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Investing in the Kingdom

Scripture readings: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30

Last week we looked at a pair of scripture readings from I Thessalonians and Matthew that had to do with being prepared for the coming of Christ.

This week again we have a pair of readings from I Thessalonians and Matthew, and this time the focus is on not the coming of Christ but on what we need to do in the meantime… how to live our lives between now and the time we meet Jesus.

Both of today’s passages describe a contrast between (as Paul says) “children of darkness” and “children of light” or as Jesus says in Matthew, between good and wicked servants.

Words like these can make us uncomfortable because we don’t like to think of people as being ‘children of darkness’. But the fact is, when God gave human beings free will, he gave us the ability to say ‘no’ to what is right. God gave us the ability to dislike God, to rebel against God, or to damage God’s creation. And in these two readings that’s what we see happening.

Let’s take a look at Jesus’ parable in Matthew. This is a familiar story: a story of a man who has three servants. He entrusts them with his estate while he goes on a long journey. Two of the servants do well and make a profit and they are rewarded; but third servant does not and he is punished. Even though we don’t have servants in our day and age, the story makes sense. Employees, for example, are expected to look after the interests of their employers – anyone who’s ever held a job understands the scenario.

But there’s a huge question mark in this story. As employees (or as retired employees in some cases) we know that not all employers are equal. Some employers are generous, others are stingy. Some are fair, others play favorites. Some care about their employees, others don’t. If all employers were good, if all of them lived by God’s values, labor unions would never have been needed. Workers’ pensions would be secure instead of being unstable and in some cases, missing.

In Jesus’ parable, the question of whether this particular employer is worthy of his employees’ loyalty is not addressed directly. So we are left to ask: are the two loyal servants just playing along, getting their share of the pie? Is this employer worth working for? Or is the third servant right? Is this employer a harsh one, greedy, turning profits where he hasn’t invested?

This week as I was thinking over this passage I thought, what if this story took place today? What would it look like in our world? What if it was, let’s say, an episode of The Apprentice – the reality show where Donald Trump hires up-and-coming executives and pits them against each other to see which are the best and then fires the rest? This parable actually does remind me of that. On the show, Trump presents a business challenge, and the young people who come up winners are the ones who take his seed money and invest in a project, and bring all their skill and experience to bear to turn a profit. The ones who lose are the ones who waste time forming alliances, cooking up schemes to bring the others down, manipulating others into doing work they themselves should be doing. And they always have someone else to blame when their plans don’t work out. Some of them even mouth off at Donald Trump, blame him for creating an unfair competition. You can see it coming. Trump looks at them and says, “You’re fired!”

But the TV show never answers the question, ‘is this employer worth working for?’ Is he fair? Is he generous? Are the projects he invests in worth spending a piece of your life on? Where it comes to The Apprentice I’ll leave it to you all to answer those questions. But these are the questions being raised in Jesus’ parable. So what do we know about the ‘boss’ in this parable?

Since Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, the ‘boss’ in this story is God. The servants are all of us; and the talents are gifts and abilities and opportunities that we’re given in life: that little tiny part of the universe over which we have control, and for which we have responsibility. God gives each person a piece of his estate; a wee bit of God’s property; and God, as our master, has instructed us to care for it. Depending on what we’ve been given, some of us might be caring for the environment; or raising children and grandchildren; or teaching; or building – houses or businesses; or protecting the country; or protecting the community; or running an honest business that produces things people need and provides jobs; or visiting the sick or people in prison.

As a side note I’d like to suggest that one of the greatest pieces of celestial property God gives us in this life is time. I was reading some Jewish theology recently and the author, a rabbi, was explaining that in Jewish spirituality what happens in time is more important than what happens in space. In other words, how we spend our time is more important than what we physically do or make. That’s why parenting, for example, is such an important job – because it’s investing time in another person’s life.

At any rate there are so many ways to invest what God has entrusted to us! Those of us who love and honor God want to find ways we can use the gifts God has given us to invest in ourselves, our homes, our families, our communities, and our churches.

So in Jesus’ parable, the first two servants respect their master and invest their part of the estate wisely, taking well-calculated risks, and they turn a profit. The third servant tells a different story. He doesn’t squander God’s property, he doesn’t lose it – he hides it. Buries it. He doesn’t use it at all. Jesus doesn’t tell us what this third servant does do with the rest of the time his master is away. The master is away for a long time, so what is he doing with all this time? We don’t know. But again, if I re-cast the story into modern day, into our fictitious Donald Trump scenario, I can imagine what might have happened. Servant #3 would have taken Trump’s money – the ‘seed money’ he was given to build a business with – and hid it somewhere. Then he would start talking business deals, trading on Trump’s name rather than on the actual money, living the high life and producing nothing.

So the third servant then projects his own guilt and selfish motives onto the master! He says: “master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping what you did not sow…” when the truth is it’s the third servant who has been reaping what he did not sow, living on the generosity and trusting natures of other people.

One more side note: the word “harsh” the third servant uses to describe the master struck me as an odd choice of words, so I looked it up in the Greek. The Greek word is “skleros” – which means “hardening”. Today we find the word in medical terminology: scleroderma – hardening of the skin; atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries; multiple sclerosis – hardening of the nerve cells in the brain. Skleros implies a hardening of something that should not be hard, and it’s a hardening that leads to suffering and ultimately death. Servant #3 is accusing God of the very hardness that is in his own heart… projecting his own pathology and mortal nature onto God.

Servant #3 goes on to say, “and I was afraid, and I went away and hid…” In this story he hid the treasure, but we’ve heard these words before: in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve ate the apple, they heard God coming and they hid. Genesis 3:10 – Adam says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid.”

A wise old Christian once said there are two reasons a person might be afraid of God:

  1. God is so much greater than we are, and we are so small and powerless by comparison. A person who fears God for this reason IS in touch with reality! Because this is very true: God is great, and we are small by comparison. But people who feel this way haven’t yet taken to heart the words of today’s reading from I Thessalonians. Paul writes, “for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” That’s why Paul says “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation.” Faith, hope, and love are what protect our hearts and minds from fearing God in an unhealthy way. We believe in God, we have hope in God, we know that God loves us and we love God. Secure in the knowledge of these things we don’t need to ever be afraid of God’s greatness.
  2. The other reason a person might be afraid of God is because they’re ashamed of what they’re doing, or aren’t doing. They may have been squandering God’s property, refusing to invest in the people in their lives. Maybe they have mistreated God’s creation. Or maybe they’ve been lazy, living on the work or the wealth of others. Or maybe they’ve been harsh, abusive… all things servant #3 accuses God of being.

The amazing thing to me is God actually answers Servant #3’s accusations, and with real restraint. God does not set out to defend his own character; or assert his rights as master of both the servant and the assets. Instead God quotes back the servant’s own words and says, “if that’s really the way I am, you should have invested the money with the bankers so at least I’d have interest.” ‘If you knew I was so mean, why weren’t you wise enough to make just a little bit of profit to cover your own tail?’ Even self-serving motivations tell us it’s not wise to provoke God to anger! But Servant #3 lacks even that much wisdom, and ends up losing what little he has.

This parable makes me a little nervous sometimes. When I read it I sometimes wonder: how can I know if I’ve done enough? How can I know if I’ve managed to double God’s investment? I look around at other Christians and I see them going on mission trips, or bringing dozens of people to faith, or teaching Sunday School for thirty years….

Here’s the thing: when God gives us talents to use, our instructions are not to compare ourselves with others. The servant who has two talents is not expected to make five. The servant with two talents is honored by God when he makes another two. All this talk about talents isn’t a competition – it’s a challenge. God gives us what is appropriate to us: “to each according to his ability” as it says in verse 15. God’s expectations are realistic and fair and perfectly tailored to each person. As Jesus himself says, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This doesn’t mean life will always be easy, but it means the talents God gives us fit who we are perfectly.

A few weeks ago I read a book written by a man who passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. I imagine if anyone ever had an excuse to give up and say “I have nothing left to give” it would be him. He was dying, his mind was going, and he couldn’t always remember what he had said or done a day before, or even a minute before. But he was a believer, and he wanted to keep on serving the Lord he loved as long as he could. So, with his wife’s help, he wrote – or dictated, as the disease progressed – a journal of his experience having Alzheimer’s disease. He wrote down what the symptoms were, what the doctors said, what treatments they tried, how friends and family were effected, what his emotions were, how he and his wife fought the depression that often comes with the disease, what parts of his mind still worked when other parts started to go, and how he and his wife learned that everyone is a valued child of God no matter what condition their body or mind is in. The book has become standard reading for people who train as chaplains in hospitals and hospices. What a gift! Each one of us has gifts to give, and a purpose in life… no matter where we are in life or what our circumstances are.

One more thing comes to mind when I look at this parable. All this talk about serving God, investing in the kingdom, raises an important question: aren’t we saved by faith? Believing in Jesus? Yes, we are. But if we love God, we say ‘thank you’ for what God has given us by putting it to good use. And we do this with joy, because discovering and using what God has created in us is the greatest joy life has to offer. “Enter into the joy of your master,” Jesus says. God has given us a piece of the heavenly homestead, and it’s good.

So the greatest goal in life is not “whoever dies with the most toys wins”. The goal is not to do more than the person next to us. The goal is to invest whatever gifts we’ve been given, working from hearts that trust in God’s love. And we look forward to the day when we will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a little, I will put you in charge of much. Enter into the joy of your master.” AMEN.

 

“When He Comes”

Today’s scripture readings: I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Matthew 25:1-13

Actor Kenneth Branagh wrote his autobiography at the ripe old age of 28.

For those of you who don’t know his name, for certain you’d know his face. He is probably best known for playing celebrity wizard Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. But before his work on Harry Potter he was famous in England as a Shakespearean actor. By the age of 25 he had produced, directed, and starred in a movie remake of Henry V and was beginning work on a remake of Much Ado About Nothing, and people were starting to call him “the next Olivier”.

The last line in Branagh’s autobiography is a line from Hamlet: “the readiness is all”. The full quote from the play is this:

“If it be now, ’tis not to come.
If it be not to come, it will be now.
If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

In this scene, Hamlet is reflecting on his death, which he is beginning to realize might come sooner than he expected. Both of our scripture readings today reflect on the same possibility. Both are in their own way, speaking about the time when we will meet Jesus face to face. The passage from Matthew is a parable about Jesus’ second coming and our need to be ready for it; and the passage from I Thessalonians has to do with death itself, and the hope of resurrection: being with Jesus forever. Either way we’re talking about meeting Jesus face to face. Either he is returning for us, or we are going to him. So I’d like to spend a little bit of time with each passage.

The main points of the passages are: in Matthew – to be ready; and in Thessalonians – to encourage each other. Let’s look at Matthew first.

In our reading from Matthew, Jesus tells a familiar parable about ten virgins – members of a bridal wedding party – who are waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. Because it’s night-time, all ten have oil lamps. Five of them think to bring extra oil with them and the other five don’t. When the groom ends up being late, the five who didn’t bring extra oil run out, and have to go and buy more… and they miss the arrival of the wedding party. The festivities start, the door is shut, and they find themselves locked out.

The scene Jesus describes would have been very familiar to his listeners 2000 years ago, but not so much to us, so here’s what typically happened when two people got married in Jesus’ day. A marriage contract was made up of two different events: the betrothal, and the actual wedding ceremony. Betrothal was the legal end of the wedding: the negotiation between the bride’s parents and groom’s parents which included the bride’s dowry and the groom’s commitment to provide a home for the new family. Once everything was agreed on, the groom returned to his father’s house to prepare a place for his bride (which is something Jesus talks about doing for us in another parable.)

Once everything was ready the groom got his friends together and set a wedding day. The bride’s family was notified of the date, but the exact time was unknown. The groom’s party then went off and decked out the groom with festive clothes, and got into the party spirit… and sometime during the evening they would begin to travel to the bride’s father’s house. Meanwhile the bride’s friends – the virgins – went out and lined the street holding oil lamps to light the way for the groom’s party. As the groom’s party drew near the cry would go out: “the bridegroom comes! Come out to meet him!” and as they passed by everyone would fall in behind them. Once they reached the bride’s father’s house, they would meet the bride and her family and everybody would return to the groom’s house where the wedding ceremony (and a week-long feast) would then be held.

In Jesus’ story, what happened was that for some reason the groom’s party was delayed. Seriously delayed. So much so that the bride’s party fell asleep waiting for them. By the time the cry finally went out, “the bridegroom is coming!” the virgins’ lamps had run out of oil… and half of the women didn’t have any extra. This kind of delay didn’t happen often, but a wise person prepared for the possibility.

Over the centuries a lot has been preached and written about this parable. People have speculated about things like what the oil represents – is it the Holy Spirit, is it good works? – or what delayed the groom’s arrival? But these things are beside the point. This parable – like many of Jesus’ parables – is about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus wants us to know what the future holds, and he speaks often of the kingdom.

In the beginning of the book of Matthew Jesus preaches, “the kingdom of heaven is near, repent and believe the good news,” where ‘repent’ means ‘turn around, go in a new direction.’ In the beatitudes Jesus says the kingdom belongs to the ‘poor in spirit’ and to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

Apart from a few other comments, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven mostly in parables. He often speaks of the kingdom in terms of seeds (the good seed that produces good crops; the mustard seed that starts small but grows to be a large plant; or seeds that land in various kinds of soil – the rocky soil, or the thorny soil, or the good soil). Jesus also speaks of the kingdom in terms of something hidden (a treasure hidden in a field, a pearl of great price; a householder’s treasure). Jesus says the greatest in the kingdom is the one who has the humility of a child – “to such the kingdom of heaven belongs”. He says the kingdom of heaven is a place where good and evil will be separated, and he illustrates with parables about sorting fish, or a king settling accounts with good and evil slaves. Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a place where it will be hard for rich people to enter – but with God all things are possible. It’s also a place where God will demonstrate his generosity – Jesus tells parables about a landowner hiring day-laborers; or of a king giving a wedding banquet and commanding everyone to come in. And in his last parables in the book of Matthew, Jesus describes the kingdom as something people might miss if they’re not ready. In one parable, people refuse an invitation to a wedding banquet, saying they have other things to do; and in today’s parable, half of the bride’s wedding party is unprepared for the coming of the bridegroom.

So the message in our parable for today is “be ready”. Be wise. A similar message can be found in Luke 12 where Jesus says this:

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return […]  “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

This message of readiness is both for us as individuals and for the church as a whole. It’s interesting that the wise and foolish virgins actually have a good deal in common. They’re all waiting for the bridegroom; when the bridegroom is delayed, they all fall asleep; all are startled by his arrival, not expecting it when it comes; all of them start to scramble when he finally arrives. The difference is, some are prepared and some aren’t. So how can we prepare for the arrival of our bridegroom? By digging into the word and living what it says. Through prayer.  By living what we believe. Through faith.

I was touched and challenged this past week by something Mean Joe Greene said on TV. Before the Steelers/Ravens game they televised the retirement of Joe Greene’s number. After the ceremony one of the reporters asked Mean Joe if he could give the Steelers some advice for the upcoming game against the Ravens… if he could be in the locker room right now… what would he say? He answered: “Play for keeps. Put it all on the line.”

That’s what we’re talking about here. This parable is about putting it all on the line. When the bridegroom comes we want to be ready… because when he comes and the celebration begins, the people inside the banquet hall will never have to leave again. The door will finally be shut on all the pains and sorrows of this world; and inside will be joy that lasts forever.

I Thessalonians gives us another angle on this same theme. The church at Thessalonica had received the good news of Jesus Christ from Paul with open hearts and open minds. But now they were facing opposition and persecution, sometimes life-threatening persecution. And Paul needed to teach them about the Christian view of death. The ancient Greeks didn’t believe in resurrection; and even the Jewish leaders of the day were sharply divided on the subject. The Pharisees believed in resurrection, but the Sadducees did not… which (as the old joke goes) is why they were sad-you-see. Jesus sided with the Pharisees in this debate, saying to the Sadducees, “the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Luke 20:37-38)

So Paul says to the fledgling church “we don’t want you to be uninformed about those who have died.” The word he uses here for “uninformed” in the Greek has the same root as the word ‘agnostic’ – to not know, to not be sure. Paul wanted the church to know. For a Christian ‘dead’ does not mean ‘dead forever’. There is a future. Paul wants the Thessalonians to be certain of the hope to be found in the Christian faith.

Because Jesus died and rose from the dead, through him, those of us who have fallen asleep will also rise again. The resurrection Paul is talking about is not just a spiritual resurrection. It is not a drop-of-water-returning-to-the-vast-sea-of-humanity kind of resurrection. It is real, physical, life. Paul says Jesus himself gave this teaching (v 15) – he says, “we tell you by the word of the Lord”. When he returns, the dead in Christ will rise first; and those who have remained alive will join them, and “we will always be with the Lord.” Paul says “encourage each other with these words”.

So as we face death… as we face our own mortality… Paul tells us to listen to what Jesus has to say.

In John chapter 16, Jesus draws a parallel between suffering and death, and the experience of giving birth. He says:

“When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

And Jesus prays for us in John chapter 17 saying, “Father, I desire that those whom you have given me, may be with me where I am…”

This is Jesus’ will for us. And Paul says “encourage each other with these words.”

So three things we can take away from these lessons today:

  1. Be prepared. “Put it all on the line.”  “The readiness is all.”
  2. Be certain. Don’t be agnostic, not knowing. God has given his word through his son Jesus Christ, and God is not mistaken. God has opened the door to eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is both the evidence that God can raise the dead, and the promise that God will.
  3. Encourage each other with these words. Our loved ones who have gone before us, who have died in the Lord, we will see them again. And for ourselves we have hope that this life is not all there is, that our journey through death’s door will be like “falling asleep in the Saviour’s arms” (Simeon).

Be ready. Be certain. Be encouraged.
AMEN.

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

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