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Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.  Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:67-79

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Well here we are in Advent again!  Doesn’t it seem like the years go by faster every year?  It seems like only yesterday I was doing Christmas shopping – for last Christmas!

It can be a challenge to keep Christmas feeling fresh and new every year. One of the ways I’ve found to do this is to make Advent special, because Advent has a focus on the future – it builds anticipation.

With this in mind, we’re doing an Advent series called The Songs of Christmas.  I’m glad we’re doing this because the songs of Christmas focus our minds and our hearts, like nothing else, on who and what we are waiting for during this Advent season.

Today’s song is the Song of Zechariah, found in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke.  Feel free to grab a Bible and follow along with me.

Before I begin, just a little bit of background on Zechariah himself.  Luke tells us Zechariah was a Levite, which gives us information about both his tribe and his career.  Zechariah was descended from the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi, which means he was of the tribe of Levi.  And the law of Moses tells us in Deut 18:5:

“…the LORD… has chosen Levi out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, he and his sons for all time.” 

 So Zechariah was born into the priestly tribe of Levi.

Luke also tells us that Zechariah was descended from “the priestly order of Abijah”.  II Chronicles 6:28 tells us Abijah was one of the grandsons of Levi, and he was assigned to “minister with song before the tabernacle.”  In other words, Zechariah’s family were essentially church musicians.

Back in ancient Israel, anyone who worked in the temple – preaching, teaching, making music, even doing maintenance – had to be trained in ministry. So in addition to whatever work they normally did, Chronicles tells us they also “had as their appointed duty in their service to enter the house of the LORD according to the procedure established for them by their ancestor Aaron…” (1 Chronicles 24:19) who was the high priest.  So they did priestly work on top of whatever else they did.

So what we see happening in the first chapter of Luke is exactly that: Zechariah has been called up out of the choir (so to speak) and into his priestly duties.

As a side note, Luke also tells us Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was “a descendant of Aaron” – which was the order of high priests. So Elizabeth’s priestly pedigree is actually higher than Zechariah’s. By ancestry, she is qualified to be a prophet. And Elizabeth actually becomes a prophet later on in Luke chapter 1.  Since her song is not included in our Songs of Christmas series I’d like to share it now. Elizabeth sang this song when she was pregnant with John the Baptist, and Mary (who was pregnant with Jesus) came to visit her. Luke writes:

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:41-45)

And I would add this: Even today, blessed are those who believe there will be a fulfillment of what has been spoken by the Lord.

But we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves in the story-line.  So backing up a few verses, Luke says in chapter 1 verse 6 both Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

That’s no small feat. But Luke makes this point because of what he says in the next verse:  Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless.  In those days having no children was considered a sign of God’s disapproval, or of sin in a person’s life. So Luke makes it clear their childlessness is not through any fault of their own. Zechariah and Elizabeth have been doing everything right.  This doesn’t mean they’re perfect – just that they had kept the law of Moses to the best of their ability.

So in Luke 1:8 Zechariah is serving in the temple, because this was his time of ‘appointed duty in service’ in the house of the Lord.  Luke says “he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” (Luke 1:9)

Considering the number of Levites living in Israel at that time, this duty might have come around only once or twice in a lifetime.  And the lot just happened to land on Zechariah that year? This is no coincidence! This is God’s hand reaching into human history.

So Zechariah is supposed to do two things: (1) enter the sanctuary, that is, the holy of holies, where only priests were allowed to go; and (2) offer incense, which represents the prayers of the people. In those days priests were go-betweens between the people and God.  The people would give prayers to priests to take to God, and God would give messages to the priests to give to the people. And the holy of holies was hidden behind a heavy curtain. The people could never see, with their own eyes, what was going on back there.

But this system of worship would soon come to an end. When Jesus died on the cross, that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom – and people, from that point on, had direct access to God through the blood of Jesus Christ. Priests were no longer needed because people could pray directly to God and hear directly from God.

Back to our story, Zechariah goes into the holy of holies and offers the incense and the prayers. And while he’s there the angel Gabriel appears, and says, “you’re going to have a son, and you will name him John.”  And Gabriel says: “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…[he will] make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:15-17, edited)

Now Zechariah thought about this, and thought about how old he was, and how old Elizabeth was, and he doubted Gabriel’s word.  He said, “How can that even be possible?” So Gabriel gave him a sign: Zechariah would be unable to speak until the prophecy came true. When the baby is born, Zechariah writes on a tablet “His name is John” – and he is able to speak again.

After almost a year of being unable to say anything, Zechariah’s first words are:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a mighty savior…”

Zechariah’s song is all about praising God.

I was reminded of this passage yesterday when some of us went to the Messiah Sing-Along at Calvary United Methodist on the North Side. At the end of the concert over 500 people stood and sang the famous words of the Hallelujah Chorus:

“The kingdom of this world
Is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ
And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!”

And the whole congregation broke into cheers like at a Steelers game!

 

(Here’s the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall with the Hallelujah Chorus)

When God opens a mouth, praise is what comes out. And so Zechariah praises God.  First he praises God for the Old Testament prophecies that are coming true. He says, God has ‘remembered his covenant’.

It’s interesting that Zechariah’s name, in Hebrew, means “God remembers”. And this remembering is not just ‘bringing the past to mind’ but thinking about, paying attention to, and caring for, God’s people. Zechariah says:

  • God has looked favorably on his people
    • As spoken through God’s holy prophets of old
  • God has remembered his holy covenant
    • Which he swore to our ancestor Abraham

All the promises made to Abraham nearly 2000 years before, and all the promises made to King David and King Solomon nearly 1000 years before, and all the promises made to Nebuchadnezzar and to Daniel and to all the prophets – everything focuses in on this one point in history.  So Zechariah praises God.

Secondly Zechariah praises God for the blessings that come to the human race through Jesus. He lists six blessings in particular:

  1. We will be rescued from our enemies
  2. We will be able to serve God without fear
  3. We will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness
  4. Jesus will be a light to those walking in darkness and in the shadow of death
  5. Jesus will bring the dawn of God’s mercy to God’s people
  6. John the Baptist will prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming

Let’s take a brief look at each one of these.

First, we will be rescued from the hands of our enemies. Some of us may say, “but I don’t have any enemies. I try to live at peace with everybody.” And that may be true as far as it goes. But not everyone in the world loves Jesus, and some people may choose to make themselves our enemies because we bear Jesus’ name.  And even if we escape that, we still have enemies: illness, injury, the suffering of loved ones, death. Jesus has overcome all of these, and rescues us even in the middle of our troubles and trials.

Secondly, we will be able to serve God without fear. Zechariah’s words here contain an echo of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. When Moses went to Pharaoh he didn’t just say ‘let my people go’.  He said (as God told him to say), ‘let my people go into the wilderness to worship and serve the Lord’.  This set up a contest of wills – a contest of loyalties – between Pharaoh and God.  And the same contest of wills between worldly powers and God still goes on today. Zechariah praises God that with the coming of the Messiah, God’s people will be set free to serve God without fear.

Third, along with that, Zechariah says we will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness. As one theologian put it, “heaven would not be heaven to an unholy soul.”  In the power of Christ we are set free from spiritual enemies and therefore we are set free to serve God in holiness and righteousness.

Fourth, Zechariah says Jesus will be a light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.  It’s not hard to see how much our world is in darkness.  Think of all the things we’ve experienced as a nation in this past year alone.  All of the divisions, all of the hurt.  Our world longs for peace… but it wants a peace that doesn’t involve giving up sin.  And like the old saying goes, ‘no justice, no peace’ – or maybe more accurately, ‘no god-likeness, no peace’. Jesus comes to break through this darkness.

Fifth, Zechariah says Jesus comes to bring God’s mercy for God’s people: salvation through the forgiveness of sins. This Saviour will be a very personal savior. Yes, Jesus comes to save the world; yes, he comes to save the people; but where the rubber meets the road, Jesus saves one person at a time. Jesus touches and shows mercy on one life at a time. Jesus forgives us, one past at a time… and heals us one heart at a time.

And lastly, Zechariah says that his son, John the Baptist, will prepare the way for Jesus by preaching this salvation through the forgiveness of sins.

So for those of us listening in on Zechariah’s song, what does this mean for all of us?

First and foremost – we are invited to join in the rejoicing!  Sing! Celebrate! Not with material things like the world does, but with spiritual joy in the coming of the light of the world.

Secondly, take this song of Zechariah into the coming week with us. Maybe put it up on the refrigerator. Or try praying the words this week. Use Zechariah’s words as a part of our joy.

Third, as a wise man once said, “Don’t be satisfied with captivity when Jesus is proclaiming ‘liberty to the captives’.” In other words, if there’s anything that holds us captive – a bad habit, an addiction, a relationship – anything that keeps us from being who God created us to be – bring it to the foot of the cross, and be free. Jesus proclaims liberty to the captives, and that’s a promise good for every one of us.

Fourth, if there’s anyone who feels like they’re wandering around in a world of darkness these days: Jesus is the light of the world – keep eyes on him.

And finally: following in the footsteps of Zechariah, let’s bless God with our whole hearts, and with our lives, demonstrating in our lives the mercy of God which is ours in Jesus.

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, thank you for this song of your relative Zechariah.  Thank you for the truth of his words, and for the joy of his words.  Thank you for your light which lightens our darkness. Help us to enter into this season of Advent with a fresh faith and joy, remembering all you have done for us, and above all remembering your love for us that never quits and never dies. We look forward to your coming, Lord. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/4/16

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Giving Thanks

[Scripture readings for the day may be found at the end of this post.] There’s a commercial on TV these days – have you seen this one? – where there’s a bank robbery going on, and somebody rushes up to a guy in a security guard outfit and says “DO SOMETHING!!” and the guy says “oh, I’m not a security guard, I’m just a security monitor.  I can only tell you if the bank is being robbed. The bank is being robbed.”

The ad is for identity theft insurance.  Identity theft – or ‘hacking someone’s accounts’ so to speak – is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. It involves stealing a person’s personal information and then impersonating you and buying things using your name and your good credit.

The point of the ad is there are lots of free services that will monitor your bank accounts, but they can’t do anything to protect you from hackers or fix the problems they cause.  So this company basically offers identity insurance, something that can help you replace the money and get back to the way life should be.

In a way, when we look at the Old Testament and the system of laws God gave to ancient Israel, what we’re seeing is like the monitor in that ad.  The ancient laws can tell us when something’s gone wrong, but they can’t fix the problem or set things right.  The ancient laws point to the fact that people aren’t perfect, but the human race needs something more than that to get back on the right track.

So God sent prophets and priests to teach the people about God’s ways. But that didn’t work either, because the priests themselves didn’t always keep the law.  The Old Testament is full of stories – like the sons of the prophet Samuel – who took advantage of God’s people, sometimes stealing the offerings, sometimes demanding “favors” from the worshippers.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about in our first reading for today.  Israel in the time of Jeremiah was led by priests (and kings as well) who were corrupt, who stole from the people, victimizing particularly the poor and the widows – and as a result they did not lead the people to God.  If anything they pushed people away from God.  And because of the corruption in the nation’s leadership, during Jeremiah’s lifetime the kingdom in Jerusalem fell to foreign invaders and the people were deported.

So in the opening lines of Jeremiah 23 we hear God speaking, and God is royally ticked off.  He says: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! You have scattered my flock, you have driven them away, you have not attended to them.  Therefore I will attend to you!!” There are very few things that make God more angry than people who drive God’s people away from God. (That’s why Jesus saved his sharpest criticisms for the Pharisees.)

God then says the harm these false shepherds have caused will be set right by God.  God says: “I will gather” – where you have scattered the sheep, I will gather them. “I will bring them back” – where you have driven them away, I will bring them back.  Where you have failed to attend to them, I will make them fruitful and multiply them… “and they shall not fear any longer, nor shall any be missing.”

So all of this, that I’ve said so far, is the set-up for our theme for today: as we “count our blessings” entering into Thanksgiving week, the greatest blessing of all is God’s solution to a world and a human race that has been ‘hacked’. God’s solution also addresses the problem of false shepherds, which will come in the form of the Good Shepherd.

So both of our passages for today talk about Jesus – even though neither passage mentions his name.

Starting with Jeremiah, God unfolds the plan that will undo all the harm caused by the false shepherds, and set things back the way they were meant to be.  God says: “I will raise up for David a righteous branch… and he will be called the Lord our Righteousness.”

There are two parts to this promise.  The first is “I will raise up for David a righteous branch”.  David of course was the great king of Israel under whose reign the nation of Israel was finally settled and at peace in the Promised Land.  Jesus is often referred to as “the Son of David” because David was one of his ancestors, but more than that, David was “a man after God’s own heart” and so is Jesus.

The “righteous branch” refers to Jesus being related to David, but it means more than that.  The prophet Isaiah talks about this branch in a prophecy that we often hear around Christmas-time.  Isaiah writes: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Is 11:1)

Jesse was David’s father.  And the ‘stump of Jesse’ refers to the fact that the line of kings descended from David appeared to be dead, like a tree stump is dead.  The kingdom had fallen, and the people were captive in Babylon.  But God had promised David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (II Sam 7:16)

In Jeremiah’s time it looked like God’s word had failed. But no… “there will be a shoot from that stump” – there will come a descendant of Jesse and David, who will be a man after God’s own heart like David was.

The second part of the promise in this verse is the phrase “the Lord is our righteousness”.  This sounds like Jeremiah is describing the man of God who is to come – ‘he will be righteous’ – and that’s true.  But ‘the Lord our Righteousness’ is also a name.  In the Hebrew it is ‘Yahweh-tsedek’: Yahweh (the Lord), tsedek (our Righteousness).

The reason I point this out is there is one other place in the Old Testament where someone has a similar name, and it’s in Genesis 14.  This is a really obscure story but hang in there with me.  In Genesis 14, Abraham has just returned home from rescuing his nephew who had been taken captive.  There was a battle, and Abraham won and brought his nephew and his family home.  And on his way back home he is met by a mysterious priest-king, who seems to come out of nowhere, and is never heard from again. His name is Melchizedek.  And he blesses Abraham, and brings out bread and wine (sound familiar?), and Abraham offers him a tenth of the spoils, a tithe. The name Melchizedek – the first half of his name means ‘king’ and the second half means ‘righteousness’.

So in Jeremiah we have ‘Yahweh-tsedek’, “the Lord is our Righteousness”, and in Genesis we have Melchi-tsedek, the “King of Righteousness”. And Genesis tells us Melchizedek was the King of Salem – or in Hebrew, shalom – in other words, the Prince of Peace.

So this verse in Jeremiah connects the dots between Genesis, Psalms, Jeremiah, and the book of Hebrews: the Old Testament to Psalms to Prophets to New Testament.  Watch this!

In Genesis 14 we meet Melchizedek, King of Righteousness. In Psalm 110:4 David writes about the coming Messiah: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” In Jeremiah 23:6 we meet a descendant of David named “the Lord our Righteousness” or Yahweh-zedek.  And finally in Hebrews the author writes, “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”

So this coming Messiah, Jesus, is our great high priest. But more than that, he is a priest (1) forever, and (2) he is not like human priests and ministers who are flawed.  Jesus is a priest of a whole different order, the order of Melchizedek, which is Righteousness, the King of Righteousness, coming straight from heaven.

All of this is tied together by this one verse in Jeremiah!

So what can we expect from this King of Righteousness and this Prince of Peace?

Jeremiah and Paul both answer that question. In order to sort of organize the thoughts I’d like to approach it in three parts: (1) what Jesus has done, (2) who Jesus is, and (3) what Jesus will do.

Starting with what Jesus will do:  Jeremiah says Jesus will reign.  In other words, Jesus is King.  The ‘Kingdom of God’ is not a euphemism for heaven. The Kingdom of God is forever. Jesus is on the throne now and always will be. We say this in the creed every week: “seated at the right hand of God…”.

Just as a side note: we Americans are not really used to kings.  We kind of admire the Queen of England, from a distance.  It takes a little getting used to, this idea of having a king.  God’s kingdom is not a democracy. We don’t vote on who gets to be God this year.  But thank God, Jesus loves us, and loves us perfectly.  Jeremiah also says the Messiah will “deal wisely” and “execute justice and bring righteousness”.

Secondly we move to Paul and his letter to the Colossians, where Paul talks about who Jesus is.  Paul says Jesus is the head of the body, which is the church.  He is the firstborn from the dead.  Jesus has the fullness of God dwelling in him, and he reconciles all things to God.  In other words, Jesus is the ‘hacker-buster’.  When the Old Testament law wasn’t enough to fix what’s wrong in the world (or in our souls), Jesus was the one who was able and willing to set things right.

Paul then talks about what Jesus has done for us. Because of Jesus we are now able to share in the inheritance: that is, we are able to be citizens of God’s kingdom, children of the King, as we were meant to be.  He has rescued us from darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of light.

Because God created all things through Jesus and sustains all things through Jesus, Jesus knows how the whole creation works. He was there and helped to make it. The apostle John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

And His ultimate ‘anti-hack’ was the cross.  Paul says Jesus “made peace with God through the blood of the cross.”  And so we are free.  The cross is not a monitor – it is our insurance policy, written in Jesus’ blood.

This is what was promised in the words of Jeremiah, and fulfilled in the words of Paul.

So how do we bring this to where we are today?

Paul leaves us with three things:

  • Paul says be strong in his power, that is the power of Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. Remember Kingdom living is done in Jesus’ power, not in our own. We don’t psych ourselves up for it… we just follow Jesus and rest in His power.
  • Paul says be prepared to endure with patience and with joy. This verse reminds me of the words of Scottish theologian William Barclay who said, “Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” Because we rest in Jesus’ strength, we are happy and we can live without fear. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be trouble – it just means somebody bigger than us will be going through the troubles with us.
  • Paul says: “give thanks!” Give thanks to God for all God has done, throughout history, from Genesis until now… preparing salvation for us from Abraham to David to Jeremiah to Jesus right down to today. Give thanks for God’s kingdom and for our place in it.  Give thanks to God who has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light… and rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus thank you. Thank you for the holiday coming up this week when we will have time to spend with family and friends. Thank you that we can count on your love and your strength throughout our lives. Thank you that you knew how to set things right and were willing to pay the price for us.  Be with us now as we prepare to celebrate again Your birth into our world… which has made all the difference.  Help us to place our worries at the foot of your cross so that we can give thanks with our whole hearts, because we can never thank you enough. Amen.

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Jeremiah 23:1-6  Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.  2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.  3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.

5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Colossians 1:11-20  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,  14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;  16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him.  17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/20/16

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Urgent Message from Kenya

Dear readers,

I just heard from classmate and friend Qampicha Wario, who was recently named Bishop of Marsabit, Kenya.  Before becoming Bishop, Qampicha founded and directed the building of a school named Tumaini in Northern Kenya that welcomes both Christian and Muslim students and provides an opportunity for education for children of families who could not otherwise afford it — both boys and girls.

Northern Kenya

Northern Kenya

Qampicha’s diocese is currently experiencing extreme drought and famine conditions.  He recently wrote to his friends in the States:

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Friends, Marsabit Diocese is situated in the vast arid and semi arid region of northern Kenya. This area normally receives two season between March and June (normally long rain) and between September and November (Short rain).  This year we received very little rain and no rain in some areas. There was no harvest from the farm. The short rain has failed and the area is hard hit with drought. The livestock are dying for lack of pasture and people are starving for lack of food. Over eighty percent of people in Northern Kenya depend on livestock for their livelihood. Now that the livestock are dying people’s livelihood is cut and a climate of despair hangs over the villages. Most people have no money to buy food, there are no market for emaciated and dying animals. For some communities, water sources at some boreholes are far away and people walk long distances and wait for hours to fetch water. The prices of food has gone up and out of reach for the already vulnerable communities who have no reliable source of income.

As I write the drought situation in northern Kenya has been declared a disaster. 

The church is expected to intervene and alleviate human suffering. But we are financially incapacitated to help.

Please pray with us for God’s provision and intervention….

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To read the full text of Qampicha’s letter click here.  Please pray for the people of Kenya, both young and old, and for the survival of their animals. And if you are able to help financially please do so – there is a link at the bottom of Qampicha’s letter.

Thank you!❤

 

That Day is Coming

[scripture readings for today are at the end of this post]

The lectionary that gives us our scriptures every Sunday was created about 50 years ago, and it’s based on a lectionary used by the early church, which in turn is based on a lectionary used in ancient Israel before the birth of Christ.

I say all this in order to say: there is no way the creators of our lectionary could have known that our gospel reading for today – which talks about the end of human history as we know it – would fall on the Sunday after Election Day in America in the year 2016!

That said, I’m not going to comment on the election. I don’t ever want anyone to be turned off to Jesus because of my personal political beliefs. I would willingly give up my right to vote if it meant someone finding eternal life in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

But that said, I do have one comment on the events of this past week:  Post-election, there are people who seem to think it’s now OK to harass and threaten people different from themselves: people of different races or religions, people from different countries, or even just people who voted differently than they did.  As Christians we are called by God to welcome the stranger, and to show compassion and hospitality to those in trouble. In the days ahead let’s be watching for opportunities to be peacemakers in our neighborhoods and in our places of work.

One small way to do this is something the British people did after the Brexit vote. (And you remember I was in England when the Brexit vote was taken – I’m going through this a second time now!) When British people realized the refugees and foreigners and minorities among them were feeling afraid, they put on safety pins as a way of showing solidarity. The pin basically means “you are ‘safe’ with me. If somebody gives you trouble, I will stand with you.” The pins are starting to catch on here in the States now so I brought a bunch with me today. I don’t expect everybody to take one – not everyone is physically or emotionally prepared to step into difficult situations – but if you feel you would like one, they’re on the back table, take one on your way out after church.

So having said all of that, let’s look at our scriptures for today.  We have three passages: one from Luke and two from Isaiah.  In the passage from Luke we hear Jesus talking about the final chapter of earth history. And in our passages from Isaiah, the prophet tells us about God’s kingdom that will follow the end of history, and the joy that will be ours when we see God’s salvation.

These three passages taken together create a panorama of history: past, present, and future.  In a big-picture sense they give us comfort, knowing that we are never without hope because we are never without God.

But in the short term we can expect trouble.

Let’s start with our passage from Luke.  Jesus is teaching in the temple, and it’s only a few days before the crucifixion.  As Jesus is speaking, someone in the crowd remarks how beautiful the Temple is: hand-carved stonework, votive offerings… great beauty.

And Jesus says, basically: “See all this around you? The day will come when not one stone will be left on another, everything will be thrown down.”

If Jesus was here today, He could tell us the same thing.  The day will come when the houses we live in won’t be there any more. The day will come when the places we work and the places we worship will either be repurposed or torn down. The day will come when even our country will cease to exist. That’s the lesson of history. Nothing lasts forever.

The people hearing Jesus believed this message.  They did not ask “will this really happen?” they asked, “when will this happen? What’s the sign to watch for?”

The answer Jesus gives is a little confusing at first glance because it deals with both the immediate future and the long-term future (which includes us).

Jesus starts out with answers relevant to everybody, no matter when in history we live.  Jesus says “there will be others who claim to be me, who will say the end is near. Don’t listen to them. Don’t follow them. Don’t be led astray.”

Jesus says “there will be wars… and troubles… these things have to happen. Don’t be afraid, and don’t let it surprise you when they do happen.”  In Matthew’s account of the story Jesus adds the words “all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  It’s as if the earth is pregnant and is about to give birth to the new earth.  In fact this same picture is given in the book of Revelation – of a woman in birth pangs. So don’t be afraid. What we see happening is what’s supposed to happen.

Jesus continues saying, “Nation will rise against nation.” The Greek here is ethne, it’s the word we get ethnic from. In other words, people groups will rise up against people groups (does this sound familiar?) and kingdoms against kingdoms. And there will be earthquakes and famines and pestilences… and horrors, and signs from heaven.”

Up to this point Jesus has been describing the end of the age, and though we see at least some of it coming true already, be careful not to be misled. People in my parents’ generation thought Hitler was a sign the end was coming.  Not yet… the troubles we see right now are just a foretaste of the end.

Then Jesus switches focus and comes back to what the disciples will face. He says: “Before all this, people will lay hands on you and persecute you and hand you over to prison and lead you away to stand before kings and governors for the sake of my name.”

These prophecies begin to come true in the book of Acts, and they continued to come true for the next few hundred years, until the Roman emperor became a Christ-follower in the 4th century.

Persecution didn’t end completely though; it still happens today in some parts of the world. So Jesus’ next words are for anyone who is ever arrested or persecuted for his name’s sake. He says: “see this as an opportunity to witness.”  And the Greek word for witness is martyr. This doesn’t necessarily mean dying for the faith, but it does mean laying down one’s own interests and putting God’s interests first.  Jesus is basically saying that in bearing witness we will find our freedom. Even if we’re in chains, our freedom is found in bearing witness to Christ.  And that is as true today as it was back then.

Then Jesus says something surprising: “Therefore fix it in your heart – plan ahead and be ready – NOT to think beforehand how to answer.” We are not to defend the faith or bear witness with words planned out in advance. Jesus says, “for I will give you a mouth and wisdom that no one will be able to oppose or contradict.”

Have you ever noticed how when Jesus got into arguments with the Pharisees and Sadducees, how he left them completely speechless? They walked away with nothing more to say. Jesus promises to give us the same wisdom when we are called to witness for our faith.

Jesus then continues to warn his disciples: “You will be handed over by family members… some will be put to death… you will be hated because of my name, but not a hair of your head will perish.”

And then comes the promise: “By your steadfast endurance you will gain your souls.” All we have to do is stand and endure.  Not attack, not defend, just take our stand.

So summing up this passage: Jesus warns about the destruction of Jerusalem – which happened in the year 70AD – and looks ahead to a time when everything we see will likewise be torn down. And Jesus promises if we endure – if we hang on tight to him – we will live. And that’s where our gospel lesson ends for today.

But it’s not where the story ends.  There is a Kingdom coming.  The prophet Isaiah – even though he lived 500 years or more before Jesus – takes us to God’s new beginning.

In Isaiah chapter 65 God speaks the words “Behold I create a new heavens and new earth; the former earth will not be remembered or even brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create…”

God’s Kingdom will be a joy forever.  And when the Bible talks about “joy” it’s not talking about mere happiness, as in, I’m happy the sun is shining or I’m happy to have mocha in my coffee. Joy is something deep, rich, satisfying, with a touch of awe – like watching a sunset over the ocean or holding a child for the very first time.

Joy like that, all the time, is more than we mere mortals can handle – which is why we need to put on immortality.  In our new life we will have the capacity to live in joy.  Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “I will rejoice in my people.”  God rejoices over us! The prophet Zephaniah says: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17) Can you imagine God singing? Over us? Someday that day will come.

God goes on to say: “No more will there be an infant that lives only a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… they shall not build and another inhabit… they shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. […] Before they call I will answer… they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.  Someday that day will come.

Isaiah tells us that we will respond by saying: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid.” The word ‘salvation’ in Hebrew, is pronounced yeshua – the name given to Jesus.  We will say, “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known the things he has done… he has acted majestically – let the whole earth know!”  Someday that day will come.

But it’s not here yet.

There are some people who will call this kind of faith “pie in the sky when you die”. And they say “I’d rather have steak on a plate while I wait.”  But God’s kingdom is not just for the future. It’s not just for when we’re resurrected.  God’s kingdom begins at the beginning – when God said “let there be light” – and it stretches all the way to the end (of which there will not be an end). We just happen to be included in that eternity, in our little piece of history. For us, eternal life begins now and carries forward into eternity.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

From where we stand in history right now, the last days have not come yet.  This world is still standing, and God’s kingdom only breaks through into what we perceive as unexpectedly.  Right now it looks like the forces of darkness are winning. But there will come a day when everything will be thrown down and God’s kingdom will come in all its glory.

God will have mercy on God’s people, both now and in the days to come. We just need to be sure that we are with God, that we are preparing ourselves for eternity in God’s kingdom.  So I wanted to share with you a few things Scripture tells us about God’s kingdom and what life in the kingdom is like:

  • Jesus said: “the kingdom of God is near; change course, believe the good news.”
  • Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me… for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. […] whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
  • Jesus said: “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.”
  • The apostle Paul said: “the kingdom of God is… righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
  • King David wrote: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. […] The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
  • The apostle John wrote in the book of Revelation: “I saw the holy city… coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

Paul and Jesus also both warn us that nothing unholy can enter the Kingdom of God. We need to confess the things we’ve done wrong, and receive God’s salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.  We need to be growing in God’s likeness, and we need to live our lives in a way that bears witness to God’s truth… no matter the cost.

If anyone here has not yet made the decision to follow Jesus and to live forever in God’s kingdom, don’t wait. Do it today.

For the rest of us, preparing for life in the Kingdom is mostly inner work, spiritual work – both individually and as a church. This world is passing away and a new heavens and new earth are coming. We need to live in such a way that when people see how we live and how we love each other, they will catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

And if we’re not sure where to begin, the apostle Paul said: “in the end only three things will last: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”  There’s no better place to start.

Let’s pray.

Lord, we live in fearful times. We hear angry voices around us and we see violence all around us.  Calm us Lord, with your presence.  Give us a confidence in your love that can’t be shaken. Forgive us, when we fall into sin. Give us courage and wisdom and compassion as we live and work with others who are also feeling afraid and angry. Fill us with your Spirit so we can be beacons of your love and your truth in the world. Guide us in the days ahead, O Lord. And help us to keep our eyes on the prize – eternity with you, that begins now and lasts forever. Thank you Lord for your great promises and your great salvation. May all the glory be yours. AMEN.

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Isaiah 65:17-25  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent– its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:1-6   You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

Luke 21:5-19   When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.  When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.  But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;  for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.  You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/13/16

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“Zacchaeus”

(Scripture readings for the day are reprinted in full at the end of this post.)

In our first reading for today Paul talks about how well the church at Thessalonica has been modeling God’s coming kingdom. Paul says the Thessalonians show an amazing amount of love for each other.  They stand loyal to Jesus, and stand by each other even in the face of persecution. Their reputation for love and loyalty has traveled all through the Roman empire.

And as people talk, Jesus’ name is being lifted on high. Paul says Jesus is “glorified in them, and they in Him.”  And the glory they bring to Jesus, by the grace of Jesus, is reflected back on themselves. This is a picture of what all of our churches – large and small – aim to be.

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By contrast, the people surrounding Jesus in our story of Zacchaeus bring glory to neither Jesus nor themselves.  But Jesus doesn’t let that slow him down.  Let’s take a look at what’s happening in Jericho.

As our story opens, Luke says Jesus is “passing through Jericho”.  The main road from Galilee to Jerusalem passes through Jericho, which sits on a plain to the east of Jerusalem.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time.  As this story takes place, he is maybe only two weeks away from the cross, maybe a little less – although the disciples haven’t grasped this yet.  The disciples were expecting Jesus to claim his kingdom as they enter Jerusalem. In fact, the grand entrance we re-enact on Palm Sunday is only a few days away at this point.

So immediately following our story today, while Jesus is still visiting Zacchaeus, Jesus tells the disciples the parable of the talents.  You recall the story: three servants are given 10 talents, 5 talents, and one talent, and later the master returns to see how the three have invested their talents (or not) while he was away.

Jesus is trying to explain to the disciples that he will be going away soon, and he will leave them with talents and gifts to use in building up the kingdom.  The point being the kingdom is not coming quite yet.

BUT – the kingdom of God is beginning to break through just a little… and in ways nobody but Jesus is expecting. Up to this point Jesus’ ministry has included a lot of teaching, healing, and feeding of large crowds;  but now his focus shifts to the redemption and healing of souls: to new beginnings for people who are trapped by the evil in the world and/or the evil in their own lives.

So Jesus is passing through Jericho. And there’s a man living there who wants to see him.  His name is Zacchaeus, and he is a tax collector, and he is rich. Which tells us he was not a very nice person: not because of his wealth, but because tax collectors back then got rich by collecting too much.  Tax collectors back then were basically on the same level as collaborators with the occupying army.  The Romans used them to collect taxes, expecting that the tax collectors would collect more than was required and keep the difference.  So the tax collectors were basically getting rich on the backs of their own people.  And Zacchaeus was, as Luke says, a “chief” tax collector – one of the ringleaders of these bandits!

And Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus.  He just had one problem: he was short. He couldn’t see over the crowds. So he figured out what to do: he ran ahead on the road Jesus had to travel, and climbed up a tree so he could get a good look.

All of this raises the question “why?”  Why would a man like Zacchaeus even want to see Jesus? He’s apparently heard of Jesus, which was not unusual – Jesus was kind of a celebrity. And people can have lots of reasons why they might want to see a celebrity.  Some people look for bragging rights: “guess who I saw!”  Some want a photo they can put on Snapchat or Facebook.  Maybe Zacchaeus wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  He’d heard the Pharisees criticize Jesus, he knew the rulers in Jerusalem were afraid of Jesus, and the common people loved him.  Was it celebrity-seeking that made Zacchaeus climb that tree, or was it something more?

I like to think Zacchaeus’ heart had been touched by the things he’d heard about Jesus… that Zacchaeus wasn’t just celebrity-stalking.  I get the feeling Zacchaeus sensed something special about Jesus, something different, something out-of-the-ordinary – and he wanted to know why.  Luke says Zacchaeus “wanted to see who Jesus was”.  He wanted to know… something… as much as he could… about this man.

I hope all of us come to church on Sunday wanting to know who Jesus is. I know we enjoy seeing our families and our friends, we love coming to this familiar place, and we love doing things for the community around us… and all these things are good… but most of all I hope we come wanting to see Jesus, and to know Jesus.

So I think that’s what Zacchaeus was after.  But here’s the surprise twist in the story: as Jesus and the crowd passed the tree Zacchaeus was in, Jesus looks up and sees Zacchaeus.  The one who wanted to see is now being seen.

Have you ever sat in an audience at a play or at concert, and had someone on stage see you, personally? (I’m not talking about kids’ recitals or things like that – kids are always looking for us! But a play or a concert where you don’t know anybody on stage.)  As a member of the audience, we expect to do the seeing. We don’t expect to be seen. And if someone on stage meets our eyes and holds our gaze for a moment, it’s a strange experience.  It’s startling. But living into that moment can be fun, and as a member of the audience, we have the chance to reflect back to the person on stage, “hey, I appreciate what you’re doing.” And that can be thrilling.

I think in a way that’s what Zacchaeus felt. He was startled, at first, to be seen by Jesus. Startled when Jesus spoke to him. Surprised to discover the man he wanted to know, wanted to know him.

Jesus wants people to know him, because knowing him is eternal life. Knowing him is the door to the kingdom. And Jesus wants to know us too.  Jesus wants to see us, and hear from us, be with us. And that can be a little startling sometimes.

People who try to follow Jesus as part of the crowd, without being noticed, always end up getting discovered somehow.  Remember for example the woman with the flow of blood, who snuck up behind Jesus in a crowd, and touched the hem of his garment and was healed? Jesus insisted on asking “who touched me?” even though the crowd was pressing around him. And he waited until he got an answer.  Jesus always calls people out of hiding, out of the shadows and into the light. And that’s a good thing. Even for naturally shy people, it’s a good thing.

Now Zacchaeus – he was not the shy kind! He wanted to see Jesus and he was not going to quit until he did.  He made a plan, he worked it out, he thought ahead, he was creative.  And God honors this kind of determination.  Remember a few weeks ago we heard the parable of the unjust judge?  Jesus says even a judge who is unjust will cave in to a person who keeps coming after him, and coming after him, and coming after him. How much more will Jesus be found by those who seek him?  Jesus says, “If you seek me, you will find me.”

As a side note – I find it interesting, by contrast, that King Herod also wanted to see Jesus.  Luke tells us back in chapter 9 that after King Herod beheaded John the Baptist, he heard about all the things Jesus was doing and he started thinking maybe John had come back to life. “Herod said, ‘…who is this about whom I hear such things?’ and he tried to see him.” (Luke 9:9)  But he never did, at least not until after Jesus was arrested, and then Jesus refused to say a single word to him.

I think the difference is, Herod didn’t really want to see Jesus all that badly.  He said he did, but he wasn’t whole-hearted about it.  Consider:

  • Zacchaeus made plans and figured out a way to see Jesus. Herod was king – he could have done whatever he wanted – but he didn’t do anything to make it happen.
  • Zacchaeus wanted to know who Jesus really was, and he didn’t care what it cost to find out. Herod remembered what he had done to John the Baptist, and he was afraid.  He didn’t trust in Jesus’ message of forgiveness.
  • In Zacchaeus’ case, Jesus approached Zacchaeus, invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, and Jesus was the guest of honor. In Herod’s case, Jesus was dragged in chains into Herod’s palace, he had no choice whether or not he wanted to be there, and Herod made him the evening’s entertainment for his dinner guests. And when Jesus failed to be sufficiently entertaining, Herod had him beaten and sent away.

Herod didn’t really want to see Jesus or know Jesus… not the way Zacchaeus did.

Jesus knows what’s in a person’s heart.  And he saw Zacchaeus.  Not only that, he saw Zacchaeus differently than other people saw him. Jesus knew Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and a scoundrel, and a collaborator. But Jesus also saw someone who really wanted to know him. Someone who was willing to give up all the trappings of this world – the riches, and the position, and the power – for the sake of something real and true and lasting.  And Jesus said to him, “Hurry! Come down!” (That’s a command in the Greek, not a suggestion.) “Don’t wait! Come down now! Today I must stay at your house.”  And Zacchaeus received him with great joy.

Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ call, not with nervousness or self-consciousness. Zacchaeus is like the man who has found the pearl of great price, who in his joy goes and sells all that he has and buys it.  Zacchaeus doesn’t care what the cost is. In celebration of this new friendship with Jesus, Zacchaeus gives away half of everything he has to the poor, and refunds anyone he’s cheated four times over. And Jesus says, “today salvation has come to this house!”

This is a healing of the highest order: not a physical healing, but a spiritual healing. Rebirth and renewal of a man’s soul, and spiritual healing for his whole family. It’s a new beginning for all of them.

You would think people would be happy for him… but instead the crowd starts to grumble.  “What is this?” they complain. “Jesus has gone to be the house-guest in the house of a sinner!”

They’re jealous. They’re like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The crowd – which is made up mostly of Jesus’ disciples – are suddenly sounding like a bunch of Pharisees.

This kind of reaction is not all that unusual. I think we’ve all felt it from time to time when someone unexpected comes to faith in Jesus: “Lord, really? That one?”

Jesus confronts this attitude right away, and says: “I have come to seek and to save the lost. And this man also is a child of Abraham”.  In other words, a child of the covenant, a child of the faith-family.

Besides, if Jesus doesn’t eat with sinners, we’re all in trouble.

In this visit with Zacchaeus, Jesus is laying out the final piece of his game plan. He is setting up his final move before the crucifixion comes. He is declaring his purpose in coming to earth: to save the lost.  And within two weeks’ time he will have accomplished it, dying for us on the cross and opening the door for all of us to become children of the covenant and citizens of the Kingdom.

So for takeaways today, I have five:

  1. Wanting to see Jesus and know Jesus is where it all begins. It’s not enough just to know about There’s a lot of information and mis-information out there about the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Being a follower of Jesus is about knowing Jesus, not just knowing about Him.
  2. In our efforts to see and get to know Jesus, be creative! All relationships take effort, and this one is no exception.  Don’t be put off by perceived limitations. Find a tree to climb (metaphorically speaking) if you need to.  Don’t quit, don’t let go.
  3. Remember that Jesus wants to see us too. If we seek we will find… and Jesus will find us as well. Don’t let that be a scary thing. I was thinking: Zacchaeus really went out on a limb trying to see Jesus. And I think sometimes that’s true for us as well.  Sometimes when Jesus finds us, we are hanging on to the end of our limb. That’s OK. Jesus is not bothered by people hanging out on limbs. He knows how to handle it.
  4. Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’ house and into his life… and Jesus invites himself into our lives too. So the question becomes, how will we respond? Will we say, “Oh, Lord, I haven’t had a chance to clean the place”?  Will we say, “Ok, well, you can stay for the weekend but I’ve got to get back to work on Monday”? Or will we say, “Come on in, make yourself at home… mi casa es su casa”? Jesus isn’t just coming for dinner… he’s coming for forever.
  5. Salvation and citizenship in God’s kingdom is open to everyone… no matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done. Knowing Jesus changes everything.  Being a citizen of God’s kingdom changes our relationship with Jesus. We are no longer strangers but friends. We want to spend time with Jesus, because we find him delightful. Being a citizen of God’s kingdom changes our relationships with others. Our relationships begin to be marked by justice, and fairness, and compassion. We become willing to make things right where they have been wrong.

And as these things happen in our lives, we – and our church family – begin to become the kind of church Paul was talking about, that develops a reputation for loyalty to Jesus… that gives glory to Jesus through the way we honor God and love each other. And this becomes our glory, by the grace of Jesus.  AMEN.

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2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12  Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:  2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  3 We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.  4 Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith,  12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 19:1-10  [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it.  2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.  3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.  4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.  5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.  7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 10/30/16

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[Scripture readings for the day are reprinted in full at the end of this post.]

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – talk about a story that’s right up my alley!  At one time or another I have been both a Pharisee (of sorts) and a tax collector (literally).  And I stand before you today as living proof that God cares for both Pharisees and tax collectors. And if God cares for someone like me, then for certain God cares for you!

So looking at our Gospel reading for today (Luke 18:9-14):  Jesus tells a parable that Luke says is directed at people who trust in their own righteousness and look down on others, and Jesus uses a Pharisee as an example.  So this parable is pointed at Pharisees, but it is not necessarily just about Pharisees.  People without religious training can act like Pharisees too. In fact listening to people who are so sure of their own righteousness, while putting others down, I think is part of what’s made all of us all so sick of the upcoming election.

But getting back to the Pharisees: I have known a few in my day.  I’ve been sorely tempted to become one, (although I wouldn’t have thought of it that way at the time).  Where it comes to Pharisees this is what I’ve experienced:

  • Pharisees are motivated by fear. (both in Jesus’ day and now.) Pharisees are very keenly aware of sin, and the seriousness of sin, and of God’s judgement on sin; and they are afraid of God’s judgement and so they’re afraid of anything that might cause sin. They’re even afraid of the appearance of sin. And all this fear gets pressed down and shaken together and then sometimes explodes in the form of anger at ‘sinners’ who are seen either as sources of temptation or as the cause of the decline in society’s morals.
  • In their fear, Pharisees turn their focus inward – on the little groups they’re a part of. They lose sight of the needs in the world, and they fail to see the pain that sinners feel at their own sin. They forget (if they ever knew in the first place) (for example) that drug addicts hate the drugs they’re hooked on… that prostitutes hate their customers… that most people who are caught in sin would welcome a way out it if they could find one.  Pharisees don’t see the needs. They lack empathy, and so they judge.
  • Pharisees also, as Jesus points out, love money. Not necessarily because they actually enjoy the things money can buy, but because poverty doesn’t look good.  Plus money makes it possible for them to move in the social circles they want to move in.
  • And the sins Pharisees preach most strongly against are the very sins they’re most likely to fall into. For example, in Jesus’ day the Pharisees were all about observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy. This law had a practical, nationalistic side to it: because the Romans (who occupied Israel) didn’t observe the Sabbath; God’s people did. So Sabbath observance was the mark of a loyal Israelite. Kind of like standing up for the national anthem at a ballgame. It wasn’t so much about the object of worship (God and/or country – which often tend to get conflated in a Pharisee’s mind), as it was about conforming to expected, traditional standards of behavior. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day got on Jesus’ case about healing people on the Sabbath – but they saw nothing wrong when they themselves spent an entire Sabbath afternoon making plans to kill Jesus.  As if that was a permitted use of the Sabbath!  Pharisees are capable of the most amazing feats of hypocrisy… and they rarely if ever see it.

As for modern-day Pharisees, I’m sure we all can think of few.  Personally when I read about Pharisees in the Bible I tend to think of them as the televangelists of the ancient world.  It’s not a perfect parallel but it works on a number of levels.  Like them, the Pharisees were well known, supported by the people, highly regarded by their bands of followers, legalistic, and looked pretty clean on the outside.  For a while.

Back in the early 1980s I did some volunteer work for a ministry headed up by a man who once worked for televangelist Jimmy Bakker. Many of you here will remember the scandal Jimmy and his wife Tammy Faye fell into back then. One day I got up the nerve to ask this friend what happened – what really happened behind the scenes?  (My friend had left the Bakker ministry shortly before everything broke loose.) He said this: “it got to the point where there was only a handful of trusted people around Jimmy and Tammy Faye – only about five or six people. Nobody else could get close to them. Not their congregation, not the public, not me, and – as became obvious – not their accountant. Those of us who could have warned them something was wrong were not allowed into the inner circle.”

The problem with Pharisees – the core problem – is that they rely on human strength and human righteousness instead of on God and on the Holy Spirit.  And what a powerful illustration this is of how that works out!

As a postscript to that story, Jimmy Bakker has since renounced his former teachings. He has admitted, publicly, that the first time he ever read the Bible all the way through was in prison; and that doing so he was confronted with mistakes and false teachings he had fallen into. In the late 1990s he wrote this:

“My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray. I was appalled that I could have been so wrong, and I was deeply grateful that God had not struck me dead as a false prophet.”

That is true repentance.  And praise God, salvation can come to even Pharisees.  Remember that whenever you feel like you’ve made the worst mistake of your life. There’s nothing God can’t forgive, and there is no place so low that God’s mercy can’t reach.

Which brings us to our tax collector.  (I love it when Jesus talks about tax collectors!)  Speaking as a local tax collector, if you want to ‘win friends and influence people,’ becoming a tax collector is not the way to do it!  As a tax collectors I am required to uphold the law, whether I like it or not, whether I agree with it or not, whether I think it’s fair or not. I have seen the struggles of some of our senior citizens trying to keep the taxes paid on their homes.  And there have been days I’ve gone home from the tax office saying “God forgive me.”

But compared to Roman times, tax collecting today is an honorable profession. At least I know the taxes I collect will be spent on the town and in the school where the taxpayers live. In Jesus’ day, taxes were collected by and for the Romans – and there was no guarantee money collected in Galilee (for example) would stay in Galilee.  It was more likely to end up in Rome.

And tax collectors back then were basically traitors to their own people. They were Israelis who were paid by the Romans to collect taxes from their own countrymen.

As Americans we have never known what it is to pay taxes to a foreign government (except for in the 1700s when we had that little tea party in Boston Harbor).  We have never known what it is to be conquered (I pray God we never will).  We have never known what it is to have a neighbor or a friend working for the enemy and extorting money.

These tax collectors in Jesus’ day were basically collaborators. They collected more than the Romans told them to, and got rich on the backs of their families and friends. They sold themselves for money. That’s why the Bible refers to them as “tax collectors and sinners”.  They knew what they were. They knew what they were doing. They were about as low as you can go.

But one day one tax collector decided – for whatever reason – to get right with God. So he went to the temple. He didn’t raise his hands in prayer, he didn’t even look up as he prayed, but ‘beat his breast’ and said “oh God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector didn’t make excuses. He didn’t try to bargain with God. He just appealed to God’s mercy.

Our God has a heart that is quick to answer a prayer like that. God declared this man righteous. And Jesus wasn’t ashamed to be seen with tax collectors like him (even though the Pharisees criticized him for it).  It’s no surprise the tax collectors loved Jesus so much and wanted to around him all the time!.

So to sum up the parable:  The prayer of the Pharisee is full of pride, self-dependence, and self-righteousness, lacking in charity and compassion. Theologian Charles Simeon writes, “The Pharisees… were extremely diligent in the observance of outward duties: but, while they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, they were as far from the kingdom of God as if they had been openly profane.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, humbly stands at a distance, admits his faults, and trusts in God alone.  And the result was: the tax collector goes home justified by God; and the Pharisee does not.

There’s one more thing that we haven’t looked at yet in this story: context.  The context of this story – the big picture – is the kingdom of God.

In the passage from Luke we read today, in the chapter immediately before it, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God is coming. And this parable is, in part, an answer to that question – as well as a warning about something that may prevent people entering into the Kingdom of God.

Our Old Testament reading from Joel also speaks of the Kingdom, and Joel gives us the big picture back-drop against which this parable plays itself out.

The passage from Joel begins by saying to God’s people ‘be glad and rejoice in God, because the day of the Lord is finally coming’.  God says, “I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten… you shall eat and be satisfied… your God has dealt wondrously with you.” The prophecy continues, “my people shall never again be put to shame.”  Twice God says that: ‘you shall never again be put to shame’.

And then Joel’s prophecy turns very dark. It talks about how terrible and frightening the day of the Lord will be.  The Kingdom will come, he says, in darkness and in blood; and ‘those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved’ and ‘among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls’. (Notice there’s a mutual calling here: God’s people call out to Him, and God calls to His people; calling in both directions, the calls meeting each other.)

When we read Joel’s description of the coming Kingdom, and then look at the Pharisee and the tax collector, their story takes on real clarity.

First, the parable is full of shame.  The Pharisee shames the tax collector. The tax collector shames himself. To be alive in this world is to know shame.  But the prophet Joel says the day is coming when God’s people will never again be put to shame.

Second, held up against the backdrop of the darkness and destruction at the end of this world, the Pharisee’s words sound a bit ridiculous. He says: “God I thank you I’m not like other men. I fast twice a week, I gave away a tenth of all my income…”  How on earth is that going to benefit anybody when the world is ending?

But listen to the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Isn’t that what any sane person would say when they’re witnessing the end of the world?

Third, Joel gives us the same good news Jesus preached – and it is this: “I will restore the years the locust has eaten.”  Some translations say “I will repay…” but the actual verb here is shalom… ‘I will bring peace, I will bring wholeness’. In those very places where we have been injured… in those places where the world has ridiculed us for our faith in God… in those places where we could find no answers to the question “why?” – God will restore, and will give us shalom, and will take away our shame.  Jesus himself, who was shamed with the words “The King of the Jews” nailed above his head – will at last claim his kingdom.

Phariseeism is, at its roots, a lack of courage of convictions and a lack of real faith in God.  A Pharisee fails to trust God’s heart or to grasp God’s truth. The tax collector on the other hand appeals to God’s heart, to God’s loving-kindness (his hesed). He knows that salvation, forgiveness, and mercy belong to God alone.

So our take-aways for today:

  1. For those of us who are called to minister or to leadership in God’s church – and for all people – pray that we escape the temptations of Phariseeism. Pray that God will save us from that question which has no good answer: “am I being humble yet?” Pray we stay focused on Jesus.
  2. Pray we don’t waste time comparing ourselves with others, that instead we are honest with God and trust in God’s mercy.
  3. Pray we keep our eyes on the prize. Our goal is to be with Jesus in the coming kingdom of our God. The coming of this kingdom is the Good News we share. And this goal infuses everything we say and everything we do in life with meaning and purpose.
  4. Praise Jesus for His boundless love and mercy, and thank God for God’s promise that one day we will never again be put to shame.

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Joel 2:23-32  23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.  24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.  25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.  32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) – Pittsburgh, 10/23/16

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“Oh How I Love Your Law!”

Psalm 119:97-104

“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”

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In our Psalm for today, King David says to God, “oh how I love your law!”

Does that strike you as unusual? It does me! How often do we think in terms of loving the law?  We respect it.  We try to obey it.  Sometimes we get a chuckle out of it.  Not long ago I was driving to Philly and saw signs on the turnpike that say “Speed limit enforced by aircraft.”  I always expect to see some big claw coming down out of the sky…

But love the law?  Can you imagine walking into the local police station and proclaiming “oh how I love the law!”? They’d probably take you in for questioning!

God’s law must be a different kind of law, then. God’s law is not a book of regulations a mile thick like our federal government has.  God’s law is found in a book, but that’s where the similarity ends.

So what is David talking about when he says he loves God’s law?  Four things I’d like to look at:

  1. What exactly is God’s law? How can we define or describe it?
  2. How can human beings, mere mortals, comprehend God’s law? God is so much greater than we are – how can we grasp it?
  3. What is the purpose of God’s law? What’s it for?
  4. What’s up with loving the law? Can we come to a point of agreeing with David on loving the law?

David wrote all of Psalm 119 – all 176 verses of it – as a poem praising God’s law. That’s longer than a lot of entire books in the Bible. Where does he get his enthusiasm?

What exactly is God’s law? 

For us as Christians in the 21st century, when we think of God’s law we usually think either of the Ten Commandments or the whole Old Testament. And we would not be wrong about that.

For David, though – who was writing in approximately 1000BC – God’s law was a bit different.  It included the Ten Commandments, but it was more. There was a covenant – promises made by God to the people, and by the people to God.

The Law, especially as found in the book of Leviticus, was written in the form of a treaty. We don’t see it that way today, but in ancient times someone reading the book of Leviticus would have instantly recognized it as a treaty: the kind of treaty a conquering king would make with a nation he had just conquered.

For example, let’s say the king of Moab went out and conquered the Philistines. In order for peace to be restored between the two nations, the King of Moab would give terms in the form of a treaty. (Nations do that even today.) The treaty would start out by talking about how very great the King of Moab was, and how amazingly glorious his armies were, and how the people of the Philistines should count themselves fortunate indeed at having the opportunity to live under Moab’s national laws.  And in exchange for protection and peace, Moab would claim tribute from the Philistines:  it might be half the crops the Philistines grew, or maybe $20,000 in gold bars every year, whatever the King of Moab thought was reasonable.

This kind of treaty was called a suzerain-vassal treaty, which means basically conqueror and conquer-ee… ruler and servant.

What’s unique about Leviticus is that God – who speaks in the voice of the conquering King – did not conquer Israel; God saved Israel.  God bases the treaty with Israel on the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And in return, the Israelites will now live under God’s protection and God’s system of laws.  Israel’s ‘tribute’ was to worship God – and God alone – and to obey the laws of the covenant: not because Israel was conquered but because Israel was redeemed: redeemed to be a witness to the nations around them of the greatness and the mercy and the wisdom of God.

If this begins to sound familiar, it should – because it’s the same covenant God has with all God’s people throughout history. In our day, we have been rescued from slavery – slavery to sin – by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and in return we are called to worship God alone and to obey God’s word as a witness to the people around us of the greatness and the mercy and the wisdom of God.

Going back to ancient Israel, the covenant that David read and fell in love with included things like: instructions for daily living; or how a ruler can deal with law-breakers like murderers, adulterers, and thieves; or things to do (or not do) in order to live a long and happy life. The covenant included detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle: for the use of fine fabrics and gold furnishings and incense and oils. Worship in ancient Israel involved all the senses – it overwhelmed the worshipper with beauty, through their whole being.

So the Law as David knew it was a covenant between God and God’s people. It spoke of God’s grace and Israel’s responsibilities, which included obeying God’s commands as a living witness to the nations around them of God’s greatness.

Second – How can we understand God’s law, now in our own time?

Understanding God’s law is not easy, either then or now.  Nowadays some people say the Old Testament is “outdated” and therefore irrelevant. To me that’s like saying the movie Casablanca is ‘irrelevant’ just because it was filmed in black and white. Nonsense!

Yes, there are challenges for us, reading the ancient laws across a distance of thousands of years. We’re not Middle Eastern, we’re not Jewish, there are major cultural differences, and there are translation issues.  But in spite of all these, we have some basic tools for understanding God’s law that we can use.

The first and most important tool when reading God’s covenant is to remember we are meant to apply God’s words to ourselves, each of us individually. We are to use it for self-examination.  When we read God’s covenant, it’s like looking in a mirror, spiritually speaking. We can see our strengths, our faults, places where we can improve. And we bring all these things to God in prayer. God’s law is not meant for us to measure others by. It’s between each of us and God.

Second, we need to keep in mind that ‘the Word of God’ is Jesus. We worship Jesus, not the Bible. We worship God, not a book.  Steven Tuell, professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, recently wrote in his blog:  “[C.S. Lewis wrote:] ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God.’ [Therefore] if the Bible is a means rather than an end, we cannot read it as a list of rules for life. We must rather listen carefully for the voice of the Living Word of God speaking through the words of Scripture.  We must be attentive to the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit. As the author of Hebrews declares,

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates […]It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions (Heb 4:12).”

The 18th century British theologian Charles Simeon said something similar: (paraphrasing from his old English) “Many people today (that is, back in the 1700s) deny the necessity of knowing God’s teaching in order to know God’s truth; [while] others ridicule those who expect to be guided by the Holy Spirit as they read.” [Things haven’t changed much in 300 years!]  [Simeon continues:] “But [in the words of Paul] “it is by the Spirit of God alone that we can know the things which are freely given to us by God.” (I Cor 2:12)

So for those of us reading the Old Testament today, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us.

And we have one other advantage, living in the 21st century: we have the New Testament. We can see in the life of Jesus a perfect illustration of perfect obedience to the law – someone we can pattern our lives on.  Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”  And he did.  When we look at Jesus, we love him – and we love how he brings God’s law to life! When we compare the religion of the Pharisees to the faith of Jesus, we can see the difference between mere rule-keeping and truly living the spirit of God’s law.

One side note: one of the theologians I read said, “spiritual discernment is not the same thing as intellectual ability.” I think that’s an important point. He said, “A person may have vast knowledge… and yet still be under the influence of their own desires.”  I quote this because it is all too easy to read God’s law just as a historical document. Without the Holy Spirit’s insight, the true meaning will be missed.

So in terms of understanding the law, Jesus said the summary of the law is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves.” “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said.  I find in everyday life this is a very practical summary for daily living.

Third – What is the purpose of God’s law? Why do we study it?

One theologian said: “True religion is a practical thing.”  It’s not just talk. It’s where the rubber meets the road.

  1. God’s law gives us guidance. In verse 105 of Psalm 119, David says: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” God’s law gives us direction.  Who would get on board a ship where the captain refuses to look at navigation charts? God’s law gives us navigation for life.
  1. God’s law increases in us God’s likeness. Paul says, ‘when we see him face to face we will be like him’.  As we read God’s law, the words open us to God and God to us. The ‘active’ aspect of God’s word works in us to make us more like God.
  1. God’s law teaches us to hope in God. In both the Old Testament and the New, God’s people find we are not able to please God without God’s help. So we learn to rely on God – for this life and for the next. And God’s law teaches us what God’s kindgom will be like. It gives us hope for the future.
  1. God’s law teaches us what is important to God and therefore what’s worthy of our time and attention. Let’s face it: life is short. There is never enough time to do all the things we want to do. So we’re forced to prioritize, to choose some things and leave others behind.  God’s law teaches us how to put spiritual things first.  God’s law sets priorities for doing the ‘soul work’ of our inner selves, as well as our ministries and our outreach.

Fourth – Can we love God’s law?

If someone were to walk up to me and ask, “do you love God’s law?” I’d probably hesitate to answer, because in my mind I don’t typically think of God’s covenant as being law.  But of course it is law, in the sense that it is ultimate truth.  Just like darkness can’t exist where light is, sin can’t exist where God is.  We need to know what’s possible and what’s not, what lasts and what doesn’t.

But if you put it another way and asked me, “do you love the Scriptures?” Now that’s different! I’ve spent ten years studying the scriptures, and they’ve been the happiest ten years of my life (in spite of many personal sadnesses along the way).

There is a depth and a beauty in God’s words that can’t be matched anywhere else. Nothing else is so satisfying – and I think that’s because it’s a taste of who God is – who it is we’ll be spending eternity with. It’s a taste of heaven.

Here’s what David says about God’s law:

  • How sweet your words are! Sweeter than honey!
  • It makes me smarter than my enemies.
  • It makes me wiser than my teachers.
  • [Speaking to God] You yourself have taught me.
  • I am protected from evil and falsehood

And ultimately, God’s law leads us to Jesus

  • Because Jesus fulfilled the law
  • Because Jesus died for us who are not able to keep the law. Jesus did for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

So what does all this mean for us today?  Three things.

First, don’t be shy about reading these ancient books of the Old Testament.  As you read them, even though the cultural context is different, the wisdom is still very much there.

Second, as we read, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to teach, and correct, to improve us. Let the text hold a mirror up to us so we can learn and grow in God’s likeness.

And third and above all, love what God has given us in this covenant: God has given us (from the very beginning) ‘salvation by grace alone through faith alone’, wisdom to live in this world, and a road sign that points us to Jesus, and to His eternal Kingdom.  And that is sweet. Amen.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/16/16.

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