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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

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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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Who Is Jesus?

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. – Matthew 16:13-20

At the beginning of our reading, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

Immediately prior to asking this question, Jesus had been confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducees, who demanded he show them a ‘sign from heaven’ to prove who he was. The very fact that they were making this demand suggests they already knew who Jesus was, but they were hoping catch him in his own words.

The really odd thing is this: just before they made their demand, Jesus had fed four thousand people with just seven loaves of bread and a few fish. It makes one wonder just how big a miracle the Pharisees and Sadducees were looking for?

But Jesus’ miracle was big enough to convince the people, and they had begun to speculate on who he was. So the disciples answered, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah or one of the prophets.”

If Jesus were here today and asked the same question, what kind of answers might he get? A good man? A great teacher? An important prophet? A model of a spiritually mature being? A myth? Someone who lived and died a long time ago?

The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia has this to say about Jesus:

“Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure of Christianity, whom the teachings of most Christian denominations hold to be the Son of God… Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed historically… Most scholars agree that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi from Galilee who preached his message orally, was baptized by John the Baptist, and was crucified in Jerusalem on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Scholars have constructed various portraits of the historical Jesus, which often depict him as… the leader of an apocalyptic movement, [or] Messiah, [or] a charismatic healer, [or] a sage and philosopher, [or] an egalitarian social reformer…”

The reader is basically left to choose from any or all of the above.

Even within the church people don’t agree about who Jesus is. When I Googled the question this past week I found that some call Jesus “the center of our faith,” some say, “Jesus is Lord of all,” some say, “He’s the saviour of the world,” others say, “Jesus is true God and true man in one person,” and still others say “it is nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity.”

If people in the church can’t even agree about who Jesus is, how do we go about answering Jesus’ question? Should we even try?

I believe we should. I believe the question “who is Jesus?” is probably the most important question any of us will ever answer.

When Jesus was a baby, being presented at the temple by his parents, an elderly prophet named Simeon came up to them and spoke a prophecy over the baby Jesus. Here’s what he said:

Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)

Did you catch that? “So that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Whatever people think of Jesus, whatever people say about him, reveals their innermost thoughts – says more about them than it does about Jesus. You want to know what a person is really all about? Where a person is really coming from? Ask them who Jesus is.

So Jesus listens to what his disciples say, and then he asks, “and who do you say that I am?”

Peter then makes the great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The word Christ back in those days meant Messiah, or anointed one. When a person was anointed it meant that God had chosen him to become king, and the anointing was accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

For example, in the Old Testament, Samuel anointed David to be king in 1 Samuel 16:13:

“Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward.”

Jesus’ anointing came at his baptism as recorded in Matthew 3:16-17:

“when Jesus had been baptized, as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.””

This is what it means to be anointed. But it means still more to be THE Christ. Not “a” christ, but “the” Christ, the one promised from the foundation of the world.

When Peter calls Jesus “the Son of the Living God” Jesus answers:

“You are blessed! Flesh and blood hasn’t revealed this, but my father in heaven.”

And this is true of us as well. When we know that Jesus is the Son of God, we are blessed – because it’s not our reason or our intellect that got us there. It’s God working in us, teaching us who Jesus is. As the theologian Charles Simeon put it:

“No one has eyes to see this truth, till the veil is removed from the heart, and understanding is enlightened by the Spirit of God.”

The apostle Paul agrees in I Cor 12:3:

“No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

And Jesus himself says in John 6:44

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

Knowing who Jesus is, is the gift of God through the Holy Spirit. And if we know this we are blessed by God!

Jesus then continues, saying to Peter: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” This is a play on words in the Greek: “you are Petros (the proper name Peter) and on this petra (a rock) I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it.”

What is this rock on which Jesus will build his church? Is it Peter himself? No. It’s on the rock of Peter’s confession: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is faith in the Son of God that builds the church.

Jesus goes on to say “I will give you the keys of the kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

I don’t know about you, but at this point my mind begins to drift off to cartoons of St. Peter at the pearly gates, an old man with a long grey beard holding a set of keys and checking a list to see who’s on it. That’s not exactly what Jesus has in mind.

On the other hand some people think Jesus means this generically, that the keys belong to all believers everywhere… and that’s not exactly the meaning either. In the phrase “I will give you the keys of the kingdom,” the word “you” in the Greek is singular. Jesus is speaking to Peter individually, not to the disciples as a group. And that’s because Peter has a job to do. Peter is the one who will organize the first church in Jerusalem. Peter is the one who will be the first to understand that God receives Gentiles, allowing those of us who are non-Jews to hear the Gospel and become believers. Peter “had the honor of opening the church to both Jews and Gentiles.” (Simeon)

So what is this talk about keys then? The concept of keys in this sense is foreign to us, because in 21st century America, we don’t have walled cities and we don’t live in castles. We don’t lock up the entire town at night. But let me share an experience that might help make some sense of this.

A number of years ago I visited the Tower of London in England. The Tower is kind of like a castle in the middle of downtown London, made up of a number of towers as well as museums and homes for some of the Queen’s elite guards. It takes up a few city blocks. A long time ago it’s where they kept prisoners and held public executions, but these days it’s where the Crown Jewels are kept, and it’s a popular tourist destination.

One of the little-known secrets of the Tower – worth looking into if you ever go there – is the way they close the Tower at night. It’s called the Ceremony of the Keys and it’s a military ceremony that has been done the same way every night for over 700 years. If you’ve ever seen the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC – that will give you an idea of the kind of gravity and ceremony of the event. The men who guard the Tower join together in a 30-minute ceremony to lock the doors of the Tower for the evening.

After the doors have been locked, the guard with the keys comes over to our small group of guests and explains that the Queen’s keys – the keys he holds in his hands – legally represent the Queen herself. Her keys temporarily give him her authority. And it’s considered a great honor to be chosen to hold the keys and lock the Tower door.

The guard holding the keys then looks around at us visitors and says, “has it occurred to any of you yet, that the Tower is now locked for the evening, and YOU are still inside?”

And suddenly one becomes very aware of exactly what it means to live in a kingdom – because our fate now rests in the good will of the Sovereign and her representative. The man holding the Queen’s keys has both the right and the authority to keep us locked in the Tower if he so chooses, and no power on earth can change that. Or he can choose to set us free. And of course, following the Queen’s wishes, that’s what he does.

That’s the meaning of what Jesus said to Peter. Our fate, every one of us, rests in the good will of the Sovereign – Jesus the Lord, with His Father in heaven. Peter is given the right to hold the keys, to guard the crown jewel – the church – and to invite into the kingdom those his Sovereign invites.

Peter will spend the rest of his life carrying out this commission.

The passage then ends with a curious charge: Jesus says to his disciples, “don’t tell anyone that I’m the Messiah.” Why would he want to keep it a secret? We don’t know for sure but most theologians agree it’s because the time wasn’t right yet. If Jesus had revealed his true identity sooner, he would most likely have been put to death sooner – and he still has more to do before He goes to the cross.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

Like Peter, we need to be ready with an answer. When we hear people say things like, “all religions are the same” or “Jesus was just a good man” we need to be ready with an answer. When someone asks, “why do you follow Jesus?” or “why do you go to church?” we need to be ready with an answer.

Like Jesus, we also need to be ready with questions. “What do you think public opinion is about this issue or that? And what do you say about it?” – using leading questions to lead into conversations about things that really matter.

And finally, the building stones for the church are the same today as they were two thousand years ago. Jesus is the anointed one, the one and only Messiah, the Son of the living God, and on this truth the church is built. By faith in Him, let us continue to build up the church.

And while we are doing that, the one holding the keys of the kingdom says, “The door is open. Welcome in.” Amen.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 8/24/14

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The story of Joseph and his brothers is a story that has captured peoples’ imaginations for thousands of years. Books have been written about it, movies have been made about it, they even made a Broadway show out of it a few years back – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s a great tale, full of all the things that make up memorable stories: dreams and danger, betrayal and intrigue, palaces and kings. It’s also a family story, though it’s not the kind of story you’re likely to find on the Family Channel.

Today I’d like to take us inside the story, behind the scenes so to speak. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s friend Sam says:

“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for… because they were exciting and life was a bit dull… but that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered.”

The ‘tales that really matter’, as Sam comes to realize, aren’t all that easy to live through for the people in them. The same could be said of Joseph and his brothers.

The story of Joseph and his family, like most family stories, actually begins years before they’re born, in generations past. The anger and division in Jacob’s family can be traced all the way back to their father Jacob’s birth. Jacob had a twin brother, Esau, who was born just minutes before he was. As the eldest, Esau had the right of inheritance. But Jacob, who wrestled with his brother even in the womb, is not content being second. God tells his mother Rebekah the reason the babies are wrestling inside her is because ‘the elder will serve the younger’. Throughout his life Jacob uses every opportunity to try to force that prophecy to come true. He acquires his brother’s birthright by withholding food when Esau is starving; he and his mother conspire to deceive his father Isaac to get Esau’s blessing for Jacob.

Esau, who is furious when he finds out about the conspiracy, makes plans to kill Jacob. So Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban in a foreign land, for safety. Jacob soon discovers that Laban is just as crafty as he is. Jacob falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel and agrees to work for seven years in exchange for her hand in marriage. But on the morning after his wedding Jacob wakes up and finds Laban has pulled a bait-and-switch, and Jacob is sleeping with Leah, Rachel’s older sister! Jacob confronts his father-in-law, who concocts a story about it being tradition that the older sister must be married first, but he says ‘never mind – you can work another seven years for Rachel’. Jacob is so in love that he does.

And the competition and envy that was once between Esau and Jacob is now between Leah and Rachel. The two women begin to compete in the child-bearing department. God, seeing that Leah is un-loved, gives her many children; while Rachel, who is loved, has none. After some jockeying with their maids and a few more babies, by the time Leah’s oldest boy has grown up there are ten sons in the family, and none of them is Rachel’s. Any family who has ever struggled to have children knows the kind of pain Rachel was feeling. Finally Rachel gets pregnant and gives birth to Joseph – and Joseph, being the only son of the woman Jacob loves, immediately becomes his father’s favorite. To make matters worse, a few years later Rachel gets pregnant again… and dies in childbirth. As she is dying she names her last son “Ben-oni”, which means ‘son of my sorrow’. (Jacob later renames the boy “Benjamin” which means ‘son of my right hand’.)

And the competition and envy that was once between Esau and Jacob is now between Jacob’s sons: the elder ten against the younger two. The elder ten are herdsmen, keeping sheep and other animals; but Joseph stays at home near his father. Jacob sometimes sends Joseph out to see how the older boys are doing and report back to him. His brothers come to see him as a tattle-tale and a snitch. Jacob makes Joseph a beautiful coat of many colors, something he’s never done for any of the other boys. And then Joseph starts having dreams – dreams about sheaves of wheat belonging to his brothers coming and bowing down to his sheaf of wheat.

The older boys have had just about enough. The next time Joseph comes to check up on them, they grab him. They’re about to kill him when a caravan passes by. So they sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver.

Imagine what it might have been like to have been one of the ten brothers. They’ve worked for years for their father – hard labor – and not one word of thanks. It seems like nothing they do is ever good enough. Their father never wanted their mother, and as Leah’s children they are rejected through no fault of their own. To be rejected by a parent is one of the hardest things a child can live through. And then to see their father favoring Joseph over them, a child who does nothing but make their lives harder – no wonder they’re angry. No wonder they want to get rid of him.

On the other hand, imagine what it might have been like to be Joseph – young, innocent, not really understanding why he’s his father’s favorite. (Not that he wants to change that.) Not really understanding why his brothers hate him, why they hate it when he tells the truth. And suddenly one day he finds himself attacked by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and then sold to foreigners as a slave. Torn away from everything and everyone he’s ever known, torn away from the father who loves him – can you hear his cries for mercy as the caravan pulls away?

Fast forward now to our scripture for today. Fifteen years have passed, give or take a few. In that time, the ten brothers have married and started families of their own. Their father Jacob has never stopped grieving for Joseph – and they have come to realize their anger hasn’t gotten rid of Joseph after all, it’s just turned him into a ghost who will haunt their father for as long as he lives. Their lives are not happy.

Meanwhile Joseph was sold to the Captain of the Guard in Egypt. He does well there until his boss’s wife decides she wants him. When he refuses her, she accuses him of rape, and Joseph is thrown in prison. From there, after a few years, he gets the chance to interpret a dream for Pharaoh and overnight he is made the second most powerful man in country. He is given Pharaoh’s signet ring and Pharaoh’s daughter for a wife. Joseph has kids. He dresses and acts and talks like an Egyptian. He keeps his Hebrew faith but otherwise he’s one of them. And life is good.

The dream Joseph interprets for Pharoah predicts there will be seven years of great abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph uses his position to gather food for the coming famine. When the famine comes, news of Egypt’s food reaches Jacob’s family in Canaan, and Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy food – all of them but Benjamin.

When the brothers arrive Joseph recognizes them immediately, but his brothers don’t know him. Joseph looks like an Egyptian, and he speaks through a translator. What went through Joseph’s mind in those moments? Should he tell them who he is? Do they still hate him? Can they be trusted? Where’s Benjamin?

Joseph decides to test them. He accuses the brothers of being spies and throws them into prison. He questions them and they confess there is still one brother at home. Joseph tells them, “Here’s how I will know if you are honest men. One of you is going to stay here in prison. The rest of you take food back to your families – I don’t want them to starve – but then come back to me with your youngest brother. That way I’ll know you are telling the truth. Don’t come here again without him.”

The brothers begin to talk among themselves, remembering what they did to Joseph. They speak in Hebrew, not knowing Joseph can understand them – and Joseph turns away so they don’t see him weeping. As the brothers turn to leave Joseph gives orders to his servant that their money be put back in their sacks.

Back in Canaan, Jacob hears their story and is inconsolable. As he sees it, he has now lost a second son, Simeon, who is in prison, and they can get no more food without putting a third son at risk. When the food runs out and the brothers talk about returning to Egypt he says to his sons, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left.” How those words must have stung! Jacob has so many children – but he sees only one.

When he no longer has a choice, Jacob finally agrees to let Benjamin go, and Judah guarantees his safety. Joseph welcomes his brothers and invites all of them to a banquet. Joseph now makes up one more test for his brothers: when the chips are down will they turn on Benjamin? As they leave with food for their families Joseph commands his silver cup be placed in Benjamin’s sack. As they’re on their way back to Canaan, Joseph sends his servant after them to find out who took the cup. The brothers swear innocence and say whoever has it – if it can be found – will become Joseph’s slave. And of course the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers now have an opportunity to get rid of the last child of Rachel. What will they do? Will they treat him the way they treated Joseph?

No; after all these years of living with their father’s grief over the loss of Joseph, they don’t want to cause him any more pain. Judah makes a passionate appeal for Benjamin’s life and offers to stay as a slave in his place.

Which brings us to the beginning of our reading for today.

Seeing his brothers have had a change of heart and that the door to reconciliation is open, Joseph is no longer able to hold back his tears. He orders the Egyptian servants out of the room and makes himself known to his brothers. It’s an emotional reunion, especially for Joseph and Benjamin.

But the brothers are afraid. Can Joseph really forgive what they’ve done? And now that he’s the ruler of Egypt he has the power of life and death over them. But Joseph has had lots of time to think and pray. And he says to them, “what you meant for evil, God meant for good – to preserve life…,” to prepare a place for them and their families.

Two things I’d like to point out from this passage. The first is: God works through dysfunctional families. It’s a good thing, because there’s so many of us. And no, I’m not going to give examples! But when I feel discouraged I can look at these twelve sons of Jacob and say “God built a nation out of these boys.” If He can use them, He can use us too.

The second thing I want to point out is Joseph’s character, particularly how much like Jesus he is. Our reading for today tells us Joseph is:

  • Wise – he tests his brothers to see what kind of people they have become
  • Forgiving
  • Passionate – he weeps so loudly the Egyptians hear him throughout the palace. Jesus also was passionate, when he drove the money-changers out of the temple. He was passionate about God’s reputation.
  • Joseph makes himself known – reveals himself – to his brothers
  • He invites his brothers to “come closer”
  • He comforts and encourages them
  • He has been sent by God to preserve life and to save lives
  • He is on God’s mission
  • God has made him the ruler of the nation
  • Joseph tells his brothers to go and share the good news with their families
    • Send them the message “come to me with all that you have” and “you shall be near me”
  • He tells them “I will provide a place for you”
  • He welcomes each brother with embraces and tears

Doesn’t this sound like Jesus?

Joseph is like an archetype, a forerunner, of the Messiah. Like Joseph, Jesus is wise and forgiving and passionate. He makes himself known to us. Jesus invites us to come closer. He comforts and encourages us. Jesus is on God’s mission and God has make him king of kings and lord of lords. Jesus commands us to go and share the good news, and then come to him with all we have. And when the time comes, he will welcome each brother and sister home with tears of joy to be with him forever.

Both Joseph and Jesus have been sold for silver; both have been betrayed by those closest to them. Joseph is sold into slavery; Jesus is sold into death on the cross. But ultimately both are sent by God for the sake of others – to save lives, and to prepare a place for God’s people. Actions and events that were meant for evil, God meant for good.

We human beings are like Jacob’s sons in a lot of ways. Quarrelsome, envious, hot-headed… and underneath it all, more unsure of ourselves than we care to admit. Like them we’ve been knocked around by circumstances beyond our control. Thank God he has given us a Joseph… He has given us Jesus… to forgive us and to go ahead of us and to prepare a place for us where we can be with him forever. Receive His forgiveness, and live in His love. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, Sunday August 17, 2014

 Genesis 45:1-15 NRS
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there– since there are five more years of famine to come– so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

 

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