripture Readings: Romans 14:1–12 and Matthew 18:21–35

Before I dig into the scripture readings from Romans and Matthew, I want to mention three notes on these readings.

First, there is a third scripture reading assigned for this morning, from the Old Testament, that we did not read, that gives a great context to the words of Paul and Matthew. The Old Testament reading would have been from Exodus chapters 14 and 15, which tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery, crossing the Red Sea while God holds the waters back, and then the song of freedom and victory when they reach the other side. This picture of God setting his people free gives us a proper background for these two New Testament readings, because it gives us a picture of God’s mercy and power to set us free from sin and death.

When Jesus talks about forgiveness in the reading from Matthew – it is humanly impossible to forgive the way Jesus says to forgive, unless we know we are God’s people and God is with us. When Paul talks about not judging others – it is impossible to not judge others unless we know our own sins have been forgiven. It is human nature to point out the flaws of others; but as Christians we have been set free from the power of sin and death, through the mercy and power of God, and because of this we are able to live lives of mercy and compassion. So I recommend to your reading this week Exodus chapters 14 and 15.

Second, these two readings from Matthew and Romans are related to each other. They are both close to the very heart of the gospel. Jesus started his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near – repent and believe the good news.” The word ‘repent’ means to change course, or to change direction, or to change one’s mind. Repentance is not about regret or guilt or shame, it’s about facing into a new direction. So Jesus is saying basically, “The kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.” The coming of the King, the coming of the Messiah, is what makes it possible for us to have changed minds and changed direction.

Third, both of these passages – from Matthew and from Romans – are difficult. They’re difficult to hear, and they’re difficult to live. This is going to be one of those sermons where I’ll be preaching to myself as much as I am to you.

With all that said, let’s dig in. We’ll start with the reading from Romans. Paul is writing to the church at Rome because the Roman church is on the brink of a church split (something that seems to happen a lot throughout church history!) Paul is writing to correct the attitudes of the people who are tearing the church apart.

The division in the Roman church is over the subject of eating meat. Should Christians eat meat or shouldn’t they? That’s the question. This is not about vegetarianism; the issue in the ancient world was that most of the meat a person could buy in the open market – not all, but most – came from religious sacrifices. In other words, these animals had been sacrificed to false gods. Some people said meat sacrificed to a false god was tainted by false religion and was therefore evil and should not be eaten. Other people said a false god isn’t a real god and therefore has no power to harm the meat or the person who eats it. The people who said the meat was tainted by false religion started to question every piece of meat they came across – at a dinner party, for instance, they might ask the host, “where did this meat come from?” You can imagine people started to take offense to this. On the other hand, the people who saw no harm in such meat tended to flaunt their freedom, deliberately eating meat in the presence of the non-meat-eaters in order to offend them.

To give a somewhat more modern parallel, there was a similar kind of debate in many churches when I was growing up. Some of you may remember it. The issue was rock n roll music, particularly its use in the church, and the argument went something like this: one side said, “rock music promotes sex and drugs and a godless lifestyle… and besides the Beatles claim they’re more popular than Jesus… so rock music is evil and must be avoided.” The other side said, “a musical style is not in and of itself good or evil. Rock music can be good and can be enjoyed.” Cliff Richard even wrote a song about the debate called Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

It’s the same species of argument, the debate over eating meat and the debate over rock music. People who are against, are concerned with holiness – they want to do what pleases God and avoid what doesn’t please God. People who are for, are concerned with freedom and justice. They know we are set free from sin by the death of Christ on the cross, and therefore we don’t need to live in fear. So both sides start out with legitimate concerns. But then the arguments quickly devolve into name-calling and finger-pointing and arguments at church councils and nasty messages on Facebook.

It’s interesting to note that Paul describes the abstain-from-meat argument as being the weaker of the two. In Romans 14:2 he says: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” So on this particular issue Paul sides with the meat-eaters. But Paul does not press that point. He goes on to say each person must obey their own conscience. In other words, if a person believes eating meat offends God then for that person it would be wrong to eat meat.

And more importantly, whatever a person does, whether abstaining or enjoying, it is to be done (v. 6) “in honor of the Lord, [giving] thanks to God.” Those who eat meat are not to despise those who don’t… and those who don’t eat meat are not to pass judgement on those who do. The most important issue is the attitude of the heart towards God and toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul nails that argument down by saying (v. 4), “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Paul says so much in that one little verse! Every one of us is someone else’s servant. Each of us answers directly to God. Each of us belongs to God. It is before God that each of us stands or falls.

This is where Jesus’ parable from Matthew chimes in. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.” One slave owes him 10,000 talents. We don’t know exactly how much money that would be in today’s terms, but scholars generally agree it’s far more than a person could earn in a lifetime. So the slave and his family, and all that he has, is to be sold to pay off the debt. The slave begs for mercy and the king forgives the debt. Erases it completely. The slave then goes out and sees another slave who owes him about a day’s wages. This other slave begs for mercy, but the first slave says ‘no’ and has him beaten. The king is furious – he says to the first slave “I forgave you all that debt just because you asked me to, and you won’t forgive the little bit your fellow slave owes you?”

We forgive each other, not because it’s a nice thing to do (though it is), but because we know our forgiveness has come at a higher price than we could ever pay. How can we possibly demand payment from a fellow slave?

Having said this I need to step back for a moment and point out some things people sometimes say about forgiveness that need to be addressed. Three notes, and the first two are caveats:

  • Caveat #1. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is often misinterpreted and mis-applied where it comes to people who are in danger. Are we expected to forgive someone who threatens us? Are we expected to forgive someone who deliberately hurts us or bullies us? Are we expected to forgive someone who is self-destructive and is pulling family and friends down into a vortex of self-destruction? The Christian answer is “Yes, but…” Yes, but forgive from a safe distance. Get away from danger first. And know it may take a long time before we’re able to forgive these kinds of things. Christian forgiveness does not mean being a martyr to someone who may injure you or someone you love.
  • Caveat #2. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is not a command to look the other way or let people off the hook where it comes to immorality or injustice. As much as it is possible, as Christians we need to address issues and concerns without attacking persons.
  • Third note (not a caveat) : Alcoholics Anonymous gives us one of the world’s best examples of Paul’s teaching in Romans, so much so that I would like to spend some time with it.

Most of you have heard of AA’s Twelve Steps. Step Four of the Twelve Steps has to do with “making a searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s life. This step is essentially a confession, in which the person in recovery writes down everything they’ve ever done wrong, as best they can remember, with the purpose of making reparations where possible. In the process of recovery, the inventory is shared with God and with one other trusted person, and that’s it. As you can imagine this inventory is extremely personal.

What Paul is describing in Romans – the way people were passing judgement on each other – is what AA calls “taking someone else’s inventory”. And it’s a huge red flag in recovery. Focusing on someone else’s inventory is more than just fault-finding. It is one of the primary characteristics of addiction. On a spiritual level, when we’re taking someone else’s inventory we’re not leaving room for God to work in that person’s life – or in our own.

The apostle Paul didn’t have the Twelve Steps to pull from, but he’s got the idea in spades.

So where does this all lead us?

First, where there is disagreement between Christians on an issue, each one of us must do what our own conscience dictates, as best we are able, based on what we know. It helps to be informed on the issues, but ultimately the questions are spiritual, and we will answer to God for what we choose.

Second, we need to remember that our Christian brothers and sisters are someone else’s servants. They belong to someone else, and they will answer to Him. Our job is to do whatever we do “in honor of the Lord, giving thanks to God.”

Third, we need to remember God has already forgiven us far more than any person will ever owe us. Therefore we are in a position where we can afford to show mercy to others.

Fourth and finally, above all we need to remember that the kingdom of heaven is near, and our salvation is already secured. Just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea to freedom, Jesus has passed through death into life, giving us freedom from sin and death.

Therefore the victory is already ours. We have nothing to fear, and we have nothing to lose.

Lord, help us to forgive and be forgiven. Help us to remember the price you paid for us… and for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Help us to include… understand… confront fairly… and listen with compassion as we seek to follow You. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/14/14

Soli Deo Gloria

~

 

What’s in a Name?

Fire at Hill Top United Methodist Church, Allentown (Pittsburgh), 8/28/14 Credit: WTAE.com

Fire at Hill Top United Methodist Church, Allentown (Pittsburgh), 8/28/14 Credit: WTAE.com

 Scripture readings: Exodus 3:1-15 and Matthew 16:21-28

I wanted to start this morning by sharing a little bit more with you about the events at our sister church Hill Top United Methodist Church this week. I got news of the fire around two hours after it started and since I live nearby I headed up to see if there was anything I could do. As it turned out there wasn’t anything to do – the firefighters and police had things well in hand – so I spent some time talking with the people who were there. When I got there the fire was under control and the firefighters were checking to be sure there were no hidden hot-spots in the roof and pouring on lots of water.

Even so it was gut-wrenching to watch. It’s the kind of thing that leaves you speechless.

While all this was going on, some of the firefighters entered the church and brought out things they knew the people would want to save. I saw them bring out the pulpit, the Lord’s table, the big painting of Jesus, the cross, the flags, and if I’m not mistaken they got the old photographs that were hanging in the vestibule. They treated everything with great respect and care. Pastor Sue speaks the truth when she said what a fantastic job they did.

I spoke briefly with one of the members of the church council, had a quick word with Pastor Sue, and spoke with a few people nearby. It was during these conversations that I learned how the fire started. I would ask you, as we pray for this situation, remember the roofers and their families in your prayers as well – they must be absolutely devastated.

On the positive side is the outpouring of love and support and prayers coming in from everywhere. We’ve heard the good news that Hill Top’s building has been declared structurally sound, with the exception of the very peak (which can be repaired), so rebuilding is possible – and it seems to be in the heart of the people to do it. And that’s great news!

So I’ve been thinking about all these things for the past few days – thoughts coming to mind throughout the day as I work – and I’ve been reminded of the words of my old pastor who said, “whenever you think of someone, pray for them.” That’s a good rule of thumb for times like this.

One of the other things that kept coming to mind this week was: it seems like everyday reality has been rough lately. What I mean is: there are times when reality can be sweet, like when you’re holding a newborn baby, or when you’re sitting on your porch with friends on a summer night. Life can be sweet and reality can be good. But lately it seems like we’ve been facing a lot of harsh realities, one after another after another. On a global level, we pray for people like Pastor Deb’s daughter Grace ministering in Bethlehem, who lives daily with the harsh reality that bombs might fall from the sky today. We pray for Christians around the world who face homelessness and even death because they refuse to give up their faith. Here in the States we’ve been faced with many harsh realities, from children at our southern borders to – for people of my generation – the death of Robin Williams, which hit home for us in ways we never expected. In our personal lives too we have relatives and friends who are facing the harsh reality of cancer or other serious illness. And now we need to deal with the harsh reality that Hill Top’s congregation will be without a place for the church to call home for a long time to come.

Every time one of these harsh realities hits it stops us in our tracks, it takes our breath away. And we know our lives are never going to be the same again from that point on. We can’t deny it – even though we may be tempted to try – and we can’t turn the clock back. Life just doesn’t come with an “Undo” button.

Dealing with harsh realities is tough. Dealing with harsh realities is also something God specializes in.

Both of our scripture readings for today show God dealing with harsh realities. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is dealing with the harsh reality of his mission on earth: he has been sent here specifically for the purpose of paying the price for human sin. And he is facing into the harsh reality of the cross.

In the reading from Exodus, God is dealing with the harsh reality that his people are suffering as slaves in Egypt. God decides to send Moses to Pharaoh as his messenger, and a leader who will lead the Israelites out to a new land.

When God tells him all this, Moses answers, “who am I? Why should Pharaoh listen to me?” Because Moses is no longer welcome in the Egyptian court, and besides, he feels unequal to the task.

I think many of us, when we are faced with harsh realities, react much the same way. We ask: “Who am I? Who am I to take this on?” We feel unequal to the task.

God’s answer to us is the same answer he gave Moses: “I will be with you.”

Moses replies to this with a question whose meaning is, essentially, “who are you? Who shall I say sent me?”

So God introduces himself: “I AM” – in the Hebrew, “Yahweh” or “I am who I am.”

“I AM” is God’s name, but it also tells us God’s nature, which is to be. We’ve been talking so far about harsh realities. God is the ultimate reality. God is many things – God is holy, God is mighty, God is powerful… but most importantly, God IS. Full stop.

God tells Moses to tell the people: “I am the Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus comments on this in Matt 22:32 when he says, “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Just as God is the God of Jacob you could also say He is the “God of Nicholas and the God of Robert and the God of Michael…” and so on.

Scripture gives us many names for God and for Jesus. And at times like these – times when harsh realities crowd into our lives – it’s good to remind ourselves of the names of God. It’s like the old saying says, “don’t tell God how big your problems are, tell your problems how big your God is.”

Some of the names for God in the Old Testament include:

  • El Shaddai – God Almighty
  • El Elyon – God Most High
  • Adonai – Lord
  • Elohim – God the Creator (in Genesis ch 1 – interestingly, a plural word!)
  • Elah – Awesome One
  • Ha’kadosh – the Holy One
  • Melek ha’kavod – King of Glory

Names for Jesus include:

  • Saviour
  • Messiah
  • Son of God
  • Word of Life
  • Wonderful Counselor
  • Prince of Peace
    …and most importantly at times like this…
  • **Immanuel – God with us**

Jesus calls himself:

  • The bread of life
  • The light of the world
  • The gate for the sheep
  • The resurrection and the life
  • The true vine
  • The good shepherd

The message of our passages from both Matthew and Exodus is that God sees our sufferings. God sees our harsh realities. And he does more than just observe them, God enters into our suffering with us. God is not ‘watching us from a distance’ like the old song says. God is right there with us, closer than a brother.

All these things that God is – almighty, creator, awesome, holy, saviour, prince of peace – all of that – is with us, in our corner. He is Immanuel, God with us, through the harsh times, in the middle of it all.

Psalm 30:5 says: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

And in Psalm 126 the psalmist prays this prayer:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negev.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

God promises “those who sow in tears will reap in joy”. “Like the watercourses in the Negev” – dry river-beds that, when it rains, the desert itself begins to bloom.

One of the comments posted on Facebook this week under the photo of Hill Top said: “there’s no telling what revival God has planned!” I think there’s a word from God in that.

God was with the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. He was there to set them free and he led them through the wilderness and the desert to bring them to the promised land.

Jesus was with us when he lived on earth, and then died for our sins to set us free and open the door to God’s eternal kingdom.

And God is with us now, through all the trials we face. God, whose name is “I AM” – who is the ultimate reality – is with us. Praise God!

Let us encourage each other with this truth in the days ahead. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, August 31 2014

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